Transcript

485:

Surrogates
Transcript

Originally aired 01.25.2013

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Reggie Richardson and his identical twin brother Ronnie went to grade school and high school together. They were roommates in college and track stars together. They trained as educators together, taught fourth grade classes side by side, were assistant principals together, and finally, this fall, achieved something they'd dreamed of together since they were teenagers-- they became co-principals of a school, Claremont Middle School in Oakland, California.

And what's that like? Well, one recent morning, I was talking to Reggie in his office when Ms. Champion, the administrative assistant, called on the walkie-talkie.

Reggie Richardson

This is Mr. Richardson.

Ms. Champion

I have Orion's mom on the phone, and she says it's urgent.

Reggie Richardson

Is she on the line now?

Ms. Champion

Yes.

Reggie Richardson

Do you want to transfer me?

Ms. Champion

OK, which Mr. Richardson is this?

Reggie Richardson

Reggie Richardson.

Ms. Champion

OK, thanks.

Reggie Richardson

Copy that.

Ira Glass

Turns out to be an incredibly handy thing, having your identical twin as your co-principal. They handle things the same. They know how each other thinks. They look the same. When kids arrive in the morning or leave in the afternoon, they both wander around the grounds. And there's this feeling of omnipresence. Here's Reggie's brother, Ronnie.

Ronnie Richardson

What's powerful about having two of us is that even the teachers and the students are like, wow, he's everywhere. I turn this corner, he's there. I turn this corner, he's there.

Student

When I first came, I didn't know they were twins, and I needed help finding my classes. So I seen one by the stairs, and then I walked down the hallway and I seen another one. Like, they were at too places at the same time, and I thought it was one person. And I was like, what?

Ira Glass

To afford two principals, the school has no assistant principal. And mostly, the two brothers just pass things off, perfect surrogates for each other. Ever wish you had a second you to help you with your kids or your job at work? That is every day for these guys.

Something comes up for Ronnie and he can't meet with a parent, he just tells Reggie to do it. The morning I was there, a group of parents and kids who'd be coming to Claremont next year was getting a tour. Ronnie was the one who was supposed to lead it. Which he did, at first.

Ronnie Richardson

Good morning, beautiful scholars.

Group

Good morning.

Ira Glass

His brother Reggie stopped into the library where the tour was starting, said a few words. The plan was that his participation was going to be brief. But then when the bell rang, Ronnie, the one who's supposed to be leading the tour, stepped into the hallway to monitor the change of classes, which these guys do all day long.

Ronnie Richardson

James? James. James. Can you please take your beanie off, son? Thank you.

Ira Glass

And he stayed out there. Back in the library, stuck with the tour group now, his brother Reggie vamped.

Reggie Richardson

Um, however in the interim, I-- Mr. Richardson stepped out. You know, we get real busy, so he should be back. But I'm going to split you in groups. If we have to do a large group, we will do so. But he should be back momentarily.

Ira Glass

When Ronnie returned, the two continued the tour together for a while, and then Reggie ditched out, leaving Ronnie. This swapping tasks back and forth happens all day long between them. And since they arrived at Claremont at the beginning of this school year, everybody-- kids, parents, teachers-- all say they have made a huge difference.

Claremont went through several principals last year, and it was chaotic. Kids were roaming the halls when they were supposed to be in class. It was such a mess, teachers say, that it drove the kids' standardized test scores down. Now it's orderly, thanks to the Richardsons.

And among the students who they've taken a special interest in are a pair of twins from the seventh grade, Faith and Hope, who've been to the principal's office many, many times since Hope transferred into the school this fall. Faith had attended here last year. Here is how Hope sees things. She's new in school, and the person she knows best doesn't want her nearby.

Hope

Well, we use to share classes, but she got hers switched, so we don't share no classes now.

Ira Glass

She got hers switched so you guys wouldn't be in all your classes together?

Hope

She doesn't like to, like, really hang out with me. But yeah, she got them switched to her best friend's classes.

Ira Glass

What'd you think of that?

Hope

Uh, I'm used to it.

Ira Glass

They got along when they were little, she says, but now they're teenagers, and it's different.

Ira Glass

So how did she start to act?

Hope

Like more-- meaner. And, like, teenager-y, selfish. That's why-- OK, we get along at home, but not at school. She likes to keep her space.

Ira Glass

Treated like that, a person can act up, try to get the other person's attention. Which Hope does. It's not so effective.

Faith

I'm always mad at her.

Ira Glass

Here's Faith, her sister.

Faith

She steal my clothes. She's like an instigator. When somebody's about to fight, she runs back and forth saying stuff.

And she takes jokes too far. And then she acts the fool everywhere she goes. Like she always bring attention to herself. I don't like that much attention, so.

And everybody thinks of us as one. Like everything she do, they say, why y'all do that? They even think that it's me. And she's evil.

Hope

Like I said, she has anger issues. She's the meaner one. Everybody says it.

Ira Glass

The troubles between these 13-year-old twins definitely got the attention of the 36-year-old twins over in the principal's office.

Ronnie Richardson

Because we kind of get offended. We got a little offended when they were-- we took it personal. It's something about twins that really, because we are twins, when we see siblings having issues and disrespecting each other in public, we take it a little bit more personal.

Ira Glass

Reggie says that for a while, the twin girls were in their office constantly with both brothers.

Reggie Richardson

And we were really talking to them about it. And Ronnie started it. Twin code. How to respect each other as sisters. Because when we hear, like, shut up. No, you shut up. No, you're ugly. No, you're ugly. We're like, whoa, no. That's totally against twin code. Let's talk about this. Calm down, girls.

Faith

He said that we have a gift.

Ira Glass

This is Faith.

Faith

Because not everybody gets to be a twin. And that we're breaking twin code by doing this stuff to each other.

Ira Glass

Wait, what's the twin code?

Faith

I don't know.

Reggie Richardson

And then we talked about, you come from greatness. You're queens and kings.

Hope

He would just call us kings and queens, something, something. I wasn't really listening.

Faith

I appreciate that they trying to help. But I don't like her.

Hope

So they said that we only have each other and all that, so we should stick together. Like, I try to do that with my sister, but she doesn't really like that. Like, I always try to give her hugs and say hi and stuff, but she doesn't like that. She just doesn't want to be my friend, so I just let it slide.

Ira Glass

That was Hope. Here's Faith.

Faith

No, I just think that it's not that easy, 'cause I gotta go to school with her and I gotta go home with her. I gotta walk home with her. I gotta see her when I wake up, when I go to sleep. And I don't like her.

Ronnie Richardson

Oh, that's some improvement.

Ira Glass

Ronnie says that a few months ago, they weren't saying "I don't like her." They were saying, "I hate her." He says that whatever they told me in the interviews, whatever they might think, they're doing better.

Ronnie Richardson

Because they're not in the office with us every day. They're in class. They're making strides in their academics. And this is coming from their teachers, saying, wow.

Ira Glass

In November, the girls even wrote them a letter thanking them for all the time and help they'd given. And for better or worse, the brothers have come to see themselves in these girls. They really want them to be closer someday. And the only question in our interview where they disagreed was-- does it matter if these two girls ever get close? First, here's Ronnie.

Ronnie Richardson

Personally, I think it doesn't matter, as long as they're happy in their individual lives.

Ira Glass

Do you think it matters?

Reggie Richardson

I think it matters that they remain-- I think they should stay close. I think that-- he's breaking twin code right now.

[LAUGHTER]

Reggie Richardson

No, but I respectfully disagree.

Ira Glass

Why does it's matter?

Reggie Richardson

They are each other's pulse. And whether they believe it or not yet, I see that as they get older, they're really going to need each other.

Ira Glass

Of course, he is the one who sees a twin in his life as his pulse. And today on our show, we have people who feel this very aggressive kind of empathy, seeing their lives in somebody else's life, seeing somebody else as their surrogate. One of our stories today is about a man who did some terrible, terrible things, who, apparently, lots of people related to. The other story involves a scandal that shook Washington for decades, a scandal involving sex, power, cabinet positions, and-- here's a word I do not get to say very often-- petticoats.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Petticoats in a Twist.

Ira Glass

Act One, "Petticoats In a Twist." So this is not the kind of Washington sex scandal that we're all used to. There's no presidential candidate, president, or congressman caught doing whatever. There's no mopey press conference with his wife by his side, blah, blah, blah.

The sex scandal that we're going to talk about now was one of the first sex scandals of the American presidency. It was during Andrew Jackson's time, in the 1820s and '30s. And it affected the course of the entire country in surprisingly large ways. Sarah Koenig tells what happened during what's become known as the Petticoat Affair.

Sarah Koenig

It all began with a pretty young innkeeper's daughter named Margaret O'Neale, or Peggy, as she was called. According to accounts written at the time, Peggy O'Neale was a fox. Cherry-lipped, perfectly proportioned, white skin, thick, dark, curly hair, a firm, round, chin.

Nancy Tomes

She also had very blue eyes. That comes from other accounts.

Sarah Koenig

That's Nancy Tomes, who teaches American history at Stony Brook University in New York.

Nancy Tomes

She had an education. She spoke French. She danced like an angel. She played the piano. She performed in front of First Lady Dolley Madison, who was smitten with her. So clearly, she was not a yahoo. But she was crossing class lines, and that made her suspect among the ladies of Washington. And then this unfortunate business with Justin Timberlake did not help her.

Sarah Koenig

Surely his name isn't Justin Timberlake.

Nancy Tomes

No. [LAUGHTER] Did I just say that? Oh, that's awful. Oh. His name was John Timberlake, not Justin. Sorry.

Robert Taylor

Oh, ho, ho, I have an eye trained for opportunities like this. A lonely sailor, a pretty little tavern girl, moonlit night?

Sarah Koenig

That's the first time John Timberlake lays eyes on Peggy at her father's boarding house in Washington, or at least how Hollywood imagined it in the 1936 movie called The Gorgeous Hussy.

Robert Taylor

Will you drink?

Drinking Companion

Thank you.

Robert Taylor

To Miss O'Neale, sir, in whom I am more interested than ever.

Sarah Koenig

Peggy marries John Timberlake very young. She's only 17. He's a purser in the Navy, which means he has to go away on long trips all the time, leaving his very young, flirtatious wife back at her father's boarding house, where all kinds of important men, especially politicians, stay while Congress is in session. She tends bar and does things women didn't usually do-- in particular, talking politics, hanging around with the guests-- while Timberlake is at sea.

Nancy Tomes

And while he was away, she came under the friendship of another older man, a senator from Tennessee named John Eaton. Took a big interest in the young couple. The husband had debt problems and he tried to help with them.

Sarah Koenig

The old let-me-help-you-with-your-debt-problems routine evidently works. Gossip starts flying that Peggy and Senator Eaton are too intimate, that they are consorting. Then Timberlake dies at sea.

He cuts his own throat, in fact. Maybe because of his debts. Maybe, rumors had it at the time, because of Peggy.

And rather than mourning her husband for the customary year or two, Peggy, the Widow Mrs. John Timberlake, becomes Mrs. John Eaton just eight months later. This is not done. It's outrageous. There's even talk that prior to the marriage, Peggy had become pregnant and had a miscarriage, or even an abortion.

The society ladies of Washington are thoroughly scandalized. Remember, women can't vote yet. They're not in politics. They're not even allowed to make public speeches.

But that doesn't mean they're silent, especially these Washington wives, who are exposed to the workings of government. These ladies, in Jackson's time, they controlled social life, judged who was moral and who was not. That's how they influenced their powerful husbands.

Sarah Koenig

One of Peggy Eaton's biggest critics was Floride Calhoun, the wife of John C. Calhoun, the vice president-- so she was the vice president's wife-- from a very aristocratic South Carolina plantation aristocracy. And she was the one who first made it clear Peggy Eaton was beyond the pale. She was not going to return her call.

That was the way you conducted war among the petticoats, is someone came to pay a call on you, and then you did not return it. And that, in the etiquette that was evolving in this era, was tantamount to a full rejection. To a full cut. And what Floride Calhoun did, the other ladies fell in line, and also cut Peggy Eaton. Refused to acknowledge her socially.

The job of good Christian women at this time was to improve the United States by making sure their husbands and children were model citizens, rational and virtuous. So it's not just that people disapproved of Peggy Eaton or were jealous of her, as that she was seen as a danger to the Republic. She might lead their leaders astray.

Angry Washington Matron

We have been forced to take this stand for the salvation of the morals of our homes.

Sarah Koenig

Again, Hollywood.

Angry Washington Matron

We realize that her sphere of influence is great. But we demand that she be removed from that sphere and expelled from our community.

Sarah Koenig

All this was, of course, painful for Peggy Eaton. Or at least it sounded really painful for Joan Crawford, who played Peggy Eaton in The Gorgeous Hussy.

Joan Crawford

I've humiliated myself. I've called, knowing they were at home, to be told they were not. I've ignored insults, lies, gossip. Their blue blood curdles in their veins at the very mention of the hussy.

Lionel Barrymore

Oh, they don't know anything about you, Peg.

Sarah Koenig

Enter Andrew Jackson, freshly elected President of the United States. Peggy Eaton's personal life will soon envelope his administration. Jackson was a proud, emotional frontier politician with a famous temper. He'd been orphaned by 14 or 15. Both his parents and his two older brothers had died.

But he makes his way to Tennessee, becomes a successful lawyer and landowner and slaveholder-- not to mention, a military hero. And he manages all this without family connections. So he's fiercely loyal to his close friends and political allies, including John Eaton. So Eaton's trouble with the petticoats become Jackson's troubles with the petticoats.

Nancy Tomes

Having a virtuous wife was considered part of a test of a man's character. And by that test, Eaton had failed. Now, here's where it gets interesting. By supporting Eaton, Andrew Jackson gave his enemies the ammunition to question his morality.

Sarah Koenig

Jackson wasn't going to stand for it. He'd just been through a similar battle involving his own beloved wife, Rachel. The presidential campaign of 1828 had savaged Andrew and Rachel Jackson. Anti-Jackson campaigners, supporters of John Quincy Adams, portrayed her as a backwoods pipe-smoking hayseed, with low morals to boot.

Rachel had been in an unhappy marriage prior to her marrying Andrew Jackson. But it turned out that the second marriage happened before her first one was technically dissolved, unbeknownst to the Jacksons. When they figured it out, they actually remarried. Nevertheless, the anti-Jackson party launched a smear campaign. There were lengthy pamphlets, newspaper articles, saying Rachel was a bigamist.

Angry Man

How do we know she is his wife?

[RAUCOUS LAUGHTER]

Angry Man

Your Rachel ain't fit for the White House.

Nancy Tomes

So Jackson was accused of being unfit for the presidency because of his relationship, this unfortunate legal muddle with Rachel Jackson. She was so distraught over the charges that she withdrew from private life.

Beulah Bondi

Get me my pipe, Peg. One little puff can't do no harm.

Joan Crawford

The doctor says no, Aunt Rachel. No more pipe-smoking.

Sarah Koenig

This is an ailing Rachel Jackson, hunched in a rocker, wrapped in a dowdy shawl, confiding in Peggy. We don't know whether Peggy really called the soon-to-be President and First Lady "Aunt Rachel and Uncle Andy," as she does in the movie. But apparently, the Jacksons had met her at her father's boarding house and had liked her.

Beulah Bondi

Peg, these womenfolks around here are going to make it awful unpleasant for you, just like they did for me. Watch out for 'em, honey.

Nancy Tomes

She eventually had a heart attack and died soon after his election. And he always blamed the gossip for having killed his Rachel. At her funeral, he said, "May God forgive her murderers, as I know she forgave them. I never can."

Lionel Barrymore

Their gossip killed my Rachel, Peg. Their lying, scummy tongues killed her, just as sure as if they'd stabbed her with a knife.

Sarah Koenig

That's Lionel Barrymore, playing Andrew Jackson.

Lionel Barrymore

And I swear now, by her memory, they'll never do it again to anyone I love. Not so long as I've got one breath left in my body to stop 'em with.

Nancy Tomes

So here's a man, he's in deep mourning. All the descriptions of him, he arrives as president in 1829 just broken-hearted. He wants to make Eaton, who's a very close friend of his, part of his cabinet. And he's told by the Washington insiders, don't do that. This Peggy Eaton affair, it will cause you all kinds of problems with the ladies of Washington, and their husbands as well. And Jackson is incensed.

This really strikes chords of what had happened to his own wife. He was going to defend Peggy Eaton as he had defended his wife, as he expected any Christian gentleman to defend the honor of the woman he loves. And that, among the members of the cabinet, created a division. Did you side with the Calhouns in rejecting Peggy? Or did you side with Andrew Jackson?

Sarah Koenig

The surrogacies of this thing are dizzying. Peggy is a surrogate for Rachel. Jackson is Peggy's surrogate, fighting this fight on her behalf. And the scandal itself? Jackson sees it as a proxy for his struggles with hoity-toity enemies who are trying to beat back the progress of our country-- our young, perky, outspoken immigrant country that's a lot like Miss Peggy O'Neale.

Jackson, of course, does appoint Eaton his Secretary of War. And as the power couples of Washington publicly snub Peggy Eaton, now a cabinet wife, at the inauguration and at administration parties, Jackson proceeds to try to clear her reputation. He gathers testimony about her behavior, collects affidavits, argues with church leaders about it, berates his cabinet members, who won't accept her innocence.

He's president of the United States, and he becomes Peggy Eaton's de facto defense counsel. He becomes obsessed. But he cannot convince his administration. Except for Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, almost no one sticks up for Peggy.

Nancy Tomes

By all accounts, he spent an extraordinary amount of time during his first term collecting information and haranguing people about Peggy Eaton.

Sarah Koenig

Eventually, the cabinet becomes dysfunctional.

Nancy Tomes

This led to the resignation-- in some cases, voluntary, in some cases, forced-- of almost the entire cabinet. They could not resolve this issue. Eaton resigned. Van Buren resigned.

Lionel Barrymore

I hereby ask of you and accept your resignations.

Frank Conroy

But-- but this is without precedent in the history of our country.

Lionel Barrymore

Our country is without precedent, Mr. Calhoun. But by the eternal, I'm going to have justice! Do you understand the word? Justice! Now, git.

Nancy Tomes

Essentially, Jackson started over again. He did eventually replace the cabinet.

Sarah Koenig

Was there any talk at the time that Jackson's obsession with this, that he was a little off-kilter, or he was just crazy? Why is he jeopardizing his entire government over defense of this woman? Or did they see it as, well, we've got to get our loyalties straight or we can't function as a government anyway, so this is sort of part of the purging? It seems crazy.

Nancy Tomes

Yes. I don't think there was the same level of awareness. It's the historians who've gone back and looked at the amount of time, the number of letters that he wrote, that in retrospect, it's clear how obsessional he became about this. At the time, I think it was seen more as, this is partisan politics, and that it was viewed as a faction war.

Sarah Koenig

American politics was in transition, Nancy says, from a party system that was more elite-dominated to a party system where the vast majority of white men could vote, whether or not they owned property or were well-educated. Politicians who want to get elected need to do this new thing-- engage the masses. Engage their base. And they found-- then, as now-- that these kinds of moral issues engaged the base.

Nancy Tomes

In fact, at the time, it was seen as an issue of the elite Eastern seaboard against the up-and-coming West. It was the common man against the aristocrats. Peggy was a woman of the people. Andrew Jackson was a man of the people. To focus on this kind of trivia, this gossip, to allow the gossip of these Washington matrons to trouble the president was a sign of this elite aristocracy creeping in.

And that was completely unacceptable in the new republic. It had to be rooted out. Jackson himself, he saw this as a conspiracy on the part of the Adams party to destroy him. And thus, by defending Peggy Eaton, he's really defending himself.

Sarah Koenig

The person he's largely defending himself against is his own vice president, John Calhoun. Remember, it's Calhoun's wife, Floride, who led the society women against Peggy. John Calhoun and Jackson were fighting about other things, too, not just Peggy.

A hugely controversial tariff, for instance, in 1828. It's a tariff on imported goods that Southerners like Calhoun see as putting the South, and especially his home state of South Carolina, at a disadvantage to the benefit of Northern manufacturers. And as their personal fight over Peggy Eaton spirals out of control, as Calhoun gets increasingly angry at Jackson, he starts agitating for the right of South Carolina to protect its own interests, even to secede, if necessary.

Then South Carolina tries to openly defy federal law. In 1832, it declares that federal tariffs will be null and void within its borders. It's the Nullification Crisis. It's one of the biggest challenges of Jackson's presidency. That same year, Vice President John Calhoun quits.

Nancy Tomes

Calhoun, once he resigns, he goes back to South Carolina. He's elected to the Senate, and as a senator, becomes the architect of the states' rights philosophy in the South. Jackson, as a Southerner, is sympathetic to states' rights. But when push comes to shove, he sees the Union as the top priority and faces down Calhoun in the Nullification Controversy.

It's a major, major rehearsal for the Civil War. They eventually reach a compromise, so South Carolina does not secede. But Abraham Lincoln took a great deal of inspiration from Andrew Jackson's position. The Union-above-all position that Lincoln would eventually have to adopt, as well.

Sarah Koenig

Wow.

Nancy Tomes

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

So Peggy Eaton saved the Union.

[LAUGHTER]

Nancy Tomes

Yes, Peggy really gave us the red, white and blue, and--

Sarah Koenig

That's why you and I are sitting here today.

Nancy Tomes

That's right.

Sarah Koenig

The big winner in all this-- besides the Union, of course, and Joan Crawford-- was a man whose name has undoubtedly been on the tip of your tongue-- Martin Van Buren. He became the next vice president, and after that, the next president. Not John Calhoun, who'd been widely expected to take over. Once he resigned as vice president, Calhoun's aspirations were finished.

No, it was Van Buren, the only member of Jackson's cabinet who'd carefully, strategically supported Peggy Eaton during the Petticoat Affair, who understood that it was in his own interest to break Washington social protocol and pay a visit to Mrs. Eaton. To knock on her door.

30 years after the Petticoat Affair, in 1860, a journalist named James Parton published a biography of Jackson. Chapter 23 was titled "Mr. Van Buren Calls On Mrs. Eaton." Parton wrote, quote, "The political history of the United States for the last 30 years dates from the moment when the soft hand of Mr. Van Buren touched Mrs. Eaton's knocker."

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig. I don't know what you just think you heard right there, but she is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "PEGGY O'NEIL" BY TONY WILLIAMS]

Coming up, a teenager tries to understand why her dad wants to adopt a 27-year-old ex-con into the family. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Maul in the Family.

Ira Glass

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, "Surrogates." People standing in for other people, substituting in all kinds of situations. We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, "Maul in the Family."

This is a story where a bunch of people, including the father of the person who's going to be telling the story, see themselves in somebody who did some truly, truly awful things. A warning-- if you're listening with kids or have sensitivity to such things, this story has some violence in it. On the positive side, there's also a brief appearance by Neil Patrick Harris. Amity Bitzel tells the story.

Amity Bitzel

When I was 16, my parents adopted a 27-year-old man. Not long after he moved in, NBC broadcast a made-for-TV movie based on his life called Sudden Fury-- A Family Torn Apart. It was about his life before we adopted him.

My entire family gathered in our living room to watch. Neil Patrick Harris played the character based on my new brother. It opens with him, a teenager in a big suburban house, making a phone call.

[PHONE BEING DIALED]

Police Operator

Annapolis Police. Hello? I'm sorry, I can't hear you.

Neil Patrick Harris

I think my parents are dead.

Amity Bitzel

When the police arrive at the house, it's a gruesome scene. His father is in the basement, covered with blood, stabbed to death. His mother's outside in her pajamas, lying face-down in the yard. She's been both stabbed and bludgeoned.

In the movie, they call my adopted brother Brian, though his name was really Larry Swartz. And in the film, as he becomes the main suspect, his lawyers confront him.

Attorney

Listen, Brian, we have a little problem. The police don't believe your story. They think you're lying. Like how you got blood on your shoes, and why you didn't hear anything on the night of the murder. How do you explain that?

Neil Patrick Harris

I can't.

Attorney

Yes you can. Yes, you can.

Neil Patrick Harris

I can't.

Attorney

Tell me what happened.

Neil Patrick Harris

I can't. [SCREAMS WITH RAGE]

[SOBS]

[SCREAMS WITH RAGE]

He wouldn't stop hurting me. He wouldn't stop hurting me. He wouldn't stop.

Amity Bitzel

My sister and I sat on the floor as the film played. Larry, the real person, my new brother, who killed his parents, sat next to my mom and dad, his new mom and dad, on the couch. Everyone acted calm.

Neil Patrick Harris

[WEEPING]

Amity Bitzel

The movie did a pretty good job of portraying what actually happened. A warning-- this next half-minute or so of my story gets graphic. He'd repeatedly stabbed his father and his mother with a kitchen knife and bludgeoned his mother with a maul, one of those big wood-chopping things that looks like an axe. The movie doesn't include this, but when the police found Larry's mother's body, she was naked. Larry's lawyer told a reporter that Larry admitted to sexually violating her.

When the end credits rolled, we agreed the movie seemed over the top, almost corny, in that prime-time TV way. I remember somebody-- either Larry or my dad-- joking about how melodramatic it all was. It was a hallucinatory experience, but also it was somehow utterly banal. Let's watch a movie about our adopted killer brother, joke about it, and then get ready for bed.

Larry ended up in our family because about four years earlier, my mother read the book the film was based on, Sudden Fury, by a reporter named Leslie Walker, and gave it to my dad, who read it also. Which was weird, because he rarely read anything. He was never enthusiastic about a book.

But he seemed to really connect with the story. And when my parents talked about the case and Larry, they didn't say, oh, who could do such a violent and horrible thing? They said how sorry they felt for him, how he was a victim of abuse. Which he was.

The book details Larry's troubled childhood, starting with how his mother abandoned him as a toddler, and follows him as he's shuttled through an uncaring foster system, six families in all. One foster mother broke his arm. In several homes, Larry showed signs of an eating disorder, even sneaking food out of garbage cans.

Larry's adoption by the well-meaning Swartzes was meant to give him the family he had longed for. But as time went on, the Swartzes became controlling and emotionally abusive.

After he read Sudden Fury, my dad wrote a letter to Larry in prison. And for whatever reason, Larry wrote back to my dad. Letters graduated to phone calls, and eventually, my father began driving several hours away to visit with Larry.

The next thing I knew, my dad told us that we were going to visit Larry together in prison as a family. He wants to meet you guys, my dad told us.

We were let into the visiting room. I noticed the other people sitting there and wondered if they were seeing murderers, too. And then, suddenly, there was Larry. He and my dad hugged, and then my dad pushed me to hug him as well. I didn't want to, but with my dad, you did what you were told.

I knew what Larry looked like from pictures in the book. Here, he looked normal, unassuming. Slight build, big, dark eyes with almost girlish lashes, soft-spoken.

We'd brought Big Macs and fries, and we sat there picking at food awkwardly. I don't think it could've been any more awkward. My little sister asked Larry if he had seen the movie Mermaids, with Cher. We talked about what the weather was going to do. How do you girls like school?

The thought that was running through my head during this prison visit, that had been running through my head ever since I'd first heard my parents talk about Larry, was this. How could my parents feel so sorry for Larry and his terrible circumstances? Why didn't they feel sorry for me?

Because life with my father was miserable. In my house, we lived by his rules, rules that were fluid and shifting and terrifying. Something small and accidental could set him off in a rage. Maybe my sister or I broke a cup or slammed the car door too hard. Or maybe we hadn't even done anything at all. We would still be on the receiving end of my father's wrath. And once he started drinking, we knew we were in for it.

These episodes usually began the same way. First, he would drink. Not even hard alcohol, just beer. And he would blast music and sing loudly, always Jackson Browne and John Cougar Mellencamp. To this day, I have a visceral Pavlovian response to songs like "Running on Empty."

Then after his low-grade anger progressed into full-blown fury, he might force us all into the family van and drive us around drunk for hours, screaming and swerving the whole time. Or he might go into my sister's room and smash up every piece of furniture in it. He might brandish a rifle and threaten to shoot all of us. He might hit me or my sister with a belt. Worst of all, he might wrap his hands around my mother's throat and strangle her as my sister and I tried to pull him away.

I don't know why it never occurred to me to call the police during any of this, but I never did. No one did. And things weren't at this level all the time, of course. Even on a good day, though, it felt like living in a child's version of war, just waiting to see if the bombs would start falling and wishing you had shelter.

By 1993, Larry was set to be released. He'd originally had a 12-year sentence, but three years of that were knocked off for good behavior. The judge could have given him two 20-year sentences for both of the murders, but knocked it down to 12 years total, which shows how seriously the judicial system viewed Larry's troubled upbringing. In the end, he served nine years.

For a while, my parents had been talking about how Larry would have no place to live and nowhere to go. He would be on probation, and he would need a job. My dad was worried that Larry would be eaten up on the outside, that he needed guidance.

How would he be able to forge a life for himself, especially bearing that notorious name that had been on the news? The name of a convicted murderer? And so the decision was made that Larry would be formally adopted into our family. He would take our last name, and he would live with us in our home.

There was never a big discussion about any of this. As with everything else, we were informed of the new plan by my dad after it had already been decided. I don't remember my mom saying much about it. That was how she was about almost everything, a silent bystander. It's the right thing to do, Dad said, and so that was that.

But it didn't mean I was OK with it. I'd gotten used to meeting with Larry in prison, but the idea of him sleeping in the bedroom next to mine? That was a whole different proposition.

I had fantasies where some responsible adult would find out and say, oh my God, we have to stop this. I remember telling one of my girlfriends the entire story. She was shocked, of course, though she knew what my dad was like. But when she told her mother what my family was doing, her mother said, well, that's a very Christian thing to do. The outside world was never coming to intervene, to save any of us.

On Larry's first night in our home, we had dinner. There was a celebratory cake. The only way to get through this, really, was to disassociate, a skill I all too familiar with. I tried not to think at all. Chew, swallow, smile.

And Larry was not scary or menacing. Not at all. He was nice and funny. I never had any fear that he would hurt me, or any of us. It wasn't hard to forget what he had done, because he didn't seem to be thinking about it, ever.

He actually took me to the mall that first week. Neither one of us had a license, and we got lost on the way. But contrary to what my dad would have done, which is freak out and start screaming and berating me, Larry just laughed and got us going in the right direction. We didn't have a lot to talk about, just chatted about movies and music. When we got there, he bought me my first pair of Doc Martens.

Looking back, what's most striking to me is that Larry, the man who had stabbed and bludgeoned his parents to death, wasn't nearly as scary to me as my own father.

Larry settled in, made friends, went out drinking. Mind-blowingly to me, he even started to date. And Larry's presence brought us a truly unexpected benefit. As he settled into his new life in our house, things actually seemed to get calmer in our family.

Incredibly, my father stopped much of his old behavior. You could spill a drink at the dinner table and not have to cringe in fearful anticipation. It was like the outside-world father, the one that smiled and was kind and funny in public, had somehow become the inside-world father.

My dad was good to Larry. He got him a job. They went out together a lot, saying they were going fishing, going to a bar. They grocery shopped together sometimes. There was rough-housing and laughter.

My dad even had an addition built onto our house for Larry so that everyone would have more room. Eventually, though, my dad decided that our house still wasn't big enough and that we would have to get a bigger, nicer house. So we moved. That year, even though we had never been on a true family vacation together pre-Larry, my parents took everyone to Disney World, although I said I had too much schoolwork and didn't go with them.

I'm not sure if Larry ever knew the father I knew, if he suspected the loving family that took him in echoed in any way the abusive homes he had lived in growing up.

Larry is dead now. He eventually got married and moved to Florida, and then died of a heart attack there in his late 30s. And 20 years after Larry became my brother, I'm still wondering why. For years, my sister and I maintained a polite facade with our parents, never bringing up the abuse and barely discussing Larry. So much time had gone by, maybe it was best to just forgive and forget as much as possible.

But in the last 12 months, my sister and I have gotten closer, and we finally started to talk honestly about the past. We wondered what would happen if we stopped speaking to our dad completely. Would that make us horrible people? Evil and cruel daughters, like some reverse fairytale? Together, we decided to cut off contact.

We each did this over email. Mine wasn't overly dramatic or vitriolic. Just a short note explaining that I needed to stop talking to him because of all the things he had done. He sent lots of emails after I sent mine, and I read them all without responding. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to navigate this, how this new stage works. And I still have so many questions for him. There are lots of things that only he has the answer to.

As I was working on this story, I was still too scared to ask him about Larry myself. Just the thought of asking him anything about the past seemed frightening. So the producer from This American Life I've been working with on this story, Brian Reed, offered to do it for me. So Brian talked to him in the studio.

Glenn

Hi, Brian, how you doing?

Brian Reed

Hi, Glenn. How are you?

Glenn

Good, good.

Amity Bitzel

They talked for two hours-- about Larry, about how the book was the catalyst for everything my dad did for him, about the big question, why he adopted Larry. He said at one point he had to explain to a judge exactly that.

Glenn

The judge looked at me square in the eye, which a lot of the questions he had, I'm sure, are the same questions that everyone else had. Why are you involved in this? And I just looked at him and said, everybody needs a family.

And that's really the only thing that I can comment on, as far as why. Everybody needs a family, and certainly, this is one young man, as an adult, who never really had a childhood, who needs a family. Especially when he gets out.

Brian Reed

Now, so I need to ask you this, just because I read the book, recently, Sudden Fury. And you know, you talking about Larry, you said several times, "poor old Larry." And you clearly love him and are very sympathetic towards him.

But when I read that book, I mean, I have some sympathy for him, for sure. He had a very challenging childhood that I find hard to imagine. But I also see a person who brutally stabbed his parents, hit his mother over the head with a maul and sexually violated her.

And so I find it very hard to think of him as "poor old Larry." And I wonder, what did you identify with personally in that story? I mean, to the point where you--

Glenn

Abuse.

Brian Reed

I mean, it's one thing to read the book--

Glenn

Abuse. Parental abuse, obviously. I didn't want to go back into my childhood too far, but that's-- you know, it's, that's a whole--

Brian Reed

What can you say about it, to help people understand? What would--

Glenn

Physical, mental-- physical, mental, emotional, you name it. I lost my mother at age eight. And I'm not really sure that my father ever wanted us. So I just identified with him mainly from my experience growing up as a child. Just touched a nerve with me.

When we got to talking about different things, about things that happened in certain foster homes, and I-- well, you know what? That happened in my house, too. I never ended up doing the thing that Larry did, but I will say this-- it's not something that never crossed my mind.

Brian Reed

You know, I'd wondered that. Do you remember what you thought or when you thought it?

Glenn

Mostly when my mom was being beaten. You don't like to watch that day after day, especially when you're five, six years old, seven years old. Another time that I can remember was he would go off for simple little things that made no sense, like a bag of groceries falling off a car seat and the eggs breaking. That happened one day, and we were beaten for it.

And my brother took off running, and ran as fast as he could through a field of plowed dirt. And he had his head and his face pushed face-down in it. And that was one time when I just was so angry and so upset that I thought about it.

Brian Reed

Did you tell Larry that story?

Glenn

Sure. Told Larry everything.

Brian Reed

What did he say?

Glenn

He understood, but he certainly was glad that, you know, that I didn't do it, because I wouldn't have been there to help him, in his kind of jokingly way. He always kept a smile on your face.

Amity Bitzel

Apparently lots of people who had troubled relationships with their parents identified with Larry. The book my dad read about Larry names a few. Larry's lawyer, who was estranged from his own father, and defended Larry pro bono. A 30-year-old mother who talked to Larry on the phone almost every night as he awaited trial-- she lost her mom as a kid and had come very close to shooting her abusive father. Like my dad, each of them seemed to see some version of themselves in Larry.

My dad spoke longingly about Larry. He and my mom live in Florida now, and he told Brian a good part of the reason they moved there was to be close to where Larry died. He said the Larry he knew was not the Larry described in the Sudden Fury book, that years of therapy had worked and he was a different person. He explained how honest Larry was, how generous he was, and how appreciative he was of what my parents did for him.

Brian also asked my dad some sensitive questions about how he behaved during my childhood to give him the chance to tell his side of the story. My dad categorically denied that he was abusive when I was growing up. He denied getting drunk and smashing furniture, driving us around and yelling, or strangling my mom. He denied hitting my sister and I with a belt. He denied waving around a rifle and threatening to shoot us all.

Glenn

No. Those things never happened. I don't know why she would say those things.

Amity had a wonderful childhood. Horseback riding lessons. Amity got in fights in school, I'd go and I'd get them straightened out.

I mean, I was always there for her. There's different levels of abuse, but you're talking about 100% level in my case and a zero in hers.

Brian Reed

And your case, you mean when you were a kid.

Glenn

When I was a kid.

Brian Reed

And are you just measuring against what you experienced? Or you think, like, in an objective way--

Glenn

In an objective way, I honestly don't see where there was any abuse at all.

Brian Reed

Because part of the reason I'm talking to you, and not her, is because she says she's cut off contact with you. And I wonder, what do you think her reason is for that?

Glenn

I just got an email yesterday from her, so that's not true. Saying that she's glad I was going to do this interview, and she wished me good luck.

Brian Reed

She said that she sent you an email maybe six or eight months ago, saying, my sister and I, we aren't going to talk to you guys.

Glenn

No, I've gotten two or three emails from them. Talk to them every Christmas. So she's not feeling any form of animosity or problem, so we're fine. We're all doing fine.

When you've been through so much abuse as a child, you have to think about, in the back of your mind, too, that you have these things in you that you have to keep tabs on. And you have to keep it under control.

It's very easy for that to be transferred, I think, to your children when they become adults. But Larry was the exact opposite. I mean, after all the abuse, he became one of the better people in the world.

Brian Reed

But that was after-- I mean, he murdered his parents.

Glenn

That's right. That's right. He sure did.

Brian Reed

So how could you say he's one of the better people in the world.

Glenn

He turned out to be, is what I said.

Brian Reed

OK.

Glenn

One of the better people in the world. Certainly someone who goes and kills anyone is not a good person, in my book. But at the same time, everyone in that case resolved to the fact that something was wrong. You get to a point, as a child, where you feel like you have nowhere to turn, and by the grace of God, I got through it. And by the grace of God, so did Larry.

Amity Bitzel

Obviously, this is really hard for me to listen to. This abuse happened. To me. My sister and a childhood friend who witnessed my dad's behavior both corroborate my memories of him. My sister remembers the same instances of physical abuse.

I did send my dad two brief emails to set up this interview with Brian and one right before the interview to decline a check he and my mom had sent me for Christmas. But we did not talk over Christmas. We are not in any kind of regular contact, and we are not, in my or my sister's opinion, doing fine.

What's perhaps most horrifying is this. So many of the comments my dad makes about what it's like to see your mother be hurt every day, or feeling you have nowhere to turn, I mean, word for word could have easily come out of my own mouth.

There's a story my father says he doesn't remember from when I was 10. He was beating and choking my mother in the bathroom, and I couldn't take it anymore. I grabbed a pair of barber sisters, ran up behind him, and literally stabbed him in the back between his shoulder blades. The scissors just stuck there, embedded in the muscle.

He threw me off him, and at least for the time being, he left my mom alone. It wasn't a life-threatening wound or anything. I wasn't thinking that I wanted to kill him. But I do remember the intense fear I felt for my mom, and that I just wanted him to stop. And I was willing to stab him to make that happen.

My dad's conversation with Brian did help shed light on some things for me. I always thought my dad's reason for adopting Larry, even if it was a subconscious one, was a misguided attempt to start over with a new family member, to right the wrongs he had done us. But after hearing the interview, I think my dad's motivation to adopt Larry was much more about his relationship to his dad than it ever was about his relationship to me, my sister, or my mother.

A few months ago, I got an email from my father that I'm still not sure what to make of. Sometimes when I read it, it breaks my heart, and other times, it makes me incredibly angry. It feels manipulative. He sent it to both my sister and me.

"My girls," it started. "I want to tell you a story that I hope you will both think about hard and maybe take to heart." He went on to describe, in really frightening detail, the same story he mentioned to Brian about the day he and his brother broke some eggs and his father beat them for it. Then he got to his point.

"Even though I have not forgotten all the things he did to us, I overcame my bitterness of him and soon became to even love him. I had sworn I would never see my father again after I grew up, but was able to carry on and be decent when he was around. Being able to leave the bitterness behind was my greatest accomplishment, even though I do not have many. I'm here to tell you that things that I did were bad to you both. I regret and feel guilty all the time for being a bad father."

He said that at the least, we should visit with Mom. "Miss you both very much," he wrote. "Love, Dad."

Ira Glass

Amity Bitzel. She's writing a memoir, for which she's looking for a publisher.

[MUSIC - "SOMEDAY NEVER COMES" BY CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. [? Varen ?] Markham produced our story about the twin principals at the opening of the show.

Production help today from Thea [? Benin. ?] Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Gettis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

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, who has this coverage of the Senate hearings this week with Hillary Clinton.

Reggie Richardson

Shut up. No, you shut up. No, you're ugly. No, you're ugly.

Ira Glass

OK. Can we do another? WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who explains why he has decided that he's going to end his very, very short affair with Lady Gaga.

Faith

I gotta walk home with her. I gotta see her when I wake up, when I go to sleep. And I don't like her.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.