Show Me the Way
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OK, so there's this couple. They've been married for years, had two kids, when they decided to separate. They get lawyers, start to figure out custody and split the property. But they're still living in the same house, and the guy is hoping that they're going to work things out. They're going to marriage counseling. They're going to parenting classes.
And then one Saturday, the guy spots a text message on his wife's phone from another man to his wife saying, "I love you and miss you." And he's devastated. And he turns to someone he knows will be on his side, will help him make sense of this, tell him what to do-- his lawyer. The guy who represents him in the separation.
What he didn't know was that his lawyer was probably, at that moment, the single worst person in the world for him to be bringing this up with because, as he later learned, the man his wife was having an affair with was his lawyer. Of course, once the husband figures out the truth, he gets a new lawyer. The old lawyer ends up being charged with professional misconduct.
I have right here the transcript of that disciplinary hearing. Because the family's been through enough already with this, I'm not going to give their names here on the radio or tell you where this happened. They have moved on. I will just call them Mr. And Mrs. X.
And this transcript is an amazing document, because when you read it, you realize it's even worse than you would imagine. Like, it sounds bad, and the details make it even worse, because a lawyer, you know, is not just like a business consultant who you hire to deal with your paperwork. A lawyer is really a confidant.
The Monday after he learns of the affair, Mr. X goes to his lawyer's office and pours out his heart about what's happened. At that point, Mr. X doesn't know who his wife might be seeing but suspects a firefighter in town. This is from the hearing transcript.
Quote, "I'm sitting with the lawyer for an hour explaining to him how I can't believe she's having an affair, that I think it's the fireman. And he's looking at me right in the face. I'm in tears crying to him, you know? Because I never thought she would have an affair on me. And here, he's right in front of me. He's the guy that's having an affair with my wife."
The person questioning Mr. X asks, "What's he saying to you?"
Mr. X, "Nothing. He didn't say nothing. He didn't even seem to care I was there."
It gets even worse. Specifically, when they deal with the question of payment, which really boils down to if your attorney has an affair with your wife who is also, at the same time, the opposing party in the case, do you get a refund for that? The $1,500 that you paid your lawyer, do you get that back?
In this hearing, the lawyer was actually given a chance to question the witnesses himself, which led to a totally surreal moment in which, under oath, the lawyer actually cross-examined Mr. X, the client whose wife he had an affair with. The lawyer says to Mr. X, quote, "When we talked about returning the fee that you paid me, isn't it true that I said I was willing to talk about it?"
Mr. X-- "No. You said you earned every penny. You said, 'I had done a lot of work. And I feel like I earned all that money.' That's exactly what you said."
Lawyer-- "So you don't believe you recall hearing me say that I was willing to talk about it?"
Mr. X-- "No."
Lawyer-- "Do you remember that I tried to apologize to you?"
Mr. X-- "Yeah, I do remember that. I asked you, 'Don't you have something to say to me?' I said, 'For everything you've done, having an affair with my wife,' I said, 'don't you at least owe me an apology for all that?' And yes, you did. You said, 'I'm sorry for all that.' Does that answer your question?"
Lawyer-- "Did you at any point feel like you could bring yourself to accept my apology?"
Mr. X-- "It's going to take a long time. I have and I pray for you every day. And I hope God has mercy on your soul. I really do."
For his part, the lawyer said he never intended to hurt anyone. He was an alcoholic, he said, just coming out of a divorce himself, quote, "Lonely and not exercising good judgment." When he was asked about that moment in his office when Mr. X came in and cried, and he didn't say anything, he says, quote, "I remember feeling very awkward about it. In hindsight, I should have revealed the relationship sooner and withdrawn from the case. And I did say to her on several occasions, 'You know, I'm going to have to bow out of this case.'"
The person questioning the lawyer asks, "Well, why didn't you?"
The lawyer says, "Well, to be honest, it was very awkward. It was one of those things I just wasn't sure how to bring up or when to bring up."
Yes, that is an awkward thing to bring up with your client. And I think the most extraordinary part of this transcript is the part where the lawyer tries to explain himself by telling his own, sad story. Quote, "I found myself justifying aspects of the relationship in terms of positive intentions, if that makes any kind of sense at all. I hope I'm not rambling too much. I guess part of my-- part of my attraction to Mrs. X initially was that she was one of the first persons, one of the first individuals I had confessed my drinking problem. And she was just so understanding and so supportive. At the time, I couldn't believe it."
"If a girl meets a guy and finds out that he's a drunk, she should dump him, you know? Run not walk to get away from the situation. But she was very kind, very supportive. I know it looks real bad."
For what he did, he was suspended for practicing law for three years. But before the suspension was over, another case came up of professional misconduct, and he was disbarred. For his part, Mr. X always regretted his choice of attorney. He said, quote, "I've never had to deal with anything through the law in my life. And I hired him as my attorney. I expected him to represent me, and he did everything but."
The problem, of course, is when you sign up with an attorney or anybody else to give you advice, to be your guide, you have to trust them, right? And you put your life in their hands in some situations. And it is a huge leap of faith.
Today on our radio show, we have people who need help, who need advice, and who make some very unusual choices about who they take that leap of faith with. A kid runs away from home to get advice from somebody who he has never met in his life. A man in a terrible medical situation looks for a doctor and gets a world famous doctor who chooses to communicate with him only in rhyme.
From WBEZ Chicago, it is This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.
Act One. Just South of the Unicorns.
Act One, Just South of the Unicorns. When I was a kid, I wrote to my favorite astronauts. I wrote to my radio hero who was this funny proto-shock jock in Baltimore named Johnny Walker. And I got responses. I got satisfying responses.
It doesn't seem so strange at that age to reach out to people who you idolize, no matter how far away they seem. Logan Hill has the story of somebody doing just that.
In the winter of 1987, my middle school in rural North Carolina was preparing for an event called The Night of the Notables. For one night only, the members of the sixth and seventh grade would dress up as historic figures and mingle. The parents would try to guess who we were.
Each kid picked a notable-- Lincoln, Washington, Harriet Tubman. When it was my turn, the 12-year-old me said, "Piers Anthony." My teacher, Mrs. Beal, gently suggested I might want to pick someone a bit more, well, notable, because parents might not read as much science fiction and fantasy as I did.
But I would not be swayed. I was so obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy that, at my 12th birthday party, I was pulled off the roller rink for reading the sci-fi book I had just unwrapped while roller skating. I read Ursula Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury, and Harry Harrison, and Harlan Ellison, and Larry Niven, and Robert Heinlein. But at 12, the author I loved above all others was Piers Anthony, who cranked out four books a year filled with heroic adventures, goofy puns, wise-cracking ogres and sexy cyborgs. I loved all of it.
But what made Piers Anthony so different and so remarkable was that at the end of those books about alternate dimensions and apocalypses narrowly avoided, he would often write these rambling confessional author's notes. They'd run 30, sometimes 40 pages, and they'd rarely be about the novels.
Instead, Piers Anthony would write about everyday life at his Florida home and what he dubbed mundania-- his tree farm, his vegetarianism, his martial arts exercise routines. There were stories about his daughters, his wife, and the horse in his backyard name Blue that became the inspiration for a unicorn in one novel and a magical horse called The Nightmare in another.
The notes were personal, like a grown-up's diary-- clashes with publishers, family illnesses, daily responsibilities. I studied them to the point that I still remember when he upgraded his computer to MS-DOS and doubled his RAM from 256k to 512k. "When I write to you," he wrote once, "it is as if we are in privacy booth, and we are sharing things that neither of us would confess elsewhere."
I was sure Piers Anthony would help me impersonate him at the Night of the Notables. So I wrote him the first and only fan letter of my life. And he immediately responded with what seemed to be an Arc of the Covenant sized crate-- an amazing box filled with new books, his unpublished memoir, Bio of an Ogre, and a long, kind letter that wished me luck on my big night.
When that night came, I wore a fake beard cut from a scratchy carpet remnant, plus jam surfer shorts and flip-flops since I figured that's what they wore in Florida. In the school library, I told parents I was originally from England, but I built this awesome writing studio in my backyard. And my novel, Ogre, Ogre, was the first fantasy paperback original on the New York Times bestseller list.
I bragged that I'd written some 80 books, and I was so famous that my novels were on sale at the Walden Books across from the Food Lion. My teacher was right. Not a single one of these muggles could guess who I was. Steven King, one parent guessed. Star Trek, guessed another. That's not even a person, I thought.
Somehow, I don't remember being embarrassed in the least about my choice. I don't remember the slightest hint of regret. In fact, I remember sipping sparking apple juice through my itchy beard with a 12-year-old Harriet Tubman and feeling kind of smug about the whole thing. And if nobody knew who I was, that was their problem.
For a night, I'd walked in my favorite writer's flip-flops. And for years, I thought that had to make me his biggest fan.
10 years after the Night of the Notables, I first met my friend Andy. It was the summer of 1997. I'd gone to the coast of Georgia for a wedding. A bunch of friends of the couple, barely out of college, had gone out early to party.
I was wading in the ocean with this guy Andy, a friend of the groom. At some point, it came out that I was a writer. And Andy asked me who I read when I was a kid. I could've said some hip sci-fi author like Philip K. Dick or William Gibson, but I told Andy the truth, that I'd been obsessed with this guy, Piers Anthony, who wrote about centaurs and ogres and unicorns.
And Andy cut me off. "Me, too!" he said. "I was obsessed." This didn't happen very often, so I got a little competitive.
I said, "No, I was so obsessed I impersonated him." And Andy said he was more obsessed, really. And then, I one-upped him by talking about my special letter. We went back and forth, out-nerding each other until finally I blurted out, "What, you weren't the kid who ran away to his house, were you?"
Actually, you said, "Were you that kid that ran away from home to visit him?" That's right. I totally remember that now.
This is Andy. And the way I remember it is that after I said that, Andy just seemed sort of stunned.
And what did you think about when I said that?
I think I had a young person's flash of like, am I notorious? I was shocked that anybody had heard of that, because it wasn't a story and still isn't to this day-- well, I guess today being an exception-- is not a story that I've told to very many people.
The fact was I had read about Andy in Piers Anthony's office notes many years before. He'd included a couple offhand sentences about a boy who'd run away from home and showed up on his doorstep. Andy had never seen this author's note himself, but the story had stuck with me. And if I'm honest, it was probably because I was a little jealous. That same winter, when 12-year-old me was proudly dressing up in Piers Anthony drag, 15-year-old Andy was crossing seven states by himself to seek out our idol.
Andy's story wasn't the high-spirited adventure that I'd imagined. He doesn't like to dwell on the details of his teenage years mostly out of respect for his family. But the basic facts of his life back then are probably familiar to lot of unhappy kids.
Andy lived in a suburb outside Buffalo, New York. His parents had divorced when he was young, and Andy lived with his mother, half-sister, and his stepfather. His relationship with his mom wasn't good. His relationship with his stepfather, a red-blooded, corporate, athletic alpha dude, was worse.
School was torture. Not only was he small, the smallest kid in his class even at 15, but he was weird. He liked to read books about elves. He says he had nobody to talk to, didn't have a single friend.
By his sophomore year in 1987, Andy had so little hope of fitting in that he gave up trying. He started wearing his grandfather's 1940s fedora to school and buttoning his shirts up all the way to his neck, sometimes imagining he was from some other country, some other planet. The worse he felt, the more he retreated into fantasy until finally, like Spock slowly dematerializing on the transporter, he was barely in high school at all.
I just gave up. I said, "[BLEEP] it. I'm not going to do anything." So I began failing all of my classes-- like all of them. I had to repeat the 10th grade. And I'm not a dumb person. I just didn't-- actually, I would go to class. But I would just check out mentally with the help of Piers Anthony or Stephen King or whoever.
And then in class, I would have the textbook. And then, inside the textbook I would have Ogre, Ogre or whatever Piers Anthony novel. At the time, I also was really into Stephen King. It came out a few years later, but I remember I read It in class all day long for like eight hours, however long you're in class, 7:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. And I finished that 1,000 page book in like two days. That's how checked out I was.
Like me, Andy loved Piers Anthony most of all, in part, because you never ran out of books because the guy just wrote so damn many. And also because of those long author's notes, which he read as closely as I did.
I loved them, and I devoured them as avidly as I did the rest of the book. And all he was describing was like the mundanity of his daily life. But it felt, to me, like he was talking directly to me.
And it felt great to have an adult talk to me about the world and talk to me about adult life and leave nothing out, you know? And explain things without it being condescending or talking down to me because I was a kid. And having trouble in school and no friends, it felt like he was a friend.
Little by little, Andy says he found himself fantasizing less about the wild adventures of Piers Anthony's novels and more about the everyday reality of those notes. And at some point, he stopped sneaking into the magical land of Xanth or the futuristic planet Proton entirely. Instead, he begin to imagine another escape-- what life might be like on the small farm in the modest house he'd read about in those author's notes. To Andy, an ordinary, happy life seemed just as fantasical as the novels themselves.
I don't remember exactly when it started, but it kind of crept into my mind. I'd been toying with all kinds of ideas about running away. Like, I imagined myself doing something wild like walking across the entire United States on foot. And a lot of kids want to run away and-- I don't know, what? Live with hobos? I don't know. For me, I wanted an alternate place to live. And so, I imagined walking across the country. And then, somehow I think through these author's notes, I felt like I'd gotten to know this person through these very personal notes. And so I felt like he would be somebody that if I explained my situation, he might care, and that he might give me shelter if I just went there.
Right away, Andy faced an enormous obstacle. He didn't actually know where his favorite author lived. But Piers Anthony left hints inside his books. His bestselling series is the Xanth series, a 36-novel universe that takes its name from its location, the magical kingdom of Xanth, a land of wizards and goblins and flirting fairies.
I remember looking at maps a lot. I was into maps. I had atlases and stuff like that. And I remember looking at maps a lot and comparing them to the map of Xanth.
As any fan on the books knows, the hand-drawn maps of Xanth look exactly like Florida only Key West become Centaur Aisle, Gainesville becomes a deep, black void, and West Palm Beach is transformed into a literal gold coast where sand castles are sculpted out of golden nuggets.
As any fan of the author's notes knows, Piers Anthony lives in Florida. So Andy made a calculated bet-- that the capital of Xanth, that's where he'd find the real Piers Anthony.
I was a detective. I sort of poured over these books and thought that I'd located, triangulated about exactly where he lived, based on the location of the capital of Xanth, just south of the unicorns. And then, some other offhand comments that he made of stuff that was nearby.
And so I had it narrowed down to one of two small towns in rural Florida. It was either Inverness or Floral City.
The two towns Andy had zeroed in on, Inverness and Floral City, were about seven miles apart in rural Florida. But Andy decided he could work that out if he got there.
First, he needed money for a plane ticket. Andy had been working a paper route for years. And his mother had been matching the earnings and depositing them into a college fund that Andy wasn't allowed to touch until after high school. But it seemed like his only shot. So on Thursday, February 19, 1987, Andy walked the half mile to the bank.
I just went up to the counter. I guess I must have filled out a withdrawal slip. Or maybe not. I think I just had the-- somehow, I got the account number. And I just said, "I want all the money." And I don't know why, but the woman behind the counter-- the account had my name on it. I don't know if I had a student ID or what. But she just said, "OK." And she gave me $1,200 in cash in an envelope. And I was a little astounded by that, that it had worked.
I think, at this point, I wasn't totally clear on whether any portion of this plan was feasible, right? The whole thing depends on getting money. And then, boom, you've got money. And it almost felt like a dare.
With his envelope full of money, Andy prepared to leave the next day. But when he woke up, he chickened out. For three days, he sat on the money and went back and forth about the whole idea. And then finally, on Monday morning, he packed a backpack full of clothes.
I kissed my mom goodbye, and I said, "I'm off to school." And instead of going to school, I walked to the airport, which is-- I'd have to look at a map now. But I think it was at least eight miles. And I wasn't totally clear on how to get there. So I think it took me four or five hours to get in that general direction and then figure out where the airport was.
Andy walked up to the first ticket counter he saw and bought a ticket to Orlando for 300-some dollars. This would be his time on an airplane, his first trip anywhere without his family. He started to worry about his mom. So he bought a postcard with a picture of Niagara Falls on it, and he wrote something about how he had to go away for a while and might visit again in a year, maybe next Christmas. Andy hoped that would be reassuring, so he dropped it in the mail. Then, he got on the plane and hit Play on his Walkman.
What did you imagine was going to happen? What was the goal of all this?
I think the goal was to live somewhere else. I think the goal was very simply just what it was. Like, I wanted to go live with Piers Anthony.
Was there a worry at some point, like Piers might not go along with it, or might-- were you certain that you would get there and everything would be cool?
Yeah, that's a good question. No, I was not certain. But I think I just, well, I'll worry about that when I get there. Let's see what happens. And I had all kinds of pie in the sky fantasies of what it would be like to live there with him. You know, happy days.
Yeah, what'd you think a day would be like?
That we would get up, and I could cook breakfast for the family. And then, we would go out into the woods or the fields and ride horses or grow food or do work around the house. I think I wanted that the days would be purposeful for some reason, or that they would be exciting.
Logan, can you correct me if I'm wrong? Does Piers Anthony play the harmonica?
I imagined him teaching me how to play the harmonica.
Yeah, just like whatever. I imagined myself participating in the daily life that was the Anthony household.
Andy touched down late in the afternoon of that Monday, beamed in from the icy cold of Buffalo to the tropical warmth of Florida. He couldn't believe that it had worked. There were no buses to Floral City until the next day, so Andy had to spend the night in Orlando. And actually, the next 24 hours tell you a lot about what Andy was like when he was 15.
He hired a cab, the first cab he'd ever taken. It was driven by a Jamaican guy, the first Jamaican guy he'd ever met. Because he was too young to check into a hotel, Andy paid the cabby $50 to get him a room at the Days Inn.
Then, on the way, Andy thought of the $900 in his pocket. He wondered, "Why not have some fun?" If you can, think of all the things a 15-year-old boy away from home for the first time with no parents might do with nearly $1,000 in cash. Andy turned to the cab driver.
So I made him take a little side trip to an art supply store. And I made him keep the cab running. And I went in there, and I was like, wow, I could get anything I wanted. So I got myself a really bad-ass portfolio to keep art in and a bunch of colored pencils, and pens, and paints, and brushes, and whatever else I wanted. I probably spent $180 or something like that, which felt weird. But then, I was like, well why not, right?
Let the wild rumpus began.
Andy spent the night alone in his hotel room drawing until he got hungry. Then, he walked over to a Pizza Hut. Until that point, Andy hadn't been very emotional. He remembers feeling nothing, really, just putting one foot in front of the other executing his great escape. But alone with his personal pan pizza in a restaurant that looked just like the one in Buffalo, he started to think about his mom again.
He pushed it down, didn't cry. 1,000 miles in, Andy decided he had to see it through. In the morning, he hopped a bus to Floral City and arrived in the town itself. Andy walked into the local drugstore and asked for the telephone book. He had based this entire journey on a hunch that Piers Anthony lived in the capitol of Xanth. Now, looking in the phone book under A, there was no listing for Piers Anthony.
But he didn't panic. Andy knew that Piers Anthony's full name was really Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob. He searched through the phone book and found a listing for Jacob, comma, P. Beside it, there was an address.
Next, Andy hitched a ride. And the very first car to come along, a red Cadillac, stopped. He told the nice guy who picked him up a story about how he's visiting his uncle, and then ended up having to keep this lie going for several hours because after looking and looking for Piers Anthony's address, they realized the name of the street had been changed. They asked around and drove some more and eventually ended up on a long road into the woods.
At this point, we had been driving for at least three hours. It's getting more and more wooded. You're basically driving into the woods. And the road stops being paved. And then, there's wooden fence posts. But it's not clear what the wooden fence is holding in or keeping out because there's just trees everywhere.
And then, we get to the address. And in my mind, it's at the end of a dead end. But I don't think it was. I think it just took forever, so it seemed like it was the end of a dead end. And we get there. And I'm like, "OK, thanks a lot." I don't really want this guy to find out that it wasn't my uncle and that I don't actually know this person. So I just jump out the car. I grab my book bag. I'm like, "Later days, thank you."
And then, just then, I knew that Piers Anthony had dogs. But I didn't expect them to be insane, big, mean dogs, which is what they turned out to be. At least, in my memory they are. And there's a house. And then, there's a little shack out back which I immediately gathered was Piers' writing shack.
Which he wrote about, yeah.
Yeah. And so the ruckus draws his attention. And this bearded head pops out and sees me standing at the gate and comes out. And I was like, "Oh my god, it's the man. This is my idol here." And he just comes up to the gate. And he's like, "Can I help you?"
And at that point, I've been through so much. And I didn't really-- when he said, "Can I help you," or "What can I do for you," I didn't even know what to say. How do you explain, "What are you doing here?" And I just burst into tears and starting saying, begging him, "Can I stay with you? I can cook. I could help you do blah, blah, blah. Please, help me."
And I could tell he was just totally taken aback. And he just kind of shook his head and was like, "Ah, you should-- you better come inside. We need to talk about this." And I was like, "OK." And that seemed like progress. I was invited into the house. So we went in the house. We went in. And he sat down with me and proceeded to listen to my story and listen to my tale of woe of high school misery.
Andy says he told Piers Anthony everything. He talked and talked. He remembers that Piers Anthony said very little. Mostly, he just listened as Andy laid out all the reasons why he was there that day. He told Piers about school, about how he had no friends, and about his home life and his stepfather, about how alone he felt. Andy doesn't know exactly how long they sat there talking, but he knows it was hours.
And so we sat there. And he listened to my story. And we got to the end of it, and I was like, "So, can I stay with you?" And he was just like, "Ah, no. First of all, my wife would kill me if I took in a runaway." And we didn't really get to any more reasons than that, you know?
I'm sure that he was trying to let me down as easy as he could and be as-- which I guess involves passing the buck. "Hey, it's not me, man." It's a typical parent thing. "It wasn't me. It's your mom."
But when he said that, it made sense to me. I was like, "Ah, yeah. What I'm doing is wacky." I think it hit me for the first time. Like, this is a really strange situation. And this is a lot that I'm asking this person.
And then he said, "Look, I know that things are bad. But at this point, you have a couple options. If you think things are so bad that you don't want to go back home, I can help put you in touch with people that will help runaways. Or if you think that things aren't that bad, you should call your parents and go back." Both of which seemed like really sensible options. And so when he said that to me, I realized, OK, I need to go back.
Did you feel-- so it sounds like you didn't feel disappointed that he was essentially saying, no this fantasy you had of moving in with me is not going to happen.
Right. No, I think I might have felt a moment of disappointment when he first said no. But I think after-- the fact that he didn't just dismiss it out of hand as soon as I got there, that he sat down and listened to me and talked with me and tried to advise me in a really caring way, and me outlining my situation in words made me stop and really think about my situation more clearly, too. I think it made complete sense that he would say no. It didn't seem like a cruel thing to say.
I felt a little disappointment that my fantasy had smacked into an uncooperative reality. But I felt sort of invigorated about reality itself from that and more interested in working with reality rather than retreating into fantasy. Which is ironic that that's what a fantasy author-- that my interaction with a fantasy author was not more fantasy, that my interaction with a fantasy author was plain reality. And it just felt good to be heard and to be accepted.
Andy says that was the first time anyone had listened to him explain why he was so unhappy. And it felt like a fever or hex had broken. Afterwards, Piers Anthony called Andy's mother. And Andy remembers the sound of relief in her voice. They made plans to drive Andy to the airport the next day.
But first, Andy would spend the night in Piers Anthony's house. He'd get his wish for one day. That afternoon, Andy walked around Anthony's farm with Piers Anthony's teenage daughter. He saw the horse named Blue who became the unicorn in Xanth and the gnarled branches that twisted their way into the horror novel, The Shade of the Tree.
And though he didn't cook dinner for them as he'd imagined, he ate at the table with a family he'd hoped would replace his own. After dinner, Andy sat on the couch with the Anthonys and watched a bad cop show on TV. And he remembers that feeling good and normal.
After the show, Piers Anthony gave Andy a copy of his latest manuscript and set up a bed for him in the room of their older daughter who was away at college. Andy lay in bed reading about a young, Indian prince who gets recruited to become the god of war. With the world on the brink of apocalypse, the prince is the only one who can save it by learning how to turn back the hands of a doomsday clock. Comforted, Andy fell asleep, book on his chest.
Andy returned to mundania the next day. His family picked him up at the airport in Buffalo, relieved that he was back. Andy embarked on a crazy quest and actually pulled it off. He studied cryptic maps and pieced together clues, faced down dogs at the gate, and fought his way to the oracle. In a fantasy novel, when a quest is completed, everything changes in an instant. The zombies turn to ash. The aliens disappear into the mother ship.
But Andy was right back where he started. He still hated school. He still struggled to make friends. He still flunked every class. In fact, he'd have to repeat the 10th grade all over again like some accursed time traveler.
If anything, his relationship with his stepfather actually got worse. Even so, something was different. Something had shifted. After Florida, Andy felt for the first time like there was a better world out there somewhere and he could find it.
And the whole thing was like fresh air. It was like I pulled the lid off what had formerly seemed like this trapped existence where every situation was unpleasant and there didn't seem to be any way out. And so I just forced a way out like a hero in one of Piers Anthony's novels.
And it was completely refreshing. Yeah, it wasn't what I thought it would be or what I wanted it to be. But it was exactly what I needed it to be. It was great.
OK, so we're dialing Piers Anthony. I kind of have butterflies.
This is surreal.
In the 25 years since Andy's adventure, he often thought of getting back in touch with Piers Anthony if only to thank him, to let him know that he turned out OK. But he never got around to it. So we set up a call.
Andy was worried that Piers Anthony might not even remember him. But he did.
One of the things I do, I keep a record each day of what I do. Usually, it's just how much I write and how much I read and so on. And one of those days, I'd had, "Andy, four hours."
Actually, Piers Anthony remembered nearly everything.
Well, you told me how your stepfather was basically mean to you. And you didn't like it. As far as I know, your mother was OK. But as far as I know, she didn't oppose your stepfather. And so it made it ugly for you. And that, I understood without needing to understand the details.
Yeah. Your memory's very clear.
But I do remember my general advice as such was keep your head down. Endure it. In a few years, you can get out.
And I think that's what you must have done.
Yes, absolutely. I think that's part of what made the next few years more bearable.
They talked for an hour. Andy thanked Piers Anthony for his kindness that day. And what became clear to me as I listened to them was that Piers Anthony had seen a lot of himself in the 15-year-old Andy. He said he'd had a rough childhood of his own-- divorced parents, bed wetting, bullies at school, lousy grades, all of it.
My high school was a very fancy private school and so on. They constantly solicit me for money to contribute to it. I never do. Because there, I was one of the-- they had the upper crust, and they had the lower crust. I was the lower crust. I was the one that nobody paid any attention to, that nobody cared about. I didn't like being a member of the underclass of the peons like that.
No one does.
When I was in high school, I was in study hall and caught up on my homework. And I was reading a fantasy magazine. And a proctor came by, caught it, threw it away. Well, you want to know one reason I don't contribute to that school? That is one reason out of many.
People talk-- they sneer at escapism. Well, there are those of us who need it.
Piers Anthony is 77 years old now. But really, he was just an angry kid who'd muddled through like everyone else, which surprised Andy. In the author's notes from his book Fractal Mode, book two of his Mode series, he writes, "One thing you who had secure or happy childhoods should understand about those of us who did not, we who control our feelings, who avoid conflicts at all costs or seem to seek them, who are hypersensitive, self-critical, compulsive, workaholic, and above all survivors, we're not that way from perversity. And we cannot just relax and let it go. We've learned to cope in ways you never had to."
Logan Hill. He's a senior editor at GQ magazine.
Coming up, no grime, mimes, or chimes, no organized crime, no vines to climb, just rhymes in one minute's time from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two. Oh! The Places You Will Not Go!
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, Show Me the Way, stories of what happens when you turn to unusual people or maybe even the wrong person for advice. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Oh, the Places You Won't Go.
In this act, like in the first act, somebody needs help. And instead of turning to those nearby, he writes a letter. The correspondence is read by Jonathan Goldstein and David Rakoff.
Herr doctor, I find myself, for reasons inexplicable to me or my loving family, to have woken up this morning transformed into a cockroach. I am reasonably certain this is not a dream. Can you help?
I am usually in very fine fettle in the morning. But as a result of my new condition, I find myself unable to go into work. And while my life has never been what you might call a bed of roses, this unfortunate turn of events has certainly made it worse.
By way of example, this letter has been composed by painstakingly mashing my antenna into the keys of my father's typewriter. It has taken me close to four hours and has left me with a horrendous migraine. I write to you because I have heard of your brilliance and your keen appreciation for the absurdity of this world. Please help. Yours, Gregor Samsa, Prague.
Samsa, I've only just opened your letter. Fear not, worry neither. We'll soon have you better. You might feel like a freak, but I'll make you quite well. Your problem's unique, yet your name rings a bell. A silkworm I knew used to live in a trillium. I think his name was Samsa. Or was it Fitzwilliam?
Oh, well. Please forgive me. My mind is a haze. One really meets so many faces nowadays.
If you ooze like a slug or you prick like a cactus, every ill-feeling bug finds his way to my practice. Whether dozens of styes mar your 100-eyed face, whatever your ailment, you're in the right place. Not to brag, but I've never yet failed to determine whatever root causes were vexing a vermin.
Rest assured, I'll endeavor to glean and deduce. You'll be better than ever or my name isn't Seuss.
Dear Dr. Seuss, perhaps you do not understand. And for this, I am probably to blame for not having made this point more clear. While I am now a cockroach, I was not always one. I was born a man and am now a bug.
Do you see? Is this even pertinent to my case? I mention it only in the interest of aiding your diagnosis. I hope I have not offended you with my quibbling. If I have, the only defense I can offer is that I have not been myself.
I feel that time is of the essence in this matter because without my being able to go into the office, I fear my whole family will all too soon wind up in the poor house. To migrate embarrassment, my father has already taken to eating his meals with lesser employees of the bank. Very sincerely, Gregor Samsa.
PS, pardon me if this is a rude question, but I must ask. Is metrical rhyme an American mode of correspondence? If so, I apologize for not responding in kind. Were circumstances different-- that is, were I not a bug-- I would have very much enjoyed the challenge. As it is, though, typing even the simplest of prose taxes me for hours.
The way that I speak gets a comment each time. Some people have accents, while I like to rhyme. Just as those who I treat might have thorax or a stinger, but nothing that ever resembled a finger, it's simply my way. I mean nothing by it. If you'd digits to type with, I'd tell you to try it.
But still, this attempt to be merely convivial can backfire sometimes and make me seem trivial. And then, I am forced to make mollifications by dryly reciting my qualifications.
See, I'm a doctor who chiefly helps insects particular, a recap just briefly of my vitae curricular. One patient of mine, a tubercular chigger, was referred by a june bug who'd shrunk, then got bigger. I made the arrangements and booked him a trip to a mulberry thicket for that flea with the grip.
And there did he rest and sip syllabub tea. But the thicket's the ticket for curing a flea. A potato bug who would eat nothing but onions, a millipede suffering from 2,000 bunions. A night crawler who could crawl only by day, a mantis who lost the volition to pray. A fruit fly whose flying resisted fruition are just a short list of the kinds of conditions I've treated. And all were made well double-quick. I'm the one who they call when a crawly is sick.
But cockroach to human, or vice or verse? What a mystery, a new one confounding. What's worse is I've leafed through the pages of yellowing journals. Through thoughts from the sages I've sifted for kernels. And no one, it seems, has devised an approach for how to return to a man from a roach. For the nonce, I'd advise some geranium juice. But stop if it turns your extremities puce. And I will consult with my college chum Bruce. Till then, stay strong, Samsa. Your loyal friend, Seuss.
Dear Doctor, please forgive me for my presumption. But I fear you may not appreciate the gravity of my situation. I am a hideous monster, and I'm only getting worse. Earlier today, my own father lobbed a basket of apples at me, one of which is still embedded in the soft flesh of my back. Our charwoman, too, has grown weary of my grotesque, physical appearance.
And whereas once she entered my room with good-natured shouts of, "Come out, you old cockroach!" when I hid beneath the couch, now she threatens to crack me on the crown with a chair when I crawl too close. At your word, I am prepared to have my dear sister, the only one who seems to be able to stomach me, pack me into a wooden crate with air holes and ship me to your office.
My fate rests in your hands. Please, doctor, you are my only hope. Yours, G Samsa.
Oh, Samsa, descriptions like that are invidious. It's human and callous to call yourself hideous. I reckon among those of similar breed, you're actually handsome, quite handsome indeed.
Remember when tempted to heap self-reproach that he who formed lilies created the roach. But now to this new factor with which I must grapple. You say you've been wounded, that now there's an apple that's currently making its home in your back. Is it in the soft tissue? Did your carapace crack?
I've questioned my colleagues and asked my attorney about your perhaps maybe making the journey to see me and thereby see your problems ended. Alas, the consensus is not recommend.
The trip is too long, and they would not allow a cockroach through customs. Plus, I don't see how it would any way help ease your suffering and pain. The cost of the postage alone is insane.
But do not lose hope. Disregard the above. I have news. I've engaged the services of a carrier jubjub bird flying to you and in his beak berries, one green and one blue. Chew the blue 30 times, and the green 30, too. In a week's time, you'll see that you'll be good as new.
Now, rest and eat lots of magnolia custard and rosehip souffle and some dew drops with mustard. And pay special mind if you're starting to blister. Wash the area daily. You mentioned a sister? Is she the one there who might broker a truce? Samsa, please take good care. Concernedly, Seuss.
Dear doctor, I feared at the beginning of this ordeal that I was no longer me. And now, I know this certainly to be the case. At first, I thought my change had to do merely with the physical, with this horrifying metamorphosis. But now, I see that it is much deeper than that.
I used to wonder in my idle moments in a train carriage or an unfamiliar hotel bedroom when I was still traveling for my work, what might I do if ever my scant good fortune ran out? "Well, Gregor," I used to think to myself, "that would be easy. If I ever became a burden to the family, I would simply walk out the front door and throw myself in front of a team of carriage horses."
You have told me to stay strong, not to give up, as if the two were opposite things. But I'm afraid you are mistaken. We both are. Sometimes, to give oneself up one must be strong.
In thanks for your friendship, I have composed for you a rhyme. It's the first one I've written since my boyhood. And you'll have to pardon me if it isn't very good.
You shall be remembered as the doctor who tried to determine what turned Gregor Samsa to vermin. Forgive me. I was not able to get any further. Goodbye, dear Dr. Seuss. Samsa, I am-sa.
I read your last letter with no small alarm. It sounds like you're fixing to do yourself harm. I know that you feel like you've got nothing left, like your time has run out, you're abandoned, bereft of all hope, that you've been forced to bear it in silence, your family's scorn, their indifference, their violence.
I take it the jubjub bird failed to arrive. So how, my dear friend, will we keep you alive? I'd recommend exercise, plenty of fruit, but finally cede that such bromides are moot. Samsa, I need you to martial your will. There isn't a purgative, poultice or pill or anything else on the pharmacy shelf that will make you so healthy as much as yourself.
You think your new body has made you a bother. You hold yourself guilty while blameless your father. Gregor, we'd all die if physical beauty was needed for others to render their duty.
Ever since our first letter, I've had this strange notion that I'd make you better, ignoring the ocean that makes up the distance that renders you Seussless. But despite my persistence, I've been worse than useless. I'm astonished at times when I think of the past, of my thousands of rhymes, of how life is so vast. I'm left, then, to wonder how anyone gleans a purpose or sense of what anything means.
It's not ours for the knowing. It's meaning abstruse. We both best be going. Your loving friend, Seuss.
Dear doctor, I found your letters among my brother's things when my parents and I were cleaning out our flat in preparation of moving. It is my sad duty to inform you that Gregor died some three weeks ago, perhaps from his injury, an act for which my father blamed himself for days on end, although I doubt it.
I think Gregor may well have starved himself to death. When the charwoman found him, she pushed at his body with the handle of her broom, and he slid across the floor with no more weight than a dried leaf. Before our charwoman disposed of him, I took one last look and saw that Gregor's shell had cracked open. And just underneath were little wings. He was a beetle, not a cockroach as we had feared. A beetle, nothing more. Even the word is lovely.
I know that ever since his childhood, Gregor had always had very vivid dreams of flight that left him happy in the morning. If only he himself had known, I kept thinking. At any rate, dear doctor, I thought you should know what befell my poor brother and to thank you for all your efforts in his behalf. If you should find yourself ever in Prague, please consider yourself most welcome in our home. Sincerely, Grete Samsa.
That story was written by David Rakoff, who was Seuss, and Jonathan Goldstein, who was Samsa. David has got a new book coming out next year, a novel written completely in rhyme. Jonathan's new book, I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow, comes out in October.
Our program was produced today by Sarah Koening with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condin's our office manager. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis, production help from [? Tariq Fudha ?].
Our Dr. Seuss/Gregor Samsa story was produced by Jonathan Goldstein and Mira Burt-Wintonick with Cristal Duhaime. It first aired on CBC's great program WireTap, which is distributed in the United States by PRI, Public Radio International. It's also available for download online.
A program note, last week here on the radio show, we asked you to email, phone, or tweet at your local movie theater to ask them to book our upcoming film, Sleepwalk with Me. Thanks to you, we have now added 24 new theaters-- nearly doubles the number of theaters that we're at. We jumped from 34 theaters to 58, which means that we only need another-- hold on, let me-- 4,291 theaters to catch up to The Avengers.
You can see the trailer at our website. See it for yourself. The film was written and directed by and stars Mike Birbiglia based on a story that he did here on the radio. It's sincere. It's really funny. It killed at Sundance, came home with an audience award. We would love for you to be able to see the film with a crowd, which is the best way to see any comedy, in a theater. A list of where we are booked now and the phone numbers, email addresses, and Twitter handles of theaters near you where we want to be is at our website, thisamericanlife.org.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know he took a tour of the White House this week. And incredibly, there in the hallway, he actually met Barack Obama.
And I just burst into tears. And I started saying, begging him, "Can I stay with you? I can cook. I could help you do blah, blah, blah. Please help me."
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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