Transcript

433:

Fine Print 2011
Transcript

Originally aired 04.15.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/433

Prologue.

Ira Glass

The way 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's 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 the brown M&Ms were not supposed to be there. If they were there, look out.

John Flansburgh

You know, 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&M 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 in the business.

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 emailed 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 just spent your whole day yesterday working on your contract rider?

John Flansburgh

Basically, a couple days ago, I was looking at the contract rider, which was 25 pages long. And I realized it was this crazy, Frankenstein document that-- there was some really odd, vestigial stuff. I mean I actually found-- we have all these personnel requirements for loaders, and electricians, and fly riggers, and all these people. There's 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 hodgepodge that we had, in some cases-- What had happened is that 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 to 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

There are some-- 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 tabouli. 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, 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, Chana Joffe-Walt explains how the fine print may be the biggest obstacle to getting rid of our acne. Act two, David Rakoff brings us the fine print that could fix what therapy fails to. Act three, Nancy Updike has the story of fine print happening at a place you may never have expected it. Act four, Susan Burton rereads the fine print that changed her childhood. Stay with us.

ACT ONE. ONE PILL TWO PILL, RED PILL BLUE PILL.

Ira Glass

Act One. One Pill Two Pill, Red Pill Blue Pill. Let's start today in a place that is swimming in fine print, the insurance business. President Obama said during the health care debates that if we all understood our health care, it would save money.

President Obama

If there's a blue pill and a red pill, and the blue pill is half the price of the red pill and works just as well, why not pay half price?

Ira Glass

And the problem with the fine print is that it makes it hard to tell which pill is the red one and which one is the blue one, as Chana Joffe-Walt explains.

Chana Joffe

Ted Serra is in the middle of a war. It's been going on for many years and involves billions of dollars. A lot of us are in this war. And like Ted, we don't even know it. He stumbled onto the battlefield because he's got pimples. Pimples and a card.

Ted Serra

It is called the Solodyn Patient Access Card.

Chana Joffe

What's it look like?

Ted Serra

And it looks like a little credit card. It's white and blue.

Chana Joffe

The Solodyn Patient Access Card is just the latest weapon in this war. It's an arms race, really, that's been escalating for decades. There have been moves and counter moves before. This war? It is a war over drug co-payments.

If you don't, say, run an insurance company, you probably hate co-pays. They are a way to make you pay for your drugs at the pharmacy, even though you're insured. Which seems kind of evil, right? But I tracked down an evil insurance VP, Eileen Wood, who actually was pretty personable. And she said, no, no, no. Co-pays are an insurer's special little way of yelling at us. There are drugs that cost $1000. There are drugs that cost $5. When you're insured, you don't care. You don't even know. So the insurers put a $30 dollar co-pay on one and a $10 co-pay on the other. They're giving you a hint that there is a difference in the drug's total cost.

Eileen Wood

And the consumer doesn't see that. And so we struggle to try to shine the light on that, and get called the bad guy.

Chana Joffe

You do get called the bad guy a lot.

Eileen Wood

Yeah, we do.

Chana Joffe

So co-pays were basically a bad guy's way of doing something good for everyone. That's the way Eileen sees it, except for the bad guy thing. Because if insurers could discourage us from buying expensive drugs, it's not just that they would save money. We would save money. They could charge us less in premiums, which we all want.

By the 1990s, insurance companies had it down. Co-pays were working really well. The insurers felt like they were winning the war, which was pretty gratifying to people like Eileen Wood. She'd watched for years as drug companies came out with slightly tweaked versions of existing generics and sold them for 10 times the cost.

Eileen Wood

Let's look at Kapidex. Oh, that's this one. I love this one. That's the Minocin, but this company, this is--

Chana Joffe

Eileen works in a tidy office park in Albany, New York, for an insurance company called Capital Districts Physicians Health Plan, CDPHP. And in her file cabinets, she's got plastic, zipped up pouches of her least favorite brand name drugs. She collects them. Minocin, that one she's talking about, there's a generic version that costs about $50 a month. Minocin PAC, which Eileen is now waiving in my face, is a newer brand name drug. It costs $668.

Eileen Wood

So what's different? It has a couple of little extra items that are not prescription items in there. It has this lovely calming wipe so that when your skin is all red, and you can pat this on. And it's supposed to bring the redness down. It's not a prescription item. Calming serum in a calming mask. It's basically stuff you can buy over the counter. But behind the scenes, it's--

Chana Joffe

$668.

Eileen Wood

Yeah.

Chana Joffe

And the only difference in this is that it has wipes?

Eileen Wood

It has these. That's it. That's the only difference. You could probably buy them for $10. So those three products are added to the Minocin PAC, and I guess that must be what costs the extra $600. I'm not sure. It's very slick.

Chana Joffe

Eileen has dozens of stories like this that do seem ridiculous. An acne medication that comes with green tea swabs? Kind of like a prescription for Viagra that comes with a Hustler magazine that costs an extra $500.

Now, not all brand names are like this. There are brands that are better than existing generic options, that are the only thing that work for some people. And with co-pays, you can still get the brands. It's just the more expensive choice. You want the green tea swabs, you pay $40 of the $668 for it. If you just want Minocin generic, you pay $10 of the $50 dollars.

The co-pay strategy worked so well that in 2003, generics passed the 50% mark, meaning more than 50% of the drugs people went and picked up from pharmacies were generics. It was probably around then that it happened.

The drug companies-- they noticed. People like Sally Beatty at Pfizer. That's the company that makes, among other things, the world's most popular drug, Lipitor. Sally? Not a fan of co-pays.

Sally Beatty

Now, the issue with that is that we want treatment decisions to be made based on what the physician feels is medically best for the patient, not just the cost to the patient, or what another player may decide is in their interest.

Chana Joffe

Another player like Eileen Wood and her insurance industry buddies with their co-pays that were hurting the drug companies. Lipitor was facing major competition from generics. In July 2007, sales were down 13%.

Now, there is no approved generic for Lipitor. Sally Beatty, from Pfizer, will say this three times in 15 minutes. And what that means is that there is no drug that is chemically identical to Lipitor. What there are are generic drugs in the same class of cholesterol reducing drugs. That's what Lipitor does, reduce cholesterol. And those generics are effective for most people. But there are some people who respond better to Lipitor. And for some of those patients, a $40 co-pay stops them from getting the medication.

And so, in 2007, the pharmaceutical industry marshaled its counter-attack. That mysterious card you heard at the beginning of the story, their central weapon. Coupons. A whole bunch of coupons.

Ted Serra

OK, so I've always had a little bit of acne.

Chana Joffe

Enter Ted Serra, the paralegal with the card and the pimples-- pimples that, just a few months ago, were in need of drugs.

Ted Serra

Yeah, it sort of comes and goes. And generally, when I'm going through more periods of stress either at work or just as a course of life, it sort of gets worse.

Chana Joffe

Ted walked into the doctor's office. She poked at him with gloved hands and told him, "OK, we're going to put you on a couple topical creams and some antibiotics, a drug called Solodyn." Ted was tentative, but he mentioned he'd been on a generic before, worked pretty well, called Minocycline. And the doc said, "Yeah, that's great. Basically that's the same as Solodyn, but Solodyn is time released. That means, as opposed to Minocycline, which you have to remember to take in the morning and in the evening, you only have to take Solodyn once a day."

Ted Serra

It didn't really sound that big of a deal to me, but it is, I guess to anyone, slightly easier to take one pill per day instead of two. So I went with it. And I asked in terms of the cost of it just to pay the extra money to take it once a day, if that was going to be a big difference, it wouldn't really be something I'd be interested in. And then she presented this card.

Chana Joffe

You remember the card.

Ted Serra

It is called the Solodyn Patient Access Card.

Chana Joffe

It's actually called Solo-dine, not Solo-din. Who knows where they come up with these names. The point is, this is the moment-- the moment that the drug makers' weapon makes its way into the hands of its oblivious soldier, Ted. Ted was going to get a deal. The doctor explained that this card, it's a coupon. Give it to the pharmacist and it should make your co-pay very affordable, which is exactly what happened. Without the card, Ted's co-pay would have been $154.28. But when Ted got to the pharmacy, he presented his card.

Ted Serra

They went to ring it up at the register, and when it came up, the price was $10.

Chana Joffe

Ten bucks.

Ted Serra

Ten bucks.

Chana Joffe

That's pretty good for drugs.

Ted Serra

Yeah, it was great.

Chana Joffe

Solodyn access achieved.

Ted's insurance company was then charged $655 a month for Ted's once a day Solodyn. For reasons too complicated to go into here, they only paid $514. Minocycline, the one that you have to take twice a day, costs $109 a month total. $514. $109.

Ted never saw those numbers. So you think, OK, well, Ted used the coupon because he didn't really know any better. He thought he was getting a deal. Who wouldn't go for that, right? But the doctor-- what was up with the doctor handing out these cards? Luckily, Dr. Elena Allbritton was generous enough to answer some questions.

Chana Joffe

Do you know the price difference between those two drugs?

Dr. Elena Allbritton

I don't.

Chana Joffe

Like Ted and the majority of Americans, Dr. Allbritton has no idea what drugs actually cost, not because she's lazy, but because these numbers are really hard to find out. The insurance companies, they all individually negotiate with drug companies, and they each pay a slightly different amount. So no, Dr. Allbritton is not thinking about prices when prescribing. She's thinking, what is the best thing available for this patient? Solodyn is better. It's easier to take a pill once a day, instead of twice. It's easier for Dr. Allbritton to get the dosage just right. And Dr. Allbritton wants her patients to have the best.

Dr. Elena Allbritton

I think if I can get a discount for most patients, I think it's great, because the cost of medications can be very high. It's like a free gift to give.

Chana Joffe

Dr. Allbritton just wants it to be easy for patients to access the drugs she thinks they need. Truthfully, she doesn't really want to keep track of all the prices. That's not her job.

Dr. Elena Allbritton

I just don't think that it's realistic to have that responsibility fall on the physician. I mean, then are you going to start saying, "Well, should I really do this biopsy? Because I'm not really sure that it's really that significant of a difference in that mole. And it might cost you $1200 in the end if this doesn't get covered." I mean, you don't want to start thinking about price tags with everything.

Chana Joffe

Actually, when people talk about how to reform health care in our country, this is one of the things they talk about changing. That doctors should know the prices of things, and at least play some role in deciding whether a time release version of a pill is worth $400 more to everyone.

The maker of Solodyn is Medicis. They wouldn't talk to me. By the way, in the months since Ted started taking Solodyn, a generic version has come out. And the war has escalated. Another tactical maneuver-- drug makers used to just give cards to doctors. Now they distribute them to patients too. They're in women's magazines. They're online. They're at the drug store counter. They're everywhere, except in Massachusetts where they're illegal. And we pick them up. We see a deal. Like Ted, we like deals. And Eileen Wood, at the insurance company, she gets that.

Eileen Wood

I can't argue with that argument, except to say there is a consequence for that.

Chana Joffe

Because what will you have to do if everybody gets the more expensive drug?

Eileen Wood

We'd have to raise premiums. I mean, I think there's no question about that. It would have an impact on him, and everybody that sits next to him.

Chana Joffe

At work.

Eileen Wood

At work, and their families, and so forth. Yes.

Ted Serra

I don't want to pay more in premiums next year, and I don't want everyone around me to have to either.

Chana Joffe

Do you think your co-workers are going to hear this and go, "Well, thanks a lot, Ted. You and your fancy acne medicine."

Ted Serra

Probably. But there I was sitting in dermatologist's office, and I have no idea. Again, I had never heard of this medicine. I had no idea how much it cost. I know it's brand name. But I certainly never would've dreamed that it would have cost $655 sticker price.

Chana Joffe

Looking at this war laid out like this, it's a view of a health care system that is comprised of enormous insurance companies throwing their weight around, just as enormous drug companies striking back, and then all these idiots in the middle-- us. You, me, and our doctors. Pesky interlopers who don't even know the price of the pills we're buying.

President Obama wants us to choose the blue pill and not the red pill, because the blue is just as effective but half the price. But with these cards, which one is the blue one? We have no idea.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt is a member of the Planet Money team. That story first aired in 2009. Since then, the Solodyn Patient Access Card has been discontinued. It's now part of a different program, the Medicis MediSAVE Program, which is more of a package deal that allows you to get a few other drugs cheaper as well.

Act Two. Occupancy May Be Revoked Without Notice.

Ira Glass

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 Alewives 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 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, Robby Stozenberg, 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 though 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 "kurveh" 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 Robby 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 receiver 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' 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 his most recent, Half Empty.

Coming up, what's fine print in Farsi? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Side Effects May Include...

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. You know, usually most of us try to just skip the fine print. 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 have arrived at act three of our show.

Act Three. Side Effects May Include.

A confession is not supposed to have any 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 included. This story that you're about to hear is about a confession given in Iran. And just to review, two years ago, if you remember, there were massive protests in Iran following a disputed election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power for a second term. And many Iranians believed that the election was rigged and that a more moderate politician had actually won.

This story actually starts before all that, before Ahmadinejad, in 2004, a time when moderate reformists still were leading the government in Iran, but not for very long. 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 plain clothes. 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 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 if I ever traveled 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. At least, 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 that 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. All right? You should look at my passport. It doesn't show anything. There is no stamp on my passport." At that moment, I learned that they really, in many cases, 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? I mean, 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, it was much harder than to talk about something that happened. Because when nothing was there, it was really hard to imagine that kind of incident.

I mean, this guy was beating me. And at one point I was on the floor. He was hitting my stomach with his leg. At one point, in that case, I threw up. I just couldn't accept that, because I never went 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

They gave me a kind of notebook and a pen, and asked me to start writing everything you have done over the past seven years. 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, "This is not what I want. This 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 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 dad, or my friends.

They asked about my girlfriends. In Iran, you cannot have a girlfriend when you are not married. And the guy asked me to confess about my sexual relationship. "Tell me how you started. Did 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 cannot 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 know, 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, reading Koran, praying five times a day." The guy was beating me, and sometimes stopped beating me to pray on time.

And at one point in the thing, I remember once I watched a movie-- its name is Irreversible. I think it was in my mind all the time. There's 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 cannot take more pressure. I knew people who stayed for a long time in prison, and they'd 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 the 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

He's literally-- 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 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, 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 IN 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.

WOMAN [SPEAKING IN FARSI]

Nancy Updike

In these video clips, 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 documentary filmmaker and reporter for Newsweek in Iran. Maziar Bahari was arrested after the election. 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 under way. 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 was not Maziar's language. Everybody who knows Maziar, everybody who knows the other guy, Mahdavi-- I mean [? Jose ?] Mahdavi-- we used to work at the same newspaper-- nice guy. They didn't talk with the language. It was interrogator's language. It's the security force's language. What he said was a kind of analysis. I read that analysis inside the prison. It was the same. The narrative was very clear. The foreigners 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 them 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 IN FARSI]

Nancy Updike

The comedian is dressed in prison stripes, and identifies himself as Mohammed-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 have been in prison since the election. In the spoof, the comedian looks sheepishly at the camera and says, "I confess that when I traveled 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 the 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 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 gets 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 altogether. 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 cannot 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 would 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 for five, six years. They just didn't decide to arrest them in the hours 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 curtains, flowers, chairs, orange juice. But the thing was, I wanted to make it more unprofessional. So they had to cut all the time, say, no, cut, again. Omid, what are you doing? A few times I cried, and 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 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 had 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 Mohammad Hatami, 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 forces' standard procedure with the confessions was to make copies and send them along to government officials 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 in 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, "Allahu akbar." People use it when they do not believe something, or something is very stunning 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 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 in 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

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 mobilize 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're 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. Since that story first aired in 2009, Maziar Bahari, the writer for Newsweek whose confession that Nancy read, has been released.

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 latchkey 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 Barnhardt. 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'd 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 had 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's 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. Barnhardt had written, "Dear Nancy, this will confirm our 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'd just found the primary document of my dreams. Here was the suggestion that my parents had tried to stay together. I ached that they hadn't been able to reconcile.

It's been almost 20 years since I've lived in that house, and I hadn'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.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who follows me around the office trying to get me to say the letter L, which he knows I cannot say. He especially loves it when I say the name Lillian Hellman.

David Sedaris

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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