Terra Sigillata

Well, you readers here really know how to draw attention to an issue. We’re not a high-traffic blog but those of you who read regularly are quite thoughtful, insightful, and, now, influential.

Our little post the other day on the application of the ideal gas law in discussing the NPR/StoryCorps segment on the exploding bra of a now-94-year-old woman caught the attention of StoryCorps Senior Producer, Michael Garofalo. Mr Garofalo wished to respond to our post and several commenters who noted that the exploding bra story was the stuff of urban legend, such that snopes.com traced back to a 1958 Reader’s Digest story the original description of an inflatable bra exploding in an unpressurized airplane cabin.

I’m a huge fan of the StoryCorps project and, dating back to my meeting with civil rights legend, author, and folklorist, Stetson Kennedy, I’m also an admirer of those amateurs and scholars who document and disseminate folk stories, music, customs, and culture.

So it was delightful to hear back from Mr Garofalo in response to our blog post – after contacting me, I asked for an received his permission to reprint his e-mail below on the background and vetting of Ms Jenkins’ story:

Hi,
I read the discussion of last Friday’s StoryCorps piece on your blog. I’m the Senior Producer for StoryCorps, and I wanted to respond.

Every StoryCorps story that we put on the air is extensively fact-checked, as was Ms. Jenkins’s story. We were aware that a similar story appeared on an urban legend site so we were particularly thorough in our efforts to nail this story down.

We confirmed with a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT that an inflatable bra would expand during flight in an unpressurized cabin — especially at the altitude required to fly above the Andes Mountains — and could explode. We checked the story with Jane Farrell-Beck, co-author of “Uplift: The Bra in America” and a retired professor of Textiles and Clothing at Iowa State. Ms. Jenkins described her bra to us in detail during several phone conversations (a straw was inserted into the cups and you blew into the straw to inflate each cup), and her description was fully consistent with inflatable bras of the time. Ms. Jenkins told us that her mother had kept the actual bra as a curiosity until her death in 1967, but it was lost soon thereafter.

Ms. Jenkins was extremely detailed in the telling of this story – which she repeated to us several times without variation. After thoroughly checking all of the facts, we felt confident running the piece. It may be that some urban legends grow from the seeds of the truth.

Best,
Michael Garofalo
Senior Producer
www.storycorps.net

So, there you have it from about as close of a source as you’re going to get.

Thanks, Mr Garofalo, for responding to Terra Sigillata as well as to our readers who raised the very thoughtful questions and critiques of the story that originally caught his attention.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Dunford
    July 3, 2008

    I don’t know. Like Thomas in the last thread, I’m an empiricist. I’m think the Mythbusters experimental result was probably a lot more reliable than the MIT theoretical prediction.

  2. #2 Dr. Matthew
    July 3, 2008

    I’m a psychologist, and while it’s not my area of research I’ve always been fascinated by memory research. Just as a point of fact, the reliability, invariance, and detail of a story does not, in fact, make a memory any more clearly true or false (nor do “memories” of having seen such a bra that has somehow disappeared). I just returned from a wedding where a friend insisted that I had also been present at her own wedding; in fact, I’d been defending my thesis that day on the other side of the country. Memory is a funny thing….

  3. #3 llewelly
    July 3, 2008

    Really, this shows the wisdom of living your entire life on a blog. That way, all of your important experiences are recorded, somewhere. You then no longer need rely on your memory. Instead, you rely on the internet.

  4. #4 Bing McGhandi
    July 3, 2008

    I would love to see whether or not NPR can replicate this. I really do think that they were taken. Maybe not on purpose, but it would make an interesting story. Put Diane Rehm’s boobies where your mouth is! Heehee!

    While Michael says that “It may be that some urban legends grow from the seeds of the truth,” he may be well to remember sometimes they are also sometimes, ahem, inflated to the point that, while they look attractive, when you look closer, you see…hell, I lost the metaphor. Damn it.

    HJ

  5. #5 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 4, 2008

    So they didn’t even check whether this woman had traveled in South America at the time of the alleged incident? There should be records of that. I think their implementation of “extensively fact-checked” is rather weak. They have only checked plausibility, not facts.

  6. #6 David Lee
    July 4, 2008

    NPR, a relentess digger of trivia, pausing only for sleep, food, interviews with sports figures and to try out new programs such as “Speaking of Faith.” Meh.

  7. #7 DONNA
    July 4, 2008

    I own a bra just like the one in the story.
    Can’t wait to show it to my granddaughters!!

  8. #8 Y. Ama
    July 4, 2008

    As Mr. McGhandi points out, some ULs appear to be based in fact but often become so inflated as to be too good to be true. Any subsequent hands-on investigation could cause the whole thing to blow up in one’s face.

  9. #9 Joe
    July 6, 2008

    I agree with Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD. I don’t recall when the bra event supposedly took place; but, I think it must have been a long time ago, and the police/airline records may no longer be available. Those would be the only facts that could be checked.

    Other stories they have broadcast could not possibly have been properly checked. For example, the story I mentioned on the previous post concerned two people, and left no record. So, how did they check the facts on that UL-esque story? Anyone can make up a story about an unseen event, and get a friend to swear to it.

  10. #10 Bee
    July 6, 2008

    While I don’t have an opinion one way or another on the truth of this story, one thing I see lacking in the discussion of the story (unless Mythbusters researched it) is any identification of the inflatable pockets’ materials.

    When you go that far back in the evolution of women’s undergarments, you discover fabrics and materials often not as strong or flexible as modern materials, and stretchy materials based on rubber products that weren’t as strong or as stable, especially after several washings. It might take very little expansion combined with an unfortunate change of posture to cause the pockets to ‘pop’.

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