Transcript

197:

Before It Had A Name
Transcript

Originally aired 10.26.2001

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/197

Act One. Mr. Boder Vanishes.

Ira Glass

Rod Hudson grew up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire and worked the farm from the time he was big enough to help out, six, seven years old. When his father retired, Rod ran his own operation on his dad's property and did just fine until the mid 1980's when something strange started to happen with the cows. A series of strange things started to happen actually, beginning with their hooves.

Rod Hudson

That was the first thing. Cow's feet don't normally have to be trimmed only about once a year, possibly twice. And I was having to trim them three and four times a year.

Ira Glass

Do you mean just trim their hooves.

Rod Hudson

Right. If they get sore feet, they don't walk around like they should. They won't go and eat like they should.

Ira Glass

Do they give as much milk?

Rod Hudson

No, no. The production was low all the time.

Ira Glass

A healthy cow would give Rod 75 90 pounds of milk a day. These cows were averaging 40 at best. It was hard to even cover expenses. The cows developed other problems. They had trouble conceiving. They started losing weight. They began to get sick.

Rod Hudson

Oh, I'd have a veterinarian in about every six weeks or something like that.

Ira Glass

Was that pretty expensive?

Rod Hudson

It's very expensive. You could spend $100 per cow pretty quick. And all I'd get out of them is they didn't know what was the matter with them.

Ira Glass

They tried medicines. They changed the cow's feed. They'd change it again. They replaced the cows with new cows. And this went on, month after month, year after year, for a decade and a half. And Rod was not a novice. He was an experienced dairy farmer who'd been through a lot, nearly 50 years old when the troubles began. He tried this. He tried that, all the time watching himself slowly go broke.

Rod Hudson

Well, just nobody had any answers. They'd make suggestions, and we'd try to do what was suggested to us. And nothing seemed to work for us at all.

Ira Glass

It just must have made you feel so crazy.

Rod Hudson

Well, I blamed it onto myself as much as anything. I tried to accept the fact that I wasn't doing something right. And as they, no matter what I did, it didn't work.

Ira Glass

The first time I talked to Rod a few months back, someone that I'm close to was having all sorts of medical problems and going through tests, and CAT scans, and spinal taps, and more CAT scans. And the doctors couldn't figure out what was causing the problems. And in the absence of information, she did what Rod did. She blamed yourself. And I think this happens a lot. I think that when you have nothing to go on, you fill the vacuum with anything that you have at hand, with any superstitions that you can think of, with everything that you think you could have done wrong. Before something has a name, it could be anything. And that period before you know the truth, that period is often worse than the truth that you find out.

Today on our program, we bring you stories about that eerie, unsettling period before something has a name, and stories about how things change once things do have a name. In Rod's case, it turned out that high voltage power lines that crossed his property were leaking current into the ground. When it was wet outside, moisture would carry the electricity-- not much electricity, just 35 watts or so, enough for a vibration sort of feeling-- through the ground, and into the barn and up into the cows drinking trough.

Rod Hudson

The cow was standing there with bare feet in a wet spot. Then they go to drink the water, and because this electricity was getting into the water, why they'd get a shock as they were drinking.

Ira Glass

And would that do?

Rod Hudson

Well, instead of putting their head down into the water and drinking it, they were just lapping at it like a dog laps water. And they just wouldn't take in that much. They were afraid they were going to get a shock when they'd go to drink.

Ira Glass

The cows were dehydrated, getting only about a third of the water they were supposed to get. And that explained all of their other problems. After nearly 15 years of uncertainty, it was a relief to finally know the answer. But Rod Hudson was so heavily in debt, there was no way to recoup fast enough, and he lost the farm. At 65, he now has a new job.

Rod Hudson

At the present time, I'm driving for Thomas Transportation out of Keene. That's an airport shuttle service. And I'm putting in somewhere around 50 to 60 hours a week.

Ira Glass

And you do the early morning?

Rod Hudson

I do basically early morning runs.

Ira Glass

Starting around when?

Rod Hudson

Generally, it's around 3:00 or half past.

Ira Glass

So even earlier than you would have to get up to milk cows?

Rod Hudson

Well, just about the same time.

Ira Glass

Oh, really?

Rod Hudson

Yeah, because that's about the time that I normally god up.

Ira Glass

And so what do you think of that job?

Rod Hudson

I love it.

Ira Glass

You do?

Rod Hudson

I really do.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Before It Had a Name. Our program in four acts today.

Act One, Mr. Boder Vanishes. In that act, the very first recordings of Holocaust survivors made just after the war before the Holocaust was even called the Holocaust, and very different from other Holocaust survivor interviews because of that. Forgotten for decades, never before broadcast, those tapes here today on our program. And the story of the man who collected them.

Act Two, Of Course I Remember Your Name. In that act, the difference between those we know and those whose names we now.

Act Three, A Bad Day For Plates, the story of four kids who that their mother was just mean. And then, they found out that there was a different name for it completely, rewriting everything they ever knew about her.

Act Four, You Call That Love? Stay with us.

Act Two. Of Course I Remember Your Name.

Ira Glass

Act One, Mr. Boder vanishes. This is the story of a man named David Boder, who started to investigate the Holocaust before it was known as the Holocaust. And because of that, his research was different, and treated differently by the world, than investigations done later. Carl Marziali tells the story.

Carl Marziali

In 1946, David Boder went to Europe to interview survivors of Nazi concentration camps, specifically to record their stories in their own voices. At the time, this was a new idea, so new he was the only one who went. What he got were the first oral histories of Holocaust survivors before it was even called the Holocaust. Even if you've heard other survivor accounts, there's something different about these interviews. Over and over, people refer to names that have since taken on a bigger significance, but without knowing the bigger significance.

George Caldor, a survivor from Hungary, tells Boder that when he first arrived at the camp, he walked past a gate with the words, "Work Sets Man Free," and met an SS chief physician whose name Boder didn't recognize and misspelled on the transcript as Wengele. Boder typed question marks next to the name. When a French woman named Nellie Bandy mentions the camp she was sent to, it's not enough for her to say the names Birkenau and Auschwitz for Boder to know what she's talking about.

David Boder

Where is that?

Nellie

Birkenau is some kilometers from Auschwitz.

David Boder

And Auschwitz is where?

Nellie

In East Upper Silesia.

David Boder

In East Upper Silesia. Who has it now?

Nellie

Poland.

David Boder

Poland has it now.

Carl Marziali

She tells Boder about the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, and on the way the guards shot the stragglers, a familiar scene to anyone who's seen a movie or read a book about the Holocaust, but surprising and new to Boder.

David Boder

What were they, shooting them like sentenced people, putting them to the wall?

Nellie

Oh no [INAUDIBLE]

Carl Marziali

Oh no, she's saying. She fell down somewhere and he just shot at her. That was all.

Nellie

All the route was bordered with corpses, you see.

Carl Marziali

All the route was bordered with corpses, you see?

David Boder

And whose corpses were that?

Nellie

Well, there were men who had been led before us and had been shot like that.

Carl Marziali

There were men who had been before us and had been shot like that. Maybe it's a kind of dramatic irony, the ratio of our own awareness to the speaker's lack of it. Maybe it's the way people talk when they barely know what's happened to them, before analysis and judgment show up to put everything in its place. The people in the camps had been cut off from almost all news reports for years, so all they can talk about is what happened to them. They have no bigger picture. When Nellie Bandy tires to get refuge with the US Army after the German surrender, she goes to a checkpoint and talks to an American guard.

Nellie

I came to see them, and I spoke English. And asked them if I could get over. "Well who are you?"

Carl Marziali

When the guard asks here who she is, she can't just say, a Holocaust survivor. The idea doesn't exist for her or the guard. So instead, she makes up a term for herself. I'm a French political prisoner, she says.

Nellie

I'm a French political prisoner.

Carl Marziali

The guard says he doesn't have any instructions for political prisoners and goes to ask his captain.

Nellie

The captain came back [INAUDIBLE]

Carl Marziali

The captain comes back and tells her, "I'm extremely sorry, but so far I haven't got any instructions for political prisoners, just for prisoners of war. And turns her away.

Nellie

[INAUDIBLE]

Carl Marziali

Often in the recordings, you get the sense of two worlds meeting for the first time and trying to figure each other. The survivors and the people they come across just to speak the same language. This is very different from later interviews with survivors after a common language had developed.

Survivor 1

So they had to go on the so-called death march. You had to keep out because if you fell down, they shot you.

Carl Marziali

These are interviews of survivors made after 1988 and released in a boxed set called Voices Of The Shoa. This one describes the same experience Nellie Bandy had, but now it has a name, the death march.

Survivor 2

We had to march. So my sister is older. She gave me her shoes. It was January, 1945. I was so slippery. I was cold. No food, nothing, that if you slipped, you couldn't get up. There was no way in heaven you could get up. At the beginning, they shot you right on the spot, but after a while, why waste a bullet? Let them freeze to death. That's why they called it the death march.

Survivor 3

[INAUDIBLE]

David Boder

And whose corpses do you think they were?

Survivor 3

They were [UNINTELLIGIBLE] people.

Carl Marziali

Boder recorded 109 interviews over two months. He cut an unlikely figure, an older man in goatee and glasses, wearing a blazer and tie in the middle of summer, burdened by 60 pounds of primitive recording equipment and a bad heart. Because he did this work before the Holocaust had a name, and everything that comes with a name, recognition, context, a common language, he had trouble getting funded. His work was never truly completed. His tapes were lost for decades, and he died in obscurity.

Survivor 3

Well, from Buchenwald we went to Auschwitz.

David Boder

Yes, and from Auschwitz?

Survivor 3

And from Auschwitz, we went to a little station [INAUDIBLE]

Carl Marziali

I first came across Boder's name in 1988. I was on a freelance assignment at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago when a professor I knew showed me a copy of a campus magazine from 1947. He'd found it in somebody's attic, started flipping through it, and on page 18, found an article by David P. Boder, a psychology professor at IIT.

Boder's article was about his recent expedition to Europe, and it struck me as odd for a couple of reasons. I'd never heard of Boder, even though, as it turns out, he was the first person ever to record Holocaust victims. And the tone was odd. His writing was clear, informative and totally devoid of personal content. It seemed strange that a Jewish man who had come face to face with the attempted extinction of his people would title his article, "The Displaced People of Europe, Preliminary Notes on a Psychological and Anthropological Study."

I decided to find out what I could about David Boder. In the 1930's and '40's, he was a minor public figure, the kind of professor who knew how to get his name in print. He showed up in Time magazine with some invention called "the adjective verb quotient." He made the papers with his analysis of children's letters to Santa Claus, and with an experiment where he wired his students with sensors and charted their reactions to scary movies.

But at some point in the mid '40's, his research shifted focus and took on an urgent tone. By 1945, he was trying to get a visa for Europe and furiously writing grant proposals to fund a project there. There were newsreel and newspaper accounts of what had happened in the camps, but Boder was proposing to interview survivors in their own languages-- he spoke at least seven himself-- and in their own words.

Boder got rejection letters from a who's who of postwar philanthropy, the American Jewish Conference, the Guggenheim Foundation, the B'nai B'rith, the federal government. He kept going, and it wasn't clear to me what was driving him. It seemed to be more than scholarly interest. But among the grant applications, newspaper clippings, boxes and boxes of archival papers, there was not a single personal artifact, no reflections, no memoirs, not one personal note in his travel diary.

Boder died 40 years ago, and his only daughter, Elena, died childless in 1995. To learn more, actually to learn anything about Boder's private self, I turned to Sylvia Jericho, a lifelong family friend and a colleague of Boder's daughter Elena. According to Sylvia, Boder in person was a lot like Boder in print. He'd go on at great length about psychology or the works of Chekhov.

Sylvia Jericho

But I don't remember his ever talking about himself in the world.

Carl Marziali

Why do you think that was?

Sylvia Jericho

Well, I think it reflects tragedy in his life, and that he had abandoned his early life. And I think there was a schism between him and his early life.

Carl Marziali

Here are some parts of his early life that Boder might have been trying to abandon. He had married in Russian when he was 20 years old and divorced two years later. I talked to the family historian in Israel, who says that Boder converted to Christianity to get ahead, and that this was the reason his wife left him. Boder fled Russia in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution, taking his daughter Elena with him. Some in his wife's family accuse him of abducting Elena, of taking her without the mother's consent.

He also changed his name, so by the time he arrived in Chicago, was no longer David or Pavel Michelson, Latvian Jew, but Dr. David Pablo Boder, scholar without frontiers. Meanwhile, his wife stayed in Latvia, held onto her name and identity and was executed in a ghetto in 1941, just before Boder appeared in Time magazine for his study of adjectives and verbs.

Sylvia Jericho

It's hard to resist the pattern that having betrayed-- that in part, his study of the people of the Holocaust and his determination to get there, and to catch the stories in there purist telling. It's hard to resist the interpretation that in part, this atoned for the freedom from that kind of torment that he achieved by simply leaving.

Survivor 4

[INAUDIBLE]

David Boder

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Carl Marziali

On July 29, 1946, Boder finally made it to Europe. In the end, after more than a year of writing grant proposals, he went without official funding. He had money from his daughter, donations from a few assumptions and a loan from his life insurance. I should point out again just how uninterested the rest of the world was in Boder's idea. The project was a one man effort from start to finish. He worked without translators and operated the equipment on his own, often pausing to untangle wire that bunched up like fishing line. He would show up in a safe house, a refugee camp, ask for volunteers, find a quiet corner and begin his questions.

David Boder

Munich, Germany, September 20, 1946. The spool is at nine minutes. The interview is [? Mr. Jurgen Bassfruend 22 years old. [SPEAKING GERMAN]

Jack Bass

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

Carl Marziali

Jurgen Bassfreund now goes by Jack Bass. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama where I went to talk to him about the old professor he met while waiting to leave Europe.

Jack Bass

I remember that a lady from Nuremberg. She was old. She certainly wouldn't be alive today anymore. She told me about Dr. Boder. I went in there because he wants to he hear stories. And I think that I looked for him. I mean I knew where he was, and that I introduced myself. And that's how the interview took place.

Carl Marziali

Were you facing him?

Jack Bass

I think that we sat across a table from each other. And the recorder was on the table, I believe. I remember it was a red, [? Webcoa ?] wire recorder. And of course it was some kind of a miracle in those days because that you could actually have a tape, a wire that would record your words was something that I hadn't seen before.

Carl Marziali

You would think that a researcher talking to refugees after the war, a psychologist of all people, would show the appropriate sensitivity. But that's not exactly the way things went. One survivor was so upset by Boder's aloofness that she still refuses to have her interview published. And as Bass remembers, Boder might as well have been asking directions.

Jack Bass

I still see him interviewing me, and he was stern. He looked at me, and he had a very serious expression on his face. And he would say to me, "And what happened after you left Auschwitz? And where did you end up after Auschwitz? And where did you go? And what did you have to eat?" He was a thorough interviewer, but he was very stern.

Survivor 4

And then they cut our hair with a razor.

David Boder

With an electric razor?

Survivor 4

Yes.

David Boder

They sheared you essentially.

Survivor 4

[INAUDIBLE] shaved.

David Boder

Tell me, who did the shearing?

Survivor 4

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

David Boder

Men or women?

Survivor 4

Women.

David Boder

Your hair from the head?

Survivor 4

Everything.

David Boder

Your whole body?

Survivor 4

Yes, the whole body.

David Boder

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] Why did they do that?

Survivor 4

I can't tell you.

Jack Bass

It was a formal, I think, somewhat like a teacher at a final exam. You can't look left or right. You just look at him and make sure that you don't look at anything else. But I was used to ti because in Europe, all the teachers are like that.

Carl Marziali

In his two months in Europe, Boder went from a passing acquaintance with Nazi atrocities to knowing probably as much as anyone alive. But it wasn't until the very end that cracks appeared in his customary reserve. So Hara Bass is the head librarian at the Illinois Institute of Technology and currently running a project to restore and archive Boder's work. She remembers the moment in the tapes when she heard the change, an interview in Yiddish with a Polish woman named Anna Kavitska.

Librarian Bass

It was the less interview he interviewed. And the person in the story was talking about her daughter, which was a newborn that she had to leave in the street, in this snow, for a Christian lady in Poland to pick her up so she can take her to the orphanage. And we're talking about a newborn, and it was 25 degree below. There was snow on the ground. She left the child in the street. This woman had seen most of her family perish, and had not gotten to see her daughter after her birth.

Survivor 5

[SPEAKING YIDDISH]

David Boder

[SPEAKING YIDDISH]

Librarian Bass

This person was sobbing throughout the interview. And it just seems after he listened to 109 people, it weighed very heavy on him at that point. I was able to hear the sadness, his impatience with the very last story in a way, I have had it. I have heard enough.

Survivor 5

[SPEAKING YIDDISH]

David Boder

Well, we have to conclude. My automobile is waiting. That's how we miss very valuable material if I have to cancel another appointment. [UNINTELLIGIBLE], September of '46 in the synagogue they first desecrated in 1937 or 1937, and which has its holiday service for the first time today and donors here to re-dededicate it. What he have heard from this woman is about the story we have heard from everybody. I'm concluding my project in Germany. And I want to thank the owner, Jack Thompson from The Chicago Tribune.

Carl Marziali

Boder wobbles back and forth here. On one side, a promoter scholar making his acknowledgement, on the other, an exhausted man shaken by what he's heard.

David Boder

And I can't speak. I don't remember the names now because I'm just in a trance after this woman's report. I'm completely distraught. The automobile is waiting. I'm going to Frankfurt. Who is going to sit in judgement over all this? And who is going to judge my work? Illinois Institute of Technology via recording. I'm leaving tonight for Paris. The project is concluded.

Carl Marziali

You can read almost anything into that final, "who will judge my work?" The shame reporters feel when they hold the camera on someone in tears, the desire for recognition, the realization that his achievement consists of making people relive their worst moments. And the hope that documenting this tragedy might alleviate any guilt he might have felt about living in America while his relatives died at the hands of the Nazis. Boder spoke these words in English so that the woman would not understand, and he never included them in the transcript.

Something happened when he came back. His promoter's instinct failed him just when he needed it the most. He never got enough money to transcribe all his interviews. He had hoped to put them in a book, but in the end, he published only eight out of the 109. And the book, I Did Not Interview The Dead, sold poorly and went out of print.

He followed his daughter to the west coast in 1952, and was offered a position as an unpaid research associate at UCLA. With the grant money running out, Boder kept transcribing the recordings on his own. I picture him alone in his office, playing and replaying passages to filter words from the noise, visited occasionally by his daughter Elena. Here he was in the new world, but immersed again in the old. After a life of moving on, moving out, moving up, Boder was back where he started.

Irving Maltzman

I remember the tapes being in one area in this little library in the late '60's or '70's even. Queries came in to the department asking about the tapes, and they had disappeared. They were gone.

Carl Marziali

Irving Maltzman was a young psychologist at UCLA when Boder first arrived, and he was in charge of the reading room of the Psychology Department there.

Irving Maltzman

I just think we just didn't realize the historical significance of them. In part, when he published it, there were still-- I think people had enough of the terrible stories that had appeared in the newspaper finally. And in part, it was because he was not some public celebrity. There was a lack of publicity and acclamation of the work at the time. And so it was just sitting in a little reading room in a psychology department, rather than in the Smithsonian Institute or the Holocaust Museum or something.

Carl Marziali

The term, the Holocaust, came up during the Second World Congress of Jewish Studies in 1957 in Jerusalem. It caught on quickly among scholars and spread to the general public by the early '60's. Before then, back in the '40's, everybody had a different name for it. There recent catastrophe, the recent Jewish catastrophe, the disaster, even the permanent pogrom.

Boder died in 1961. He was 75, and if he'd have lived just a few more years, he might have found an audience. In the early '60's, people began the serious gathering of recorded oral histories. As they looked around for survivors and testimonials, a set of wire spools sat unnoticed, Raiders of the Lost Ark style, inside wooden crates in a place called the Jefferson Technical Complex in the Library of Congress. The spools were copies of the originals, made by Boder himself and sent to the library in the '50's. Library staffers who asked about the crates were told they contained recordings of, quote, "people who had psychological problems as a result of being displaced during the war."

It wasn't until the mid 1990's that anyone figured out what the recordings were. A third of Boder's interviews have still never been transcribed.

Ira Glass

Carl Marziali in Chicago. If you want to hear David Boder's recordings, or read transcripts, there's a link to the official IIT website, Voices of the Holocaust, from the This American Life website, www.thisamericanlife.org.

Coming up, if your mom bites you in the tuckus, what's the name for that? Is that love? What if she breaks a plate over your head? Love? Is that love? Answers in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. A Bad Day For Plates.

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 the theme. Today's program, Before It Had A Name, stories of things in that delicate moment before we know exactly what they are. And how those things change once we pin a name onto to them. Things like, for example, Axis of Evil, a perfect example. Sure, North Korea, Iraq and Iran, they were bad before we pinned the name Axis of Evil onto those countries. But the name changed things, changed things for them. It turns out that part of what made North Korea so angry lately is being included on that list, is being called evil. Names matter.

Well we've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two is about that moment when we suddenly learn the name of something that has, up until that point, remain unnamed for us. When the name penetrate into us, the person or the place or the thing has penetrated into us too, I think. And if that doesn't seem to true to you, Heather O'Neill provides these real-life case studies.

Heather O'neill

I didn't know who Paul [? Rayon ?] was until he crashed on his motor scooter in front of the school, and he became the first person we ever saw killed. I had never heard of Sunny Teasedale until Mary Lou showed me the hickeys on her neck. I thought this guy was just a goon until I heard him singing "Panis Angelicus" with a cigarette in his mouth. Then I knew his name was Johnny Delorio for the rest of my life.

I didn't know Casper James until my uncle was buried at his parents' funeral parlor. "Hi," he said in the lobby. "We go to school together." Linda Hall was just a girl with a missing finger until she taught me all the words to a Sly and the Family Stone song at the swimming pool. He was from Africa, and he was cute. I wrote Chemewe down on a piece of paper so that I could practice it and stop asking him what his name was. He said his mother with Suzanne, from the Leonard Cohen song, but I could never remember his name.

"That's Quincy," they said, pointing to the boy on the high diving board who was afraid to jump. And every one yelled in unison, "Jump, jump, jump." Natasha wasn't really Natasha until she told me that her father hadn't been home for three days, and she slept on the balcony when it was warm. The teacher held up the math test that said Vladimir at the top of the page. In all the slots for answers, he had drawn pictures of guns. I looked at Vladimir sitting way in the corner. I didn't even think of him as having a name.

I never knew Zero's real name. He sold heroin on Madison Avenue. Everyone started calling him Zero because just saying his real name would supposedly bring you bad luck. The neighborhood took away his name so they could feel a little more safe.

My dad could never remember names, so every actor he didn't like on television he called, the child molester, or a degenerate. I would say, "The with the Italian pedophile is coming on." And he would hurry to the living room. My dad said he never paid for anything smaller than his fist. He used to tuck a gun in his boxer shorts when he took out the garbage because he said there could be rats out there. He got a license so that he could sell flowers on the corner downtown. The name on the license said Leonard O'Neill. Who the hell is that, I thought? Everybody I ever met called my dad, Buddy.

My dad called me Dumbo because he said I had big ears. My mother called me Sputnik because my eyes were so big. My dad named me heather after a woman who taught him to read after he dropped out of school when he was in grade three. So that was my first name, and for a long time my middle name was Who. I had countless last names like, Heather who use to go out with Derek. Heather who kissed Marco at the dance. Heather who told Jeremy that her name was butterfly. Heather who had her shoes stolen in the park. Heather who wears that ugly blue ski jacket. Heather who has a sister in juvie. Heather who has a dad who used to rob banks. Heather who thinks she's better than every one because she says she was reincarnated.

When you get your name, you are just a little baby and have no say about the matter. Your parents could get your name from anywhere. You could have a name that comes from an ugly relative or out of the Bible. It could be something they heard shouted out at the swimming pool. It could be the Spanish name for a bird, a strange name, a name your parents spelled wrong and no one could ever say right. Still, when people learn your name, they think they know all about you.

When my uncle sent me a pair of running shoes from Virginia, I wrote my name on the sides of both sneakers so no one could steal them from my locker. "Hi Heather," the man across for me in the bus said. It shocked me how he said, "Hi, Heather," like he knew me all his life. I'd seen him around, chasing pigeons and trying to pour beer on little kids in the park. I wanted to reach across the bus aisle and punch him in the face for knowing my name. Heater O'Neill is the author of Two Eyes Are You Sleeping, a book of poetry.

[MUSIC - "WHAT'S MY NAME" BY BRIC-A-BRAC]

Act Four. You Call That Love?

Ira Glass

Act Three, A Bad Day For Plates. Laura Tangusso has this story about how things changed in her life, and in her whole family's life actually, when events in their past that they interpreted one way suddenly got a different name.

Laura Tangusso

All my life, I thought my mother was difficult and crazy. My brother and sisters did too. That's how we thought of her for decades until recently, when we learned that there was a very different explanation for why she acted the way she did. We all have memories of craziness. Here are my sisters Leslie and Liz, and my brother John.

Leslie

I think I might have been in kindergarten. I went in the kitchen and she had broken all the dishes, just broken things everywhere. She was just breaking them. She just really lost it.

Liz

She picked up a jar of relish, and she turned around and just whipped it, pitched it at the wall. And it smashed on the wall. And I just remember the relish dripping down the wall. And she was just doing her own thing. She was in her own little world.

Leslie

I remember being older in high school, and being at mom's. And she lost her comb, and she just was crying and angry. And I remember really consoling and saying, "Mom, you know, it's a comb. Here, it's right here." And I felt so bad.

John

Mom went into a tirade about something and took a plate, a full-sized dinner plate, and whacked me on the top of his head. And I quickly left the house. And I remember sitting on a stone wall, pretty upset and stunned by what had happened. And I felt this warm sensation on the back of my neck, and I reached back with my hand. And I was actually bleeding from my skull. It wasn't serious that it required stitches or anything, but Mom did draw blood as they say.

Laura Tangusso

What made my mother confusing though was that she had another side of her. She was smart. She was adventurous. She took us to the original production of Hair in London. When I was 13 years old, she told me to read The Autobiography of Malcolm x. It's a book I still have. She had friends who thought she was a real character and fun. And even some of our friends thought she was cool.

But for us, things always felt precarious, on the brink. She was unpredictable. She could be scary, and we all tried in our own ways to protect ourselves and make things normal. Being the oldest, I would try to keep the house in order, thinking somehow that would keep my mother in order. My sisters spent as much time as they could out of the house. Leslie once asked my parents if she could live with another family. I remember how when my sister was young, when she got upset she'd hold her breath until she passed out. I always figured this was her own special way of escaping.

By the time we were adults, we'd all decided to keep our distance from her. None of us lived far away, but we'd easily go three, four months, or much longer, without seeing her. When we did see her, it was usually because we initiated it, not her. It was as if it just never occurred to her to make connections with her family. I remember once I was babysitting my niece and nephew, and I took them to pick up my mother so we could all do something together. When my mother got in the car, my nephew, who was four at the time, looked at me and asked, "Who's she?"

It was a family joke about my mother, that if she was this bad now, just wait until she got old. And in fact, when she reached her 70's, and her health began to decline, she became a kind of nightmare. She had become severely arthritic and frail, but lied about seeing doctors and resented our efforts to assist her. To make things worse, she also started losing her memory. By the time she'd had a second hip surgery, she had become so confusing and agitated, she slugged a nurse. We weren't that shocked, but the hospital took it seriously, and she was sent to a psych unit.

The doctors there did some routine CAT scans, what we were then told was so amazing it took months to fully absorb. On New Year's Eve of 1999, six months after hearing that report, I began recording my and my siblings' reactions.

Leslie

When the doctors heard our descriptions of her behavior, combined with what they saw her scans, they said that it was very possible that she has had some brain damage most of her life. And I think that for me-- I don't know but I think maybe too for my sisters and brothers, that was just one of the most stunning moments in all of this for me because all my life I just thought that my mother was just difficult. That's the way she was. I just thought she was just that way. But when I heard it from someone else, and when they said they had even physical evidence of it, it just changed things in an instant.

Laura Tangusso

The CAT scans showed that my mother has frontal lobe syndrome, which is a shrinkage of the frontal lobe of the brain. She may have been born with it, or it may have been the result of some childhood illness or accident. In any event, for as long as we've known her, she's had it.

John

Just with that diagnosis, there's a sense of relief because it's no longer an unknown. Prior to that, I think that I wrote mom off as being a very malicious person. And I just used to think that there was a nasty side of her personality that she was in control of. And I guess that was what I learned, is that the bad side of her personality was not necessarily something that she was in control of.

Laura Tangusso

It was an enormous thing to take in. She'd always been a mystery that we never imagined we'd understand. She'd done so many things that were confusing and scary. She'd blow up at such small things, like when my brother put too much soap in the sink. My mother got so enraged she put them in his room, said he was sick and threatened to send him to an institution. Suddenly, it didn't seem all her fault.

My mother was put on medications, which slowly began to help her. She stopped being antagonistic. She showed appreciation for us and the staff, and she acted gracious in ways I had never seen before. After a month and a half in the psych hospital, she was moved into a nursing home. But by then, she was experiencing serious memory, and I felt like I was both gaining and losing a mother at the same time.

[PHONE RINGING]

Mother

Hello.

Laura Tangusso

Mom.

Mother

Hi.

Laura Tangusso

Hi, it's Laurie.

Mother

I know. Hi, how are you?

Laura Tangusso

Good, how are you?

Mother

Fine, thank you.

Laura Tangusso

So it's your birthday this weekend.

Mother

It's my birthday?

Laura Tangusso

Yep, March 5.

Mother

Good lord, I forgot all about it.

Laura Tangusso

Sunday.

Mother

Sunday. And how old am I going to be on Sunday. Let's see. Oy, something I'd rather not think about.

Laura Tangusso

You can hear that my mother is losing her memory, but when I listen to this conversation, what strikes me most is the ease in our voices, how normal we sound, the way my mother laughs at herself.

John

I mean mom hugged me three times today, kissed me goodbye twice, thanked me so very much for what a great day. And I don't remember mom ever saying that stuff. We got this six to eight week window of mom being Mrs. Wonderful. I mean she just couldn't have been any more upbeat or radiant and fun to be around and laughing. And just looking so much better, and having good color in her skin. She had put on weight. I mean I hadn't seen mom wear makeup in a bazillion years, fixing her hair. And it was just really sad because I'm thinking, wow, what would life have been if mom had been this person when I was growing up?

Laura Tangusso

It's made us all wonder what would she have been like. Maybe she would have stayed married to my father. Maybe she would have published one of the books she wrote instead of destroying everyone. And maybe it wouldn't be so remarkable to us now when she behaves in normal ways. It's also hard not to wonder about how we would have been different. Would there be more grandchildren? Would one of us be a published novelist? Would we be happier? But of course, these are possible questions.

Leslie

Mom did a lot things that affected my childhood, and I'll never forgive her.

Laura Tangusso

Of all my siblings, my sister Leslie may have had the most difficult relationship with my mother. Leslie is the youngest, and was the only one who ever lived alone with her. There was no one else around to cushion her from my mother's craziness, and as soon as she finished high school, Leslie joined the army to get herself away.

Leslie

It was very stressful, very confusing for me to go through a lot of change that she put me through. And I understand that she was probably sick at the time, but I don't know. I guess I just haven't worked through it enough.

She asked me once how my childhood was. "Did you have a happy childhood?" was how she phrased it. We were just out, and we were at a restaurant eating. And we just having a conversation about nothing of any great importance, just small talk I guess. And she just came out with this question. Maybe she was lucid at that moment, and she just needed to know. And I told her I did.

Laura Tangusso

The other night, I went to visit my mother at the nursing home. As we were leaving her floor to go out to dinner, my mother wanted to stop by the activities room to say goodbye to some friends. A man named Patrick, who's in a wheelchair and can't speak very well, called out in his slow voice, "Hello Dorothy." My mother looked directly at him, and in a loud, stern voice said, "And you, get out of that chair and take a walk for heaven's sake." For an instant, I cringed, flashing back to the countless times my mother was inappropriate in public. But then Patrick started laughing, and my mother started laughing. And as often happens now, I was reminded how much has changed.

Ira Glass

Laura Tangusso is a teacher and visual artist in Boston. This is her first story for the radio.

[MUSIC - "WHAT'S THE GOOD WORD" BY JACKIE REINACH/ MEL PORETZ]

Act 4.

Ira Glass

Act Four, You Call That Love? Consider please the word, love. Love between mothers and children, love between spouses. Once the word is applied to a feeling, is it possible that we are not all referring to the same thing? Jonathan Goldstein has some thoughts about that question.

Jonathan Goldstein

If there was no such word as love, our vocabulary would be richer, and we'd have to struggle harder to find the right words. Everyone would be so long winded and Shakespearean in their range of emotional expression. The word love came along and wiped out all sorts of terms in a semantical bloodbath.

Without the word love, people would speak in terms of sensations, like the sensation of standing waist-deep in a tub of warm plum sauce. Or the sensation of being tickled on the back of the knees. Some would say they felt like they had just swallowed a honey-soaked boxing glove, and others might say that they were feeling like their guts had been yanked out and spread across the kitchen floor.

Without the word love, you would get wedding invitations that would say things like, "On July 15, join us at the Five Holy Martyrs Church of Worship to help celebrate Barry Lyscinzy's feeling of aimless goodwill that he's decided to direct onto Robin Krupka, who's receptive to the idea of being with a man she's fairly certain will never inflict hurt on her."

Sometimes we call something love because we don't know what else to call it. When I first started dating Holly, there was one night where I was double-riding her back home from downtown on my bike. And she kissed my neck and rubbed my back through my tee shirt. We were going uphill, and she knew I could use all the encouragement I could get. We had spent the evening with some friends we didn't especially like, just because we didn't have the heart to say no to them. "We should go out more often," she said from behind me. "The way I hate everybody makes me love you more." Was that a moment of love, or merely an instance of lack of hate?

With Christiane, I thought I couldn't be in love because her knees were too big. They were the size of grapefruits, and I could not see myself being in love with a woman whose knees were that big. They were ludicrous really. My thinking was that it was a good thing they were so ludicrous because they kept me firmly anchored. If I thought for even a second that I might be falling in love, all I had to do was think of those big, fat knees of hers, and then, one day, I found myself kissing them. I had to leap over a great inner hurdle to get to that, but it wasn't love that was on the other side. It was just self-congratulatory pats on my own back over how I could move beyond pettiness like that.

When I was 16, there was a summer I spent in Wildwood, New Jersey, where one night while walking down the boardwalk feeling lonely and depressed, a girl a few years older than me came spinning down the boardwalk, her arms spread out. She came right towards me, and then, when we were face to face, she kissed me. Just like that. Because she was drunk or stoned, but she had kissed me. For the rest of the summer, I couldn't pass a woman on the boardwalk without thinking that we should somehow be meeting in a kiss, that that's how life should really be.

In that moment, where our lips touched, the way it suddenly brought into alignment the private, unspeakable hopefulness in the heart with the uncontrollableness of the outside world, it felt like as surely as anything else I've ever experienced, a moment of love. I say this as an adult who has had serious relationship since, and I can't think of another word but love to describe what I felt that day on the boardwalk. And that was it. She just walked on.

When I was a little kid, my mother's favorite things was to crane her head through a door frame or around a corner and bite me or my sister on the ass while explaining, "Boy, is this a tuckus." I spent much of my childhood walking around our house always on my guard, always feeling like she could strike at any moment. She was never really any good with words, so this was sort of her version of a love sonnet. At least that's how I've chosen to see it. You could also say it was filthy and damaging, but if you want to see something as love, or even need to see it as love, and you call it love, it feels a lot more like love.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein is one of the producers of our program and author of the great novel, Lenny Bruce Is Dead.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself, with Wendy Dorr, Jonathan Goldstein and Starlee Kine. Senior producer Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Mr. Todd Bachmann and Diane Cook. Music help today from Mr. John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENT]

If you'd lke to buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at the WBEZ in Chicago. Look it up in the book, or call 312-948-4680. Or visit our website where you can buy tapes. Or actually you can just listen to our programs for free online, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. [FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. Whenever I pass Torey in the hallway, he turns and whistles. And he says--

Jonathan Goldstein

Boy, is this a tuckus.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio international.