Transcript

82:

Haunted
Transcript

Originally aired 10.31.1997

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

In his memoir, My Dark Places, James Ellroy writes about how he was haunted by the memory of his mother. She was murdered in 1958 when he was 10. 35 years later, he tried to track down her murderer. His mother was last seen in El Monte, California with a man Ellroy calls "the swarthy man" and with a blond woman. Ellroy hired a private investigator. He also tried to scare up some leads by having two papers do stories about the murder and having the TV shows, Day One and Unsolved Mysteries do segments. All of them but Day One gave out a phone number for people to call with tips and leads.

As the phone calls came in, Ellroy found it he wasn't the only one who was haunted. This is from his memoir.

"A man from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, called. He said the swarthy man looked like a guy named Bob Soans. Bob murdered his wife, Shari, and committed suicide. It was late '58. The crime occurred in North Hollywood. A man from Centralia, Washington called. He said his father was the swarthy man. His father was 6'6 and weighed 240 pounds." I should say this does not match the description of the real swarthy man. "His father carried a gun and lots of ammunition."

A man from Savage, Minnesota, called. He said the swarthy man looked like his father. His father lived in El Monte back then. His father was abusive. His father served prison time. His father was a gambler and a skirt chaser. A man from Rochester, New York, called. He said his grandfather was the swarthy man. Gramps lived in a nursing home. The man supplied the address and phone number.

A woman from Sacramento, California, called. She said the swarthy man looked like a local doctor. The doctor lived with his mother. The doctor hated women. The doctor was a vegetarian. A woman from Lakeport, California, called. She said the swarthy man looked like her ex-husband. Her ex chased women. She didn't know where he was now.

A woman from Covina, California, called. She said her sister was raped and strangled in El Monte. It happened in 1992. A woman from Paso Robles, California, called. She said the swarthy man looked familiar. She met a man like that in 1957. He wanted sex. She said no. He said he wanted to kill her. He lived in Alhambra then.

A woman from Benwood, West Virginia, called. She said a man stalked her and her brother in Los Angeles. She was six years old. The man had dark hair and good teeth. He drove a truck. He took off her clothes, fondled her and kissed her. She saw him on a TV game show several years later. It might have been The Groucho Marx Show."

Ellroy's list of callers goes on for pages.

Why don't more adults celebrate Halloween? Why don't adults go to horror movies in the same numbers that teenagers do? I believe it's because so many of us, we're already haunted, haunted by people who've harmed us, haunted by people we fear, haunted by people we've harmed, haunted by people who've gone.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, we choose some theme. We bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's program, Haunted. Haunted not by ghosts or phantoms, but by other people, by reality. Act One, Hearing Voices. A girl gets a tape recorder for Christmas, loves to record her parents, but only when they fight. Her parents die. The tapes survive.

Act Two, why a Jewish family in New York embraces a Holocaust survivor as a member of their family without much evidence that he really is. Act Three, Ashes. David Sedaris says, I love you, to his mother, and she tells him that she's going to pretend that she did not hear him say it. The story of how he and his family reacted when she got lung cancer. Act Four, Ghost Story. Heather Woodbury demonstrates that there is no rock and roll heaven. Stay with us.

Act One.

Ira Glass

Act One, Hearing Voices. Lynnette Nyman is a reporter for Alabama Public Radio and uses a tape recorder in her regular job. But this story is about recordings she made as a kid-- 9, 10, 11, 12 years old.

Lynnette Nyman

The tapes come from my taping my family. I taped my family. But see, I didn't tape the happy moments. I taped all the trying moments.

Ira Glass

Why?

Lynnette Nyman

Maybe my own intrigue? I don't know.

Nyman Mother

Well, I didn't do it.

Nyman Father

Well, I didn't either.

Nyman Mother

Well, I guess you did if you lifted the door up and got it in, didn't you? The person that makes the mess cleans it, don't they?

Nyman Father

I don't clean your goddamn oven.

Nyman Mother

Hey, I didn't make the mess.

Nyman Father

Hell no, you haven't cooked for days.

Nyman Mother

Why did you just say that?

Nyman Father

There's old motor mouth going.

Nyman Mother

I'm not a motor mouth, but I want to know why you made that statement.

Nyman Father

I'm trying to get this place in condition for you to paint.

Nyman Girl

Why don't you shut up, or else he's not going to do it at all.

Ira Glass

At one point in the recordings, somebody is painting? Is that what's happening?

Lynnette Nyman

Right.

Ira Glass

And do you remember this? Do you remember this actually happening?

Lynnette Nyman

I do. I do.

Ira Glass

And where are we in the house? What room are we in?

Lynnette Nyman

You're actually in the kitchen. We're in the kitchen. And see, this is where my mom has finally caught on to this whole thing and my taping. And this was when I fell into her trap. And she had said to me, "Lynnette, go get the tape recorder."

Ira Glass

You mean she'd start a fight and then she'd say, "Go get the tape recorder"?

Lynnette Nyman

Yes.

Ira Glass

What do you think was going on? I mean do you think that she's just getting into a little tiff with him, and she's like, well, "I'll show him. Not only am I going to have this fight, but I'm going to embarrass him, too, on tape."

Lynnette Nyman

Well, the funny thing though is that if she were going to do that, why didn't she ever play it for anybody? She never did. And maybe she did think that. Maybe she thought, OK, yeah. Like she said on the tape, she said "Well, I've got witnesses here." And witnesses for what?

Nyman Father

Oh, oh now start a fight.

Nyman Mother

See, I've got a lot of things that I've got witnesses hear what you said. Dial the wrong number on the paramedics if I collapse, is that what you plan to do?

Nyman Father

You want to argue?

Nyman Mother

No, that wasn't a funny statement, that one. I'd never thought that one up.

Lynnette Nyman

I thought it was pretty funny.

Nyman Mother

That's your father for your mom, see?

Ira Glass

Is this what their regular, everyday relationship was like? Or was this different than the way they were normally?

Lynnette Nyman

I think it was like it was everyday life.

Ira Glass

Oh really?

Lynnette Nyman

As far as I remember. Yeah, yeah. It was really these highs and lows.

Nyman Mother

Dad could have had this done this morning while he got up. Why didn't you get this taken care of this morning?

Nyman Father

I had company.

Nyman Mother

Who?

Nyman Father

Gracie.

Nyman Mother

Why would that have held you back?

Nyman Father

Rams are playing in Chicago and you made me miss the game right now.

Nyman Mother

What if the Angels are playing at the Angels' stadium? They're going to play every week and every day of your life. That's what you've been saying for the last 27 years, Bill. Our home has to have maintenance and repair done to it.

Ira Glass

I was wondering if when you hear this, if she sounds harsh to you?

Lynnette Nyman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

She does?

Lynnette Nyman

She does, yeah. She sounds really harsh, and it kind of hurts because she talked to me like that too.

Ira Glass

Yeah?

Lynnette Nyman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK, let me play you a little snippet here.

Lynnette Nyman

OK.

Nyman Mother

You're sick, you know that, don't you?

Nyman Father

Hey, nobody could put up with all your yelling and screaming.

Nyman Mother

I'm one of the sweetest girls that ever walked.

Nyman Father

Ever walked. I'll bet you again if I died and you had a guy in here, he'd leave within a week.

Nyman Mother

How much do you want to bet?

Nyman Father

Start barking at him.

Nyman Mother

How much you want to bet?

Ira Glass

Now, you were laughing?

Lynnette Nyman

Yeah, it's funny.

Ira Glass

What are you hearing?

Lynnette Nyman

I guess my father's humor. To me, it's funny.

Ira Glass

Which part is the joke? He's saying nobody can put up with your screaming. Which is the joke part?

Lynnette Nyman

My father was just going along. And she was the one in control, and she always was in control. And his response was to just joke.

Nyman Father

You know I ain't as young as I used to be. Crawlin' around-- I injured my knee.

Nyman Mother

What knee did you hurt?

Nyman Father

My wee knee.

Nyman Mother

What? Your what? Your what, Bill?

Nyman Father

My knee. Wee knee.

Nyman Mother

You are sick, aren't you? Who do you talk to? Your little girls?

Nyman Father

I jammed my knee into that thing.

Nyman Mother

Is that the way you talk to your little girls?

Nyman Father

No.

Ira Glass

Now, after he died-- he died first, right?

Lynnette Nyman

Yeah, she kept the tapes after he died. Actually, I found them. I remembered, and I found them, and I listened to them. And then I was the only one at home then, and I played them for her. I brought it out and put the tapes in and we listened. And we'd sit around the kitchen table just the two of us, and she'd cry, and I'd cry.

Ira Glass

And what do you think she was hearing when she would hear these tapes, often of her berating him and badgering him?

Lynnette Nyman

I think she heard her love. That's what I think.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Lynnette Nyman

And if anything, if she didn't hear her love, then she was just hearing him. And that was enough, and that was everything to her. I mean she was dedicated to him for 35 years. When I look at some of her letters that she wrote to me while I was overseas for a couple years, it was all about, gosh, if only your father were here, I wouldn't be so lonely. And I think that those tapes were a reminder.

Nyman Mother

Do you like your home, Bill?

Nyman Father

No.

Nyman Mother

Not at all?

Nyman Father

Yeah, a little bit. [INAUDIBLE]

Nyman Mother

You want to admire my home or run me down like a bald swine.

Nyman Father

You know I admire your home. I admire you.

Nyman Mother

Then don't put me down, Bill.

Ira Glass

Do you think that she ever listened to the tapes and thought, God, I should have been sweeter to him. I should have been sweeter?

Lynnette Nyman

No, no, no. I don't think so. I don't think so. I think it was totally normal and natural for her to be like that. And she never saw anything she ever did as being wrong, ever, never for a moment.

Nyman Mother

Rembember that, I didn't do it.

Nyman Father

Why you didn't do it? You didn't do it.

Nyman Mother

No, I didn't do it.

Nyman Father

You come out here and say, where's that lazy son of a bitch at? Well, I've been working my goddamn ass off. That's where I've been.

Nyman Mother

Yeah, I'm sure your ass looks worked off.

Ira Glass

One of the things that's so odd about these tapes is that your parents actually discuss a lot what'll happen after they die, and who will get what.

Lynnette Nyman

I know, and I was sitting there going, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Nyman Girl

You guys will get your will changed.

Nyman Mother

You're changing your will right away?

Nyman Father

Yeah. I don't want to leave it to anybody. I might leave it to the Good Shepherd.

Nyman Mother

Yeah, your household furniture too?

Nyman Father

No.

Nyman Girl

All I want is the TV.

Nyman Father

She only wants the TV.

Nyman Girl

I want the TV in the dining room and the framed camel out there.

Ira Glass

Who is it who says-- when they're talking about that, somebody pipes up, "I'll get the TV. I get the house."

Lynnette Nyman

My sister says, "I get the television." And I say, "I get the house."

Ira Glass

How'd it work out?

Lynnette Nyman

Well, in my tapes, everything came true.

Ira Glass

Really?

Lynnette Nyman

For the most part.

Ira Glass

List all the things that came true?

Lynnette Nyman

My sister got the television. The house actually went into the trust and was put up for sale. And my brother was cut out of the will.

Ira Glass

Wait, is that actually in the tape, that somebody says, you're going to get cut out of the will?

Lynnette Nyman

Yeah, my mother jokes on the tape that she wouldn't remarry, and she didn't remarry. She had a boyfriend later on.

Ira Glass

She actually says that, "I have a boyfriend," right? She says, "I'm not going to remarry. I'll just see somebody."

Lynnette Nyman

Right.

Nyman Mother

One's enough for me, baby. I'll never go through it again. They'll never have to worry. Mother might have a boyfriend to bring over there and see them, but I won't have a stepfather for them to look at.

Nyman Father

[INAUDIBLE] Or you just throw a drink in his face. Son of a bitch.

Nyman Mother

Pardon me? Who'd you just cuss? I can't hear you?

Nyman Girl

SOB he said.

Nyman Mother

Who'd you cuss?

Nyman Father

It's you obviously. You bring it home.

Nyman Girl

He's getting jealous.

Nyman Mother

You wouldn't be jealous after you're gone, would you?

Nyman Girl

Yeah.

Nyman Father

No, because I'd be in the right hands beside Jesus.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you about how you all are acting, how the kids are acting in these recordings. I'm going to play you another little snippet.

Nyman Mother

That's your father for your mom, see.

Nyman Father

Oh, you know damn well I'd run you all the way down to the police station.

Nyman Girl

[INAUDIBLE]

Nyman Father

I'd throw you in the back of the new truck.

Nyman Girl

Wouldn't it be funny if they hit a bump? She'd fall out and we'd just laugh.

Lynnette Nyman

Get there and say, where did you go? Mom is crying.

Ira Glass

So on the tapes, you guys are laughing. The kids are laughing. And then at one point, you say, "Mom's crying." What is happening?

Lynnette Nyman

I think she was hurt. She finally felt some hurt there. And that's where I stop, and I think, oh gosh, I was just so stupid. And I was caught up in it too. And what shouldn't have been funny at all was funny to me then. And why? I don't know. And maybe it's just again, we're just coping We're just trying to get along.

Ira Glass

Do you view yourself as haunted by this time and by these tapes?

Lynnette Nyman

Yeah, I guess I do. I feel like I can't get rid of them, and I totally want to be away from them completely. But my thought these last few days was that I thought to myself, well, OK, after I do this interview, this is it. I'm getting rid of these tapes. I'm going to free myself from these things forever. But you know I won't. They're going to go right back into the box.

Ira Glass

Hearing these tapes, I've really thought a lot about what survives of a person. And we don't get to choose what survives of us. Do you think if your dad had a choice about the matter, if he would want you to still have these tapes?

Lynnette Nyman

I would say no. I would say he would say, get rid of them. He would say, life was pretty good. And sure there were rough moments, maybe quite a few of them, but overall, things have turned out pretty well. And he would say the tapes were-- no, not good to keep.

Ira Glass

Would you tape around the house? Would you ever tape in your personal life?

Lynnette Nyman

No.

Ira Glass

You don't have recordings or videotapes of you and your husband?

Lynnette Nyman

No, absolutely not.

Ira Glass

Because of this?

Lynnette Nyman

I think so.

Ira Glass

Lynnette Nyman in Alabama.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

Act Two, this is the story of a boy who was thrown into the concentration camps when he was three, lost his parents. And although he survived the war, he was so young when it ended that he couldn't remember his parents and wasn't sure of his own last name. He was adopted by a Swiss family, raised in Switzerland. His family gave him a German name. He was haunted by the past. When he saw a picture of William Tell in school, he thought it was an SS officer shooting a little kid. The apple on the kid's head just made it extra cruel.

In his 40's, he started to search for clues about who we was. He thought his real name might be Binjamin Wilkomirski from Riga. Last year, he published a book about his search called Fragments. In New York, writer Blake Eskin and his mother got their hands on the book. It turns out that Wilkomirski is a pretty unusual name. All the Wilkomirskis seem to descend from one town in Lithuania called Wilkomir. Some Wilkomirskis came to America, changed their name to Wilbur, married into other names. Blake and his mother are Wilburs descended from Wilkomirskis.

When Binjamin Wilkomirski came to the States on a speaking tour sponsored by the Holocaust Museum, they got together with him to figure out the past.

Blake Eskin

It's the Sunday afternoon before Rosh Hashanah, the holiday marking the Jewish new year, and my parents' apartment is full of Wilburs. It's mostly the Frum side of the family, the religious side. The men were yarmulkes, the women long sleeves.

Binjamin Wilkomirski arrived a half hour late with his wife and his handlers from the Holocaust Museum. He didn't look like a Wilbur to me, but then again, he didn't look like anyone I'd ever met before. He was wearing a yellow shirt. His light brown hair was styled into a curly, puffy Jewfro and he had extra-long sideburns that didn't quite meet at his chin.

The hairdo and the paisley scarf knotted around his neck tagged him as bohemian. He wreaked of stale cigarettes. There's a big turnout. Binjamin brought the Wilburs together in a way tradition and ritual have failed to do. The religious and secular sides of my family have very little contact. Bar Mitzvahs and weddings are too expensive to invite everyone. Funerals too sudden for everyone to drive or fly in. And the American style family reunion, with printed t-shirts and picnic coolers and tubs of macaroni salad, is simply unthinkable. But an audience with a Holocaust survivor who is both a family mystery and a minor celebrity is well worth the hassle of finding a parking spot in Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon.

At first, nobody knew what to do. Binjamin seemed affable, but also tired and a bit bewildered. After everyone introduced themselves, a couple of Wilburs approached him. They were carrying Ziploc bags, and in the bags were copies of Binjmain's book. They asked him for autographs. I felt embarrassed and worried about what Binjamin thought of us. But he signed their books as he would for any stranger. My relatives thanked him and sealed the books back in the Ziploc bags. Things had started on the wrong foot.

My mother decided to intervene. She sat Binjamin down next to my aunt Miriam. Miriam, who was wearing a smart purple suit and a lavender and white turban, is the matriarch of the orthodox wing of the family. She and her two brothers are the only living Wilburs who were born in Riga, where Binjamin thinks he came from. Miriam arrived in America in 1929, when she was 18 years old.

Miriam

This is after the war, my mother, two brothers and me. And that's my husband.

Blake Eskin

At a small folding table, Miriam flips the pages of her tattered photo album, a high school graduation gift from her teachers back in Riga. My mother and I are hoping that one of the photographs will jog Binjamin's memory like a mug shot. Binjamin's memory is patchy, but Miriam remembers the past, She is in her late 80's, old enough to remember the Jewish refugees who fled to Riga during the First World War.

Miriam

It was so awful. Somebody came and killed. The streets were filled with dead people. I remember. That's life. What can you do? All right, going back here. Oh, here is the picture with what they think is the Avram. This Avram is the uncle.

Blake Eskin

Avram, Miriam's uncle, was the only Wilkomirski brother who remained in Riga. He is the number one candidate for missing link between Binjamin and the Wilburs. Avram could be Binjamin's uncle, or maybe even his father. Miriam is pretty sure, however, that Avram had only one son. His picture is in the scrapbook. That boy would have been 10 years older than Binjamin.

On the other hand, it's possible that the family in America might not have known about other children because it was difficult to communicate with Riga in the late '30's.

Binjamin Wilkomirski

So who of your family finally remained in Riga during the war?

Miriam

During the war? Just Avram.

Binjamin Wilkomirski

Just and his family?

Miriam

Avram's children, that's--

Binjamin Wilkomirski

Do you remember their names? No?

Blake Eskin

The more I learn about Binjamin, the less I believe we're related. Binjamin was separated from his family when he was two or three years old. He doesn't know exactly how old he was because he doesn't know when he was born, or where he was born, or even what his real name is. The only way he knows anything about who he is, is that on his way from Auschwitz to an orphanage after the war ended, a woman saw him and told him he was Binjamin Wilkomirski from Riga.

Binjamin tells me that recently, when he visited Riga, he stood on the spot in the ghetto where he remembers the Nazis murdered his father. Or maybe it was his uncle. He's not sure. I believe Binjamin when he says he remembers, but part of me thinks he's been looking for the place where his memory happened for so long, and he's read so much about Riga, that he subconsciously willed himself into finding it. For that matter, I'm not fully convinced that half a century later, he can honestly remember what some lady told him his name was. Or if he does remember correctly, that she even knew his real name to begin with.

One of the ironies of this situation is that Binjamin has invested years of his life in finding out who he is, and he still doesn't know. But he has learned a lot about who we are. He knows all about the Wilkomirskis, where they lived and where they came from. Binjamin has found other Wilkomirskis in Poland and Lithuania. In a register from the Vilna ghetto, Binjamin found a Sonya Wilkomirski. He asks if we've ever heard of Sonya, if she's a relative. Miriam says no, firmly, but everyone else in the room is looking for a way to make the answer yes.

Wilbur Family Member

Maybe like a nickname? Sonya?

Blake Eskin

All through the afternoon, people keep saying Binjamin has the Wilbur face. They say he looks like Miriam's brother, Haymi, that he looks a little like my cousin Steven, that he looks like me. Everyone has their theory.

Blake's Mother

Among things one doesn't normally look at that I do is the shape of the nostrils.

Blake Eskin

That's my mother. She's an amateur sculptor.

Blake's Mother

Because they're very distinctive. They're similar, but not that close. The overall look, yes. I do think there is a resemblance.

Blake Eskin

Sitting in my parents' living room, Binjamin seems oddly uninterested in what is potentially his long lost family. His attention to Miriam's photo album comes and goes, and he doesn't ask any questions about us. I'm not sure why he's so detached. It could be fatigue or shyness, or maybe his weariness of getting entangled with us. In the end, Binjamin tells me he's sure we're family, though he isn't too concerned about where he fits on the Wilbur family tree.

Binjamin Wilkomirski

All the Wilkomirskis are somehow connected. I'm absolutely sure, but maybe you have to go far back. But you see, at the end, the humans feelings are much more important than to know how, are you related in the second or third or fourth generation back or so.

Blake Eskin

After Binjamin and the Wilburs left my parents' house, there were five of us left-- me, my mother and father, my mother's cousin Susan and her husband. We talked about why so many Wilburs had showed up, and why they seemed so interested in Binjamin.

On one level, the Wilburs were seeking the same thing Binjamin was, a key to the past. For most American families, anything that happened before the boat landed is a blur. The Wilburs are an American invention, and Binjamin, if he is one of us, can show the Wilburs what we were before we got to Ellis Island. Susan flew in from Southern California just to meet Binjamin. She said that knowing he was a member of the family would give her, as she put it, "a sense of roots."

One person who doesn't need a sense of roots is Miriam, with her memories of Riga, her religious rituals and her 35 great grandchildren. Perhaps that was why she seemed the most skeptical that Binjamin Wilkomirski was one of us.

Ira Glass

Blake Eskin's story of Binjamin Wilkomirski continues. Also a story from David Sedaris. That's all in a minute, from 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 a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Haunted, not by the supernatural, but by other people and reality and the past. We're in the middle of Blake Eskin's account of a man who may be a long lost relative of his. Or it might not be.

Blake Eskin

The next day, Binjamin was the guest of honor at a $150 a plate luncheon at the Carlyle, a ritzy hotel on the Upper East side that John F. Kennedy used to use as a sex pad. The Holocaust Museum comped our family an entire table, and ten Wilburs showed up. This was a different bunch of Wilburs than at my parents house the day before. No orthodox Wilburs came. The food wasn't kosher enough. These Wilburs were on the assimilated end of the spectrum, people I know pretty well.

Blake Eskin

How are you doing, mom? Sorry.

Blake's Mother

I've got my mouth full I'll talk to you in a minute.

Blake Eskin

I can't remember the last time everybody got together in Manhattan.

Blake's Mother

It was probably at your Bar Mitzvah or Deborah's Bat Mitzvah. Probably Deborah's Bat Mitzvah.

Blake Eskin

There's a cocktail hour before lunch. Some of my relatives haven't even met Binjamin yet, but they're already willing to accept him into the family.

Blake's Mother

Whether or not he is related, it somehow seems immaterial. This is a contemporary, a cousin, let's say. I mean that's the way I feel about it.

Wilbur Woman

And if he's not a cousin, we make him a cousin.

Blake Eskin

Everyone is willing to embrace Binjamin as a family member without any proof. And all of them are feeling a new-found closeness to the Holocaust. They all say, it could have been me. After an asparagus appetizer and a salmon entree, the MC of the luncheon, a major donor to the Holocaust Museum, gets up and introduces Binjamin. He doesn't need any proof either.

Emcee

It is my pleasure to welcome you today to today's very special luncheon. Before I continue, I'd like to acknowledge just a couple people in the room. Our author, Mr. Wilkomirski's family is all here, and they're sitting at table 11.

Blake Eskin

It bothers me that we are introduced as family without any qualification. I start to get upset. I won't fudge my family history for a lousy three-course lunch. But my mother calms me down.

Blake's Mother

If it helps the Holocaust Museum to call us his newly discovered family, that's fine with me.

Blake Eskin

So you don't feel like we need to get up and correct the record?

Blake's Mother

Absolutely not. I think it's helpful to the museum and possibly to Binjamin to say his family is here and to tell a story that we discovered each other.

Blake Eskin

Over the next week, we get to know Binjamin and his wife, Farina, a little better. My parents take them for a dim sum breakfast in Chinatown and a walk through lower Manhattan. Binjamin and Farina invite me to dinner. We have a good time. The hesitation and awkwardness of our first meeting is gone. After dinner, Farina goes to their room, and Binjamin and I sit down in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria.

Blake Eskin

You've helped us learn a lot about our family. And I mean thank you for that.

Binjamin Wilkomirski

Because I am very happy that your reaction was so positive. And when I got the first letter by [UNINTELLIGIBLE], though you can't imagine how excited I was. I really was jumping from excitement.

Blake Eskin

I ask Binjamin if he has considered taking a DNA test with us to determine if we're really family. Binjamin says he's not interested. He says that if we're distant relatives, the test might not tell us anything. And then he tells me a story about the man he calls Father Yaakov.

A woman who saw Binjamin's picture on television called him up to say that he looked exactly like her nephew, who she thought had died in the Holocaust. She said the father of this boy had survived and was living in Israel. Binjamin called the man in Israel and discovered that they had some memories in common. They decided to take a DNA test. It took about four weeks for the test results to arrive.

Binjamin Wilkomirski

For me it was very strange. I realized suddenly that during all the last decades, I never thought that I had a father. I was always completely fixed on the idea that I must try to somehow recreate the picture of the moment in [UNINTELLIGIBLE] People told me, that's your mother. I was always thinking of that. And in a way, that blocked me completely. I never thought about a father.

Blake Eskin

A week before the test results arrived, this man calls Binjamin.

Binjamin Wilkomirski

He said he has still a father's love toward his son. He could never live. He has still this to give. And I'm looking for somebody like a father. And he just offers to be for me like a father and even ready to accept that he will receive me at his home. So we went to his home, and we met his family.

Blake Eskin

The test results were negative. But Father Yaakov, a pious man in his 80's, helped Binjamin resolve something that had tormented him since the concentration camps.

Binjamin Wilkomirski

And so, half a year later, I called him. I talked to him on the telephone. And then I said I wished to come alone for half a week or a week to see you. You said you will always be ready to give me advice. And he said, "Of course you can come. My house is open."

Blake Eskin

As a boy in the camps, Binjamin had done something that led to the death of another boy, and he felt guilty. Yaakov told him he didn't have to.

Binjamin Wilkomirski

In the moment when that happened, I was maybe four and a half or five years old. I had the feeling that I'm doing something that's not right. And I thought the real guilt and the responsibility starts in the moment when you're conscious of it. But he explained that the Holocaust says that a child cannot be responsible for that unless the child learned about the law. That was very important for my inner peace.

Blake Eskin

Binjamin calls Father Yaakov every Friday morning, and they visit one another four or five times a year. Maybe we'll keep in touch with Binjamin too. I hope we do. Binjamin is haunted by his past and the uncertainty surrounding who he is in a way that my family can never be. But since he left, I feel more haunted by the present.

I keep thinking about what might have become of me if my great grandmother hadn't left Riga when she did. If I had been born at all, I might have ended up as an orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, or an unemployed engineer in Tel Aviv, or a Moscow mafioso with a gold tooth.

One of the luxuries of melting into the American mainstream is not having to think about where you came from, or what might have happened if you'd stayed there. You can ignore your past most of the time, but every once in a while, it comes back to haunt you.

Ira Glass

Blake Eskin first wrote about Binjamin Wilkomirski in The Forward. Wilkomirski's book is called Fragments. It's published by Shocken Books.

Act Three. Ashes.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Ashes. We can be haunted by others, or we can be haunted by the way that we behaved ourselves. This is a story of both kinds of haunting. Several years ago, three weeks before his sister Lisa's wedding, David Sedaris got a phone call from his mom back home in Raleigh, North Carolina. She had lung cancer. She was a lifelong, unrepentant smoker.

David Sedaris

My sister Amy was with me when my mother called. We passed the phone back and forth across my tiny New York kitchen, and then spent the rest of the evening lying in bed, trying to convince each other that our mother would get better, but never quite believing it. I'd heard of people who had survived cancer, but most of them claimed to get through it with the aid of whole grains and spiritual publications that encourage them to sit quietly in a lotus position. They envisioned their tumors and tried to reason with them.

Our mother was not the type to greet the dawn or cook with oats and barley. She didn't reason. She threatened. And if that didn't work, she chose to ignore the problem. We couldn't picture her joining a support group or trotting through the mall in a warm-up suit. 62 years old, and none of us had ever seen her in a pair of slacks. I'm not certain why, but it seemed to me that a person needed a pair of pants in order to defeat cancer.

Just as important, they needed a plan. They needed to accept the idea of a new and different future free of crowded ashtrays and five gallon jugs of wine and scotch. They needed to believe that such a life might be worth living. I didn't know that I'd be able to embrace such an unrewarding future, but I hoped that she could.

If she'd had it her way, we would've never known about the cancer. It was our father's idea to tell us, and she had fought it, agreeing only when he threatened to tell us himself. Our mother worried that once we found out, we would treat her differently, delicately. We might feel obliged to compliment her cooking and laugh at all of her jokes, thinking always of the tumor she was trying so hard to forget. And that is exactly what we did.

The knowledge of her illness forced everything into the spotlight and demanded that it be memorable. We were no longer calling our mother. Now, we were picking up the telephone to call our mother with cancer. We realized that any conversation might be our last, and because of that, we wanted to say something important. But what could one say that hadn't already been printed on millions of greeting cards and helium balloons? "I love you," I said at the end of one of our late night phone calls. "I am going to pretend that I didn't hear that," she said. I heard a match strike in the background, the tinkling of ice cubes in a raised glass, and then she hung up.

I had never said such a thing to my mother, and if I had it to do over again, I would probably take it back. It was queer to say such a thing to someone unless you were trying to talk them out of money or into bed. Our mother had taught us this when we were no taller than pony kegs. I had known people who said such things to their parents, "I love you." But it always translated to mean, "I'd love getting off the phone with you."

We gathered together for the wedding, which took place on a crisp, clear October afternoon. I took my mother's arm and led her to a bench beyond the range of the other guests. The thin mountain air made it difficult for her to breathe, and she moved slowly, pausing every few moments. The families had taken a walk to a nearby glen, and we sat in the shade, eating sausage biscuits and speaking to one another like well-mannered strangers.

"The sausage is good," she said. "It's flavorful, but not too greasy." "Not too greasy at all. Still though, it isn't dry." "Neither are the biscuits," she said. "They're light and crisp, very buttery." "Very. These are some very buttery biscuits, They're flaky, but not too flaky. Not too flaky at all," she said. We watched the path, awkwardly waiting for someone to release us from the torture of our stiff and meaningless conversation.

I'd always been afraid of sick people and so had my mother. I think it was their fortitude that frightened us. Sick people reminded us not of what we had, but of what we lacked. Everything we said sounded petty and insignificant. Our complaints paled in the face of theirs and without our complaints, there was nothing to say. My mother and I had been fine over the telephone, but now, face to face, the rules had changed.

If she were to complain, she risked being seen as a sick complainer, the worst kind of all. If I were to do it, I might come off sounding even more selfish than I actually was. This sudden turn of events had robbed us of our common language, leaving us to exchange the same innocuous pleasantries we'd always made fun of. I wanted to stop it, and so, I think, did she. But neither of us knew how.

After the gifts had been opened, we returned to our rooms at the Econo Lodge, the reservations having been made by my father. We looked out the windows, past the freeway and into the distance, squinting at the charming hotels huddled at the base of other, finer mountains. This would be the last time our family was all together.

It's so rare when one knowingly does something for the last time, the last time you take a bath, the last time you have sex or trim your toenails. If you knew you'd never do it again, it might be nice to really make a show of it. This would be it as far as my family was concerned. And it ticked me off that our final meeting would take place in such a sorry excuse for a hotel.

"What more do you want out of a hotel?" he shouted, stepping out onto the patio in his underpants. "It's clean. They've got a couple of snack machines In the lobby. The TV's working. It's near the interstate. Who cares if you don't like the damn wallpaper. You know what your problem is, don't you?" "We're spoiled," we shouted in unison.

My parents retired to their room, and the rest of us hiked to a nearby cemetery, a once ideal spot that now afforded an excellent view of the newly built Pizza Hut. Over the years, our mother had repeatedly voiced her desire to be cremated. We would drive past a small forest fire or observe the pillars of smoke rising from a neighbor's chimney, and she would crush her cigarette saying, "That's what I want right there. Do whatever you like with the remains. Sprinkle them into the ash trays of a fine hotel. Give them to smartass children for Christmas. Hand them over to the Catholics to rub into their foreheads. Just make sure I'm cremated."

"Oh Sharon," my father would groan, "you don't know what you want." He'd say it as though he himself had been cremated several times in the past, but had finally wised up and accepted burial as the only sensible option.

We laid our Econo Lodge bedspreads over the dewy grass of the cemetery, smoking joints and trying to imagine a life without our mother. If there was a heaven, we probably shouldn't expect to find her there. Neither did she deserve to roam the fiery tar pits of hell, surrounded for all eternity by the same [BLEEP] heads who brought us strip malls and theme restaurants. There must exist some middle ground, a place where one was tortured on a daily basis but still allowed a few moments of pleasure taken wherever they could find it.

That place seemed to be Raleigh, North Carolina, so why the big fuss? Why couldn't she just stay where she was and not have cancer? Ever since arriving at the motor lodge, we'd gone back and forth from one room to another, holding secret meetings and exchanging private bits of information. We hoped that by preparing ourselves for the worst, we might be able to endure the inevitable with some degree of courage or grace.

Anything we forecasted was puny compared to the future that awaited us. You can't brace yourself for famine if you've never known hunger. It is foolish even to try. The most you can do is eat up while you still can, stuffing yourself, shovelling it in with both hands and licking clean the plates, recalling every course in vivid detail.

Our mother was back in her room and very much alive, probably watching a detective program on television. Maybe that was her light in the window, her figure stepping out into the patio to light a cigarette. We told ourselves she probably wanted to be left alone. That's how stoned we were. We'd think of this later, each in our own separate way. I myself tend to dwell on the stupidity of pacing a cemetery while she sat, frightened and alone, staring at the tip of her cigarette and envisioning herself, clearly now, in ashes.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris's story, "Ashes," is from his book, Naked. His latest book is called Holidays On Ice. He was recorded by Time Warner Audio Books.

Act Four. Ghost Story.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Ghost Story. Well, we figured we couldn't do a show about people who were haunted without at least one old-fashioned ghost story. This one is a very contemporary one. It's actually an excerpt from Heather Woodbury's amazing, eight hour, solo stage play, WhatEver. The play is this sprawling, epic story. Woodbury plays ten fully-developed characters and over 100 minor ones. We're just going to hear a tiny fragment of this thing here. Here is the set up.

A character named Clove is at a rave party on a beach, goes out in the water, goes under, start to drown. People think it's a suicide. Then, somehow, she wakes up in a Brussels sprouts field. This is a few scenes later.

[DIAL TONE] [PHONE RINGING]

Clove

Hannah, could you put Sable on the phone? Hannah, Sable. Your big sister Sable. Give me Sable. Children, egg me to such excess at times. Sable? Yeah, it's Clove. Hi, yeah, yeah. No, I'm all right. Are you in trouble? Ugh, I'm sorry. What's that humming sound on the line? Oh, your parents are chanting. I'm so relieved my parents aren't Buddhists. Are they all agged and stuff about me drowning at the rave and getting arrested and like that?

Your parents are so overly righteous or something at times. I'm not sure. It doesn't matter. Forget it. It's too dull. Never mind.

Anyway, no my parents are calm. They were all indignant that I talked to the state troopers and didn't go all silent and recite my rights and stuff. But they didn't get hectic about, "Don't take drugs like we did. LSD almost ruined our marriage." Blah blah blah. Yeah, they were non-typically all quiet. I think my mom is spazzed that I'm a teen suicide risk or something.

No, Sable, is this you? No, I was just being all excessive in the water under the moonlight. It's like the moon was making this crescent cookie shape, cutting cookies in the back of my head even though I was looking the other way. And the crabs were talking to me. It doesn't matter. Never mind, it's too complex. I can't.

Well, yeah, yeah, I was with that dude, Skitter. No? Oh yeah, Skeeter. Well, yeah. We were by the cave by that dead sea lion or walrus, whatever. Do you think he's flaccid and weak, or do you think he's rad? Right on. I'm so relieved. Yeah, well we got slithery. Yeah, that's when I went to the waves, to wash his protein shake off my hand. My hand. Sable, I didn't like him that much.

So do you really want to hear what happened? You promise you won't think I'm all Juliette Lewis? All right, I go to the waves, and the ocean started talking or singing to me. It's like the ocean was this green spreading gown and it was pulling me in it. And then these crabs were biting my toes. That's how they communicate. Yeah, they were telling me all these rad things. Oh yeah, you should see my toes. They are retchedly butchered. It's gruesome to excess.

But anyway, the crabs were pulling my toes and teaching me how to dance this crazy turning pattern for the moon. And then I could live under the waves and give the ocean something back for us destroying it, like me for the sea lion, a life for a life. I know. I thought you said you-- yeah. Isn't it raging? Yeah.

So I guess I was far out on the rocks. And the waves were slashing all about me. And I see this seahorse man crashing and raging way out in the middle of it. And I-- Sable, girl dude, he was excessively real. Do you believe me? Rad. And then Skitter, oh yeah, I mean Skeeter, was calling to me. And I don't know what I answered, but I jumped in.

And the next thing I knew, I was swirling around in the waves, and then I see this white, white dude. And he's pushing the seahorse man back under the waves, and he's pulling back the dress of the waves to keep it from going over my neck. And then he floats across the ocean to me, and he says, "This is way [BLEEP]."

And he leads me down underwater over these underwater mountains into this underwater valley where there's this underwater farm. But it turned out later-- the state troopers told me-- that I had gotten in this cave and crawled over these rocks up a cliff and across the road to the Brussels sprouts farm where they arrested me.

So this way pale dude leaves me there. And Sable, this is fiendishly odd. Don't spazz. He goes-- he's all, "Don't tell people you saw me." And I'm all, "Who are you anyway?" Sable, promise not to tell anyone. Thou, right on. He's all, "I'm Cobain the friendly ghost." I'm being excessively real. This was totally realistic. I was all, whoa, Kurt. I know. I know. We don't even like Nirvana. Well, In Utero is a good album. It is. Never mind. No, I mean never mind, not Nevermind. Anyway, never mind. Yeah, isn't it raging?

[SNORING SOUNDS]

Heather Woodbury Character

Who's that? What in the devil? Who's there? What is it? Eliot? Is that you? You frightened me. No, it's not Eliot, is it? But you are a ghost, aren't you? I thought you might been my last husband, dear. Who are you? Coltrane? Coltrane the friendly ghost? Well, I'm awfully glad you're friendly dear, but you don't look a thing like Mr. Coltrane. I saw him play many, many times you know. And I'd say you're awfully pale, even for a ghost, if you're John Coltrane. What is it dear? What's that? Co-bin? Co-bin? Kurt Co-bin? Who knows.

Ira Glass

Well, Kurt Cobain wanders around haunting various characters throughout Heather Woodbury's WhatEver. The eight-hour version will be touring the United States in 1998. Her director, Dudley Saunders, has also produced an eight-hour radio play of the epic solo show from which this was excerpted.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Senior editor Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hit, Margie Rockland and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Alex Blumberg and Rachel Howard.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

To buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who says every week after our show--

Nyman Mother

One's enough for me baby. I'll never go through it again.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

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