Transcript

339:

Break-Up
Transcript

Originally aired 08.24.2007

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/339

Prologue.

Ira Glass

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

Lauren Waterman

It's so embarrassing. I don't want to get upset. But like, he has a car. So the last time I saw him on purpose was just in the car in front of my house. And I don't know. It's just bad.

Ira Glass

Bad like when you walk out of your house you think like, there his car was?

Lauren Waterman

Yeah. I still look for it. It's crazy.

Ira Glass

OK. Now, we're about a block from your house.

Lauren Waterman

Like on that-- In front of that building, right there, this like churchy looking building, was where we were parked when we first had the conversation where we decided we were going to be exclusive, which was a joke. Like I don't really date around. And I don't think he does either. But, you know, it's like kind of a big conversation. But yeah, we were parked in the middle of that block, right where that white car is.

Ira Glass

And so every time you walk down this street, you'll think like, oh yeah, there's the spot?

Lauren Waterman

I don't walk down this street. I just don't. Like I haven't even seen him for a month. You know what I mean?

Ira Glass

When I walked around Lauren's neighborhood with her, it had been two months since her boyfriend broke up with her. They'd gone out for about 10 months before that. She was incredibly nice to let herself be taped in still a pretty raw state. But even in the middle of that raw state, she was acutely aware, and said herself, that everything she was going through was a cliche, a cliche that she was forced to live through.

Lauren Waterman

That's the crazy thing about it. Breaking up with someone is literally the most common thing. Like everyone you know broke up with everyone they ever dated, until maybe the person they're with right now, if they're with someone right now. But when it happens to you, it feels so specific. I don't want to say I can't get over it in like a flippant way. Like, you kind of can't get over it. You're like, what? This is what's happening? It's so shocking.

Ira Glass

If I had to say one thing about Lauren, it's that she was full of feelings that completely contradicted each other, which, I guess, just comes with this territory. Like she emphatically did not want him to call. But also, maybe a little bit, wanted him to call. She missed him. And she didn't want to stop thinking about him. But she also did all this elaborate math to calculate the day that she would finally be over him and not thinking about him and with somebody else.

We get to an area where she had been on walks with the ex-boyfriend. There are benches and a sidewalk promenade.

Lauren Waterman

I don't know. We used to just-- It's not that we took a ton of walks, but we took some walks.

Ira Glass

And what happened down here?

Lauren Waterman

You know, I can't say that anything of substance happened. It's not like any one specific thing. It's just-- I don't know.

Ira Glass

It's just that there was an us.

Lauren Waterman

I know. There really was. That's the thing that's so weird. It's like you just-- You put so much energy into something. And then, one day it's time to stop. I don't know.

Ira Glass

During a break-up, you just stare at what happened. There's a before. And there's an after. And you just can't believe it. Lauren says she still doesn't even understand what went wrong between her and him. And that's part of it too so much of the time.

Well, we got the idea for today's radio show from an email that a listener sent. It says-- I have it here. "Dear This American Life, I'm suffering from a gut-wrenching break-up with my former boyfriend. And I searched your site for shows about break-ups and general heartbreak to commiserate. But to my surprise, I didn't find many stories specifically regarding the act of breaking up. Hope you consider it. A show like that would really cheer me up.

And so with that in mind, we devote our show today to break-ups. Partly today, we have an anatomy of the completely contradictory feelings that are part of a break-up. I think that's what makes it such a special and particularly cursed state. And we have stories today about people trying in some very unusual, very resourceful ways to make themselves feel better during a break-up. The keyword there would be trying.

Our show today in four acts. In Act One, Starlee Kine heads out on a break-up mission unlike any we have ever heard of. In Act Two, an eight-year-old heads out into the world to get some answers about her parent's break-up. In Act Three, a man who has turned his back on the ways of this people, his people, in this case, being divorce lawyers. Act Four, Merrill Markoe notes one possibly overlooked way to mend a broken heart. And it involves a soggy, plastic, disky thing. You'll just have to trust me on that one. Stay with us.

Act One. Dr. Phil.

Ira Glass

Act One: Dr. Phil. When one of our regular contributors, Starlee Kine, was in the middle of getting over a break-up, she tried to feel better in a way that few people ever try, and that maybe even she shouldn't have. Here's Starlee.

Starlee Kine

Before I explain why I decided to write and record a break-up song, even though I have no musical ability and can't play an instrument of any kind, I should probably explain a bit about the break-up itself. It was only after Anthony broke up with me that all the warning signs I had missed came sharply into focus, like the time he told me he didn't like taking pictures of girlfriends because it was a downer to have those photos around once a relationship was over.

I'd had a crush on him since the day we met. But he always had a girlfriend in Canada. Then, she broke up with him. And we got together. A week after that, he told me I was the one. Which, in retrospect, was probably the biggest warning sign of all.

It was hands-down the corniest relationship I've ever been in, and by corniest, I mean greatest. We'd pass entire evenings just complimenting each other. We took hand-holding to new heights. And we listened to hours and hours of music, teenager style, playing one song after another while smiling a lot.

I don't quite remember how our Phil Collins phase began. I think it was one of those things that started off ironically, with Anthony lip syncing adorably to "Against All Odds" one night. But over time, it became less and less ironic, until one day, we were actual fans.

Phil Collins

[SINGING] How can I just let you walk away, just let you leave without a trace, when I stand here taking every breath with you? Ooh, ooh. You're the only one who really knew me at all.

Starlee Kine

We liked how honest and sad it was. "How can I just let you walk away, just let you leave without a trace? You're the only one who really knew me at all." We pictured Phil Collins at the piano writing it, the tears running down his face.

Phil Collins

[SINGING] I wish I could just make you turn around, turn around and see me cry. There's so much I need to say to you, so many reasons why.

Starlee Kine

Anthony broke up me on New Year's Eve. I told you, corny. I didn't really see it coming. And I definitely didn't want it to happen. He said, you're going to be OK. I just cried and cried. I wanted to stop it, to fix it.

I searched deep inside myself for the right words to say, and out of my mouth popped this, how can you just let me walk away? I'm the only one who really knew you at all. And I meant it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that in that moment, no one could have conveyed how I was feeling better than Phil Collins.

Phil Collins

[SINGING] Take a good look at me now, 'cause I'll still be standing here. And you coming back to me is against all odds. It's the chance I've got to take.

Starlee Kine

If I thought I'd been in a Phil Collins phase before, it was nothing compared to what came next. I was no longer listening to his songs for pleasure, but for pain. They were break-up songs. And hearing them was the only thing that made me feel better. And by better, I mean worse.

There's something so satisfying about listening to sad songs. They're like how you would actually be spending your day if you were allowed to just break down and sob and grab hold of everyone you met. They make you feel less alone with your crazy thoughts. They don't judge you. In fact, they understand you.

A break-up song won't ever suggest you start online dating or that you're better off without him. They tell you that you're worse without him, which is exactly what you want to hear because it's how you feel. I didn't want to be cheered up. I didn't want to bounce back. I didn't want to meet someone new. I wanted to wallow, big time, deeply, and with the least amount of perspective possible. And the only way to do that was by turning off my phone and turning up the sad, sad music. Like this song that I love by the band The Magnetic Fields.

The Magnetic Fields

[SINGING] I don't want to get over you. I guess I could take a sleeping pill and sleep at will and not have to go through what I go through. I guess I should take Prozac, right? And just smile all night at somebody new, somebody not too bright, but sweet and kind, who'd try to get you off my mind. I could leave this agony behind, which is just what I'd do if I wanted to. But I don't want to get over you.

Starlee Kine

It's great because the lyrics perfectly articulate this feeling you didn't even know you had. Then there's the Bonnie Raitt song, "I Can't Make You Love Me."

Bonnie Raitt

[SINGING] I'll close my eyes. Then I won't see the love you don't feel when you're holding me.

Starlee Kine

The song was written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin after they read this little article in the newspaper about a guy who'd gotten drunk and shot up his girlfriend's car. At his sentencing, he was asked if he learned any lessons from what he'd done. And he said, "Yes, you can't make a woman love you if she don't."

Bonnie Raitt

[SINGING] 'Cause I can't make you love me if you don't. You can't make your heart feel something it won't.

Starlee Kine

Before the break-up, I had no idea how much break-up music was out there, for example, every song ever written, or at least every third. But once you're heartbroken, you notice it everywhere. You find yourself in the supermarket listening to a song you've heard before, but never really heard, thinking to yourself it's just so true.

Foreigner

[SINGING] In my life, there's been heartache and pain. I don't know if I can face it again. Can't stop now. I've travelled so far to change this lonely life. I wanna know what love is.

Starlee Kine

It's not just that you overlook the cheesiness, you embrace it. You do want to know what love is. There's nothing restrained or subtle about being crushed by the person you care most about in the world. It's big and gaudy. And so it only makes sense that songs about it are too.

Foreigner

[SINGING] I know you can show me. Ohhhhhhh.

Starlee Kine

It was after listening to all these songs for months that I knew what I had to do. I had to write one myself. I needed to take charge of my pain. I needed to take wallowing to the next level. It wasn't enough just to be lying on the floor in my pajamas, listening to these songs at 3:00 in the afternoon. I wanted to be the songs. I wanted to be the pain. I wanted to be inside the stereo speakers, to be the sound waves coming into my own head. I wanted to be the thing creating the feeling I was feeling.

And I knew just what kind of break-up song I would write. [MUSIC-"YOU DON'T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME" BY DUSTY SPRINGFIELD} A torch song. Torch songs are about the most pathetic, desperate, and lonely part of yourself, the part you'd never admit to your friends, the part of you that knows without a shadow of a doubt that you would take him back. Not only that, he wouldn't have to beg or even apologize. Dusty Springfield made a whole career out of these songs: "I Just Can't Make It Alone," "I Only Want To Be With You," "All I See Is You," "Losing You," or this one, which might be the most pitiful sentiment ever uttered out loud.

Dusty Springfield

[SINGING] You don't have to say you love me. Just be close at hand. You don't have to stay forever. I will understand. Believe me. Believe me. I can't help but love you. But believe me, I'll never tie you down.

Starlee Kine

It's just so pathetic. And deep down, it's how I felt too. And it felt good to have someone just come out and say it. There are some words you can never speak, but somehow you can sing.

So I knew what kind of song I was going to write. But I had no idea how to go about writing it. I needed some advice. And out of thousands of musicians who write about heartbreak, there was only one I cared to talk to.

Phil Collins

Hi.

Starlee Kine

Hi.

Phil Collins

Hi, Starlee. Can you hear me OK?

Starlee Kine

Yeah. I can hear you great.

Phil Collins, of course. What? Is that weird? I got it into my head that it'd be great to ask Phil Collins how to write a break-up song, the same way you might think to yourself, I'd really love to talk to Michael Jordan about free throws. I never thought it would actually happen.

Then, against all odds, it turned out I had a friend who was on the road with Phil Collins on his Genesis reunion tour, shooting footage for the DVD extras. He gave me his contact info. And I sent him an email: Dear Mr. Collins, I have a rather unusual request. Then, I waited, refreshing my inbox every three seconds.

When his email finally appeared, he was friendly and casual. We set up a time to talk. In my mind, he was already so intimately involved in my break-up that it seemed crazy that he didn't actually know about it. So I told him.

Starlee Kine

Well, I'm going to tell you the whole story of my break-up and stuff, OK? Is that OK?

Phil Collins

Yeah. Yeah. It's your 45 minutes. [LAUGHS]

Starlee Kine

OK. Well, it also involves you. So I was dating my boyfriend, Anthony. And he kind of broke up with me on New Year's Eve.

Phil Collins

Yeah. Nice. Yeah.

Starlee Kine

Whereas before it was Anthony and I talking about Phil, now it was Phil and I talking about Anthony. Actually pretty tidy, when you think about it.

Starlee Kine

And at one point, I turned to him. And it just flew out of my mouth. I just looked at him. And I was like, I can't believe you're just going to let me--

Phil Collins

--walk away.

Starlee Kine

Yeah.

And before long, Phil Collins and I were commiserating about heartbreak, which he also went through recently.

Phil Collins

So I mean, I've just been through a marriage break-up. And you talk about New Year's Eve. I mean, my divorce was final on my birthday.

Starlee Kine

Oh, really?

Phil Collins

And I didn't want it at all. So that's something that-- You always remember these things. Like you'll always remember New Year's Eve. And I'll always remember my birthday.

Starlee Kine

I know. And it makes you want to skip those dates, doesn't it?

Phil Collins

Yeah. Yeah.

Starlee Kine

Up until this conversation, I never thought I had much in common with Phil Collins. He started playing in Genesis at the age of 19. I didn't. He performed in Live Aid, while I only watched it on TV. He was in the movie Buster, which I never actually saw.

But talking to him was easy. He told me that when he was in Genesis, he just played drums and sang. He didn't write. "Against All Odds" was one of the first songs he wrote himself, when he was working on his first solo album.

Phil Collins

That song, particularly, was written during my first divorce. My first wife and the kids had gone. And I was just left there. So it was written totally out of experience, as opposed to this is a [? what- ?] if song. You know what I mean?

Starlee Kine

Yeah. Yeah. Do you think you could have written that song if you hadn't gone through-- if your wife hadn't left?

Phil Collins

Probably not. I mean, frankly, if that personal stuff had not happened to me at that time, I probably would never have made an album. And if I was to have made an album, eventually, it would have been more of a jazz/rock thing, because that was what I was actually-- that was my output. Apart from Genesis, I was in a band called Brand X. I was a player. So, no. Without that stuff, I wouldn't have felt the things I felt that made me sit at a piano night after night, day after day writing stuff.

Starlee Kine

Did it help?

Phil Collins

Well, it helped in as much as-- It was kind of, well, when she hears this, it's all going to be OK. You know.

Starlee Kine

Really? Is that what you thought?

Phil Collins

I did. Yeah. Foolish, huh? I mean, I did.

Starlee Kine

Did you get over it?

Phil Collins

There's various people in your life that you never quite get over. I mean, that's kind of the cliche. And then, sometimes, with me for example, because of children, you are morally obligated. And you need, because of you want to be with the kids as much as possible, you have to be in touch with this person that has really hurt you. So it's not like you can just walk away and leave without a trace, because in this instance, there's a couple of little guys that are looking up to you saying, what am I going to do, Dad?

Starlee Kine

OK. There are so many crazy things about this. First of all, even Phil Collins can't help but quote Phil Collins. Second, if it hadn't been for his wife leaving him in 1979, Phil Collins would never have become Phil Collins. Heartbreak turned a jazz/rock fusion drummer into an international pop icon.

But the other crazy thing was how honest and normal he was about it. Once again, Phil Collins put into words what I was feeling. There's a part of me, and it is not a small part, that wants my ex, Anthony, to hear the song I write and ask to come back.

I told Phil that I had been trying to write my songs. But they just didn't feel right. They were too wordy or something. But when I tried to consult songs that I love to see how it was done, even the lyrics to the best songs looked flat on the page. I wanted to know how to transform cliched sentiment into a song that captured the entire range of human emotions. I wanted to know how simple sentences like, "love hurts, love scars, became--

Gram Parsons And Emmylou Harris

[SINGING] Love hurts. Love scars. Love wounds and mars.

Phil Collins

Most of the time, it's the direct-- I mean, if it's a good song, that's what makes it good is the fact that it's-- So many people try to fluff things up or disguise them or make them a little bit too clever. But sometimes, it's the simplest thing that actually reaches people.

Gram Parsons And Emmylou Harris

[SINGING] Love hurts. Mm, mm, love hurts.

Starlee Kine

It actually looks corny when you look at it on the page.

Phil Collins

But then, you see, what becomes important then is the way that it's sung.

Starlee Kine

Yeah.

Phil Collins

Because you get-- Otherwise you get-- And I don't mean any disrespect-- but you get into sort of Michael Bolton territory. I've got nothing against Michael. I'm just using him as an example. I'm sure people would use me as an example of something that gets overblown and polished, as opposed to a simple idea, simply sung, and obviously, sounds like it's sung with conviction.

Starlee Kine

So now I had the advice. I had the pain. It was time to start writing. It was pretty terrifying at first. Every single word I put down seemed wrong, even the ones that seemed like they had to go in, the no-brainers. I'd type the word love, then erase it, and then type it again.

Then, one day, I was waiting for the train. And I started thinking about how that train reminded me of Anthony, and then how our love was sort of like a runaway train. Oh, that's good, I thought, and scribbled the line down on the back of my gas bill. Suddenly, heartbreak was flowing out of the cracks in the sidewalk. And it was up to me to transform it into song.

The next problem was-- and it felt like a small problem really-- was my complete lack of musical ability. So I asked a guy named Joe McGinty for some help. He's a New York musician who has played with everyone from The Ramones, to Ryan Adams, to Ronnie Spector. He was in The Psychedelic Furs. He has a million songs. More importantly, for my purposes at least, Joe is a man who understands heartbreak. Here's one of his songs I really like.

Joe Mcginty

[SINGING] This song is three weeks old. Guess I should sing it. Happy Birthday. And your image, it still holds. A happy accident, I can't seem to shake you from my mind.

Starlee Kine

Hi.

Joe Mcginty

Is anybody else--

Julia Greenberg

I'm good.

Starlee Kine

So I met up with Joe and also Julia Greenberg, a musician and songwriter who plays with Joe a lot. I had written about a dozen songs, some of them more finished than others. When I printed them out, I had six freshly typed pages of lyrics, and then about 15 crazy looking pages with a few lines here and there, separated by random spaces. I had sent these all off to Joe and Julia before our meeting. Here's Joe reading the one I thought was farthest along.

Joe Mcginty

OK. "Imaginary Boyfriend." "I can't help but think this all could have been prevented if I'd just gone to a small liberal arts school, because then I would have met my imaginary boyfriend at a stand-up comedy open mic. It was love at first eye roll. He said he drew comic books, like David on Roseanne.

Starlee Kine

Wow. I thought I'd been working on a song. But I don't even know how to describe what that was: a creative writing class essay, maybe. It was clear that I'd ignored Phil Collins' advice: keep it simple, not clever. Joe and Julia agreed.

Julia Greenberg

I think the like David on Roseanne, I can't turn into a song.

Starlee Kine

Then, Julia pulled out her favorite of my songs from the very bottom of the stack. I'd been so sure it wasn't a contender that I'd almost not included it at all.

Julia Greenberg

You had the lyric, "It doesn't do me any good. In fact, it does me bad." Then, it kind of seems impossible to me that that hasn't been in a pop song before. But like, that's a classic kind of pop song--

Joe Mcginty

I mean, that's what you look for. [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE]

Julia Greenberg

Yeah. That's a classic pop song line.

Starlee Kine

I have to admit I was skeptical. That lyric was from the crazy pile, just notes for an idea I had for a torch song. I had tried to think of the most pathetic scenario I could. What I came up with was this: Anthony goes back to his ex-girlfriend. But rather than letting him go, I agree to be this awkward third wheel, as long as it means still getting to see him occasionally. The lines were literally, "I liked you. And you liked her. And I sort of liked her, because you liked her." Julia had run with the idea, with one minor change.

Julia Greenberg

Do you know that you had it all "like." And I changed it to "love." That was the biggest--

Starlee Kine

God, that makes-- I feel like there's something really, deeply-- There are like even more issues that I have to work out with myself, that I put "like" and not "love." It didn't even occur to me.

Julia had been so sure it was an actual song that she'd gotten to work before our meeting. She'd sketched out a melody and sung it to Joe on his answering machine. They played it for me.

Julia Greenberg

Yeah. All right.

Joe Mcginty

And it's still --

Julia Greenberg

This is going to be a rough--

Joe Mcginty

--very rough

Julia Greenberg

--rendering of the opus.

Julia Greenberg

[SINGING] I loved you. And you loved her. And I sort of loved her, because I love everything you loved. Then, she stops, stops loving you. And glory, hallelujah, somehow you start loving me. And I don't know why I love you, I just do, I really do. And it doesn't do me any good. In fact, it does me bad. And you're oh so gone. And I'm oh so sad.

Starlee Kine

So yes, in theory, I knew all this, that music was important. It transforms words, unites the universe together. But I'd never actually seen it happen in front of me.

Joe Mcginty

Come up with some more interesting ones.

Starlee Kine

I cannot believe that's the one that you choose. But then, when you were singing it, it was like the words were like flying off the page. And there was like pixie dust on them, or something. Like a magic spell had actually tapped it with a wand. And it makes total sense now, after hearing it, that that should be the one.

So now, the three of us had written a song about the other three of us. Over the next week, we finessed the lyrics, tweaked the melody, and recorded the song. It seemed obvious who should get the first listen, and no, I don't mean Anthony. That'd be crazy. I mean Phil Collins.

Starlee Kine

Can I play my song for you? Is that OK? I don't want to put you on the spot and make you--

Phil Collins

No, no, no. I would like to hear it. We've been talking about it.

Starlee Kine

OK. Cool. And you just be honest.

Phil Collins

OK.

Starlee Kine

Oh, OK. Here it goes.

So I played him the song. I'll skip the part you've already heard and the bridge, and jump right to the end.

Julia Greenberg

[SINGING] Now, it's just the three of us. The names may have changed. But the sorry facts remain the same: that I love you. And she loves you. I'm OK with second best, just love her more and love me less. I don't know why I love you. I just do, I really do. It doesn't do me any good. In fact, it does me bad. 'Cause you're oh so gone. And I'm oh so sad. You're oh so gone. And I'm oh so sad.

Phil Collins

Well, well. There's some great stuff in there. You know, I really like-- What's the line again about doing me no good, in fact, it's doing me bad?

Starlee Kine

"It doesn't do me any good. In fact, it does me bad."

Phil Collins

Yeah. That's fantastic.

Starlee Kine

Really?

Phil Collins

And afterwards, the line that says, and you're oh so gone. I laughed when I heard that. "You're oh so gone. And I'm oh so sad." I mean, it's just really smart.

Starlee Kine

I can't believe it. That's so nice of you. I can't-- This is like the--

Phil Collins

It's not being nice. I just like it. I would easily have said, hey, it's not for me, you know? But I could just-- I heard it, and I thought there's some very-- It's very funny. It's very clever.

Starlee Kine

Thank you. That's what I mean though about how, like I told you, I was trying to write all these like crazy concepts and conceptual ideas. And then, the one that seemed to work was just the one that's how I feel.

Phil Collins

Yep.

Starlee Kine

Do you think he'll come back?

Phil Collins

[LAUGHS] I hope so, because you obviously do feel a lot for him.

Starlee Kine

Do you think I'll ever stop feeling bad, like I am now?

Phil Collins

Well, but you kind of like feeling bad, don't you?

Starlee Kine

Oh, yeah. Well, it's something--

Phil Collins

I don't think you really want to get over it. I think you're kind of enjoying it. So that's kind of a dilemma you have to sort out.

Starlee Kine

You really have me pegged. It feels like important or big or something. Like it feels like I felt really-- I felt so much for him when I was with him. And the only way to still feel like that strongly about something is to not let it go. I would love to be the person who was just like, he meant nothing to me. But instead, I'm the person who's like, OK, I'm going to write a break-up song and play it over the airwaves. And I've like lost all my cool.

Phil Collins

Well, I don't see it like that. No. You're just addressing something you need to address. And this is getting-- amongst other things-- getting it out of your system. You've had the satisfaction of actually getting something tangible that you can play--

Starlee Kine

Yeah.

Phil Collins

--out of this relationship.

Starlee Kine

That's true. But don't you sometimes wonder like, is it better to have the song, in the end, or the relationship?

Phil Collins

Oh, no surely you'd rather have the relationship.

Starlee Kine

Yeah. That's the problem.

Phil Collins

That you don't have the choice.

[MUSIC-"IF YOU EVER NEED A STRANGER (TO SING AT YOUR WEDDING) BY JENS LEKMAN]

Starlee Kine

Now that the song is done, it's really hard not to wonder if Anthony is going to hear it. I'd like to say I've gone back and forth on whether I even want him to, but the truth is, of course I do. Everyone I talk to, from my best friend all the way to Phil Collins, says he'll listen. And yes, if the roles were reversed and it were me, I definitely would. But I know Anthony. If anyone could resist listening, it would be him. You're just going to have to trust me on this one.

Which doesn't mean I think he'll never hear the song. I can see him keeping a copy of it in some box stuffed with mix tapes and copies of SAT scores so that he can listen to it one day when he's ready. I picture him 40 years from now, an old man, living in some house that I'll never see, which breaks my heart. In my head, he doesn't look like a real old man, but like a young one wearing stage makeup. I imagine him sitting down to finally listen on the CD player that people make fun of him for still having. He loads it in and hits play. He listens to the entire song from start to finish. And when it's over, he plays it again and again, until the tears are running down his face.

Ira Glass

Starlee Kine. She runs the Post-it Note Reading Series with Arthur Jones. The website is postitnotestories.com.

[MUSIC-"IF YOU EVER NEED A STRANGER (TO SING AT YOUR WEDDING) BY JENS LEKMAN]

Coming up, a big city mayor, an eight-year-old girl, and a dog weigh in with their solutions to getting over your next break-up. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, "Break-up," stories from inside the vortex of shockingly contradictory feelings that happen after a break-up.

Act Two. But Why?

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two: But Why? After a relationship ends, you can puzzle for years over why things went wrong, and did they have to? And you yearn for a simple story that explains it. And that's not just true for the people in the relationship, it's true for the kids. And now with that thought, let's flip on the radio time machine.

Noah Adams

Reforming welfare in this half hour. This is Noah Adams.

Renee Montagne

And I'm Renee Montagne with All Things Considered.

Ira Glass

The welfare reform that they're talking about here is that of President George Herbert Walker Bush. The day that this aired, February 11, 1987, I was one of the lower-level producers at All Things Considered. But that day, I got to work on this story about break-ups that I still think about, a story about somebody who is wanting to understand a break-up and reaching out to various people out in the world to do that, in a way, like Starlee did.

So OK. All you need to know is it's 1987. Edward Koch is the mayor of New York City. Noah Adams is one of the hosts of All Things Considered at the time. And he does the interview.

Noah Adams

Betsy, tell me your full name, please.

Betsy Walter

Betsy Allison Walter.

Noah Adams

Betsy Allison Walter. And you're eight years old?

Betsy Walter

Almost nine.

Noah Adams

And you live in Manhattan?

Betsy Walter

Mm hmm.

Noah Adams

And you're in our studio in New York. I appreciate you taking some time to come in and telling us this story. You wrote a letter to the mayor of New York, Mayor Koch.

Betsy Walter

Right.

Noah Adams

Tell me about that, please.

Betsy Walter

Well, I wrote to him because my parents are getting divorced. And I really don't know who to turn to. And I just told him that my parents are getting divorced. And my dad is with somebody else. And I was just getting used to something and now this. And it's really kind of hard on me. And I'd like an opinion.

Noah Adams

Why did you write to Mayor Koch?

Betsy Walter

Because he's somebody who I've thought, he's very good to us, I guess. Because he's the mayor, and he knows a lot of things. And I thought he would know about this too.

Noah Adams

Yeah. Did you get an answer back?

Betsy Walter

Yes.

Noah Adams

What did he say?

Betsy Walter

He-- It's very short. "Thank you for the letter. I was saddened to learn of the difficult times you are experiencing now. It is important for you to share your feelings and thoughts with someone during this time. I wish there was an easy solution to these problems, but there is not. Please remember that you are loved and that people care about you. All the best. Sincerely, Edward Koch."

Noah Adams

That's nice. Was that reassuring to you in a way?

Betsy Walter

No.

Noah Adams

No. Did you have any thought in your mind that perhaps he could actually do something about it, for example, call your father and get your mom and dad back together?

Betsy Walter

No.

Noah Adams

No. You just wanted some advice.

Betsy Walter

But see, I try to sometimes like-- Because I had a dance recital one day, and I invited them both, but I wanted them to sit next to each other. But they didn't.

Noah Adams

Yeah. What other advice have you been able to come across, to find?

Betsy Walter

Well, the guidance counselor, she said that a lot of kids have the same problem. Say there are 400 in school, and like 300 of them have the same problem.

Noah Adams

Sure. Sure. You know, most people you talk with will have had parents who were divorced.

Betsy Walter

Oh.

Noah Adams

Yeah. Most people. It's kind of a sad thing. But most people get through it all right too. That's my advice for you.

Betsy Walter

Thank you.

Noah Adams

You wrote another letter to somebody who had written a book called The Boys and Girls Book of Divorce?

Betsy Walter

Yes.

Noah Adams

A psychologist?

Betsy Walter

Mm hm.

Noah Adams

And what did that person tell you?

Betsy Walter

Well, he said that I should try another of his books to find out help.

Noah Adams

Oh, he wanted you to go out and buy his book. Did you?

Betsy Walter

Well, we had the one he recommended.

Noah Adams

And how did that go? What did you think of that one?

Betsy Walter

Well, the problem is he puts things in a way that I can't really quite get it through me, that I already know. And I want some real advice that my questions really are, not just answers that people keep telling me over and over again.

Noah Adams

Can you give me an example, Betsy?

Betsy Walter

Why did they get divorced? What happened?

Noah Adams

Do you think that parents, sometimes, don't think children are old enough to understand or can't handle it, and so will hide some information?

Betsy Walter

Yes.

Noah Adams

Not that they have to say everything, but you think there ought to be a little bit more sharing of the information?

Betsy Walter

Yeah. That's what my mom said.

Noah Adams

Yeah. And in terms of their own divorce, do you understand it better now?

Betsy Walter

No.

Noah Adams

No. Why? What still don't you understand about that?

Betsy Walter

Well, why did they have to go off and do it? And because see, the most painful part is when I saw my dad packing up. And I really don't understand. It's hard because they won't tell me what happened to them. And I really want them back together. And I don't understand why they can't.

Noah Adams

Yeah. What do you think you've learned from this? Do you think if somebody else in school, for example, told you that their parents were getting divorced, how do you think you could advise them?

Betsy Walter

Well, I wrote a book. And I think I would say the same information that I said.

Noah Adams

You wrote a very small book?

Betsy Walter

Yeah.

Noah Adams

Yeah. Do you have it there?

Betsy Walter

Mm hmm.

Noah Adams

Could you read some of it for me, please?

Betsy Walter

All right. Let me get it. It's called A Book About Divorce. Should I read the whole book? It's short.

Noah Adams

Sure.

Betsy Walter

"It's not your fault when your parents get divorced. Why does it have to be you? Because Mommy and Daddy don't love each other anymore. Remember, it's OK to be sad and cry. Tell someone about your feelings." That's it.

Noah Adams

That's nice. Listen, Betsy, thank you for talking with us. I appreciate it. And I wish you the best. I hope things go well for you.

Betsy Walter

Thank you.

Noah Adams

And maybe this is the beginning of a writing experience for you. And you can grow up to be a writer.

Betsy Walter

I don't want to. But I want to write like one book that would make it, but not a whole series, you know?

Noah Adams

You just want to write a book and make a lot of money.

Betsy Walter

No, not money, just famous.

Noah Adams

OK. [LAUGHS] OK, Betsy, thank you. Good night.

Betsy Walter

OK. Good night.

Noah Adams

So that's the tape from 20 years ago. And you're in the studio with us now. Tell us your name.

Betsy Walter

Betsy Allison Walter.

Noah Adams

How old are you?

Betsy Walter

I just turned 29.

Noah Adams

And you're working?

Betsy Walter

I am. I have been an elementary school teacher for the past seven years.

Noah Adams

How many times over the years do you think you've heard this taped interview?

Betsy Walter

Probably 12, a dozen. Because I didn't hear it for a while. I think I heard it again when I was about 22, 23. Every time I've had a boyfriend, I've played it for him.

Noah Adams

And each time, it's got to be different. How has it been changing for you?

Betsy Walter

Yeah. Recently was the first change.

Noah Adams

Really?

Betsy Walter

I used to only hear it with my exact inner monologue from when I was there in the studio. And when I heard certain things, I can still remember the exact thoughts running through my head. I remember it very clearly. I remember thinking that you were just another grown-up offering your advice. All these grown-ups kept telling me things. But I felt like I knew what they were going to say. They were going to say, it'll be OK. And people fall out of love. But that wasn't what I wanted to hear. I remember everything. I don't know how.

And then recently-- I think it was probably when I graduated college when I heard it again-- I heard it as an adult. And it was so heartbreaking. I didn't think it was sad when it was me. It was just what was going on. And it made me sad to hear pain in my voice, confusion.

And now I hear it even differently as an educator. I hear it as, what would I say to her?

Noah Adams

And looking back at that moment, did you really want the truth? Or did you want things to be well again and whole again?

Betsy Walter

I don't believe that I wanted what the truth really was. But I wanted what I had created the truth to be in my head. I wanted them to say something to the fact that, oh, we just needed time apart. And of course, we'll come back together. I wanted what I thought the truth was. If I had heard the real truth, I think that it would have been devastating.

Noah Adams

Your dad was fooling around?

Betsy Walter

Mm hmm. And my mom did an amazing job of never, ever putting any blame on him, of always being supportive of us having a relationship. But if she had said the truth, I couldn't have a relationship with him. I would have been too angry.

Noah Adams

OK. Let's imagine this, your advice just to that eight-year-old Betsy, who was you.

Betsy Walter

I do grapple with this. It's hard because I know exactly what I wanted to hear when I was eight. I think I would tell her that, you know what-- I would actually say, this is probably how your life is going to be. Your parents made this choice for you. And now, instead of questioning and wondering for so long why this choice was made, how are you going to live your life now, knowing this is your life? I still know myself. And I would have been persistent, wanting answers regardless. But I do think that I needed to feel less helpless.

Ira Glass

Betsy Allison Walter, talking with NPR's Noah Adams. Betsy lives in Virginia these days. Noah you can hear on the various NPR news shows. [MUSIC-"NOW THAT IT'S LONG OVER" BY BRISA ROCHE]

Act Three. Let No Court Put Asunder.

Ira Glass

Act Three: Let No Court Put Asunder. Now, we have this example of somebody trying to make break-ups less horrible than they are. Barry Berkman used to be like any divorce lawyer. He fought for his clients. He tried to get them big settlements. But he came to believe that what he was doing actually was not so good for most of his clients, which is kind of a big problem. Here's the kind of thing he would see. A guy comes in, ready for a divorce.

Barry Berkman

His wife had a lot of money. They had worked out a deal. But they did it on their own, without seeing lawyers.

Ira Glass

What did they decide?

Barry Berkman

And what they decided was that in order for him-- he was a musician, didn't have that much money. But in order for him to live close to her and to be able to see the kids, which they both wanted, she was going to give him enough money to purchase a small co-op. And it was great. They were both happy as could be. They were ready to do it.

They were told to see lawyers. He came to see us. We were fine with it. We said, sure. This looks good. You did a good job. She went to see a lawyer. No way. How can you give him that much? It's not right.

Ira Glass

That's what her lawyer was saying?

Barry Berkman

Absolutely. For the lawyer, it was too much, because he had an argument which could, theoretically, end up giving her the greater part of her separate property. She ended up listening to the lawyer. We ended up with a custody fight as well as a divorce fight.

Ira Glass

Wait. And is that because the money fight got so bitter at one point?

Barry Berkman

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Really?

Barry Berkman

Yeah. Then, they started fighting over the kids, which they hadn't fought over at all.

Ira Glass

Well, wait. How did that kick in? Like what was the moment where it went from being just about money to being about the kids too?

Barry Berkman

What happened was, the parties got so angry at each other that they started quibbling about everything. So if he had a gig and couldn't be home on time one evening, she decided he was an unfit parent. If she was spending too much time with her new boyfriend, which this guy decided wasn't appropriate, she became an unfit parent.

So the parties ended up fighting not only about money, but about the kids. Used up a good bit of her vast inheritance in the case. And in the end, she ended up buying him the same, or similar, co-op in a similar neighborhood as the one she would have in the first place. But it took a couple of years, embittered everyone. And you had to think, was this worthwhile? Did it have to happen?

Ira Glass

Adversarial style divorces still make up half of all divorce proceedings in the country. And Barry felt like most of those cases ended up like this one: incredibly expensive, taking a huge emotional toll on everybody, damaging children. So after 15 years of doing these cases like this, he started looking for a different way. And he found something called collaborative divorce.

In collaborative divorce, each spouse gets a lawyer. And then, the spouses and the lawyers sit down in a room together to work out some kind of agreement. But under the rules of collaborative divorce, if one of the lawyers thinks that the other side is being intransigent or unreasonable, not only can he not threaten to go to court, if it does go to court, he has to give up the case. He has to give the case to another lawyer to do. So the lawyers have an incentive to work everything out.

So, OK. They all sit down together, the spouses and the lawyers. And Barry Berkman says that even though the spouses enter the situation with good intentions of working everything out, the biggest obstacle he has is something very simple.

Barry Berkman

I think, often, what happens is, couples in conflict lose the ability to listen to each other.

Ira Glass

And so you find yourself, very often, saying to your own client, no, no, no, no, no, listen to what they're saying.

Barry Berkman

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ira Glass

And so one of the things--

Barry Berkman

Not to agree with it, but at least to understand it. That's the whole question. To recognize that your point of view doesn't necessarily invalidate your spouse's point of view.

Ira Glass

You're saying the most important thing people need to do is simply just listen to each other and try to get along.

Barry Berkman

I would say listen to each other. I don't know about getting along.

Ira Glass

They don't have to try to get along.

Barry Berkman

Certainly, listening goes a long way.

Ira Glass

Do things get so reasonable that you get people listening to each other well enough that people eventually just get back together?

Barry Berkman

I've had that happen once.

Ira Glass

What happened?

Barry Berkman

What happened was, we had people who simply couldn't listen to each other. He became very, very busy in his own law practice. She felt she was losing him. Part of it was, they couldn't find the time to talk to each other.

Ira Glass

But this collaborative divorce process makes you actually show up to meetings with your spouse and your lawyers and start talking. And as these two people talked, they started to see each other's side of things. Maybe he hadn't been around enough. Maybe she could have been more supportive.

Barry Berkman

I think the turning point came when they were talking about what to do with the house, and each one kind of recognized that they didn't really want to be living anywhere without the other person.

Ira Glass

Usually, of course, the spouses do not get back together. When the process works, Barry Berkman says, at least they end up feeling a little better about each other.

Ira Glass

Do people ever say at the end of this process, they appreciate your help and they're glad for the results, but they're still full of pain?

Barry Berkman

Yeah. I mean, we're not going to get rid of the pain. The pain is there. Long marriages, the pain is there. I think going through this process enables people to get in touch with that pain and the real sadness that they're experiencing, which is sometimes covered up by their anger.

Ira Glass

Are you saying that at the end of this process, actually just going through the dividing of assets-- which is really, in the end, all you're trying to do-- actually makes people's anger dissipate? When you do it this way?

Barry Berkman

I think going through the process where we reach-- and it's not just the assets. The assets are usually relatively easy. Don't forget we have the kids and the parenting and the decision making. And that's often a lot tougher.

I think, going through the process where people reach points of understanding where maybe for the first time they get a glimpse of where the other person is coming from-- And so all of a sudden, they realize, you know what? It's not necessary to demonize this person anymore. And when they have those moments of understanding, it goes a long way toward helping them get on with the rest of their lives, actually.

Ira Glass

Barry Berkman is a lawyer in New York and on the board of the New York Association of Collaborative Professionals. Collaborative divorce, by the way, was invented by a Minneapolis lawyer named Stuart Webb.

[MUSIC-"WALKING AWAY"-BY BROTHER ALI]

Act Four. Divorce Is Rrruuffff!

Ira Glass

Act Four: Divorce is Rrruuffff. We close our show today with this vignette of just how lost you feel when you lose somebody, from Merrill Markoe, recorded on stage at Un-Cabaret in Los Angeles.

Merrill Markoe

Today, our friend Paul came to the house in a near dissociative state of panic. Suddenly and without warning, it appeared that his marriage was unraveling. He sat down on the big, red couch in the living room. And I offered him a vodka as he started detailing his anguish.

"Up until yesterday, if you'd asked me if my marriage was a happy one, I would've said yes," he said, choking back tears. "And then, last night, out of the blue, my wife comes in and tells me she wants a divorce." As Paul spoke, Andy's dog, Puppy Boy, a skinny, brown and black Tijuana shepherd, approached with his mouth full of a large, black, completely deflated soccer ball. He placed the flat, wet piece of rubber gently on Paul's knee, and then sat down right in front of him to wait for the games to begin.

Paul was too upset to notice. "She told me she wants to start seeing other men," Paul said, tears welling up in his eyes. "And that's not even the worst of it. Today, I found out from friends, they've already seen her around town with another guy. They didn't want to say anything until now." He began to cry. And as he did, Puppy Boy attempted to apply a little additional pressure by picking up the deflated piece of rubber off Paul's knee and moving it to a new spot a little further up Paul's leg.

But Paul had the bad manners to be completely preoccupied by his own tragedy. "I have no idea what I'm going to do," he said, as Puppy Boy moved in a little closer and began staring a little harder, his eyes going intently from the black, flat, rubber thing that was now balancing on Paul's thigh, to Paul's face, and then back to the flat, black, rubber thing, as if to help Paul out in case he was having trouble locating it.

"It's been just emotionally devastating," Paul continued. "Everything I've worked for is falling apart. And what happens to me now? Am I going to lose everything? My house? My cars? My savings?" He broke down and began to sob, the only time I've ever seen this incredibly stoic man cry. Which was a signal to Puppy Boy that the game was finally about to get going.

So he picked up the deflated soccer ball off Paul's thigh and moved it to the most conveniently located spot of all, the very center of Paul's lap. Then, he sat back down in front of Paul and resumed his intense staring. So he kept doing this for the whole two hours that Paul was at our house.

Later that night, after Paul had gone home to pick up the pieces of his shattered existence, I began to wonder what Puppy Boy might have to say for himself about this behavior. So I asked him. Puppy Boy replies, "Hello, new seated person. I am Puppy Boy. And I can see that you are very upset for some reason. But I have something on my mind. I'm going out on a limb here and tell you that it is the most important thing I have ever had to say. And it is this: I have placed a thing on you that you must throw. [LAUGHTER] If you look down now, you will see it. It is that large, flat thing that is balancing on your knee.

Please listen to me when I tell you that this is an opportunity you cannot pass up. By the way, you have noticed that your knee has a big, flat, wet thing balancing on it, haven't you? Or are you so busy sobbing and weeping and talking about yourself that you are having trouble seeing it? Here's a hint. I'm staring at it right now. So if you can imagine a laser beam coming from my eyes, and then follow it down to the spot on your leg where it is focused, it'll lead you right to it.

The only other possible explanation for your puzzling lack of interest is that you are purposefully ignoring me. And why would you do that? Especially since you are really hurting yourself more than you are hurting me. Because let's face it, you're the one who's passing up a great opportunity. And by a great opportunity, I'm referring to the chance to have the kind of fun that everyone dreams of having. I speak of the chance to throw a big, flat, stretchy, wet thing. And guess where it is right now? Throw it now or live a life of regret.

I mean, I can't stop you if you'd rather just listen to yourself talk. Wife, wife, wife. She did this. She did that. Really fascinating. For Christ's sakes, look into my eyes and play along. Pick up the big, flat, wet thing. Pick it up. Pick up the big, flat, wet thing. Pick it up. Pick it up. Pick up the big, flat, wet thing. Can you hear me OK? Pick up the big, flat, wet thing.

Are you even listening? You know, maybe if you had listened a little better during your marriage, your wife wouldn't want a divorce. Did you ever think of that? It wouldn't surprise me if you never threw the things she brought you either." Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Merrill Markoe at Un-Cabaret in Los Angeles. Her most recent novel, Walking in Circles Before Lying Down. Thanks to Greg Miller of Un-Cabaret.

[MUSIC-"AGAINST ALL ODDS" BY THE POSTAL SERVICE]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well our program was produced today by Robyn Semien and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, John Jeter, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind, [? Weegie Navarro, ?] and P.J. Vogt. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

Special thanks today to NPR. Noah Adams' interview from 1987 was originally broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered, and was used with permission of NPR. Thanks to Ellen Weiss.

Thanks to the musicians who played Starlee's song in Act One: Joe McGinty on keyboard, Jeremy Chatzky on bass and electric guitar, Julia Greenberg on vocals and acoustic guitar, and Natalie Weiss sings backup. Starlee Kine on tambourine.

When we first ran the show, we invited listeners to take the raw tracks of Starlee's song and mix their own version. The response was just incredible, 129 entries. You can hear the winners of our break-up song contest at our website, www.thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Support for This American Life is provided by the Saab 9-3 turbo. With an EPA estimated 29 miles per gallon on the highway, it strikes a balance between efficiency and performance. Learn more about the Saab 9-3 turbo at saabusa.com.

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia, who's been listening to the show over the phone this week and has some thoughts.

Phil Collins

Well, well. There's some great stuff in there.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.

[MUSIC-"AGAINST ALL ODDS" BY THE POSTAL SERVICE]

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.