Act One: When You're In Love, The Whole World Is Jewish
From PRI, Public Radio International.
From PRI, Public Radio International.
From PRI, Public Radio International.
One more time.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life.
Act Two: Wishing For Amnesia
Well, it was Danielle's cousin, Lynn, who said it best. She said that Danielle and I had put ourselves into the kind of situation that 1,000 comedies had been built on, situation comedies, screwball comedies, every kind of TV, theatre, movie, drama thing. We had done that. We had done that to ourselves.
And how did we not know? Here we were, Danielle and I. We used to be involved. And it was our first time together as just friends.
Just friends. Just friends. You know you are in trouble when the word "just" appears in front of the word "friend." It's almost hard to think of a context where those two words are used together, a sentence constructed-- unless you're using the word "just" in some radically different way, like, "I think the verdict was just. Friends may disagree." If they have nothing to do with each other, maybe it's OK. But-- but, but, but.
Because automatically, it implies a negotiation's happening, just friends. Friends is like a state of being. Friends is like there's a road. There are houses. People are friends. So when you put "just" in front of it, it suggests the imbalance. And that's where you get the screwball comedy aspect.
All right, I'm going to try to keep the mundane personal information to a minimum here so we can focus on the bigger, universal truths this story may offer. Briefly, some facts, though. OK, Danielle and I had been broken up for half a year. And she lived in New York City. I lived in Chicago. And we talked on the phone several times a week.
In other words, that kind of weird, post-relationship situation where there's no more sex, but you depend on each other for all your emotional needs. So all the work of the relationship, but none of the sheer physical pleasure. That was our thing.
Anyway, so two days before I came to New York City to visit friends there-- real friends, not just friends, just normal friends-- and Danielle, she informs me that there's a guy that she had started dating. 'I like him," she said. "I really like him." And then two days later, I found myself in New York City.
And your wish in this kind of situation is you want a sense of, OK, we're going to be friends. It's going to be OK. We're going to see how this new thing between us feels. And we're trying to hang out and be buddies. And that's how we ended up in Saks Fifth Avenue, where the first moment of our screwball comedy weekend occurred.
So we're walking through that big, cold-floored Fifth Avenue store, the mannequins everywhere and Anne Klein and Anne Klein Two and Anne Klein Contemporaries-- there are actually three different Anne Klein departments at Saks Fifth Avenue-- and all the other designers. And it wasn't too crowded, and it wasn't too empty. And she was walking ahead of me, just a step or two ahead of me, never quite meeting my eye.
And I realized that, oh, that's the way this has been for an hour or two, isn't it? When we were walking up the street, it was like that. She wasn't quite meeting my eye. She wasn't quite talking to me. It was like she was holding a certain emotional distance.
And that's the thing that gets to you. It's not the big picture. No, we're not together. No, we have no future together. It's the little picture. No, you won't meet my eyes anymore.
And in each of our histories of love, who has not played both parts in this drama? Both parts, who hasn't been both people in this picture at one time or another? The person walking a little briskly ahead, not meeting the eye of the other person, and the person walking behind, a little over-eager, a little extra edge of anxiousness, wanting to make the connection, a little bit like an eager puppy. The other person ahead, a little bit put off by the yapping of this puppy. No matter how subtle and dignified and interesting that yapping happens to be, just kind of not wanting to deal with this, not wanting to face this situation, walking ahead about three paces. Who among us has not been on both sides of that?
So she's looking for clothes. And she has this new guy she's seeing. And she's carrying the clothes. And we're looking for a dressing room. And we find a dressing room. And we stand outside the dressing room.
And it's an automatic setup situation. Do I come into this dressing room and watch you try on-- she's like, "I want you to see these clothes." OK, do I come into the dressing room? There's something inherently odd and awkward about not coming in, because what is in there that I have not seen before? But there's something inherently awkward about coming in as well because things have changed.
Either way, there's a problem. So we stood there in the door of this dressing room and composed the orbits that we're riding against each other, right? We looked at the two little orbits and decided, OK, I'll go in.
And she takes off her clothes and tries on these clothes. And the clothes she has gotten are the following. There's a little lacy, clingy, sort of stretched top of black, kind of like a black lace thing that you would wear maybe a jacket over to cover your nipples. And so she's got that on.
And she's got this little miniskirt. And while we've been walking around Saks, she's been saying, "I've got to find a miniskirt. I really need a black miniskirt." She just switched jobs. And so she's trying on this miniskirt. And she's looking very cute. She's looking adorable.
And suddenly, she's trying on the miniskirt, so I say, "Well, honey, you have a miniskirt. You have that black pleated miniskirt. I've seen you in that miniskirt a million times." She says, "No, no, no, no. No, no. That miniskirt comes down to here." And she indicates a spot maybe an inch above her knee. "I need a miniskirt that's a lot shorter. I need it to come to here." And she indicates a spot maybe, I don't know, six inches, eight inches, above her knee. Six inches. A lot higher. And there's a pause. And she looks at me and says, "Well, I wouldn't wear this to work."
So I start to think to myself, "What am I doing here? Who are these clothes for?" And I picture the guy who she's going out with. And I picture pretty much him looking at the clothes, her trying to look cute in the clothes, her looking very cute in the clothes. I pretty much picture everything you can picture.
And I'm sitting down on the chair. There's a little chair in the dressing room. And so there's Danielle, looking adorable in her little clothes, and kind of absorbed in looking at it this way and that. And I'm going to try to describe the gesture that occurs next. Imagine me, a tallish sort of guy, slumped in this chair, leaning back in this chair in this dressing room. And I hope I can convey this over the radio, the motion she does next.
I had been feeling like she kind of wasn't seeing me. When we were walking around the store, I felt a little bit ignored, like not seen. And I'm sitting in the dressing room thinking, "You know, I should really leave this dressing room. I don't really need to see this right now."
And just as I'm thinking this thought, she takes off the miniskirt, and she just kind of tosses it onto the chair, as if it were an empty chair. But in fact, I'm sitting on it. So she just tosses the skirt onto me.
And suddenly, she looks up. And in horror, actually, I have to say, to her credit, in actual horror, and sees this skirt kind of sitting on my chest, because I'm slumped backwards. And so there's this semi-horizontal surface. And this skirt is now sitting on my chest, looking ridiculous. And suddenly, she realizes exactly what she's done. And she says to me, "Oh, no. You're going to talk about this on your radio show, aren't you?"
Well, of course, this is my radio show. It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And by the way, I did get Danielle's permission to talk about this on the radio. Otherwise I would not be here talking about it with you today.
Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme. Today's theme is Get Over It. We bring you three stories of people who have a hard time letting go of the past. Act One of our program, the act we're in, right now, is nonfiction. Act Two is fiction. Act Three is a little documentary.
And I bring up what happened between me and Danielle because I think that she and I stumbled upon a few things that happen universally in the "get over it" situation. For one thing, one of the most delicate aspects of this situation is how much information do you want about your ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend, or your ex-whatever's new whatever?
My friend Julie told me a story in mourning that went as follows. She had hungrily devoured every piece of information she could get about one of her ex-boyfriends' new girlfriends. And at one point, he told her that the girl had a dog. And somehow, that detail made Julie crazy.
It made her feel like, "Oh my god, this is a person with her life worked out completely. This is a person whose life is so much better than mine. This person has a dog, which means that they have a life that can surround a dog. And the fact that they have a dog means that they're a person capable of love. And it means that they're a person in a stable situation, with a home where they can have a dog." And suddenly, everything came into question about him and her and the girl. And I wanted to avoid that. But I wanted information. And I don't know exactly why, but there was a powerful herd of stampeding horses within me, wanting information. And I found myself asking questions.
And I know, "Listen very carefully to these questions. Listen very carefully, Ira. Because whatever it is that you're asking will indicate something about yourself. And the order you ask them will indicate something. You can learn something here." And I listened. And I said to myself, OK.
"How old is he?" "He's 28." And OK, that one made sense. The age difference between Danielle and I had been kind of a big issue. And so I was trying to gauge where this new guy fit into the geography of that old, familiar landscape.
See, that's part of what this is about. You have this map of an emotional city that you've built with another person. And you want to figure out, well, where are they on the map now?
So my second question was going to be, "So what's he do? What's he do for a living?" But you know how every now and then, you'll read an article, or somebody at a party will say, "Isn't it shallow?" They'll say, "Isn't it shallow that when people want to know about other people, the first question they ask is, 'What do they do for a living?' Isn't that so shallow? Doesn't that indicate what a shallow group of people we are?"
And I thought, I don't want to fall into that trap. I don't want to fall into that trap of just equating people with their jobs. You don't want to think we are our jobs. That's just a shallow sort of thing.
So I sidestepped that question and came up with another question. The question I found myself asking-- I don't know where this came from-- was, "Is he a Jew?" I've been to services, what, once in the last 15 years? "Is he a Jew?"
I think what I meant by it was is he a member of my tribe? Is he like me? Is he like me, honey? Honey, you're seeing somebody else? Is he like me? He must be like me if you're seeing him, right? The only person you could be interested in is me, so he must be like me.
He was not a Jew.
Now, I would like to tell you, beloved radio listener, that this phase of jealousy and competitiveness passed quickly on my part, that I moved with grace and ease into the world of just friends. I would like to say that. But one of the rules of getting over it, in fact, maybe the main rule of getting over it, is that you cannot choose the time and place. You cannot will it to happen. You cannot think, "OK, now. I have the right attitude right now. I'm over it. I'm ready. I'm over it, and it's now."
It's like when Jesus returns. I say this to you as a Jew. It's like when Jesus returns. None will know the exact day or hour. It can come like a thief in the night, the getting over it. Well, coming up in just a little bit, another story of somebody trying to get over it, trying to will himself to get over it, with exactly as much success as you would expect anybody to have who tries. Stay with us.
Act Three: Finding Amnesia
Act Two, Wishing for Amnesia. Well, this next story of someone unable to get over it comes from George Saunders, his amazing and sad and funny book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. This story is called "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz."
Elizabeth always thought the fake stream running through our complex was tacky. Whenever I'd sit brooding beside it after one of our fights, she'd hoot down at me from the balcony. Then I'd come in, and we'd make up. Oh, would we. I think of it. I think of it and think of it. Finally, in despair, I call GuiltMasters.
GuiltMasters are Jean and Bob Fleen, a brother/sister psychiatric practice. In their late-night TV ads, they wear cowls and capes and stand on either side of a sobbing, neurotic woman in sweater and slacks. By the end of the bit, she's romping through a field of daisies.
I get Jean Fleen. I tell her I've done a bad thing I can't live with. She says I've called the right place. She says there's nothing so shameful it can't be addressed by GuiltMasters.
I take a deep breath and spill my guts. There's a silence from Jean's end. Then she asks can I hold.
Upbeat muzak comes on. Several minutes later, Bob comes on and asks can they call me back. I wait by the phone, one hour, two hours, all night, nothing.
The sun comes up. Brad from Complex Grounds turns on the bubbler and the white water begins to flow. I don't shower. I don't shave. I put on the same pants I had before.
It's too much. Three years since her death, and still I'm a wreck. I think of fleeing the city. I think of working on a shrimper or setting myself on fire downtown. Instead, I go to work.
In spite of my problems, personal interactive holography marches on. All morning, I hopefully dust. Nobody comes in.
At noon, I work out a little tension by running amok in one of my modules. I choose Bowling with the Pros. A holographic smoothie in a blazer greets me and affably asks if I'm as tired as he is of perennially overhooking the ball, when what I really need is to consistently throw strikes. I tell him, "Piss off." In a more sophisticated module, he'd ask why the hostility, but my equipment is outdated. And instead, he looks confused and tries to shake my hand.
What crappy verisimilitude. No wonder I'm in the red. No wonder my rent's overdue.
He asks, isn't bowling a lovely recreation? I tell him I'm in mourning. He says the hours spent in a bowling alley with friends certainly make for some fantastic memories years down the line. I tell him my life's in the crapper. He grins and says, "Let's bowl. Let's go in and bowl. Let's go in and bowl a few frames with the pros." I take him by the throat. Of course he dysfunctions. Of course I'm automatically unbooted.
I doff my headset and dismount the treadmill. Once again, it's just me and my failing shop. Once again, the air reeks of microwave popcorn. Once again, I am only who I am.
Wonderful, I think, you fouled your own $400 module. And I have. So I trash it. I write it off to grief management and go to lunch. I opt for an auto-dispensed FreightFurter. Of course, I over-microwave, and the paper cowcatcher melds with the bun, and the little engineer's face runs down his overalls. It's even more inedible than unusual. I chuck it. I can't afford another. I chuck it and go wait for my regulars.
At 2:00, Mr. Bomphil comes in looking guilty and as always, requests Violated Prom Queen, then puts on high heels and selects Treadmill Three. Treadmill Three is behind a beam, so he's free to get as worked up as he likes, which is very. I try not to hear him moan. I try not to hear him call each football team member by name.
He's followed by Theo Kiley, an appliance salesman who lays down a ream of Frigidaire specs and asks for Legendary American Killers Stalk You. I strap on his headset. I insert his module. For 20 minutes, he hems and haws with Clyde Barrow. Finally, he slips up and succumbs to a burst of machine gun fire, then treats himself to a Sprite.
"Phew," he says. "Next time, I'll know to avoid the topic of his mom." I remind him he's got an outstanding bill. He says thanks. He says his bill and his ability to match wits with great criminals are the only outstanding things he's got.
We laugh. We laugh some more. He shakes his head and leaves. I curse him under my breath and close up early and return to my lonely home.
The next day, Mrs. Gaither from corporate comes to town. Midway through my Significant Accomplishments Assessment, armless Mr. Feltriggi comes to the door and, as usual, rings the bell with his face. I let him in and he unloads his tote bag of cookbooks for sale. Today it's Crazy Cajun Carnival and Going Bananas with Bananas: a Caribbean Primer. But I know what he really wants. With my eyes, I tell him, "Wait."
Finally, Gaither finishes raking my subpar disbursement ledger over the coals and goes across the mall to O My God for some vintage religious statuary. I slip the headset on Feltriggi and run Youth Roams Kansas Hometown, 1932. It's all homemade bread and dirt roads and affable dogcatchers.
What a sweet grin appears. He greets each home towner with his ghost limbs and beams at the chirping of the holographic birds. He kneels awhile in Mrs. Lawler's larder, sniffing spices that remind him of his mother, elbow-deep in flour. He drifts out to the shaded yard and discusses fascism with the iceman near some swaying wheat.
His posture changes for the better. He laughs aloud. He's young again, and the thresher has yet to claim his arms.
Gaither comes back with a St. Sebastian cookie jar. I nudge Feltriggi and tell him that's all for today. I take off his headset, and he offers me a cookbook in payment. I tell him, forget it. I tell him that's what friends are for. It's $70 a session, and he knows it. He rams his head into my chest as a sign of affection.
"That type of a present surely has to deflate revenues," Gaither says primly as Feltriggi goes out.
"No lie," I say. "That's why I nearly beat him up every time he comes in here."
"I'm not sure that's appropriate," she says.
"Me neither," I say. "That's why I usually don't really do it."
"I see," she says. "Let's talk briefly about personal tragedy. No one's immune. But at what point must mourning cease? In your case, apparently never."
I think, "You never saw Elizabeth lanky and tan and laughing in Napa." "I like your cookie jar," I say. "Very well," she says. "Seal your own doom."
She says she's shocked at the dryness of my treadmill bearings and asks if I've ever heard of oil. She sighs and gives me her number at the Quality Inn in case I think of anything that might argue against franchise agreement cancellation. Then out she goes, sadly shaking her head.
It's only my livelihood. It's only every cent Elizabeth left me. I load up my mobile pack. I select my happiest modules. Then I go off to my real job, my penance, my albatross.
Rocket Town's our ghetto. It's called Rocket Town because long ago, they put up a building there in which to build rockets. But none were built. And the building's now nothing, which is what it's always been, except for a fenced-off, dank corner that was once used to store dilapidated fire plugs and is now a filthy daycare for the children of parents who could care less.
All around Rocket Town, little houses went up when it was thought the building would soon be full of people making rockets and hauling down impressive wages. They're bad little houses, put up quick. And now all the people who were young and had hoped to build rockets are old and doddering and walk by the empty building mumbling, "Why, why, why?"
In the early days of my grief, Father Luther told me to lose myself in service by contacting ElderAid, Incorporated. I got Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Ken Schwartz lives in Rocket Town. She lives in Rocket Town remembering Mr. Ken Schwartz and cursing him for staying so late at Menlo's Ten Pin on nights when she forgets he's been dead 18 years.
Mrs. Ken Schwartz likes me and my happy modules. Especially she likes Viennese Waltz. Boy, does she. She's bedridden and lonely and sometimes, in her excitement, bruises her arms on her headboard when the orchestra starts to play.
Tonight, she says she's feeling weak. She says she used to be a different person and wishes she could go back to the days when she was loved. She mourns Fat Patrice and their jovial games of Old Maid. She mourns the front yard oak the city felled without asking her. Mostly, she mourns Mr. Ken Schwartz.
I pull out all the stops. I set color on high contrast. I tape sensors to her lips and earlobes. And I activate the royalty subroutine.
Soon, the prince is lavishing her with praise. Soon, they're sneaking off from the ball for some tender words and a kiss or two on a stone bench beside the Danube. Soon, I'm daubing her eyes with tissue while she weeps at the beauty of the fishermen bowing from her little boats as they realize it's the prince himself trying to retrieve her corsage from the river.
I make tea. I read my magazine. Finally, I stroke her forehead while humming Strauss and slowly fading the volume. "You," she says, smiling sweetly when she's all the way back. "You're too good to me."
"No one could be too good to you," I say.
"Oh, you," she says. "You're a saint."
"No," I think, "I'm a man without a life, due to you." Then I feel ashamed and purposely bash my shin against a bed frame while tucking her in. I get her some juice. I check her back door lock. All around the room are dirty plates I've failed to get to the sink and old photos of Mr. Ken Schwartz assessing the condition of massive steam boilers while laughing confidently.
Out on the street, it's cold. And a wino's standing in a dumpster, calling a stray cat Uncle Chuck. I hustle directly to my Omni, fearing for my gear. I drive through frightening quarters of the city, nervously toggling my defrost lever, thinking of Mrs. Schwartz.
The last few months, she's gone downhill. She's unable to feed herself or autonomously use the bathroom. Talk about losing yourself in service to a greater extent than planned. She needs a live-in, but they don't come cheap, and my shop hasn't turned a profit in months. What to do? I think and think. I think so much I lose track of where I am and blunder by the spot.
"You fool," I think. "You ass. How much additional pain would you like?" Here, a drunk named Tom Clifton brought his Coupe Deville onto the sidewalk as Elizabeth shopped for fruit on the evening of a day when we'd fought like hell, on the evening of a day when I'd called her an awful name.
What name? I can't say the word. I even think it, and my gut burns. I'm a saint.
The fight started when I accused her of flirting with our neighbor Len Kobb by bending low on purpose. I was angry and implied that she couldn't keep her boobs in her top to save her life. If I could see her one last time, I'd say, "Thanks very much for dying at the worst possible moment and leaving me holding the bag of guilt." I'd say, "If you had to die, couldn't you have done it when we were getting along?" I madly flee the spot.
There are boat lights in the harbor and a man in a tux inexplicably jogging through the park. There's a moon bobbing up between condemned buildings. There's the fact that tomorrow, I'm Lay Authority Guest at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School for Precocious Youth. I'm slated to allow interested kids to experience the module entitled "Hop-Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions."
Frankly, I fear I'll be sneered at. How interested could a mob of gifted kids be in a rabbit and a lisping caterpillar grouping acorns ad nauseam? But I promised the principal, Mrs. Briff. And I'm not in a position to decline any revenue source. So at an hour of the night when other men my age are rising from their beds to comfort screaming newborns, I return to the mall for my Hop-Hop module.
More of George Saunders's story, "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz," in a minute, when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, we choose a theme and invite a variety of writers, performers, and documentary producers to tackle that theme. Today's theme, Get Over It. We continue now with George Saunders's story of a man who has not gotten over the death of his wife. It's late at night. He's stopping back at work to pick up modules of Hip-Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions to take to the school for School for Precocious Youth the next morning.
I use my pass key. Something's strange. Modules are strewn everywhere. The cash box sits on the fax machine. One of my treadmills lies on its side.
"How is all this fancy equipment used?" someone asks from behind me, pressing a sharp knife to my throat. "More specifically, which of it is worth the most? And remember, sir, you're answering for your life." He sounds old but feels strong.
I tell him it's hard to explain. I offer to demonstrate. He says, "Do so, but slowly." I fit him with a headset. I gently guide him to a treadmill then run Sexy Nurses Scrub You Down.
Immediately, his lips get moist. He loosens his grip on the knife, and I'm able to coldcock him with the FedEx tape gun. He drops drooling to my nice carpet.
A man his age should be a doting grandfather, not a crook threatening me with death. I feel violated. How does someone come to this?
I strap him down and set my console for Scan. It seems his lousy name is Hank. I hear his portly father calling it out across a cranberry bog. I know the smell of his first baseball cap. Through his eyes, I see the secret place under the porch where he hid whenever his fat, kissing aunt came.
Later, I develop a lot for swing. Seems he was a marine at Iwo who on his way to boot camp saw the aging Ty Cobb at a depot. I sense his panic on the troop transport and quickly doff my headset as he hits the beach and the bullets start to fly.
To my horror, I see that his eyelids are fluttering and his face is contorting. "My god," I think. "This is no scan. This is a damn offload." I check the console and sure enough, via one incorrect switch setting, I've just irrevocably transferred a good third of his memories to my hard drive.
He comes to and hops off the table looking years younger, suddenly happy-go-lucky, asks where he is, and trots blithely out the door, free now of boot camp, free of Iwo, free of all memory of youthful slaughter, free, in fact, of any memory at all of the first 20 years of his life. I'm heartsick. What have I done? On the other hand, it stopped him from getting up and trying to kill me. On the other hand, it appears he left here a happier man, perhaps less inclined to felony.
I grab my Hop-Hop module. On the cover is Hop-Hop, enthusiastically giving the thumbs up to an idealized blond boy lifting an enormous four into a numerator. As if being robbed weren't enough, first thing tomorrow morning, a room full of genius kids is going to eat me alive.
Then crossing a deserted food court, I get a brainstorm. I hustle back to the shop and edit out Hank's trysts with starving women in Depression-era hobo camps and his one homo fling with his cousin, Julian. I edit the profanity out of Iwo. I edit out the midnight wanks, the petty thefts, the unkind words, all but the most inoffensive of the bodies of his buddies on the pale sand beach.
The next morning, I herd kid after kid behind my white curtain and let them experience Hank's life. They love it. The leave jabbering knowledgeably about the Pacific theater and the ultimate wisdom of using the bomb. They leave praising Phil Rizzuto's Fielding and cursing the brownshirts.
They pat old Mr. Panchuko, the geriatric janitor, on the back and ask him what caliber machine going he operated at the Bulge. He stands scratching his gut, stunned, trying to remember. The little Klotchkow twins jitterbug. Andy Pitlin, all of three feet tall, hankers aloud for a Camel.
Mrs. Briff is more than impressed. She asks what else I have. I ask what else does she want. She says for starters, how about the remainder of the century. I tell her I'll see what I can do.
The kids come out of it with a firsthand War Years experience, and I come out of it with a check for $500, enough to hire a temporary live-in for Mrs. Ken Schwartz, which I gladly do. A lovely Eurasian named Wei, a student of astrophysics who, as I'm leaving them alone for the first time, is brushing out Mrs. Ken Schwartz's hair and humming "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." "Will you stay forever?" I ask her.
"With all due respect," she replies, "I will stay as long as you can pay me."
Two weeks later, Briff's on my tail for more modules, and Wei's on my tail for her pay. I tell Mrs. Ken Schwartz all during one of her 15-minute windows of lucidity. When lucid, she's shrewd and bright. She understands her predicament. She understands the limitations of my gear. She understands that I can't borrow her memories, only take them away forever. She says she can live without the '60s.
I haul my stuff over to her place and take what I need. I edit out her mastectomy, Ken Schwartz's midlife crisis and resulting trip to Florida, and her constant drinking in his absence. I stick to her walking past a protest and counseling a skinny girl on acid to stay in school. It's not great, but I've got a deadline. I call it America in Tumult, The Older Generation Looks On in Dismay. I have it couriered over to Briff, dreading her response.
But to my amazement, she sends a cash bonus. she reports astounding increases in grandparental bonding. She reports kids identifying a Mercury Cougar with no prompting and disgustedly calling each other Nixon whenever a trust is betrayed.
Thereafter, I retained Wei on a weekly basis by whittling away at Mrs. Schwartz's memories. I submit Pearl Harbor, Week Prior to Infamy. I submit The Day the Music Died, Buddy Holly Remembered, which unfortunately is merely Mrs. Schwartz hearing the news on a pink radio then disinterestedly going back to cleaning her oven.
Finally, Briff calls, hacked off. She say she wants some real meat. She asks, how about the entire '20s, a personal favorite of hers. She's talking flappers. She's talking possible insights on Prohibition. I stonewall. I tell her, give me a few days to exhaustively check my massive archive.
I call Mrs. Ken Schwartz. She says during the '20s, she was a lowly phone operator in Pekin, Illinois. She sounds disoriented and wearily asks where her breasts are. Clearly, this has gone far enough.
I call Briff and tell her no more modules. She ups her offer to $3,000 a decade. She's running for school board and says my modules are the primary arrow in her quiver. But what am I supposed to do, turn Mrs. Schwartz into a well-cared-for blank slate? Start kidnapping and offloading strangers? I say a little prayer.
"God, I've botched this life but good. I've failed you in all major ways. You gave me true love, and I blew it. I'm nothing. But what have you got against Mrs. Ken Schwartz? Forgive me. Help me figure this out." And then in a flash, I figure it out.
I lock the shop. On the spine of a blank module I write 1951 to 1992, Baby Boomers Come Into Their Own. At $3,000 a decade, that's 12 grand. I address an envelope to Briff and enclose an invoice. I write out some instructions and rig myself up.
"Memories, schmemories," I think. "I'll get some new ones. These old ones give me no peace." Then I let it rip.
It all goes whizzing by. Anthony Newburg smacking me, Mom on the dock, an Agnew Halloween mask at a frat house. Bev Malloy struggling with my belt. The many seasons, the many flags, dogs, paths, the many stars and the skies of many hues.
My sweet Elizabeth. Holding hands, we gape at an elk in Estes Park. On our knees, in a bed of tulips, I kiss her cheek. The cold, clear water of Nacogdoches. The birthday banner she made of scarves in our little place on Ellington. The awful look on her faces as I called her what I called her. Her hair trailing fine and light behind her as she stormed out to buy fruit. The grave, the grave, my sad attempt to become a franchisee.
Then I'm a paunchy guy in a room with a note pinned to his sleeve. "You were alone in the world," it says, "and did a kindness for someone in need. Good for you. Now post this module and follow this map to the home of Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Care for her with some big money that will come in the mail. Find someone to love. Your heart has never been broken. You've never done anything unforgivable or hurt anyone beyond reparation. Everyone you've ever loved, you've treated like gold."
George Saunders's story is from his book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. He teaches at Syracuse University.
Act Three, Finding Amnesia. Who among us, wanting to get over it, has not wanted amnesia? But one thing about amnesia, one frustrating thing, is that it seems to happen a lot more in television and movies and novels than it ever does in real life. I have here an article from Romantic Times Magazine, April of 1996. They list here 40 different romance novels that are on the shelves now where amnesia is the plotline.
But does it really happen? Have you ever met anybody who it happens to? Well, we asked reporter Scott Carrier in Salt Lake City to find out if it does really happen.
The idea was to find someone who had amnesia and ask them what it was like in real life. I was warned that it might be difficult to locate such a person, that the affliction may in reality be quite rare, but that there was at least one known amnesiac living in Tennessee and another in Pennsylvania. The particular cities and addresses could be found if necessary. "Nonsense," I said. "I'm surrounded by amnesiacs. This city breeds forgetfulness. There must be five or six amnesiacs in the neighborhood around my office alone." I accepted the offer, thinking it would be an easy assignment.
I began by asking everybody I saw if they had or had ever had amnesia. I did this for three days. And I tried not to be selective, but to ask everybody with whom I came into contact, whether my wife or the checker at the grocery store. "Do you have or have you ever had amnesia?" And furthermore, I'd ask this each and every time I saw the person, sometimes two or three times a day.
No one admitted to currently having amnesia, but at least one in four remembered being knocked hard on the head and losing memory from a concussion. This kind of amnesia lasts only a few minutes or a few hours, and concussion stories, I found out, are usually not worth listening to or worth telling. They usually go something like this.
"I was in a football game, and two guys fell on my head. I kept playing. I played the whole game and everything. But then after the game, I had to get a ride home, because I didn't remember where I lived."
I heard this story three times from the same person. And each time, he told it to me in the same way, with some difficulty, as if something had been taken from him, and he didn't know what it was.
Two people admitted to suffering from drug-induced amnesia. One had a drinking problem. The other was myself, as, due to the fact that when I was 19, I ate a big, psilocybin mushroom right off the ground in the mountains of Colombia, South America and spent four or five hours where I didn't know my name, where I was, or why.
I was hallucinating wildly, the sky exploding, the ground bubbling up under my feet. The trees and bushes were throwing off little packets of flame and brightly colored orbs. I wandered around and around in a cow pasture, holding my hands over my eyes, delirious.
And then a man in a Jeep picked me up. And I thought he might be my father. And I thought I knew what he was saying. But I didn't know what language he was speaking.
And we went to his house and watched the soccer game on television while his wife, who I thought might be my mother, served us coffee from a metal tray. And then I was back out on the road. And I walked up to a park and sat down and drew a picture myself in a notebook. And below the picture, I wrote these words. "I'm still here." If this gave me any insights into what amnesia is like, real amnesia, I don't remember what they are.
In three days, the closest I came to finding someone with amnesia was through a young woman who's the daughter of a friend of mine. She's a physical therapist, and one of her patients had had her smashed in a car accident. Her amnesia is kind of the opposite of what we normally think about. She can remember things in the distant past just fine. But she doesn't seem to be able to remember what just happened, or what she was just thinking, or just where it was she was going.
So she can't, for instance, drive a car or even ride a bus. I asked my friend's daughter if I might be able to talk with this woman. And she said, "Well, I guess so. But you might have a better conversation with her dog."
I came back to my office feeling a little down. Finding an amnesiac was proving to be more difficult than expected. I decided to seek professional help. I got up out of my chair and walked across the hallway and knocked on the door of Dr. Jeff Harris, psychologist.
I think there was a guy that went through it when I was in Vietnam. He ended up in some serious action and ended up going from one APC to the next. And each one got blown up as he was getting in or-- and I don't know exactly how he survived the whole thing. But we're talking about a platoon basically getting wiped out, he being one of the few survivors.
And he couldn't remember. He couldn't remember his past. He couldn't remember where he was going. Yeah, that's the classical Freudian theory of repression. We don't remember things that make us feel guilty or feel pain.
All right. Well, let me ask you this. Say I have the ability to make you have amnesia. If I flip the switch, you won't remember your name. You won't remember who you are. What do you think?
What do I think?
Yeah, would you do it or not?
I would want to do it because then I think that I would lose my ego. I would have a clean slate.
If all of a sudden, you sat here and you couldn't remember why you were holding this microphone or who I am or why you're talking to me, to say that was disorienting would be too mild.
I think I would be smart enough to realize this is a gift. There's two choices. Either you realize that it's a gift, or you completely freak out. One or the other.
But you're talking as if you wake up in the morning. You don't know where you are, who you are, where in the hell you're going, and you're happy with it? Give me a goddamn break.
That still seems attractive to me. It still seems like it might be a good thing. To be put in a situation where I have to admit that I'm completely lost seems like--
Oh, I think you already are, Scott.
After five days, having found no one who had or had had amnesia, I decided to visit a hypnotherapist, Diane Bradshaw, and ask her if she could give me amnesia. She said she probably could do it, as long as I was willing to be put under hypnosis. She said some people just weren't willing.
And if you're open to the possibility that, say, amnesia would be OK for five minutes or one minute, it might happen.
Well, I'm open to even a day. Would that be a bad idea?
What do you really want here? Do you want to get that extreme?
Let's say a few hours anyway. What do you think? Because he's going to have to hang out with me.
You know what I think?
I think an hour.
I think if you had a half hour of amnesia, you would get it pretty quick.
OK. All right. An hour. A half hour.
I think a half hour would probably be plenty of time. And then I have to ask you, what do you want to forget? I can do anything from giving you a suggestion to forget your name, to forget where you live, to-- what do you want to forget?
Is it possible to forget everything, my whole self-identity? Is that too much?
She took notes on what I wanted to forget. Then she hypnotized me, which involved having me count backwards from 100 and telling me to relax deeper and deeper, and then having me imagine being in a big garden with a stream running through it. And she said if I drank from the stream, I'd forget my name and where I was, and also the name of my friend who'd come with me. So I went and drank from the stream. And she woke me up.
Five, open your eyes, all the way back, emerging from hypnosis, all the way back. Hi there.
How you doing?
Feels pretty good, doesn't it?
It was pleasant.
It was fun. But I think I can remember. I'm sorry.
And what is it you can remember? What town do you live in?
Salt Lake, sorry.
And what have you been doing today?
Um, working on this story.
And what's his name over here?
I'm sorry, man. I tried. I did. I tried.
The next day, I typed amnesia into a search engine on the World Wide Web and got a phone number for the Beckman Institute, a neuroscience center at the University of Illinois. I called up and talked to Rob Althoff, a graduate student. And he told me that the kind of amnesia I was looking for was indeed very rare and that there's some disagreement over whether it even happens at all.
He said people do suffer long-term memory loss from severe brain injuries, but that usually, these people never recover their memories, that their brain doesn't regenerate. And he said that the other kind of amnesia, where there's no physical trauma, is often a matter of the person not wanting to remember, for one psychological reason or another, and that in these cases, it's really difficult to know whether the person is basically just faking it.
Talking to Althoff made me wonder if amnesia, the kind we see on TV and in the movies, where a character gets hit on the head with a coconut, loses his self-identity and then spends the rest of the story rediscovering it or getting bonked on the head by another coconut, whether this is really just a story that we want to be true, that we somehow want to believe in it. The next thing I did was call Diane Bradshaw back and ask her if she knew anyone who could be easily hypnotized and wouldn't mind having amnesia. And she said yes, he's coming by this afternoon. If you came by around 4:00, we could ask him.
So I went back and met Doug. And Doug was not only willing to be hypnotized, he told me that he'd actually had amnesia 10 years ago in Hawaii.
I was on my way from Haleiwa, which is the north shore of Hawaii. And I was on my way in to Waikiki. And there was a guy standing on the side of the road that had a towel wrapped around his head and had chicken blood, or I don't know what kind of blood. But he pulled over. He waved me over. And I pulled over my Volkswagen van.
And a bunch of guys came out of the cane field. And they just beat me. They beat me senseless. They broke almost every rib on the one side, punctured my lung with one of the ribs, punctured my lung, broke my jaw, broke my nose, and robbed me.
I was out. And they took me to the hospital, and I didn't regain consciousness for over 20 days. 21 days was when I finally woke up.
So what was it like when you woke up?
I was scared. I've never been that scared in my life. I just didn't know how I got to where I was or who I was. And then as soon as I started to feel comfortable, just even a little bit comfortable, then I kind of was excited. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know what this was and just everything. Because food, that was really wild. When they brought me ice cream, I was, "Woo-hoo, boy, this is good. I like this. Bring more of this."
So you couldn't remember food. You couldn't remember words, even. What kinds of things could you remember?
I remember I talked kind of a baby talk kind of thing, where it was a broken making words. My mind would think the word, but it wouldn't come down to my mouth. And I would-- [SLURRED SPEECH] --kinda talk like, like that, like that.
It didn't take long for Diane to hypnotize him. He went down like a rock.
In a moment, I'm going to say "wide awake." When I do, you will have no memory of who you are or where you are, gone completely. Wide awake. Open your eyes, wide awake. Hi there. What's your name? Where are you?
I don't know.
You don't know. Did you know when you came in here?
I don't remember.
You don't remember. Yeah.
Ask him how it feels to not know who he is.
Yeah. So hi. What's your name?
I don't know.
What's it like not to know?
How does that blackness make you feel? When you say black, what's the emotion?
Puzzled, and it's like I'm waiting for the projector to start at a movie. Like it's not on yet.
Watching Doug go through this, I couldn't decide whether it was real amnesia or whether it was just a performance of amnesia, and that maybe there's no difference. Doug said that getting beat up and losing his memory did help him turn his life around. If that's what he needed, if that's what we all need at some level, then it's no wonder people pretend it's more common than it really is.
Scott Carrier lives in Salt Lake City.
Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself with Peter Clowney and Nancy Updike. Senior editor Paul Tough. Contributing editors for this show, Margy Rochlin, Jack Hitt, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs our website.
To buy a cassette of this or any of our shows, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
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I edit out the midnight wanks, the petty thefts, the unkind words.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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