Transcript

340:

The Devil in Me
Transcript

Originally aired 09.07.2007

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/340

Prologue.

Ira Glass

My wife and I are standing at the door to our place, and we're arguing. A delivery guy has arrived with something, and it's early morning, and I hold the dog and I ask her to go to the door. And she doesn't want to go to the door because of the way that she's dressed. And I insist, no, no, no, no. It's fine. And we go around on this for a while, and the guy's at the door and I don't give in and she finally goes to the door.

And then the guy leaves, and she's mad, and she cannot understand why I made her do that. And finally, I look at her, and I see what it is that she's talking about. She's in an undershirt and pajama bottoms. And I see why she wouldn't want to go to the door. I see it. I see it. But what I say is, "That shirt's not so revealing." This just comes out of me, without thinking. A complete lie.

And she says, you know, this is that thing you do. This is that the thing right here. You can't admit when you did something wrong, which she is totally right about. She's so right, in fact, that I still don't admit it. Though, to describe it this way makes it seem like I'm actually doing a computation in my head and thinking things through and weighing things out. Should I admit it? Should I not admit it? And then I conclude, no. No, don't do it, don't admit it, don't give in.

But, in fact, all this happens in an instant in my head. It's like lightning. There's no thought at all. I say, no, no, no, the shirt's fine, I don't see a problem. And then she points out that it's crazy-making, living with me. That if I could just admit that I did something wrong at the beginning, her life would be so much better. This happens all the time.

Part of getting older, I think, is learning that you do these things, without thinking, that you are not proud of. I have a list. I interrupt people, I snap at people, I get a condescending, know-it-all tone sometimes without even knowing I'm doing it. I fake laugh at stuff I don't find funny, because I'm only half listening. And while I'm self-absorbed enough to do all that, unfortunately I am not so self-absorbed that I don't notice the look on other people's faces and realize what I've done.

This is a very bad middle ground to be in. You know, if I were more sensitive, I wouldn't be doing these things in the first place. And if I was less sensitive, I wouldn't notice what an ass I am, which would be less painful, for me.

Most of us have these things, these little devils inside of us that we're fighting against. And some of the devils aren't so little. You know? Sometimes you're spending your life fighting one of these devils and then you become president of the United States, and somehow end up messing around with an intern, which ruins your presidency and possibly, depending on how you see it, leads to the election of a guy who sends our nation into what becomes a very unpopular war.

Well, that's the subject of today's radio program. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today we have stories of people for whom fighting the devils inside them, it became the biggest struggle of their lives.

In Act One, a guy goes to extraordinary lengths to rid himself of certain feelings, feelings of prejudice, feelings of bigotry, that he's having and finds he cannot control. In Act Two, we let the devils inside people's heads speak, en masse, here on the radio. In Act Three, a man starts off by battling certain doubts in his head, and ends up in a real biblical stand-off with a demon who shows up one day in his college classroom. Stay with us.

Act One. And So We Meet Again.

Ira Glass

Act one, And So We Meet Again. So let's say you find yourself bothered by some very extreme and unreasonable things knocking around in your head. Maybe you try to fix that by doing something extreme. Lisa Pollak has the story of one guy who did just that. We first broadcast her story a year ago.

Lisa Pollak

Last winter, if you happened to be watching the campus TV station at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, you might have seen this.

Man

Happy Holidays from the Parkland College Business Club.

Group

Come join us.

Lisa Pollak

A video montage of Season's Greetings from campus clubs and departments.

Group

Happy Holidays from Financial Aid.

Group

Happy Holidays from the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program.

Lisa Pollak

And if you couldn't pull yourself away, you'd eventually get to this. Two guys, one slight and bearded, with dark skin speaking Arabic.

Yousif Radeef

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Lisa Pollak

And the other, a tall, broad shouldered white guy with the translation.

Sam Slaven

Greetings from the Muslim Student Association at Parkland College. We want to wish you and everyone else a happy Holiday season.

Lisa Pollak

The second guy, the one speaking English, that's Sam Slaven. And what he doesn't say in the video is that even though he's in the Muslim Student Association, he's not a Muslim. He doesn't want to be a Muslim. In fact, not so long ago, he couldn't stand to be in the same room with Muslims.

The idea of Sam joining the Muslim Student Association was so improbable that even some of the people who knew him best thought he was kidding when he first told them about it. It's not a choice anybody would expect from a guy who use words like this to describe Muslims--

Sam Slaven

You know, we call them Haji or raghead or camel jockey. All kinds of things. I don't know. I don't think most of them make your cut here. Mother [BLEEP], you know. [BLEEP].

Lisa Pollak

To understand home Sam went from being that guy to the guy extending Seasons Greetings on behalf of the Muslim Student Association, and then even becoming friends, real friends, with the bearded guy in that video, you have to go back a few years to the first place Sam ever really learned about Muslims. It wasn't Parkland College. It was Iraq.

Sam's from Indiana. After high school, he enrolled at Purdue. But college wasn't for him back then, so he dropped out and joined the Army. When he was sent to Baghdad in 2003, at the start of the war, he was Sergeant Sam Slaven, of the 2nd Armored Calvary. He didn't know much about the people in Iraq, or their religion, but he knew he wanted to help them. And, at first, it seemed like they wanted that, too.

In fact, listening to Sam describe the early days of the invasion, I realized I'd forgotten that scenes like this ever existed.

Sam Slaven

Nobody shooting at us. They were just, you know, happy to see us, glad to be there. They'd bring tea out for us and sit and socialize. We even had one family bake us a cake.

Lisa Pollak

After a few months of that treatment, it's no wonder that when Sam came under fire for the first time, outside a power station he was guarding, he was truly surprised.

Sam Slaven

It just didn't make sense to have somebody right there shooting at us. And I was just like, this is ridiculous. What are you doing? Because, you know, I'm going to have to shoot back. And, you know, we did.

Lisa Pollak

As the insurgency got going, so did Sam's piecemeal education in Islam. His unit was stationed in Sadr City, where the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was building his own militia. And translators told the soldiers, Iraqis were being urged to, quote, "Kill the infidels."

Sam Slaven

And I guess we were the infidels, or whatever, so it seemed like the Imams telling the people that just kind of influenced everybody to go ahead and conduct those actions against us. And we were pretty upset, just at Islam because their leaders were the ones telling them to do that. At least that's what we were told.

Lisa Pollak

Then came the day that changed things for a lot of guys in Sam's unit. On October 9, 2003, his platoon was out on patrol. On a nearby street, another platoon from the unit drove straight into an ambush. They were lured in by a woman and child pretending they needed help.

Sam Slaven

They stopped to help them and a couple of the privates saw people running with guns, and then just everything let loose. IEDs, RPGs, and rifles and machine guns and just so many, so many guns going off all at once. And I'd never even seen anything like it in a war movie. It was literally a wall of red just moving from left to right and right to left. With all these bullets and the crossfiring. And, of course, we weren't armored. We didn't even have doors on our vehicles. There was nothing we could do. We could have stand there and traded fire with them all day long, but, you know, just the numbers. There's no way we would have survived.

It was just terrifying. We weren't in the worst part of the whole thing, but it was still the scariest thing I've ever seen, probably ever will see.

Lisa Pollak

Two guys from Sam's unit were killed that night. And the Americans felt betrayed. The ambush was so big that plenty of the locals must have known about it, but no one, not any of the people they'd been trying to help, had warned them. After that, Sam says, he could never really look at Iraqis the same way.

Sam Slaven

I mean, just from that point, we were just like, you know, we ought to just kill all these people, just to be safe. Instead of saying hello to them, you tell them, F you, or some sort of insult. We knew plenty of them in their own language there, and had no problems talking about them, or their mothers or whatever.

It was a two-way street there. They hated us more and we hated them more. The feeling really was shared throughout our unit. One day I walked in and we had a TV and DVD player set up. There was this group of privates, they're all great kids, and they were yelling and cheering and I was, like, what is this? They kept rewinding part of this movie, and they'd just keep playing it. It was from the movie Rules of Engagement, where Samuel L. Jackson tells some marines, waste 'em, and all the guys open up on this crowd of Arabs and just kills everybody in it.

And they'd yell and cheer and rewind it and watch it again and just rewind it. Because it's what they wanted to do.

Lisa Pollak

And was it what you wanted to do, too?

Sam Slaven

Oh yeah.

Lisa Pollak

It's not what he did do, Sam told me, and I want to be clear about that. I spoke to an officer who was one of Sam's superiors back then, and he vouched for Sam's conduct, his adherence to the rules of engagement, the real ones, not the Hollywood ones.

Sam's feelings didn't go away when he got back to the States. If anything, they festered. When his year in Iraq was up, he was assigned to an Army recruiting battalion, and stationed in Miami. Which sounds like a nice change of pace for a guy fresh from a war zone, but it wasn't.

Sam Slaven

Because I was in south Florida, it looked a lot like around Baghdad, where we were. It had the palm trees and the canals and it was hot. And between my apartment and recruiting station, there was a mosque. I'd see that and I could physically feel myself tense up. My heart would start pounding, and just make me angry. It's like, oh, I've got to watch out for this place because they're going to run out of that place with guns and just shoot me up.

Lisa Pollak

And when you would see people go into the mosque?

Sam Slaven

Well, yeah, I was just like, maybe we should copy down some license plate numbers. Which, it's the same thing we were doing in Iraq. Just keep an eye out on these people, see where they're going. I had just become more angry. And I'd talk to other soldiers in my station, but none of them had ever been to Iraq.

I'd be like, you know, don't you think we ought to watch out for these people? Thinking, hey, man, these people are out to get us. But nobody else is seeing this but me.

Lisa Pollak

Sam began to have nightmares and trouble sleeping, and other symptoms of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We've all heard of PTSD, but we don't usually hear the details of what it actually feels like to have it. Falling apart isn't something soldiers brag about. But once, at the end of an interview, I asked Sam if he ever hit bottom, and he said yes.

Sam Slaven

I was sitting in my recruiting office, and I was sitting in the far back, and a new recruiter, even newer than I was, they had him up front practicing his little speeches he's supposed to give there on all of us recruiters. He hadn't been to Iraq, but he was giving a speech on how not bad Iraq was. I was just sitting in the back of the room and I was like, I just can't take this, knowing that we're lying to these kids, we're training people to lie to these kids. And I just left the office, went into the small storage area there and just sat down and I just broke down. I was crying, I couldn't take it. And a female recruiter came in, asked me, what's wrong? And I was like, I just can't take this any more. I just had to go home and just quit. And that's totally unacceptable in the Army, and even more unacceptable in recruiting.

Really, if anything, I was doing recruiting a favor just because how many people are going to come in and join the Army when they see another recruiter, the only war vet in there, crying because he can't stand the war anymore?

Lisa Pollak

After that day, Sam got help. He started treatment for PTSD, retired from the Army, moved to Champaign, where he had family. And in May 2006, at age 28, started classes at Parkland, a community college. But Sam was still struggling. And to help me understand some of what he was going through, Sam gave me permission to talk to his VA therapist. His name is Tim Kohlbecker. He runs a PTSD clinic serving veterans in Illinois and parts of Indiana.

And he explained what can happen to soldiers in combat this way. Imagine you're in a room with 10 identical chairs. You're told to sit in one of them, and you get an electric shock. The next day, you're told to sit in the same chair again, and you get shocked again. The third day, you wise up. You're not sitting in that chair anymore.

Tim Kohlbecker

I say, how about one of these other chairs? And you're looking around at those and you're thinking, no, no. They may all be wired up.

Lisa Pollak

Because they all look exactly the same as the chair?

Tim Kohlbecker

They all look the same. It all seems the same. It's the same thing. So you've developed a fear of all of them. Well, that happens with somebody in a combat situation, where you are on full alert all the time. You never know who the enemy is. You don't know when they're going to pop up. So you develop an anxiety, or a fear, or an avoidance of all.

Lisa Pollak

Sam's college campus wasn't exactly a hotbed of Arab and Muslim culture. But for Sam, it didn't take much. Just the site of an Arab man in a beard could trigger his anxiety.

Sam Slaven

I was just like, oh, man, there's Muslims everywhere. If I saw one of them, I would just walk the other way, find another way to get to wherever I was going to.

Lisa Pollak

Like, literally turn around and--?

Sam Slaven

Yeah. Yeah, because I wasn't sure if I got too close to the guy, what would happen?

Lisa Pollak

One day he almost did get too close. In the hallway of a campus building, he spotted this guy, Middle-Eastern looking, with a long beard.

Sam Slaven

As I saw him there and I thought, oh, man, there's another one of them. And it's just like an instantaneous rush of anxiety and adrenaline, and I was like what do I do? And, of course, the thought of ridding him from that situation was an option. And--

Lisa Pollak

What do you mean?

Sam Slaven

Well, you know, just choke him out or take him in for questioning, or something. But I'm like, what am I doing? This isn't a war zone. Why am I even thinking this nonsense? I'm not armed. I'm not a killer. I mean, I never was, prior to the war. And all I [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and I was just like, you know, wait. Stop. Stand here a minute and think about it.

You know, I want to say that I felt good that nothing happened, but at the same time I just felt terrible. It was like, what have I become? I mean, I didn't have any, you know, notions or thoughts about Muslims prior to joining the Army, but I was, like, why am I not like that anymore? And I was like, what can I do to get back to the way I was? A better person. I sat and thought, and I looked up from the chair I was sitting in and I saw a little poster on a bulletin board that said, "Learn about Islam. Join the Muslim Student Association. It meets on Thursdays." And I thought, you know what? Maybe that'd be good for me. So I went to this Muslim Student Association meeting the next Thursday.

Lisa Pollak

Now, before I tell you what happened at that meeting, some background on the Muslim Student Association at Parkland College. You've already met the founder and president, Yousif Radeef. He was the guy speaking Arabic on the holiday video. He also happens to be the bearded man who Sam wanted to jump in the hallway that day. And he's an Iraqi, though his family left Iraq when he was 10 and moved to Jordan, and then the United Arab Emirates before coming to Illinois three years ago.

Yousif was 17 when he got here. And other Muslims warned him to be careful what he said, that as a Muslim from the Arab world, anything he did might be viewed with suspicion.

Yousif Radeef

The first six months was like the darkest months of my experience in the United States, because I did not have the chance to say what I wanted to say. I did not behave like myself or the guy who I was. I have had to be from a guy who talks about my religion to a guy who advised not to talk about it. So it was a really sudden change. It was so bad, it was so bad. But it got better. I'm glad that it got better.

Lisa Pollak

It got better mostly because Yousif made it better. He decided he didn't want to hide who he was or what he thought. So when he got to Parkland College, he threw himself into campus life. He joined clubs and got elected to student government, and wasn't afraid to say that he opposed the Iraq War. And he started the school's first official chapter of the Muslim Student Association.

Yousif wanted this particular chapter to be different than other Muslim student groups he had heard about. One of his main goals was to reach out to students who weren't Muslim, especially the ones who had a bad impression of his faith.

Yousif Radeef

Somebody have to speak up. Somebody have to tell everybody that what they see in the news, what they hear on the radio, what they read in the magazines and the newspapers is not really true. They only see violence with the name of Islam. So, it's like, OK, it's a religion of violence. And I have heard a lot of people saying this exact quote.

Lisa Pollak

For Yousif, having a guy like Sam, someone filled with negative feelings about Muslims, just walk into an MSA meeting was actually kind of a dream scenario. It was like he'd hit the jackpot. Though, Yousif, going above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to bridging the cultural divide, chose this analogy.

Yousif Radeef

What would a kid feel like on Christmas day, when he get the presents he want and some extra? I felt more, more than great. Great is a small word when I hear that he said, he was a soldier, he had this thing going on, and he came here to change his mind, and all by himself. Nobody urged him to do so. I was super excited, super excited.

Sam Slaven

I tell you what, that first day I was in there, I was sweating and trembling and just like, my god, what am I doing?

Lisa Pollak

There were about 10, maybe 12 students at the meeting, including Yousif, who Sam recognized instantly.

Sam Slaven

I walked in the door and I saw that same bearded guy that I'd been behind the week before. And thought, oh, wow, this is something here. And I saw a lot of females on one side of the room, and the males on the other. And just thought, I know I'm not supposed to sit by the women or something-- that's what they told us in Iraq-- but that's where the door is and I need to be near that door. And I kind of sat there.

I know I was-- my hands were clenched on the desk, and I was just trembling and sweating and just felt like I was about to have some sort of major anxiety attack, just because it was the first time I'd been outnumbered by Arabs and Muslims since I'd been in Iraq. So I felt like, hey, I'm back in Iraq again. But I had to keep telling myself, no, no you're not. You're sitting here. You're in a classroom, in college here. You're here voluntarily. You're here at a meeting.

Manal

I remember the very first day when he came, it was very shocking for us.

Lisa Pollak

That's [? Manal, ?] an MSA member from Morocco. Sam wasn't the only one in the room having a hard time that day. [? Manal ?], and her sister [? Lahmie ?], told me they were uncomfortable, too. Only for them, the reason was Sam.

We ?] were really saying, what was he doing there? Is he there as a spy? Or to record all the information that we're saying? He was asking a lot of questions at the beginning, like where are you from? And how do you spell your name? And things like that. It just made you a little skeptical.

Sam Slaven

I know somebody asked me, they're like, so why are you here? Not in a condescending manner. It was just, why are you here? What do you want to learn from this? And all I said was, like, I'm doing this for therapy. And they just looked at me like I was kind of crazy. And they're like, what do you mean? And I said, well, I was in the war and I just want to change my perspective on why I feel the way I feel about your religion and people.

Lisa Pollak

You said that the first day?

Sam Slaven

Yeah. Yeah, and some of them were like, oh, man, we've got to watch out for this guy. They were probably more concerned about me than I was concerned about them at that point.

The first ?] time he was talking about himself--

Lisa Pollak

[? Lahmie, ?] [? Manal's ?] sister.

Lahmie

He wasn't showing any regrets or any feelings about his experience in Iraq. And that was some kind of hurting for us, because of we do have feelings for what is happening in Iraq.

Lisa Pollak

[? Manal ?] told me about one young woman at the meeting who was from Iraq.

And ?] he asked that very girl from Iraq, how was the situation before? And she just told him, it was much better than now. She had some family members that died in the recent Iraq War. It was very hurting for her.

Lisa Pollak

The meeting ended. And sometime later, Sam and Yousif ended up running into each other on campus.

Sam Slaven

And I did pretty well. I shook the guy's hand, which I never thought I'd do after the first time I saw the guy. And what really struck me was when he said, I'm from Iraq. And I just froze. I was like, oh my gosh, I'm standing here with an Iraqi. I was like, wow. Not only was I with all these Muslims and everything today, but I stood there and talked to an Iraqi and shook his hand.

I went home and I called the therapist and I was like, I sat down with a bunch of Muslims this week. And we was like, oh, no, what happened?

Tim Kohlbecker

I still remember the day he told me he joined the Muslim Student Association. I almost fell off my chair.

Lisa Pollak

What Sam had done was not the course of action his therapist had recommended. He'd basically cooked up for himself an extreme version of a pretty standard treatment for trauma, exposure therapy, where you re-experience a traumatic event as a way of recovering from it.

Tim Kohlbecker

What you're trying to ultimately do is take what we call a hot memory-- that's a traumatic memory that still owns him, so to speak-- and turn it into just a bad memory. Everybody's got bad memories and we can live with bad memories. You're not going to make it go away. You just want to desensitize it so that it's not having such an intrusive effect in their lives.

Lisa Pollak

The problem with what Sam did, and why Kohlbecker says he'd never counsel a patient to do it, is that it wasn't gradual. It was like he jumped into the deep end not knowing if he could swim. But his doctor thought he could handle it, so Sam kept going back.

Tim Kohlbecker

I know it was extremely difficult for him to make himself stay in the room, but it got gradually easier and easier and easier.

Sam Slaven

Probably by the fifth or sixth week, I'd move away from the seat by the door and I start talking to the people and I'd ask questions. Like, why have I always heard this about whatever aspect of Islam? To try and understand why what happened in the name of Islam happened when I was in Iraq. And they'd be like, well, that's because that guy is totally nuts. That's why. I'm like, that makes sense.

I grew up here in the US of A-- what are we? Pretty much a Christian nation, and we got a lot of Christian nuts out here. I was like, yeah, I could see. I guess they're entitled to have their wackos, too.

Lisa Pollak

As the school year went on, some of the other students in the MSA started noticing something about Sam. The only non-Muslim in their group had become one of its most active members.

Manal

Whenever we had meetings, he was the first person to come and we would always find him at the door, waiting for the other members.

Lisa Pollak

[? Manal ?] had stopped wondering if Sam was a spy. His dedication had won her over.

Manal

And he also volunteered, almost always, to sit in a table that we would set in the college center to outreach other people and get them to know about what we really believe in, and that we're not all terrorists, things to dispel the misconceptions that people had. And it was him that was doing this job from times to others.

Lisa Pollak

Did you catch that? Sam actually sat at a table on campus, representing Muslim students.

Manal

It had a really good impact on everyone. He just showed us he was very devoted to the work he was doing.

Lisa Pollak

The adviser to the MSA, Dennis Kaczor, noticed another change in Sam.

Dennis Kaczor

I began to find out that Yousif and him were doing things, going different places and hanging out.

Lisa Pollak

And they weren't talking about the Iraq war, either.

Yousif Radeef

He said he's an Iraq war veteran. And he knows I'm a [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Iraqi. This is one of things that got us involved together, one of them. But the most thing that got us involved is probably magic, the magic tricks.

Lisa Pollak

That's right, magic tricks. See, Sam's a magician, a detail that might not be relevant were it not for the fact that Yousif loves magic. And one day, in an MSA seeming, Sam took out a deck of cards.

Yousif Radeef

Magicians, if they have nothing to do, they just practice on their cards while they're listening in a class, I believe. So he came in with his cards in his hands and he's trying to shuffle them, flip them, do the tricks. I saw him, I was like, ooh, that's cool. I asked him a couple of questions and he answered me back.

Lisa Pollak

And soon they were spending time together.

[CARDS SHUFFLING] Practicing magic tricks.

Yousif Radeef

What I'm going to going do, I'm going to take your card, and without looking at it, I'm just going to insert it down there.

Lisa Pollak

Taking their first car ride.

Sam Slaven

It was like, wow, I'm actually sitting in the car with an Iraqi.

Yousif Radeef

Were you driving me or was I driving you?

Sam Slaven

You were driving. And I think I said it out loud. I was like, I can't believe I'm sitting in here without a gun, because every time I'd been in a vehicle with an Iraqi, I was armed.

Lisa Pollak

Like any friends, they were there for each other. Yousif helped Sam fix his roof, and Sam gave Yousif advice on the best way to approach Americans when raising money for the MSA.

Yousif Radeef

Sam told me, when we go inside, don't tell them it's the Muslim Student Association.

Lisa Pollak

Don't tell them we're from the Muslim Student Association, just say MSA.

Yousif Radeef

Because we didn't want them to say, oh, wait, I'm not supporting that kind of organization. It's probably al Qaeda or something.

Lisa Pollak

And then, last April, came Sam and Yousif's most ambitious collaboration.

Male Announcer

WCIA-3 News at 10:00.

Male Reporter

Well, some runners in Champaign were busy fighting the negative image of Islam today through exercise. Parkland College's Muslim Student organization held a 5K run this morning. Runners from all over the country participated for the $1,000 top prize.

Lisa Pollak

The 5K run was the MSA's biggest project, and it never would have happened without Sam. He volunteered to organize the race, and spent months planning and publicizing it. And in the end, it was just what Yousif had hoped for, a positive event for the whole community that just happened to be sponsored by Muslims. It was a big day. And to top it off, after the race, Yousif invited Sam to play in a soccer game with a group of Muslim students from the state university.

A year earlier just the idea of being on a playing field, surrounded by Muslim men he didn't know, would have made Sam anxious.

Sam Slaven

I considered that particular day to just be a big milestone in overcoming all the PTSD and everything. Because one, I was kind of like in a gladiator pit full of Muslims, and--

Yousif Radeef

Totally.

Lisa Pollak

But just to show you how complicated their situation was, at the same time Sam was realizing how far he'd come, Yousif was having the opposite experience, getting a reminder of how far apart their two worlds still were. And I guess I should add that Sam wasn't with us when Yousif told me this part of the story.

Yousif Radeef

We got there, we played and people asked me who he was. So I told him he was Sam from the MSA, Muslim Student Association of Parkland, as you know, American and an Iraq War veteran. And some people started being suspicious. What is he doing in the MSA? He should not be in the MSA. MSA only for Muslims. He's an Iraq War veteran, don't think he's spying on us? All these things that made me feel sick to a certain point.

Lisa Pollak

What did you say to them?

Yousif Radeef

I didn't reply back. I just kept quiet. We have hang out for, I don't know, six months by then. And we were just regular friends, go out, talk, hang out at Parkland College. I kind of don't feel he was an Iraq War veteran anymore.

Sam Slaven

This is just some footage from the turret of a tank.

Lisa Pollak

When I went to Champaign, I took Sam up on his offer to play me some of the videotape he'd shot in Iraq. After all the talking we'd done about the war, it was interesting to actually see him there. There were shots of Sam him driving his Humvee, and on guard duty, and a lot of funny scenes, off-duty soldiers just goofing around. Like these guys, amusing themselves during down time by shocking themselves with tasers.

Soldier 1

C'mon, you can take it.

[TASER CRACKLING]

Soldier 2

Ah. [BLEEP] Ah, [BLEEP].

Lisa Pollak

Yousif was in the room with us. He'd come to Sam's house to meet me that day, and he'd also been curious to see the video. I kept thinking how weird it must have been for him to be watching some of the footage, even just seeing Sam in Yousif's country, wearing camouflage and sunglasses and carrying a rifle was a little startling.

In one shot, Sam tells the camera that there isn't much to see in Iraq, besides trash and filth and the scum of the earth. And then there was this scene, a bunch of soldiers standing around telling jokes to a guy named Hamsa, their Iraqi translator.

Soldier

Hey, Hamsa, you know what the difference is between an Iraqi and a human? Everything.

Lisa Pollak

The next one was hard to hear, So Sam repeated it.

Sam Slaven

The next kid here, he's saying, "What's the difference between a dead Iraqi in the road and a dead skunk in the road?" The punchline is "There's tire skid marks on the road before the dead skunk."

Lisa Pollak

And then came Sam's joke.

Sam Slaven

Hey, why do Iraqi men wear mustaches? So they can look like their mothers.

Lisa Pollak

I glanced over at Yousif to see how he was reacting. I was feeling incredibly uncomfortable. But when I asked Yousif how he was feeling, he said even though he knew some Iraqis would be offended by the jokes, he wasn't. He didn't blame Sam for talking this way.

Yousif Radeef

He was just like any other American soldier down in the battlefield.

Lisa Pollak

Do you think they're all like that?

Yousif Radeef

I would assume so. Or worse. Probably he was the best soldier [? in mood ?] back then, being this way. It's a battlefield. I mean, it's not a joke. It is a serious thing. So I do not feel different from the videos. I don't know.

Lisa Pollak

But more than anything, Yousif says, the Sam in the video just wasn't the Sam he knows. They are two different guys. And when I talk to Sam, that's basically the same thing he says. The war changed him.

Sam Slaven

You know, somebody listening to this right now might say, well, I would never say Iraqi men wear mustaches so they can look like their mothers. But you know what? Can you honestly say that without being in the situation? Because I sit here now and say, well, I'd never say that, but that's what happened. That's just how you get through it.

It's obviously not something that I'm proud of, or probably most people are proud of, but you don't care that it's perceived as bigoted or just inhumane. It doesn't matter to you because you're in this situation. They were trying to kill you. And when somebody is trying to kill you, everything you thought you believed up until the point when bullets start flying by your head, changes. It didn't bring out the very worst in me, but it is the worst I'm ever going to be in my life. I can tell you that.

Lisa Pollak

Sam told me later he was actually a little nervous showing Yousif the videos, but just a little. He trusted Yousif, trusted their friendship, which is a long way to come from wanting to take him down in a hallway. It was only by the sheer force of will that Sam even went to the Muslim Student Association in the first place. And to do it, he had to overlook every instinct he had telling him to run the other way.

And then he had to meet someone like Yousif, who welcomed him, ignoring anything Sam might have done in the past. When you consider what it took for Sam to overcome his hatred, it's no wonder it happens so rarely.

Ira Glass

Lisa Pollak. She is one of the producers of our show. Last fall, Yousif move to the University of Illinois where he's studying molecular and cell biology. He plans to be a dentist. Sam is at Eastern Illinois University, where he is studying geography.

Coming up, what to do if the very reasonable, very persuasive voice inside your head tells you to drink, to smoke, to stop ironing that skirt. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Vox Diaboli.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, The Devil Inside Me. We have stories of people battling things inside themselves, impulses and thoughts they would rather not have. We have arrived at Act Two of our show.

Act two, Vox Diaboli. Of course, we all have things inside ourselves that we want to fight. 12-step programs and self-help books and organized religion would not do such a thriving business if this were not so common. But sometimes, the voice in one's head really does seem like a voice. Addicts talk about this a lot. This is the voice of having one drink, you know, just one drink. You deserve it, you can handle it. Just one drink.

Well, one of our producers, Nancy Updike, started asking around about whether people felt like they were under a spell of an inner voice like this. And it was like people had been waiting all their lives for somebody to ask them this question. She heard from serial cheaters, and road ragers, and move-aholics, a guy who obsessively buys too much food to the point where he goes into debt, people compulsive in ways that she had never heard of.

Here are some of them. A quick warning to listeners, there's nothing explicit in here, but one of the people in here does acknowledge the existence of sex.

Man

I certainly know voice you're talking about.

Man

The voice is irresistible, always. I'm in the thrall of that voice.

Woman

Totally out of control. It's got this life of its own, and I can't tame it anymore.

Man

Up until recently, that voice has made me a very poor man.

Woman

I actually have a name for the voice. I call it Stan. Stan is the guy who tells me to have the extra glass of wine. Stan is the guy who tells me to smoke.

Man

I remember somehow realizing just how finely calibrated the voice was to every nuance, every part of my feelings, including the feeling that I didn't want to smoke cigarettes. And it's just like, might as well have another cigarette, because this is it. Tomorrow you're going to quit.

Woman

Oh yeah, my voice can pull up statistics, like, obesity is a killer.

Woman

So the voice would also say, well, it's not that many beers. Because, in fact, if you're thin enough, you actually don't have to drink all that much to get high.

Woman

Go back to bed for five minutes, just five minutes. Five more minutes, close your eyes, you'll feel great.

Man

And then tomorrow something would happen, and there's a good reason to smoke that day. And then it was, oh you already smoked today, so today's not the day you are going to quit, so smoke another cigarette.

Woman

And then I'll get up five minutes later and it'll be like, eh, I mean, you don't need to iron a skirt. Do you really need to iron the skirt? If you need to iron the skirt, do you need to be wearing the skirt? Maybe you could wear a different skirt, and then you could sleep for 10 more minutes. And that seems like a reasonable negotiation.

Woman

One of the things I do, that the voice came up with, is when I binge and purge, you never can be sure how much you got back up. The voice came up with the idea that, if I put a coffee can on a scale and adjusted the weight to include the weight of the coffee can, and weighed all my food before I ate it, and then threw up in the same coffee can, I could judge by the weight how much came up.

But that's one of the things that I don't want to do that. How complicated and time consuming and just humiliating is that? And the voice is like, yeah, but do you really want to run the risk of leaving some extra food in there?

Man

The voice definitely brings in also an element of shame. It says, you want everyone to think that you have money. You want everyone to see that you're generous and you can give and put yourself out there financially. It will prove that you're not a poor kid.

Woman

And it also says a lot of mean things, too. Your husband's too good for you, you may as well have a glass of wine because without it you won't be as entertaining.

Woman

When we decided to get engaged and we had been living together for a little while, the voice was like, you tricked him into giving you the ring, OK, that's a start. But you better try your hardest to make sure he doesn't take it away, because he's going to find out the truth about you and how much you suck. So you better distract him with a really thin body.

Woman

Well, let me just do this one. If I pop it, I'll have smooth skin, my skin will look nice after I do this. I've definitely scarred my skin. I can see the scars, even though I'm wearing makeup and everything.

Woman

It's the same thing and it always pushes me the same direction, and I'm always the same 40 minutes late.

Man

I think I probably gave the bank over $2,000 in service charges. That voice. It was so charming.

Woman

I think one thing that got me in a standoff against the voice this year was I slept with a guy who has a girlfriend, and she's kind of a bigger girl. And he had slept with a bunch of other girls in town that I knew. And they were all heavy girls. And I slept with him, and I was thinking to myself, I must have rocked his world, because I'm thin and he's used to these fat girls. And then I found out he was going around town saying that having sex with me was like having sex with a pile of paper clips, which is not nice.

And for a couple of days I was kind of like, you know, maybe you're wrong, voice. Maybe you're wrong and maybe I should gain weight and maybe I should stop sleeping with these men. And that lasted for a couple of days and then the voice was like, when he said pile of paper clips, all the other girls were jealous when they heard that. And at least he's talking about you. At least you made an impression on him.

No matter what they say, the voice turns it into a compliment.

Nancy Updike

Do you feel like the voice is winning?

Woman

Right now, yeah. I think I'm in some serious trouble, to be honest.

Ira Glass

Thanks to everybody who talked with us. That story from Nancy Updike.

[MUSIC - "LEXICON DEVIL" BY THE GERMS]

Act Three. The Devil Wears Birkenstocks.

Ira Glass

Act three, The Devil Wears Birkenstocks. Well, we've heard today from people who are battling all kinds of inner demons. David Dickerson has done that, and he's gone one step further.

David Dickerson

When I was 23 years old and wrestling with my faith, the last big battle for my soul came when I had to face down an actual demon who was a guest in one of my university classes. Or that's how I saw it at the time. But the battle had started long before, when I was a kid. I had been raised a fundamentalist Christian. Adam and Eve, the flood, David and Goliath, all of that really happened. Jesus walked on water and was born of the Virgin and said everything that the four gospels tell us.

But after years of religious studies classes at the University of Arizona, I felt myself swerving toward a moderate Catholicism and wasn't quite sure about many of the things I had been raised to believe. The history of the Bible wasn't as pure as I had been taught. I was questioning inconsistencies, like how simple textual analysis pretty much proves Paul didn't write the book of Hebrews. Basic facts about the nature of Jesus, of God, of our duties on this earth seemed to me less like eternal truths and more like things I happen to believe.

But I was still sure about two things. There was a spiritual world behind what we could see, and it contained both good and evil spirits. Angels, that is, and demons. I believed this for a couple reasons. First of all, the Bible said so. Time and again in the gospels, a demon-possessed person will cross Jesus' path and then the demon inside the person snarls and curses. Jesus rebukes the demon, casts them out, and the person is healed.

But beyond just the Bible, my sister and father had both seen demons. They've always been kind of closet charismatics, and for a while our family was going to both kinds of services. Charismatic Christians are the ones who speak in tongues and lay hands on sick people. At that church, we got regular reports from visiting missionaries who would tell hair-raising stories about how they'd faced down local witch doctors who would suddenly yell at the missionaries in a strange voice and in perfect English, or cause spears to levitate over them menacingly.

I'd never actually seen a demon myself, but all of us Christian kids traded demon tales the way other kids swap ghost stories, and for the same reason, because it's scary, but exciting, but scary, but exciting. So even though years went by, and I still never saw a demon, a little sliver of that fear stayed with me and kept me on my guard, just in case. If I ever did meet one, I wouldn't make the mistake of treating it like a metaphor.

So anyway, at the time of this story, I was a college senior, and to fill out my last semester of electives, I decided to take a class called Paranormal Anthropology. This was about strange phenomena. Dowsing, UFOs, ESP, past life regression, all that stuff you find on the X-Files. And the professor was really interesting, because although our textbook was a skeptical look at all these things, he would bring in guest lecturers who were actual believers, so we could get both sides of the story.

We were lectured one week by three UFO abductees. And the next week, we had a dowser try and trace the water mains on the University green. The dowser failed, and the abductees were weird. And, on the whole, it looked like science was winning.

But then, one day, the professor announced that our guest next time would be a medium, a woman who channeled spirits. And she was going to let herself get possessed, right there in the classroom, two days from now. As soon as he said it, I was terrified. For all my book learning, in some raw, anxious way I was still 10 years old and overwhelmed. There was going to be a demon in this classroom-- an actual agent of spiritual evil-- who was counting on people not believing in him. People would ask this demon questions, and this demon would answer, speaking with the voice of Satan, and everyone would nod and no one would know the real agenda of this creature.

I was the only conservative Christian I knew of in that class, which meant that I was the only one who could save us from, well, from being corrupted by evil in some direct, horrible way. I wasn't at all sure what the demon would do or say. All I knew was that what had been a simple academic pursuit had suddenly turned into the most serious spiritual test of my life.

Only, I was really not up to the task. My faith had wandered. I had gone to Catholic mass. I had several gay friends. I had said skeptical things about the authorship of Hebrews. Now it was as if the god of my old Christianity, the real God, the straightforward God, the God who the Bible plainly states is there and whom I had become too highfalutin to simply accept, was calling me back to the battlefield. And I had two days to get into spiritual shape.

I started fasting immediately, and holed up in my room for hours. I prayed, "Lord, Jesus, please protect me in this coming battle. Build a wall of protection around the classroom, and protect all my fellow students. Give me the wisdom to know what to say, the courage to face this evil in your name and please, please, please, please protect me."

I repeated this over and over for the next two days. I didn't watch TV. I didn't use my computer. I couldn't let anything distract me, because I knew that if I failed-- well, you probably saw The Exorcist, same idea. This was a magic monster, one who could probably smell the Holy Spirit dwelling inside me, and who would find some way to attack. All this was scary, but I have to admit, it was exciting, too, which is basically what the conservative Christian's whole life is like.

There's temptation on every side, you have to constantly immerse yourself in prayer, in the Bible, in the community of faith. But with that fear comes the thrill of getting to be an instrument of goodness in an evil world. And for me now, with this impending demon, here it suddenly was, years after I'd given up expecting it. I'd been groomed for this battle since I was a little kid. This was my chance to be a hero for the faith, just like my namesake, King David. I had read the Bible stories about him hundreds of times.

I walked in the class that Thursday wearing a cross necklace I had lately been setting aside, and I slapped down my New International Version Study Bible right there in front of me on the table. I just stared at it and prayed and didn't talk to anyone. I was trembling, partly from fear and tension, and partly, of course, from hunger.

And then the medium came in, an overweight woman of about 55. Faded jeans, faded T-shirt, tacky bead necklaces and long, graying hair. She had a friend with her who acted as her assistant. And this friend, also frumpy, said that the medium often had several different spirits come through her in a session, so we might notice her voice changing.

They dimmed the lights slightly. The medium went into her trance. And then her assistant said, she's just reached her spirit guide, who's an Indian chief from the Hopi tribe who died in the 1800s. Does anyone have any questions? An old sort of hippie-ish woman, an Indian spirit guide. This started seeming less sinister and more like something out of community theater.

But, of course I told myself, that's exactly what Satan would want me to think, because if the devil doesn't want us to believe in him, this was a really perfect disguise. But, then again, how would I know the difference?

And just then, the medium moaned and rolled her head, and her friend announced, she is now channeling the spirit of King David. King David. Hell, I was a Bible scholar, this was my turf. I flipped to the Psalms, the book that David is supposed to have written, and found a question I had always been curious about. When the teacher asked, does anyone have a question for King David?, my hand shot up.

The professor called on me and I rose to my feet. And, still staring intently at my open Bible, and with a voice that was actually quivering, I said, "Yes, um, King David? I notice here that some of your Psalms are called Maskils, and some are called Miktams, and according to my footnotes, these are musical terms. But scholars don't actually know what they mean. Could you please explain the difference?"

There was a brief pause. I was too scared to look at her face. Finally, the medium said, "Yes, I could explain. But the answer would be very technical, and I don't think it would interest anybody." And her friend said, "Next question."

It all happened so quickly that I wasn't sure how to understand it. I decided that the demon, who would clearly have known the answer, just didn't blurt it out because he wanted to avoid a fight with a real Christian. The second the bell rang, the women left the classroom without a word. I thanked God for the victory, and went to grab some pizza.

While I was sitting at a booth, waiting for my slice to arrive, I mentally replayed exactly what had happened. And I realized that God hadn't technically won. A win for God would have been the demon calling me out in a creepy voice, and me brandishing the cross and saying, "In the name of Jesus, I command you," and maybe papers flying everywhere. Instead, what had happened was that a liar had come into our classroom, and I'd beaten her with scholarship.

What's more, it hadn't even been close. Book learning had been easier, swifter, and more powerful than prayer and fasting combined. Right then, for the first time, I saw myself from the outside. And what I saw was that my belief in demons was actually kind of silly. My next immediate thought was, well, if demons don't exist except in stories I hear from other people, what about angels? For that matter, what about the Virgin birth? Oh, my god.

And before I knew it, I felt like I was falling helplessly, because it turns out you can't actually make yourself believe something if the doubts seem more likely.

When I think about it now, that one rational question put to the demon, that shipwrecked my faith. I had kicked open one door too many, and I could no longer stay inside where I felt safe. For a few years, I kept going to church. I kept trying to believe. But after awhile, I let go altogether. If you ask my family, they'd claim that when I fought that nonexistent demon, Satan actually won, that he couldn't have chosen a better answer to make the whole idea of demons seem ridiculous, and kill my faith forever.

Ira Glass

Dave Dickerson in New York.

Credits.

Ira Glass

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

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. And you know, part of management oversight is that he calls us into his office once a year for annual evaluations and reviews. I actually have right here a recording of one of the sessions.

Soldier 1

C'mon you can take it.

Soldier 2

Ah. [BLEEP]. Ah, [BLEEP].

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.