A House Divided
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A few years' back, John and his wife were driving back from a vacation in Concan, Texas. They had five kids in this van that they had rented for the trip, three of their own kids and then a couple of the neighbor's kids. They stopped at a taqueria in San Antonio for lunch, and then got back on the road. And John was feeling pretty good about things. All the kids seemed happy, nobody had gotten hurt on the vacation, lunch was really cheap, though he noticed he was getting some weird looks from other cars on the road. And then, outside Sealy, coming into the home stretch of the drive, he sees this Texas Highway Patrol car.
John Nova Lomax
Pursuing me like an angry hornet. I've been pulled over before. This just felt different. I mean, it just kind of came out of nowhere and got on my tail and was just so aggressively driving. And I was totally bewildered.
So he pulls over. And John says that, from watching the TV show Cops all these years, he knew that those two patrolmen are on, like, DEFCON 5. They are shouting at him over the patrol car's PA system.
John Nova Lomax
Neither one of them had gotten out of the car. I'm fairly sure I could already see a gun sticking out of the driver's side. And it was, you know, driver, with your left hand take your keys out of the ignition and put them on the hood. So of course I reach with my right hand, because that just seems impossible. And then, no, left hand. And you have to reach over the steering column and sort of put your hand upside down and then, like, get your hand out the window.
And, I want to see your right hand while you're-- you know, and then it was clasp your hands behind your head, and with your left hand open the door, and then get on your knees. You just kind of just go to pot. You can't really follow all those instructions because you're confused, you don't know why this is happening to you.
You're freaking out a little bit.
John Nova Lomax
You're freaking out a little bit. By this time, I'm on my knees in shorts on the gravel shoulder, and backing towards this car on my knees with my hands clasped behind my head.
And he's thinking, maybe the car rental place got the paperwork messed up and reported the van is stolen, or maybe the cops thought they were smuggling people in from Mexico. They'd been so close to the border on their vacation. So, one of the cops comes out of the car and points a rifle at John's head, while the other one goes over to the van and starts asking a lot of questions of his wife, Jacqueline. And inside the van, of course the kids are terrified. His nine-year-old son is crying. And then, the cop who talked to Jacqueline now walks over to John, over on the shoulder of the road.
John Nova Lomax
Well, he says, do you know what your daughter wrote on the car? I said no. And he told me that she'd written words to the effect that, please help me, we've been kidnapped, call 911. And he told me, he said, well, son, for 15 minutes there you were the most wanted man in Texas.
The exact wording, written in dust on the van's back window, was, help, please God, call 911, I've been kidnapped. And it wasn't John's daughter who wrote it. The cop said that it was Ingrid. The cop didn't know that that was one of the neighbor's kids. And John was so humiliated and frustrated, that when the cop asked him if he knew that what Ingrid did was against the law, John's response was, yeah, haul her in, prosecute her. Which they didn't do. Before long, John was back in the car and on the road.
John Nova Lomax
And I'm just like, what the hell happened? I can't believe that you wrote that. And Ingrid, why did you do that? And then Ingrid was like, well, I didn't write all of it. I just wrote the part about call 911, and Malcolm was the one who wrote, I've been kidnapped.
And then, I'm like, well, who wrote the first thing on there. And Jacqueline was like, oh, well, that was me.
This is your wife?
John Nova Lomax
What did she write?
John Nova Lomax
She wrote, help me, please, because she'd been so stressed out by being with those kids, and she knew that she had an hour and a half or so in the car with them left to go before we could get home. So she had come out of the restaurant first and had just written, help me, please. And then, Malcolm came in and wrote, I've been kidnapped. And then, Ingrid came and put the little cherry on the top of what was to almost get me arrested or killed.
And I kept thinking that the story was going to be repeated to me as an urban legend at some cocktail party. Like, oh, did you hear about this guy who-- you know, he would end up getting shot or something and killed by the police.
And now, I was going to say, in the urban legend version, you're dead, they shoot you.
John Nova Lomax
Yeah, totally. And then it would be pieced together and then I would haunt that section of highway.
John Lomax, he hasn't been alive for 10 years.
John Nova Lomax
If anybody pulled over to make out there, I would come limping down the road with a hook on my arm or something.
So, a bunch of kids dimed you out. Your own family dimed you out.
John Nova Lomax
Yeah, and then I rolled over on them, just shamefully. That's the one thing I'm ashamed of is just urging that policeman to taking her to jail.
You've heard the saying, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
John Nova Lomax
Yes. And that was a van divided against itself, and it didn't stand the trip from San Antonio to Houston.
Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. When you start throwing around the phrase, a house divided against itself cannot stand, you are trafficking in one of the most ominous and overwrought sayings in Western history.
This is something that Abraham Lincoln warned on the eve of the Civil War. It's something that Jesus said when the Pharisees accused him of being in league with Satan. And today in our show, we have three stories where that weighty old saying actually describes things in our everyday lives, because the people in these stories really do seem like they're on the verge of disaster. We have a political story, we have a story of human anatomy, and we have a story of a family that just cannot seem to stay divorced, which, I know, sounds a little weird. Just stay with us.
Act One. War of Northern Aggression.
Act One, War of Northern Aggression. It's a tough call these days, but if you're looking for the one state that more than any other is a house divided against itself, I would offer, for your consideration, Wisconsin. Of course, maybe you already know that. Maybe you saw the beginning of this, epic protests resisting Governor Scott Walker's budget cuts.
And then, even more controversial, his legislation that blew a hole in collective bargaining rights for teachers' unions and all kinds of government employees. In the middle of all that, Democratic state senators fled to Illinois, where they stayed for three weeks trying to stall the bill.
Well, the latest-- and this part you might have missed-- is that the fight has not stopped. Walker's bill passed, but the feelings against it have split Wisconsin into a political civil war. The latest weapon of choice is this rarely used rule in the state's constitution that lets people knock politicians out of office. If you want to give somebody the boot, you collect signatures, and if you get enough-- and it takes a lot-- you can force any public official into a recall election, where they have to run again in the middle of their term. As of now, six Republican state senators and three Democratic state senators will face recall elections in the coming months.
One of our producers, Ben Calhoun, recently went home to Wisconsin. He grew up there. He remembers getting dragged to his first political event by his parents when he was 10. And he spent a week traveling, talking to Democrats and Republicans around the state, which seems to be gradually losing its mind.
You can't really understand how much Wisconsin politics has changed in the last year without seeing what it was like before all this. In early May, you could still spot old Wisconsin politics, the way it used to be. Early May was a big deadline for Wisconsin's recall war. Petitions were due, and so all across the state, Democrats and Republicans were out collecting signatures, trying to force politicians into recall elections.
On a Saturday morning, I met up with these two women, these two friends, Betty Barns and Pam Packard. They were right where I was told they would be at 9:00 AM on Saturday, which was standing about 150 feet off a busy intersection in the empty parking lot of a doctor's office, next to a card table.
Every Saturday, yeah. Every night, 5:00 to 7:30. And then, Saturday, 9:00 to noon, we're here.
Oh, my gosh, you're here every night.
Every night. We've been here every night for two weeks.
Wow, so you know this parking lot like nobody else.
Yeah, we do.
Rain, sleet, snow.
Snow, yeah. We know it.
Betty and Pam were trying to collect enough signatures to force their state senator, a Democrat named Julie Lassa, into a recall election. Lassa was one of the 14 Democrats who fled Wisconsin trying to tie up Governor Scott Walker's anti-union legislation.
What was remarkable about Betty and Pam's set-up the day I was with them is just how much energy they'd spent making one of the most controversial moments in Wisconsin state politics, making it all as non-confrontational as possible. Part of it is just Betty and Pam's personalities. They're not yellers. They're 99% your grandma, 1% Sean Hannity.
But there were other things. Like, for example, you know I said they were about 150 feet from the street? Well, Betty and Pam told me they deliberately set up in this parking lot away from the road, because, even though it made them harder to see, this was private property, and that way, if anyone wanted to come up and argue about what's happening, they could just tell them they had to leave.
And while I was there, their strategy worked like a dream. All morning long, no confrontations to speak of, until the end of the day, when Pam and Betty were packing up to leave and this woman leaned out of a blue car that was passing by and yelled.
We love Julie Lassa.
OK, it's very hard to hear. She was way out in the intersection. But what she yelled was, we love Julie Lassa. As in, that woman that you're trying to recall, we love her. I wondered what Pam and Betty would do. And then, for a surprisingly long time, they just didn't say anything, long enough that I started to wonder if they were going to pretend it hadn't happened at all.
That's pretty typical.
What were they yelling?
We love Julie Lassa.
Yeah. I don't dislike her. She's a great mom.
This is what I'm getting at. This was as harsh as it got. All morning, on the front lines of the most heated, intense political fight Wisconsin has seen in years, and this was it. You have someone heckling by saying they love someone, and then Betty saying, I don't dislike her, I think she's a good mom.
That's the Wisconsin politics I know. Because, having talked to Betty for more than an hour and listened to her complain about Julie Lassa and the Democrats to her friends and neighbors, frowning and saying things like dereliction of duty and there need to be consequences, I know that what Betty was feeling inside probably went something more like this: I think Julie Lassa is a terrible state senator, one of those despicable Democrats who fled the state, shrugged off the responsibility to stay and vote in the minority, and take the political beating I think she deserves, and now I want to punish her, so badly, in fact, that I'm willing to stand here, here in this cold fricking parking lot every night, and every Saturday morning, just to make that happen.
But that wasn't what she said. What she said was, I think she's a good mom. In Wisconsin, traditionally, you might disagree about politics, and you might get worked up, but for the most part it's not something you go to war with your neighbor about. Being civil is more important. All the screaminess of our national politics, you try to avoid that. And at the very least, you don't let it show. But that's the old Wisconsin.
And spending time in my home state recently, with Democrats trying to recall Republicans, Republicans trying to recall Democrats, I saw something that was unfamiliar, an anger that's infected the entire state. As far as I know, there isn't a good way to measure pure anger. But I'll tell you one rising indicator, and this is one pollsters don't usually count, I can tell you, without question, the use of the middle finger in Wisconsin politics is way up. On sidewalks and in parking lots across the entire state, people are flipping each other off at alarming rates. And the trend is bipartisan.
This brings me to this short video that I saw. You can watch this thing yourself if you want. It's on YouTube. It's a video of the campaign announcement. Quick background, on March 9, a Republican state senator named Luther Olsen voted in favor of Governor Walker's bill that attacked collective bargaining. Because of that, Democrats decided they were going to take Luther down.
They organized a petition drive, filed thousands of signatures, and successfully forced Luther into a recall election this summer. Enter a Democratic state representative named Fred Clark, who announced he was going to challenge Olsen, try to knock him out of office. The video that I saw that caught my attention was of Fred announcing that he was running, which he did on April 21.
OK, OK, so let's get this rolling and then we can pause it whenever you have a point where you want to explain what's going on in the room.
Fred and I watched this video together in his home office, the office where Fred runs his forestry business. To get to it, we had to go through the first floor, which has more than half a dozen chainsaws hanging from the ceiling.
Fred explained that he decided to make his campaign announcement in his home town of 12,000, Baraboo, Wisconsin. For a location, he picked the town civic center, which used to be a school. So picture a classroom. Fred's standing in front of a chalkboard behind a lectern. Fred's tall and skinny, with a neatly trimmed beard that's turning gray. As he gets ready to speak, he has glasses hanging around his neck by a string, and they make him look more like a high school history teacher and less like a guy who runs a forestry business.
I have to say, from the first time I saw this video, even the first 30 seconds of cheering sounded kind of weird.
Are those boos that are in the background?
No, at that point you're hearing cheering and clapping.
And as I opened it up, I wasn't even aware that there were Olsen supporters in the room at that point.
By Olsen supporters, Fred means people who support the Republican he's trying to knock out of office, people who'd come there that day to Fred's announcement, not to cheer, but to heckle. Fred says they were hard to see from where he was, but in the video, the camera pans back across the crowd.
There's another one there. There's one there.
Oh, wait, so you're pointing to--?
Yep. So back in here, the number of the Olsen supporters that have come in have started raising Olsen signs. It looks like, let's see, they've got a couple of his old yard signs they pulled up, and then some handmade signs. That was my first clue that these guys had kind of worked their way into the room and the fun was going to start.
At first, it seems like just a little booing and jeering. But pretty soon, you can hear people really start yelling at each other. While things get rowdier, Fred's up front trying to soldier through his speech. Eventually, people start pleading with each other to stop, including Fred, who looks a little bewildered. One woman yells, we're nice in Wisconsin.
We're nice in Wisconsin.
All right, let's be respectful, please.
We've got over 850 volunteers, work seven days a week in one of the worse springs in recent memory.
Are people just kind of shouting at each other right there?
Yeah. Yeah, I think, at that point, there's been some jostling. Olsen supporters had started to whistle and yell, and some of our supporters were asking them to be quiet. And that's when the air in the room started to get a little thick.
From there, it got worse, particularly when a friend of Fred's, a guy named Chuck, he started taking pictures of some of the Republicans. He was pointing his camera at one of them, and the person he was taking the picture stuck out a sign to block the shot. Chuck raised the camera higher.
And then, at that point, somebody just reached out and grabbed it by the lens and pulled it down. And I'm not sure if it hit the floor or pulled the lens off, but at that point you hear Chuck saying, you broke my camera.
You broke my camera.
That's the point when my friend, Homer, who's a pretty big fellow but very gentle man, decided that the thing for him to do was climb on a table so he could see what was happening, just in case it became important later. I think that was a trigger for the Olsen supporters to start shouting at me and interrupting me and--
The rest of the 12-minute video's all like this, the Olsen supporters heckling, the Clark supporters trying to shout the hecklers down, some people pleading for it all to stop, and Fred Clark just looking kind of flustered. Remember, this isn't a presidential rally, a race for US Senate, or even congressional representatives, where this would all still seem a little weird. This is a race for the Wisconsin state legislature. Do you even know who your state senator is? Me neither.
The craziest thing, something you'd never know just watching this online, is just how close everyone in the room is personally, like in their personal lives, when they weren't shouting at each other like this.
What percentage of the people do you know in the room?
There's Charlie Bradley. There's Roger Springman. There's Ed and Jill Brennan. I probably personally know 75% of the people in the room.
Did you know any of the Olsen supporters who were there? Did you recognize anyone?
Yeah, and that's really the interesting part of it to me. I knew a number of them.
Fred says, among the people harassing him, there were some people he wasn't surprised to see. There was the head of the county Tea Party, who Fred says he got along OK with in the past, but he wasn't shocked to see him. But there were others, like a school board member, someone he knows pretty well, someone he sat down and talked to a lot of times. There was a county supervisor who Fred also knows pretty well.
I think most interesting was my own town chairman, here in a rural township, was there protesting. And this is a fellow who I've known for years, who'd been a supporter of mine previously, and who I've worked with on a number of issues, including an issue having to do with flooding on a local creek.
Did you get that? This guy that Fred's talking about was a political ally, a former supporter, who'd come out that day to heckle.
Yeah, yeah. And I think that's a clue to where we are right now.
And now, get this. Fred didn't used to just get along politically with some of the Olsen supporters who are now screaming at him, he used to get along with Luther Olsen, the Republican he's now challenging. They had their political differences, but according to both of them, they like each other, think the other's a good public servant, and that they're easy to work with even though they're from opposing parties.
Matter of fact, the morning Scott Walker unveiled his anti-union legislation, Luther Olsen and Fred Clark were doing an event together. They were both shocked. Luther, the Republican, even called Walker's idea radical. But eventually, under a lot of pressure, Luther caved, fell in line with his party, and voted with the governor. And that vote drew a line between Fred and Luther.
I think Luther's the same guy. I think I'm the same guy. We're just in a very different environment right now. And this is an environment that is testing the character of anybody who's in elected office today. I like Luther personally. And in any environment that you might call normal, Luther and I could get along just fine. And in fact, a lot of people have supported both of us and appreciated the fact that we work together across the aisle as well as we do.
So you know of people who would cast a vote for you and vote for Luther in an election.
Oh, I know hundreds of them.
Do you feel like the two of you-- and not just the two of you, but like, all the people in this room-- kind of got drafted into a situation that wasn't one of your making?
I agree with that. I think what people are wondering about right now is, where's the Wisconsin that we knew?
I told Fred Clark, in my whole life I'd never seen anything like this in Wisconsin politics. And he told me people have been comparing this to the Vietnam War protests, which raises a question. A lot of controversial stuff has happened between the Vietnam War and today, so why was it this issue that's turned the state into a political bloodbath?
Wisconsin's a big rural state, but it's not conservative. Its politics are in the middle, leaning a little towards the left. Organized labor has a long history in the state, and Wisconsin's gone Democratic in every presidential election since Reagan. But bottom line, it's moderate, polite, and civil, and moderate. That right there is really the break Scott Walker has made.
His plan, whether you love it or you hate it, was a big move away from the middle. He's pulled a pretty moderate state dramatically towards an extreme, and done something they don't do in Wisconsin. He's picked a fight. And he's forced a lot of people who don't like to fight to choose sides anyway. I can't tell you how many stories I heard about people collecting recall signatures on both sides getting harassed.
I heard about a guy who got punched by someone who then tried to take his clipboard. Democrats in Milwaukee suburbs told me, while they were collecting on the side of the road, they had several people in cars swerve towards them, hit the gas, and then swerve away at the last minute.
How many did you end up getting?
And you needed, originally?
Oh, wow. So that's, I mean--
Yep, we did it.
This is Kim Simac. She spent a couple months organizing a recall campaign that landed 23,000 signatures. It was against her state senator, a Democrat, one of 14 who fled to Illinois.
That bothered me a lot.
When I talked to Kim, I asked her if things in her part of the state had turned personal. She took me into her kitchen.
Some of the nasty stuff, what I did was--
So you just have this on your fridge?
Yeah. Here's one of your classy ones.
To collect signatures, Kim had mailed petitions out to people in the district. And under a magnet on her refrigerator, she had a stack that had come back to her with angry messages on them. Kim didn't seem super eager to read them to me, which is how I learned that it feels very, very awkward to read someone else's hate mail out loud to them.
Come to my house for a signature. Go [BLEEP] yourselves. Go [BLEEP] yourself, you [BLEEP] suckers. How dare you send [BLEEP] to my house. So they mailed this back to you?
Mmm-hmm. We were going to put a big mural together, kind of fun, and put it on Facebook. And then afterwards, it just got to be not so funny anymore. And so, we just--
Yeah, that's not a nice one.
All this hostility, it isn't just people at rallies and protests. It's seeped down into the groundwater of everyday life. Kim says it's not just anonymous mail. She's lost friends over this, good friends. She's lived in this place for a long time. She raised nine kids here, but she says it all feels different now.
Well, I mean, at the post office, at the grocery store, I've had people waiting at the end of my driveway for me that are-- it's scary. We have cameras on the driveway now. I mean, all of that, that's all ugly. I sent nine kids to this school here, and I've had quite a few of the teachers-- I mean, I had one flip me off recently. It was like, OK.
Kim says one of the teachers at the school she mentioned, the one where she sent all of her kids, a teacher there put together a list of businesses that people should boycott. Kim and her husband, who own a horse stable in a camp, were at the top of the list. Also, the recall Kim organized against her state senator, a Democrat named Jim Holperin, it was also personal.
For Kim, Jim Holperin wasn't just a name on a ballot. He went to the same school as her husband, and they run into each other in town, though Kim says the two of them haven't spoken in the last few years, since she started an argument about global warming when they ran into each other at their local post office.
Kim and Jim's situation is surprising because of who Jim Holperin is. Jim was actually one of the very first state senators in Wisconsin targeted for recall. And if you met Jim Holperin on the street, that just might blow your mind. Jim Holperin is clean-cut, gray-haired, reserved, and nice. If you lived in a town called This Guy Will Never Be Controversial, Jim would be your state senator. And he would never, ever be holding in his hand an email that ended like this.
Your ads on TV are a fricking joke. You ran instead of standing up for your constituents. You have no clue what hardworking people even are, you egotistical bureaucrat and useless piece-of-crap politician. Just want to let you know how the majority of us that really work and pay taxes in this state feel about you and the other idiots that are trying to bankrupt us. Good luck getting a real job after you get recalled, you jackwad. Sincerely, Feel You Are Completely Worthless, Bruce.
When Walker's legislation came down the pipe, and Jim fled to Illinois with the other Dems, Jim says the phone calls he was getting were 75% against him, but the letters were 75% for him. Some people called him a jackwad. Some people called him a hero. Jim says he doesn't feel like either. Jim says he feels like what he's always been, a conservative Democrat, a moderate, a guy from the middle. And that's what makes this all so strange to him.
I've been viewed, I think and I hope, over the years as being a somewhat reasonable guy. Well, on this issue, we've got a divisiveness in this state that starts at the family level and goes to the community level and goes right up to the state level. But the outcome of all that is it's made a guy like me, who liked to think of himself as reasonable, and I hope was maybe perceived as reasonable and someone independent, it's made me seem unreasonable, unwilling to compromise, and someone who is dug in and unwilling to listen. That's disturbing to me personally, and it's the most disturbing part of this whole thing.
As election time for the recalls has gotten closer, things have gotten more outrageous. The GOP decided to run fake Democrats in the recall elections to confuse Democratic voters, but more importantly, to trigger Democratic primaries, which will put off the moment when Republicans face Democrats, presumably to give them more time to campaign and boost their poll numbers. Putting fake candidates on ballots is the kind of dirty tactic that's not unheard of, though when it's used it's frowned on, so nobody would admit to it publicly.
In Wisconsin, it's become so us-versus-them that the Wisconsin Republican Party is openly admitting that they're doing this, that they are behind the fake Democrats on the ballot. Meantime, worried that they might lose their majority in the Senate, the state Republican Party battened down its hatches and started fast-tracking a bunch of controversial bills through the legislature. Democrats, unable to stop them, have gotten extreme, too.
Even though the crowds at the Capitol aren't what they were, the other day two protesters opposing Governor Walker's budget used those heavy, U-shaped bike locks to lock their throats to the railing of the Wisconsin state Senate. One of them told police officers he'd swallowed the key.
Talking to Wisconsin politicians about what's happening, I often got this nagging feeling that this is all very disorienting. And eventually, I realized it's because they built their careers in a political environment where diplomacy matters, and suddenly they're fighting for those careers in a place where the rules have changed. The thing about a big move like Walker's, it can take a place where people value meeting in the middle and compromise and turn it into a place where everything is black and white. And in a black-and-white world, the people like Jim Holperin, who like grey, they become outcasts, and they risk getting attacked from both sides.
I didn't just get that feeling from Democrats like Jim Holperin, the guy with the jackwad email, I heard it from moderate Republicans, too. State Senator Luther Olsen, the Republican whose supporters stirred up trouble in that video you heard, Olsen said something to me just like Jim. He said, when Walker unveiled his controversial legislation, Luther reached out to his Republican colleagues to offer a compromise, an olive branch. But there was so much pressure from Walker that the middle ground vanished. Those were his words. The middle ground vanished.
Before Luther knew it, he was being recalled, and Fred Clark was challenging him for his office. And their race kind of sums up what's going on, because in any other election, Fred and Luther would be a moderate Democrat against a moderate Republican. But in the recall election this summer, it will be the guy who voted with Scott Walker and the guy who voted against him.
Ben Calhoun. He's one of the producers of our show.
[MUSIC - "THE ONE ON THE RIGHT IS ON THE LEFT" BY JOHNNY CASH]
Coming up, the laziest organ in your body takes a stand against the others. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two. Split a Gut.
It's 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, A House Divided. We have stories of internal strife with possible dire consequences. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Split a Gut.
Comedian Julian McCullough tells a story on stage about this night when he suddenly had this urgent, explosive feeling in his gut. He assumed food poisoning, and so he asked his friend, Sean, to drive him home.
So we get in his car. He's driving me to my apartment across town. And he could tell that I'm getting worse. Like, I'm starting to sweat a little bit. I'm kind of slouched over in the seat. And he's like, man, you don't look so good. Do you want me to come up to your apartment and make sure you're OK? And I was thinking about my apartment, which is a place where you can see the stove and the toilet from the bed. And I was like, that's not a big enough apartment for what's about to happen.
So I was like, no, thank you for the nicest and grossest offer you've ever given me. I will do this alone. So I get upstairs to my apartment. I immediately take all my clothes off, which I do every time I come home. But like, I really did it this time. So I'm naked in my apartment, and the problem is that I am still in a great deal of pain but I don't feel an urge to use the bathroom.
So I just decide, OK, it's going to take a little longer. So I go into my room, and eventually, I can't get comfortable anymore in any position. I can't lay down. I can't stretch my body out. I haven't stretched my body out straight in about 45 minutes to an hour.
So somehow my body and the pain in my body negotiate a truce where, if I am in a prayer position on the floor next to my bed and with my arms on my bed, we can deal. I'm like, this is weird that I'm being forced into a prayer position, but I'm not going to overthink it. So I'm in this prayer position for about another 45 minutes, and my entire stomach is killing me.
And I'm freaking out. And basically, I don't want to call 911 or go to the emergency room. I grew up in a family without health insurance my whole life, and our policy was generally, give it a couple weeks. So I didn't have health insurance.
But the pain wasn't going anywhere, and I was like, I can't be in a prayer position naked for two weeks. So I finally decide, after about-- it's probably 12:45 in the morning now. I decide, I can't take this anymore, something's wrong, I have to go to the hospital. And so, I get dressed. And I immediately hail a cab, so that was lucky. And the driver is like, where you going? And I was like-- I can barely speak-- I was like, the emergency room, please.
And he was like, which one? And I was like, do you want me to yelp it? Make sure you take me to one with outdoor seating. I just want to go to the closest one. How about the closest one, because it's an emergency room.
So he takes me to the closest emergency room, which is Beth Israel Hospital. And of course, the waiting area is packed. And I even see a guy with, like, he's literally holding his T-shirt to his head and there's blood everywhere coming out of his head. And my thought was, great! Seriously, dude?
So I go over to the guy that's, like, in charge of who gets to live. And I'm like, sir-- this is the only words I get out of my mouth-- I go, stomach. And this guy is a mid-50s man that obviously has been working in this position for a long time. He's seen everything. And he looks at me, and he goes, go right ahead. And that's when I was like, crap. Because if anyone can see the aura of death on a person, it's that guy.
So I go in and I get on a bed, and a guy comes over to me, a doctor comes over to me. And I go, my stomach, it's like I'm in so much pain I can't even describe it. And he was like, OK, all right, how about on a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your pain? And I was like, seven, because I'm saving 10 just in case.
And he says, oh, seven, that's very high. So he goes, OK, you gotta lay back. And so, I lay back and that hurts a lot. And he goes, OK, I'm going to press on your stomach. So he takes his hand and he pushes on my stomach. And the weird thing is, when he pushed on my stomach, my first thought was, 10. And so he goes, I'm going to get working on getting you some morphine.
And even though I'm in a lot of pain, I realize that, basically, I'm about to receive morphine, based on my word? My face must really be convincing right now. It's almost, that was as easy as, like, when a guy's in the park, like, got that morphine. So I'm nervous at this point, because for the previous 10 years I had been a raging alcoholic, drug addict. And I quit. I'd been sober for about a year and a half at this point. And he was going to give me morphine, which I'd never done when I was drinking and doing drugs, but it just didn't come up. But now it was and I was nervous.
So he gives me the morphine. And luckily, when you're in that much pain, morphine doesn't make you high. It just makes the pain like you can deal with it. So that was a relief, because I didn't want to think it was awesome. Because now I knew how to get it.
So I'm on morphine and I'm feeling better. And he's like, all right, we're going to give you an MRI. Puts me in an MRI. They wheel me back out. And he comes over to me a few minutes later, and he says, the good news is you don't have kidney stones, so you won't be passing stones through your penis. That's literally what he said to me. He goes, unfortunately, the MRI has shown that your appendix has burst. We need to get you on powerful antibiotics very quickly.
When your appendix bursts, there's all kinds of inflammatory poison going through your abdomen, and it is messing up everything, every organ in your body is getting inflamed by this poison and they need to make it settle down right away. They can't go in and do surgery because everything's too riled up, it's too dangerous. So I'm going to be on antibiotics, on an IV drip, without food, for four days.
Most people who go to the hospital for an appendix go for an inflamed appendix that has not burst, and they can take it out before it bursts. My appendix burst, obviously, inside my body, which is definitely the worst place. And then I started thinking, and I realized that the appendix is the only organ in our body that doesn't have a job to do, but it's the first one to be like, screw this [MAKES BURSTING SOUND].
Which seems very entitled, because I have organs in my body that have obviously had every right to walk off the job years ago due to unfair working conditions. My liver had been pumping poison out of my body at an astounding rate for years without complaining once, like a migrant worker just happy to have a job in America. Meanwhile, my appendix is like some spoiled NYU kid that never had to work a goddamned day in its life.
And I can picture my liver being like, hey, appendix, can you help us out for a second? My appendix being like, uh, my dad owns, like [MAKES BURSTING SOUND].
So they finally, on the fourth night, I go into surgery at, like, 2:00 AM. I come out of it, and I'm like, Doctor, I really want to go home. And he's like, oh, yeah, you can't leave until you have a bowel movement. And I was like, this is the weirdest standoff I've ever had.
Eventually, I do. I get home. And what you should be wondering-- if I were you, I would be wondering this-- how much? Right? No health insurance, seven days in the hospital, emergency appendectomy. Well, I'll tell you. It was $45,000. And I found out when I got a bill in the mail for $45,000. By the way, in the mail with the other mail, like it was just more mail, but it was a bill for $45,000, in a white envelope like all the other envelopes.
That should not come in a white envelope. That should come in a black envelope with a skull and crossbones on it, and when you open it, a picture of your hopes and dreams falls out and bursts into flames because now you owe the hospital $45,000.
My friends had a lot of great financial advice. They were like, [BLEEP] 'em. Like, across the board. They were like, don't pay it. What are they going to do, put your appendix back in? And it was tempting, but I had to do it. I'm doing the right thing, because I was literally going to die and they saved my life. And it didn't feel right not paying them back.
So I am doing the right thing. And today, I am still paying them back, $20 a month. And if Beth Israel Hospital ever wants to see $45,000, they just have to make sure I live to be 657 years old, so ball's in your court, Beth Israel Hospital.
Julian McCullough. HE performs pretty much every night of the week somewhere. To find out when he's showing up near you, julianmccullough.com. He was recorded at TOLD, which is a monthly storytelling show in New York City, hosted by our program's production manager, Seth Lind. They are at toldshow.com.
[MUSIC - "I GET ALONG WITHOUT YOU VERY WELL" BY CHET BAKER]
Act Three. Don't Make Me Separate You.
Act Three, Don't Make Me Separate You. Well we end our show today with this story about a family whose house was divided. Jeanne Darst was 16 when her parents split up, her three sisters just a little bit older. But her parents, Steve and Doris, did not do divorce like other people did.
At first they acted like normal divorced people. They were angry, and they spoke badly of one another and dated other people and not each other. My mother could actually smell our father on us when we came in the door on Sunday night after a weekend at his place. "Have you been at your father's? You reek of franks and beans."
That first Thanksgiving they were divorced she forbid him to enter her apartment, so Dad took us to a sushi place on Third Avenue. Not a Calvin-Trillin-Chinatown-dumpling-house-on-Thanksgiving kind of place, but rather a last minute Dad-didn't-make-a-reservation-anywhere kind of place. It was empty, aka totally depressing and potentially gastro-disatrous. That Thanksgiving was the last time he ever took us out to dinner. He was quickly running out of money. It was the official start of destitute divorced dad.
He was early to pick up my sisters and me for Christmas. Ever since I can remember, my father never had anywhere else he had to be. He was sitting on one of the couches in the lobby of Mom's apartment building with a bag of presents on either side of his knees. He wore a hat. He still bought and wore hats, mostly from this prehistoric preppy store on Madison and 46th, FR Tripler. Tripler's was his only charge card so you could count on some things coming from there at Christmas.
The men's section may have been possible, but the women's clothes were the most outdated, buttoned up, queer [BLEEP] imaginable. What old money wear in menopause. He got up and gave his usual huge greeting.
"Jeanne Jo, Carolina, Julita, Elizabetha, Merry Christmas! Sit! Sit! Have if I got some great things for you all!"
My dad, hat and grey overcoat still on, began taking presents out of the bags, all unwrapped. My father had never wrapped present. Ever. It totally threw off your timing as the person getting the gift, because you could plainly see what you were being given as he reached across people to hand it to you. And out of politeness, you had to maintain a facade of suspense as you passed the gift your way.
There were biographies he got half price at the Strand, a button down shirt with a silk tie at the collar from Tripler's that Pat Buckley might wear to jury duty. And then the worst kind of present my dad gave, an expensive item like a fancy camera, that you knew meant he wasn't going to eat for a week.
We sat in the lobby opening presents, thankful that because Mom was new to the building, we didn't know any of the people coming and going to their holiday festivities, passing us and giving a raised eyebrow to the doorman Mario. Liz and Caroline, the two people in our family who had incomes, entry-level though they were, made a couple overtures to actually going somewhere for brunch. But Dad cheerfully dismissed these wacky notions. "Oh, I think we're good right here," he said. My gift was heartbreakingly expensive, a brand new Oxford English Dictionary.
"What do you think about that OED, Jeanne Jo?"
"Your life as you know it, gone, I'm telling ya. You'll thank me later."
"You're very welcome."
My father then reached into one of his bags and pulled out a large hunk of Parmesan cheese.
"I thought my bio of Rebecca West smelled a little funny," Liz giggled.
"Murray's cheese shop on Bleecker," Dad said.
He pulled a knife out of his herringbone overcoat and chiseled off a flaky hunk.
"Caroline, can I interest you in some of the finest of Parma?"
Caroline, on the verge of tears, uttered, "No thank you."
"All right then. Terrible decision but you're free to make it. Elizabetha?"
"Sure," she said, "yummy."
He handed Liz the crumbly cheese. "Help yourself to some of that good bread. Now who else would like a bit? Julia, what's the name of that doorman again?"
"Mario, but he doesn't want any cheese, Dad," Julie said.
"Nonsense. It's Christmas and he's working. Where's your spirit?"
"Please don't offer him any cheese, Dad," Caroline pleaded.
"What is wrong with you girls?" My dad stood up and yelled across the lobby, "Mario! Mario!" my father bellowed. Mario put his Daily News down. "Can I interest you in some of the finest Parmesan this side of the Mediterranean?"
"Oh. No thank you, sir."
"You're not being polite are you, Mario?"
"Dad, he doesn't want any cheese," I said.
"O.K., I will have some," Mario said. "Thank you."
"Terrific. OK, let's see here," and my dad began jabbing at the Parmesan with his knife. "Whare are you from Mario?"
"What part?" My dad placed a chunk of cheese in Mario's palm.
"Umbria. My god, that's gorgeous land. Your family farmers or winemakers or what?" My dad nibbled on a piece of cheese as if he were at a cocktail party in Southampton.
Just then, the doors of one of the two elevators opened and Mom and Phil Sully got off. Phil was her divorce lawyer. She was also sleeping with him. They walked into the lobby. Mom's eyes went to the cheese on the lobby table, the presents everywhere, the crumbling baguette on the table, Dad, Mario, and us girls. While it didn't reflect favorably upon Dad, it wasn't what you'd call a moment of glory for Mom or Phil Sully either.
Mom simply walked through it like a rain shower. "Steve," she said. "Girls." Mario trotted to the door and held it open for them as they walked out of the lobby into the sharp December chill and 87th Street.
A few months later Mom decided to ditch the Upper East Side for Florida which seemed like a gutsy divorced lady starting over kind of move. My parents were physically further apart than they'd ever been. But then there was some backpedaling. Mom was asked to leave the complex she lived in the Sunshine State after only a few months at which point she opted to crash in the West Village at my father's studio while she looked for her own place.
My parents now ate together, went to movies, and checked each other in and out of the hospital. Some people might call this dating. She delivered the news over the phone. "Hi, Dolly, it's Mom. I'm at your father's," she said. "I've left Florida." She paused letting her line land, as they say in the theater.
The problem with my mother was that everything she said had a big landing. "I'm no longer on speaking terms with my hairdresser" went high into the air and came down at your feet with as much of a thud as "they found a growth the size of a brioche under my left armpit." The last time I spoke with her mother said she was doing OK, that she missed minorities terribly.
"You left Florida because you missed black people?" I asked.
"Not just black people, Jeanne. Gays and Latinos and the Chinese and the Koreans."
"Lesbians?" I asked.
"Actually, I've never thought lesbians add that much to the city frankly. Anyway, I'm at your father's. He's being absolutely impossible."
"Really?" I asked. What did she expect? They were married for 23 years, but this week, this is the one that did it?
"I slept on a bed with no sheets last night," she said. "And did you know your father sometimes sleeps upright in his computer chair?"
"Apparently his asthma is so bad that he has to sleep upright to be able to breathe."
"Why doesn't he prop some pillows up in bed?"
"He's afraid he'll stop breathing if he does that." I hear my mother light a cigarette and exhale.
"Are you smoking in his house?"
"Oh, he's not hear right now."
After two days of Mom staying with Dad, my sister Caroline calls me from Saint Vincent's Hospital.
"Hi. So Dad had a major asthma attack." I visit the hospital and see him. He'd nearly died. And to keep him alive, the doctors gave him massive doses of several drugs, steroids being the big one. Which, the nurse tells me, is why he threw a heavy hospital chair out his window the night before, landing on 7th Avenue.
I asked Dad whether Mom smoking in his house might have brought on the asthma attack. He says he hadn't thought about that but admitted it was a possibility. He recovers after a few days and I see him for Caroline's birthday.
We go to Dad's little studio. With its tiny sink and half ridge under the counter it feels like Gregor Samsa's Winnebago. The main room was approximately 12 feet by 12 feet.
Six of us gathered as best we could in the space that had one chair and a reclined futon, and Dad brought Caroline's birthday cake out of the mini fridge. "Now this place is terrific. The best," he said, putting the cake on the desk. It was from Claude's. Claude's was the best. And expensive, which is why we were a little shocked.
"Steve, how about a cake knife?" Mom said, trying to help things along.
"A cake knife and some plates?"
"Absolutely. Absolutely," Dad headed back into the kitchen where he rummaged around. He returned with a knife and three plates for six people. No forks. He handed the knife to Caroline. Everyone watched Caroline opened the white box.
"Dad!" Caroline screamed. "There's a piece missing!"
"Oh for God's sake, Steve," Mom gasped.
"It was half price with a piece missing. We don't need that piece. To hell with that piece!"
Mom got up. "I'm going outside for a cigarette."
Caroline remain speechless looking at the birthday cake with a piece missing. my sister Julia and I headed downstairs to smoke with Mom.
"Honestly." Mom took a puff and watched a large gay man move past us with his Lhasa Apso. "A birthday cake with a piece missing. I could kill him."
"Or you could stay somewhere else," I offered up.
"Yeah, Mom, you don't have to put up with his crap," Julia said.
"Right. And well you don't have put up with his crap because you are in fact no longer married," I said, trying once more to convey the basic concept of divorce to these two. Who seemed not to understand that a significant part of divorce entailed not seeing each other.
And then my mother revealed that she had signed a lease on an apartment across 8th Avenue on Greenwich Street a few weeks earlier. She could have moved into her own apartment weeks before Caroline's birthday. Weeks before she put Dad in the emergency room at Saint Vincent's.
"I can't possibly stay here one more minute." She lit a new cigarette and exhaled defensively. "I'm not married the man you know."
"That's what I've been trying to say."
They continued on this way for years. They had sold the house, moved into the city, gotten separate places, tried dating other people. And apparently, it just wasn't for them. From my mother's perspective, they were in no way getting remarried or even back together. She was almost a little secretive about the whole way they lived.
When she mentioned something my father had said, I'd say, "Oh, when did he say that?"
"Oh, the other night. He brought me some cigarettes. It was awfully cold from me to go out." Long pause. Then ultra casually, "And he ended up staying and watching some TV over here."
"Oh really?" I always wanted to say, "Mom has a new boyfriend. Mom has a new boyfriend." Neither of them was ever able to move on in any part of their lives. They could drive each other insane and do awful things to each other. At one point, my mother convinced my father to move back in with her and then when he went out one night for an ink cartridge for his computer, she locked him out and wouldn't him back in.
They often broke up within their divorce-- a divorce within a divorce-- but they can never truly leave each other. My father was and still is profoundly protective of my mother. This is why he wouldn't blame his asthma attack on her smoking. She too somehow needed him. And though she divorced him, she still allowed him to come by, to love her. And until she died, she never really left him.
"Your mother and I have a failed divorce," my father said to me once over greasy eggs at a luncheonette. "We gave it our best shot. We really did. It just didn't work out."
Jeanne Darst, reading an excerpt adapted from her book, Fiction Ruined My Family, which comes out this coming October.
[MUSIC - "DYSFUNCTIONAL" BY HONEYCUT]
Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Eric Mennel. Music help from Jessica Hopper and Damian Grathe. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Jen Berman's filling in as our west coast producer.
Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who want you to know he loves black people.
Not just black people. Gays, and Latinos, and the Chinese, and the Koreans.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.