Transcript

516:

Stuck In The Middle
Transcript

Originally aired 01.17.2014

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/516

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Elias stopped eating meat when he was three or four. His mom can't remember-- it's been so long. He's seven now. And he doesn't think that anybody else should eat meat either, and he freaks out. He cried and pleaded at his grandmother's at New Year's when he heard that she might cook brisket, until she offered not to. There was the time that he got so upset in a restaurant smelling the meat cooking in the kitchen and seeing all the people around them eat their meals that he had to go sit up front by the door.

And it kills him especially to think that his little brother might still be eating animals. His brother, Theo, just turned five and emphatically is not a vegetarian. What a surprise, two brothers. Their mom, Rachel, says that Theo is not asking to eat meat in front of Elias. He's not asking to eat it all that often.

Rachel

He wants to eat meat sometimes. And I think he feels it's not fair that Elias-- he calls him the god of food-- and that Elias doesn't have the right to be the god of food and tell Theo what to do. It causes a lot of conflict, and I think there are conversations almost every single day around this.

Ira Glass

She recorded one of those conversations for us when she was taking Theo, the meat eater, to a party. There was going to be food at the party, and his brother was going to be there, the god of food. What would Theo eat?

Rachel

So Theo, we're going to this potluck. What do you think's going to be there?

Theo

Well, I hope there's meat. And if you give me meat, just let me eat it.

Rachel

So what do you think would happen if you ate meat at the potluck?

Theo

Well, we would-- Elias would fight.

Rachel

You and Elias would fight?

Theo

Yeah. Well, that would be bad. But I don't know what's going to happen.

Rachel

Tonight is a night for Elias' class. Do you think you could not eat meat tonight so he doesn't have to have a freak out in front of all of his friends? What do you think?

Theo

No. I want to eat some because he always says don't eat any meat for the rest of your life.

Rachel

I know. I think things will change when he gets older. But I just want you to think about whether or not you think it's worth it for him to scream and yell at school tonight with all of his friends, OK? Think about that. OK? Deal?

Theo

Well, when he's not looking, I'll eat some.

Rachel

When he's not looking?

Theo

Yeah.

Rachel

Hmm.

Ira Glass

Do you think this gives Elias too much power over Theo?

Rachel

Yeah. I mean, it's definitely a concern. And at some point, probably a year into his vegetarianism, he asked that we wouldn't be eating meat either and that the house wouldn't have any meat. And that was something that my husband and I had to take a step back and think about.

And people would say to us, how can you have your seven-year-old making decisions about how you're going to be running your family? And I guess our response has always been, you have to hear how our child talks about meat and how it feels to him when he sees us eat meat and other people around him and his close family eating meat. It's such a painful experience for him.

Ira Glass

OK, I just want to say before we go any further, if you are hearing all this and you're feeling judgy about these parents-- and I know you are because that is a national pastime, judging other people's parenting-- I just want to say I totally felt that way until I heard Elias, just like she says. And hearing Elias made me realize, oh, right. She actually is in a really tough situation, where she has these two kids, and they both have really strong feelings about this. And she doesn't want to crush either one of them. Anyway, listen. Here's Rachel with Elias.

Rachel

What made you decide to become a vegetarian? Do you remember?

Elias

Yep. And so basically, I just always thought that how they got meat was finding dead animals, like on the side of the road or something. But then I figured out they're actually killing them, and I thought it wasn't that nice. So I stopped eating it.

Rachel

What do you think about other people eating meat?

Elias

I really don't like it.

Rachel

And what do you say about what you want to do with your life? Like, what's your goal in life? One of your goals. I know you have lots of them.

Elias

To get everybody vegetarian.

Rachel

And what do you feel about animals?

Elias

I feel like, well--

Rachel

Do you like them?

Elias

Yeah. I love animals. And I know that there are only like 1,000 giant pandas left in the world. And also 30 Amur leopards, so they're pretty endangered.

Rachel

What do you think about the way people treat animals in general?

Elias

Well, most of them not very nice. Like, think about lambs. They get killed for nothing.

Rachel

Every time you talk about that, you start to cry, huh?

Elias

Yeah.

Rachel

Lambs in particular are hard for you, huh?

Elias

Mm-hmm.

Rachel

Yeah.

Ira Glass

The family did stop eating meat at home after Elias asked. Though Rachel says that they actually didn't eat much meat before that either. Maybe once a week, they'd have fish or turkey. And for now, she and her husband's strategy with their two boys is that they try to get them to talk to each other and see each other's point of view, crossing their fingers that in the long run that's going to be best for both of them.

In the short run, though, it is complicated. You know, for any parent, there are always the things that you let go in the short run because you cannot fight every fight. And for a while, Theo, the one who eats meat, was secretly going out and getting turkey sandwiches with his dad after soccer. They would even dance this little turkey dance when they did it.

Or here's Rachel with Theo, the meat eater, on a Thursday. Fridays, the boys' school serves pizza, and you can get plain or pepperoni. And of course, Elias does not like it if Theo eats the pepperoni.

Rachel

What do you think's going to happen tomorrow about the pepperoni pizza?

Theo

Well, since we don't have lunch at the same time, he will ask me, and then I'll just lie to say, I got peanut butter and jelly or any other snacks.

Rachel

OK. Think it's going to work?

Theo

I don't know. It will be a hard choice to do peanut butter and jelly or cheese.

Rachel

Mm-hmm. But what are you really going to do?

Elias

Pepperoni.

Rachel

Hmm.

Ira Glass

So is it OK for your five-year-old to tell you they're going to deal with the situation just by lying to their siblings?

Rachel

[SIGH] Well, I will say that we have come some way since that was taped, and we don't lie about it anymore. And that was sort of, I think, an interim fix.

Ira Glass

What made him stop lying?

Rachel

I think probably the more we are talking about it, the more I realized it didn't feel great. And so I was sort of being more open with Elias and saying, you have to realize that this is the reality of who Theo is and who he has the right to be. And Theo has his own choices, and he has the right to those choices, even though for you this doesn't make any sense right now.

Ira Glass

One of the things you recorded was a conversation where you're talking to him about whether Theo has the right to do this.

Rachel

Can you tell me a little bit about what happens with you and Theo, like when he wants to eat meat and you don't want him to and the pepperoni whole thing that happens every Friday?

Elias

I normally kick him in the butt and yell at him a lot.

Rachel

Literally you kick him in the butt?

Elias

Yeah.

Rachel

Hmm. Do you think that makes him want to eat meat less?

Elias

No.

Rachel

Or do you think maybe the opposite?

Elias

Opposite, probably.

Rachel

Hmm. And what do you think about when we talk about that you can't control other people and what they eat?

Elias

What do you mean by that?

Rachel

That it's not your job to tell other people what to do about what they get to eat, right? We've talked about that.

Elias

Right.

Rachel

Do you think it's true that you don't have a right to tell other people what to do?

Elias

Yeah, I guess.

Rachel

You guess. But it's hard?

Elias

Mm-hmm.

Ira Glass

I feel like when he says that, he's not totally sure he believes it yet.

Rachel

I know. [LAUGHS] I agree.

Ira Glass

You can hear in his voice, like, I know that this is the right thing to say--

Rachel

Exactly.

Ira Glass

--but this can't be the truth, can it?

Rachel

Exactly. (SIGHING) Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK, an important fact-- Theo is not being crushed by Elias' demands. If anything, between the two of them, Theo is the dominant brother in most situations. He's outgoing, he's funny, he's a big personality in whatever room he walks into, and he gets his way with Elias all the time. Like, for instance, when the family took this day trip to visit Rachel's mom and coincidentally it happened to be the day of a herring run, which comes once a year. And so they stopped at this herring ladder, whatever that is.

Rachel

We are cheering for the herring, and they're doing their final leap into the water to go back to their spawning grounds. And we finally leave, we go back to my mother's house, and Theo runs to the refrigerator, opens the door, pulls out the jar of herring, goes, mmm, I can't wait to eat that herring.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Rachel

And it was just like, wow. And of course, there then became Elias pleading and crying and hoping and hoping that Theo wasn't going to eat those herring, that we just saw all of his cousins.

Ira Glass

Did he eat the herring?

Rachel

Oh yes. So he ate the herring out on the porch. Elias, I think, cried in the living room.

Ira Glass

Elias, however, is always coming up with new tactics. Like in the car recently, he made this proposal to Theo involving matchbox cars, and Rachel flipped on the recorder.

Rachel

So tell me what you were just saying, that, Elias, you had a plan. What was the plan? You said, Theo, if you, what?

Elias

Be a vegetarian for two weeks, I'll get you three new cars.

Theo

Yay.

Rachel

And what do you have to say?

Theo

Thank ooo.

Rachel

No, but does that seem like a fair deal? If you're a vegetarian for three weeks, you'd get three cars?

Elias

Two.

Rachel

Two weeks. Is it worth it to you?

Theo

Is that true, Momma? Will he really give me?

Elias

Yes.

Rachel

This is not my negotiations.

Elias

Yes, I will. If you do it for three weeks, I'll give you eight.

Theo

What will you give me if I do it one week?

Ira Glass

So this is where they are now. Rachel and her husband insert themselves in the middle of these negotiations, or they get dragged into the middle between the two boys. As parents, they have to ad hoc their way through each new thing the boys come up with on this. Like here with this matchbox deal, the boys could not agree on what is a critical part of any negotiation, of any contract, and that is the start date of the deal. Would their deal begin before or after Friday's pepperoni pizza day at school?

Theo

I'm getting pepperoni.

Rachel

So you want it to start after F--

Theo

I'm starting on Saturday.

Elias

But being a vegetarian starts on Friday.

Theo

No!

Rachel

[LAUGHS] So--

Elias

Fine. It starts on Saturday.

Rachel

All right, good. But can you guys shake on it? I think this is--

Theo

[SCREAMING]

Rachel

--interesting.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, people stuck in the middle. You know the saying "necessity is the mother of invention?" Being stuck in the middle of some situation is just like that because that is when ingenuity has to kick in. That is when you see people trying to MacGyver their way out, trying stuff that it is surprising to see anyone try.

We have three stories today of three radically different sorts of situations and their outcomes. From WBEZ Chicago, it is This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Do You Hear What I Hear?

Ira Glass

Act One, Do You Hear What I Hear? So there's certain locations that we all find ourselves in sometimes where we're just supposed to sit and wait, stuck in the middle of not exactly nowhere, but nowhere interesting. I'm talking about the rows of chairs in airports that you sit in by the door for your flight, or doctor's office waiting rooms, and finally, the mundane spot that one man found himself in over and over. Sara Corbett has this story about her father-in-law.

Sara Corbett

I showed up for the first time at my father-in-law's house in 1992. He sat me down at the kitchen table, and we had a nice get-to-know-you sort of conversation. I was 24. Dick was about 60. And he pulled out a pen and took notes on what I was saying. At the time, I had no idea why he was doing this. But Dick is like this about everything that interests him.

He spent his entire career working for IBM, going back to the '50s and '60s, when working at IBM was like working at NASA. The kind of problems he worked on took weeks or months to solve, and he loved it. He's thorough, a process man. As Dick sees it, if something catches his attention, it's clearly worth gathering data on. And if it's worth gathering data on, it's worth getting to the bottom of, including, recently, a certain piece of music.

[PHONE DIALING]

Woman

--ford Hospital.

Dick

Hello. Could you do me a great favor? This is a very unusual call, but you know the music you have, the holding music? When you put me on hold, it plays it. Could you do that for me for a minute?

Woman

OK.

Dick

I appreciate that very much.

Sara Corbett

That's Dick. And for the last two years, he's been very, very interested in a piece of hold music.

Dick

The first time I heard it, when I was talking to Stamford Hospital, that's the call that started the whole thing. And I love the song. Just very unusual. It was bells and synthesizer, and I just-- clapping. It was an unusual piece. It's very hard to describe.

Sara Corbett

He heard the hold music again when he called a medical billing center in Atlanta and again with his cardiologist. And he had a hernia, then a kidney stone. This one song, it turns out, is the hold music for Dick's entire health care network. He's 81, in great health, but 81 is 81, and he's the one who deals with all the appointments, the follow-ups, the billing, both for him and his wife, Marianne.

Dick

So if I called any number of doctors in the area, I would hear that music. And every time I heard it, it would just again remind me of what in the devil is that tune.

Sara Corbett

He couldn't find the name of it. He couldn't find it, period, anywhere except on hold. And of course, he took notes on the phone calls where he was hearing it because Dick takes notes on every phone call. The song's not in the databases of music apps like Shazam and SoundHound, by the way, Dick tried it. To identify the song, he needed human help, and a surprising number of people in medical offices, strangers he met over the phone, were willing to take this on. These were exactly the kind of people Dick is always looking for when he's on a quest.

Dick

The kind of person that would get into it.

Sara Corbett

A few people called their communications departments to see if they could turn anything up. No luck. A woman seven states away spent a whole weekend looking up songs online to try and find a match. Dead end.

But you know who was the least helpful? Dick's family. We did not get into it. Dick called us, his sons and daughters-in-law, and tried to hum the music over the phone. We blew it off. Dick described the hold song as haunting, but it was like a ghost none of us saw or even believed in, and he could tell.

Dick

I think when you get older, you get more of that in your life, where people are questioning whether you're really seeing it right or you remember it right or whatever. And that does get you to feel a little isolated, a little-- you know. Yes, you do. I did feel a little bit that way.

And like I can't go on keep asking people what's this music all about, and I can't describe it, and you sort of find that you better just let it go. And you don't want to, but it sort of fades after a while. Until you hear it again when you call another doctor's office, and then it's back.

So I'll put those in here.

Sara Corbett

This is Dick going through some of the overstuffed cabinets at my house in Maine. He does this almost every time he comes to visit. He'll spend entire weekends in our basement sorting out the tools we rarely use, collapsing all the empty cardboard boxes that accumulate down there. He'll sift through old papers, double check our tax returns. He sees in my cabinets a bonanza of things that need sorting and labeling.

Dick

I think I'll get a box for all your goodies like this, one of those cardboard boxes, before we throw them out. And I'll label it and put those together.

Sara Corbett

This is the advantage of having a process man in the family. Dick stays with your problem until it's been solved, the cabinets or whatever. A couple of years ago, my husband and I were about to buy a new house when Dick swooped in and spent three days doing a copious market analysis, which made it clear that we were about to make a bad investment. He doesn't let himself off the hook for anything, big or small, because things don't let him off the hook.

Marianne

Yeah, he's not fooling around.

Sara Corbett

This is his wife, Marianne.

Marianne

With life or feelings or getting things right or doing it complete, there is nothing in his life that is inconsequential. Everything matters.

Sara Corbett

Can you think of anything that you've done that you did sloppily or hastily?

Dick

Not really.

Sara Corbett

Nothing? [LAUGHS]

Dick

I don't think so. It would be just not in my vocabulary to do something and say, OK, that's good enough. Let's go. And yet I don't say that's right. I really don't say that's right. And a lot of times I think that it's wrong, and I should be on to something else.

Denise Carter Stanley

I can hear the music in my head now. [HUMMING]

Sara Corbett

This woman, Denise Carter Stanley, was Dick's jackpot. She's the registrar at the medical imaging center where he went one day to get a CAT scan.

Dick

Great gal. She was a single mom, and she had been going to school at night, and we talked about a lot of things. And she was the kind of person that would get into it.

Sara Corbett

Denise is on hold a lot inside the larger hospital network. She says she's been hearing the hold music every day for what she estimates is about an hour and a half a day for the last seven years. She likes the music. The first time Dick walked into her office, there was Denise playing the hold music, his hold music, on speakerphone at her desk.

Sara Corbett

In seven years, have other people asked you about the hold music?

Denise Carter Stanley

Actually, they have. They have. But I just never got into it with them the way that he and I did. They were just like casually, yeah, that hold music, do you know who it's by? Like, no. But when he came in, it was really different. It was like he was really interested and really wanted to know.

Sara Corbett

She called the IT department at her hospital. They thought she was crazy. She made more calls.

Denise Carter Stanley

Let me see if I even still have all my information.

Sara Corbett

Are you like Dick that you keep notes on all this stuff?

Denise Carter Stanley

Yeah, I do. [LAUGHS] Because sometimes you just get fixated on something, and you just have to know. And you can't rest until you know.

Sara Corbett

So you're a persistent person.

Denise Carter Stanley

Yes, very.

Sara Corbett

When you recognize somebody else who's persistent, do you have a special bond with them?

Denise Carter Stanley

Yes. Because I know then they get me. I get them, and they get me.

Sara Corbett

So is that how you feel about Dick, that he--

Denise Carter Stanley

Yes.

Sara Corbett

He's one of your tribe?

Denise Carter Stanley

Yes.

Sara Corbett

Denise, digging around, finally turned up the key fact. The music came from Cisco, the company that provides the hospital's phone system. Cisco's the number one supplier of corporate phones like this in the world. Dick went to his local library, and a woman there-- I want to say her name on the radio because she cracked the case. Her name is Abby Sesselberg. She went to YouTube and found an audio recording. It's called simply "One Hour of Cisco Call Manager Default Hold Music."

Sara Corbett

Can we do it? I want to hear it.

Dick

OK.

[MUSIC - "OPUS NO. 1" BY TIM CARLETON AND DARRICK DEEL]

Sara Corbett

There are hundreds of comments posted about this song, pages and pages. And sure, some people can't stand it, but most of the comments are like this-- "Best hold music ever made. I love this song." "So addictively pleasant. Please, put me back on hold so I can listen to it some more." "I work in a call center, and this music is the best to listen to after dealing with rude customers." "I thought I was the only person who loved this." "I've been looking for this song for almost three years." Dick read these comments with relief.

Dick

"I just can't seem to help myself. I have been calling and asking another department on campus to put me on hold." See? She's calling and asking people to put her on hold because I love that hold music. You see there are other crazies, huh?

Well, I must say from being compulsive about it in the early times when I was trying to find them, saying, why are you so compulsive about this? You crazy? And then I started to read this, and I must say it did a lot for my mental health.

Sara Corbett

Yeah, you're feeling better about yourself now?

Dick

[INAUDIBLE]

Sara Corbett

You're not alone.

Dick

My mental condition, yeah.

Sara Corbett

The librarian also helped Dick find a title for the song. It's called "Opus No. 1." And that's when I finally got into it. Dick, this is for you.

Tim Carleton

My name is Tim Carleton, and I am the composer of "Opus No. 1."

Sara Corbett

You're hard to find, by the way.

Tim Carleton

[LAUGHS]

Sara Corbett

Do you know that about yourself?

Tim Carleton

Yeah, I don't really have much of a web presence.

Sara Corbett

Tim was 16 years old when he wrote "Opus No. 1." It was recorded in 1989 on a four track tape by one of his high school buddies, Darrick Deel. Tim was a Yanni-loving computer nerd, messing around with a drum machine and a synthesizer in his parents' garage in California. That five minutes of tape is now on 65 million Cisco phone sets worldwide as the default hold music. It's what everyone hears unless someone inside the system makes an effort to change it.

Tim was in his 20s when he got a call from Darrick about "Opus No. 1." Darrick had taken a job at Cisco designing phone systems.

Tim Carleton

And he's like, dude, if you send this over and give us permission to do this, we can make this the default. I think I can get this in. And it was like putting an Easter egg in a DVD or software. Just like a little hidden gem that, oh yeah, the next time you're on hold, it might be my music. I just thought it would be a cool piece of trivia.

Sara Corbett

So and then technically, what happened? So they license the music from you? I mean, do they renew their license every few years? Like, are you making any money off of it?

Tim Carleton

Not a penny. So I think that's probably my most legit claim as a music artist. I didn't make any money from my music.

Sara Corbett

Tim's not a musician anymore. He's an IT guy now. He manages the server at a bank in California.

Sara Corbett

What is it like to be put on hold and hear your own music?

Tim Carleton

It's really embarrassing when you're not expecting to hear that and then, all of a sudden, you have that memory pop up. I just start blushing immediately. It's just a different time. It's not the same person I am today.

Sara Corbett

So is it sort of like looking back at a picture of yourself from 1987 and saying, oh, why was I wearing that outfit?

Tim Carleton

Oh, exactly. That's exactly it.

Sara Corbett

So has it ever yielded anything good for you? I mean, if it hasn't made you money, has anybody ever bought you a drink in a bar, have you picked up women with it, or is there any--

Tim Carleton

No.

Sara Corbett

--rock star application here?

Tim Carleton

No, I don't think I've ever actually tried to use the, you know, I wrote the default hold music for a lot of companies.

[MUSIC - "OPUS NO. 1" BY TIM CARLETON AND DARRICK DEEL]

Sara Corbett

Tim and Darrick are still friends, and Darrick's the only one after all these years making any sort of music. He creates new ring tones for phones, which Tim admits he's a little jealous of.

Tim Carleton

It's something that people are choosing to put on their phone, as opposed to this music being forced on them. I think that would have been more entertaining to me.

Sara Corbett

I see. So yeah, so you feel like your music has been forced on millions of people.

Tim Carleton

[LAUGHS] Yes.

Sara Corbett

So it's not exactly something to brag about.

Tim Carleton

That's, I think, the source of my embarrassment, yeah.

Sara Corbett

I told Tim my father-in-law wanted a copy of the song to put on his iPod because he wants to play it around the house as he does chores and pays bills. In the comments on YouTube, lots of people said they wanted a copy. Tim found this almost impossible to fathom. But he and Darrick sent it anyway, full fidelity, in stereo.

[MUSIC - "OPUS NO. 1" BY TIM CARLETON AND DARRICK DEEL]

Ira Glass

Sara Corbett is the co-author most recently of A House in the Sky. If you have not had enough of this song, "Opus 1" is available at better hospital phone systems and for a limited time at our website, thisamericanlife.org, in full fidelity stereo for your downloading needs.

[MUSIC - "NOWHERE TO GO" BY THE FOUR FRESHMAN]

Coming up, the karate yid. That's not anti-Semitic, right, to say "yid"? And if it is anti-Semitic, is it one of those anti-Semitic things that I'm allowed to say because I am a Jew? Is even asking that question anti-Semitic? Anyway, Orthodox Jews skilled in karate-- you'll see what I'm talking about in a minute-- from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Sunrise, Sun-Get.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on the program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, "Stuck in the Middle." Stories of people who cannot get out of some situation, some limbo they are caught in, and so they use ingenuity and guile or, anyway, unconventional means to get themselves unstuck. We have arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, Sunrise, Sun-Get.

This past October, there was a kind of wacky news story that was news for a day or so in New York City. It was on the cover of the tabloids. It was on all the local news channels in the tri-state area. And at its heart were people stuck in a kind of limbo. Mark Oppenheimer has more.

Mark Oppenheimer

The news was pretty startling. A group of men, including a Brooklyn rabbi named Mendel Epstein, had been arrested for conspiring to kidnap a husband and torture him until he gave his wife a get. The get is simply a piece of paper a husband hands his wife saying, essentially, it's over. We're divorced. Jews can get civil divorces like anyone else. But if you're an Orthodox Jew, strictly following Jewish law, the get is the only real way to end a marriage.

Usually this goes off without a hitch. But sometimes a woman wants to get divorced and the husband refuses to give a get. That's where Rabbi Epstein came in.

Man

According to the complaint, Epstein talked about forcing compliance through the use of tough guys who utilize electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs, and place plastic bags over the heads of the husbands.

Mark Oppenheimer

The criminal complaint against Epstein and a fellow rabbi named Martin Wolmark alleged that the rabbis agreed to arrange a beat down of a reluctant husband, and they were asking for more than $50,000 to do it. Here's the US attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, laying this all out to the press.

Paul Fishman

The charges are kidnapping and extortion, violent crime, to get Jewish men to give divorces that they wouldn't otherwise give. And it's not really an exercise of religion, it's really about money and violent crime.

Mark Oppenheimer

When the story first broke, what kind of got lost is that it's not just about cash, karate, and cattle prods, it's also about women who were stuck, essentially trapped in failed marriages. For the past couple years, as a religion reporter, I've been interviewing Jewish women in just this situation. And it can be pretty horrible. Some men refuse to give a get because they still love their wives and hope to reconcile. But others just want leverage so they can demand, for example, lots of money.

Gital Dodelson

Anywhere between half a million and $2 million, depending on the day and, I guess, the position of the sun in the sky.

Mark Oppenheimer

This is Gital Dodelson. She's an Orthodox Jewish woman, and she's what's known as an agunah. That's the word in Hebrew for a woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce. Literally it means a chained wife. Besides money, lots of money, Gital says her husband has a long list of demands for her to meet if she wants her get.

Gital Dodelson

I have a four-year-old son. He wants 50-50 custody, where my son would be a week with me and a week with him.

Mark Oppenheimer

But Gital lives in New Jersey. Her husband's on Staten Island. The boy would have to enroll in two schools and alternate weeks. Keep in mind, Gital already has a civil divorce, and the custody and financial arrangements have been settled by a judge.

Gital says that her husband, who, by the way, didn't return my calls, is always changing what he's asking for. At one point, she says, he demanded they get rid of the coordinator who's overseeing the custody of their son. Another time, he insisted that she promise to tell the boy someday that the divorce was all his mother's fault. Gital says she should have seen it coming.

Gital Dodelson

I was young and dumb. And there were a lot of things that maybe should have been red flags that I wasn't paying attention to. While we were dating, he told me once that he's always right. Now, I laughed because I don't know who says that when-- no one says that seriously, so I assumed he was joking. And he wasn't joking.

A week into my marriage, I was looking back and kicking myself because, I mean, I should have stopped dating him right there. But I didn't realize. And by the time I realized, it was too late.

I actually find it easier to explain now that he hasn't given a get for four years because the way he's trying to control me now through the get, that's what he tried to do throughout the whole marriage. Everything was subject to his control and subject to his demands. He had to have a final say in everything, even in what we were having for supper, or the brand of laundry detergent that I used, or anything. And nothing was too small for him to care about.

Mark Oppenheimer

Of course, there are always two sides to every divorce, and I tried to get her husband's side. When he didn't call back, I tried his parents, his uncle, even his grandmother-- his bubbe-- and none of them would talk to me. I finally spoke with her husband's lawyer, who disputed nearly every one of Gital's assertions. He said the sticking points for his client are tiny, reasonable things like what hour on Friday he can pick up his son so he doesn't have to drive after Sabbath begins at sundown.

But Gital's side of the story has been backed up by a rabbinic court called a beis din. A beis din is a group of three rabbis Orthodox Jews sometimes turn to to settle disputes outside the civil courts. When her husband wouldn't give a get, Gital tried to bring him before the beis din. But he refused to show up.

So the rabbis issued something called a seruv. It's basically a contempt of court. It's supposed to ostracize him in the community. Gital's brother Aryeh is a full time scholar of Jewish law, and he says the seruv is usually an effective tool.

Aryeh

A seruv is, if followed properly by the community, an incredibly powerful thing. It sort of cuts them off from every aspect of Jewish life. I mean, you can't stand within 6 feet of him, 6 square feet, 8 square feet, whatever it is of him. You can't count him for a minyan.

Mark Oppenheimer

The minyan is the quorum of 10 men needed for an Orthodox prayer service. It's sort of like telling a devout Catholic that he can't receive communion.

Aryeh

You can't give him an aliyah. He can't be called up to the Torah in shul, which is a big honor, and he doesn't get that anymore. He can't serve as a hazzan there in the shul.

Mark Oppenheimer

Chanting prayer. He can't do that. You're supposed to boycott his business, I think. Well, you can't be near him, right?

Aryeh

You can't be near him. And so theoretically, if followed properly, it should be enough to both shame them as well as, on a practical level, they're losing all their contacts. You're not supposed to talk to him. You can't give him a ride, can't do him a favor.

Mark Oppenheimer

This sort of ostracism would have worked back in the old country, where you spent your whole life around the same couple thousand people. If you were the village cobbler and all of a sudden you had no customers, you probably figured that it made sense to give your wife a get. But in the modern world, a seruv doesn't always work so well. Aryeh believes that the Orthodox Jews on Staten Island, where his brother-in-law lives, are still treating him like one of their own. So the shaming and community pressure isn't working.

Gital, of course, could just walk away. She's already got her civil divorce. The finances are all settled, so is the child custody, but she can't get remarried. She's a 25-year-old woman. She'd like to have more kids.

And I should point out most Jews wouldn't care. Plenty of less religious Jews would be happy to marry Gital. But in the Orthodox world, where she was raised, where her whole family is, where she wants to stay, she can't make a new life for herself. Her ex-husband can cast about for a new wife and then give Gital a get if he finds somebody, but for Gital it's different.

Mark Oppenheimer

What would it be like-- I mean, could you date?

Gital Dodelson

Well, I mean, in my community, you don't date unless you're actively looking to get married. And since I'm already married, that would pose a little bit of a problem. I don't think I could find anyone who would be willing to date me under these circumstances where I say, hey, I'm looking to get married, but you might have to wait 2 or 3 or 4 or 10 or 20 years because there's this man who's refusing to give me the get.

And he doesn't feel any urgency because he can get out of it whenever he wants. He can give me a get and be done with the whole thing within a day as soon as he decides he wants to. So for him, it's just a waiting game where why not wait longer.

If his demands were something that I could give, I would have given in a long time ago. Because this life is agony. I mean, to wait and wait and never know and to be tied together like this, I would give anything I could to be finished with it.

Mark Oppenheimer

Almost anything. She wouldn't resort to violence or hire a rabbi like Mendel Epstein, the rabbi who was arrested in Brooklyn. Now, most of Epstein's work was above board. He'd advocate for women in rabbinic court, he'd serve as a go-between with the husband's family, that's how he made his living. But according to the FBI, Epstein took his work on behalf of women one step too far.

Rabbi Epstein, I should mention, is currently out on bail. But neither he nor his lawyer responded to my request for an interview. However, about a year ago, before he was arrested, I actually met him, interviewed him at his dining room table. I recorded it on my phone. The interview started off pretty uneventful.

Mark Oppenheimer

So tell me what you do. Explain to me what you do.

Mendel Epstein

Well, on the simplest level, people come to ask if they should get divorced.

Mark Oppenheimer

At some point, the interview kind of took a turn. Epstein told me about this case from 1992, when he got a call from a chained wife named Jennifer Klein. She had a civil divorce but no get, and now her ex-husband had kidnapped their young son and fled to Peru.

Epstein says he told her, call the FBI. She said she'd done that, but she'd also heard that Rabbi Epstein could do things that the FBI couldn't do. Epstein told me that the woman had already found a group of ex-CIA agents who were going to help find her husband and child.

Mark Oppenheimer

How'd she find them?

Mendel Epstein

I don't know.

Mark Oppenheimer

You didn't find them.

Mendel Epstein

She found them. Nothing to do with us. She found them.

Mark Oppenheimer

Epstein says she found them. Nothing to do with us. Epstein's daughter Batsheva, a lawyer, was sitting right next to him, so he was choosing his words carefully. But not super carefully.

As he continued with his story, he, the wife, the former secret agent man, and a Jewish scribe are all bound for Peru. They find the husband, break into the house. The kid's there. They save him. And then they head to the bathroom, where the hired muscle had found the husband.

Mendel Epstein

The husband was already down on the floor, completely naked. Seems he was taking a shower with the Indian maid. We put him down.

Batsheva

There were pictures of that.

Mendel Epstein

And then we had a conversation with him. He said the words he had to say, you please write-- he didn't say "please--" write and give a get to my wife. And I agreed to it and [INAUDIBLE] the messages. He did everything he had to do. So they also made--

Mark Oppenheimer

So how did the CIA men convince him to give the get?

Batsheva

I don't know if we want to discuss that.

Mark Oppenheimer

"I don't know if we want to want to discuss that," his daughter said.

Mendel Epstein

Let's just say it got a little physical.

Mark Oppenheimer

[LAUGHS] Gotcha.

Mendel Epstein

Now the CIA has this little pill.

Mark Oppenheimer

Just to be clear, the guy was an ex-Delta Forces commando, not CIA, but whatever.

Mendel Epstein

The CIA has this little pill. They put it in his mouth. In a second, out cold. So the guy weighed about 200 pounds. We lifted the guy up, and we put him in the bathtub, locked the door.

I asked the guy in the CIA, how long is he going to sleep. When will he wake up? So he said, Rabbi, we didn't do diagnostics here. You know, no one did a blood test like you do in the hospital. First of all, if he wakes up. I said what do you-- whoa! Now if it is, if he wakes up.

Mark Oppenheimer

The Houston Chronicle reported on this story in 1992 and ran a photo of the woman and her son, reunited and posing with the hired gun from the Delta Forces. There are legends that this is exactly how these matters got settled back in the Eastern European villages. You hired a thug from the czar's army, he gave the husband a little talking to, and suddenly you had your get. Similar legends had floated around Epstein.

Rivka Haut

The violence that he's accused of doing now I would never have dreamed that that was what he engaged in.

Mark Oppenheimer

This is Rivka Haut. 30 years ago, Rivka and a couple friends founded an organization to help free agunot. And back then, they worked with Mendel Epstein. She says, like everyone, she heard the rumors about some of his tactics. But she never imagined anything like what he's accused of now.

Rivka Haut

I was very saddened because I knew Mendel many years. And I still feel very sad about it. I figured the most he does is grab men and kind of threaten them. He's a big man. You've seen him-- you know that he's physically a big man. And I-- like a little fistfight or slapping around. That was my assumption.

Mark Oppenheimer

Over the last few decades, as more Orthodox women decided it was OK to get divorced, Mendel Epstein got a reputation as the rabbi women could trust. He was willing to take the women's side. He even published a little handbook to guide women through the divorce process.

And Rivka says Epstein was her guy, too. She and her fellow activists were all Orthodox, but they were pretty modern. They had TVs in their houses, some of them wore pants, so they needed someone like Epstein to help them establish trust with the ultra-Orthodox women who needed their help.

Rivka Haut

Mendel Epstein that I knew way back when was a mentor to us. He taught us a lot about agunot, and he was a great help to agunot. He tried to do the right thing. And he was out to get justice for women. And he did. He helped many, many women.

Mark Oppenheimer

Then at some point, she can't remember if it was 10 years or 20 years ago, there was an incident, and her opinion of Epstein changed.

Rivka Haut

The way it worked for me, we were working on a particular case. And he called me the night before, and he started saying very bad things about this woman, who was a wonderful woman, and I was shocked. And I said, what are you talking about? We're going out tomorrow. We're demonstrating on her behalf.

He said, no, you're not, because you don't have a seruv. And I said, we have a seruv. I'm holding it in my hand. It's a rabbinic court document. He said, no, I got them to rescind it. I had them rescind it, and you can't go out. You don't have a seruv.

Mark Oppenheimer

Why had he had it rescinded?

Rivka Haut

Because he went to work for her husband.

Mark Oppenheimer

Oh.

Rivka Haut

You know, if an attorney would do that, they'd get disbarred. But these rules don't apply, so he stopped working for her.

Mark Oppenheimer

So the husband made him a better offer.

Rivka Haut

I guess. I guess. And that was a different face of him. And at that point, we had to tell women don't go. Don't ask him for help and don't go to him.

Mark Oppenheimer

A colleague of Rivka's remembered this, too. Again, Epstein and his attorney declined to talk to me about any of this.

Right now, a lot of Orthodox Jews are pretty embarrassed by these husbands who won't free their wives. It's cruel, and they know it looks very bad to the outside world. A couple of solutions have been floated. One would be to grant women annulments, like in the Catholic Church. One well-known agunah in the Orthodox world, Tamar Epstein, recently announced that she considers herself free of her marriage, and everyone assumes it's because she found a rabbi to annul it.

But this idea is controversial. It hasn't caught on, not yet. So for now, if you're an agunah like Gital Dodelson, a desperate woman trapped in this limbo, paying some rabbi to intervene almost makes sense.

Gital Dodelson

You know what? The numbers that I've heard, my husband is demanding a lot more than that for the get. So you're telling me I'd pay a third party a small amount of money and he'll get rid of the problem for me instead of having to fight it out with my husband and give him much, much, much more? If you take out the fact that he's beating people up, that sounds like a pretty good deal.

Mark Oppenheimer

[LAUGHS]

Not that she'd ever hire someone to beat up her ex. She's not willing to go that far. But as it happens, there's an old Jewish teaching that recalcitrant husbands should be beaten, and it wasn't some schmuck from Brooklyn who said so. It was Maimonides, the 12th century Spanish rabbi considered the greatest Jewish sage of all time.

Maimonides wrote that a man could be beaten until he gave his wife a get. Here was his reasoning. "Deep down," he said, "all of us are torn between our good inclinations and our evil inclinations. And being beaten might be just what a man needs to drive out his evil side so that he can see the wisdom of releasing his wife." Maimonides doesn't say anything about karate chops and cattle prods, but the principle's the same.

Ira Glass

Mark Oppenheimer. He writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times, and he's working on a book about chained wives.

[MUSIC - "BLUE, PT. II" BY WAXAHATCHEE]

Act Three. They Love a Man in a Uniform.

Ira Glass

Act Three, They Love a Man in a Uniform. So Egypt is an entire country that is technically now in the middle. They are in the transitional phase between what they were and whatever it is that they're about to become. Three years ago, during the Arab Spring revolutions, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest nearly 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule. There were three weeks of this, then the Egyptian army ousted Mubarak.

Next came democratic elections. They elected the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi. Soon enough, you may remember, he tried to seize dictatorial powers for himself, passed something that said the judiciary could not question his decisions.

So then, this past July, another round of massive demonstrations. The military again intervened and threw out Morsi. Which means the army's in charge at the moment. Yes, there is an interim president, but he has as much presence and power as a polystyrene cup.

It's the defense minister and head of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who's generally regarded as running things for now, until a new constitution and a new round of elections. A referendum on an amended constitution was held this week. Official Egyptian news agencies say it passed with 95% voting yes.

Sarah Carr is a reporter and a blogger living in Cairo. Her mother is Egyptian. Her dad is British. She grew up between Egypt and the UK, moved to Egypt to live over 10 years ago.

She reports for an English language independent news site in Egypt, and her blog, Inanities.org, is regularly cited as one of the best blogs and English language news sources coming out of the country. We asked her to write what it means to live in a country that is caught in the middle. Here she is.

Sarah Carr

I've never in my life used as much caps locks as I did over the summer on Facebook as the country teeters on the political brink and Egyptians did battle in hysterical statuses and enraged comments. This battle reached its height after June 30, when Egyptians took to the streets, demanding the removal of President Mohammed Morsi. Later, after Morsi's removal, triumphant smoke-spewing army jets drew hearts in the sky. A friend remarked that the hearts resembled a pair of buttocks, which they did.

I spent much of the time after Morsi's removal on July 3 insisting that while I don't think that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood members should be hung, drawn, and quartered in public squares, that does not make me a spy, or a traitor, or a secret member of the group. This proved a controversial position as Egypt succumbed to the crude "it's us or them" logic beloved of general publics everywhere at times of great stress. One relative suggested that having grown up abroad, I could not possibly understand the complexities of the situation. Another sent me messages containing links to lunatic websites establishing incontrovertibly that Barack Obama is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that Morsi's tenure was a US-Zionist plot against Egypt.

An Egyptian Christian friend has it even worse and spends hours and days and months telling his Facebook friends that while he's not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he does not agree that Brotherhood members are animals. And yes, he does think that everyone, including them, deserves a fair trial.

Transitions are supposed to be about moving forwards, but Egypt's has been a manic loop de loop of hope and disillusionment, of beginnings that start with an ending, and never really moved beyond that point. We went from Hosni Mubarak's 30-year tenure to 17 long months of army rule. Then there was Morsi's brief one-year presidency, and now Egypt is back under military rule. The whole process is beginning again.

After Morsi was removed from office, the army and the media went on a campaign to convince Egyptians that we're facing a threat that could destroy the country. There were insurgents fighting in the Sinai, but that's been going on since 2011. There was an occasional bombing, and there were continuing clashes with Muslim Brotherhood supporters who refused to leave two massive sit-ins in Cairo.

Television presenters soon conflated all these things. They stopped calling supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood disease-ridden lunatics and started calling them terrorists. The government blamed the Brotherhood for a bombing in the town of Mansoura that killed 16 people, then officially declared them a terrorist organization and promised jail sentences for all its members. This despite the fact that the Brotherhood publicly condemned the bombing.

The war, if that's what it is, has finally caught up with the propaganda against it, and today you can't turn on the TV without seeing ladies in red, white, and black warbling declarations of undying love for the armed forces against a hodgepodge of library shots of military exercises and enormous rockets being launched in an unknown direction, possibly towards the Al Jazeera headquarters. Al Jazeera is viewed as a Brotherhood mouthpiece and is currently enemy number one in Egypt. In the most recent expression of this, four Al Jazeera English journalists were arrested at the end of December on charges of spreading lies harmful to state security and joining a terrorist organization. The journalists had been interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood in a swanky Cairo hotel.

The police, once reviled as corrupt, vicious thugs, have made a dazzling comeback of the Robert Downey, Jr. variety, despite the fact that absolutely nothing has changed with an institution that is crawling with corruption and abuse. They're back to kidnapping activists for hours and dumping them in the desert, assaulting and torturing detainees, and essentially acting as a military regime's heavies. In August, their men killed hundreds of people during a dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adawiya Muslim Brotherhood protest. And a few weeks later, the authorities erected a statue in tribute to the police, the armed forces, and the people on the site of the deaths.

If there was any public protest it was inaudible, what with the din of the party poppers, and people cheering, and the sound of army tribute pop song "God Bless the Hands."

[MUSIC - "GOD BLESS THE HANDS"]

That song is now a wedding party favorite.

This cheerleading on of a massive crackdown demonstrates a real and genuine public appetite for authoritarian measures. And it's understandable to an extent. There is a general perception that under the Brotherhood, the country was about to sink into the abyss and that the army intervention dragged it back from the edge. A new process law now makes it illegal for 10 or more people to hold a demonstration without obtaining prior police permission. In effect, the crackdown is undoing the revolution. Many Egyptians are thrilled.

But the media has played an instrumental part in whipping up the hysteria about the Brotherhood, stoking fear with endless unsubstantiated rumors about shady foreign elements seeking Egypt's destruction, of youth activists being American agents, and Brotherhood members taking orders from Qatar. This has got a bit out of hand. And 2014 began with the news that the public prosecutor is opening an investigation into whether a television advert for mobile phone giant Vodafone featuring a popular glove puppet carries secret coded Brotherhood messages.

General Sisi, the head of the army, at the moment can do no wrong, and his relationship with Egyptians can only be described as a lovefest. A few days ago, he gave a tantalizing hint to his fans that he might consider running for president, saying, when Egyptians say something, we obey. And I will never turn my back on Egypt.

Last month, a voice recording, allegedly an interview with Sisi, was leaked. In it, Sisi was asked about whether he has presidential ambitions, and he responded by talking about dreams he has had involving Omega watches, and a sword with "there is no god but God" written on it, and assassinated president Anwar Sadat talking to him. It was all very weird and alarming but made no perceptible dent in his popularity.

Meanwhile, the loop de loop loops again. Just this past week, Egyptians voted in a referendum on a constitution for the third time in three years. January 25, Tahrir Square, and the revolution and its possibilities are a distant memory now, locked up in prisons and lying flat and lifeless on downtown Cairo's walls in faded, dying graffiti. I remember on January 29, 2011, we wandered, stunned, through the streets of downtown Cairo amongst the still smoldering remains of police cars and young men writing graffiti declaring the end of Mubarak. For a very brief moment, the streets along the fiefdom of the Interior Ministry and its expansive network of police informants were ours.

Then this past November, I was at a demonstration that was broken up by the police. The police used a primitive sort of water cannon, a large hose, really, to douse protesters before going at them with truncheons. In less than 10 minutes, it was all over, and there was nothing left. And if it wasn't for the water on the ground, you would have never guessed anything had happened.

Ira Glass

Sarah Carr in Cairo. She writes about Egypt on her blog, Inanities.org.

[MUSIC - "REPEAT" BY THE WIMPS]

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 is Julie Snyder. Production help from Dana Chivvis and Allison Davis. Our story about Rachel and her vegetarian son was co-produced with Jyllian Gunther.

Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Torey Malatia. You know, I was just thinking about this the other day, how young he and I both were. We were so young when we made the deal to start the radio show, and we had that woman lawyer helping us, and we were both so strong-headed. I have a recording.

Elias

Fine. It starts on Saturday.

Rachel

All right, good. But can you guys shake on it? I think this is--

Theo

[SCREAMS]

Rachel

--interesting.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "STUCK" BY MIDDLE CLASS FASHION]

Announcer

PRI-- Public Radio International.