Transcript

521:

Bad Baby
Transcript

Originally aired 03.28.2014

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/521

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Cheryl says that when her first son was born, he was everything to her, the center of her world, and he seemed happy.

Cheryl

He was affectionate, seemed to be very attached to me. He seemed to be a normal child. I don't remember seeing a lot of aggression in him when he was littler.

Ira Glass

That changed with the aggression when he was two when his little brother was born. Of course, lots of kids act out when younger kids arrive in the family. But he was extreme. He'd pinch him. He'd squish him. He'd try to hurt his little brother. Cheryl says very quickly it got the point that she and her husband could never leave the two of them alone to play.

But they just thought, you know, he's hyper. Some kids are hyper. They could handle it, no big deal. AS he got older, there was other stuff like that. At three and four, he would come out of preschool and scream and yell at her, no matter what happened at school that day.

Cheryl

And there was never any reason for his behavior. He just showed significant aggression towards me and towards his brother. And it was every day. When I look back, I realize that we've been walking on eggshells with this child since he was very little.

Ira Glass

How old was he when he first tried to kill his brother?

Cheryl

That happened this summer, so he was seven. He decided to hold his brother under water in our backyard summing pool. I was standing there about five feet away and felt some kind of commotion and turned around. And my son popped up out of the water, hysterical. My younger son popped up hysterical.

Ira Glass

He'd been clawing and scratching at his older brother feet, trying to get his older brother to release him. Cheryl separated the two boys, and the older brother started yelling at her, about his feet.

Cheryl

And he was screaming at me and telling me that I was a bad mother for not attending to his bleeding feet, because I was taking care of my younger son and his hysterical screaming and crying, and like he was trying to catch his breath.

Ira Glass

The older boy had been attacking the younger one for years. But this seemed different. This was new, to take things so far that his little brother thought he might die-- no kidding. And just as disturbing was the older brother's attitude afterwards.

Cheryl

He did it and never acknowledged the danger of what he did. It never hits him that he could have killed his brother. It never seems to bother him that that was a possibility.

Ira Glass

Later did he show remorse?

Cheryl

No, he never has. When we would talk about it with therapists, he would just sit silent and not really participate in the conversation. He didn't defend himself, and they didn't deny it. He just sits silent.

Ira Glass

Since then, there have been other incidents. Twice he's pinned his little brother to the bed with a pillow over his little brother's face, suffocating him. Each time he kept going when Cheryl yelled at him to stop. She had to shove him off. He also has a two-year-old sister. He's thrown her across the room.

And there are creepy moments, like Cheryl would wake up sometimes during the night, and he would just be standing by her bed, watching. One night after he had done that, she found a pole near the bed.

Cheryl

So he had been in my room for a while, while we were sleeping. And I found this pole on the floor and realized that he had been at some point holding it in his hand while standing next to my bed while I was sound asleep and my husband was sound asleep. And it's an incredibly unnerving feeling to know how vulnerable I was at that moment and what could have happened, what choices he could have made at that moment. And I don't know what was going through his mind. He told me the next morning that he wanted to wake me up. And I said, well, why would you have the pole? Well, I was going to use the pole to wake you up.

Ira Glass

After that, she and her husband installed alarms around the house, one on his bedroom door, one on his sister's bedroom door, one on their bedroom door, one that goes off if he tries to go downstairs, plus security cameras 24 hours.

Cheryl

And my younger son sleeps on my bedroom floor.

Ira Glass

And when you say an alarm goes off, I don't know whether to picture a car alarm, like a big, loud like woo, woo, woo sound, or just like a buzzer goes off next to your bed so you know something's happened.

Cheryl

It's the woo-woo sound. Yeah, it's loud enough that you can hear it from down the hallway. His bedroom's on the opposite side of the house. So when it goes off in the middle of the night, we hear it. It's a sound that I hear in the shower. It's a sound that I hear in my dreams sometimes. But yes, we all know when that sound goes off that it's time to be prepared.

Ira Glass

Have you thought to yourself, oh no. Am I raising a psychopath?

Cheryl

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

Cheryl and her husband have taken him to specialists, psychiatrists, psychologists, a neurologist, a neuropsychiatrist. At five, her son was diagnosed ADHD. He's been diagnosed with conduct disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, mood dysregulation disorder. He's on the autism spectrum.

He's been on meds since kindergarten. They've tried removing privileges, removing toys, punishing him with an earlier bedtime, taking objects out of his room. They're going to keep an even tone of voice with him when he acts up. They've tried a system of rewards, where we get stars and presents for doing what he's supposed to. He's now eight years old.

Cheryl's been keeping a blog about all this. Cheryl is not her real name, by the way. And she doesn't give her kids' names out either. And reading about her family's daily life on the blog, it really struck me how her older son takes real pleasure in the chaos that he creates, like in the morning, when they'll all getting ready to go to school, making loud noises, throwing food.

Older Son

Don't roll your eyes!

Ira Glass

What you're hearing is from the security cam in the kitchen.

Cheryl

Just on Tuesday, there was multiple threats to kill his brother. And he was throwing glasses of water across the room. And his little sister was yelling, mean, mean and stop it.

Younger Sister

You're mean. You're mean.

Cheryl

And he'll go from one sibling to the other. And I'm protecting one sibling, and he goes after the other. And the more tense and stressful it gets, the more giddy and happy, and he finds humor in all of it.

Ira Glass

How much of it is he likes the attention, and how much of it is-- and it's weird to use this word for a little kid-- but just pure sadism? Like he likes tormenting you all?

Cheryl

It's a really hard one to judge. I do believe that he enjoys going after his brother purely for the sadistic nature of making his brother feel unsafe.

Ira Glass

Do you think that he does things to you because he likes seeing you suffer?

Cheryl

Yes, I do.

Ira Glass

Of course, nobody ever wants to say a kid is just bad. And the traits that we have in childhood don't necessarily last into adulthood. There's a study that looked at teenage boys with psychopathic traits. They found that only one fifth of highly psychopathic teenagers continued to be highly psychopathic once they grew into adulthood.

Among people who study and treat kids like this, there's a relatively new classification for children who don't have remorse and don't feel empathy for others. It's CU, short for callous unemotional traits. Dan Waschbusch is a psychologist and researches these kind of kids. And he says that, at this point, we do have techniques to get these kids to follow rules better, by giving them rewards. But getting them to learn empathy, that's a whole other thing.

Dan Waschbusch

I think that's a very difficult thing to treat. It's hard to see how you even directly address that. I don't think there's been a lot of progress in that.

Ira Glass

Which leaves Cheryl and her husband in a very tough situation. And as her son has gotten older and bigger, things have gotten worse. He's gotten harder to manage. A few weeks ago, Cheryl was trying to hug him on the bed.

Cheryl

And he took his knee and he jammed it up and broke my nose.

Ira Glass

Do you think it was accidental or intentional?

Cheryl

It was intentional. I don't know if he planned on breaking my nose, but I know he planned on hurting me. He laughed.

Ira Glass

So since your oldest son broke your nose while you were hugging him, what's it been like to hug him?

Cheryl

It's very difficult. He has since tried to come into my bed, and he'll say I want to snuggle. I want to snuggle. And it's something that I have to choose to do, because it's not a natural reaction any longer. I have to actually make the conscious decision to hug and love the child.

I've read articles about children like him that their best chance at life is to continue to get that unconditional love, and so my husband and I make a concerted effort to grab him and hug him and love him, despite everything that we've been through. But I can tell you, as a parent, I had never expected to have to force myself to hug my child in the morning.

Ira Glass

Of course, lots of parents experience less extreme versions of what she's going through. Most parents have moments when they think, oh my kid is a monster. But usually that goes hand in hand with, it's a phase. It's a bad day. People have faith that their kids are going to change.

Well, today on our program, we have stories of children who make it very difficult for their parents to believe that, and parents who really wonder, can my kid change? And we ask, are there kids you can't do anything for?

Today on our program, "Bad Babies," and the bad children they grow into-- sometimes, anyway. Very important. It is not all doom and gloom on our program today. We have stories of children who do not stay so bad as they get older, who end up, in fact, super close to their parents. Today's program I promise you will end with a hug. That's not a spoiler.

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

Act One. Baby NOT On Board.

Ira Glass

Act One, Baby Not On Board. So talking with the mom who you just heard, Cheryl, this week, I found myself thinking about this interview that I did years ago. The writer Doris Lessing had just publish this novel called The Fifth Child. And I got a chance to talk to her. And this, by the way, is how I sounded on the radio back then, when I was 29.

Ira Glass

In the legend of the changeling, an unlovable child is left by the fairies in place of a real human child. Doris Lessing has updated the changeling story in her latest book called The Fifth Child.

OK, I'm going to stop the tape right there. Yes, I was not so good. Anyway, The Fifth Child is about what happens in a family when a baby is born into it who is not fully human. That's the story. He's born this goblin-ish sort of human and is a malevolent force from the beginning. He kills the family pets with his bare hands. From inside his crib, he injures his older brother by grabbing him and spraining his arm.

And what I found myself remembering this week is how the mom in that book is treated. Everybody blames the mom for how the kid turned out-- to her face and sometimes more subtly. They act like it is her fault that this goblin is a goblin. And Lessing told me in the interview that this part of the story actually came from real life.

Doris Lessing

And in fact, I've seen it in more than one family. One of my friends had a couple of children, perfectly normal children, and the third child was-- no one ever found out what was wrong. But it wasn't a normal child.

And she went around the usual round of experts and psychiatrists and God knows what. And she said to me it suddenly occurred to her that all this time, it was taken absolutely for granted in some way it was her fault. It was her psychological attitude, and so on.

And she said to one of them in a moment of revelation, how is it that no one has ever one said to me, how clever you are to have given birth to two marvellous, normal children. All you've ever said to me-- or suggested-- is that I'm a criminal. There is this is set, psychological set, an emotional set, that women get blamed for things like this.

Cheryl

I feel judged as a mom all the time.

Ira Glass

Again, here's Cheryl, the mother from the top of the show.

Cheryl

I don't think there's a day that goes by that I don't feel that judgment. I feel judgment from family, from friends, from strangers, from school administrators, from teachers. I live in this constant state of guilt and judgment that I feel that if I did something different or did something better that perhaps I wouldn't have this problem. And then I have to remind myself that I have two other beautiful children that don't behave the same way. So I must be doing something right.

Ira Glass

A couple weeks ago, you wrote on your blog, "I feel like I have failed my child. I can't shake that. I want to kick and scream and fight and find the next thing to try to make it better. But I know in my heart he is who he is."

And reading your blog, in a couple of different spots, it seems like you go back and forth between those two feelings-- on the one hand, blaming yourself for not doing a better job at getting him to change, and on the other hand, feeling like you're doing everything you know how to do. And I'm wondering lately, which of those two feelings are you feeling more?

Cheryl

Today I feel like a failure.

Ira Glass

Why? What happened today?

Cheryl

Oh, well, today was a very rough day. He's mean. He's called me a jerk. He called me many names, tried to hurt his brother, the same things that happen on a daily basis. Just today was-- it gets old.

Ira Glass

Do your little kids have the feeling that you can't protect them?

Cheryl

I believe that they still feel like I can protect them. I believe my younger son feels like he can protect me. He didn't want to leave this morning, because he's afraid that my older son will get me.

Ira Glass

Her younger son is six.

Cheryl

There are oftentimes when I tell him-- we have this code word where I tell him to take his baby sister to what we call the playhouse. And what that means is he has to take them to her bedroom, and then he blocks the door because my eldest son is out of control. And until I can get someone there to help me or get him under control, his job is to protect his little sister and kind of play with her. And then sometimes in those moments, he doesn't want to leave me, because he feels like he needs to protect me too. And he feels this need to be the protector.

Ira Glass

That does not seem good.

Cheryl

No. It's a terrible situation for him to be in.

Ira Glass

She says that all this takes a toll on the two younger kids. Her two-year-old daughter can tell when the eight-year-old's voice changes, and he's about to do something mean or destructive and will start yelling at him to stop. Both children were noticeably more relaxed and happy, she says, when the eight-year-old was recently in a hospital for 10 days. His meds were being adjusted. And Cheryl and her husband feared that if their oldest son gets to the point where he's bigger and they cannot control him, how can they keep him at home?

Cheryl

You know, it's a miserable way to live. And it's very difficult to have to choose. Do you choose your eight-year-old and keep him home because it's hard to send him away? Or do you choose to protect your other two children and send him away so that they can live a normal life? How do you make that decision as a mom? And I feel like if I don't find a way to save him that I will lose him to the demon that is within him. And hopefully I don't lose one of my other children or myself in that process.

Ira Glass

If you want to read her blog, it is very well written. It's at myfamilymyvillage.com. There's also a link from our website, thisamericanlife.org.

Act Two. The Road To Badness.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Road to Badness. So when does somebody turn bad? When does it happen? Can you truly be said to be bad when you're, you know, 10 or six or-- OK, here the answer's going to get more obvious-- when you're two or six months old?

Paul Bloom

Well, I don't think a baby can be bad in a sense of being malevolent, getting delight from the pain and suffering of others. We just don't see that.

Ira Glass

Paul Bloom is a professor at Yale who does experiments with babies to try to understand their sense of right and wrong, good and bad. He wrote a book about it.

Paul Bloom

It's not that there's a desire to cause pain and suffering. It's not like what he said about the Joker in The Dark Knight, that some people just want the world to burn. You don't see that in babies. But what you see is selfish desires.

Ira Glass

They want food. They want attention. They want comfort. And they do not care what anybody else wants. Also, research shows they're nicer to people they know. They don't give a damn about strangers. And they're racist. Babies are racist. OK, not exactly racist. But they prefer whatever race of people they are used to seeing and being around. If they're raised in a multiracial setting, they're fine with all the different races that they're used to.

Ira Glass

Thinking about this as much as you do, when do you think people turn bad?

Paul Bloom

I don't really think of that as the right question. I think that to a large extent, we start off bad. We start off with these powerful selfish impulses. And what happens mostly through acculturation and development is we become good. We become more generous.

And a lot of the evil in the world is caused by people who, for whatever reason, missed out on us. They missed out on getting their morality expanded to care about other races. They missed out on the capacity to exercise their self-control.

So to some extent, and this is an exaggeration, but to some extent, the most evil adult in the world is a two-year-old who never grew up, is a two-year-old who never managed to get control over his impulses. There's some studies that suggest that the peak of human violence is at age two. We are most violent of all at that age.

Ira Glass

There's a really nice passage in your book where you write, quote, "Families survive the terrible twos because toddlers aren't strong enough to kill with their hands and aren't capable of using lethal weapons."

Paul Bloom

Having had two-year-olds, I truly believe that.

Ira Glass

Paul Bloom. His book about all this is called Just Babies-- The Origins of Good and Evil.

Act Three. The Devil Went Down To Jersey.

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Devil Went Down to Jersey. Now the story of a bad baby who stopped being bad as he aged. And the best possible thing happened-- all those disturbing incidents, they turned into stories that people tell. Jonathan Menjivar got them on tape.

Jonathan Menjivar

The bad baby in this story, he's now a grown man in his '30s. His name is Chris Gethard. And all his life, there's been this lore in Chris's family about what a monster he was as a kid, stories so crazy they sound mythical. People even use the word evil. All this happened when Chris was around two and three, growing up in West Orange, New Jersey. And he remembers it, at least the feeling of it.

Chris Gethard

I do very vividly remember having this joy that I could create chaos is how I would phrase it as an adult. Being bad was fun to me-- getting people angry and crying. And I'll go so far as to say I do also remember, in a way that is like sociopathic, I remember feeling like I ran the show. Like, I'm in charge. I'm in charge here. I get to cause things. That means I'm in charge. That's fun.

Jonathan Menjivar

The person little Chris had the most fun with was his mother, Sally Gethard. Chris really made Sally suffer.

Chris Gethard

There was a level of wisdom and aggression towards my mom that it kind of keeps me out.

Jonathan Menjivar

Take this story. One day Sally took Chris to the local A&P in West Orange to do some grocery shopping.

Chris Gethard

You have to know my neighborhood. This was not just a supermarket. This is a supermarket where her father had been the produce manager for decades. It was a supermarket my own father worked at while putting himself through college.

So we went there one day. And she put me in the top part of the carriage, up in the part where the baby sticks his legs through, and you wheel him around. And we had two cats. So the first thing she bought was a whole bunch of cat food. She just loaded up the cart with cat food. That's the only thing in the cart.

Now we're going down this aisle. And there's these two old Irish ladies in my very Irish neighborhood where, again, everybody knows everybody. And I had been totally fine. I'd been having a pleasant day with my mom. And I just started screaming, just crazy, over-the-top screaming, to the point where my mom was shocked.

And she's going, what's the matter? What's wrong? And these old women, I have their total focus on me because I'm causing this scene, and I just bust out screaming with, "I don't want to have cat food for dinner again! Please, don't make me have to have cat food for dinner again!"

Sally Gethard

And in, like, a whiny voice, you know?

Jonathan Menjivar

This is, of course, Chris's mom, Sally Gethard.

Sally Gethard

Like, "I don't want cat food for supper again." And you know, you can't explain to people. You start dabbling, trying to explain that, no, I don't feed him cat food, you know? And they're looking at this little, innocent child. Of course they're going to think it's true. It was almost like he was out to sabotage me. And that's what I mean. He was 2 and 1/2. How do you think of these things?

Jonathan Menjivar

However it came to Chris's tiny, conniving brain, this wasn't an isolated incident. One day, Sally's mother was coming over, and she says this thing happened that made it seem like Chris wanted her, his mother, to get in trouble with her mother. Chris had played nice all day. He seemed excited to see his grandma.

Sally Gethard

She came in the front door. We had a staircase up to the second floor. And he was sitting up at the top of the staircase. The minute my mother walked in, he started yelling in that little whiny voice again, "me not a 'somamma' bitch."

[LAUGHTER]

Jonathan Menjivar

What did he say?

Sally Gethard

"Me not a 'somamma' bitch." He couldn't even say it right, but he knew. I mean, had I ever called him that? Oh, maybe. But I hadn't just then. Then my mother would tell me, that's why he's the way he is, because you yell at him and you say things like that to him.

Jonathan Menjivar

Oh my god.

Sally Gethard

It was like he set me up.

Jonathan Menjivar

Chris was destructive too, to himself and everything around him. He'd shove things up his nose. He'd eat dirt. He once covered all his stuffed animals with Vaseline. He broke pair after pair of Sally's glasses. He'd snap them in half and throw them across the room with real intention and anger. He was like the Hulk in a diaper. This is Chris's dad, Ken.

Ken Gethard

Chris, when he was real little like that, he had a bit of a temper. I'm sure you heard the story about his devil mark.

Jonathan Menjivar

Yeah, you heard that right. Several people told me Chris was born with this V or triangle-shaped birthmark, his devil mark. It sat right in the middle of his forehead.

Chris Gethard

Apparently the birthmark was not very prominent unless I was angry, at which point it turned bright red. And my mother has actually said that it glowed.

Jonathan Menjivar

When Chris got angry and the devil mark was glowing, he would bite, too. Sally says Chris's older brother Greg was often the victim.

Sally Gethard

When he would bite Greg's fingers, he would just clamp down, clamp down. And I mean, I hate to even say this, but I'd smack his face to try to get him to release. I mean, Greg would be screaming. I'd be screaming. And then when he was ready, he'd let go and just walk away like he didn't do anything.

Jonathan Menjivar

All these stories about Chris, they've become these little jokes in the family. But Chris's behavior really weighed on his mom, Sally, in a way I think any parent who's dealt with a difficult childhood would understand. It's just the piling up, day after day of dealing with a little monster, doing it full time. It breaks you.

Sally Gethard

I feel so bad because I was always yelling. And my husband would come home. I would just sit at the table and cry, because I really-- he loves when I tell these stories.

Jonathan Menjivar

He being Chris.

Sally Gethard

He thinks that they're hysterical. But sometimes I felt like such a failure. You know, why does my own kid hate me? And just torment-- it broke my heart.

Jonathan Menjivar

Sally had had it. She was crying every single day, not sure when or if Chris would ever stop being such a pain in the ass. And then finally, one day Chris's dad Ken decided that he'd had it too.

Chris Gethard

He came home, and my mom was crying. And I was walking around being all cocky about it.

Sally Gethard

And it was just like, enough's enough. And he called Chris over, and he said to him--

Ken Gethard

All right, you. I've been telling you I'm going to take you down to the bad boys' home unless you straighten out. Now I'm taking you down. I made him get in the car with me.

Jonathan Menjivar

The bad boys' home. It wasn't a real place, of course. But just about a mile away from Sally and Ken's house, right on Main Street in West Orange, were these old factories where Thomas Edison used to have a complex. It's a national historic park now where you can see Edison's old lab. There are phonographs and movie cameras and all sorts of stuff he made there. But right next to the Edison complex is a bunch of blooming, degrading, totally abandoned warehouse buildings that Edison left behind. Those buildings, they were where Ken was taking Chris.

Ken Gethard

And I drove up to the back of them. All right, you want to be a bad boy. This is where you have to live now. And I opened the door.

Chris Gethard

He was like get out! Get out! Get out of the car! And I was like, I don't want to! And he was yelling at me to get out. And apparently at one point I went, I want to go home! And he yelled, this is your own home now! This is the bad boys' home. This is where the bad boys live. You're a bad boy. This is your home now. You live here now! And I always remember the story being that he put me out of the car and started to drive away.

Sally Gethard

That's not true.

Jonathan Menjivar

That part's not true, OK.

Sally Gethard

No, that part's not true.

Chris Gethard

I mean, he very clearly made me think he was going to leave me inside this abandoned warehouse.

Ken Gethard

I'm not real proud that I did this. But when you're dealing with a three-year-old, logic doesn't always apply.

Chris Gethard

Whoa, dude. Whoa.

Jonathan Menjivar

I wanted to see the bad boys' home, so I asked Chris to take me out to West Orange, back behind the old warehouses. They're five stories tall, lots of broken windows.

Chris Gethard

This is worse than I remember. There's bullet holes. Those are bullet holes. There's multiple bullet holes. You told me I had to live here. This is insane. I'm really glad we came here. I'm glad this is still standing.

Jonathan Menjivar

Why? What is it about seeing it again?

Chris Gethard

I don't think I've been on this block since that night. I don't think I've actually been behind this building. And it's just so funny, because I know my dad, and he's so nice. It's just so amazing to me that three decades ago, there was a night filled with such rage that we were back here, and he was screaming at me. I must have been such a nightmare for that to have to happen. That is terrifying. This is not cool.

Jonathan Menjivar

Parents, take note-- the bad boys' home, this entire scheme, it did not work on baby Chris. It scared him. But after a couple days, he went right back to his devilish ways. And then, when Sally sent Chris to preschool, the old Chris just disappeared. He turned into a nice little boy. He made friends, didn't bite anyone. He was sweet with Sally.

Chris Gethard

The idea that she maintained any affection for me is a miracle. And I'm actually now-- I'm like a mama's boy. I once broke up with a girl because she accused me of having an oedipal complex. That's how much--

Jonathan Menjivar

Really?

Chris Gethard

--I love my mom. She was wrong. I want to be very clear. I do not have an oedipal complex. But my mother and I are really kind of insanely close right now and have been for most of my life. It was just this one to two year stretch where I really challenged her to have love for me, based on how I behaved.

Jonathan Menjivar

Chris is a comic now, and he's still doing outlandish things. But the only person they're hurting is Chris himself. Recently he burned his body slightly from frostbite after sitting on stage for 45 minutes, completely nude in a tub of ice cream and chocolate sauce.

He was supposed to be a human sundae. You could even take a bite if you wanted. It was gross and weird and maybe a little scary and funny, everything Chris Gethard has wanted to be since he was a little boy.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Menjivar is one of the producers of our program. Chris Gethard's first comedy album, called "My Comedy Album," comes out next month. Coming up, a kid runs the cost-benefit analysis of getting spanked and comes out for spanking. More "Bad Babies" in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Four. This is Gonna Hurt Me a Lot More than It's Gonna Hurt You.

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Bad Babies," stories of people trying to figure out what to do so their kids are not so bad. And the question with some kids, is there nothing you can do? We've arrived at act four of our show. Act Four, This is Gonna Hurt Me a Lot More Than It's Going to Hurt You.

About a year ago, there was this story in the news about a man in his early 30s who was going to be adopted by his long-lost foster mom, now that he was an adult. They hadn't seen each other in a long time. On the CNN story about this, they met up at the airport. It was all hugs and kisses. The man is Maurice Griffin. The mom in the story is Lisa Godbold, though she was Lisa Harris way back when Maurice lived with her.

The TV report said that they had been pried apart. That is, Maurice had been removed from Lisa's home by the foster care system. One of our producers, Sean Cole, caught this story on CNN when it aired. And there was something about it that stuck with him.

Sean Cole

Something that confused me, actually. It was the reason Lisa and Maurice have been pride apart, which when I first heard about it, seemed to upend the very physics of both parenting and being a kid. The short version is that Maurice, when he was eight or nine years old, asked Lisa and her husband, his foster parents, to spank him when he was bad.

In the TV story, Lisa says he very much wanted that which, A, I found hard to believe, and B, what mother and child, foster or otherwise, have a rational discussion about the rules of engagement for when he misbehaves? And that was just number one on a list of a million questions I suddenly had.

Maurice Griffin

Mom, what time do you want to be done with this?

Sean Cole

So I went out to visit them in San Jose, where Lisa lives, and they told me the story starts around 1983 or '84. Lisa says she never even considered being a foster mom or adopting until she heard about Maurice. He was only three or four at that point, staying in a group home.

Lisa Godbold

I just remember that he was a really adorable little boy-- kind of shy and a little bit skittish. And I fell in love. I'll be honest.

Maurice Griffin

I mean, my parents were taken out of the situation altogether. There was no chance of me going back to them, because of the abuse.

Sean Cole

They had abused you?

Maurice Griffin

I don't remember, but I'm pretty sure there was abuse.

Sean Cole

Almost immediately, Lisa thought her family would be a great fit for Maurice, partly because Lisa's white and her husband, Charles Harris, who's passed away now, was black. So their sons were mixed race. Maurice is mixed race. Looking at a picture of the three boys, you'd never guess which one came from a group home. The Harrises started visiting him once a month.

Lisa Godbold

Really, after about the third visit, we were just like, let's just get on with this. Let's just be a regular family. And maybe we were naive, but we just did not feel that he was this very troubled, very damaged kid. We just really felt like he needed very specific attention, and he needed good boundaries.

Sean Cole

But for some bureaucratic reason, it took five years to get Maurice released into the Harrises' care. During that time, they went through the orientation and licensing process to become foster parents and started taking in other foster kids to get some experience. In orientation, they learned that California law prohibits using corporal punishment on foster children-- no spanking. And spanking, Lisa says, was a value in the Harris household.

They were Christians and firmly believed "he that spares the rod hates his son, but he that loves him, chastens him betimes." That's from Proverbs 13. Betimes just means early. Moreover, Lisa says her husband, Charles, truly felt that if his sons weren't disciplined this way, they could actually be in jeopardy later on.

Lisa Godbold

You know, my husband came from a place where, living in the segregated South, disobeying your parents or disobeying a teacher or disobeying the white man could cost you your life. My husband saw lynchings. It was his core belief that sometimes, especially a boy, needs to be spanked, because the world doesn't give timeouts.

Sean Cole

I'm sure you have your opinions on spanking. I have my opinions on spanking. To state the obvious, it's a hugely controversial issue, even though a Harris Poll last year showed 80% of American households think spanking is appropriate sometimes.

That said, there are entire anti-spanking organizations who will point to countless studies about the negative effects of spanking on kids. There's also an army of pro-spankers readily available to debate those folks. What's not up for debate, though, is that in California, spanking your own children-- be they biological or adopted-- was and is legal, as long as it's not excessive and you don't leave a mark. And the Harrises spanked their kids, but only under certain circumstances.

Lisa Godbold

It was always related to one of two things-- outright defiance. You were told specifically to do something and you specifically did not do it. You might get a spanking. And then the second thing was safety. And Lord knows that young boys do lots of things that are dangerous.

Sean Cole

Just so I'm clear, when we're talking about spanking, are we talking about like Dennis the Menace, like I'll put you over my knee and whack you on the bottom?

Lisa Godbold

We had a little-- you know those little balls that have the--

Maurice Griffin

It was a ping pong paddle.

Lisa Godbold

No, it wasn't a ping pong paddle. It's a--

Sean Cole

It's a toy that turns out to be surprisingly hard to describe. But you've it. It's a paddle with a rubber ball attached to it by an elastic band. They took off the ball.

Lisa Godbold

Three swats on the butt, and that was it.

Sean Cole

With some talking before and after to make sure you understood why it was happening. But since they weren't allowed to spank Maurice, the Harrises came up with a bunch of alternative punishments for him.

Maurice Griffin

I had to pull weeds in their backyard. So that took hours. I'll never have a garden. Mom knows that. [LAUGHS] And push ups, and essays-- so they were all very time consuming. So spanking was a no brainer for me. You know, you get your spanking. You reflect for five minutes. And then you go out the door and get to playing again.

Sean Cole

It takes a pretty shrewd little kid to do a cost-benefit analysis on spanking. But the minimal time commitment it requires was actually the smaller issue for Maurice. Not being spanked like his foster brothers set him apart. It put the emphasis on foster instead of brother. And then it wasn't just the way they were punished. His brothers-- Gideon and Spencer were their names-- they got to do fun things that Maurice didn't.

Maurice Griffin

Like they would sit in the front seat if Mom wasn't there. Spencer got to sit in the front seat. At nine years old, this was a big deal. Dad had a drop-top Mustang. I wanted to sit in the front seat.

Sean Cole

Spencer got to sit in the front seat because he was the oldest. But Maurice was actually a little older than Spencer. Spencer also got to go with his dad to the flea market at 5:00 in the morning on weekends. Maurice would wake up and watch them leave together. It wasn't fair.

Now adopting Maurice had been the plan all along. And at one point, Lisa and Charles asked him how he felt about the idea, just to make sure that's what he wanted too. At which point Maurice basically said, OK, here are my terms.

Maurice Griffin

And I said to them, and I think I kind of threw them off, was that I wanted to be treated like your real sons. And they thought that they been. They'd show me their love and whatnot. And I said, well, there were certain things.

Lisa Godbold

You know, I want to ride shotgun every once in a while. And I wanted to be able to go with Dad by myself once in a while. And I don't want to have to do push ups. If they get a spanking, I'd rather just get a spanking, not have to do push ups or pull weeds, because I don't think that's fair.

It was really all about fairness. That was really what the conversation was about. That's all I remember about the conversation.

Sean Cole

Is that what you remember?

Maurice Griffin

Absolutely. They both told me is our real sons do get spanked. And basically I'm saying, yes, please.

Sean Cole

It actually caused Lisa and Charles a lot of stress. They thought they should spank him sometimes. Suddenly he thought they should spank him sometimes. And yet they knew the rules. They finally decided to consider it as a possibility. Spanking was a pretty rare occasion in the Harris household anyway. But then there was this one time, Christmas.

Maurice Griffin

I can tell that story.

Sean Cole

Please.

Maurice Griffin

Yes, this is at grandma's house. I'm pretty sure--

Sean Cole

Maurice and Spencer tried to fix a broken yo-yo string by melting tape around the two ends. It melted and dripped onto the carpet.

Maurice Griffin

It smouldered a spot in the carpet. And--

Sean Cole

And? And?

Lisa Godbold

He got a spanking.

Maurice Griffin

I got a spanking.

Sean Cole

Did it hurt?

Maurice Griffin

Ah, it was punishment. It's not supposed to feel good. But it wasn't abusive.

Sean Cole

Was it better than push ups and pulling weeds?

Maurice Griffin

Yes.

Sean Cole

Which, to be clear, he still had to do sometimes. All of the various punishments applied to all the kids now. And they might have gone on that way if nobody had said anything. But as shrewd as Maurice was, he was still nine years old, and he was still getting monthly visits from one of his social workers.

Maurice Griffin

So she came and asked how everything's going. And I said everything was going great. The conversation about adoption had come up. And she said, oh, so what does that entail? And I said, oh, I get to sit in the front seat. I get to go to the flea market with Dad every other weekend, and said, yeah, and they're even spanking me. It was nonchalant. So she was very interested in that. Tell me more about that.

Sean Cole

According to Lisa, this particular social worker was very anti-corporal punishment to begin with. Lisa says the woman got angry and adamant.

Lisa Godbold

And we said, well, we believe that we understand what is good for Maurice. And if we're going to adopt him, that we can treat him the same way that we treat our own children. And so then she said, well, so are you saying that you use corporal punishment on your own children? And we said, yes. You know, we've always been very clear about that. And she said, well, I'm not really even sure that that's legal. And if you continue to do that, I may have to call in social services and examine your own family practices.

Sean Cole

Lisa says she got scared. She was only 24 or 25 at the time. It was she and her husband against this huge bureaucracy that, for all she knew, could take Gideon and Spencer, the other two boys, away from her, even though she knew spanking them was legal. They considered lying. OK, fine, we'll never spank Maurice. But that didn't seem right. Meanwhile, more and more voices on the social welfare side were getting involved.

Lisa Godbold

Most of the conversation was, won't you please change your mind?

Sean Cole

Asking you to change your mind?

Lisa Godbold

Oh yeah, like just do this. You just need to do this. And we just felt like it wasn't right.

Sean Cole

And you felt like it wasn't right because you were so hard on your convictions or because--

Lisa Godbold

It would make Maurice feel like he didn't belong. That was the most important thing. So it wasn't so much based on, you know, oh we absolutely believe that God says that you should spank your children. It wasn't that. It was the deeper issue of love means certain things to certain people. And you have to listen to the heart of your loved ones, whether it's your child or your spouse or your parents. What love is to them, that's what it is.

Sean Cole

I talked with one of the social workers who was on Maurice's case at the time-- not the one that got angry, another one. She was much more pragmatic. She said she didn't understand why the Harrises didn't simply wait until the adoption went through to start spanking Maurice, not that she was recommending spanking.

But Lisa said the adoption could have taken years. He might have been 17 by that time. Both of them told me the whole situation was heartbreaking. Maurice, of course, didn't know any of this was happening. All he remembers is one of the social workers showing up again for one of their check ins.

Maurice Griffen

I was in the living room, but my back was to where the door was, was like right here. And so she was talking with me so that I couldn't see what was going on behind me. And at first, it was, how's everything going? I'm saying great. Everything's awesome. And then it was like some small talk. And then it was like, do you want to go to McDonald's?

Sean Cole

Maurice got in the car, not knowing that all of his belongings were already in the trunk. The caseworker didn't break the news to him until they were on the freeway.

Sean Cole

Is an eight or nine-year-old kid equipped to, in any way, help determine how he or she should be disciplined?

Lisa Godbold

You know, that's a really good question that I've thought about since knowing that we were going to do this interview. Looking back now, I would probably say no, especially knowing the gravity of what would happen to him afterward. No. The flip side is, had we not and he did stay in our home but continued to feel unequal, I don't know what those consequences would have been for him emotionally either. I don't have the answer.

Sean Cole

From there, Maurice bounded around from group home, to foster home, to group home. He was basically wild, always acting out. The Harrises were able to visit him at first and talk to him on the phone. And after those phone calls and visits, he'd really act out, frustrated that he couldn't stay with them.

Lisa says the house parents at one facility did a kind of backwards math, figured the Harrises were causing his outbursts somehow. Suddenly they weren't able to bring him home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. And little by little, they lost touch completely. Maurice's main caseworker kept trying to find a solid living situation for him. She was never really able to.

Maurice Griffen

But they wanted to. They really wanted me to be happy somewhere else. That's why they kept putting me in a lot of foster homes. But that was like I was cheating on my family. I have a family. Why are you trying to give me another one? In my young mind, I just thought that if I don't behave anywhere that I'll be back with my family.

Sean Cole

Oh, so if you were impossible to care for--

Maurice Griffen

Right, impossible. And I was impossible. They'll run out of places to send me and send me home.

Sean Cole

By the time he was about 16, Maurice was so out of control he wound up in the military-style boot camp for troubled kids in Nevada. He wasn't spanked there, of course, but he says their restraint tactics were brutal. Police have investigated reports of abuse at this place in the past.

Maurice ultimately escaped. He says the juvenile hall in Reno refused to send him back because of all of his bruises. I genuinely think that the juvenile system was trying to protect Maurice when it took him away from the Harrises. But given what happened, it's hard to think that they succeeded.

Around the time he turned 18, Maurice started actively-- not to say doggedly-- searching for the Harrises again. He combed through phone books, searched all of their names online-- Lisa and Charles Harris separate, together, Gideon, Spencer. He even made a pilgrimage back to their house at one point, the house he grew up in for 18 months. They didn't live there anymore.

This also happened to be around the time that Charles died of a heart attack. Lisa eventually got remarried and changed her name, moved to a different state. Maurice kept looking for her through college and after. He never stopped. And then finally, about 20 years after he first went to live with her, he opened up his Myspace account. And there was a message from Lisa.

Maurice Griffen

I sat there. I just remember staring at the screen, like I've been looking for so long, and there she is. And I picked up the phone and I called the number. And she picked up, and she said, hi, son. And I said, I'm going to have to call you back. I just hung up the phone.

Sean Cole

It's hard to carry on a coherent conversation when you're crying your eyes out.

Lisa Godbold

I really didn't know if he would even want to have any contact with me. I just assumed that he would look at me as another person that abandoned him. I mean, that's the way I would feel. But I think that every person, especially kids that are trying to survive in the system, they write a script for themselves. And they play that script over and over again, and that's how they survive. And I'm very blessed that the script that Maurice wrote for me is that I was his mom and I loved him.

Sean Cole

It's so good. It sounds like you blame yourself more than he blames you.

Lisa Godbold

I do.

Sean Cole

Can I stop for a second?

Maurice Griffen

Ah, yeah, maybe.

Sean Cole

When I was interviewing them at Lisa's house, the lawn mower guy started making all this noise outside. So we took a break. Maurice got up, grabbed a photograph, and brought it over.

Sean Cole

Oh, wow. That's a beautiful picture.

It was a family shot, present day, Lisa standing next to all of her sons-- Gideon, Spencer, and Maurice. And even now--

Sean Cole

Yeah, you're right. I cannot.

Lisa Godbold

You really can't tell.

Sean Cole

I really, really can't tell.

Maurice Griffen

Really, really can't tell.

Sean Cole

You can't tell which one of them is adopted.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our show.

Act Five. We Are Fine Parents.

Ira Glass

Act Five, We Are Fine Parents. We close today's program with this fictional story of a bad baby by John Jodzio, read first by actress Sarah Mollo-Christensen.

Sarah Mollo

Our baby swallowed a ninja star, and then it swallowed a big, light button. It seemed fine, breathing and everything. We checked. We are fine parents. We weren't too upset about the button, but the ninja start was one of my husband's favorites, really light, and made from this tungsten polymer that was said to be space age. He used it in the league that he was in on Thursday night. "I'll never ever find another one like that again," he told me privately.

The same thing happened with our nail clippers. One night I found the baby standing on top of our bathroom sink, rifling through the medicine cabinet. "The nail clippers are gone," my husband told me, after taking stock. "They were right here on this shelf, and now they're not." "Maybe you left them downstairs," I offered. "Maybe you're mistaken. Maybe you left them somewhere, and you forgot. Maybe you were there one."

My husband had just gotten out of bed, and his hair was matted down. It looked like when a helicopter comes down suddenly in high grass, pushed out in spots, flattened down in others. "Whose side are you on here?" he asked me. "No one's," I told him, "and everyone's."

Soon my husband and the baby were eying each other in a manner I did not like. One afternoon, my husband searched the baby's bassinet. "This is a random search," he told the baby. "It could occur at any time. That's what random means, OK?" The baby took its revenge for the search by swallowing my husband's wrist watch. "It's on," my husband told me. "That was an heirloom."

More things disappeared inside the baby-- pellets of rock salt, packs of Post-It notes, a diamond solitaire necklace-- gone, finito, see ya. Sometimes I put my head right up to the baby stomach, my ears to its skin, listened carefully to its innards to see if I heard any of these things moving along.

Finally, I started leaving things out for the baby to swallow-- a puzzle piece with no matching puzzle, a broken half of a letter opener, a combination lock to which we'd forgotten the combination. I put these things in plain view. "Here," I said. I gave the baby one of those sudden, "hey hey, over here" moves you give with your hands. No dice.

"Maybe it's just a phase," I offered later that night after the baby was asleep. "Maybe we'll look back on this and laugh." "Does this feel like a phase to you?" my husband asked. "To me, it feels like a calculated effort to strip us of our authority while simultaneously crushing our souls."

I did not want to think badly of our baby, with its sleepy hazel eyes that resembled my husband's, with its mouth that was clearly mine. That said, I'd seen too many looks of gleeful malice pass across its face not to wonder if this was a brilliant plan to drive us slowly insane. "Maybe we could swallow something the baby loves," I said. "Maybe we could get the baby to understand us better if we stoop to its level."

The next morning, my husband swallowed a slice of the baby's blankie. "We'll continue down this path until we agree to a truce," he explained to the baby. "A truce is an agreement between two parties to stop fighting, all right?" The baby squawked incoherently. It swallowed the salt shaker in protest. I'd had enough.

I picked up the baby's favorite stuffed animal, this elephant called Mr. Pickles. I motioned to my husband to come with me to the bathroom. The baby followed. My husband held down the toilet handle. I held Mr. Pickles over the bowl. "I'll do it," I told the baby. "Don't think I won't." My hand was shaking, but the baby could tell I was serious. Soon the baby's eyes softened. It held out its arms.

"Truce?" my husband said. The baby nodded. My husband and I smiled and nodded at each other, happy to finally have leverage, and handed back Mr. Pickles to the baby. "We are fine parents," we said, as we watched Mr. Pickles quickly disappear down the baby's throat.

"Let's get some fresh air," my husband said the next day. We walked to a playground a few blocks away, put the baby in the sandbox. While we stood there, a little red-haired baby reached into a woman's purse and started to swallow things left and right-- bobby pins, a take out menu, her keys. The woman noticed us looking on.

"We thought we were the only ones," my husband said. "You're not special," the woman laughed. "All of them do it."

My husband and I looked around at the chaos of the playground. We saw the weary faces of the parents, the babies running rampant, the adults at their mercy. Soon, our baby got bored with the sandbox and walked over to us. He reached up for a hug and, of course, we hugged him.

Ira Glass

Sarah Mollo-Christensen, reading a short story by John Jodzio. He's the author of two short story collections, including If You Lived Here You'd Already Home, where a version of this story appeared.

Our program was produced today by Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, and me with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjiva, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder, production help from Alison Davis. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is 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.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

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, he's a really adventurous guy. But we had dinner the other the night. He was strangely afraid of the pate.

Cheryl

I don't want cat food for supper again.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.