Transcript

166:

Nobody's Family Is Going to Change
Transcript

Originally aired 08.11.2000

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And I hold in my hands a children's book called Nobody's Family is Going to Change, published in the 1970s by the same writer who did Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh. It is, I have to say, an oddly menacing title, Nobody's Family is Going to Change. Various contributors to our show have joked that it's part of a series for kids, with The Little Princess Who Got Sick and Never Woke Up, Daddy Drinks Because You Cry, God Made the Pretty Girls Pretty Because He Loved Them More, and Sharing is for Sissies.

But in fact, it's a serious and really good and rather brave little book, Nobody's Family is Going to Change. There's a family, as you might expect, the Sheridans, with a mean, disapproving dad; a mom who tries to smooth things over; a son who wants to dance in a show but is told he can't by his father; a daughter Emma, who is accused of daydreaming too much. She wishes that her family could be different.

Over the course of the book, Emma tries to get her dad to change, to listen to them, to be kind. She joins something called the Children's Army, which agitates for the notion that is a child's right to change his or her family. And then, finally towards the end of the book, sitting at dinner, as her father and brother rehash the same fight that they always have, Emma realizes that her parents will never change. Her dad will always be harsh, will never treat her or her brother like he cares about them, and that she can't change him and shouldn't try. And the best she can do is change herself.

So she goes and tells her friends, who have trouble understanding it. There's a scene.

"What about my father?" asked Golden.

"Your father," said Saunders, "is a lost cause. He thinks boys are great, and he's never going to think you're anything because you're a girl."

"Well," says Golden, "I can't change that."

"No, but you could stop wanting him to change," said Saunders.

Emma felt like the top of her head would fly off. Saunders got it, the whole thing. "That's what I mean," said Emma loudly. "That's just what I'm talking about. We have to stop waiting around for them to love us."

Because it's the '70s, one of the kids suggested they form a consciousness-raising group.

The fact is, even those of us who are adults, who know better, who accept our parents and siblings as we hope that they accept us, even we hope, somehow, that maybe it'll change a little, this way or that. It's hard not to hope. And the question's on the table. Is nobody's family going to change? Today, three stories that explore whether that might be true.

Act One, So a Jew, a Christian, and a Recording Crew Walk Into This Bar. In that act, a woman travels to Alaska, thinking that maybe her brother might change a little, as he hopes that she'll change a little, too.

Act Two, Matching Outfits Not Included. The story of two sisters, now in their 70s, who have preserved the same relationship they had as girls, for better or worse.

Act Three, The Artist Formerly Known as Dr. Sarkin. What happens when you want your dad to change, and he wants to change, but there is literally nothing that can be done to change him? Stay with us.

Act One. So A Jew, A Christian, And A Recording Crew Walk Into This Bar.

Ira Glass

Act One. Julia Pimsleur's brother, Marc, went through a dramatic change, years ago now. And I think it's not exaggerating to say that she wanted him to change back, at least a little, back to the way he was when they were young. And so she set out on a little mission to see him and talk and get his side of things. And experiment to see if anybody would change.

Julia Pimsleur

Marc and I were very close when we were small. We traveled a lot, so we really only had each other for many months at a time. We went to Ghana and we went to Switzerland, we went to Germany, sometimes for many months at a time when my dad was teaching. So my earliest memories are just of this little family unit-- my dad, my mother, my brother, and me.

Marc Pimsleur

Julia and I were always together. She and I, we had each other. We'd play and talk and stuff. I don't even remember fighting at all until the year my dad died. Then we moved to New York.

Julia Pimsleur

That year was when everything changed for all of us. We just became very isolated into our separate worlds at that point. My brother and I no longer shared a room from that point on. And I don't think we were much of a family unit ever again after that. Somehow, the three of us couldn't make it a family unit again. I would like to talk with Marc about my father, but it's too late now because he has decided that everything that came before he was born again doesn't really matter.

Marc Pimsleur

I was at home and I was in one of my states where I was just totally depressed and confused. So I opened the Bible. And I don't remember what the scripture was. It was something like, why are you stressed out? Today is a day of joy.

I read that and all of a sudden, I realized God loved me, right there. And it just hit me like an atom bomb. I just felt it so powerfully. I was like, "God loves me." And it just went like, [BOMB SOUND] inside. And it just kept going on--

Julia Pimsleur

I guess, starting chronologically, my brother went to UC Berkeley and dropped out and became a born-again Christian and moved to a small island in Alaska to join a separatist community.

Marc Pimsleur

I mean, I was like, on fire, physically. I mean, in a good way. it was like this, just blinding light, the whole thing. There was no way I could dispute that something was happening. Something big was happening. And--

Julia Pimsleur

He called home and said that he had moved to a place called The Farm. And we asked where that was, and he said it was on a small island near Juneau and that he was living with 75 people in a self-sufficient farming community, and they considered themselves born-again Christians.

Marc Pimsleur

--I went outside and I was like, I felt like a newborn baby. And I looked up at the sky and it was just getting to be evening and I could see the stars and I was like, wow. It was like I was seeing everything for the first time. And--

Julia Pimsleur

At first, when he joined The Farm, it almost made us closer because he had been out of the house for several years. I spent my last years of high school with him away. So we didn't talk then and he was traveling a lot. And then he was at Berkeley and I didn't hear from him much. And then, when he came home one year, it was when he had started to have these religious experiences and he confided in me. He didn't tell my mother because he knew she would be very freaked out, and he told me.

And so I remember, initially, feeling really close to him again and very special and happy that he had chose to confide in me. And I kept his secret and we talked about it-- long talks about it, and I think he was very relieved that I didn't seem terrified at what he was telling me. But then, over the next few years, as he got more and more involved with The Farm, I felt like he was part of their world and not part of our world. And his language changed and he was talking about Jesus all the time in terms that didn't make any sense to us.

And then about five years ago, he came to visit me in France where I was living with my girlfriend. And I was very happy and in love and actually, very excited to share that with him and show him this wonderful life I had now.

And he was incredibly judgmental and said, well, the Bible does not abide by people of the same sex living with each other or loving each other. And he didn't actually want to stay with us. We went and stayed somewhere else and left him the apartment because that's the only way it would work.

So I think I cut him out of my life at that point, I just tried to forget that he was ever part of my life. So then he was gone again.

I mean, very simply, I missed my brother. At some point, I realized I had a brother once, and I no longer do. I just started to feel like this is really sad and maybe it doesn't have to be like this. Now that he's born-again Christian, there will always be a huge divide between us. But the question became, even with that divide, did I want to try to have some kind of relationship? And I guess the answer was yes, or at least yes, I want to try, even though it might not work.

I decided to go visit Marc in Alaska. What happens is, you fly for a good 20, 25 minutes and you don't see anything, you're just in the hinterland of Alaska where nobody lives. And then, all of a sudden, there's a few little cabins down below. And you land on this airport that's basically just one landing strip. It's about as long as your average suburban mall parking lot. And then you're there.

Julia Pimsleur

Oh, that so smooth!

Marc Pimsleur

You look familiar.

Julia Pimsleur

Hi.

Marc Pimsleur

Have we met?

Julia Pimsleur

Some time a long time ago.

Marc Pimsleur

This other plane pulled up just two seconds ago and everybody gets out. I'm like, "Hmm, I wonder."

Julia Pimsleur

Oh, no.

Woman

She missed the flight.

Julia Pimsleur

For many years, I lied about what Marc was doing in Alaska. I used to say that he was a scientist or that he was studying fish farming. I made up a whole bunch of weird things just because I didn't really understand why he was there myself. And I couldn't explain it to other people. And whenever I did say he was part of a born-again Christian community, people would say, "Oh, it's cult." And I didn't know what to say, so I just didn't tell people for a long time.

And many people didn't even know I had a brother. I had a lot of friends I'd had for many years who would say, "Oh my God, you have a brother? I had no idea." So I think what I'd come to try to find out in visiting Marc after all those years was how he'd gone from being my brother, who I went to Hebrew school with and watched him prepare for his bar mitzvah, and how he had made this incredible transformation. What is he doing there and how can I try to understand it better? And would he still feel like my brother?

Marc Pimsleur

There we go. Luke 18:30.

Julia Pimsleur

When do you like to read the Bible? Before you go to sleep?

Marc Pimsleur

Yeah. That's what I usually do. Unfortunately, it doesn't last too long because I usually fall asleep within 10 seconds, but--

Julia Pimsleur

Do you like to talk about the scripture and try to figure out what they meant by stuff? Is it also an intellectual activity for you?

Marc Pimsleur

Oh, no. Not really.

Julia Pimsleur

I was always jealous of Marc because he was very naturally talented. He was very creative and read a lot and was very intellectually engaged from an early age. Went to see old movies and that's just not interesting to him anymore.

Julia Pimsleur

Well, what would heaven be like? Because I have no concept of that. I have tried to imagine that because when Dad died, I definitely tried to think about where is he? And that's probably the last time I thought about there maybe being a God.

Marc Pimsleur

Yeah, right. Well, I really don't know what to answer. Let's just see when we look up about heaven, paradise.

Julia Pimsleur

Well, I want to know what you think.

Marc Pimsleur

Well, what I think is-- if I have anything to say, it's going to be based on what the Bible says anyway, because there isn't really any other way to know except what's written in the Bible.

Julia Pimsleur

Well, no. You think plenty of things that aren't exactly what's written in the Bible.

Marc Pimsleur

Well, yeah, I know. But where am I going to get an idea of what heaven is like? I mean, I've never been there. I don't really know.

Julia Pimsleur

Yeah, but you can imagine.

Marc Pimsleur

Yeah, but that's what I'm saying. What I'm saying is, what I would have to say would hopefully be based on what the Bible has to say. And if what I'm saying is my imagination, then it's kind of irrelevant anyway. Does that make sense?

Julia Pimsleur

Yeah, but it feels more irrelevant to me if you just look up something and read it to me out of a book than if you tell me how you feel about it.

Marc Pimsleur

But how I feel about it is based on what's in the book and I'm not sure exactly-- I haven't memorized the book, so I need to just look it up and see what it says.

Julia Pimsleur

But it does seem like heaven is one of those things where-- I mean, what's it going to say? It's going to say there is a heaven and you all get to go there. But it's not going to tell you what it looks like. It's not going to say--

Marc Pimsleur

Well, it doesn't tell you what it looks like.

Julia Pimsleur

Well, exactly. So why look it up?

Marc Pimsleur

I want to see if it says anything that might be relevant.

Julia Pimsleur

You can't look it up!

Marc Pimsleur

We're talking about heaven. If we read scriptures about heaven, it might give us more things to talk about.

Julia Pimsleur

I know, but asking you what you think of heaven was not connected to looking at scripture because those are two different things.

Marc Pimsleur

Well, for me, it's connected to looking up scripture.

Julia Pimsleur

Fine, look it up!

Marc Pimsleur

No, now I don't want to.

Julia Pimsleur

How would you feel, though, if you asked me something and I said, "I don't know. I have to go look it up."

Marc Pimsleur

That wouldn't bother me in the least.

Julia Pimsleur

In The Feminist Guidebook. In The Lesbian Love Handbook of Life. But really, you've read it at some point, so something made an impression on you. And then you made a decision about which part you think is what you believe. I mean, some people believe in rapture. You don't believe in rapture.

Marc Pimsleur

No.

Julia Pimsleur

So all I'm saying is, no matter what it says in here, you must have your own opinion.

Marc Pimsleur

Yes, I do.

Julia Pimsleur

And that's what I'm interested in.

Marc Pimsleur

But I'm going to say exactly the same thing I just said five minutes ago. My opinion is based on this, and so that's why I want to look it up because it'll refresh my memory and give me some more ideas instead of just saying something off the top of my head about what little bit I remember.

Julia Pimsleur

Yeah, I guess I just think it's a personal thing.

Marc Pimsleur

It is a personal thing, but that's fine. That doesn't make any--

Julia Pimsleur

But do you have any personal zone left that's not the Bible?

Marc Pimsleur

I think you're getting off track.

Julia Pimsleur

It's a question.

Marc Pimsleur

No, I really do. I really do. I'm not sure why we're--

Julia Pimsleur

Well, I guess I just feel like--

Marc Pimsleur

You're losing your objective--

Julia Pimsleur

I'm not objective.

Marc Pimsleur

I know. Well, you're losing your-- what's your job is called?

Julia Pimsleur

Documenting?

Marc Pimsleur

Yes, totally. You really are. You're not working with me.

Julia Pimsleur

OK. OK, let's look it up.

Marc Pimsleur

OK. I really thought there's really nothing wrong with looking it up.

Julia Pimsleur

No, there's nothing wrong with looking it up.

Marc Pimsleur

OK, totally nothing wrong with this. I'm going to look it up. OK, heaven.

Julia Pimsleur

We are now looking up heaven in the Bible.

Marc Pimsleur

Exactly, just to see what it has to say. Not because I can't think for myself, but because [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Julia Pimsleur

I think the most surprising thing to me was how much, even with his new views and how different he was, how the same he was also. I mean, we went running together around The Farm and we picked blueberries and then I made blueberry pancakes for everybody on The Farm. He played guitar and sang.

I got to listen to him. In a way, sometimes, I felt like he'd drawn this shade down over a window. But the window was still there and the shade was Christianity. But it was still him underneath. He was still sarcastic and he had a sense of humor. He was very caustic and self-deprecating. In a way, he really stood out on The Farm because he was the only one like that. I think that's the main thing that I found, is that we could still tease each other and be close.

Julia Pimsleur

I took a mean kick in the stomach for you.

Marc Pimsleur

Did you really?

Julia Pimsleur

Don't you remember that? The bully who was twisting your nose?

Marc Pimsleur

No, I don't remember that.

Julia Pimsleur

Because all the kids were so mean at the French school and you defended me.

Marc Pimsleur

Yeah, that's true. We were, definitely, in a place where we needed to stick together. I remember beating up Jeanne for you.

Julia Pimsleur

I remember that too. No, I do. I remember. She was--

Marc Pimsleur

Yeah, well, she was about as big as me, too. But I whooped her.

Julia Pimsleur

I think, for so many years, my mother and maybe, to a degree, even I, felt responsible, in a way, for him having gone off to The Farm. And maybe that's why we didn't talk about it with other people and why I lied about it, is that, in some way, we felt it reflected badly on us as a family or somehow we had done something wrong, that he should want to trade in our family for this new spiritual family.

But I think the irony is that, only in researching what happened to him and really, finally confronting the fact that he's there and trying to understand it, I think we've now realized that there's a lot that we didn't have anything to do with that has to do with Marc and his life and his demons that he's fighting. I mean, it was only in researching what had brought him to The Farm that I found out things about him that I had no idea, especially about the time that he was in college in Berkeley.

Marc Pimsleur

This is something I very rarely talk about because who wants to dredge up this kind of stuff? But really, over about six months-- I didn't get the time period right. It was more like a year. That whole year, I just went totally downhill. I remember taking a class in biology, your basic Bio 101, and I just couldn't hack it. I don't know what happened exactly-- I mean, I can tell you what happened. I don't know why. Or I can't explain it.

I'll tell you what happened, is I took the class and got the book. It's like this. And I opened the book and I just couldn't do it. And that had never happened before, that I would set myself to something and not be able to do it. It was like something up here was going wrong, like some wires were getting crossed or something. It was very scary, actually. Very scary, I remember now. I'd really lost my mind. I mean, I can say it straight out. I had lost it completely. And the person I probably talked to the most during all this time about what was going on was Donna Austin.

Donna Austin

Oh, he would call and we'd spend two or three hours on the phone. That was the year that everything really fell apart for him emotionally, and mentally too, I think.

Julia Pimsleur

Donna Austin is sort of my brother's surrogate mother on The Farm. She is the first person he had contact with there and who is one of the people who convinced him to move there and to stay.

Donna Austin

We had given him a Bible and he was reading his Bible. And it was soon after that that he had this very unusual experience in the way that The Holy Ghost filled him and gave him the baptism of The Holy Ghost. He had gotten involved with a Church of Christ group there, and they were telling that he wasn't saved and that because of this and that and his doctrines-- which he didn't even know about, anyway-- and because of his experiences, he just really wasn't saved.

So he was in conflict with those that were Christians that were guiding him. And then he also just had thoughts that he was a complete failure and he couldn't make it with God and so he said, "God, you've got to meet me or I'm just not going to go on. I don't know what I'm going to do with myself. So one night, he went over to a park of some kind.

Marc Pimsleur

There was like some hills right around Berkeley, just walking distance. So I just walked up to the top of this hill. And it was evening. It was starting to get dark. And I just knew that I was going to be there until I had my answer. I knew I had to have the answer.

Donna Austin

He had been on his knees, I think, most of the night, in the dark, at the top of some kind of a hill. And I don't know what his thinking was, but he took some rocks and hit himself on the head, thinking, "I'm either going to knock some sense into myself or kill myself, one or the other." Hit himself with rocks.

Marc Pimsleur

Basically, I threw myself off the edge of this cliff. Not a big cliff, but I was to the point where I was either going to die or find God trying. It was a real confused state of mind, but essentially, I did. I threw myself off the edge and wound up at the bottom of this precipice-- minor, slight precipice. I was a little bit worse for wear, but I wasn't in too bad shape.

And I just kept praying. I said, "God, I don't know the answer. You've got to show me." And I stayed there pretty much until, I don't know, it was like 3:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning. And at one point, I was just on my knees and I was just waiting. And I was just waiting, not expecting anything in particular. But all of a sudden, something inside me just started welling up. And it was kind of like a joyful feeling, but really joyful. Something was-- I don't know-- a kind of warm feeling, and I started speaking in tongues, just like that. It just came out.

And I was like, "Whoa, this must be speaking in tongues." And I just, once again, felt the presence of God and I was just so happy. I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in a way that was like the way we're sitting here, like you're here. And I knew what he was saying. He was saying, "Don't worry. Everything's going to be all right."

Julia Pimsleur

I was really shocked to hear how depressed and desperate he was in Berkeley. I had never known that he was that bad off. And I try not to spend too much time thinking about how it all could have turned out differently, but I think, after hearing about how in distress he was at Berkeley, I realized that The Farm saved his life in some ways. And I think some of the resentment I felt about him being there got replaced with a kind of gratitude that people took him in and took care of him at a time when he didn't or couldn't or wouldn't turn to us. So I think that changed my attitude towards The Farm.

Julia Pimsleur

Sometimes, it seems like you worked out your issues through religion and I worked out my issues through therapy.

Marc Pimsleur

Right.

Julia Pimsleur

I guess one thing that I was thinking about that we talked about yesterday is I guess I felt it was important to me that you still have respect for my system of belief and that if I were to seek psychological counsel or have problems that I thought were due to psychological factors, whatever they may be, that I wasn't sure how you would see that. Like, if you see all work as the work of evil spirits trying to pull you down or if you think that people really can have psychological problems.

Marc Pimsleur

Well, there's a natural realm of just the things that God's created. And within that natural realm, there are laws and so things are going to work for people, and working on dealing with your emotions and so on. But the spiritual realm, it's really above all that.

Julia Pimsleur

But if I were really depressed, would you be thinking it was spirits or what would you think?

Marc Pimsleur

You're really stuck on this spirit thing.

Julia Pimsleur

Yeah, because I don't get it. I don't get it. I don't believe in them. And I was wondering if you're-- OK, you know what else I'm thinking of? I'm thinking of the fact that I did feel like, in high school, like you always felt very superior and was looking down on what I was doing. And the irony of this whole conversation is that part of me is this big flashback to high school. That you're like, "Well, you can do whatever you want down there--"

Marc Pimsleur

On that lower realm, yeah.

Julia Pimsleur

--in the natural realm because we're up here in the spiritual realm.

Marc Pimsleur

Yeah, right. Well, that's always my hesitation about talking about any of this because I just don't know how to relate it to you without it being something that you're going to say, "This is weird," or "I can't deal with this," or "I can't understand this."

Julia Pimsleur

It's not that this is weird, it's the "I know better."

Marc Pimsleur

Yeah, OK. Well, unfortunately, it can come off extremely arrogant to say, well, this is the way, the truth, and the life. And that's what Jesus said. "I am the way, the truth, and the life." And you can't water it down and you can't make it acceptable. And it divides people.

Julia Pimsleur

But you see that I'm struggling to accept that your way is a valid way that's just different from my way. And I want to feel like you also feel that my way is a valid way. It's just different from your way. I know you don't think that.

Marc Pimsleur

Well, there just isn't room for that. We can't really--

Julia Pimsleur

Communicate.

Marc Pimsleur

Not really.

Julia Pimsleur

In our day-to-day relationship, sometimes, we can actually forget that he's born again and I'm a secular Jew. But then we stumble on these land mines that really explode into conflict between us.

Marc Pimsleur

I would never be able to say, "Yes, I'm happy that you're having this lesbian lifestyle." I could never say that. But that still doesn't change that you are my sister and I care about you just as much as I always have and still consider you my sister. Those two things are both true. It's going to be a brick wall because there's no way. There's no middle ground. There just isn't.

Julia Pimsleur

Part of me didn't even buy that he felt that way because he had had plenty of friends who were gay and bisexual. And I'm not sure if he experimented or not in that vein, but he certainly was not someone who was homophobic or concerned about people's sexual orientation. So the idea that he adopted this set of values that included homophobia when he wasn't homophobic himself was just very irritating. It did feel like he was spouting something that had been fed to him.

Marc Pimsleur

Well, the Bible says God's put His laws in our hearts. And maybe that's why, because what you're doing is against the law of God, as it's written in the Bible, flat out, and it's in my heart. And so it goes against what's in my heart. And that's why, maybe it's something that I can feel.

Julia Pimsleur

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think it was--

Marc Pimsleur

When I came to this thing of accepting Christianity, it wasn't that I read the Bible and decided, OK, I agree that a man is made a man and a woman is made a woman and they're made that way by God and anything else is a perversion. It's not like I read that and I read some of the other doctrines and said, "This is what I want. I agree with this. This is right." I accepted Jesus and what comes along with that is what's written in His word.

Julia Pimsleur

I don't know what would happen if I was with a woman and we want to come visit you.

Marc Pimsleur

I mean, I can't say it's right, it's fine, no big deal. Because it is a big deal.

Julia Pimsleur

These are the things that no longer freak me out when I think about Marc, that he talks in tongues, that he has to check with God before he makes any move at all, that he believes that there's a destiny and that God has his all planned out and he just has to live according to what it is.

Marc Pimsleur

You would naturally think I'd be praying for their salvation and be praying for God to touch them the way he touched me and want them to be Christian. And a few years ago, I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be neat if Julia was Christian and lived on The Farm and I had my sister here and my family here and my mom and wouldn't that be wonderful if we all agreed and they were on my side?"

And then, at other times, I've thought, "What, really, do I have to offer? Julia's a wonderful person and has wonderful friends and has a life that she's, I believe, fulfilled with and does good things for people. And what's the point of praying for them? What does God have to offer them? Or not, what does God have to offer them, but I don't see the need there. I don't see that they'd be any happier if they became Christian.

Julia Pimsleur

And that's actually ironic, that all these years, he's taken us on our own terms and hasn't preached and we really didn't take him on his terms until very recently. And I think one of the hardest things I had to do was accept that Marc would never be the brother I grew up with. He would never be the same as he was before. And I had to relearn to love him, in a way. He was a whole different person now.

Ira Glass

Julia Pimsleur and her brother, Marc Pimsleur. The audio recordings in our story are from a film documentary that she made about her visit to see Marc in Alaska called Brother Born Again. It's available on the internet at artsengine.net.

In the eight years since we first put this story of the air, Marc has left Alaska to medical school in Texas. He's now in his first year of residency. He is still a Christian. He is still affiliated with The Farm. In the eight years since Julia made her film, she's gotten married-- to a man, a rabbi, in fact. The have two kids.

[MUSIC--"IN THE LINES" BY PORTASTATIC]

Coming up, matching light blue easy chairs with matching teddy bears sitting on them and what else can happen if your relationship with your brothers and sisters does stay the same as it was when you were kids. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Matching Outfits Not Included.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Nobody's Family is Going to Change.

We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Matching Outfits Not Included. In this act, we consider the question, what if your relationships with your loved ones, your brothers and sisters, never changes? Hillary Frank has this story of two sisters-- grown women-- who go by the nicknames that they were given as little girls, Dusty and Honey.

Hillary Frank

Back when Dusty and Honey were in their early 20s, not long after World War II, they were shopping in a store called Lerner's. They were looking for clothes on opposite sides of a circular rack and found that they both picked the same outfit, a green corduroy two-piece sports suit. They left the store dressed identically and have been dressing alike ever since.

Dusty

Right now, I've got on what I call my fatigue outfits. I did my exercise. I've got a pair of brown shorts and a white-- where'd I get this? Someone sent this-- oh, from Cape Cod.

Hillary Frank

And Honey, what are you wearing?

Honey

I'm wearing the same thing Dusty is-- the brown shorts and the Cape Cod T-shirt.

Dusty

People say, "Why do you--" Well, we have the same taste in clothes. So if I like the same thing she has, I want it. So we both wear it.

Honey

And wearing the same clothes alike all the time, well, I can't say well, she's wearing my skirt or she's wearing my blouse because it'll be the same thing. We're happy dressing alike.

Hillary Frank

Dusty and Honey are sisters in their early 70s. They've lived together all their lives, mostly in Westport, Connecticut. They have the same wigs, the same eyeglasses, the same jewelry and purses. But Dusty and Honey aren't twins. Dusty is three years older than Honey. Their bedroom has two twin beds, piled with matching stuffed animals. Above each bed is a crucifix, and above those, centered in the middle, staring down, is a framed picture of Frank Sinatra.

Not only do Dusty and Honey eat the same food, but they make sure that one never has a larger portion than the other. And one will only have a treat if the other is there to share it with her.

Honey

And if I'm out to the store, you know how sometime at a deli, they'll have samples, if she's not there with me to have a sample, I won't take it. I have to have her with me. I'll go get a [UNINTELLIGIBLE] there's a sample there, but I won't take it and not let her have it. That sounds strange to some people, but that's the way we are and you just can't change us.

But it works out fine. And as long as we like, we say we're not hurting anybody. Some people go, "Oh, it's--" We're not hurting anyone. We're not breaking a commandment. And that's the main thing.

Hillary Frank

There's a kind of closeness between little girls who are best friends where it makes you feel secure and safe to think that there's someone who shares all the same likes and dislikes. All you want is to do everything together. Dusty and Honey have somehow managed to carry that kind of friendship into adulthood. They're like the girls who write "best friends forever" on the bathroom wall, except for them, the forever part is real.

It can feel sort of strange visiting them in their house. Two matching women sitting on matching easy chairs in their living room, completing each other's sentences. Even in their jobs they've been together. First a sweatshop, then an elderly home. For 30 years, they worked as housekeepers for a local priest.

Hillary Frank

Is it ever hard to feel like you're a separate person?

Honey

A separate person?

Hillary Frank

Yeah, I mean, you do everything together, right? And you dress the same and do you ever feel like you want to feel like just an individual?

Dusty

A different person? If I do that, I think I'm hurting her. It's like I don't love her anymore. I don't want to do anything with her. I couldn't do that. They say, "Why don't you dress differently than your sister?" No, then I'll hurt her. I feel like I don't love her anymore and I couldn't do that to her. That would be like betraying her.

Hillary Frank

They know their relationship is unusual. But when I asked them why it turned out this way, they just say over and over that this is what was meant to be, and this is what makes them happy. They learned to depend on each other as little girls growing up during The Depression, the youngest of six children, often going to bed hungry and cold. Their father died when Honey was two and Dusty was five.

Dusty was always sort of fragile. For a long time, whenever Dusty and Honey went out, Honey found herself doing everything for Dusty because Dusty was too shy to do things herself. Dusty and Honey lived at home through their early 30s and cared for their ailing mother. They watched their older siblings get married, one by one.

Dusty

And every time they got married, there was the living room, and they had a door that went right out to the hallway. And they used to go out there with their gowns. So after they got married, my mother sealed that door up. I said, "Ma, you're trying to tell us we're never getting married and going out that door?" But she sealed that door up after Louise got married."

Hillary Frank

Do you think your mother wanted you to get married?

Dusty

No. No, I can't say, like some mothers, when you go to get married, she never pressured us into that. Never, never. No. I guess she knew we were meant to stay with one another. It was just something, I guess, that's in the books. Nothing you could do about that.

Hillary Frank

Do you think in some ways that this relationship is less complicated than married couples?

Dusty

Yeah, I think so. I think so. Because we understand one another and one doesn't try to hurt the other one or lie or cheat.

Hillary Frank

That's a pretty bleak view of marriage. It turns out that much of Dusty and Honey's information about marriage comes from soap operas. For as long as they can remember, they've been either listening to soaps on the radio or watching them on television.

Dusty

People say they're silly, but we enjoy them. Like I say, thank God I don't live half of the lives they live.

Hillary Frank

It's interesting because your lives seem to be very controlled and common. On the soap operas, they're very turbulent.

Dusty

That's what I mean. You watch all that, thinking you're so quiet. Well, that's how we get our kicks out of life, watching does everyone know the facts of life when we see TV. Because my mother didn't tell us anything. You bought a baby. You didn't have a baby, you bought a baby.

Hillary Frank

They describe themselves as young at heart, and I think that's a fair description. Their nieces have helped them keep up with teenybopper culture, Britney Spears and 'N SYNC and all the others.

Dusty

I like the way Ricky Martin moves. I wouldn't mind going out with him, we'd always say. If I was only 20 years younger.

Hillary Frank

Dusty puts her hands up mambo style and does a little shake for me, a la Ricky Martin.

Every night, Dusty and Honey lay in their twin beds and talk before they fall asleep about what they're going to do the next day and what they'll wear and whether it'll be too cold for their Bermudas, like best friends on a sleepover that never ends.

Ira Glass

Hillary Frank is the author of the novels Better Than Running at Night and I Can't Tell You.

[MUSIC -- "LA VIDA LOCA" BY RICKY MARTIN]

Act Three. The Artist Formerly Known As Dr. Sarkin.

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Artist Formerly Known as Doctor Sarkin. Sometime in 1999, I'm not exactly sure when, I got in the mail a drawing of a head with six eyeballs, bared teeth, and in a word balloon above it, seven pairs of words, each of them anagrams of the letters of my own name. Ail Grass. Liars Sag. Sail Rags. Alas Rigs. Over time, I received a stack of artwork half a foot high, including a guitar-shaped wooden cutting board that somebody simply drew on, fixed some stamps to, and threw in the mail, plus a full canvas painting, plus dozens of pages of stream-of-consciousness poetry, all the work of one Jon Sarkin.

He seemed sort of crazy, but not so crazy that he didn't provide perfectly organized press clippings about himself and his phone number and his web address. We talked a few times on the phone.

I thought of Jon Sarkin when the idea for this week's show came up because his family had gone through a change-- a dramatic change-- but they'd stayed together. And now they all yearn for another change. Back in 1988, Jon was, as he puts it-- this is his phrase-- your classic, suburban, college-educated, professional, upper-middle-class Jew. Chiropractor with workaholic tendencies.

And on the golf course one day, something went wrong in his brain, which led to a stroke, and surgery where they removed part of the cerebellum, which unhinged something in his life. He wasn't able to do a normal job, and he started doing art, an obsessive, primitive sort of art that he did in an obsessive, primitive sort of way. Jon Sarkin sees double, the left side of his body's weak, he walks with a cane, he's deaf in the left ear.

But he's also lost a certain kind of everyday reasoning and thinking in a way that, as you might imagine, affects his family life. For instance, how he gets along with his son, Curtis, age 12.

Jon Sarkin

The thing that just happened yesterday. We're going to the beach, and all the beach toys are in this big basket. So I take the basket out and Curtis says, "Put the basket back in the garage and we'll wait for mom." I'm like, OK. So I take the basket and I dump all the beach toys out and I put the basket back in the garage, just like he asked me to.

And he's like, "Dad, what are you doing?"

I said, "You asked me to put the basket back in the garage, Curtis."

"Dad, with the beach toys."

I'm so literal. Being highly literal gets you into trouble.

Ira Glass

The world Jon's created for himself, a studio where he does his artwork in the seaside town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, is just a dirty little room with dingy junk everywhere. The world his wife has created for their family is a pretty, suburban-style house that's so immaculate, it's like a critique of where he works.

At 12, Curtis is the oldest child, Robin's almost 9, and Caroline just turned 6. After family dinner one night, Jon's wife, Kim, and I sat on the front steps under the trees for an interview. Curtis comes out and they tell me how there are so many funny family stories about their dad.

Kim Sarkin

We could go way back. How far back do you want to go?

Curtis Sarkin

Mom, can I tell the French fry story?

Kim Sarkin

Yeah.

Curtis Sarkin

All right, back--

Ira Glass

It's a story of how Jon insisted that they bring their leftover French fries home from Disney World in Florida so they could recycle them in the compost pile. Or the story about Jon trying to help unpack the kitchen when they moved to the house, but doing it in a completely random way, the way a toddler might. Or the story about Jon not noticing the Caroline got locked outside for a few cold minutes one winter. Each story takes such a disturbing turn that at one point, Kim says, "Let's say some positive things about Dad." Take this story.

Curtis Sarkin

Tell about-- what was I going to say? When he first came home from the hospital, wasn't he laughing like crazy over Mickey Mouse cartoons?

Kim Sarkin

I had a moments where Curtis was sitting on the couch watching cartoons. And he was about two.

Curtis Sarkin

Mickey Mouse.

Kim Sarkin

Mickey Mouse. And Jon was sitting on the floor and he was roaring with laughter over these Mickey Mouse cartoons. I mean roaring. And I thought to myself, "Oh, God. What have I brought home?" Because he was like a little kid. And living with Jon at that time was like living with a teenager, the way teenagers are explosive and irrational and moody. He was all those things and I was the mom. So that was a tough time, but he did continue to get better.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like, in some ways, though, he still is like a teenager and you're still like--

Kim Sarkin

Yeah. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Curtis says he was seven or eight when he understood the extent to which his dad wasn't like the other dads. And when he'd complain about his father, Robin, the middle child, would defend Dad.

Kim Sarkin

And Robin would get mad at me or Curtis for seeming to be so impatient with Dad. And Curtis and I would sort of look at each other and roll our eyes and think, "Well, you'll know soon enough why we're so impatient." And now Robin is to the age where she's feeling impatient with Jon. And Caroline is very defensive and runs to his defense. And I know that within a couple of years, she'll be more aware of it.

Ira Glass

At this point, Kim says, the six-year-old is just realizing that dad isn't "Wonder Dad." She gets mad when he scribbles a phone number on her drawings, or when he invited a TV crew to come and film in their house on her birthday. He just is not aware of other people's feelings in any normal sort of way.

When he does play with the kids, or draw with them, or just goof around with them, it's easy for him to go too far, get too loud.

Curtis Sarkin

Sometimes he comes out when kids are in the middle of a game and he starts making up rules for them to follow when they're in the middle of their game. Like he says, "Here's the rule. You have to go down the skateboard sitting down and you can't get up until you're to the bottom of the hill." And he just makes up rules and it doesn't even occur to him that the kids don't want him to be doing the rules. He just thinks he's having fun and stuff. And then he asks for a turn on the skateboard.

Kim Sarkin

It doesn't occur to him that it's kids being with kids and that they don't really want an adult around.

Curtis Sarkin

He is a kid.

Kim Sarkin

He is one of the kids. Does he embarrass you?

Curtis Sarkin

Yeah, in lots of different ways.

Ira Glass

What makes it all so tricky is that Jon Sarkin has better days and worse days. It is possible for him to focus and act more normal and be a bit more clear-headed. But he says this gets exhausting after half an hour, and sometimes, even when he tries to do the right thing, he guesses wrong.

I should point out here that when Jon had his stroke, Kim and he had only been married for two years. Curtis was just a baby. Robin and Caroline hadn't been born. And Kim decided not only to remain with him but to have more children. She did it, she says because at first, the doctors predicted a full recovery. And then, every year, he did get better for a long time. And she loves kids, wanted more kids.

Kim Sarkin

And so I thought to myself, well, if Jon gets better, it'll be nice for us to have another baby because it's sort of a new hope. And I didn't want the kids spaced too far apart. And I thought if he doesn't get better, it would be easier on Curtis to have a sibling to share that with, I would think. So I thought, we're just going to go for it. And we decided to have Robin and his family was really happy about that because it sort of showed that I was committed and that we were committed and that we were still a family.

Ira Glass

When you promise to stay together in sickness and in health, you do wonder, what if something happens, an accident, something disabling? But you don't think, what if your partner just suddenly changes into someone else, someone very irritating? Kim says that she can still confide in Jon, lean on him in certain ways, but there are plenty of ways in which she can't, which he understands.

Ira Glass

Were the two of you very close before all this happened?

Jon Sarkin

I would have to say closer than most couples.

Ira Glass

And now?

Jon Sarkin

Less close.

Ira Glass

And do you think your kids yearn for you to change? Or do they understand that you're not going to change?

Jon Sarkin

Both. I still do. I still yearn for it to change, even though I know it's not going to.

Ira Glass

Curtis, is there a part of you where you feel like, well, he should know better?

Curtis Sarkin

Yeah, I feel that a lot. But I know that he really can't help it and I just try very hard to remember that. And I do feel, sometimes, that he should know better or he should think first, but I know he really can't help it. It's very frustrating.

Ira Glass

Do you think he might change sometime?

Curtis Sarkin

No, I don't. He's been acting this way for a long time and I don't think he'll change. I have to say, it doesn't seem he's getting any better. It seems like he's getting worse.

Kim Sarkin

Does it?

Curtis Sarkin

Yeah. Like at Caroline's birthday, he just sat around and did nothing. And then he went and took a nap. And he just sat around and did nothing. Didn't even join the party. And then, after we'd already done presents and practically anything, he says to me, "Curtis, what are we doing first, cake or presents?" And we'd already done presents and we were just about to start cake. So it's hard.

Ira Glass

After the party, when everybody was cleaning up, Jon took the special bouquet of helium birthday balloons and was about to pop them. He thought he was helping. And what happens in the Sarkin family is what happens in any family. It is hard for the rest of them not to think, despite themselves, "Well, doesn't he love us? Doesn't he love us enough to act differently?"

Kim Sarkin

And that's where we get upset with him is, he should know that the helium balloons are important to me. He should know that that drawing I made is too important to draw on. He should know that stuff. And he says, "No, I don't." And I say, "Well, I think that sometimes you use the stroke a little bit." And it is hard to distinguish when he's using it and when it's really a perceptual problem.

Jon Sarkin

My wife is like, "Well, Jon, I think you're lazy because you use the stroke as an excuse. And I can't tell if you're really just being lazy." And sometimes, she's right. Sometimes I am lazy. Sometimes, I actually can't do it. Just like I can't remember where the light switch is, even though I've turned the lights on a thousand times. And I tell her, "I really can't." And she says, "Yes you can." "No, I can't." "Yes, you can." "No, I can't." And I'm like, "Well, guess what. I'm not going to do it because I know I can't, so end of conversation."

Kim Sarkin

"I want him to care more. I would think that no matter how bad your situation is, you've got these three marvelous children and a nice wife and a nice home. And things aren't that bad for us. And I know that life is really hard for Jon, but I would like it if we were more of an inspiration for him, to him. That part, I can't let go of hoping will change.

Ira Glass

And so this is where they stand. During my brief visit with the Sarkins, Jon was, everybody says, on his best behavior. If anything, he tiptoed around, worried that he'd mess things up as everybody set the table or cleaned the kitchen. When Curtis's little sisters needed help fixing the TV, it was Curtis they came to, not their dad.

Interestingly, Kim says that some of the nicest times for her are when they visit with his family-- his mom, his brother, his sister. Family roles are so powerful, something kicks in with Jon.

Kim Sarkin

I love just sitting around and listening to him talking to his brother and his sister because the old Jon seems to come back. But he's also exhausted after those trips because-- and it's not like he's deceiving them or anything. He longs to be the old Jon too, but he can only be for so long.

Ira Glass

When we called the Sarkins this week, we found out that the family is still together. He's still married. The girls are teenagers. Curtis is a freshman in college. And Jon continues to create art.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton and Blue Chevigny. Contributing editors for this show, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help comes from Seth Lind and Emily Youssef. [ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, where you can get our free, weekly podcast, or you can listen to any of our shows for absolutely free, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia. Whenever I go up to him to talk about the budget or advertising or marketing for the radio show, he responds by saying,

Julia Pimsleur

I don't know. I have to go look it up in The Lesbian Love Handbook of Life.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

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