Transcript

213:

Devil on My Shoulder
Transcript

Originally aired 05.24.2002

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/213

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. One day, when I was 14, coming home from junior high school, I saw my across-the-street neighbor, [? Mark Nasdor, ?] and he was riding his 10-speed down this big hill near our school. I was near the bottom of the hill. And I had one of those-- you know those three-ring binders that you use when you're in school, those loose leaf binders? I had one of those, with all my school papers in it.

And as [? Mark Nasdor ?] sped down the sidewalk of this very steep hill, I got this idea. And to explain this, I need you to picture for a second what a loose leaf binder looks like when you lay it on the ground. it looks like a little ramp, right, with the highest point of the ramp being the fatter side, the side with the rings. And I thought, I could throw my loose leaf notebook in front of Mark's moving bicycle, positioning it perfectly so his wheels would roll up the ramp. And it would serve as a ramp. He would fly in the air like Evel Knievel.

Now, I want to say [UNINTELLIGIBLE] about speed. This idea popped into my head. And then in a second, too fast to actually think this through-- if there were time to think about this, I don't think I would have done it-- the idea pops into my head, and then there is [? Mark Nasdor, ?] moving fast down this hill. And I threw the binder in front of him.

Now, in case you're wondering what the actual aerodynamics are when a moving bicycle meets a junior high school binder, and how high the bike flies, and how far it goes, I can tell you, because I was there, I saw this. What happens to a bicycle in this situation is it flips on its side at a very high speed, throwing the bicyclist off and bruising the bicyclist. The bicyclist then gets up, curses at you, and asks this question, "Why did you do that?"

It's a good question. It's a really good question. And I had no answer at the time. I do now, because I heard some things lately that shed some light.

Wendy

I was seven years old when this happened. All of my life, my family would go to this campground for the whole summer.

Ira Glass

This is Wendy.

Wendy

In this campground, all of the teen-- my sister was a teenager at the time. She was 17 at the time. All the teenagers at this campground, on Friday nights, before they would go out, they would go up to this place, this barn. It had video games in it, and there was a little place where you could buy penny candy. And one of these Friday nights, I went with my sister up to the barn.

And she had this one friend. And I don't remember her name, but I remember what she looked like. I remember she had this blonde, feathered hair. And she was really pretty. And she had eye shadow and makeup on, and that was kind of fascinating to me.

And she was wearing this orange jumpsuit. And it had the zipper down the front. And it was really-- it just stood out to me. And at some point, I went over, and I was talking to her.

And I don't know why I did it. But I just, I had this impulse. And I just said to her, "Close your eyes." And she did.

And when she closed her eyes, I reached out, and I grabbed the zipper. And I unzipped her jumpsuit all the way down to the belly button. And when I did that, her breasts popped out of the jumpsuit. And I don't know what I was expecting, but I didn't expect them to pop out like they did. She wasn't wearing a bra or anything.

And she screamed. And she was completely freaked out. And I just ran away. I just ran. I ran back to the camper.

Ira Glass

Her sister was furious. Her parents were furious. And they kept asking her, over and over, one simple question.

Wendy

Why would you do such a thing? Why would you do this? And I remember crying and saying, I don't know why I did it. I don't know why I did it. I don't know why I did it.

And they kept pushing me, like, why would you do this? Why would you do this? And I had no idea. But I remember being really tortured by it afterwards, thinking, why would I do it? Why did I do that? That doesn't make any sense.

Ira Glass

Most of us have an idea of what the devil's supposed to be like, red skin, horns, a tail. Sometimes he disguises himself as a dapper gentleman. Often, he loves to sing. And the way that he actually gets you into hell, in the movies, and in operas, and stuff, is that he actually shows up in person. He makes a personal appearance with you, and he tries to talk you into it. He tempts you with stuff that you want.

Well, there's a way more interesting version of the devil out there in this book by C. S. Lewis called The Screwtape Letters. And the idea of the book is that it's a series of letters from this older, very experienced demon named Screwtape to a much younger demon. And he's giving him advice. And at one point, Screwtape says to the younger demon, if you want to commit somebody's soul to hell for eternity, don't try to reason with them. You don't want to be arguing with somebody about what's good for them or bad for them, because you could lose an argument. What's better, what works way, way better, is to simply banish reason from the room.

Screwtape tells this story to the young demon about this atheist who one day is in the library. And in the library, the atheist starts mulling over some godly thoughts, very threatening for Screwtape. But rather than engage this guy in an argument over God and goodness and all that sort of stuff, Screwtape simply plants the thought in his head, "It's time for lunch."

The guy heads outside. The battle's won. If you want to lead people into darkness, you don't want reason to even come into play.

Dave

I was a sophomore at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

Ira Glass

This is Dave. One night, he was walking home late from campus down a quiet street, an ordinary night.

Dave

All of a sudden, I saw a car approaching several blocks away. And it occurred to me that what I should do would be to kneel in the street and be hit by the car. It seemed to make perfect sense to me. And so that's what I did.

Ira Glass

Wait, you actually went out into the street, and you knelt?

Dave

Yes, in the street. And I waited for the car to run over me.

Ira Glass

What happened?

Dave

Well, the car drove up, screeched to a stop just in front of me. An older man jumped out of the car and demanded to know what I was doing.

Ira Glass

A very good question, I should say.

Dave

Well, and I didn't know. I looked at him, and I said, I don't know. I had no idea. I had no explanation for him.

Ira Glass

Now, up until that moment that you made the decision, had you been kind of depressed?

Dave

No, I had not. I had never, ever considered suicide. I don't remember being sad, depressed, scared. The thought simply occurred to me. It came out of nowhere. It was a blip. I still today-- what, 25 years later-- don't understand what that was and why I did that.

Ira Glass

Sometimes these stories are about big, life-changing things, sometimes about the tiniest things. [? Jonifer ?] was sitting on her couch in Madison, Wisconsin, as her neighbors from across the street walked by outside.

Now, ?] I don't know them. They've never said anything. I don't know their names or anything. I turned my head, and I just screamed out the window, "Pigs!" And when I realized what I had done, I couldn't think of why I'd done it.

Ira Glass

Lisa had just learned the Heimlich maneuver from a pamphlet, and was visiting her boyfriend.

Lisa

I just went up behind him. And he probably thought I was going to give him a hug. But I just did the whole Heimlich maneuver on him, although he was not choking.

Ira Glass

He must have asked, why'd you do that, right?

Lisa

Yeah. Well, he screamed, because it hurts. And he was just confounded. And I had no answer.

Ira Glass

It's hard to believe that there are demons and devils urging us to do wrong. But how many of us have done something bad or wrong or just random, totally random, and have no good explanation for it at all? Well, today on our program, with Halloween approaching, the Devil on Your Shoulder, stories of people who are trying to convince you that the devil is there, and stories of people trying to deny that he's there, against, I have to say in these cases, some heavy evidence.

Act One of our show, It's Fun to Make Hell on Earth. In that act, the story of a Christian youth group in Texas that, for three weeks every year, acts out the worst, the meanest, the most despicable behavior possible, all in the name of saving people from hell. Act Two, Sixteen Candles Can Lead to a Lot of Fire. A young Amish man explains why it is that, after being set free to drink and drive and party at the age of 16, most of his friends choose to go back to the church and back to the Amish lifestyle. Act Three, Devil in Angel's Clothing, or Is It the Other Way Around? the story of a man who did something terrible as a teenager, and then tried to pretend that it never happened for 20 years, and then tried to do something about it, or people tell him he tried to do something about it. He can't remember himself. Stay with us.

Act One. It's Fun To Make Hell On Earth.

George Ratliff

I showed up at Hell House with my cinematographer friend, Jawad Metni. We were herded around the place with a group of 40 teenagers clinging to each other and laughing nervously. A large man dressed in a black hooded robe and a skeleton mask was assigned to our group as our tour guide.

Man

There's a lot of people here. You're going to step as much to the front of the line as you can. Follow me.

George Ratliff

We'd line up against the back wall of the Columbine School scene, which is basically just a room with a card table stacked with books and a few school desks scattered around. Among a dozen or so student actors, two squeaky clean church girls sit at the card table, talking. Behind them, an angry demon, also dressed in a black robe and mask, paces back and forth, wringing his hands.

Girl

Man, I hate this Shakespeare stuff.

Girl

Are you having a hard time with that? I don't know--

George Ratliff

Their conversation about Shakespeare turns to Carrie's recent conversion to Christianity. She says she used to hate her parents and especially hated God. "I'm a Christian now," she says. "That's why I'm always so happy."

Girl

Yeah, I'm a Christian now. That's why I'm so happy.

Boy

Well, let's see how happy you are now.

[SCREAMING]

George Ratliff

Two teenage boys in black trench coats explode into the room, followed by another demon. To my surprise, the boys are waving real handguns and real shotguns as they charge through the scene, kicking over tables and chairs.

[SCREAMING]

The whole scene is so violent that you forget about everything that reminds you of a bad high school play. And what makes it scary is the look of real teen angst on the shooters' faces as they cock and aim their guns at the heads of all the cowering students. You can see how they love waving around their firearms. And part of what's so shocking is you wonder, who are the good churchgoing adults who came up with this idea and helped the kids finance and organize and stage this? Remember, we're filming just six months after the real Columbine killings.

One of the trench coat boys grabs Carrie, the Christian girl, by the hair.

Boy

Do you believe in God?

Girl

Yes.

Boy

I said, do you believe in God?

Girl

Yes, I believe in God.

Boy

Why?

[GUNSHOT]

George Ratliff

After the boys shoot Carrie in the head, the demons perform their final task, egging the boys on to kill themselves. Then, the lights turn to strobes, the music swells, and a teenager in a white choir robe enters.

It's Jesus. He's come for Carrie, the Christian girl. The shooters are dragged off to hell, kicking and screaming, and pleading to Jesus for a second chance. But he doesn't give it.

Boy

Please come back!

George Ratliff

Then, our tour guide reappears. He shuffles us off to the next room, the family violence scene, as another group of 40 shuffle in.

Two days later, Jawad and I went home to New York and watched what we'd filmed. We were both a bit shaken up by what we had seen. I grew up in Amarillo, Texas, where one of the only ways to meet girls was to go to Christian youth meetings. And there were so many. There was Young Life and K-Life and Campus Crusade and Fellowship of Christian Athletes, not to mention that every one of the hundreds of churches had their own youth groups, hustling out to schools to compete for an ever-decreasing number of unsaved souls.

I honestly thought I had heard every evangelical Christian trick in the book. But Hell House was different. The special effects, and the music, and the real guns, and the crowds and crowds of people lined up to get in, I'd never seen anything like it. So in August of 2000, we went back to Cedar Hill.

Man

There's 30 people in the room, and you are in hell. And you're burning. So let's have some [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

George Ratliff

Two months before Hell House opens each year, they have auditions at the church. The casting directors sit at a long table in front of a stage. One after another, nervous kids read for the drug dealer, the satanic worshipper, the school shooter, or the abusive father.

Boy

It's your own fault. And what if you were pregnant? Do you really want to be your own sister's mother?

George Ratliff

The girls all want to be the suicide girl or the abortion girl, because those are the roles where you get to scream and cry and emote the most.

Girl

I should have gotten away from you the second that you started drinking. This is all your fault.

[SCREAMING]

Man

Oh, wow.

Girl

[INAUDIBLE].

Man

That was phenomenal.

George Ratliff

Nearly everyone wants to play a sinner. Nobody wants to play a saint. Not one person auditioned to play Jesus or an angel role. Maybe it's just more fun to be evil on stage than good. Maybe playing a churchgoing, god-fearing Christian is just not that interesting if you are a churchgoing, god-fearing Christian. The organizers usually have to go out and recruit some hapless kids to play the good Christian roles.

[CONSTRUCTION SOUNDS]

Every day for six weeks, as many as 75 volunteers will show up to help build Hell House. It's an enormous construction site that they have to tear down and rebuild every year. There are people everywhere carrying wood, swinging hammers, and painting signs. An enthusiastic volunteer named Thad Trober took us on a quick tour during construction.

Thad Trober

We'll come back in here. The crucifixion is going to be right here. Coffins are going in right here. And the people who are watching are going to be looking right down in, seeing people trapped, and give them a sense of entrapment themselves. I really want to emphasize that more than anything in here, like there's absolutely no escape.

George Ratliff

And then we arrive at the room that's Thad's baby.

Thad Trober

This is the rave-slash-suicide scene.

George Ratliff

Thad, who wears a goatee and techno clothes, has seen what goes on in raves firsthand, the sex, the drugs, the alcohol, back in the old days, before he was a Christian. Thad told us that he'd only gone to raves to hear the music. But then it became too hard for him to ignore what was going on around him. So he had to stop raving. But now, every October, Thad gets to create his own rave at Hell House.

Thad Trober

It's going to look pretty cool. Just like all the other scenes, we're going to have some plastic down each wall. But there will be a DJ, which I've played the last couple years. We'll have a makeshift turntable area. I don't know if I'll use these lights yet. I'll probably stick some black lights up, and that'll be great. And I'm actually thinking about renting a water tank. And I'll have someone underwater dance. There's something neat every year.

Tim Ferguson

It's not within the nature of man to lose. God created us to win.

George Ratliff

Before Hell House opens in early October, Tim Ferguson brings everyone together for a pep talk. Tim has an intensity about him that reminds you more of a football coach than a minister. He squeezes the microphone and stares at a roomful of church kids. Behind him, three young men are noodling backup music on their electric guitars.

Tim Ferguson

And there's a war, and there's a battle, and there's a competition. And there's a serious game where life and death is at stake. It's not just you lose and you go home. We're competing for lost souls. And we're going to win. We're in this to win. We're not in this just to go through it, just for something else to do. I don't need something else to do. OK?

George Ratliff

And just when everyone's getting really worked up, they start speaking in tongues. Trinity Church is an Assembly of God church, which is a branch of the Pentecostals. Pentecostals are known as the church that speaks in tongues, and they're the fastest-growing Christian church in the world. They started less than 100 years ago in Los Angeles. And they've always been able to put on a good production for large audiences. They were the first church to use electric guitars, one of the first to break into TV evangelism, and the first to think up Hell House.

Hundreds of teenagers are lined up to go into Hell House. It's a pretty diverse crowd, large groups of Hispanic and African-American kids mixed in with the suburban white crowd, all paying $7 each for a ticket. It looks to be the same demographic as at Six Flags. But in fact, most of these kids have been bused here by youth leaders from the area.

Once they get inside, they see kids committing suicide, being killed by drunk drivers, and being sacrificed to the devil. In the hospital scene, the abortion girl sits in a pool of fake blood. She's wearing white sweat pants, and her crotch is completely soaked in red. Next to her, a gay teenager dies over and over from AIDS. He dies every 7 to 10 minutes, every night, for three weeks straight.

Girl 1

This is Steve. He thought his homosexual lifestyle was everything a real man could want. But now, he's dying of AIDS.

Girl 2

Steve, I'm right here. I'm not going to leave.

Boy

Why does this happen to me? Why can't it just be over?

George Ratliff

Outside the house, in an area visitors don't have access to, I ran into a group of performers that had just knocked off from their shift at being tortured in hell. It's obvious they've been having a good time. I asked them what was the most fun scene in Hell House.

Girl

School shooting.

Girl

Yeah, school shooting's the best.

Girl

No, it's not.

Boy

Yes it is.

Girl

It's the rave.

Girl

The rave scene's the best, because you get to dance.

Thad Trober

Hey, what's up? What's your name?

Girl

I'm Jessica.

Thad Trober

Jessica, I'm Chad.

George Ratliff

Even though you get to dance, the rave scene does not end well. The girl in it sips her spiked drink, freaks out, gets gang-raped, and ends up killing herself, after admitting that her dad had molested her as a child.

Thad Trober

How do you like it?

Girl

Whoo.

Thad Trober

Good stuff, isn't it?

George Ratliff

So once a group of visitors makes it all the way through the gory scenes, they come to what is called the "decision room."

Man

How y'all doing? Can I get you to line up over here, please? Yeah, straight line as possible. OK, as you saw in each scene, someone died. They went to either heaven or hell. If you were to die tonight, do you know where you will go? Or do you think that you know? If this is you, I want to ask you to step through the door. There are people in the next room waiting to pray with you now. You've got six seconds. Five seconds.

George Ratliff

Of the 40 people in this group, about 10 go to pray with the counselors. The 30 others are held back a minute, and then they're marched to the exit. But it turns out that the damned have to exit through the same door as the saved. There's only one exit, and it's on the other side of the room of crying and praying Christians and counselors. The 30 shuffle through guiltily, with their heads down, trying not to catch anyone's eye.

Man

Do you believe in God?

George Ratliff

About 13,000 people went through Hell House this year alone. Trinity Church claims that as many as one out of five people that go through Hell House become Christians or recommit themselves to the church.

Boy

When we die, we can go to heaven and be with Jesus. It's so awesome. It's radical, yeah.

George Ratliff

If you ask the teenagers at Hell House straight up if they have fun pretending to shoot their classmates or do drugs at a rave, they're all good Christian kids and know better than to admit that they enjoyed themselves. "Our goal is to save souls and make money for the church," they'll tell you. And they'll mean it. But Hell House is the biggest event of the year for Trinity Church.

After three weeks of performances, after Halloween comes and goes, the kids all get dressed up to the nines for an event that is the equivalent of prom night for them. They call it the Hell House Oscars. On stage at a podium, in front of a table of Oscar-like trophies, presenters banter and give awards for best tour guide, best abortion girl, best drunk driver, best gremlin, and best archangel. Remember, three to six teenagers play each part in the house.

Man

This year's suicide award goes to Liz Simmons! Come on out.

George Ratliff

Liz Simmons, in a floor-length gown, pluckily hops out of her seat, hugging friends, waving to photographers, and makes her way to the stage.

Liz Simmons

Well, I couldn't have done it without my rapers, so thank you, Brent and David. And I just want to say, it was really an honor to do this part. At first, I was real uncomfortable with it, you know, when I heard that I was going to have to be raped. And I was like, OK, what's that going to be like? But it ended up being a lot of fun, and--

[LAUGHTER]

OK, wait, I didn't say that right. No, I just really got to meet a lot of people that I didn't know, and I had a-- OK, this is only getting worse.

George Ratliff

She lifts her fake Oscar and walks off stage. In the dozen years since Trinity Church invented Hell House, the idea has spread all over the country. No one knows how many Hell Houses are out there now, but a church in Colorado has sold over 500 Hell House franchise kits with layout designs, scripts, and a video, for $200 each.

Man

Let's give a big hand to Mr. Jonathan Parker, the winner of the school violence director's award.

George Ratliff

These church kids aren't supposed to drink. They aren't supposed to party or sleep together. But tonight, they glitter like sinners. Unlike the real Oscars, no one complains that this ceremony lasts too long.

Girl

I had a great time with all of my suicide girls. I got to act with every single one of you almost every night.

Ira Glass

George Ratliff, you can find his movie Hell House online at hellhousemovie.com. The church George mentions in Colorado has now sold over 800 Hell House starter kits to churches in every state and in 24 countries, as well as to secular theater companies in New York and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Bill Maher played the devil.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA" BY THE CHARLIE DANIELS BAND]

Act Two. Sixteen Candles Can Lead To A Lot Of Fire.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Sixteen Candles Can Lead to a Lot of Fire. Faron Yoder lives in Amish country, in Indiana. And I interviewed him from his parents' house, where he lives. For this to happen, somebody had to go there with a cell phone.

And he talked to me from his room. I was in our radio studio. Faron lives differently from everybody in his family. And his room is different from the rest of the house.

Faron Yoder

The rest of the house is very Amish. Well, the whole house is actually very Amish, no electricity, gas lighting. In my room, I've got a TV. I've got a stereo. I've got a PlayStation 2. A lot of my friends come over here. We play PlayStation and just hang out, drink beer.

Ira Glass

How do you have electricity if the rest of the house doesn't?

Faron Yoder

Well, actually, I've got an electrical cord. This is kind of funny, probably. But I've got an electrical cord that runs up to my TV and to everything. And then I've got it going out my window. And I run the cord out to my car. And so I just go out , start up the car, and plug in the electrical cord. And I spend the whole night up here and don't have to worry about it.

Ira Glass

We heard about Faron through a movie called Devil's Playground, which is about the Amish rite of rumspringa. Rumspringa has been in the news a bit lately, partly, I think, because all of us regular Americans like stories where the Amish sink as low as we do. In case you've never heard of it, rumspringa works like this. At 16, Amish teenagers are told they can drive, they can drink, they can use modern electronics. They can try all the things the outside world has to offer. And then, after a few years, at 19 or 20 or 21, they will be in a position to decide what they want to do with their lives.

If they want to live like regular Americans, they are free to go. If they want to commit to the church and the Amish way of life, they get baptized. And they're expected to stay in the Amish community until they die. In short, they're asked to make a decision that most of us make gradually every day about how we're going to live our lives in these few years, when they're teenagers.

Faron is 21, and after his rumspringa, he has not chosen the church. During that time, as the film Devil's Playground shows, he got into a lot of trouble. Not only did he develop a $100-a-day crystal meth habit, he sold drugs. He got in trouble with the law. Right now, he's facing 14 months in prison for all that. He says that before he turned 16, back before his rumspringa began, he had a whole list of things that he knew he wanted to do.

Faron Yoder

I wanted, well, pretty much everything. I just wanted to be a normal kid and have a normal life. Everybody else was coming to school with Walkmans and going home and playing PlayStation. It was just everything, from going shopping to just-- I was envious of everything that everybody else had.

When you're sheltered all your life, you consider pretty much everybody else as, "Aw, man. They're lucky as hell, because they've got all this stuff." And I just wanted to have that. I wanted to be that.

Ira Glass

What was the first thing you did on the first day after you turned 16, and you had the freedom to do what you wanted?

Faron Yoder

On the first day, I went and got rid of my Amish haircut, went and got rid of my Amish clothes, bought regular clothes. And it was a Friday or Saturday night. It was on a weekend. And I got drunk and just, I thought I was the coolest thing in the world.

Ira Glass

One of the teenage girls in the movie, Velda, says, "God talks to me in one ear, Satan in the other. Part of me wants to be like my parents, but the other part wants the jeans, the haircut, to do what I want." Is that your experience, too? Or was it your experience, this feeling of, OK, God's in one ear, and Satan is in the other?

Faron Yoder

Well, actually, I ignored God for a long time. And for a long time, I told everybody that I was atheist. I think I've really searched a lot and struggled to listen to God.

Ira Glass

And was there any part of you where you were afraid that if you didn't return to the Amish lifestyle, that you would be punished, that you would go to hell?

Faron Yoder

Yeah, definitely. There was always that fear. And there still is sometimes. I guess not anymore, but there used to be, until just lately. It was always at the back of my mind, always nagging me.

There was this fear that, hey, you're going to hell, because you're not living a Christian life, and you're not Amish. I don't know. It was just, I don't feel that one has to be Amish to get into heaven, of course, but I feel that that is probably the easiest way, or one of the easiest ways to attain that.

Ira Glass

Do you think hell exists?

Faron Yoder

According to the Bible, yes.

Ira Glass

And do you believe it?

Faron Yoder

I don't know exactly what I believe right now.

Ira Glass

We're doing another story in this week's radio show about these teenagers outside Dallas. And there's a church youth group that they're part of that does something called a Hell House, where every Halloween, they stage all the ways that somebody can end up in hell. And the idea is to scare people so bad, and young people especially, that they'll never try anything.

They'll never try to drink. They'll never try to do drugs. They'll never try to do anything bad.

And the idea of this church group is that that will bring teenagers to God. And you were raised with exactly the opposite philosophy, where, once you become a teenager, the church elders are saying to you, "OK, go out. Try everything, and then you'll discover actually choosing God is the right choice." Which do you think might be better?

Faron Yoder

I think the Amish approach is definitely better. Whereas in the Hell House there, I feel that you should be scared of God, yes, but that shouldn't be the reason that you follow Jesus. One should make that choice because he wants to and he feels that that's the best way to live, not just because, oh, I'll go to hell if I don't.

Ira Glass

Do you think it's an advantage to their way to try to protect their kids? I think there are people all over this country who are trying to protect their kids from all the bad things that your elders sort of pushed you towards, partying, and you know.

Faron Yoder

I don't know. But just my own opinion, I think it will do more harm than good.

Ira Glass

Why?

Faron Yoder

Well, just for myself, if somebody tells me, "Hey, you can't do this, or you're going to get punished," I'm going to say, "Watch me get away with it."

Ira Glass

I wondered, are the church elders in your church counting on the fact that, when you go out and you see what the rest of the world is like, it won't seem so great?

Faron Yoder

Well, yeah, I think that's kind of the point. Because you get out, and you see that there are so many unhappy people in the world. And I'm not saying that there aren't any unhappy Amish people. But still, I think the larger percentage of Amish people, really happy and content with what they have, even if they don't have that much. I think in the film it says something, about 85% of Amish kids go back to the Amish way of life.

Ira Glass

90%, they said.

Faron Yoder

90%. OK. Most people go back. Because really, the Amish way of life is an attractive lifestyle. You don't have all the modern things, or whatever, but as far as peace, tranquility, and have a calm life, it's beautiful.

Ira Glass

90% of the people go back. And so how are you different?

Faron Yoder

Well, I got into drugs. And I, well, just to tell the truth, I lost most of my Amish friends, and had to go out and find others.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Oh, I see. So you actually had to make a life outside of the Amish community. So then it was easier just to stay out.

Faron Yoder

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Once you have a life outside the Amish community, it's kind of hard to get back in.

Ira Glass

How are you doing? Are you as happy, do you think, as your friends who went back to the Amish way of life?

Faron Yoder

I think so. I'm-- I don't know. I always have a-- I don't know about happy. I'm just more relaxed now.

Ira Glass

And do you have moments where you actually find yourself still wondering, "Oh, I wonder if I would have been better off if I had gone back"?

Faron Yoder

Yeah, yeah, I do. Not very often, but there are times. I wonder where I'd be, or who I'd be, if I would have made the choice just to stay Amish and be this responsible young man.

Ira Glass

Faron Yoder, the film he's in is called Devil's Playground. You can find copies of it online. Coming up, if you do good, but you do not remember it, and maybe you did not even intend to do good in the first place, does it count? That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Devil In Angel's Clothing, Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Devil on My Shoulder, stories of people who believe that the Devil is talking in their ear, and of people who deny that, despite massive evidence to the contrary.

We have arrived at Act Three of our program, Act Three, Devil in Angel's Clothing, Or Is It the Other Way Around? This is the story of what it means to have a conscience. A man kills another man on the street and then tries to pretend that it never happened for 20 years. And it's a story about what that does to him. Sarah Koenig reports from Baltimore.

Sarah Koenig

Sterling Randolph Willis told me his story over the phone from prison. As you'll hear, the phone line is terrible, but it was the only way to get him on tape. The prison doesn't allow recording equipment inside the facility.

When he was 17 years old, Randy lived with his mother and did construction work. He'd been kicked out of school for fighting. He was tall and quiet. And like a lot of kids from his neighborhood, he carried a serious knife.

His girlfriend, who was 16, lived miles across town, and Randy liked to walk to her house, rather than take the bus or a cab. It gave him time to be alone, he says, and to think about things. He was on his way there on Christmas night in 1982. He cut through a back way in the dark and stopped at some bushes to pee.

Sterling Randolph Willis

I saw this guy coming towards me. And I was like, "What do you want?" And he was mumbling something. I didn't know what he was saying.

And I saw him rubbing on the front of his pants. And I tell him, "Stop, back away from me." And he's still coming towards me.

And he's mumbling and giggling. He's looking like, "Aha, I got one." That scared me a bit.

And when he came close to me again, I hit him. And when I hit him, he fell back. That's when I jumped on him. And that's when I stabbed him.

Sarah Koenig

He didn't know whether the guy was dead or alive. He just took off running to his girlfriend's house.

Sterling Randolph Willis

I went in the back doorway, because I knew that my girlfriend would be in the kitchen waiting for me to get there. Because she really wasn't a party person, either. I had a little blood on me. I washed it off.

And I was really shooken up. It took about a half an hour before I could tell her what happened. And she thought I was joking around at first.

Sarah Koenig

Randy had killed Arnette Hubbard, a 44-year-old man who had no fixed address. Police had a hard time notifying his relatives. His wallet revealed to detectives that he was a military veteran.

Sarah Koenig

Did the detectives ever question you, or question anyone you had told?

Sterling Randolph Willis

They didn't question me, because I didn't live around there. I didn't go back around there for a little while. I was really, really scared. You could see it in my face that I was pretty much terrified. I didn't want the police looking at me like "Oh, look at him, he [UNINTELLIGIBLE] guilty." Because a couple of questions, and I would have been like putty in their hands.

Sarah Koenig

Eventually, Hubbard's murder fell into the department's cold case files. In that sense, Randy had gotten away with it. But in his mind, he carried the stabbing with him.

Sterling Randolph Willis

Different times throughout my life, over the years, I've had nightmares about it. One time, he pulled me in the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] in my dream. And he was shaking me, laughing real hard. And I woke up screaming out of my sleep. And sometimes, I would see it happen all over again, like on the wall, just like a film projector, like a dream, only wide awake.

Sarah Koenig

Randy felt guilty about what happened, and says that if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't have killed Arnette Hubbard. But he didn't feel that guilty. He was molested as a child, he says, and he thinks the guy he killed was a pervert waiting for a victim. What if someone else had taken that shortcut, a girl who couldn't protect herself, say?

After the stabbing, Randy tried to get on with his life. He and his girlfriend got married. He worked at different jobs, and they started having children. But he was still tormented by that night.

He would break out crying sometimes. He was terrified people would find out what he had done. The scene would play over and over in his mind. He went to psychiatrists, who gave him medication, but he never confessed the source of his anxiety. Pretty soon, he started taking harder drugs, mostly heroin.

Sterling Randolph Willis

When I told my wife about it, she was disappointed in me. I told her that I was getting high. I needed her help to stop.

I just couldn't figure out at that point what move to make in my life. I didn't want to be high. I didn't want the medication. I wanted the dreams to stop, the visions I was having. I wanted that all to just go away.

Sarah Koenig

While he was going through all this, his wife was changing. She had found the church and become passionate about it. Randy wasn't interested.

Sterling Randolph Willis

I'd usually just basically turn on The Three Stooges on Sunday and sit back and, you know, laughing at the TV. And by that time, my wife was already in church. And she'd just run around the house, "Hallelujah, hallelujah."

I thought, to me, this is funny, right? Because I'd never seen this side of her. I thought it was hilarious.

I didn't take it seriously until we had a little sit-down about it one day. And I knew she was serious, then, because she was welling up with tears. And I really felt bad. So that made me want to start going, see what this Jesus thing was all about.

And the first time I went, I basically didn't stay for the whole service, because it made me feel kind of strange. I wasn't used to being in contact with my emotions like that. And I'm sitting, and I'm feeling my eyes well up with tears, and my heart is bumping kind of fast. I feel butterflies in my stomach. And this is not a feeling that I like.

So I left. I waited outside. I didn't tell her the truth about how I felt. The truth was, I just couldn't handle it. I just couldn't sit there through the whole thing. I felt like everything the preacher was saying was stabbing me right in the heart. It was like he was directing it right to me.

Sarah Koenig

Do you remember what he was saying? Like, what were the things that he was saying that you felt were directed at you?

Sterling Randolph Willis

You know, sin and you're going to hell. And once you come to the Lord, you bring all your kids, and start your life on the path of righteousness. I'm like, "What, did somebody tell him about me or something?" Because every time I turn around, he's saying the stuff, and he's looking right at me. And I'm like, maybe somebody has been talking about me or something.

Sarah Koenig

Randy was so bothered by what happened that on his third trip to church, he did something sort of crazy. He actually decided to rob the place during the service. He didn't so much want the money, he said. He just wanted to control the people who were making him feel so strangely. He tucked a gun in the waistband of his pants and waited for the moment he could grab the collection plate. But a deacon figured out Randy's plan and confronted him.

Sterling Randolph Willis

He leaned over my head while he was praying. And he was like, "Just give it to me. Give me the gun, son. You're not going to hurt anybody, and nobody knows what you want to do.

So I had a warm feeling of emotions flushing over me. And all of a sudden, I started crying and whatnot. My nose is running. I'm falling all out on the floor.

When I came to, I didn't have the gun on me anymore. My wife is crying and clapping and whatnot. My kids are looking at me like, "What's the matter with Dad?" That's what really started my walk in the church.

Sarah Koenig

He started attending regularly. He opened up services by leading songs, assisted the ministers, and eventually became president of the church's Brotherhood Association. The church even made him lose his craving for drugs, he says. He quit cold, and stayed sober for about eight years.

He describes that time as good and clean, among the best years of his life. He started his own landscaping business called Sterling Service. His brother-in-law was one of the church leaders, and they became close.

As Randy began to worry about his own salvation, he actually told him and a church deacon about murdering Arnette Hubbard. They said he'd be forgiven, which relieved him. The visions and nightmares eased, and he appeared to be conquering his past.

But toward the end of that period, his father died. Then he lost a lot of his landscaping equipment in a fire. Winter came, and his clients fell away. He needed money, so he started selling drugs, and then taking them. Pretty soon, he was addicted to heroin again.

Sterling Randolph Willis

I was living a double life, you might say. On one hand, I was going to church, being an assistant to the pastor and security and whatnot. And on the other hand, I was on the street selling cocaine and heroin.

And for a while, it worked out, until my wife drove past me one day on the corner. And it was a [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] me. And she saw me, actually. And I didn't see her, but she saw me. The kids saw me. My in-laws saw me.

Sarah Koenig

What kind of car were they in?

Sterling Randolph Willis

Oh they were in the van.

Sarah Koenig

Like, the church van.

Sterling Randolph Willis

Yeah. And my brother-in-law was driving, and he had to drive past. And they all saw me. And they saw me with a crowd of people in front of me. And I'm telling them, shut up and get in line and be quiet. I got a bunch of money in one hand, and I got the bag of drugs in the other hand. They drove by and saw me stand there, and I never knew it.

Sarah Koenig

His wife threatened to leave him if he didn't clean himself up.

Sterling Randolph Willis

I'm reading my morning paper, and I'm seeing circles drawn around houses and whatnot.

Sarah Koenig

Like she's looking for houses.

Sterling Randolph Willis

Yeah. But I didn't believe her, being together almost 20 years. And basically, I came in the house one day. And everything was gone, except my stuff. My stuff was not packed up.

So I go to go around my sister-in-laws, my brother-in-laws, to see if they've seen her, because they lived right around the corner. And my wife was there with a big U-Haul truck in front of the house. And I was like, you could have pushed me over with a spoon, and I'd have fell all out in the street. That's how weak in the knees I felt.

Sarah Koenig

Were you selling drugs that day?

Sterling Randolph Willis

Yeah, I was. And I had a crowd of people waiting for me, actually.

Sarah Koenig

Crowd of people meaning customers.

Sterling Randolph Willis

Yeah. And a guy came running up the street, he was like, man, [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE]. You ain't going to somebody else. I asked my wife, "Won't you let him sit here with you for a minute? I'll be right back. I've got to see about something."

And she was like, "Go." And she knew where I was going at that point. She was like, "Go. It doesn't matter. Go ahead."

I was like, "now, look, hold this money for me." That was my plan, to get her to hold the money so she couldn't leave. And she was like, "I don't want your money. I don't want anything from you." She was like, "I just want a clean, sober husband." She was like, "You'll be all right. Just do anything, you'll be all right."

Sarah Koenig

He ran off to his customers. And when he came back, the U-Haul truck was gone. He asked his brother-in-law if she went to the store or something. He said, no. She had gone to South Carolina.

Sterling Randolph Willis

I was crying, and falling [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Because I really loved my wife. And that's really hard. That really messed me up a lot, realizing that she was really going.

That took out all the reasons that I had for doing what I was doing. That took it away. I didn't want to sell drugs anymore. I didn't want to get high anymore. And at that time, things just fell apart. Everything just fell apart.

Sarah Koenig

Very soon after that, you get arrested.

Sterling Randolph Willis

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Just describe what happened that day.

Sterling Randolph Willis

Well, that's what I don't remember, exactly. I remember being bombed out of my skull.

Sarah Koenig

I was looking at the court files, reviewing your court file. And I found the statement of probable cause from the police. And I just want to read it to you to see if it sounds familiar.

"On 14, June 2000, at 1:40 AM, this officer was in the 4900 block of Cordelia Avenue. We were inside our vehicle. The defendant approached this officer and inquired if he may talk to this officer. This officer responded in the affirmative.

At this time, the defendant made a voluntary, uncoerced statement that he would like to turn himself in for possessing the illegal narcotic, cocaine. The defendant further stated that he had this substance in his possession in the right breast pocket of his jacket. The defendant then removed from his right breast jacket pocket 12 blue Ziploc baggies containing white rock substance.

The defendant surrendered these items to this officer. At this time, the defendant was placed under arrest. The defendant additionally began to state that he had also committed other serious offenses that he wished to confess."

Sterling Randolph Willis

None of that sounds familiar at all.

Sarah Koenig

On June 14, 2000, handcuffed to a steel table in an interrogation room, and throwing up into a garbage pail as the heroin left his system, Randy confessed to the murder of Arnette Hubbard. A detective taking notes during the conversation wrote, "Has been selling coke and dope, selling for anyone he could, tired of game. Feels guilty about doing murder."

Randy described the killing down to the smallest detail, the checkered shirt Hubbard had been wearing, the knife that was six or seven inches long. He does not remember telling them a word of this. Not long after, in district court, he waited for his case to come up.

Sterling Randolph Willis

They call your number and your name to stand up for a particular case. And they called my name. And I stood up.

When they said first-degree murder, well, I sat back down. Because I was like, "Oh, no, no, that's not my charge." They said, "Yeah, stand up. It is your charge." I'm like, "No, no. I know I may be a bad drug dealer, but I'm not a murderer or something. What are they talking about?"

Sarah Koenig

At what moment did you realize you had been charged with this murder that you'd committed 20 years before?

Sterling Randolph Willis

It was when I was in the courtroom.

Sarah Koenig

You knew it was that, you knew it was Arnette Hubbard.

Sterling Randolph Willis

They said his name, and I still didn't know who it was, because I had never known his name.

Sarah Koenig

Randy initially fought the charges, but ended up pleading guilty to second-degree murder. Baltimore Circuit Judge William D. Quarles sentenced him to 12 years in prison. At the hearing, he said to Randy, "I guess you reassure me, in a sense, of my belief in human nature, because you are obviously someone who developed a sense of conscience. Because you had actually gotten away with it." But if you come clean, never intending to come clean, and not remembering afterwards you've come clean, does that really count as an act of conscience?

Sarah Koenig

You must think about your own subconscious, the mystery of what made you open your mouth.

Sterling Randolph Willis

Yeah, all the time.

Sarah Koenig

And have you come to any conclusion?

Sterling Randolph Willis

No. That's not something that I've really come to grips with. I just don't know how to feel, really. It isn't like, "Oh, yeah, confession is good and clean for the soul." No, it feels like, "What a dummy. I should have kept my mouth closed." Don't want to mess up the next 20 years of my life.

Sarah Koenig

So you regret telling them.

Sterling Randolph Willis

Yeah, of course.

Sarah Koenig

It wasn't a relief to tell police, he says. He didn't feel like he'd gotten something off his chest. That feeling came when he told the people who meant something to him, his wife, the members of his church. That feeling came when he squared it with God.

But somehow the decision to tell police about that night wasn't exactly his. With heroin as its unwitting ally, Randy's conscience, the angel on his shoulder he remembers from childhood cartoons, commandeered the interview, flooring everyone involved. In prison, he's still hearing that voice, and another voice, too.

Sterling Randolph Willis

It's kind of hard to explain. I used to sit back and I would hear voices saying-- well, on one hand, it's like, "How do you feel now, dumbass? And look what you got yourself into. Go to trial. Fight it. You can beat this."

And then my other shoulder's like, "Don't worry. The Lord is going to be [UNINTELLIGIBLE] sooner than you think. You did the right thing. You can leave here with a clean slate and start your life over."

Sarah Koenig

Which side is winning?

Sterling Randolph Willis

Well, currently, clean slate side. You know, "You can leave here with a clean slate now. And things'll get better." And in a way, I believe it. But in a way, I don't.

Sarah Koenig

There's another way to see this whole story, that it wasn't his conscience that made him confess to the police. Randy's sisters see it more as a suicidal act. His wife had left him. He was back on drugs. He had sunk so low that some part of him, and not the angel part, wanted to do something self-destructive. So he told the police.

What's odd is that Randy himself hasn't figured out whether he's a good person who needed to clear his conscience once and for all, or just a drug addict who gave up and ratted himself out. After thinking about it every day for two years in prison, Randy still can't decide.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Production help today from Flawn Williams and the charming Jorge Just and Aaron Scott. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. He's feeling so good ever since he came back from the hairstylist at the mall. Here's why.

Faron Yoder

I went and got rid of my Amish haircut, went and got rid of my Amish clothes.

Ira Glass

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

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