Transcript

425:

Slow To React
Transcript

Originally aired 01.21.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/425

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hey everybody, Ira Glass here. Today on the radio show we have stories about people who are very, very amazingly slow to react in life-changing situations. And to kick off the show we considered all kinds of ideas, but in the end I think there was really only one real possibility. Like the rest of America, we, at This American Life are not tired yet of those stories of women who have no idea that they're pregnant, and then poof! One day, a baby pops out. We are not over that. And yes, the TV I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant is in production for its fourth season right now. We still have questions.

Jennifer Lyne

And that's what a lot of people, they look at me like, no way. You really didn't know? And I'm like, no, really. I really had no idea. And I had no thought of it. I mean I'm a bright girl. I have two degrees. I work full-time. I'm not like some dummy.

Ira Glass

Meet Jennifer Lyne. Or maybe you've already met her on I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant. Or this week on The View. She was 28, working two jobs. One as a lab technician, one in a clothing store when she discovered that she was pregnant. Turned out to be nine months pregnant. She had a baby three days later. She said she didn't suspect for a bunch of reasons. For one, she was on the pill the entire pregnancy.

Jennifer Lyne

And I had taken two pregnancy tests over the course of the nine months and both tests came back negative. So near the end of the pregnancy, in almost the ninth month, I finally complained to the doctor and he sent me up for an ultrasound. He questioned if I could be pregnant and I explained that no, I was on the pill. And that I hadn't had a period for almost a year. Because when I switched from the previous birth control, which was the depro shot and went onto the birth control pill, the periods stopped.

Ira Glass

And what was the thing, when you went to the doctor, like what did you think was going on?

Jennifer Lyne

I honestly thought I had a tumor. I couldn't sleep on my stomach. That was my complaint for going to the doctor was because I couldn't sleep comfortably anymore. And I kind of felt around on my stomach because I was an EMT previously. So I kind of felt something wasn't right, but I didn't know what exactly.

Ira Glass

So you thought like you had like cancer or something?

Yes, absolutely.

Ira Glass

Now when we talked about having you come in for an interview in our story meeting at our radio show, the women on the radio show staff said, we have questions for her and so four of them are with me here and I want to introduce you. There's Julie Snyder and Jane Feltes and Robyn Semien. And Alissa Shipp.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Ira Glass

And Alissa, you are huge right now. How many months are you?

Alissa Shipp

I am 38 weeks pregnant. Yeah, like eight and a half, nine months pregnant.

Ira Glass

So they all have a bunch of questions for you. Is it OK that they throw those at you?

Jennifer Lyne

Of course. Yeah, absolutely.

Alissa Shipp

The first question that I had and maybe it's because I am so pregnant right now. But the thing that I can't understand not feeling is the kicking. And it's not just kicking, it's like you can see an arm or you can feel something and it moves. Did you feel any of that?

Jennifer Lyne

I don't think my daughter moved a lot. I think she stayed very stationary. Now, mind you, my daughter was 4 pounds 13 ounces. So she was very, very tiny. So I think that has a lot to do with how much I may have felt because she was so small.

Ira Glass

Jennifer, are you kind of big? I don't know how else to ask that.

Jennifer Lyne

I'm not big now. I was actually a 22/24 when I did have my daughter. So I was quite big. I actually worked in a plus size women's store called Lane Bryant. I was always large like that. Now I've actually lost a lot of weight and I'm down to a size four or a six.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Jennifer Lyne

And she was my reason for losing that weight. The surprise of having a baby, and now I'm like, oh my God. I'm this huge woman. How am I going to take care of my kid? I need to be around for my daughter.

Alissa Shipp

But then basically in the end, you were kind of only aware of being pregnant-- your pregnancy lasted like three days.

Jennifer Lyne

Three whole days. Exactly. Isn't that the greatest?

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Jennifer Lyne

Everyone says, well, you had the best pregnancy. You knew for three days. And I said, exactly. You know what I did those three days? I milked it.

Ira Glass

There were many more questions and to summarize the answers-- no, she was never nauseated. No, her hair did not fall out. No, her breasts did not seem to get bigger. Yes, her ankles did swell up. And yes, she was incredibly exhausted. And the exhaustion in fact, made her wonder if she was pregnant. But then the pregnancy test told her no, she wasn't. So she dropped the idea.

Alissa Shipp

Wait were you aware of like the I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant phenomenon. But like, before you became part of it?

Jennifer Lyne

I actually used to watch the show.

Alissa Shipp

Oh you did?

Jennifer Lyne

I actually used to watch the show and then when it happened to me I would discuss it with my girlfriends at work. They said, oh, you should apply for the show. And I said, really? they're like, yeah.

Ira Glass

But when you saw the TV show before it happened to you, did you feel the same way that most people feel when they hear about you? Like, oh come on, you must have known?

Jennifer Lyne

Some of those stories I feel like come on, how could you have not known. Especially women that have already had kids.

Alissa Shipp

I know.

Jennifer Lyne

Those are where I feel like, come on, how could you have not known, you've already gone through this.

Alissa Shipp

I believe you.

Jennifer Lyne

Thank you.

Robin Feltes

Did friends of yours, after you had the baby, did they say, like, oh, we thought you might be pregnant?

Jennifer Lyne

The only people that actually mentioned a little something along those lines were the women that I worked with at the plus size store. And they said, well, you know, we kind of noticed you were kind of getting a little rounder around the middle. And I was like, oh. And I kind of looked at them and I said, well, why didn't you say anything? And you know how most women look at you like, well, I'm not going to say that to you. Come on.

Alissa Shipp

You're like in the future, just ask every woman who you might suspect.

Jennifer Lyne

Exactly.

Alissa Shipp

In case she doesn't know.

Ira Glass

Yes, America, if you take just one thing away from today's radio program, I hope that that is it. If you see a woman who gets a little heavier, always, always be sure to ask her if she's pregnant. Because she might not know.

Jennifer is not apparently typical of most women who discover they're pregnant at the very end of their pregnancies. I talked to a psychiatrist who specializes in cases related to OB/GYN issues named Nehama Dresner. She's in Chicago. She says she sees three or four women every year who give birth to a baby and then claim they had no idea they were pregnant. She says generally it is not women who suspect it and took pregnancy tests like Jennifer. She said usually it's adolescents who just don't want to believe they're pregnant for all the reasons that you pretty much expect. And that people are interested in these stories because in the end, a baby pops out. It's pretty dramatic. Dr. Dresner says this kind of thing happens all the time in medicine. People choose to ignore, they rationalize, all kinds of changes happening in their bodies. Even big ones.

Dr. Nehama Dresner

The things that I think strike us, as physicians, are the masses, the tumors that are so obvious, or the sore that won't heal, or that mole that looks like the state of Arkansas. You know, things that are obviously not right that either the patient think it'll go away or minimizes what it might mean, or is so afraid of what it might mean that they avoid diagnosis and treatment. People who get a call back from their gynecologists office that they have an abnormal pap smear and don't ever call back to follow up.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, wait. But that can't happen very often.

Dr. Nehama Dresner

About 30% of the time. About 30% of the time don't call back.

Ira Glass

Wait, the doctor's calling to say that the pap smear--

Dr. Nehama Dresner

You have an abnormal pap smear, you need to come back in for me to [INTERPOSING VOICES]

Ira Glass

Because you might have cancer?

Dr. Nehama Dresner

Right.

Ira Glass

But the people took the test to find out this result.

Dr. Nehama Dresner

Yes. I mean it's sort of like an annual exam that you have. It's hard to believe. You're asking me how to understand something that's irrational. I can't answer that question for you.

Ira Glass

And if people are this way with their own bodies, with things that are sometimes so dangerous to them, what other things are they putting off way too long? Well today on our show, we have three very dramatic examples of what else, including a guy who ends up waiting 17 years before finally marrying the woman he loves. From WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. We have amazing stories today of people sidestepping huge, life-changing experiences that they just are not ready to deal with. Until finally, they are. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. When I Grow Up.

Ira Glass

Act 1: "When I grow up."

Back in 2004, a reporter named David Holthouse published this remarkable story in the weekly paper that he worked for back then called Westword. It's about something that he had waited his entire life to do since childhood. But I want to warn anybody listening now with children, we actually don't believe this story is suitable for children. There's nothing graphic in it, but the things that it's about are not right for kids we think. So this is going to take about 20 minutes. We're putting this on the radio because David take us inside the head of somebody, himself actually, who's contemplating things that he admits later, are completely reprehensible and wrong. And he explains how he got to that point. And then even more unusual, how he was able to snap out of it. So kids, good bye. And here's David Holthouse.

David Holthouse

This time last year I was plotting to kill a man. This time last year I had a gun, and a silencer, and a plan. I had staked out the man's tract home in the Denver suburbs. I had followed him to and from his job in a high tech office park. I was confident I would get away with murder because there was nothing in recent history to connect me to him. Homicide investigators look for motive and mine was buried 25 years in the past.

The man I was going to kill was the one who raped me in 1978 when I was 7 years old.

When I was 7, I had a crush on Princess Leia and wanted to be a member of the rock band Kiss when I grew up. I was in the second grade and a cop dressed up like a bloodhound wearing a trench coat and calling himself McGruff came to my school and warned us all to watch out for strange men in cars offering candy. But McGruff didn't say anything about watching out for the son of my mom and dad's best friends. He was 15 and a star high school athlete. He wrestled and played football. The paper ran a profile of him in the sports section and my mom cut it out and stuck it on our refrigerator. I looked up to him. I thought he was super cool.

One night his parents had my parents over for dinner and he asked me if I wanted to go to his bedroom in the basement and play with his karate stuff. We snuck off together and once he had me alone inside his room, the door closed, he got out his karate stuff, throwing stars and nunchucks and a curved sword. And we started playing. He did not play nice. He spun the nunchucks inches from my face and hurled the throwing stars into the wall next to me. I didn't know what was going on, but I knew it was bad so I started crying. And he told me to shut up. Then he started chasing me around the room waving the sword. He put the blade to my throat and backed me into a corner where I dropped into a crouch in cowered.

The term child molestation doesn't begin to describe what happened next. When I think child molestation, I think inappropriate touching. I think fondling. What happened next wasn't fondling. It was rape.

He started off by telling me he'd cut my face with the sword if I didn't do what he wanted. I had no words for what was happening, no concept of rape or sex. I just knew that I was terrified and in pain. When he was done with me he said that if I told my parents, or his parents, or anyone else, that my mom and dad would be very angry with me because I'd done a bad thing. He said if I told on him he'd come to my house in the middle of the night and gut me like a salmon. Then he opened his door.

He told me not to go back upstairs right away and sat me down in front of a TV in the downstairs family room, and had me play Atari until my tears dried and I was more presentable.

When I was seven, I no longer believed in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. But from that night on, I had no such doubts about the bogeyman.

He only got me that once, or at least only once when I was conscious. There was one night two or three months later when my parents were hosting a holiday party and they took me to his house so he could babysit me and his little sister. He put on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and we played disco, which consisted of all of us getting drunk on straight, warm, hard booze while he watched his little sister and me gyrate to "Stayin' Alive" there by securing my lifelong hatred of the Bee Gees. I don't remember the rest of that night, just waking up the next morning with my first hang over.

I made sure he never got me alone again for more than a few minutes, which wasn't easy. Because our parents socialized almost every weekend at either their house or ours. And he didn't move out or go to college after high school. He turned into one of those guys who still dates high school chicks and lives with his parents well into his 20s.

I kept our little secret throughout my childhood. At first, I was scared and ashamed and believed his threats. By the time I was a teenager and understood what he'd done to me in his room, it just seemed easier to keep my mouth shut.

Why make a fuss? Why traumatize my parents? And why risk being viewed as damaged goods?

My memories of him in those early years are scatter-shot. One 4 of July he told me how much fun he'd just had torturing a cat with a fire cracker. And I remember for years after the rape, whenever he and I were in the same room and no one was looking, he would make an obscene gesture and give me a bogeyman smile. A smile that said, "I got more of this for you, you little 8, 9, 10 year old punk."

The last time I ran into him was 12 years ago when I was 21. I was back home from college between my sophomore and junior years and I needed a cheap suit for a job interview. And there he was. A 31-year-old cheap suit salesman and rapist of children. I hadn't seen him in six or seven years and I immediately realized two things.

The first, was that he was no longer bigger than me. I had 6 inches and at least 30 pounds on him. The second thing I realized was that I wanted to kill him. I wanted to grab a coat rack and bash in his head. Snatch that metal ball point pen out of his cheap suit jacket and stab him in the eye, over and over again. But I did nothing.

My mother was with me and even more than I wanted revenge, I want to prevent her and my father from finding out that he had raped me when I was seven-years-old while they were upstairs with his parents drinking wine and playing board games. I didn't want to burden them with that. I didn't want to tarnish their memories of my childhood. The bogeyman gave a weak smile and made small talk with my mom while I was pretending to look at cuff links on the other side of the store. Then he vanished into a break room after passing us off to another salesman. He wanted no part of me anymore.

The memory of being raped when I was seven was never repressed. It was not recovered under hypnosis. It has always been with me, festering. When I was a teenager, I began researching how being raped as a child might affect the development of my personality. And I recoiled in horror. Every study I read supported the vicious cycle theory. That victims of pedophilia are more likely to become pedophiles themselves. I felt like a werewolf had bitten me and it was only a matter of time before the full moon rose.

Throughout my early adolescence, I was constantly, tortuously checking myself for evil impulses. I made a blood oath with myself that if I started feeling the desire to rape children I would kill myself and make it look like a mountaineering accident. I was already in the habit of solo rock climbing. No partners, no ropes despite my parents' repeated warnings against such a dangerous activity. Had I throw myself down a mountain they would have believed it. And better a son who died climbing than one who lived and rape kids.

The next death I plotted was his, the boogeyman's.

After I moved to Denver three years ago I learned from my parents that he also lived in the area. I became fixated on the idea that he was raping children nearby, and that it was up to me to stop him. I had no evidence, but authorities agree that most pedophiles begin molesting when they're teenagers and most of them never stop. Not even after they're caught. If they're caught. My guy has never been caught.

According to a 1998 Colorado Bureau of Investigation polygraph study of convicted child molesters, the mean number of victims per molester, at least in this state, is 184. And that's only for the molesters who've been arrested.

All my adult life I'd been aware that he was in all likelihood, still raping children. But as long as he was doing it far away, I had felt no compulsion to do anything about it. But once I found out he was here and living nearby, I began to agonize over my failure to stop him. I considered going to the police, but I had no evidence except my memories, and the statute of limitations has long run out for the crime he committed with me.

I thought about placing subtle advertisements in newspapers. I thought about sending anonymous letters to everyone he knows, his ex-wives and everyone in this new neighborhood in Colorado, warning them and begging them to please come forward if they knew or suspected anything. But I was afraid such measures would somehow lead to my parents finding out. And the cold, hard truth is that I just didn't want them to know.

My parents are retired, and in their 60s, and they didn't need that. I wanted to protect them more than I wanted to protect children I'd never met.

The more I obsessed on it, the more I came to the seemingly inescapable conclusion that the best way to make sure he never raped another child, to make sure I had my revenge, was to kill him. To just walk right up to him in a secluded place and scrape him from this world like a piece of dog [BLEEP] off my shoe.

I bought the gun last April. I had a few firearms in my closest already, but they'd all been purchased legally in my name from a licensed firearm's dealer. I make my living as a reporter. My assignments at the time routinely brought me into contact and sometimes friendship with unsavory characters, including the leaders of a street gang. So I went to their barrio where I bought a Beretta 9 millimeter with a homemade silencer and the serial number removed. I took this gun to the local garage gunsmith and had him put dozens of deep nicks and grooves in the Beretta's barrel to corrupt ballistic's tests.

After testing the gun and silencer in the desert, I put them in storage and kept scheming.

It seemed insane to me now that I was actually going to kill a man instead of just bringing out in the open what he had done to me. But that's how kiddie rapers get away with it. They depend upon shame and embarrassment to keep their victims quiet. By the time I was an adult, I feared that if my friends knew my secret they wouldn't trust me around their children. And parents need to be watchful. The commonly accepted estimate among law enforcement and sexual abuse treatment specialists in Colorado is that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men who live in this state were either molested or raped before the age of 18. Most of them by men or teenage boys they knew. By coaches, scout masters, priests, family friends, sons of family friends.

So this time last year I was plotting to kill a man and I was telling myself that it was noble. I was doing it to protect the children. But really, more than anything else, I think I just wanted to shoot the son of a bitch. And I believe I would have, taking a second deep and dirty secret with me to the grave. But then my parents found out just in time to prevent me from committing first degree murder.

If you have a secret you want to keep, never write it down. I know that now, but I didn't when I was 10, the summer between fourth and fifth grade when I sat down with a pen in my Garfield the cat diary. The entry is dated June 1981. And while I have no memory of writing it, the penmanship is unmistakably my own. There between accounts of my grandfather dying and a game winning double I hit in little league is an account of my being raped three years before. I concluded the entry by wondering what I would do if I ever met the man who had raped me on the street once I myself was a grown man.

Will I smile and shake his hand and pretend nothing happened? I wrote. Or will I punch him in the face?

Last September my mom and dad decided to spend part of Labor Day weekend going through the cabinets in my old bedroom and box up all my childhood stuff for attic storage. My mom found the diary and read it. She told my dad. I received a frantic message from her on my voice mail saying I needed to call home right away. They told me about finding the diary. My mom asked in a shaking voice if it was true. Had I had any warning, I would have lied. But I was not prepared and so I told the truth.

My mom started crying and I said I'd fly home as soon as I could. I'd scheduled the murder by then giving myself a 72-hour window immediately before I was to leave on a two-week trip to Mexico in late December. My plan was to shoot him, ditch the gun, then fly out of the country and keep my ear to the ground from afar just in case. There's an ill-kept baseball field near his house where I was going to stalk him on a late-night walk. It's a good place for killing in the suburbs. Quiet, usually empty, and hundreds of yards from the closest house on its far side.

But now, because of my parents, I called off my plan. The truth was now out. It was my mother who let it out. She called the boogeyman's parents who know live in the Midwest. She started off by saying that what she was about to tell them would be difficult for them to hear, but for the sake of their grandchildren they should listen. The bogeyman has children of his own now, as well as step children.

She told them that their son had violently raped me in the Fall of 1978. She told him that he had used a knife. She told them that the typical number of victims for a pedophile his age is well over a hundred, She told them that she regretted finding out what their son had done to me, but now that she had she felt that they had to know as well. She told them that she wished them to have good lives, but to never contact her or my father again. No Christmas cards, nothing. She told him she hoped their son eventually got caught and spent the rest of his life getting raped in prison. Then she hung up.

By then, I'd begun writing about how I was sexually assaulted as a child, all the while knowing that I would never get to the bottom of it and really understand what had happened if I did not at least try to confront the bogeyman. I was a lot more comfortable with the concept of shooting him in the head than I was with talking to him on the phone, let alone in person.

On May 5, I finally sent two copies of the same letter to his house. One by overnight airborne express, one by registered mail. It began, "Remember me? Our parents were good friends. I remember my childhood years very, very well. Especially a certain night when I was seven when your parents had my family over for dinner and you and I went down yo your bedroom to play with your karate stuff. I kept what you did to me a secret for 25 years. It's time for you and I to talk this over. I suggest a meeting in public, anywhere in the Denver metro as soon as possible.

If seeing me face-to-face is too uncomfortable for you, then at least call me. Simply ignoring this letter is not going to work. If I don't hear from you by Friday late afternoon, I'll start calling your house, and then knocking on your front door. I want to be perfectly clear here, I'm not threatening you with any physical harm and I'm not hinting at blackmail. I don't want your blood or your money, just one uncomfortable conversation."

He received the letters and phoned me all in the same day. I told him that I appreciated his calling me and that I was surprised he had.

"Well," he said, "it's a call I should have made a long time ago."

I was stunned because from his words and tone of voice it sounded like he was going to actually admit what he'd done when I knew that almost all pedophiles deny, deny, deny until the day they die.

We arranged to meet at 2:00 pm the following afternoon at a Cracker Barrel near his house.

"Is there anything you want to say to me now." I asked?

"Just that I'm deeply sorry," he said. "I've thought a hundred times about contacting you in the last 20 years to tell you that, but I just never had the courage to pick up the phone. I'm sorry for the pain I've caused you, and my parents, and your parents."

He sounded sincere, well rehearsed. The next day an hour before we were supposed to meet I changed the location from a chain restaurant in suburbia to the intersection of the 16th street mall and Market Street in downtown Denver. He showed up wearing jeans, a grey t-shirt, and a Colorado Avalanche cap. When I saw him standing on the corner anxiously trying to pick me out of the crowd, I realized the moment I had written about in my diary in 1981 had arrived. We were both grown men and I was meeting him on the street.

I didn't punch him in the face. I did shake his hand. But neither of us pretended that nothing had happened. We were afraid of one another. I was so jacked up on adrenaline I was shaking. He was sweating like he'd just run a mile.

"Nervous," he said. I nodded. "Me too," he said.

We walked around the block and he started by telling me that he'd been waiting for me to contact him for several weeks. Soon after my mom had called his parents in March, he said, they'd flown to Colorado and confronted him. He told me that he'd admitted he had raped me to both his parents and his wife.

"My mom got extremely emotional and didn't handle it well at all. And my dad just went quiet and became very stoic," he said. "They've sort of written me off since then. They used to call me every week, but they don't call me anymore. Even though I told them it only happened with you that once."

He made this claim repeatedly during our conversation, working it into his response to nearly every question I asked. He only had one victim-- me. He had not sexually assaulted any other child before or since.

We sat on the mall's stone stools and kept talking, our voices low. Both of us looking around to make sure no one was in ear shot. I asked him how his wife had reacted. "She was concerned, obviously," he said. She wanted to know right away if our son was safe, and I told her, "Yes, he is."

Then I hit him with the question I'd always wanted to ask. "Why did you do it?" He shook his head and tears welled in his eyes.

"I've asked myself that question over and over and over again, David. And I just don't have a good answer for you. I wish I did, but I just don't know. I know that until I was in my 30s I didn't really believe other people's feelings were real. I didn't think anyone really mattered but me. Maybe that was it. Maybe if I'd gone to therapy I could have come up with the answer. All I can say is that I'd never done it before and I never did it again. And if there was one thing I could go back in my life and change, that would be it."

I asked if his attack on me was spontaneous or planned.

"It wasn't planned," he said. I just acted on this one weird impulse. As soon it was over, I was, thinking, oh my God. That's my little sister's friend. How could I have just done that?

He said he'd wanted to apologize to me for many years but hadn't sought me out because he didn't want to reopen old wounds and because he hoped I'd forgotten it had ever happened.

"My biggest fear was that I'd ruin your life," he said. "I was afraid that you would turn out to be a homeless drug addict or something and it would all be my fault."

I told him that while I wasn't I street junkie, I did have a tremendous fear of becoming a father. Because I didn't believe I'd be able to protect my child from people like him.

Becoming a father had changed his life he told me. "I found what love really means," he said. "I used to think that love meant you just really liked somebody a whole lot. But when you become a father, you really understand what love is."

I asked what he would do if he found out that someone had raped his son. He said, "I'd probably rip their head off."

There's a scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly where the gunfighter played by Eli Wallach righteously blows away a guy and then drops this pearl of murderous wisdom. "If you going to shoot, shoot. Don't talk. Because if you let them talk, you may not shoot."

And sure enough, as soon as I exchanged a few sentences with him, I didn't want to shoot him at all. Because I saw him as a frightened, damaged man. He wasn't the bogeyman any more, he was real. He begged my forgiveness. He swore I was the only one. All the experts say he was almost certainly lying. But then, all the experts say it was extremely unusual for him to admit his crime to me, let alone his wife and parents. And he did at least make the admission to his parents. I checked.

I did not grow up in a religious household, but he did. Talking to him on the mall, I thought of this passage from Romans. "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath. for it is written: "It is mine to avenge. I will repay."

When I had nothing else to say to the man who had raped me when I was seven, we parted ways. He blended into the crowd.

Ira Glass

David Holthouse is a reporter now living in Alaska. After his story was first published in 2004, his newspaper, Westword, was inundated with letters from people who had been molested as children themselves thanking him. Grateful, especially for the part of the story where he shows that it's possible to let go of your anger. So coming up, the most unromantic guy imaginable puts the rest of us to shame in the romance department. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Isn't It Slow-Mantic.

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show of course, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show: Slow to react. Stories of people taking a very, very long time to deal with life-changing situations of one sort or another. We've arrived at Act 2 of our show.

Act 2: "Isn't it Slow-mantic?"

In this act, we turn to love. And in Sean Lewis' family, there was a legendarily romantic love story. It's famous in his family partly because the story unfolded over decades and across continents. But also because nobody can quit believe, even now, that out of everybody in the family-- there are four siblings-- out of everyone in the family, the one with the epic, swoon-inducing love story is Mark.

Mark, the one sibling who was never wild or boisterous, the one who never tried to sneak into bars at 14. Sean Lewis tells the story.

Sean Lewis

I asked my family how they would describe my uncle Mark. The word romantic did not come up.

Man 1

Spontaneous? I don't think-- hmm. Not really.

Man 2

If you've spoke to anybody, Mark and his plans. There's a time we have to meet. There's a time we have to leave. There's a time we have to eat.

Mark's Sister

My brother stands at attention on a regular basis.

Man 2

When we were younger and at a family event, you didn't even know he was there. Because no parent ever yelled his name, ever. None of the aunts or uncles ever had to speak to him about don't say that or don't stand that way or run that way because he always was the perfect child. He never said no. He never went and yelled at his parents. He was always very adult. Always very adult.

Sean Lewis

This is a love story of my Uncle Mark and the women he's now married to, named Ha.

Right out of high school Mark joins the military. He loves it. He's stationed in Korea as an MP. And one day by chance, he meets a beautiful girl in a coffee shop, Ha. She's in college waiting at the cafe with her cousin for an English tutor. Mark asks her out, they date, they fall in love. He's 20 years old. She's 23. He wants to marry her. And like a good son, he writes home about it to his mom.

Mark's Mom

He wrote to me shortly after he was in Korea and he said to me, "I met a girl, a beautiful girl, and I love her." And I didn't think he was long enough there to be in love with anybody. And he said, "I'm going to try bring her back to America with me." And I said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." That's the last he ever talked to me about her.

Sean Lewis

This is the first blow to his plans with Ha. We're a first generation Irish family, very matriarchal. And no one respects his mother more than Mark. He doesn't give up on bringing Ha to the Us, but now he knows the family's not going to help. And then there's another complication. His sister, my mother, is in a crisis.

Mark's Sister

I was going through the divorce. My parents were living with me in my home and our house was going into foreclosure. And I was working as a waitress and my father was working as a security guard at night. And we were not making enough money to take care of the house. And Mark sent us money every month to try to help us keep the house.

Sean Lewis

But the family's financial situation just keeps getting worse. And then on top of that, the military rotates Mark back to the US. They won't let him return to Korea. So he leaves the military and turns and all his attention to his family to help us survive. He moves to where we are in Denver.

While he's caught up doing all of that, he stops writing to Ha. And during the time he's out of touch, Ha moves-- twice. The next time he tries to reach her, he can't find her. She's gone.

Now comes the part of the story that I'm old enough to remember. The family moves to upstate New York to a very small town, Greenwood Lake, just north of the city. Mark becomes a police officer and the family tries to get him dating, but it doesn't go anywhere.

Mark's Mom

Like we belonged to the Irish Club. If there was a dance we'd invite him to come. And he'd come, but he never would dance. Actually, he used to do guard on the door. So no ruffians would get in. Where there was no ruffians.

Sean Lewis

Did anyone actually hire him to do this?

Mark's Mom

No.

Sean Lewis

The few women he does go out with don't last and I could see why. His idea of a good date at the time was for him to watch the movie Stripes seven times and then bring a woman to the movie and quote the whole thing to her as it's happening. He wanted his dates to share his love of Irish military history and his interest in naming his first child Wolfgang. He'd lecture people about anything they were doing that seemed wrong to him. He didn't smile much. None of this went over well with the women of Greenwood Lake. So his social life was mostly us, his family.

When his days off he would come. All you would have to do is walk into my mother's house and smell roast beef, roast potatoes, and we knew exactly who was coming-- Mark. I would say to my mother, do you know what my favorite meal is? And she'd go, no. But she knew what Mark's favorite meal was.

Sean Lewis

Why do think she doted on Mark so much?

Mark's Sister

Because he was alone. I think that's why. Because Mark was alone. And she felt like he needed more of a mothering touch.

Sean Lewis

And this is Mark's life for 10 years. He dutifully supports the family by going every day to a job he doesn't like, with coworkers who despise him for being so by the book. He exercises. He goes home to his one room apartment. And on Sundays, he sees the family. And this is the Mark we think we know. Dutiful, straight-laced, family oriented. Probably never going to get married. We have no idea that this entire time Mark is pining for Ha.

Mark

I had a picture of us together.

Sean Lewis

This of course, is Mark.

Mark

And that was in my bureau in my bedroom every day when we were apart. I would wake up to that photo and I would go to bed looking it that photo.

Sean Lewis

Did you think you were going to see her again?

Mark

I didn't really know. I really didn't know.

Sean Lewis

And you were in Korea and you were moving on?

Ha

Yeah, about two, three year later I just had so much agony and so much missing, it's like, oh my gosh. I couldn't wait anymore. So I actually buried him inside my heart and slowly, I forgot him.

Sean Lewis

During most of these 10 years while Ha is putting Mark out of her mind, Mark is actively trying to find.

Mark

Wrote letters. I put advertisements in Korean papers.

Sean Lewis

Oh really? And nobody in our family knew you were doing this.

Mark

No. That was top secret.

Sean Lewis

Did you just think that people were going to be not positive about it or give you a hard time?

Mark

I just didn't want to hear anything in reference to it. I knew what I wanted to.

Sean Lewis

You needed no secondary opinions.

Mark

Right.

Sean Lewis

Which in our family are abundant.

Mark

Abundant.

Sean Lewis

Finally, a letter that Mark sent out reaches Ha. And six months later, Mark sees a letter back from her in his mailbox.

Sean Lewis

Were you nervous at all?

Mark

No, I was not nervous.

Sean Lewis

I'm amazed by this. I'm amazed that you seem so calm and confident. I would have been terrified.

Mark

I saw that letter as a way out of the state I was in. That one way or another, I was going to close a chapter in my life.

Sean Lewis

So it was about either she was going to be your wife, or at least you wouldn't have to keep pining?

Mark

That's exactly right, Sean. It was she was going to be my wife or I was going to move on.

Sean Lewis

Mark asks Ha to come visit. She says she has to think about it. She takes a year.

Ha

It takes about one year because I have to think about if I start seeing him again, because I don't want to hurt anymore like before. But I miss him.

Sean Lewis

So she says, OK, I'll meet you halfway in Hawaii. At which point Mark announces to the family out of the blue, I'm going to Hawaii to meet Ha.

Mark's Sister

I mean I was like, what? I was like, you're kidding. He never talks about private things.

Sean Lewis

Did you know about any of this?

Mark's Mom

I did know about Hawaii. And I didn't think anything would ever come of it. I really didn't.

Sean Lewis

Mark and Ha have a great time in Hawaii. And right away on this first trip together, he asks her to marry him. But Ha, in the 10 years they've been apart has become this powerhouse businesswoman in Korea. She owns three gyms, trains people on the Korean Olympic team, has a house full of medals. She's gotten used to being single. So mark works on her for another seven years. He calls. He writes letters. And every six months they meet up, have a great time, and he asks her to marry him again.

The family meanwhile, still has no idea how serious the relationship is because Mark isn't telling us anything, as usual. So the whole thing with this woman Ha whom we've never met, starts to seem like just another weird dating situation of Mark's. Another woman he'll see for a while, who will eventually move on.

Sean Lewis

So year seven, what changed?

Ha

You believe in God, right?

Sean Lewis

Do I believe in God? I do.

Ha

I thought it's God work make me really quick change. Because I was very, very sick. My heart is pounding. It's like a double pounding, triple pounding. So I found out later I have a whole check on my body, it's like I have thyroid. And my doctor say, you cannot continue your work.

Sean Lewis

Ha is sick for weeks and Mark calls her every day.

Ha

Every day. Sometimes twice. He showed to me his love. Before I told you it's like I cannot see his love. He hugs me and kisses me and he say, I love you. It's not moving my heart. And then, but I was sick. He called twice a day and how is you doing? You have to have [INAUDIBLE] in United State. My mind start moving. You know what? He really loves me, I believe, really. So I closed down my business and I talked to my mom and my family. I'm going to United States to marry.

Sean Lewis

18 years after Mark and Ha first met, Ha arrives in the US. And two days later, she and Mark get married at the Middletown Courthouse.

We're all there. Me, my mom, her brothers, my grandmother, the whole family. And Mark is in this tuxedo and Ha is wearing a white dress and a Korean headpiece. And we're all stunned at how beautiful she is and at how happy they look together.

Man 2

The comfortableness and the relaxed that he's with Ha is like he's with nobody else.

Mark's Sister

I think my favorite moment was Mark dancing with Ha to Led Zeppelin. Who knew?

Man 2

I'd never seen him dance ever. He danced. And not the slow dance. He danced to Led Zeppelin.

Mark's Mom

They are very much in love. I know that. I found that out shortly after that they really are.

Sean Lewis

When you say you found that out, what was the final proof?

Mark's Mom

Because everything is her in his mind. Everything is Ha. You know what I mean? He can't believe he has her.

Sean Lewis

I asked my grandmother recently if she regretted the letter she wrote after Mark and Ha first met. She said yes, but she didn't know Ha at the time. In some way, she didn't know Mark either. None of us did. He was the tortoise in a family full of hares moving so slowly amongst his siblings marriages, divorces, career changes that to us, it looked like he was hardly moving at all. But he knew exactly what race he was running.

Ira Glass

Sean Christopher Lewis is a playwright and a performer currently touring the country with two shows, Killadelphia and Just Kids. To find out when he's coming to your town, go to seanchristopherlewis.com

[MUSIC- "WHAT IS AND WHAT SHOULD NEVER BE" BY LED ZEPPELIN]

Act Three. I'm Still Here.

Ira Glass

Act 3: "I'm still here." Slow to react is usually kind of an insult. You know, it's kind of a flaw, a failing. In this next case though, the things that are slow to react are cancer cells. And slow to react in that kind of situation is sort of how you'd want it. Jonathan Menjivar tells the story.

Jonathan Menjiver

Just looking at the numbers, Katherine Russell Rich should be dead. When you're diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, the average life expectancy is two and a half years. You meet women who have lived 5 or 10, but beyond that Kathy says, there's a tiny sub-category that lives 20 or 30 years. Just 2% of all cases.

Doctors have no idea who will end up in that sub-category. Kathy's one of them. She's had cancer for 23 years and she's lived with stage IV for 18. And just so it's clear, she's not in remission. The cancer's been sitting in her body, and the whole time she's been pounding it with chemicals of one sort or another. When you have cancer for so long, at some point, Kathy says it's not the first thing on your mind anymore, and you've got to deal with more ordinary, uncomfortable things. Like how you bring it up when you meet people.

Katherine Russell Rich

I lie a lot about it actually. Because not everybody needs to know my business. Well let's say you and I were having lunch and I knew it was something I was going to need to bring up at some point if we were to become friends. I think I might just say, you know, I've got this weird situation where I've had cancer for 23 years. And usually the person will say something like, you're kidding. What kind? And then, I'll say I have this really slow-growing kind of cancer. I fall into this small sub-category of people who just live and live with the cancer. It just doesn't move as quickly. It often brings out stories from them, which I like too. I like hear other people's stories. Not necessarily like, I've had people go, really? I've had fibroids for five years. And then, sometimes we get off on the wrong track like that.

Jonathan Menjiver

Wait, what are fibroids?

Katherine Russell Rich

I don't even know. But they're not in the same category as advanced cancer. But I have had that. And then you're in the position of having to hear about their fibroids. Which is not something I necessarily want to do.

Jonathan Menjiver

Yeah because people are just trying to connect with you in some way.

Katherine Russell Rich

I think in that case they just wanted to talk about their fibroids actually.

Jonathan Menjiver

OK, so I looked it up. Fibroids are definitely unpleasant. But Kathy's right, not the same territory as terminal cancer. Anyhow, as you can imagine, in 23 years Kathy's tried pretty much every treatment there is. Some stuff they don't even do any more.

She started with the standard chemo, radiation, and a lumpectomy to remove the tumor. After that, her first doctor actually told her she was cured. She had a bone marrow transplant, which studies have since determined that for breast cancer isn't any more effective than conventional chemo. She was part of a gene therapy trial. She dipped into alternative treatments, including some purple herbal drops from a cowboy in Wisconsin who told her to soak her feet in them. She tried being vegan. That lasted three days. She tried a macrobiotic diet. Same problem, too many vegetables. What's helped her most is hormone treatments. They basically starve Kathy's cancer of the food it needs.

All those treatments mean she's a walking museum in the last couple decades of cancer treatment.

Katherine Russell Rich

Yeah, when I gone on those cancer message boards, I feel like some old-timer in Appalachia. Like they'll say, really? You had a bone marrow transplant. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, somebody had come out with this theory that if you put some ice helmet on your head-- they had these blue ice helmets for chemotherapy-- and you iced your head, it would somehow keep your hair from falling out.

Jonathan Menjiver

I'm sorry, and what does it look like? Does it look like a series of ice packs? Or, I guess I sort of imagine like the way that a woman looks like when they get out of the shower and wrap their hair in a towel, but made out of ice packs. Or is it like a football helmet?

Katherine Russell Rich

It wasn't a football helmet. It was like somebody had after a keg party, gone and gotten the remains and put it in blue trash bag, and somehow figured out how to tape it to their head.

Jonathan Menjiver

It didn't do anything for Kathy, but she's been in the cancer world long enough that there have been significant improvements in ice helmet technology. The Washington Post ran a story recently that quoted success rates between 76 and 90%. But for Kathy, the ice helmet was just one little funny step on her long, long breast cancer timeline.

Katherine Russell Rich

I long ago gave up the thought of cured. Cured isn't in my vocabulary. They just keep trying to keep you alive. And it's like you're surfing the cancer. You have to time when you think it's time to change treatment.

We mistimed a treatment last summer and the cancer just kind of exploded in my bones. It caused like nerve damage and stuff. And now I have some trouble walking. It was the first time I'd ever seen that happen where we didn't call it at the right time and I could see, oh yeah, this is really dangerous if you're not timing it right.

Jonathan Menjiver

Kathy says she doesn't understand why doctors aren't studying her and the rest of the 2% who have survived over 20 years to figure out what makes them different. She's as mystified as anyone that she's managed to live this long. Being a terminal patient for 18 years, your attitude towards it evolves. At some point you wake up and realize, you haven't died yet, you have to adjust. Kathy remembers the day she was given her stage IV diagnosis. She had just switched oncologists and she got a message saying she needed to come in right away.

Katherine Russell Rich

And I went in and she said it's all through your skeleton. And I just had this sense that, shouldn't someone call the police? I mean, I'd never been in a situation when there was no one you could call where they were telling you you're going to die. And I thought, maybe I should call my parents. But they couldn't do anything. And the police couldn't do anything. I went into this state of just discordance where nothing made sense. And if something really terrible happens you can think, oh my God, I'm going to kill myself, or not necessarily seriously. But you can't even think that if you've just been told you have a year or two to live. Because that's the whole problem. Your body is killing itself. So I just would go into utter blackness every night and just lie there. So I think it took me maybe 14 years to get comfortable with the fact that I less going to be here. And now, how do I live a life after planning to die and what do I do with a life now? I have to like argue myself back into life a lot.

Jonathan Menjiver

So what does that mean? Does that mean your friendships have changed?

Katherine Russell Rich

Yeah. That It means I'm not feeling like there's plexiglass between me and the world, basically. And I'll try anything. I might not have written a book, two books now, if I hadn't been sick that long. It's made me kind of fearless to have had it this long. And I just think, what's the worst that's going to happen if you do it? What's the worst that's going to happen if you let yourself believe that maybe you could stay alive? You know, the answer was, nothing.

Jonathan Menjiver

We spoke a few weeks before January 15. It's a big day for her. Kathy's divorced. She and her ex-husband split up right before she got her initial diagnosis. But that date, the 15, that used to be their wedding anniversary.

Katherine Russell Rich

And it was my parents' wedding anniversary and my grandparents' and my great grandparents'. So for a long time, that's what it was in my life. When the cancer came back, I got the news on January 15. It's a pretty loaded date in my life. There's a great message board for advanced breast cancer patients on breastcancer.org. And I've now started going on the message board and just saying on that date, I'm still here. I'm alive and I'm still here. And I want the women on there to know that there are people out there who live with this, and live for a long time. So I write and I get like hundreds of responses back. It's really difficult to do that every year knowing that most of the women aren't going to fall into that percentage. And I debated every year whether I'm doing the right thing.

Am I making people feel bad? I don't want anyone to think, oh well, she's living and I'm not.

Jonathan Menjiver

Just about a week ago there was a post under the name Kathy36 on the message boards of breastcancer.org. Kathy36 said, I'm writing from India to say that as of today, I've been alive 18 years with stage IV. If someone had told me then that I'd be in India, or anywhere 18 years down the road, I'd have thought they were diluted or being cruel. As I've mentioned before, there was no hope when I was re-diagnosed. And then, somehow there was. Just as cancer can take some unexpected bad turns, it can take some unexpectedly good ones too. This computer's going to go down any minute, so I'll end here. But not before saying, I wish everyone the most unexpected year in the best way. Much love, Kathy.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar is a producer for our show. Katherine Russell Rich's latest book is called Dreaming in Hindi.

[MUSIC- "THIS YEAR" BY THE MOUNTAIN GOATS]

Well, our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Production help from Eric Mennel.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he is definitely-- I feel so proud! He is definitely learning the lessons that we hope to teach with our show each and every week. For example, during today's show, he actually dropped into the studio during one of the breaks in the show to say to me--

Woman

I kind of noticed you were kind of getting a little rounder around the middle.

Ira Glass

And we know what that means. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.