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526: Is That What I Look Like?

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Prologue

Nancy Updike

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Nancy Updike, and I'm filling in for Ira Glass, who's working on a great, action-heavy, live stage show. He will be back next week.

And in the meantime, I wanted to share this story. It's a little personal. I was at MAC-- the makeup store, not the computer store-- and I was buying foundation, which I almost never wear. That's the makeup you put all over your face to give yourself pretend perfect skin.

And I asked the salesman for help finding the right color. And he looked at me and said-- almost like he was thinking out loud-- he said, your neck, it's so much more yellow than your face. And then he turned away to start looking for the impossible color that would solve this problem of the yellow right next to the so much more yellow.

And if you're thinking, oh, this was just a sales technique to invent a problem and then offer to fix it with more products, I wish that that had been the case. But this was not an upsell. This was a cri de couer. The man really just seemed to be expressing his frustration at this stumper of my mismatched face and neck.

This sort of out-of-the-blue, perfectly sharpened comment stops you cold because it's not an insult. It's an observation that is true. You just hadn't thought of it before. It's shocking because you think, I know myself. I know what I've got, what I haven't got. No one's going to spot something about me that I haven't already seen. Not true. You can be among friends, doing something you love, feeling great--

Dee Watson

We were backstage, you know, getting ready to go on, preparing.

Nancy Updike

This is Dee Watson. She was in a play a few weeks ago.

Dee Watson

And it was all black women. Most of us were a little bit bigger than the average, you know. And it was a supportive atmosphere. And the subject of big behinds came up. And me having one, I know all about it. And one of the younger cast members-- she was about 25-- said, my mother thought your butt was so big it had to be a prop.

Nancy Updike

Oh my god.

Dee Watson

And at that moment, I didn't hear anything else anybody said. I just was-- that was echoing through my head, and I could hear everybody laughing. And oh my gosh, that's so funny. And I'm standing there. I wanted to cry. I really wanted to cry. And I really don't think this young girl really meant to hurt me.

Nancy Updike

Well, and maybe it's like, you know, we're all women, so it's safe here to say anything.

Dee Watson

Yeah. I think she thought I would think that was funny, and I did not.

Nancy Updike

These are not statements that a human being forgets. The moment you hear the observation, it becomes part of how you see yourself, seemingly forever. Even something tiny, if it hits you right, can turn into this chirpy little voicemail that your brain is never able to erase.

And it doesn't have to be about looks. It can be a comment on how you run or laugh or drive, how much money you make, what books you've read or haven't read-- any outside assessment of you that you never saw coming and could not shake once it was uttered.

One of our former producers, Jane Feltes-- she's actually now Jane Marie-- years ago dated a man who she later decided was a jerk. He wanted to make her feel insecure. But one night they were watching TV, and her feet were sticking up out of the blanket.

Jane Feltes

And he turned to me, and he said, oh, you have juice box toes. And I was like, what? And he said, yeah, like Fred Flintstone feet. He's a caveman-- literally a caveman. A cartoon of a caveman-- a chubby, squat cartoon of a caveman.

And I know it sounds so stupid, because who cares what shape my toes are? But you do want the person that you're in love with to just think that every part of you is amazing and beautiful-- or shut up about it. Or shut up about it.

Maybe they're ugly. I don't know. Now that I'm looking at them-- I don't know. My big toe is definitely square.

Matthew Dicks

When I get shy kids, one of the things I do with them is I try to give them permission to make fun of me.

Nancy Updike

This is a fifth grade teacher named Matthew Dicks, who is either the bravest or the most foolhardy man in America.

Matthew Dicks

And they often come out of their shells by becoming the person who can taunt the teacher.

Nancy Updike

That sounds very dangerous.

Matthew Dicks

It is. I mean, you have to teach them where the line is. And sometimes I don't know where the line is either.

Nancy Updike

A few years ago, there was a girl in his class, very shy. And she got the nod that it was OK for her to make fun of Matthew if she wanted.

Matthew Dicks

So one day she came in, and she just walked in very casually. And she looked at me and she said, hi, Jerry. And I looked at her and I said, Jerry? And she said, never mind. And she just walked away.

And I knew she was setting me up for some joke. And it went on for days. Every time she'd walk by me, she'd say, hey Jerry, how's it going?

And so finally, after about a week, I couldn't take it anymore. And she came in one morning and she said, how you doing, Jerry? And I said, fine, who is Jerry? And she said, Jerry's your bald spot.

Nancy Updike

Yikes.

Matthew Dicks

And I tried to play it off like, I don't have a bald spot. Go sit down. Give me a break. Ha ha. That was, like, the most ridiculous week-long joke I've ever heard in my life. But as soon as my kids left the room to go to gym, I ran to the bathroom, and I leaned over the sink. And at the very top of my head, I had a bald spot that I had no idea about.

Nancy Updike

Can I ask a logistical question? How does a fifth grader spot the top of your head?

Matthew Dicks

Oh. So in my classroom, I teach some Shakespeare to my students. And we have a stage in my classroom. I built a stage with curtains and lighting and everything. So if you're standing on my stage in my classroom, you can look down on me.

Nancy Updike

Now, you can say that Matthew brought this on himself. He gives some students permission to make fun of him, and he built a stage where students can peer down at him in judgment. But even if he did none of that, he's still a sitting duck for this exact kind of critical gaze.

Nancy Updike

You have 20 people-- you have 20 students, would you say?

Matthew Dicks

Yeah, between 20 and 30 every year.

Nancy Updike

OK, so between 20 and 30 people looking at you all day, every work day, and just taking stock of you.

Matthew Dicks

Yes, it's constant. I had pinkeye a couple of weeks ago. The kids knew I had pinkeye before I did, you know, because they just stare at you all day. And they see any sort of minute change in you. You know, you're really the only thing they look at for a great majority of the day.

So they notice these little things. If I get a new shirt, they immediately notice. Everything that changes about me, they notice right away.

Nancy Updike

Today on the radio show, I, Nancy "Yellow Neck" Updike bring you stories about people facing the unexpected moment of realizing how other people see them, what that means, and what in God's name to do about it. Today's show "Is That What I Look Like?" Prepare to learn the truth. Plus, a special guest appearance that will surprise and delight you. Stay with us.

Act One: Blunt Force

Nancy Updike

Act One, Blunt Force. Domingo Martinez has this story about a vision in Brownsville, Texas. Here's Domingo.

Domingo Martinez

When I was 16, I realized as far as my family went, school was considered my time, which meant I couldn't be pressed into labor by my father or grandmother. They were farm workers, and they made no claim on my time when I was supposed to be in school. So I learned to take advantage of this.

I'd make it to school before 7:30 AM, either by school bus or my mother's Taurus, and then wait out options for escape. By my sophomore year, this kid named Tony Garcia had become my primary friend. Tony was nearly 19 and only a junior, but he didn't seem all that bad because he had good parents and an even better little brother, who was about to lap him at graduation.

Together, Tony and I would find ways to while away the hours by doing anything other than attending class before we had to report home again. We were big fans of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and we believed we were continuing a long celebrated American tradition by ditching class and getting stoned, a fantasy combination of Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson. But really, we were just lazy and looking for a good time.

The skipping itself was not a problem. The problem was taking care of our grades and absences on our report cards before they reached our parents. And it was actually Tony who initiated me into the trade that I'd eventually pursue, graphic design. But in this early stage in high school, it was plain and simple forgery. There was no design in what we were doing.

It was Tony who placed the first X-Acto knife I ever held in my hands, and immediately I felt an overwhelming sense of possibility holding that little penknife. We'd intercept the report cards when they came in the mail. And then Tony took careful pains to explain this whole process to me, his flunky-- a term that came uncomfortably close to becoming literal-- over the photocopier in the library, feeding dimes into the machine like he was playing slots, in search of a copy that didn't blur or show the incisions in the original.

Look, man, he said through his trendy and tinted John Lennon glasses, a wanker style even then, you've just got to remove the two from the 23 absences and then lighten the reproduction, and now you've got three absences in first period instead of 23. Now take the eight from the 48, move the four over, and put the eight in front of that, and now you have a B in Spanish instead of an F.

Oh, I said, in total understanding, a big smile growing on my face. Give a man a ride, he skips for a day. Teach him how to forge--

It was ridiculously shortsighted, sure. But at that age, I never thought further than the immediate threat. Simply convincing my mother everything was quiet at school was enough for me. Dealing with school records and the larger consequences of robbing myself of even a substandard education, all that I would face at a later date-- and certainly have.

Tony would usually borrow his mother's car for our expeditions, a blue Oldsmobile Delta 88. We'd leave school and drive to South Padre Island, a resort town at the end of a 28 mile highway that felt much more cosmopolitan than Brownsville, Texas, ever could. We did that drive, back and forth, three or four times a day, listening to Led Zeppelin, nodding our heads in unison with whomever else was stoned or drunk in the car.

My junior year and his senior year, Tony's parents bought him a Dodge Daytona. It was the year he would most assuredly graduate, they felt, and it was a chance for him to develop responsibility. In the mornings, the minute my mother would drop me off at school and disappear around the corner, Tony would drive around and park right in front of the school to pick me up, right in front of everybody. Dude, you gotta come skipping with me today, he'd say.

But on one particular morning late in 1988, I balk. Nah, Tony. I gotta go back to class today, I protest. It's Thursday, and I haven't been since last week.

Look, he says, I got two signed reentry slips. I can get you back in tomorrow or next week. It's not a problem. And I found a new place to get killer weed. Finding pot was always a problem, so when Tony said he found someone new, and it wasn't one of the morons who hung out by the tennis courts before school, I was intrigued.

We first drive to a housing project east of school, where a woman sold $2 quarts of Budweiser out of her living room from a cooler to anyone with money, no questions asked. We buy a couple of quarts and smoke the last half-joint Tony has on the way to his new killer weed supplier. I was getting a bit high when I began to recognize the route he was taking and was then thoroughly taken aback when he drove right into my grandmother's driveway.

I couldn't understand why. It just didn't make sense. This was the same driveway my family Pontiac would regularly pull into after church on Sundays when I was growing up in the late 1970s-- my mother's mother's house in downtown Brownsville. I was, I think the term is, unnerved.

My two uncles, Johnny and Abel, were working on a '79 Camaro when Tony drives up and parks, hood to hood, with their car. The hood was up, and they were both leaning into the guts of the engine, their heads popped up like bearded biker prairie dogs.

I sat frozen in the passenger seat, uncertain what to do next. Tony, noticing that I was startled, tells me to be cool, to chill out. These guys look mean, but they're all right. Anyways, he says as he's getting out of the driver's side, they're kind of dumb, but they got great weed.

Didn't I know it. Abel and Johnny had a long history with local biker gangs, even a rumored affiliation with the Hell's Angels. They could get drugs nobody else could in this town. And as a result, they were total burnouts, hardly capable of cogent speech patterns in either English or Spanish. They landed in jail as often as other people attended church.

But what they lacked in brains they certainly made up in brawn-- not that they'd tear apart a teenager like Tony or me, not in the daylight anyway. They had a code about that sort of thing. But if they felt cheated, they'd have taken a tire iron to my head long before they recognized me as their nephew. They were that burned out.

So I sit there paralyzed in the front seat, side B of Houses of the Holy playing on Tony's cassette deck. And because it's hot, the AC is blasting. So once Tony closes the door, I can't hear anything. I just watch as this terrifying pantomime plays out before me.

Tony, half-shaven in his preppy clothes, closes a door and hails his greeting. My uncle Abel, already brain dead from years of sniffing paint, narrows his eyes in suspicion and then noiselessly responds with a nodding. Hey.

Tony averts eye contact, looking anywhere but directly at Abel for fear that Abel might charge like a gorilla. Abel gives him a suspicious, quick upward jut of the chin that says, did I sell to you before? Who told you I got weed?

Tony lowers his head in quiet confidence, talking to Abel. Then my uncle Johnny nods towards me in the car, says something to Tony. They all turn to look at me. My eyes go wide, a big smile on my face, nodding. Tony says something, and then they all laugh together.

Led Zeppelin still plays loudly in the car. Then my uncle Abel slaps Tony on the back and leads him around to the back of the car, right where I am. Johnny stands there too, looking at me and smiling, makes his index finger and thumb into a mock roach, and laughs. I mimic the roach back. Even now, he doesn't recognize me.

Then Tony and Abel emerge around the other side of the car with Tony's hand in his pocket, and both of them are laughing like they're suddenly old friends. Tony turns and waves, and both Johnny and Abel wave back. The door opens, and Tony says, dude, we got a big joint for $2, as he gets in the driver's seat.

This has freaked me out to no end. Abel and Johnny are both waving, making the universal roach-smoking signal as we drive off, and it leaves me feeling really, really conflicted. The car slips up the southernmost terminus of Highway 77, and we head north from urban Brownsville to drive around as we smoke the joint.

Tony lights it, and it starts burning purple. Purple Haze, he says, and then follows it with his characteristic, ahh!

Hey man, I say, I'm kind of scared about smoking this. I've never seen one burn this color. Aw dude, says Tony, don't worry about it. Those guys got killer weed, man. They're, like, bikers or something. It's probably laced with something. That's why it was $2.

This idea sounds appealing to Tony. It scares the [BLEEP] out of me. We're both getting incredibly high.

Hey man, says Tony, wouldn't it be messed up if, like, when you were high, your hair went into, like, a huge orange Afro, and the higher you were, the bigger your Afro got? You couldn't go anywhere, because people would be like, man, that guy's stoned.

I sit there in Tony's car and think about my uncles, Johnny and Abel. Johnny had been stabbed in the back with a flat-headed screwdriver about a month earlier in a street fight. His lung had been punctured, and my grandmother said you could hear whistling every time he inhaled. He wouldn't go to the hospital to get it treated for three days.

We're halfway done with the joint when I say to Tony, hey man, I don't want to get stoned anymore. All right, well, put it out, Tony says, nodding his head back and forth to Zeppelin.

Tony's left hand is fingering chords into the neck of an imaginary guitar as he's driving. I watch his fingers move for a few seconds, suspended and twisting around like they're an overturned King crab, and I can find no correlation with the chords in the song.

Man, I mean I don't want to smoke pot anymore, I say to him. I don't want to skip class anymore. I want to get back to school. Not today, but, like, in general. I don't want to feel like this anymore, like I'm doing something bad. I feel like this all the time now, dirty.

Look at that really [BLEEP] small house over there. We were on an overpass, and I just noticed a house beneath us in the Brownsville Country Club, about a quarter of the size of the houses surrounding it. Tony starts laughing so hard I have to make him focus back on the driving, but then I laugh along with him.

You're stoned, he tells me. Yeah, I say. I'm way stoned.

Hey, man, I say a little later-- we're driving back to South Padre Island now-- you know those guys we bought weed from earlier today? The bikers, Tony says. That was my grandmother's house, man. Those are my uncles, I say, even though I'm really embarrassed by it.

Tony finds this befuddling. He can't figure out what the bikers were doing at my grandmother's house. Those dudes were my mom's brothers, man, my uncles, I explain.

Tony is laughing so hard he has to pull over to the side of the road. His laughing is infectious, and I find myself laughing right along with him, laughing harder than I have laughed in a really, really long time. But I'm feeling utterly beyond redemption on the inside, like I had just done something today that I couldn't take back, like my course was now set.

Nancy Updike

Domingo Martinez, reading a story from his memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas. He's got a new book coming out this fall called My Heart is a Drunken Compass.

[MUSIC - "WRONG CROWD" BY PRINCE GEORGE]

Act Two: One Life To Live

Nancy Updike

Act Two, One Life to Live. Having a blind spot about yourself is not the end of the world, depending on what it is and how big it is. Sometimes that's all hard to tell, though, without outside eyes. This next story we changed some of the names. It's a complicated situation that's still unfolding.

Sarah got into a bad car accident last year. She was in a coma with a traumatic brain injury, and her doctors thought she might die. But after 52 days in the coma, she woke up. Our producer Miki Meek tells the story of what happened next.

Miki Meek

Waking up from a coma doesn't happen all at once. It's a slow process, like coming awake over months, sometimes even years. For Sarah, it took almost three months before she could talk well enough to have a simple conversation and another four months for her to get out of the hospital and go home to live with her parents. She still needed a lot of care, but she was really excited to spend time with her husband Billy. He had a birthday party.

Sarah

And that's when I just said, will you give me a kiss, please? And he was like, mm-- maybe I can give you one of these. And he turned my head and kissed me on the cheek. So I was hurt and kind of frustrated and annoyed.

Miki Meek

Sarah thought maybe Billy was just worried about getting her sick, so she made a comment about it to her stepmom Alice when they got in the car to go home.

Sarah

I said, I think that Billy is worried he'll get me sick because he won't kiss me. And that's when she said--

Alice

We need to talk. And that's when I had the impression she was ready. I said, it feels different. Being with Billy, it feels different. She's like, yeah, it does. I was, like, well, that's because you guys aren't married anymore. You're divorced.

Miki Meek

Sarah had forgotten the entire two years before her accident. She'd forgotten the fact that during those two years she had fallen out of love with her husband and divorced him. Here's what she did remember-- she remembered her wedding day in 1998. She was 17, and Billy was 20. She had just found out she was pregnant with twins.

Sarah remembered the house where their family grew from two kids to four. It was in a small town out west, just down the street from her parents. She remembered family camping trips on the weekends, baseball games, and dinner together every night-- 13 years of memories like that.

It wasn't always perfect. Billy joined the National Guard and was gone a lot. He served in Iraq. Sometimes he had a bad temper. But they loved each other.

There was a lot more to the story, and her family really wanted to sit her down and fill all those memories back in for her. But the doctors told them they had to be cautious. Let things come up naturally for Sarah. Let her brain set the pace. That was the best way for her to recover.

So when her stepmom told her about her divorce, Sarah was shocked and confused. And for her, there was only one question.

Sarah

Do you think it's too late? Do you think I can get him back?

Miki Meek

The next day, Sarah called up Billy and asked him to come over.

Sarah

And I just flat out said, my stepmom says that we got divorced, and I'm hoping that you'll take me back. And when I first said it, then he did smile. But then he got kind of stern and more serious.

Billy

And I told her, well, I need to take my time.

Miki Meek

When one person loses two years, it forces everyone else around them to go back in time too. Billy had never wanted the divorce, but he understood why Sarah left him. She had come to despise him during those two years she had forgotten. And now here was the old Sarah again, the one who still loved him, calling him regularly.

Billy

Like, hey Billy, you know, it's really good to hear your voice. And I was like, well, that's awesome. It's really good to hear you too, you know?

She was like, Billy, I love you so much. The "so" was always-- that stood out. Yeah, it was weird. I'm not going to lie to you, it was like, oh my goodness. This was tough. I was in a spot where I'm like, oh, why? Why are you telling me this?

This is not what I want to hear, you know. And then the other part of me is telling me, like, yes, this is what I want to hear.

Miki Meek

As much as Billy wanted to hear it, the rest of Sarah's family did not. She was falling back in love with a guy she wanted nothing to do with before her accident. Her sister Jessica remembers watching all of this with alarm.

Jessica

She would get this little schoolgirl look on her face and, like, bat her eyes, like a little teenager looking at their crush. And she's like, hi, Billy! And so I would just look at her so disgusted, just sitting there, zipping my mouth closed so that I don't say, you are divorced. You are divorced for a reason. Like, stop batting your eyes at him. You don't like him.

Miki Meek

Sarah's family remembered very clearly what Sarah herself did not, the many reasons why she had left Billy, why she was living with them now, not him. Her daughter Kristen recalled getting into an argument with her dad. The situation escalated, like it always did. As Kristen was telling me the story, she pointed to a patched up hole in the basement wall.

Kristen

That hole in the wall was my mom's breaking point. My dad tried to swing at me, and he barely missed my head. And I just remember my mom was so quiet that night. Like, she didn't want to go upstairs. She didn't want to go find my dad. She was scared.

And she looked at the wall, and she was looking at me. And I was sitting on the ground crying. I yelled at her that night, divorce him. And one day she wrote him a letter, and when he came home from work, he found the letter that said, you need to pack up your stuff and leave. My mom had had it.

Miki Meek

Sarah didn't remember this moment of Billy punching a hole in the wall until she had a conversation with her bishop at church. She and Billy had gone to this bishop for counseling when they were married. Now she was going back to him on a detective mission of sorts. She knew she had left Billy, but maybe the bishop could help her remember why.

Sarah

And he was like, you were tired. You were so tired of the emotional abuse. He punched a hole in the wall. And I remembered it instantly. And I thought, oh yeah, I can remember that. And it makes sense as to why I would have divorced him with all the things we were dealing with.

Miki Meek

So this is what Sarah's life is like right now. Memories of her and Billy's bad times are starting to pop back into her mind. Some are big, like the time he threw scissors at her and cut her under her eye. Others are small. There's no particular order to them. She says she gets a new memory every two weeks or so.

Sarah

When it comes to me, it's just like a light gets switched on in my head. So it goes from darkness and nothing being there to all of a sudden something is there. Like, a recent one is that he would take my phone and read through my phone all the time because he thought that the only reason I wanted a divorce was because I wanted to date other men.

Miki Meek

While we were talking, another memory appeared right in front of me. This one was about how by the end of their marriage, they were going out of their way just to be mean to each other. Sarah would tell Billy all the time that she liked her friends better than him.

Sarah

I think I used to tell him that my friends were number one and that he was number two. And so I was definitely hurting his feelings. That was a memory that just barely came-- like, just now while we were talking.

Miki Meek

Sarah's biggest problem is that she knows her marriage got bad. She knows those facts. But she just can't remember the feelings-- the feelings of being so fed up that she stopped wanting to work it out with Billy. Not being able to access those feelings is one reason it's so hard to accept the decision she made back then. But there's another layer to the story.

That guy she wanted to divorce has, by all accounts, changed. The before and after in Sarah's life was the accident. In Billy's it was the divorce. He was devastated by their break-up. He started reading self-help books, going to church, and for a while he was seeing three different counselors.

Billy

Everything was just angry. It was just-- I was always mad. So I would just react to everything.

Miki Meek

You know, some of the stuff that just sort of came up is, you know, grabbing your daughter and putting her up against the wall and punching a hole.

Billy

I'll tell you this-- I will take full responsibility for that. I shouldn't have punched a wall. I shouldn't have, and I did. Of course that makes me regret it. I feel bad. I feel horrible. I feel-- I wish I would have listened more.

I wish I would have got the help I needed and admitted. And after I lost everything, that's the only time I really refocused and thought, wait a minute, I lost it all. Now I've got to start over.

Miki Meek

Billy did start over, mainly by repairing his relationship with his kids. They've been living with Billy full-time since Sarah's accident, and it's going well. Their daughter Kristen says Billy's like a different person. He listens more now and wants to talk problems out.

Kristen

Me and my dad are really close. Throughout time, after him and my mom got divorced, he figured out ways to control his anger. I mean, my dad's really good at keeping calm-- now. Now he is. And he's really good at handling situations with us.

And so I'm not saying I'm glad my mom wrecked. But I wouldn't trade anything because I like where we are now, because my dad wouldn't be living with us right now if she didn't wreck. And so I feel like I got to know my dad so much better.

Miki Meek

Is there any part of you that sometimes thinks, oh, maybe if they could stay this way, then maybe it would work?

Kristen

So everything's really good between them right now. But I don't think that they'd be good as a married couple. And I probably won't ever think that, because I've seen the worst of them, and I've seen the best of them. And I still think that the worst of them has more control. Because what if they do go back to old habits and my dad does start to get mean again? I feel like it'd ruin what we built while she was gone.

Miki Meek

A few nights a week, Sarah and Billy go for these little drives around town in his truck and just talk about what it might be like if they got back together. They pass the church they went to when they were married and the park where they took their kids to play. These drives are like dates for them.

Sarah

Kinda nice how things have gone. So it's like we get to start over, you know? It would be better for the kids if we could learn how to be a team. And I wasn't very good at being a team with you.

Billy

Neither was I.

Miki Meek

Sarah's 33. Billy's 36. And they know everyone else thinks it would be crazy for them to get back together again. And it is crazy-- soap opera crazy. Sarah gets amnesia and forgets that she hated her husband so much that she divorced him. Meanwhile, the husband her daughter begged her to divorce has taken Sarah's place in the house. He's now the person who takes care of the children. He's even someone they trust.

Sarah

Kind of feels like I was supposed to get in the wreck, because we learned a lot. Because I woke up not even remembering I was divorced. And so I had all those months in the hospital just thinking of how much I love you and how much I miss you, and--

Billy

I was trying so hard to always work on not loving you. It didn't work.

Miki Meek

Couples who split up are usually facing a pile of bad memories so huge that there's no hope of digging their way out. Trying to talk about one wrongdoing sets off this chain reaction of anger and bitterness about all the other wrongdoings. But Sarah's accident lets her and Billy deal with one memory at a time, as they bubble up, usually in the mornings when she first wakes up.

Sarah

Sometimes I just lay in bed. And then the first person I talk to-- because I always decide when I have a memory, I've decided to bring it up to Billy every time.

Miki Meek

And then how has he been responding to those?

Sarah

He's been good about it, just admitting what happened and apologizing and telling me that he'll be better.

Miki Meek

And one thing I was wondering, when you guys were married, did you ever bring this up to him?

Sarah

Not when we were married. Uh-uh. He used to would have never apologized for anything that he had done. And the good thing about me losing my memory is that we're able to talk about everything that comes up in a better way. It's less hurt and less powerful, you know what I mean?

Miki Meek

Sarah's changed too. She says she gets irritated easier now and can throw these tantrums she never had before. She's still learning to get around without a walker and to do small things, like organize her pills for the day. It's not clear when she can move out of her parents' house. They have legal guardianship over her.

And she goes back and forth about Billy. One day she told me, I'd marry that guy tomorrow if he asked. And other times, she's less sure. She knows divorcing Billy was the right decision back then. She just wants to make the right decision now.

Nancy Updike

Miki Meek is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, what the movie The Breakfast Club can teach you about parenting if you were in The Breakfast Club. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three: The Blunder Years

Nancy Updike

It's This American Life. I'm Nancy Updike, sitting in for Ira Glass who will be back next week. Every week, we choose a theme-- you know that-- and we present various stories on that theme. Today's show, "Is That What I Look Like?" Stories of seeing yourself through other people's eyes, whether you want to or not. And we're here at Act Three, which I think is going to be kind of a two-parter.

Act Three-- Ben, do you want to do that part?

Ben Calhoun

Sure. Act Three, The Blunder Years.

Nancy Updike

I'm talking to Ben Calhoun, one of the producers here. And he's got a small story. He's embarrassed to tell it, but I'm making him. So Ben.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah?

Nancy Updike

Take us back. It's eight grade?

Ben Calhoun

Eighth grade. And I should just say, like, I played tuba. I was small. That was me. And definitely, like, zero attention from the girls in Roosevelt Middle School.

I had this teacher, though, who-- her name was Miss Savage. She was the cool teacher.

Nancy Updike

I bet.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah. She was younger than pretty much every teacher in the school. She was, like, into Jane's Addiction. And she was the rock and roll teacher, and all of the kids sort of, like, idolized her.

Nancy Updike

And we are going in a G, PG direction with this, right? Just checking.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

OK, continue.

Ben Calhoun

So there was just this one day when I'm just, like, standing in the classroom. And there was a crowd of girls that were standing around Miss Savage. And I have no idea what they were talking about.

And Miss Savage is saying something. And then out of the blue, she points to me. I'm standing on the other side of the room. And she says, look out for that Ben Calhoun. He's going to be a heart breaker.

Nancy Updike

And did the girls turn and look?

Ben Calhoun

It was like a crowd of faces pivoted like satellites and looked at me. And I was just like, I don't totally know what happened, but it feels like maybe my life might have changed just right then.

Nancy Updike

And?

Ben Calhoun

You mean, like, what--

Nancy Updike

Did it change? Yeah, yeah. Did the girls kind of start to notice?

Ben Calhoun

One girl in particular.

Nancy Updike

That's all you need.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

And that really can be all you need to change your life when you're a teenager-- just one person who thinks you're great. Because chances are, your own sense of yourself is way off. A friend of a friend-- this is a woman in her 50s-- came across an old photo of herself as a teenager. And it'd been years since she'd seen any pictures of herself at that age.

And she looked at them and thought, oh wait, I was pretty. I was pretty. It kind of floored her, because of course the girl in the pictures looked nothing like the way she thought of herself at the time. She said she wished she'd known it back then. It would have made a difference.

Lots of us have had that experience, looking at old family pictures or yearbooks, seeing things we never saw at the time. This next story is a very specialized case of that kind of thing. It's about the actress Molly Ringwald, who of course doesn't just have photos but movies-- beautifully shot, widescreen, full-length Hollywood films of herself as a teenager. She's the redhead, the star, in those three iconic '80s movies by John Hughes, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club.

Recently, she revisited one of those movies, not exactly by choice. And she talked to Ira Glass. Here's Ira.

Ira Glass

I supposed it's not a big surprise that Molly Ringwald does not sit around watching old Molly Ringwald films. You know, she's seen them. She needs a big reason to go back to them.

And recently her daughter gave her a reason. Her daughter Mathilda is 10. And Mathilda wanted to see The Breakfast Club. Of course, 10 is a little young to see The Breakfast Club, but most of her friends had seen it.

Molly Ringwald

So it was kind of weird that she was the only one that hadn't seen this movie. And she said that it was a conversation at slumber parties where that's a movie that some kids want to watch and that she had always said, please, I don't want to watch it. Can we watch something else? Because she wanted to watch it with me-- which I thought was really nice.

Ira Glass

I wonder if it's like, she wants to watch it with you-- like, that's a nice thing to say to your mom. But the truth could also be, she just doesn't want to watch it with them, do you know what I mean?

Molly Ringwald

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Can you imagine watching your mom with a group of your friends, and you have no idea what's about to happen?

Molly Ringwald

Yeah. I didn't even really think about that, but yeah, I'm sure that had something to do with it. Mathilda does not like surprises.

Ira Glass

And the fact is, Molly Ringwald preferred to watch it with Mathilda. It just seemed like it might be a nice experience to share together. And there were things in the film that she knew that she was going to want to talk to Mathilda about-- like, for instance, there's a scene where she smokes pot in the film as a teenager.

So Molly showed her The Breakfast Club, not sure at all how she was going to react, not sure what it would be like to see the film through Mathilda's eyes. We sent her a tape recorder to record what happened.

Mathilda

Hello!

Ira Glass

Which, by the way, Mathilda loved the tape recorder.

Mathilda

Hello! So--

Ira Glass

She loved talking into the tape recorder. She loved answering questions, though she is not going to hear this radio story for a long time. That's the plan.

The Breakfast Club, if you've never seen it, is five kids. They're stuck together in school on a Saturday for all-day detention. They're kids who never would normally talk to each other in school. It's a jock, a brain, a tough kid, a popular girl, and an outsider girl. And you know, it's a John Hughes movie. They bond talking about all these things that everybody feels in high school. And you can totally see why it still gets to kids and why it's the John Hughes film that Molly Ringwald looks back on as her favorite.

So she and Mathilda, they make popcorn, they futz around with the TV, and you know, stars are just like us. They do not know how to operate their video systems either. They cannot figure out how to turn it on. And is it DVD or HDMI?

Molly Ringwald

HDM-1?

Mathilda

HDMI.

Molly Ringwald

I mean, it sounds really silly. I mean, it was almost like a date, you know, where you just want everything to go OK, you know? I didn't want her to not like it. I didn't want her to get bored.

OK, wait.

Mathilda

OK, OK. It's fun to do it too.

Molly Ringwald

[GASP]

Mathilda

Oh, you! Oh my god, it's you!

Ira Glass

Was there any point during the film where you had second thoughts about watching it with her?

Molly Ringwald

The sex stuff I was a little-- I was cringing a little bit.

Bender

Oh, are you medically frigid, or is it psychological?

Claire

I didn't mean it that way. You guys are putting words into my mouth.

Molly Ringwald

You know, there's a whole part where everyone's saying, did you do it? Did you do it?

Brian

Why don't you just answer the question?

Andrew

Be honest.

Bender

It's no big deal.

Brian

Yeah, answer it.

Andrew

Just answer the question, Claire.

Bender

Talk to us.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Molly Ringwald

So then I'm thinking, she's going to ask me, what are they talking about? But then she just didn't ask. She was not-- all of that stuff she just didn't want to know.

And so I was trying to sort of ask her what she got out of that, what she thought we were talking about, but trying to ask her in such a way where I wouldn't tell her, where I wouldn't end up talking about sex if she didn't know.

So all the talk about did she do it, did she not do it, all of that stuff, kind of--

Mathilda

What? The what part?

Molly Ringwald

When they were like, did you do it, did you do it, Claire, just answer the question. Answer the question.

Mathilda

Oh, yeah. I got that. Wait. Which part? They were-- what?

Molly Ringwald

And my husband's sitting there looking at me-- just, stop. Stop. She doesn't get it.

Ira Glass

So this is the first time that you saw the film as a parent. Did you see it differently?

Molly Ringwald

Absolutely. I really did. I really kind of felt for the parents.

Ira Glass

For people who haven't seen The Breakfast Club, a lot of it is about the kids being disappointed in the parents.

Molly Ringwald

Yeah. And how alone and isolated and frustrated you feel with your parents. And now I see the movie and I just think, oh, their poor parents. And I think that when it was pointed out to me that the movie just talks about how all parents suck, you know, then I thought in my mind, well, actually that might be kind of good because then she can see that she doesn't have parents like that. And then she can, you know, appreciate us.

Ira Glass

You know, but that can go another way.

Molly Ringwald

Yeah. That was my focus, I guess.

Ira Glass

OK, so afterwards you're talking to her about the film. And there's this moment that gets surprisingly emotional. And let me play you that.

Molly Ringwald

Which character-- when the characters talk and you think, oh, that's what I feel like, are there any that you say, yeah, that's like what I feel like?

Mathilda

I guess a little bit of, like-- is he, like, Brian or something?

Molly Ringwald

Yeah.

Mathilda

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Brian, I should say, is the straight A student whose parents pressure him to get good grades, played by Anthony Michael Hall.

Molly Ringwald

You kind of feel like Brian?

Mathilda

I do kind of.

Molly Ringwald

He's really sweet, isn't he?

Mathilda

I know, but you kind of, like, sometimes pressure me in school.

Molly Ringwald

Wait, you think I pressure you?

Mathilda

No, but barely. Like--

Molly Ringwald

Wow, really?

Mathilda

No! Not any more! No! I take that back.

Molly Ringwald

Wait, wait, wait. Wait, no, no, no, no. No, tell me. Tell me. Oh, hey!

Mathilda

[SOBBING].

Molly Ringwald

Hey! No, it's OK.

Mathilda

No, it isn't!

Molly Ringwald

No, no, no. Sweetie-- it's OK!

Mathilda

OK.

Molly Ringwald

It's OK.

Mathilda

OK.

Molly Ringwald

I'm just-- I'm just surprised.

Mathilda

But I told you barely!

Molly Ringwald

Just barely, like a little bit.

Mathilda

Yeah.

Molly Ringwald

OK. Well, you know what? That's really good for me to know. I had no idea. Like, when did I make you feel like that?

Mathilda

Well, you kept on saying, like, I wish I did better in school.

Molly Ringwald

Oh, because I said that I wish I did better in school?

Mathilda

Yeah, and like you wanted me to do good.

Molly Ringwald

Oh. I'm sorry I made you feel that way.

Mathilda

But you don't anymore.

Ira Glass

Do you remember the thing she's talking about of you saying to her, like, oh, I wish that I had done better in school?

Molly Ringwald

I was really surprised. I was not expecting that at all. And the only thing that I can think of, really, is we have this homework battle. And it's incredibly frustrating.

Ira Glass

It's frustrating to get her to do the work?

Molly Ringwald

Yeah, because it's really easy. And I'm not just saying that as an adult. I mean, it's easy.

Ira Glass

It's easy work for her.

Molly Ringwald

It's easy work for her. If she would just sit down, do it, it would take 15 minutes, 20 minutes. But she resents the fact that she has to do it so much. And it became such a battle that she would sort of lie sprawled out, kind of barely write-- you couldn't even read her writing. And I would just get so frustrated with her.

And I would yell at her and say, you can do better than this. You're smarter than this-- you know, all the things that parents say. And I think it must have affected her. And then she said, well, you don't do it anymore. And the reason why I don't do it anymore is because I don't do her homework with her anymore because I can't. I find it too frustrating.

Ira Glass

Oh, when she said that, I thought, oh, she's just being protective of you, you know?

Molly Ringwald

I think she was being protective of me too. I think the thing that I noticed the most was Mathilda kind of wanting to make me feel OK. She really did not want to hurt my feelings or make me upset, and she wants to please me too. I can hear that when I-- yeah.

Ira Glass

Well, the fact that the next thing that happens, she instantly goes to I have better parents than they do.

Molly Ringwald

Yeah, I know, like it's scripted. I know.

So is there anything else that you got out of the movie that you--

Mathilda

Um, well, I have better parents than them.

Molly Ringwald

You're just saying that to make me feel better. Come on!

I mean, it was bizarre how she just said the thing that I hoped she would get out of it. She knows. I mean, she can intuit that. She knew that I was hoping for that. Yeah, she was giving me a little present wrapped in a bow.

Ira Glass

But at a moment where it doesn't feel like that at all.

Molly Ringwald

No. No, not at all.

Ira Glass

The whole thing left her wondering a lot about what happened when Mathilda cried and how she handled it, and should she have let Mathilda talk for longer, and should she have asked her more questions or different questions?

Ira Glass

You know, you just can never know what things that you say to your kids are going to stay with them, just little things said in a passing moment that are going to bounce around in their heads and lead them to conclusions that you don't intend or expect in any way.

Molly Ringwald

Yeah. I think there's always moments where you perceive things differently. I know it with my own mom and dad. I mean, there are times where I'll tell a story that I've heard a million times over the years. And my mom will just completely switch it up. Or she'll see it completely differently.

Ira Glass

Like, some story from your childhood? Like, you're telling the story about something they did?

Molly Ringwald

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And they're just like, no, no, no.

Molly Ringwald

Well, yeah. I mean, there's one-- I come from a family where my sister was sort of designated as the great beauty in the family. And this was just known. I was the talented one. My brother was the smart one, and my sister was the beautiful one.

And I remember actually asking my mom at-- I must have been around Mathilda's age-- if she thought that I was pretty. And she said, you're cute. And--

Ira Glass

Ooh.

Molly Ringwald

Yeah. And that is really not what you want to hear when you're 10 years-- I mean, now it's OK. I would be OK with cute. But when you're 10, it was just devastating.

And she completely denies that now. And I mean, something that would have such an impact on me-- I mean, I wasn't making it up. It really affected me.

Ira Glass

And she just says it didn't happen.

Molly Ringwald

She says, I always knew that you were beautiful. Ask your father.

Ira Glass

And obviously if she had any idea how it would bounce around in your head, she would have never said it too. She didn't think, like, oh, that's going to stick.

Molly Ringwald

No. I don't think that she did.

Ira Glass

I have a friend. Her mom would tell her and her sister, no, you girls are average.

Molly Ringwald

Oh!

Ira Glass

No, like, you girls are average. Average, you know-- like, you're smart, but you're average smart. And I was like, wow, you were not raised by Jews, man. That is not the message you get. I mean, in my experience, there's a lot of, like, you're so special. You're the most special. You're so special-- you know, the boys and the girls. You know, she's the most talented.

Molly Ringwald

Well, I was always told that I was special. I mean, there was no question that I was special and that I was destined for greatness.

Ira Glass

As a little kid?

Molly Ringwald

As a little kid.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Molly Ringwald

From the time that I was really little. I mean, to the point where-- this is kind of heavy, but I'll tell you. Anyway, my first brother died. He was the first, and I was the last, so we never met. But my mom was understandably just devastated by this and was sort of suicidal for a while-- I mean, didn't actually try anything, but she was considering.

And then was-- this makes her sound so hippy-dippy, and she's not at all. But she believes that she conversed with a spirit. And what they said basically-- and this is a story that I've heard since I was very small-- that she was here for another reason, for someone else. And as soon as I was born, she knew that it was me.

Ira Glass

That's a lot to put on you.

Molly Ringwald

Yeah, it's heavy. It's really--

Ira Glass

Like, she told you that when you were a little girl? Like, that she was put on this Earth because of you?

Molly Ringwald

Yeah. She believed that that was why-- yeah. Because she knew that there was some reason why she was supposed to stick around and--

Ira Glass

And stay alive. And it was to have this little girl who was you, who was such a special gift to the world.

Molly Ringwald

Yeah. Yeah.

Ira Glass

So how strange that you would end up famous by the age of 15 or something?

Molly Ringwald

Well, I kind of had to. I mean, I kept my mom alive.

Ira Glass

And so then when you actually did become a movie star as a teenager, did she take that as proof, like, oh, see, that was all true?

Molly Ringwald

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And did you at the time? Did the whole story fit together for you too?

Molly Ringwald

Yeah. I had to succeed. I had to be great.

Ira Glass

What a lot of pressure on you.

Molly Ringwald

I know. And then what do I do? I turn around, and I pressure my daughter, because I think she's so great. I know.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Nancy Updike

Ira J. Glass with Molly Ringwald. She's still in the movies. She's shooting one right now. And she's the author of a novel made of short stories called When it Happens to You.

[MUSIC - "HOW DO YOU SEE ME" BY MATRIMONY]

Credits

Nancy Updike

Our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Ira Glass. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Alison Davis. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help from Michelle Harris. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. Thanks, as always, to our programs cofounder Torey Malatia and to our boss, Mr. Ira Glass. While he was hosting the show this week, he spent a little time moonlighting as a Realtor. He's really got to work on his pitch.

Domingo Martinez

Look at that really [BLEEP] small house over there.

Nancy Updike

I'm Nancy Updike. Ira J. Glass will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "WHO ARE YOU WHO AM I" BY SPIDA]

Announcer

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