Transcript

120:

Be Careful Who You Pretend to Be
Transcript

Originally aired 01.22.1999

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

So Viola disguises herself as a man, takes a job working for this guy, who she promptly falls in love with. He believes the pretense, thinks Viola's a man. And so he has no interest in her. And at some point, her boss notices that Viola does seem to have a crush on someone and asks her about it.

Here's what happens. This is actually the Shakespeare play Twelfth Night, second act. Viola's boss, the Duke Orsino, asks if her eye has fallen on someone she loves. Viola replies, "A little, by your favor." The duke asks, "What kind of woman is it?"

Viola is, of course, in a difficult position because it's him that she loves. What kind of woman is it? She replies, "Of your complexion." "She is not worth thee, then," he says. "What years, in faith?" "About your years, my lord."

Then they go on to talk about the woman that the duke is in love with, who is named Olivia, who doesn't like the duke at all. And Viola tentatively brings up the notion, "What if there were some lady, as perhaps there is, hath for your love a great a pang of heart as you have for Olivia?" He replies that no woman could feel for him as deeply as he feels for Olivia.

And Viola has another one of these sad little moments, where she feels this compulsion to hint at her feelings for the duke without him understanding at all what she is driving at, because he thinks that she's a man. She says, "A woman can love as deeply as a man does. My father had a daughter loved a man as it might be, perhaps, were I woman, I should your lordship."

So the duke asks about this daughter of her father's. What's her history? "A blank, my lord. She never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm in the bud, feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought, and with a green and yellow melancholy, she sat like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief."

This is where things come to. She loves him. But she's pretending to be someone she's not, so her lie is like this membrane, separating her from him. Even though he's standing right there, she cannot tell him how she feels.

The problem with pretending is that you can just be too successful. And someone will believe you. And then you're stuck.

And of course, there's a second and a deeper danger that Shakespeare doesn't talk about in Twelfth Night. The real trouble that you can get into if you pretend that you're someone else is not that other people are going to believe it. It's that you'll start to believe it yourself. And then you're just living in a dream.

You see so many public figures-- senators, for example-- who are so enamored with the fact that they are, in fact, senators of the United States of America. They turn into these cartoon people. You look at them, and you just get the feeling that they never stop saying to themselves, "I am the senator." They go mad.

And this happens in all sorts of ways, large and small, people pretending all sorts of things. That they feel things they don't really feel, that they are things that they, in fact, are not. The craziest people are the ones who come to believe their own lies, in their families, at their jobs.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Be Careful Who You Pretend to Be. We have three cautionary tales for you.

Act One, Doing Good by Doing Bad, what happens when a nice guy gets a job where all day long, he is supposed to pretend that he's a son of a bitch. How does it affect him? Act Two, Psychobabble, Qu'est-ce Que C'est. Jack Hitt tells a true story of those innocent days back in the '70s when going to a church retreat meant back rubs and encounter group sessions and role-playing games, and how he personally witnessed the role-playing game to end all role-playing games. Act Three, What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding? Reporter Alix Spiegel heads out with a group of mostly white suburbanites who are on a mission to understand the African-American slave experience by pretending to be African-American slaves. Stay with us.

Act One. Doing Good By Doing Bad.

Ira Glass

Act One, Doing Good by Doing Bad. What happens when you're pretending to be somebody horrible every day? How does it change you?

Ron Copeland worked for a union for 27 years, left that work. And then he saw an ad in the paper calling for people who like children, who like to teach history in an innovative way. And this led him to a job as a historical interpreter at the Conner Prairie Living History Museum, outside of Indianapolis.

For several months a year, in his job, he pretends to be a slaveowner in the old South. People come looking to experience the slave experience. He screams at them. He orders them around. He treats them terribly. He talked about his job with This American Life producer Alix Spiegel.

Ron Copeland

It was very hard. At first we couldn't really scream at them. It was not in our makeup to actually talk to the people in rough tones and voices. You had to develop over a period of time. It took us some time to start the yelling. It took us some time to get actually mean, and especially when you start talking to black people in that tone.

So the very first time, it was not very loud at all. I may have said "Get down here. You cattle, get down here. Get down here right now. Get on your hands and knees. Get down here in front of me."

Then the second time around, it was, "You slaves, get down here. Get down on your hands and knees. Start getting down here. Put your eyes down. Don't you be looking up at a white man. You know you're not supposed to be looking up at me. Get your eyes down on the ground. Get down here."

The harshest is, "Get down here today! Get down here right now! Don't you be looking up at me! Get down here right now!

You bucks, get over here. Let me see you. Don't look up at me. Are you looking up at me?"

And what you want to do is you want to get their attention very quickly. Then you start working upon their emotions. You look for that little weakness in a person. If you find a weakness, then you start playing on that weakness.

If you see a lady start batting her eyes and start flinching a little bit, you work on her. Tell her, you're going to keep her for yourself. She's going to be away from the rest of the group. They're going to go on without her. She belongs to you. You put fear in her.

Now it may sound funny to you, but it's like the military. The first thing they do in the military is they break you down. And then they put you back as a unit. And that's what you're trying to do with these folks.

I even went so far last night to get a big order of onion rings so that you got that onion breath to get right in their face. Because you want them to really feel you, to sense you. It's in the dark. If you get right up in their face, and you got that tobacco smell and onion breath and all this, garlic breath, they're wanting to back away from you. And the more they back, the closer you get to them.

I like to walk around behind them and talk to them. But they don't know which one you're talking to. And you say, well, that one right there, I think she'd be good for breeding, because look at those hips on her.

And you're standing behind three women. They're all standing there thinking, "Is he talking about me? Is he making that remark about me?"

You're not making it about any one of them. You're just saying it. But they don't know that.

Or you get up behind them. They can feel you're behind them. They know you're back there. You can sense a person's back there.

But you don't say a word. It puts them on an edge. Anything you can do to scare them, to agitate them, to isolate them, you push.

There was many a nights, when we first started the program, that I would go home and lay awake all night, because it's emotionally, in your head, this is wrong. You're doing something that's very wrong. Even though you're trying to show history to them and make it realistic for them, it's still very hard, because it's not our nature to act like that. You see somebody tear up.

Well, I'm kind of a softie, anyway. And it hurt me. I'm thinking, "I'm too rough on her." If it's an older person, you're thinking, "Am I going to make that person have a heart attack?"

Now Monday, I done a program out here. And I had a young girl. And I told her she was going to do this. And I screamed at her and made her get over in the corner. And she started crying and started bawling. And it's very hard then.

And I had to come out of it to a point of where I said, "Well you's too skinny. I don't think you can cook. You wouldn't be very good at all having children," and all this, and then told her to get out of there. But you felt real bad.

As soon as she walked out, my first instinct was you wanted to go find out she was all right. Because I know she's going to carry that home with her. So it hurts. It hurts.

Alix Spiegel

Do you treat the blacks differently than you treat the whites?

Ron Copeland

We try not to. We try not to. What we try to do is we'll pick on a black one, and then we'll pick on a white one. And we try to give them equal treatment at the same time, so that we are not judging them.

Alix Spiegel

But do you find yourself treating them differently anyway?

Ron Copeland

I would say, yes. You do. You do. You can't help from it. You can't help from treating them just a little bit better than you would the white person. Because with problems that we've had in the past, with the relations and the way that people have been treated at all, you don't know how you're going to push that person's trigger.

Alix Spiegel

So have you ever really just let loose?

Ron Copeland

Oh, yes. On a black person, I've let loose. I've let loose and really called them stupid, ignorant. "You're nothing but an animal. You're just like a child. I've got to teach you everything. You're just like a little animal. You don't know a damn thing. What are you, stupid?" And just keep in their face constantly, talking to them on it and yelling at them.

Alix Spiegel

And what are you thinking about yourself inside, when you're doing that?

Ron Copeland

Inside, your stomach is turning. It's constantly turning. You can feel it knotting up inside. There's that little feeling in the back of your head, "You're not like this."

Alix Spiegel

Now have you ever had a moment in doing this where you were sitting there, yelling at somebody, and you were like, "I can imagine myself," or I can see how you could be this person?

Ron Copeland

Oh, certainly. I've had a moment like that, that I could be that. I've had them where I could see that I could have been that mean a person, if someone was being that stupid and that dumb and that defiant of me.

I had a black lady. Now normally, that's been with whites. But I had a black lady, and she was very defiant.

The look on her face, the look out of her eyes was a burning look. I'm out there in the dark, and I could see them eyes piercing me. And I tried to make her do some of the things, and it was like she was going to defy me no matter whatever I done.

And no matter how close I got to her, I got within an inch of her nose from my nose. And I was screaming at her. And I told her to look down. And she would not bat her eye. She would not even talk.

And finally I come to the point. And I said, "Ma'am. Tell you what's going to happen to you. I'm just going to kill you right here. Now do you care about that?" And she looked at me with those eyes. And they were very piercing.

And she says, "I guess you're just going to have to kill me because I'm not doing anything. Go ahead and kill me. I'm not going to do it." And those eyes were burning into me.

And I'm thinking, if I was a slave buyer, I would have probably pulled the gun up and shot her right between the eyes. Because she had pushed my trigger then. I'm thinking, that's not right. That's not right. But for that moment, I would have probably pulled the gun out and killed her, right then.

We've had some come through, saying that they feel like we're going beyond acting, that we actually get a kick out of being sadistic, like we are, which we don't. We don't. I can tell you that even one of the interpreters up there, it was his first time. And he got into it so much that after the program was over, he was actually physically sick. Because it affects you that way.

Alix Spiegel

He was physically sick meaning he threw up?

Ron Copeland

He threw up out there afterwards.

When you take off your costume, and you put on your civilian clothes to go outside and go home, you feel like 50 pounds has been off each shoulder. All you want to do is get out of here and get back to your life at your home, today, in 1998. You don't want to think about that there. But you catch yourself driving home thinking about it. That was really vicious. That was really tough.

And then when you get home, you try to get it out of your head. I go and I sit in the living room. I get me a Coke. I sit there with no television on. And I replay the entire night and go over it.

Did I do this right? Did I do that right? Was I too mean to this person? Should I have done this? So I sort of replay the whole thing.

And then I try to justify what I've done with myself. I wasn't mean. I didn't treat that person too bad. I was backing off just a little bit. And I wasn't any worse tonight than I was last night. So I have not hurt anybody. I have not done anything. So you sort of just sit there and talk yourself. It's a mental thing.

Alix Spiegel

Do you ever feel now in going about the daily business of your life that you could get set off?

Ron Copeland

I scream a lot. I do, little things. My wife says that I tend to talk a lot louder. It's more of I'm trying to tell people, not ask people. She said I've changed in that manner, to where it's not like I used to be.

I was laid back. I talked to people in a soft tone. But now, she says, you're more demanding. You're more forceful in the way you do things. And it carries over. I'm sure it does a little bit. But we try to get rid of it.

Alix Spiegel

Did you ever think that you could be this much of a sadist?

Ron Copeland

No, never, never, ever could. My wife said there was no way, because I've always been the clown, the one that laughed, cut-up, good-natured. And I didn't truly, deeply think I could, either.

It has taken a period of time to build up. We started in March. We're in November now. And I'm just now getting down to it. The screaming part I could do. But the actual getting mean, getting in the face, getting the scare, I didn't think I'd ever be able to do it.

Alix Spiegel

So does that tell you something about yourself?

Ron Copeland

Well, I'm sure each one of us has got a mean streak inside of them. And it has just got to be drawn out of them. Certainly, you question yourself and what you are, and what you thought you were. So you question yourself.

How could I be this mean? Did I always have this in me? Was I actually this way, and it's never came out before? Could I continue to be mean?

And you think about that a lot. It's good we're only doing this program, I think, for a month, and give us time to get away from it and forget it and not do it again. Now if we had to do this on a regular basis, constantly, it might change some of us. We might just become what we're acting out right now.

Alix Spiegel

You think that's a real danger, that you would become--

Ron Copeland

Oh, I think you could. I think you could. I really do. Because after being putting up with it so long, it just comes out of you. We've all got that dark spot in there, inside of us, down in there deep.

Ira Glass

Historical interpreter Ron Copeland.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "THE BOY DONE WRONG AGAIN" BY BELLE AND SEBASTIAN]

Act Two. Psychobabble, Qu'est-ce Que C'est.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Psychobabble, Qu'est-e Que C'est. There is the pretending we do individually, each of us, at our jobs, with our families. And then there's also a kind of industry of pretending. It includes, of course, the production of stage plays and movies, and many different kinds of sales jobs, where pretending to like your customer and your product is the key to the job. And it includes various kinds of group therapies, the role-playing games that are used in certain clinical settings.

When it comes to this last category, Jack Hitt has been to the mountaintop. He has seen what there is to see. And he came back with this full report.

Jack Hitt

If role-playing had a heyday, it was in the '70s, and I was there. And if it had a precise peak, a moment when it reached a kind of transcendence, after which all other role-plays were but pale, wannabe role-plays, I'd argue it was the performance of Mary Frances Leopold at Camp St. Christopher on Seabrook Island, the third week of June, 1974. As it happened, I was there too.

I come to you today to testify. The backdrop, the Vietnam War, wage and price controls, the growing clamor for Nixon's resignation. I was 17. Almost everyone I knew had been expelled from school or busted for drugs. I had managed both. Extreme times called for extreme measures from our nation's clergy. And in Charleston, where I grew up, that meant only one thing, Father Ralph Byrd, youth minister.

Ralph Byrd

Right there in Charleston, there was even a group that was on the second story of Siegling's Music House that rented rooms. And a lot of those kids left home and went up there and lived. And their parents didn't want them to be there.

Jack Hitt

I remember that place. That was the ice cream parlor.

Ralph Byrd

Yeah.

Jack Hitt

Yeah, it was a brothel.

Ralph Byrd

Yes.

Jack Hitt

I used to hang out there. But I found out later that girls were being pressed into white slavery up there.

Ralph Byrd

Well, some of Charleston's FOFs were up there, the Fine Old Families. They were right up there. And this was just terribly frustrating to the parents.

Jack Hitt

You mean having your daughter become a prostitute? It's very frustrating, Ralph.

Ralph Byrd

They didn't even know that, most of the time. The ones that I dealt with, they just saw their child having left home. Later, they would discover what was really going on, which was even worse.

My point is we discovered that parents were sufficiently frustrated and felt utterly unempowered. And they said, "Have at it." I don't think they ever questioned us even once.

Jack Hitt

Despite the wicked times, Ralph managed to lure hundreds of my peers into the parish hall every Sunday night for something as cornball as fellowship. How'd he do it? He let us smoke. And his other ingenious invention, used probably for the first time in Christianity's 2000-year history, was that he almost never mentioned the Bible. Instead, he connived to make us discover the old Christian virtues on our own, using whatever encounter group stuff might do in a pinch, visualizations, back rubs, improvisations, storytelling, lying on the floor and going on fancy trips, blindfolded face explorations, games of self-revelation.

At the time, we ate it up. We so longed to be emotionally intimate with one another, and Ralph had given us a language. I loved all those tricks, except one. Still to this day, the mere mention of the phrase makes me shudder, role-playing.

Ralph Byrd

Oh, we'd do things like, boy cheats on the exam and is caught at it. And he loses his scholarship. Now he has to tell his parents. That's one.

Another one was, I stole stuff at Woolworth's, and I got away with it. But now they want to give me an honor for being an outstanding Boy Scout or something. And I know the truth. And how do I deal with that?

Jack Hitt

Sure, it sounds innocent. But then came the summer of '74. There was a two-week retreat at Camp St. Christopher that almost immediately began to go kaflooey. Someone stole a boy's epilepsy medication, thinking it was Quaaludes, and another boy's father died.

And then there was a racial incident, required at Bible camp in those days, that involved a black kid, who'd over-read a blond girl's expression of Christian amity. Then a bunch of tough, upstate white boys went after the black kid. And then a bunch of other elite white kids, in peace-loving liberal hippie drag, threatened to beat the snot out of the racists. The camp was a swamp of raw emotion.

So Ralph brought out the big guns, in this case a camper named Mary Frances Leopold, a teenager who, in the creaky vocabulary of the '70s, was described as feisty, spirited, strident. That is, confident, capable, smart. Her assignment? Ralph had decided that nothing would galvanize the camp like a good role-playing session.

Ralph Byrd

If you remember the way the technique worked, we put a name tag on her. And we said-- I don't remember what we called her, something like Laura Smith or something, something other than her name.

Jack Hitt

And you would introduce her at the beginning of the session.

Ralph Byrd

That's correct. And we would create a story about this girl and tell people that she's 16 years old. She comes from Charleston. She goes to Porter-Gaud School. We would create this story and make her a real person. And then she would sit there. And then she would be that person.

Jack Hitt

Word quickly spread at breakfast that morning that no one had seen Mary Frances. And we all noticed that no clergymen were in the cafeteria. "They've been working her over since dawn," someone said. "It's going to be big."

After breakfast, we all congregated in the rec hall. I couldn't help but notice that other ministers, not associated with the camp, were there, as if they knew something was up. The bishop was there.

Ralph got up on stage and explained that Mary Frances's character, Laura Smith, was a girl who had really opened up in her small group, the little encounter groups of eight campers that met twice a day to share intimacies and do trust exercises. This character, Laura, we'd soon learn, had confided with them that she'd had an illegal abortion. And then two other people in her small group had broken the rules and gossiped the news around the camp. A couple of people had called her a slut.

Here's how the role-playing worked. Each of the real small groups were to send up two campers to play the blabbers, whose job now was to talk to Laura as she sat at the camp office with her bags, so humiliated she had decided to leave.

Jack Hitt

She emerges through that side door in the rec hall and goes to the stage, and without so much as a word, sits in a chair. And she just looks away, and doesn't say a word. We're all looking at her, but she's not there. And now everybody is very scared.

[LAUGHTER]

Jack Hitt

You remember, my group was the first group to send up two people. And I remember my group, the two folks go up there. And they sit in their chair.

And I think the girl was the first to try to open her mouth. She said "Now, Laura. I realize you must be hurt." And Mary Frances just whipped around. It was something out of The Exorcist, where her head seemed to do a 360.

And she just burst forth with just the most horrible obscenities, eyes burning, at these two people, and just "[BLEEP] you, you goddamn bastards!" And then the obscenities just continued to fly. And you never said those kinds of words in 1972 to anybody.

Ralph Byrd

Particularly in front of the bishop.

Jack Hitt

In front of the bishop, in front of all the clergy, and in front of everybody? It was unbelievable. I think those people actually backed up on the stage. I do know that in the audience, the room went electric after that. And everyone realized that going up on that stage was like marching to the guillotine.

It was breathtaking, nerve-wracking, stunning. Mary Frances kept switching her tactics, slaughtering every fresh couple. 10 went up, and 10 came down, utterly shaken.

One time, she just stared at the couple and said nothing, absolutely nothing. With the next pair, she argued logically. With the next, she collapsed and began crying scalding tears of pain. With each variation, the tension in the room grew. Whatever Ralph was trying to do with this game of pretend, to bring us together, to make us confront our guilt, to teach Christian empathy, the role-playing mainly succeeded in terrifying us.

I tracked down Mary Frances. She's now a chemist near Silicon Valley. 25 years later, what she remembers is the aftermath of her role-playing. None of us at camp could quite get back to seeing her as just Mary Frances. So we all stayed away.

Mary Frances Leopold

I think most of the people at camp were a bit colder. And the people who normally would have smiled and been pleasant weren't quite as smiley and pleasant. And the people who were my friends talked a little bit about it, that it had been really frightening.

Jack Hitt

As we talked about it, she corrected me on one key aspect I had got wrong. I asked her where she'd found in herself so much anger to play out Ralph's scenario. Then she straightened me out. It wasn't Ralph's scenario at all. She made it up.

Mary Frances Leopold

I took it from other people's experience at camp. And it turned out that someone else there had experienced that, had had an abortion.

Jack Hitt

At this point, abortion had been legal for maybe six months or something.

Mary Frances Leopold

Well, this particular person had an illegal abortion and had talked about it at camp. And it had been gossiped about.

Jack Hitt

At that session?

Mary Frances Leopold

Yes, at that particular session.

Jack Hitt

Can you hear my surprise? I had repressed all of this, chalking up the power of the incident to Mary Frances's quote, "great performance." But of course, what made it so powerful was that contrary to what Ralph wanted, a nice exercise in guilt and absolution that we could experience synthetically, and therefore safely, it had become something far more devastating once given over to Mary Frances's genius.

The guilt she'd coaxed from us was real, because we all had gossiped about that girl. We all really were those two people in the role-play. It was the most transcendent of all role-plays, because there was almost no role-playing at all.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "AVE MARIA" BY FRANZ SCHUBERT, SUNG BY DAME JANET BAKER]

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt is a contributing editor to This American Life.

Jack Hitt

Well, listen, Ralph. I'm going to let you get back to--

Ralph Byrd

Praying for you.

Ira Glass

Coming up, white suburbanites tote that barge, lift that bale, sing some old Negro spirituals, and otherwise pretend to be slaves in the old South. Why they do it, what they get out of it, and what this game of pretend is all about. That's in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding?

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different stories on that theme. Today's program, Be Careful Who You Pretend to Be, cautionary tales about games of pretend that backfire. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?

The idea is simple. We Midwestern suburbanites will not simply learn history. We will live history. We will become 19th century runaway slaves. And for close to two hours, we will face their enemies. We will feel their fear. We will think their thoughts.

Then, when we drive back to our suburban homes, we will carry a small part of them back with us. And maybe this will teach us to think more kindly about our neighbors, or more carefully about ourselves, or both. This is the idea. It says so in the promotional material.

This is the program that Ron Copeland, the guy back in our first act, works for. It's called Follow the North Star at the Conner Prairie Living History Museum, outside of Indianapolis, 1,400 acres with a small town, some forest, assorted barns and cabins and outbuildings, and dozens of performers in costume who are called historical interpreters. The program takes place at night, a sort of simulation of the Underground Railroad. This American Life produce Alix Spiegel wanted to find out what it is that people actually get out of this game of pretend. So she joined in.

Alix Spiegel

We are here to be abused, humiliated, degraded, verbally and physically punished. But before we get down to the business of being brutalized and reduced to nothing, we are briefed by a small woman in colonial dress who wants very much to impress upon us the serious nature of this program. She tells us it will be difficult. There will be language. It will be physically demanding. We will be pushed and shoved and made to kneel down or lie on our stomachs. Then she asks if there are any questions.

Woman 1

Yes, young lady.

Girl 1

Do you suggest that we spit out our gum so we don't choke or anything?

Woman 1

Yes.

Alix Spiegel

For a group of people facing 90 continuous minutes of abuse, we are in a remarkably upbeat mood. On the guided walk out to the first stop of the program, everyone's chattering, laughing, ready to wheel hell out of the driveway and take her for a spin.

Girl 2

I think it's going to be fun.

Girl 3

I think it's going to be fun, but it's going to be scary.

Alix Spiegel

Do you guys want to be scared?

Girl 3

They could yell at us. I don't care about that.

Girl 2

I want it to be intense so we know what they went through.

Alix Spiegel

Although I've been told by the people running Follow the North Star that an equal number of black and white patrons attend the program, the people in my group are mostly white and mostly women. The tone of the group is dominated by five 13-year-old girls, Sadie, Amanda, Rachel, Trish, and Britney, all friends from the same junior high school who read about the program in the paper and came because it sounded neat.

Then there's Linda, a blond-haired mother of two, who has brought her husband and two teenage children to the program because she feels it's important for them to have a learning experience, and Henry, who wears a long trench coat and identifies himself as a lover of history. There is Louise, a 34-year-old Quaker woman whose ancestors were part of the Underground Railroad, three 16-year-olds who are studying the Civil War, a handful of other adults, and finally, there's Pete and Alexander, the only African-Americans in the group, both in baseball caps and light-colored jeans, who are here, they say, to observe everyone else.

Our guide leads us to the top of a hill, a small hump of land overlooking a dark valley. At the base of the hill, we can see the flicker of a bonfire. But beyond that, nothing, just the random black wilderness. We stand and ponder it for a minute while our guide gives us parting instructions. "Please refrain from attacking the interpreters." Then it's time to meet our master.

Man 1

I want the bucks over here on the right side. I want the breeders over on the left side. Now move.

Alix Spiegel

At the bottom of the hill, four men in costumes surround us and start screaming. Everything is chaos. Before I know what's happening, the lover of history is lying face-down in the grass, his arms spread wide like Jesus. And the mother of two who felt her children needed an educational experience is on her knees, head down, blinking out at the ground, while her son stands 10 feet away with the rest of the men being, you know, educated.

Man 1

Don't look at me. You don't ever look at me.

Boy 1

Yes, sir.

Man 1

What's your trade, boy? What's your trade? Answer me. Get down on your knees. What about you, boy? You got a trade?

Boy 2

I like to work with metal.

Man 1

Work with metal? You a blacksmith, boy?

Boy 1

Yes, sir.

Man 1

Tell me, what be a hardy? What be a hardy, boy? You ain't no blacksmith. Get down there on your knees with that liar right there.

Let's see your hand, boy. You got gloves on. How can I see your hand when you got gloves on? Get them gloves off.

Alix Spiegel

The girls stand in silence, too scared to move. Their heads are down. Their eyes are lowered, staring out at some invisible point just beyond and below their noses.

One of the masters snakes his way from girl to girl, working them over. He leans in close with his lantern, so they can feel the heat of the flame on their faces, then starts screaming. Two of the girls begin to shake. Their lips tremble. Another girl ties on her white headband, a signal to the slave masters that she can't take it, and steps sideways out of line.

Man 2

How old you be?

Girl 4

13.

Man 2

13. Well, you's bein' a good breeder, then. We probably get 9 or 10 out of you, you know that? Sell them off, there, we could make us a lot of money.

Are you looking up? Are you looking up?

Girl 4

No.

Man 2

No, what?

Girl 4

No, sir.

Man 2

Then you say sir. Every time a white man talks to you, you answer him sir. You understand me?

Girl 4

Yes, sir.

Alix Spiegel

It's surprisingly effective, a kind of collective hallucination so brutal and bizarre it makes you conscious of every detail around you. You notice the flattened blades of wet grass, the bluish tint of rubber on your shoe, the shadows of the fire, the acid smell of lantern fluid, the fold and texture of a scarf tucked into the coat of the person in front of you.

Man 1

Get your eyes down, you understand? Answer me. Was that you?

Alix Spiegel

Finally, the masters get tired of yelling and corral us into a single-file line. One of the masters leaves the other behind to march us up a hill. He's waving his gun like a flag and barking out orders. "Stay in line. Keep your eyes down. March faster. March slower." And perhaps most frightening of all, "Sing."

Man 1

Sing. Sing.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT"]

Alix Spiegel

In this context, the absurdity of white, suburban teenagers in Nikes singing Negro spirituals is actually kind of touching. They march up the hill singing shyly. And at the top of the hill, there's a waist-high pile of wood. And then 20 feet away, there's a tree. And our master instructs the women to carry the wood from the pile to the tree one piece at a time, and then instructs the men to move the wood back from the tree to the pile two pieces at a time.

Man 3

Now get to it. Get moving. Come on, quicker, quicker.

Alix Spiegel

One of the 16-year-old girls stumbles, and the master pulls her out of the group and tells her to stand by him.

Man 3

Come here. Now I know you can yell. Let me hear you yell. Let me hear you yell.

Girl 5

What do you want me to yell, sir?

Man 3

Just yell. Just yell.

Girl 5

Aaah.

Man 3

Tell them to move the wood.

Girl 5

Move the wood!

Man 3

Louder.

Girl 5

Move the wood!

Man 3

Come here. Don't worry. Keep yelling at them.

Girl 5

Move the wood!

Man 3

Now I'm going to go back and check on my friend. And if I come back and you're gone, I'll shoot you in the leg. So keep yelling at them. Keep them moving.

Girl 5

Move the wood.

Man 3

Louder.

Girl 5

Move the wood!

Man 3

Keep them moving. I want to be able to hear you.

Girl 5

Move the wood. Move the wood! Move the wood! Move the wood! Move the wood. Move the wood!

Alix Spiegel

Now abandoned by our slavemasters, alone on the top of a hill in the middle of the night, with a 10th-grader acting as overseer, we continue to move the wood from the pile to the tree and back again. No one makes a break for it. There's no revolt, not even the hint of resistance. We're broken. It's taken 15 minutes.

Girl 5

Hurry up. Hurry up.

Alix Spiegel

Finally, our work is interrupted by a white woman in a full-length prairie skirt and bonnet who appears out of the darkness, another historic interpreter. She leads us into her barn and berates us at length, the main thrust of her tirade being that we are stupid and slovenly and should probably be sent back to Africa. But in between insults, she manages to drop a series of useful survival tips for the runaway slave.

Seek out Quakers. They will help you. Look for handkerchiefs tied to doorknobs or burning candles in windows. Those are signs that a Quaker is within. Always send one person ahead to ask if they are a friend of a friend. That's the password, "friend of a friend."

Then she leads us through a small wood to a dirt road which winds its way along a cornfield, points down the road, and tells us to look for a small cabin with a light in its window. We tell her thank you. She tells us get off her land. And the group moves down the road.

Alix Spiegel

How are you guys doing?

Girl 2

Scary. It's naturally scary.

Girl 3

You don't want someone pushing you around.

Girl 2

I know. It's like they get all up in you.

Girl 3

This is how it was in real life. This is how it was. And I feel so sorry for those people.

Girl 2

I'm just happy that there were people that actually helped along.

Girl 3

I know.

Alix Spiegel

Then I catch up to Pete and Alexander, the only two black guys in the group.

Alix Spiegel

How are you guys doing?

Man 4

It's not as intense as I thought it was going to be.

Alix Spiegel

Really? Do you want it to be more intense?

Man 4

Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

We jog down the road. In the distance to the left of the road, maybe 500 feet ahead, is a campfire. We can see the outline of a small girl in the shadow of the fire. She's calling out to us, motioning with her arms for us to come to her. But the group hangs back, not sure how to respond. Then out of the bushes, a man with a gun. It's a trap.

Man 5

Hold on right there.

[GUNSHOT]

[SCREAMING]

Alix Spiegel

We book. 19 Midwestern suburbanites cum runaways set loose in the Indiana wilderness with no apparent chaperone are running for their lives as if, well, as if something actually depended on it. In the night air, with my tape recorder bouncing a bruise into my hip, trying like hell to keep up with 13-year-olds, the wind on my microphone screwing up all hope of decent production values, I feel excited and, perversely, more free than I have in a long, long time. It's not clear what we should do or where we should go or who we should trust, and this is perhaps the best part. I find myself giggling uncontrollably and realize that the idea that this simulation is about being transported out of my modern self and into a more authentic experience of slavery has completely evaporated.

Now it is not about understanding slavery. It's about survival in an uncertain world, where people leap out at you and try to abuse you. It's an old-fashioned race from the bogeyman, who is waiting behind every tree.

Girl 2

Oh, gosh. Oh my gosh. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

Girl 3

I was running faster than I've ever run in my life.

Girl 2

Shhh, now be quiet.

Girl 3

There it is. there it is. There it is.

Alix Spiegel

Our random, breathless flight deposits us exactly where the planners of this reenactment want us, 50 feet from a cabin with a candle in its window, refuge. The cabin is up a steep hill, so we congregate at the bottom, then send up a representative, Britney, to test the waters.

Man 5

One person. What's the password?

Britney

Friend of a friend.

Girl 3

Britney, Britney, Britney.

Man 6

Would you like a drink?

Woman 2

Thank you.

Man 6

You are most welcome.

Woman 2

Can you help us?

Man 6

You will get all the help thee needs.

Alix Spiegel

Inside the cabin, a tall man who looks like a slimmed-down version of that guy on the Quaker Oats box pours us cold water from a tin pitcher, passes out flat circles of cornbread that look like small, yellow hockey pucks, and gives us a short history of Quakers and Quakerism, elementary-school-play-style. We all sit cross-legged on the dirt floor, looking grateful and chewing hard on the cornbread. Then his wife gets up and tells us that their son, Moses, who's been warming himself by the fire, will escort us through town to safety.

Woman 3

There is another family in these parts. Their name is Ward. They are from North Carolina. And they are colored folk like thee. I would suggest that thee seek out folks such as them. Should slavehunters come through these parts, they will not know thee from the locals. May God be with thee as thee travel.

Man 6

Travel with Moses through the town. Stay together as a group and travel silently. God be with you, friends. God be with you.

Alix Spiegel

Describe what's going on now. Describe what this looks like.

Girl 3

There's a really big white house with a light on. And there's some kind of cabin that's brown and has no lights on. And we're walking through this big path with trees surrounding us. And there's--

Man 7

Hold on there.

[LAUGHTER]

Man 7

My, my, my. Lookie what we've got here.

Alix Spiegel

The laughing man leads us into his store, a narrow room with a dark wood counter that smells heavily of wax, and picks up a thick leather riding whip. He walks over to one of the girls, then starts to slowly stroke her hair with the whip, from the top of her head down the length of her face, then under her hair to the skin on her neck. He's got a big wad of tobacco stuffed in his cheek, and he keeps spitting it at our feet.

Man 7

Ain't you tired of being out there, all that running and hiding and everything, hmm? Ain't you, hmm?

Girl 5

No, sir.

Man 7

Mm-hmm. Hmm. Hmph. What about you, little one, hmm? You want to get back with your kin down there, hmm? Want to get back with your kin?

Girl 6

No, sir.

Man 7

Don't care about them at all? Hmm? Don't you want to do that? All you need to do is tell me what your master's name was down there. And old Ben will get you right back there.

You want to get back with your folks again, don't you there, little one, hmm? Old Ben's just trying to help you, you know that? You going to tell me, hmm?

Girl 6

No, sir.

Man 7

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Alix Spiegel

The man with the whip decides that he's going to take us down South to sell us. Then Moses, the Quaker boy who is supposed to be helping us, decides that he's going to get the authorities and sic them on the man with the whip. Then the man with the whip decides that he's going to put his fist through Moses's face.

This seems to impress Moses, and he offers to give the man with the whip $10 in gold coin to let us go free. The man with the whip decides that he likes this offer, with one exception. He pulls out one of the girls from the group and draws her body close to his. She's young, not more than 16, and looks genuinely terrified.

Man 7

Tell you what I'm going to do for you, boy. I'm inclined to be interested in your offer a little bit, being alone by myself. This one here looks like she please me quite a bit. Tell you what I'll do for you. I'll take your $10. You get this whole bunch out of here. And I keep this one here to comfort me.

Moses

No, no, it's $10 for all of them.

Man 7

No, that's the way it's going to be.

Moses

There's no deal.

Man 7

Boy, you don't understand. It's the $10. And I'll keep this wench. And you get this rest of this rabble out of here right now. Or I'll blow your damn brains out.

Get them out of here right now. Do it right now. Do it right now.

Alix Spiegel

The girl stands stricken while the rest of the group is pushed out the back door. At first, the group takes off running, but we come up short about 200 feet into the forest.

Girl 7

Wait. We're supposed to be a group.

Man 8

Back.

Man 9

Let's go back.

Man 8

I'm going back. Come on.

Alix Spiegel

Going back to get the girl is not supposed to be part of this simulation. We're supposed to debate whether or not to go back, weigh the moral choices, and realize that our survival means leaving people behind. There's a museum plant in the group, a man posing as a member of the paying public whose job is to keep us on track. He keeps telling the group to go, to forget about the girl. He gets nowhere.

Man 10

Stay as a group. And forget. She's gone. Let's go.

Man 8

How do we know she's gone?

Man 9

You bring us all down because you're rushing ahead of everyone all the time.

Woman 2

We have to go get her.

Girl 8

Together. Together.

Alix Spiegel

This is the closest any of us get to a real test of what sort of slaves we'd be. And Pete and Alexander decide to be heroes. They head back into the woods to save the girl, leaving the rest of the group behind to cower by some bushes. But about 50 feet into our insurrection, a man in costume with a large gun appears out of the forest, as if by magic, another museum worker, invisibly tracking the group's progress, intent on squashing the baby revolution in its cradle.

Man 11

Back that way. Back that way.

Man 8

We can't do that, sir.

Man 11

It will be OK. Back that way.

Alix Spiegel

Less than five minutes later, the girl rejoins us. She slips quietly into the group at the next stop, smiling sheepishly and saying that she escaped. In another 10 minutes, we're at the last stop of the program, in front of an old man in a long, black coat, black hat and black boots, who stands a foot and a half above us on a porch. He looks down on us for a bit, then picks up his cane and walks slowly from one of us to the next, touching us softly on the shoulder and telling us what is to befall us.

Man 12

You and you and you back there, you go to Cincinnati. And you blend in with the folks there in Cincinnati and live a long and successful life. Now you and you, you get caught by the slave hunters, taken down to Georgia, and sold to work in the rice fields. You don't make it. You drown crossing the river.

Girl 3

Well, I get to live.

Girl 2

I'm predicted on being sold and taken to Georgia and working in the rice fields for the rest of my life.

Girl 3

Rachel's sold and gets taken to Georgia.

Alix Spiegel

We walk out onto a broad dirt path into the artificial white light of the museum. We're directed into a debriefing room, where there are two long tables of ginger cookies and juice in flowered Dixie cups, food for the recovering slave. There are about 20 other people in the room, other slaves from other groups, who feel the need to sit and talk about their experience.

I circulate, asking everyone I see who they think they would have been if they had actually been born during this period. And the answer, maybe not surprisingly, is always the same, whether the person I'm talking to is black or white. I would be a hero. This means different things for the different races. For the African-Americans in the group, it means that they would have fought being a slave.

Woman 4

I'd definitely fight. I'd probably end up getting killed.

Man 13

I would be pretty rebellious. I would be the one to try to run away.

Man 14

There's no way someone's going to whip me. I don't care if-- I can't see it happening.

Woman 4

I'd be the person either teaching or Harriet Tubman. Or I'd be chased down.

Alix Spiegel

You would be really rebellious.

Woman 4

Would I be? Yes.

Man 14

I just know that I wouldn't last very long. I would probably be shot or hung.

Alix Spiegel

Because?

Man 14

Because I would try to save my family as much as I could.

Alix Spiegel

It's hard for any of us to imagine ourselves on the wrong side of history, in the past or in the present. All the whites in the program except one said that they would have fought slavery if they had lived during this time.

Girl 3

I would definitely help blacks to get away. I just can't stand to see people mistreated.

Girl 9

God put them on this Earth for a reason.

Alix Spiegel

So there's no question in your own head that you guys would be on the right side.

Girl 9

None.

Man 15

I would be a conductor on the Underground Railroad and actually help people go out and do it. And I could see how some people would be a little bit more timid, like the family who was just in their house. And people came to them. And they huddled them in their house for a while and then let them go. I would go with the people.

Alix Spiegel

We hold firm to our fantasies about ourselves, even when they are contradicted by actual experience. Ricky Murphy is an African-American man who went out with one of the earlier groups, and like the 16-year-old in my group, was made to act as overseer. In the debriefing room, I catch him laughing about how hard he was on his fellow slaves.

Ricky Murphy

Who asked me? Who asked me why was I the chosen one to give all the orders? Somebody got pretty pissed out there. I was like, "Come on, move the logs, I said." And I wouldn't look up. I was just, "Move the logs. Just move them. He's getting pissed. Move."

Alix Spiegel

Later, I sit on a bench and talk to Ricky and his wife, Sharon. And when I ask him who he thinks he would have been if he had lived during this period, his answer is the same as the other African-Americans. I would have been rebellious. I would have been bad. So I remind him of his behavior this very night, that after 20 minutes of abuse, he could hardly bring himself to look up, turned on his own people, and concerned himself only with pleasing his master. And this surprises him.

Ricky Murphy

I didn't even realize it had happened until now that I'm looking back on it. But when I think about it, yeah.

Sharon Murphy

He yelled at me.

Ricky Murphy

It went straight to my head. I was like, "Hey, y'all get your damn logs over here." And it was wrong.

Alix Spiegel

We are careless in who we pretend to be. We are unrealistic. We're dreamers. We pretend things about ourselves, and then we mistake them for reality.

And these days, there are more and more of these simulated experiences. We can pretend that we are frontier mountain men from the 1740s, or World War I doughboy fighters, or someone from the Middle Ages. White South Africans can even go to a simulated Zulu village and pretend that they are tribal members.

So we'll dress in the clothing of Elizabethan royalty. We'll lie down in Civil War trenches with the Tennessee Valley Battalion. We'll fasten slave chains to our wrists and run screaming through the woods. Maybe one day, we'll even lie down in ovens. We will play at lives which we know, and on a deeper level, we hope and pray will never be or even resemble our own. And then inevitably, we will go home.

Ira Glass

Alix Spiegel.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder, contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margie Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help form Emi Takahara, Todd Bachmann, and Sylvia Lemus.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

If you'd like to buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who is heard at staff meetings managing us this way.

Girl 5

Move the wood! Move the wood.

Ira Glass

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

Woman 3

May God be with thee as they travel.

Man 6

God be with you, friends.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.