Transcript

525:

Call For Help
Transcript

Originally aired 05.09.2014

Correction: This episode originally contained a factual error. In Act Two, former Sen. Alan Simpson originally said that Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas watched pornographic movies together. During the Clarence Thomas hearings, Anita Hill testified that Thomas described scenes from pornographic movies to her. They did not watch pornography together. We have cut Senator Simpson's incorrect statement from the story and removed it from the transcript.

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Maybe you saw this story about a month ago. This couple was sailing across the Pacific Ocean on a boat with their two young daughters. And one of the kids was three and the other was just a baby, like a year old. And the baby got sick and they called in rescuers. Four Air National Guardsmen parachuted in. A Navy vessel traveled 2,000 miles to reach them.

And this got a lot of play, can I say kind of weirdly, in newspapers, online, on morning TV.

George Stephanopoulos

Emergency medics parachuting in to save a sick baby on board a sailboat adrift at sea. ABC's Martha Raddatz here with that story. And Martha, so many questions about what that family was doing out there in the first place.

Martha Raddatz

So many questions this morning George. This rescue was as harrowing as they come.

Ira Glass

On Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos and Martha Raddatz updated viewers on the rescue. But also it raised the question that seemed to animate a lot of the interest in the story. That question, were these bad parents?

Martha Raddatz

--but their trip immediately sparking criticism on the family's Facebook page. One person calling them irresponsible parents. Another writing, how selfish to jeopardize the lives of their tiny and helpless children. The family's boat has now sunk, along with everything on it. But this was indeed a very costly rescue. Everybody is very happy the baby was saved. But I don't know about you guys, but when I have children by a swimming pool I'm nervous. Don't know how they did it.

George Stephanopoulos

Yeah. I don't know how they could do it at all. OK Martha, thanks very much.

Ira Glass

The front page New York Times story on the family was headlined, quote, "Two tots, a Sailboat, and a Storm over Parenting," and quoted experienced sailors arguing pro and con weather was OK to take a baby to sea. People went online and they read the blogs that these parents were keeping of their voyage online. And what a surprise, this being the internet they found things to get angry at. Comments on the internet ranged from, why take a baby out to see when she's a baby? After all, she won't remember it. To a point a lot of people made, quote, "This family should be forced to pay for the rescue. Who in the hell takes two little kids on a voyage like this."

So that is how the whole thing looked from dry land. But 1,200 miles out in the middle of the ocean in the cabin of a 36 foot boat, it looked pretty different. The parents, their names are Eric and Charlotte Kaufman, say that a whole bunch of things had gone wrong besides the sick baby. The boat was taking on water. Eric is an experienced sailor with a Coast Guard Master's License. It takes 360 days on the water to get that, and it means that he can captain a commercial vessel, which he has done.

And he says that when things started to get bad on his sailboat, he started thinking about this piece of gear they have on the boat. It looks like a fluorescent green Big Gulp cup with electronics inside and a little antenna that's sticks out. It's called an EPIRB. EPIRB stands for emergency position indicating radio beacon. And basically when all else fails you break a seal, you push a button, and this device transmits your coordinates to authorities who know that it means that you are in trouble and they need to send help. And on day 16 of the trip-- well here's Eric and then also Charlotte.

Eric Kaufman

I just looked over at the bulkhead and there's the EPIRB sitting up there staring back at me. And I ran through it in my head a few times, like have we done everything we reasonably can do? Is this real? Is this really happening? We're not sleep deprived. This is a real thing.

We did the math that we were going to lose the boat. I was going to have to scuttle it. I mean, we were married and lived on our boat. We were engaged and lived on our boat for that. Both of our kids grew up on that boat. And we were in the middle of crossing an ocean going to the South Pacific. I mean, how idyllic can you get, right? They write songs about that stuff. And instead we were about to push this button that shifts that whole reality into a whole different reality, and a reality we didn't want.

Ira Glass

This eventually became national news, the fact that you called for help. Did you have any sense of, OK, so we push this button and now we're famous?

Charlotte Kaufman

No. Never. We were we were completely thrown aback by that. We thought some of the sailing message boards are going to have a thread about this.

Ira Glass

After all, they knew about other boats that had called for help, and it never seemed to land anybody on morning television, or get talked about on The View, or even make the paper. And as for bringing two small children with them, it literally didn't occur to them that that could be an issue for anybody because they knew lots of other families through sailing message boards that they were on with kids just as young as theirs.

Charlotte Kaufman

Oh yes. In fact three other boats did the Pacific crossing this year. The youngest baby was four months old. And in fact, our daughter was the oldest baby. The one-year-old, she was the oldest. The rest were all younger.

Ira Glass

We reached somebody from the American Boat and Yacht Council, which writes the safety guidelines for these kinds of boats, and he confirmed that there are in fact thousands of families living on boats, tooling around the world with children of all ages. And he said that what the Kaufmans did was not unusual at all. In fact, he said, however it may sound to people who do not sail, crossing an ocean on a sailboat is routine. He said it was on the adventurous side of routine, but it was routine.

So when Eric and Charlotte Kaufman got to safety and realized the reaction their story was getting, they put out a statement on the internet. It said, quote, "For those who are more critical, we ask that you kindly await all the details." They thought that if people heard the whole story, everything that happened to them, their choices would seem reasonable. But they didn't say any more. They didn't say anything else. They gave no interviews explaining what really happened until today.

Today on our program we have them and their story. And we also have other stories of people calling for help. It turns out that when you call for help it can lead you to places that you never suspected that it possibly ever could. Including, by the way, we have former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson stepping in to lend a hand about a matter that is not the kind of matter that one usually turns to the United States Senate for. Not actually the kind of thing that the Senate usually handles at all. Stay with us.

Act One. When May Day Falls in April.

Ira Glass

Act One, When May Day Falls in April. OK. Some basic facts about Eric and Charlotte Kaufman. First off, OK, whatever impressions you have of people who own boats, they are not rich. The boat is their house. They have no other home. This is where their savings went.

Before they set sail last month, Eric made his living doing a computer job for a financial services company. Eric and Charlotte had been preparing for this trip seriously since 2010 when they started buying safety gear and did all the careful steps you do to make a ship as safe as possible, replace the rigging and chain plates, that kind of thing. The plan was they were going to travel to the Pacific Islands, make it to New Zealand before November, then live in New Zealand for a couple years, and then on to Micronesia and Indonesia, then who knows where.

When I asked Eric how long the trip was going to be, he didn't have an answer. Years for sure. The idea was they would head out and then just figured it out. Which made me especially interested in the moment that they decided to give all that up and call for help. What happened that made them abandon everything they had been hoping for and planning for for years and years?

Well, Eric said that one of the big problems began the day before they called for help. Basically they sailed into a part of the ocean called the Intertropical Convergence Zone where they hit some nasty weather and waves. Not horrible Eric said. You'd expect this kind of thing on an ocean crossing. But they were getting rained on every 30 to 35 minutes with squalls, waves are going over the boat, covering the deck. And then-- here's the bad part-- they get broached, which is sailing language for a wave pushed their boat onto its side, just for a few seconds, and then it righted itself.

Charlotte Kaufman

We got knocked over several times. And people have asked Eric, were you scared out there? And Eric always says, no, I wasn't scared. But I was in the cabin with the girls, and one time our oldest was going to the bathroom by herself-- because she's three, she's almost four, and she want's to do everything by herself-- and when that wave hit it's the scariest sound.

Ira Glass

Because it's just a big bang?

Charlotte Kaufman

Yeah. It's this huge bang. It's like you were in a car accident. You're expecting to go up and see who just T-boned you. But it was a wave.

Ira Glass

And so you guys are downstairs in the cabin and Eric is upstairs driving the boat. Is he upstairs out on the deck when the boat gets turned on its side?

Charlotte Kaufman

Yes. He was definitely on the side decks. But he goes out there clipped in, and we all maintain the rule, one hand for you, one hand for the ship. So he's always holding on.

Ira Glass

So he's clipped on with straps and stuff, so he can't just go into the water?

Charlotte Kaufman

Right. Yeah. I think the hardest part for people who don't sail to really imagine about this trip is that you're constantly in motion. You're burning calories just by sitting because your body is constantly fighting to keep you in an upright position. We could never stand still.

When I'm making food, I have to brace my feet at a really far angle, or I had to wear a belt, a galley belt, just to stay upright. We would have to-- our youngest daughter, she slept in a little chair, a little kid seat, strapped down in her bunk because, if we had just put her in her berth, her body would literally have been just rolling five inches. Rolling five inches. Rolling, because she was too little to lay spread eagle and brace herself at night to sleep.

Ira Glass

Now, to get broached by itself is not such a big deal. Eric says lots of boats get broached.

Eric Kaufman

Yeah. I mean, you want to minimize it as much as you possibly can. And you probably did something wrong, or you could have been more active on the helm, or something like that. But it's not like, oh, my gosh, this is horrible. No boat has ever experienced this. That's not the case. It's sailing across an ocean. It's what it is. If you don't want to take hits like that, don't go across an ocean.

Ira Glass

The problem, he says, is that when their boat got knocked on to its side, it put the boom into the water. Now I didn't know what a boom was, and so he had to explain that to me. If you picture a triangular sail on a sailboat, there's the mast which runs vertically from the deck, sticks into the sky. And then the horizontal pole that runs along the bottom of the sail, parallel to the water, that's the boom. And when they got broached, the boom went into the water. And when the boat bounced back upright-- the boom is connected to the mast and the rigging, which is connected to the hull with wires and chain plates-- and with all that pressure on the boom--

Eric Kaufman

That basically yanked on enough stuff that it caused breaks in the hull in a couple different places, which-- I knew where a couple of them were. And then some of them actually just proceeded to get worse and worse. And then at that point we started having a lot of leaking at the hull deck joint on the starboard quarter. Sorry for turning into boat nerd on you, but that's-- I think we ended up maybe about taking on 60 or 70 gallons a day, which isn't really that bad if you think about how quick you can move the bucket if somebody put a gun to your head and said, move that water.

Ira Glass

He had a big, heavy manual pump on board that pumped a gallon with each stroke. So 60 to 70 gallons took a few minutes. No biggie.

Yeah. The boat's not going to sink at that point. We're not all going to die because we've got a bunch of water coming in. It's a pain in the ass, but it's not the end of the world. There you are. It was under control.

So that was one thing, but there was another. Their baby daughter Lyra was sick. Now, contrary to what you might have read or heard about this part of the story if you followed this story at all, the baby was not sick when they started their trip. She'd had salmonella poisoning before they set out on the trip, but they waited for her to get better. They delayed their trip. And they only went to sea after they got a clean bill of health from her doctor.

For the first week of the trip she was healthy. But then, seven days in, she got a rash. Here's Charlotte.

Charlotte Kaufman

Kids get rashes, so we didn't freak out. But then her ears started to smell like cheese. At first we thought it was because we weren't bathing enough. We were all pretty dirty. So we cleaned her ears up, and they still smelled like cheese. So now we've got two things going on. And then she started getting diarrhea. And then she started acting lethargic. And when your kid starts to act differently, that's when you need to really pay attention.

Ira Glass

So they got on the satellite phone and they called Lyra's doctor. And he said to give her amoxicillin, an antibiotic. Which they do for a couple days, and it doesn't work. The kid's still sick. And now they don't know how worried they should be.

Charlotte Kaufman

With kids, within 24 hours you should see results with antibiotics. And there was no improvement.

Ira Glass

Now the two days that Lyra is taking antibiotics are the same two days that the boat enters those rough seas where they're getting broached and water starts to leak in. And so, on the morning of their 16th day at sea, Eric decides, as safety precaution, to advise the Coast Guard of what is happening, just in case things go south.

Eric Kaufman

We're just going to let them know, hey, this is the situation, this is our medical situation, this is who's on board, this is the sea state we're at right now, so that if this gets any worse, they have some context of what's actually happening.

Charlotte Kaufman

And he called them with our satellite phone and gave them that update.

Eric Kaufman

--which, in the Maritime world, it's not the most common thing to do, but it's certainly smiled upon to do that.

Charlotte Kaufman

And they said, OK, we're going to talk to the doctor here. Leave your satellite phone on for a certain amount of time and we'll call you back. And when we hung up with them, the satellite phone never worked again after that call with the Coast Guard. We weren't able to reach anybody else. It just said SIM card error, SIM card error over, and over, and over.

Eric Kaufman

And I tried everything. I took the thing out, and cleaned it, and prayed to it, and begged it, and put it back in. And I tried dialing the emergency numbers, and then it was like, sorry, from where you are you can't dial the emergency number. And I'm like, this is so awesome.

Ira Glass

They found out later what happened. Apparently, a week after they'd headed out to sea, their satellite phone company changed the brand of SIM card that it used. And the company mailed new SIM cards to everybody who had a phone through the mail, the regular mail, even though people with satellite phones-- the whole point of a satellite phone-- is that you're not anywhere normal. Right? You're off far away on a mountain, or a desert, or anywhere that regular phones do not work.

Eric Kaufman

So they mailed us a new SIM card, and then they deactivated them a week after they mailed them. So there was just some guy in some office somewhere that was drinking his coffee, and at the exact same time I hung up the phone with the Coast Guard, he like, ba-dupe, pressed this little button, and then that's it. Game over.

But have no fail, we have a long range radio. There's two different radios on the boat, and we use that. But that seawater that I was talking about coming down the starboard quarter, well, the battery compartment is under that stuff and so was the radio fittings. So all the radio, over the last few days now, was all getting bathed slowly but surely in a nice coating of seawater. And I get on the long range radio and I started issuing pan-pan distress calls, which is like the step under a Mayday, on the emergency--

Ira Glass

Pan-pan?

Eric Kaufman

Pan-pan, yeah. Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan. This is the sailing vessel Rebel Heart at position da-da-da-da-da. Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK.

Eric Kaufman

So we started doing the pan-pans and didn't get anything back.

Ira Glass

Does that mean that the radio isn't working, or does that mean that no one is close enough to hear you?

Eric Kaufman

I don't know.

Charlotte Kaufman

I thought, how are we going to do this? I made him do the math. I said, how much longer do we have? if she is sick and she doesn't get better, will we be there in a week? And he did the math, and three weeks, and I thought, oh gosh, how are we going to do this?

Ira Glass

You wouldn't be there for three weeks. Wow.

Charlotte Kaufman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Now, it's not just that they're three weeks from where they're going. Where they're going is incredibly rustic-- the Marquesas island chain in French Polynesia.

Eric Kaufman

A beautiful place, but a place that is not notorious for its medical services. Right? Like they don't have a blood testing facility there. Right? The first place we were going to go to doesn't even accept-- they don't even use money.

Ira Glass

So he and Charlotte sit in the boat's cabin and they talk. He remembers he had his logbook in his hand.

Eric Kaufman

So at that point you've got a boat that isn't horribly bad. But you've got a boat that has flooding that your automatic bilge pumps won't keep up with anymore. No one would go to sea on a boat like that. It's not good. It's not fatal. But it's not good. We have unknown, other structural damage that's causing water to come in, beyond what I've been able to see. Yeah.

One of our solar panels was ripped off. Some of our electronics were starting to fail because the water was going into the battery compartment. Our satellite phone was out. So now if we needed any other kind of medical care at all-- if somebody bonked their head, anything-- my child had whatever medical stuff was going on with her. The symptoms are pretty clear and laid out as they are. And I don't see it getting any better.

Ira Glass

When you lay it out this way, it seems like it wasn't actually a difficult decision. It seems like it was obvious what to do, like you didn't actually have to struggle. Do I have that right?

Eric Kaufman

Yeah. It really took about 10 minutes once I realized-- I mean, really once you know that you have a person on board that is sick with an ailment that is not responding to the treatment that is provided to it, and you no longer have access to medical care, and you won't for weeks to go, and that that person is-- once you know that right there, what else would you do? I mean, what would you do? Would you just keep sailing for three weeks?

Ira Glass

Now, of course, if they take action, if they use the EPIRB-- remember the EPIRB is the emergency device that calls for help-- nobody is going to tow their boat to safety, they're boat which they had been living on, their boat that was their whole life. Nobody was going to pick them up, and save their daughter, and then return them to their boat later.

Charlotte Kaufman

And at that point, he said we've got to use the EPIRB. And I had walked forward in the boat, which is a challenge. Forward is always the bumpiest part of the boat. And I was kind of feigning like I needed to go to the bathroom, but I was really just trying to walk away from the decision. And he just followed me forward and sat there talking and saying this is what we've got to do. And I'm standing there holding onto the boat, bumping up and down because I'm in the bumpiest part of the boat. And you know that if you hit the EPIRB, help will come. But when you hit it you also know that [VOICE BREAKS] your home is gone.

Ira Glass

Damn.

Charlotte Kaufman

Yeah. [SNIFFLES]

So that's the hard part. You're safe. Well, hopefully you'll be safe. But that's it.

Eric Kaufman

Logistically, I go, and take it, and strap it up to deck up on one of the handrails up on the foredeck So it has a little sticker that says, keep a clear view of the sky. And then it just sits there strobing, which is interesting because you wonder, is it actually doing anything or is it just strobing.

Charlotte Kaufman

And then you wait. There's nothing, no magical sparkles that come out. There's nothing that says, we got it. We got your message. You just have to trust that somebody, somewhere, in front of a computer is getting this message and it's going to help coordinate getting you help.

Ira Glass

So that was in the morning of their 16th day at sea that they pushed the button on the EPIRB. It took until near sunset for anything to happen. First there was a burst of static on the radio, which they thought was dead, the radio. They hadn't heard anything from anybody on it in a week. It was a plane with rescuers saying they were on their way.

Eric Kaufman

And then this C130 just comes screeching out of the middle of nowhere and buzzes us-- it seems like maybe 100 feet, 200 feet off the deck-- really close, comes right on top of us. And then in my head, on the one hand you want to start singing the national anthem. Right? You're seriously like, dude, no corniness aside, this is awesome. I live in a country that can do this. This button I pressed caused this plane to show up. And then you start wondering, you're like, wait a second. It's a plane and we're on a boat, and we need to get out of here. How is that going to work?

Ira Glass

Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Kaufman

What? You know. Sure enough, they throw smoke grenades out the back and out come-- they kick some gear out the back that comes out on a parachute. So then these four guys all jump out of the back with their parachute gear and they have a Zodiac, an inflatable boat with and outboard on the back. And they press some buttons and [ENGINE NOISE] this thing pops to life and they all hop in it. And then, long story short, they got close to us. We got close to them. And then we bring these guys on board and they just hop on the boat. And then one of the guys immediately went down and started working with Lyra.

Ira Glass

This is the baby.

Eric Kaufman

Yeah. They're all very highly trained medical professionals. So one of the guys just immediately went to her.

Ira Glass

The Pacific Ocean is so big that it took three days for a Navy vessel to get to them at full speed. The four guys stayed on the sailboat with the Kaufmans during that time with all their gear in the tiny, non-air conditioned cabin. Six adults and two kids in this small boat. Eric says everybody got to know everybody pretty well.

When they transferred off the boat to the USS Vandergrift, Charlotte had the kids say goodbye to their home, and she said goodbye herself. Eric cut some hoses inside the boat which flooded it with seawater and sank his own boat. He didn't watch it go down though.

It's been a month now. They never did figure out what exactly Lyra had that made her so sick. And she's still not completely recovered, but she's doing better. And Charlotte and Eric say they do not regret the decision they made.

Eric Kaufman

And I don't really need anybody to validate that. I know there's people out there who have their thoughts and their commentary about things, sending emails that me and my family should go drown. I couldn't really give a [BLEEP] less what a whole bunch of people think. I mean, we were where we were. We had the situation that we had, and here we are.

Ira Glass

Alive.

Eric Kaufman

Yeah. So I could flip it around the other way and say I'm a 35-year-old man who made his family homeless. If I'm feeling negative about it, I could look at it that way too.

Ira Glass

Eric Kaufman. Coming up, Senators gone wild. Well, one Senator anyway. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Government Assistance.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Call for Help. We've arrived at act two of our program. Act Two, Government Assistance.

This next story is about what might be one of the strangest constituent requests of a politician ever. it's told to us by a fellow Public Radio reporter from WNYC, Anna Sale.

Anna Sale

One day last fall my cellphone went dead at work. I left it to charge on a co-workers desk. When I picked it up a few hours later, there was this odd message.

Alan Simpson

Ms. Anna Sale. This is Alan K. Simpson in the wilds of Wyoming. Former US Senator. I need to talk to you about an urgent matter. Nothing life threatening at all, I can assure you. But give me a call.

Anna Sale

I was covering politics at the time, but there was no reason that former Republican Senator Alan Simpson should be calling me out of the blue, urgent or otherwise.

Alan Simpson

Anyway, give me a buzz at your convenience. As I say, I'm in Laramie right now, I was in San Francisco yesterday. Headed for Washington Saturday. And so there your are. OK. Thank you. Bye-bye.

Anna Sale

I wanted to call him back immediately, but it was weird enough that I waited a few minutes until I was out of the office. It was the end of the day. I was on my way home walking up Sixth Avenue in Manhattan toward the subway. Senator Simpson, I said, this is Anna Sale. He sounded delighted to hear back from me. And then he started telling me why he called.

It didn't have anything to do with the national debt or anything else Al Simpson is known for in politics. He wanted to talk to me about my ex-boyfriend Arthur. In other words, Senator Alan Simpson, a total stranger, wanted to talk to me about my love life. I better explain.

A month before, Arthur and I had broken up. We'd been mostly long distance for two years. He's an ecologist, and he was spending a lot of time in Wyoming doing field work. He was finally going to move to New York to be with me, but I had the feeling it wasn't for keeps. I asked him if we were going to buy a couch together and he dodged the question. So on the day I was going to sign a lease for our new apartment, we got on the phone and agreed to call it off. After we hung up, I backed out of the apartment and he had to deal with a half-packed U-haul in Wyoming.

Arthur

No. It was not half packed. It was entirely packed, dammit.

Anna Sale

This is Arthur. Our breakup was one of those classic, I love you, but this isn't going to work, breakups. Our version was, we're in our 30s. I'm a reporter in the city. You study wildlife in the wild. This doesn't have a future.

Arthur returned the U-haul. And just a tip if you're ever in this situation, he got all his money back when he mentioned the breakup. A few weeks went by, then Arthur texted and called. He'd changed his mind. He wanted to get back together. Arthur kept insisting he had a plan for how our lives really could fit together. I thought he was panicking about being alone.

Arthur

We were just in different places. You thought it was impossible for me to figure all that out, and I knew it was possible.

Anna Sale

And you remember what you said to me?

Arthur

Well I basically said, this is not the way it's going to happen.

Anna Sale

No. It was even sadder. [CHUCKLES]

Arthur

Oh really?

Anna Sale

You said, Anna, I know you're the only one for me. And I'm one of the only ones for you. I know that.

Arthur

Oh, God. [CHUCKLES] Wow.

Anna Sale

It was so hard, so sad, but I just wasn't convinced. So I pushed ahead. I got busy with work. I even went on a few dates. I heard from friends that Arthur was a mess.

Arthur

And at some point I was just sitting there and I just thought, well, I can't-- there's no argument that I can make. I've said everything I can say. So either she changes her mind or something else has to happen. Something funny has to happen. Things had just gotten too hard, and they had gotten too-- our story had just become too--

Anna Sale

Heavy.

Arthur

Heavy. "Dear Senator Simpson, the love of my life, Ms. Anna Sale, lives in New York City. We've known each other for two years and three months. I love Wyoming and have indulged its pull a little too much. And so a month ago, Anna stopped believing I would ever close the distance to be with her, and she cut me loose. I don't blame her. I was being a fool and I took her for granted, but now I see, eyes wide open, my mistake."

Alan Simpson

"Senator Simpson-- this is the one-- I poured my heart and soul into Wyoming for six years. I hope you will consider this as a favor for a man who's risked it all for that place. Perhaps"--

Anna Sale

Arthur wanted Al Simpson to call me and invite me to a ball in Wyoming. All the Wyoming political royalty would be there-- Al Simpson, Dick Cheney. I'd known for months that Arthur was going to be a guest of honor at this ball. He was getting this big prize for Wildlife Research. I was supposed to be Arthur's plus one, until I told him I wasn't going anymore. That's when Arthur wrote to Al. And Al, and his wife Ann, got involved.

Anna Sale

OK. When you first read that, what did you think?

Arthur

I just thought it was the auditor, the agents. And I looked at it, put it away, and then Ann and I were in Denver. And I said, I got to do something with this thing. I think I'll just toss it. And Ann looked at it, and she said, worth a try.

Ann Simpson

This is just the sweetest letter. And I thought, that would be a shame not to call.

Arthur

"With esteem and humility" he ends.

Ann Simpson

He seemed very desperate.

Anna Sale

He was desperate, and some of that had rubbed off on Al. When he reached me on the phone that first time, I got a hard sell. You confessed he didn't know much about us. But he told me all couples have hard times. Then Ann got on the line and asked me, what have you got to lose? It was bizarre. But I was also moved. Arthur's Hail Mary was totally romantic. I told Arthur I'd go to the ball with him.

And that weekend in Wyoming was wonderful. The Simpsons were just as sweet and open as they seemed on the phone. They were easy to talk to. Arthur and I ended up telling them stories about how we'd met, and why we'd split up. They chimed in with their own. And then, a few weeks after the ball, Arthur and I got back together. He even moved in with me in New York. And strangely, we kept talking to Al and Ann Simpson.

After that first phone call, we talked a lot. They gave us advice. I needed it. I was still uncertain about the future. Because, look, I'm divorced, I'm in my 30s, I want to be a mother. I was so afraid of making the wrong choice again and losing time. And after things had been so strained with Arthur, it was a relief to listen to the Simpsons who'd been together 60 years but hadn't always felt like they were on solid ground either. They didn't always know what was going to happen together. Ann struggled in their marriage when their three kids were young. And before that, when they were dating Al was drinking a lot, and Ann worried that he was an alcoholic.

They weren't just telling me these stories to get them off their chest. It did seem like they really wanted to help Arthur and me. It was surprisingly intimate and useful. So much so that I asked if I could come to their house in Cody, Wyoming and talk to them some more. They said, sure. They're like these elder statesman of relationships. They enjoy showing off what they've learned. Take this story about one big fight that started on a dance floor. Al and Ann were at some event.

Alan Simpson

And she was dancing with a guy who I knew was a horny old toad. And I thought-- and she loves to dance. And so she's whirling around the floor and giggling and laughing.

And so anyway, I got home and I said, I want to tell you something. I saw you snuggling up to that horny bastard there. And she said, look, I am not into this to play games. But I'm not going to be under a glass lid just because of your jealousy. And I love to dance. And I will do that. And I'm not going to jump in the sack with somebody, so I think you better get over it. Which really pissed me off.

So I gave her a lecture-- it was a beautiful thing-- about life, and fealty, and love, and loyalty, and all the rest. I thought, she won't sleep a wink. And 10 minutes later, I look in, she [SNORES]. Absolutely dead, but asleep.

Ann Simpson

Guilt free.

Alan Simpson

Guilt free. And me? I got boulders in my gut down here. I didn't sleep, but I did one important thing. I'd always loved Shakespeare. And I went in and read Othello that night-- took a long while-- how he killed the most beautiful person in his life, Desdemona, choked her, smothered her right in the bed, the marriage bed. I thought, Jesus, this is one sick son-of-a-bitch. This is not me. This is totally destructive and has nothing to do with her.

Anna Sale

The Simpsons say they learned to get past things, like Al's jealousy, by doing the obvious thing-- talking about it. Sounds trite until you hear just how corrosive not talking about something can be.

The Simpsons told me there was one thing they didn't talk about until they were at least a decade into their marriage, and it didn't come out until after they did some couple's counseling through their church.

Alan Simpson

And one time-- I don't know, we'd been married 15 years-- she said, I've never told you something. And I said, well, go ahead.

Ann Simpson

I'd had an experience of being molested. And it was just something that I was always aware of when I had sex. And once I was able to talk about it, it diminished. It was a gift.

Anna Sale

It must have made you feel so safe.

Ann Simpson

It did. I felt safe. That's exactly right. The hardest thing for all couples to talk about is sex. And it's hard to believe, but it is. And the big issues in all marriages that hang it up is your sexual relationship. We're older, so it isn't the issue now that it was when we were young, but it was a big issue, and it is in all marriages.

Alan Simpson

Well, then when you talk about it you think, well, there's a couple of horny people. No, that's not the point. It's called intimacy. Scratch my back, give me a hug, just a hug. And I said, OK. [PANTING] You know. But just a touch. You know, a whack on the fanny in the kitchen or whatever, whatever.

Anna Sale

Hearing these very personal details about their marriage, I could almost forget about their very public lives. But then Al and Ann told me about one of their hardest moments. It happened right at the center of a national controversy.

Alan Simpson

Tell them about--

Ann Simpson

Yes. That's when he was in the Clarence Thomas thing.

Alan Simpson

Pissed me off.

Ann Simpson

And I said to all the men on that one-- I said, you all came across like a bunch of bullies.

Anna Sale

This was back in 1991. If you remember, Clarence Thomas was a nominee for the Supreme Court. A law professor named Anita Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss. Al Simpson was a Republican on that committee, and he had some questions about Anita Hill's story and her motives.

Alan Simpson

If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God's name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?

Anita Hill

That's a very good question.

Anna Sale

While the hearings were happening in DC, Ann was back in Wyoming, caring for her mother who was critically ill.

Ann Simpson

And I was not following it moment by moment. And when I finally did, I just couldn't believe the way Al was operating. And I did tell him, you all sound terrible. You sound like a bunch of male chauvinist pigs.

Anna Sale

Al and Ann said they talked every night during those hearings.

Ann Simpson

And I would say, you know--

Alan Simpson

She'd say, I don't know what you were doing today, but for God's sake, you looked really nasty.

Ann Simpson

You looked like a beast.

Alan Simpson

But don't forget, I'd had a wife-- I never said who a wife-- a mother-- one of whom had been abused.

Ann Simpson

There are a lot of ways to justify it.

Alan Simpson

One of whom who'd had much more harassment than Anita Hill. And that's where I lost my marbles. I thought, what is this? I mean, for God's sake, what did he do? Well, nothing. Did he touch you? No. What it it? Well, he wanted to talk about Long Dong Silver, and pubic hair, and Coke cans. Is that it? Yes it is. I wanted you to be aware of his behavior. And so I was a monster. I just was pissed to the core.

Anna Sale

Al Simpson got called out, not just by his wife. Editorials across the country blasted him for attacking Anita Hill with rumor and innuendo. Al Simpson lashed back at the press, and Ann knew he was going too far.

Ann Simpson

He just kept getting more and more worked up. They had lost their balance. And then, one time he was at home and I said, you know, you have a wonderful reputation the way you've always operated. And it seems to me that you are caught in something, and you just need to shut up.

Alan Simpson

Shut up.

Ann Simpson

He said, you've never said that to me before. And I said, well I am now. There's a time to just recognize when you're out of control. And sometimes you have to identify that in the other person.

Anna Sale

This is still a tender spot for Al Simpson when it comes up. Somethings he's contrite about, other things he re-litigates. And Ann's still disappointed. It's not resolved, it's just passed, stitched into their long relationship together. That's what the Simpsons kept saying to me. You're never going to get rid of conflict, so you have to face it. And you have to do that together.

Ann Simpson

That's all it is. You decide to make it work. There are lot's of different ways. We had ways. Other people have different ways. You make a decision.

Anna Sale

That was the big thing I had to do, decide. We didn't have to have all the logistics hammered out, we just had to make the choice to figure it out together. So as crazy as it sounds, Arthur's letter to Al Simpson worked, not because he convinced a retired politician to call me up, but because it reminded me of the kind of man Arthur is-- dogged, and brave, and willing to ask for help when we need it. A good person to spend decades figuring things out with.

And Al and Ann Simpson, they still keep up with us. They just had Arthur over for dinner when he was back in Wyoming for work. Ann kept asking him when we were going to get married already. She even offered possible venues in town. I think Al thought she was being a little pushy. Because the next day, I was sitting at my desk in New York and my cell phone rang. It was former Senator Alan Simpson, calling again to talk about my love life. He wanted me to know Arthur handled it all just fine.

Ira Glass

Anna Sale. This story is part of her brand new podcast, Death, Sex, and Money, which comes from WNYC. It just launched this week. Welcome to the world new podcast. The whole idea of this podcast is that Anna's show is going to feature lots of intimate conversations-- like the one you just heard with the Simpsons-- about things that we all deal with but are usually to polite to bring up. It's free to sign up. Get it weekly. Go to iTunes or deathsexmoney.org.

Act Three. Horse of a Different Color

Ira Glass

Act Three, horse of a Different Color. So usually when you look for outside help, what you need is an expert. Right? You need a Senator. You need paramedics with parachutes. You need somebody with experience and skills. Though the family of one of our producers, Chana Joffe-Walt, found themselves with a problem. And after going to all the usual places, and experts, and all that, they found themselves saved not by one of them, but by a complete novice. Just a note, because the story gets into the personal lives of children, we have changed some other names. Here's Chana.

Chana Joffe

Usually you have no idea how your new baby compares to her peers until you go to the pediatrician and they put her the scale, they show you those charts, and you can see your kid is under weight or tall. It wasn't like that with my sister Maya. My mom and her partner, Ellen, traveled to China to adopt Maya. And they were part of this big group of adoptive parents who were all hanging around the hotel until the paperwork went through, which meant my step-mom, Ellen, had 35 direct comparisons every day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Ellen

There's a picture that was taken the day before we left that hotel. And all the babies are lined up on a couch, and Maya's in the middle, and Maya looks conspicuously different. The other babies are smiling, or some of them are crying, but there's some kind of-- it's hard to articulate what it is about Maya that looks different. But she just seems like she's not there, like she's out of it.

Chana Joffe

Maya turned one while they were still in China. A lot of babies learn to walk around that age, around one year old. Maya couldn't sit up. She couldn't grasp things in her hands, and she would only eat out of a bottle. But as soon as she got home, that changed really quickly. Here's my mom, Sara.

Sara

She learned to sit, and then she learned to eat. And she eventually learned to crawl, and she learned to walk, and she started to talk.

Chana Joffe

And by three and 1/2, Maya was drawing, using scissors and my microphone.

Maya

Uh, uh, uh. It's not working. Say something.

Chana Joffe

Hi, Maya. How are you?

Maya

I'm fine. I want to watch Mary Poppins.

Chana Joffe

By five years old, there was no question Maya had bonded with both of her moms.

Maya

This is my mother, Ellen. She's going to play Twinkle Twinkle on guitar while I sing along.

Chana Joffe

Maya is 20 years younger than me, but when she was little I showed her off like a grandparent does. She was the MVP of my wedding, running around in her dress and her tool belt, sharing her encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs with all my friends. She knew a lot about dinosaurs. Maya could sit down with a guitar and freestyle lyrics about how the super continent Pangaea was separated in the time of the dinosaurs.

Maya

(SINGING) Pangaea separated in the time of the dinosaurs.

Chana Joffe

And how one of the biggest meat eaters was Gigantonosaurus, who's tooth was as big as a banana.

Maya

(SINGING) --as a banana. That is so big. Mommy, you should be scared of it.

Ellen

I should.

Maya

So you brought her in. Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral.

Chana Joffe

Around eight years old, the dinosaur obsession switched to horses, and it's been horses ever since then. A lot of girls love horses-- Maya loves race horses. Maya is now 13, and she will walk right up to you with her pad of paper and just begin talking.

Maya

516, [INAUDIBLE] Painter, Optimizer.

Chana Joffe

It's hard to tell if the obsession with horses is more intense or if it's the same as it was with dinosaurs. Only now it strikes people as a weird instead of cute. It strikes people, as it may have struck you, that Maya has autism. For technical reasons, Maya's never been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum, but she does exhibit almost all the characteristics, including sensitivity to touch, lack of eye contact, obsessive and intense interest in one topic, and difficulty with social emotional reciprocity, what many of us call conversation.

Maya

Man o' War, [INAUDIBLE].

Chana Joffe

What is this that you're reading to me?

Maya

Race horse names.

Chana Joffe

But just every race horse that you've ever heard of?

Maya

Well, the first page, Sir Barton to Affirmed, those 11 are the Triple Crown winners in the United States. Street Life to My Adonis, those are the horses--

Chana Joffe

Maya can tell you every horse that's won the Triple Crown since 1919, their results, their injuries. She tracks the major awards, such as the Eclipse Award which is comprised of more than a dozen categories, which she will recite unprompted over a snack of Doritos.

Maya

Three-year-old male, three-year-old female, older male. And then there's the categories for people, which I don't find as interesting.

Chana Joffe

You don't find the categories for people interesting?

Maya

No.

Chana Joffe

Why not?

Maya

Because the people aren't horses.

Chana Joffe

People have always been hard for Maya. In preschool, kindergarten, she never really made friends. We figured she just wasn't interested. But as she got older, it became clear it was the other children who weren't interested in her. First grade, second grade, third grade, the only time Maya ever got invited to someone's house was when the entire class was invited.

In the meantime, Maya amassed a team of therapists who diagnosed her with reactive attachment disorder, RAD. Kids with RAD have often been neglected or abused as babies. They don't emotionally attach to anyone early so they have attachment disorder, which in Maya's case was just one diagnosis to be followed by a series of others that all seemed to take her most obvious character trait and add the word "disorder" to it.

And true to the label, Maya did not attach to other children, which was so painful to watch. Because it wasn't that she didn't care, she just didn't know how to interact. She didn't know how to have a back and forth. She would ask my mom or Ellen to invite someone over, and that someone would come over, and then they just wouldn't come back or return the invitation. Maya didn't get why her friends were always so busy.

Maya

Well, at school there were kids who would always be playing together as the same group, same people always playing together. And I was never really a part of those groups. I'm more by myself at recess.

Chana Joffe

What do you do at recess?

Maya

Draw, play games that don't involve many people.

Chana Joffe

In fourth grade, in a bout of utter boredom, Maya went and knocked on the neighbor's door. She asked if their boys could play. They were busy. And then Maya sat down on their porch and just started wailing, "No one will play with me."

And then things got really dark. She stopped asking for play dates all together. She stopped reading. She stopped smiling, and sleeping. And she was on the edge all the time, especially at school. A kid would take her pencil or brush up against her at the bus stop, and Maya would blow up. She had to be physically restrained. She broke a window. She was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. She got hospitalized for a brief period. Here's my step-mom, Ellen.

Ellen

How I felt so helpless. And I had no idea what to do. And none of this [BLEEP] is working. None of it's working. And I'm out of ideas. Like, help. What are we going to do with this kid?

Chana Joffe

In our family, we talk about Maya's life in two sections, BC and AC. Everything I've just told you about, that's all BC, before Charlotte. What happened next is AC, after Charlotte. And this is Charlotte.

Charlotte

Well, it was the first day of this camp, it was really hot, and we were just waiting for everyone to get there, and we were hanging out. And it was a horse camp, so we were watching these guys throw hay down from a hay loft in the barn. And Maya goes, I did that one time at a place called Hay Down Farm. And we thought that was hilarious for six months.

Chana Joffe

Hay down. Get it? You do get it? Don't over think it. That is the entire joke. Maya had found her audience. Her audience was Charlotte.

As a parent, you try to construct various environments for your kids so that when you have to cast them off on their own, hopefully the right thing will happen. You baby-proof the cabinet so hopefully the baby won't eat poison. You put the kid in a good school and hope she'll learn math. Ellen put Maya in horse camp, but by this point, by the time Maya was 11 years old, a friend was not even on Ellen's list of things to hope for. They'd given up on that. She just wanted to see her kid smile once or twice a week.

But she dropped Maya off the second day of camp--

Ellen

And I met Charlotte's mom there. And I said, Maya seems to be kind of connecting with Charlotte. And she said, yeah. Charlotte really is feeling a connection with Maya too. And in fact, she said, Mommy, Maya is perfect. And my jaw practically hit the ground with a thud. I just kept saying it to myself in the car all the way home, Maya is perfect. Mommy, Maya is perfect. I was like, this is not possible. But it is. Her mom said it. It must have really happened.

Chana Joffe

I asked Charlotte recently why Maya was perfect. She told me it was pretty simple, actually.

Charlotte

She was the only girl my age at camp.

Charlotte

Did you like her?

Charlotte

Yeah. It was pretty clear from the beginning that we had a lot of common interests.

Chana Joffe

Like what?

Charlotte

Horses. Um, yeah.

Chana Joffe

Perfect. Charlotte invited Maya over for a play date that Thursday, just like that. No big deal, just, hey, you want to come over? And she did. Maya went over. And it went fine. There was another play date, and then another, and another. And Charlotte and Maya would sit on the floor together with their model horses. Mostly they did their own thing. They weren't talking or laughing a lot, but we all thought, wow, this is working. Maya has a companion.

And then a couple months in, they invited Charlotte on an overnight to DC. And afterwards they got a hotel, and Ellen could hear the kids in the other room telling jokes.

Ellen

And they just cracked up, and Maya lost it, and she just started laughing, and laughing, and laughing. And Charlotte making fart jokes, and Maya just exploding in laughter. And I was lying there in the other room thinking, this is a miracle. I can't believe this is happening. She's giggling and talking and whispering at a sleepover like a regular kid.

Chana Joffe

What would you have imagined Maya would do in that situation?

Ellen

I would have imagined her saying, hey, go to sleep. It's night time. The light is off. I am tired. But that night, Maya discovered what a sleepover could be.

Chana Joffe

My mom had a moment like this too, where she realized that AC was a wildly different era than BC. She was watching Maya with Charlotte, and at first she couldn't figure out what was going on with Maya. She looked weird. And then my mom realized, oh, that's happiness.

Pam

It's just hard to describe how thrilled she was. I felt like Maya would jump out of her skin. AC is just that kind of engagement with somebody else, and engagement in the world. I had hardly seen it in years at all.

[LAUGHTER]

Chana Joffe

Maya just turned 13 a couple weeks ago. The only thing she wanted for her birthday was a sleepover with Charlotte. So Charlotte came over and the two of them sat on the floor with their model horses for hours.

Charlotte

What's your name?

Maya

Sonia.

Charlotte

What's your name?

Maya

I'm Secretariat.

Chana Joffe

Charlotte loves to play Hailey, a young rider who's whiny and thinks she knows everything. Maya likes to play, well, Maya, someone who does know everything and can set Hailey in her place.

Charlotte

I've done everything after.

Maya

You haven't Have you raced in the Kentucky Derby?

Charlotte

Probably. I don't know. I don't remember. I would've been really little.

Maya

I take that as a no. You have not raced in the Kentucky Derby, because really little people do not-- really young people do not race in the Kentucky Derby.

Charlotte

How do you know I'm not 80-hundred years old and I'm just short because I'm a jockey?

Maya

Oh my gosh. 80-hundred years old. No one's lived to be that old.

Charlotte

How do you know? Have you died yet?

Maya

No.

Charlotte

Well then how do you know you're not going to live to 80-hundred years old? Year's old.

Maya

Because people just don't live that long.

Chana Joffe

That right there, that is a genuine back and forth interaction. Maya is not lecturing, she's not ignoring Charlotte. She's amused. She is feeling amusement. And she's responding directly to what Charlotte is saying.

Maya and Charlotte have been friends for almost two years now. We'll be two years into AC this summer. And here are the basic facts of AC. Maya no longer regularly gets in trouble at school. She now does her homework and washes her hair without a struggle. She has not had one violent incident AC. She makes eye contact sometimes. She asks, how are you, sometimes. She does chores. That felt impossible BC. All of it seemed impossible BC.

The other day I went to pick up Maya from school, and her bus driver got out of the bus to introduce himself to me and tell me, Maya, she's really worked on herself this year. She's doing great. Her horseback riding instructor pulled my mom aside the other day to say, Maya has been making eye contact with me. I've never seen that before. It feels like when people see a really beautiful piece of art and they can't wait to talk to someone about it. Just to say, did you see that? Awesome, right?

And Charlotte, I can't imagine a kid better suited to being Maya's friend than Charlotte. Just listen to the way she talks, and try to remember, this kid is 13 years old.

Chana Joffe

How would you describe Maya?

Charlotte

She's extremely obsessed with race horses.

Chana Joffe

What's that been like for you?

Charlotte

Well, I've learned a lot of new stuff from her actually, because half the time it's all she'll talk about. But it's been really interesting because it's a whole new part of the horse world that I wasn't really familiar with until I met her. You know, all the Triple Crown winners in order.

Chana Joffe

What else do you know about her?

Charlotte

She's really smart. But sometimes she's a bit lacking in social graces. Just a little bit. Sometimes it makes her really funny.

Chana Joffe

Charlotte's noticed that if she talks about something she's interested in that's not horses, like Star Trek, or Harry Potter, it used to be that Maya just wouldn't respond. She didn't know what to say. But lately, Charlotte says, Maya tries to be interested in whatever she's talking about.

Charlotte

And sometimes she'll even respond to it by connecting it to horses, which I think is a neat thing to be able to do. I just think it's really cool when people connect everyday things to things that are really their passion.

Chana Joffe

Yeah. That's really smart.

Charlotte

It can be a great way to interact with the world.

Chana Joffe

When I ask her how she deals with it when Maya has tantrums, Charlotte says, sometimes I wait it out, or sometimes integrating humor can be helpful. See what I mean? That's a special kid. And Maya can see that.

Maya

This is a really important friendship. And I've been learning how to be a better friend in order to keep the friendship.

Chana Joffe

Like what kinds of things are you learning?

Maya

Be more flexible. Not just talk about what you want to talk about all the time. Do other stuff that your friend wants. The morning after Maya's birthday sleepover, I found her sitting outside the bedroom door at 6:00 in the morning waiting for Charlotte to wake up. She wasn't allowed to wake her up until 8:00, so Maya was just sitting there.

I don't think I'd completely gotten this until I saw Maya waiting-- Maya loves Charlotte. She loves her. She feels the feelings that come when you're a girl and you have a friend who makes you laugh, and thinks about you when you're apart, and gets you. It's not a romantic love, but if you've had this, you know it feels just as important.

Maya is getting to experience the joy of being 13 and having a best friend. And that is why she's willing to work so hard. It's why she's trying to learn how to read facial expressions, and social cues, to control waves of anger and frustration, to sit still when all you want is to wake someone up. You have to really want something to work that hard for it.

Charlotte's going to high school next year and she's just growing up faster than Maya is. She could move on, maybe soon, something we talk about all the time and try not to think about. We know BC, and we know AC, but we don't know what comes after. Maya needed the friendship to learn how to be a friend, but maybe, hopefully, now she knows. And with or without Charlotte, she'll be OK.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt is one of the producers of our show.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, 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 is our administrative assistant Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help from Julie Beer and Michelle Harris. 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 Mr. Torey Malatia. You know he always reminds me, when our program is on the air, he sits at the radio station's master control console, his finger poised above the controls, and at any moment, any moment at all I do anything he doesn't like.

Eric Kaufman

Ba-dupe, press this little button, and then that's it. Game over.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.

Correction: This episode originally contained a factual error. In Act Two, former Sen. Alan Simpson originally said that Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas watched pornographic movies together. During the Clarence Thomas hearings, Anita Hill testified that Thomas described scenes from pornographic movies to her. They did not watch pornography together. We have cut Senator Simpson's incorrect statement from the story and removed it from the transcript.