When you name names, when you snitch, when you drop a dime, when you shop somebody, when you're a canary or a rat or a stool pigeon, when you squeal, or when you tattle, often you prefer to remain anonymous. And so the next voice that you're going to hear is somebody whose name you will never know. And when her story begins, she is just another hapless, nearsighted citizen like you and me.
I went to get laser vision correction. And following the surgery, one of my eyes turned out totally fine, but the other one had a problem, double vision. So that was just kind of strange. And under the contract, they tell you in the agreement that it may not turn out perfectly. But within the first year, if there are any problems, you are offered free touch ups for the procedure.
So she waited several months after the first surgery for her eyes to heal, did everything her doctor said she should. She even went to a second eye doctor who checked her out, told her, "No big deal." She was an easy case. "Tell your regular doctor to sit you in the chair, set the laser to these coordinates." The second doctor actually gave her the right settings. "And you will be all patched up." So she makes an appointment for surgery with her original doctor.
And on the day of, I was very shocked. I was told by the doctor that I could not get the surgery after all and that he was recommending a totally different course of treatment. He wanted me to close my eyes and then press my thumb on my eyelid a couple of times a day, which just seemed a little odd to me.
You'd think that science had gotten further than that.
Exactly. That just seemed bizarre. So I questioned him about it. And he started to get very agitated. And he was talking about how he was an expert in this field, and he knew what he was doing. And if I went to any other eye doctor anywhere else who was an expert in the field, they would tell me the exact same thing.
And so I brought up the fact that I had the second opinion. And he got more upset. His voice just got really loud-- and just saying really weird things. He started bringing up the fact that he had a lawsuit. He started bringing up how everyone wants to be like Michael Jordan, but not everyone can. It was bizarre. He was just throwing out all these weird statements at me.
Wait, wait, wait. He was bringing up the fact that he had a lawsuit?
Yes, he did. He was saying that he tries to help people. But he tried to help this person, and now he's getting sued for it because it didn't turn out well.
You get the picture. He yells, she cries. She quietly notices that all of his other patients, like her, are immigrants. And she wonders if he's just in business to take advantage of people, that he's just going to stall her until the year has run out for her free touch up, so she'll have to pay. They call the AMA, they lodge a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, they call the Department of Professional Practices. Nothing gets results. It's frustrating. Months go by, and remember, she is still seeing double every minute she's awake.
So I was very upset. And weirdly enough, I was talking about this with my therapist. And she was the one who suggested getting revenge. She said that a great way to mess with someone's head, even though you don't necessarily see the results, was to call the IRS on them. And so--
You called the IRS on the guy?
I did write a letter. I did write three letters in fact.
OK, let us just say here, straight up, that this is very, very wrong. There is no two ways about it. Starting with the fact that for a therapist to instruct a patient on how to mess with someone's head is pretty much a prima facie violation of the Hippocratic oath, if therapists even take the Hippocratic oath. But she did not stop there.
And then the other thing that she suggested was--
Your therapist, right?
Yes. --was to call building violations on him.
Basically, to call in the city.
Yeah, which she said was another great way to mess with someone's head, because she was saying that no matter how stupid the offense is or how minor it is, you just have to fix it.
He had messed with her. He had been imperious. He had been immovable and irrational. And now he would face the most imperious, immovable, irrational foe imaginable, the government of the United States of America in its federal and local manifestations.
There would be auditors. He would have to locate old financial papers. Meanwhile, the building inspectors would have him spending hours on hold waiting for this office or that office to tell him what forms and permits. You know what I'm talking about here.
And yes, this is wrong, very, very tragically wrong. But who among us has not been in some situation, where the phone company, or some contractor, or the doctor, whoever, has messed with us enough that we want revenge? I think there are lots of us who would feel like this woman in that situation. We would call in the feds, and we would not feel bad about it.
Either I don't have a conscience or I just am so firm in my belief that he deserves it.
That, in fact, he deserves it.
And you had no other recourse?
Now I have to say, I think this kind of case is very rare. I think usually, usually, when people turn in other people to the government, there is a twinge of guilt or often more than a twinge. Today on our radio program, we bring you several stories of people who named names. And in all those stories, the accuser is just as torn up about it as the accused.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in three revelatory acts. Act One, How Britain Nearly Saved America. In that act, Jon Ronson tells the true story of his personal role in a post-September 11 news crisis that you are very familiar with and his misgivings about his role.
Act Two, One Crucible Leads to Another. In that act, a conversation from 1952 as the House Un-American Activities Committee was asking people to squeal on Communist friends and colleagues. And how, even today, it is hard to agree on what was said in private.
Act Three, Beating the Erasers. How a small town in Tennessee rose up against a few middle-aged grade school teachers very recently. Stay with us.
Act One: How Britain Nearly Saved America
Act One, How Britain Nearly Saved America. Well, Jon Ronson has appeared on our program before. Over the last few years, he has done a series of documentaries for British television about political and religious extremists, stories that are remarkable because they are often surprisingly funny, given the subject matter. And he tells this story which occurred in the immediate wake of September 11. It was October, and anthrax scares and terrible anthrax news were everyday occurrences. Jon was in London at the time, where he lives.
On a Saturday night last October, my friend and producer John Sergeant called me. "Hi, Jon," he said. I recognized a delicate blend of urgency, paranoia, and panic in his voice. You'd have to be a connoisseur of his neurotic vocal patterns to spot it. I wondered what it was this time.
During our years together documenting extremist groups, we've become variously convinced we're being followed by the Mafia, Aryan Nations, the BATF, and the CIA. It wouldn't be fair to blame the extremists and say that all their paranoia has rubbed off on me and John. The fact is we've always been neurotic. If anything, we tend to connect with our interviewees over a shared sense of paranoia.
The irony is that my neurosis comes, I guess, from being Jewish, whereas theirs usually manifests itself in a hatred of the Jews. John's got no excuse. He's Church of England. He's just a neurotic. But for all our regular descents into paranoia, nothing bad has ever actually happened to us. And I was getting tired of all the panicky phone calls.
"I think," said John, "that we may know who's been sending all the anthrax." "Who?" I asked. "Tim," he said. I sighed, trying not to sound patronizing. "Who's Tim?" I said. John sighed, trying not to sound patronizing. "Tim who told us a year ago that the way to fight the government was to send anthrax through the mail," he said. "Oh, that Tim," I said.
John and I had met Tim a year earlier at a gun show in Rochester, Minnesota. We were there with Randy Weaver. The crowds flocked to get the autograph of this icon of the anti-government right, this Ruby Ridge survivor, whose wife and son were killed by federal snipers. But Tim didn't.
He stood apart, a lone wolf amongst lone wolves, a pasty-looking man wearing a lumberjack shirt and glasses. He had a deep grudge against the federal government and, it turned out, the rudimentary scientific knowledge of a lab technician. He told us that anthrax was the only way forward for the movement.
In our experience, anthrax wasn't a big militia topic of conversation. In fact, we had never heard anyone mention it before. I had figured Tim was just another gun show kook. But John recognized his uniqueness and wanted him on tape. So he went off to interview him on video.
We never did anything with the tape. It was B-roll to me, just a vox pop, a 20-minute chat. It had sat in my cupboard for a year. Now I dug it out, I put it into the VCR, and I pressed play.
Can you just tell us where we are, and what you're doing here?
We're at a gun show here in Rochester, Minnesota. I sell books that teach you how to make explosives, incendiaries, booby traps. And I also get into the more dangerous biological and chemical weapons area, the bioweapons area being that you can mail the weapons in microscopic form under a postage stamp or taped to a letter with color pictures and instructions on how to do it. And that way, you can rearm the entire nation if the government ever tries to take the guns away. One person, by themselves, anybody with this knowledge can rearm everybody in a day.
The people we met at the gun shows all had their own special ways of theoretically battling the government. One guy had advocated the use of piano wire to me. Another favored firebombs. Tim's big thing was anthrax. At the time, I thought it was just blather.
Tim didn't look frightening. He looked friendly, like someone's dad. Picture all that talk about chemical weaponry coming out of the mouth of Roger Ebert, and you get the idea. But now the words were chilling and so was the matter-of-fact delivery.
"I should call the FBI," I said to John quickly. "Hang on," he said, "I'm the one who thought of Tim. I should call the FBI." "I want to call the FBI," I said. I was the senior partner in this relationship. I was the reporter. If anyone was going to call the feds, it was going to be me.
"Well, I don't want you bloody going to the FBI without me," said John. There was a hurt silence. I heard him breathing heavily on the other end of the phone, gearing up for a fight. "OK," I said, "I promise to bring you with me to the FBI."
I'd never ratted out an interviewee to the feds before. I had never given up a source. This would normally be a very bad thing for a journalist to do. But you have to remember the panic and fear everyone was feeling that October. Every day that month over 100 anthrax letters were reported. One morning, anthrax was proven at ABC News. The next day, Senate offices were closed. The next, the House of Representatives shut down. Postal workers were dying.
Plus, there was nothing Deep Throat about our relationship with Tim. He didn't speak with us in confidence or ask that we withhold his name. He wanted people to know his ideas about anthrax. He started gabbing loudly to John about anthrax the minute they started chatting.
It wasn't easy to find the FBI in London. Directory assistance had no record of them. "Are you sure F stands for Federal?" they said. I finally tracked them to the US Embassy, and an agent called Michael came onto the phone.
When I told him what I had, he said casually, "Yes, that would be something we'd be interested in. Could you bring it in?" "Tomorrow?" I asked. And Michael agreed. I realized that things were less casual when, the next morning, at 8:30 AM, Michael telephoned to ask if I was coming in today. Things aren't casual at 8:30 AM. People call at 8:30 AM if they've been up worrying about things.
Two hours later, in Grosvenor Square, West London, John and I were past the exterior security guards, quadrupled in the wake of September 11, past the ocean of fencing, the acres of dead sidewalk space between the fencing and the concrete posts designed to stop suicide bombers, through the x-rays, the bag search, up the elevator, through a series of specially enforced steel doors-- the kind of doors you find on safes-- through more corridors, through the body search, and into London's FBI headquarters. It was incredibly exciting to be there and to be part of it all at this extraordinary moment in history. And let there be no mistake about this, we walked in thinking we were heroes.
We were led into an office decorated with novelty tourist trinkets, Big Ben snowstorms, and a collection of funny police helmets. These chachkas struck me as a heartbreaking stab at normal office life amid the craziness deep behind the barricades.
Michael was sitting behind his desk. He was bookish, and young, and soberly dressed. He stood up, and shook our hands, and led us through to his boss's office, and sat us on the sofa. He got out his notepad and said, "So how did you come to meet this Tim?"
"Well," said John, "we're journalists, and we were following Randy Weaver around the gun show circuit. Actually, no, no, Jon had hooked up with Randy Weaver a few days earlier, but I'd been researching another project-- would you believe it-- surveillance cameras in shopping malls." John laughed nervously. Michael's eyes began to glaze. I think that John, like many people who meet law enforcement officers, was feeling the desperate urge to confess. Luckily, John didn't have anything to confess to. So this compulsion was finding a different outlet, mad small talk.
I glanced down at Michael's notepad. So far, he'd only written two words, Randy Weaver. "Shall we watch the tape?" Said Michael. He hit play.
The only way American people can defend themselves from criminals has been with firearms or-- in the case of the government and the Army, firearms are going to be relatively worthless. So I had to look at some practical methods of which American people could arm themselves and fight back if they ever had to. And that's where the biological story came from.
John and I sat there, beaming with pride. We were so sure we had the guy. Michael's facial expression was pointedly unreadable.
One person could, for example, mass propagate it and deliver it. And you could render most of the major cities uninhabitable in about a week, which would wreck the economy and pretty much put an end to the government.
Tim, can I just ask you, what you're actually advocating here is the spread of really dangerous information. On what grounds? Why do you feel that it's a good idea for everyone to know this terrible stuff?
I was relieved that John had adopted a combative style of questioning with Tim. All too often, John and I ask extremists overly soft questions that might lead FBI agents to erroneously believe that we have gone native and are, in some way, sympathetic to extremist causes or unsympathetic to officers of the law. And sure enough, a moment later in the interview, I was mortified to hear the following exchange. Tim had just told John that the majority of gun show attendees are actually undercover federal agents.
What proportion do you think might be, then, today government agencies here in this event today?
In the summertime, the law enforcement presence runs anywhere from 50% to 90% during summer. And during the winter, reliably, in the range of 30% to 60%.
Michael laughed, and said he wished they had that kind of budget. John and I laughed too.
So you're saying as many as 90% of the people here could be actually federal agents of one form or another?
Yes, that's correct.
Don't you think that's a pretty outrageous and rude statement to make to all these nice people here?
"Oh dear," I thought. "Should I have edited that bit out before calling the FBI? Or would that have been tampering with evidence?" I shifted awkwardly on the sofa, and I glanced up at Michael. He was sitting behind his desk. He'd put John and me on the low sofa, so we had to look up at him. I watched his face flash with disappointment when Tim started telling this cautionary tale from his own life on the video.
When you're sitting in the house with a shotgun, and they send the Army out to your house over a book you wrote, and they're sitting outside, that was ridiculous. I have been targeted. And that's no secret. It has already been in the papers, in The Washington Post and in some of the other papers.
At this point, I started to worry that maybe I'd oversold the videotape when I was on the phone with Michael. If the government and media already knew about Tim, maybe this wasn't such a hot tip. Michael said, "Well, it's interesting to hear these guys talk," which I took to mean, this is wasting my time. I suddenly felt silly and abashed. It was like taking someone to your favorite movie and seeing it for the first time through their eyes. And they're bored, and restless, and disappointed. And you start to think, it maybe wasn't such a great movie anyway.
When the tape ended, Michael thanked us, and he escorted us back to the lobby. We had to hand in our security passes, and John couldn't find his. He fumbled around in his pockets. "You put it in your bag," said Michael softly, "while you were watching the video." It must have taken John a split second to put the pass in his bag, just an absentminded move made while we were all watching the video. I was impressed. What else had Michael noticed about us that we didn't even know about ourselves?
That night, as I lay in bed, I thought of Tim. And I wondered who he really was. A week later, the Wall Street Journal provided the answers to these questions. The Journal reported that the FBI were looking for a homegrown anthrax terrorist. And they were making inquiries about a Nebraska man called Tim Tobiason who was known on the gun show circuit for advocating the use of anthrax. There was a photograph. This was my Tim.
The FBI had apparently been alerted by a member of the public. "Wow," I thought, "they must have gone after him anyway." A Google search filled in the gaps. Tim Tobiason came from Silver Creek, Nebraska. He was once a pillar of the community, the owner of an animal feed mill and an old Dairy Queen, with 24 employees and $3 million a year cash flow, married, two daughters, and a chemical wizard too, mixing up witches' brews at night in his garage. "Funny smelling stuff," said his neighbors.
He made some anthrax and a whole new kind of phosphate-based feed additive, which he calculated would net him millions. He set about patenting it, but the government said it would be dangerous to cattle. So they rejected it. He began bitching to his friends about a conspiracy, how the government had stolen his patent and given it to some agricultural corporation. "This is what they do," he said, "rob the small guy, the garage chemist, to line the pockets of the giants."
He moved into a Dodge Caravan and plotted his revenge. He wrote Scientific Principles of Improvised Warfare: Advanced Biological Weapons Design and Manufacture. The cover promised, "If you can make Jell-O, you can wipe out cities. Enjoy!" His marriage collapsed. And he took to selling his book on the gun show circuit.
In the wake of the Journal article, TV crews stormed Silver Creek. But Tim had vanished. The FBI analyzed his handwriting. They followed the instructions in his anthrax cookbook and found them to be shoddy and incomplete. They concluded Tim Tobiason was innocent. As a result of the publicity, Tim was banned from gun shows across the United States. His Silver Creek neighbors said they didn't expect him back, which was all for the best because he was no longer welcome in town.
I was feeling guilty. Tim was one of those guys who always lived in fear that the federal government would come after him. And John and I made his paranoid fantasy come true. I called the FBI. I wanted to know if the hounding of the innocent Tim Tobiason was all because of me and John. The clerk I spoke to said, Michael couldn't come to the phone, he was too busy.
I felt like the rat on the cop shows, forced to squeal and then hung out to dry. But nobody forced me to squeal. The clerk told me that the FBI had been tipped off about Tim by a number of people, including undercover informants at gun shows. So maybe Tim's downfall was that he was too chatty with strangers. Maybe, despite his fear of informants, he was just so lonely for a sympathetic ear that he was willing to take his chances.
In retrospect, I feel embarrassed for the part I played in the whole thing. I guess no one wants to be a bystander to history anymore. We all want to have speaking roles. And now I've got a speaking role. I'm one of the guys who caught the guy who was almost the anthrax guy.
The week I called the feds, a woman in Oregon called the cops to report a white powder all over her car, a white powder which turned out to be pollen. The publisher of the Yankton Daily Press in Sioux Falls called the FBI because of a dust-like substance in the office. You know what it was? Dust.
It seems crazy now, and maybe a little self-aggrandizing, for so many people, including me, to imagine ourselves at the heart of the intrigue. But it's easy to forget the mood of the time. A feeling of hysteria took over, which made all these actions make sense. And then the hysteria just vanished away again. For a while, it felt like anything could happen. It's hard to say which is harder to figure out, how it all became such a frenzy, or how it's all come to feel like so long ago so soon. We'd all like to believe that, in a crisis, we'll be the ones who act calmly and rationally. Some of us have a harder time believing that now.
Jon Ronson is the author of the book Them: Adventures with Extremists.
[MUSIC - "DUST IN THE WIND" BY KANSAS]
Act Two: One Crucible Leads To Another
Act Two, One Crucible Leads to Another. When people start naming names, it's like any other political act. Everybody involved starts to believe their own version of the truth.
In their memoirs, the playwright Arthur Miller and the director Elia Kazan each tell this story about a conversation that they had back in 1952 when Kazan was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. At the time, Miller and Kazan had been friends and coworkers. They'd known each other for years. Kazan was the director of Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman. In this case, however, their stories do not exactly match up.
The committee, of course, was looking for the names of Communists. Kazan had been a party member briefly in the 1930s. And at first, he refused to name names. Then he relented. He wanted to talk to Miller about his testimony. Arthur Miller says that they talked after Kazan had already told the Committee the names of friends and coworkers who had been Communists. Kazan said they talked before he had given that testimony. And there are other differences.
Here's Kazan's version first. In his autobiography, he has this passage that he says comes from his diary in the spring of 1952.
"Conversation with Art Miller in the woods back of my home. I mentioned that Skouras--" Skouras is a studio head-- "had implied that I couldn't work in pictures anymore if I didn't name the other lefties in the group. Then I told Art I'd prepared myself for a period of no movie work or money, that I was prepared to face this if it was worthwhile, but that I didn't feel altogether good about such a decision, that I'd say to myself, what the hell am I giving all this up for? To defend a secrecy that I didn't think right? And to defend people who had already been named or soon would be named by someone else?
"I said, I'd hated the Communists for many years and didn't feel right about giving up my career to defend them, that I would give up my film career if it was in the interest of defending something I believed in, but not this. Art said that it would be a personal disaster for him if I was run out of pictures. He hoped that it would not happen. He could see that it would concern me deeply. I only had to consider this, was I sacrificing for something that I believed in?
"I didn't believe in the secret membership of the Communists. I'd fought it when I was a member. I then told Art how I'd been pushed to resign from the party. Art and I had never been frank about the Communist business.
This was as much my fault as his and as much his as mine. But mainly, it was that nobody asked if his friend was a Communist in these days. Art never offered to tell me. He knew I was anti-Communist, but I'd always refrained from what I considered to be red-baiting.
Art went on about the political situation. He said I was naive. We talked for 3/4 of an hour. He looked terribly worried. Walking back to the house, just before we came in view of the other people, he stopped and put his arm around me in his awkward way, the side of his body against mine, and said, 'Don't worry about what I'll think. Whatever you do will be OK with me, because I know your heart is in the right place.'
"I was surprised by the phrase, and, as soon as I could, wrote it down. 'Your heart is in the right place.' It was like the truth in a pop song title. There was no doubt that Art meant it and that he was anxious to say this to me before we separated. We parted on affectionate terms."
Well, Arthur Miller's account of the story appears in his autobiography. His account is a bit longer than Kazan's. And we asked actor Richard Henzel to read an edited version for us. Here it is.
"The day before I was to leave, Kazan phoned and asked to see me. Since he was not a man to idly chat, at least not with me, and since this was his second or third such call in the past few weeks, I began to suspect that something terrible had come to him and that it must be the committee. I drove into a dun and rainy Connecticut morning in early April 1952, cursing the time. For I all but knew that my friend would tell me he had decided to cooperate with the committee. Though he had passed through the party for a brief period 15 years before, as he had once mentioned to me, I knew that he had no particular political life anymore, at least not in the five years of our acquaintance. I found my anger rising, and not against him, whom I loved like a brother, but against the committee.
"The sun briefly appeared, and we left his house to walk in the woods under dripping branches, amid the odor of decay and regeneration that a long rain drives up from the earth in a cold country forest. The story-- simple and, by now, routine-- took but a moment to tell. He had been subpoenaed and had refused to cooperate, but had changed his mind and returned to testify fully in executive session, confirming some dozen names of people he had known in his months in the party so long ago. He was trying, I thought, to appear relieved in his mind. Actually, he wanted my advice, almost as though he had not yet done what he had done.
"There was a certain gloomy logic in what he was saying. Unless he came clean, he could never hope, at the height of his creative powers, to make another film in America. And he had been told, in so many words, by his old boss and friend Spyros Skouras, president of 20th Century Fox, that the company would not employ him unless he satisfied the committee.
"He spoke as factually as he could. And it was a quiet calamity opening before me in the woods, because I felt my sympathy going toward him, and, at the same time, I was afraid of him. I was growing cooler with the thought that, as unbelievable as it seemed, I could still be up for sacrifice if Kazan knew I had attended meetings for party writers years ago and had made a speech at one of them. Had I been of his generation, he would have had to sacrifice me as well. And finally, that was all I could think of. I could not get past it.
"I felt a silence rising around me, an impending and invisible wash of dulled vibrations between us, like an endless moaning musical note through which we could not hear or speak anymore. It was sadness, purely mournful, deadening. And it had been done to us. Who or what was now safer because this man, in his human weakness, had been forced to humiliate himself?
"As I got into my car to leave, Molly Kazan came out of the house into the drizzle that had begun again. She could tell, I suppose, that it had not gone well. It was impossible to keep looking into her distraught eyes. I was half inside the car when Molly came out and asked, unforgettably, if I realized that the United Electrical Workers Union was entirely in the hands of Communists. Then she pointed out toward the road and told me that I no longer understood the country, that everybody who lived on that road approved of the committee and what had been done. I didn't know what to say anymore across the crevasse widening between us.
"In the awkward pre-departure moment, after I had said that I could not agree with their decision, she asked if I was staying at my house, half an hour away. And I said that I was on my way to Salem. She instantly understood what my destination meant. And her eyes widened in sudden apprehension and, possibly, anger. 'You're not going to equate witches with this.' I told her, I wasn't at all sure I could write a play, but I was going to look into the stuff they had up there. We all waved rather grimly as I pulled away.
"Once on the road, nosing the car north, I thought, she was probably right about the people in the comfortable homes I was passing, and felt myself drifting beyond the pale. The strangeness was sharper because, as usual, I was carrying several contradictions at the same time, my brother love, as painfully alive in me as it had ever been, alongside the undeniable fact that Kazan might have sacrificed me had it been necessary."
Miller concludes this passage in his biography this way. "In a sense, I went naked to Salem," he writes, "still unable to accept the most common experience of humanity, the shifts of interest that turned loving husbands and wives into stony enemies, loving parents into indifferent supervisors or even exploiters of their own children and so forth. As I already knew from my reading, that was the real story of ancient Salem Village, what they called then the breaking of charity with one another."
Miller, of course, did go on to write The Crucible about the Salem witch trials. In that play, John Proctor is the hero who prefers to die rather than give false testimony.
Around the same time, Kazan went on to direct the film On The Waterfront. In that film, Marlon Brando plays a hero who makes the principled decision to testify against the mob. It is, many have said, the most eloquent defense for squealing on film, though in later years, Kazan said that he simply wanted to demonstrate the moral ambiguity of this kind of situation, that it is not black and white.
One thing you've got to understand, Father. On the dock, we've always been D and D.
D and D, what's that?
Deaf and dumb. No matter how much we hate the torpedoes, we don't rat.
Rat? Oh boys, get smart. I know you're getting pushed around. But there's one thing we've got in this country, and that's ways of fighting back. Now getting the facts to the public, testifying for what you know is right against what you know is wrong. Now what's ratting to them is telling the truth for you. Now can't you see that? Can't you see that? Huh?
Coming up, the breaking of charity with one another in one small town in Tennessee. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three: Beating The Erasers
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Naming Names, stories of people turning in friends, and coworkers, and strangers, I guess too, to the government. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Beating the Erasers. This next story takes place in a small town in Tennessee, a town so small, in fact, that it has just one elementary school, which is where most of this story takes place. Susan Drury tells the tale.
If you spend a little time in Spring Hill, Tennessee, you will start to wonder who Noel Evans was. There's Evans Park, named for him and his wife Jerry. And the main drag through town has a sign next to it, saying that it's sponsored by friends of Noel and Jerry Evans. And people talk about him fondly.
They talk about the competent and kind way he ran the local elementary school for decades, the way he taught new generations of local children and parents. They tell stories of what a dream he was to work for, how he supported teachers in contract negotiations and with difficult parents, how he brought staff and friends tomatoes and peas from his garden, and how he brought some lucky few the peach pies his wife made. Many people, dozens of people, told me that they had never heard him raise his voice. And a similar number told me they looked up to him as a father figure.
But there is one story about Noel Evans that people refer to, but rarely want to tell. People here disagree vehemently about the facts and the meaning of this story. The people I found who did want to talk about it, on both sides, mostly did not want to talk on tape. Many people, also on both sides, did not want their names used. And others did not want to talk at all. Because this is a story that severed families and decades-old friendships, and people aren't over it. It's the story of how, when a few people here decided to name names, it spun out of control immediately, taking over their lives, taking over the life of the man they accused, and ripping apart the town.
Here's how Wanda Wright tells the story. She had grown up in Spring Hill back in the '50s, when you could skate all the way down Main Street and get water at anybody's house because you knew them all. She had known Mr. Evans since she was a teenager. And he was her math teacher. She married the son of the man who had hired Evans. And some years later, Mr. Evans hired her to come back to Spring Hill and teach under him. Wanda knew everybody here. And she says she felt like she was just in the perfect town then, just totally surrounded by people she'd known forever. She was a true local, a total insider.
This was still a small town in 1994, when Mr. Evans told Wanda Wright that his strawberries were on their last legs, and if she wanted any, she should come pick them after school because he was about to plow them under. She dropped by, picked the berries, and went into the house for a minute with Mr. Evans. Suddenly, everything changed.
Evans asked her for a hug. They had hugged at school, but this was different. "He had this real weird, dark look in his eyes," said Wright. Something was definitely wrong. Wanda pulled her arms up under her chin and leaned over as he hugged her.
"I have to go," she said. But he was standing between her and the door. Then he asked her to kiss him. This was not a man she expected this of. He was her boss, but it went beyond that. "It was like your preacher, or your daddy, or something like that," she said.
So the day after the incident at the house, Wanda says, Mr. Evans came to her classroom and gave her a fried peach pie and an apology. She threw the pie down on the desk like it was the worst thing she had ever seen. "We have to talk," said Wright. Wright told him she was going to have to leave the school.
Mr. Evans was totally apologetic. He said he didn't know what came over him. He swore it had never happened before, never, and it never would again. She told him if it ever happened again, she would report him. But that otherwise, she would not tell anyone.
He asked for her forgiveness, and she gave it to him. "Let's forget it," she said. "It's over." And she didn't exactly forget it. It made her edgy. But she wanted it to be over too. And they moved on. And on the surface, anyway, life at school pretty much returned to normal.
Then three years later, in 1997, on a teacher workday, when the kids were not at school, Mr. Evans, who lived near the school, invited everyone from the school down to his house during lunch time to see the indoor pool he and his wife had put in. Almost all the teachers went, but Wanda Wright did not. She had not returned to the house since the incident and was not going to go back, not even with a group.
So she was doing some work in her classroom when Julia Priest came in. Julia was a guidance counselor at the school. "Why didn't you go down to Mr. Evans'?" Wanda asked Julia. "Why didn't you go?" Julia shot back. They looked at each other, and, without either of them saying a word, they both realized they were keeping the same secret about Mr. Evans.
Julia told Wanda Wright that, in 1994, Mr. Evans had approached her in her office. She thought he was going to hug her. But instead, he grabbed her and rubbed himself on her two times. She had told two friends about it at the time, one of whom urged her to report it to a supervisor, which she did, though nothing ever came of it. On the day it happened, she was wearing a fuchsia, striped dress with a teal color and matching fuchsia shoes. "We used to coordinate like that," she says. She burned the clothes.
She wanted to change schools, and kept her eye out for other jobs. But she thought she could just manage it, stay a safe distance away, keep her hand on the doorknob whenever they were meeting together. And she had made it work well enough. Nothing had ever happened again. And she had thought she was the only one. Wanda told Julia her story too. And again, they believed that they were the only two teachers this had happened to.
Then a few months later, a younger teacher called Wanda to confide in her that Mr. Evans was coming to her house, that he had hit on her, that she was afraid of him. Then Wanda and Julia started to wonder about Susan Nelson, a second grade teacher who seemed to steer clear of Mr. Evans. Wanda asked Susan, "Did Mr. Evans ever make a pass at you?" Susan Nelson was stunned at the question. She hadn't even told her husband. She said yes.
Now it started to look like there was a much bigger problem at the school. But they weren't sure what to do about it. Up until this point, they had all tried to deal with the problem face-to-face, without getting outsiders or the bigger bureaucracy involved. Wanda had confronted Mr. Evans in person, one-on-one, the way you do with someone you've known so long, when they step over the line or when they hurt you. The women talked about getting Mr. Evans some help or together confronting him in some way. They all say they didn't want to report him. Reporting him just seemed like it would unleash some process that would just blow everybody up.
They ended up turning him in by accident. Wanda confided in a friend who was also the school's vice principal. And because she was a vice principal, a supervisor, she was compelled by school policy to report what she had heard. And so a few days later, Human Resources staffers were at Spring Hill Elementary, calling selected teachers in and asking them questions about sexual harassment at the school.
When they brought Wanda Wright to the conference room and she saw the questions, she walked to the corner of the conference room and just slid down the wall, bawling. It took her a full week before she agreed to answer the questions. It was one of the hardest decisions she ever had to make in her life. She was terrified of doing something that she knew would destroy this man who she still had some respect for. And she, like Julia and Susan, they're private.
Even when I wanted to interview them about this story, they were incredibly reluctant. And though they ultimately decided to talk to me, they didn't want to have their voices on the radio. "It's too intimate," they said. In the end, Wanda decided she could not lie and make the other women look like liars.
That's how Wanda, Susan, and Julia tell the story, how they told it to me. Noel Evans denied all the allegations against him. In each case, he denied that he ever kissed, or groped, or grabbed the women, and emphasized how close he was to each of them, how friendly they were to him, and how easy it would be for people to misinterpret his actions. For instance, he wrote that Wanda was in his house, and that before she left with the berries, he gave her a fatherly hug "like I give my daughter on the rare occasions I get to see her."
About a week after the women were questioned and Evans was removed from the school without explanation, the director of schools officially announced that the administration was investigating instances of alleged sexual harassment at the school. Richard Roach from the school board.
I heard about it by watching the 6 o'clock news. Then of course, immediately the phone started ringing. While the broadcast was going on, the phone started ringing. And it got so bad, we couldn't eat supper. We could not, literally, eat supper. Because the moment people got in, they'd see the headline from that day, or the rumor would come through, and they'd start calling.
People here knew this man. They did not, it seems, have reservations about him. He'd been at the school for over 30 years. And most people did not believe that Evans was a sexual harasser. And even the women, themselves, said that they, themselves, would not have believed it either if it hadn't actually happened to them. Again, Richard Roach from the school board.
I can't remember one single phone call that was anti-Noel Evans. I think anybody that had that point of view was pretty well afraid to speak up, because you were outnumbered 30:1. They thought, this is a witch hunt. He's being railroaded. He's being accused of things he didn't do. One woman called me, and she said, my children are in Spring Hill. I went to Spring Hill. My mother went to school under him. I have known him since I was four years old. And she was so mad. She was just almost incoherent, she was so mad, crying, upset.
A lot of people were mad, not at Evans, at his accusers. And even though some of the names of the accusers weren't officially released, many teachers and some townspeople started to figure out who was involved. The actual allegations against Evans weren't public just yet. It was all sort of vague, what he was accused of. And in trying to piece the story together, to understand it, a lot of people decided to believe that Mr. Evans did nothing wrong, but that maybe the women misunderstood or misinterpreted his behavior.
When the women described what had happened to friends or family, they got some pretty mixed reactions. A friend asked one of the women, "Well, what did he do to you? Did he rape you?" Informed of what Mr. Evans had done, the friend said, "Is that all?" Richard Roach was typical of most people in town.
I never thought it was true. He may have used some bad judgment. Now I know a lot of people, especially the teachers involved, are going to get upset with me saying that. People's perceptions, things can happen, and they may perceive something happening that didn't, in fact, happen. But my first thought and my last thought was that he was innocent. And I will stand by that.
Some people concluded that the women had more sinister motives. They believed that the women had plotted to destroy Noel Evans, either to get his job or to bring him down for other reasons. But here's something you have to know about the teachers. They didn't have anything to tag them as suspicious or unworthy of belief. They weren't known as gossips or troublemakers. They all had good reputations as teachers, and were all religious, middle-aged, married ladies with kids. And all of them had history and ties in this community too. And Wanda Wright's ties were the deepest. One Evan's supporter said to me, "Wanda was the real kicker, because she was the salt of the earth. But Mr. Evans, well, he was the core of the salt of the earth."
So people had to make a choice, a terrible choice, a choice about who to believe. If you believed the women, everything you knew was turned upside down. So people chose to believe him. One teacher said that her belief in Mr. Evans' character was so strong that nothing could change it. "If a man walked into the school and Mr. Evans shot him," she said, "then I know the man deserved to be shot."
The atmosphere at the school became very tense. Many teachers started wearing yellow ribbons to show their support for Noel Evans. Wanda went to the cafeteria one day, and some of the workers walked off the line, refusing to serve her. One person told Julia Priest that some of the teachers were praying that Priest and the other accusers would literally go to hell to suffer for their lies.
It was such a frightening climate that every day, as Wanda Wright left the school, she looked under her car before she got in, making sure there was nobody there to attack her. Then once she got in the car, she'd pause for a minute before she turned the key, half expecting the car to explode.
In a sense, both sides felt they were victims of a witch hunt, Evans, who said his actions were being misinterpreted, and the women, who said they were being persecuted for telling the truth of what happened to them. Maybe this is what always happens. Noel Evans retired on May 22, 1997. He made a settlement with the district that he would get his full retirement benefits and that the investigation file would not be public.
He was offered and accepted a big job as the leader of the Tennessee Retired Teachers Association. Lots of people saw him as a good man who had been run off. And they were sad to see him go. Then, two months later, Noel Evans shot his wife and then himself to death.
Wanda, Julia, and Susan were horrified by the Evanses' deaths, like everyone else. But Julia also thought that more people might believe them now. They thought it would be clearer for people that something was and had been terribly wrong with Mr. Evans, something nobody could really understand. And I met people in town who changed their minds about Mr. Evans after the deaths. But for his core supporters, the people who knew him best, it only made them more certain.
Mr. Evans' supporters concluded that the deaths only proved how truly cruel, truly damaging the investigation had been to him. He had been falsely accused, removed from his school, lost his reputation, and look where it led him. And many of his supporters didn't believe he murdered his wife. They believe the stress and loss of honor to both Mr. And Mrs. Evans was so great that they had made an arrangement to die, a suicide pact. One teacher told me with tears in his voice, "They had a kind of love that modern people don't understand. They wanted to die together."
This theory is a popular one. The chief of police was a family friend of the Evanses. And he put it into his official report on the crime. Although he notes that Mrs. Evans was in her pajamas, apparently sleeping on the couch when she was shot in the face by her husband, he still concludes it's a double suicide. Quote, "I simply do not believe he could have killed Jerry without a pact of some kind between them. I cannot see Noel taking Jerry's life without her agreeing to it. I think Noel and Jerry had worked it out, and Jerry told Noel, 'I cannot do myself. I do not want to know when it is going to happen.'" In big letters at the bottom of the page, the police chief writes, "God bless us all."
Other police investigators thought the chief's notes were wild and irresponsible. One veteran officer I spoke with who had been at the scene said, there was no evidence to support this idea of a double suicide, that this was one of the most gruesome and disturbing crime scenes he had seen in his years on the force, and that most of the investigators there concluded Mrs. Evans was murdered, plain and simple. Immediately after the deaths, people proposed to rename the elementary school after Noel Evans.
There was something else people wanted. They wanted the names of the women who had accused Evans of harassment. At that point, the names hadn't been officially released. All most people had were rumors. Evans' supporters say, his good name meant everything to him, and the loss of his good name destroyed him. And so it was important to name the accusers, so that, somehow, they would lose their good names too. 10 days after the Evanses were found dead, the names of his accusers were all printed in the paper. Once the women were officially named, Evans' supporters circulated a petition to fire the director of schools and the women who made the allegations.
Mr. Chairman, members of the School Board, Maury County has recently witnessed the slow torture and destruction of Principal Noel Evans.
Here's Ray Williams, a local businessman and soon to be mayor, presenting the petitions to the School Board shortly after the names were released.
The director of schools has publicly attested to following School Board policies and procedures, as Maury Countyers have watched common sense go out the door. Who do you think will be the next victim of a school system in constant turmoil and fear?
As time passed, more women stepped forward to describe how Mr. Evans came on to them or their friends, so the women don't regret turning him in. They say what they learned from all this is that it doesn't matter what the facts are. People don't really want to know.
Like Wanda says, she wouldn't have believed them either. She had known Mr. Evans for too long. It seemed too out of character. It was their good names against his good name. And in the end, he had a better name than they did. And so although the town decided not to name the elementary school after him, it did name the playground for him, and a scholarship fund, and a stretch of road as you come through town.
This hasn't driven the women out. Susan Nelson still teaches music at the school, and Wanda Wright teaches the third grade. Julia Priest has a district-wide special ed job. They're tough. They've survived. And they have a heavily highlighted copy of Anita Hill's book that they've passed around. Many people still don't speak to them. And they still pause before having to introduce themselves at any function, watching for that flash of recognition when people hear their names.
Susan Drury in Tennessee.
Well, our program was produced today by Starlee Kine and myself with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, and Jonathan Goldstein. Senior producer, Julie Snyder.
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