Transcript

462:

Own Worst Enemy
Transcript

Originally aired 04.13.2012

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/462

Prologue.

Ira Glass

I didn't see this one happen. But Ben, one of the producer here at This American Life, he saw it. He was in the news room here at our home station, WBEZ Chicago, one day, when Dan Blumberg arrived for work.

Ben

And Dan walks in. And he's just swollen, like everywhere. Like, his eyes-- here, I'll do the face. It was like--

Ira Glass

Oh, wow. You're puffing out your cheeks and squinting your eyes.

Ben

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, his ears were like cauliflower. I was like, Dan, are you OK? And he says, "It's OK. Last night, I ate some crab." And everybody's reaction is, of course, oh, you're allergic! You need to go to the hospital! And he's like, no, no, no. This happens pretty regularly because I love crab. And I'm allergic, but it only happens one out of every three times.

Ira Glass

What?

Ben

Yeah. It was a calculated risk. One out of every three times, he would turn into, like, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Yeah, so, I mean I suppose this is the part where you'd bring Dan in.

Dan

I should have called in sick that day.

Ira Glass

This, of course, is Dan.

Dan

I think that morning it was mostly the eyes that would have been kind of freaking people out, very heavy eyelids, kind of probably a sunken look to them.

Ira Glass

Dan did confirm everything that Ben said and more. He's been allergic to crab and lobster since he was a kid. The night before this incident, he had eaten crab. And he got the worst reaction he'd had in years. It was a wake up call. Not that he going to stop eating crab and lobster-- no, no. He was going to keep doing that. But now, he'd do it--

Dan

Only if I have Benadryl as a sort of aperitif. And only if I have an inhaler just in case it were to spread to my lungs. And I have an EpiPen.

Ira Glass

An EpiPen, if you've never heard of it, is the injection that you stab yourself with in an emergency if you get a life threatening allergic reaction. And this is his system. And he says it's working for him. And no, his doctor does not know. He risks this twice a year or so. He says his wife's not so crazy about it, partly because the Benadryl makes him really sleepy.

Dan

But the poisoning myself, it's not that bad. Like I said, I get sleepy from the Benadryl. That's the worst part, I get really tired.

Ira Glass

But if you find yourself saying the sentence, the poisoning myself is not that bad--

Dan

Yeah, I mean, I think there's something probably to that. You know, I like it. What can I say?

Ira Glass

This whole thing made me think of some book that you would read about the decline of the Roman Empire, people eating so much that they would have to throw up so they could eat some more. This is like someday, people are going to write, what was America like back in its heyday? Well, what it was like was people with severe allergies would eat the thing that they are allergic to but just have meds at the ready to stab themselves with and cure themselves.

But, you know, reaching out to friends, and family, and to strangers over the internet this past two weeks, I have learned that what Dan did is actually not that uncommon.

Ruthie

I do have willpower. But when it comes to the whole pizza thing, I don't hesitate. I just go ahead and eat it.

Ira Glass

Ruthie Zinchuck in Charlotte, North Carolina, is lactose intolerant. She can't digest milk, or cheese, or any dairy product, which is a problem because as a transplanted Jersey girl, she says, she likes her pizza.

Ruthie

Well, we do have Pizza Hut. Out of nowhere, I'll get severe stomach cramping. And I'll have to go to the bathroom like immediately. It's no joke.

Ira Glass

And so how often do you have pizza now?

Ruthie

I would say at least a couple times a week.

Ira Glass

Oh, a couple times a week?

Ruthie

Yeah. It's always our go-to when we don't know what to eat. My fiancee and I are like, well, I guess pizza will work. And he'll always just look at me and say, "Really? Are you sure?"

Ira Glass

In Cleveland, Ohio, Elise Hagisfeld, and her older sister, and her younger sister, and her mom, and her daughter are all allergic to tomatoes, citrus, pineapple, strawberries in various combinations. Elise herself gets hives. It makes her face blotchy. She gets itchy. But they all continue to eat this stuff.

Elise

I don't know if I have any great stories about it because we just do it all the time. We apparently are a family that has absolutely no self-control or good sense. I'm not sure which, but whatever. I like it!

Ira Glass

Which is, of course, pretty much what Dan said, and what my senior producer's mother-in-law told me, too. Her name is Barbara Melman, and I reached her on vacation. She said that a couple years ago, after some abdominal surgery, she had a few episodes where she got incredibly sick, throwing up, rushing to the emergency room, getting an IV, an anti-nausea medication, until she realized that each time this happened, she'd eaten popcorn, or nuts, or trail mix before. And so she cut those from her diet. But over time, she has snuck that stuff back in.

Barbara

And being on vacation now, I've got a room full of popcorn and trail mix.

Ira Glass

You do? Right now?

Barbara

I do. I'm staring at it as we're speaking, mm-hm.

Ira Glass

Wait, don't you think you're playing with fire?

Barbara

Well, you know, it's not going to kill me. And if it does, I guess I won't know. It won't kill me. No, I mean, it's throwing up. It's not like I have to go through surgery.

Ira Glass

Just a quick trip to the hospital, an IV, some medication.

Barbara

A few hours, mm-hm. And meet some nice people and leave.

Michelle

The ER is a virtual laboratory of dysfunctional behaviors and bad choices.

Ira Glass

Do you just feel like, as a doctor, what is wrong with people?

Michelle

Oh, every day, every day.

Ira Glass

This is Michelle DeVito, an emergency room doctor at an urban hospital in Washington, D.C. And she says that nearly every day, she sees somebody with a food allergy who has eaten the food that they're not supposed and ended up in her ER.

Michelle

It's such a thing that it's not up for debate.

Ira Glass

Dr. DeVito told me story after story there are the people with esophageal problems who are not supposed to eat steak who come in again and again. The same people with steak caught in their throats, looking guilty, avoiding eye contact with her, requiring a gastroenterologist to be called in for an emergency endoscopy.

Ira Glass

How much of what you see in an ER is people who are their own worst enemies?

Michelle

Oh, I think maybe half. I think that the smokers, the out-of-control diabetics, the people who get in a car accident from text messaging on the phone-- I think so much of the pathology we see in the ER is a result of bad choices. And some of them, decades of bad choices.

Ira Glass

I think there once we've become adults, most of us are aware of the different ways in which we can be our own worst enemies, not just with what we eat and with our health, but in how we deal with people, how we handle certain situations. Well, in this hour, prepare to meet people who make my problems and yours when it comes to this seem like nothing. We have people who create problems for themselves in spectacular, life-changing ways that they do not know how to stop. We have one man who finds himself suddenly unable to do his job, others who are sabotaging relationships, and they cannot themselves when they do it. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Stay with us.

Act One. Aces are Wild.

Ira Glass

Act One, Aces are Wild. Ken Fueson is a baseball fan and a lifelong supporter of the St. Louis Cardinals. And he had the same experience that a lot of Cardinal fans had back on October 3, 2000, watching his team play the Atlanta Braves. It was the first game of the National League playoffs.

Ken

I remember exactly where I was. I was at Johnny's Hall of Fame, which is a sports bar in Des Moines. I was sitting at a table. I had a big glass of iced tea and a patty melt sandwich. The Cardinals scored six runs in the first inning. This is going to be fantastic.

Ira Glass

The starting pitcher for the Cardinals in this game was Rick Ankiel, a young phenom who'd had a great rookie season. He pitched two innings, no problem. But in the third, he lost control.

Ken

I don't know where the first wild pitch went, but it was like-- you thought to yourself, you know, it's slipped out of his hands. It's like one of those scenes that they show, like the pitcher stumbling and the ball goes up in the air. And then it happened again. You're still kind of thinking, OK, maybe the nervousness of the moment, or whatever. But you're not thinking, this is going to be a big problem. He's going to settle down. And then, it keeps happening.

I'm thinking, there has to be some sort of physical explanation for this. You know, there's something wrong with his arm. This isn't even little league quality wild pitches. It's beyond that. I mean, it's like you would have to try to throw it this badly. And I'm at this bar, and people are laughing at him.

Ira Glass

Ankiel gets pulled from the game. Cardinals win. And in the next round of playoffs, they're up against the New York Mets.

Ken

And so they bring Ankiel out to try again for the second game of the series. He lasts 2/3rds of an inning. He doesn't even get out the first inning-- throws two wild pitches, walks three. It's literally like watching your kid in a peewee game.

Commentator

Wild pitch. He's got guys in the third row ducking. Friendlies ducking back there. Bob, you all right down there? You ducking? You feel like you're safe behind that screen?

Ken

And as a fan, you're just, this can't be happening. It's disbelief. I don't believe this. Then, you get angry at him. What's he trying to do out there? What's going on? And then, you start feeling sorry for him.

Commentator

And this is borderline ridiculous.

Ken

On a human level-- that's the other horrible part of this-- he's naked in front of the world. He's out there trying to get this back. And it ain't coming back. You feel horrible for him, yeah.

Ira Glass

Ankiel's bad streak eventually got him sent down to the minor leagues. He stopped pitching, came back to the major leagues as an outfielder. But watching Ankiel that day in the bar made Ken think of a different player from years before, Steve Blass. He played for Pittsburgh. His name has become shorthand for any pitcher who suddenly becomes his own worst enemy and loses the ability to throw the ball. They call it Steve Blass Disease. Blass was an all-star, on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Older fans remember him winning game seven of the 1971 World Series for the Pirates. After the Series, he had a great season in '72, won 19 games.

And then, in 1973, for no apparent reason, no physical injury of any kind, he stopped being able to throw strikes. He never recovered, and ended his career. He was a player falling apart for purely psychological reasons, which can happen to any athlete in any sport, of course. But the suddenness of Blass' fall and the visibility of his fall-- he was one of the leading pitchers in baseball, and he just lost it-- it got people's attention. And if you want to understand what Steve Blass Disease is about, one place you can go is Steve Blass.

Steve Blass

So I'm sitting in my living room with my wife. We're watching the playoffs with the Cardinals. And Rick Ankiel starts throwing the ball all over the place-- behind people, to the backstop.

Ira Glass

Turns out Steve Blass was watching that same Cardinals game that Ken Fueson saw.

Steve Blass

And I turned to my wife, Karen, and I said, "Karen, I'm predicting within the next five minutes, the phone will ring." Well, three minutes later, it rang. And I picked it up and said, "Hi, Paul." My good friend, Paul Meyer, beat writer for the Pirates who was covering the playoffs for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He said, "How do you know it's me?" I said, "Well, of course it's you. Somebody just went off the planet again."

Ira Glass

How many interviews have you given about this over the years, do you think?

Steve Blass

I have an 800 number.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Steve Blass

I mean, whenever anybody-- when Rick Ankiel imploded in the playoffs, when Mark Wohlers was doing his thing, Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch And I know why there's interest. I understand. I understand that. People are making a living. It's a curious subject. It's a fascinating subject to go from 19 wins, to three, to none, and then out. So I've had a great deal of patience with it.

Ira Glass

Steve Blass turns 70 this coming Wednesday. And next month, he's publishing an autobiography called A Pirate for Life. The title refers to his 10 years as a player, and to the nearly three decades after that that he served as a Pirates color commentator on the air. He says that he wrote the book to tell the story that you can come back from the kind of public collapse that he suffered.

In the immediate aftermath, he got a job selling school rings. He said he drank too much. He says it was hard to go out to the grocery store and be recognized by people. The book covers, but does not dwell on, how his pitching career came apart, which he calls "the abyss." He says he can't name exactly when his problem began, what game it was. He remembers it as just a gradual slide.

Steve Blass

There was not one specific issue, item, time, at bat, game. And to this day, I don't know why. I don't know what caused that. There's still frustration in me because I never had a sore arm, and I had the perfect body. You know, I wasn't heavy or anything. But I still don't know exactly what caused it.

Ira Glass

I've been going back and reading. And I saw Roger Angell wrote a piece years ago for The New Yorker.

Steve Blass

Wonderful piece.

Ira Glass

Yeah, a really beautiful story. And he tries to figure out, well, what game was it? And he names an April, 1973, game with the Cubs that you pitched. And then he says, maybe it's that game. And then, there's another game on June 11 with the Braves in Atlanta. And I was wondering, do you even remember either of those games? Like, do those games stand out as significant?

Steve Blass

Um, I don't remember the Cubs game. if he's referring to the game where I came in relief in Atlanta, which I think was the case, I remember it more than any other game I've pitched in my life because it was just-- it was the absolute bottom of the pit. And I remember after that game, we flew to Cincinnati. And I didn't even go to my hotel room. I just walked the streets of Cincinnati until dawn. And it was just one of the awfulest games and awfulest nights that I've ever had in my life.

Ira Glass

And so what do you remember of the experience of being on the mound during that game? Like, did it occur to you when you were on the mound, OK, something different is happening now that I haven't experienced before?

Steve Blass

Yes. That game in Atlanta, I said, there is something tragically wrong here. And I am lost out here. I don't have a clue of what I'm doing. I start to wind up, and I just kind of almost freeze. And there's no flow, there's no rhythm. I knew I shouldn't be out there. But I didn't want to quit. I wanted to keep trying to find it.

Ira Glass

Roger Angell's account of that game-- I mean, I'm not even sure if I should read this or not.

Steve Blass

Oh, I know it by heart.

Ira Glass

Yeah-- oh, really? All right. Just for listeners, then, so you get called in in the fifth inning. And the Pirates are trailing already. So you're coming into a losing game. They're trailing by 8 to 3, and Roger Angell writes, "Blass walked the first two men he faced. Gave up a stolen base, and a wild pitch, and run-scoring single before retiring the side. In the sixth, Blass walked Darrell Evans. He walked Mike Lum, throwing one pitch behind him in the process, which allowed Evans to move down to second. Dusty Baker singled, driving in a run. Ralph Garr grounded out. Davey Johnson singled, scoring another run. Marty Perez walked. Pitcher Ron Reed singled, driving in two more runs, and was wild pitched to second. Johnny Oates walked. Frank Tepedino singled, driving in two runs. And Steve Blass was finally relieved."

Steve Blass

Yeah, yeah. It was awful. It was just-- it was a nightmare. But I've been taught, and developed, and I firmly believe you don't quit. I just wasn't wired that way. And I wanted to be convinced. If it wasn't there, I wanted to be totally convinced. And that's why I pitched all of '73, obviously. And then, all of '74, which was another nightmare in the minor leagues. And then in '75 I said, that's enough. Uncle. I've had enough.

Ira Glass

I read you said to a Pittsburgh sports writer named Joe Starkey years ago, "Underneath, very privately and very personally, is a feeling I got cheated." And did you feel that it's almost like some foreign thing had taken over? Like you were hit by something that you couldn't control?

Steve Blass

Well, I certainly had no control over it, nor did I understand it. I was just confused. I mean, I would sit up in my backyard, 3 and 4 o'clock in the morning, thinking, my god, what has happened to me? What is this? Did somebody put a curse on me or something? And I never believed that. You know, I don't believe in that junk. But it was just-- it was devastating in that I didn't know what to do about it.

Ira Glass

In the decades since Steve Blass stopped pitching, researchers have been trying to figure out what to do about it and what is going on when a player falls apart like he did. And they believe that basically the problem comes down to thinking. When an elite athlete is at his or her best, when they're in the zone, their movements are automatic. They're not thinking about how their wrist turns, or their knee bends, or any of the other details.

And when researchers bring athletes into the lab with a simulated batting cage, or a putting green, when they tell them to think about the mechanics of what they're doing, to notice where exactly the bat is moving when they're swinging, or how their elbow shifts when they're putting, the athletes-- the overwhelming majority of them-- start to choke. Thinking is the problem.

And interestingly, two researchers named Steven Weiss and Arthur Reber have a paper called "Curing the Dreaded Steve Blass Disease," which is going to be published in the Journal of Sports Psychology in Action. And they argue that when well-meaning coaches tell an athlete in a slump to focus more on the mechanics-- which they say is common still-- the coach can actually make things worse, not better, because he's telling a player who's already thinking too much to think even more.

Rick

We have to somehow figure out a way to get you to stop thinking. You have to find some sort of mental distraction that allows them to go back to just rely upon their instincts.

Ira Glass

This is Rick Wolff. He was a baseball player himself in the minor leagues, and he went on to counsel professional athletes whose minds were working against them. Wolff's job was to redirect them, stop them from thinking about the mechanics of what they were doing.

Rick

So if you're having problems as a pitcher throwing strikes, I need for you to stop thinking about or worrying about that. And as you wind up, I want to think about something totally different. It might be I want you to really focus on the catcher's left shin guard. I'm just trying to get them to stop thinking about where their arm angle is, and how they're delivering the ball to the plate.

Ira Glass

And does that work?

Rick

Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't.

Ira Glass

It just seems like a hard thing because the more you try not to think about something, the more you're thinking about it.

Rick

Yeah. I didn't say it was easy.

Ira Glass

Do most of them get over it? Do most of them not get over it?

Rick

I would say it's about 50%.

Ira Glass

Some of things the study says that athletes might focus on if they want to avoid thinking, they can focus on the catcher's mitt or on wherever it is that the ball is supposed to go. Golfers can focus on one word, like a general thought that describes the swing they want, like "smooth."

Steve Blass tried everything to get out of his abyss. He tried pitching from his knees. He tried pitching from second base. He tried pitching every night in the bullpen, and he tried to take a week off to see if the rest helped him. He watched himself on video and compared it to video of when he was pitching well. He went to a hypnotist and to a psychologist. He learned meditation and practiced it. When a friend suggested changing to looser underwear, he laughed about it with his teammates. And then, he tried it.

Some of these cures focused him more on his mechanics. Some of them tried to take his mind off of his mechanics. None of them worked.

Ira Glass

When you see other players go through this, like watching Rick Ankiel on television, is it hard for you to watch?

Steve Blass

Oh, very difficult. In fact, Ankiel was still trying to pitch when I was broadcasting, when they would come into Pittsburgh. And I watched one of his last games. And it was just heartbreaking because I knew what he was going through. And so I don't want to say it was difficult for me, because what I do, I try to do professionally. But it was very, very uncomfortable for me to watch, very sad for me to watch.

Ira Glass

You must have said something during the broadcast, though, when you saw him.

Steve Blass

I said-- yeah. I said, this is very difficult for me to watch. I'm not enjoying this. The Pirates are benefiting because of what he's going through. But it's not the most comfortable thing for me to watch because it brings back some memories.

Ira Glass

Hm. So there's a chapter in your book that's called "They Named a Disease After Me." Is it annoying to have your name attached to this?

Steve Blass

It's not my favorite thing. I'm not crazy about it. But I understand it. Every once in a while, I get a little frustrated and say, you know what? Why don't we talk a little more about the seventh game of the World Series?

Ira Glass

Mm-hm.

Steve Blass

Come on! I mean, the average major league career is 3.7 years. And I pitched for 10 years and won 100 games. Come on, let's talk about some of that stuff. Let's go! I mean, you're talking about two years out of a charmed life. I lived my dream. I mean, how many people get to do that? So I had a couple of difficult years, very difficult years. But I've been blessed. And I'm not a religious person, but I've been blessed.

Ira Glass

Blass says a few years ago he met with a sport psychiatrist named Richard Crowley who taught him a technique. He says it's something to do with trading negative thoughts for positive ones. And decades after he left baseball, he got back on the mound. He now pitches games where former pros and amateurs play together. It is a long way from the majors. But Blass says he got what he wanted-- the pleasure of throwing the ball again. "I had the joy of throwing a baseball since I was eight years old," he says. And he really missed that.

Act Two. The Conversation.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Conversation. There's this new podcast out there that's trying to re-imagine and reinvent one of the old radio formats, a format that is barely holding on. You barely hear this format outside of Prairie Home Companion or Bible stations-- radio drama. They're trying to make radio drama that doesn't sound like an antique thing from the 1940s, but feels completely contemporary.

What I find interesting about this is it's like they took the sound of programs like Radio Lab, or our program, and they use all of the production techniques and tools that go with that, but with actors in a drama. So what you're about to hear is a work of fiction from producer, director Jonathan Mitchell and The Truth.

Jonathan As Ben

It was our first date. We had never met.

Bartender

Hey, can I get you anything?

Ben

Uh, me?

Bartender

Yeah.

Ben

We'd emailed, but we hadn't even spoken.

Ben

Well, I should wait.

Jonathan

And I was waiting for her. Waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

[IPHONE RINGTONE]

Ben

Hello?

Erica

Hi, Ben. It's Erica calling.

Ben

Hey, Erica! How are you?

Erica

Hi, I'm-- I'm so sorry. I'm running just a little bit late.

Ben

OK, that's OK. That's totally OK. I'm here.

Erica

OK, Tulip's-- you know, Tulip's been sick lately. So I had to-- I finally took her to the vet.

Ben

Oh. Is she OK?

Erica

She is, she is. Thank you.

Ben

Good. Do you know how long you're going to be?

Erica

I-- look, I just got out of the subway, and I'm walking down the street, so very soon.

Ben

All right, great. Do you want me order you a drink so it's ready for when you get here?

Erica

Ah, sure.

Ben

What do you want?

Erica

Do you not want to do this? Because we don't have to do this.

Ben

Know what, my reception's really bad. I don't think I'm hearing right. So I'm-- just let me run outside real quick. All right, that is better. Can you hear me?

Erica

Yeah, hi.

Ben

You know, Erica, I think I see you. Do you see me? I'm right outside the bar. I'm waving.

Erica

Yes, I see you. I see--

Ben

Hey!

Erica

Hi.

Ben

Hi! Um, are you all right?

Erica

Yeah, I am OK.

Ben

I'm sorry.

Erica

You didn't need to say that. That was really unnecessary.

Ben

I'm sorry. I'm not sure what I said. But I'm sorry.

Erica

You know, I was-- I was really actually looking forward to this.

Ben

What do you mean you were looking forward to this? What are you doing?

Erica

Forget it.

Ben

You're walking the wrong way. Are you still there? Erica, are you joking? What is going on? Erica!

I mean, I was really confused, and--

Ben

Hello, are you on the phone still? The hell!

--I couldn't tell if she was still on, or if she hung up. And I'm looking at my phone. And I see that I had recently downloaded this app that records phone calls. And I looked at it and was like, I gotta listen to that recording.

Ben

Hello.

Erica

Hi, Ben. It's Erica calling.

Ben

Started out the same exact way as I had just recalled it. Then, it starts to sound like not me.

Ben

Do you know how long you're gonna be?

Erica

Uh-- look, I just got out the subway. I'm walking down the street, so very soon.

Ben

OK, great. Do you want me to order you a drink so it's ready for when you get here?

Erica

Uh, sure.

Ben

What do you want?

Erica

Do you not want to do this? Because we don't have to do.

Ben

You know what? Um, my reception's really bad. I don't think I'm hearing right.

It's the exact same words that I believe I had just said. But when I listen to tape, it sounded like not me.

Ben

That is better.

But this jerk.

Ben

Can you hear me?

Erica

Yeah, hi.

Ben

You know what, Erica? I think I see you. Do you see me? I'm right outside the bar.

Erica

I--

Ben

I'm waving.

Erica

Yes, I see you. I see--

Ben

Hey!

Erica

Hi.

Ben

Hi.

I don't know who that was. That wasn't me. I'm not that person.

Erica

You know, I was-- I was really actually looking forward to this.

Ben

What do you mean you're looking forward to this? What are you doing?

Erica

Forget it.

Ben

I'm glad she hung up because, god, what would I have said next? I wanted to, like, run after her, and find her, and apologize. But I was like, I should never say another word as long as I live.

Ben

You tell me right now. Do I sound rude to you? Did that sound rude when I say, "Do I sound rude?"

Woman

Honey, you sound confused.

Ben

I am confused!

Woman

Honey, just call her-- call her and try again.

Ben

No, it's just not like I can pick up the phone and call her unless I know what the hell I'm doing wrong.

Woman

Sweetie, it's probably just a misunderstanding.

Ben

Well, could you listen to the tape and tell me if I sound--

Woman

Oh, Ben, I don't want to do that.

Ben

Why not?

Woman

Because that's not my-- ah, ah, ah! Stop that! You stop that right-- get down! Get off that!

Ben

Mom?

Woman

Shoot.

Ben

It's just one phone call, Mom, and it's really short.

Woman

No, honey. I am not listening to your discussion with a girl.

Ben

Why? Why not?

Woman

Because that's just creepy.

Ben

Do I sound creepy?

Woman

You sound like you sound.

Ben

Hi! Hi. Well, here we are, huh? I'm so glad to finally meet you.

I just was testing out some recordings of myself to hear whether or not it was the device, or the way it was recorded, or something.

Ben

Your laugh is contagious.

And then, I would play it back.

Ben

Well, here we are, huh?

And it sounded fine.

Ben

I am so glad to finally meet you.

I took the recording of the call between me and Erica, and I loaded it in my computer. And I wanted to analyze it. So I divided it up, took my side of the conversation, and cut that out, and separated the two.

Erica

Hi, Ben. It's Erica calling. Hi, I'm-- I'm so sorry. I'm running just a little bit late.

Ben

Categories, subcategories-- I just put all the questions in one file, and then all of her statements in another file, and then--

Erica

Do you now want to do this? Because we don't have to do this.

Ben

I mean, yeah, she was upset.

Erica

Yes, I see you! I see-- hi.

Ben

She was also patient, and--

Erica

Yeah, I am OK.

Ben

--sincere, and genuine, and authentic.

Erica

You know, I was-- I was really actually looking forward to this.

Ben

And I thought, well, what if I put something in there that I know is nice.

Ben

Well, here we are, huh?

Erica

Hi!

Ben

And I'm so glad to finally meet you.

Erica

I was really actually looking forward to this.

Ben

Yeah, me too, definitely.

It sounded great. So, you know, I just for fun kind of expanded on that and--

Ben

Oh, these are for you.

Erica

You didn't need to--

Ben

I know I didn't need to. I think you said these were your favorite, right?

Erica

Yeah, tulips.

Ben

Yep, they're for you.

Erica

That was really unnecessary.

Ben

Well, you only get one first date.

Erica

Do you want to do this--?

Ben

Again?

Erica

Yeah.

Ben

You want to set up a second date this early in our first date?

Erica

Yeah! Very soon.

Ben

Why couldn't it have gone that way?

Ben

Whoa, whoa!

Erica

[LAUGHS]

Ben

You know, I remember being a lot better at ice skating.

Erica

Do you not want to do this? Because we don't have to do this.

Ben

You're just saying that because we're both unable to get back up.

Erica

Yeah-- hi.

Ben

Hi. What do you call that awesome move you were just attempting?

Erica

Walking down the street.

Ben

You really sold it with the whole falling hard on your butt thing.

Erica

[LAUGHS]

Ben

Are you OK?

Erica

Yeah, I am OK.

Ben

And the article said that like 90% of the world's oceans are unexplored. You know? And we think we know everything. But most of our knowledge is--

Erica

--really unnecessary.

Ben

Right, yeah, exactly! Totally unnecessary! I mean, do you think that there are things that will always remain a mystery?

Erica

Uh-- I--

Ben

What? Say it-- what?

Erica

I'm so sorry!

Ben

It's OK. I know what the problem is. We're working with a limited supply of words here.

Erica

I-- I know.

Ben

Let me think. OK, how's your steak. Good?

Erica

Sure?

Ben

Sure? Sure? Sure. I wish you could just say that it was awesome, or succulent, or terrible! Like an old shoe.

Erica

Ben, I'm so sorry--

Ben

No, Erica, you-- you need more words.

Erica

You don't have to do this.

Ben

Let me just get you some more words.

[PHONE RINGING]

Erica

Hello?

Ben

Erica? Hi, it's Ben.

Erica

Ben--?

Ben

Yeah, we used to-- well, we almost went out on a date.

Erica

Oh, Ben. Yes, hi.

Ben

Hi. How are you?

Erica

I'm fine.

Ben

Good, me too. I'm just calling because I felt like-- I just wanted to say that I felt bad about how things ended up. And I wanted to apologize, so.

Erica

Oh, god, no. It's-- that's OK.

Ben

Uh, cool. I just-- you know, I made you feel really upset. And I feel bad about that, so I just--

Erica

Don't-- don't worry about it. I wasn't that upset, so.

Ben

Well then, I mean, you just walked away like that. So I just-- you definitely seemed--

Erica

Right, right. Well, I-- I walked away-- I was very upset because of earlier that night, my dog, Tulip, died.

Ben

Oh.

Erica

In my arms at the vet.

Ben

I'm so sorry.

Erica

So-- yeah, yeah, thank you. Thanks.

Ben

Sorry. But she didn't die that day, though?

Erica

What?

Ben

She didn't die that day. That's not-- That's not what happened.

Erica

Yes, she did. She died.

Ben

Mm-hm, right. But, well, you just were coming from the vet. And you were just sad that she was sick.

Erica

OK, well, I think I remember when my dog died.

Ben

No, that's-- well, it's wrong because-- I mean, I know-- I know what you said.

Erica

Are you kidding me?

Ben

No. I could play it back to you if you want, but I mean it's--

Erica

What do you mean you could play it back to me?

Ben

Well, I recorded the call because--

Erica

You recorded our phone call?

Ben

Yeah, I just accidentally-- it was an accident.

Erica

Oh my god.

Ben

I recorded it. And I've listened to it a bunch of times. So I know exactly what you said.

Erica

You've listened to it a bunch of times?

Ben

Yeah. I know.

Erica

That's super creepy.

Ben

Well--

Erica

Wait, are you recording this phone call right now?

Ben

[SIGHS]

Erica

Oh my god! What is your problem?

Ben

No, I'm not! You're-- what is your problem? Because-- why would you say that your dog is just sick if she's dead, or either that, or you're lying now about your dog?

Erica

God, I lied, OK? I lied then. Get over it.

Ben

OK, sorry. I'm sorry about your dog, too. I know that's--

Erica

My dog is fine. She's not dead, OK? God.

Ben

I'm sorry. I don't understand because--

Erica

You want to know what happened, Ben?

Ben

Well, yeah.

Erica

I met someone else. The night before you and I were supposed to go out, I met this great guy and we fell in love because he's awesome. And I showed up to tell you. And then you acted so crazy.

Ben

Yeah, you were like 40 minutes late!

Erica

You know what? It was a-- it was a really weird night.

Ben

Yeah.

Erica

And I couldn't deal. And I wanted to see Derek.

Ben

Oh.

Erica

OK? And I left.

Ben

Wait, so you planned to blow me off?

Erica

That's what I did, and that's what I did.

Ben

How do you fall in love with someone in one night?

Erica

I don't-- um. I don't really know what to say.

Ben

I just-- wait, oh, my phone's gonna die. Let-- I'm going to-- can I call you right back?

Erica

Actually, don't do it.

Ben

I'm gonna call you right ba--

[PHONE RINGS]

Erica

Hello?

Ben

Hey, we were talking, and I had to, um--

Woman

Yeah, hi.

Ben

How you doing?

Erica

I'm fine.

Ben

Good. I just needed to tell you something.

Erica

Sure.

Ben

It's-- it's over, Erica.

Erica

Are you kidding me?

Ben

No.

Erica

[SIGHS]

Ben

Hey, come on, now. No, we-- we gave it a shot. You know? But the thing is, you're not real. And real you is right. This is super creepy.

Erica

It's super creepy.

Ben

Yeah. What the hell have I been doing? I acted like a jerk, and I don't know. It's been like I'm trying to undo it, or figure it out, or something. And I mean, the reality is I acted like a jerk because at that moment, I was a jerk.

Erica

Don't-- don't worry about it. I wasn't that upset, so.

Ben

Well, that's good.

Erica

Yeah.

Ben

Goodbye, Erica. Are you still there?

Erica

No.

Ben

Yeah, me neither.

Ira Glass

Those actors, Ed Herbstman and Tami Sagher, with Libby George as the mom and Christian Paluck very briefly as the bartender. This story was produced and directed by Jonathan Mitchell, who also did the music. The story was written by Jonathan Mitchell, Ed Herbstman, and Melanie Hoops. If you liked what you just heard, they're doing one like this every two weeks on their podcast that's called The Truth. Their website, thetruthapm.com, or look for The Truth podcast at the iTunes store.

Coming up, a man who does not approve of homosexuality whose biggest problem is he is homosexual. Stories of being your own worst enemy continue in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Own Worst Enemy, stories of people who thwart themselves in ways that they do not seem to be able to control.

Act Three. Just As I Am.

Ira Glass We

(HOST) IRA GLASS: We have arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Just As I Am. This last story is about somebody who is at war with himself. He's a gay man, a Christian, who did not want to be gay or act on his feelings for men. And he didn't just want to suppress this impulse in himself. He wasn't just his own worst enemy. He tried to get other gay men and women to suppress that part of themselves as well. But then, through a series of actions that can only be described as very Christian, this man changed. Jonathan Menjivar tells what happened.

Jonathan

The guy's name was John Smid, and he ran an organization called Love in Action, one of those Christian places that claims they can cure people of their homosexuality. Make them not exactly straight, but ex-gay. It was in Memphis, Tennessee. And at the time, it was the oldest and most prominent ex-gay ministry in the world. One former client told me it was considered the Cadillac of ex-gay programs. The rules were harsh, the level of shame, intense. Former clients have spent years in therapy unwinding what happened to them at Love in Action. And John Smid was the head of that group for more than two decades.

As for his own homosexuality, John never tried to hide it. It was part of his testimony he'd give at church and ex-gay events. John was married at 19. And then, after having two kids, he realized he was gay. He got divorced, had a couple gay relationships. John says he was also pretty promiscuous. And then, in his late 20s, he found god and stopped living as a gay man. This is John giving that testimony on an old Christian TV segment. John says he was in this little, country church in Iowa.

John

I just remember sitting in the pew. And this voice spoke into my brain, "John," called my name, "you don't have to live like this anymore." It was just that point when God spoke, and I gained permission to ask for freedom. And I started praying every day. I just kept saying every day, God, get me out of this. Get me out of this. I'm miserable. God, get me out of this. And eventually, I got to the point where I left the partners and the relationships. And that was the end of my homosexuality.

Jonathan

John made a new life for himself, dated women, and then he married one, his second wife. he soon got a job encouraging other gay men to live the way he was. And then, almost 20 years after John joined Love in Action, he decided to expand their mission.

Love in Action had always been for adults. But John says he was seeing a dramatic increase in teens coming. Their parents were calling Love in Action more and more. So they started a new program specifically for teenagers. At the time, Love in Action had just bought a new building. It was step up for them. Then, John came to work. It was the first day of the new teen program.

John

It was 8:30, June 6, 2005, sitting in my office. And one of my staff members came in and said, a client just came and told us that there's a big protest outside.

Protesters

It's OK to be gay!

Jonathan

And then, what did you do?

John

Freaked out.

Protesters

It's OK to be gay!

John

I didn't know what to do. I felt incredibly exposed. It was the first day in our building. We had just moved in.

Girl

Homosexuality is not a sin. Homosexuality is not an addiction!

Jonathan

The new program for teens was called Refuge, and it's why the protesters were there. Love in Action was a voluntary program. But Refuge was different, at least according to a 16-year-old kid named Zach Stark. A week earlier, Zach had posted on his MySpace page saying that he had come out and his parents didn't take it well. So they were forcing him to go to Refuge. "They tell me that there is something psychologically wrong with me," Zach wrote. "I'm a big screw up to them who isn't on the path God wants me to be on."

Morgan

It was impossible not to want to help him.

Jonathan

This is Morgan Jon Fox. He's a Memphis filmmaker, and he was pretty much the ringleader of the protests. He'd read Zach's blog and pulled together other activists and a bunch of Zach's friends from high school. Morgan is gay himself, and he filmed a lot of the protest. He and all the other protesters couldn't believe what they were reading on Zach's blog. To them, it seemed like a cry for help.

Morgan

And then, he goes on to explain that he ran away for a day, and now he's come back. And he's writing these blog entries in the middle of the night. And that if he gets caught, you know, it could be very bad. And then, he went on to post the rules of this organization.

Jonathan

The kids in Love in Action's teen program went home to their parents every night. But they had to adhere to the rules no matter where they were. There was no hugging or physical contact allowed, though brief handshakes or an affirmative hand on a shoulder were OK. Any, quote, "temptations, fantasies, or dreams" were supposed to be confessed to a staff member. Men were supposed to dress like men, and women like women. And for some reason, no one was allowed to wear anything by Abercrombie & Fitch or Calvin Klein.

The protests clearly had two intended targets-- Zach, who they were there to support, and John Smid, the guy they were shouting at through their bull horns. Morgan was there for weeks, making every attempt to get through to John.

Morgan

We knew that John Smid was the head of the organization. And essentially, he was our enemy in this situation.

Girl

Why they can't question your policies!

Protesters

Why, John Smid?

Morgan

He never came and addressed us. There was one day, he was driving. And he stopped for one moment. And we made sure at that very moment we saw him, because it was kind of like this-- man, I don't know. It's like seeing Sasquatch. You know, we never got to see him. And then, so when we would actually see him in person, it was like, OK, this is our moment. We gotta do something right, or we've got to prove something.

Jonathan

The protests at Love in Action became a national news story. They got picked up by CNN, the New York Times, and Good Morning America. Eight weeks later when it was all over and Zach Stark had finished the program, Morgan wanted to interview John Smid for the documentary he'd started working on about the protests. John says he didn't want anything to do with Morgan.

John

Of course, I understood he had this organization called Queer Action Coalition. And it was just this horribly negative thing that I just don't want anything to do with. and he called and wanted to meet with me. And I said, OK, how do I set up the safeguards? Because you've got to be careful when these gay activists come around. You know, they're going to twist your words. And somehow, they've got an alternative agenda. And they just want to use your words negatively. So I asked one of my staff members to come in and meet with me with him because I didn't want to be him alone because I thought, certainly I need some kind of accountability here.

Morgan

And so I walk into his office. The meeting is at Love in Action headquarters. I walk in. And he sits down behind this big desk. And one of his staff members sits down beside him. And I sit across from this big table. And the night before, I had really thought about things I would say, and having this opportunity, and possibly I would debate him. You know, I wanted to have an eloquent argument. I had like a six page document that I had prepared and studied, hoping that those were points that I would hit.

But I sit across the table from him. And he's like, well? And I'm like, yeah? And then, literally like 10 seconds of silence. I'm sitting there. No one is saying anything. And I'm just like, oh my god. And the last thing that was crossing my mind at that moment was to debate or start arguing with him. And so I just started telling him my story.

I just started telling him about my childhood, when I came out, all the things that I faced, the pain that I felt of not feeling necessarily accepted by peers or family, and about that process of going through all of that, but then being in a relationship, and being out, and feeling loved, and feeling a part of a community here in Memphis, and how much healthier I felt. And then, went on to explain, that's why I protested your organization all of these past few weeks.

John

And I thought, wait a minute. This is not what I expected. This guy seems to be vulnerable, and honest, and humble. And it's like, this isn't-- I don't hate this guy. How could I hate him? He just came in my office, and treated me with respect, and was honest himself. And he seemed open, and I didn't know what to do with it.

Jonathan

They talked for half an hour. And then, Morgan asked John if he'd agree to an interview. John turned him down. For a year after that meeting, there was a kind of ceasefire. John and Morgan didn't talk to each other at all. Then, Morgan and some of the other protesters attended an open meeting at Love in Action. Morgan says they were just trying to keep an eye on them, see what Love in Action were up to.

Morgan

And it was funny because the thing that John talked about at that open meeting was this idea of how we respond to our parents, or how we kind of communicate with them, and deal with the wounds that might be there. It was interesting because at the time, I wasn't that close with my father. And surprisingly, I'm sitting there listening to him say this stuff, and something just clicks in my head that I had been kind of attempting to relate to my father for a long time on my terms only, and not looking at him as a person with the full emotions and issues that he maybe is dealing with.

And so that was the building blocks towards me becoming closer with my father and mending that relationship. And so that's something that I was extremely grateful for. And so I followed up that meeting in sending John an email, and was like, hey, look, I still totally disagree with everything you're doing. However, I just want to let you know that it's pretty cool that I learned something from your meeting. So just wanted to say thanks, and I appreciate that part of it, even though the rest of it needs to go.

John

And so I'm thinking, OK, this doesn't match again. My favorite enemy protester is actually complementing me. And he's actually saying that I've had a positive impact. And that kind of blew me away. And so I emailed him back. And I said, Morgan, you know, I would really like to talk with you personally. We should go out and have coffee if you'd like to do that because I've got some things I want to share with you.

Jonathan

Morgan and John agreed to meet at a Starbucks. Morgan says the coffee lasted three hours.

Jonathan

In these three hours, what are you guys talking about?

Morgan

I mean, literally we're talking about what's been going on. He's asking me questions about, oh, so you're a filmmaker? I looked you up on the internet a little bit. You know, that kind of stuff. And so I'm talking about my films. Basically, we talk about anything but the issues, which is fascinating. I mean, we're literally talking about my job at this coffee shop.

Jonathan

Yeah, I was going to say it's almost like an awkward first date.

Morgan

[LAUGHS] That's awkward.

Jonathan

And not that there's something romantic going on. But are you concerned at any point to that he actually has a crush on you?

Morgan

I was never concerned about him having a crush on me. I can't say a lot of my friends or my significant other wasn't concerned about that. I mean, certainly that was a joke by a lot of people. Like, oh, he's just trying to hook up with you.

John

Oh, yeah. I had a couple of friends ask me, are you having an affair with Morgan? People were concerned about us meeting. You know, you shouldn't meet with Morgan alone because you could be tempted. I don't meet with single women or with married women by myself, so you shouldn't meet with a gay man by yourself. You know, is that going to be a problem for you? And I'm thinking, no. Sorry, Morgan, I have not had any romantic inclinations towards Morgan. [LAUGHTER]

Jonathan

The Fox-Smid Summits continued. But the Refuge program for teens didn't. John shut it down. And over coffee, he told Morgan that Refuge was a bad idea. Morgan says it was the first time he'd heard John admit that he had done anything wrong at Love in Action. It wasn't exactly a change of heart, though. John still believed he could provide ex-gay services to teens. Refuge, he thought, just turned out to be the wrong way to do it. But as time went on, Morgan felt that something significant was starting to shift in John.

Morgan

He would ask questions to me. I mean, he was being more willing to hear feedback, and would specifically ask, well, what did you think about this? Or what was it about this? Or he would sort of--

Jonathan

Like using you as a focus group to see how Love in Action was working?

Morgan

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think he even joked at some point about-- he had said something on the news about, "Well, you know, it's just like having to eat your peas. Sometimes, you have to do things you don't want to do," in response to these kids needing to go into Refuge. And I was like, John, are you kidding me? Like, having to eat your peas? And he laughed and was like, what? That didn't work?

I mean, tell me, seriously, if that didn't work. I'm like, [SCOFFS]. But it's just like, are you serious? So definitely, things became-- though we weren't debating the issues, it became certainly more comfortable for me. I felt more comfortable to straight up say, like, come on, are you serious about this? Can you actually believe this? And he was listening.

Jonathan

What happened between John and Morgan is the thing that almost never happens between people on opposite sides of a political issue. They sat down, and talked, and really listened to each other. Essentially, Morgan did a very Christian thing. At that first meeting, he turned the other cheek. John saw that, and did the same. And it had an effect. John says that Morgan was the first gay person he met who wasn't in conflict over his sexuality. Morgan seemed normal and healthy. And it surprised John.

In March, 2008, John quietly resigned from Love in Action. It would be really satisfying if I could tell you that all that listening, all the sitting down over coffee with Morgan snapped John out of the ex-gay stupor he'd been in for more than two decades. But that's not true. John told me when he left Love in Action, he hadn't actually changed his belief at all. He was still ex-gay, still believed that being gay was a sin.

Then, last year, John posted this stunning admission on the website of a new ministry he'd started. He said that he'd seen dramatic changes happen in people's lives when they walk through the transformation process with Jesus. But he wrote, quote, "The transformation for the vast majority of homosexuals will not include a change of sexual orientation. Actually, I've never met a man who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual." That statement coming from John made news. Here's John with Chris Matthews on Hardball last fall.

Chris Matthews

John, I guess the question a lot of people, gay and straight, will ask you is what brought you to go public with this pretty important observation since you've been experienced in this world that no one's ever gone through a successful, if you will, or conversion of any kind from gay to straight?

John

I think really one of the most significant things, Chris, is that within the gay community, there is--

Jonathan

I want to make sure this is clear. John now says God embraces homosexuality, that God loves gays and lesbians, and He sees nothing wrong with their actions. He now fully supports faithful, same-sex commitments. And he started a ministry that reaches out to gay people. But the new John Smid isn't exactly a crusader for the gay movement. He's still learning to navigate who he is. And whatever transformation he's going through, it's still incomplete. He's working it out in public. And it's clumsy.

There've been times on his blog when he's used the word "perversion" while talking about homosexuality. He talks about promiscuity like it's something that gay men just can't avoid without help from God. The things he says now can still be so hurtful and confusing that a former client told me he wishes John would just lay low for a few years until he figures out what he wants to say. Morgan eventually got the interview he was looking for. He and John sat down and talked on camera. And now, they're doing Q&As together, talking to audiences about the documentary Morgan made.

Recently, John made probably his biggest shift. He started calling himself gay. Not ex-gay, not ex-ex-gay, just gay. John and his wife are still married. It's obviously confusing for the two of them. But this is the uncomfortable place John Smid has lived in his whole life. When he was in his first marriage in his late teens, he struggled because he was gay. Then, he came out and he struggled with that, so he became ex-gay.

We'd all like to believe that, as we get older, we know ourselves better and things get easier. But it doesn't always work out that way. John says now, he's kind of back to where he was in his early 20s-- gay and out, just a lot older this time. He's still really conflicted about what that means.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar is one of the producers of our program. More information about the documentary that Morgan Jon Fox made is at loveinactionmovie.com.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Thanks to Steve Blass's co-author, Erik Sherman. Their book goes on sale May 1. Thanks for help with our radio drama to Peter Clowning, Carrie Helmen, Chris Bannon, and WNYC. Rick Wolff, who you heard in Act One, does a radio show about sports parenting on New York's WFAN. He can be found on askcoachwolff.com. Major League Baseball footage today was used with permission of Major League Baseball Properties, Inc.

Our website, where right now you can enter our contest to win a signed poster for our May 10 cinema event-- basically, we're going to be doing our show on stage with Mike Birbiglia, David Rakoff, Glenn Washington, and others and beaming it into movie theaters everywhere. Find a theater near you and get tickets before they sell out. You can do all that at thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who has totally figured out what we're up to here at the end of the program when we quote him.

Torey

You've got to be careful when these gay activists come around, you know. They're going to twist your words. And somehow, they've got an alternative agenda.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.