Transcript

159:

Mother's Day
Transcript

Originally aired 05.12.2000

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/159

Prologue.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. There's a story by Tillie Olsen in which a mother of five stands at an ironing board contemplating a note from a teacher asking her to come in and discuss her oldest daughter. "She's a youngster who needs help," the note says, "and whom I'm deeply interested in helping." The mother mulls this over. Should she go in? What is there even to say about her daughter's life? Here's Tillie Olsen, reading.

Tillie Olsen

Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I'm her mother, I have a key? Or that, in some way, you could use me as the key? She's lived for 19 years. There's all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.

And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I'll start, and there will be an interruption, and I'll have to gather it all together again. Or I'll become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been, and what cannot be helped.

Ira Glass

And then, as she stands there ironing, she reviews her daughter's life, point by point, from the baby she was through all sorts of troubles and mistakes. A working mother trying to be there for her children, trying and learning as she goes, making it up as she goes. Until, at the end, she finally comes to this beautiful passage, this almost encyclopedic list, of everything which can happen with one's children.

Tillie Olsen

I will never total it all. I'll never come in to say she was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives. She was dark, and thin, and foreign-looking, in a world where the prestige went to blondness, and curly hair, and dimples. She was slow where glibness was prized.

She was a child of anxious, not proud love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother. I was a distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sisters seemed to be all that she was not. There were years she did not let me touch her.

She kept too much in herself. Her life was such that she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear. Let her be. So, all that is in her will not bloom, but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know, help make it so there is cause for her to know that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

Ira Glass

Being a parent is an improvisation and things go wrong. As in any daily undertaking, things go wrong. And, in the end, so many mothers feel unappreciated.

Shirley Glass

Mothers are taken for granted.

Ira Glass

This is, as you'd might expect, a mother. In fact, it's my mother, Shirley Glass. She is a psychologist in Baltimore.

Ira Glass

Mom, I was wondering if you've noticed that every year since we started This American Life four and a half years ago we've done a Father's Day show, but we've never done a Mother's Day show.

Shirley Glass

Actually, I never noticed it until you pointed it out to me.

Ira Glass

OK.

Shirley Glass

I guess I've become accustomed to ignoring those kind of slights.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHING] Oh, really?

Shirley Glass

Well, I have a generic answer for that.

Ira Glass

You do?

Shirley Glass

Yeah, why you've done Father's Day shows and you haven't done a Mother's Day show is because mothers are taken for granted.

Ira Glass

Like, how do you mean?

Shirley Glass

Well, for example, I knew somebody who told me that the summer that he was at camp and his mother wrote to him every single day. And his father wrote to him once. And he kept the letter that his father sent for the rest of his life because it meant so much. And he didn't keep any of the letters that his mother sent.

Ira Glass

Well, is that because it was so surprising that his father would be emotionally expressive? Whereas his mother was always emotionally expressive?

Shirley Glass

Exactly. The child is so secure with the mother that he doesn't need to hold onto a souvenir or a symbol that she cares about him.

Ira Glass

Hm.

Shirley Glass

That's what I just said, that we take the mothers for granted.

Ira Glass

Well, obviously, some mothers believe that mothers are taken for granted. Today on our program, we try to right this terrible wrong in our small, little way, here on the radio, with stories for Mother's Day. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, you're listening to This American Life's Mother's Day show.

Our program today in three acts. Act One, "She Said, She Said," in which Alex Blumberg conducts an investigation, perhaps the first ever, with people who compulsively imitate their mother's voices in everyday conversation, well into adulthood. Act Two, "Are You My Mommy?" When a 14-year-old was sent into adult prison in Florida, the state did such a terrible job taking care of her that, incredibly, several women, an embezzler, a convicted murderer, and some thieves, stepped in to mother her. That story from writer Alex Kotlowitz. Act Three, "Mom Music." Beau O'Reilly confronts his mother about her dirty little secret with Johnny Cash. Stay with us.

Act One. She Said, She Said.

Ira Glass

Act One, "She Said, She Said." There are, as far as we can tell, no scientific studies proving what we're about to assert to you. Our evidence is anecdotal and preliminary. We invite the scientific community to pick up the thread where we leave it. Our findings, thus far, are these. We have discovered that there is a vast subset of American families that crosses all social classes in which the children do imitations of their mothers all the time, even into adulthood. What does it mean? Alex Blumberg tells all.

Alex Blumberg

In my un-scientific survey I can tell you this, it's always people who have close relationships with their mothers, whose mothers are still powerful forces for them, who end up imitating them. What's always striking is how vivid these imitations are.

Jonnafer

My name is Jonnafer. I'm from Milwaukee. And the typical conversation with my mother, or my favorite thing to imitate her, is in the morning, when we were children, she'd come in the room to wake us up. And there were three girls in the room. And so she would come in every morning and she would first wake up my sister, Sharon. And Sharon was the hardest one to wake up.

And so, every morning, she would come in the room and she'd go, "Sharon. Sharon? Sharon? Sharon. Sharon. Sharon! Sharon, I know you hear me talking to you, Sharon. Sharon, get up. Sharon, I'm going to wake up the rest of the babies trying to wake you. Sharon, get up. Lord, I don't know how you don't want to get-- Sharon. I know you-- Sharon? I wish you would get out of that bed! Girl, get up!" And that was every morning. And it would always start off very sweet. "Sharon? Sharon. Sharon. Sharon." And it's not Sha-ron, it's, Sharn. Sharn Sharn.

She talked all the time. If you would say that, you know, "I'm studying now." "Oh, you studying? What you studying? Let me look at that book. And we didn't have books. See, we didn't have books like this when I was in school, Jonna. We had a little, old slate. And you'd put your name on there with some chalk. And then, when you were done, you'd just wipe it right off. That's how that worked back then, Jonnafer."

Alex Blumberg

Jonnafer's been imitating her mother since she was four or five years old. She says, originally, it was to be mean, to mock her. Her mother talked so country, she says. But then, she started imitating her mother for a different reason after her father got sick. She was different, her mother was different.

Jonnafer

Her voice actually changed during that time period. It came not so much out of her throat, but from her heart. Because, I think, she thought that everything she would say, particularly to him, may be the last thing. And so her voice actually changed during that time period. Her voice got very low. It wasn't, "How you doing Jonnafer?" It was, you know, "Jonnafer, how are you," because everything was just, you know, "Lord, don't know." Everything was just so hard and so trying. "And I just--"

And then she would always say, that she hardly ever said before, "I just don't know. You know I don't know what," you know, "he's just getting so sick lately." And then everything started to sound like that. Even if I call her now, "How you doing?" "Well, I'm doing fine. Everything's all right." And she whispers a lot more now. Even though people she's talking about aren't in the house, she'll whisper. "I think she's going to come over tomorrow and help me with my puzzles."

During the whole, I would say, last year of his life she was taking care of him, but we were taking care of her. So you spent a lot of time talking to her and talking to my siblings about her. So, I think, when we got to the point where we were always calling each other-- and my phone bill was, like, $300 or $400 during this whole time period, month after month-- we would imitate her to each other. But it was more of a way to relay this information in a way that didn't hurt so bad.

It was easy for me to call my brother up, or my sister up, and say, "You know, Toots doesn't like anything." We call her Toots. You know, Toots is complaining about this. "And the grass ain't cut. Now, I wanted my grass cut at 4 o'clock. You know, David didn't show up until 4:30. I had to push that lawnmower by myself." It wasn't so hard to hear then.

I always wonder, and I think my siblings always wonder, is it as bad as she says it is, or isn't it? And so, by imitating her and trying to get it as close to it as possible, it is conveying more information, you know? "David didn't cut that grass til 4:30," is a lot different than, "Lord, David didn't cut that grass til 4:30. I just don't know what I'm going to do." When her voice is like that, it's just like, oh my, somebody get there now. But if it's, "I don't know why that boy didn't cut that grass," she's fine. She's complaining, she's fine.

Julia Sweeney

In our family, we always imitated our mother to each other.

Alex Blumberg

Another thing I can tell you, if one person in the family imitates the Mom, everybody does. Take Julia Sweeney's family.

Julia Sweeney

It was actually a main source of bonding between the kids, of us telling each other stories of something she said or did to each other.

Alex Blumberg

OK. For example?

Julia Sweeney

My sister, Meg, who lives in Japan, if she and I are talking about my mother, she'll say, "Well, I called Mom and Dad last week, and Dad's reading more books about dogs. And he's still considering getting a dog, and we had a great talk about that. And then Mom said, 'Well, I don't know why you chose to move 10,000 miles away. A person who decided to move 10,000 miles away from their family must have some reasons for moving. And you should think about that, why you need to be 10,000 miles away.'"

Alex Blumberg

[LAUGHS]

Julia Sweeney

And then we'll laugh because one of the reasons you are 10,000 miles away is because someone near you could be saying things like that to you. [LAUGHS]

My mom used to do these things like, she had weird, confusing-- it's kind of like with the money thing-- confusing gift. Like, she would say, "For your birthday, I'm going to give you $50 towards that $200 microwave I want you to have."

[LAUGHTER]

Julia Sweeney

And then you'd say, "Well," [LAUGHING] "Then I have to spend $150 on the microwave, and I don't even want that microwave." And she'll say, "No, I've checked out all the microwaves. I've gone to Sears. I've gone to The Bon. I've gone everywhere. This is the microwave for you to have. But I have a budget on your birthday for $50. So I thought, if I put down the first $50, you could pay it off over time. And then that would be my birthday gift to you."

Alex Blumberg

[LAUGHS]

Julia Sweeney

I think part of it is to offset what may be uncomfortable with a funny way of imitating something that, if you weren't imitating, it might be just plain upsetting otherwise.

Alex Blumberg

Really?

Julia Sweeney

Well, you know, it's just easier because it distances you from the person, and then you can imitate them and then look at them as a funny way. In some ways what your brain is saying is, "I'm not them. I'm so not them. I'll make a character that's them and say what they would say as them. That's how much I'm not them." You know? Like that.

Alex Blumberg

Julia Sweeney is an actress. And for years, when she was just starting out, she would assume the character of her mom in sketches with The Groundlings Comedy Troupe in LA. But, when her mom came to see the shows, she'd pull the sketches. It was the same when she was on Saturday Night Live. One skit was based on this idea.

Julia Sweeney

My mother would always tell-- it's actually, it's so funny to me. She tells you the story of a movie from the point of view of the character who is most like her in age and point of view in the movie, no matter how small that character is in the movie.

So, if it was Romeo and Juliet, say, she would say, "I saw a movie about this nurse. And she takes care of this girl, who's 14, who's very rambunctious and hard to manage. And she's had a hard time controlling her. And she runs off with a boy that no one wants her to be with. And everyone tells her she doesn't know what she's talking about. And the nurse is very concerned about this girl. And, of course, they end up dead at the end."

[LAUGHTER]

Julia Sweeney

And so I was going to do this on SNL. And then I just couldn't. I was too nervous about-- I just didn't want her to see it. I wanted to protect her.

Alex Blumberg

Eventually, Julia's mother did see herself on stage in Julia's one-woman show, God Said Ha! Even after several years, her mother still recalls certain scenes she took offense at, which Julia understands. Mothers have feelings.

Julia Sweeney

On the other hand, I have to say it's a way of loving them and enjoying them, maybe, in the only way you can. Because I have a huge amount of love for my mother, and I really enjoy her, but one way I think I learned to enjoy her was to make her a character to me that was also funny.

And sometimes my mother says incredibly insightful, true things. And maybe it was a way for me to feel more intimacy with her in some weird, inside-out, perverted way, by making her into a character, and then relating to her as that character, and, in some ways, even allowing that character to have really true insights.

Alex Blumberg

One of the paradoxes of imitating your mother is that you expose certain aspects of her personality in precise detail, or you simplify and make cartoon-ish her personality as a whole. Sarah Koenig, whose mother was born overseas and still has her British accent, says it's because the portrayals leave huge chunks out.

Sarah Koenig

I think the character of my mother that I play is sort of more dotty and sort of talking all about, "Well, I went to the fish shop. And they didn't have enough tuna, so I got the swordfish. And I don't have the right-- it's so irritating," you know, this kind of bumbling, silly, English woman.

And she's actually not really like that. She is really impressive in what she's had to deal with in her life. So I don't know if that comes through. That's probably missing. And I don't know how you make that come through. I mean, I don't know if you can bring that out in any kind of dopey imitation of your mom.

She's always trying to get you, or my brother, or my sister to do chores by-- she bills them as fun because we'll do it together. She'll say, "Oh, Sarah, can't you just help me in the garden a bit?" [LAUGHS] And I'll say, "Oh, Mom, please, I don't want to. Can we do it a little later?" "Oh, Sarah, it's so much fun when we do it together." And she gets a lot of flack for that.

Alex Blumberg

Why does she get flack for that?

Sarah Koenig

Because it's such a ruse, so clearly a ruse. It's not fun. And sometimes they were bad jobs. "It's so much fun if we do it together."

[TELEPHONE RINGS]

Sarah's Mother

Hello?

Alex Blumberg

Hello, Mrs. Matheson? This is Alex.

Sarah's Mother

Oh, hello Alex.

Alex Blumberg

Well, it seemed unfair not to consult the real protagonist of this story. I called Sarah's mom, and it turns out she knows Sarah's imitation quite well.

Sarah's Mother

I would make my usual little homilies of when we were gardening. And I would try to entice them to help me and say, "Now, let's do it all together. It'll be such fun." [LAUGHS] And Sarah would say this back to me with a little slant. And I realized that I was sounding absurd. Although, I wished they would come and help me. And I do think it's more fun when we do it all together.

[LAUGHTER]

Alex Blumberg

In fact, Sarah and her mother both remember a time when Sarah didn't do imitations, when she was too afraid of her mother to even attempt them. And they both remember the exact moment when everything changed.

Sarah Koenig

My sister and I would fight, which we did all the time, loudly, violently occasionally. And, one time, my sister and I were fighting horribly. We must've been, like, 10 and 12, or nine, and then, nine and 12, or something.

Sarah's Mother

I couldn't stand the wrangling any longer, the fighting. It was endless and always, wrangling and fighting, until it drove their poor mother berserkers.

Sarah Koenig

I remember exactly where it was in the house, in this tiny, little alcove where there was a phone. I mean, there wasn't even room for the three of us. And my mother got so fed up that she grabbed my sister and me by the collar, kind of.

Sarah's Mother

And then I threatened them. And said that I would bang their heads together if they didn't stop. And they didn't stop, so I banged their heads together.

Alex Blumberg

And then, what happened?

Sarah's Mother

And they laughed. That's what they did.

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah Koenig

And we started laughing, uncontrollably. It was so absurd. And you could see she wanted to laugh, but she couldn't. It was this critical moment of discipline, and she couldn't.

Sarah's Mother

I was really shocked. I was guilty and horrified, and I was mad as well.

Sarah Koenig

I think the realization, at that moment, was we both knew that my mother was never going to discipline us the same way, ever again. Like, that there would be no more corporal punishment around the house because it was too absurd.

Sarah's Mother

I became, from a feared and authoritarian mother, to a figure of fun. And, suddenly, nothing worked.

Sarah Koenig

I went from being afraid of her wrath to mocking her wrath. [LAUGHS] And she knows it, she talks about it. That's another thing she says all the time, "It's so awful." She says, "You wait 'til you have children and you go from a figure of fear to a figure of fun."

Sarah's Mother

By making the things that I thought important, or wanted to make important, absurd, it freed her. I do think that.

Alex Blumberg

And it freed her from what, exactly?

Sarah's Mother

Well, you know, I'm a sort of overbearing person, and it's hard for them to get away. Sarah, at one point, said to me when she came back from Moscow and I was trying to have her make tea. And she didn't want to have tea. I have tea every afternoon, I'm a creature of habit. And those sorts of habits irritate her, that I'm very habit-bound. And I said, "You're very disagreeable. You've come all the way from Moscow," and, et cetera. And she said, "Well, don't you understand? I can't bear to be here, and I want to be here all the time."

I think that this form of diverting me from my purpose is very good for me because it makes me see myself in a different way. And sometimes it's very loving, and it makes me relax and not want to control all the time. It's taken me a long time in order to give up that control, and it's a great relief. I mean, keeping control is very exhausting, I think.

Sarah Koenig

You know how everyone--- there's this maxim that we all become our mother or we all become our parents. And, generally, I really wouldn't mind becoming my mother. I really like her, so I wouldn't mind becoming her. But I definitely need to edit her. And, I think, if I imitate her and I'm making fun of her, those are the parts of her that I would edit out of myself. If I have to become her in the long-run, then I'd like to not become those parts. If I can isolate those bits and repeat them frequently, perhaps I can avoid them.

Alex Blumberg

Which brings me to my last finding, imitating your mom doesn't mean you don't get along with her. Jonnafer talks to her mom on the phone almost every day. Sarah recently went with her mom to a health spa in the desert for a week and actually found it relaxing. And Julia just spent 10 days with her mother in Spokane and came back with nothing she wanted to mock.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg is one of the producers of This American Life.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "YOUR MOTHER'S HERE TO STAY" BY ALLAN SHERMAN]

Well, coming up, who makes a better mother, a convicted criminal behind bars or the state of Florida? Answers in a minute. From Public Radio International when our program continues.

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, stories for Mother's Day. We've arrived at Act Two of our program.

Act Two. Are You My Mommy?

Ira Glass

Act Two, "Are You My Mommy?" Tougher sentencing laws all across the country have resulted in more teenagers being bumped up from juvenile court to adult court, where they get adult sentences. And if you're, say, 14, and get sentenced to serious time like this, in most states, you will serve the first few years of your time in a juvenile detention center, someplace designed for young people, where they'll make you go to school, where there are facilities for you and people trained to deal with you.

But, in some states, you can get sent, right away, to adult prison from the start. 7,000 young people are in adult prisons right now. And, of course, in that situation, the state has taken on the job of being your parent. And it isn't always such a good parent. Alex Kotlowitz has the story of one teenage girl who was sent to adult prison in Florida. And the prison did such a sloppy job caring for her-- it wasn't set up for this job after all-- that other prisoners stepped in to mother her.

Alex Kotlowitz

Jessica Robinson is a slender girl with emerald green eyes, her hair on this day styled in a short bob. Her forehead is marked by a light case of acne. We met in an office at the Dade Correctional Institution, a sprawling prison complex which lies on the edge of Florida's everglades.

We sit in chairs knee-to-knee. Jessica stretches, arching her back. She answers many of my questions with the phrase, "Yes, but no." She cracks her knuckles. She yawns. She snatches a piece of paper from the desk and rolls it up tightly. She picks lint off of my microphone. She tugs at the hem of her prison-issue navy blue skirt. She is, to put it mildly, fidgety. "Were you scared when you first got to prison?" I asked.

Jessica Robinson

Scared when I went in Jefferson? No.

Alex Kotlowitz

What are things you miss the most?

Jessica Robinson

Having fun.

Alex Kotlowitz

Like what?

Jessica Robinson

Going out with Barbara, mainly. Because we used to go to the beach and stuff. Going shopping, oh I miss shopping. Going to the movies, going to the pet shops, seeing the little puppies in the windows.

Alex Kotlowitz

If you could get out tomorrow, what would be the first thing you'd do?

Jessica Robinson

I don't know, I'd probably go to Taco Bell and eat.

Alex Kotlowitz

Go to Taco Bell?

Jessica Robinson

Yep. I love Taco Bell.

Alex Kotlowitz

Jessica is 16, the youngest prisoner here at Dade. She's a girl among women. She's been in prison, adult prison, for two years and is serving a nine-year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping. But I'll get to that shortly.

In July of 1998, Jessica arrived at her first stop after the county jail, the Jefferson Correctional Institution, an all-women's prison near Tallahassee. She was 14. She had long, dirty blond hair that fell to the small of her back, and she was reed thin. Shortly after her arrival, she met Suzanne Manning, who's serving 30 years for embezzlement.

Suzanne Manning

The first time I ever saw Jessica, it was actually sitting in the child hall at Jefferson Correctional Institution. There had been a lot of rumors going around about this little girl that was at Jefferson. And Jefferson's considered kind of a tough prison. And there are three gun towers. It's pretty intimidating. It's very strict, you walk in a little yellow line on the side of the walkways.

So, in the child hall, I had heard all the rumors. Well, when I saw her walk by, I was in shock because, when you looked at Jessica-- and this was years ago now, a couple of years ago-- Jessica looked like a child. Her cheeks were rosy red, she still looked like she had baby fat on her. And she looked totally lost. Not too long after I first saw her she moved into my dorm, in B Dorm. And my heart just broke when I saw Jessica and I got to talk to her because she was a child, she was a baby, and she was thrown into this hellhole and didn't have a clue.

Alex Kotlowitz

Suzanne Manning's 39. She's a handsome woman. Her six years in prison have turned her curly hair gray. She became the first in a line of women to watch over the 14-year-old.

Suzanne Manning

Well, I thought I would start helping her with some school work. We went to the library, and they had kind of a children's section. And Jessica ran over and got a book, The Little Mermaid, and wanted me to read that book to her. And I think it brought out a lot of my maternal instincts because my son was 13 when I came to prison, and I missed a lot of those times with him. So being able to sit and read with Jessica, it really did both of our hearts good.

Alex Kotlowitz

Jessica was born in Austin, Texas. Her father was a heroin addict and, according to Jessica's mother, Teresa, he physically abused her and their two daughters.

When Jessica was three, Teresa fled from Miami to be near her parents. There, she waitressed nights at Denny's and, by her own admission, wasn't a very patient mother. She and Jessica fought frequently.

When Jessica turned 13, she began to run away from home, once, staying away for three weeks. She was detained in a juvenile facility on three occasions, all a result of inter-family squabbles. Once she threw a plate at her older sister. Another time she bit her mother on her hand.

Teresa told me she'd called the juvenile authorities hoping she could get her daughter psychiatric help, but she had no health insurance. Indeed, a psychologist who saw Jessica in detention recommended that she be placed in a residential program where she could receive therapy. Nothing ever came of that suggestion. She was released a few days later.

At one point, Teresa sent Jessica to live with her grandparents, but Jessica quickly alienated them as well. She argued with them, and they too called the authorities. Jessica sought revenge.

On a late Saturday night in July of 1997, Jessica, who was 13, and two other teenagers, a boy and a girl, showed up at her grandparent's. Jessica and the other girl snatched jewelry and cash while the boy forced the two grandparents at knife point into a back room, ordering them to kneel on the floor. The boy threatened to kill them with a flower pot and, at one point, cut the grandfather on the hand. The three were arrested a couple of days later.

Under Florida law, the state's attorney could choose to prosecute Jessica as an adult, and did, charging her with armed kidnapping and armed robbery. Jessica pled guilty. Her mother wasn't present for the sentencing. She'd married a serviceman and followed him to Germany.

In court, Jessica initially refused to apologize to her grandparents. And at the sentencing, the judge told Jessica that her dogs were better behaved than her. The judge also told Jessica, and I quote, "I don't think we need people like you in our country." She sentenced Jessica to nine years. Jessica became the youngest girl in Florida's adult prisons. Suzanne Manning then entered Jessica's life.

Suzanne Manning

I couldn't imagine being a child growing up-- I knew what my son, at the age of 13, was eating when I left home, and I knew how important snacks were. I knew how important chips were, and juice when he wanted it. And then, all of a sudden, to realize, here's this child in prison who couldn't eat when she wanted to eat. And, sure, everyone would chip in and buy Jessica snacks and stuff, but do you know what it's like to feed a child like that on $30 a week? I mean, it's virtually impossible. We used to look at her at night thinking, what can we do to get food for her? It was horrible.

Prisons are pretty strict on touching. It's called unauthorized physical contact, and you can get a DR, disciplinary report, and go to confinement for it. And, many times, officers would catch me hugging Jessica, or rubbing her head, or her head on my shoulder if she was crying, and they wouldn't say anything, they'd just walk past it. And I understand that they couldn't encourage it, or acknowledge that they saw it without having to write me up because they would have to keep the rules for everybody. There is not a rule that says if you're 14 or 15 someone can hug you because you need a hug.

Alex Kotlowitz

But they would let you?

Suzanne Manning

Many times. Many, many times. There was one time in our dorm, when I walked in, everyone got real quiet, and a little circle was formed around, in the back around people. And Jessica was in the center of it in an argument. I didn't even recognize her voice, OK? She was in an argument with this girl and they were just going at it. And this circle had been surrounded around them by adults who wanted them to fight. And I actually got between two of the women, and I took Jessica and pulled her up to the officer's station.

Alex Kotlowitz

Now, let me guess, Jessica must've really pissed at you.

Suzanne Manning

Well, in the beginning, she was. I'm not going to say she wasn't. She told me that she needed to prove her point, and she needed to stand up, and all the rest of those con words. But she didn't need to do it. And she ended up being OK after that.

Christmas was really big for her. She said she could remember Christmases with her mother. And I remember one Christmas, one of my friends named Susan made Jessica-- she melted down some Hershey bars and made Jessica a Christmas tree out of Hershey bars that were melted. She mixed some nuts in it. And then she took M&M's and smashed them up and put them on top to make it like it was lights, and shaped it all up and got it hard, and gave Jessica that.

And I ran out to the store. I thought of it at the last minute. I hadn't even thought that she was a child and it was Christmastime and she might want something. So I ran out to the store and I got Jessica a radio and some headphones and some batteries. When I came back down, and I gave that to Jessica, she didn't stop hugging me. She jumped up and down.

And then I realized what a solace that was to her to be able to listen to the music. I mean, she stayed on her bed after that and didn't bother us, pretty much. She could listen to music. She knew what was going on. She walked around with it at rec. And I thought, why didn't I think of that before? She's a child. Children like music.

Alex Kotlowitz

Jessica started calling Suzanne Mommy, but Suzanne discouraged her.

Suzanne Manning

She started that, "Mom, you're my mom." And I sat down and told her, "I'm not your mom. Your mom is in Germany. And I'm Suzanne, and I'll do anything I can to help you." And a lot of people think that's cruel. I don't think it is. I think it's a reality. I'm not your mom.

Another reality is, if you try to be in groups like that or bond like that with people here, in prison, you get shipped. I mean, you can get shipped today. This morning they could've woken me up and said, "You're going to Dade." On Tuesday, they could wake me up and say, "You're going to Lowell." Jefferson had one shipment day, and that was Tuesdays. People were shipped on Tuesdays. So, every Monday night, I'd say, "Jessica, do you realize that I can be shipped tomorrow? Do you realize you can be shipped tomorrow?"

Alex Kotlowitz

Suzanne was transferred to another prison. But, before she left, she wrote to the Children's Advocacy Center at Florida State University's law school detailing her concerns about Jessica. Jessica needs more milk, Suzanne wrote. Jessica receives a prison diet tailored for a grown man or woman. It includes only one cup of 2% milk each day.

Claudia Kemp was a law student at Florida State, and she took on Jessica's case. Claudia is 47, a former hardware store owner and the mother of three daughters. She made a commitment to see Jessica every week. And, pretty soon, she'd become the second woman to step in as a kind of surrogate parent to Jessica.

Claudia Kemp

One time she was not feeling well. And she just put her head down on the table and said, "I want you to take me home with you."

Alex Kotlowitz

And you said?

Claudia Kemp

And I said, "I wish I could." I mean that I wish I could take you out of here. I'm sorry you're here. Other times she would say, you know, "Couldn't I just go out for a drive?" "Can I go to the beach? I wish I could just go to the beach." And it's not even that she was asking to be let out, but just couldn't I go out for a little while, like a field trip. It's sort of what she was asking for, was a field trip. Just to go out. And it was very hard because you have to repress a very natural reaction.

Alex Kotlowitz

Which is?

Claudia Kemp

To want to take care of her. She had never been to the visiting plaza, which is the visiting that happens on the weekend when people's families come, because she never had any family to come. So she had never participated in that visiting schedule. And so I made arrangements to come see her on a Saturday.

And a friend of hers grandparents were also there on that same day, so it was like a party that we had. I stayed there for four hours. And Jessica and her friend made us lunch, which is another one of these recipes they have where they take a variety of items from the canteen, like Spam, and oriental rice with seasoning, and Cheetos, and they make this almost-- I'm not even sure what to call it-- like a little cornmeal roll of some kind.

Alex Kotlowitz

In October of last year, Jessica, for the second time, lost an adult who was looking after her. She was transferred to the Dade Correctional Institution, which is eight hours from Tallahassee, too far for Claudia to visit any more. And Jessica can't write Suzanne Manning since correspondence between inmates isn't allowed. Here at Dade, which houses 521 women inmates, Jessica has found other mentors, which she describes as her prison family.

Jessica Robinson

I have two dads, two moms. I have a great grandfather, a great grandmother, uncles, aunties, brothers, cousins, sisters.

Alex Kotlowitz

And, as a family, do they watch out for you?

Jessica Robinson

Yeah, they do.

Alex Kotlowitz

Her prison family is such an elaborate affair that two of her moms, their nicknames Blackie and Tattoo, both in for murder, had a custody battle over Jessica. I didn't ask Jessica how the dispute was settled, but suffice it to say that Blackie won and Tattoo is granted visiting rights on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Her family gave her a Sweet 16 party, making a cake out of Pop Tarts, cream cheese, and melted chocolate. One woman made a Teddy bear out of socks, which Jessica took to bed every night until it was discovered by a guard and confiscated. Stuffed animals aren't permitted.

Alex Kotlowitz

Who do you go to here for advice?

Jessica Robinson

My great grandfather, Sarah Allen. She's 21. She's in my dorm. She lives in my dorm.

Alex Kotlowitz

Wait, she's 21, and she's your great, great grandfather?

Jessica Robinson

She's just my great grandfather. Yeah, only 21.

Alex Kotlowitz

Her great grandfather, Sarah Allen, is in for killing a 40-year-old man in a hold-up. One mom, Blackie, along with an accomplice, robbed an elderly couple at their home. The accomplice hacked them to death with a machete. Another mom, Tattoo, along with an accomplice, stole checks from an elderly gentlemen. Her accomplice beat the man to death. These are the women now in Jessica's life. During my visit at Dade, I met with Jessica's prison step-mom, Wanda Dennis, who's serving 22 months for check forgery.

Wanda Dennis

I will not see anybody harm her or do anything to her. She's a baby. To me, she's a baby. I have a child, what? Two years younger than her? And if one of my kids was to come here, in the same situation as her, I want someone older to look out for my child also. And I look out for her in that aspect, as if she was one of my own children.

If she calls you and you do not move right that minute, oh, she blows up and she storms off. She's gone and she's mad. And then, when you see her, "Oh, I don't want no-- you don't never have time for me." And, "No, you have time for everybody else." And we're like, "But, Jessica, we just spent all day yesterday." It doesn't make a difference. Every day is Jessica's day.

Oh my god. She has this little walk. I think it's her little grown-up walk. And I hate it when she does it. And I tell her all the time, "Stop walking like that." I don't know, I could just picture her walking the compound right now.

Alex Kotlowitz

But, you say she's got an adult-like walk, you mean just kind of swiveling her hips?

Wanda Dennis

Yes, that's the walk she does. Yes. But it's just her own little walk she's picked up since she's been here, I think.

Alex Kotlowitz

Kind of testing those adult waters, I guess.

Wanda Dennis

Yes. Yes. She has, in a way, to me, she doesn't have a choice. She either has to blend in with adults or act like a child. If she acts like a child, then she gets talked about.

Alex Kotlowitz

The fact is, this isn't an environment that leaves much room for experimentation. And Jessica's no longer a rosy-cheeked 14-year-old. She'll be 17 in August. She smokes. She curses. She wears dark eye shadow. She lifts weights. Not surprisingly, she suffers from depression and takes anti-depressants. The women in Jessica's life worry about her.

Jessica's mother, her real mother, has re-entered her life. And she and Jessica have had a reconciliation, of sorts. They talk twice a month. Claudia Kemp, the law student, also keeps in touch by phone with Jessica. She's helped file a motion to get Jessica transferred into a juvenile facility where there'd be teachers, counselors, and therapists to work with her. It's also a place where Jessica could be among other children, which, she told me, is what she misses most of all.

Towards the end of our time together, I told Jessica I was planning to visit Suzanne Manning the next day. Jessica excitedly recounted the Christmas Suzanne gave her the radio with headphones. She then paused. "I miss her," she said. Suzanne misses Jessica as well.

Suzanne Manning

I ask all the time. Anybody who comes from Dade, I ask a million questions about Jessica. I heard that right after I left she actually got her GED. Is that true?

Alex Kotlowitz

I don't think so.

Suzanne Manning

No? I heard that she got her GED. We used to study every night. Even on weekends, we worked on her homework.

It was really hard saying goodbye to Jessica because, I guess, she knew that I was leaving. I mean, it was pretty obvious. And the next morning I went over and said goodbye, and I gave her a hug. And she just sat on her bed and looked at me, like, she couldn't believe I was abandoning her. And that's a pretty painful thing for me to have to deal with.

Alex Kotlowitz

Did she say anything to you?

Suzanne Manning

She said "Goodbye." That was it.

Alex Kotlowitz

And what were your parting words?

Suzanne Manning

I told her I loved her and I said goodbye. I said, "Bye, Jessica. I love you," I said, "and you'll be OK." But I don't know that that's necessarily true.

Alex Kotlowitz

When I asked an official at the Dade Correctional Institution whether it was difficult having such a young girl among adults, he replied, "We treat everyone the same here." That may just be the problem. There's no one, for example, to make sure Jessica goes to school. She stopped attending GED classes because, she told me, "the others in the class were too noisy."

There's no one to stop her from smoking. In fact, her prison family supplies her with cigarettes. There's no one to advise her to think twice before getting a tattoo. She's tattooed the initials of a friend on one finger and, on her forearm, has imprinted the letter M. It was to spell Mom, but, she tells me, she never got around to finishing it.

Ira Glass

Alex Kotlowitz is the author of The Other Side of the River and There Are No Children Here. Jessica Robinson gets out of prison in the year 2006.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "IT'S MOM" BY SARAH SELIGMAN]

Act Three. Mom Music.

Ira Glass

Act Three, "Mom Music."

Beau O'reilly

Hello, my name is Beau O'Reilly. And this is my mother, Winifred, here to my right.

Winifred O'reilly

How do you do? This is my son Richard John.

Beau O'reilly

Oh, no. [LAUGHS]

Winifred O'reilly

And the reason he's laughing is he changed that along the way. He's now Beau, and that's the way he's known. I call him that too.

Beau O'reilly

And so, Mom, you have 14 children, correct?

Winifred O'reilly

Mm-hm. Yes.

Beau O'reilly

And it's Mother's Day, and we're here to celebrate Mother's Day.

Winifred O'reilly

Do you have any memories that you'd like to share?

Beau O'reilly

I was remembering that-- I was thinking about the love part when we made this decision with Ira, that we would go in a love direction. I was thinking about when we were still pretty little and we lived in the house on Edgewood Avenue.

Winifred O'reilly

Yes.

Beau O'reilly

And I remember being really little and figuring out, at a certain point, that you listened to the opera on Saturday mornings.

Winifred O'reilly

Oh, yes.

Beau O'reilly

And that, if I was interested in opera, I could spend more time with you. Because everybody else was not interested. They were running around outside, which was a reasonable thing for them to do. And so I would come and sit by the radio. And you would listen to the opera. And you would tell me a little bit about the Italian or the German, what the language meant. But you would mostly tell me the story of the opera. And I really didn't care very much about the music, but I loved hearing you tell the story of how the opera worked.

Winifred O'reilly

Thank you. I hadn't heard that before. My memory of listening to the operas on Saturday afternoon is more I would put the little gate up, which we had when each little child was in the crawling stage. And I'd put the gate up, and I'd say, "I'm going to be in the living room listening to the opera. If you want to be quiet and listen, you can come in. If you want to make a lot of noise and have fun, stay out." [LAUGHS]

Beau O'reilly

Right, because it was your private time.

Winifred O'reilly

It was my private time.

Beau O'reilly

Yeah. And the private time thing was really important to me when I was a kid, to get private time with you, because I was always surrounded by brothers and sisters, because the place was so small and we all were there all the time. And so I remember, actually, I would calculate little things. Like, OK, am I sick enough to stay home with mother?

And there was this period of time, when I was in 5th, 6th grade, something like that, where I would get this stuff that would come out of my eyes. I don't know what it was, it was probably an infection. And I would wake up with my eyes glued shut from this gunk in my eyes that would glue them shut. And I would lie on the bunk bed with these slices of cucumber. You would give me slices of cucumber. And I'd lie on them with the cucumber on my eyes, which, I guess, pulled the stuff out of the eyes. And then you would slip me slices of cucumber to eat. And you would tell me different stories and talk about things. And that is when I remember that you confessed to me your love of Johnny Cash.

Winifred O'reilly

My goodness.

Beau O'reilly

Because you would listen to Johnny Cash on the radio. And you were kind of like, "Well, it's country music, and it's kind of dorky, and the rest of us shouldn't know about the Johnny Cash thing. But I really love his voice, Beau." And I loved that about you, that you had this little secret Johnny Cash thing.

Winifred O'reilly

There was a time when I, of course, for many, many years, I would be up in the middle of the night feeding a baby. But there was nothing else on the radio but the Barn Dance.

Beau O'reilly

Right, it was late at night.

Winifred O'reilly

And I thought, "Now, these are real people. I don't know this music at all, this country music, but I like the integrity I'm getting here. I like this feeling." And, of course, it also helped me through the night.

Beau O'reilly

Yeah. Well, the singing was always, really, a very important part for you. And, then, therefore, for us. And that was a lot of what we did, as a group, is that we sang together and told stories. Do you want to sing now?

Winifred O'reilly

I was thinking that this is a lullaby. I sang it frequently. [SINGING] Lullaby and goodnight, with roses bedight, With lilies o'er spread is baby's wee bed. Lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed. Lay thee down now and sleep, may thy slumber be deep.

Beau O'reilly

I was just thinking about this the other day, is that-- I think I was in the 7th grade because I was already tall, because I was as tall in 7th grade as I am now. So I was, like, 5' 9", and I was very skinny, but I was that tall. And I woke up one morning in the attic. I slept in the attic with my brothers. And I got out of bed and I fell down on the floor because my leg, my right leg, didn't work. It just went completely numb and didn't work. But, somehow, the decision was made I would go to school anyway. The leg must be asleep, and it would wake up, and I would go.

So, I went to school. And I got to school on the bus, which was, maybe, two miles from where we lived, two and a half miles. And when I got to school, it was obvious that the leg still wasn't working. It just wasn't working. And so one of the nuns called you and, I think, at the neighbor's house because we didn't have a phone. And the neighbor went and got you.

And you walked from home to the school to get me. And you came to the classroom and you picked me up. And I still remember how it felt to be picked up, at that point, because you put your arms around me and you picked me up at the trunk, like, at the chest and shoulders. And you pick me up, like this, with your two hands kind of linked together, and picked me up, and a lifted me up, and carried me out of the school.

And I was taller than you were, and so my feet dragged along the sidewalk. And I remember that too, the physical sensation of that. And then you carried me from that section of the town to the other section of the town where this doctor was, which is another mile and a half, maybe, maybe two miles. I'm not exactly sure. And you carried me the whole way. And every once in a while you would say, "OK, now honey, we're going to stop." And you would just put me down, and we would wait. And then you would pick me back up and you would go.

And the whole time you talked to me as we walked, and you told me about your day and what you were doing. And you treated it as if this was just a normal thing. And you made me feel very comfortable with it. And there was no fear in it. And then we went to the doctor. There was nothing really wrong. They sent me home. The next day, it went away. It was this weird little phenomena. But what I remember most about it was that feeling of being taken care of by you. Do you remember that?

Winifred O'reilly

I think I remember it now because I hear you telling it. But I wouldn't have had it in my memory bank until it was brought up. I think that that's what a mother does. A mother takes care of the situation the best she can at the moment and doesn't think of the inability to do it, just I have to do this.

Beau O'reilly

Happy Mother's Day, Winifred.

Winifred O'reilly

I don't see how I could have anything else, but a happy Mother's Day.

Beau O'reilly

I love you, Mom.

Winifred O'reilly

I love you, Beau, Richard John.

Ira Glass

Beau O'Reilly's play, Not Only Sleeping, is currently in an extended run at Chicago's Curious Theater Branch. Winifred O'Reilly, his musical review that goes up at the end of May in Skokie, Illinois. It's called It's About Time.

Well, our program was produced today by Blue Chevigny and myself with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike and Consigliere Sarah Vowel. Production help from Todd Bachman and Mary Wiltenburg. Musical help from Mr. John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

To buy a cassette of this, or any of our programs, 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 doesn't know how it happened to him, and he keeps warning me about it.

Sarah Koenig

You wait 'til you go from a figure of fear to a figure of fun.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.