I was talking to some homicide detectives in Chicago. And they told me that, contrary to what you might have heard, most criminals do not actually return to the scene of the crime. Arsonists do. They like to watch the flames. Serial killers sometimes do, but they're crazy. Other kinds of criminals aren't really known for going back to the place where the crimes happened. Like thieves, for example.
If you want to see thieves returning to the scene of the crime, you pretty much have to go to Florida. Beautiful, sunny, Florida. For instance, to a Kangaroo Express convenience store in Pomona Park.
I'm literally walking back and forth in front of the store, holding a sign. A big heavy sign, at that.
And what does this sign say?
"I stole from this store."
This 18-year-old spoke with one of our show's producers, Lisa Pollak, who went with a tape recorder to watch her serve the sentence that she was given for theft. In Putnam County, Florida, if you're convicted of misdemeanor theft, which means shoplifting anything less than $300, Judge Peter Miller will send you back to the scene of the crime, to carry this sign.
Isn't that quite embarrassing? It is embarrassing.
For 12 years since Judge Miller first started ordering these people to carry signs, the person goes with the perps is site supervisor Kathy Pekrul.
I would say most of them are embarrassed. Really embarrassed. I've have had two or three girls that just cried their way all the way through it.
OK, now you're blocking your face with the sign, so you can't do that, OK? You ready? All right, go that way first. Do not say anything rude to anybody. No matter what they say to you, don't answer back if it's rude.
For two hours the guilty march back and forth with the sign. Kathy brings a lawn chair for herself and a book. Enough people get this sentence that Kathy says she is the best-read person in Putnam County.
It was 120 people last year. Occasionally, Kathy says that some passers-by see what's going on and approach her to complain that this punishment seems too humiliating. And when that happens, she tells them politely that she will let the judge now know they feel, though, honestly, I'm not really sure she needs to go to the trouble.
Judge Peter Miller
Too humiliating? Hey, they want to think that, that's fine. That doesn't bother me. I'm going to humiliate the one that's carrying that sign.
This is Judge Peter Miller. A man who has sentenced hundreds of people to carry the sign over the past 12 years. I liked talking to Judge Miller. I like any public official who gets an idea for how to serve the public from the newspaper. Which is where he got the idea for the sign.
Judge Peter Miller
Some judge up north did it. I liked it, so I did it.
What'd you like about it?
Judge Peter Miller
Well, I like the fact that you're getting-- somebody's out there and the public's actually looking at a thief. They've got caught, and somebody's trying to do something about it.
Wait, why is that the important part, that the public sees it? Like I would think it would be more important to get through to the criminal, you know what I mean?
Judge Peter Miller
Well, you want to get through to the criminal, and at the same time the public, too, who are out there looking saying, I don't want to be doing that. Not in front of all these people.
Oh, I see, it's a preventative thing?
Judge Peter Miller
For the judge, this is the heart of the whole deal. He remembers back when he was young, when somebody got caught stealing it was shameful. People looked down on it. That sense of shame just seems to be gone among so many people who he sees from the bench these days. When I suggest to him that the punishment he's come up with seems kind of biblical, he's got no problem with that.
Judge Peter Miller
Well maybe that's what we need a little bit more. There's nothing wrong with a little bit of religion. Nothing's wrong with that. Could there be more of that?
What do you hope is going through their heads when they're walking with that sign?
Judge Peter Miller
I hope that what's going through their heads is, Lord have mercy. I'm being shamed. I don't like this. And I'm not doing it anymore. Because the public can see those people out there walking, and it really tickles them.
She's sitting in the car laughing at me. She lucky I'm under supervision because if I wasn't, I'd slap that [? head. ?]
In fact, the people that Lisa talked to in Florida who walked by this 18-year-old, they definitely did seem to be tickled.
I mean I think it's marvelous punishment. Yes. I think it's great.
Like this couple from out of town
Paying a fine's too easy.
I wish we could do that up our way in Delaware. I think the civil liberties union would be all over them-- "You don't have a right."
I wish they would do it with people on the highway. Especially speeders.
Wait, how would that work on the highway?
Well, instead of letting them pay a fine, let them walk out there and say, "I endangered your life."
You mean have them stand on the shoulder of the road?
Maybe they could have a sign on the car for the driver.
Yes, yes! Excellent.
During the two hours as the 18-year-old marches back and forth, she actually doesn't get that much abuse from people. It's nowhere as bad as she thought. Some cars honk at her. People point. A woman shoots her a disgusted look. Two old men stand in the store, arms folded, and watch her, amused. But most people don't say anything at all. In Putnam County, after all, this is not an unusual sight. They look at her sign. They walk by. And she chats, cheerfully, with lots of people. She waves to a guy passing by.
What's up, Boo? How you been doing?
Another guy flirts with her. Tells her, "Keep your chin up." Somebody yells from his car, "You should hold a sign that says, I was the only one who got caught." And anytime that strangers do stop and read the sign, or try to talk to her, this is what she says--
It's OK. I was stealing milk for my little girl. This is why this happened. I was stealing milk for my little girl. That's why I'm holding this sign here.
Her little girl is one. In fact, according to the police report, she and a friend were arrested for taking the following-- one package of Oreo Cakesters, one Twix bar, one Milky Way, one package of M&M's, one can of Dr. Pepper, and, yes, one pint of milk. But keep in mind, she is just a kid. She's a teenager. She's just a kid, right? So, yes, she's not only unrepentant, just like the judge says he sees from the bench, she's also kind of indignant.
See I was the only one that got caught. I was the only one that was stupid enough to let the camera see me. And then them two little boys in there, they're the ones that made me go to jail. Excuse me but--
You mean the store managers?
Yes, that would be them, but I don't like them. Them bitches in there, they didn't have to take me to jail. See they chose to take me to jail. Which all they had to do was give us a trespassing warning. That's all they had to do.
If this is meant to be a learning experience, tell me what you think you learned?
Honestly? I didn't learn anything. I might sound stupid or dumb, but honestly I didn't learn anything. I'll steal again. This doesn't solve anything.
Are you worried about saying that?
No, I'm not worried about a thing. Because no one knows nothing about it.
The county doesn't keep statistics on how many people who carry the sign get caught again for stealing. But probation officer Kathy Pekrul says that maybe only 20% of the people who she sees carrying the sign seemed totally unrepentant. Of course, what the judge wants is such a delicate thing to try to force on to somebody. He wants them to return to the scene of the crime, and have this poetic moment of realization. He wants them to take stock of their lives. He wants them to change. And you just can't predict when that's going to happen. Kathy Pekrul remembers this one young man who she took to carry the sign in front of a liquor store that he'd robbed in Crescent City. He spent the whole time joking with people and carrying on.
His whole family came out and they kept riding around the block and laughing at him, and stopping and taking pictures of him, and he was posing with sign.
And he thought it was funny too?
Yes he did. And I would have told you, if you had asked me, that he was one of the ones that would repeat. I would have been sure of it.
Three or four years later, she was back at the same liquor store with another perp, and that guy walked up to her and she didn't remember his name. But she definitely remembered how much fun he had had when he had carried the sign.
So we were talking. And he was just-- we were just talking-- and then he said to me he wanted me to know that he was on the straight and narrow, I think he said, or something to that effect. And that he had finished a criminal justice degree and he was a policeman for someone. And this was a surprise. Very surprised.
So you know, you never know. Because I would have told you for sure he was going to repeat. Basically, it's very much like this girl today.
Well, today on our program, we joined several different people in this very fraught situation. Where they returned to the scenes of various crimes of various sorts.
From WBEZ Chicago, It's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.
Our program today is recorded at the Chicago Theater in downtown Chicago and at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York University, where it is being beamed to 430 movie theaters around the country right now.
From the Brunswick 10 theater in Maine, to the AMC Mission Valley Theater in San Diego, to the Capitol 14 Theater in Olympia, Washington, to the City North and River East and Webster Place theaters in our beloved Chicago.
We have stories today of crimes in traffic, in a family, in a marriage, crimes with God, Mike Birbiglia, Dan Savage, musical guest Joss Whedon, and much, much more.
Stay with us.
Act One: D-u-why?!
Act One. D-U-WHY?
So this guy committed a crime and it had huge consequences for this first person we're bringing out, Mike Birbiglia, and then the best way to describe what happened is Mike found he could not leave the scene of the crime.
Please welcome Mike Birbiglia.
Two years ago I'm in Los Angeles, and I'm at my friend Andy's house and we're watching TV. And earlier in the night I'd gotten in a fight with my girlfriend, Jenny. You ever get in a fight with your girlfriend that's so bad that afterwards you don't know where you are or what year it is? I was just like, well, let's just watch Bagger Vance.
She had been at the wedding of one of her friends. And she was annoyed because people she hardly knew kept asking about our status as a couple. So annoyed, that she called me to ask about our status as a couple. And this is problematic because I'd always been against the idea of marriage.
I'd decided I wasn't going to get married until I was sure that nothing else good could happen in my life. Basically, I didn't see the upside of there being one person you're assigned to and who's assigned to you. Because I never looked at my parents' marriage, or really anyone who had been married 30 years and thought, "I gotta get me some of that."
Well, this is something that Andy and I had rallied behind together. And we knew we were right. This is important for me to point out-- that sometimes when I think that I'm right, it can be a real source of contention between me and people who I'm close to. And the reason it's a source of contention, is that I'm right.
So not only did Andy and I not believe in marriage for ourselves, but we made it our mission to discourage other people from getting married, and people we cared about most. Andy and I stopped or put on hold four to seven marriages. We were pretty good. We weren't amazing, but we were solid.
I'm at Andy's house and it's 1:00 AM, and I get into my rental car and I head back to my hotel. And I make a right turn out of Andy's street and I am T-boned. That's the culinary way of describing it. It means that I am hit, driver's side, at a 90-degree angle, like a T-bone steak. And it was by a drunk driver, who probably would have enjoyed that.
And being hit by a car is hard to describe. I'm sure some of you have experienced this, but you know those water slides where you lie on your back and then you fall at a vertical angle at like 1,000 miles an hour? It's like if you went on one of those, but no one told you you were going on the slide. It's like if you were taking a shower, and then you're on that slide.
So in one and a half seconds, my car spins around 180 degrees and I hear nothing. And I think I'm dead, there's no weight. I'm paralyzed. And then I hear nothing. And then I hear the other car skid out and drive away.
And I have that Elie Wiesel moment where I think, "Human beings are animals." I think that's how he said it. And 20 minutes later, I'm sitting on the curb. Andy had shown up, as well the police and the paramedics, and that's when I start crying.
You know how when you drop a baby on the ground? It doesn't start crying right away because it doesn't understand the concept of dropping a baby on the ground. Until it sees your face and then it's like, oh I guess I should be crying or something.
And I am crying because I'm looking at my totaled car, and it hits me that in that moment I might have ceased to exist. A police officer walks over to me and he says, "What happened?"
And I say, "I was hit by this car and then I heard nothing and then I heard it skid out and drive away."
And he says, "Well, he didn't get too far." He points to the intersection 100 yards away and the other car has made a right turn and driven into a small tree.
And I can't help but think, "That is karma, bitch." That is a hit and run, and hit.
I'm on the curb, and the cop asked me to sign a piece of paper and I say, "What's it for?"
And he says, "It's a statement saying you're OK and that we can leave."
And I said, "I don't know if I'm OK."
And he says, "Just sign it."
And I said, "No, I actually-- I'm a little shaken up."
And he says, "Just sign it." And he holds it in my face, and it occurs to me that he's not going to move.
And so I sign it. And Andy drives me to the hospital just as a precaution. And we had to wait an hour because the doctor is treating the drunk guy. He beat us there. Eventually we're with the doctor and he apologizes for the wait. And Andy says, "Was the other guy drunk?"
And the doctor says, "I can't answer that."
And Andy says, "Was he?" He uses the tactic we had learned earlier from the cop. And it works!
The doctor says, "Well, he's heading to jail now." And Andy and I flash each other a look like the Hardy Boys. Case closed.
Andy and I get back to the house at 4 or 5 o'clock, and I have one of those cliche revelations a lot of people have when they have near death experiences. And I'm like, I think I have to call Jenny and tell her that we need to get married. And Andy says, "Sleep on it."
And I say, "No, no. I figured it out. I mean this all makes sense. I need to call her right now."
And he says, "Mike, sleep on it." He saves me.
And the next morning, I fly back to New York and I get a call on my voice mail from the rental car agency telling me that the accident report found me at fault. And I owed $12,000 for the repairs on the other guy's Mercedes SUV. And I called back right away, and I explained that this is a mistake and the woman says, "Unless they change the accident report, you owe $12,000."
And so I just start freaking out. And I'm like, I need to fix this. I get the accident report and it's a mess. I can see why there's a misunderstanding. An accident report is kind of like homework for cops. And Officer Timson, not so good with the homework. The report mixes up vehicle one and vehicle two, driver one and driver two. I actually want to show you this.
This is the actual report, and it mixes it up so badly that it says P-1, that's me, started to go, but all of a sudden V-1, that's also me, came at a high rate of speed, crashing into him. They're saying I crashed into my own car. I mean I'm pretty self-destructive, but I would never crash into my own car, with my own car. Nor would I understand how to do that.
I also love this. The statement of the other driver at the scene of the crime. I was going on Venice. I'm not too sure. I was going away from the beach. I was driving. I don't know what happened. Did I hurt anyone? I don't know where I was going, but I came from home. I had a sip of beer.
Which is really everyone's favorite quantity of beer-- is the sip. That's what they serve at the pubs these days-- a pint, a pitcher, a sip, a tablespoon. People are like, aw man, I had a sip of beer. I don't know where I'm driving from, or where I'm driving to.
Well, the problem is that even with all that, Officer Timson made one key mistake. He checked the box that said that I was at fault. So I called the police station to get the captain on the phone, and he ducks my calls for days. And I can't get in touch with him, and then finally I get him on the phone. And I'm so relieved. I'm like, I explained that I was wronged, I was nearly killed, and I tell him the whole story.
And he says, "You made a bad turn, now do the right thing, and pay for the guy's car. I know."
And I explained like this is just an easy thing to fix. Its just a mix up. And he's not hearing any of it. And finally I'm like, please I mean can we just discuss this for a second like just as people, just as like one human being to another?
At this point I'd become Adam Sandler in one of his more sentimental films. I was like can you see how crazy this is? This guy who is drunk crashed into my car, he nearly killed me. I mean inches from where he hit I'd be dead, and you're saying that my parents would have had to pay for his car.
And he says, "Do the right thing, and pay for the guy's car."
And I hang up the phone, and this is when it becomes about principle. This isn't about money. This is about stopping a man who has no regard for people or the law. This is China Town.
I start printing out Google maps of the scene of the accident and California state driving laws. I pore over the police report, circling inconsistencies, and scrolling notes in the margins. Like, are you kidding me? And this makes no sense and what is this blacked-out part? There was a blacked-out part next to his blood alcohol level. I'm calling lawyers and private investigators. There's only one lawyer who will even consider my case. He's an accident lawyer, and he says, "Did you have any loss of income from the accident?"
I said, "No."
And he says, "Did you have any loss of income-- from the accident?" And I say, "No, this isn't about money." And it gets very quiet.
I said, "I shouldn't have to lie. I'm right."
And he doesn't take the case. And this is when I start going crazy. I start obsessing over the actual driver. I'm like, who is this man who nearly killed me and wants my $12,000? I know his name, it's Jim Bosworth.
That's not his name, but I do know his name. And I register for an online account at netdetective.com, which is a great site for vigilantes who have $29.95. And so I know where he lives, what he does. My inner monologue becomes like a movie trailer for a revenge thriller like, "Jim Bosworth thought he was going to get away with this, but he didn't count on one thing-- Mike Birbiglia."
So I'm up until 3:00 in the morning every night. It's hard when you know that you're right. And I start coming up with these illogical plans like, I'm going to quit my job and work on this full-time. I'm going to sue the LAPD. And I will track down Jim Bosworth.
At this point people stop talking to me. I mean my friends would call me and they'd be like, "Hey, what's going on?" I'd be like, "I'll tell you what's going on."
They'd be like, "You should get a lawyer." And I snap. I'm like, "This is way past lawyers!"
One night Jenny and I are out to dinner and she's talking, but I'm not listening because I'm writing down ideas I have about the case on my napkin. This is the actual napkin. I don't know if you can see this, but it's a very carefully laid-out argument about my situation.
And she says, "Why don't you do that in the morning?"
And I say, "This is serious. Which part of this napkin don't you understand?"
She says, "I don't know what to tell you Mike because you're right, but it's only hurting you. And I'm just so glad that you're alive, and I think that we should focus on that."
She only has to say it once, and I dropped the case and I pay for the guy's car. And a few months later Jenny and I go to City Hall and get married.
I still didn't believe in the idea of marriage, and I still don't. But I believe in her, and I've given up on the idea of being right.
Mike Birbiglia. Mike Birbiglia's one man show, Sleepwalk With Me, is playing off Broadway. This fall, Mike Birbiglia is coming to your town on a 30-city tour.
Coming up. The secret place that Dan Savage sneaks off to at 2 o'clock on Tuesday afternoon. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
Each week on our show we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show recorded at the Chicago Theater and at NYU's Skirball Center and broadcast to 430 movie theaters across the country, Return to the Scene of the Crime. We have various people returning to the scenes of various crimes, looking for clues and answers. It's very nice to see you all here in person versus the way that I usually encounter you, which is during the pledge drive, calling you each one by one to administer pledge drive justice. That was kind of an uneasy laugh, if you ask me.
Act Two: Return To The Scene Of The Scene
We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Return to the Scene of the Scene.
Joss Whedon is one of those people who either you have never heard of him at all, have no idea who he is, or you love him.
The creator of the funny, iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but also Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Doll House. He makes movies. This year, with some collaborators, he decided he was going to make a musical, not for television, not for the movies, but for the internet. And the result was this online musical called Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.
For those of you in the seats looking at the people around you wondering, what are we talking about? Why are people so excited? The story of Doctor Horrible is-- he's played by Neil Patrick Harris-- and he's a wannabe, not terribly successful super villain. And this is from his video blog. The show is his video blog.
-TooSlyForYou writes, "Hey, genius. " Wow, sarcasm. That's original.
-"Where are the gold bars you were supposed to pull out of that bank vault with your trans-matter ray? Obviously it failed, or it would be in the papers."
-Well, no they're not going to say anything in the press, but behold. Transported from there to here.
Everybody listening on the radio, he's holding up a baggie full of brown liquid.
-Molecules tend to shift during the trans-matter events.
Dr. Horrible, in the first episode, he goes on from that point to explain this new invention that he's invented to rule the world that he's almost perfected called the Freeze Ray. He then goes through some other emails, another email or two, including one from a guy claiming to be his nemesis, to which Dr. Horrible replies, "Dude, you are not my nemesis."
And then, Dr. Horrible comes to this email.
-Here's one from Dead Not Sleeping. "Longtime watcher, first time writing." Blah blah blah blah. "You always say in your blog that you will show her the way. Show her you are a true villain. Who is her, and does she even know that your--
[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]
Dr. Horrible. So anyway they did this on the internet and it's a crazy, huge sensation. 200,000 people an hour tried to download it on the first day. It won a People's Choice Award for Favorite Online Sensation, which I think is a really funny category. This year it's been one of the top 25 best-selling movies and TV shows at Amazon.com and so like, big sensation right? So they decided let's put out a DVD. Of course, that would mean that they would have to return to the scene of their own work and do a DVD commentary. And so in an incredibly macho move, they decided OK, well we have this musical we made. They would also do the DVD commentary-- as a musical.
So the commentary itself also rhymes, it's set to music. It both comments on, and critiques, the conventions of a DVD commentary, while synchronously existing with the movie. So it included this song where Joss Whedon got to express, as a filmmaker, what it feels like, what it means to do a DVD commentary, and have to return to his own work and talk about that work as part of his job. And he's agreed to play that song for us here today.
Before we booked him for this show, he actually never had played in front of an audience larger than nine people. He actually taught himself piano to write musicals like this a couple years ago. He never had performed on a stage. He'll be accompanied-- he wanted an actual professional musician with him just for backup-- so he'll be accompanied on guitar by Matt Clark who is a longtime Chicago musician to a lot of bands, most recently White Light.
Please welcome in his very brave musical, theatrical debut, film-making legend, Mr. Joss Whedon.
[MUSIC - "HEART (BROKEN)" BY JOSS WHEDON]
A caveman painted on a cave.
It was a bison, was a fave
The other cave people would rave.
They didn't ask why?
Why paint a bison if it's dead?
When did you choose the color red?
What was the process in your head?
He told their story.
What came before he didn't show.
We're not supposed to.
In Homer's Odyssey was swell,
A bunch of guys that went through hell.
He told the tale, but didn't tell the audience why.
He didn't say, here's what it means,
And here's a few deleted scenes.
Charybdis tested well with teens,
He's not the story.
He's just a door we open if our lives need lifting.
But now we pick, pick, pick, pick, pick it apart.
Open it up to find the tick, tick, tick of a heart.
A heart broken.
It's broken by the endless loads
Of making ofs and mobisodes,
The tie-ins, prequels, games, and codes the audience buys.
The narrative dies, stretched and torn.
Hey spoiler warnin'.
We're gonna pick, pick, pick, pick, pick it apart.
Open it up to find the tick, tick tick of a heart.
A heart broken down.
Do you really need to know?
Sit back, relax, enjoy the show, oh no.
Let it go, oh no.
No the crowd won't rest 'til he explains,
Like zombies clawing for his brains,
Or anything that infotains
And that maintains my fame,
My fame, my precious quasi-fame.
What am I doing? There's people watching.
I sang some things I didn't mean.
I think this commentary's keen.
So let's return now to the scene. I'll tell the story.
This song itself was hard to write.
I cut the bridge to keep it tight.
It's kind of slow and doesn't quite advance the story.
It's really boring. That's all done.
Get on the fun train.
We're gonna pick, pick, pick, pick, pick it apart.
Open it up to find the tick, tick, tick of a heart.
We're gonna pick, we're gonna pick, pick, pick it apart,
Pick up a stick and find the tick, tick, tick of a heart.
A heart on sale now.
Mr. Joss Whedon. On vocals and piano. Matt Clark on guitar. Matt, by the way, is now a law student at Washington University in Saint Louis and is skipping out of finals to be here. Good luck to him.
Act Three: Our Man Of Perpetual Sorrow
We've arrived at Act Three of our show.
Act Three. Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow
One of the things that's the strangest thing about returns to the scene of the crime are that so many of them involve somebody returning to someplace where he really doesn't want to go. Someplace that he dislikes, or disagrees with, or wished he'd never been at in the first place. But then the person finds they can't help themselves, he goes back.
Well, Dan Savage has written books about he and his boyfriend deciding to get married and then adopting a little boy, actually not in that order. He made a name for himself writing a funny and deeply informed sex advice column called Savage Love. Please welcome Dan Savage.
Hello. This is intimidating with that kind of welcome.
The crime scene in this story is a Catholic church. In particular, Saint Ignatius on Glenwood Avenue on the North Side of Chicago. And yes, I went to Catholic grade schools. And yes, I was an altar boy. But no, the crime is not what you've already assumed. No Catholic school children were harmed during the production of this story. So you can relax.
I'm not a practicing Catholic. I am a lapsed Catholic. An agnostatheist. A sort of agnostic-atheist hybrid. Which means I cross myself on airplanes. I once blew up at a friend who thought it was hilarious to invert one of the crucifixes in my ironic collection of Catholic kitsch. And half the time when I take the Lord's name in vain, like when I mutter Jesus Christ through clenched teeth as my boyfriend passes someone going 90 miles an hour, I am in all honesty seeking the protection of a higher power.
I go right back to not believing in God once he's safely delivered us back to the right hand lane. Which makes me a hypocrite. And an ingrate. I was raised in a Catholic home. I went to the same Catholic grade school my mother and grandmother did, and I had some of the same nuns they both did as teachers.
But by age seven, I was already having trouble reconciling loving father with eternal damnation. But the fatal blow came at age 14, with the realization that I was gay. Something I figured out at roughly the same time I entered an all-male high school for Catholic boys thinking about becoming priests. Which is a bit like realizing you're an alcoholic on your first day working at the Budweiser bottling plant.
Luckily for my sanity, I didn't think, "Oh my God, I'm going to hell." I thought, that can't be right. What the church-- my church-- says about me. They have to be wrong. Soon I was contemplating the possibility that the church was wrong about other stuff. Maybe lots of other stuff. The odds of virgin births. The virtues of celibacy. The evils of masturbation. And it didn't take long to arrive at the biggest doubt of all-- the existence of God. And that was that.
By senior year I'd started going to a public school and stopped going to church, except for the odd family wedding, baptism, or funeral. And they are all odd, aren't they? I go to church about as often as I go to Planned Parenthood for a Pap smear. Then, 12 months ago, my mother died. A virus can lay dormant in your body for so long that it's possible to forget you were ever infected. Then something happens that weakens your immune system and the virus seizes its opportunity. For more than two decades the Catholicism I'd contracted at Saint Ignatius had lain dormant, manifesting itself only on airplanes and in passing lanes. But the immunity I'd long enjoyed was weakened by my mother's death. Because since that sunny, awful day in Tucson last spring, I found myself slipping into Catholic churches.
Not for odd weddings or funerals, but on totally random days of non-holy, non-obligation. Tuesday afternoons, Friday mornings. And not just going to church, but going out of my way to go to church. There's a Modernist Catholic chapel close to my office. It won a big design award, but to me it looks like all modern churches do. Like someone stuck a crucifix up on the wall in the rec room at the Brady house.
Saint James Cathedral in downtown Seattle, a longer walk, looks like a Catholic church should. A lot like Saint Ignatius, actually. Stained glass, marble, crowds of plaster saints. Saint James is open for contemplation all day during the week. There are usually one or two volunteers straightening up the hymnals and the offering envelopes in the backs of the pews, and keeping an eye on the homeless people, and me, that have come in to get out of the rain. There's no music, only a few lights are on, and when a priest strolls through he doesn't make eye contact with anyone.
When my mother would call me with bad news-- a relative I hadn't seen in years diagnosed with cancer, a friend of hers with a desperately ill grandchild-- she would always say, "I know you don't pray, Daniel. Keep them in your thoughts." My mom knew that thoughts were the best I could do. And now, at Saint James, I sit in a bank of pews opposite a white marble statue of the Virgin Mother, stare into her face, and keep my mother in my thoughts. Sorry.
By her own estimation my mother was a good Catholic. She believed in Jesus, the Resurrection, the virgin births, both of them. There are two, did you know that? What are the odds? The Trinity, the Sacraments. She believed that sex was sacred, and that people, particularly people with children, should be married to each other. But she didn't believe that being a good Catholic meant blind obedience. So I guess you could say she was a good American Catholic. She believed women should be priests. That priests should be able to marry. And after four pregnancies in four years, she concluded that birth control was not a sin.
She prayed that the leaders of her church would come around during her lifetime. Unfortunately, the church, under the last two popes, went in the opposite direction. And whenever the present pope, Benny, she called him, or the previous pope, JP2, condemned birth control, or insisted that women could not and would not ever be ordained as priests, my mother would sometimes call me and sigh and say, it's like they're trying to make Lutherans of us all.
But she refused to leave the church because she believed it was her church, too, just as much as it was Benny's, or JP2's. A little voice inside her head said, that can't be right, they must be wrong. That voice, the same one I heard, somehow left her faith stronger. She took it hard when I came out. Her first impulse was to call a priest. God bless Father Tom, who, when my mother, distraught, told him I'd just come out to her, placed a hand on my mother's knee and came out to her himself.
My mother came around fast. And came out swinging. Rainbow stickers on her car, a PFLAG membership, and an ultimatum delivered to the entire extended family. Anyone who had a problem with me, had a much bigger problem with her.
My mother was diagnosed with a degenerative lung condition six years ago. She had some bad years, but she was stable enough last spring to drive down to the Southwest with her husband, my step dad, to visit her sisters. She took a turn in Tucson, where she was hospitalized for a week. But we thought she was going to pull through, as she had on several other occasions. Her doctors in Chicago had just given her two more years.
But the morning of her seventh day in the ICU, the morning we'd begun to make arrangements to get her back home to her own bed and her own doctors, a moment after my stepfather left her bedside for the first time in a week, a doctor appeared at the door of her room and waved me into the hallway. There'd been developments. Her lungs have been slowly disintegrating for five years, and now they were coming apart. One had a hole in it that was getting bigger, and there was no going home. This was it. The doctor told me he needed a medical directive from my mother, and he needed it now. Can I go get my stepfather? No. Now.
So it fell to me to tell my mother that she was going to die, and lay out her limited options. She could have a tube put down her throat and be hooked up to a machine that would breathe for her for a day or two. But she would be in a drug-induced coma, although she would live long enough for her other two sons to come to Tucson, but she wouldn't know that they were there. She could wear an oxygen mask that violently forced air into her lungs and live for six more hours. Or she could take the mask off and go now.
No mask, she said. No tube. Now. I told the doctor. And then I ran to the ICU's waiting room to get my step dad and my sister and my aunt. She didn't go into the hospital expecting to die, and she was not ready to go.
When we were all at her bedside, she arched one eyebrow, shook her head and said, "Shit!"
My mother used profanity sparingly, and only in quotation marks. When she said "shit," what she meant was the kind of person who casually uses profanity might be inclined to say "shit" at a moment like this, but I am not the kind of person who uses profanity. I am a Catholic grandmother. And I certainly wouldn't use it at a moment like this, but if I were the kind of person who used profanity, "shit" might be the word I would use right now. But I'm not that kind of person. She swore on her death bed as a joke, because she wanted to make us feel better.
A priest arrived to perform last rites. And it helped her brace for what she knew was coming for an extremely painful final few moments. I could see it help. I could see the comfort the sacrament gave her. It gave me comfort. The priest led us in prayer. Prayers my mother and I both learned at Saint Ignatius. Prayers that filled a terrible silence, and solemnized an awful moment. And then my mother told us she would be with us always, looking down on us, and that we would see her again. She didn't say in heaven, but that is what she meant.
Then she made her last request. "Remember me. Keep me in your thoughts, Daniel."
One of the cards in the back of the pews at Saint James is addressed to non-practicing Catholics. "WELCOME BACK" is printed in large letters across the top. Are you a Catholic who's been away from the church? Welcome back classes are designed to help you return to the sacraments and regular church attendance. A return to the sacraments.
I fantasized about returning to the sacrament of confession. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It's been 29 years since my last confession. Hope you packed a lunch.
I want for there to be heaven. And I want her to be looking down on me. Though, and I say this is a professional sex advice columnist, not all the time. There are things a mother has a right not to know, she used to say. But Catholicism now tempts me. I wouldn't be wasting so much time in Saint James if it didn't. My boyfriend would not have found a "WELCOME BACK" card in the back pocket of my jeans if it didn't.
But when I am tempted, when I feel like, maybe, I could go through the motions, Return to the sacraments, take what comfort I can, the Pope goes to Africa and says that condoms spread AIDS, or an archbishop in Brazil excommunicates a Catholic woman for getting her nine year old daughter an abortion, but not the Catholic man that raped the nine year old girl.
Or I contemplate how the church views me and the two people I love most in the world, my boyfriend of 14 years and our 11-year-old son, and I think, I can't even fake this. But there I sit at Saint James two or three times a week.
Being brought up in a faith built around a guy jumping out of his tomb? That makes it difficult to reconcile oneself to the permanence of death. Who knew? The afterlife. It's cruel really, when you think about it. Criminal. Telling children that the people they love don't die. That there's some other life, some better place, a place without pulmonary fibrosis, or Tucson, Arizona.
And maybe that lie is a comfort for some, but it's made death more painful for me, not less. Which is the opposite of religion's intended effect, is it not? The voice of unreason in my head, the voice of nuns back at Saint Ignatius says, "She lives. She is in heaven." And the voice of reason, which sounds a lot like Christopher Hitchens, barks back, "No, she doesn't. She's dead. Get over it already."
This inability to reconcile myself to death has not been good for me. I visit Saint James like an addict drops by a crack house. For a fix. To deaden the pain, by losing myself momentarily in the fantasy that she lives, and that we will be together again. There's an inscription on the ceiling of Saint James, "I am in your midst."
If I were the kind of person who could believe, I would believe. But I'm not that kind of person. Shit. Thank you.
Dan Savage. Sex advice columnist. Editor of The Stranger. And the host of one of the most entertaining podcasts in the country, The Savage Love podcast.
A couple weeks ago as we were preparing for today's broadcast, I was in Baltimore visiting my dad, and I'd been going over drafts of the stories for today's show including Dan's, and I was visiting my dad in Baltimore. And my dad showed me how he had digitized all of our old family videos, which apparently is a really good project if you're retired.
And among the videos was footage from one of our very first live shows. We'd just barely been on the air at all, and it was Valentine's Day in 1998. It was a slightly smaller audience than we have today. It was at a bar. The Empty Bottle on Western in Chicago. The Empty Bottle's reach is that big? Anyway so he had footage. He had filmed the thing, and there was this footage that I didn't even know existed, and had never seen.
And onstage was me and my mom. My mom died five years ago. She was a marriage therapist and she was giving Valentine's Day relationship advice. And on stage with her was Dan Savage who was giving relationship and sex advice. And then at some point, Dan introduces a guest of his own. Let's roll that.
-Judy Savage Sobiesk everybody.
-Mrs. Savage I want you to just help out by reading some questions with me, so why don't you start with that one, because--
-Thank God for trifocals. Why are men typically aroused more by seeing naked bodies and women are typically more aroused by reading about them?
[END VIDEO PLAYBACK]
Right, Yeah, this is the main thing I learned watching this, is that Dan and I made our moms take part in a show that was really, really dirty.
Well, our program is produced today by our Senior Producer, Julie Snyder, our Production Manager, Seth Lind, and me. With Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Keonig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Production help from Andy Dixon. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Recording by Sarah Toulouse and Mary Gaffney. Station outreach by Melissa Barkley at Public Radio International. Executive Producers for our cinema event Julie and Robert Borchard-Young. Directed by David Stern.
If you're listening to the radio and you want to see the full 90-minute show that we did in movie theaters, we're going to rebroadcast today's cinema event in movie theaters May 7.
Thanks to Vicki Weaver, the head of probation for Putnam County Court. Seth Barrish [UNINTELLIGIBLE], Josh Noel, my dad Barry Glass for video dubs, Brent [? Candley ?] and Nicom Communications and Paula [? Pevzner. ?] Thanks to Chicago homicide detectives Luis Munoz and Mark Czworniak. Music for our live show provided by the band Chin Chin, [? Von ?] [? Pitino, ?] Cliff Goldmacher, Kevin Hayes, Darren Wayne, K-Crews, and Fun Factor
For everybody listening on the radio, our live cinema event included an incredibly sad and beautiful animated cartoon by Chris Ware. You can watch that online. You can also see an extra video that we made. David Rakoff, Dave Hill, Miles Kahn.
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Aw man, I had a sip of beer. I don't know where I'm driving from or where I'm driving to.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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