Transcript

30:

Obsession
Transcript

Originally aired 07.26.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/30

Act One.

Ira Glass

So Paul, let's begin this week's show this way. I want you to explain to me everything you had to go through in order to see the movie Independence Day.

Paul Tough

I had to get something to eat. I had to get not only a Coke, but also a juice from somewhere outside of the movie theater and not open it up. I didn't want to have it open. I wanted to have it sealed and have a straw with a paper straw cover around it. Had to sit on the aisle. Had to leave the theater during the previews, and then come back in just as the movie was about to start. Had to wash my hands a couple of times, of course, just in case I had to operate or anything.

Ira Glass

Happens a lot in your modern theatres.

Paul Tough

Who's already scrubbed? [LAUGHS]

I've sort of known that I had certain little quirks sometimes when I was watching a movie or really doing anything. But for some reason, I just realized it was going a little too far, that these rituals that I'd developed were just a little bit out of control.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, we choose a topic, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories, documentaries, radio monologues, short stories, found tape, anything we can think of.

Today's program, what happens when a little idea becomes a compulsion? What happens when it starts to control you? Our program today in four acts, four different stories.

And joining me for this hour is Paul Tough, who actually holds a job. Doesn't just go to theaters freaking out his fellow patrons. Paul Tough, an editor at Harper's magazine in New York and a contributing editor to our show as well. Paul has been thinking and talking to a lot of people about this subject of small obsessions and compulsions.

And can I just say that your story in the movie theatre-- I mean, those are pretty small things. I mean, all those things seem pretty innocent.

Paul Tough

They are, they are. I mean, none of them are really out of control. I guess one of the reasons they sort of hit me is just because I've been thinking about this a lot. And what struck me about it was that feeling, where suddenly you think, this could become a lot worse. I mean, there are people-- well, OK, I was washing my hands a couple of times before a movie. The movie theaters are kind of dirty places. But there are people out there who wash their hands hundreds of times a day. And what separates me from that person?

Ira Glass

A couple hundred times.

Paul Tough

Exactly.

Ira Glass

There's a numeric number we can assign to that difference.

Paul Tough

But I had this feeling there in the movie theater that it could happen at any point.

Ira Glass

So Paul, among these cavalcade of stories that you've brought in to play for us over the course of the hour about obsession, I know that some of them are serious and some of them are lighter. What do you want to start with?

Act Two.

Paul Tough

One of the first people that I talked to is actually someone that I know really well, an ex-girlfriend of mine named Jillian. And what I wanted to talk to her about was her obsession with the number two.

When she was a kid, just like any kid, she had a favorite number, a favorite color. And her favorite number was two. But it became a lot bigger than that.

Jillian

So I started being very preoccupied with doing things twice. If I, for example, dropped keys, I would then lean down and pick them up. But before I actually picked them up, I would probably drop them again. Like really close to the floor so no one would quite know what I was doing. But I'd be very aware that I was fulfilling some sort of two obligation.

Paul Tough

Her obligations weren't all-consuming, but they were somewhat laborious. At the dinner table or in class, she'd say something, and then she'd have to repeat it under her breath to make it two.

If she made a phone call and the person that she was calling wasn't there, she'd have to let the phone ring an even number of times. She started to see the whole world as being divided into things that were even, things that were on the side of two, and things that were odd.

Jillian

My favorite color was blue, and I also had this fantasy that blue was basically an even color. So it all seemed to fit in. But yellow seemed much more odd to me. And red seemed odd to me. And brown seemed even. Black seemed odd. This doesn't resonate at all with you?

Paul Tough

Well, I can see blue being even.

Tell me a little bit more about the other associations with two. Like you talked about-- I think you told me once that days of the week were as well?

Jillian

Yeah, days. Both Sunday and Monday seem even to me. But I don't like them as days at all. I much prefer Tuesdays and Thursdays, which seem odd. I mean, days are weird. Monday, Wednesday seems pretty even to me. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday all seem odd.

Paul Tough

I've got to say, I see it totally differently.

Jillian

You do?

Paul Tough

Yeah. I see Tuesdays and Thursdays and Saturdays as even, and all the others as odd. I mean Tuesday, first of all-- it kind of goes without saying.

The thing about an obsession like Jillian's is that it can grow to the point where it's not just this game in your head. It can start to really control your behavior. And that's a problem, because that's when people start to notice.

Jillian, for instance, she not only had a thing with the number two, she also had a deal with symmetry, where things had to be really symmetrical in terms of her body. If she would touch her left ear, then she would have touch her right ear. Things would have to be very even.

Jillian

The big symmetry thing that I can remember is going to a Broadway show with my family. And I had this sense that it didn't feel quite right to just clap with my hands. And so, I developed this thing about clapping with my elbows, with this idea that somehow that would produce a more symmetrical experience. And so, I would clap with my hands, and then clap with my elbows, and then maybe even clap with the entire hand and elbow.

And I can remember just sitting there and someone turning to me and saying, what are you doing? What are you doing with your elbows? And thinking like, this is not normal.

Paul Tough

What I want to ask you about is the relationship between the two thing and other people in your life. And I just sort of remember that there were times when you and I were going out where I would get really mad about the two thing. I mean, do you remember those times when I would get mad about twos?

Jillian

Yeah. But I always felt like your irritation about it was just irrational. I mean, for example, it used to come up a lot with the alarm clock, right? Like, I set my alarm clock usually for 8:02. If I need a little more sleep, then it's 8:12 or 8:22. I don't really like 8:32, but I'll do that.

But so, when I used to want to set the alarm clock for 8:02, and you would object and want to set it-- I mean, first of all, sometimes you would object. You would just want to set it for 8:03, which was just pure malice on your part. Like, obviously, I'm not going to be happy if the alarm clock is set for 8:03. I mean, what would you really care if I set the alarm clock for 8:02?

Paul Tough

Well, I actually remember that the minute we started talking about it. I actually remember what made me mad about not being able to set the clock for 8:01. Because it is about unnecessarily cluttering your life with things. Spending extra time piling stuff onto your good mood or bad mood just seems totally unnecessary.

Jillian

But you only think about it as piling stuff if it's something that really feels like an obligation. Which the two thing is in a certain way, but it's also just something that you like, or that I like.

Paul Tough

But that's not what would bother me about it. It wasn't just that you would say, oh, 8:02. Oh, you set it for 8:02. That's great. That's going to be fun. It was like, if it was 8:01, you'd go nuts. It wasn't just--

Jillian

That's because I realized it was coming out of a sadistic impulse in you.

Paul Tough

Well, if I just happened to be fast-forwarding through the 24 hours, and then I'd drop it around--

Jillian

No, you would never just happen to set it 8:01. You would set it and there'd be something very sinister about your setting the alarm clock.

Paul Tough

It only became sinister after I had already felt like you were overdoing it.

Jillian

Is this really the place to rehearse this?

I mean, there is a way in which I'm addicted to the two thing. And in a way, that's almost as powerful as any other physical addiction.

Paul Tough

And that doesn't bother you?

Jillian

No. I think that I actually kind of like it. I mean, I think I like having that kind of order in my life and having routine.

Paul Tough

When you would drop the keys and pick them up again, you'd do that sort of quietly, right? So that other people wouldn't think you were doing that?

Jillian

Well, I mean, I was clued in enough to know that people would think it would be kind of weird. Your average Joe is not going to be that sympathetic to someone who has an obsession with the number two.

Although I do think-- the more I talk to people-- I do think people have variations of these things. You talked about it about being a continuum. And on the one side of the continuum, would be the people who you might just label as quirky. And the other side of the continuum would be the people who might have to start taking Prozac, right? And I think-- yeah, I think most people are on the continuum.

Ira Glass

Paul? I mean, sure most people are on the continuum, but that doesn't explain why one particular person-- why Jillian-- would end up with such an extreme set of beliefs and practices and someone else would end up with fewer. Why do you think that she ended up at the point where she is on the continuum?

Paul Tough

We talked about it a lot. And I don't think either one of us really came up with a definite answer. The one thing I kept thinking about though is, to me, obsessions can sometimes take the place of religion in people's lives. An organized religion gives you certain rules, certain rituals, by which to live your life. Things will be orderly if you follow those rules. And if you grow up in a nonreligious environment, maybe you start creating those rules for yourself.

Paul Tough

You grew up in a pretty atheist household, right?

Jillian

Yes.

Paul Tough

So do you think that maybe people who grew up in that sort of household, where there weren't a lot of sets of rituals and where it was sort of a hyper-rational household-- you know what I mean? There's no religion. There's two psychologists as parents, who both basically believe that everything can be figured out.

But both you-- and I think your siblings too-- have this tendency towards magical thinking.

Jillian

But my siblings and stuff, I don't think they really experienced-- I could imagine that it is a kind of substitute. But if is, then it was pretty specific to me.

Paul Tough

What about [? Elena ?] and the rubber bands?

Jillian

What do you know about [? Elena ?] and the rubber bands?

Paul Tough

I know that she wore rubber bands around her arm every day for a couple of years or something.

Jillian

And do you know why she wore them?

Paul Tough

No.

Jillian

I don't know either. I think she wore them-- I mean, she wore a lot of rubber bands. She didn't just wear them around her arm. She wore big rubber bands around her neck too. [LAUGHS] She had lots of rubber bands all the time. And I think she also carried paperclips in her pockets.

Paul Tough

And that's a hyper-rational thing, your family--

Jillian

I think if you go into any house though, you'll find these kind of things. My mother used to say that having four kids expanded her idea of the normal. Like, what the normal could entail.

Ira Glass

So Paul, so what else do we have coming up?

Paul Tough

Well, I've gathered another few stories about obsession. The next one is a little bit further down that continuum. This is one with somewhat more serious consequences.

Act Three.

Paul Tough

Act Two, Further Out. Ira, the thing that's I think a little scary about these compulsions, even the ones that are pretty innocent like Jillian's, is that you feel when you've got them that something else is controlling you. And so, that makes you think that you could just suddenly go over the edge, just because you're out of control. There's a sense that something else is writing the rules.

Ira Glass

So explain what you've got for us next.

Paul Tough

Well, this is a story of someone who did go over the edge-- for awhile, anyway. It's by a woman named Lauren Slater, who was a psychologist in Boston. And this is an excerpt from a book that's going to be published soon, which is tentatively titled Black Swans.

And one thing that's really interesting to me about Lauren, especially after having talked to Jillian, is that they sort of started in the same place. As a child, Lauren did a lot of the same compulsive things that Jillian did, had a lot of the same superstitious beliefs and fears. When she walked through a door, she had to tap the frame three times. When she said her prayers at night, between each prayer, she thought she had to close her eyes and then count to 10 and 1/2. But at some point, it went further than that.

Lauren Slater

There is something satisfying and scary about making an angel, lowering your bulky body into the drowning fluff, stray flakes landing on your face. I am seven or eight, and the sky looms above me, gray and dead.

I move my arms and legs, expanding, contracting, sculpting snow before it can swallow me up. I register a mistake on my angel, what looks like a thumb print on its left wing. I reach down to erase it, but am unable to smooth the snow perfectly. So I start again on another angel, lowering myself, swishing and sweeping, rolling over.

No, yet another mistake. This time, the symmetry in the wing span is wrong. A compulsion comes over me. I do it again and again.

In my memory, hours go by. My fingers inside my mittens get wrinkled and raw. My breath comes heavily and the snow begins to blue. A moon rises, a perfect crescent curl whose precise shape I will never be able to recreate. I ache for something I cannot name. Someone calls me. Come in now, come in now.

Very early the next morning, I awaken, look out my bedroom window, and see the yard covered with my frantic forms. Hundreds of angels, none of them quite right. The forms twist and strain, the wings seeming to struggle up in the winter sun, as if each angel were longing for escape, for a free flight that might crack the crystal and ice of our still, stiff world.

Looking back on it now, I think maybe those moments in the snow were when my OCD began, although it didn't come to me full-fledged until my mid-20s. OCD stands for obsessive compulsive disorder, and some studies say over three million Americans suffer from it.

Some mental health professionals claim that the onset of obsession is a response to an underlying fear-- a recent trauma, say, or a loss. I don't believe that that is always true. Because no matter how hard I think about it, I remember nothing unusual or disorienting before my first attack.

I don't know exactly why at 2 o'clock one Saturday afternoon what felt like a seizure shook me. I recall lying on the floor in my apartment in Cambridge. I was immersed in a book, The Seven Storey Mountain, walking my way through the tale's church. A monk moaned. And suddenly this, a thought careening across my cortex, I can't concentrate.

Of course, the thought disturbed my concentration, and the monk's moan turned into a whisper, disappeared. I blinked, looked up from the book. The floor suddenly frightened me. Between the planks, I could see lines of dark dirt and the sway of a spider crawling.

Let me get back, I thought, into the world of the book. I lowered my eyes to the page, but instead of being able to see the print, there was the thought blocking out all else-- I can't concentrate.

Now I started to panic. Each time I tried to get back to the book, the words crumbled, lost their shapes. I said to myself, I must not allow that thought about concentration to come into my mind anymore. But of course the more I tried to suppress it, the louder it jangled.

I looked at my hand. I ached for its familiar skin. But as I held it out, the sentence, I can't concentrate on my hand, blocked out my hand. So all I saw was a blur of flesh. I tried to force my brain onto other topics, but with each mental dodge, I became aware that I was dodging. And each time I itched, I became aware that I was itching. And with each inhalation, I became aware that I was inhaling. And I thought, if I think too much about breathing, will I forget how to breathe?

Say "God I'm sorry" 14 times I ordered myself. This is crazy, I said to myself. 15 times, a voice from somewhere else commanded.

In the days after my attack, obsessive thoughts returned. What before had been inconsequential behaviors, like counting to three before I went through a doorway or checking the stove several times before bed, now became imperatives.

There were a thousand and one of them to follow. Rules about how to step, what it meant to touch my mouth, a hot consuming urge to fix the crooked angles of the universe. It was constant, a cruel nattering. There, that tilted picture on the wall. Scratch your head with your left hand only.

It was noise, the beak of a woodpecker in the soft bark of my brain. I did very little for the next year. I didn't want to go out, because any movement might set off a cycle of obsessions. I sat hunched and lost weight. Fear and grief prevented me from eating much.

When I was too terrified to get out of bed, I checked into the local hospital, where I lay amidst IV drips, bags of blood, murmuring heart machines that let me know someone somewhere near was still alive.

Then one day, my doctor said to me, there's a new medication called Prozac still in its trial period, but it's 70% effective with OCD. I want to send you to a Doctor Vuckovic. He's one of the physicians doing trial runs. I shrugged, willing to try. I'd tried so much, surely this couldn't hurt. I didn't expect much, though. I certainly didn't expect what I finally got.

The pads of paper on Vuckovic's desk are all edged in green and white with the word "Prozac" scripted across the bottom. The pen has "Prozac" embossed in tiny letters. He asks me about my symptoms for a few minutes, and then uses the Prozac pen to write out a prescription.

After a couple of days of nausea and headaches, the Prozac began to work its magic. One morning, I woke up and waited for a command. Touch your nose. Blink 12 times. Try not to think about concentrating. The imperatives came. I could hear them, but from far away, like birds beyond a mountain, a sound nearly silent and easy to ignore.

By the fourth day, I felt so shockingly fine that I called Doctor Vuckovic. I believed he had saved me. "I'm well," I told him. "Not yet. It takes at least a month to build up the therapeutic blood level." "No," I said. "It doesn't." I felt rushing enjoy. "The medicine you gave me has made me well. I've actually never felt better." A pause on the line. "I suppose it could be possible." "Yes," I said. "It's happened."

Ira Glass

Coming up, the chemistry of obsession. Prozac stops working for Lauren Slater, a beaded kitchen, and more, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And co-hosting with me for this hour is Paul Tough, one of our contributing editors. And he has assembled a number of stories about obsession.

Paul Tough

And right now, we're in the middle of a story by Lauren Slater. And she found herself seized by obsessions, hearing voices that paralyzed her. And then nearly overnight, she found herself cured by Prozac.

Lauren Slater

How could a drug change my mind so abruptly? My brain wasn't wet clay and paste, as all good brains should be, but a glinting thing crossed with wires. I wasn't human, but machine. No. I wasn't machine, but animal, linked to my electrified biology more completely than I could have imagined.

We have come to think lately of machines and animals, of machines and nature, as occupying opposite sides of the spectrum. There is IBM, and then there's the lake. But really, they are so similar. A computer goes on when you push its button. A gazelle goes on when it sees a lynx. Only humans are supposedly different, above the pure cause and effect of the hard-wired primitive world. Free will and all.

But no, maybe not. For I had swallowed a pill designed through technology. And in doing so, I was discovering myself embedded in an animal world. I was a purely chemical being, mood and personality seeping through serotonin. We are all taught to believe it's true. But how strange to feel that supposed truth bubbling right in your own tweaked brain pan.

Mornings now, I got up early to jog, showered efficiently, then strode off to the library. I was able to go back to work, cutting deli part time at Formaggio's while I prepared myself for divinity school the next year by reading. I read with an appetite, hungry from all the time I'd lost to illness. The pages of the book seemed very white. The words were easy, black beads shining, ebony in my quieted mind.

Then one day, as though I'd never swallowed a Prozac pill, my mind seized and clamped and the obsessions were back. I was staying with a family in Appalachia in Kentucky on an oral history project. During my interview with Kat, the mother, I decided to take a break in the sandy yard.

It was almost 100 degrees. Chickens screamed and pecked. In one swift and seamless move, Pat's husband, Lonny, reached down to grab a bird. He laid it down on a stump, raised an ax, and cut. The body did its dance. Blood spilled. I ran inside. I took a step forward and then said to myself, don't take another step until you count to 25.

After I'd satisfied that imperative, I had to count to 25 again, and then halve 25, and then quarter it, before I felt safe enough to walk out the door. By the end of the day, each step took over 10 minutes to complete. I stopped taking steps. I sat on my bed.

"What's wrong with you?" Kat said. "Come out here and talk with us." I tried, but I got stuck in the doorway. There was a point above the doorway I just had to see, and then see again. And inside of me, something screamed, back again, back again.

The next morning, a Sunday, Kat told me, "You'll feel better if you come to church with us." She peered into my face, which must have been white and drawn. "Are you suffering from some city sickness?"

"Come to church," Kat said. "We can ask the preacher to pray for you." But I didn't believe in prayer where my illness was concerned. I'd come to think that whatever was wrong with me had a simplistic chemical cause.

I woke late one night, fists clenched. It took me an hour to get out of bed, so many numbers I had to do. But I was determined. And then I was walking outside, pushing past the need to count before every step.

I'd passed midnight fields, a single shack with lighted windows. Cows slept in a pasture. I rounded the pasture, walked up a hill. And then before me, spreading out in moonlight, a lake. I stood by its lip. My mind was buzzing and jerking. I don't know at what point the swans appeared. White swans, they must've been. But in silhouette, they looked black. And they seemed to materialize straight out of the water.

They rose to the surface as memories rise to the surface of consciousness. Hundreds of black swans, suddenly floating absolutely silent. And as I stood there, the counting seized, my mind became silent, and I watched.

The swans drifted until it seemed for a few moments that they were inside of me. Seven dark silent birds, 14 princesses, a single self swimming in a tepid sea. I don't know how long I stood there, or when exactly I left. The swans disappeared eventually. The counting, ticking, talking of my mind resumed.

Still, even in shattering illness, I had been quieted for a bit. Doors in me had opened. Elegance had entered. This thought calmed me. I was not completely claimed by illness. Nor was I a prisoner of Prozac, entirely dependent on the medication to function. Part of me was still free, a private space not absolutely permeated by pain. A space I could learn to cultivate.

It is a smaller space than I would have wished for myself. Even after I raised my dose, the Prozac never worked as well as it once had. And years later, I am sometimes sad about that. Other times, strangely relieved, even though my brain is hounded. I still must check my keys, the stove. I must pause many times while I write this and do a ritual count to 30.

It's distracting to say the least. But still, I write this. I can walk, and talk, and play. I've come to live my life in those brief stretches of silence that arrive throughout the day. I am learning something about the single moment. How rife with potential it is. How truly loud its tick.

Ira Glass

Lauren Slater is a psychologist and writer in Boston. This story is excerpted from her upcoming book, Black Swans. And also, Paul, you guys are going publish this in Harper's in September, right?

Paul Tough

That's right.

Ira Glass

OK. Lauren Slater's also the author of Welcome to my Country, which is published this year by Random House.

Act Four.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Sacred Versus Profane. I'm Ira Glass, here with Paul Tough. Paul, welcome back.

Paul Tough

Thank you, Ira.

Ira Glass

And Paul is one of the contributing editors to our program, also a writer and a senior editor at Harper's magazine. Each week in our program, of course, we choose a theme and do a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. And Paul, you have been gathering the stories for this week's show. And the theme is, those who just are tuning in--

Paul Tough

We're talking about obsession, and the compulsions and rituals that go along with it.

Ira Glass

So you have kind of a meta-obsession going. Sort of an obsession with obsessions.

Paul Tough

Exactly. I'm obsessed with the obsessed of all sorts.

Ira Glass

At least for the purposes of this hour. And as you've been putting this show together over the last few weeks, you've been saying that these kinds of compulsions that we're hearing about share a lot with religion.

Paul Tough

Yeah. I think there are certain similarities. And I think that just as religions can help people sort of find order in a chaotic world, some of these rituals that people create for themselves do the same thing.

Ira Glass

This reminded me-- when we've talked about this-- this reminded me of something that I learned in Hebrew school as a kid. Let me get some music going there. [MUSIC PLAYING] There we go. This music was always playing when I was a child, Paul. in the schtiebl in Baltimore.

Paul Tough

This is the Glass household, pretty much.

Ira Glass

Anyway, what it reminded me of is this thing that I learned that in traditional Judaism-- and you'll still see very religious Jews do this. That in that kind of Judaism, nearly every act of human life is accompanied by some kind of ritual, or a thanks to God, or a prayer, including putting on clothes, washing your hands, using the bathroom, strict rules about what you can eat and how you eat it. You know, the Kosher laws. Rules on covering the head. A religious Jew kisses the mezuzah on the door frames in his own home when he enters and leaves a room. Plus all sorts of prayers and blessings.

Mayer Silber

If we hear lightning, there's a blessing for that. If we see thunder, there's a blessing for that. If we hear bad news during the day, there's a blessing to bless the true judge. If we hear good news, depending on what type of good news, we might say, [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Ira Glass

This is Mayer Silber, 35 years old, father of three, a member of the Chabad Hasidic Community here in Chicago. He's a litigator for the local district council of the IRS. He was gracious enough to come in and talk to me about the similarities and differences between the hundred rituals that he does as a religious Jew every day, and the more secular rituals that you've been talking about, the people you've interviewed, Paul, have been talking about over the course of the hour so far.

And when he came in, I described a bunch of these kind of daily compulsive rituals to him. Jillian's having to do things in twos-- dropping her car keys and then having to drop them a second time. Or Lauren Slater's having to count to 30 every now and then before she can allow herself to move forward in any task. And Mayer Silber said, really, he only sees one similarity between what they're doing and what he does.

Mayer Silber

I would only say that it's just the capability to be devout to something. I think maybe we should go onto the differences from there. And I guess it sounds like, the way you described them, and I may be wrong, that these people are imprisoned by certain actions. I don't feel imprisoned. I don't feel compelled to say, oh, I can't be in a car from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. I look at it as freedom.

Ira Glass

One interesting difference between Mayer and the people who we've heard about so far in the program is that when Mayer goes through his daily rituals-- when any religious person, I guess, goes through their daily rituals-- it connects him to a tradition, to the Bible, to the Torah, to his family, to his people. Whereas the people who we've heard in the show up 'til now, when they go through the day with their very obsessive rituals, it doesn't connect them to anyone else. Their path is just a lot more lonely.

Ira Glass

Do you obey the Commandments our of fear that something bad will happen if you don't?

Mayer Silber

I would say that I do. Yes. To be honest.

Ira Glass

What's the bad thing that would happen?

Meir Silber

What's the bad thing that would happen?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Mayer Silber

Oh, I guess maybe it's the fear of not knowing. The fear of not belonging. Sort of like this abandonment, that maybe with my abandonment of God, God would abandon me. And I would be alone. And I'd be responsible for myself. Where here I feel like if I can go and do the things that God wants, God is with me.

Paul Tough

Ira, one thing that I find kind of interesting is that even though Mayer is describing how different he is from Jillian, say, I think there are a lot of similarities between how they see their worlds.

I think that, especially when he was talking about his fears, I think Jillian's are a lot the same way. It's not that she's terrified of the number two. But she--

Ira Glass

She's not afraid of the wrath of two. Just like he's not afraid of the wrath of God coming down on him if he doesn't obey the Commandments.

Paul Tough

But I think that she feels like it's kind of a dangerous world, and it helps to have something on her side. In her case, it's the number two. I think just like he said that he'd feel sort of lonely or separated if he disobeyed God, in the same way I think Jillian would really miss the number two.

Act 4.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Heroic Obsessions.

Paul Tough

Now Ira, one thing about the way that we judge obsessions is how successful the person is. I mean, take Michael Jordan. In every way, he's a completely obsessed person. He's obsessed with winning, to what we'd consider to be a really unhealthy degree if he wasn't such a good basketball player. I mean, it's just lucky that he is able to carry the team on his back whenever he needs to and actually win. If not, he'd be up on a freeway overpass somewhere.

Ira Glass

Right, exactly. If the story of obsession could be subsumed in a larger story of heroism and glory, then the obsession-- nobody even pays attention to it.

Paul Tough

Right.

Ira Glass

Well, this leads us to our next two stories here on our show. This is the work of two people who've immersed themselves in their own particular obsessions. And people at home can judge for themselves with what results.

This first piece of work is one of the stranger things, I have to say, we've ever put on the show. A guy named Greg Whitehead has been collecting the sound of people screaming-- and their thoughts about the meaning of different kinds of screams-- for years all over the world. He sets up these special phone lines that people call into. He's set up a thing called The Institute of Scream Studies.

Greg Whitehead

A scream is often treated as some kind of insurmountable, impenetrable obstacle, pure, white noise force, that is beyond analysis and unworthy of any kind of interpretation. But here at the institute, we hear the scream from entirely the other perspective-- the scream as an opening, as an entry point, as an access point. An entry into a vast interior landscape that has as its surface this highly nuanced, very individual, psycho-acoustic force to it.

[SCREAMING]

Greg Whitehead

There's also a scream line, the actual journey that the screamer takes into the interior landscape. And when we established the telephone answering machine here at the institute, we called it the "scream line," because that machine was going to circulate individual scream lines into--

Woman 1

Thank you, Mr. Whitehead. I believe you are on the wrong track. I'm sure if you came to my house, you would hear the screams that you'd never want to hear again. [LOUD SCREAMING]

Woman 2

[SCREAMING] Oh, I feel much better now. Thank you.

Man

[SCREAMING]

Girl

Hi. I'm [? Melia Mangum. ?] I'm eight years old, and here's my scream. [SCREAMING] Bye.

Greg Whitehead

The scream--

Woman 3

Hi. It's kind of early in the morning to scream. So I don't think I'll scream, but I'm going to tell you a story. I was thinking about how screams sometimes come later, much later, like a kind of delayed reaction.

So this is a true story that happened long ago when I was a teenager. And I was on this train. Like, I'd run away I think with this guy. And we were on this train. And we'd been going for days and nights. And it had got really steamy on this train. And it's kind of a seedy atmosphere. And everybody was playing cards. All the time, playing cards and smoking.

And then suddenly, this fight broke out. Like, out of nowhere. First, it was just these sounds. It was, like, really muffled sounds. Bodies colliding and ricocheting down the corridors and stuff. And then these kind of muffled shots.

And we pulled the door across our compartment, and this body kind of rolled over, rolled past, stumbled past. And there was blood just smeared all over the glass. And you couldn't see anything because of that. It's like the sounds and the vision, and everything was muffled.

But it took hours and hours before we reached the next town, and we're going through this small desert. But when we eventually got there, the train stopped. And there was this scene kind of took place in absolute silence. It was extraordinary. No one seemed to speak. And it was incredibly hot and hazy. And there was just this desert all around.

And they took the body off the train. And then the guy who'd killed him was taken off with handcuffs. And these few cops appeared from nowhere. And it was just like this platform in the middle of nowhere. I mean suddenly, out of the silence, this scream came. It was just like something between a wail and a scream. And it's like it just went right through the whole landscape.

And it's like the dust sort of settled in the air as the scream kind of just hung there. It just seemed like for ages. I don't know if I can do that scream. I can hear it really, really clearly. I'll try, but I think it won't be like that. Anyway, it was something like this. [SCREAMING]

Ira Glass

That compendium of screams from Greg Whitehead of the Institute for Scream Studies. He invites your screams and your thoughts about screamings. And if we get together enough of these from around the country, he's going to put together a second compendium of screams for some later show that we'll play.

So a little radio experiment. Here is the phone number to call. Call 312-832-3326. Again, 312-832-3326. We're serious about this. Call, scream, and talk about screams. And Paul, while people are dialing--

Paul Tough

Well, the next person that I talked to is an artist in San Diego named Liza Lou. And she is another obsessed person who has a heroic narrative of obsession. For five years, she had a ritual that she did every day. She would get up in the morning, get dressed, get ready to go about her day, and then sit down at her studio with tweezers, and white glue, and tens of thousands of tiny little beads. And she would spend the whole day gluing them down into patterns. And at the end of five years, she'd created this amazing work of art.

Liza Lou

I haven't had much luck describing this work. What does that mean, a beaded kitchen? You imagine a beaded skirt or a beaded top. The best I can do is I can say, this is a three-dimensional room. It's 200 square feet. It's painted. But it's painted with beads that you have to apply with the tweezers one at a time.

So it's this amazing amount of color. It's pinks and blues and silvers and golds. Imagine a wood grain counter in your kitchen. Only suddenly, instead of brown wood, it's become golden and yellow and burnt copper.

Paul Tough

There's a table in the middle of the kitchen with a bright beaded tablecloth. On the table are a plate of pancakes that's beaded, and a cereal box that's beaded, and toast and bacon and a newspaper-- all of them beaded.

Behind the table, there are beaded cupboards, a beaded fridge, cookbook, stove. Every surface is covered with tens of thousands of beads. And the effect is one of unbelievable color. The whole place seems like it's plugged in. It's just shining. Nothing's bare. There's even a beaded dustpan on the floor that's filled with beaded dust.

The thing about an obsession is you never know where it's going to lead. One minute, you're just a regular person collecting autographs or saving string or trying to keep clean. And then, something just overtakes you. For Liza-- and I think for a lot of people-- you reach a point where it's suddenly not so much fun. It's a job. It's a duty.

Liza Lou

I didn't think about it. I thought it would take about six months to do when I started. I didn't think it would take so much. I didn't realize it would take my life. It's like falling in love, maybe. It's a form of where you watch you life-- you watch everything else fall away. You lose everything in a sense.

For five years, I was in the constant stage of to-do lists. Of stress and pressure, and always feeling like a failure. Because every day you feel as though you've got nothing done. You maybe get five inches of work done-- five inches of an entirely beaded kitchen.

Paul Tough

So you really felt like a failure every day for five years?

Liza Lou

It's such a personal problem. I mean, yeah. I always would feel like I didn't get enough done. I never had the feeling of, wow, did I just really do well today. Maybe I'll work an 18-hour day. And then maybe I'll continue to do that for two weeks. So how much time did that take? I don't clock in.

Paul Tough

How many days in those five years did you not work on it at all?

Liza Lou

I don't know. I don't know. And I don't know how much it cost me to do it. I don't know. If I knew those answers, I wouldn't do it. Nobody who thinks like that would bead a kitchen.

The wall panels were really challenging. Because the curiosity is the thing that motivates me. I'm not patient, I'm curious. So I already knew-- once I had done one wall panel, I knew what it was going to look like. Then I had to do nine more or eight more panels. And then they all get put together. And that was really difficult.

I would wonder, god, why am I so depressed? And then, finally, I stood the whole wall up and I realized, my god, no wonder I've been depressed. I've been doing the same pattern for the last three months.

Paul Tough

She didn't have any grants or patrons when she was working on the kitchen. So to make ends meet, she'd have to sell pieces of her work from time to time. And, of course, the pieces that she'd sell would be beaded. They would be pieces from the kitchen. And in fact, she says that she's probably sold the equivalent of the kitchen. There's sort of another entire kitchen out there in various people's homes. So she'd have to bead in order to buy beads in order to bead.

Liza Lou

It's one step backward, and then another step forward, hopefully. Hopefully, it would buy two months in the studio-- one sale or two sales. And the problem with my work is that it takes so long. So selling a soup can wouldn't just set me back a day. It would set me back maybe several weeks.

For a long time, I resented how hard it was. This didn't seem right. I mean, nobody who works at I. Magnin has to work at I. Magnin in order to then work at I. Magnin. Do you know what I mean?

Paul Tough

She was living in LA a couple of years ago, and there was an earthquake that almost destroyed the building that her studio was in. I got this phone call in the middle of the night. I had an apartment where basically they were locking the studio out, where you would lose everything.

They did this to doctors' offices. They lost all their files. Because once a building is condemned, they lock it out, and you can't get back in. So there was this moment where I didn't know if I was going to lose three years of work.

And if I had lost it, if it had gotten locked out, I wondered, would I do it again? Would I make that table again? But thankfully, I had time. We had two hours to get everything. And a bunch of friends came and we just shoved everything. And this work is so fragile. Can you imagine doing this in two hours? But we got everything in the truck. And I ended up moving even further south to San Diego.

Paul Tough

So did you ever answer that question for yourself, about what you would have done if it was destroyed?

Liza Lou

Oh, thank god I didn't have to answer that question.

The thing is, people think I'm patient. And I'm not patient. I'm tremendously impatient. But I'm very, very curious. Just to point of death, I'm curious. I wanted to know what it would look like to bead a table. That's what got me through it. It's the same pattern. It's a pink and silver and blue pattern, again and again and again and again. But what sustained the interest was, what will it look like when it's finished?

So if I had lost the piece, and I knew what it took to do the piece, and I already knew what it looked like, why would I do it again? What would be the motivating factor? Would that be to make it so that you could see it? I'm not sure if that's what motivates me. I'm not sure if the approval of anyone else is what motivates me.

If I had known that there would be those kind of sacrifices, I probably wouldn't have done it. But as they came up, it was sort of like, as you cross that road, you decide if you're going to jump over it or if you're going to retreat. And every time, I found that I would jump over it.

Life is so-- there's so much chaos. I think that one of the great solutions to dealing with that chaos is to have a mission, to have some kind of purpose. That's sort of the way I deal with why I'm here, is to make every square inch something meaningful. My materials happen to speak of that, because they are so slow and painstaking. And I have all this time to think about purpose, and why am I doing this, and is this a meaningful thing to be doing? Everything has meaning. That's the philosophy of my work. Absolutely everything has meaning if you give it meaning.

I had this thing up in my studio. And also it's a loft. So I was having something repaired. And the repairman came inside and was fixing my washer and dryer. And he looked at my kitchen, and it was almost finished. So it was really what you're looking at, just about, maybe minus a tile or too. He put his hands on his hips. He said, neat hobby. [LAUGHS]

Paul Tough

Liza Lou's kitchen is currently on display in a museum in Minneapolis. And she's working on a beaded backyard, including a million beaded blades of grass.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, Paul Tough, thank you for co-hosting and sitting here for this hour with me.

Paul Tough

Well, thank you, Ira.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel, Paul Tough, and myself, with Peter Clowney, Nancy Updike, and Dolores Wilber. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin. Original vibraphone music today, written and performed by Carrie Biolo.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you would like a copy of this program, it's only $10. Call us to get that at WBEZ in Chicago. The phone number is 312-832-3380. If you want to leave screams, stories about screams, or thoughts about screams for the Institute for Scream Studies, call 312-832-3326, and we will pass those along. Our email address, radio@well.com.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.