Adlai Stevenson said that "in quiet places, reason abounds." One can also occasionally find it in the more remote corners of television, as with "Are You Listening?," Martha Stuart's outstanding series about groups of people with problems in common.
WETA has purchased only two of these programs, alas, for local airing, but the one set for 5 p.m. today on Channel 26, "People Who Have Epilepsy," strongly suggests additional titles ought to be booked. The program is an unstructured but skillfully edited discussion among about a dozen epileptics who talk about the illness, its ramifications, and the way other people react to it.
One man casually recalls feeling the advent of a seizure while sitting in a bathtub in Hong Kong. A woman tells how she scorned the advice of one doctor about what to do when a seizure struck her in public because "I am not going to go sit down on no sidewalk" and be mistaken for a drunk. "I do not," one woman says, "look upon this as a disability."
The group discusses public misconceptions about epilepsy and the way their own parents dealt with it when they were children. Recently developed medication makes it possible to substantially control the illness; one man says that he hasn't had a seizure in eight years and has "no plans for future ones."
Having a seizure is a little like dying, it is suggested, but there is no hint of self-pity here. "There's a humility that comes from this, when you don't really know how you're going to be tomorrow," a woman says. "You don't take tomorrow for granted," says a man. And the last words heard on the program are from an attractive teen-age girl: "Everybody is abnormal. Everybody's got something."
Producer Stuart edited herself out of the conversation almost entirely, so that it flows along naturally and without the usual TV-discussion stiltedness. The people are relaxed, open, natural, remarkable. Those who abhor the thought of "talking heads" on TV often forget that heads have faces attached; although the word "listening" is in the title, this program is absolute television, beautifully produced.
Stuart does say at the opening of the program, "The way to use television is to use it as a tool to make understanding, instead of just to report on the lack of it." It's not as popular a philosophy as it ought to be, but it is fully realized here.