Transcript

212:

The Other Man
Transcript

Originally aired 05.10.2002

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/212

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When Sarah was a kid, the number of movie stars who came to stay at their house was exactly one, and it was kind of a disaster. Robert Redford ended up at their house because he had heard about a book that Sarah's stepfather was writing about Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement. It was still just a manuscript, and the stepfather didn't want to send copies of it around. So he told Redford that the only way that Redford could read it is if he would do it at their house in Long Island. Redford agreed. Sarah says, the atmosphere in the house when he arrived was completely different from any other time in her childhood.

Sarah Koenig

I remember mostly my mother consciously trying to be very charming, and being very charming, and talking to him a lot, and asking all sorts of questions, and laughing a lot at what he said, and kind of flitting about the house in a way that I hadn't remembered her doing before.

Ira Glass

When Robert Redfored told stories, even the simplest story about his trip to the house, her parents nodded and smiled along with an enthusiasm that the stories did not necessarily seem to merit to 11-year-old Sarah.

Sarah Koenig

I was really sullen. And I think I was making a really concerted effort not to be impressed. Now, 20 years later, I think I was jealous that he was suddenly the star of the house, whereas I was used to being the star of the house. I was the youngest kid. And I was the one who amused my parents. And here was this stranger coming in who had usurped my role.

And I remember when he came in, poor guy, the first night, my mother made this special dinner. And we ate in the kitchen. We had this big wooden table. And it was definitely fancier than usual, or one more course than we usually had. Maybe we had an appetizer or something, which we never normally had. And she had put down these place mats that were-- we only brought them out on special occasions. It all looked really festive and nice. And so he sits down, and we start eating. And Robert Redford says, oh, do you always eat like this? This is so nice. And I said, no. And my mother, at the same time, said, yes, we do.

It was bad. And then another thing happened where the seats at that table were these benches. So I was sitting on the same bench as Robert Redford. And I started rocking, partly unconsciously, because I always did that, but also just knowing, I'm sure, that it would be highly irritating to whoever is sitting on the bench with you. So there poor Robert Redford was, rocking back and forth, trying to eat his dinner. And my mother said, Sarah, stop, stop rocking, and scolded me in front of Robert Redford.

Ira Glass

The next day, a friend of Sarah's from down the street asked if she could come over and meet the house guest.

Sarah Koenig

So she comes over. And she reacts the way you are supposed to react. Her eyes are opened wide. And she's just smiling and talking, and saying, I am such a fan, and I love your movies, and can I have your autograph? And he's delighted. Finally, someone is showing the proper protocol. And he's like, sure, yeah, hey. And my mother is standing there smiling, and how sweet. And she says, "Sarah, would you also like his autograph?" And I said, "No." That was the crowning blow.

Ira Glass

It's like, somehow, if you picture your family as this little solar system, in and of itself, with its own set of normal gravitational fields and all that, suddenly-- I don't even know what-- another star, another planet entered in. And it completely shifted everyone's orbit away from the way it normally is.

Sarah Koenig

Right. And I couldn't handle it. All my behavior, I think, was aimed at trying to get it back to the way I had wanted it, or the way I was comfortable.

Ira Glass

Because in the old solar system, pretty much, you were the sun. You were at the center.

Sarah Koenig

Yes, right. And he was so clearly a bigger sun. He was literally a star. He was a star.

Ira Glass

Well today on our radio program, stories of what happens when an outsider arrives and changes everything, for better and worse. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Our program today in three acts. Act One, Psychic Buddha, Qu'est-ce Que C'est, the story of what happens to an average American family when Mom, who is completely rational and charming and funny, starts to spend every day in direct contact with an ancient Buddhist monk who no one else can see, who last walked the earth hundreds of years ago. Act Two, The Jackson Two, the story of a politician whose life is shattered by two different men, both of whom share his same name. Act Three, Mr. Fun, Jonathan Goldstein and Heather O'Neill tell the true story of what happened when he first arrived in her life, and why her little daughter explained to him that he is the daughter's 19th favorite person in the world, and not likely to rise. Stay with us.

Act One. Psychic Buddha, Qu'est-ce Que C'est.

Davy Rothbart

Can I have $20?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

Can you have 20--

Davy Rothbart

Bucks.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

No.

Ira Glass

This is a story where another man shows up in a family, and the other man is an ancient spirit named Aaron. Mom started channeling Aaron years ago. Aaron has been through lifetime after lifetime, going back a couple thousand years. He instructs her in Buddhism and in meditation.

Her son, Davy Rothbart, put together this story on what it has meant to have Aaron around all these years in their family. But also, when he went to interview everybody in the house that he grew up in, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he realized that they had never sat down as a family and actually discussed whether they thought Aaron was real, whether they actually believed in Aaron. They got a chance to do that, too. Here's Davy.

Davy Rothbart

I was 12 when Aaron showed up. My older brother, Mike, was 15. My little brother, Peter, was seven. I first found out about Aaron by reading through my mom's journals when she wasn't home. What some people call dirty snooping, I call being curious.

And I was a curious kid. I remember reading about Aaron this, Aaron that, and all these long, incredible conversations my mom and Aaron had had. For a while, I thought Aaron was some dude my mom was sneaking around with. Then one morning, in the dining room, she explained to me and my brothers about Aaron, how he just came to her one day.

She has always meditated every morning. And I guess this one time in winter, while she sitting quietly in the living room, she felt the presence of someone. Then she saw him, a biblical-looking figure with blue eyes and a long white beard. At first, my mom thought she was hallucinating.

She asked the guy who he was. He said his name was Aaron. He has never gone away.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

I feel his presence there constantly. But it's like sitting in a room with somebody, and you're reading a book, and they're reading a book. And you don't always have to talk to each other. You just feel the other person's presence. And if it's somebody you really love, there's a comfort in that presence.

Davy Rothbart

Is he your best friend, kind of?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

It's not that kind of relationship. Yes, he's a friend, a very dear friend. But it's more a revered teacher than a pal.

Davy Rothbart

Do you and Dad still knock boots?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

Do we still--

Davy Rothbart

Be makin'--

Davy Rothbart's Mother

Makin'?

Davy Rothbart

--with the love?

[LAUGHTER]

What does Aaron do?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

What does Aaron do when we make love? I've noticed that he averts his gaze. That's the one time that he's really not around, although if I called on him, he would be. But I don't feel his presence or energy.

Davy Rothbart

When Aaron showed up, one of the first things he did was dictate to my mom a piece of 2,500-year-old Buddhist scripture called the Satipatthana Sutta. My mom says she had never heard of it before. Aaron kept teaching her more scriptures, and coached her in meditation and the Buddhist traditions.

After a while, a couple of my mom's friends wanted in on the teachings. So she started showing them how to meditate, and began channeling Aaron for them. It was strange. My mom and Aaron became these gurus, and more and more folks started coming by. Every night of the week, we'd have a crowd of New Age types in the kitchen, grazing on vegan cookies and foraging through our herbal teas. My mom and Aaron would lead meditation sessions out in our converted garage.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

Gently bring your attention to the touch of the breath.

Davy Rothbart

Wherever my mom was, so was Aaron. And if you're wondering what it was like growing up in a house like this, the only way I can describe it is, it felt completely normal. Aaron was just another member of the family.

We'd be at breakfast or driving in the car, and my mom would tell us things that Aaron was saying to her. It was like he was an old college friend of hers who we all knew well. He had a weakness for puns and dumb jokes. He was always marveling at new things that hadn't existed in his last lifetime. I remember how intrigued he was one time by the sight of a Ferris wheel at a school carnival.

When kids from school came over, me and my brothers always explained about our mom and Aaron. We never really felt embarrassed or weird about it. This was Ann Arbor, the Berkeley of the Midwest. Our friends' parents were ex-hippies and liberal professors. Nobody thought channeling was that strange.

Not long ago, on a winter weekend, my brother Mike was in town visiting. And we went for a walk to the elementary school playground near the house.

Mike Rothbart

I wish I could remember exactly the point when I started to believe that it really was channeling, and not just Mom going slightly psycho.

Davy Rothbart

You know what I remember? I just remembered. There was that Shirley MacLaine movie on TV, Out on a Limb.

Mike Rothbart

Out on a Limb. I remember that.

Davy Rothbart

And it was just the worst sappy, silly stuff ever.

Mike Rothbart

Right, but Mom loved it and wanted us all to watch it.

Davy Rothbart

Yeah. She was eating it up. And it was soon after that she met Aaron. And I was like, that's convenient.

Mike is 30 years old and married now. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He's a professional photographer, and he's into the outdoors. Out of me and my brothers, he's probably the most spiritual. When Mike started getting into Aaron and his teachings, I wasn't sure what to make of it.

Davy Rothbart

I just felt like, you and me and Peter used to all make fun of Mom's students and stuff like that.

Mike Rothbart

Mostly, you and Peter used to make fun of them.

Davy Rothbart

OK. Yeah, me and Peter used to make fun of these weird people that come to the house. But sometimes, you would try to be down with me and Peter. And you would try to make fun of them, too. But then you were up there doing all the voodoo stuff along with the rest of them.

Mike Rothbart

I did used to feel torn that I did want to be cool, or be accepted by you and Peter. But I was really interested in what they were doing.

Davy Rothbart

Of everyone in the family, Mike has turned to Aaron the most. In his freshman year of college, Mike basically had a breakdown. What happened was he started dealing with the fact that he'd gotten molested by a neighbor when he was little. The emotional weight of that started tearing him apart. He couldn't function.

Mike Rothbart

At first, I felt like I was sinking, like in a pit. I was sinking further and further, getting depressed, not doing much of anything. And then, I don't know. I just basically-- eventually, it got so bad that I just called Mom and asked for help. And basically, she said, well, I'll put Aaron on the line.

Davy Rothbart

Right. Some dude touched you improperly. And that seems pretty [BLEEP] up. What can Aaron say that would make that better or go away? He can't take it back.

I wish Aaron was more like the punitive type of spirit. And if you said, some dude improperly touched me, he would just put a bolt of lightning, and like, kshhh-kshhh. You know, we read about it in the paper the next day. Then I would be like, yeah.

Mike Rothbart

Right. Basically, when I would call, I would explain how I was doing. And Aaron would just really help me to see things from a more universal perspective. Like here I was--

Davy Rothbart

Like your problems weren't really that big, or like--

Mike Rothbart

More that my problems were temporary.

Davy Rothbart

I remember when Mike would call from school to talk to my mom and Aaron. She didn't have a deaf telephone back then, so Mike would talk to me, and I'd translate into sign language for my mom. And I remember there would be long stretches where I would just do the sign for crying, running my finger down my cheek, again and again.

Over the past 12 years, I've watched my mom and Aaron help literally thousands of people. Folks come to them in so much pain and seem to leave feeling so much calmer. I have always felt really proud of my mom for all the work she's done to help people through their darkest times.

In fact, when Aaron first arrived at our house, things in our family were pretty miserable. Both my mom and dad say that when my mom when deaf, it was incredibly difficult for them, and that it began to tear them apart. Here's my dad.

Davy Rothbart's Father

I think one way to characterize it would be, just to show how tough it was, it was [SCREAMING]

That's the way I felt every day, just about every minute, like screaming. And I think I did it frequently enough.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

When I first lost my hearing, it was devastating. It was totally cut off. There was no communication at all, just a sense of being totally isolated from the world.

Davy Rothbart

When my mom first went deaf, she didn't read lips or use sign language. She lost her job teaching sculpture at the university. She couldn't communicate with her friends. In fact, a lot of them just disappeared. My dad got frustrated and upset with her when she couldn't understand him. He says he felt like she was taken from him, like his wife was gone. And he didn't handle it well.

Davy Rothbart's Father

It was a big shock. I had never met anybody that was deaf. And I was concerned that maybe she had brought it on herself, because we went through a mall in Detroit one time on a very cold and windy day, and she refused to put on a jacket or a coat or anything. So I figured that it was her fault. And I kept asking myself the question-- it seems strange now, but the question was, why is this happening to me?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

And Dad was totally overwhelmed by it. He couldn't talk to me. I could talk to him, because he could hear me. He couldn't talk back to me. So we had so much anger. And this anger kept me out.

Davy Rothbart's Father

I would get mad. I would curse at her. I would yell at her. Of course, she couldn't hear me cursing. But then she told me that, yeah, she could tell the expression in my face, that I was saying something vile.

Davy Rothbart

It was like this for 15 years. We could never tell when my dad was going to just blow up. A couple of times, my mom packed me and my brothers into the station wagon, ready to leave. My mom says, she was praying for some kind of relief. And then, Aaron it appeared.

And after that, things began to change. My mom got a focus and purpose in her life. People looked up to her. She wasn't isolated anymore. And Aaron worked with my dad to help him learn how to manage his anger.

It has always seemed to me that my little brother, Peter, is the one in my family most skeptical of Aaron's existence. Growing up, me and him would tease our mom for talking to ghosts. We used to mess around and do imitations of Aaron for our friends. Our favorite thing was when salespeople called and asked for Aaron.

Peter Rothbart

Usually, it's for Mr. Aaron Undetermined.

Davy Rothbart

They ask for--

Peter Rothbart

I guess that's-- yeah, they ask, is Mr. Aaron Undetermined there? I have to explain to them that Aaron is not of this world.

Davy Rothbart

Do you believe in Aaron?

Peter Rothbart

In what sense? Do I think that everything Mom says about Aaron is real? I don't pretend to know. I don't think it's important to me. Like, is Aaron really a higher spirit that tells Mom all this stuff? Or is it just some sort of imaginary friend that developed as a psychological tool for helping her figure out her own problems? It's just like, it doesn't seem like something I can really figure out.

Davy Rothbart

I've got to say, I completely understand Peter's agnostic stance. It's tough to start asking the question of whether or not Aaron is real when either answer you get could be pretty unsettling. I mean, say Aaron is real. Then all the stuff he talks about is real, too. It means God exists, and reincarnation, and that there really is this whole vast spirit world that most of us can't see.

But all right, say Aaron's not real. If Aaron's not real, either my mom is lying, or she's deluded. I know she wouldn't straight-up lie about this. She clearly believes in him. Which means if Aaron's not real, then she's a crazy person, and that now, she has snookered thousands of followers into believing along.

I decided I should just go to Aaron directly. I asked my mom if he would take a meeting with me. She was down, and she said Aaron was down. One snowy afternoon, we went for a walk in the woods behind our house and sat down to talk on a big, old fallen tree. I had a list of questions.

Davy Rothbart

Should I ask them one at a time, or should I ask them all?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

Probably ask them one at a time.

Davy Rothbart

OK. First, could I ask Aaron, what other kinds of humans has Aaron been? Start there.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

Start there.

Davy Rothbart

My mom leans back slightly and closes her eyes. She perches on the snowy log, breathing deeply and sitting completely still.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

I have lived in every color of body, male, female, arctic climates and tropic, in deserts and wilderness and mountains. And so have you. But you don't remember them. I do.

Davy Rothbart

Aaron says he last walked the Earth in human form about 500 years ago in Thailand. In that lifetime, he was a Buddhist meditation master, and my mom was one of his prized students. One night, a man attacked Aaron with a spear. And my mom gave her life to protect him. Aaron says he and my mom have been together in many lifetimes as teacher and student. In a couple of lifetimes, he's even been her father.

Davy Rothbart

I have a question for you, Aaron. Aaron, isn't it possible that my mom invented you, because she felt so alone and isolated with her deafness?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

I would not phrase it quite that way. First, I can not prove that I'm real, and it's not necessary. Certainly, she could have invented me. In my experience, that's not what happened, because I exist.

Since it's not something one can prove either way, I tend to simply ask people, whether she invented me or I'm quote, "real," the ideas that I offer come from somewhere. Are they useful to you? Forget me. Are the ideas useful to you, [INAUDIBLE]?

Davy Rothbart

Baseball--

Mike Rothbart

Davy, these are all baseball cards.

Davy Rothbart

Later that afternoon, Mike and I went up into the attic to look for some old pictures and things.

Davy Rothbart

Where do you think your-- wait, what's this one?

At one point, my mom came up to help. She started telling me about a weekend channeling workshop she gave a few years ago. She said that channeling is not some sacred gift, that even my brother Mike had channeled once.

Davy Rothbart

Mike channeled?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

Mike channeled--

Mike Rothbart

You don't remember that, Davy? Yeah.

Davy Rothbart

Is that hereditary? I thought channeling skips a generation.

[LAUGHTER]

Davy Rothbart's Mother

No, my experience is that anybody can learn how to channel. As I said, it's like playing basketball. Doing it is easy. Doing it well is hard. Davy, Dad was channeling too.

Davy Rothbart

Dad was channeling? No.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

True. Dad was channeling.

Davy Rothbart

You're pulling my-- you're yanking--

Davy Rothbart's Mother

We had 20 people here, and about 18 of them ended up channeling by the end of the weekend. Ask Dad. Is Hal down there? Hal, come on around here.

Davy Rothbart's Father

What?

Davy Rothbart

OK, a word about my dad. He's a real performer, the kind of dad who will improvise Gilbert and Sullivan songs with new lyrics, always willing to entertain.

Davy Rothbart's Father

Did I ever channel?

Davy Rothbart

Yeah.

Davy Rothbart's Father

Yes.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

So you remember channeling?

Davy Rothbart's Father

Sure, I took the channeling class through your mother.

Davy Rothbart

You channeled?

Davy Rothbart's Father

I channeled, yeah.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

Beautiful, was it?

Davy Rothbart's Father

Oh yeah. I have a tape of it.

Davy Rothbart

Who'd you channel?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

You're saying?

Davy Rothbart's Father

I channeled Munga, Munga.

Davy Rothbart

Who did he channel?

Davy Rothbart's Father

I could probably do it again.

Davy Rothbart

Can you channel Munga right now? I'm asking Dad to channel Munga.

My dad stands there on the pull-down attic steps and closes his eyes, while my mom gets an increasingly worried look on her face.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

Hal, I would strongly suggest that you not take Davy up on that challenge.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

--sit down and meditate and get yourself into a [UNINTELLIGIBLE] place.

Davy Rothbart

Dad, just don't worry about it. She's crazy. She's [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Davy Rothbart's Father

I think I'm feeling his presence.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

I'm asking for respect for the process.

Davy Rothbart's Father

OK. I can sit down. If I sat down-- I'd have to be more comfortable.

Davy Rothbart

I think my mom hoped that that would be the end of it.

Davy Rothbart

Hey, Big Papa.

The next morning, I got my dad alone while he was shaving in the bathroom.

Davy Rothbart

How come Mom wouldn't let you channel Munga earlier?

Davy Rothbart's Father

Here's my feeling about it. I think she felt that it wasn't sincere, but it was real. It was real.

Davy Rothbart

Could you do Munga now? Can you try? I know sometimes you feel him closer than others, but--

Davy Rothbart's Father

I could do it. I feel his presence. I won't be able to shave. I'd have to stop shaving. But I could do it. I feel him around. I have to close my eyes and concentrate a little bit.

Hello. My name is Munga, and I come from India. I'm here now. Now I'm speaking. And--

Davy Rothbart

Not to be disrespectful, and not to focus on Munga's accent, but I just didn't find this as believable as my mom's channeling. Still, though, there's my dad, standing there at the sink in a bright green bathrobe, his glasses on and shaving cream all over his face, channeling. Already, this was turning into one my favorite memories of my dad ever.

Davy Rothbart

Munga, this is Davy. And can I ask you--

Davy Rothbart's Father

Davy is number two son, born April 11, 1975. 5 foot 11, 152, I believe, 142. I have these feelings about your physical appearance.

Davy Rothbart

Munga was like one of those carnival barkers that try and guess your exact height and weight, or you win a giant pencil. Why didn't Aaron ever entertain like this?

Davy Rothbart's Father

I have no more to say. And peace to all human beings on planet Earth, you call it.

Davy Rothbart

I never really realized my dad was so cool with the whole spirit world thing. He was always a gracious host at all the meditation classes and channeling sessions. But sometimes he also seemed to resent how wrapped up in Aaron and her work my mom had become. She was always going out of town to lead meditation retreats and workshops around the country. And I don't think he liked being home alone so much of the time. And sometimes my dad would get annoyed by all the students constantly coming in and out of the house.

Honestly, I thought Aaron was just something he tolerated. But listening to him and Munga, I felt moved. Really, what could be a sweeter way for him to show acceptance of my mom's work than for him to channel his own spirit?

Davy Rothbart

Is Aaron just a part of you?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

I have no idea. I don't experience him as a part of me.

Davy Rothbart

There were still a couple of questions I had left for my mom. I know Aaron has dictated entire books to her, interpretations of ancient Buddhist writings. Scholars who've read them have been impressed. With Aaron's teachings, she's become a widely known and respected meditation teacher. Even the most established Buddhist bigwigs admit that the depth of her knowledge is astounding.

But then there's sketchy things, too. Like one time, when Aaron said the thing he missed most about being an actual human being was the taste of cognac. Aaron's last lifetime was supposedly more than 500 years ago. And I checked it out. Cognac was barely invented then. And the only people drinking it were a few dudes in France, not Buddhist monks in Thailand. And then there's the fact that Aaron says he can read minds and see the future, but then refuses to demonstrate these powers.

Davy Rothbart

Why won't he just prove himself? It's so easy. I have a number between 1 and 100.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

He says he won't play that game.

Davy Rothbart

So he's not real.

Davy Rothbart's Mother

That's for you to decide.

Davy Rothbart

Does he know the number? He doesn't have to say it. I just want him to know the number. Does he know it?

Davy Rothbart's Mother

He says he is averting his eyes. He is choosing not to look at it.

Davy Rothbart

I'm begging him, please, I just want to know. And then, I know it doesn't matter. His teachings are pretty cool. It doesn't matter if he's real or not. But I just want to know. So just look. Aaron, I'm asking you for one second, just look.

If you want to understand what having Aaron in our lives has really done for my family, here's something that happened while I was home to work on this story. We went out to dinner on Valentine's Day. My dad met us at the restaurant, and when he walked in, he said, Happy Valentine's Day to my mom. But she had just turned away and didn't see him say it. My dad got kind of agitated, as though she was ignoring him by choice. He still hasn't fully gotten over her deafness.

A minute later, he said something else to her, but now he was sore at her, and he didn't use sign language, and barely moved his lips. My mom said, I can't understand you. And my dad, getting more upset, repeated himself even faster, way too fast to lip-read.

This used to be how it would all start with them. My dad's anger at my mom's deafness would bring out her unhappiness over it. Soon they'd be shouting at each other.

But Aaron's influence has changed everything. On Valentine's Day, when my dad started freaking out, my mom just smiled at him and shrugged, like, this is your problem, not mine. Things don't escalate the way they did before Aaron came around. He's helped my mom discover a total sense of calm. Aaron came in peace, and that's what he brought us.

Davy Rothbart

Now if Aaron hadn't come along--

Davy Rothbart's Mother

I think Dad and I would have been divorced. I'm not sure. Maybe not. I'm not sure.

Davy Rothbart

I understand why my mom believes in Aaron. As for me, I think believing in Aaron is a lot like believing in God. I have a hard time having an unswerving faith in something you can't see or prove exists.

But I do have that kind of faith in my mom. That's why I believe in Aaron. You, you'll have to make your own decision.

Ira Glass

Davy Rothbart is the creator of foundmagazine.com. You can see video clips of his mom channeling Aaron and his dad channeling Munga at our website, thisamericanlife.org. Now here's Davy's dad, using his improvisatory powers.

Davy Rothbart

Hey Pete, hurry down. Dad's going to sing.

Davy Rothbart's Father

[SINGING] If you're a God-fearing man, and you're trying to answer all the personal questions that you can, I suggest you call A-A-R-O-N. Aaron is the man that can solve your problems. Do you have any today? It's the way to live in the world today. Can you solve your problems?

If you can't, let me remind you, there's a wonderful spirit in the world. And his sayings are good as gold. Some are modern, and some are pretty old. So my response to you--

Ira Glass

Coming up, the difficult task of running for Congress against someone with your exact same name. And a seven-year-old explains a few things to a grown-ass man, in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. The Jackson Two.

Jesse L. Jackson

And he said, have you heard the news? Have you heard the news? I said, no, what's the news? He said, at 11:59, the last minute of filing for Congress in the second district of Illinois, you now have another Jesse L. Jackson running against you.

Mike Brown

I think at first, people were questioning whether there really was such a person.

Ira Glass

Oh, I didn't realize that, that there was an actual question of if he even existed.

Mike Brown

Yes.

Ira Glass

Mike Brown covered all this for the Chicago Sun-Times. He says that the other Jesse L. Jackson turned out to be a retired truck driver who lived in a suburb called Robbins, 68 years old, no previous political experience.

Mike Brown

At first, we couldn't even find him. He was ducking everybody. And then they produced him for a little dog and pony show, where he came out in front of the microphones and read a statement that said he really does exist. Indeed, he was a real person. And he was just a regular guy, who clearly had somehow been recruited to get into this race.

Ira Glass

But recruited by whom? Well, nobody was admitting anything. But for weeks, news reports were featuring gleeful quotes from two local politicians, Robert and William Shaw. They're twin brothers, old-school operators who came up through the rank and file of the black Democratic organization, who reportedly resent the relative ease with which Jesse, Jr., became a congressman.

After all, he started at the top. It was his first elected office. They call him a brat and a crybaby. And as soon as this other Jesse L. Jackson appeared on the ballot, they were merrily telling reporters and anyone who would listen that it only seemed fair that Congressman Jackson realized that he wasn't the only one who could run for office on his father's name.

William Shaw

THE only way he got in public office is through his daddy's name. But this other Jackson has had the name long before this young boy had it, the congressman.

Ira Glass

Senator William Shaw talked to me from his office.

William Shaw

You know, I'm so happy, looking back at history, that Andrew Jackson didn't come along in this time. He never would have been the president, if it had been left up to this guy.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, Andrew Jackson? Explain what you mean.

William Shaw

You know Andrew Jackson?

Ira Glass

Yeah, of course.

William Shaw

He was one of the presidents.

Ira Glass

Right, right, of course. He's on the money.

William Shaw

But listening to Congressman Jackson, anybody with the Jackson name, he feels as though they shouldn't run. This guy's out of his mind. He thinks he has a patent on the Jackson name.

Ira Glass

From the congressman's point of view, this is all pretty much exactly what you do not want people talking about in the newspapers and on television. Again, imagine you have spent your whole life trying to get out from under the shadow of that other Jesse Jackson, your father, and now there is yet another Jesse Jackson. And the main story about your reelection is not what you've accomplished for your district, or what you hope to accomplish, but once again, did you get your job on your daddy's name.

Jesse L. Jackson

You know, and for someone who takes the process very seriously, it has been annoying. In the last six years, I have had eight press conferences. Two of them have been on this subject. To give you some idea that I don't run to the media, to show you some difference between me and my father, my dad might have had eight yesterday.

I'm not anti-press. I'm prepared to do press. But when I do press, I want it to be about issues of concern to my constituents. And so rather than running a race on a third airport in Peotone, or discussing O'Hare expansion, or how to get more jobs, I'm caught in a fight with people who aren't even running for Congress in my race.

Ira Glass

The people he refers to, of course, are the Shaw brothers. They deny having anything to do with Jesse Jackson of Robbins, the truck driver. But Congressman Jackson started investigating the petition drive that put Jesse Jackson of Robbins onto the ballot. He found that many people who signed the petitions had been told specifically that they were signing for the congressman, who enjoys a 90% approval rating in the district. Further investigation showed that those petitions were notarized by a political ally of the Shaws. The 4,400 signatures were gathered by men who came from a homeless shelter, one of whom has testified that they got the jobs gathering signatures one day when Senator Shaw's chief of staff came by and took them to the Shaws' office at 144th street. In an affidavit, this man said that both William and Robert Shaw were there in the room, and sent them out to get the signatures.

Jesse L. Jackson

Not only there and sent them out, but there eating catfish and sent them out. And specifically said, "Go help the congressman. We don't get along with the congressman. We don't care much for the congressman. But we're going to help him get back on the ballot."

Ira Glass

Now, the congressman is saying that he's got affidavits from people who went around and got signatures to get this other Jesse Jackson-- the one from Robbins-- onto the ballot. He says he has got affidavits from some of those people, saying that they met, they were organized, in Shaw headquarters. What do you all say to that?

William Shaw

I don't say anything. You know, anything might have happened. I have hundreds of people in my headquarters coming in and out. We're involved in a campaign here. And to my knowledge, I don't know anything about that. And I think that the congressman, he's drinking some water probably out of DC. We have better water than that in Chicago.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, and what does the water from DC do to you?

William Shaw

The water is making him delirious. That's what I think.

Ira Glass

For a while, there were not only two Jesse L. Jacksons on the ballot. The Shaw brothers officially supported a candidate in the primary named Yvonne Williams. And at some point, another Williams turned up on the ballot as well, Anthony Williams. And of course, this happens on ballots all over the country.

If you're running against an Irish politician, you get another Irish name on the ballot. If you're running against a woman, you get another woman. If you're running against Jesse Jackson, you get another Jesse Jackson. Again, William Shaw.

William Shaw

Yeah, that has happened many, many times. And people just take it with a grain of salt. It's not such a big deal.

Ira Glass

Yeah, I was wondering if you think we should think it's tragic or just funny.

William Shaw

Well, I don't know. I guess it's funny to everybody but the congressman.

Jesse L. Jackson

Well, it is kind of funny.

Ira Glass

Again, Congressman Jackson.

Peter Rothbart

But there are political forces in my congressional district that are notorious for election shenanigans, for deceiving voters, and even having the reputation of stealing voters.

Ira Glass

And after deploying seven lawyers, two private eyes, and $150,000 to investigate how Jesse L. Jackson of Robbins got onto the ballot, the congressman is pursuing legal action. And if he can prove that the Shaw brothers intentionally deceived voters, intentionally tried to convince voters that they were signing petitions for the congressman, when in fact they were signing for the other Jesse L. Jackson, then this entire incident will move out of the category of political prank, and into the rather more serious category of political fraud, a criminal offense. The Shaw brothers could end up out of office, or far worse.

Jesse L. Jackson

Rabbit hunting is fun until the rabbit gets the gun. And so what happens when you come up against another big bear in politics, who has the resources and the capability of pursuing it to the nth degree of the law, and starts demanding justice? And I saw the same Eddie Murphy movie that they saw, and I'm determined not to let it happen in our district.

Ira Glass

The Eddie Murphy movie being?

Jesse L. Jackson

The Distinguished Gentleman. A gentleman who gets elected to Congress by the name of Jefferson Johnson. After the congressman dies-- his name is Jeff Johnson-- he runs for Congress, and he gets elected. He's a felon, by the way.

Ira Glass

You think that actually they saw the movie?

Jesse L. Jackson

I'm pretty sure someone saw it. And I think what's also becoming clear is that many people forgot how the movie ended, and that is that some people went to jail.

Ira Glass

After several weeks on the ballot, Jesse L. Jackson of Robbins dropped out of the race after his wife died. In the March primary, the congressman took 85% of the vote. Hearings, depositions, and testimony continue to wind their way through the courts.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "NUDE AS THE NEWS" BY CAT POWER]

Act Three. Mr. Fun.

Heather O'neill

I was 20 years old when Arizona was born. I thought I could just put her in a little suitcase, and that would be her bed. I figured now that I had given birth, the hard part was over.

I moved into a big building over a laundromat, where they didn't ask for any references. People left their apartment doors open and waved to you from their couches when you walked down the hall. The apartment was our own cozy little universe of porcelain dolls, posters of Hong Kong, and tiny, colorful paper umbrellas. It was a universe of two plates, two cups, and two toothbrushes, until I met Johnny.

Jonathan Goldstein

I was introduced to Heather by some friends over drinks. I was impressed by how fast she drank her beer. And she was impressed by the fact that there was only one arm on my eyeglasses. From the side, you look like a cartoon doctor, she said. She looked like she was from some bygone era, where women worked with their hair tied up in kerchiefs on assembly lines, to help the war effort. By all of this, I mean to say that I was smitten by her.

I knew that Heather had a little girl. And I also knew that I wasn't very good with children. Ironically, my job at the time was teaching after-school magic classes to kids in elementary schools. I wasn't that great a magician to begin with, and kids made me nervous. My hands were always sweaty, and I was always dropping coins all over the place.

One time, I was really losing the attention of a classroom of sixth graders while teaching them the jumping rubber band. So I told them that if they listened quietly, at the end of the class, I would walk through a wall. Immediately, they all shut up.

At the end of the class, I took about two full minutes where I just stared at the wall at the back of the classroom. If any of them said a word, I would reprimand them for breaking my concentration and start all over again. Finally, I slowly started walking towards the wall. The way the kids were looking at me, all open-mouthed and expectant, I almost felt like I could actually pull this off.

When I smacked into the wall, I turned to them and said, "You didn't really think I could walk through a wall, did you?" They all looked at the wall, then they looked at me. Then slowly, reluctantly, they all shook their heads no. I hoped I would have better luck with Heather's daughter.

Heather O'neill

Over drinks, I had told Johnny that Arizona had shoved our TV set off the coffee table. And now-- surprise, surprise-- here he was, carefully winding his way up the staircase to our house, with an old RCA in his arms, the old-fashioned antenna still attached and dragging behind him on the floor. When he came in, Arizona was over at the neighbors', a Greek family who liked to give her a good bath every now and then. It was a family event for them, with shish kabobs, and an uncle who played accordion on the closed lid of the toilet.

As me and Johnny sat on the couch, Arizona walked into the apartment, freshly scrubbed, smelling of baby powder and Greek food, with four bows in her hair. Johnny kept clapping his hands together and going on about how she looked just like Shirley Temple. She stopped dead in her tracks and gave me a confused look.

Before he left, he asked me if I wanted to come to his house for dinner that weekend, and I said, sure. I called my sister and asked if she would babysit. She begged me not to have another boyfriend. In other words, no babysitting. So I took Arizona along on my date with Johnny.

Jonathan Goldstein

I stood on my front steps waiting for her to get there. And when I saw her coming down the street, pushing a stroller, I wondered if I had any juice in the house. We sat down at my kitchen table, and I brought out a big pot of curried vegetables and rice. Arizona climbed up on the table, opened the lid, and wrinkled her nose. I picked her up and put her back down in her chair. But as soon as I did, she would get right back up and roll around all over the plate, most of the time while pointing at me with an angry look on her face. She wasn't like Shirley Temple at all. She was like the Muppet Baby Joe Pesci.

Heather O'neill

After dinner, Johnny walked into his living room and saw the word "Arizona" written in pen with a backwards R on his desk. At first, I was sort of delighted. It was the first time she had ever written her name without me coaching her. But I kind of felt for Johnny, whose apartment was all full of neatly arranged furniture and superhero figurines that stayed exactly where they had been placed. Johnny walked around the apartment with his head down and an expression on his face like he was a seven-year-old reviewing times tables in his head.

He tried to ease into our lives with grace. After the first time he slept over, he got up in the morning, before Arizona woke. He put on his jacket and went outside into the hallway and knocked on the front door, pretending he had just arrived. "We don't want to damage the child's psyche," Johnny said.

Arizona's bedroom was closest to the front door, so she got up and let him in. "Hi," he said. "I was just in the neighborhood." He walked in without shoes and his belt undone. He dropped onto the couch and fell back asleep. Arizona looked at him. "Why do you even come by," she said angrily, "if all you're going to do is go to sleep."

Johnny and I had very different ideas about the environment in which one should raise a kid. "The stove needs to be fixed," he complained. "You can't cook meals over a hot plate. Ratso Rizzo cooks meals over a hot plate. And who, in God's name, puts laundry out on the line at midnight?" "Children need discipline. They like it," was a favorite banner of project Goldstein.

Jonathan Goldstein

Heather called all of my domestic tips "bourgeois." "How is cleaning the crisper bourgeois?" I asked. "How in the world is keeping your child from running naked through the halls of the apartment building wearing my boots a symptom of the bourgeoisie?"

Heather O'neill

Arizona could tell that Johnny was trying to change things, and everything between them became a battle of wills. She would reach over and squeeze the Indiglo button on his watch. And he would chastise her, telling her that Indiglo was used only in emergency situations, like if you were in a blackout, or stuck in a cave. But as soon as his head was turned, she pushed the button again.

Jonathan Goldstein

In what I considered a bit of cultural exchange, I had her sit on the couch and listen to the soundtrack from Fiddler on the Roof. Arizona, all of six years old, turned to me in the middle of "If I Was a Rich Man" and said, "That's what you do all day long. You biddy biddy bum." She paused for a moment, and then, just to make sure the point wasn't being lost on me, she added, "That means you're lazy." When the three of us walked down the street, Arizona would say, "My mom's shadow is longer than yours. That means you're short."

Heather O'neill

She was starting to like him less and less. One day, he made her list all the people that she loved most in order. "And who do you love next best?" he would ask, hopefully. "And the next? And the next?" He came in at number 19. He actually ranked below the neighbor's dog, and the plumber who drank two-gallon bottles of Pepsi while he worked, and let Arizona hand him wrenches.

Jonathan Goldstein

Every time I tried to kiss Arizona, she would pull back, insisting that my beard was too scratchy. It got so that I was shaving twice a day. But still, she would wave me off. I would stand in front of the mirror like an obsessive compulsive, desperately scraping the blade across my cheeks, the word "scratchy" ringing in my head like the raven's nevermore.

One time, we had some friends over at Heather's, and someone started playing the guitar, and Arizona started to dance. It struck me as one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Everyone stood around and clapped their hands while Arizona spun around with her arms over her head. Before I knew it, I was walking over and taking her hands to dance with her. I wasn't the type to dance with kids, or to even dance at all, for that matter. But I just couldn't help myself.

When I touched her, she whipped her hands away and stopped cold. I retreated back to my seat as the music continued to play. All the while, Arizona stared me down like her prison bitch.

Heather O'neill

He tried buying her love with really inappropriate gifts, things that he liked that he thought she might learn to like. He bought them matching wallets and a mood ring that wouldn't fit her for at least another five years. He got her a pop-up book of nightmare analysis that included a chapter on giving birth to aliens.

In the best of times, she treated him as something that made me happy, and she quietly tolerated him, like the way she sat through a Hitchcock documentary at the museum. But then sometimes, she would just explode. One day at Burger King, he refused to let me bring her hamburger back to the counter for a third time to ask for even more pickles. And she started screaming. She pounded the hamburger with her fists.

"I can't stand him," she said. "Why did we have to go out with him today? Tell me why." "He's my friend," I said, "and you have to pretend to like him." She had a little friend who would come over and bite his own toes while they watched TV, and I never said a thing. I figured it was the least she could do for me.

One day, I was trying to finish my dad's income tax, and Arizona was bored. She was whacking the wind chimes with the broom. She was all out of ideas when Johnny asked her if she wanted to take a walk with him. She sighed and got her jacket. Before they left, he explained that the plan was to walk to a bank to cash his check, and then find a barber that would cut his hair for a reasonable price.

Jonathan Goldstein

We were walking along when Arizona came to an abrupt stop, and so I stopped, too. She looked up at me, and in this tone that I had never heard her use before, she said, "This isn't what you do to have a good time." It was like she had summoned up every little bit of maturity she had, and some she didn't even have. And she used her words to let me know something that she felt was really important for me to know, that I just wasn't any fun.

And she told it to me in this way that was like, maybe it just wasn't something I knew, and that maybe I just had to be told, and then everything would be OK. Like maybe it could all be that easy. We went back to the apartment and got our bathing suits. Arizona wanted to go to the beach.

Arizona treated me like I had never been to a beach before. "This is sand," she said, "and people like to dig in it. Beside the sand is the water, but it's not the drinking kind." She treated me like she was nursing me back to health.

For my part, I tried my best to live up to what a six-year-old's vision of fun would be. I bought every single thing the vendors had to offer. I even got us these overcooked, mushy corn cobs on a stick that were smothered in butter and mayonnaise. Mayonnaise. And when she went into the water past her knees, I bit my fist and kept my panic to myself. At the end of the day, Arizona persuaded me to buy a watermelon that some men were selling off the back of a truck.

As we rode the bus back home, tired, looking out the windows in silence, Arizona suddenly turned to me and said, "Why did I ever marry you?" I sat there, completely tongue-tied on so many levels. "Tell me why," she demanded, over and over, getting louder and louder, until the six or seven people on the bus turned to hear how I was going to defend myself. "Why did I ever marry you?" All the way home, the question just sat there, big and awkward, like the watermelon on my lap that we would have for dessert that night.

Heather O'neill

Around that time, Johnny and Arizona invented this game where they pretend to be two old-time vaudeville partners who can't get along. She is always the wiser, burnt-out one. And he is always the mincing boot lick who wants to please the producers and the audience. They pretend they're backstage, yelling at each other, as the audience hollers for them to come out.

"Let's get out there," Johnny yells. "They're waiting for us. They paid a lot of money for those seats. We'll be sued, damn it. We'll be finished in this town." "This is my last show," Arizona says every time, shaking her weary head, "and then I'm through. I can't do this anymore."

They come out into the hallway nervously. They stand in front of the record player, Arizona on top of a Webster's dictionary, to be taller. Johnny starts singing "A Bicycle Built for Two." And Arizona is supposed to be the bicycle bell and sing "Ding, ding." But she doesn't.

Johnny starts the song over again. Still Arizona ignores her cue, staring blankly ahead in the throes of a showbiz meltdown. The audience starts throwing tomatoes, and Arizona ducks behind Johnny. He holds out his arms to protect her from the crowd. She crouches in back of him, laughing her head off, as the angry mob covers him from head to toe in imaginary rotten fruit.

Ira Glass

Heather O'Neill is the author of Two Eyes Are You Sleeping, a book of poetry. Jonathan Goldstein is one of the producers of our program, and the author of the funny and surprising novel Lenny Bruce is Dead.

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

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Don't forget, videos of Aaron, and Munga, and Davy on the website this week, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who describes what it was like the first few years hearing us talk about him like we do at the end of our program.

Davy Rothbart's Father

I think one way to characterize it would be, just to show how tough it was, it was-- [SCREAMING]

Ira Glass

Torey [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.