Transcript

99:

I Enjoy Being A Girl, Sort Of
Transcript

Originally aired 04.10.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/99

Prologue.

Ira Glass

So a new girl transfers into Rebecca's high school, an all-girls school. And it took a little while for everybody to figure her out because she transferred in from public school. Actually, from one of the best public schools in the city. But still, in their eyes--

Rebecca

She like had a lot of background. And so when she came here, people thought she's nothing. She's another--

Ira Glass

Public school kid? Oh, so she's just like--

Rebecca

She's ghetto.

Ira Glass

She's ghetto? She's ghetto, meaning she's from public school?

Rebecca

No. Just the style.

Ira Glass

Does she dress ghetto?

Rebecca

At first. When she first came there. Ghetto hoochie mama.

Ira Glass

Ghetto hoochie mama. I have to admit I did not know exactly what she meant by that. So helpfully, Rebecca searched her brain for another phrase to explain it.

Rebecca

Booty house girl. Do you what house music is?

Ira Glass

Yeah, of course.

Rebecca

She was the kind of girl who all into booty house music.

Ira Glass

Fact is, there are so many ways of being a teenage girl, and you can switch from one to another Like one friend of Rebecca's who started high school with blond hair, blue eyes.

Rebecca

She started with the alternative, preppy girls. Gap clothes. Straight, Gap, Banana Republic khakis, the crewneck sweaters.

Ira Glass

How'd she talk when she was alternative?

Rebecca

With no accent, no inflection on anything. She was just kind of like, yeah, dude. Yeah. That year, that was freshman year. And then she went to the Spanish group after, the Latinas. And she dressed in big, gold hoop earrings and real dark lipstick, like almost black. And the real thick eyeliner. And then she started saying-- she'll be talking to you and she says but. She wouldn't say but anymore, she'd say pero. That's Spanish. And she'll go mira, mira. You know, mean look.

Ira Glass

Look, look, look. Right.

Rebecca

She got more and more into it where she'd say instead of "look at that fine guy," "oh, look at that papi over there." That was all of sophomore year. And then, junior year she was kind of getting like-- well, we called it ghetto style. Because all of a sudden, she was dressing with big, baggy pants, windbreakers, Nike shirts, big gold chains. And if she wanted to tell you-- so she got excited. She'd get real excited.

And OK, she came up to me one day and she's, oh, girl, we was driving in the car. We saw this guy. He was fine. And he looked my way and I was like, what's up, baby.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Rebecca

And she got real into it though, smacking her lips and [MAKES LIP SMACKING SOUND]. She gets hyper. And she's slamming her hands.

Ira Glass

So that was her black year basically?

Rebecca

I think.

Ira Glass

Now senior year, that girl is a Clueless girl. Clueless. Meaning she acts and dresses like the characters in the movie and the TV show Clueless. Stacked shoes, polyester bellbottoms, retro '70s style.

It's hard to imagine many boys changing style this quickly, this willfully, this many times. It is very, very girl. Transforming yourself head to toe every year because you can. And because you're expected to be that obsessed with how you look.

Ira Glass

So Rebecca, we're thinking about calling this week's show, I Enjoy Being a Girl, Sort Of. And I just want to ask, do you have any thoughts on that theme?

Rebecca

Sort of? Well, I love being a girl.

Ira Glass

How so?

Rebecca

Because we get to the fun things.

Ira Glass

The fun things being?

Rebecca

I mean, we can do whatever we want with our faces, with our clothes, with our hair. And well also because girls don't get as much pressure from things like gangs and all that stuff that guys do. We don't have to be hard and try to be, like macho. But we could if we want to. And since all the equal rights have come up, we can do whatever. Like way more options than back in the day. It's perfect.

Ira Glass

It's perfect?

Rebecca

Well, no, no. OK, it's not perfect. But it's getting there.

Ira Glass

And it's better than being a guy?

Rebecca

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, enjoying being a girl, sort of, and sort of not.

Act One, Fatty Suit. David Sedaris explains how one girl sidestepped her father's wish that she be thin and pretty and focus on getting a man through a technique that was almost like a kind of industrial sabotage.

Act Two, How to Be a Man. Writer Sarah Miller attends a class in New York City that teaches women how to walk and talk and act like men.

Act Three, Strength in Numbers. Six women, a van, a 12 hour drive to Mississippi that starts in the middle of the night and ends in a casino in a cotton field.

Act Four, Taking Sisterhood One Step further. A happily married polygamist wife explains how having eight women married to one man is the ultimate feminist lifestyle. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass, stay with us.

Act One. Fatty Suit.

Ira Glass

Act One, Fatty Suit. David Sedaris has this parable of the pressures on modern women and how one woman, his sister, responded.

David Sedaris

My father called me late one recent Sunday evening, excited with the news that my sister, Amy, was scheduled to appear in a magazine article on young, New York women.

Can you imagine, he asked. My God, put a camera in front of that girl and she'll shine like a diamond! Between the single men and the job opportunities, her phone is going to be ringing right off the hook!

My father has always placed a great deal of importance on his daughter's physical beauty. It is to him, their greatest asset, and he monitors their appearance with an almost freakish intensity. Because it was always assumed that we would go to college, my brother and I were free to grow as plump and ugly as we liked. I might wander freely through the house drinking pancake batter from a plastic bucket, but the moment one of my sisters overspilled her bikini, our father was right there to mix his metaphors.

Jesus, Flossy, what are we running here, a dairy farm? Look at you, you're the size of a tank. Two few more pounds and you won't be able to cross state lines without a trucking license.

Three of my sisters responded to this pressure by losing themselves, however briefly, to drugs and alcohol. The one exception is my sister, Amy, who for as long as I can remember has chosen to lose herself in others.

For Amy, school was dedicated solely to the study or her teachers. She meticulously charted the reputation of their shoes and blouses and was quick to pinpoint their mannerisms. Practicing alone in the basement, she would pace before her king-sized blackboard in full costume.

Her imaginary classroom was a forum where the teachers ignored the lesson plan, preferring instead to discuss their elaborate home lives, which most often involved the bedridden mother forced to take oxygen through a tank. My sister turned that same eye on the adults my parents knew from the neighborhood and country club. Choosing from her box of wigs and castoff dresses, she would prepare herself a false cocktail and sat at the rec room bar, mastering their slurred inflections.

She was great as Flow Wagner and Eleanor Kelleher. But vocally, her best impersonation was of Penny Midland, a stylish, 50-year-old woman who work part-time at an art gallery my parents used to visit on a regular basis. Wearing a white page boy wig and one of my mother's better caftans, Amy began calling my father at the office.

Lou, Penny Midland here. How the hell are you? An awkward conversationalist, our father would fidget before saying, Penny. Well, what do you know? Gosh it's good be hear your voice.

The first few times she called, Amy discussed gallery business. But little by little, she began complaining about her husband, a Westinghouse executive named Van.

I want out, she'd say. It isn't that I don't care for him as a friend, but at this point in my life I don't know that I can stay married to a man who, well, a man who likes boys. I don't know how else to say it. The man likes boys and that's the way it is.

Our father offered comfort with such standard noncommittal phrases as, "I guess it takes two to tango," or "You hang in there, baby."

Oh, Lou, it just feels so good to talk to someone who really understands.

I walked into the kitchen late one afternoon and came upon my 12-year-old sister propositioning her father.

I was thinking that maybe you and I could get together some time, just for laughs. Unless we felt like taking it to another level.

Amy studied her reflection in the oven door, brushing the white bangs away from her forehead with her heavily jeweled fingers.

All I'm saying is that I find you to be a very attractive man. Is that a crime?

This was what my mother meant when she accused people of playing a dangerous game. Were my father to accept Penny's offer, Amy would have known him as a philanderer and wondered who else he might have slept with. Everything he'd ever said would be called into question and scanned for possible sexual content. Was that really a business trip, or had he snuck off to Myrtle Beach with one of the Stravidies twins?

It is to his credit that our father was such a gentleman. Stammering that he was very flattered to be asked, he let Penny down as gently as possible. He offered to set her up with some available bachelors he knew from his office at IBM and told my sister to take care of herself. Adding that she was a very special woman who deserved to be happy.

It was years before Amy admitted what she had done. They were relatively uneventful years for our family and I imagine, a very confusing period of time for poor Penny Midland, who was frequently visited at the art gallery by my father and any number of his divorced business associates.

Here's the gal I was telling you about, he'd say to Bob Sweetie or Tommy Lattermore. I think the two of you would make a dynamite couple. I swear to God. Maybe some night this week the two of you could slip away and maybe have a few drinks. Give it a try why don't you?

The passage of time has not altered my father's obsessive attention to my sister's weight and appearance. And because of that, most of them keep their distance, checking in only by phone.

Is it just my imagination, he'll ask, or has your voice gotten fatter? You sound chubby to me. Is everything OK?

Because she has maintained her beautiful skin and youthful figure, Amy is my father's greatest treasure. She is by far, the most attractive member of our family. Yet she spent most of her life admiring skin diseases and praying for a hump.

It's not fair that I can't grow a beard she'll say, gluing a pebble-sized wort to the side of her nose. Compliments are genuinely lost on her. She can't see any benefit to being herself and is constantly searching for what she considers a flattering disguise.

She's got all the neck braces and false teeth a person could want, and recently spent a good deal of money on a customized fatty suit she enjoys wearing beneath sweat pants as tight and uninviting as sausage casings.

She couldn't afford the matching top and is reduced to waddling the streets much like two women fused together in some sort of a cruel experiment. From the waist up, she's slim and fit, chugging forward on legs the size of tree trunks and followed by a wide, dimpled bottom so thick she could sit on a knitting needle and never feel a thing.

She wore it home last Christmas where our startled, heartbroken father met us at the airport. He managed to silence his disapproval on the short ride to the house, but the moment Amy stepped into the bathroom he turned to me shouting, what the hell has happened to her? Jesus Christ Almighty, this is tearing me apart. I'm in real pain here.

What?

Your sister, that's what. The girl's ass is the size of a beanbag chair. I thought you were supposed to be keeping an eye on her?

I begged him to lower his voice. Please dad, don't mention it in front of her. Amy's very sensitive about her-- you know.

Her what? Go ahead and say it. Her big fat ass. That's what she's ashamed of, and she should be. Christ Almighty, they could land choppers on ass like that.

Oh, dad.

Don't try to defend her, wise guy. She's a single woman and the clock is ticking away. How is she supposed to find a husband with an ass like that?

Well, I said, a lot of men like that.

He looked at me with great pity and shook his head. What you don't know could fill a book.

My father composed himself when Amy re-entered the room, but the moment she opened the freezer door he acted as though she were tossing a lit match into the gas tank of his Porsche.

What in God's name are you doing? Look at you, you're killing yourself.

Amy hugged a quart of ice cream to her chest and searched the drawers for a shovel-sized spoon.

Your problem is that you're bored, my father said. You're bored and lonely and you're eating garbage to feel some kind of stinking void. I know what you're going through and believe me, you can lick this.

First of all, Amy said, I'm not bored. And besides that, all I've eaten today are a stack of pancakes, four donuts, a danish at the airport, and a couple of really small brownies on the plane. She kept it up until our father, his voice cracking with pain, offered to find her some professional help.

I'm begging you to reach out before it's too late. We can do this together. There are programs and camps that specialize in this kind of thing. But first, you have to admit that you have a problem.

When Amy rejected his offer, he attempted to set an example. Settling down to Christmas dinner, he pretended to be satisfied with nothing but a sliver of white meat accompanied by a single spear of broccoli. His athletic regime became theatric. That felt great, he'd say, finishing a round of sit-ups. Now I'll do some squat thrusts, a couple dozen pushups, and it's off for a satisfying run. Anyone want to join me? Amy?

She kept to her fatty suit until her legs were chafed and pimpled. It was on the morning of our return flight when she revealed her joke and our father, bracing himself against the countertop, wept with the light. Ha-ha he laughed as though he were reading the words off a page, the way he's always done. Ha-ha-ha, you really had me going. Ha-ha. I knew you'd never let yourself go.

The fatty suit only reinvigorated him for the photo shoot he called about with such enthusiasm. She had me fooled for a minute there, but even with a fat ass, you can't disguise the fact that she's a beautiful person and that's what really matters. Do you happen to know if they're going to be hiring a professional hairstylist, someone who really knows what they're doing? I sure as hell hope so because her hair is awfully thin and someone needs to talk her into losing those bangs.

There's a lot I don't tell my father when he calls asking after Amy. He wouldn't understand that she has no interest in getting married and was in fact, quite happy to break up with her live-in boyfriend.

He was a pleasant, hardworking fellow, whom she replaced with a dwarf rabbit named Tattletale. Tattletale enjoys chewing electrical cords, and as a result my sister's phone is often out of order. But it doesn't seem to bother her that available men can't get through.

The last time she was asked out by a successful bachelor she paused for a few moments before saying, thanks for asking, but I'm really just not into white guys right now.

This alone would have given my father an aneurysm. The clock is ticking, he says. If she waits much longer she'll be alone for the rest of her life.

This seems to suit Amy just fine. For the time being, she seems perfectly content with her rabbit and an imaginary boyfriend she has named Ricky. We'll be walking the streets of her West Village neighborhood, running errands, when she'll turn to me saying, Ricky gave me a bumper pool table for our one-month anniversary. I came home this afternoon and there it was parked beside the baby grand electric organ he gave me for President's Day.

I didn't know you played pool, I'll say. When did you start? How did you learn?

Oh, a few months ago. Ricky taught me how to play on our last flight to Korea.

You didn't tell me he was Korean?

Oh, she'll say, he's not. He just has a lot of friends there, so we go to Korea a lot. She carries on like this and after a while, Ricky seems not only real, but very likable.

Hey, my father will ask, what do you know about this Ricky person? Amy seems to think he's really something.

What exactly has she told you? It's always best to ask what he's already heard. For all I know, Amy could have claimed that Ricky was a Navy SEAL, or the chief surgeon at a hospital specializing in diseases of the kidney or pancreas.

When my father called asking about the photo shoot, I feigned ignorance. I didn't tell him that at the scheduled time, my sister arrived at the studio with unwashed hair and took her place beside a half dozen women carefully dressed in flattering outfits. She waited while the others had their hair styled into the current fashion. One by one, their brows were trained while makeup artists made the most of their lips and cheek bones.

When called fourth to the styling table, Amy said only, I want to look like someone has beaten me up really, really bad. The makeup artist did a fine job. The black eyes and purple jaw were accentuated by a series of scratch marks on her forehead. Puss yellow pools surround her blistered nose and her swollen lips were fenced with mean rows of brackish stitches.

Amy was enchanted with her new look. Following the photo shoot, she wore her bruises to the dry cleaner and grocery store. Most people nervously looked away. But on the rare occasion someone asked what had happened, my sister smiled as brightly as possible saying, I'm in love. Can you believe it? I'm finally, totally in love. And you know what? It feels great.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author most recently of, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and editor of the collection, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules: An Anthology of Outstanding Stories. This story was originally written for Vogue magazine, which then rejected it without explanation. One Vogue employee speculated that perhaps it did not conform enough with Vogue's notions of feminine beauty.

David's sister Amy is among other things, a star of the TV show and someday to be released movie, Strangers with Candy.

[MUSIC- "I'M A WOMAN" BY PEGGY LEE]

Act Two. How To Be A Man.

Ira Glass

Act Two, How To Be a Man. Well, one of the problems in doing a show like we're doing this week, a show made of different stories that seem to go together because they were all about, at some level, different ways of being a woman or a girl, is that you find yourself treading around all these broad generalizations about men and women that actually none of us really believe. But we figured, we came this far with this theme, we might as well head down the river into the heart of darkness of gender cliches. And playing the Martin Sheen role in our little gender apocalypse now will be Sarah Miller.

Sarah Miller for a while, had the odd job of being a woman who wrote a sex column for men in a men's magazine, Details. That job seemed to consist mostly of correcting guys gross misperceptions about women. We sent her to a class we heard about in New York City run by a woman named Diane Tore. A class that tries to teach women how to dress and walk and talk like men. So it's kind of a reverse on her regular job.

Sarah Miller put on a loose fitting flannel shirt and tried to imagine transforming herself not just into any man, but into the kind of man who does not have a kind of ambiguous mix of traditionally male and female traits. She would become a guy's guy.

Sarah Miller

I have to admit the idea of the workshop made me anxious. Just before I went I told a friend that I was afraid I already seemed like a guy. I'm tall, I'm loud, I swear a lot. I told them I was afraid that Diane would say something to me like, God, you're a natural. And I would take this to mean, you are naturally coarse and masculine. And naturally, not at all pretty.

I shouldn't have worried. It turns out there's a whole world of gestures and attitudes between me in a flannel shirt and me being mistaken for a man. There's the proper way to walk, for example. Diane demonstrated.

Diane

Sense of resolution ownership. Sense that when I walk into this room, anything, anybody, could be mine. I could own anything and anybody, or everything, in this room. For that moment that my eyes rest there. So that sense of ownership is conveyed in the gaze.

They're not afraid to take up the space or to own the space. Or to check things out. How's this place structured?

So when you walk you think you have a perimeter, a boundary of about three foot around you, OK? And this [UNINTELLIGIBLE], the way he walks, it's coming from the shoulders. The hips are tight and he goes side to side at the same time he goes forward. So it's like this 360 degrees moat around me, OK?

Sarah Miller

Then we gave it a try. I thought slumping was the quickest route to maleness, but when I looked around I saw the other stood ramrod straight. We examined each other for clues.

Diane

And maybe just introduce yourself to different people in the room. Just shake hands. Don't smile. Stop smiling.

Sarah Miller

Smiling was the one thing none of us could seem to cut out. Diane had to remind us again and again. So as it became clear to me that I was not going to leave as a convincing man, I manufactured a goal for myself. I was here, I decided, to learn arrogance.

Diane

Yeah. So you want to cover the nipples first of all. Going to start wrapping from the bottom.

Sarah Miller

An ACE bandage, my sisters, is the first tool you need on your path to gender liberation. Mine was double wide. It kept snapping out of my hands as I wrapped it around my chest.

Diane

It's got to be quite tight. But not so tight that you can't breath. That's ridiculous. So remember, you're going to be wearing this the whole day and evening. So should be OK. All right, here we go.

Sarah Miller

This was the actual song we were listening to as we wrapped our chest down. Diane had brought along a tape called "Frat Rock" to enhance that double X chromosome vibe we were all striving for.

[MUSIC PLAYING - BAD COMPANY - CAN'T GET ENOUGH OF YOUR LOVE]

My clothes, two big Levi's, a plaid flannel shirt, a Princeton t-shirt with Hebrew letters, all would have hung nicely on a guy's broad shoulders and slim hips. But I looked a little lumpy. My breasts had not disappeared so much as retreated under extreme duress to the middle of my chest. Two sad, misplaced lumps uncertain of their meaning. My whiskers were good, but my eyes-- Diane pointed this out about all of us-- retained the hopeful sweetness of femininity. And if I resembled anything, it was only some strange hybrid of a lumberjack, lady from Lady and the Tramp, and Marie Antoinette.

I made up a new identity. Now my name was Dan Rosen. I was a Brown dropout who worked at St. Mark's Bookshop. I stacked the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] readers. I bought Paul Auster novels on discount. My parents lived in Mt. Kisco and were lame. Brown was lame. I was lame.

Sarah Miller

I'm Dan. I'm Dan.

Diane

The thing is that you are using the same [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Sarah Miller

Hello, hello, hello.

Diane

--rhythm.

Sarah Miller

I'm Dan and my boobs hurt.

As Dan I sat down for my eating lesson and I noticed that none of us were really winning any surprises in the realness department. Two of the girls had long hair tied back in ponytails. When you looked at them you had a split second to decide if they were women dressed up as men or the Allman Brothers, and it wasn't a tough call.

One of them asked Diane how we should be sitting.

Diane

With your legs open. Until you're taking as much space as possible.

Sarah Miller

Really?

Diane

Yeah, you see guys on diners. You sit next to them and they'll be in these little round seats. And their knees will be pushing right into your--

Sarah Miller

On a subway.

Diane

The subways as well.

Sarah Miller

We could sit and eat with our legs as wide as we wanted, but we were not men. One of the Allman Brothers spent the meal nibbling her way through about half a piece of pita bread. Eating it with the slow deliberation of one not at peace with food. The other Allman Brother looked a little bit like a guy, but she had this way of nodding and saying, uh hmm when she listened and it gave her away.

Only Diane, dressed up as her alter ego, Dan King, looked like a guy. It was the eyes more than anything else. Her's were cool, detached. They assumed rather than asked. We were all too eager and naive looking. I said that we looked like little does tenderly eating grass and everyone laughed.

When we finished eating, the place was a mess. Food, napkins, and take-out containers everywhere. No one wanted clean up. We sat in our men's clothes, staring at everything, not moving. I knew what we were thinking.

Sarah Miller

So now we got to get some [BLEEP] bitches to clean this [BLEEP] up, huh?

Woman 1

Yeah.

Sarah Miller

My highest hope for the workshop once I realized I was in very little danger of actually resembling a man, was that I would have some great insight into the mystery of what makes men men and women women. But I think there's no mystery left. The train of gender is too familiar, full of places we visited way too many times.

Men are detached, unapologetic, unafraid to take up space. Women are conciliatory and self-effacing. Men gulp, women sip. I'm not sure there's anything Diane or anyone could say that would really surprise any of us.

I did have one moment in the workshop where I was walking across the floor, shoulders hunched, lips in a scowl, where I felt what it must be like to Dan Rosen. College dropout, keeper of the magazine section. Is this it, I thought? Is this what it feels like to be a guy?

But I realized that what I felt-- useless, defensive, underachieving, bored, tragically adolescent-- was not about feeling like a guy, but about remembering what it felt like to be in my early 20s. What it felt like to be a failure. And I don't need to be in drag to tap into that.

As our graduation ceremony for the workshop, we wanted to go to a men's club to watch strippers. But it was a Sunday night in Giuliani's New York and we couldn't find a single one open. I was secretly relieved when we ended up at a restaurant in the West Village. Right there in the booth I surreptitiously unwrapped my chest. I ordered a Diet Coke and a salad.

Ira Glass

Sarah Miller. These days she writes a column for Men's Health magazine. Her novel, Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn, is coming out this March.

Coming up, polygamy as feminist lifestyle. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Strength In Numbers.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and reporters and everyday people to come in and speak on that theme. Today on our program, I Enjoy Being a Girl, Sort Of.

In this second half of our program, we turned the stories of individual women and girls to stories of groups of women and girls. We have arrived at Act Three, Strength in Numbers.

This is the story about one group of women. And I have to say that every woman working on this show at some point during this last week has expressed a little envy for the women in this group. And I think maybe the best way to start their story is with their road trip. Barbara, Jewel, Lynn, Tiny, Valerie, and Rosetta decided to leave the husbands and kids and grandkids behind and hit the road.

One Of The Hens

I was the first pick up.

Ira Glass

And?

One Of The Hens

And they picked me up about 4 o'clock.

Ira Glass

4 o'clock in the morning?

One Of The Hens

4:00 AM. We arrived at the donut place and they were not open. They did not open til 7:00.

Ira Glass

That is sad when you arrive at the donut place-- you were earlier then.

One Of The Hens

They were not open.

One Of The Hens

And they would not open to 7:00 on the dot.

One Of The Hens

We're waiting on 6 o'clock, so we can go into the donut place.

One Of The Hens

I think [UNINTELLIGIBLE] in there.

One Of The Hens

We got three hens in the car planning on how we could go up to Rosewood hospital and sneak up in the room.

Ira Glass

So it's like 4:00 in the morning. Sometime between 4:00 and 6:00 in the morning on a Friday morning and you decide you're going to visit one of your friends, one the hens who's in the hospital before you hit the road.

One Of The Hens

That was going to be a break in.

One Of The Hens

Yeah, but you know I thought we'd kind of pose as doctors and we're coming to see [? Marilyn Jones. ?] There's a special case. They do it on TV all the time.

One Of The Hens

I can flash my DCFS badge.

One Of The Hens

I was going to play like I worked for DCFS. I do work for DCFS.

Ira Glass

Department of Children and Family Services.

One Of The Hens

Department of Children and Family Services.

Ira Glass

State agency.

One Of The Hens

So I was going to show my ID and said that I had to talk to her about her kids.

Ira Glass

At 5:00 in the morning? I'm from DCFS, I got to talk to you about your kids at 5:00 in the morning.

One Of The Hens

Now see, I was the last one they picked up, so I didn't know anything about that.

Ira Glass

And your reaction was?

One Of The Hens

I would not have agreed with that.

One Of The Hens

My [UNINTELLIGIBLE] out. I'm with DCFS legal. I need to have her sign some papers.

Rosetta

She has high blood pressure and her sugar is up, so we don't want to excite her too much, but we want to give her that hen love.

One Of The Hens

Well, not right now, Rosetta.

Rosetta

And hen love.

One Of The Hens

Give her a big hug and kiss.

Ira Glass

The Hens. Most of them have known each other since they were teenagers, growing up in Inglewood on Chicago's south side. A couple joined the group when they were working with other hands at the switchboard at The Palmer House, a fancy Chicago Hotel. Nine women. And every March they take a big trip together or they throw a party. Like the dinner dance they threw for themselves and their families where everybody wore white and gold. Everybody.

This March, they took a tape recorder and drove from Chicago to a casino in Mississippi and back in three days. They visited a stray Hen who works down at the casino, Sally.

Three of the Hens-- Jewel, Tiny, and Lynn came into the studio to talk about trip and explain what the Hens are all about.

One Of The Hens

In the South, they say that when it's a bunch of women that get together, a bunch of hens.

Ira Glass

Yeah, they say it in kind of a mean way.

One Of The Hens

Yeah, but we didn't take it as being means.

One Of The Hens

Hens to the Hilt.

One Of The Hens

Hilt. That was our original name.

One Of The Hens

Because when we traveled, we only stayed at Hilton Hotels.

One Of The Hens

Well, hell, your husband said something about they ain't nothing but a bunch of hens.

One Of The Hens

Bunch of hens. Now he did say that in a mean way.

One Of The Hens

In a very mean way.

Ira Glass

And you guys will help each other out, like if somebody's out of work or if somebody needs some money. You guys will help out?

One Of The Hens

We just did something like that recently. The last barbecue holiday. Valerie's son went out to the army, so we came together with our families and had a big barbecue. And at that barbecue we scraped together the little money that we had left to send him off to let him know we care. And sent him off with money in his pocket with all our phone numbers and our addresses. Have you got a letter yet?

One Of The Hens

I haven't gotten anything yet.

One Of The Hens

But we know he's doing fine. We try to do things like that to let each other's family know that we care.

Ira Glass

So when your kids were growing up, when your kids were coming up, would you have a lot of contact with each other, talking about all the stuff they were doing?

One Of The Hens

My kids basically stay with Jill and Barbara all the time.

One Of The Hens

We all had apartments next door to each other. When our babies were one and two. 101, 102, 103. I was 101, Tiny was 102, and Barbara was 103.

Ira Glass

There's a moment in the tape that you guys recorded on this last trip where really, literally everyone in the van is talking at the same time.

One Of The Hens

And we understand each other.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Ira Glass

Now let me get to just the facts of how this weekend worked. You guys left at 4:00 in the morning on Friday morning and then you drove for how many hours? Because you were heading from Illinois from Chicago through Tennessee, all the way to--

One Of The Hens

12. It took us 12 hours.

Ira Glass

You drove 12 straight hours more or less? And where did you--

One Of The Hens

Oh, we stopped. Oh, we stopped at a great place.

One Of The Hens

And I got this great restaurant in Lambert's. Home of the throwed rolls. It's like, Jill, what you talking about? I said, you guys, they throw the rolls at you. People in the place throwing rolls and you have to catch them.

Ira Glass

Throwing rolls at you?

One Of The Hens

Throwing dinner rolls at you. Hot dinner rolls at you.

One Of The Hens

Catch, catch, catch!

One Of The Hens

Because their rolls are so good that they couldn't serve them fast enough. So one day the owner just threw one and that's how it started. So all you have to do is hold up your hand and they throw it and you catch it.

Ira Glass

Now there's a recording of this and somebody apparently is not doing a very good job doing the catching.

One Of The Hens

Me.

One Of The Hens

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].

Ira Glass

All right, so what's the name of this place for people listening on the radio--

One Of The Hens

Lambert's.

Ira Glass

Lambert's and where is it?

One Of The Hens

At interstate 57 and 55 there's Lambert's.

One Of The Hens

Every time we get together is not fun and games, but then when we get together the following time we laugh about it. Because the last time we went to Oakbrook that really wasn't fun.

Ira Glass

Why? What happened?

One Of The Hens

For years, Valerie has always so to speak, picked on Tony. Tony. You know because Tony is the slow one. She's very slow. You have to wait for her.

One Of The Hens

Help her. She walks with a cane sometime.

One Of The Hens

Yeah, you know, so she can't decide what she wants to put on. And so this particular night, Valerie just picked on Tony one too many times. It was about some pictures or something. So the next thing I know, Tony had jumped up out her chair and [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. It was like RoboCop. She said, whoomp, whoomp, whoomp.

One Of The Hens

Coming over there to get Valerie.

Ira Glass

Just stomps across the room.

One Of The Hens

No, Sally and I looked at each other. We said, oh, no. We ran. We left from there because I said I'm not-- we left.

One Of The Hens

That's the closest to a couple hens fighting.

One Of The Hens

But it wasn't funny at the time. But we get together now and we laugh about it.

Ira Glass

There's a point where you guys are in the van and you got into this conversation about abortion that began when somebody was talking about these stories in the newspaper. And there came a point in that conversation, Tiny, where you said, we were such brave souls to have our kids when we did. Because most of you had your kids when you were teenagers.

Tiny

Right. We all did.

Ira Glass

And then Barbara says-- she's kind of off mike. You can barely hear it. She says, well not so brave. I was seven months pregnant before told my father.

Barbara

I never forget the look in daddy's face. Whoo! Boy I'm glad I made it through that!

One Of The Hens

What did he do? What did he say?

Barbara

You know how daddy had that vein on his head that pops, and it started jumping. And he looked at me--

One Of The Hens

That's scary.

Barbara

And he said, whose is it?

One Of The Hens

I said Robert's! Tell him real quick!

One Of The Hens

You know, momma worked at St. Luke Presbytarian Hospital. And she took me for her--

One Of The Hens

We're not going to have the same amount of fun every time we get together because our lives are changing.

Like one time we sat around talking about getting old. We're realizing that, heck, we're getting older and there was health issues.

One Of The Hens

This year we had a serious issue we faced. We faced Tiny's father dying.

Ira Glass

But also, you knew him going back to when you were younger too.

One Of The Hens

Yeah, Mr. [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I was very scared of that man.

Ira Glass

So you arrive at the hotel Friday.

One Of The Hens

A little before six.

Ira Glass

A little before six Friday. And describe the hotel.

One Of The Hens

Beautiful.

One Of The Hens

It was beautiful.

One Of The Hens

It was like Vegas sitting in the middle of a cotton field.

One Of The Hens

Yes, it was.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Ira Glass

Do your husbands have anything like this with their male friends?

One Of The Hens

No.

Ira Glass

No?

One Of The Hens

We have tried to encourage it, but they never do. They're real supportive now. We really had to go through a lot. And they do get crazy. Like the closer we get to that departing time--

One Of The Hens

They come up with their little bitty things.

One Of The Hens

Little things, little things that aggravate you. But my husband has really gotten used to it. I'm thinking he's really gotten tired of me because he's-- remember when all came to pick me up. He was just calm in the chair. And that's not like Dale. He's like, see you all. You all have a good time.

One Of The Hens

John was the one. Now this is my son. He calls me in the room. Ma, I want to pray with you. I said, OK, John. I just want to pray for your safe trip. I said, OK, John. And he's holding my hand and he's praying.

One Of The Hens

That was so funny.

One Of The Hens

And I'm like, OK, John. You know, five minutes later he's still praying. I'm like, OK, John. Amen. Bye.

One Of The Hens

I got to get on my trip. My Hens are waiting for me.

I have to deal with John now.

Ira Glass

What would your husbands, what would they used to do? What'd they used to say when you were about to get to go on a trip.

One Of The Hens

When you coming back?

One Of The Hens

Can we say this on the radio?

One Of The Hens

Now, my other relationships could not deal with the Hens and we had to break up.

One Of The Hens

We had to be lesbians.

One Of The Hens

Seriously. Yes.

One Of The Hens

Oh, we're a bunch of lesbians.

One Of The Hens

And I broke up with--

Ira Glass

That's what they would say, you're a bunch of lesbians?

One Of The Hens

They could not deal with the idea of women get together.

One Of The Hens

We're going to sleep together, you know? Because we have so many beds. Each room have a bed in it. We're going to sleep together. Somebody's going to sleep with me that weekend.

Ira Glass

But the men in your lives, they must have their friends who they hang with?

One Of The Hens

Yeah, they do. They do.

But they don't have the same kind of bond. You know, they got friends that they hang with.

One Of The Hens

I don't think men have the same kind of relationship that women have.

One Of The Hens

Yeah, I think it's very much a women's thing. Definitely a women's thing.

One Of The Hens

I think it's very much a women's thing.

Tiny

When I get with the Hens, I'm me. I'm Tiny. You know, I don't have to be [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I don't have to be wife. I don't have to be mother. I'm not sitting up there flirting with anybody where I got to be a sexy broad. I'm Tiny, naturally. And anything that comes to my mind I can say it. And they're going to say, oh, is that how you think about it? Well I think this way and I like that input. But it's a natural thing.

One Of The Hens

Hey, my seatbelt is working--

One Of The Hens

Everybody in here [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].

Ira Glass

The Hens-- Tiny, Lynn and Jewel in the studio. Also, Barbara, Rosetta, Valerie, Sally, Tony and Jan. This next song is the song that they always play driving home from their trips when they have to return to their husbands and kids and real life.

[MUSIC- "BACK TO LIFE" BY SOUL II SOUL]

Act Four. Taking Sisterhood One Step Further.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Taking Sisterhood One Step Further.

If you ask Elizabeth Joseph, it was the only reasonable choice to marry a man who was already married to five women. She met her husband when she was a senior in college.

Elizabeth Joseph

Well, you look at somebody in my situation. I was almost 21 years old. I could either marry somebody my own age and take another 10 years and finish the job of raising him, his mother started. Or I could marry a proven failure and I practice divorce law. I know there's all kinds of wonderful excuses for divorce, but by definition it's a failure. Or I could have found myself somebody who had proven himself to be a good husband, but maybe I didn't want to marry a 65-year-old widower.

So in Alex, there was no gamble. He was demonstrably a good husband, demonstrably a good father. So there was little risk to the situation.

Ira Glass

Elizabeth Joseph is as an attorney and now public affairs director of a radio station in Utah. We offer her story as part of our show as another example in the continuum of how to be a woman or a girl. She says that because she was in a polygamist marriage, she could do things like go off to law school and finish school and not have to worry who was taking care of the kids or her husband. There were other wives around for that.

In short, she says, polygamy is the ultimate feminist lifestyle.

Elizabeth Joseph

It's having a man on your own terms. You know, he's in your bed. He's in your house at your invitation. The juggling act that so many women have to put on with respect to careers and family is so much relieved in our situation because there are so many of us to share those kinds of household duties and child rearing and husband taking care of. So I'm able to go to work with a guilt free heart and child never sees the inside of a daycare center or anything like that. They're home with people who care about them.

Ira Glass

Now your husband has eight wives?

Elizabeth Joseph

Yes.

Ira Glass

And how many of the wives actually stay home? Do all of them work? Do just some of them work?

Elizabeth Joseph

Yeah, we all work. We all work. About nine years ago three of us had babies all in the same year and there was one wife in particular that we really wanted to watch out for the kids while we were at work. And so we went to her and said how much is it going to take to get you to quit your job for a couple of years til the kids go to school? So she did that for us. Then she went back to work.

Ira Glass

And when you say, how much would it take you, did the rest of you pay her?

Elizabeth Joseph

Yeah, the three of us paid her.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Elizabeth Joseph

It was only fair, she was working hard.

Ira Glass

So when you first met your husband, had you been considering polygamy as an option?

Elizabeth Joseph

Oh, only very recently because a friend of his had proposed to me also. But no, I didn't even know it existed when I was in college until I met my husband and his friend. I had no idea anybody was doing it modernly. I was aware of the LDS history of the last century.

Ira Glass

The Mormon church, the Latter Day Saints Church? And when you met him, he was already married to five women at that point, right?

Elizabeth Joseph

Correct.

Ira Glass

How did a courtship happen? Like what actually happened?

Elizabeth Joseph

Well, we were separated by a thousand miles. He proposed by letter. And I flew down and spent my spring break my senior year with him and his family. He had married two of my best friends from college. So I came I thought as much to see them as him. But I just needed to check out the situation. And I went home married.

Ira Glass

What did your family say?

Elizabeth Joseph

They were understandably upset. My dad was very educated, but a Montana cowboy and he told my brothers to get their rifles and they were coming after me.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Elizabeth Joseph

My mother's a very educated, smart women and she was heartbroken, but she wasn't willing to give the association with her only daughter to maintain a point.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you to just explain kind of the practical terms of it? Like does everybody live in separate houses? Does everybody live in the same house? How often do you see Alex?

Elizabeth Joseph

I see Alex every day for sure. Structurally, I have a home that I share with another wife just because it's so huge. But Margaret has her own place, Beau has our own place, Joanna has her own place. But we're all right close together.

It's not like if he's at Diane and [? Don's ?] house, I walk right in the front door and make myself at home. I mean, we enjoy each other's company. Margaret likes to say that he's more fun when there's more than one of us just because that's his nature. And yeah, there's three of us that have anniversaries real close together and it's a longstanding tradition for the four of us to go out to dinner together near those anniversary. You know, the family spends a lot of time together. The kids are very fond of one another from the different mothers.

Ira Glass

So how many kids are there in the family?

Elizabeth Joseph

20. And I'd say about half are grown.

Ira Glass

And then, how often will he actually stay with you if I can ask you questions that personal.

Elizabeth Joseph

Yeah, we actually stay with him. He's got his own quarters. But over the years it's varied. When I was 20 I had one kind of sexual appetite and now that I'm in my-- I hate to say this-- mid 40s, it's a little different. But in talking to my monogamous friends, I have that kind of exchange with him as often or more often than they do. You know, roughly average once a week. It just depends.

Ira Glass

I've heard Mormon men talk about polygamy and talking about the advantage of it as being this. They say that there's certain things that a woman looks to a man for in terms of wanting to talk about things and wanting to be close regarding certain kinds of issues and have a certain kind of close friendship that a lot of men just they don't talk that way. They don't relate to other people that way. And so one of the advantages of polygamy is that the women, the wives, can get that from the other wives.

Elizabeth Joseph

That's one of the huge advantages. That's a really nice thing. I mean, some of our funnest times have been when he's been like on a business trip and we'll get together and have a tequila party or something and just laugh our heads off. Just have a good time. Because the way the wives feel about one another is we're just extraordinarily proud of one another. We're extremely proud to be associated with one another. And we've had women come into the situation and look into it. And we didn't like them, and we got rid of them. We're women. We're good at it.

Ira Glass

Do you have some sort of veto power over whether a woman actually gets to marry in?

Elizabeth Joseph

It's de facto, OK? The rule is he'll marry whom he pleases. But he has learned over the years that if we don't like them, his relationship with them is going nowhere. So we've chased off our share.

Ira Glass

And do people get jealous? Do you get jealous?

Elizabeth Joseph

Well, you know, us American girls are raised to be very insecure and jealous. Neither of which is a trait that you would want to embrace. So in the early years I think as with any marriage, it takes a while to feel your way and get that security established. And yeah, there were times when I'd go well, why-- gee, you know, I can see way he likes Margaret. She does that so well and I don't. But then after a while you go, yeah, but look what I do that Margaret doesn't. And he does that. That's his job is to give you that security that he loves you for what you are. And 25 years into this deal and we've sort of got it down pat. We're not too threatened at all.

Ira Glass

Is this something that you think should be widely recommended to people? Or do you feel like that you are just in a special situation with a special man and it's not applicable to other people's lives?

Elizabeth Joseph

It's only a certain kind of people. For example, I had a son who he had a family. And I have a son. But anyway, a girl came to him who'd grown up in our community and she said what I said. You're obviously a good father and husband. Can I marry you? And he really liked this girl. But he was blown away. He goes, I don't know if I can do this. And of course I knew him very well, my son. I said, Stewart, you're one of the few guys I think can. And he lasted like two months.

Ira Glass

And why do you think it didn't work for him?

Elizabeth Joseph

Well, usually two wives is very difficult. You really need a third to balance it out. But usually, the most common scenario is the two women will gang up on the guy.

Ira Glass

But you're thinking like 1 out of 10 men that you know could do it or like it's more m 1 out a 100?

Elizabeth Joseph

More like 1 out of 1,000, if not 10,000.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Elizabeth Joseph

It's not easy. That's why most of his boys will tell you they wouldn't entertain it because they know how difficult it is. Because they watch their dad do it.

Ira Glass

And the main difficulty is just keeping everybody satisfied and happy?

Elizabeth Joseph

Well, yeah. You got to be way smart. Like he says, how would you like eight women working your inventory 24 hours a day we? And we do. We do. We're strong willed, independent, say what we think.

I haven't met anybody that could do what Alex has done. I've met polygamists, long-term polygamists, who I admire and respect for what they've done. But in terms of demonstration, it doesn't come anything close to his family.

Ira Glass

Elizabeth Joseph in Utah.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free or buy CDs of them. Or you know you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife.

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[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight from Mr. Torey Malatia who says that from now on he wants to be called-

Rebecca

Ghetto hoochie mama.

Ira Glass

Or perhaps you would prefer--

Rebecca

Booty house girl.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.

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