Transcript

106:

Father's Day '98
Transcript

Originally aired 06.19.1998

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And for this week's program, for Father's Day, everybody on our staff sat around and we talked about what it is that one really wants to hear on Father's Day, or near Father's Day. And Nancy, one of the producers on the show, said, what you really want to hear is parents and kids actually having an honest moment together. Talking about whatever. And so we tried it. We asked this 18-year-old named Chana Wiliford from Waco, Texas, and her father, if they would be willing to have a conversation on tape in which each of them got to ask the other all the questions they had never asked before. And it's interesting what happens when you do that.

Chana Wiliford

One of the first things I wanted to start with, Dad, was like when you and mom got together. For example, I know that-- I think, anyway-- you guys met in a bar. And then like two weeks later, you were married.

Bob Wiliford

Yeah. It was a very short romance.

Chana Wiliford

You know, what made you guys get married so quickly?

Bob Wiliford

Yeah, it was kind of a whirlwind thing, you know? I know in my-- from my side of it-- I was looking for somebody. I needed someone in my life. And I guess, you know, she basically was in the same situation. So we both just were looking for somebody, and we ended up hooking up.

Chana Wiliford

Yeah.

Ira Glass

All through this conversation, Chana goes back and forth between being her father's daughter, his child, and being his peer. And what's so amazing to listen to, is that. That is the end of the long process of parenting. A process that takes decades. The biggest project most of us ever embark upon. This is how you know it all worked out OK, when you can talk to your kid as an equal.

Chana Wiliford

Well, what was the family reaction? I know Nana couldn't have been entirely pleased.

Bob Wiliford

I don't know, you know. I really don't know. You know, I never really asked anybody. Of course, you know, I was in the Marine Corp., and I didn't really care what anybody thought about anything.

Chana Wiliford

Well, yeah, you were how-- you were how old? Like 25 at the time, right?

Bob Wiliford

25. Yeah. I was 25. And I had always told myself, you know, that I was going to live hard and party till I got to be 25, and then I was going to get married.

Chana Wiliford

So you stuck with it.

Bob Wiliford

Sure enough, that's the way it ended up.

Ira Glass

Today on our program, what happens when fathers and kids sit down and talk-- actually talk-- and what happens when they don't. It's kind of an amazing little show today. We have four acts. Act One, Pandora's Box, in which Chana and her dad, as we said, ask each other all the unasked questions they've stored up over the years. Act Two, Mack Daddies. In the building in which 18-year-old Sanantonio Brooks lives, in the Chicago public housing projects, most of the fathers are under 25 years old, and they became fathers as teenagers. He talks to some of his friends about whether they are better fathers than their own fathers were. Act Three, Bond, Dammit, Bond, in which a new dad, writer Dan Savage, laments how long it is taking him to truly bond with his baby boy. Act Four, Age of Enchantment. Writer Lawrence Weschler and his eleven-year-old daughter, Sara, tell a true story of parental love, betrayal, fiction, deception, and more love, that happened to the two of them. Stay with us.

Act One. Pandora's Box.

Ira Glass

Act One, Pandora's Box. So I already explained the premise for Chana's taped conversation with her dad. A few quick words about them before we start. Chana grew up in Waco. But unlike most of the people who she knows there, Chana left Texas, went to college in Philadelphia, where she just finished her freshman year at Temple. Her dad works at the phone company installing big switching systems, stuff like that. He and her mom have been married and divorced and remarried to each other three times.

Chana Wiliford

One of my original questions, when first asked to interview you, basically was-- the first thing that just popped into my head, that I've never asked, that every kid wants to know, is where was I conceived?

Bob Wiliford

Where were you conceived?

Chana Wiliford

If you even remember.

Bob Wiliford

Yeah, I think I remember. If I remember correct, I believe it was out at Lake Athens.

Chana Wiliford

Lake Athens.

Bob Wiliford

Yeah. It was late, you know, one or two in the morning, whatever. And I [UNINTELLIGIBLE] in that old maroon pickup truck, if you remember that. I had like a blanket or something because we ended up in the bed of the truck. And that's--

Chana Wiliford

Maybe that was the wrong question to ask.

Bob Wiliford

Well--

Chana Wiliford

And as far as, like, me growing up, and things like that, you know, just-- I don't know. You know, going which way I want to go now. How has that been for you to watch me? You know, kind of like not be like everybody else where I grew up?

Bob Wiliford

Well, truthfully, I'm glad. You know? And there's some of it, you know, that has scared me. I mean, just the fact that you're in Philadelphia still scares me. Because I worry about you, and I worry about, you know--

Chana Wiliford

Well, of course.

Bob Wiliford

--something happening to you, and all that kind of stuff. But I don't know. I enjoy watching you, you know? I mean, it's-- I don't know. There's nothing in this world that's ever pleased me more than you. You're great, you know? I just can't tell you. I just couldn't be prouder.

Chana Wiliford

Well, kind of back to the history thing. You know, of course, you guys got divorced last May, I guess. I don't even really remember. And then you got remarried in what? December?

Bob Wiliford

Yeah, I believe that's right.

Chana Wiliford

Yeah, I think. So that's got to seem a little strange to every-- well, to yourself, too, I'm sure. But it definitely seems strange to everyone around you. I can assure that.

Bob Wiliford

Well, it is. It definitely is. And even to me, you know? I don't know how else to look at it, Chana. I've thought about it over and over and over. All's I know is I love her. And I can't live with her and I can't live without her. You know, that old saying. I don't know. I'm just not sure. You know, what the problem is or what the-- even myself, I can't figure it out. At this point, I can't swear it won't happen again. If it does, it's not going to be my fault.

Chana Wiliford

Well, do you think that the last time was your fault?

Bob Wiliford

Yeah, I guess, in a way it was. Because, you know, I got in trouble again. My drinking thing. And I don't know that the divorce was actually my fault. Because I told her, we should just slow down and get a look at the big picture, it's not that bad. But she was determined to make her point. And so she did what she did. She filed for divorce. We did the divorce. And then I guess she did realize it wasn't that bad. And so we ended up getting back together.

Chana Wiliford

Well, you know, on my end of the deal, I was just kind of confused, you know? I don't know. I think I was, not happy, but more relieved, at the fact that you guys were splitting up. Just because of all the problems that I've seen over the years. And then it just kind of-- I don't know. I was disappointed. Maybe just with the situation in general, kind of with you.

Bob Wiliford

Yeah, I know you were. But I've got to be happy, too. Or at least whatever I think's happy.

Chana Wiliford

Well, I'm not going to say I didn't want you to be happy. But you know, I kind of thought that maybe you could finally find your happiness somewhere else. You know what I mean?

Bob Wiliford

Yeah, but I don't know that-- that wasn't working out. I just couldn't-- I don't know. It's weird, you know, when you're married for that long to be not married. And I really didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to go about it. And I feel a lot more comfortable, even if I'm not totally happy, I feel safe when I'm married, you know what I mean? And, you know, it always goes back to the fact that I love the girl. I don't know what else.

Chana Wiliford

I don't know. I just worry about you, you know what I mean?

Bob Wiliford

Really?

Chana Wiliford

Yeah. I want to make sure that you're happy, for the most part.

Bob Wiliford

Oh, I'm going to get happy. You know, I mean, one way or the other, I'm going to get happy. I've got the biggest thing there is, right there in you. And Wes, and Leah, and these grandkids, you know? That's my reward in life. Y'all are. You know? Y'all are it. That's what dads do. That's what I do, anyway.

Ira Glass

Bob Wiliford and his daughter, Chana. When it came time for him to ask his questions of her during their interview, there was this little technical problem in the taping. Maybe you noticed the buzzing all through their interview on the tape. Anyway, his voice was only recorded over the phone line to the studio where Chana was sitting in Philadelphia. And he basically just had one question for Chana.

Bob Wiliford

Of course, you know, a dad's-- one of dad's main concerns is your love life. Your situation with sex and how that situation is-- I don't know how to put it-- coming along, I guess. Is it a problem or are you just handling it?

Chana Wiliford

No, it's not a problem. Of course, I'm sure you can just kind of--

Bob Wiliford

My major concern is you're being safe.

Chana Wiliford

Yeah. Well, definitely.

Act Two. Mack Daddies.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Mack Daddies. Sanantonio Brooks is 18, lives in the public housing projects here in Chicago. 4120 South Prairie.

Sanantonio Brooks

There's a lot of young fathers in the building. So they don't really celebrate Father's Day like other people celebrate Father's Day, because they're young fathers. Like, what happened last year? I know a lot of fathers got together. They got a lot of beer. They smoke weed, so they all gathered around in one room, and they was just sitting there chilling. Just talked about, you know what I'm saying, things that they did in their childhood. Like that, what was going on around the building in the day, what they going to be doing all later in the future, and stuff like that.

Ira Glass

This is a part of our program about dads who have not gotten quite so close with their own children. Two thirds of African-American children are raised in single parent families, usually by their mothers or grandmothers. Sanantonio did a story for our program a year ago. And when Father's Day was coming up this year, he told us that he'd like to interview some of the young fathers in his building. Guys his age and just a little older. Guys he's known since he was a kid. He wanted to talk to them about their relationships with their kids and their relationship with their own fathers. Some guys, hearing this, tried to avoid him.

Sanantonio Brooks

Some people did more than avoid. They literally dodged me.

Ira Glass

And why do you think that is?

Sanantonio Brooks

I can't say for sure. It was like, a lot of them just didn't want to really be interviewed about Father's Day.

Man 1

Hold up [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Sanantonio Brooks

You ain't got to give your name.

Sanantonio Brooks

A lot of people, they didn't want the environment that I have for them. So I had to catch them at their time.

Man 2

OK.

Sanantonio Brooks

What did you think when you first found out that you was having kids?

Man 2

First I wanted to go crazy. Then at first-- then after that, when I seen them coming into the world, I changed. I enjoyed it.

Sanantonio Brooks

You enjoyed it?

Man 2

Mm-hmm. You know how people, when they young and they ain't got no kids, they want to party all the time. Pfft. When you get kids, partying stops. The money-- the little money you do have, got to go towards them kids. Kids deserve everything you can possibly give them. Love, everything.

Sanantonio Brooks

How often do you see your kids?

Man 2

Every weekend.

Sanantonio Brooks

How often do you buy your kids something?

Man 2

Whenever I get some money.

Sanantonio Brooks

Some of them, they straight with their kids, they take care of their kids. Then the other ones, they-- they don't even-- it's like they claim their kids but they don't do nothing for them. It's like they play the father role every now and then.

Ira Glass

Do they give money to the mom?

Sanantonio Brooks

Nuh-uh. It depends. Now, because most of them, they not working. So they downstairs, serving drugs or whatever. And many times-- mostly they ain't making too much money, you know what I'm saying? To take care of themselves. So most of them ain't really looking out for their kids.

Ira Glass

Yeah, you should probably explain that. I think most people around the country, when they think of people selling drugs, they think of what they've seen in the movies and that they're making a ton of money.

Sanantonio Brooks

Nope, not all of them. Most of them's just down [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. And when they be down there, they just make-- barely make enough to eat from day to day. Just down there hustling.

Ira Glass

So you talked to those five guys, and what did most of them feel about their fathers?

Sanantonio Brooks

Most of them, I'd say, they had feelings for their fathers, but it wasn't too deep. Because they felt that their father was not around. So they really had a lot of regrets and then a lot of hostility built up inside.

Sanantonio Brooks

Was your father around when you were coming up?

Man 3

No, he wasn't. My father was gone. Just put it like that, you know what I'm saying. Bad childhood. So I didn't basically see my father but maybe three times in my life.

Sanantonio Brooks

So how did you feel about that?

Man 3

Actually, you want to know the truth? I'm a devil in disguise. So it's like I had to see it in person, see him in person, for me to react on that. But at the same time, my feelings now, I'd probably kill him.

Sanantonio Brooks

Everybody I grew up with, it's like their fathers either left at an early age or they passed away, or something like that. Basically, their fathers dropped in and out of their lives just like mine did.

Ira Glass

The thing I was going to ask is, I mean, you know, their fathers drop in and out of their lives, but now they're doing that to their kids.

Sanantonio Brooks

Right. It's a cycle that-- everybody in our building, they-- they pay-- I see it. They pass it on from generation to generation. It just stays in the building. It's like, they don't know how to take those steps to change it.

Sanantonio Brooks

How do you feel about your father?

Man 4

I can't explain. My father left and he hasn't been back since.

Sanantonio Brooks

What do you think your kids are going to think of you?

Man 4

My kid sees me and my kid smiles all the time, every time my kid sees me.

Sanantonio Brooks

Would you say you played a positive role in your child's life?

Man 4

Yes.

Sanantonio Brooks

Are there any father figures in your life left?

Man 4

No.

Sanantonio Brooks

What did you think when you first heard you were going to have a baby?

Man 3

Man, it was wow. But at the same time, I was bogus. Because I could have been there when he was born. I ain't going to trip though.

Sanantonio Brooks

How often would you say that you see your kid?

Man 3

When I get a chance. I got to say that. When I get a chance. But at the same time, I know you're well taken care of.

Sanantonio Brooks

How often do you buy your son something?

Man 3

As often as I can. That's the same-- that's just like asking the same question. I can't buy him nothing unless I'm around him. I'm going to ship it in the mail? I'm not rolling like that. So when I get a chance to, that's when I do what I can. Because the little things I do do, at least I did it. And I can't say nobody made me do this, because my father wasn't there for me, when I was growing up. So therefore, the little things I do, I do appreciate, and he do-- Jeremy do too.

Sanantonio Brooks

How do you feel as a father?

Man 4

I feel great.

Sanantonio Brooks

What do you think your kids are going to think of you?

Man 4

Daddy did the best that he can. And he's going to keep on doing the best he can.

Ira Glass

It's interesting, because most of the guys you talked to felt like-- even though most them only would see their kids like once a week, or maybe twice a week-- they all felt like they were doing a decent job, or doing a better job than their fathers did. What do you think of that?

Sanantonio Brooks

I think, compared to how their fathers treat them, I feel that they're doing pretty good for themselves if they're seeing them two times a week, if they only seen their father once, twice a year.

Ira Glass

In a way, it just goes to show you just how far things have gone. That once or twice a week would seem like a lot.

Sanantonio Brooks

Yes. Well, to them it does seem like a lot because-- it's hard to explain. In my situation, if my father came to see me two or three times in a week, I think it would have made a difference. So I think, basically, they're making a difference in their kids life.

Ira Glass

How often have you seen your father?

Sanantonio Brooks

How often do I see my father? I seen my father-- the last time I seen him-- it's been, I'd say, three years ago. Then before that, it'd been at least two. So he'll pop in like every two, three years.

Ira Glass

What kind of difference would it make if you saw him two or three times a week?

Sanantonio Brooks

It probably would have made a lot of difference. I know I probably wouldn't have growed up the way I growed up now. There's just a lot of things, but I really can't say for sure.

Sanantonio Brooks

What do you think your kids are going to grow up thinking of you?

Man 3

Well, my son often tell me I'm a surv-- daddy, you're a survivor, ain't you? Yeah, I'm a survivor. Because I've been out here too long. You know what I'm saying? I don't want to work, do things like that. So only thing they basically can say is I was out here bogus, but I also was a survivor. I did what I could for him, as well as for anybody else. But I basically had to live for myself. Because that's all I got, actually is self.

Ira Glass

You know, it's interesting when you talk about your father. You don't sound angry. You sound more sad than angry.

Sanantonio Brooks

It is, like, you really can't be angry with them because you know them. And then you still love then. But you're disappointed in the way that he left you. And in some ways, you probably know why he left, but then you want to get the understanding out of his mouth, why he left. And that's something that, my father, he hasn't done yet. I asked him-- he knows I know why he left, but he-- it's like he won't explain why he can't come into my life now, even though I'm getting older. So, it's still-- I'm upset, and then in a way I'm mad, but mostly upset. Because right about now, I feel that if he really wanted to be in my life, he would've-- it's coming down to graduation. He would have asked me, was I graduating? What it is I'm doing? He ain't even call for that. So I'm not letting none of that bother me or worry me.

Ira Glass

You're graduating like this week?

Sanantonio Brooks

Yes.

Ira Glass

So for you to call him, it's like-- it's a matter of pride.

Sanantonio Brooks

Yeah. As a matter of fact, that's what it is. Because I feel that if I make-- if I call up there-- for me, it will seem like I'm making the first move. And I feel I shouldn't have to. Because that's my father and I'm the kid. You know what I'm saying? Like he won't reach out to me, so why should I reach out to somebody that doesn't want to reach out to me?

Ira Glass

Do you think these guys just forget how it feels?

Sanantonio Brooks

Probably.

Man 3

You see, I had to see myself as a daddy. A father is one who is able to take care of their child. I'm not there yet. So I don't recognize myself as a father.

Ira Glass

Since that interview and that story, Sanantonio Brooks graduated from high school here in Chicago. His father wasn't there.

[MUSIC - "DADDY'S HOME" BY SHEP & THE LIMELIGHTS]

Act Three. Bond, Dammit, Bond.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Bond, Dammit, Bond. Now another case study of a dad who is waiting to feel closer to his kid. Dan Savage has done a number of stories for our program. He writes the syndicated sex advice column, Savage Love. He and his boyfriend Terry spent months and months trying to adopt, and finally did adopt a baby boy just recently, from a teenage mom named Jessica. And now Dan is waiting to feel like the dad that he wants to be.

Dan Savage

When I first held the baby, 20 minutes after he was born, I was surprised that I didn't feel an instantaneous rush of anything. The baby was doing his part. He was tiny, he was cute, his eyes were open. But I couldn't hold up my end of the deal, the dad end. When I looked at him, no instant this-is-my-son bonding took place. Bond, I said to myself. Bond, dammit, bond. What was wrong with me? Why was I having to will myself to feel something I assumed would happen on its own, like magic? I had to bond. In two days, my boyfriend Terry and I would be taking this baby home. We were going to be dads.

This moment has been coming for two years. We'd been to seminars, read stacks of books, written stacks of progressively larger checks. Had social workers tramping in and out of our house, and opened our bank accounts, police records, and skulls for inspection by the adoption agency. We'd been talking about this moment, the moment we would become dads, for a long time. For so long, in fact, that it had come to seem like just so much talk, one big abstraction. Maybe I was just a little numb when the baby was finally handed to me.

Later that night, the four of us-- me, Terry, Jessica, and the baby-- were hanging out in Jessica's room. I had the honor of changing the first poopy diaper, filled with what looked like Hershey's syrup. And pretty soon I was starting to feel something. Not quite a dad feeling yet, but something more than babysitter. But the feelings were tenuous and I didn't focus on them for fear of squelching them. Terry, on the other hand, says there was nothing tenuous about his feelings, even right from the start.

Dan Savage

So when did you first feel a bond?

Terry

When we went up to the birthing suites at the hospital, you know, hours after he was born. And watched him get all his reflex exams and his first bath. It was like, you know, I felt attached to him. I felt like watching him every moment because this was our-- this was it. This was the one. You know, he was so pretty and he was so beautiful. He was just this like perfect little baby boy that had been put in our lives. You want to hear the horsey song? Giddyup, giddyup, giddyup--

Dan Savage

Here's how bonded Terry is to the baby. He's made up a burping song so involved that it not only has two choruses, but a bridge and a key change.

Terry

We love you so when you ride out yonder on our little knee. We love you so when you ride out yonder and you go bleh, whee. Little boy, little boy, little boy, DJ. Little boy, little boy, little boy, horsey. Little boy, little boy, little boy, little boy.

Dan Savage

Did you write that yourself?

Terry

I did. That's an original.

Dan Savage

With most biological parents, the bond is instantaneous. Baby books reassure biological parents who don't feel an instant bond not to worry, the bond will come. So there must be some who don't feel it right away. But doing an adoption, we had some options. And when and how to bond, when to decide that we were officially fathers, was among them. Driving to the hospital that day, we knew we could walk away from this baby at any point and for any reason before we signed the placement papers. Club feet, cleft palate, bad hair, we wouldn't have to give a reason. We didn't talk about it, but this was rattling around in some corner of our brains.

It's taboo in some adoption circles to acknowledge these things. We're supposed to toe the line and say that adopting a baby is just like having one of our own. That our feelings for the baby, from the moment we first laid eyes on him, were no different than if the kid had been our own biological child. But it is different, fundamentally different.

Perhaps I should stop here and acknowledge something that some of you may be thinking as you sit listening to me talk. For some of you, I am your worst nightmare. A homosexual sex writer and sometime drag queen, who, with his boy-toy boyfriend, has adopted a vulnerable little baby boy. You fear we intend to put him in leather diapers, hang a mirrored ball over his crib, teach him to dance to YMCA, and slowly draw him into our perverted lifestyle. Or maybe you think worse.

When we were still doing our paperwork, straight friends would ask if I was excited about becoming a dad. I would say, yes, Terry's gotten so loose. And this I know is the fear. The fear that's led two states to outlaw gay men and lesbians adopting children, and made it nearly impossible in most other states, even if it is technically legal. Yet if I wanted to have sex with children, which I don't, there are easier, less expensive, and less emotionally taxing ways to arrange for that. I could join the priesthood or coach Little League or-- well, I'm going to stop taking these cheap shots in the spirit of being a role model. I am a dad now, you know? At least officially.

What's funny about the whole evil, disco dancin', gay, baby-raping nightmare is that the truth of why gay men want to be dads is actually so much more disturbing. When I fantasized about becoming a dad, I didn't picture myself having sex with my children. And even now, though I don't quite feel like a dad yet, I'd cut the heart out of anyone who so much as laid an ill-intentioned finger on our kid. No, in my dad fantasies, I saw myself going to work, making money, coming home to Terry and the kid. I'd help with the homework, take the kid to ball games, McDonald's, and camping. My dad fantasies are straight-- straight out of the '50s-- with Terry staying at home and taking care of the kid. Just like a '50s mom.

Terry

I do see that. And I don't mind it. I love staying home with him. He's so wonderful. He's so great. And he's so much fun to stay home with and play with and watch smile all day. And now that he's beginning to coo and make all sorts of funny sounds, it's just great.

Dan Savage

People ask Terry how it's different to have the baby and he answers, now I have two people to pick up after. That's our family. I go out and make the donuts. Terry stays at home and picks up after us. We're taping every episode of the Teletubbies. We don't have sex anymore. We're typical American parents. When Terry imagines what it'll be like when the kid is five, he sounds an awful lot like June Cleaver.

Terry

Making cookies and going to PTA meetings and volunteering for being a chaperone, going to the zoo. Being a kindergarten volunteer. Helping kids cut and paste and keep things out of their mouths.

Dan Savage

But Terry doesn't see this as being the mom. This is being a dad like his dad was.

Terry

Well, in my family, I mean, my dad did everything. My dad cooked, he cleaned. He made pies in the summer. He built houses. He reroofed garages. But he also helped with homework. And I feel like I'm doing the same amount of work my father would have done. I kind of feel like I'm sort of following in the footsteps of my own father.

Dan Savage

Terry's following the footsteps of his father and I'm following in the footsteps of mine. Not completely connected to the kid, not around as much, sometimes leaving before he wakes up in the morning and getting home after he is already asleep at night. Doing all the mom things, Terry feels like a father already. I'm doing all the dad things, and I don't feel like a father yet. But I think it's coming. When rude people ask adoptive couples who the real parents are, we're supposed to say that the real parents are the people there in the middle of the night, the people the kid comes to when he needs something. And most importantly, the real parents-- the real dad, in this case-- is the person the kid calls dad. The kid turned three months old just before Father's Day. He isn't calling us anything yet, but he will. Soon he'll understand that he has parents, two dads, and he'll come to me and he'll call me dad. And that's when I think I'll finally feel like a father. I hope.

Ira Glass

Writer Dan Savage in Seattle.

Coming up, a father, a daughter, a lie that lasted half a year. Four inch high human beings and how a child can solve parenting problems when parents cannot figure them out on their own. That's all in a minute from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Four. Age Of Enchantment.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, for Father's Day, we bring you stories about fathers who do not get close to their kids, and about fathers who do, as we listen to them talk with the kids. Lawrence Weschler is an author and journalist, a writer at The New Yorker magazine. And this story is about an odd sort of breach of trust between father and child. A breach of trust done without meaning to and what happened next. He and his 11-year-old daughter, Sara, went into a radio studio in New York City to tell us the story. It begins simply enough, when she was little and he would read to her.

Lawrence Weschler

She would get into very active conversations with the characters in the books while we were reading. So, for example, when we were reading Little House on the Prairie, there would be these moments where she would interrupt my reading and say, wait a second, I want to talk to the Indian. And we'd have to go look for a picture of the Indian, and she'd say to the Indian, "Look, Indian, in a few pages you're going to meet Laura. But you've got to be-- understand, I know she's taking your land, but it's not her fault. She's just a kid. Now let me talk to Laura." And we'd go back and we'd talk to Laura. And in these things, I would take on the role of the Indian, and I'd say things like, you know, who's that talking? And so forth. And we would have these incredibly elaborate conversations. Do you remember that, Sara?

Sara Weschler

Yes.

Lawrence Weschler

Anyway, this sort of thing would go on all the time, and at a later point we began reading The Borrowers series. The series of wonderful books by Mary Noble.

Sara Weschler

Norton. Norton.

Lawrence Weschler

By Mary Norton, that's right. And should Sara describe what the book is about, maybe?

Ira Glass

Sure. Sara, explain what the Borrowers are like.

Sara Weschler

Well, the Borrowers-- it's about these little people who are, I think, like four inches tall. And they live under the floorboards in the house. And what they do is they take things from people, little things that they can use around their house.

Lawrence Weschler

So what kinds of things do they take?

Sara Weschler

Well, they take pocket watches, and stamps, for like pictures on the wall.

Lawrence Weschler

And part of the point about Borrowers is that they're not allowed-- are they allowed to talk to people?

Sara Weschler

No.

Lawrence Weschler

Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Sara Weschler

Well, because they think that people can really hurt them, because according to the book it's happened before.

Ira Glass

Right.

Lawrence Weschler

So anyway, we were reading this book. And one day I came home and Sara was incredibly excited. Her face was just glowing, and she said, "Daddy, you won't believe it! We have Borrowers here in our own house!" And my memory is that-- maybe you remember this differently, Sara-- but my memory was that she went to a particular place in the basement and she pointed at this little kind of hole in the wall in the basement, near the floor. And she said, "I was coming down the stairs and there was one of them standing right there, a little girl, and she was wearing a pink taffeta skirt." That's what you said. "And I froze, and she froze, and we looked at each other. And I knew I wasn't supposed to talk to her, and that she shouldn't talk to me, but we just looked at each other. And after about 30 seconds, she kind of waved her hand, just slightly, and she ran away. And it was right there." And Sara took me to the place where it was.

Ira Glass

And Sara, let me just ask you, what do you remember of this?

Sara Weschler

Well, I remember having seen-- well, you see. It's like-- it's sort of strange to say this, because like-- I feel like I'm betraying the Borrowers. But I still believe in them. And like if I ever actually got to meet one, I'd never tell anyone. And I do remember having seen something. And it wasn't really for 30 seconds. It was like for maybe 10 seconds. And then it ran away.

Ira Glass

And even now when you think about it, you can picture-- you can picture seeing--

Sara Weschler

Yeah, yeah. I didn't imagine it. It was definitely there.

Ira Glass

And it was a little girl.

Sara Weschler

Yeah, I think.

Ira Glass

OK.

Lawrence Weschler

And then, over the next few days, Sara began leaving things for this Borrower. And the first thing in the morning she would race downstairs to see whether the things had been picked up.

Ira Glass

Do you remember what kind of things you left?

Sara Weschler

I left like-- sometimes I'd leave like toothpicks or pieces of food.

Ira Glass

What do they use toothpicks for?

Sara Weschler

Oh, just like to dig with, and you know?

Ira Glass

Kind of an all-purpose tool.

Sara Weschler

Yeah. Walking stick, things like that.

Lawrence Weschler

Anyway, so she would leave these things there, and she would be so disappointed. And disappointment verging on desolation that they weren't picked up. And she'd have long conversations with me. She'd say, "You know, why aren't they picking them up? Don't they know that I'm giving it to them?" And I would try to explain that maybe, maybe they were scared or nervous or something. That's how Borrowers are. But she was so sad. And this went on-- I figured this would end-- but at a certain point, this went on for a week. And I don't know why I did it because it began a cascade of consequences. But one night I picked up the stuff and put it in my pocket. And the next morning she came bounding up the stairs saying, "Daddy, you won't believe it! There are Borrowers, just like I said! They took the stuff! They took the stuff!" And she was transported with delight. And I figured that would be the end of it. But it wasn't.

Ira Glass

Well, what happened next, Sara?

Sara Weschler

I started writing to them. I started writing letters.

Ira Glass

OK. Why don't I ask you to pull out one of those letters and let's hear what you wrote for the first one.

Sara Weschler

I'll read the first one. OK.

Ira Glass

Now you were six at the time, right?

Sara Weschler

Seven. Dear Borrowers, I have seen you but I want to meet you. If I do, I will not tell anyone without your permission. Agreed or not agreed? And then this says, Borrowers--

Lawrence Weschler

Well, then-- just one second. So what happened is that that note, on a little yellow Post-it, lay by the hole for several days. And for several mornings, Sara would be completely devastated that it had not been answered. So I went through several days of not quite knowing what to do, because she was getting more and more sad about this, and more concerned. And so then I figured, well, it won't do any harm to pick up the piece of paper and write a little tiny message back. Which I did.

Ira Glass

Do you have that there, as well?

Sara Weschler

Yeah, it's on the same piece of paper.

Ira Glass

OK, so?

Sara Weschler

Dear Sara, gosh, this is strange. Who are you? How do you know about Borrowers? I thought no human beings ever knew about us. My dad says it's too dangerous for Borrowers to meet a human being. And he even says I mustn't write to you. But maybe at least I can write. Will you write back? I hope so. I will keep it a secret from my dad. Signed, Annabellie. P.S., I am 11. How about you?

Ira Glass

And so you got this. Do you remember getting this letter?

Sara Weschler

Mm-hmm.

Lawrence Weschler

Do you remember that morning, what you said when you came up the stairs?

Sara Weschler

No.

Ira Glass

What did she say? Do you remember?

Lawrence Weschler

Oh, she was just, "They are-- I told you! I told you! And she answered, she answered! And she wants me to write back!" And she was over the moon. And she wrote back immediately.

Sara Weschler

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So, Ren, did you conceive of your Borrowers as being descendants of the Borrowers in the book?

Lawrence Weschler

Well, it was unclear. I mean, it was a possibility. And it was up to Sara to keep dredging and find out more. And so there-- a large part of the correspondence is Sara doing genealogical work on the family. And asking all kinds of questions.

Sara Weschler

Yeah. I would ask like, what was your grandmother's name? And it turned out that her grandmother was Arrietty, which is the main character.

Ira Glass

The main character in the book?

Sara Weschler

Yeah. And she says that she calls her dad Pea, like as in a peapod. Because in the book the dad is Pod. And then she calls her mom Hommy, because in the book the mother is Homily.

Ira Glass

How long did the letters go back and forth? How many letters were there?

Sara Weschler

I think there were-- well, there were over 17. Because I didn't finish counting, but I counted up to 17.

Lawrence Weschler

And there came to be a crisis in the midst of all this, which was that we were going to be moving about half a mile, 3/4 of a mile. And she got into a darker and darker mood, and was really, again, almost desolate. And one day she said, "Daddy, we can't move. What about the Borrowers? What's going to happen to them? They'll starve to death! I've been feeding them for weeks. What are we going to do?"

Sara Weschler

And so what we ended up doing was my dad said, "Well, they can move with us." And then what I did is I made a map of how to get to our house.

Lawrence Weschler

She did this very elaborate map. And Sara said, "But they're not going to be able to do this all in one day." And so what she did is she found-- what did you do?

Sara Weschler

Well, there's this restaurant called Villa Nova Equals E in Pelham. And there's this kind of like radiator thing on the outside, I don't know exactly what it is. But there was a hole there big enough for a Borrower to get through. And so what I did is I put some cloth in there to make it comfortable. And well, I told them that they could rest there. Because they could probably make the first half of the trip during the first day. And then it was really close to 5th Avenue, which is our busiest street in Pelham. So that when they had to cross 5th Avenue to get to the other part of Pelham, they could do it in the middle of the night.

Ira Glass

Why would that be important?

Sara Weschler

Because the cars wouldn't be going back and forth.

Lawrence Weschler

It was going to take them like an hour to get across the street.

Sara Weschler

Not an hour. Like 15 minutes.

Lawrence Weschler

OK, excuse me. So suddenly the whole project of moving went from being a near disaster to being a delight. And every time we moved Sara would run downstairs to see whether they had, in fact, brought some of their stuff over, because they had to do it in several different trips, right?

Sara Weschler

Yeah.

Lawrence Weschler

And each time, it would turn out that they had brought some stuff over, right?

Sara Weschler

Yeah.

Lawrence Weschler

Parenthetically, it was fairly easy to know what they had because it had all been in my pockets, as I'd been picking it up over the many months of the correspondence. I had a whole shoebox full of stuff that Sara had been leaving for the Borrowers, so I just kind of transported little sprinklings of it each time we moved some of our stuff over.

Ira Glass

And Ren, during this time, were you frightened about where this was all going to lead? That at some point you would get found out?

Lawrence Weschler

Well, it was getting strange and actually kind of nerve-wracking. And I would do things like-- I kept on figuring that Sara was going to grow out of this. Or that Sara would associate-- would make the association that this was kind of like what we used to do when I would read about the Indian, or about Laura. I kept on thinking that she would just kind of enjoy that. But she was getting more and more into it. And it was becoming more and more involved. And the more involved, the more I could see how invested Sara was in it. I mean, it really was the main thing going on in her life during that season. And as she began telling friends about it and so forth, the stories had to get more and more elaborate to include all the stray bits of details that were seeping into things. And I didn't quite know where it was going to go. I would do things. I would send the Borrowers on vacations.

Ira Glass

You would send them on vacations?

Lawrence Weschler

I would send them-- I would just have them suddenly disappear for a while. And they'd be gone for a while. And I would hope that by the time it was over, Sara would have forgotten. But on the day-- you know, I'd say they'd be gone three weeks. Three weeks later on that day there'd be a note for them from Sara. I'd send them into the woods. There was a little park nearby and for them this was a huge national park. And there was a stream and this was the equivalent of the Mississippi for them. And I would send them off and hoping that Sara would get over it, would move on.

Ira Glass

And Sara, did you suspect at that point?

Sara Weschler

No, no, I--

Lawrence Weschler

But what was really funny, Sara, is that you would say things sometimes like, "Daddy, it's really weird. Annabellie uses the same kind of pen as you do." And then you'd say, "Yeah, I guess she must have stolen one of your pens." And then one day I heard her talking to her friend, Megan. She said, "Annabellie's handwriting is just like my dad's, only really tiny." She would say things like this and yet not put it together.

Sara Weschler

I really hadn't-- like, the second I suspected it, I was almost sure that it had been him. And I just went up and asked him if it was him.

Ira Glass

Why is it that you started to suspect? Do you remember what happened that made you suspect?

Sara Weschler

I think it was sort of the fact-- not his handwriting, actually. It was that I would tell my dad, for instance, that I was in the basement and I stuck my finger into this hole and I felt something sort of like silky or something. It was probably just some like old piece of cloth that was stuck there. But I felt it and I told my dad-- and it sort of slipped away from my finger. I told my dad about it. And then in the next letter, I'd hear-- Annabellie would be saying, oh, I think that-- was that you who touched me when I was wearing my silk dress? And so I started to think, like I tell my dad things that sometimes I'd exaggerate a little bit. Because when I was younger I exaggerated some things. I made things a little bit more exciting than they might have really been. And then like I read the letter and it had that exaggerated part in it. And so I'd say, like, well, that didn't really happen. I was just like sort of adding that to my story. And so that's--

Ira Glass

That made you suspicious.

Sara Weschler

Yeah, and I asked my dad--

Lawrence Weschler

So what happened there was, We had moved to the new house. We'd been there for a couple months at that point. And I was down in the basement moving some boxes around. And Sara came down there and--

Ira Glass

And how old--

Lawrence Weschler

She's now eight.

Ira Glass

In this story?

Lawrence Weschler

At this point in the story, yeah. And she-- and she began looking-- her lips were trembling. Her lower lip was trembling. And she looked at me very firmly as she is quite capable of doing. And she said, "Daddy, I'm going to ask you a question now. And you have to tell the truth because it's a sin for daddies to lie to their daughters." And my heart just sank. And she said, "Daddy, are you the one who's been writing Annabellie's notes?" And I looked at her, and she looked at me, and there was like silence for five or six seconds. And then I said, "Um, it's kind of complicated, can we talk?" And she said, "Daddy, it's not complicated. It's simple. Are you the one?" And I said, "Well, can we talk about it later?" She said, "No, just tell me. Are you the one or not?" And I took a big breath and I said, "Yes, it is me." And she broke into--

Sara Weschler

I was crying.

Lawrence Weschler

Oh god, she was sobbing.

Sara Weschler

I was so sad.

Lawrence Weschler

She started sobbing. It was easily the most wrenching thing that had happened in my parenthood up to that point. I mean, I had totally blown it. I just felt like a total disaster. And I was crying and she was crying. And you know, we were both kind of clutching each other and holding each other. And we were really in a trap there. We were down the hole at that point. We were in big trouble. And suddenly this kind of calm came over Sara's face. It was kind of like the sun rising in the morning. And her forehead stopped being furrowed, it became smooth. And she just looked at me and she said, "Daddy, don't you realize? You ruined everything. Because there are Borrowers! And you were taking the letters before they were able to get them." And it was a way of-- she had solved everything there. Because among other things, that was what she was going to be able to tell her friends. And they could all chortle about what kind of a crazy father she had. And it was amazing. She found a way of getting us out of this disaster that I suppose I had fashioned for us.

Sara Weschler

Because I remember saying that you should have left it there. Maybe they would have really written back. You shouldn't have done it because maybe they would have actually written back to me finally at some point. Like I said earlier, I still believe in them. And I know that might sound really babyish to some kids who might listen to this. But I still believe in them. And when I told Megan, my friend, when I told Megan that it had been my dad, she stopped believing in them. And she was just like, whenever I'd talk about it from them on, she'd laugh at me and tell me, "Oh, Sara, stop being a baby." Because she's a year older then me, so she-- at that time, she still considered herself really superior to me, even though we're best friends. And she said, "Oh, Sara, stop being a baby. It's not true. It's just not true." And I said, "But I've seen them." And she said, "No, you haven't. You just imagined it. And it's not true. And you can just stop imagining it and stop telling me about it because it's not true."

Lawrence Weschler

How do you feel about it now when you look at those letters?

Sara Weschler

I don't know. Like sometimes when I read them, I still sort of can think that, you know, I wonder why this happened to her? I wonder why that happened to her? I wonder why she would say that? Even though I know that it was my dad writing to me, I still sometimes sort of think of there being an Annabellie somewhere out there.

Lawrence Weschler

When we pulled out the box last night, of letters, did it bring you pleasure to look at those letters? Did you--

Sara Weschler

Well, actually I look at it a lot.

Lawrence Weschler

You do?

Ira Glass

You look at it a lot?

Sara Weschler

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And what do you think when you look at it?

Sara Weschler

Well, I just think it was sort of-- now looking back, it was sort of nice of him to do. Because I remember, when it was happening, and after I'd figured out that it was him, I had asked him, well, can we still sort of write to each other? We never really actually wrote to each other after that, but I just sort of thought after a while that it was a nice thing. And that even though maybe there was no Borrower writing to me, there was maybe-- having my dad make up this whole family was maybe just as special, or maybe almost as special as having actually been writing to a Borrower.

Ira Glass

Sara, can I ask you, what do you think the lesson of this story is? That is, if parents hear you tell this story, you and your dad tell this story on the radio, and if another parent gets into this kind of situation, what's your advice for them? Should they go along with it? Should they write letters and should they pick up stuff?

Sara Weschler

I don't know. Because like it was really fun for me to have this kind of experience. But when I found out that it was my dad writing, it was really upsetting. And so I just don't know. I think that if I were a parent and I had that kind of thing, I would not pick it up.

Ira Glass

You would not?

Sara Weschler

No, I would keep encouraging my kid, my child, to keep on writing to the Borrowers and trying to get them to write back, but I wouldn't pick it up.

Lawrence Weschler

What if they keep coming to you, so sad every morning, the way you were sad coming to me, and just pleading, I wish, I wish, I wish they would come. Can you imagine ever picking it up?

Sara Weschler

No.

Lawrence Weschler

Really?

Sara Weschler

It's just-- I don't think it's fair to lead someone on like that.

Ira Glass

Ren, as far as you're concerned, what's the lesson of the story? If you had this to do again, if you would get into this situation again, or if you could go back with the benefit of hindsight, what would you do? Would you have left the letters?

Lawrence Weschler

I mean, I'd like to say that had I to live it over again I wouldn't do it this way, but I'm not sure. Because it started so naturally. And in the end, by the, way, what I'd have to say is probably the most poignant, closest, amazing moment I've had as a single-- you know, the moment I'll remember of a particular phase in my life, is the holding onto each other in the basement, both of us crying. But Sara not running away, and Sara saving us. And that kind of cemented our relationship in a really kind of wonderful way. So I mean, I don't--

Sara Weschler

It might not end that way for everybody.

Lawrence Weschler

Yeah, it might not end that way for everybody, that's true. I continue to puzzle about it. And it is unresolved for me as my answer is indicating, I suppose.

Ira Glass

It's interesting to me that the way that you view the lesson of the story is that Sara saved the two of you, that as a parent you got yourself into a moment where you literally didn't know what to do. And that she finally said the thing that made everything OK.

Lawrence Weschler

Yeah, I absolutely feel that. Has it affected our relationship, do you think? Do you not trust me in a way you used to trust me?

Sara Weschler

No, no, no. I still trust you.

Ira Glass

Sara, do you view this as one of the moments when you were closest to your dad?

Sara Weschler

Well, I'm very close to my dad. So I don't know. Yeah, I guess so. But it's not like much closer than I am usually. Because I'm very close to my dad like all the time. But yeah, it is one of the times that I was closest, I guess. Yeah.

Lawrence Weschler

So my heart is in my throat.

Ira Glass

Hey, Sara, if you still think they exist, have you tried to spot them? Have you tried to wait for them and spot them again?

Sara Weschler

Well, I have seen-- well, I'm not sure, because I've seen them in the shadows. The only time I'm absolutely positive I saw one was downstairs in the basement of my old house. But I have seen them since. Sometimes I'll go and I'll sit at the basement steps and look around. And sometimes I'll be making, let's say, a cake. And I'll leave a little bit of dough wrapped in some paper by the staircase, at the basement, in the basement, for them to take.

Ira Glass

And do they take it?

Sara Weschler

Well, I don't know. Because I don't find it, but then again, who knows what that might be. It could be--

Ira Glass

Right. It could be bugs.

Sara Weschler

Mouse. Dad.

Lawrence Weschler

A mouse or a dad. This child is afflicted.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

The house is crawling with them.

Lawrence Weschler is the author of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders and Calamities of Exile. Sara Weschler just graduated from elementary school this week. When we spoke she said that she would be listening to our radio program this weekend in the car.

Sara Weschler

I don't want us to listen to it at the house. Because if there are still Borrowers in our house, I don't want them to hear that and think that they can't trust me. Because it's right now, I'm like telling their whole story. So I feel like I'm sort of betraying them, you know? And I just like wanted to make sure that they knew that, you know, if I actually did meet one, I wouldn't tell anyone. I would never tell a single person in the world.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, the program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Senior editor, Paul Tough. Contributing editors, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and consigli Sarah Vowell. Production help from Laura Doggett, Sylvia Lemus and [? Sayuni ?] [? Davenport. ?] Thanks today to Street Level Youth Media.

Happy Father's Day to my own dad, Barry Glass, in Baltimore. If you want to buy a cassette of this program, call us at WBEZ here in Chicago. 312-832-3380. 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com. Or you can listen to any of our programs over the internet for free-- for free-- at our website. www.thislife.org. That's thislife, one word, no space in it.

This week, you'll also find at our website some of Sara's Weschler's correspondence with the Borrowers, right there.

Well, This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

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Put him in leather diapers, teach him to dance to YMCA, and slowly draw him into our perverted lifestyle.

Ira Glass

Indeed, we will. Well, I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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