Transcript

220:

Testosterone
Transcript

Originally aired 08.30.2002

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And to explain why we're doing this week's show the way that we're doing it on the subject that we're doing it, I'm joined in the studio by one of our producers, Alex Blumberg.

Ira Glass

Hello, Alex.

Alex Blumberg

Hello, Ira.

Ira Glass

Alex.

Alex Blumberg

Yes?

Ira Glass

What's the reason for this week's show?

Alex Blumberg

Well, I've been thinking about that. And for me, the reason for today's program goes back to a book I read when I was 15 called The Women's Room. Maybe people listening will remember The Women's Room. It was a seminal feminist novel from the '70s. And I first came across The Women's Room when I was digging through my parents' bookshelves, looking for porn, books with naughty parts in them, like Fear of Flying. And so I picked it up, and I read it.

Ira Glass

Because the word "women" was in the title.

Alex Blumberg

In lipstick, probably, or maybe not. Yes.

It's incredibly polemical. It describes, basically, a group of women going from the '50s through the '60s. And they all suffer at the hands of the various men in their lives. And there's constantly-- like, women are slowly being driven crazy by their husbands' incessant criticism, or they're being called ugly after they have mastectomies, or they're being stifled by their husbands' emotional shallowness.

Ira Glass

And I notice you happen to have brought into the studio with you today a copy of The Women's Room.

Alex Blumberg

Yeah, well, I recently reread it, just to see, for example, I bookmarked a couple of these things. On page 198, the narrator comes in, and she says, "You think I hate men. I guess I do."

And then a little bit further down, she says, "My feelings about men are the result of my experience. I have little sympathy for them. Like a Jew just released from Dachau, I watch the handsome, young Nazi soldier fall writhing to the ground with a bullet in his stomach. And I look briefly and walk on. I don't even need to shrug. I simply don't care."

And then a little bit later, "My hatred is learned from experience. That is not prejudice. I wish it were prejudice. Then, perhaps, I could unlearn it." There's not very much pornographic about that.

It's an incredibly strange thing to read this book at that age, because at that age, I felt like there's one other woman who comes into play at this point. And that's-- I probably shouldn't say her name. Let's just call her Kelly. And she was in eighth grade with me, and she sat two rows away from me.

And I remember one time sitting in homeroom with her and seeing her buttoned-down shirt was open a little bit, and I could catch the barest sliver of her little training bra. And it was perhaps the most desire I've ever felt in my life maybe. It was just all-consuming. And I couldn't concentrate for the rest of the day. I remember it to this day.

And so at the time I was reading this book, I felt like, oh my God. This is what, this is-- I could see myself becoming the people that she was describing, the men she was describing. And it was really terrifying. My testosterone, and how it affects me, and how I react to it, I think about on a daily basis, all the time. It often feels like there's something in my body giving me instructions that I probably shouldn't follow.

Ira Glass

OK, which brings us to today's program. A while back, Alex tried to convince all of us who work on the radio show that we should do an entire program about testosterone. And I have to say, none of us were really buying it, especially the women, who found the subject dull, even though, as Alex tried to point out to them, women have testosterone. And it affects them pretty much exactly the same way that it affects men. I think all of us were fearing a kind of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus sort of thing, how hormones make men be all aggressive and women all non-aggressive in very stereotyped ways, which all seemed reductionistic and dumb-headed.

And then Alex started reading and calling people. And one of the people that he called was this guy who wrote an article for GQ magazine about what happened to him when, because of medical reasons, he stopped producing testosterone. And for four months, he lived without testosterone before they caught the problem. And the way he described living without testosterone was really incredible.

Man

Everything that I identify as being me, my ambition, my interest in things, my sense of humor, the inflection in my voice, the quality of my speech even changed in the time that I was without a lot of the hormone. So yes, the introduction of testosterone returned everything. There were things that I find offensive about my own personality that were disconnected then. And it was nice to be without them. Envy, the desire to judge itself, I approached people with a humility that I had never displayed before.

I grew up in a culture, like all of us, that divides the soul from the body. And that that is your singleness, that is your uniqueness, and nothing can touch that. And then I go through this experience where I have small amounts of a bodily chemical removed and then reintroduced, and it changes everything I know as my self. And it violates the sanctity of that understanding, that understanding that who you are exists independent of any other forces in the universe. And that's humbling. And it's terrifying.

Ira Glass

I think when it comes to this stuff, most of us do not know what to believe. We're caught between thinking that our hormones and body chemistry can determine so much about our personalities and wanting to believe that they don't. And so today on our program, we bring you four stories exploring that question. How much does testosterone determine?

Act One of our show, Life At Zero, in which we hear about what it means to lose all your testosterone. Act Two, Infinite Gent. A woman gets pumped up with several times the testosterone that most men have and describes some surprising changes. Act Three, Contest-osterone. In that act, at Alex's suggestion, all of us on the staff of this radio program decide to find out who has the most and who has the least testosterone with lab tests, to see how the levels match with our personality traits, an exercise, I have to say, most of us, at this point, would not recommend that you try at your workplace or with your friends. Act Four, Learning To Shut Up. In that act, a mother asks her teenage son all her questions about what it means to be a boy, which is, of course, exactly the sort of thing you do not want your mother asking you on tape at 15. Stay with us.

Act One. Life At Zero.

Ira Glass

Act One, Life At Zero. Testosterone is the hormone of desire. And by that, I don't mean sexual desire. I mean desire, period. In this act, we continue with Alex's interview with that magazine writer from GQ. He wrote about his experiences with testosterone anonymously.

Man

When you have no testosterone, you have no desire. And when you have no desire, you don't have any content in your mind. You don't think about anything.

Alex Blumberg

And during those months, how were you behaving? What was different?

Man

It wasn't that I was behaving. It was that I was not behaving at all. I was, when I was awake, literally sitting in bed and staring at the wall, with neither interest nor disinterest, for three, four hours at a time. If you'd had a camera in the room, you would have thought I was comatose.

I would go out. I would buy some groceries early in the morning. And that would be it. My day had no content.

I had no interest in even watching TV, much less reading the newspaper or a book. Food, I didn't want my food to taste good or interesting. And when you're blessed with that lack of desire, you can eat a loaf of Wonder Bread with mayonnaise. And that will be your day.

And I only saw my girlfriend on weekends, since she was living in New York, and I was living in Philly. So I could get away with it five days at a time. And needless to say, there was absolutely no desire.

People who are deprived of testosterone don't become Spock-like and incredibly rational. They become nonsensical because they're unable to distinguish between what is and isn't interesting, and what is worth noting and what isn't.

Alex Blumberg

Describe your thoughts on your morning walk in this state.

Man

It's very quiet at 5:30, 6:00, 6:30 in the morning. And yeah, and I would see a brick in a wall, and I would think, a brick in a wall. I would see a pigeon and think, pigeon. It's the most literal possible understanding of the world.

Alex Blumberg

So in this time, when you're without testosterone, you're walking down the street. You're just ticking things off, just making these very simple observations.

Man

Like a grocery list.

Alex Blumberg

Yeah, like a grocery list exactly. You also have a thought that comes to you all the time, right?

Man

Yes.

Alex Blumberg

Talk about that.

Man

Which is a very strange-sounding thing, which is, "That is beautiful." Everything I saw, I thought, "That is beautiful," which is odd-sounding, I know, because that sounds like the judgment of a person with passion. But it was the exact opposite. It was thought, and sometimes even said, with complete dispassion, with objectivity.

And you see, I was looking at absolutely everything, the most mundane sight in the world, a weed in the sidewalk, and thinking, "Oh, that's beautiful." The surgery scars on people's knees, the bolts in the hubcaps of cars, all of it, it just seemed to have purpose. And it was like, "Oh, that's beautiful."

Alex Blumberg

It's so staggering that that is the core thought that you were left with. If you see things factually, you could have just as easily settled on monstrous or disgusting. And so it's just interesting to me that the adjective your brain, and what was left of your personality, chose to ascribe to everything is "beautiful." Why do you think that is?

Man

When I think about that question, the issue of God comes into the equation for me. In a way, being without testosterone brought me closer to God, but not in the afternoon talk show sense of being, I don't know, more humane, but actually thinking like God. And of course, I don't mean thinking as God, but I meant thinking like God in an aping, superficial kind of way. He sees things as they really are. He sees you as you really are.

And I had this omniscient sense when I was without testosterone that I was seeing through the skin of things, that I was seeing things as they really were, and that the objective conclusion, not the judgmental one, but the objective conclusion was, they are beautiful. Everything is beautiful, from the bugs to the cracks in the sidewalk to the faces of other people. And it was automatic. Perhaps to see things objectively is to see them, all of them, as beautiful.

But you have to understand that the thought was expressed in the most flat-line, boring way possible. "Oh yeah, that's beautiful. It's beautiful."

You would think that this would be a terrible thing, a terrible state to be in, and for most people, it is. But it was weirdly pleasant. And there is a certain appeal, an impossible appeal, to that Rip van Winkle existence of being without testosterone.

You just have to remember that it doesn't matter if you have nothing, if you want nothing. Very tricky to get inside that mindset. In some ways, it's difficult for me to even remember it now. But it had its allure.

Alex Blumberg

Well, I can understand that. Because desire often feels like a burden. It often feels like if I just didn't want that thing, not having it wouldn't be so painful.

Man

There you go. All that wanting.

Act Two. Infinite Gent.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Infinite Gent. Well, we just heard from somebody whose testosterone dropped to nothing. Now, we have the story of someone whose level got a huge boost. Griffin Hansbury was born female. But seven years ago, after college, Griffin took action to become a man. And he told this story of what it was like to experience the massive increase in testosterone that accompanies this change. He talked with our producer, Alex Blumberg. A warning to listeners that they talk about looking at women and wanting sex during this interview.

Griffin Hansbury

I went to Bryn Mawr College, which is a women's college, and chose a women's college because I strongly identified as a woman at the time, as a feminist, and as a dyke. I had my leather biker jacket and my big leather belt and my black t-shirts and my Doc Marten boots, my combat boots. And that felt pretty comfortable for a while.

And then my sophomore year in college, I was lying in bed with my girlfriend. I don't know if we were talking or what it was. And it just sort of hit me like a bolt of lightning, as they say. And I just knew that I had to change my body. And so I started doing the research on it. And the only way to do that was to take testosterone.

My first injection was a pretty large one of 2 ccs of 200 milligram strength depo-testosterone, which is a fairly high amount. Just to give you a sense of how much that is, the average amount of testosterone in an average male body is between 300 and 1,000 nanograms per deciliter of blood. After that shot, and after an average shot, my testosterone levels go up to over 2,000 nanograms per deciliter, so that I have the testosterone of two high-testosterone men in my body at once.

Alex Blumberg

You have the testosterone of two linebackers.

Griffin Hansbury

Exactly. Exactly. That's a lot. That's a lot of T. And what's amazing about it is how instantaneous it is, that it happens within a few days really. The world just changes.

Alex Blumberg

What were some of the changes that you didn't expect?

Griffin Hansbury

The most overwhelming feeling is the incredible increase in libido and change in the way that I perceived women and the way I thought about sex. Before testosterone, I would be riding the subway, which is the traditional hotbed of lust in the city. And I would see a woman on the subway, and I would think, she's attractive. I'd like to meet her. What's that book she's reading? I could talk to her. This is what I would say.

There would be a narrative. There would be this stream of language. It would be very verbal.

After testosterone, there was no narrative. There was no language whatsoever. It was just, I would see a woman who was attractive or not attractive. She might have an attractive quality, nice ankles or something, and the rest of her would be fairly unappealing to me.

But that was enough to basically just flood my mind with aggressive, pornographic images, just one after another. It was like being in a pornographic movie house in my mind. And I couldn't turn it off. I could not turn it off. Everything I looked at, everything I touched, turned to sex.

I was an editorial assistant. And I would be standing at the Xerox machine, and this big, shuddering, warm, inanimate object would just drive me crazy. It was very erotic to me.

Alex Blumberg

The Xerox machine.

Griffin Hansbury

The Xerox machine. Or a car. I remember walking up Fifth Avenue one day, and this red convertible went by. It was a Mustang. And I remember just getting this jolt in my pants, this very physical, visceral, sexual reaction to seeing a red convertible.

Alex Blumberg

What did you do with that? I mean, what did you think?

Griffin Hansbury

Well, I felt like a monster a lot of the time. And it made me understand men. It made me understand adolescent boys a lot. Suddenly, hair is sprouting, and I'm turning into this beast. And I would really berate myself for it.

I remember walking up Fifth Avenue, there was a woman walking in front of me. And she was wearing this little skirt and this little top. And I was looking at her ass. And I kept saying to myself, don't look at it, don't look at it. And I kept looking at it.

And I walked past her. And this voice in my head kept saying, turn around to look at her breasts. Turn around, turn around, turn around. And my feminist, female background kept saying, don't you dare, you pig. Don't turn around. And I fought myself for a whole block, and then I turned around and checked her out.

And before, it was cool. When I would do a poetry reading, I would get up, and I would read these poems about women on the street. And I was a butch dyke, and that was very cutting-edge, and that was very sexy and raw. And now I'm just a jerk.

[LAUGHTER]

Griffin Hansbury

So I do feel like I've lost this edge, this nice, avant-garde kind of-- and I've gotten into a lot of arguments with women friends, co-workers, who did not know about my past as a female. I call myself a post-feminist. And I had a woman say, you're not a post-feminist. You're a misogynist. And I said, that's impossible. I can't be a misogynist.

And I couldn't explain to her how I had come to this point in my life. And to her, I was just a misogynist. And that's unfortunate because it's a lot more complicated than that.

Alex Blumberg

I'll say. Wow. Testosterone didn't just turn you into a man. It turned you into Rush Limbaugh.

Griffin Hansbury

I know. That I was not expecting. That I was not expecting.

So I had to relearn how to talk to women. And I had to learn how to rephrase things, how to hold my tongue on certain things. And I'm not very good at it. So I get in trouble.

Alex Blumberg

That is so fascinating. Because as a man, I think, from the time I went through puberty, I feel like that's something that I've been learning to do in a certain way, is just figure out how to say things without getting myself in trouble.

Griffin Hansbury

Right. Yeah, yeah.

Alex Blumberg

I would not have thought that you would have had that problem.

Griffin Hansbury

Right, because I should know better or something.

Alex Blumberg

Or something. Are there other ways, other than the visual, and other than the libidinal, are there other ways that you feel like testosterone has altered the way you feel or perceive?

Griffin Hansbury

Something that happened after I started taking testosterone, I became interested in science. I was never interested in science before.

Alex Blumberg

No way. Come on. Are you serious?

Griffin Hansbury

I'm serious. I'm serious.

Alex Blumberg

You're just setting us back a hundred years, sir.

Griffin Hansbury

I know I am. I know. Again, and I have to have this caveat in here, I cannot say it was the testosterone. All I can say is that this interest happened after T. There's BT and AT, and this was definitely After T. And I became interested in science. I found myself understanding physics in a way I never had before.

[LAUGHTER]

Griffin Hansbury

It's true. It's true.

Alex Blumberg

Wow.

Griffin Hansbury

I did.

Alex Blumberg

How about in the way you feel things and in the way you perceive of your feelings? Is there any change there?

Griffin Hansbury

I have a hard time crying. Before testosterone, it was great if I was frustrated or angry or sad, have a good cry. You'd feel better afterwards. And I do wonder if there isn't a chemical component behind it because I now have a hard time doing it. And it's very frustrating.

What I will do is when I feel that pressure build up, I'll go into my room. I will close the door and force myself. I have to force myself to cry. And the quality of the crying is different than the quality of the crying was before T. It's very dry. I find myself moaning and sobbing, but with very little tears.

Alex Blumberg

You've answered a lot of questions for us today. You reinforced a lot of stereotypes that we've almost dispelled with.

[LAUGHTER]

Griffin Hansbury

I know I have. I know it.

Alex Blumberg

Did you have an idea of what kind of man you were going to be before the transition? This is my model. Who was it?

Griffin Hansbury

I used to watch a lot of Beverly Hills 90210, and Jason Priestley was my ideal, at least physically. I wanted sideburns so bad. And that was the first facial hair that came in. I got these beautiful sideburns.

So it was like the James Dean, Jason Priestley kind of model, I think. That didn't quite materialize. I was better at that as a dyke than I am as a man, I have to say.

Alex Blumberg

And how do you feel about it? Is that sort of a--

Griffin Hansbury

It's a bit of a disappointment. It's a bit of a disappointment. I often ask people, "What kind of a guy am I? What do you see?" And unfortunately, people often respond that they see a nerd, which I never was before. I was always really cool and popular and hip and whatever.

And now I'm five foot four, and I work out, but I'm not real muscular. And I'm pretty small. I'm pale-skinned, and my hair has started to thin. And I've got glasses.

And of course, I'm also, I'm a sensitive guy now. I used to be the butch dyke. And I was seen as very aggressive. And I was more masculine in many ways, outwardly, anyway, before testosterone.

And now I don't have to prove anything. So I can lay back and talk with my hands and all that stuff that you're not supposed to do. So I'm still very much learning how to be a man in the world.

There's a lot to learn. Men, walking down the street is a constant battle. It's a constant contest.

I began to notice, once I started to pass as a man, that single men, walking alone down the street, will veer away from their path to walk towards me, get in my space, and then veer back. And it's very much like a little aggressive move. I've had men, just angry guys walking down the street, just body check me. So I really feel like I have to sort of puff myself up, so that people will keep their distance a little bit. But if I'm off guard, and I'm walking around, and I'm enjoying the scenery, it's pretty much guaranteed that somebody will shove me.

Alex Blumberg

Were there specific things that you were hoping for?

Griffin Hansbury

I think that the main thing that you hope for, that one hopes for, and that I hoped for when starting testosterone, was to pass as male, to be perceived by the world as a man. But I do have a love/hate relationship with passing that my whole deeper self becomes invisible and my history becomes invisible. And I think that's hard. It's a hard place to be.

Especially because when I got my first job as a man, they didn't know anything about my past. It was very corporate. So I had to let go of any edgy clothing and facial hair and whatnot that I had before. And I became really boring. I felt like, wow, people must think I'm really boring. If they only knew that I'm so fascinating.

[LAUGHTER]

Griffin Hansbury

Throughout those almost four years, I had to conceal a lot. I would lie about where I went to college because I went to Bryn Mawr, and I couldn't say I went to Bryn Mawr.

Alex Blumberg

What college did you say you went to?

Griffin Hansbury

Well, Bryn Mawr is in a bi-college relationship with Haverford College. And so I would say I went to Haverford, which is kind of-- I don't want to say anything bad about Haverford. Some of my best friends went there. But I think Bryn Mawr is a superior school to Haverford. I do. And I think it's a superior education. And when I have to say I went to Haverford, it's like a little knife in my heart. But no offense to my Haverford friends.

Alex Blumberg

What do you feel like the biggest thing that you do miss is?

Griffin Hansbury

Maybe the close relationships that I had with women. I still have close relationships with the women I've known since before T. But I don't make close relationships with new female friends. It's hard to do. There's a barrier.

So I miss being part of a cool bunch of women. I actually like women better than men. It just so happens that I fit in more as a man. But I think women are really cool. Sisterhood is powerful, all that stuff.

Alex Blumberg

And what do you think is the biggest thing you've gained?

Griffin Hansbury

The biggest thing I've gained. It's just so great when people call me "sir," even after seven years. I don't always hear it, but it still rings a little bell inside my heart, like, "Oh, sir." It's wonderful.

And it's something that when I was a little kid, I used to wish for. "Turn me into a boy," you know, Pinocchio. And you never really think it's possible. But it is possible. And the other nice thing about it is, knowing that that's possible, that you can actually make this enormous leap means that, well, then anything else must be possible too. Because this is certainly unbelievable.

Ira Glass

Griffin Hansbury lives in New York. He talked with our producer, Alex Blumberg. Griffin just completed a memoir about his own experience transitioning from female to male. He's looking for a publisher.

Alex Blumberg

You know what occurs to me is that you're in a perfect position to offer romantic advice to anybody who needs it.

Griffin Hansbury

I know, I know. And I have a friend with a website. And we've been dying to do an online advice column called "Ask a Guy Who Used to Be a Girl." We haven't gotten it off the ground yet.

Alex Blumberg

You would make a million dollars.

[MUSIC - "TO SIR WITH LOVE" BY LULU]

Ira Glass

Coming up, who has the most testosterone, the slightly femme-y host of a public radio program, his staff, or a gay man in New York City? Answer is in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Contest-osterone.

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, Testosterone. And just how much does it determine of our personalities and fates? We have arrived at act three of our program, Act Three, Contest-osterone.

At some point in putting together this week's radio show, Alex, who you heard a lot of in the first half of our program, suggested that it might be a fun thing to do, it might illustrate some interesting principles about testosterone, if everybody on the radio staff would get their testosterone level checked. We could each predict who would come out as number one, number two, and so forth, based on their personalities. And then we would compare the results with what each of us had predicted. Since men always have a lot more testosterone than women, we would do two rankings, one for the men, one for the women. We invited two of our regular contributors, David Rakoff and Sarah Vowell, to take part with us, making it five men and four women in all.

It turns out to be remarkably easy to get your testosterone assessed. You spit into a little tube twice a day and send it to a lab, in our case, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. And I think it was Jonathan and Starlee, producers on our show who you sometimes hear during stories on the air, who pointed out first that the entire enterprise might not be such a good idea.

Jonathan Goldstein

I just think we're opening a whole can of worms here that we don't want to be doing.

Starlee Kine

It's all very-- well, this whole thing's sort of a mess, diplomatic-wise.

Ira Glass

How so?

Jonathan Goldstein

Like either we'll walk away from this finding out that Starlee has more testosterone than I do, and she'll end up being incredibly upset, and I'll be upset. And everyone will just be upset. What do we hope to gain from all of this? This whole thing is going to lead to heartbreak somehow.

Wendy Dorr

I've been thinking a lot about it. And I can't really decide whether I want to have more or if I want to have less.

Ira Glass

This is Wendy, another producer.

Wendy Dorr

I don't know. Having more makes me seem like an [BLEEP] hole. And having not enough makes me seem like a pushover or sucker.

Julie Snyder

For the men, I think it'll be a big deal.

Ira Glass

This is Julie, the senior producer of our program.

Julie Snyder

I think it'll change all your interactions with each other. You'll know when you're talking to each other who beat you. I think it'll change everything.

Ira Glass

Nonetheless, we marched toward the abyss. To find out what personality traits actually correlate with high testosterone and low testosterone, we checked with somebody who's done a lot of research on the subject, James Dabbs of Georgia State University, author of a book called Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior.

James Dabbs

The most simple thing I would say is it leads to a certain boldness and fearlessness and confidence in a person's behavior. They tend to focus upon what they do, move forward with less conflict. The downside is they don't pay attention to things going on around them, so they get blindsided by accidents and other things going on.

Ira Glass

What are some of the misconceptions you run into?

James Dabbs

Well, they think it makes them manly, and heroic, and virile, and sexual, and-- which is not really true. It doesn't take much testosterone to have sex. So that's sort of beside the point.

Ira Glass

What scientific studies can tell us is that in general, more testosterone does not mean you're a more successful person. In fact, blue-collar workers tend to have more testosterone than white collar workers, and unemployed men have more than either group. Actors and trial lawyers, people who basically go onstage in one way or another, tend to have very high testosterone levels.

Higher testosterone correlates with baldness and with bigger muscles. And researchers say that people with lots of testosterone have a wolfish smile. And people with less testosterone have a kinder smile, and they smile more often, as if to say, "Don't hurt me."

Testosterone goes up when you score a victory at something. It goes down when you suffer a defeat. In one study of World Cup soccer fans watching a match on television, testosterone dropped in fans of the losing team and rose in the fans of the winning team.

James Dabbs

For people, there's not a lot of difference between being in the contest and watching the contest. We can empathize with it so well.

Ira Glass

So what would all this mean for our radio staff? Well, when it came to predicting which of the women would have the highest testosterone, there was a clear majority in the voting. Here are Sara Vowell, Todd, our production manager, and Wendy weighing in.

Sarah Vowell

Julie will win.

Todd Bachmann

Julie's tough. She can certainly push me around sometimes.

Wendy Dorr

I think Julie has the most because she is the boldest of all of us, right? She says the boldest things.

Ira Glass

When we're all together in the same place, it is clearly Julie who is the alpha of the whole group. Though at some point in putting together this week's radio show, Alex and Julie sat down in a studio, and he asked her to predict which women would have the highest testosterone. And here's how she lined it up.

Julie Snyder

Wendy first, and then Starlee, and then Sarah, I guess.

Alex Blumberg

And then?

Julie Snyder

And then me, just passive me, just taking it easy, girly, girly me. Just being feminine over here in the corner. Honestly, who do I think? Well, I fear me.

Alex Blumberg

What do you think it would mean if you won?

Julie Snyder

Well, then that would confirm all my worst suspicions about myself, that I'm really aggressive, and pushy, and sort of a hothead. I fear me.

Ira Glass

Among the men, there was no favorite. You could kind of make an argument for any of the men on the staff. Todd likes sports, and he isn't such a bookworm softie like the rest of us on the staff. Alex plays a lot of sports, and he gets into fights on the basketball court.

Jonathan is balding, and he has a lot of muscle, corresponds with testosterone. I host a national radio show, which must count for something, right? But when we sat down to talk about it, it wasn't really clear exactly what else should be taken into account. Here's Jonathan.

Jonathan Goldstein

I don't entirely understand how this whole testosterone thing works. It's like who can yell the loudest, right? Who has the most rage? I have rage. Unfortunately, it's impotent rage. I don't know how that's going to rank.

Ira Glass

And then, if the main thing that testosterone corresponds with is decisiveness, how does that swing the whole rating?

Jonathan Goldstein

I didn't realize that the whole decision-making thing came into--

Alex Blumberg

Is it making you--

Jonathan Goldstein

--this whole testosterone thing. Yeah, it's making it--

Alex Blumberg

--reevaluate?

Jonathan Goldstein

--more complicated. Yeah, because I'm just filled with regret.

Ira Glass

Again, Julie. Quick decisions, doesn't look back.

Jonathan Goldstein

That's very true.

Alex Blumberg

Doesn't look back. I know. Same with Sarah.

Jonathan Goldstein

I look back like I'm looking--

Alex Blumberg

I look back pretty much every single--

Jonathan Goldstein

Every single second of the day. I'm regretting what I'm saying right now.

Alex Blumberg

Yeah. I'm always filled with regret.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

You're regretting it even as you're saying--

Jonathan Goldstein

Even as I'm-- even now. Even now. Even now.

Ira Glass

And then there's the question of David Rakoff. He's gay and a fan of Martha Stewart. But he's also balding, and he's worked as a professional actor, which both correspond with high testosterone levels. So how do you figure that one out?

David Rakoff

The one thing I do worry about the testosterone is Alex told me to, when I did my spit, that I had to have some Extra spearmint gum to activate my salivary glands. But the only thing that I could find was Extra Polar Ice, which has flavor crystals. And I worry that my sample might have flavor crystals in it. So in fact, I might just simply be the most refreshing.

Ira Glass

One notable difference between the men and the women. Although none of the women wanted to have much testosterone, Alex, Todd, and I very, very much wanted to win. Jonathan claimed that he did not want to win, but none of us believe him. And Rakoff also said that he had no interest in winning at all, but then proceeded immediately, I mean immediately, to talk smack about his opponents in a very competitive way. And that was the state of things when we got our results from the lab just two days ago.

Ira Glass

All right, well, it is two days before our broadcast day as I record this. Our entire staff is on mic, plus contributors David Rakoff and Sarah Vowell in New York. Hello, all.

All

Hi.

Ira Glass

And now for the results. I am opening the envelope. Wow, that's fascinating. Wow, that's just incredible. OK, among the men, Rakoff is number one and has like twice the amount of testosterone of anybody in the group.

Female Staff Member 1

Wooo!

David Rakoff

Wow.

Julie Snyder

Wow.

David Rakoff

This can't be--

Sarah Vowell

I told you.

David Rakoff

--correlation with baldness.

Starlee Kine

I voted for you, Rakoff.

Ira Glass

Oh, everybody's trying to get in with him now that he's number one. Then in order, the men are-- it's Rakoff, then Alex at number two, then me, like a point behind you, Alex, then Jonathan, and then Todd, all very closely grouped together.

Julie Snyder

Wow, but Rakoff has twice as much.

Ira Glass

As any of us, the gay, Canadian Jew living in Manhattan.

David Rakoff

OK, we really have to dispense with the Canadian. Actually, that is non-corollary, believe me.

Alex Blumberg

What are the numbers exactly? What is it for-- what's Rakoff, and what's--

Ira Glass

Rakoff is 274. You were at 144. I'm one hundred fort--

Female Staff Member 1

Oh my God!

Female Staff Member 2

Oh my God.

Ira Glass

When I looked at the women's results in the envelope, even though she is seven months pregnant, Julie was on top, as we all suspected.

Julie Snyder

That's hard. It makes me feel really bossy and aggressive. Now, did they say that the pregnancy would affect it at all?

Ira Glass

Alex, you touch--

Sarah Vowell

She says, trying to make sure you get in that whole girly, pregnancy thing.

Julie Snyder

Yeah, the fact that I'm able to bear children, the greatest gift a woman can have.

Ira Glass

I have to say, Wendy and Todd, the lowest-scoring woman and man on the staff, really did not seem very happy about this whole thing by the end. Todd, like most of the men on the staff, had never been seen as especially manly during his life. But he thought maybe here, maybe here in this group, compared to the rest of us, he might at least stand a chance.

Todd Bachmann

That at least someone would be girlier than I. If I can't be the most manly in public radio, where the hell can I be the most manly? I kind of wish this was SportsCenter because then I'd be OK. Out of all my fellow staff members at SportsCenter, OK, I could be the one with the least testosterone. But in public radio.

David Rakoff

We should get them to spit. Is it a real place, SportsCenter? Is that a thing?

Todd Bachmann

Now, see, that's not fair. How can he have the most testosterone and not know what SportsCenter is? I know what SportsCenter is.

Ira Glass

The people on our staff who scored low are feeling rather-- they're feeling terrible about it. What should I say to them?

James Dabbs

I hated to measure them. I just knew that would happen. It always happens. I told them that.

Well, they are what they are. Are they in any way different?

Ira Glass

After our test, James Dabbs reminded me that it was important to remember that any individual person might not conform to the stereotypes of who has higher testosterone. It's not the final answer as to what you're like.

James Dabbs

I tested a stunt man in a movie set once. And he came out low in testosterone, was terribly unhappy about being low in testosterone. The fact is, he still was a stunt man and did all the work that other people couldn't do. So he shouldn't have been focusing on that testosterone. I think to focus upon the testosterone is the wrong thing to do.

Ira Glass

Now, when you tried to convince him that he shouldn't feel bad about it, did he find that persuasive at all?

James Dabbs

No. He was just unhappy.

[MUSIC - "WHAT KIND OF MAN ARE YOU" BY RAY CHARLES]

Act Four. Learning To Shut Up.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Learning to Shut Up. We thought we would end today's program as we began, with the story of a 15-year-old boy. We have this story about one with his mom's questions about his maleness as his body floods with adolescent hormones. His mom, Miriam Toews, tells the story.

Miriam Toews

First off, his hair is red and shaggy and longish, and he's pale and slim and six feet tall. Music is everything to him, which makes sense because he's 15. I was 22 when he was born. I'd never had brothers, or any close male relatives, and I'd always dreamed of having a brother or a son. The idea of having a boy in my family was strange and exotic.

When he was born, it was like I had given birth to a llama or something. All my girlfriends came to visit me and him in the hospital. And I took them down to the second floor nursery, and we stared at him in awe from behind a glass window.

"That's him," I said, "with the orange fuzz on his head." He was lying naked and spread-eagled under a bright heat lamp. He seemed very content.

My friend Carol gasped and said, "Oh my God. He's got the biggest balls I've ever seen in my life." We all started laughing our heads off. And then the nurse came and told us his scrotum would shrink to normal size in a few days. I haven't seen him naked in years. But it still often feels, when I look at him, that I'm gazing at an odd creature from behind a glass.

Miriam Toews

So do you think about girls?

Owen Toews

Yes.

Miriam Toews

And what do you think about them?

Owen Toews

I don't know. Some of them are cool.

Miriam Toews

So what makes them cool?

Owen Toews

I don't know.

Miriam Toews

All his life, Owen's been a quiet kid, not sullen, but just rather silent. When he was a baby, and I'd be pushing him around in his stroller, people would stop and crouch down and talk to him and expect him to laugh and smile. And all he'd do was sigh and stare at them.

When he got a little older and went over to his friends places to play, and it was time for him to go home, he just got up and walked right out the door to the car. He didn't say, "Hey, thanks for having me," or "Next time, we'll play at my place," or even "Goodbye." We'd be driving home, and I'd be trying to explain to him that it seemed rude and that sometimes we just had to say certain things at certain times. It was polite and expected. He'd just sigh and nod, and kick the dash, or stick his head entirely out the window.

But back then, I could kind of figure out what was going on in his head even if he didn't come right out and say it. Like, when he was three and he didn't want me to go out, instead of grabbing my leg or having a tantrum or something, he'd hide my shoes, and then sit on the couch, pretending to read the newspaper while I searched all over the place.

When he was eight, and angry, and sitting in a tree, and throwing stones at the car or something, I'd go outside, knowing it would be a matter of minutes before he'd start to cry and then slowly spill his guts about whatever series of events it was that led to his meltdown. And that the whole scene would end with hugs and apologies and probably a large-muscle activity, like him cheerfully taking shots at my head with a soccer ball.

Now, though, the signs are harder, if not impossible, to read. I'm not sure there are any actually. And I have no idea where to begin my search.

Miriam Toews

What do you think girls think about you when they think about you?

Owen Toews

I don't know, nothing.

Miriam Toews

You think no girl ever thinks anything about you?

Owen Toews

Maybe. I don't know.

Miriam Toews

He brought 85 CDs with him for a family road trip that would last 11 days. He also brought his sketchbook, which started out as an art class project and has since evolved into a kind of diary, I think. He tends to write things down like, "Jesus, I got to find someone irrational," or, "The [BLEEP] I'm passing off as writing is slowly killing me."

The first day of our road trip, through North Dakota to South, the music wars started. His 12-year-old sister, Georgia, claimed the very back seat of the minivan, and was content to lie there, surrounded by nail polish and beads and thread and Hershey Kisses and Archie comics, and listen to her music on her Discman, mostly R&B stuff, Destiny's Child and the Save the Last Dance soundtrack. My husband, Cassidy, and I sat in the front. And Owen sat on the seat right behind us, so he could listen to his CDs on the stereo. We'd tell him to listen to them on his Discman, which he did sometimes, but then he'd miss out on our sporadic conversations, which he enjoyed either participating in or mocking.

Sometimes, he'd give us a choice of his CDs to play. "Nirvana?" he'd say. "You guys like Nirvana, right?" "Yeah, but the unplugged one," we'd say. "Oh, Lord, help me now," he'd say. He'd pop a dozen CDs into the player, They Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, At the Drive-In, other stuff. And we'd listen to half a song from each one and go, "Nope, nope, nope."

I had wanted to learn more about him from his music. I was pretty sure his lyrics would tell me more about him than he would. But the problem was, I couldn't understand most of the lyrics. And none of his CDs, which he'd bootlegged, had liner notes. We asked him if he didn't miss having liner notes. And he said, "Man, liner notes. You guys have this unnatural relationship with your liner notes."

Miriam Toews

What are some of your favorite lyrics?

Owen Toews

I like some of the lyrics from the Pixies.

Miriam Toews

Can you say some of the lyrics from the Pixies?

Owen Toews

"You're so pretty when you're unfaithful to me."

Miriam Toews

So what does that mean to you?

Owen Toews

I don't know. I just thought it was funny.

Miriam Toews

When Owen was little, I discovered I could get him to do anything by timing him. "Go get your jacket," I'd say, or "Clean up your toys, quick. I'll time you." He loved competing with himself and beating his old records even if I just made up times. And it evolved into a huge, competitive, sports-loving thing that I still don't really understand or enjoy.

That timing thing didn't work at all with Georgia. She'd just look up at me and say, "What do you mean, time me? What for?"

The difference between him and Georgia in the talking department is huge. Georgia will come home from school and literally reenact her entire day, so that she's telling me about it almost in real time, hour after hour. Owen, on the other hand, might tell me that his day was good, even if it was bad, but usually he just shrugs and makes an "I don't know" kind of sound. And then he'll head down to the basement and play his guitar.

Miriam Toews

So do some of your friends have girlfriends? And do you ever think that you'd like to have a girlfriend?

Owen Toews

Yeah.

Miriam Toews

What do you think they think? How would they describe you to their friends, do you think?

Owen Toews

I don't know.

Miriam Toews

Do you think you do know, but you just don't really want to talk about it with me?

Owen Toews

I think that, yeah, I think so.

Miriam Toews

I can dig it.

I've learned over time not to worry too much about his silence, although it used to drive me crazy. I wondered if maybe he'd turn out to be a psychopath, although I'm not sure why I associate evil with silence. Anyway, I'm getting better with it.

Cassidy often reassures me by saying stuff like, "It's a guy thing," or "He's a 15-year-old boy. What do you expect?" He told me that when he was Owen's age, he sat in his bedroom by himself for hours on end, typing page after page of angry vitriol against the world on an old manual typewriter, until his fingers bled. And he seems really happy now.

I realize my kids sound like boy and girl stereotypes. Owen is taciturn and into sports, and Georgia is chatty and prone to the occasional crying jag. But it really just is that way. I don't know why. It's not like we planned it. I don't want to think it's because he's a boy and she's a girl. But if it is, who cares?

When Georgia was upset about something at school the other day, and facedown on the couch, he sat on the floor beside her and said, "It's hard being a girl, isn't it?" I'm not sure that it's any easier being a boy. And I don't know what he does exactly when he's sad, other than listening to music. Except for once, it's been years since I've seen him cry. I'd kill to read his notebook.

Miriam Toews

Is there anything about girls that you envy?

Owen Toews

No, nothing, nothing.

Miriam Toews

What about their, it seems, their ability to talk about how they feel about things easier?

Owen Toews

Sure, yeah.

Miriam Toews

You envy that?

Owen Toews

I definitely envy that.

Miriam Toews

We were all pretty quiet as we drove up to Colorado Springs on our way to Denver. The sun was shining, but it was raining a bit. And we saw not one, not two, but three dead cows in fields, stiff, with their legs in the air. And it bothered us.

After the third dead cow, I played my favorite song of the summer, Gillian Welch's "Elvis Presley Blues." It's a wistful song about the King as a 15-year-old boy, just starting out with a big rock-and-roll dream in a shirt his mother made. And it was kind of miraculous because Owen actually liked it too.

For me, it was a song about a boy becoming a man and leaving home, and it made me a little sad. I think Owen was probably hearing it as a song about a cool 15-year-old who was about to conquer the world. But really, I haven't got a clue how he heard the song or how it made him feel. All he said was that it had a decent pop sensibility. And then he was quiet.

These days, the more I press him for information, the faster he shuts right down. The other day, I tried a new approach, his. I was annoyed by a bunch of things, and rather than broadcast it all over the house, I sat on the couch and glared at the TV and sighed periodically.

And strangely, Owen responded. He observed my weirdness for a while and then left. Then he came back and looked at me again, and said one word, "Mom," but in such a nice way that I smiled and said, "Owen." And that was it.

And then we sat there for a while, silently. I was surprised by how completely comfortable it felt. And then, finally, wordlessly, he got up and took his laundry upstairs.

Ira Glass

Miriam Toews is a writer in Winnipeg. She wrote The X Letters in one of our programs. Her latest book is called Swing Low.

Credits.

Ira Glass

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

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

You know, you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have public radio programs, best-selling books, even the New York Times, all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who owns a very, very big radio. This is what he says about it.

Griffin Hansbury

This big, shuddering, warm, inanimate object would just drive me crazy. It was very erotic to me.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

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