Transcript

334:

Duty Calls
Transcript

Originally aired 06.01.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/334

Prologue.

Ira Glass

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

Vincent Homenick

Mr. Goodman and I get these regularly. Sometimes people think we make them up.

Ira Glass

Vincent Homenick and his boss, Norman Goodman, have to enlist 1,800 jurors a day for the state courts of New York City. And they have heard every possible excuse, real and fake, for avoiding jury duty. And they have saved some of them in this very thick folder.

Vincent Homenick

Believe it or not, we still get the old, my cat threw up on the summons. And I could not send it in.

Ira Glass

Here's a summons with cat throw-up on the back. It's red and sort of a mustard color.

Vincent Homenick

We get used tubes of Anusol, stating that the woman has hemorrhoids and can't sit. We get pictures. Instead of a doctor's note, they send in pictures of their condition, as if we know it's the actual person.

Ira Glass

This is just a random photo of a man in a wheelchair.

Vincent Homenick

That's right. And he says, as you can see, I'm not able to serve on jury duty.

Ira Glass

Actually, using a wheelchair-- or blindness, or deafness for that matter-- will not get you out of jury duty in New York.

Norman Goodman

I got a letter the other day. And it was not signed by the doctor.

Ira Glass

This is Vincent's boss Norman, who has been in this job since 1969.

Norman Goodman

It was signed by a nurse in the doctor's office. And the nurse said that this prospective juror has a chronic condition. Well, so have we all.

Ira Glass

Wait, it didn't say what the condition was?

Norman Goodman

It didn't say what the condition was. It just said she's got a chronic condition that prohibits her from serving on jury service.

Ira Glass

An unspecified medical condition is one they've seen a lot in their jobs as county clerk and chief clerk. They also encounter a certain amount of rudeness. Dear County Jerk, one letter opens. Are you brain dead? Many New York citizens send back things we cannot broadcast on their official jury forms.

Ira Glass

Now here's one where someone has just scrawled in black pen to F off.

Vincent Homenick

We unfortunately get a lot of these. They seem to think that they can write anything on an official court document, which is not the case. One particular gentleman, during a noncompliance proceeding, blamed his seven year old sister for sending in pornography that was attached to our juror qualification questionnaire. The judge did not believe him. The judge did fine him. And he ended up serving.

Ira Glass

Serving his jury duty, that is. One man wrote in saying that he was simply too racist to be on a jury. But the single most common excuse? People can't afford the time. They're single moms with no child care. They're people who will not be able to pay the bills if they take off work. They think they are simply too important for jury duty. None of this cuts it with Norman and Vincent, by the way. Court clerks talk to these people, try to accommodate their schedule somehow. And part of the formula is, the court clerks appeal to their idealism, their sense of duty.

Vincent Homenick

You make it a personal thing. I tell them, if you had a case or a family member, you'd want the best jury possible. You'd want a fair cross-section. And that's the only way to get fair jurors, is to get a fair cross-section, and let everybody be part of it. So it's important that everybody serves.

Ira Glass

When you give people that speech, does that work on most people?

Vincent Homenick

I think it does.

Norman Goodman

In general, in general, people are responsible. People want to serve. They're generous with their time.

Ira Glass

And-- not to put too fine a point on it-- they are threatened with fines and jail time if they don't show up. But most do show up. Only 9% of the people who are summoned here for jury duty fail to show. Another 15%, Norman and Vincent say, try to contest or postpone their eligibility.

And there is one curious thing that the court's own exit questionnaires show. And that is, that people who actually get to sit on a case, and hear evidence, and get to a verdict say they liked the experience way more than the people who just show up and don't get a case, and then actually get to go home earlier. Something kicks in for the people who actually get on to juries. Suddenly it seems important to do the right thing.

Which brings us to today's program. Today we're going to devote our entire show to the story of somebody who gets called for a job that he does not want, that nobody would want, really, the kind of family obligation all of us face at some point or another, in some form. Though, this guy faces a more extreme version of it than most of us do. And he goes. Because, corny as it sounds, sometimes duty calls. And sometimes it calls you to Florida. Stay with us.

Act One.

Josh Bearman

Here's how different the two halves of my family are. My brother Ethan, who grew up with me in California, left high school early for a conservatory where he studied French horn. He has a house, a wife, a son, and fills in with the LA Philharmonic. But my brother David in Florida, well, here he is.

David Parks

Yeah, I just got this police report from my DUI. And I'm going to read it here. But I can already see a couple of things that are absolute [BEEP]. This wasn't even the original officer. Then he's going to talk about what he saw.

Josh Bearman

David has been arrested a bunch of times. Not for anything violent, just a DUI, a shoplifting charge or two. Then there's my father, the nuclear physicist. He sometimes lunches at Caltech's Athenaem, surrounded by noble laureates. Here's my mom, describing someone she might have lunch with.

Josh's Mom

OK. [? Tayron, ?] I used to call him the creeper. He's the street hustler. And that's all he'll ever be. He's waiting for a liver transplant.

Josh Bearman

The last time I lived with my mother, I was nine. After my parents' divorce, my half-brother David-- he was just an infant at the time-- stayed with my mother. And my father got custody over me and Ethan. That's when my mom started drinking seriously. As she got worse, we only caught glimpses of her, occasional drunken phone calls late at night, a few sightings at family holidays.

For several years in there, I didn't even know where she was. Once, in an effort to connect with her, I arranged for me, my brother Ethan, and my girlfriend Ronnie, to all fly across the country to meet my mother and David for a visit at my grandparents' house. My mother didn't show.

A few years ago, my grandparents staged a rescue. They brought my mom and David to Florida, where they all lived among the palm trees and strip malls. It was a strange world down there. David got into rapping, free-styling at MC battles so he could leave his mark on the greater Palm Beach area hip-hop scene. He made friends with a producer, [? Jermaine, ?] who was not exactly a producer, but a kid who met David at the Olive Garden, and then moved in with him and my mom.

At first I was skeptical of this arrangement, until I realized that [? Jermaine ?] was the most responsible one of the bunch, with David mostly jobless, and my mom still devising elaborate cover stories for morning trips to the liquor store. These were transparent to me, but often fooled my grandparents, who devoted their final years to trying to manage all this. Posting bail, taking care of rent, paying for treatment plans, and David's $3,000 cell phone bills.

I'd visit a few times a year. And I always felt stunned at the way they lived. I'd have to remind myself sometimes that these people were my immediate family. I didn't understand them, and they played little role in my daily life. Then, one day last year, they took over my life.

It started with a phone call from David. By this time, my grandparents had both died. And my mom and David lived in my grandfather's condo at Century Village, a retirement community in West Palm Beach. Now David was calling because he was about to start a 30 day jail sentence. Our mother, he said, had been so drunk she hadn't moved from the couch in weeks. He was sure she would die if he left her there.

I got a neighbor to go over. She took one look at my mother and called an ambulance. When the paramedics brought her to intensive care, the attending physician called me to ask what the hell happened to her. I said I didn't know. The next morning, I got on a plane for Florida.

When I arrived, my mom was in the hospital, unconscious, and attached to a tangle of intravenous drips. The DTs would set in over the next few days. It was shocking. But equally shocking was what I saw when I went to her condo. The place was so bad, it looked like a crime scene. The couch had a blackened depression where she'd been sitting for God knows how long. There were overflowing ashtrays, real and improvised, and trash everywhere. It smelled like urine and nicotine. There were burns on the couch, and a four foot patch of blackened carpet that looked like someone had spent several days rubbing bong water and soot into the floor on purpose.

It took a month for me to even begin sorting it all out. I arranged for David to complete his jail sentence in the condo under house arrest. When my mother stabilized, I got her transferred to a nursing facility, the only one that would accept her with no insurance. But that was just the beginning. With my grandparents gone, it was clear that she and David literally had no idea how to survive by themselves.

Now she faced destitution from all the medical bills. And David was on the verge of serious jail time with one more screw-up. It began to dawn on me that I couldn't go back home to California. Someone had to help get them back on their feet, and there was nobody left but me. And that's how I wound up spending four months in Florida as a reluctant social worker for my own family.

Josh Bearman

I've got a kind of strange situation. My mom lives at 240 Bedford J, and she's in the hospital. And--

It's a typical Wednesday. My mom's still in the nursing home, but there are various documents I need to pick up from her condo. The problem is, Century Village is a rather heavily fortified retirement community. It's set up like some kind of geriatric army base, with many thousands of octogenarians housed in blocks, and protected from solicitors and terrorists alike by a big wall perimeter.

You can't get past the tightly monitored gates without having someone add your name to a list, or flashing a resident's pass. David recently lost his own pass, and began resorting to commando tactics, sneaking in through gaps in the golf course fence, or scaling the wall behind the gas station. I can't get on the stupid list myself, since you can only add visitors' names by calling from within your house. So my mom can't call me in from the nursing home, where she is living now. Instead, I have to rely on her neighbors, who are easily confused and don't like to rock the boat.

Woman

Hello?

Josh Bearman

Hi, it's Josh calling again.

Woman

Yes?

Josh Bearman

So I called my mom. And she couldn't really figure out any other way for me to get in.

Woman

Uh-huh.

Josh Bearman

So I wanted to try to return to the idea of maybe you calling me in somehow.

Woman

Well--

Josh Bearman

The neighbor does not call me in, which is nothing new. But after half an hour, I managed to convince one of the commanding officers of the gate house regime to let me through. Inside the walls, Century Village is like its own city. There are acres of condos amongst man-made lakes. And the whole thing is serviced by a pharmacy and general store. There are several clubhouses and a shuttle system that takes residents to nearby shopping centers.

In Century Village-- where the entire place knows when you've put your car in the wrong parking spot-- imagine the impression made by my mother, drunk on the shuttle at noon, or David in a wife-beater, arguing with his pill-popping girlfriend on the grass at midnight. Needless to say, they made for very conspicuous neighbors at 240 Bedford J.

Josh Bearman

So I'm just getting to my mom's condo in Century Village. The window's broken. That's from a hurricane. And this place is a real mess. What's in the fri-- oh, boy. There are even roaches in the fridge. And there are roaches in the microwave. I should just turn the microwave on. That'll fix that problem. [MICROWAVE BEEPS] I'm getting out of here.

It's been about a month since I was here the last time, since my mom was rushed to the hospital. And coming back is surprisingly emotional. I look for this old photo that was in the bedroom on my last visit.

Josh Bearman

My mom's got a-- there is a picture of her when she was really young. And I saw that, and I started crying. [CRYING] This is the picture of my mom that sort of made me upset. And it's actually a picture I've seen around for a long time. And this is my mom probably when she was 30 years old. You know, my mom was like this happy, healthy, attractive woman. And it reminded me what it meant that my mom has wound up this way. She's unrecognizable when you compare her to this picture.

Josh's Mom

[COUGHING] Excuse me.

Josh Bearman

You've got Grandma's cough.

Josh's Mom

I know. Yeah.

Josh Bearman

My mom and I are in the car. She has improved considerably since I checked her into the nursing home. At that time, she was still in a wheelchair and couldn't eat solid food. Now she's walking, back up to two packs a day, and complaining about her roommate.

Josh's Mom

Well, and then, for one thing, I was in the same room with Mrs. [? Ayela ?], the Jesus freak.

Josh Bearman

Yeah.

Josh's Mom

At 5:00 AM, she'd be up yelling, "Praise Jesus! Glory Hallelujah!" And then she turned on the religious station. It would be on all day. If I attempted to change the channel, she'd start reading Bible verses to me. Then one day, I got annoyed at her. I said, enough is enough. It's been on since 5:30 until 10:00 at night. I want to watch a regular show. She called me the devil. That was it. I called Corinne. I said, I'm out of this room.

Josh Bearman

She calls you the devil?

Josh's Mom

Yeah, she says, you're the devil.

Josh Bearman

She was all friendly when I was there.

Josh's Mom

Oh, yeah. Well, that's her.

Josh Bearman

She's got a whole lot of stuffed animals, that's for sure.

From a purely medical perspective, my mother has made a dramatic recovery. Along the way, she's created a whole life for herself at the nursing home.

Josh's Mom

And this is the first floor.

Josh Bearman

She takes me on a tour, waving at the staff she likes, and pointing out all the friends she's made.

Josh's Mom

I hang out with [? Jean ?] and Judy, the smokers. Judy's the one that has the cute little shoes. And she lives on the second floor. She has the room all to herself. She's older-- yeah, eye patch.

Josh Bearman

Oh, she's the one with the little designer eye patch?

Josh's Mom

Yeah. Well, it's not a designer eye patch.

Josh Bearman

Well, it's not black.

Josh's Mom

No. Here's the lady who takes her clothes off all the time.

Josh Bearman

Oh, there she is. Oh, she's in the process right now?

As far as I'm concerned, she's too comfortable here. This nursing home is fairly grim. Kind of a hell hole, actually. Did you ever see that movie Jacob's Ladder? You know that scene where Tim Robbins hallucinates being admitted into a hospital run by monsters? It's kind of like that. The place is totally isolated, surrounded by a swamp. There are catatonics parked in the halls, drooling. One woman roams around constantly weeping. Michael, a stroke victim, seems to be standing in every corner, staring at you with these sad, hollow eyes. And that's the good floor.

Upstairs are the real basket cases. That's where the howling dwarf lives. We're all afraid to go up there. My mother saw him only once. But you can hear him every night, his voice echoing out into the sawgrass. The only thing worse is the buzzing. God knows why, but the patients' call button in this place isn't a bell or a buzzer like in any normal hospital. It's this.

[HIGH-PITCHED BUZZING]

This can go on for 10, 15 minutes straight. An hour, even.

[BUZZING CONTINUES]

Sometimes my mother wakes up in the night to find the buzzer blaring and an orderly asleep in her room. I find it frustrating that she's not more frustrated.

Josh's Mom

Well, as far as the nursing home is concerned, you're sort of stuck there. You might as well make the best of it. At least have a few people you can talk to, and--

Josh Bearman

But I mean emotionally. I mean, you haven't actually been too upset about your situation, outwardly.

Josh's Mom

Well, what am I supposed to do, Joshua, cry all the time? Or throw a fit all the time?

Josh Bearman

No. I mean I was glad to see that, in that sense, you were kind of bounced back to normal much faster than I thought. But to me, when I come here, and for years I had come here-- and you don't have any idea. But to me and Ethan, this is not normal at all. The way you and David live. It's kind of always like, you know, something happens that makes things a little bit worse. And it seems worse, but then you adjust to it. And all of a sudden that becomes normal. That doesn't ever translate into some kind of action, I guess.

Josh's Mom

Well, it has. And then, I put out this great effort, and then I start to lose the energy. And I can't get it back. I don't seem to be able to get it back. And I get more and more depressed. I don't know how to explain it. I really don't. If I knew the answers to these questions, Josh, I'd be a very mentally healthy person.

Josh Bearman

This quality of hers, this ability to adapt to anything, is what got her here in the first place. My mom adapted to each new rung on the ladder. And then the next step down didn't seem so bad. Take, for example, the hurricane that hit Florida a month before the paramedics came for my mom. As the category five storm was making landfall, David decided to go for a drive. He was pulled over by the cops, which wasn't that surprising, since the car had no registration, no insurance, no working tail lights, and a cracked windshield.

David-- who had no license, and maybe had taken some pills to boot-- had been pulled over twice already for having that car on the road. He was thrown in jail for a week, and my mother was left all alone.

Josh's Mom

I mean I was sitting here in total darkness. There weren't even any street lights on. You know, wires falling down. Everything was so chaotic. And then, of course, I started drinking out of control. And that was-- It started out saying, I just want a little relief from this insanity, and it made me even more insane.

Josh Bearman

How come you didn't call me during that whole period?

Josh's Mom

Maybe because I really didn't know what to say, Josh.

Josh Bearman

Well, I wish I'd have known to come down. I mean, that's-- and then, especially as it got worse, I wish somebody had called. And Ethan or I could have come out.

Josh's Mom

Yeah. Yeah. I understand that Josh. But it's just like--

Josh Bearman

I wasn't saying that to make you feel guilty about not calling me. I was just trying--

Josh's Mom

No, it's hard to explain. It's just you just don't want to intrude into you and Ethan's life and say, one more time, one more time, one more time. [CRYING]

Josh Bearman

Well, I wouldn't have minded.

Josh's Mom

Well, I didn't know that at the time.

Josh Bearman

I would have rather have done that than wind up down here for four months.

Josh's Mom

Yeah, I know that. Well, it's part of the whole cycle. It's that you don't want to tell anybody else, because if you tell somebody else, then you're telling yourself, which is the last thing you want to do.

Josh Bearman

All right. What are we doing right now?

David Parks

Well, right now we're about to go into the Green Acres police station to get a copy of my ticket and police report that I need, so I can go sign up for the DUI class.

Josh Bearman

This is my brother David. And we're doing what I do every day down here. Repetitive, exasperating errands. Like retrieving a copy of David's DUI charge so he can register for his court-mandated Mothers Against Drunk Driving Victim Impact Panel. This is one of his many conditions for probation. There is a lot of registering for this, reporting for that, retrieving this piece of documentation from that bureaucracy. Everything requires a money order, which, of course, requires money.

David Parks

You guys do money orders?

Man

Yeah, how much?

David Parks

$35.

Man

That'll be $36.

David Parks

$36?

Josh Bearman

Do I have to pay that?

David Parks

I don't have $36. I only have $5.

Josh Bearman

Riding along for David's probationary checklist, it's easy to see how the downward spiral works. Fail to turn in one piece of paper, and next time you have to show up with two more. Miss a date, and your probation is longer. And that means paying extra to the court for the extended supervision, which means borrowing money, or pawning something, or wiring money, all of which come with huge fees. And David knows this better than anybody.

David Parks

When you're breaking the law, you just watch your money decrease more and more. And not to mention, it's like, three, four years ago-- even in 2004, two years ago-- I was doing my thing in the studio. I was getting music done. I was taking care of what I needed to do with that.

And since I got off that path, and just started getting all these stupid little charges and [BEEP], it takes away from my time to do anything. And you don't exactly feel too creative when you're behind bars, you know? They want to try to say that they're going to rehabilitate you. But they don't know what's wrong with you to begin with to rehabilitate that anyway, you know?

Josh Bearman

Right. Rehabilitation involves all kinds of complicated stuff. Figuring out--

David Parks

What's wrong with you.

Josh Bearman

Well why you haven't been holding down a job, or why you keep kind of screwing around. And then helping out once you get out, like I've been doing.

David Parks

Right. Exactly. Like if I didn't have all this help now that I have, it would have been a lot easier-- not saying that I necessarily would have-- but it would definitely have been a lot easier to just fall back into that well, what's the point of trying type [BEEP], you know? Because there's nothing to look forward to. There's no way out. So you're like, [BEEP] it.

Josh Bearman

It's a powerful force, that gravitational pull of downward mobility. Because if you think about it, David really shouldn't be that bad off. He can hold down a job. And he's not a bad rapper either. He has dozens of notebooks filled with lyrics. And he's even recorded some songs. He is also really funny. Here he is talking about his latest job at the Village Diner, a blue plate special place that was just outside the gates of Century Village. And where, every day, a busload of regulars would arrive on the noon shuttle for lunch.

David Parks

And there was this guy who would just come in every single day, faithfully. And he'd order the same thing, which is meatloaf, a side of chicken noodle soup, and chocolate ice cream. I still remember. Every single day.

But, if you walked up like-- you'd want to fill out his ticket already, because you already knew what he was ordering. So you'd start writing it, and he'd be like, "So, what's the special today?" And so you'd run through it anyway, knowing damn well that at the end, he's still just going to say, let me get the meatloaf. And he always seemed surprised when he did it, too. He'd be like thinking for a second, "Let me get the meatloaf."

[PHONE RINGING]

Woman

Good afternoon, doctor's office.

Josh Bearman

Hi. I wanted to inquire about a letter that I requested from Dr. Thompson regarding my mother, a former patient of his?

Meanwhile, my mom's $100,000 hospital bill finally showed up. This is on top of the mounting nursing home expenses. And the only way she can pay for all of it is if I get her on Medicaid, and or Social Security disability, which means tracking down records for every doctor she has ever had. Then there's the fact that my mother is my mother. Like some kind of tragic super-villain who can't control her destructive powers, my mother somehow leaves an accidental trail of carnage wherever she goes.

Answering Machine

Mailbox One. You have 21 old messages. [BEEP]

Man

Allied Interstate calling in regards to an important personal matter that was described in a letter to you. Due to federal and ethical state statutes, no further information may be left. This is not a solicitation.

Josh Bearman

In this case, it seems that my mom ran into a car, gave the woman driving outdated insurance information, and then left the scene before police showed up. I had found a letter from the woman and her attorney in the trash, unopened. This is typical of my mother's approach. She doesn't want to confront her problems, and she finds very particular ways of avoiding them.

Josh's Mom

Yeah, I really don't know the layout of this place. Apparel is this way.

Josh Bearman

Every time I call now, my mother demands that I take her shopping. Each day there is a strangely specific new request. Flip flops, costume jewelry, hair dye, lottery tickets. When I call to get the name of her neurologist, she wants to know if I picked up the socks she asked for.

Josh Bearman

I told you I'd take you to Walmart eventually.

Josh's Mom

Yeah, right.

Josh Bearman

Why were you dying to get here?

Josh's Mom

I know, because I I need jeans.

Josh Bearman

I think I understand the shopping. My mom doesn't have much control in her life. No car, no money. And so buying jean shorts is a goal she can handle. And in Walmart there's no tragic past or scary future. She's just a customer in the unburdened present. And so we go to Target, Walgreen's, the Dollar Store. One day, I find myself entering a strip mall with the following to-do list. One carton of Marlboro 100s, a 12 pack, a [? Vitapuff ?], adult diapers, and a jar of hair impacting cream.

My friend Starlee is visiting me in Florida. And she can see that it's getting to me. Starlee-- her voice might be familiar, because she has done stories on This American Life before-- comes with me on yet another errand. And we discussed my mother's endless to-do list.

Josh Bearman

Last week it was the phone card. We had to get a phone card. We drove all these different places looking for a phone card. And she had a phone card before I got here. And I was saying, well, where did you get that phone card? Wherever you got that one, get it from them. I don't want to drive around and find you a phone card all over Palm Beach County with this. And it takes a half an hour between 7-Elevens to get-- it's all so time consuming. And U-turns, and you've got to know, nobody knows where it is.

We went to three different places. They didn't have the right phone card. And then we went to one place, and she's like, no, I don't want that one. That's not the cheap one. And then we got the phone card. And you know how much, what the amount of the phone card was, that we spent all this time? $5.

Starlee Kine

It lasted $5 worth of minutes?

Josh Bearman

Yeah, she bought only $5 worth of minutes. She said, this is a cheap one. It's plenty of minutes on here. I don't know what to do.

Starlee Kine

The thing is that it's not like you come to get her, and she's like, let's go to the beach today. I feel I need to be out with the living at the beach, or at the movies, or going to work on something productive in my life, not like that. It's all the errands revolve around the stuff she needs to take back to this weird place that she now lives. It's like there was never a time before the home, all of a sudden.

Josh Bearman

I know.

Starlee Kine

It's weird, right?

Josh Bearman

But also, compared to the other people in that place, the rest of the cast of Jacob's Ladder in there, she looks like she's, literally, in the administration. I mean she hangs around with the administrators and the social workers. And she hangs out them and talks to them, like what are we going to do about this case that we've got here? And she's totally high-functioning and in on all the decisions about what did you do with the VCR, and what are we going to-- what's going on with Michael's family? Are they coming today or not? We've got to get him ready.

Starlee Kine

[LAUGHING]

Josh Bearman

The problem is, that while my mother's obsessing with the small things, there are big things we need to do. Like, for example, figure out a plan for her. She can't stay at the nursing home because it's too expensive and depressing. She can't go back to Century Village, because she'd be alone and could easily start drinking again. I'd like her to go into some kind of long-term treatment center. But whenever I talk to her about it, she has her own plans.

Josh's Mom

I was going to go up north. Remember we discussed this? For a few months? And then I'm going to come back here.

Josh Bearman

So your plan is-- I mean, do you think that you'd be better off back here?

Josh's Mom

Yeah, for a time.

Josh Bearman

I mean, I'm asking because when we moved you in here, Ethan and I, we did that because it made the most practical sense in the short-term. But we were both worried that exactly what happened was going to happen. And you were saying, oh things are going to be fine. And they weren't fine. They were disastrous, to the tune of $100,000 now maybe.

Josh's Mom

Right, right. Well that's true. But I'm done with the alcohol, Josh. I really am. It kicked my ass so bad this time, physical and emotional.

Josh Bearman

Are you sure? I mean that's what I want to know. That's what I feel like I need to know.

Josh's Mom

I don't want to go through that pain ever again. Never.

Damien Karras

Hello, Regan. I'm Damien Karras.

Demon

And I'm the devil! Now kindly undo these straps!

Josh Bearman

There's this one small but telling moment in the movie The Exorcist that has always reminded me of my mother. It's when the devil, through Regan, the possessed girl, is pretending to be Father Karras's dead mother. She speaks to him softly in Greek, and he wants to believe it. You can see his face overcome with emotion. Missing her, regretting, and resisting, because he knows it's not his mother, it's a demon. And it's the kind of acting job that all alcoholics can turn out at will.

There have been times when my brother, Ethan, and I have had to prepare to talk to my mother, the same way that Max von Sydow warns Father Karras before they enter Regan's room.

Father Merrin

He's a liar. The demon is a liar. He would like to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien. And powerful. So don't listen. Remember that. Do not listen.

Starlee Kine

Doesn't it frustrate you that your mom never acts like your mom?

Josh Bearman

Yeah. It's a really horrible feeling, actually, to feel like your mom is lying to you, and that you can't trust anything she says, and that you have to guard yourself against everything. And that you can't-- like now, she says that this is the worst, and I don't want to feel that pain again, and I really want to go in there with her and sympathize. But I absolutely have to-- I learned a long time ago you can not. You can't. Because that's when you're susceptible to the demon.

And the demon wants to go to Minnesota now. And I don't know if the demon should go to Minnesota. Like I want to let the demon go to Minnesota. I want to untie her from the bed, and let her free, but then she's going to throw me out the window.

Starlee Kine

The thing is, you would like nothing more than to say-- it would be a relief for her to just go to Minnesota, probably.

Josh Bearman

It would be a relief.

Ira Glass

Well coming up, Josh's mom starts talking to him in Greek, so to speak. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

[MUSIC - "INSTRUMENTAL," GALAXIE 500]

Act Two.

Josh Bearman

Time can be merciless in South Florida. It's easy for a numbing routine to develop down here, which is exactly what happens as I spend countless hours Xeroxing medical records and driving 40 miles to fix the kitchen sink because David can't quite figure out how to operate the plumber's wrench. Every time there is progress on some small thing, I look up and realize the horizon is still miles away.

But at least my mom hasn't been drinking. I was sure that as soon as she could walk, she'd take the pocket cash I gave her each week, and convince someone to smuggle booze into the nursing home. It really wouldn't be that hard. This is a woman who could figure out how to get hooch if she were trapped in Apollo 13.

But she has resisted so far, which means one less thing to worry about. It also means I can talk to her without the sway of alcohol clouding every conversation. I can ask her questions that would have been impossible before. Like, how exactly did this all begin?

Josh's Mom

You know it's hardly like I woke up one day and said, gee, I'd like to become an alcoholic. And there's absolutely no question that it was brought on by my post-traumatic stress disorder. Flashbacks of the scenario in Minneapolis. Vivid, like I was experiencing it all over again.

Josh Bearman

The scenario in Minneapolis? That's another big part of the story, one that I haven't told you about yet. Part of the reason for my parents' messy divorce was that when my dad left for his NASA job, my mom was supposed to stay behind, finish up our school year, sell the house, and meet him in Pasadena. Instead, she met a man named Sonny at a Minneapolis nightclub.

He was a Cherokee, six foot five and lean, charming but moody, and often carrying his guitar. He was the very opposite of my father. Sonny moved in, and my mother never made it to Pasadena.

Sonny was also a drug dealer. Sometimes his friends would fill the house, partying full steam and staying up late. I remember being babysat by Sonny's stoned Sioux friends, showing them my dinosaur dioramas and trying to convince them to play Dungeons and Dragons with me. I'm not sure what my mother was after, but she loved Sonny, and my father was heartbroken. And so after my parents' divorce, Ethan and I went back and forth for a while. A year in California, a year in Minnesota.

It was around then that that photograph was taken. The one I found in my mother's bedroom after she was rushed to the hospital. It's actually a picture of her and Sonny together. My mom is dressed up, yellow lapel points flaring out over a black dress. Sonny is wearing a tan suit. They're on a couch together, both facing the camera. It's my mother's favorite photo from those days.

Josh's Mom

How old was I there? Um, 30? Yeah, in fact I know I was 30, because it was in August and it was his 40th birthday. And I was three months pregnant with David. It was a happy time. I remember how good I felt then. I also remember how much I missed feeling like that, enjoying things, and just being in love, and all those things. Do you remember when we used to go to the nature center, all of us? We'd go with Sonny to the Richfield Nature Center?

Josh Bearman

No, I don't remember that.

Josh's Mom

And then I'd be coming down the walk, and you guys would jump out at me, and try to scare me?

Josh Bearman

I remember that.

Josh's Mom

Yeah. That was at the nature center.

Josh Bearman

I remember just doing that always, though.

Josh's Mom

Always, yeah, right.

Josh Bearman

Like in the grocery store, and wherever.

Someone recently asked me if I love my mother. And I realized I actually had to think about it. I do, of course. But for months, I've seen her only as a set of problems. It's often hard to remember the person my mother once was, when she enrolled at Cornell at 16, spoke French, and got a master's degree. When she was lucid, I used to like hearing her stories about growing up with my grandparents and their exploits in pre-war Palestine. Or talking about the news, since she was always intensely political.

I hadn't seen much of that old self on this trip to Florida. And then one evening I took my mother to dinner at Red Lobster. It must have put her in some kind of good mood, because while we were going over the menu, she starts telling me some story, a tiny episode from my childhood, a little glimpse at what it was like before all this. And I can't even remember what it was, other than it flooded me with the sudden overwhelming realization that this person across from me, actually is my mother. And that if things had been different, we could've been getting dinner together like normal people.

And when I start crying, right there, at 4:30 PM at the Red Lobster on Okeechobee Boulevard, my mother tries to comfort me, like mothers do, for the first time in as long as I can remember. I wish things were different, I say. I wish they were too, she answers.

It's hard to say exactly how the woman I remember from childhood became the one sitting with me today. But there's no question a lot of it had to do with that scenario in Minneapolis, which was this one night when some strangers showed up at the house.

Josh's Mom

These people came to the door and told me that they were having car trouble, asked me if my husband was home, and do we have jumper cables. And it all seemed legit to me, because I couldn't get my car started that day. It was really, really cold. So they wanted to use the phone, which sounded logical. Although there was a pay phone on the corner, and I should have told them to go there, or asked them for the number, and never let them in the house. What I should have done and what I did do were two different things.

So anyway they came in and they were-- they must have heard him coming up the pathway, because the snow was packed on the walkway. He came in, and that's when the guy put the gun to my hip and told him, don't come any further, we're going to blow this bitch away.

Josh Bearman

I was there that night too. I actually answered the door. I remember how cold it was when the couple came inside. I didn't see him, but outside was a third man. There's always a third man at a hit, the police later said. But I didn't know what was happening. I was in the other room watching Chips with David when Sonny came home and drew his own nine millimeter. I heard gunfire, and looked up to see bullets coming through the walls near David. I took him out of his high chair, hid in the bathroom, and watched the hitman out the window, running off past the icicles in the alley.

In the other room, Sonny was down. My mother was so frantic, she couldn't remember his name when she called 9-1-1. I had to get on the line and explain to the paramedics where we lived. I was nine, or I would be the next day. A few weeks later, Sonny died in the hospital. That's why my father got full custody of me and Ethan. David was Sonny's kid, so he stayed with my mother.

We saw them during summer for a few years, but things were never the same. I don't even remember the turning point, but eventually she stopped working and we stopped going. I've always assumed that those missing years were rough for my mother and David. But while in Florida, I discovered that they were worse than I thought.

Josh Bearman

All right, so I need to find a bunch of records in here. They must have stored boxes.

One day back in the condo, I'm searching for some medical documents. Surprisingly, my mother's affects are pretty well organized, fitting mostly in one small, gun metal file case. It occurs to me flipping through, that there's not much in it, because not much has happened to my mother. Her entire life fits in this little box.

Josh Bearman

This is something addressed to my mom, 1985. Des Moines Child Guidance Center. This is about David. "I saw David Parks, age four, on May 22, 1985, after you had referred him to the Des Moines Child Guidance Center as a suggestion of Candace Bennett of juvenile court." Well, that's crazy. How can you be involved in court at age four?

Well, here it says. "This was following an escapade in which David stole money out of your purse, wandered away from home, and told the police that he was going to the store to buy some food because his mother had not fed him breakfast. When I saw David, he was living with you, but had recently been in a foster home for about a week, or ten days, while you were in the hospital." Huh, I didn't know David was ever in a foster home. That poor kid. And I didn't know that she was in the hospital in 1985. I didn't quite realize things were that bad that early.

A few days later, I bring up those missing years with David. For the first time I get a clear picture of what life was like for him, living with a grieving mother who was drinking more and more, and getting caught up with a string of abusive men.

David Parks

They weren't good people. They weren't the worst people in the world either. But they were in and out of jail, beating up Mom, threatening to kill her, threatening to kill me. Like at 14 years old or something, I was thrown into the glass China cabinet that Mom had by her boyfriend Mark. And he was so drunk, I ended up fighting him that night. And finally I restrained him to this chair.

It's a weird feeling when you're that young and you have got to stick up for your mother because you're the only-- you are the man of the household. And if you don't stand up for that, then all this other crazy [BEEP] is going to happen. And having cops come, called to the house all the time. And then watching her, because she had feelings for him, tells the cops, oh no, nothing is happening, or hide him out, and [BEEP] like that.

And you at that age, when you're going through all that, you know it's not right. So you try to act like your life isn't bad. You try to act like your life is normal. You hide all that away from the rest of the world. I was scared to have people, friends of mine, come over and sleep over at the house, because the average kid is going to be freaked out.

You try to warn them ahead of time, like look, this situation is grim. You're going to hear [BEEP] that you aren't supposed to hear. You're going to see [BEEP] that you definitely shouldn't be seeing at this age. And it's real. It's right there in front of you. Cops might be called. Violent acts might occur around you. You've just got to-- you're like a soldier. And so then the kids that do end up coming over, that become regulars, are the ones just as [BEEP] up as you.

We went up to this cabin up north, me and this kid named Kenny, who was the son of Kenny Sr., who was Mark's friend. So, they were all drinking. And they put some bottles up on this old truck that is all gutted out, or whatever. And there was a competition between me and Kenny on-- we took a 22 rifle, and who could knock down the most bottles. And I guess they might have put money on the whole thing, whatever. We're in the middle of nowhere, up north Minnesota, close to the Canadian border.

So I ended up winning the competition, because I was always a good shot. And Kenny Jr. ended up getting beat by his father because I won. Because that [BEEP] was so important to them, that his son was now a pansy or whatever. Because he didn't beat me.

Josh Bearman

David also provided some new details to the story about Sonny. Mom likes to downplay Sonny's drug dealing, although during one of our conversations, she did let slip that, well, OK, maybe there was cocaine in the house when Sonny was killed, and that she cleverly hid this cocaine from the cops by throwing it in David's diaper hamper. And then, David adds this.

David Parks

And he was selling cocaine. I mean, living the gangster lifestyle. And not just normal gangster lifestyle. Like he used to have a passport, going to all these countries and smuggling drugs, and jewels, and [BEEP]. Not your just small time around the block.

Josh Bearman

Wait, wait, wait. What's with the passport? I never heard about this fake passport.

David Parks

You never heard about that? No, it was a real passport. He went to all these countries like Malaysia, Thailand, India, Pakistan. And he used to go there. And this was back in times when you had a false bottom in a suitcase. And he would smuggle back, with his brother, my uncle--

Josh Bearman

With Larry.

David Parks

Yeah. They would smuggle back drugs, and jewels, and things like that. Matter of fact, my grandmother on my father's side was working in a bank. And she used to launder some of their money.

Josh Bearman

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait, so--

David Parks

You never heard all this?

Josh Bearman

No, I never heard about the Cherokee drug-smuggling, money-laundering operation.

It's startling to compare David's life at this time, the life I could have had, with the life I actually did have in Pasadena with my father. Things weren't perfect there, I should say. As a teenager, I started fighting with my dad, enough that I moved out at 16. I spent a summer working at Pizza Hut in Ontario, California, sharing a house with meth-heads.

But the difference is that my dad gave me a perspective. I knew what was normal. We'd had regular bedtimes, built model rockets, and went to art class on Saturday mornings. I always expected I'd go to college. Even at that dingy Pizza Hut, I'd sit on a pickle bucket in the back, reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich and thinking about grad school.

In other words, when I strayed, I knew it. David's problem is that he doesn't know normal. That's how he could live in squalor with my mother, drunk on the couch for a month, and not call the paramedics. It's not his fault he doesn't know that people require medical attention when their skin turns yellow. He'd seen things like that many times before.

David Parks

I can't even begin to describe how it feels to have to pick your mom up off the floor or have to wipe up her blood. I mean Mom has hit her head on so many things at this point, edge of a bed, the couch, the floor, the cement, those little cement rails that they put in front of a parking space, that says your number on it, yeah, all of those.

Josh Bearman

Oh man, that's rough.

David Parks

I mean there have been plenty of times when she hit the back of her head, and was bleeding profusely all over her pillows and everything else. And you have to be the one to stand there and keep the pressure on it. You know what I mean?

Josh Bearman

You were talking before about how, when you're in that home, when you were growing up with mom and them, especially up in Minnesota with Mark and you're just surrounded by the alcoholics, and then probably even down here, where you just get to this point where you feel like that's normal.

David Parks

Yeah. It would seem like everything is just, normal. Everything is cool. No big deal. You would come look at the house and be like, what the [BEEP] is going on here.

Josh Bearman

Yeah. I mean frankly, it's crazy.

David Parks

Right. Well the only thing, actually, that I have to say has kept me grounded was you, and Ethan, and other people in the family who are living somewhat normal lives compared to what I saw every day in the house. And just hearing about the things that you talk about, things that Ethan talks about, the way that normal people integrate. That has kept me grounded to where I knew that what was going on with me wasn't normal.

So part of me has always wanted to become just like a normal member of society, and do what everybody else does. But I know that's never possible for me. I mean, it's possible for me to come close to that, but I know I'll never be fully there. You know what I mean? Because I started the race like, 10 seconds after the gun went off. That's when I started to run.

Josh Bearman

Well, you're starting right now.

David Parks

Yeah.

Josh Bearman

At 25.

David Parks

Exactly.

Josh Bearman

It's four months after I first arrived in Florida. My mom is still in the nursing home. We're still waiting to hear from Medicaid. And I'm still trying to convince her to go into a substance abuse program. Then I get a call from the nursing home. My mother had been caught smoking in her room. It's a small infraction in the scheme of things, but it's against the rules, I guess. I fight with the administration, but they still give her 30 days to move out.

David and I take her to the only place she can go, the condo at Century Village, which has been empty since David started staying at his girlfriend's, and has slid back into disorder.

Josh's Mom

I'm thirsty.

Josh Bearman

You're not going to go and drink that soda in there, are you?

Josh's Mom

Yes, I am.

Josh Bearman

No. That soda is ancient. And the fridge is filled with roaches.

Josh's Mom

That fridge is not filled with roaches.

Josh Bearman

Why don't you take a look and see what's in here. Dead roaches everywhere, little baby roaches.

Josh's Mom

Well, they're dead.

Josh Bearman

That's my mother. Adaptable as usual, but oblivious to the big picture. Luckily, David is a little more stable now, with a job over at Marshall's. When he and I go out to the car to get Mom's stuff, we try to figure out what to do.

David Parks

Right now, we're back to square one. Right where she was right before this all got completely [BEEP] out of control. And all it takes is--

Josh Bearman

She's sitting in the exact spot.

David Parks

Yeah, I know. I thought the same thing to myself, too. And the funny thing is that, like, right now all it takes is the wind to blow the wrong way, and everything is right back to that same [BEEP]. Because obviously, she's going to be tempted to drink.

Josh Bearman

It's hard to feel like all these months have accomplished anything, even when the next day, a spot miraculously opens at a subsidized sober living place not that far away. Of course, my mother doesn't want to go. We spend hours arguing about it. Her excuses are very frustrating. The pace will be too fast. She doesn't have the right clothes. She works better on her own. In other words, just another version of the same argument I've been having with her for the past four months.

Josh's Mom

Josh, you don't seem to understand that I have physical, concrete, physical limitations, which I think are going to make it very difficult for me to run the pace of a residential program, where you have to go from this appointment, to this appointment, to this appointment, back for a meeting, da, da, da, da, da.

Josh Bearman

Well I-- I don't know why-- hold on a second. You decided you're ready for change, but then you're angry and fighting at every step of the way when we're trying to figure out the plan for yourself. You said you had a plan for yourself. What's the plan?

Josh's Mom

The plan is to take care of my body, my mind, and my spirits.

Josh Bearman

But that is not an actual-- that doesn't specify what you're going to do. How are you going to do that? You're going to come back here?

Josh's Mom

Well, I own this place. I think I ought to come.

Josh Bearman

Well, how are you going to get your stuff? Right now, if you don't go into this sober living place tomorrow, we're at square one. We're back in January.

Josh's Mom

Oh, I don't think that.

Josh Bearman

You are sitting in the place where you almost died right now.

Josh's Mom

Josh, I'm barely able to get from point A to point B. And it takes me forever to do everything.

Josh Bearman

I understand. So why would you want to do that at home, alone, by yourself, with no resources, no transportation, no way to do anything for yourself? Why is that better?

Josh's Mom

I don't know. I'm not sure. I'm not sure.

Josh Bearman

That last recording is from a year ago. My mother ended up going to the facility, but she only lasted a few weeks. She's back at the condo now, where neither of our predictions have come true. She's drinking again, sporadically, but the house hasn't descended into chaos either. David's back there too. After a few more brushes with the law, David managed to complete all the requirements of his probation. He's now looking for another job to save up some money to get back in the studio for a demo. He's even talking seriously about going back to school. Together, they're maintaining. My mother's more broke than ever, but she's not homeless or dead.

Still, it's hard to let go of the notion that I could save my mother or convince her to change, to realize that this might be what salvation looks like for her, at least for now. Nothing is getting better. But if it gets worse, I'm sure they'll call me.

Ira Glass

Josh Bearman lives in Los Angeles, with regular visits to Florida.

Credits.

Josh's Mom

Judy's the one that has the cute little shoes. Here's the lady that takes her clothes off all the time.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.