183: The Missing Parents Bureau
Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Glen's not being mean when he mentions his other family, the one back in Africa. He's only seven, and adopted, and black, living with Cate and her husband, who are white.
It comes up if he's punished, for instance. The best example I can think of is he's not allowed to cross the street by himself at seven. And he went over to a neighbor's house and then he came back by himself. And I kind of saw him do that. I knew he was looking, but I followed through. This is against the rules. And so when he came in the house he was sent to his room. And it's upstairs. And he sort of stomped up the stairs. "I'm going to leave. I'm out of here. I'm out of here. I'm going back to my family in Africa. I'm out of this family." Because in Africa, he was a prince, you have to understand.
And he's stomping up the stairs and I sort of said to him, "They have rules in Africa."
And he said, "Yeah, but they don't have roads in Africa. And so I wouldn't be grounded in Africa."
Now this departs from reality in a number of ways. Number one, of course, there are roads in Africa. Number two, Glen wasn't adopted from Africa. He's not a prince. He was adopted from Chicago, which he knows very well. He has other parents who he could fantasize about, other parents who he could actually meet. But he doesn't want that.
Not yet. I ask that many times and I have offered to help him find them. He's not ready for that.
It's so interesting that it's not a desire for the actual parents, it's a desire for perfect parents.
Fantasy is pretty wonderful. If you were a prince in Africa you wouldn't want to give it up either.
In 1908, Sigmund Freud wrote an article with the disturbing name "Family Romances," in which he pointed out how common it is for children to fantasize, at some point or another, that the parents that they live with are not their real parents. Their real parents are out there, somewhere, and are perfect. Aristocrats, Freud says. It's comforting compared with the flaws of any real parents. And if you are somebody whose real parents aren't around anymore, really, how will you choose to imagine them? When do you want reality and when do you want fantasy?
Well, today on our radio show, we bring you stories of children put into that position. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, stories from the Missing Parents Bureau. We bring you four case examples.
Case One, Better Left to the Imagination. Why mothers who are impregnated with samples from sperm banks might choose to know less about the donors rather than more. Case Two, Tell It to the Void, in which we have these funny, moving letters the mom of a 13 year old has written to the kid's absent dad, letters she writes even though she has no idea where to send them. Act Three, I'm an Orphan; Don't Tell My Mom. Starlee Kine remembers back in the day when everybody wanted to be an orphan. Act Four, Runaway Mom. It's the old story. Baby meets mom. Baby loses mom. Baby asks after mom. Adoptive parents wonder what to say about mom. That story from Dan Savage. Stay with us.
Act One: Better Left To The Imagination
Act One, Better Left to the Imagination.
If you want to understand how much kids and the parents left behind think about an absent parent, and what is that they do think about, consider what happens when kids are born to infertile couples, or to single moms, with sperm gotten from a sperm bank. Most sperm banks provide all sorts of information about their donors. And parents getting this sperm can actually choose how much they want to find out. How much they want their kid to find out. And how much they'd rather not know. Alix Spiegel has our story.
The donor is German. His interests include music, literature, and comparative religion. He claims to have scored 780 on his math SATs and says that as a child he excelled at both violin and piano. That in fact, in school he was at the top of his class in music theory. He lists his favorite qualities as discipline, strength, honesty, and order. And when asked what message he would like to convey to the recipients of his semen he writes, "Take the middle path. Avoid extremes. Treat everyone you meet the way that you would like to be treated. And please, read The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham."
The donor is Chinese. He says that he is excellent at visualizing abstracts and can, quote, "Take any car apart and learn it inside out." He can run six miles. He can play guitar. His hobbies include microbrews and football. When asked about his ambitions in life he writes that he wants to "help transform the moon for human habitation and create some kind of food supply that will replace meat." He says he's become a sperm donor because he wants to make sure that his genes are perpetuated into the future. He also writes that he's poor. A student. He says he needs the money.
There are six-foot philosophers and pot-smoking surfers, future doctors, out-of-work computer programmers, and hopeful actors who are currently employed at the Dairy Queen. They come in all shapes and sizes, but most of them are there for the money. Young men who walk off the street and are given dirty magazines, a small plastic container, and a private room.
But first there are forms to fill out-- health surveys, family histories, essay questions. This information-- and there's a lot of it-- is then compiled into catalogs. Glossy pamphlets filled with men sorted by ethnicity or level of education, and then sent through the mail. Sometimes to infertile couples, sometimes to single women. People whose lives haven't worked out quite the way they had hoped, but who are ready to cut their losses, shelve their doubts, and proceed with plan B.
This isn't about falling in love with some guy. It's about making a very scientific decision.
On the first page of my reporter's notebook, under the heading Karen in Brooklyn, there are these three words-- organized, tasteful, and fantasy.
The first two words refer to Karen's apartment, a spacious one-bedroom in a fancy apartment house two blocks from the park in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The third word, fantasy, refers to something that Karen said to me in the first five minutes of our interview. She assured me, in the most reasonable tone possible, that the traditional idea of parenthood was a myth, a bill of goods we sold ourselves in order to bolster the illusion of control.
You think because you marry somebody and you love them and you get together and you're going to have a child that you can in some way predict what your kid's going to be like. But you can't. Your kid's going to be something else. Your kid's going to be its own thing. Every parent I've ever spoken to has told me that their kid sort of came out fully formed, just the way that they are. And that the kid just sort of unfolds. So there's no more guarantee that I'm going to be able to identify what my kid's going to be like by picking a donor as there is by picking a husband.
Armed with this idea, Karen developed a theory. I'll call it the theory of genetic variety. She believed that the health of her child would be substantially improved if she could find a donor who was the genetic opposite of herself. As an Eastern European Jew, she was therefore searching, she told me, for something along the lines of Cuban Swede, or maybe, Siberian Argentinian.
She talked about this theory for a pretty long time, carefully emphasizing that this process was not about love, but about locating what she called "a little genetic material." Then she brought out the folders, a stack of catalogs almost a foot high which Karen had ranked using a system of checks and x's. We begin at the top.
Brown eyes, brown straight hair, medium skin tone. And then his education. This guy had a bachelor's in psychology. A lot of them are students, so you're not going to get much-- their occupation is probably what they want to be rather than what they are.
Now that's kind of interesting to me. I mean, did it feel weird to you at all that you would be having a child with a much younger man?
Oh my god, it's so bizarre.
I should mention here that although Karen looks extremely young, with a small thin frame and smooth tan face, she's actually 39.
When I saw if they felt really young and boyish for whatever reason, I couldn't use them. I had to pass.
Even though it's just genetic material?
Absolutely. I couldn't control-- I didn't predict that seeing the age would send this really weird feeling through me, but it just did. And I went to my email group about this and a lot of other women shared this same feeling, that it just feels funny. I want to almost say incestuous. I want to almost say-- what's the word? Not incestuous, but there's a word for that when you--
Yeah, exactly. It's like, statutory rape.
It was a sentiment which didn't square very well with the notion of scientific process. After all, the sperm of an 18-year-old is no more or less mature than the sperm of an 88-year-old, as Karen herself admits.
You know, even though this is a process that I have tried to make very sort of organized and scientific, there's this part of you that you can't really control and you can't really predict. And it just leaps out and you're like, I don't like this guy. I don't know why.
That part of Karen, which she could not really control or predict, kept intruding on her search, no matter what her best intentions were. There was the problem of the red-headed donor, for example, a man who was clearly an inappropriate choice, but whose red hair attracted Karen because it reminded her of a college boyfriend.
Then one day, Karen stumbled on another donor. His test scores weren't as high as some others. His family had some health problems which gave Karen pause. Still, there was something in his essay answers which caught Karen's eye, a quality of speech that she found somehow familiar.
You know, and he named all these nuanced ways of experiencing the world. I just thought, oh, wow. This guy's complicated in a way that I'm complicated and that I appreciate completely in other people. He just felt completely right. And he was my guy. That was the guy.
After her decision, Karen found herself thinking about her donor more and more. She read over his information packet and talked about him frequently with friends.
You know, I knew what the sister did and that she had a kid. And I started thinking, oh, this is cool. Look at all the languages they speak. And I played violin and he plays violin. And I felt like it was good and right and positive. And I just thought it was going to work out well, that I was bringing good stuff to a kid.
And then I called up one day to order. I used to order in batches, like a couple-- not just one at a time, but I was trying to psych myself out by over-ordering. You know, because I figured I'd rather get stuck with extra sperm than no kid. So let's do it that way. And I just called up, after I'd gotten my period yet again. And I called up to order some more. They were like, oh, it's not available. And I was like, what?
Now, everybody will tell you be prepared for this. I was totally unprepared. I had gotten so attached to this donor that I think I cried. I think I just sat down and cried.
Without meaning to, without even being fully aware of her own behavior, Karen had gotten attached and transformed her donor into a kind of phantom boyfriend. This isn't uncommon. Several of the women I spoke to described a similar attachment to their first donors. And like the others, after her first pick evaporated, Karen felt a profound sense of loss. She cursed. She cried. Then Karen got out her catalogs and looked again. But this time she didn't dawdle over essay questions. Karen did it by the numbers.
My second donor, he's a much more elite guy. Because that stuff is just easy to jump on. This guy's got a doctorate. He speaks like four languages. He's obviously brilliant.
Do you feel less emotionally attached to this second donor?
I do. I do.
And this created its own problem. Karen wanted some kind of connection, something which would allow her to feel that the father of her child was not simply a random stranger in a sperm bank. Which is actually what he was. But a worthy man, someone to respect and be proud of.
Put another way, Karen wanted some story which explained her choice. A story that she could tell to herself. A story that someday, she could tell to her child. It was what she had to offer in lieu of something more substantive and she wanted to get it right. In fact, this need for a connection, for some narrative which justifies the choice, is so profound, so important to this process, that Karen has decided to improvise a relationship with her second donor.
The brilliant doctoral student with high marks in everything is originally from Spain. So Karen is planning a trip, a kind of ghost honeymoon with the idea of a dad, performed for a baby not yet born.
If I get pregnant with this donor, I will probably go to Barcelona and go to that region. Just so that I can have done that while I was pregnant with this child whose father probably came from that region. Just so I could have that to share with this kid.
And that'll be the way that you communicate his father to him?
And I'll take a lot of pictures and I'll say, I don't know where-- but you know, this is where they're from. These are your people. And I'll go back with the kid. As soon as the kid's ready to travel, we'll go there. We'll go there and I'll say, this is where your family's from. Part of your family's from here.
Increase your knowledge and you increase your grief is a Latin proverb I read once, and remember, I guess, because it seemed like a self-defeating way to open a book. But anyway, this is a lesson which Karen, and many of the other women I spoke to, seemed to understand intuitively as they went about choosing their donors.
In addition to medical histories and essay questions, many of the sperm banks offer pictures, audiotapes, even videos of potential donors. But the women I spoke to didn't seem very interested in these options. Not one of the four wanted to see a picture. They didn't want to watch video interviews either. And only two had chosen to listen to audiotapes. At first this confused me. Then I talked to Jamie.
I had no idea what I was going to go for. So I said, well, let me go-- if I could pick my husband, what he looks like, and if he was smart or not, that's what I'm going to kind of pick. So you know, tall, dark, handsome, Italian stud sounded good to me.
Jamie is a hairdresser who lives in a comfortable old farmhouse in rural upstate New York. When I drive to her home, around 8:00 on a Tuesday night, there are so few lights in the area that it's sometimes difficult to see the road.
Sitting at her kitchen table, Jamie tells me that even though she's always been independent-- she started her own business in her early 20s-- she somehow knew that she wanted a family. It wasn't until her early 30s, though, when her best friend became pregnant with her third child, that Jamie decided that it was time to start a family of her own.
She contacted a sperm bank and immediately found three men that seemed attractive. One donor in particular had caught Jamie's eye. And when the informational packets arrived, it was his tape that Jamie listened to first.
I listened to his and I was like, oh no. He just didn't sound like anybody that I would ever want to talk with. I don't know, he was just-- I don't know. It's hard to explain. It's just something that I couldn't connect with. I couldn't feel like, oh, he sounds really cool. Not at all. Not at all.
And then I said to myself, maybe the audiotapes aren't really a good idea. Maybe it's too much. Because maybe I'm really going to love them on paper and maybe it's going to totally change my outlook.
In that experience of kind of liking someone on paper and then listening to their audiotape, was that like--
That was weird. That was definitely weird. That was weird. Because you know, like once you hear someone's voice it makes them real.
If you ask Jamie to describe her donor, a man she's never seen, she'll tell you that she think he's about six feet tall. She'll say that he has curly brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses. And that when she thinks of him, she imagines him in a tomato garden, standing, laughing, his arm around his grandfather.
If you ask her, really push her, she'll also admit that she sometimes fantasizes that she meets this man and that they fall in love and get married, and live happily ever after with their child. But two seconds later, Jamie will tell you that she knows how ridiculous this sounds. That she doesn't take it seriously. That it's just a thought she had, one that doesn't mean anything.
Jamie is 32 years old. She allows herself this fantasy and should allow herself this fantasy because she know she's in no danger of mistaking it for a possible reality. But children are different. They're prone to hope and frequent victims of their own imagination.
You know, I don't want them to have a picture in their head of somebody who didn't want to be with them. I want it to just be, OK, it was a man who let us borrow these special seeds. That it was very generous of him. But I don't want to tell the child, well, this is what I thought he looked like and this is where I think he lived. I don't want to paint that whole big fantasy picture for a kid, and then that person's not there.
This is a situation where less is better. Better that the child not think too carefully about who or what his father is. Better that the women avoid pictures, avoid video. In fact, I would make a further argument, that perversely, even though creating a child is one of the most intimate things two people can do, this entire process depends on anonymity, on all parties remaining as abstract an abstraction as possible. To understand why this might be, consider the issue of the yes donor.
A yes donor is sperm bank speak for a man who is willing to be contacted after the child turns 18. In other words, a potential real father that the kid could look forward to meeting.
On the surface, the yes donor option seems like a good idea. It certainly seems like a better deal than never meeting your father at all. But when I ask Karen if she's ever considered using a yes donor, she looks down in her lap for a second and sighs a little before answering. Then she shakes her head no.
When I made the decision to be a single mother, part of the challenge, part of what I knew I was giving to this kid that was something I was going to have to think deeply and confront again and again, was that I was bringing a kid into the world who is not going to know their father. Period. So the idea of someone who the kid could later contact, that wasn't appealing. Because the message that I'm going to have for this kid is, this is our family. Our family consists of me and you and our village. You know, the people around us who love us.
There's somebody who's your father. We'll never know who he is. He made a decision to do something for a woman like me and we're really grateful about that, but he's not your dad. And maybe that's something to grieve, something to be angry at me about. But I had a vision of having enormous love to offer you and I knew that we could get through this. And that was always what I thought I would bring to being a single mom.
So being able to hold out the promise to the kid that they can meet this person, it wasn't part of that. I couldn't imagine raising a kid to say, well, one day you'll meet your dad. Well, what if one day he meets his dad and he sucks? Or he's changed his mind and he's rejectful. I don't want to raise a kid with a fantasy where it's going to be blown to bits. The truth of the matter is, you know what? You don't have a dad. You have a lot of other things.
I know from my conversations with other single moms by choice that the relationship between a mother and her donor changes over time. And that even women resolutely indifferent to their donors during the selection process tend to soften after a child is born. On the message boards, the new mothers talk of the quote "mysterious connection" they suddenly feel to their donors, and write things like, "If I could only send him pictures," or "I wish that he could see."
Meanwhile the men, the financially strapped college sophomores, the hopeful actors, the future doctors, continue their lives more or less oblivious. They finish college and go on to graduate programs. They move from LA and switch to real estate. They become actual doctors and start their own practice without realizing that there are three, four, maybe five middle-aged women out there yearning to send them Polaroids of little Johnny's first tooth.
After talking to a number of these women, I think about that sometimes. I think about lining up all the middle-aged women and all the 20-year-old men and letting them get a good look at one another. I think about the kids and the mean tricks an imagination can play when there's no reality, only absence. And then I think about Karen and I decide that she's right. That if I were a single mom I would say the same thing. You don't have a dad. A father, but not a dad. Your dad doesn't exist. But sit and try to remember, my dear, you have a lot of other things.
Alix Spiegel in New York.
[MUSIC - "LIFE WITHOUT A FATHER" BY TRAVOLTA W., KEVIN G., AND KEITH L.]
Act Two: Tell It To The Void
Case Two, Tell It to the Void.
As Alix Spiegel pointed out, at some point, some moms get a very pointed desire to send photos and information about their kids to forever absent dads. But exactly what information do they want the dads to know? And why, really, do they care if they know it?
Well, not long ago, this website devoted to publishing letters from a wide variety of people, a site called openletters.net, published a series of letters from a woman in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who called herself X. That's the letter X. These were her dispatches to the father of her child. This father was somewhere out there. They detailed what the kid was doing these days. She called the kid O. His little sister was G. X's significant other was C. Here are some excerpts from some of the letters.
Dear Mike, he's 13 and 1/2, which you probably know, and things are happening.
So first thing this morning, when his eyes opened and his sheet is, as always, inexplicably half off his bed, he grabs his CD remote control and pushes play and we hear Fat Boy Slim all over the house. Same house as always, only it's red and yellow now, not blue.
He comes downstairs all arms and legs and skinny. He's tall, taller than me, in his Joe Boxer boxers and sits at the dining room table eating Honey Nut Cheerios and reading yesterday's comics. He has the number 60 on his leg in black marker. That was his number yesterday at the provincial basketball tryouts, which he didn't make, due to lack of confidence, said the coach, though he's got the moves. And next year he'll be older and ready.
It doesn't bug him. None of his friends made it this year. And his school coach had told them they wouldn't, but that it would be a good experience. That's what he and his friend said to each other after the tryout.
"Hey, good experience, eh?"
"Oh, yeah. Excellent experience."
"Now that was a good experience."
They're pretty funny.
He's got a choice this morning for lunch. Bagel and cream cheese, turkey sandwich, or peanut butter and banana sandwich. He chooses peanut butter and banana. He plays around with the dog for a while, tells G., his 10-year-old sister, who's getting ready for running club, that when he had running club, they ran in the rain because they were tougher back then. And then he checks out his reflection in the toaster oven and off he goes to catch his bus for school.
"Have a good day," I tell him.
And he says, "You too." I can't call out to him after he's left the house with "I love you" or "Do you have your lunch?" This mortifies him.
Later today he's got a different basketball practice for the regional team and he's going to miss his baseball game go to the basketball practice. His baseball team is called the Sabres and he pitches and catches. And he's a great pitcher with a wicked curve, although he prefers to catch. And if you could see him make the throw from home plate to second, you'd know how good he is.
Then I guess he'll come home and eat ice cream and chocolate sauce and watch some bad television. He loves the Comedy Channel, and Letterman, he loves Letterman too, and thinks it's cool that Letterman and Nolan Ryan and his grandma all had the same kind of heart surgery.
Maybe check out something on the net, like the phone number of that phone booth in the middle of the desert so he can call it some day. And then go to bed after some kidding around. And he'll call out from his freshly painted green and charcoal bedroom, "Hey, whoever put my sheet back on, thanks."
I know you want to know one thing, but I'm not going to tell you whether he talks about you or not, or what he even remembers. I've tried to keep track of you through your brother, but I don't think he lives here anymore either. Where do you live? Japan, still, or what? Australia? Like you'd tell me. I'm not asking for money. I'm not asking for anything. I just want to tell you about your kid before there's no kid left and we're both 100 years old. It seems so stupid not to talk. Keep a stiff upper lip. There are a million things I could tell you. But you don't get to choose. Signed, X.
Dear Mike, he's not here right now. He's over at my mom's watching The Usual Suspects and recovering from the Cobra, which is a killer ride at this carnival we found today downtown next to the river. He can't handle those rides very well, but he agreed to go on the Cobra with his sister twice, which I thought was sweet. Afterwards, he lurched back to the van clutching his bottle of Coke and making fake barfing sounds and saying stuff like, "Anything for the kid." And "I just remember how no one would go with me on the Cobra when I was a--" barfing noise-- "kid." And more barfing. "I just couldn't do that to her," falling on the grass motionless.
Really sweet because G. giggled and said that when he was being nice to her he was the best brother in the world.
The other day he bought himself a hat that said Porn Star on it. And I was kind of upset about it and I asked him not to wear it. Then my sister and my mom also asked him not to wear it and he said, "Man, would you just all relax?"
"But, O.," I said, "Do you know what a porn star is?"
"No, mom," he said. "What's a porn star?"
And I said, "Well, OK, it's when a person becomes very good at--"
And he said, "Yes, mother. I know what a porn star is. I was kidding. God." And then he told me it was a brand, just a brand. Or maybe he said a band. I can't remember.
And I said, "Well, OK. I'm going to get a Porn Star hat for me, too. And one for Auntie M. and one for Grandma. And we'll all wear them if it's just a brand."
"Fill your boots," he said, and stalked off.
So it was kind of a dilemma. Take his hat away or just let it go. Or buy him a different one. I suggested that, a different one, and he said, "Yeah, please get me the one with Paddington the Bear on it."
So finally, my sister called and she said she'd give him $20 not to wear the Porn Star hat. And he said he'd think about it. The next thing I know my sister's beaming and he's $20 richer. How pathetic is that? What do you think you'd have done? Have you ever heard of that brand in Uganda or Greenland or wherever you are?
Now when we see a kid with a Porn Star t-shirt or hat or bumper sticker, O. says to me, "Go get them, mom."
Today's my birthday and I'm drinking orange juice and champagne right now. He stayed up till 2:00 in the morning last night making me a mix tape of songs he knew I'd like-- stuff like Randy Newman and Paul Westerberg and Tom Waits, and the new Neil Young and even the Clash. And it's so sweet because he actually had to listen to all these old guys while he made it, which was a form of torture for him. So it means a lot.
I'm listening to "Christmas Card" right now, Tom Waits. You remember. You do. The strange thing is, I can't remember your birthday. We were together long enough to put together this funny, intense, shy kid who stays up late making compilation tapes for his old lady, but not long enough for me to remember the day you were born. Was it April something?
So today I'm 36 and you get to stay 23 forever, in black faded Levi's and an SNFU t-shirt and Converse sneakers, smoking an Export A and cooking penny wieners in some [BLEEP] apartment kitchen with the Cramps playing and no furniture.
Soon I'll be old enough to be your mother. Sometimes I do think I see you on the street. And if I'm with O. I sometimes look over at him and wonder if he thinks he sees you too. If he remembers much from when he was what? Four or five and you went mini-golfing with him and then left forever. And I want to ask him, but at the same time I don't want to ask him.
You take up a lot of room for a guy who's not here. Later, mystery man. X.
Dear Mike, you know I was thinking about this letter thing and it occurred to me that if you're ever going to respond, you'd need kind of an amnesty deal, like libraries have to return way overdue books. Which means you don't have to go over the last 10 years pointing out all the stuff that happened that made you leave and not maintain contact and all that. Or blame yourself or seek redemption. We could just start again as of now.
Because if we have to dredge up all the old [BLEEP] just to get to a place where we can talk normally again or whatever, it may never happen. Too overwhelming. So if you want to leave the old [BLEEP] alone and just start now, that's OK. That's perfect. It's just a thought, if you're even out there. If you're even alive.
But here's a story of O.'s blossoming maturity. He's playing baseball for the Sabres and he's pitching in the third inning. He does well, three up, three down. So next inning, two out. He's up to bat and bam, he hits a home run. He's flying around the bases and makes it home and sits down on the bench while his teammates hit him on the back and high fives. All that.
But wait, something's up. The ump comes over, calls him out on second because apparently he didn't touch the base. So that's the third out, which means he goes to pitch immediately. He's looking OK. Cool. But he's rattled. Obviously, as he starts throwing wild balls all over. Except not over home plate. His coach pulls him and puts him on third. New pitcher. So that's the thing, maturity. Not that he became rattled. That's normal. But that he tried not to show it.
It was only evident in his pitching, not in his language, body language, that stuff. But his pitching couldn't hide it. That's what sports is all about in my mind, accepting the call and shaking it off. At least outwardly.
Last year he would have been swearing, probably, and throwing his glove on the ground. That sort of thing. Not this year. And then, on top of it all, at the end of the game, I went over to him and said, "Tough call. I bet you did touch second." And he said, no, actually he hadn't. He said the ump was right. Unbelievable. That's your kid, you know. That's the story of O.'s blossoming maturity. Got to go. X.
Dear Mike, more really big news. Last night O.'s school had its sports banquet and awards evening, which included dinner and dancing. And O. got three trophies, which were the Coach's Award for junior boys basketball, which basically means hardest working and most versatile. He's a wing like Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant are wings. MVP for junior boys volleyball. And get this, Male Athlete of the Year for grade eight. I can't even explain how wrong it is that you don't know this stuff. Unless, of course, you're reading this letter. Which you probably aren't. Which makes me wonder why I bother with this exercise. That's right, tell the void how much your son rocks.
C. Told him how proud he was of him and that he didn't have to do sports if he didn't want to, if he wasn't having fun. And that if he quit all sports today, we'd still love him and still be proud of him. And C. told him how great it was that he was controlling his temper in the games when he lost, or after a bad call, or whatever. And O. said, "I'm just storing it up." And C. Said, "Oh, what are you going to do, explode on the court someday?" And O. said, "Oh, no. Way worse than that." And C. said, "Spit in the ump's face?" And O. said, "Oh, no. Way worse than that."
OK, he was joking, but it reminded me of when you said you used to lose your temper all the time. And then around 12 or 13, after throwing a plate or a bottle of ketchup at your older sister who had taken your Ski-Doo suit or something, you just went, "OK, that's it. I'm not going to get mad anymore. It doesn't help me. It makes it worse. I get in trouble. I look like an idiot and it's stupid." And then, sure enough, I'm trying to think of one time you got mad and I can't. You never got mad. Even when I was such a jerk and stuff was happening. You just put on music and cooked meat and smoked cigarettes and what?
Remember when I freaked out and drove myself to the hospital to have O. Because I thought you were too relaxed about the whole thing? And you ran all the way, all those miles of city blocks to the hospital and came in all sweating and red and purple. And I was already dilated and the nurse said you looked like John Lennon. And you said, "I'm here. I'm here." And I said some asshole thing and you said, "Come on. Look what's happening here. This is big. Don't be mad now."
All right, that made a lot of sense. But Mike, it's still big. He's still here, still happening. So don't you be mad now.
See, I'm trying to learn more about O. by remembering what I can of you. It's a little uncanny sometimes how some things are really similar, like this anger thing. Just out of the blue the kid stopped losing his temper at the same age you decided to stop losing your temper. So where does it go when you stop losing it?
It would be so cool if you could get back to me, really. I mean, not me. Him. Or me first. Or whatever. Not for some romantic thing. Don't get the wrong idea. C. and me are great, and you're probably married with other athletic kids. Sometimes I wonder if you just decided that it would be best if you slipped away forever, best for O. and me and that you really, really believed that.
Remember when I stood on the sidewalk in front of my house with O. on my hip? He was about two years old and I screamed my stupid head off at you while you walked away without saying a word. Maybe you were thinking, "This is nuts. This poor kid. I've got to go." That would've made sense at the time, right?
But you know, I've calmed down since then. Even though I was a lot older than 13 when I figured out that losing my temper wasn't getting me anywhere. X in Winnipeg.
Dear Mike, well, summer's almost over and as usual, odd things have been happening. This is the latest. Your dad called here, right out of the blue. Haven't seen or talked to him since O. was an infant and you and I took that road trip when you barfed in the hotel bathtub. And he told us that he lived in Australia now, but he was in town and would really like to see O. if O. would like to see him.
O. said no. Not because he didn't want to see him really, but because he just didn't know why or what purpose it would serve. And your dad totally understood and said if O. ever changes his mind, he'd be glad. He'd wait.
I asked him if you were happy, and he said, yes, very. That you live in Tokyo. That you're a very successful chef, an executive chef, he said. In a hotel with 550 rooms. And that you're married to a wonderful Japanese woman and that you have a beautiful three-year-old daughter. And that you'd probably never leave Tokyo. He said he'd send O. a picture of you and your wife and your daughter. He called her O.'s sister.
He also said you were a lot like him, a wanderer, a bit of a loner, and that you often went off by yourself for stretches of time and didn't talk about it much. But he sounded very proud of you. Very protective. As though he was worried I'd slag you to bits or something.
And of course, I wouldn't do that. Like O. says, what's the point?
You're lucky, Mike, to have a father standing up for you. Have you introduced your famous penny wieners to the Japanese? Sayonara, X.
Since posting those letters on the internet, X. has identified herself as Miriam Toews. She has a book coming out in the fall in the United States called Swing Low, A Life. Her letters were read for us by Alexa Junge. Read X.'s other letters at openletters.net.
Coming up, suburban child wants unhappy childhood. Adopting couple tries to reunite biological mom and baby. What is this country coming to? In a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: I'm An Orphan; Don't Tell My Mom
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today, Stories from the Missing Parents Bureau. We have arrived at case three.
Case Three, I'm an Orphan; Don't Tell My Mom. This is a story about wanting parents to be gone from the scene. It begins in the 1980s when Starlee Kine, who was 11 years old, decided, among other things, that she wanted to be a child star. With her parents' generous help, she attended a series of classes run by a man named Kevin McDermott. Kevin was regarded as one of the best child acting coaches in the business. Starlee picks up the story.
By far, the strangest acting exercise I've ever heard of or participated in is one we did in his class called character group therapy. We were instructed to make up a character, the only guideline being that they had to be troubled in some way. We were given six weeks to develop. At the end of which, an actual certified psychologist came into the class and psychoanalyzed our characters during a group therapy session.
I chose to be an orphan. My character had been abandoned by her parents as a little child. I don't remember her name, but it was something androgynous, like Sam. I'd lived on the street briefly, but for the most part I'd been tossed from one foster home to another. I was terribly suspicious of adults. There was a family that wanted to adopt me and I secretly hoped they would, but was too tough to admit it. The only one I truly trusted was my dog, who I'd found in a gutter or something when he was just a puppy.
To the best of my memory, nearly all my fellow classmates picked orphans as well. They had similar back stories filled with uncannily familiar details. I tracked some of these people down, but they remember even less than I do. Probably because afterwards they actually went on to play these characters professionally. All of my classmates were working actors in some capacity or other. You'd see them as you flipped through the channels, playing comatose children on St. Elsewhere, or Ricky Schroder's first kiss on Silver Spoons. Or the young version of an older, more established actor on a sitcom special flashback episode.
In my entire aspiring career, I didn't land a single role. No commercials, no pilots, no features. Nothing. It's the kind of record that sticks with a person, permanently labeling them, like alcoholism. I will forever be a failed child star.
Kevin still teaches, his reputation as solid as ever. And I visited his current class to see if they were still pretending to be orphans.
OK, Grady, let us see an expression that shows teeth and mouth open.
The class is in a different location from when I was a student, but some things are the same-- the metal folding chairs, the special spotlight that Kevin uses to cue scenes. The walls in the waiting room are still plastered with children's head shots, including an autographed photo of Marc Price. Marc Price played the neighbor Skippy on Family Ties. He was in love with Mallory. The picture was up when I was in the class and it was always a source of pride to me, that Skippy and I had the same acting teacher.
Mid series, a back story was added to Skippy's character. Skippy discovered he was adopted as a baby. I point the picture out to the class and they smile politely. It turns out they've never heard of Family Ties.
Kevin still does character group therapy, but now he plays the therapist himself. It begins the same way it always has. The kids sit in a circle, they do a muscle relaxation exercise, and then Kevin counts them down into it, like he's hypnotizing them.
Three, you're in the peer group counseling session. Two, you are this character. One, welcome. Some of you are new. Some of you started last week in our first group. I'm Dr. Roberts, for those of you who are new tonight. And I'd like to go around the room and I'd like everyone to tell us their first name and anything about themselves, or why they're here, that they would like to share.
There's a stunning absence of orphans. In their place is a potpourri of trendy WB-style back stories and scandalous hour-long drama side plots.
One boy impregnated his high school girlfriend and is full of despair over the possibility of her getting an abortion. There's a girl in an abusive relationship. Another boy cuts up his arms after his father becomes an alcoholic. One of the characters saw her boyfriend get killed in a drive-by shooting, an idea the actress got from an audition for The Practice she'd gone on right before class. The only kid whose back story is remotely orphan-like is played by a boy named Robert [? Negron. ?]
He doesn't cry. He doesn't even like talking about his feelings. He could care less about the other kids' problems.
I'm kind of over it to tell you the truth.
If my car breaks down, I don't form a club with other people whose cars are broken down. I go to someone whose car is running, for god's sakes. Jesus.
These kids don't understand what being a real fake orphan is all about. Back in the day, orphans were strictly of the Punky Brewster, Webster variety-- sincere, saccharine, cloying.
In my class, just as one kid finished sobbing his eyes out, another would start, and rightly so. Now there seems to be a trend of more realistic, less damp performances. In places of sap, the kids seem to challenge their depression into snappy, teenage angst, opting to come across deep instead of sniveling.
Jeremy, what makes you feel sadness in your life?
Sadness. Sadness usually comes from waking up in the morning.
Why is that a sad time?
I don't know. I guess the show goes on.
What show goes on?
You know, the show. The show we have to show people.
By the end of the class it was clear. We all chose to be orphans because at the time, they were the norm, the given. Arnold, Willis, Fonzie, Ponyboy, Annie-- orphans dominated both the big and small screen. They were even recruited to breathe new life into the classics. When a show's ratings would drop, one of two things most likely happened. A baby was born or an orphan was discovered sleeping in the hall or shoplifting from the store. Soon after, the orphan became a permanent member of the cast. We picked orphans in response to market pressures, just like Kevin's students today.
Want me to spell it for you?
No, that's OK. You seem to have kind of an attitude, Johnny.
That was Scott [? Newson. ?] He tells me he's been watching a lot of The Sopranos lately. But he says the name Johnny Calzone just popped into his head.
Tell us a little bit about why you're here.
Because I [BLEEP] love your group.
Having said all that, I do think there's a personal element to choosing these characters. For the most part, these kids are from upper-middle-class families that are pretty supportive. Playing these parts, they aren't rebelling against their families as much as fantasizing about what life is like on the other side.
In my case, I chose to be an orphan partly because I came from the kind of home where if my sister and I wanted to visit our friends who live directly across the street, instead of letting us just walk across, my mom would put us in the car, back the car out of our driveway across a deserted, residential street, and up into their driveway to eliminate all chance of us getting killed in a hit and run.
The orphan's life, though was all about freedom. Orphans didn't have to answer to anyone. Didn't have a well-intentioned but irrational adult in charge of their every move. They had their smarts, they had their sidekick pet, they had their broken locket, and they had themselves. That was it.
During my years in Kevin's class, a rope ladder made of tied-together bed sheets permanently hung from my suburban ranch house's second-story window for when I would have to sneak out in the middle of the night in search of my real parents. That was my favorite game.
Character group therapy was just as good. Being in Kevin's class, it sometimes wasn't clear whether I was aspiring to be a child star orphan or an actual orphan.
Starlee Kine is one of the producers of our program.
Act Four: Runaway Mom
Case Four, Runaway Mom.
Three years ago, Dan Savage and his boyfriend, Terry, adopted a baby. It was an open adoption, the kind where the birth parents choose the adoptive parents, and then stay in touch after handing over the child. But things have not been working out according to plan.
We decided to go ahead and try for an open adoption because we wanted our kid's biological parents to be a part of his life. We did this even though our agency warned us that we might be in for a long wait. The birth mothers who spoke at a two-day seminar we attended both said that finding good Christian homes for their babies was their first concern. Birth control wasn't a concern for them, apparently.
As it turns out, we didn't have to wait long for a birth mother to come along who believed being born once was enough. A few weeks after our paperwork was done, we got a call from the agency. A 19-year-old street kid named Melissa, homeless by choice and seven months pregnant by accident, had selected my boyfriend and I from our adoption agency's pool of pre-screened parent wannabes. The day we met Melissa, the agency suggested that all three of us go out for lunch to get to know each other. We were bursting with touchy-feely questions, which we soon realized was a problem.
Stoic and wary, Melissa was only interested in the facts. She was pregnant. She couldn't have a baby on the streets. And so she was doing an adoption.
We were with Melissa when DJ was born and we were in her hospital room two days later when it was time for her to give him up.
Before we could take DJ home, we had to take him out of his mother's arms as she sat sobbing in her bed. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I was 33 years old when we adopted DJ and I thought I knew what a broken heart was. I thought mine had been broken a couple of times. I thought I knew how a broken heart felt and what it looked like. I didn't know anything.
You know what a broken heart looks like? Like a sobbing teenager in a hospital bed giving a two-day-old infant she knows she can't take care of to a couple she hopes can. There was nothing remotely uplifting about the moment. She didn't smile bravely through her tears and say, take good care of my baby. She folded up and sobbed and we stood there, feeling like monsters.
We didn't meet Bacchus, our son's birth father, until almost a year after we'd adopted DJ. He was homeless, too, and Bacchus was his street name. Melissa hooked up with him for a few weeks one summer and by the time she realized she was pregnant, the God of Wine was gone.
When we adopted DJ, Bacchus didn't know he was a father, or that his son had been adopted by a gay couple. So we were tense when Bacchus surfaced in New Orleans shortly before DJ's first birthday. But all Bacchus wanted was what Melissa was getting-- pictures, regular visits, phone calls. Bacchus turned out to be Melissa's opposite, smiling easily and quick to laugh.
Like most homeless street kids, Melissa works a circuit-- Portland and Seattle in the spring and early summer, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York in the late summer, early fall, New Orleans, Phoenix, Las Vegas in the winter. Then it's back up to Portland.
When Melissa's in Seattle during the summer we all get together in a park where she hangs out with her friends, so that she can visit with DJ and show him off. She keeps in touch by phone the rest of the year, but her calls are usually pretty short. She asks how we're doing. We ask how she's doing. Then we put DJ on the phone.
The last time Melissa called, she didn't ask for DJ. Her boyfriend, she told me, died the night before of alcohol poisoning. They were sleeping on a sidewalk, he was lying beside her, and when she woke up, he was dead.
That call came in early November and we haven't heard from Melissa since. Three months ago, I started calling hospitals, then morgues. When the clerk at the county morgue in New Orleans asked me to describe Melissa, without thinking, I started to say, well, she's kind of quiet. The morgue attendant laughed and told me that all his Jane Does fit that description.
Then just as suddenly, Bacchus stopped calling. Soon, Bacchus's stepmother, who would be DJ's biological step-grandmother, was calling us, too, asking if we knew where Bacchus was. He drifted from New Orleans to Vermont to Texas, she told us, and then disappeared.
We haven't heard from Melissa for six months. Bacchus has been missing for four months now. DJ's birthday came and went, and nothing. No calls.
Last Sunday I was tearing down the wallpaper in my office at home when DJ walked in. His best friend, a little boy named Haven, had spent the night. After Haven's mother picked him up, DJ dragged a stool into my office and sat down to watch me pull wallpaper down in long strips.
"Have has a mommy," DJ suddenly said. "And I have a mommy." DJ's going through this thing where he likes to make statements of fact and have us confirm them for him. It's as if he's testing himself, making sure his reality jives with ours.
"That's right," I responded. "You have a money too, just like Haven."
He went on. "My mommy's name is Melissa. I came out of Melissa's tummy. I play with my mommy in the park."
Then DJ looked at me and asked a question. "When will I see my mommy again?"
"This summer," I said, hoping it wasn't a lie. "We'll see Melissa in the park this summer, just like last summer."
I'm not sure what we'll tell DJ if Melissa really has disappeared forever. What if he asks why his mother didn't love him enough to stick around for him? Maybe we'll tell him that some people self-destruct, and maybe Melissa knew she was going to self-destruct and loved him so much that she wanted to make sure he was someplace he wouldn't get hurt. And maybe this answer will be good enough for DJ. And maybe it won't.
One of the things my boyfriend brought to our relationship was a video camera. I didn't let him bring it to the hospital with us that day, though. I didn't want a video camera in the room. I wanted to experience those moments, DJ's first moments, in real time, not sitting in front of a TV months later. Maybe I was being selfish.
If Melissa has disappeared forever, well, I deeply regret that we don't have any videotape of DJ with his mother. If he could see her the way we saw her, holding him, feeding him, softly singing to him in her hospital bed the night he was born, he would know what I know, that his mother loved him very much.
Dan Savage is the author of The Kid: (What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant).
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Alix Spiegel's story was produced with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The rap song after her story was written by Travolta W. and performed by him, Kevin G. and Keith L. They are juvenile offenders at Chicago's Audi Home Detention Center as part of a show put on behind bars by Chicago's Music Theatre Workshop.
WBEZ management oversight for our show by Torey Malatia. He'd prefer it if our show instructed people how to--
Help transform the moon for human habitation and create some kind of food supply that will replace meat.
PRI, Public Radio International.