Transcript

386:

Fine Print
Transcript

Originally aired 07.24.2009

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/386

Prologue.

Ira Glass

The way that I always heard the story was that Van Halen had something in the contract that they used when they toured that said that everywhere that they went-- in every city, in every dressing room on their tour-- there had to be a bowl of M&Ms, and that the brown M&Ms had to be removed. It's kind of a well-known story, I think. And the way that I understood it is that it showed what divas rock stars could be, that any whim that they had would have to be met, no matter how petty. You hate brown M&Ms? Poof, they will cease to exist in your world.

And then a couple of years ago we had this band, They Might Be Giants, on our radio show. And by the way, you're listening to This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. Anyway, we had this band on the show. And I got to know them a little bit. And I had never talked to a touring rock musician about that story. And I remember John Flansburgh saying to me, no, no, no, no, no. I had the meaning of the story totally wrong.

John Flansburgh

I think there was only one no, Ira.

Ira Glass

This is John. I asked him to come and talk about this with me again today, here on the radio. He told me that the music industry name for what we were discussing was the contract rider.

John Flansburgh

The thing that the average rock fan doesn't realize is that in the itinerant life of somebody in a rock band, they're relying on a promoter-- probably a different promoter every day-- to give them everything. And a contract rider is, basically, the entire show from beginning to end. I mean, you're talking about personnel. You're talking about the PA. So a lot of it is very prosaic stuff. People really focus on the dressing room stuff. But actually most of it is just making sure that there's, literally, enough electricity in the venue so that the show doesn't end after 10 minutes.

Ira Glass

And this, Flansburgh says, was what was so ingenious about the brown M&Ms. Van Halen had this huge setup with lots of gear. And if the local promoter didn't carefully read the contract rider, stuff could collapse. It could be dangerous. So the brown M&Ms were like the canary in the coal mine. The contract rider said that brown M&Ms were not supposed to be there. If they were there, look out.

John Flansburgh

It was a very clever way to make sure that all the specifics of his contract rider were going to be met, including technical requirements, safety requirements, all the things that David Lee Roth is probably more worried about than his actual M&Ms needs.

Ira Glass

Yeah, actually in his autobiography he writes this. I found this on snopes.com. He explains the M&Ms this way. David Lee Roth writes, "Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into third level markets."

John Flansburgh

Tertiary markets is the word we use.

Ira Glass

Tertiary markets. "We'd pull up with nine 18-wheeler trucks full of gear in places where the standard was three trucks max. And there were many, many technical errors, whether it was the girders couldn't support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren't big enough to move the gear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese yellow pages, because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in Article number 126 in the middle of nowhere was, quote, 'there will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area upon pain of forfeiture of the show with full compensation,' end quote."

So he writes, "When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl, well, line check the entire production. Guaranteed you're going to arrive at a technical error. They didn't read the contract. Guaranteed you'd run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to destroy the whole show. Sometimes, literally, life threatening."

John Flansburgh

Wow.

Ira Glass

Now when I e-mailed you to see if you wanted to come on the radio and talk about this, you said, oh, that's really a coincidence. Because you had just spent your whole day yesterday working on your contract rider?

John Flansburgh

Yeah, we're going out on tour for two months in the fall. And basically a couple of days ago, I was looking at the contract rider, which was 25 pages long, this crazy, Frankenstein document that-- there was some really odd vestigial stuff. I actually found we have all these personnel requirements for loaders, and electricians, and fly riggers, and all these people. There are 30 people that the promoter is going to hire on our behalf. And they have very specific job descriptions. But in only half of them did we require that they be sober.

Ira Glass

Wait, your contract for some of them says specifically they have to be sober?

John Flansburgh

It was such a hodge-podge that in some cases-- what had happened is we had had a bunch of loaders that had come in from another show the night before that had ended at 5:00 in the morning. And they came into our show at 7:00 in the morning to, literally, do another show. And they all got drunk in the couple of hours in between. So in our contract rider we said, the loaders have to be sober. But unfortunately, the way a contract reads, it looks like you're kind of implying that everybody else can be drunk. And no one had ever thought to cross it out.

Ira Glass

Is there an M&Ms clause in your contract?

John Flansburgh

It's such a personal thing. It's like asking somebody what's in their medicine chest. There are no M&Ms on our-- We have like hummus, and tabbouleh, and like a lot-- I mean, you would think it was Sarah McLachlan the way our contract rider reads.

Ira Glass

I mean more is there an M&Ms clause, is there a thing in your contract that you put in there to be sure that people read the contract?

John Flansburgh

I think the first line of our contract is, "The promoter needs to call our tour manager when he gets this rider." That's basically-- just getting good communication going-- rather than bullying and threshold tests-- is the way we do it.

Ira Glass

And so if you don't get the call you know, all right.

John Flansburgh

Yeah. And believe it or not, oftentimes they don't call. They've got other things to do.

Ira Glass

Well today on our radio show we have stories of the fine print. We dive into the fine print, in places where the fine print really, really matters. Act one of our show, Side Effects May Include-- Nancy Updike has the story of fine print happening at a place you might never suspect it. Act two, Occupancy May Be Revoked Without Notice. In that story, David Rakoff brings us the fine print that could fix what therapy fails to. Act three, Restrictions May Apply. We visit the place that is like a factory for our nation's most notorious fine print. Act four, May Be Hazardous To Children. Susan Burton rereads the fine print that changed her childhood. Stay with us.

Act One. Side Effects May Include...

Ira Glass

Act one, Side Effects May Include--

A confession is not supposed to have fine print. It's supposed to state this is what happened, this is what I did, all very straightforward. But of course, all kinds of confessions come with asterisks attached. This first story is about a confession that was given in Iran in the Fall of 2004, when things were actually a bit freer than they are right now. Nancy Updike tells what happened.

Nancy Updike

At 30 years old, Omid Memarian, a journalist in Iran, went where he wanted, talked to whomever he felt like talking to. Reformists, hardliners, foreigners, the vice president of the world bank, why not?

Political debate in Iran was robust. Omid's view was, he lived in a country that had problems. And he was a critic of those problems. But it also had a constitution, elections, some independent newspapers. Iran wasn't North Korea. It wasn't Myanmar.

In October of 2004, Omid was arrested at his office by government men in plainclothes. Didn't have badges, did have guns. And within a few hours, Omid was sitting in an interrogation room at a prison whose name and location he didn't know. After a while, a man walked in.

Omid Memarian

Like 55 years old with a very short beard, and kind of calm. And I felt that this guy might be a nice guy. But when I said hi to this guy, then he just started beating me. And I was sitting next to the wall and on a chair. And the guy took my head, and was hitting my head to the wall. And he was doing that. And at one point I remember, the guy was asking me about my travel to the US.

In 2004, I was invited to come here to the US and give a speech. So I got my visa. I went to Frankfurt Airport, and then somebody called my name. So they told me that my name was on the No Fly List, a list that I think Osama Bin Laden probably is on the top. So I took the first flight. And I went back home.

So the interrogator was asking me what happened in Washington, DC. And I said, hi, I didn't go there. I was on the No Fly List. Probably you guys are there. We are all on this list. And the guy said, no, we have tapes of those meetings that you had in Washington, DC. We have all the documents. And I said, dude, I have not been there. Look at my passport. It doesn't show anything. There is no stamp on my passport.

At that moment I learned that they really-- Americans-- they bluff. They just bluff.

Nancy Updike

And once you figured out that part of what they were doing was bluffing, was that a relief? Or was that more terrifying? Did that make you feel like, I have no idea what to do?

Omid Memarian

When they bluffed, at the beginning I thought, oh, there is nothing here. But the thing was, when you have to talk about something that never happened, this was much harder than to talk about something that happened. Because when nothing was there, it was really hard to imagine that kind of incidence. I mean, this guy was beating me, and at one point, I was on the floor. He was hitting my stomach with his leg. In that case, I threw up. And I just couldn't accept that, because I'd never been to the US.

Nancy Updike

Forced confessions are not a new phenomenon, more like eternal. And Omid got the standard treatment-- beatings and solitary. But every government that forces confessions has its own variation on the process, its own way of building up its library of confessions.

Omid Memarian

He gave me a kind of notebook and a pen, and asked me to start writing everything you have done over the past seven years. And so I thought, that's fine. I can write everything. I don't have any secret. And there's nothing to be worried about.

So he was there. I was sitting on a chair. And I started writing. There was a table there too. And every five minutes he asked me to see my writing. Every five minutes.

And then when he saw what I was writing, he screamed at me and said, no, this is not what I want. This is not what I want from you. You should tell me the truth. And I said, this is the truth. And he said, no, you're hiding the truth. Tell me what happened behind the doors.

I had no idea what he wanted me to write for them. I had no idea, because I said in many cases that this is exactly what happened. This is exactly the people I met. Actually, I wrote a biography of myself for them. It was a very honest biography. I even talked about things I never talked to my mom, or my dad, or my friends.

They asked about my girlfriends. In Iran you can not have a girlfriend when you are not married. The guy asked me to confess about my sexual relationship.

Tell me how you started. Do you use condom? Did you use porn? Did you watch porn?

I start crying. I begged him. I begged him, please, do not ask that. Please do not ask that. I can not do that. And I was like, oh my God. Where are you going from here? And he forced me to write that.

They told me all the time, you're going to stay here for six months, a year, two years. You're not going to go home. Forget it. And I was so devastated. I felt so hopeless. And I said, God, please help me. These people are doing this with me with your name, you know, reading Koran, praying five times a day. The guy was beating me, and sometimes stopped beating me to pray on time.

And the thing is, I remember once I watched a movie. Its name is Irreversible. It was in my mind all the time, that there is a point in everybody's life that your life separates to before that event and after that. So for me, I knew that there's a point that I can not take more pressure. I knew people who stayed for a long time in prison, and they never be able to come back to their normal life. They never become normal persons.

Nancy Updike

They never recovered.

Omid Memarian

They never recovered. And I knew those people. I talked to those people. I didn't want to be those people at the age of 30. And at one point when their pressure was so high, I thought I was entering to the irreversible part.

Nancy Updike

In the third week, he gave in.

Omid Memarian

I said, OK, what do you want me to write for you? And they said, so these are the names, these are the topics.

I drafted my story. It was the only unpaid story I have written in my life. I'm always paid. But anyways.

Nancy Updike

The only unpaid story you've ever written in your life was your false confession?

Omid Memarian

Yes. I drafted my story. I gave it to my interrogator. And then he was like my editor. He changed some of the names. And he just changed the order. And then he gave me a few pages analysis. And I had to include those approaches-- those lines-- in my confessions.

Nancy Updike

Your interrogator is literally writing on your draft? He's making notes in the margins, and crossing things out, and adding things like an editor?

Omid Memarian

Exactly like that. He gave me directions. For example, I said I wrote for this newspaper or that newspaper. I went to these countries. I met these people. So in their version it was, with the suggestion of that politician, I went to this country. And I was a part of a plan. It was a big plan. And I had to say that I intentionally-- and sometimes, unintentionally-- I have cooperated with them through my writings, through my blog, through my travels, through my talks, and that kind of things.

Nancy Updike

Were there specific words he wanted you to use?

Omid Memarian

Definitely I had to use velvet revolution.

Nancy Updike

And how do you say velvet revolution in Farsi?

Omid Memarian

[SPEAKING FARSI]

Nancy Updike

And he wanted you to put those exact words in?

Omid Memarian

Exact words.

Nancy Updike

Confessions in Iran are sometimes broadcast on TV. They show up in the evenings on the state-run news programs. Transcripts of confessions are also posted on government websites. And watching, reading, and hearing about one Iranian confession after another, it's impossible not to notice a distinct and unchanging editorial vision at work here. Because the fact is, people in Iran who have never met each other have nevertheless been confessing to a lot of the same things, in a lot of the same ways, for at least 10 years.

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

In these video clips from this summer following the disputed election, one ordinary Iranian after another is confessing to having been manipulated by the BBC and Voice of America to cause mayhem or undermine the regime. And here's another confession. There's no tape. But we've got a transcript. It's a TV confession from a few weeks ago. Maziar Bahari, a documentary filmmaker and reporter for Newsweek in Iran, was arrested after the election. And he's still in custody. His confession is a classic of the genre. It's so crammed with buzz phrases and bullet points that in some parts it gets hard to understand.

It says quote, "I, as a journalist, and as part of the huge capitalist machinery of the West, sometimes blindly, and sometimes intentionally, positioned myself on the side that was suggesting that a color revolution was underway. According to the models of color and velvet revolutions, we can consider the incidents in recent weeks as classic but defeated examples of a color revolution because it has the same properties as a color revolution."

When Omid heard that a transcript of this guy Maziar's confession was going to be released, he bet a friend who'd also been imprisoned in Iran that they could guess what would show up in Maziar's confession. So they wrote down their guesses. When they read the confession, they were stunned at how right they were.

Omid Memarian

Because what Maziar Bahari said, this was not Maziar's language. Everybody who knows Maziar, everybody who knows the other guy, [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I mean [UNINTELLIGIBLE] used to work in the same newspaper. Nice guy. They didn't talk with their language. It was the interrogator's language. It's the security forces language. What he said was kind of analysis. I read that analysis inside the prison. It was the same. The narrative was very clear. The foreigners, they are influencing society. They want to change the society. Velvet revolution.

Nancy Updike

Another recurring part of the narrative is the inclusion of the names of foreign people and institutions whenever possible, hopefully famous ones. The BBC, CNN, Newsweek, The New York Times, George Soros, President Clinton, UCLA, Princeton, all have appeared in various confessions.

I talked to one former student activist arrested in 2000, Ali Afshari, who confessed to intentionally criticizing the supreme leader, and unintentionally trying to overthrow the regime. Ali's interrogator tried to get him to write into his confession that former CIA director George Tenet had personally guided the overthrowing plan. Of course, the CIA did famously orchestrate an overthrow in Iran in 1953, a truth that for many Iranians, no doubt, makes anything seem possible. But for Ali, the idea that he, as a student activist, had been a lackey for George Tenet was absurd and insulting. It was as though his confession was a historical novel. And his editor kept trying to get him to beef up the realness by sprinkling in actual historical figures.

By now, Iranian political confessions have become so repetitive and recognizable that one of Iran's most famous political satirists, Ebrahim Nabavi, recently posted a fake one on YouTube.

Ebrahim Nabavi

[SPEAKING FOEIGN LANGUAGE]

Nancy Updike

The comedian is dressed in prison stripes, and identifies himself as Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the former vice president of Iran. If that seems like part of the joke, it isn't. Abtahi is one of the hundreds of people who've been in prison since the election.

In the spoof, the comedian looks sheepishly at the camera and says, "I confess that when I travelled to holy Mecca, I met with one of the agents from the frightening CIA. He called me, and offered me to do a velvet revolution."

There are obvious edits in the satire video. And over the course of the story, the comedian's face gets covered in more and more Band-Aids. As he continues, he admits that he eventually agreed to do the velvet revolution, as long as he could do it his way.

"I imported a few bolts of green velvet fabrics from Israel and England. During this time-- in addition to millions of dollars of funding that was handed to me by Christiane Amanpour-- I also started the green velvet fabric business."

Later in the story, he suggests to one of his co-conspirators that they should change their revolution to focus on a cheaper fabric than velvet. The comedian, by the way, was himself forced to confess years ago. He no longer lives in Iran.

These confessions, for all their heavy-handedness, have been crushingly effective. They've ended careers, driven people out of the country, and kept others looking over their shoulder for the rest of their lives. Because the bargain is, confess and there's a good chance you'll be released. Probably. Eventually.

But the state could decide to bring a case against you afterward anyway. Or they could go after your friends and family. Or with all the personal details you've confessed along with the political ones, the security services could blackmail you into working for them as a propagandist, an informant.

Meanwhile, many Iranians, even today, believe the confessions are genuine, or at least could be. For those who get their news mostly from the state-run TV channels, the confessions seem as real as anything else on the news.

Even Omid, before he was arrested, sometimes wondered if the stories he'd heard about torture and forced confessions were exaggerations, or even made up all together. Like I said, very effective.

Omid Memarian

I really understood at one point that it's not all about me. They are gathering information about the reformists. I mean, for example, they gave me names at one point. And I said, I have never seen these people. I know these people, I have never seen these people. And I can not say that I have met them, or they have directed me, or they have guided me. And they told me that it's OK. When you confess and when you use their names in your confession, it will be so alarming for them. So they wanted to intimidate those people, those reformists, as well. They didn't care that I didn't meet any of those people. So the people who are in prison now, ranking reformists, they had been after them like for five, six years. They just didn't decide to arrest them [UNINTELLIGIBLE] after the election. They had been planning for this for years.

Nancy Updike

Omid wrote six drafts for his interrogator by his own estimate. And out of that, they shaped a 5,000 word version and a shorter 2,000 word op-ed style version. Excerpts were printed in several newspapers. And then he had to confess on TV.

Omid Memarian

And they told me, my interrogator said, this is the last part of the game. You should be on TV, and it's over. Don't screw us.

Nancy Updike

Some TV confessions in Iran are the stark, looking straight at the camera confession you're probably imagining. But with other people-- journalists, or politicians, or big activists-- often it's staged as an informal interview-- in a room set up with chairs, a table, maybe some flowers-- as though, they're sitting down for a chat with Matt Lauer.

Omid Memarian

It was a beautiful room decorated beautifully with curtain, flowers, chairs, orange juice. But the thing was I wanted to make it more unprofessional. So they had to cut all the time. Saying, cut. Again. Omid, what are you doing?

A few times I cried. It was unintentional and also intentional. Both. I didn't want to make it very easy for them.

Nancy Updike

And was your chief interrogator there behind the camera saying, you know, you did it wrong. Do it again?

Omid Memarian

Yes, he was there. And he asked me to stop. And I had to start again. So it took four hours to finish half an hour confession.

Nancy Updike

After Omid was released in December of 2004, he leaked to Human Rights Watch that he and about 19 others who'd been arrested around the same time had been coerced into confessing. And the shocking thing was, many top government officials-- when they heard what had happened to Omid and the others-- were shocked. Officials like the president, moderate reformist Mohammed Khatami, and his ministers. It caused an uproar.

And eventually Omid and another young journalist met with the head of the judiciary, the Grand Ayatollah Shahroudi. He's still the head of the judiciary today. He's the Iranian equivalent of the attorney general.

And Omid learned that the security force's standard procedure with the confessions was to make copies, and send them along to government officials and top ayatollahs as proof that there were Iranian citizens bent on undermining and plotting against the state. And because the interrogators took so much care to make the confessions look unforced-- with the flowers and the vase, and the chatty interviewer, the confessing person not looking beat up or emaciated-- apparently the videos were pretty convincing.

When Omid and the other journalist told the head of the judiciary everything that had led up to their confessions, it was clear to Omid that he was hearing these things for the first time.

Omid Memarian

I really trusted this guy. I felt that he was very honest. He had a very honest reaction. I could see in his face he was so angry. And he was saying all the time, [SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]. You know, people use it when they do not believe something, or something's very astounding for them.

Nancy Updike

But for all the shock, and outrage, and the promises to look into what had happened and take action, nothing changed. Not because the head of the judiciary, or anyone else, was insincere, Omid thinks. They just weren't, and possibly aren't, strong enough to fight what was happening.

Omid Memarian

Many people, they are not happy, even in the conservative camp, even among Ahmadinejad supporters. They are really mad at what is going on. In my case, I remember that many people on the judiciary and in the government-- conservatives, that I had a chance to talk to them-- they told me that they are so stunned at how these guys are brutal, and why they are doing this, and how they are not responsible.

Nancy Updike

Last week, the lieutenant commander of Iran's Basij militia was quoted saying, "There are now so many confessions obtained from rioters that even if all the media mobilized for a long time to broadcast them, they still couldn't get all the information out to the people."

A few days before that story came out, one of the most senior ayatollahs in Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, said in a translation on the Middle East Media Research Institute Website, "The proud people of Iran know very well exactly how authentic the detainees' confessions are. They are like confessions obtained by fascist and communist regimes. The nation knows that the false confessions and televised interviews were obtained from its imprisoned sons with threats and torture, and that their aim is to cover up the oppression and injustice, and to present a distorted image of the people's peaceful and legal protest."

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our show.

Coming up, the fine print that keeps mom in her place. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Occupancy May Be Revoked Without Notice.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Fine Print.

Usually, most of us try to just skip the fine print. You know, we don't read the rental car agreements or the software license end user agreements. We just click I Agree.

Today on our show we have stories where the fine print has real consequences. We've arrived at act two of our show. Act two, Occupancy May Be Revoked Without Notice. This next bit of fine print was brought to us by David Rakoff.

David Rakoff

The following shall constitute the binding agreement between Mr. Gregory [? Stolzenberg ?] of Yonkers, New York, hereafter known as owner, and his mother, Mrs. Barbara [? Stolzenberg ?] of Tenafly, New Jersey, hereafter known as mother, in regards to the third floor bedroom of number 41 old [? Alewive's ?] Lane, Yonkers, New York.

One. Upon completion of chemotherapy and surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mother shall take occupancy for an as yet undetermined period of time, hereafter known as convalescent period, not to exceed four weeks in duration.

Two. A front door key will be left underneath the stone frog near the rhododendron. Mother agrees to return said key to its hiding place, for once.

Three. Mother acknowledges herewith that she is aware that as a converted attic, the third floor and its bedroom are accessible by a retractable ladder.

Subparagraph one. Mother hereby waives any and all recourse to the Americans with Disabilities Act and to any liability on the owner's part in the event of any injury.

Subparagraph two. Included in mother's accommodation, she shall be given 24 hour access to the bathroom on the second floor.

Four. Per mother's previous request, she shall occupy the lower bunk of the third floor bedroom while owner's eight-year-old son, Robbie [? Stolzenberg, ?] shall occupy the top bunk.

Five. Mother may take breakfast and supper with the family-- please see attached appendix detailing the meal plan-- and agrees that upon finishing eating, she will quote, "make herself scarce." As has been previously and frequently discussed, quote, "sitting quietly with a magazine, and not saying a word even if you begged me to say something," unquote, differs wholly in spirit, letter, and intention from making oneself scarce.

Mother further agrees not to do quote, "that thing with the chewing and the breathing."

Subparagraph one. Further to the matter of quote, "making oneself scarce," unquote-- and it is herein that this subparagraph not be construed as belaboring a matter to the point of obsession-- but mother further concedes herein that both owner and his wife have been medically assessed to be of excellent to above average hearing. And as such, any and all comments-- even those spoken at a whisper-- are perfectly audible.

Further, owner's wife as a Mexican born Catholic, and therefore not possessed of a formal Yiddish education, is well aware that the word curva has entered common English usage to mean whore. And the use of said word, even when muttered, is heard, and emphatically not appreciated.

Six. Mother may make daily use of the public rooms on the main floor, such as the living room from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM, or until Robbie [? Stolzenberg ?] returns home from school, whichever happens sooner, at which time mother must relinquish the television remote and quote, "make herself scarce," unquote. See paragraph five.

Mother may receive visitors, no more than two a day. Although under no circumstances may mother receive her daughter, the omniscient and perfect-- it is acknowledged that both adjectives are being employed ironically-- Mrs. Marla [? Stolzenberg ?] Burns of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey for reasons that have been previously and frequently discussed.

If Mrs. [? Stolzenberg ?] Burns's eagerness to see her mother is deemed as so overwhelming, then perhaps the entire location of the convalescent period can be reassessed. Just say the word. Go on, say it. Say it. Say it.

Subparagraph one. Mention is made hereby that in the matter of the husband of the omniscient and perfect Mrs. Marla [? Stolzenberg ?] Burns, the owner's brother-in-law, Dr. Howard Burns of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Mother further agrees that there is a material difference between a dermatologist and God almighty, and that there are, indeed, many things that the former does not know regardless of how much he pulls down annually.

Seven. All efforts have been made herein to draft an impartial agreement with malice and favor towards none. This document is to serve as a mutual protection to both parties. And the full execution of which, it is hoped, will avert any future difficulties that might in any way resemble events of Thanksgiving 2005, 2006, 2007, or August 2008 at the beach.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff is the author of several books, including Don't Get Too Comfortable.

Act Three. Restrictions May Apply.

Ira Glass

Act three, Restrictions May Apply.

At this point even die hard news consumers have to admit this sad truth about the health care debate. It's usually really, really boring. I ask you, is there any writer in the English language gifted enough to compose an interesting sentence involving the long-term financial health of Medicare? No, there is not.

But a month ago, a House subcommittee held a hearing where a handful of congresspeople could tear into witnesses with the zeal of starving men eating their first real meal in months. They found a corner of the health care crisis that anybody could understand, that would make anybody mad, that anybody would want to get in there and fix. It didn't get much coverage, this hearing. It was the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. And here is its chairman Bart Stupak of Michigan, reviewing the fine print of an insurance application with Don Hamm, who's the head of the insurance company that issued it, Assurant Health.

What the congressman is trying to figure out in this first clip I'm going to play you is, are these insurance application forms intentionally difficult, so an average person would make mistakes filling them out? Mistakes that would later let the insurance company deny them benefits, or cancel their policy.

Bart Stupak

As you said, your Assurant Health questionnaires are simple, easy to understand, straightforward language, so people can easily and accurately report their medical history. So let me ask you this. In your policy, Mr. Hamm, it states in question number 14, "Within the last 10 years, has any proposed insured had any diagnosis, received treatment for, or consulted with a physician concerning phlebitis, TIA, [? cystitis, ?] lymphadenopathy, or glandular disorder?" So tell me, what is TIA?

Don Hamm

I am not aware. I believe--

Bart Stupak

If you don't know what it is, how would anyone filling out your application know what it is? So there's grounds to deny them right there. You don't even know what it is, either do I.

How about phlebitis or lymphadenopathy? How about lymphadenopathy, what's that?

Don Hamm

I don't know the answer to those questions.

Bart Stupak

Do you sincerely believe that an average applicant would know what these words mean, if you don't know and I don't know?

Don Hamm

Sir, I believe that is an application that is not currently used at this time. I would like to--

Bart Stupak

It's last year's application. Last year's application. Have you changed the application in the last year?

Don Hamm

I'm not aware if we have changed that application.

Ira Glass

His hearing was the culmination of a year-long investigation by the subcommittee into the fine print of our nation's insurance policies, and specifically, into something called rescission, for people who have their own, individual insurance. This doesn't apply to people get insurance through their jobs or group insurance policies. For people who have individual insurance, rescission is what happens when an insurance company decides that you lied when you applied for a policy with them-- you pretended that you were healthier than you really were, or you concealed a serious and expensive illness, or you simply made a mistake without intending to, and omitted something about your health that they might want to know. And so they cancel your policy. They rescind it.

The problem according to the subcommittee's investigation is that so many people get kicked off who weren't trying to deceive the insurance companies at all. They found that if you get an illness-- especially an expensive illness-- the insurance companies go looking for a way to kick you off.

The subcommittee found a guy in Virginia who lost his coverage because the insurance agent who sold him the policy incorrectly wrote down the guy's weight on a form, and then never showed it to the guy to double check.

A patient in Utah who needed surgery lost their insurance because of a mistake, an omission, on their spouse's application.

I got a chance to talk with one of the lawmakers on the subcommittee, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a democrat form Illinois. And she told me that even somebody like her, who has worked on health care issues for decades, was surprised to find out that this could happen.

Jan Schakowsky

I hadn't even heard of it before, that you could actually be paying premiums, and then exactly when you really need the health insurance, they go back and deny it.

Ira Glass

And listening to this hearing, it seems like this was one of those cases where all of you really seemed really, truly angry.

Jan Schakowsky

Really, truly, angry. Yes. In a very emotional and personal way. This wasn't just another issue.

Ira Glass

And explain why.

Jan Schakowsky

The very idea that a woman who has been diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, who was insured, was suddenly told, we're not going to pay for this.

Robin

My name is Robin Beaton. I'm 59 years old. I was a registered nurse for 30 years. In June 2008, I was diagnosed with invasive HER2 genetic breast cancer, a very aggressive form of this cancer. I needed a double mastectomy immediately.

The Friday before I was to have my double mastectomy, Blue Cross and Blue Shield called me by telephone and told me that my chart was red flagged. And what does that mean? They said that due to the dermatologist's report--

Jan Schakowsky

There was something on her chart earlier about a dermatitis that they took to mean pre-cancerous. And even though the dermatologist called and said, please, this is acne. Do not deny her her breast cancer treatment. They said, no. They said no.

Robin

He said please don't hold up her cancer surgery for this. He begged them. He was the nicest man. Anyway, they said that I would not be able to have my surgery on Monday. And they launched a medical investigation into my medical history.

I was frantic. I didn't know how to pay for my surgery. The hospital wanted a $30,000 deposit. Can you imagine having to walk around with cancer growing in your body with no insurance?

Jan Schakowsky

And it took her months to finally get the surgery that she needed, by which time the tumor had doubled. And at the hearing, we took a break for five minutes while she composed herself. I mean, she was clearly ill. And that was so dramatic and moving to every member on the committee.

Robin

I go to a cancer support group every week. Four girls in my cancer support group have had their insurance cancelled. It is very difficult for me to speak out. My insurance could be canceled again. I live in fear every day of my insurance company.

Jan Schakowsky

Looking at the face of a woman who had fast-moving breast cancer that could take her life, I just could not understand how the people who were testifying for the insurance industry could sleep at night. As people, as individuals, how could they defend this policy?

Ira Glass

I remember there was one moment in the hearing where somebody on the panel actually asked, does it bother you that people are going to die because of these policies?

Man 1

Doesn't it bother you that people are going to die because you insist on reviewing a policy that somebody took out in good faith and forgot to tell you that they were being treated for acne? Doesn't that bother you?

Man 2

Yes sir, it does. And we regret the necessity that that has to occur even a single time.

Ira Glass

There were three heads of insurance companies at this hearing. Don Hamm of Assurant Health, Richard Collins of UnitedHealth's Golden Rule Insurance Company, and Brian Sassi of WellPoint. And it seemed like they'd all been advised-- like a lot of corporate guys are in situations like this-- not to give an inch on anything. They would not admit, for instance, the premise of the hearing, that they go looking for people to throw off their rolls in order to save money.

At one point in the hearing, Congressman Stupak pulled out a list of 1,400 medical conditions that, if you have an individual policy with WellPoint insurance, trigger WellPoint to investigate you, looking for some way to cancel your policy.

Bart Stupak

Diseases ranging from heart disease and high blood pressure to diabetes and even pregnancy. So what do these conditions have in common that would cause you to investigate patients with these conditions for a possible rescission?

Man 3

I would say there's no common theme other than these are conditions that had the applicant disclosed their knowledge of a condition at the time of initial underwriting, we may have taken a different underwriting action.

Bart Stupak

So in the 1,400 different areas they lie? The applicants lie? Or is it really a cost issue? These are 1,400 expensive areas, aren't they?

Man 3

Rescission is not about cost.

Ira Glass

According to the subcommittee's investigation, between the years 2003 and 2007, these three companies saved at least $300 million through the use of rescission.

The insurance companies' defense of rescission came down, basically, to two ideas. They have to fight fraud if they're going to give decent benefits to everybody else. And rescission is rare.

Man 4

Rescission affects less than one half of 1% of the people we cover.

Man 5

During 2008, we rescinded only 1/10 of 1% of individual policies that year.

Man 6

Our use of rescission is rare. Less than one half of 1% of all individual insurance policies.

Ira Glass

Here's what those percentages mean in practice. The subcommittee's official report notes that at least 19,776 policies were rescinded between the years 2003 and 2007 by these three companies. They say at least in the report, because UnitedHealth failed to provide data for two years and WellPoint wouldn't provide data from all of its subsidiaries.

Toward the end of the three and a half hour hearing, after lawmakers made these three executives sit and listen to people who used to be their own customers, who their own companies had rescinded policies for, even though those people never tried to deceive the insurance companies about their health-- like Robin Beaton, the woman with cancer-- Congressman Bart Stupak boiled everything down to one simple inquiry.

Bart Stupak

Let me ask each of our CEOs this question, starting with you, Mr. Hamm. Would you commit today that your company will never rescind another policy unless there was intentional fraudulent misrepresentation in the application?

Don Hamm

I would not commit to that.

Bart Stupak

How about you, Mr. Collins. Would you commit to not to rescind any policy unless there was an intentional fraudulent misrepresentation?

Richard Collins

No, sir. We follow the state laws and regulations. And we would not stipulate to that.

Ira Glass

What he's saying is, state laws allow us to do it this way. And we're good with that.

Bart Stupak

How about you, Mr. Sassi?

Brian Sassi

No, I can't commit to that. The intentional standard is not the law of the land in the majority of states.

Ira Glass

Can I ask, were you surprised that none of them would commit to this?

Jan Schakowsky

Oh no, I wasn't surprised. It doesn't surprise me one, that they would say, well, the law is on our side.

Ira Glass

And when you guys go into these kinds of hearings, do you go into them hoping to get the companies to go on the record and say in a moment like this that they're going to change their policies, or do you just want to get them on the record being obstinate and unsympathetic?

Jan Schakowsky

Well, I guess the answer really is that such a heartless policy of these companies does need to be put on the record and contrasted with the real people who are hurt so badly by those.

Ira Glass

And so the idea is, let's get these guys up here, and get them to show America that they're not going to change unless we push them?

Jan Schakowsky

Exactly.

Ira Glass

There came a point where one of the republicans on the panel, Representative Michael Burgess from Texas, who is a doctor, said to the companies, look, I'm on your side. I'd like to help you guys. But I can't help you out if this is how you're going to be.

Michael Burgess

And I would urge you to think creatively about this problem, because this is the difficulty that leads us to where we are here today. And I can't help you--

Man 7

OK, questions or speeches are over.

Michael Burgess

--if you're not willing to move on this issue.

Ira Glass

Do you feel any sense of hope that the companies will come around and want to work with you? Have you had any moment privately talking to the companies where you have thought, OK, well, maybe?

Jan Schakowsky

No. I think that we just have to make it against the law for them to do it. They've had their way with us for decades. And here we are in this terrible mess, where they want to insure only healthy people. And if you're unlucky enough to get a serious disease or have an accident, then good luck.

Ira Glass

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. She went straight from our interview to a mark up of the House health bill. She told me that she believes that rescission is something that is so hard to defend, something that is so clear cut, that she thinks it's one of the things that Congress is going to be able to outlaw in whatever kind of health reform we end up with.

[MUSIC-"OH MY GOD" BY IDA MARIA]

Act Four. May Be Hazardous To Children.

Ira Glass

Act Four, May Be Hazardous to Children.

Well, we close today's show with a bit of fine print that codified and made irrevocable some other bigger changes in the life of Susan Burton and her family.

Susan Burton

When I was 13 my parents got divorced. And my mother, and my sister, and I moved from Michigan to Colorado. Like the pioneers, we settled in Indian territory, on a new street in a subdivision called Arapaho Ridge.

Our house was the color of sand. It had vaulted ceilings, a sunken family room, and the thing we found most offensive, a wet bar. The wet bar, with its ugly brass fittings and diamond paned glass, seemed to symbolize all that was wrong with our newly constructed lives.

We were no longer the perfect family of four, worthy of a tasteful colonial. We were two latch-key kids and a single parent. And we'd been relocated to a tract house.

My mother displaced her anger about this onto the wet bar by refusing to use it for its intended function. The wet bar became our junk drawer. Instead of alcohol she kept files in there-- checkbook registers, coffee maker instructions, and my report cards, which since moving to Colorado, had begun to show lower grades than I'd ever gotten.

One day I was looking for my standardized test scores. There was no reason except that it was clear to me I was becoming stupid. And I liked to be reminded that I'd once been smart. But instead, I found something unexpected, a big green hanging folder filled with documents labeled divorce. There was a moment of deciding whether or not to open it. Then cautiously, as if I might set off an alarm, I cracked the folder and began to read my parents' divorce agreement.

There was nothing dramatic. No secret half siblings. Not even a custody battle. To anyone else the agreement would have read like what it was, a standard legal document. But my parents' divorce was the biggest thing in my life. I dwelled on it to the point of obsession, to the point of melodrama. As far as I was concerned, it was the most important fact about me. Discovering the agreement was like finding that a new story had somehow been bound into a book I'd already read a thousand times. And like a favorite story, the agreement became something I returned to a couple of times a year all throughout my teens.

Their names were on the cover page, my mother, the plaintiff, versus my father, the defendant. There was the horrible wrongness of that v that divided them.

My mother was represented by a lawyer named Bruce Barnhart. To him, these agreements were probably just divorce Mad Libs. He'd sit at his big desk with my mother across from him and fill in blanks. Debts, $2,400 Cascade Country Club. Vehicles, 1986 Volkswagen Jetta. Bank accounts, Merrill Lynch.

But when I read the agreement it didn't seem formulaic. These details were precious to me. And I was grateful they'd been so painstakingly recorded. It made me feel important that somebody took an interest, set down our story like that. Even if the writer was just a lawyer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had been paid to do it.

Sometimes I would copy stuff down from the agreement, as if the information contained in it could get lost just as easily as our family. On one page I found the phone number of a house in which I'd briefly lived with my father when my parents first got separated.

My father always had good phone numbers. He got them by telling the operator he had a retarded child who needed something easy to memorize.

Not easy enough apparently. I'd forgotten this one. I copied the number down on a little Post-it note I saved for years, as if someday they might introduce a calling plan for dialing the past.

My parents had joint legal custody, but my mother had physical custody. This was divorced kid rank and serial number. And I was glad to know the exact terms. Child support would be deducted from my father's paychecks and sent directly to my mother through a program called Friend of the Court. For a second I wondered if they were saying my father was a guy who couldn't be trusted to send the money himself. I knew it wasn't true. But it had never occurred to me before.

Going through the folder always brought a rush of different feelings. There was the fear I'd be caught or that I'd find something disturbing, that my parents had done bad things, or were bad people. But even the smallest thing could move me, something as simple as seeing my parents' initials together on the bottom right-hand corner of each page of a legal document.

One afternoon, I found a document that stopped me cold. The hearing that was to set my parents' divorce in motion was only days away. But in this note Mr. Barnhart had written, "Dear Nancy, this will confirm or telephone conference. I have adjourned the hearing date from January 30, 1987 to February 27, 1987. I wish you well in your efforts to resolve your marital difficulties.

I sat before the wet bar for a beat. I was a scholar of my parents' divorce who had just found the primary document of my dreams. Here was a suggestion that my parents had tried to stay together. I ached that they hadn't been able to reconcile.

It has been almost 20 years since I lived in that house. And I haven't looked at the agreement since, until recently. I asked my mother for the folder. And after she gave it to me, it took me a couple of days to open it. I was worried that the agreement wouldn't give me the same feeling. Maybe the story of my family's disintegration had lost its hold over me. It was possible that, like the music of Bon Jovi, I'd be mystified by its former appeal. But the agreement held up better than I'd expected.

I'd forgotten that a divorce agreement is like a murder mystery, where the murder happens on the first page. The opening language is brutal. "There has been a breakdown in the marriage relationship to the extent that the objects of matrimony have been destroyed. And there remains no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved. Now therefore, it is ordered and adjudged that this marriage is hereby dissolved."

I felt the same way reading these words at my desk as an adult as I had on the floor at 14. Back then these words knocked the wind out of me. To me this wasn't legalese. I wasn't old enough ever to have signed a contract for a rental or to have read the terms and conditions of a credit card agreement. To me this was the language of proclamations and founding documents. It was commensurate with my experience of my parents' divorce as an event that had changed the world. The weight I felt inside was matched by the weight of these words.

At the end of those summer afternoons, I'd return the divorce agreement to the wet bar as reverently as if I were replacing the Constitution in its marble shrine.

Ira Glass

Susan Burton lives in New York.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well our program was produced today by Sean Cole and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Aaron Scott. Our music consultant each week is Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Support for This American Life it provided by Fox Searchlight Pictures, presenting the new comedy 500 Days of Summer featuring 500 days of rooftop parties, broken hearts, kissing in the copy room, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. Now playing in select theaters.

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss Mr. Torey Malatia, who follows me around the office trying to always get me to say the letter L, which he knows I can't say. He especially loves it when I say Lillian Hellman.

David Rakoff

Go on, say it. Say it. Say it.

Ira Glass

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

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