Transcript

529:

Human Spectacle
Transcript

Originally aired 06.27.2014

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

In October, 2003, a guy was brought into the psychiatric emergency room at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Dr. Joel Gold was the chief attending psychiatrist that day and saw him.

Joel Gold

He felt that his life was essentially a reality show, that he's been recorded for years, that everyone in his life was an actor reading from a script. And he came to New York essentially to test this hypothesis.

Ira Glass

He thought that maybe 9/11 was faked just to get a reaction out of him on reality TV.

Joel Gold

And if he came to New York and if the World Trade Centers were still standing, he would know that that was in fact the case. If in fact they had been destroyed, then he would admit that perhaps he was delusional.

Ira Glass

But once he got to New York, instead of visiting the Twin Towers, he walked into the United Nations and asked for asylum-- asylum from a TV show that was filming him without his consent 24 hours a day, which, you know, is how he ended up in Bellevue.

Dr. Gold didn't think much of this. People show up at Bellevue with lots of weird delusions all the time. And then a few months later, another guy walks in with the same idea-- that he was being filmed 24/7 and broadcast around the world. And the second guy, like the first one, mentioned a film-- the 1998 movie, The Truman Show.

Joel Gold

Both of them named The Truman Show by name. They said my life is like The Truman Show.

Ira Glass

Truman is played by Jim Carrey. He's filmed all day every day on a program that is broadcast to billions of people around the globe. His wife, his best friend-- everybody around him is an actor. Everybody knows this is a TV show but him, until one day he starts to seek clues that make him suspicious.

Ira Glass

And just to be clear, you're not saying that The Truman Show necessarily triggered this. Like, people watch The Truman Show, and suddenly something in their brain snaps.

Joel Gold

Yeah, exactly. On the contrary, I think it's just-- when people are becoming psychotic, things feel a little bit unusual, a bit odd. But what would explain all of this weirdness? And perhaps if you've seen the movie and that's kicking around in your head, you might say, yes, this is it. This is what's happening to me.

Ira Glass

If your psychosis includes both paranoia and a sense that you are very, very important-- what psychiatrists call grandiosity-- 30 years ago, you might think that the CIA or the KGB is watching you all the time. These days you have another possible explanation-- reality TV.

A few months later, a third patient showed up with the same delusion, and a few months after that a fourth. Dr. Gold started calling it "The Truman Show Delusion." He's just written a book about it with his brother Ian called Suspicious Minds. In one case in the book, a patient-- super-smart guy, an academic, very altruistic-- believed that he was part of an elaborate game show, and the world was watching him and betting on everything that he did.

Joel Gold

And this was a really fun thing that everyone would be doing online. And the monies collected would go to charities all over the world. And then every single human being on Earth would be given some amount of money, and the world would be bettered for it.

Ira Glass

One of the things that he included in his delusion, you write in your book, is that he has the thought that he actually was the mastermind who created this game show that he was on, and that he controlled it and he knew the rules when he had originally created the show. But somehow he had forgotten that and all the rules-- which is so interesting, because of course it's true. Like, he did invent the game show, and the only fact that he's missing is that it's not real. It's all in his own head.

Joel Gold

That's an interesting way of putting it. It is kind of fantastical.

Ira Glass

And heartbreaking.

Joel Gold

It is.

Ira Glass

Like, part of him knows he made it up.

Joel Gold

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

But he can't grasp the whole reality--

Joel Gold

He does not remember-- like, at one point he suggests that he told his best friends, this is what I'm going to do. You're going to run the show, but you will now hypnotize me, and I will forget what we're talking about now so we can do this really good deed for humanity.

Ira Glass

Some of these patients respond to treatment, some don't-- same as with other delusions and psychoses. But Dr. Gold says that if they do come back to reality--

Joel Gold

Some feel great relief if they've been persecuted. It's quite embarrassing if you think about it. Every moment of your life-- I mean, when you're in the shower, literally everything is filmed. So they feel quite good about it. At the same time, there's a certain sadness that they're not particularly important.

Ira Glass

Do they miss being the most famous person in the world?

Joel Gold

No question, there are some who feel that that's a huge loss. At the same time, I think they return to the notion that they're mentally ill, which in and of itself is an unfortunate and sad thing.

Ira Glass

Psychosis aside, I think this illustrates so clearly, there's a downside and an upside to being onstage for the whole world to see, a human spectacle against your will. And today on our program, we have people who became just that. They have an experience so few of us have that we all get to see from afar.

They are on display for everybody, and not because they chose it. What that feels like, the positive parts and the negative side, and the real life reality of the whole thing-- from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. I Am the Eggplant.

Ira Glass

Act One, "I Am the Eggplant, Goo Goo Goo Joob ." In the TV genre that's devoted to pure human spectacle, reality TV, you know, people fight drunkenly in hot tubs, they eat live spiders for money. But none of that can hold a candle to this show-- a show that aired in Japan all the way back in 1998. It was called Susunu! Denpa Shonen. And one of its segments in particular got the attention of one of our producers, Stephanie Foo.

Stephanie Foo

The segment is called "Sweepstakes Life." It starts the way a lot of these shows do-- with a bunch of people at an audition. One guy beats out everyone else. He's 22 years old, a comedian just starting out in his career. His name is Nasubi.

Announcer

Nasubi!

Stephanie Foo

Nasubi means eggplant in Japanese-- a nickname he got because he has a long face. The producers tell him they have a unique idea for a show, something they've never tried before. It may or may not air, but if it does, he'll be the star. He'll be famous.

Announcer

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Stephanie Foo

The producers blindfold him, put him in a car, and take him to a small apartment. Then they tell him to take his clothes off.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Stephanie Foo

That wipes the grin off his face.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

It wasn't just my personal sort of shame or sort of issues about nudity, per se. My dad is a cop. And when I first announced that for my career choice, it was going to be comedy, he was not thrilled. And we had to go through some things to get him around to the idea. And he said, the one thing that I must never do in public is strip.

Stephanie Foo

Oh, no.

Translator

So there I was. And then this guilt towards-- I was breaking the promise to my father as publicly as possible.

Stephanie Foo

But he strips. He grabs a pillow, holds it over his groin, and looks around the room. There's no chair in the room, no bed-- just a coffee table and magazines, tons of magazines. The producers tell him that from now on, if he wants food, clothes, he will have to win them by entering sweepstakes in those magazines. They give him postcards to send in for prize drawings.

He'll be freed from the apartment after he wins 1 million yen, or $10,000 worth of prizes. Until then, he isn't allowed any outside contact with the world. He can't call his family. He can't talk to friends. And oh, they tell him, don't forget to put tapes in this little camera here every two hours and record yourself. We'll come pick up the tapes once a day. Then they say, all right, later. Nasubi screams, are you for real?

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Stephanie Foo

Nasubi says he'd signed no contract. But he didn't have anything better to do, so he sat down and wrote and soon was entering 200 to 300 contests a day. And while he waited for prizes to arrive, he had no food. Nasubi got frighteningly thin very quickly. You could see the sharp angles of his collarbones.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

Well, starvation is a good word for it. The staff got together and would give me basically a very simple little bread each day, so I had bread and water essentially for the first two weeks. But then as soon as the results started to come in, then that stopped and everything shifted over entirely to things that I could win through sweepstakes.

Stephanie Foo

After two weeks, he finally won some sugary drinks. A few days after that, he won a bag of rice. When the postman dropped it off, it was like Christmas. Nasubi danced like a madman.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Stephanie Foo

Were you trying to be a good performer and be funny when you were doing that? Or was it just really genuine joy?

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

Well, initially, of course, I was there as a performer, and I wanted to be a comedian. But somewhere in the middle, the whole business of staying alive became my full-time occupation. So I think what you saw if you saw me dancing, it was really just a human being expressing great joy.

Stephanie Foo

So he danced for this package of rice. But then he stopped short. He realized he didn't own a pot to cook the rice in. But after a couple days of failed attempts, he figured out that if he put some race in an empty drink container and left it near his single gas burner, it eventually turned into a kind of porridge.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

And I could eat delicious rice every day. I remember how good that felt. And then there was this slow trepidation as it started to vanish. And then it ran out. And the only food substitute that I had been able to win in a sweepstakes was dog food. After, let's say, six weeks of eating dog food, when I was able to get more rice and it arrived, I really felt a special kind of joy at being able to sort of return to humanity in a sense and taste delicious rice again every day.

Stephanie Foo

Back then, there was a kind of sweepstakes mania in Japan. The country was in the middle of a terrible recession, and some wondered whether one could subsist entirely on their winnings. And so when "Sweepstakes Life" debuted, almost immediately after Nasubi was first shut in the room, it was an instant hit. Nasubi had no idea. He didn't even know he was on TV. He believed what the producers had told them, that he'd record some videotapes and maybe someday it would end up on the air.

On television, Nasubi's groin was hidden by a purple cartoon eggplant that floated around as he moved. Everything he did was accentuated with ridiculous boing-boing sound effects and puffy rainbow letters floated above his head.

[SOUND EFFECTS AND RANDOM JAPANESE SPEECH]

But these effects popped up just as often when Nasubi was despondent. The show took every chance to poke fun at him, whether he was muttering to himself, dancing around, or doing terrible headstands-- you know, the dumb stuff you do when you think no one's watching.

Except, people were. For context, in the US, Game of Thrones usually has around 9 million viewers. Nasubi had 16 million in a country less than half the size of ours. People thought Nasubi was the funniest comedy act they'd ever seen. And I have to admit, as a viewer, once in a while when Nasubi got something really awesome in the mail, I couldn't help it, I laughed too. Even though I knew how much he was suffering, I couldn't help it. His unfiltered joy is contagious.

Though, as a foreigner watching "Sweepstakes Life," most of the time when the studio audience cracked up, I felt sick. I thought, what could possibly be funny about this?

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

I mean, that was maybe a time when Japan was going through some things, and they need to sort of do that. Roughly 50 years of prosperity has finally come to a close, and people were really uncertain about their futures. I think people just tended to watch the show and say, I got it bad, but look at poor Nasubi. He's got it worse.

Now there's a lot more awareness of the weak and of people who need extra support. And I don't think the average Japanese, they would think it was funny that there was a guy naked in a room somewhere.

Stephanie Foo

Nasubi won hundreds of prizes, but many of them were useless to him-- Spice Girls tickets, for example, or a TV with no cable, or a bicycle. He sent away for clothes but never won anything he could wear. He was naked the entire time he was in that room, for the entire show. And as the weeks went by, then months, Nasubi started to look less and less sane. He grew a beard. His hair was wild. And he started talking differently, slower.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Stephanie Foo

He'd make really creepy faces into the camera. At one point, he won some toys, and he started talking to them. He took a stuffed seal for a walk around the apartment. An action figure became his sensei, and he got life advice from it.

And if right now you are sitting there thinking, how in God's good name is this possible? Why was this allowed-- imprisonment, solitary confinement, starvation. Watching I thought, this isn't a reality TV show. It's a psychological experiment made public. Plus, boing-boings, of course.

Announcer

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Stephanie Foo

Was there anything preventing you from backing out at that point? Like, was the door locked?

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

No, there was no lock on the door. And producers later asked me, so why didn't you escape? And I was naked, so I would have had to go outside naked and seek help. But I don't think that that's what kept me in there. The only thing I really have to say is that I said I'd do it, and I do what I say.

Stephanie Foo

That was it? The only reason? I kept asking him, but wait, really, why?

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

There's a phrase, [SPEAKING JAPANESE], the Japanese spirit, which is just that you sort of stick through. You endure things. When you're given something, whether it's easier or whether it's hard, you just really do-- you're obliged to follow it through.

Stephanie Foo

Nasubi did finally win $10,000 worth of prizes. It took him almost an entire year, but at last, he completed the challenge. When he reached his goal, producers didn't tell him anything about it. Instead, they snuck into his apartment in the middle of the night, put a blindfold on him, took him out to a car, gave him clothes. Nasubi seemed to think this was a good thing. He was laughing, giggling.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Stephanie Foo

But when he took the blindfold off, he found out, he'd been taken to Korea.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

When I got off on the other side in Korea, I took off the mask. And they said, congratulations. You've achieved your $10,000. This is your reward. You get to have a trip in Korea. So I got to do a little sightseeing that day. And I thought, wow, that was a long thing, boy, what I've been through. But then at the end of the day, they took me back to my room, and there was the exact same room set up in the exact same way.

Stephanie Foo

They had recreated his little apartment, complete with the magazines, the stuffed seal, the postcards, exactly how he'd left it, except in Korea. And they told him, great, now all you have to do is start over and win your airfare back home.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

This was just like somebody just had pulled the floor out from under me, and I just fell. I didn't know that humans could be that cruel.

Stephanie Foo

Did you feel like you were going insane?

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

If anything, the opposite of insane. I lost all energy. It's like somebody had just sucked the life out of me. I didn't want to talk. I didn't want to breathe. I didn't want to move a muscle. I had reached the end. I was just-- I was finished.

I told the producer that I wouldn't do it. I refused. And we went back and forth for quite a while, actually. But in the end-- kudos to his skill as a negotiator-- I did give in and do the last section of it.

Stephanie Foo

Why did you do it? What did he say that actually convinced you to do it?

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

Well, it was just I got exhausted, if anything. I mean, he wasn't leaving. I couldn't just sort of get up and storm out. I had made no preparations for being in Korea. And so at the end, I just said, yeah, whatever. And so I continued.

Stephanie Foo

After all, he was naked with no money in another country. If you watch the clip, the producers just tell him he's trapped, show him looking shocked, and cut away. The studio audience laughs.

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER AND JAPANESE SPEECH]

Nasubi continued his writing routine for four more months. And then the final episode aired. Picture it-- the producers sneak into Nasubi's room and blindfold him again, dress him, drive him to another location. They release him in yet another bare room. And he sighs and instinctively takes off all his clothes. Then suddenly, all four of the walls around him fall down.

[WALLS CRASHING]

Nasubi

[SCREAMING]

Stephanie Foo

That's him screaming. Turns out, he's onstage in a huge studio in Japan in front of an enormous audience.

Host And Audience

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Stephanie Foo

Nasubi, congratulations on your goal.

[APPLAUSE]

Nasubi looks horrified. Two television hosts cautiously approach him and talk to him like a baby, telling him, congratulations.

Host

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Host

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Stephanie Foo

Nasubi says, frightened, my house fell down, and there's all these people here.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

[APPLAUSE]

Stephanie Foo

It's finally over, presses the host. You're finished. Nasubi should be happy, but he looks thoroughly weirded out. Remember, Nasubi didn't even know he was being broadcast. The producers told him that it was an experiment, that they didn't know if he'd ever make it on air. So he's blown away when they tell him about the TV show, that a secret camera in his apartment once even broadcast at 24-hour live stream of his actions. They tell him his diaries were published and are best sellers. Clips from him enjoying a specific brand of ramen turned into commercial and endorsement deals. He was on the cover of magazines.

Then they play a bunch of clips from the show. Nasubi blinks. He says, did I do that? That was me?

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

And so I sat there realizing that this new sort of life was-- you know, I was no longer just a nobody. The entire nation had been watching me for 15 months. And you know, to be honest, I thought, well, what the hell's-- what is my country coming to? And I was, you know, very happy that my journey was not for nothing. But it's still weird.

Stephanie Foo

Unsurprisingly, Nasubi left the show with some scars. He had a lot of trouble holding a conversation for six months. And he felt sweaty and uncomfortable in clothes for a year. And his role didn't help his comedy career like he'd hoped. He was mostly offered roles that required him to be goofy and naked. He's a D-list celebrity now and has the dwindling bank account to match.

In talking to him, it felt like he's really worked hard to turn that traumatic experience into a positive story he tells himself. He even says he's thankful for the experience.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

It was-- I don't want to overstate it, but it was kind of meditative in a way. I had a lot of time to think about my life and a lot of time to think about a lot of stuff.

Stephanie Foo

That certainly is a very zen way to look at it.

Translator

Well, I mean, it's 10-some years since I finished, since I did that project. And after that, everything has been much easier and much better. I mean, obviously I'm able to deal with things. I see things happening, or I see situations around myself. And I think, that's nothing like what I went through in that room.

Stephanie Foo

And people still remember him. That's more than one could say for most of the other Denpa Shonen characters. None of them lasted as long as Nasubi or became as famous. The show ended in 2002, after its ratings began to drop.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

I came out of the whole thing, in a sense, with the very best of possible results. A lot of people were not so fortunate. There were terrible things that happened related to the show.

Stephanie Foo

One contestant on Denpa Shonen almost died of dehydration while trying to hitchhike across Africa. Some people were starved until they completed various challenges. Another man was forced to go into a gay club in Australia and offer condoms to men until he was assaulted. The video cuts out, but you can hear him scream.

And the mastermind behind all this, the producer of the show, the guy who convinced Nasubi to keep going in Korea-- his name was Toshio Tsuchiya. Back in the '90s, he was considered the king of Japanese reality TV. Last year, 14 years after "Sweepstakes Life" ended, Tsuchiya called Nasubi, who wasn't thrilled to hear from him at first.

Nasubi

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

I had some, let's say, mixed feelings about him, a little resentment maybe. Yeah. I kept my distance for a very long time. And then actually just last year, he got in touch with me. And apparently it sort of came to his attention that maybe he had put people through maybe more than they deserved. And so he invited me to dinner. And he spent the evening sort of explaining why he did what he did and apologizing. I think we-- yeah, I think we pretty much came to terms, and I welcome the opportunity to work with him again, certainly.

Stephanie Foo

Wow. You would work with him again? That's really-- that's shocking. And what was his reason for putting you through what he did?

Translator

He wanted something that would move people, and you don't get that out of just sort of somebody playing around. He wanted to see something real. He wanted to pull miracles out of people. And he wanted to-- it was done for the purpose of getting a miracle on film.

Stephanie Foo

And that seemed to me like-- well, I'll be honest, it sounds like something an evil puppet master would say. So I had to. I talked to Toshio Tsuchiya on the phone. He's a round, middle-aged guy, bleached platinum blond hair. He confirmed that he reached out to Nasubi and that when they met, Nasubi told him very honestly how painful his experience on the show was.

Tsuchiya says he listened and was moved. But, he says, he wasn't sorry-- about Nasubi, about any of the segments he produced for Denpa Shonen, about any of the contestants. Not in the slightest. I use the same interpreter for our interview that I use for Nasubi's. Here's Tsuchiya.

Toshio Tsuchiya

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

I was enthralled by their struggle. I was thrilled by their personal struggle. So I was watching them succeed. I have no regrets about anything I did on that show.

Stephanie Foo

Nasubi said that you apologized to him when you guys talked. Is that correct, or no?

Toshio Tsuchiya

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

Well, I put him through a lot. I'm not-- if you say that you have a sports team and you have a coach who runs his players through very difficult maneuvers, at the end of the day, he may pat him on the back and say, sorry for putting you through such a rough struggle. It wasn't me expressing that I shouldn't have done the project.

Stephanie Foo

Tsuchiya has a lot of lofty ideas of what the show was trying to accomplish. And when he talks about them, you do get the sense that it was in fact intended to be a sort of psychological experiment.

Toshio Tsuchiya

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

Translator

The whole project was trying to reach at some very elemental simple humanity. You see, Nasubi had been sort of brought to a state where he was in such an elemental part of his existence that he danced without realizing he had ever danced. And he danced on a regular basis. The modern individual is sort of shackled by convention and expectation and all these other things that we wear from day to day. And I wanted to see them drop some of that to see this simple humanity and then to see actual gratefulness.

Stephanie Foo

It's weird to think about. But the fact that the matter is what Tsuchiya's saying is true. Denpa Shonen did really capture humanity in a rare way, a way you don't ever really see, even on the craziest of American reality TV shows. Hungry, starving, alone, unaware that he was being watched, Nasubi was totally innocent and totally animal. Of course, it's cruel to bring a human being to that point, and it takes a special kind of cruelty to take someone at their most vulnerable and add wacky sound effects to their suffering.

A couple weeks into Nasubi's challenge, before he won any solid food, when he was hungriest, a delivery men came to the door bearing ramen and stir fry vegetables. It's 1700 yen altogether, the man said. I don't have any money, Nasubi replied. Sorry, my mistake, the delivery man said, and left.

Nasubi sat there, his head hung, a contestant in a real-life hunger game, the smell of ramen lingering in the air.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program. Coming up, we go to a land where highway [INAUDIBLE] are sunk in a vast meadow, where one man tries to document how things really are. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, human spectacle. We have stories of people who go on display in front of others-- lots and lots of others-- even though they are not so crazy about doing that.

Act Two. I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me.

Ira Glass

We have arrived at act two of our program. Act Two, "I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me." We've talked a lot in today's program so far about reality TV. And of course, what makes reality TV entertaining is very, very simple. And that is editing.

Editing-- if they just set up cameras and showed you all 24 hours in anybody's day, how interesting could that possibly be? Well, here is a story of somebody trying just that, a story of everyday people being treated as human spectacle and being treated that way precisely because of their everyday-ness. Ariel Sabar explains.

Ariel Sabar

Here's how it worked. On a Tuesday morning in the spring of 1949, a seven-year-old boy named Raymond Birch was fast asleep in his bed. His mother walked into his bedroom and said, Raymond, time to get up for school. When the boy opened his eyes, he saw a scientist with a clipboard and timer standing in the corner of his room. The scientist, a stranger to the boy, just stared-- didn't say a word. The boy squirmed out of bed and reached for his clothes. The scientist wrote, 7:01 AM, Raymond picked up a sock.

In the late 1940s and early '50s, scientists followed kids in houses, schoolyards, and streets across the town of Oskaloosa, Kansas, taking pages of notes on the littlest things they did or said. 6:33 PM, Bradley walked deliberately to where his sister sat playing with a puppy and hit her on the head twice, just as hard as he could hit. The sister looked very surprised and annoyed. 11:06 AM, Fred skidded on the floor so that he fell with his body partially under the swing. He yelled whoops, and then lay still since he saw the swing coming back over him. 11:37 AM, Margaret's mother asked, why can't you play with your dolls and let that go? Margaret kept on painting the pillars before, neither looking at her mother nor answering her.

All of this was happening under the watch of a University of Kansas psychologist named Roger Barker, who was bent on taking his field in a radically new direction. Because psychology was still struggling in those days to be taken seriously as a science, most of Barker's colleagues imitated other kinds of scientists, doing lots of experiments in labs.

But none of this made sense to Barker. Humans didn't live in laboratories. They live in the real world. And that's where Barker wanted to study them-- in the wild, the way a botanist looked at flowers in the field or a primatologist tracked apes through a forest.

So when the University of Kansas called in 1947 and asked Barker if he wanted to chair its psychology department, Barker said, I'll take the job, but on one condition. You find me a small town. A dean at the school said he knew just the place, Oskaloosa, population 725.

When Roger Barker first drove up into the hills of Northeastern Kansas to see Oskaloosa, he must have been beside himself. The place was a Norman Rockwell painting-- not too rich, not too poor, sturdy families in modest houses. It was the picture of Middle America.

Barker wanted to study what he called "the naturally occurring behavior of free-ranging persons." And to do that, he told his field workers to become part of the scenery-- visible and friendly but not obtrusive. The last thing we want to do, he said, is give people the Guinea pig feeling.

Barker took his own advice and moved his entire family to Oskaloosa. They settled in a beat-up house near the town square, joined the Presbyterian church, and became active in the town's social and civic organizations. And that left Barker just as exposed as the Oskaloosans he planned to put under his microscope. You'll be watching us, a local mother told the researchers one day. But don't forget, we'll be watching you.

One of the first things Barker wanted to do in Oskaloosa was to document a day in the life of an ordinary boy. Barker didn't have a hypothesis about the boy or about seven-year-olds. He wasn't testing for anything in particular. He wanted only to show the world that following a kid for a day could produce a ton of interesting data. Scientists could later break down that data in an infinite number of ways, depending on their interests and the goals of their research, which was how little Raymond Birch work up that morning to find a scientist standing over him.

On that Tuesday, April 26, 1949, eight researchers taking turns, like runners in a relay race, followed Raymond for 13 hours straight. The book that came out of it, One Boy's Day was 435 pages long. It had an entry for nearly every minute of Raymond's day. The researchers tried to record not just Raymond's words and movements, but also his perceptions, motives, and feelings. They noted that Raymond mumbled with a mouthful of toast at breakfast. They followed him as he walked with his mom to her job at the county clerk's office and looked on as he drew a picture of a cowboy with a long beard. They watched Raymond find a baseball bat in the grass and pick it up. Oh, boy, he said, according to their notes.

He tossed a stone in the air and swung but accidentally clipped a flagpole, 8:24 AM. This made a wonderful, hollow ringing noise. So he proceeded to hit the flagpole again. 8:25 AM, he went around and around and around the pole, hitting it with the bat as he did so, until he became so busy that he fell down, bat and all.

Even before the book about Raymond's day was published, Barker felt it was destined for greatness. It would find its way onto campuses as a staple of psychology courses, he thought, and into the hands of artists, novelists, and laymen interested in the cultural scene. "We believe it will become a sort of classic and be in demand for a long time," he wrote in a January, 1951, letter.

But One Boy's Day never took off. And by April, 1959, Barker, crestfallen, asked Harper and Row to ship him the 70 remainders languishing in its warehouse. Part of the trouble was simply the book's premise. In its defiant first sentence, Barker calls the book "a scientific document."

But other scientists had a hard time seeing that. The book was just a tick-tock chronology of Raymond's day. There wasn't any theory or analysis. And this annoyed many of the reviewers in serious academic journals. One reviewer wrote, "The reader is struck by the fact that he is encountering only raw data. How can one evaluate such materials without a theoretical framework?" In other words, what does it mean?

Barker lived in Oskaloosa the rest of his life, but he abandoned his day-in-the-life studies after just a few years. There were more revealing and less labor intensive ways, he discovered, to study human beings in their natural habitats. Today, field studies of naturally occurring behavior are no more common in psychology than they were in Barker's time. The cost and logistics are just too staggering. One rare but recent Barker-like effort was conducted by UCLA's Center on the Everyday Life of Families. Researchers there embedded in the homes of 32 middle-class families in Los Angeles for a week and videotaped nearly every waking minute.

But the ratio of cost and effort to interesting results remains as lopsided today as it was in Barker's time. The New York Times reported that, quote, "After more than $9 million and untold thousands of hours of video watching, the researchers found that, well, life in these trenches is exactly what it looks like-- a fireshower of stress, multitasking, and mutual nitpicking."

One guy in particular who's not a big fan of these studies-- Raymond Birch, the boy. I tracked him down a few years ago. His real name is Gary Morgan, and he's now a retired utility worker in his early 70s living in Pennsylvania. Roger Barker autographed Gary's copy of One Boy's Day and personally inscribed, calling Gary its, quote, "real author."

But Gary has yet to get past its first pages. I have to say, why is this interesting, he told me. There's nothing happening in this book as far as I can tell. What is it going to tell them that I was standing there, chewing on my fingernails?

Ira Glass

Ariel Sabar is the author of The Outsider, a biography of Roger Barker. It's available as an Amazon Kindle single.

[MUSIC - "CENTER OF ATTENTION", BY GUSTER]

Act Three. I Am Iraq, I Am An Island.

Ira Glass

Act Three, "I Am Iraq, I Am an Island." These last few awful weeks in Iraq-- as The New York Times put it, Jjihadists are entrenching positions in the north and west, the National Army seems incapable of challenging them. Lots of fighting, lots of death-- the website Iraq Body Count says that over 1,700 people have died this month, the highest number of deaths of any month since 2007.

With all that happening, the people of Iraq have become a reluctant spectacle for the rest of us around the world. There's been excellent coverage of the breaking news here on public radio and elsewhere too, but we wondered how it is looking to people inside the country. What are they saying? And what is it like to be living there right now? So between Thursday of last week-- that's June 19-- and Tuesday of this week-- that's June 24-- Nancy Updike called around Iraq to find out.

Nancy Updike

I called about a dozen people in different parts of the country, and I found out that that's also what they themselves were doing-- calling friends in other parts of Iraq to try and get some sense of what is going on where. Because what's happening to Iraqis right now is very different depending on where they are.

Joe Amir

Hello?

Nancy Updike

Hello, Joe [? Amir, ?] it's Nancy.

Joe Amir

Yes, Nancy. You called in a very good time. I'm just about to get into my car for someone else.

Nancy Updike

Oh, great.

Joe Amir

OK. Hold on.

Nancy Updike

This is Joe Amir [? Dzay. ?] For years, he worked for an American NGO that dealt with land mines in Iraq.

Joe Amir

Now it says hands free, so I can talk and drive.

Nancy Updike

He lives in Erbil. It's a city in the north, the part of Iraq that's governed by the Kurds. They have their own very tough security force called the Peshmerga who've been keeping Erbil safe.

Joe Amir

If you tell your family, I am going to Erbil, It's in Iraq-- they will just cannot believe it.

Nancy Updike

Right.

Joe Amir

What? You are going to Iraq? Right?

Nancy Updike

Right. Right.

Joe Amir

And you can't believe how safe is Erbil and how it is growing. I mean, I am driving now. This is bicycle rider. It seems like it's a bicycle race.

Nancy Updike

Oh, there's a bicycle race?

Joe Amir

Yes. Two, four, six, 12-- 11 bicycle drivers. They are exactly in front of me now passing by.

[HONKING]

Joe Amir

OK. Just say hello to them. OK. No, no. Erbil is definitely safe.

Nancy Updike

It's not unusual for a war or conflict to have pockets like this, where life is incongruously normal. But because Erbil and other Kurdish areas are safe at this point, they're also places that Iraqis and Syrians are fleeing to. The UN says, there are now an estimated 300,000 displaced people in the Kurdish region of the Iraq. Some are living in hotels or with families, but others are just sweltering in camps.

Joe Amir

In these camps, they don't have air coolers. They don't have cold water. You know, all these people are in these camps. It's a disaster. Nancy, the temperature in Erbil-- it is 6:30 in the evening, and the temperature is 35 Celsius, I am talking about.

Nancy Updike

Yeah, 35 is-- I'm going to see what it is in Fahrenheit. Hold on. Yeah, it's 95 degrees Fahrenheit-- so very hot even though it's night.

Joe Amir

No, no, no. Now it's very cool. For us, it's very cool. Now, now, this is the time when people come out for walking and you know, going for coffee and stuff like that. But in the noon time, it goes up to 44. Next month in the noon time, it goes up to 50, 5-0.

Nancy Updike

That is 120 degrees. If you've ever been in a place that hot, you know it feels like being punched in the face. Joe Amir is Kurdish. He has two young kids, six and four years old. And for so many years, he and his wife worried that he might be killed for working for Americans, or just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Joe Amir says if there is no more Iraq, if it was chopped up into different countries, he really wouldn't miss it.

Joe Amir

At least you have Kurdistan state. So whether it will be divided into four part, three part, or two part, we don't care, as long as there is Kurdistan state in place. Everybody, every Kurd will hope to have independent Kurdistan, really. I mean, nobody would like to stay any longer with Iraq.

Nancy Updike

About 60 miles west and a little north of Erbil is Mosul. That's the first city in Iraq that was invaded by ISIS, the Sunni militant group that's been fighting in Syria and now is in parts of Iraq. One of the other producers here called a man in Mosul, Ziad al-Sinjary. He's a stringer for different news outfits-- Reuters, the BBC. We reached him on June 19, nine days after ISIS took over the city.

Ziad Al-sinjary

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Translator

Actually, I went out today to do some shopping. I went to the center of Mosul. I bought some things from there. And I found that life is going on. Most of the markets are open. There's lots of food, vegetables, and the prices are against the expected. The prices have went down. We were expecting that it would go up.

Nancy Updike

The Iraqi security forces who used to police Mosul are now all gone. They were mostly Shiite, and Ziad says plenty of the city's Sunni majority felt like, good riddance. When Ziad talks about ISIS, he calls them "the gunmen."

Ziad Al-sinjary

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Translator

Well, we know that the gunmen are supposed to be barbarians. But you can go anywhere. You can park anywhere. You can do whatever you want. And this is something strange. This is something that we weren't expecting.

Life in general, most of the roads in Mosul have been opened. The checkpoints have been removed. The concrete barriers that were there are removed. There is no violence. There is no shooting.

Nancy Updike

That's how Ziad sees it. I reached another man in Mosul, a political science professor at the University there, who said, of course there's no violence, because it was ISIS who was doing the shooting and the bombing when they were attacking the Iraqi security forces. Now that they've driven the security forces out of the city, ISIS is running the place.

The professor said he's not going to work these days. Higher education isn't really functioning in the city. He said he's afraid of ISIS and what they'll do next.

Professor

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Translator

ISIS have distributed their symbol to each and every mosque. There's no mosque operating in the city without their logo basically on the gate and inside where the preacher stands. Their messages are that first we are in a transitional state. As soon as we establish the fundamentals of the Islamic state, things are going to be different. We are coming to relieve the city of the forces of evil, meaning the Iraqi state forces, the Shiites.

The city itself is in deep slumber. It's terrified, and fear is all around. Currently there are no assassinations and killings, but people are still afraid because they know how ISIS operates. They know that it's only a matter of time and that ISIS is now being so nice only because they want to win people over. For the people of Mosul, there's no other solution now other than being quiet and sitting at home and waiting for the worst thing to happen.

Nancy Updike

In Baghdad, I called another professor, a professor of linguistics, Mohammed. He is going to work. He said he was shocked when ISIS went into Mosul and worried. But he says now he's not that worried. He's Shia in a city, Baghdad, that's majority Shia.

The first time I interviewed Mohammed was four years ago, just before the US officially ended its combat mission in Iraq. And he told me at the time about going to lunch with a Sunni friend. Again, Mohammed is Shia. And the friend told him casually over lunch, when the Americans leave, we-- the Sunni resistance-- we are going to take back the country.

And after telling that story, Mohammed talked about Shia-Sunni tensions in Iraq generally. This was back in 2010. And I called him now, because I wanted to ask him something, which is, in the United States, what we hear about Iraq and the fighting is that it's all sectarian. It's Sunni versus Shia. ISIS and the other groups that are fighting with them are Sunni. The prime minister, Shia. The militias driving around Baghdad, Shia-- and so on, and so on.

But when I've talked to Iraqis over the last 10 years-- and this is my experience, but other reporters have also told me they get this-- if I ask an Iraqi, are you Sunni or Shia, their answer is often an annoyed, why are you asking me that? That's not how I think about things. I'm Iraqi. So I asked the professor, what's going on? And his take was, of course they say that-- in public.

Mohammed

But deep inside, they are all defending their sectarian identity. And when they are at home, they will teach their children how to hate Shia. And Shias, they teach them how to hate Sunnis. In fact, somebody said it, that sectarians is like adultery. All are denouncing publicly, but all are, you know-- let's just say--

Nancy Updike

People denounce it in public, and then they just do it behind [INAUDIBLE]?

Mohammed

Yes. Everyone is doing it. Everyone is sectarian, actually. Now, look at the social network, the Facebook pages. Because many people have their imitation names, have their [? Sunni ?] names, so they will speak it freely against the Shiites. And the Shiites will speak it freely against the Sunnis. In the morning, we'll say, no, there is no difference between Shias and Sunnis. We are all Iraqis. So this is why when you ask somebody, OK, are you Sunni or Shia, they say, no, please don't ask me. I am Iraqi.

Nancy Updike

I mean, all of these things that you're saying, is this what you think, you personally, when you go to University, you talk against sectarianism if anyone brings it up. But when you get home, when you're private, you're like, this is the way it is, is that true for you, personally?

Mohammed

Yes. Yes, actually. It's the truth. I myself do it. Yes. Yeah. Frankly speaking. I'm going to be frank with you.

Nancy Updike

Yeah.

Mohammed

Nancy, hello?

Nancy Updike

I'm here.

Mohammed

Nancy?

Nancy Updike

I'm here. I'm here. Can you hear me?

Mohammed

Yeah. Yeah, I told you, yes.

Nancy Updike

Yes.

Talal Ajeel

Oh, hi, Nancy.

Nancy Updike

How are you?

Talal Ajeel

I'm good. I'm good. I'm good.

Nancy Updike

This is the last call I'm going to play for you. Talal Ajeel-- he's near Basra, way in the south of Iraq, a seven-plus hour drive from Baghdad. Talal used to work for USAID. Now he works for an oil company in the south. But his family-- his wife and his five-year-old daughter-- are back in Baghdad.

His daughter, when this crisis started, stopped going to kindergarten. And his wife has taken her vacation so that she can just sit tight at home with their daughter and see how things play out in the next few weeks. Talal is Shia, but he's secular. And he lives in a neighborhood that used to be mixed-- Sunni, Shia, Kurd-- and then became mostly Sunni after the sectarian fighting in Baghdad during the Iraq War. Talal and I talked a couple of times. This call was at night after he got off work.

Talal Ajeel

You know, Nancy, the common issue that you hear from all Iraqis is that we don't want to divide Iraq into three countries-- Kurd, Sunni, Shia. This is a nightmare for us. And today I heard that this might be happening.

Nancy Updike

Where did you hear it?

Talal Ajeel

In the company we were talking. We were a few Iraqis, you know, talking to each other. And some of the Iraqis, they made this point. I mean, we're going to divide Iraq into Kurd, Sunni, Shia. [INAUDIBLE] they want their region.

Nancy Updike

They would be happy if it's divided, and they would just keep the south?

Talal Ajeel

Yeah. In Basra, yes.

Nancy Updike

I mean, they have all the oil. Or a lot of it.

Talal Ajeel

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, lots of people in Basra, they said, OK, [INAUDIBLE]. We don't need Baghdad. We don't need [INAUDIBLE]. We don't need Kurds. Have our own region. This is a nightmare. I mean, is this the new Iraq?

Nancy Updike

If it was divided that way, Sunnis in the north, Shia in the south, and then Kurdistan, where would you live?

Talal Ajeel

I don't know. I don't have any other place to live. I cannot live with Sunnis. I cannot live with Shia. I cannot live with Kurds. I think we're going to be homeless or something like that. I don't know. It's a nightmare.

Nancy Updike

In case this isn't clear, or course Talal could live with Shias. He's Shia. But the point is that he doesn't want to live in a sectarian, one-horse country or city. He wants to live in Iraq. He wants his daughter to be Iraqi. He wants to live in a neighborhood like they used to live in.

Talking to Talal, I kept thinking about Yugoslavia-- this country that existed for decades and then just didn't. Suddenly you couldn't be Yugoslavian anymore. You had to go be with your own kind, which was whatever the guys with guns decided it was.

Talal Ajeel

So anyway, Nancy, it's not good. I mean, I don't know if the United States is feeling that-- maybe you can answer this question.

Nancy Updike

I doubt it, but go ahead.

Talal Ajeel

[CHUCKLING] All right. All right. I got you. Yeah. [INAUDIBLE]. Now we're in the middle. We cannot go back where we started and fix this. We cannot go any further. Every group is caring only about himself or his people.

And at the end of this, we're going to divide Iraq. I mean, I used to have a country. That's how I feel right now. I used to have a country. Another checkpoint.

Nancy Updike

Police checkpoint?

Talal Ajeel

It's a police checkpoint.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our program.

[MUSIC - "IS EVERYTHING HAPPENING UNCONTROLLABLY" BY BILL EAST]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, 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's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our office manager. Adrienne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

And special thanks to Becca Heller and the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. They're helping hundreds of Iraqis try to escape the violence and get to safety in the United States. Their website is refugeerights.org. And to Kirk Johnson and The List Project. Regular listeners to our show know they help Iraqis who worked for the United States and are now in danger because of it get to safety. Their website is thelistproject.org. Both of these organizations have been flooded with emails in the last two weeks from people needing help.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International-- this week for the last week. They've been our partner for 17 years, and they've been a great partner, and we wish them the best. Thanks as always to Torey Malatia. You know, at the beginning of this show, when we started This American Life together, even then, he already wanted to disavow any responsibility for what happens here each week. He told me--

Joel Gold

This is what I'm going to do. You're going to run the show, but you will now hypnotize me, and I will forget.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.