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680: The Weight Of Words

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Last weekend, I gave a talk at Chautauqua in upstate New York. Which, if you don't know what that is, starting in the 1870s, it was this high-minded lecture circuit-- like Ted Talks, but before the internet, or public radio before the invention of radio-- with a big religious component. Which is how I fell into this long conversation about the literal word of the Bible. It happened the staffer who drove me to the airport was a retired Methodist preacher, an associate pastor at one of the churches in Chautauqua, named John Jackson.

And we had this hour and a half long drive and somehow we got onto how he doesn't believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, which, if you're a Methodist, that's no big deal. And John said that as he gets older, the literal words of the Bible seem less important to him than the big picture. Love your neighbor as yourself, and love God above all.

I told John, like, I totally get the love your neighbor as yourself part of that. Like, I can see how that can reshape just everything about how you treat others, and really, everything you do in your life in the world. But I told him I've never really understood why is it important to love God above all. Do you know what I mean? If you do what God wants, and you try to be good, you try to treat others right, what difference does it make if you love God? What does God care?

And I got to ask John about kind of a variation on this question that I've wondered about for a couple years, ever since the last time I was in synagogue. I don't know. This was two or three years ago. I hadn't been to synagogue in forever.

And it was the anniversary of my mom's death. And we're Jews, so you're supposed to go say Kaddish, this old prayer that's one of the central prayers in Judaism at the anniversary of somebody's death. And so my dad, and my stepmom, and I were at one of the daily services that observant Jews go to every day in Baltimore where I grew up.

And I always liked going to synagogue as a kid. We went a lot. And so it was nice going back. I know all the Hebrew prayers by heart. And [LAUGHS] I don't know if this is good or bad, but not having sat in a synagogue in over a decade, it really hit me how every day is a rerun.

Do you know what I mean? They never do a new episode. Every day, the same words, same songs in the same order, stretching back hundreds of years. They read a new part of the Bible, part of the Torah some days. So there's that, but all the rest basically exactly the same every day.

And everybody is singing and chanting. And I started looking at the prayer book on the side of the page with the English translation of the prayers, which I hadn't done in years. And I really was struck at how many of them-- the Amidah, the Ashrei-- are about praising God at length. That's what the words mean. Even the Kaddish, which you say over and over during services.

[RECITING THE KADDISH IN ARAMAIC]

It goes on and on. And the words basically are, "May His great name be exalted and sanctified. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One." That is what they have you say when your mom dies. Comforting, huh? It's basically God is great over and over, building up to this beautiful line, really beautiful, that's basically God is so great. It's beyond the power of any prayer, or word, or song, or praise. It's beyond the power of language to capture it.

And it really hit me, sitting there-- what does God get out of that? Why does he want us sitting down and telling him how great he is for 45 minutes a day? Is he that needy? If some parent demanded that of their kids-- OK, I want you to praise me for 45 minutes a day, every single day of your life-- we would know they were nuts.

And it's like what I was saying to John-- what does God care if we love him? And John had such a lovely answer. He said, first off, he thinks lots of people make the mistake of picturing God as being like us, like humans. Like he's somebody who we're calling on the phone or something when we're praying.

But the way he sees it, he understands God to be all the values and principles that he sees in scripture-- the obligation to love each other, to be honest and decent in our dealings with each other, all of those things. And when he's praising God, he said that's what he's praising. He's basically re-pledging himself to those principles, which he loves. In other words, the literal words of the Bible, the literal words of the prayers aren't as important as that pledge-- a pledge to act a certain way in the world.

And reading and calling around in the days since we had that conversation, I've learned that other clergy-- Christian, Jewish, Muslim-- some of them say the same things, especially that God doesn't need our prayers. The prayers are for us. One of them told me the Kaddish is supposed to comfort me after my mom's death by pointing me to this idea of God's presence in the world, the goodness in the world-- which, if I believed in God, I guess could be a comfort. But I don't believe.

But weirdly, even without that, without believing any of the words, I do find it's a comfort to say the prayer. It's just-- it's familiar. It's familiar as the nursery rhymes my mom sang to me as a kid, as the Shema, the prayer that she had me and my sister say every night before we went to sleep. It's comforting.

Despite the fact that it's in another language and part of a doctrine I don't believe anymore, just the fact of it handed to me by my parents and to them by their parents-- Frida, and Lou, and Melvin, and Molly-- and their parents before them-- David, and Elizabeth, and Isidore, and people whose names I don't even know-- and before them, their parents for hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years and standing in synagogue that day, standing and saying these words in unison with other mourners, it was comforting.

[RECITING THE KADDISH IN ARAMAIC]

Today in our show, the sometimes very old words that we turn to for comfort in moments of adversity and at other times, they can be very random. The novel, Little Women, A Tribe Called Quest and other old school hip hop-- we have stories about each of those. WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Go To The Mattresses

Ira Glass

Act One, Go to the Mattresses. Shamyla always loved books. Back in 1989, like lots of other 11-year-olds, she also loved Punky Brewster and Paula Abdul. But her main thing was reading. The Baby-Sitters Club books, Little House on the Prairie-- it was all about words and books. And then something happened, which totally changed what she read, and how. Elna Baker talked to her.

Elna Baker

OK, so you meet somebody at a party, and they ask you, what's your favorite book? What's your answer?

Shamyla

My answer is Little Women is my all time favorite book.

Elna Baker

And then if they were to ask you, why, what would you say?

Shamyla

Well, I probably would have a very long conversation with someone about that. But it goes back to the '90s when I was living in Pakistan. And this was the only book that I had in my possession for a couple of years.

Elna Baker

A couple of years when she was basically held in captivity in Pakistan. I'll tell you how she found herself holed up with only one book in a minute. But first, here's how she ended up in captivity. She was raised in suburban Maryland. Her father was an economist, her mom a teacher. She went to an all girls' prep school.

At 11, she learned her parents weren't her biological parents. Her mom, the oldest daughter in her family, couldn't have kids and really wanted to. And so Shamyla's family came up with a solution, one that's not unusual in Pakistan. Since her mom was the oldest, it was her younger sister's obligation to give her a child. And because of this family pressure and a sense of duty, the younger sister did it. But then it got complicated.

Shamyla

Well, my adoptive parents had kids. They had a son. And then they had another son, and that really made my biological family confused and angry. And they were like, we gave you our child. And now you have your own children. Give us our daughter back. And my mom said, I'm not going to give her back. She's not a ball. I can't toss her back.

Elna Baker

For years, they fought over this. When Shamyla was 12 on a visit home to Pakistan, her birth parents asked if they could take her on a trip. Her mom agreed as a gesture of goodwill. It'd just be a week long, and she'd get to know her cousins, who were actually her brothers. And at first, it was really fun.

Shamyla

Until I got really sick at someone's house, and it turned out I had malaria. And what I didn't realize at the time was that they had taken me there on purpose because it was way out in the country where no one could find me.

Elna Baker

Two weeks go by, then three. She's all better, asking when she can go back.

Shamyla

And they kept making excuses. Um, you just need to wait. We have some other places to go. And I remember at some point, my biological father taking me aside very kindly and saying, we're your real family. They never loved you. We love you. They loved you like the way people love slippers, like an old used pair of slippers. But they love their boys because that's their blood. And we're your blood, and that's how we love you. So you're staying with us now.

Elna Baker

They don't let her leave, and she's really confused. Of course my US parents love me. They must love me. But then if they loved me, why aren't they coming to get me?

Unbeknownst to her, her US parents are trying to find out where she is. But no one will tell them. To make matters worse, her US parents are not legally Shamyla's parents. The adoption was never formal. She was just handed over. So they have no legal claim to their daughter. And there's nothing Shamyla could do. She was 12.

Shamyla

Even if I fantasized about running away to another city and seeing other relatives, I was like, how will I do it? What will I do? Where will I get the money? How will I get on a train? How will I get on a plane? What will I do?

Elna Baker

You were trapped.

Shamyla

I was trapped, yeah.

Elna Baker

She says her birth parents told her when she was growing up, whenever they saw her, it was upsetting to them. They thought, she's too Americanized. They were incredibly traditional, even for Pakistan, which is already very patriarchal. Women are expected to be subordinate. And if their purity is questioned, like if they're even seen speaking to a man in a public place, their family's reputation could be ruined. And the whole family could be ostracized from the community for it.

This is especially the case in Peshawar, where her birth parents lived. And Shamyla, a suburban Maryland tween, didn't understand that this was the world she lived in now. She says everything about the way she acted was wrong in their eyes. They didn't approve of the music she listened to or the books she read. They thought they were teaching her to be far too independent for a girl. At this rate, she'd become promiscuous any day now.

And since they didn't trust her not to be, they kept her under house arrest, confining her to a corner of the house that consisted of a bedroom and a bathroom. And they confiscated her cassettes and her books. Her birth father would lecture to her for hours.

Shamyla

His favorite three topics were America is a bad place, especially for girls. American women are loose character and horrible. The second topic was your adopted family never really loved you. Never. And the third topic was so here's what you're going to do when you get married. These are your wifely duties, including your sexual obligations to your husband.

Elna Baker

He'd also lecture her about the rules she needed to follow. Some were the normal rules of an observant Muslim home. She couldn't go out without being covered, make eye contact, wear her hair down. Others were cultural. She couldn't hug people, wear glasses when guests came over, speak English or Urdu, which would be seen as a sign of modernity. Only Pashto, the language of the region, was allowed.

She couldn't serve herself food before her brothers. She was barely allowed to eat. They thought she needed to be thin to get married, so they locked the fridge. She says if she messed up, she was beaten with a kitchen squeegee, which cut her face open, or a walking stick. That was the worst one, she says.

Shamyla

The second worst one was with a golf club. And the third worst one was with cleats near my eye.

Elna Baker

They took cleats and hit you with them.

Shamyla

No, I think I got kicked.

Elna Baker

She asked me not to reach out to her birth parents to confirm these details because she was worried for her safety. And I didn't. The members of her family here in the States confirmed that this is what her birth parents are like. And her mother and therapist corroborated that her story of being abused has always remained consistent.

Shamyla

I remember after every time they would beat me, I put an X on whatever calendar I had and be like, this will never happen again. I will be so good now that this will never happen again.

Elna Baker

Like from this day forward, I'll finally be a good girl.

Shamyla

Yep.

Elna Baker

Did you feel like you'd never be the girl they wanted you to be?

Shamyla

No, I thought eventually, I'm going to get there. I just have to keep trying.

Elna Baker

Mhm.

Shamyla

I really thought that eventually, I'm going to become that person.

Elna Baker

And you wanted to be that person?

Shamyla

I think that I thought I had no choice.

Elna Baker

She wasn't just physically abused. As she got older, she says she was also sexually abused by her brother. And finally, into this bleakness comes a book, the book, Little Women.

Shamyla

So one of my friends noticed the book at a book fair at our school. All these books had come from Singapore, and there was Little Women. I was like, I know this book, and I want it. And I remember thinking, oh my god, I read that book when I was little. I had a huge, beautiful illustrated copy growing up. And I said to my friend Mirjana, I was like, Mirjana, can you please buy it? It's 10 rupees, and I'll pay you back.

Elna Baker

She'd tried smuggling books home before, but she'd always been caught. She hid the book inside her mattress pad underneath the bed, and she broke it into sections, roughly eight piles, so that it didn't make the mattress stick up in any way. When she heard her family go out, she'd wait and then carefully unzip the mattress pad and take a section of the book out at a time. Whichever one she pulled out first, she read.

Shamyla

It was the book of my life. It was the only book I had to escape. It was the only book that I had to actually read over and over again. And I kind of memorized it.

Elna Baker

I'm going to read you some quotes from the book.

Shamyla

OK.

Elna Baker

And just interrupt if you know where it is or what this is about. And then I'm going to just randomly open the book.

Shamyla

[LAUGHS] This feels like a pop quiz.

Elna Baker

Yeah. Ooh. "'Mercy on me. Beth loves Laurie,' she said, sitting down on--"

Shamyla

Oh, this is when Beth is ill, and Beth is changing. And she thinks the secret is that Beth is in love with Laurie.

Elna Baker

"Mrs. March and Jo were deep in their own affairs when a sound from Meg made them look up to see her staring at her note."

Shamyla

Oh, that's when Meg has written to Mr. Brooke, and he actually writes back. But it was Laurie pretending to be Mr. Brooke.

Elna Baker

We did this eight times, and she's able to get everything I read within seconds.

Elna Baker

You're good at this.

Shamyla

[LAUGHS] I told you I read this book over, and over, and over.

Elna Baker

How many times?

Shamyla

Oh, hundreds. By now, it's probably thousands.

Elna Baker

If you haven't read Little Women, it's basically about four sisters, the March sisters. Meg, the oldest, is the responsible one. Jo is the rebel and the writer. Beth is sick. And Amy, the youngest, is a spoiled brat. Their father's serving in the Civil War, and their mother is raising them alone. The book follows these girls from childhood into adulthood.

Elna Baker

Were there parts of the book that you would just read over and over? Like, your favorite parts.

Shamyla

I loved reading the parts in the beginning when the two sisters would talk to each other, Meg and Jo, and their bond. Because I didn't have a sister, and I had no one to talk to. And I really loved the scenes about parties and stuff.

Elna Baker

She loved these scenes because they mirrored her life in a really specific way. Her birth parents were upper middle class, and they wanted to use Shamyla to marry into a higher class. So they dressed her up and took her to social events to show her off. In the book, there are events like this that the March sisters go to.

Shamyla

There's a chapter about Meg and Jo going to a party in the very beginning. And they're not out yet in society. And I was like, oh my god. This 1860-something book is what's happening in Peshawar in 1990. Oh my god. It's the same thing. I'm not out yet in society, and I have to be very careful how I present myself.

Elna Baker

In a way, Little Women was the perfect book for Shamyla's situation because it's like a how-to for girls, a survival guide. Like most women who read the book, the sister Shamyla relates to the most is Jo. She was my favorite, too.

I was raised in a strict religion, and my life was supposed to be about marriage and motherhood. And then Jo came into my orbit and showed me I could have ambition, and be improper, and break the rules. And I loved her for it. And that's how Shamyla felt. Jo helped Shamyla hold onto the identity her family was trying so hard to squash.

Shamyla

There is a part where Jo and Laurie go running, and Meg scolds her and says, when will you learn to be ladylike? And she says, I hope never. I always want to run, and I always want to romp.

And I thought, me, too. I never want to have to stop being spirited and independent. And I remember Jo had a temper in the book, and I thought, I have a temper, too. And she's working really hard to curb it. I was like, I am, too.

I didn't have any of the freedom Jo had. But in my heart, I was just as feisty and independent. So I think it's very funny when nowadays, my friends are like, well, you were so meek. And I was like, I was never meek. That's just a facade. [LAUGHS] I'm Jo. I get her.

Elna Baker

But in a way, what's so interesting is it's so literally like, your way of being Jo was reading about Jo. That's where you actually got to be Jo.

Shamyla

Yeah. I couldn't really do anything else.

Elna Baker

In the book, Jo writes stories. Shamyla loved to write, too. But she says the second year she was there, her birth father declared girls aren't supposed to write, and took a notebook filled with her stories and burned it in the backyard, and made her watch. In the book, Jo writes her stories alone in the attic. This gave Shamyla the idea to sneak into her bathroom with a fountain pen and paper and write.

Shamyla

And then I would wash all the ink off the paper, crumple up the wet paper, and throw it out the hole in the window mesh.

Elna Baker

Wait, you would write the stories, and then erase everything you'd written.

Shamyla

So there was a hose that attached from the tub to the sink. And so I would take that hose and wash all the ink off.

Elna Baker

Down the drain of the--

Shamyla

There was a floor drain, and I would make sure that the floor drain was not blue with the blue ink and that there was no sign of ink that had fallen off the papers.

Elna Baker

Shamyla knew how her family would react if they caught her writing, or if they found her copy of Little Women and read any of it. Like, there's a boy in the book. His name is Laurie. He and Jo have an innocent flirtation. But Shamyla says if her birth parents read that part, they'd think--

Shamyla

You don't go over to an adolescent boy's house ever. There's no innocence in this. In real life, Jo and Laurie would be doing very bad things. This is not right.

Elna Baker

They're saying in real life, Jo and Laurie would be getting it on?

Shamyla

Basically.

Elna Baker

I mean, that would have been a better book, right?

Shamyla

[LAUGHS]

Elna Baker

I loved that. Oh my gosh. That was, like, my fanfiction. I would write that.

Shamyla

That's so funny.

Elna Baker

After a year, Shamyla's American mother was allowed to visit her. Shamyla told her what was happening. Her American mother cried and begged for her extended family to intervene and send Shamyla back to the States, but it was useless. Shamyla felt abandoned and hopeless. So she gave in. Did her best to make herself into the obedient Pashtan girl they wanted her to be.

There's a scene in the book, one I hated because it was so sad, that Shamyla read over and over again.

Shamyla

I reread Beth's dying a lot because there was this sense of helplessness. And I really understood that in a way that a lot of people don't. Because I knew when something's inevitable, and it's going to happen, they keep saying the tide's going out in the book.

And I was like, yeah, when the tide goes out, you just have to go with it. You can't fight it. I understood that on a level I couldn't even explain. I just knew what that meant.

Elna Baker

It sounds like their world feels so real to you.

Shamyla

I know, it really does. I felt like I lived with them sometimes.

Elna Baker

What do you mean?

Shamyla

Like, I felt like I was watching them. Like, I was, like, the servant or something, watching. I felt like I lived in the attic, and I could go downstairs and see them. They couldn't see me, but I could see them.

Elna Baker

Uh-huh.

Shamyla

And I would join the world. Like, I would join in.

Elna Baker

Her real world, of course, was much darker. By the time she got to 17 or 18, she concluded that there's really only one way out to escape her family and maybe even have a happy life.

Shamyla

I was like, OK, so the way out is marriage. So I have to play this game to get married. And I started to actually kind of be like, OK, so in Little Women, you know how Meg goes to society dances and wears her glove and skirts, putting her hair up? I was like, I can do this. I can do this to get the best possible way out. I was really thinking about how to create my life with someone else and what that would look like. And so I had stopped so much caring about going home or going back.

Elna Baker

And marriage is actually what the second part of Little Women is about. The second half of the book is very different from the first. It covers domestic duties and how the girls let go of their wild ways to become good wives. Shamyla, not a big fan of part two.

Shamyla

The second book, I remember thinking, I don't like this part. I like going back to their childhood and reading that part again and again and again.

Elna Baker

Oh, the second part is the worst.

Shamyla

I know. It's so, so, so sad.

Elna Baker

I think I'd really forgotten the message of the second half of the book. And it it's just kind of infuriating when you realize how, in some ways, it feels almost like a propaganda for becoming the way you're supposed to be.

Shamyla

Yeah, I remember thinking when Meg gets married, they have a whole chapter about how she loses her freedom. And I was like, oh god, I don't want that to be my story when I get married. I understood a lot of that because that was what was being asked of me at that time, to give up, give up, give up in order to be a woman to live in this society and be married and have a family.

Elna Baker

A friend at Shamyla's school told her she had a brother that Shamyla could marry who would treat her well. So she began corresponding with him via her friend. But her family found out, and they were terrified that their reputation was going to be destroyed by it. Girls do not communicate directly with boys, and they did what lots of families might do. They pulled her out of school and quickly started arranging her marriage to a 30-year-old man.

As part of their damage control, they decided to send Shamyla away for a few weeks. But their only relatives who weren't in Peshawar were in America. So they made arrangements to send her back. And while she was there, her birth father and mother wanted her to learn new skills that would add to her bride price, the money the groom's family would be expected to pay them.

Shamyla

He sent me with a whole list. He was like, you have to learn driving, shorthand, swimming.

Elna Baker

It just seems like after all the work they did to get you to stay and also their plans to marry you off, it just seems crazy that they would let you go back.

Shamyla

Well, it's funny because she even said something crazy. She's like, if they're going to do anything to fix your face-- because remember, they cut my face open-- she's like, ask them if they can put a mole down there, like Cindy Crawford. And so I was like, OK, let's add mole to the list of things that will happen.

Elna Baker

They send her to stay with her US parents. Her birth father is so confident that Shamyla is one of them now, that she'll obediently return to Pakistan, he doesn't question letting her go. A female chaperone traveled with her.

Shamyla

So we walked onto the tarmac. I climbed up in the plane. And as the plane took off, I just started crying nonstop because I knew I wasn't coming back. I just knew. I didn't know how I knew it. I don't why I knew it. And then watching Pakistan slip away, and I'm like, I'm not going back here. It's never happening.

Elna Baker

And was it relief?

Shamyla

No, I was sad. I was really, really sad. I was like, goodbye, life that I knew.

Elna Baker

At first, she had a hard time coming back to America. She was in total culture shock. She could hardly speak English. She didn't recognize her little brothers. The internet existed now. It was like she'd woken up from a coma.

Shamyla

I remember thinking, like, I still like big hair. And everyone's like, that ended in 1989. No one does that anymore. And I was like, but I like that. They're like, no, now we straighten our hair. And I was like, I don't like that. Well, you have to.

Elna Baker

She enrolled in community college, but she'd been so indoctrinated, it was hard for her to just switch it off. She'd see women in skirts and catch herself judging them. For the first few years, she was a mess. Trying to switch off the ideology was nearly impossible. She started to see a therapist who helped her process the extent of what happened to her.

There's something her mother said to me on the phone I can't stop thinking about. It's something she told her little sister once. "Between you and me, we've ruined Shamyla's life."

It's been 23 years since she returned. Her life actually diverged from the second half of Little Women, the part she didn't like. She didn't get married, and she's independent. She runs her own practice as a therapist and social worker. She specifically works with people who suffer from trauma because she understands it so well herself. But sometimes she still returns to Little Women.

Shamyla

Well, it comes up in different situations. I'll be like, OK, so-- the other day, I actually-- this is funny. My friend has twins, and she was telling me, like, god, I'm so tired. And they don't listen, and my husband is so busy. And I referred her to the chapter of Meg trying to discipline her twins. And I was like, read this. This will help you.

Elna Baker

Wait. Are you constantly like-- do your friends have a joke, where, like, oh, not another Little Women reference?

Shamyla

No, I think that they think it's funny that I like the book so much, but I don't think anyone really understands why.

Elna Baker

Wait. So it's, like, your only frame of reference.

Shamyla

Yeah.

Elna Baker

When she's having a hard time or making a decision, she asks the question, opens the book, and whatever passage she reads, it's her answer from the March sisters. And she also has this ritual.

Shamyla

So every year on my birthday, I find the corresponding age that I am for the chapter I am, and I read that.

Elna Baker

In other words, chapter 30 when she turned 30, chapter 31 when she turned 31.

Shamyla

To be like, so what is this year going to be about in my life? What's it telling me?

Elna Baker

So it's almost like your magic eight ball.

Shamyla

Yeah, kind of. It's like my Bible.

Elna Baker

What did you turn this year?

Shamyla

I'm 41.

Elna Baker

And what chapter?

Shamyla

Oh, it's called "Learning to Forget." It's when Laurie's trying to forget Jo, and he starts falling in love with Amy.

Elna Baker

And how do you think that's going to relate to this year?

Shamyla

Maybe this year, finally, someone's going to fall in love with me. [LAUGHS] The right one, not all the wrong ones.

Elna Baker

There are 47 chapters in Little Women. In six years, she'll turn 48, and she doesn't know what she'll do. She says maybe she'll start from the beginning again. And whereas the book used to be a way of escaping her room in Pakistan, now it's a way of returning to that world she built alone in her room. It's as if the March sisters are all still living there, and she's the one who left them behind.

Ira Glass

Elna Baker is one of the producers of our show. Shamyla told a version of this story herself on the storytelling podcast Risk, which tapes for a live audience. You can hear that version and all those stories at risk-show.com.

Coming up, Wu Tang is for the children, children of the future. So is Wu Tang the future? That's in a minute on Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Daddy Lessons

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on the show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, The Weight of Words, stories about the words that people turn to for comfort or strength. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Daddy Lessons.

So the most recent bit of serious parenting that my dad did with me-- and I say this realizing that this might be the very last life lesson he might give me, we are both getting up there in years-- was a protracted month-long campaign to switch from Excel to Quicken to keep track of my personal finances. He felt very strongly about this. And I just want to say yes, the numbers add up the same, no matter what software you use.

But Quicken-- I mean, don't get my dad started. He's a retired CPA. He had already trained me to save all my receipts. Please, that's basic.

And he went on with this at such length that at some point, I realized, oh, switching software was not a piece of friendly financial advice. This was actual parenting happening. Not switching to Quicken meant an actual repudiation of him as a father. It would actually be a failure of parenthood.

Parents try to shape who we are in their own image so often. They make sure their kids are exposed to whatever-- modern art, sports, nature, science, theater, whatever they love. They train them to be the world's greatest tennis player or golfer, that kind of thing.

Neil Drumming

My friend, Adam, came up with a scheme like that.

Ira Glass

Neil Drumming is one of our producers here. His friend Adam is Adam Mansbach, a writer.

Neil Drumming

Adam is a DJ, a record collector. And he wanted his daughter, Vivian, to love music the way he loved music, exactly the way he loved music.

Adam Mansbach

One of the things I feel like I got right about parenting is that I never played Viv any kids' music because I understood that any song that you played a two-year-old, a three-year-old, might become their favorite song, and then you would have to listen to it 20 times a day. So I never played her anything I wasn't willing to listen to 20 times a day. So she from a very young age was listening to a lot of music I liked.

Neil Drumming

Is that a thing that you got right about parenting, or is that a thing that you just did for yourself?

Adam Mansbach

I mean, [LAUGHS] aren't the two synonymous really, Neil? I'm not sure what the difference is.

Neil Drumming

Adam likes '80s and '90s hip hop perhaps more than me, which is saying a lot. Anyway, he fed Vivian a steady diet of classic material-- A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, Das EFX.

Adam Mansbach

There was probably a year, probably two years, where the Stetsasonic record In Full Gear got more play in our house than any other record. We may be the only household in North America that can say that, that in the year 2014, we listened to In Full Gear more than any other album.

Neil Drumming

What is that record, '88?

Adam Mansbach

Yeah, it came out in '88.

Neil Drumming

This exposure therapy approach to parenting has been known to fail. I grew up surrounded by beds that were always made. But if you walked into my apartment now, you'd see no evidence of that. In Adam's case, though, it worked. He noticed that by the time she was six years old, Vivian could rap along to any hip hop song he played her.

Adam Mansbach

She would memorize it, and she would be very much in the pocket and just not missing a beat. I remember one of the songs that we played a lot was "The Choice is Yours" remix by Black Sheep. I remember recording her just on my phone, doing the third verse of the song, the famous third verse of the song, "Engine, engine, number nine."

Vivian

(RAPPING) If my train goes off the track, pick it up! Pick it up! Pick it up! Back on the scene, crispy and clean. You can try, but then why?

Adam Mansbach

She had it, like, perfectly down, and it's not an easy verse to do. And I remember sending it to our friend, J. Period, who, in turn, sent it to Dres from Black Sheep. And he was like, yo, this is incredible. Tell her-- give her my props.

And I was like, yo, Viv. You're, like, six, so this means nothing to you, but Dres from Black Sheep said that you're dope. This is his song.

Black Sheep

(RAPPING) Engine, engine, number nine on the New York transit line. If my train goes off the track, pick it up! Pick it up! Pick it up! Come on.

Neil Drumming

Like a lot of guys our age, Adam tried his hand at being a rapper when he was younger. He joined a group. They made some songs that never quite went anywhere. He stayed in the hip hop world, though. He still has a lot of connections.

So he was thrilled to find out his daughter had some skills. And proud father that he is, he wanted more people to know. When another one of his entertainment industry buddies needed a theme song for a PBS kids show he was making called Bug Bites, Adam jumped at the chance to write Vivian some original material.

Vivian

(RAPPING) Six legs, eight legs, fly and crawl. Let's get it, world, come one, come all! Bugs can teach us so much more about the world. Let's go explore! Some of these facts are incredible knowledge, like bees keep flowers and vegetables growing.

Neil Drumming

The show wound up not using the song, but Adam couldn't stop listening to it. He walked around playing it over and over in his headphones.

Adam Mansbach

I mean, I knew she was skilled, but I sort of took it for granted. I was like, oh, that's just regular. Everybody can rhyme. Everybody I know can rhyme, you know? But I remember at that point being like, oh, you know what? This is really unique.

Neil Drumming

Did this change your expectations for what this could be?

Adam Mansbach

Yeah, I think it opened it up. It made me want to maybe want to do more and see where we could take this.

Neil Drumming

And so they did.

Vivian

(RAPPING) Step into my office and have a seat.

Neil Drumming

He and Vivian would plan out songs during the winters in California and record with his music industry friends back east during the summers. Writing for Vivian, Adam would layer in little in-jokes they shared or references that he knew his daughter would appreciate. Like when she was into Percy Jackson, he'd weave in the Greek gods. When she was into Harry Potter, he worked that in.

Adam Mansbach

(RAPPING) Yeah. I'm nice with mine like Dumbledore, so what you want to rumble for?

Neil Drumming

Vivian recorded under the moniker the Jazz Wolf, a name that she came up with. Her first real taste of mainstream exposure came by way of a song that Adam, who's originally from Massachusetts, wrote for her to perform in a hometown Boston accent.

Vivian

(RAPPING) My name's Clarissa, I'm wicked pissa. That girl Amber, I had to diss her. You opened up a powder keg, you freakin' chowder head. I'm a hot target, you're workin' star market.

Neil Drumming

They made a video for the song, which made it onto the home page of the popular humor website, Funny or Die. But "Mush Lobsta" was more like a comedy bit than a banger. More DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince than it was Erik B. & Rakim. Adam didn't feel the song was representative of how he imagined Vivian as an artist.

Adam Mansbach

It was a funny song, but it was a funny song. It wasn't truly indicative of her skills as an MC because it was more focused on dropping Massachusetts-centric jokes.

Vivian

(RAPPING) Eat a rind and drink a beer, and then I slap a critic. You're off the rez like Teddy was at Chappaquiddick.

Neil Drumming

Adam had told me that his kid rapped early on, but I didn't understand how serious the two of them were about this until September of 2017 when I received an email from Adam with no subject heading. Attached to the email were two remarkably well produced songs, described in the body of the email simply as Jazz Wolf Heat Rocks. One of these so-called heat rocks featured Vivian, who I'd met once only briefly, but knew to be a small blonde white girl, rapping over a fluttery dancehall rhythm in full on Jamaican Patois.

Vivian

[RAPPING IN JAMAICAN PATOIS]

Neil Drumming

Did listening to this reggae song, penned by a best-selling Jewish author for his nine-year-old and most likely recorded in or near his house on Martha's Vineyard, make me feel uncomfortable? Yeah, sure, a little. But I've been listening to hip hop a long time. And between all the sampling, and biting, and flipping styles, I've kind of made my peace with cultural appropriation. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due and that you do your due diligence.

Adam Mansbach

Neil, I should say that I had some misgivings about the song.

Neil Drumming

I was going to ask.

Adam Mansbach

I definitely-- really, the first thing I did was send it to every Jamaican I knew and be like, yo, so what do you think about this?

Neil Drumming

Anyway, the point is it wasn't just me and some Caribbean islanders who got this email. Adam was stepping up Vivian's game and had sent the Jazz Wolf de facto demo to just about every music industry contact he had. To a certain degree, it worked. Friends praised his daughter's music. Artists who Adam admired wanted to record with her. A big player in the music industry who'd had a hand in discovering Lauryn Hill suggested that they record more songs for a legitimate demo.

Bolstered by all this interest, Adam set out to write Vivian something really special. It was the kind of thing he'd have written for himself back in his rapping days-- multi-syllabic, rapid fire, a real showpiece designed to take the Jazz Wolf all the way to the next level. He was on a business trip when the ghost writer in him really took over.

Adam Mansbach

And I remember I had to go away for a week. I was in Chicago doing some stuff. And I was writing bars for her, and I was really trying to write the most complicated, difficult verses I could because I knew she could handle it. And I was like, this is going to be really fun. And I came back with the song, and we rehearsed it for a long time. We got a beat from Dug Infinite, an illustrious producer who worked with Common and all kinds of people.

And Viv had been practicing it for weeks. And we had plans to go to his house and record it. She was nine at the time. I remember because the chorus of the song played with the fact that she was nine. We flipped the chorus from 9 millimeter goes bang, and it was like, (RAPPING) wadadadang, wadadadang, 'ey, listen, 'cause I'm nine, and I kick enough slang.

Neil Drumming

But despite all Adam's craft and preparation, there was an unforeseen but not unforeseeable issue with the talent.

Adam Mansbach

She hadn't slept that night. We had a new baby. Vivian has two younger sisters, and the older of the two at that time was only a few months old and was up crying. And so Viv was, like, on no sleep.

And I remember we got to the studio really early. And she was just exhausted and not really at her peak. And it was difficult for her to get it down. And we kind of called it-- we cut it short. I was like, you know what? Let's come back another day, Dug, because this isn't-- you know.

Vivian

I'm sorry. No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be like that.

Adam Mansbach

Nah, are you kidding me? It's not your fault.

Neil Drumming

That's Vivian. She was in the studio with her dad during this interview. She's 11 now.

Adam Mansbach

Right? So I remember coming back from there, and Viv was tired. And in the car, she told me. She was like, Papa, I'm just not that into this right now. Something along those lines, like I'm not into you writing me these rap songs right now.

Neil Drumming

Vivian, do you remember this moment at all? This night?

Vivian

I did. And I think that-- I think the reason I told him then was that-- this is going to sound really stupid. But I thought that because-- I think he would be less angry if he knew I was tired and didn't want to argue.

Neil Drumming

So you had already come to this decision.

Vivian

Yeah. I mean, we hadn't talked about it, but I had already gone through it in my head what I was trying to say.

Neil Drumming

OK, let's back up a bit. Vivian's dissatisfaction with how Adam was steering her rap career goes back long before this night-- back many car rides, in fact. She recalls trying to listen to new music while riding with her dad.

Vivian

Just flipping through radio stations in the car and him turning on a radio station, and I was like, oh, yeah, this one. He's like, oh, that's hot trash. We're not listening to that.

Neil Drumming

You see, Adam didn't realize this, but even while she'd been sharing his love of hip hop, Vivian had been developing her own taste. She'd started to enjoy more contemporary music, god forbid, even pop music-- Taylor Swift, and later Ke$ha, and Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B. But she'd been listening to music through Adam's ears long enough to understand and internalize just how much he wouldn't approve.

Neil Drumming

So you felt like there were things that you liked that you couldn't tell him about?

Vivian

No. Well, there were things that I liked that I could tell him about, but that I didn't feel like there was any point to telling him about because he would tell me all the errors. And I would be like, yo, like, listen to this person's voice! Or like, this song is so good, and play it. And then afterward, Papa would be like, you want to hear something good? And then run into where he keeps his records, and I'm like, oh gosh.

Neil Drumming

Do you remember any examples of this?

Vivian

One time, I was playing him a song from Hamilton, where someone was rapping really fast. And I played it, and he just, like, half listened. And then afterward, he's like, you want to hear really fast rapping? And I'm like, oh god.

Neil Drumming

Well, what did you play her, Adam?

Adam Mansbach

Well, all right, all right. Let me back up for a second. Like--

Vivian

Sorry, Papa.

Adam Mansbach

At the risk of getting on my soapbox and with the full understanding this is never going to make it actually into this piece. My thing with Hamilton was like, cool, Hamilton is fine. My issue with it is that a billion people who have no--

Neil Drumming

Here, Adam's critique of Hamilton, while spirited, is mostly remarkable in that he somehow manages to vehemently object to the musical's popularity, while simultaneously name dropping his friendship with one of its former stars, Daveed Diggs. Vivian didn't just want to feel free to listen to Hamilton in the car on the way to school. She wanted to incorporate all of her newfound influences into her own music.

Vivian

I felt like, I mean, it's really cool that I'm doing all Papa's cool stuff, but if I have this voice and I have access to this recording, can't I use it to do things that are more my style?

Neil Drumming

It's not all that surprising that someone Vivian's age would eventually diverge from the path her father set her on when she was six. And this wasn't even the first time Vivian had stood up to her dad. She's usually pretty outspoken. But she told me this time was different-- that she had been more scared than usual to speak her mind, and that it took her months to work up the courage.

She was right to be concerned. Adam took it noticeably hard. To hear him tell it, he interpreted this slight rejection as a sort of referendum on his parenting.

Adam Mansbach

I felt a certain kind of sadness on a couple of levels. First, disappointment in myself for getting carried away, and making her feel uncomfortable or making her feel like an unwilling participant in this project.

And also just a sense of letdown, that like wow, maybe we were no longer going to be hanging out after dinner, playing instrumentals and fitting rhymes to them, and practicing, and rehearsing, and cutting scratch demos, and that kind of thing. Because it was something that brought me a lot of joy, both reveling in her skill, but really, more than anything, just spending time together and that feeling of collaboration, which is wonderful when you find it with anybody. But when you find it with your own kid, it's magical.

Neil Drumming

I mean, this is me, like, armchair psychotherapist, but was there any part of you that was deflecting some energy into this in a way that maybe was more for you than for Vivian?

Adam Mansbach

That's a great question. I mean, the whole period of time that we're talking about is fairly tumultuous. I mean, from when Viv was six until now--

Vivian

Five years.

Adam Mansbach

Five years. I mean, that's a period of time that covers her mom and I splitting up. It covers a new relationship, two new babies. So yeah, you probably have a point there, I mean, at least in the sense of this being something that was purely fun, and exciting, and didn't feel heavy in any way.

Neil Drumming

They never did finish that song. Adam and Vivian's magical collaboration was not infinitely sustainable. But so what?

Vivian

When everything was happening in our family also, it was a way for me to connect with Papa. And also after we'd had a lot of fun kicking rhymes, we could talk about the more important stuff. He could be like, how do you feel about the new baby? And I feel like it just-- I would be a lot less close with Papa now if we hadn't spent so much time together doing that. Like, I wouldn't be coming into your room and be like, let's talk about this.

Neil Drumming

Mm. But the rapping was a way into it.

Vivian

Yeah.

Adam Mansbach

I'm glad. That makes me happy. I'm glad to hear that.

Neil Drumming

Recently, Vivian has been getting more into singing. She writes her own poems and adapts them into songs. She's written a few, and she thinks she could be good at it with a little time and a little help.

Vivian

I wouldn't say that I totally want Papa to be out of my career as a singer. Like, he's super supportive, and he's obviously the one with all the connections. But--

Neil Drumming

Practical. That's very practical of you. That's smart.

Adam Mansbach

Yeah, it's very cold-blooded right there.

Neil Drumming

I'm a father myself. It's a new thing-- so new, in fact, that all I can say definitively about the experience so far is that I am terrified every single day about what's coming. I look around to my friends as scared people do.

And the thing that Adam pulled off gives me some hope. He found an easy way to be with his daughter through difficult times. He constructed something fun that they could share no matter what else was swirling around them. And the outcome was perhaps the best one that any parent can imagine. Vivian got it. At least for a little while, she was right there with him.

Neil Drumming

What do you guys remember? Do you guys remember-- does anyone remember the super complicated song?

Adam Mansbach

Yeah.

Neil Drumming

[LAUGHS] [INAUDIBLE]

Vivian

I remember only the second verse, though.

Adam Mansbach

Oh, do it.

Vivian

Wait. Let me just do it in my head for a second. OK. You want me to do it now, Papi?

Adam Mansbach

Yeah, do it.

Vivian

(RAPPING) [INAUDIBLE] solemnly swear to scar you horribly. Destiny calling me, honestly [INAUDIBLE] me. But they can't do much harm to me. I'm open like a pharmacy. Karmically, I'm untouchable, highly combustible. Ah, I can't remember the rest right now.

[LAUGHTER]

Adam Mansbach

The Jazz Wolf is back. What.

Vivian

Stop.

Ira Glass

Neil Drumming.

[MUSIC - BAHAMADIA, "WORDPLAY"]

Act Three: Where I Came From

Ira Glass

Act Three, Where It Came From. OK, so our show today is about words that have special weight of one sort or another, especially when we're kids. And we thought we would end today's show with this, from one of our producers, Ben Calhoun.

Ben Calhoun

This is a story that, honestly, I never imagined I'd tell on the radio. It happened when I was seven and my sister was two. We were grocery shopping with my mom in my hometown, Milwaukee. This is at Sentry Foods at 71st and Lisbon.

While we were in the store, my sister did the very normal toddler thing of deciding that she was tired and demanding to be carried. She started throwing a fit, whining, refusing to walk. My mom tried, but then did the normal parent thing of deciding to ignore the tantrum, just to shop as fast as she could and get the heck out of there.

We were almost out of the store when all of a sudden, a man walked up to my sister. He stood right over her and shouted down at her, "Stop it. You stop it right now." He stomped his foot at her to scare her. "You stop it. Stop it right now."

I remember my sister staring at him, terrified. My mom stepped in to gather my sister up. "She's two, and she's having a tantrum," she said to the man. "You're too old to be having a tantrum."

But the guy followed us, walking right behind us as we got into the parking lot, trying to get to our car. I remember it was hot and sunny, and otherwise, a beautiful day. For a second, it wasn't clear what the man was going to do. But then as he got closer, he started shouting a bunch of things at my mother. The one I remember specifically, "You people need to discipline your children."

My mom is Chinese-American. My family's mixed. Before we could get in our car, the man came right up to my mom and got in her face, puffing his chest out. He kept shouting. "You people need to go back where you came from!" he yelled. "Go back where you came from." That's how my mom and I both remember it.

As he was yelling and in her face, I remember how my mom kind of froze. And I remember feeling very, very scared. This man was so much bigger than my mom, who's small-- just 5'2". And this guy was kind of a ruddy, older white man, who, if I had to bet, was maybe 60. For a second, I thought he might hit her or push her. And I felt that kid feeling of seeing something happening in the world of grown ups that you have absolutely no power over.

My mom, she had this panicked look on her face as she tried to find a way out. And that made me even more scared. I also remember feeling, for the first time ever, that my mom was in danger, not the normal kid feeling that your parents are kind of an unshakable raft of security.

I told my son this story last week. He's seven, the same age I was when this happened. And when I told him, the fear we felt was the thing I left out-- how menacing it was, how scared we were.

I'm not sure how long this moment in the parking lot went before a young guy, who worked at the store, who'd been in the parking lot gathering carts, was suddenly nearby. He was smaller than the guy and built like a teenager, but he said loudly to the guy, "Leave her alone." And then it was just kind of over.

This was the first time I realized that someone could do this, that my mother's right to belong was somehow different. That because she looks the way she looks, and I look the way I look, it was an invisible trap door always under us-- a question about whether we belonged as much as others, which itself was a statement that we hadn't totally belonged in the first place.

This has never been a story I've told all that much. Like, I never thought it was something that would have any kind of contemporary resonance, in part because I considered it a remnant of something on the wane. That the sentiment of that man, even if it was out there, it was shrinking toward some horizon.

For that matter, I never thought the meaning of this story would feel complicated. If anything, it was pat. It was the stuff of after school specials and teachers saying the country wasn't a melting pot, it was a stew pot. It was fine for those things, but not very interesting otherwise. And I never thought I'd be wrong about that until now.

Now for obvious reasons, I've been thinking about this a lot, in part because those congresswomen don't look unlike my mom did when she was in her 30s, and the guy did not look unlike the president. I never once thought, in the last 30 whatever years, that this story would ever be a political one. I'm surprised that it is. And I'm surprised how it is. I never once thought that people might hear this and put me on one side or the other of anything. I never would have thought that was even possible.

But aside from the big things I didn't anticipate, I want to leave you with what might be the smallest. When I decided to tell this story, I called my mom to check my memory. When we talked, all the details were where I thought they were. Everything matched.

But she also told me something I didn't know. See, that grocery store, the Sentry store at the corner of 71st and Lisbon, it's still her grocery store. She's been shopping there for years.

But she told me, maybe five years ago, before any of these big national developments, that she went in one day and she asked to talk to the owner. She did that because she wanted to tell him this story decades after it happened. Because whoever that clerk was, he'd seen what that man was doing, and he'd stepped in. She didn't know who he was or think the owner would know, but she wanted someone to know how grateful she still is. I am, too.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - EDITH FROST, "IF IT WEREN'T FOR THE WORDS"]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Sean Cole and Bim Adewunmi with help from Nadia Reiman. The people who put this show together today include Elna Baker, Emanuele Berry, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Whitney Dangerfield, Neil Drumming, Damien Grave, Jessica Lussenhop, Stowe Nelson, Catherine Raimondo, Ben Phelan, Tracy [INAUDIBLE], Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Svetala, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Our managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks to David Judy Meltzer, Bishop Gene Robinson, Dr. Barry Holtz, Deborah Moore, Hamza Syed, Ahmed Ali Akbar, Zainab Shah, Khalid Latif, Hannah Jewell, Ben Zimmer, Karl Baker, and Tom Howell.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 675 episodes, news, videos, and lists of favorites, and tons of other stuff there. Or get our app, which has all that stuff and also lets you download as many episodes as you want. Again, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He just saw the film Cool Runnings last week, and he wondered, is that a documentary?

Adam Mansbach

Really, the first thing I did was send it to every Jamaican I knew. And be like, yo, so what do you think about this?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - EDITH FROST, "IF IT WEREN'T FOR THE WORDS"]