Transcript

209:

Didn't Ask to Be Born
Transcript

Originally aired 03.29.2002

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/209

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Morgan's Father

Keep this in mind. There is another quart of oil in the trunk of the car.

Morgan

OK, I'll take the Corolla.

Ira Glass

This tape is from the documentary TV program American High. A kid named Morgan is fighting with his parents because he wants to use the good car, the Corolla, and not the bad car, the Acclaim.

Morgan

If I wear my Tigger suit can I take the Corolla?

Morgan's Father

No, it's particularly if you're wearing your Tigger suit you can't take the Corolla.

Morgan

Why?

Ira Glass

There is just something about the way this family argues that is deeply, deeply entertaining. They're out to amuse themselves, even when they're fighting.

Morgan

How am I supposed to get women in that car?

Morgan's Father

You're not. That was one of the reasons I bought it. I tested it first and I didn't find any women when I was driving it.

Morgan

You can't--

Morgan's Father

I said this is the car for Morgan.

Morgan

You can't be like, hey baby, you wanna get in my love machine, baby?

Morgan's Father

Got to get a homely car for you.

Ira Glass

One of the things that was fascinating about watching this TV show, American High, was watching the family dynamics. The other families that the producers filmed fought completely differently than this one did. Less humor, more strain. Now, of course, nobody in a family chooses the family dynamic. It just kind of happens. And when things go wrong in a family, it can feel like nobody had any choice about that either. You know, a kid does something that sets off a parent, who then does something that sets off the kid, and on and on and on.

Well, today on our show, we bring you two stories that are sort of worst-case scenarios for any parent, both kind of incredible stories, because when you take apart how what happened happened, it's really hard to see how anybody could have prevented things from going bad.

Act One.

Ira Glass

Our first story is told by a mother and two of her four daughters. Her two oldest daughters, teenagers when the story begins. Though the mom remembers their baby years this way.

Debra Gwartney

When Amanda was born, I was 21 years old. All I wanted to do was care for her and that's what I did. It's funny, when I got pregnant with Stephanie, I was thinking, I'll never love anybody like I love Amanda. I could not imagine that my heart could grow large enough to accommodate another child because I loved Amanda with such an overwhelming sense of identity. She was me and I was her. I mean, we were so linked. And then, of course, when Stephanie was born, this astonishing thing happened, in that I fell in love with her too. And I was really, really close to those two. They were my-- there was no difference between them and me.

My name is Debra Gwartney. We left Tucson the day I signed my divorce papers after a 13-year marriage. And I had thought about it for a long time and decided that it was really best for everyone involved if we moved away. The relationship had become volatile and it just wasn't going to be good for the girls or for me or for my ex-husband if we were all in the same town. Everybody I grew up around had that code of moving on and toughness. And I had a job offer in Eugene, Oregon, and I took it.

Stephanie

My name is Stephanie. It was cold and wet. I didn't like it. And I didn't like the house we lived in. I didn't like the school I was going to. I don't know, I was pretty angry.

Amanda

I'm Amanda. I hated the rain in Eugene. It was just dreary and cold all the time. It would settle in your bones. I still had this huge loyalty to my dad. And he was so depressed. I felt guilty that I was with my mom. I felt like I was disloyal, dishonest with my dad by being there with my mom. I think that's where the anger came from. You feel like they're trying to make you pick sides.

Stephanie

It felt like we were abandoning him, abandoning my father. And I blamed that on my mom.

Debra Gwartney

Stephanie slept every night with a photograph of her dad under her pillow. There was a tremendous sense of guilt about leaving him in Arizona, and they couldn't understand why we couldn't go back. And I just kept thinking, well, if I could just do things the way I used to do it, we'd be OK. So I'd come home from work and make these elaborate meals and make sure that we had homemade muffins. And then on the weekends we'd drive to the coast to look at tide pools. And I'd just demand that we do these things together. And the older girls were stomping along bitterly and angrily. And they just wanted to be isolated, and I just thought, if I could un-isolate them as much as possible, we'd get through whatever this was.

Amanda

When I first really started getting into the punk rock scene, I got into it purely for the angry, drunk, violent aspect of it. That's what really spoke to me at first.

Stephanie

I guess it was 6th grade, yeah. I don't know, I just started hanging out with people that weren't necessarily motivated to be 12. I met people that were smoking pot and skipping school and stuff. And so both of us kind of bled into that culture.

Amanda

I wore ripped-up stuff. And I had these plaid pants with zippers up the back that were skin tight, and big huge boots and angry spiky jewelry.

Stephanie

Then we cut our hair off.

Amanda

I cut my hair into a mohawk.

Stephanie

And I had just dyed my hair pink. I dyed my hair pink. Amanda dyed her hair blue. Took my hair in my hand and took the scissors and chopped it off. It was just a scraggly pink mess of hair. Totally killed my mom.

Amanda

She took away my Pearl Jam and my combat boots, and told me that I needed to start wearing happier clothes. Like, stop putting off the air of being so sad and angry and depressed. Like, she thought it was the music I was listening to.

Debra Gwartney

I made an immature assumption that we were going to come to Eugene and we were going to be in this together. Whatever the barriers were to happiness or peace, the five of us were going to confront those together and get through it. And when the girls first started acting out, I was really astonished that they would do that to this effort of making a new life. They weren't going according to plan, the plan that I had in my own head about how we were going to create this new life.

Stephanie

I think that my mom's protectiveness and her need to hold things together, just that frantic need to hold things together, kind of pushed Amanda and I away. But I think that she wanted things to work so badly that any move that we made that was not what she had had in mind, the tension rose so easily.

Debra Gwartney

And I remember telling them, when times got tough during wars and during depressions in this country, the kids rally. They stick with it and help the family get through the toughness. And they would look at me like, uh, [BLEEP] that. I mean, I'm sure they said that right to my face.

Stephanie

We would come to school high, just run around, and smoke in the bathrooms, and chase people around with sporks. That was one of our favorite things. Do you know what a spork is? It's a spoon-fork. We would pretend like everybody was aliens. It was our, like, honing in device. It was crazy.

Amanda

And we would stand at one end of the hall and crouch down and-- we would call it the rampage. In the commons, all the soccer girls, all the really preppy kids would hang out. And we'd put our arms in front of our head and run through the crowd, knocking people over.

Stephanie

And then Amanda-- oh, Amanda-- she lit the bathroom on fire, and all the trash in the trash cans. She was just playing. And these two girls walk in-- super rich girls-- and went to the principal. And Amanda got arrested. She got charged with arson and got suspended from school. And that's when I really started despising the upper class, girls that played soccer, rode horses, got fake tans. So that's when I really started hating those kind of people.

Debra Gwartney

I got a call from their school saying that they hadn't been in school for at least a week. And I thought, well, where are they? I'm dropping them off at the front door of the school. Where are they going? So I raced home to try to find them. And they were there. And they said they just didn't feel like going to school. They were sick of school. There was no reason to go. And I said, well, where are you going? And they said they were just hanging around downtown. And I -- this is just untenable. We can't live this way. I mean, I can't have my two older daughters just wandering and then coming home at night for dinner like nothing-- like this is normal or something. If you want to live here with me, you have to go to school.

About an hour later, they went into the bathroom and they were getting all dolled up. And Amanda was dying Stephanie's hair this bright color of pink with this Manic Panic dye. And I could see that they were getting ready to go, and putting all this tons of makeup on, big black streaks around their eyes, and spiking up their hair. And I opened the door and I said you can't go out. Amanda just pushed the door closed in my face. And they locked the door and they were in there just turning the music up really loud and laughing and shouting at each other.

I was so determined not to let them go out the door that night. So I went to the front door of the house and I just stood there. And they came out and they both had backpacks on. They walked over and said, get out of the way. And I said no. I was blocking the door. I was keeping-- my legs were apart and my arms were out. And I said, I'm not going to let you go out. You can't go. And I remember Amanda saying, Mom, we don't want to hurt you. By that time, both of the little girls were on the periphery and shouting at all of us to stop this. They pushed me aside and they ran out. And as they pushed me, I tripped over a chair and fell.

I drove around until about 4:30 in the morning and never did find them. And we didn't see them again for eight days.

Stephanie

It was just a rough night, drinking 40s of malt liquor and smoking pot. And it just was a hard night for both of us.

Amanda

Me and Stephanie started sleeping in abandoned parking shelters. And we would find houses that weren't lived in and sleep in their backyard. And it was freezing cold too, and we only had these little blankets.

Debra Gwartney

That first time they left, that's when I kind of entered the world that I never knew existed. It's not against the law to run away from home in Oregon. The truancy laws are also gone. If your child is missing from school for an extended period of time, all they do is basically drop that child from the rolls. No help from the police, no help from the schools. So I started looking into social service agencies. And they're really set up to help the child. But there's really no place for a parent to go and say, my child has run away. What can you do to help me get them back?

I went to Amanda's counselor for help. And he suggested that I look into a therapy program where they would take the girls into the woods for several weeks and get them cleaned up off of drugs. And they suggested a person who specializes in going into the underground, the subculture of kids, and finding kids so they can put them in a group and get them out into the woods. So it really came down to finding a stranger and paying him $200 a day to seek them out. It was terrifying to get involved with someone like that, former cop, a former LA cop. I gave him a map of downtown Eugene and where I thought they liked to hang out. They at that time were very fond of the IHOP.

Amanda

One day, me and Stephanie had woken up and we were walking downtown, and some guy comes up to us and points at me and goes, you're Stephanie? And points at Stephanie and goes, you're Amanda? We shake our heads, no, we're not. He's like, no, I know you guys are. He was like-- told us he was a private investigator hired to find us and the police were going to pick us up, and that he was going to take us to a safe place where we could eat.

Stephanie

And he was a horrible man. He was just a bad man, with his son. They got us in their car and it was weird. And they drove and drove and we drove to Sisters, Oregon. And then it got really scary. And they strip-searched us and put us in crazy clothes. And they took Amanda. And I stayed there for a week with all these other girls, just milling around, wanting a cigarette more than anything in the world. It was just such a weird, surreal situation, really horrible.

Debra Gwartney

I drove to Albany, Oregon on a Saturday. And then the people in Sisters transported Amanda there first. And we met in this room and she was a ball of fury. And we were in this very cold, impersonal room with 10 sets of parents and their angry teenagers. I guess I was still, at that point, thinking, if I could just make the right move, if I could just find the right puzzle pieces, then this is all going to fall back in place again. I guess I was still in that illusion that there is a cure here, and if I could just find it, we'll be OK.

And they explained to the kids that they will have a small packet of lentils and rice and a few vegetables and a pan, and that they'll be responsible for building their own fire, and that they would teach them how to build a snow shelter to try to stay warm. And so they locked them in this van. And here we were, all these parents standing in this driveway. And they just backed out and drove away. A week later I did the same thing with Stephanie.

Amanda

We were in the Cascades and there was about 11 feet of snow on the ground and we were in this huge blizzard. They had a wall tent with a wood stove in it. We'd met another group there. And I didn't know, but it was Stephanie's group.

Stephanie

So I walked past Amanda. And I didn't see her because it was in the dark. I couldn't tell which one was her, but I knew I was walking past her. And I was singing Blondie or something. I don't remember, something she would recognize. She knew I was there. I sang all night, sang to her.

Amanda

They let me talk to her for five minutes. We were just looking at each other's hands and I still had fingernail polish on. She said, how'd you keep your fingernail polish on that long? And I was like, I don't know. I just wear gloves all the time. And we were just looking at each other, just faces and hands, and then got ripped apart again. That was the only time we got to see each other for about six months.

Debra Gwartney

After the wilderness trip, Amanda went to live with a family in eastern Oregon, where she worked on their ranch. And Stephanie was living with our friends in Montana. And the thought that-- I mean, my whole image of myself was as a mother. And the thought that I had failed so much that my daughter was now called a foster child. And when we would go there, I felt so tiny, tiny and sloppy. I just felt like this-- you know, like the welfare mothers you see in line buying candy bars with their welfare checks and everybody's clicking their tongues and judging them. I felt like that. I felt like such a failure.

When Amanda was in foster care, I saw her quite often and I thought a lot had been healed between us. She was really dependent on me, so I thought we were really off on a good footing for that next fall. We started the year off and it was just-- it was a fiasco. They didn't want to go back to school. It just wasn't working. It was a continual battle with them. And they just wanted to be out partying with their friends. I just couldn't have these street kids that came home now and then to eat.

Amanda

It was basically a mantra. If you don't do what I say, you're not going to live here. If you don't do what I say, you're not going to live here. And that would just ring in my head over and over. And that just planted a little seed, like, fine. I'm not going to live here.

Debra Gwartney

And the girls walked in the house. And I was outside doing some things. And they came out with these huge backpacks and bed rolls. And you know, I just didn't even have the strength to say, stop.

Amanda

I had my backpack and a pair of shoes tied onto my backpack. She said, where are you guys going? Out to coffee. Why do you need two pairs of shoes to go out to coffee? That's the last thing she said.

Debra Gwartney

And they walked down the street and that was it.

Stephanie

It was weird. It was fun, exciting, adventurous, new. Lots of good stories. Every day was a story, like a book. Going by Shasta, Mount Shasta, in a box car, and just seeing things that not many people get to see. It was like nothing else I've ever done. There was a lot of pain involved, but at the same time, it was like every moment I was actually living in the moment and I was there. I haven't really felt that since.

Debra Gwartney

In the next couple of months, every now and then Amanda would call-- never Stephanie-- and either leave a message or she'd get me on the phone and say, we're alive, we're OK. But she would never tell me where they were. And I would say, come home. You need to come home. We need to work this out. She'd just hang up.

Stephanie

When we were in San Francisco, that was the crazy times. Me and Amanda, that's when we first started doing dope. But one night, I had wandered off. I was totally screwed up and out of my head. Alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, pills, psychotropic pills, all that stuff, 40s all day on the block. So I had my dog in my hand and I wandered off up the street, and just was wandering around, totally cracked out, like, walking around in the Tenderloin at 11:00 at night.

At night in San Francisco, the crackheads come out with all this stuff they've gathered during they day, because crackheads gather things. They're like pigeons. They're attracted to the shiny metal. A lot of times, they roll out pieces of carpet and lay all the things they've found out: lamps and spoons and hub caps and prosthetic pieces of people, I've seen, just lost treasures. At night, it's like the crackhead fair. There's people with their shopping carts laying out all the stuff they found.

When you're high on drugs, like I was that night, I thought I was at a little market place. And so I was walking along and this one crackhead had all this stuff, a carpet laid out with all this stuff. And I picked up a candle. And he came out of nowhere, just like a banshee out of hell, just screaming towards me. And I don't know, in the struggle I got cut on my arm. I was just kind of dumbfounded. I was like, what just happened? So I just left. And then I remember walking and just being covered with blood. And I walked up to Sixth and Market, and all my friends are sitting there. And I walk up and my mouth is open and there's blood everywhere. And my friend cleaned it up for me.

It felt like there was almost protection around us, or a bubble, just something protecting Amanda and I, something special about our journey through this dark place. We just glided through it and remained untouched.

Amanda

She and I have such a different way of looking at that time. She was so happy and she was making her part in this community. And I feel used and-- I don't know. My idea of the whole thing was to put my life on my back and just go, and stop looking back, stop feeling guilty, stop all these raging emotions, just keep going, keep moving. I had saved about $1,500. And I had an ATM card. And so we would panhandle and we would live off what I had, until I got a heroin habit, and then it went pretty fast.

Stephanie

So we made it to Tucson. And we decided to get some heroin. And so we went down to this drainage tunnel, and Amanda took her shot of dope and as I was about to-- as I was about to-- I had drawn up my blood and I was about to put it all back into my arm, I looked over at Amanda and I said, you're looking kind of gray, Amanda. And she says, oh, I feel fine. She's really, really hammered. And the boy that was next to us said, oh, she's fine, and so I pushed all the heroin into my arm.

And right then, Amanda fell over. She had done too much and it was not a good batch, because I couldn't-- could barely walk. I was crawling over to her, and this was the first time I've ever done CPR. I'm sure I broke some of her ribs. And I couldn't get her to breathe. Her heart would beat for little bit and then stop and start again. And she would-- she took like two breaths the whole day. And I don't know how she did it. I just kept telling people, call a [BLEEP] ambulance. Everybody wouldn't. They said, no, we're just going to wait for a little while longer. We could all get in big trouble for this. I was like, I don't give a [BLEEP]. I'll got to jail for the rest of my life. Get me an ambulance.

And then this guy put her on his back and he was dragging her in her shoes. Like, the next day, you could see where her shoes were all worn down. There was all these little Mexican kids chasing after him, going what's wrong with her? What's wrong with her? And we got her as fast as we could to this house, some fat guy's apartment. He was watching The Simpsons. Right as the ambulance pulled up, Amanda lifted her head up by herself. We got to the hospital. And so we're sitting there and a cop comes in. He handcuffs us both to the bed.

Debra Gwartney

And the phone rang. And it was a hospital in Tucson, calling to tell me that Amanda had been found. And it was the first time I had any clue that she was using heroin. And that was really a lot to take all at once. She was in a hospital. They'd had to restart her heart, and she was a heroin addict.

Stephanie

The policeman took us in his car down to this halfway house. We booked as soon as he left. Two days later, the police stopped us for loitering and ran our names. I spouted out my false identity and Amanda gave her real name. And I turned and looked at her, shocked.

Amanda

Whenever we talk about it, it always comes back to, well, why did you give your real name to the cop, Amanda? It's your fault. Can you understand why I gave my real name to the cop, Stephanie? I just want her understand it, that it was the only thing I could have done in that situation. And maybe I wasn't-- maybe I was tired. I had just died.

Stephanie

They ran our names and Amanda's came up dirty, as you would say. And they took her backpack, put it in their trunk. I gave her a big hug and kiss and I said, I'll see you soon. And that was the last time I saw her for a year. And we were torn apart. And we never really healed that wound.

Amanda

She went and did it alone. I was so mad that she was still doing it and I was stuck. I was her sister.

Stephanie

I don't know, it was like a journey we had to complete or something and it felt like it was cut short. I had to keep going, for some reason. It was like some kind of Homer's Odyssey. We had to make it to the end, whatever that end was, which we didn't really know. I left Tucson. I hopped a train to Texas. So we'd go through Arizona, go through Benson and out to the border of New Mexico. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you're in a town.

Debra Gwartney

And Stephanie was 14 years old. Where was she? I went to San Francisco because Amanda thought she was maybe there. And she thought she was perhaps in the Tenderloin district, because they had found a community there. And this friend of ours went with me. And that is a really horrible area. There are all these majestic looking buildings with homeless people everywhere, and weird piles of used clothes all over, that I guess people just dump there and let people look through. Every park bench, every fountain, ledge, every step up to the library had another little blanket tent. It was like walking through a campground of some sort. We were looking, trying to look at faces to see if we could see her.

Stephanie

She was looking for me when I was in Texas. I wasn't anywhere near San Francisco at the time. I understand why she went there to look for me, or why she went anywhere. It's a really sad story that she has to tell. And I feel incredibly guilty that I put her through that, and that she had to go to the places where I'd been and had to see that. So I was waitressing at a pizza place for about 50 hours a week, and got really good at it. Great tips. Walk out of there with $100 sometimes at night.

Of course, I was coming out of my addiction. I was praying a lot. So then I started going to the Catholic church. It was a block away from my house. Saint Austin's Church. And I used to sneak my dog in. I would put him in my shirt, my jacket. And I would put holy water on his face and holy water on me. And we'd sneak into the back and it was this huge old church and we would always go to the Mother Mary. So we used to go hang out there for hours and just sit and be quiet and pray, light candles for my family.

Debra Gwartney

So Christmas Eve came and we did all of our usual traditional things, which was very hollow and cold. We all were sitting in the living room, kind of staring at each other on Christmas Eve, not knowing what to do. And I said, well, why don't we all write Stephanie a letter? And I thought, corny and a little contrived, even. But it just came out of nowhere. So, to my utter amazement, Amanda was into that. She really wanted to do it. So we each took a couple pieces of paper and went to a different place in the house and wrote. And Amanda wrote for over an hour. She just wrote and wrote and wrote.

Amanda

Yeah. I just asked her a lot of questions. Why are you doing this? What are you trying to accomplish at this point? You're hurting us all so bad. Please, let's try to work this out. Please call. Please tell us you're alive. Please be alive.

Debra Gwartney

And finally, Amanda came in with her pieces of paper that she'd written. And we all folded our notes up to Stephanie. And we took a pan, just a pan from under the stove, outside. It was a very cold night. And we stood in our driveway and we each put our letter to Stephanie in the pan and we lit it on fire, lit them on fire.

Amanda

And then we said prayers that she would call. I mean, I got a little taste of what my mom went through in those nine months where Stephanie didn't call us. I've never been so completely sad and just ruined. I mean, Stephanie wasn't even my child. She was just my sister and my best friend. And I couldn't sleep at night. I was just so sad that she was gone and I mourned her every day.

Debra Gwartney

And we just stood there while they burned and the smoke went off. It's really amazing to me that we all survived this. There's just so many ways that somebody could have slipped away. Stephanie was 14 years old, and she got herself down to Texas and got a job and lived in an apartment and paid bills. I did not rescue her from that life. She rescued herself. And I think she'd very much like me to recognize that. And intellectually, I can. But when she's in the same room with me, and we're talking about this, I get so hurt.

Stephanie

I think she still rolls her eyes and feels hurt by me saying that this experience had some value. It's my life experience and it's important to me. And I just hope that someday she can acknowledge that.

Debra Gwartney

Things aren't easy with either of the girls yet. They're so much better. And I can so freely say, I love you. And they say, I love you, Mom. And the words are so real. And I'm incredibly proud of both of them.

Stephanie

We are evolving and building a relationship now that's a lot stronger. We still don't really know each other very well, but--

Amanda

It feels like our situation's changed, especially this year. She listens to me. She gives me advice. We're friends. She's my mom. I have a mom.

Ira Glass

That story was produced by Sandy Tolan of Homelands Productions, in collaboration with Debra Gwartney, with her daughters Stephanie and Amanda. Debra has just come out with a book about her experience, called Live Through This, which had been featured in Salon and People magazine and reviewed all over the place. Stephanie is now in college in Massachusetts. Amanda has finished college and she lives in Oregon with her husband and two small children.

Coming up, sounds like an ordinary school day, until the end. That's on Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our show we bring you two stories that I think anybody would consider parents' worst-case scenarios. Our first story was about girls who ran away. This next story is about someone, a teenager, who did something to himself that I think most people would find unthinkable. And he wasn't a loner. He had friends. His mom was a teacher, interested in his life. He wrote an account of what happened on that day, when he did what he did. A warning that some of the moments in this story are not appropriate for small children.

Brent Runyon

Monday, February 4, 1991. Falls Church, Virginia.

I'm awake, listening to the radio, and mom is yelling at me to wake up and get out of bed. I don't want to get out of bed. Maybe I should play sick. But I've done that too many times this year already. The bathroom is right next to my bed, so I don't have to put on a robe or anything. I just go in and lock the door behind me. And then the door that leads to the hallway, and then the one that separates the shower and toilet from the sink. It's weird that this bathroom has three locking doors, but I like it. If I ever have to hide from anyone, like a burglar or something, or really just want to be by myself, I can come in here and lock all the doors.

The shower is nice and warm when I get in, and I suck a little water into my mouth and spit it out again. I don't want to go to school today. I'm going to be in such trouble. it's like a god damn black cloud hanging over my head, like in the cartoons when it's only raining on the one guy and it follows him around wherever he goes, even indoors. That guy is me.

I run the whole thing back in my head. I did so many things wrong I can't even believe it. I shouldn't have taken the matches from Adam. I shouldn't have lit that match. I shouldn't have set the whole pack on fire. I shouldn't have thrown them in that locker. And I really shouldn't have put that lock on the locker. I'm so stupid, I say out loud, and turn off the shower. I'm going to wear all black today. I always do.

Downstairs my dad would be drinking coffee, staring at the paper. But he's on a business trip so there's a big hole at the breakfast table. My brother's still in his room getting ready for high school. But he can leave late because his friend Schmid picks him up. My mother's moving around the kitchen, cleaning things up. She puts my lunch bag on the counter. She doesn't write my name on it.

When the bus comes, I get on and walk all the way to the back. There's still a seat next to Anna, the girl from down the street. I sit and turn my body just enough so I can slide my hand under Anna's sweater. At first she doesn't move. But when my hand touches her belly she exhales really loud and whispers, it's too cold. I take my hand back, rub it and blow on it until it's warm. And then I slide it back under her sweater and rub my thumb against the rough fabric of her bra and the top of her breast. Sometimes, I ask her how it comes undone and she says, it's a latch on the front. And I spend the rest of the ride trying to figure out what that means. And once I noticed a hole in the crotch of her pants and I tried to put my finger in it. But she said it tickled too much. Today I'm happy just to feel the warmth of her skin. When we get to school, I pull my hand from under her shirt and get off as fast as I can.

My best friend Steven and I are in home room together because both of our last names begin with R. And that makes it the most fun class of the day, which sucks because it's also the first. We sit in the back row, holding copies of The Catcher in the Rye, which I haven't read, but I might read because I like books about baseball, and whisper about Megan. I say, did you call her? Yeah. Did you ask her out? Yeah. What did she say? She said maybe. Maybe? I ask. She said she kind of likes someone else. Who? I ask. You. This is bad news because I know how much Steven likes her. And I'm sure she likes him back. Why do I have to screw everything up? I'm such a freaking idiot.

Mike and I sit in the back row of Mr. Wolf's civics class, figuring out how to spin a pencil between our fingers like Iceman does in Top Gun. Leah sits in front of us and pays attention to Mr. Wolf the whole time. She used to write notes to me, asking who I liked, and dropped them onto my desk. I'd write back, asking her if she wanted to join my religion, the Ace of Spades. Back in seventh grade, I had a lot of time on my hands. And I'd come up with crazy ideas just to freak people out. I came up with the idea about a religion based around a god called the Ace of Spades. And we'd all worship the Ace. And he'd be the one true creator and always wear black. But I never really figured out how to make people believe that he was the one true creator. So I sort of gave the whole thing up.

Leah always thought I was a freak for talking about things like that. But she used to at least pay attention. Now she just ignores me, maybe because of the time she got a B plus on her report card and started crying because it was the first time she'd gotten anything lower than an A, and I called her a stupid bitch for crying about something so stupid. I used to get all A's too. And now I'm getting F's in a couple of classes. And my parents think I'm a retard. But you don't see me crying about it.

I meet up with my friend Adam halfway down Main Hall, and we walk to gym together. He says, I swear, man, did you see Katherine in that sweater? She's so stacked, especially for a seventh grader. Yeah, I guess. I'm not even thinking about that stuff today. I've got bigger things on my mind.

Friday in gym, when me and a bunch of guys were changing, dropping our pants and pulling up our green gym shorts as fast as we could, Adam got out a book of matches he'd gotten from the 7-11 and showed them to me. I don't know why, but I grabbed them and lit one. And then because I thought it would be funny to see everybody's reaction, I set the whole pack on fire. And all of a sudden there was a big ball of fire in my hand and I didn't know what to do. So I opened one of the lockers and threw the burning thing in. Then I realized there was a shirt in the locker. I panicked when I realized that the shirt had caught fire too, and I grabbed a loose lock from the bench and put it on the locker, thinking that it would put out the flames. And then I ran over to the water fountain, cupped some water between my hands, and carried it back to the burning locker. I tried to throw it through the metal slats, but by that time the shirt had just about burned itself out, and then my problem was the smoke.

By that time, all the other guys had already gone out to gym and I was the only one left in the locker room. So I just opened all the windows to get the smell of burning cotton out, and then went out and played volleyball. When we came back in at the end of the period to change, you could still smell the smoke, but the gym teacher just thought somebody had been smoking.

But when I walk into gym today, I can see Mr. Huff is standing in the back of the locker room, right next to the locker that was on fire. He keeps moving his bottom lip over his mustache, so it looks like he's trying to eat it. He says, OK, boys, settle down. On Friday there was an incident in the locker room. Some arsonist among you purposely set a shirt on fire. We had the fire chief come over and investigate. He took some fingerprints and we expect the results later today. Boys, whoever did this is an enormous amount of trouble. Charges will be pressed. He'll be expelled. But now I'm prepared to give the guilty party a chance to confess. So whoever did it, or if you know who did it, come see me in my office before the end of the period. His eyes lock with mine on the last word and I feel a cold sickness all over my body.

What am I going to do? What am I going to do? I say over and over as we walk out into the gym and start stretching. We're playing dodge ball inside today because it's cold and raining. Kevin picks up the purple ball and wings it, nailing me in the back. And I go sit on the sidelines for the rest of the game. Nick beans Adam and he comes over and sits next to me. They were his matches. His fingerprints were on them too.

What are you going to do? He says. I don't know, I say. Are you going to turn yourself in? No. You're not? No. What are you going to do? He asks. I'm going to kill myself. You are? Yeah. But how will they know it was you, not me? I don't know, I guess I'll write a note saying I did it. You will? And he gets up and starts to walk away, and then calls out, Hey, thanks.

Brian and I sit in the back row during English. Sometimes we draw Motley Crue and Aerosmith symbols on our notebooks. He likes me because I tell him what the books are about when he doesn't read them. Brian, I say, could the cops-- the cops couldn't get fingerprints from a book of matches if it were all burnt up, could they? He thinks for a second. He knows this kind of thing. Yeah, they could. They could? Yeah, because fire doesn't burn away fingerprints. It doesn't? No. Unless the person who lit the matches also poured lighter fluid or some other emollient like gasoline or something on the matches. Then they wouldn't be able to find anything. But, like, the school doesn't have our fingerprints on file, does it? Yeah, of course they do. They have everybody's fingerprints on file. They do? I slide a little lower in my seat. I'm so screwed. Yeah, he says. Don't you know anything?

These days in Algebra, I have to sit up front with the brains. I used to sit in the back with Nick and Kevin, two of the coolest kids in school. We'd open Mrs. Loftus's file cabinets when she wasn't looking, and steal school supplies. We got white out and pencils and big yellow legal pads. And we'd take them back to Kevin's locker and store them there. We never used them or anything. We just liked stealing. I don't know how they figured out it was us. Kevin thinks they installed a security camera, but I'm not sure.

The night before the school called my parents, I got dressed up in my best outfit-- a black blazer, black silk shirt, black dress pants, and a black tie-- and lay in my bed listening to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" album. I took my kitchen knife from its hiding place between the mattress and box spring and held it against my wrist. When the music got really loud I sliced as fast as I could and bit my lip from the pain. I hung my arm between the two twin beds pushed together, from when my brother used to share the room with me, and let it bleed.

I was surprised when I woke up in the morning. My blood had clotted into the carpet. I had to find a Band-Aid big enough to cover the wound, and I told my parents I had scratched my wrist on a locker.

We got three days in school suspension for stealing and my parents were pissed. They sat me down at the kitchen table and told me how upset they were. Just the looks on their faces was terrible. My dad was scowling at me like I was a hoodlum. My mom looked like I'd broken her heart. It was like they didn't recognize me. They said, we've never been so disappointed in you. I promised them I'd do better, and I tried. I wonder how they'll feel when I get expelled.

I see Steven in the hall on the way to lunch. I pull him over next to the blue lockers out of the way of the crowd and say, I'm in big trouble. Why? he asks. I lit a book of matches on fire in gym and burned somebody's shirt up. That was you? Yeah. That was my shirt. It was? Yeah. Why'd you do that? I don't know, I was just screwing around. That was your shirt? Yeah. What are you going to do? They took fingerprints. I know. I don't know what I'm going to do. I walk down the hall towards the cafeteria and I know that I'm completely screwed.

I think about that movie we saw in English class, about the guy who's standing on the bridge waiting to get hung. I wonder why all the ways I've tried to kill myself haven't worked. I mean, I tried hanging. I used to have a noose tied to my closet pole. I'd go in there and slip the thing over my head and let my weight go. But every time I started to lose consciousness, I'd just stand up. I tried to take pills. I took 20 Advil one afternoon, but that just made me sleepy. And all the times I tried to cut my wrists I could never cut deep enough. That's the thing. Your body tries to keep you alive no matter what you do. During drama class, they finally call me into the vice principal's office. She's wearing a red dress that I can't stop looking at. She asks if I know anything about the fire, and I tell her no. She stares at me for a few seconds and says, you can go. She knows that I did it.

When seventh period is finally over, I run to my locker and put all my books inside. I won't need them anymore. I grab my lock picking set and a spare Ace of Spades that I have lying around. I touch Michelle Pfeiffer's lips with my thumb. At the end of the hallway, I can see Steven talking to Megan, the girl we both have a crush on. I walk up to them and say hi. She smiles at me and I try to smile back. Steven looks a little suspicious. I don't want to tell them what I'm going to do. I hand him the Ace of Spades and say, goodbye. And I walk away. I hope they'll be happy together. I see my friend Jake at his locker and give him the lock picking set. Use them wisely, I say, and head towards the bus.

Laura walks with me down D Hall. She says, hey, I heard you set that fire in gym class. What are you going to do? I'm going to set myself on fire. She stops at her locker, but I keep walking. On the bus ride home, I sit by myself. I lean my head against the cold, glass window, and try not to think about all the stupid things I've done and all the pain I've caused everyone.

My brother Craig is playing basketball outside the house when I get home. He's shooting free throws. I rebound the ball for him and throw it back. I don't want to take any shots. I tell him the whole story about what I did and what they're going to do to me. I don't tell him what I'm going to do to myself. When I'm done talking he says, that sucks. And I go inside the house. I don't have to write a note anymore, because Craig knows everything.

I walk out to the shed to get the gas can. I bring it inside, upstairs to the bathroom, because that's the room with the most locks. I go back downstairs and get the matches from the kitchen. I take off all my clothes and put on the pair of red boxers with the glow-in-the-dark lips that my mom bought me at the mall last weekend. I bring the bathrobe into the shower and I pour the gasoline all over it. The gas can is only about a quarter full but it seems like enough.

I step into the bathtub and I put the bathrobe over my shoulders. It's wet and heavy, but there's something kind of comforting about the smell, like going on a long car trip. I hold the box of matches out in front of me in my left hand. I take out a blue tip match and hold it against the box. Should I do it? Yes. Do it. I strike the match. But it doesn't light. Try again. I light the match. Nothing happens. I bring it closer to my wrist and then it goes up, all over me, eating through me everywhere. I can't breathe. I'm screaming. Craig, Craig.

I fall down. I'm going to die. I'm going to find out what death is like. I'm going to know. But nothing's happening. This hurts too much. I need to stop it. I need to get up. I stand. I don't know how I stand, but I do. And I turn on the shower. I unlock the door with my hand and open it. My hand is all black.

I walk out. There's Craig with Rusty, our dog, next him. They have the same expression on their faces.

Craig yells something and runs downstairs. He's calling 9-1-1. He hands me the phone and runs off. There's a woman on the phone asking questions. I try to tell her what's happened but there's something wrong with my voice. The woman on the phone says the fire trucks and ambulances are on their way. Somehow she knows my address. There's smoke coming from the bathroom upstairs and I can see that the whole room has turned black. If the room is black, then why am I OK? And I look down and see my flesh is charred and flaky. And the glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts are burnt into my skin. The woman on the phone says everything's going to be all right. She keeps asking me if I'm still on fire and I say, I-- I don't think so.

I'm walking around the kitchen, waiting for the ambulance to come. I can see my reflection in the microwave. That's not me. That's not my face. That's not what I look like. Where's my hair? Where did my hair go? We used to put marshmallows in microwave. We used to watch them get bigger and bigger and then shrink down. Oh God, just tell them to get here. Just tell them to get here, OK? I just need them to get here. She says, they're coming. They're almost there. I'm so sorry, I say. I'm so sorry. It's OK. That's OK.

I can hear the sirens in the distance now. It hurts to talk. I think there's something wrong in my throat. I say, I want to lie down. I'm going to lie down. You can't lie down. But I have to. The men are here. The firemen are here. They're putting me on a plastic sheet. They say I'm going to be OK. One of them puts something over my face. That feels good. That feels so good. The cold air feels so good going into my lungs. What are they talking about? What are they saying? They're giving me a shot. They say it's going to make the pain go away.

I'm looking at the faces of all the men who are gathered around me, and their eyes are so blue and clear. My brother is yelling in the background and punching the walls. He's so angry. I'm being lifted. They're rolling me through the front door, down the path, and into the ambulance. I wonder if anybody in the neighborhood is watching. I don't want them to know.

And then my mom is here. And she's smiling and saying she loves me. And her eyes, which are green like my eyes, are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

Ira Glass

Brent Runyon. His account of this time in his life is collected in a memoir called The Burn Journals. He also has a new book called Surface Tension: A Novel in Four Summers.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Our production manager is Seth Lind. Production help from Andy Dixon. Production help on the runaway story from Ellen Yuan and Rhonda Bernstein. It was part of the World Views series, a collection of first-person narratives. Some of that funding came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Our website, where you can get tickets to our movie theater event, for one night only. Thursday, April 23 we're going to do an episode of our radio show live on stage and beam it to movie theaters all over the country. Tickets are available at thisamericanlife.org. A shout out to my own dad, with apologies for my own teenage years. I am very glad we are all older now.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who explains what attracted him to public radio in the first place.

Amanda

I got into it purely for the angry, drunk, violent aspect of it.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.