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Patrick Lydon was “Born That Way” and Eamon Little is Telling His Story

June 7, 2023

Our guests on a recent episode of Making Media Now (MMN), the Filmmakers Collaborative podcast, were Eamon Little (EL) and Christopher Lydon (CL). They are part of the team behind a documentary in progress called “Born That Way,” for which Filmmakers Collaborative is the fiscal sponsor.

“Born That Way,” directed by Eamon Little documents the final year in the life of Patrick Lydon, in which Patrick looks back on his fascinating life, lays the ground for posthumous green shoots projects, and prepares for his death Director Eamon Little promises that the film will be an unflinching journey to the end of an exemplary life, probing otherness in our society, and asking, searching questions about the future we want to create.

Joining Eamon to talk about the life and work of Patrick Lydon were Joan Pratt, his friend from his days at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Patrick’s brother Christopher Lydon, who covered politics for the New York Times from its Washington bureau in the 1970s hosted the Ten O’ Clock News on WGBH TV in Boston in the 1980s, and co founded and hosted The Connection on WBUR in Boston in the 1990s.

Christopher Lydon is currently the host of Open Source, the world’s longest running podcast, having been established in 2003.

For more information about Born That Way and the Born That Way Project, please check out its page in the projects section.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.

Making Media Now: Chris, as the person who knew Patrick the longest and knew Patrick first—given that you were siblings—tell us about Patrick’s role in the Lydon family.

Chris Lydon: He was an afterthought. There were five Lydon kids and who would’ve thought of another. And then my mother announced at dinner one night, “We are going to have a baby!”Because we were four boys already and one girl, that had to be a girl, and he was known as “Constance” for no very good reason until he was born, of course, a boy.

He was a complete darling in the family even before he was born. And then immensely afterward. He was adored before he was born. And afterward, when he was a tiny tot in his playpen, we used to race off the school bus to see who could be the first to get a smile outta Patrick.

He was adored. And this is very profound, and I think it has everything to do with his life. He was just inundated in affection and conversation from an early age.

He used to say funny things: If you bumped his highchair and say sorry, he would say, “Sorry means don’t do it again.” But he was a presence. He was a sort of ageless character when he was just a teenager. My college friends loved him.

He’s always been a kind of man out of time and place, and a completely adorable person. But there are two stories here. There’s the life of Patrick and the afterlife of Patrick.

So many people have said to me, learning about his life, “God, and I thought that was gonna be my life.” A life not for self, a life for other people. Soaked in literature, soaked in fantasy, soaked in fun, and it gets bigger and bigger. He was the most extraordinary man.

I’ll say this, Eamon is calling the movie “Born That Way,” and you’ll see why, to my mind, it’s something like a portrait of the saint, a modern saint as a growing boy or a social activist, a social visionary. And it’s very, very remarkable. He was a doer. He held the flag very, very high of living a purposeful, meaningful life.

MMN: I was lucky enough back in January of this year, Chris, to be listening to your podcast, Open Source. And I came away from that conversation feeling as if the ethos of the Lydon family was fully embodied in your brother.

CL: Our family ethos was formed around the fact that my father was disabled by Parkinson’s disease and we knew that it was a disease that was untreatable essentially and would ultimately be fatal. So he had to stop working. He and my mother had an incredible courage and imagination to say, “No, this is not the end. We’re gonna start fresh on a small homestead with five kids.” I was milking a goat when I was eight years old and then went on to a cow. My sister looked after the sheep. Little kids looked after the chickens. But there was a kind of, this sounds weird and I’m just discovering it in my old age, but there’s a sort of celebration of voluntary poverty.

We had no choice. My father had a phone company pension. The miracle was that first of all, my parents were madly in love with each other till my father died.

And even afterward, my mother would poke me and say, “Christopher, I hope you hadn’t forgotten. Your father was a great man.” And she meant it.

But there was a sense that life was a privilege. This was prosperous post-World War II time. There was opportunity. We knew there would be opportunity for us if we did well in school, and we worked our little butts off, but it was a happy little thing, and we were poor. That was conditioning the whole thing. And along comes Patrick this pure gift again. It was never, “Oh my God, another kid.”

MMN: Eamon, in the synopsis of the film and what the film is going to be, you referred to Patrick as a social artist. That was a really interesting turn of phrase. What does a social artist mean to you?

Eamon Little: Well, in my use of that expression, and Chris kind of touched on that earlier when he was trying to find a definition. I mean, Patrick was somebody who was very creative with human relations.

He had a great gift for seeing potential in people and in situations and in connecting up things that seemed disparate to anybody else.

It was funny when I met Patrick first I didn’t understand what it was that attracted me to him. But it was this thing that he was somebody doing a lot of good in the world, and yet he was not a do-gooder. You know, he was doing this because this was his art.

MMN: The title of the film, “Born That Way”—when you use that phrase, what are you referring to? Born what way?

EL: It’s actually a straight from the horse’s mouth: Patrick shares an anecdote in the film where a woman with special needs sees this welder and the welder is working away, but he only has one hand that’s functional. And she says, “What happened to your hand?” And the guy says, “Well, I was born that way.” And she goes, “Interesting: Born that way.” And then Patrick is very passionate when he goes, “Yeah!” You know, in that moment he saw something about it. And we use the word disability all the time, but Patrick did not like that word.

What Patrick liked to do was to see the ability or the potential in everything, in people. And, and it’s that lens that we’re trying to look at the world. Making a film with Patrick was an opportunity to look at the world through a kind of unique lens that he had.

He was a great champion of people who with so-called disabilities and their citizenship and their rights and their potential over their disability. In fact, in one of the interviews I did with him, he said, “I was talking to a woman recently, and she said that her greatest disability is the fact that everyone c says she has a disability.”

This film is essentially, it’ll take the course of one year in which Patrick has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS and talking to him about doing some piece of work around the fact that Camp Hill was 50 years in Ireland when he got the diagnosis. And he said, “Look, whatever you want to do, let’s do it soon.” And very quickly, I realized I gotta make a film with Patrick.

MMN: And that very unfortunate news was brought to your attention, Christopher, in the summer of 2021, correct?

CL: Patrick and I talked all the time on the phone. He said to me one evening, he said, “Chris, I’ve aged more in the last 10 weeks than in the last 10 years.” And I thought, oh my God, he works too hard. He needs a physical therapist or something. And, but I think he knew already there was some profound neurological thing gone wrong. And, and then very quickly he had a diagnosis, oddly enough, from a doctor in Dublin who had trained at Mass Massachusetts General Hospital. Anyway, it was diagnosed and there was no help in the way. There was nothing to be done about it.

MMN: So I know, Eamon, that you’ve got some travel coming up in the spring of 2023 as we’re talking right now for your purposes, what would you like listeners of this conversation today to come away with?

EL: I would like them to know that this is happening. I think that one of the things that this film will be important for, as well as telling a story, but for the anonymous viewer, I think that the film will be also an oblique critique of kind of Western society in the light of the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of a Person with a Disability. We’re forever not seeing the potential, but looking at the disability.

We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation