Full episode
Transcript

571: The Heart Wants What It Wants

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue

Ira Glass

Do you know where you're going to do this? Do you know where you're going to ask the question?

Man

Yeah. Yeah, I know where and when.

Ira Glass

Where is it going to be? What can you say about that?

Man

At her home, next week.

Ira Glass

Some answer. You're going in a week. Oh my God. So are you freaking out?

Man

I'm a little excited.

Ira Glass

This man is 76. I'm not going to say his name here on the radio, because he's hoping that the woman that he wants to marry is not going to get tipped off by some radio or podcast listener that he's about to ask her. And he doesn't know what she's going to say. He doesn't know. Which is not usually how that goes down, right? Usually, you ask somebody to marry you, you kind of know. He's totally shooting in the dark, anxious about what she's going to say. And this is somebody who he's had feelings about for a long time.

Man

I met this girl at a time when I was 17, she was 16. She was very popular. She was one of, you might say, the queens in high school, right?

Ira Glass

But nice, he says, really nice.

Man

And I didn't have all the confidence and courage that I needed at the time. And I just felt like I don't I don't measure up. I mean, she can pick any superstar or whatever. I was a fairly good athlete, but I wasn't a superstar and whatever and stuff like that.

Ira Glass

All right. So you didn't do everything you could.

Man

No, I didn't try. I just played like, well, hey, we're just friends. And then, when it was time to go to the Navy, I just left, took the coward's way out.

Ira Glass

But that experience changed him, he says. When he met his wife, he totally went for it. Didn't want to make the same mistake again. He and his wife were together for nearly 47 years, had children, who are now grown. And when his wife died eight years ago, after some time passed, he checked in with this woman from high school. Well, her husband had died. And so this man started flying to the other side of the country to visit her, where she lives now. He stays in the guest room at her house.

Man

So the visits there, I would visit her for a week or so, and we hung out everyday, and we just did natural things. And we just went places and what have you. But there was really no intimacy involved, realistically. We were just hanging out, and I believe she was having a good time. I was having a good time. You know?

Ira Glass

But you guys didn't kiss?

Man

Well, maybe only once or twice over those years and what have you. And every time we met, it was a friendly kiss on the side of the face, but it wasn't anything like a passionate, real kiss. And that happened only once, along the way, once or twice along the way.

Ira Glass

Now, you must have been testing the waters and saying things to figure out where she felt and what her feelings were, right?

Man

I was trying very hard to find that out along the way, Ira. And I was getting some mixed signals. I didn't-- I had a sense on the one hand, when it was all over--

Ira Glass

OK, those mixed signals, she'd hold his hand all the time. She never hesitated when he would call her and ask to schedule another week-long visit. But at the same time, she seemed very encouraging about him going out with other people, like weirdly encouraging. And she did not seem interested in discussing her feelings towards him.

Man

It seemed like any time a question or anything came up that related towards that or went in that direction, she tended to slide away from it a little bit.

Ira Glass

That does not sound good to me.

Man

That didn't sound good to me either. My feeling was that she didn't want you to ask this question. She doesn't want to have to give you that answer.

Ira Glass

Did you tell her you love her?

Man

Yes, I did.

Ira Glass

Has she ever said I love you back?

Man

No, no.

Ira Glass

Well, is it possible she just wants to be friends?

Man

Very good possibility.

Ira Glass

OK, ladies and gentlemen, I know what you're thinking. This does not sound promising at all. And, oh my God, what love struck creatures we all are, wandering around this earth, right? Here is a 76-year-old man, a father, a grandfather with the same logic defying feelings dominating him that a teenager has. He told me that back in July after years of wondering with this woman, OK, are we always just going to be friends? Is this ever going to be more than that, he finally told her, OK, look, we're going on a date. We're going on a date. It's going to be a real date. Are you up to have a real date with me? And she said yes.

Ira Glass

So how'd that go?

Man

It went well, but it didn't go any differently than all the other dates we went on.

Ira Glass

So nothing really changed?

Man

No. So realistically, if I want to be just honest with you and-- I don't know where this can go, what have you, but my feeling is that either she truly wants me to move on, or she's waiting for me to ask this question. Will you marry me? That's really where I am. And I don't know which one is true.

Ira Glass

But you know people, if somebody is interested, they let you know. If a lady is interested, she figures out a way to let you know, right?

Man

Yeah. Some people might say, well, hey, she lets you stay at her house. I mean, you stay there all week.

Ira Glass

Oh man, you are stuck on this lady. Oh my god.

[CHUCKLING]

Man

Well, let's put it this way. That may be the case, but it doesn't change anything that I just want to know that, hey, I did everything I could. And that's what I didn't do first time. That's what I didn't do the first time.

Ira Glass

You know, what strikes me is that this is just very inconvenient for you, that you like her so much.

Man

That I like her so much? That that's inconvenient?

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah, that you're having these feelings, that you're stuck on this lady, it seems like you're in the grip of this thing. You don't even have a choice. It defies all good sense. You know all the signs pointing against it. And yet-- and yet you feel like you have no choice. You have to ask this question.

Man

Oh, I do have to. In truth, I understand that. I do have to ask the question. My heart says resolve it. You know, just resolve it. And if her heart doesn't want it, then I don't want it with her. You know?

Ira Glass

Honestly, over the course of this conversation, I went from thinking that it was a terrible idea for him to ask this woman to marry him next week, to thinking he should totally do it. He totally convinced me that he needed to hear yes or no once and for all. And maybe he was going to get what he wanted, or maybe he was going to be set free, but either one of those was going to be better than just floating around her like he's been, wanting this thing to happen.

And then, OK, we talked the next day on the phone. And I learned that a weird thing happened in that conversation that he and I had had the day before, which is we switched positions. He had completely convinced me that he should ask her, but I had completely convinced him that he should not, because she wasn't showing enough signs that she loves him, because it seemed doomed on its face.

So the next day, Tuesday, this week, we got on the phone and he told me his new very pragmatic, very sober plan. He's not going to ask her to marry him next week. He's just going to tell her his feelings, and see if she's open to being in a real, actual, committed relationship.

Man

This opens the door to get started with a relationship. I'm not really saying that she would want to go there, but if she does, then the question would be, well, where do we go from there?

Ira Glass

So he flies to his fate this weekend. He's asking her Wednesday, he thinks. "The heart wants what it wants." Emily Dickinson wrote that. Though depending on how old you are, you might associate it with Woody Allen or Selena Gomez. Today on our program, people who get stuck on somebody, whether that's a good idea or not, whether they want to or not, people who get stuck, even when the signs are not looking so very good for them at all.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Jesse’s Girl

Ira Glass

Act 1, Jesse's Girl. So here's a great example of the heart wanting what it wants against all reason. It's the story of a con that lasted for over two decades. And when the con was discovered, there was a trial. And incredibly, some of the people who had been conned testified on behalf of the man who scammed them. They defended the con in court. Which is to say, that even after the con was over and the truth was revealed, people still bought into it. NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam was so curious about why and talked to some of the victims, including a man who says he got a lot out of being conned. Here's Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam

So here's how the con worked. Guys around the country signed up for a pen pal service. It would put them in touch with women they could befriend and correspond with. And then they'd start to receive letters.

Jesse

They come from Hillsdale, Illinois. Some of them are white, pink, green.

Shankar Vedantam

Jesse is a sweet, soft spoken man with thick, plastic aviator glasses. He started receiving the letters in 1985, when he was in his 30s. Back then, he was overweight. He'd never had a serious girlfriend, always lived with his parents. After his mother died, he spent most of his time taking care of his sick dad and working at his family's restaurant.

Jesse's favorite letters came from a woman named Pamela.

Jesse

Yes, I usually took it at the end of the day, when I got them in the mail, went into my room and laid on my bed and just sat there and read them. "Dear Jesse, deep down, you know as well as I do that you could be a lot better off than you are if you only had someone on your side, someone who would help you, encourage you, work with you, and stick with you even when things get bad. What I'm talking about, of course, is a true friend, but that kind of person is hard to find today, isn't it?

Shankar Vedantam

Jesse had never met or talked to Pamela, but he was curious. He wrote back, telling her a little about himself. And Pamela replied again and again. The letters were typed in a girlish font and signed in a blue pen with big loopy letters. In another letter, Pamela wrote, "Just before I sat down to write this letter to you, I was thinking how lucky I am that in this great, big, crazy world I found you. I hope I can be part of your life for a long time, Darling, and I hope, as time goes by, I'll be able to make you happier and happier."

This mystery woman seemed to know him. She made Jesse feel understood. She made him feel loved.

Jesse

You can tell when you meet a person that they're not superficial. This is coming from their heart. Everybody's looking for that perfect love and everything, and this pops up. So I thought, well, could this be something different?

[LAUGHTER]

Shankar Vedantam

This was Pamela. He was middle aged, balding, and had a small, gray mustache. His real name was Don Lowry.

Shankar Vedantam

Was any of it difficult, to come up with these characters? Did the characters bore you? I mean, tell me about it as a writing project.

Don Lowry

No. No, I looked at a photograph of a girl and said what kind of girl is this? Where is she from? What does she like to do? It was fairly easy after a while. The first 20 were a little bit rough, but the next 80 were not hard at all.

Shankar Vedantam

And you enjoyed making up these characters?

Don Lowry

I loved it! Yeah, I loved it. I admit that.

Shankar Vedantam

Don died in 2014, but I met him in 2011, in a rundown house in Butler, Pennsylvania. He was 82. If you have trouble understanding Don's voice, it's because he was a lifelong heavy smoker. The desk in his living room was covered with ash. His sofa smelled of smoke. Don told me he always wanted to be a writer, but his real talent was in being a hustler. He always had a scheme going.

In his early 30s, Don visited Mexico and wrote a traveler's guide where he explained how American men could live cheaply there, pick up women, and get by with rudimentary Spanish.

Don Lowry

It was called Mexico, Bachelor's Paradise.

Shankar Vedantam

It didn't sell. And then he tried something most writers would never consider. He changed the name of the book's author to a woman's name. Sales skyrocketed, he said. Apparently, lonely American men didn't want tips from a guy. They wanted tips from a girl. Don realized there was a market waiting to be exploited. He rented mailing lists from magazines that catered to single men and started writing letters to them, posing as different women. Men like Jesse were invited to join a club, where in exchange for a small fee, they could receive love letters.

In a moment of inspiration, Don decided to call the women who wrote the letters angels, Angel Linda, Angel Kristina, Angel Pamela. He purchased stock photos of models and printed catalogs with photos and bios for each angel. Angels came in different flavors. Some were compliant, helpless, and pure. Others were raunchy and sent nude photos of themselves. Most were young and all were eager to please. Dream women for a certain kind of man, dreamed up of course by another man.

In one brochure, Angel Linda Scott is pictured in a one piece swimsuit on her hands and knees. Angel Kristina looks like an idealistic woman. She's shown hugging a tree and holding a flower. I prefer a certain type of man, Kristina says. "He can pick up a handful of dark, rich soil and feel a kind of reverence and joy. But he's awfully hard to find."

Don mailed these brochures to men like Jesse. If a man wrote back, Don began sending letters to him as Angel Kristina or Angel Linda. Don told me he didn't want members who were just looking for sex. He wanted men looking for meaningful relationships, who would be in it for the long haul. He thought this would be better for business and better for the marks.

Don Lowry

A guy, his wife died and he was living alone, he didn't have any friends, that kind of thing. He needed this. He didn't have anything you or anybody else to cheer him up, nobody. Reject. These girls would boost their egos, things like, "Oh, your handwriting is so masculine." Things like that, little things gave the guy a boost. And they loved it.

Shankar Vedantam

After a few letters to Jesse, Pamela let him know that the only thing she wanted was a little help. "Darling, I want you to know that I really love writing you every day. It has filled a great need in my life and I know I'd be very sad if I had to stop writing to you and being your friend. I hope you feel the same way about me and my letters to you. I think it's fair and reasonable for me to ask you to help with the expenses of paper, envelopes, postage, photos, and the other things I'll be sending you. If you could send me just $10 a week for my letters, I could continue writing every day as I have been.

Jesse was fine with that. He figures he sent in $4,000 or $5,000 between 1985 and '88. It wasn't a big deal to him.

Jesse

My business was prospering pretty well. We ran over $100,000 three years in a row, so it was no problem for me to be sending money and stuff. So--

Shankar Vedantam

Pamela often sent Jesse stories about the two of them for a little extra money. In one, Pamela and Jesse go on a picnic together. In another, he literally rescues her, as a knight in shining armor. There's one story that has them both lying on a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace. And of course, it goes where you think it will go, if two people are lying on a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace. But it's romantic, not explicit. The language is tame.

The letter concludes, "I lay beside you and whispered good night, my sweet Darling. Let us drift away to paradise in our dreams and wake up together to a new and wonderful day. I kiss you gently and fall asleep in your arms." OK, obviously cheesy. Don Lowry was not a gifted writer, but he was a gifted manipulator. When I first heard about the story, I assumed the men who signed up for the letters from the angels must have been such easy marks, so naive. Who else would buy such absurd fantasies?

But then I read the dozens and dozens of letters that Pamela sent Jesse. He saved them in a large binder, each letter in its own plastic sleeve. And as I read the letters, I started to understand the power of the psychological tools Don used to hook men like Jesse. Most of the letters aren't epic fantasies. Most are about the minutiae of Pamela's life. She goes to the bank. She talks to co-workers. She tells Jesse her thoughts on televangelists.

Over and over, Pamela tells Jesse how much he means to her. She praises him, encourages him. When you read the letters one after the other, like Jesse did day after day after day, it paints a picture that feels real. I felt the Pamela in the letters was a real person, and I knew Don was writing them.

There were other tricks. In one letter, Pamela asked Jesse to keep a picture of hers nearby as he read her letters, so he would feel she was in the room with him. Jesse put up two photos of her on the wall. She once sent him a dime. In that letter, she told Jesse she had just had a strange day. Another driver bashed her car but didn't leave a note.

Just when it looked like the day couldn't get any worse, she lost her purse. Depressed, Pamela spotted this very dime on the street. She picked it up, hoping it was a lucky charm. Later, a little boy showed up with her purse. A woman called and took responsibility for the car. Pamela told Jesse she was giving him her lucky dime. Here's Jesse reading from the end of that letter.

Jesse

"Keep this dime, Darling. Let it always remind you that good people can still come into your life and good things can still happen to you. And also think of this as a small token of my affection for you. If you hold it in your hand and squeeze it hard, you'll feel the warmth of my love coming out of it."

Shankar Vedantam

Did you actually do that, Jesse?

Jesse

Yes, I think I did do that and everything.

Shankar Vedantam

Like I said, Jesse's mother had recently died, and his dad had heart trouble. He spent a lot of time looking after him. He wrote letters to Pamela, confiding in her about his depression. She sent him heartfelt letters about bad relationships she'd had. And she told him about visiting her grandfather, who was suffering from dementia.

Jesse

That really took its toll on her, so I bonded with that, knowing that she was going through the same thing that I was. Me and her more or less bonded more than any other person I've ever talked to. It was like a beacon from outside, like if you were a ship out at sea and you were looking for lighthouse. Which they used that in the deal to look for the light and everything and guide yourself towards it, where you know that you'll have safe haven.

Shankar Vedantam

I'm not sure I'm exactly following you. Is this something from one of the letters, where they basically talk about the lighthouse?

Jesse

Yes, and in fact, I got a little wooden figure of a lighthouse that she sent to me at one time and everything, and said this beacon know that somebody is out there looking out for you and everything.

Shankar Vedantam

If Jesse had wanted to see it, there were plenty of signs the letters were mass produced. They looked typed, but the paper doesn't have the indentations that come from typewriter keys. The signatures looked like they've been stamped or printed. All the specifics in the letters are about Pamela's life.

Shankar Vedantam

In the letters, did Pamela ever ask you how you were handling your mom's death?

Jesse

Not that I remember. No, I don't think so.

Shankar Vedantam

Did she ask how your dad's health was?

Jesse

Not that I remember at this time, no.

Shankar Vedantam

In fact, when I read Pamela's letters to Jesse, she never mentions any of the things he's told her. When Pamela talks about Jesse's life, she switches into generalities. "I know you're sad. I know you're lonely. I know you're having a hard time." The only way the letters are personalized is that Jesse's name is sprinkled throughout, autofilled, like a madlib sheet. To Jesse, it didn't matter. He saw what he wanted to see.

Jesse

At the time, I wasn't really fully absorbing all of that. I had a lot on my plate, in turmoil with everything that was going on. So I just read them and I took some like encouragement out of it.

Shankar Vedantam

Did you ever have doubts about what was going on as you were receiving the letters?

Jesse

Well, no, not at the time and everything. Like I said, I was glad to be getting letters from somebody, and even though you're paying money for that because you have blinders on and aren't really paying attention to all of that. Like I said, when you're not the best looking person in the world, that somebody out of the blue would write right to you and tell you things and build up your spirits and everything and stuff, because everybody looks at you and stuff, it's like the deal with the Hunchback of Notre Dame. You'll never find anybody that will care for you, but there at the end, he wound up making friends with the people that befriended him and everything.

Shankar Vedantam

At a certain point, Pamela became the thing that kept Jesse afloat when he had to work long hours, when he had to close his restaurant and rush his father to the hospital.

Jesse

Yes, there was one thing that really touched me and everything. I was telling her I'm ready to give up and everything. And she just told me, get back on your feet and everything. So that really was a word of encouragement and everything.

Shankar Vedantam

As Don went on, he realized his members were hooked and he could take the fantasy further, much further. He invented an epic world for his angels, with a magical backstory and a fantastic future. Here's how it worked. The angels supposedly lived together in a retreat, hidden away from the world. Most were lost souls, escaping drugs and bad men. These were women who needed a steady hand and a strong shoulder.

As he invented more angels, Don came up with interweaving backstories. Some angels were good, some bad. Angels helped one another, backstabbed each other. All the men who signed up to join the Lonely Hearts Club understood they were joining an organization of good hearted men who were devoted to taking care of the angels. The organization was known as the Call.

Don promised members of the Call that they would one day move with the angels to a valley paradise, into a giant building shaped like a naked woman lying down on the grass. This lady shaped building would house meeting rooms and auditoriums. The paradise was to be called Chonda-za. In exchange for their contributions, the members would have their needs looked after at Chonda-za, all their needs.

At the center of the entire fantasy was a matriarch, a saintly woman named Mother Maria. Maria collected and managed the money from the members, and she organized and disciplined the angels. She was said to have mystical powers and could revirginize fallen women. There were photos of Mother Maria. She was beautiful. Maria's photos were actually of a woman named Esther. She was Don's wife.

Not all the members of the Call believed in Chonda-za. Jesse stuffed the letters describing Chonda-za in the back pocket of the binder. He figured it was just some wacky idea Pamela had and just ignored it. But there were other fish who found this Hoque tempting.

Ken Blanchard

In my mind, I always held this area. I tried not to be convinced 100% about it. Surely, this was too good to be true.

Shankar Vedantam

This is Ken Blanchard. He's a big gentle man and was another member of the Call for many years. He was single when he joined, and he was still single when I met him in 2012.

Shankar Vedantam

What was the draw? What did you tell yourself when you said that this is too good to be true?

Ken Blanchard

Well, I think with me it was the prospect of maybe at least having some sort of communication with some women, maybe my age, maybe a little bit too young for me, maybe even then. But it sounded like a neat idea to be on the leading edge of something like that. Oh geez, I don't know.

Shankar Vedantam

Well--

Ken Blanchard

I don't know what else, how else to try to explain my part of it, or belief in it and everything. They got me hooked on what they were saying and everything. And I believed them, so--

Shankar Vedantam

Don got hundreds of new sign-ups every year. Millions of dollars flowed back to Don's headquarters in Moline, Illinois. He bought himself expensive cars, a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes. He bought his sons and Esther everything they wanted. He got a big office in downtown Moline and operated a print shop. He hired assistants, salespeople, and ghostwriters to expand his operation. By the mid-1980s, Don was writing love letters to more than 30,000 men.

Don Lowry

We had lawyers, doctors, professors, mechanics, bakers, you name it. All kinds of people were members. We even had a priest join the Call. Really.

Shankar Vedantam

That's not a Catholic priest.

Don Lowry

Yeah, a Catholic priest.

Shankar Vedantam

What was he hoping to get out of it?

Don Lowry

Who the hell knows? He was probably just bored.

Shankar Vedantam

To exploit this growing market, Don constantly experimented with new schemes and products. He started selling cassette tapes, where the angels flirted with the men. He got into merch-- mugs, puzzles, commemorative coins, all with angels faces printed on them.

Don Lowry

And we sent out a pillowcase with Angel Terry's face on it. And it said, now you can sleep with Angel Terry every night.

[CHUCKLING]

We did a lot of things like that.

Shankar Vedantam

The members weren't just sending in cash and checks. They were sending gifts. Ken sent Angel Vanessa a windbreaker. Others sent coats and shoes, even gardening equipment so the angels could grow vegetables at their secret retreat.

Shankar Vedantam

Did you encourage them to send personal items?

Don Lowry

Oh God, no, no. I hated that. Here's a guy, his wife died. And she left all kinds of jewelry and dresses and so on. He put them in a big cardboard box and mailed it to us. What the hell are we going to do with it, huh?

Shankar Vedantam

Now, what you wanted, of course, was you wanted them to send a check.

Don Lowry

Yeah, of course, or a money order, or cash, anything.

Shankar Vedantam

Did you tell them not to do it?

Don Lowry

Very subtly. I didn't want to hurt their feelings. They thought they were doing a great thing for the angels by sending these clothes. I didn't want to hurt them.

Rico Lowry

My dad would brazenly just have sidewalk sales, lingerie, and gifts, and jewelry.

Shankar Vedantam

This is Don's son, Rico Lowry.

Rico Lowry

And my dad would brazenly just be selling the lingerie on racks in front of the print shop.

Shankar Vedantam

He would actually put up racks on the sidewalk in front of the print shop?

Rico Lowry

Yep, yep. My dad had a very sarcastic and wicked sense of humor.

Shankar Vedantam

A local police officer told me men from all over the country started showing up in Moline, asking where they could find the angels. If they found their way to the print shop, Don called the cops on them. Dumbfounded police tried to explain to the men that there was no Angel Vanessa, no retreat, no Chonda-za. But occasionally, if Don was in the mood, he'd actually allow them to meet female employees whom he had asked to pose as angels in photos.

In time, Don even set up events for his most loyal members to meet the angels. He called them gatherings. At a gathering in Chicago, an advice columnist offered dating suggestions. A comedian told jokes. Angels in yellow green dresses leapt around onstage in an interpretive dance.

Jesse went to the Moline gathering. He was excited to finally meet Pamela. She looked just like she did in her pictures. In fact, she was one of Don's employees and her name really was Pamela. She greeted Jesse warmly. But Jesse's excitement was tempered by the fact that there were a dozen other men at the gathering. Jesse was shocked to find that every man thought he was in a personal relationship with Pamela too. They crowded around her, vying for her attention.

Jesse

And then that's when it dawned on me. And I said, hey, this is not what I thought it would be or anything, that it was a rip-off. Well, that was like getting a kick in the stomach. It was upsetting and everything, wasting all that money and this and that and the other. And it wasn't what it was meant to be. It got you down to reality and stuff, so--

Shankar Vedantam

Jesse knew that Pamela liked music boxes, so he bought her an expensive one with a tiny record on it that played When the Saints Go Marching In. Pamela loved it. He says she stared at it and let the record play. It went on and on and on. The other men stood around them and looked at Jesse. They looked at Pamela, then back to Jesse. He liked that he was making them jealous.

Jesse didn't blame Pamela. He wasn't exactly sure how the scam worked, but he was sure that the woman standing before him was the same woman who wrote to him, that she was the one who had read his letters. The proof? Pamela's dog jumped into his lap.

Jesse

She jumped on my lap twice and everything, and that really surprised Pamela and them. So I guess she smelled my scent on the letters I was writing to her and everything and stuff, so--

Shankar Vedantam

We got in touch with Pamela to see if she remembered any of this, but she declined to be interviewed on tape for the story. She did confirm that she hadn't written the letters. Jesse made friends with a couple of other men at the meeting, particularly two guys named Lenny and Al. They were all like strangers who had independently watched the same soap opera for many years.

Jesse

And we got to talking about it. I said, well, why did you write to this and everything? Instead of bonding with the girls, we ended up talking to each other and meeting new friends and talking about the troubles we had. Well, they were just like me and everything. So we stayed in correspondence. Like they said, they wrote me letters and they even called me at my restaurant to ask me how things were going and everything, and finding out, asking about my dad and everything, so that was encouraging to hear somebody calling to want to check on you and everything.

Shankar Vedantam

In other words, they asked about all the personal stuff Pamela never asked about. Lenny and Al stayed in touch until they died. What finally brought Don Lowry's scam to an end was a woman named Susan Rosseau. She was a model that Don had worked with. She'd gotten into a car crash and called Don for help. He showed up at the hospital with a photographer. They unbandaged her wounds and took pictures. They sent these to all the men who were corresponding with the angel Susan and asked them for help in paying her medical bills. But Don didn't give Susan the money. She went to the cops.

Kenneth Rexroth

And she came to our office. She revealed the promises Mr. Lowry had made to her and broken. The return that Mr. Lowry received was staggering in terms of dollars and cents.

Shankar Vedantam

This is Lieutenant Kenneth Rexroth of the Moline police department. He'd been aware of Don Lowry for years. He turned away many men who would come to the police station in search of the angels. And he'd been looking for a way to lock Don up.

Kenneth Rexroth

He was very diabolical. He's a sinister person. I consider Mr. Lowry to be an evil man.

Shankar Vedantam

But thanks to Susan Rosseau, the police finally had evidence to obtain subpoenas. They raided Don's print shop. They found out that some men sold everything in order to give their life savings to the angels. One man lived out of his car and forwarded his social security check to his angel. When the police got in touch with these guys, many of them realized for the first time that their treasured letters were written by a man.

Ken Blanchard

What I turned out to be angry about and more embarrassed about more than anything was the fact that he was even involved, that any man at all was even involved.

Shankar Vedantam

Again, this is Ken Blanchard, who spent years receiving letters from Angel Vanessa.

Ken Blanchard

When I found out that these letters I'd been getting all these times and I thought it was some girl sharing something with me, well, then I find out it was him writing the darn thing, I thought, my God, what the hell am I getting into. But I can laugh about it now, but I think at the time I did have some feelings about that that weren't very charitable.

Shankar Vedantam

Don's lawyer said that if members believed the angels were real, that was on them. As Don told me many years later.

Don Lowry

People believe what they want to believe. You cannot dissuade them. Most members believed the angels lived forever in a Never Never Land called the retreat. We told them that they live forever and they never grew old. Does that tell you anything? Huh?

Shankar Vedantam

Well, you're surprised that they believed you?

Don Lowry

Yeah, yeah. And it helped them. I mean, it made them happy. So big deal.

Shankar Vedantam

Don and Pamela were charged with mail fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. The press mobbed the trial. Don was shamed in the press, called a snake oil salesman in People Magazine. Which brings me back to what got me interested in the story in the first place, the thing that really surprised me. Many members flew from all over the country to show up at the courthouse in defense of the Call. Some stood outside with picket signs, defending the brotherhood.

Jesse and his friend Al were both there. As they waited outside the courtroom, Jesse saw Pamela come up. He rushed over to her.

Jesse

She was walking up, and I noticed that she was cold, so I took off my jacket and draped it over her shoulders, and we walked all the way up to the courthouse. I was like a security guard. And after she went indoors, I took my coat off and I backed off and everything.

Shankar Vedantam

Did she say anything to you at that point?

Jesse

No, not really.

Shankar Vedantam

Members testified on the stand and said the Call had been a critical, beautiful part of their lives. One man said letters from the angel saved him from alcoholism and thoughts of suicide. Jesse testified too. This is him reading a court transcript of what he said on the stand.

Jesse

Well, it gave you, like I said, inspiration to continue no matter what the circumstances that you were going through, that if you persevered, you could make it.

Shankar Vedantam

Do you remember saying this at the trial?

Jesse

Yes, I do.

Shankar Vedantam

Would you say that you still stand by what you said at trial?

Jesse

Yes.

Shankar Vedantam

So here's the thing, Jesse, Don Lowry lied to you and sent you letters on behalf of someone else for many years. And you formed an emotional connection with this woman who was writing to you, when at the same time you showed up at trial to essentially defend Don Lowry. And I'm trying to understand how and why you did that.

Jesse

Well, like I said before, it wasn't actually defending him, but it was actually Pamela that was the one that we were all turned our attention to help, and that meant helping Don also and everything.

Shankar Vedantam

I understand that Don was really the mastermind of the operation. But when she showed up at these meetings and she presented herself as the same Pamela who was the Pamela in the letters, wasn't she lying to you?

Jesse

Well, I guess you could think about that that way, yes.

Shankar Vedantam

Did you ever think about it that way?

Jesse

No, not until now and everything, when all of this has been rebrought out and everything.

Shankar Vedantam

Don and Pamela were both found guilty. Pamela served two years in prison. Don was in prison for 10 years. When I met Don, I asked him whether he felt he did anything wrong.

Don Lowry

I think I did something very wrong. I suppose I made it a little bit too real. I did. I made it too real.

Shankar Vedantam

Jesse lives alone now with his dog Chewbacca. He's in his 60s and is still single. He's had some complications from diabetes recently, and had parts of his foot amputated. It hasn't been easy. My producer, Stephanie Foo, visited him at his house in Texas.

Jesse

I was in the hospital after my amputation, running around on my knee scooter. I said, you can still do this. Keep going and everything, so-- and I remember those words she told me. "Get on your feet." So I do that and everything and keep going.

Stephanie Foo

Wow. Even now, even today?

Jesse

Even today and everything and stuff so.

Stephanie Foo

But basically, that line, "Get on your feet," it doesn't really matter who wrote it?

Jesse

No. You think back, but it brings back fond memories of way back when, and you could be in your 100s and everything or older and I hope to have this on my mind on down the line and everything and stuff so.

Shankar Vedantam

Jesse still has the little wooden lighthouse Pamela sent him. It's on his dresser in his bedroom. And he still has two photos of Pamela in his den, one on the wall, one on his desk. In one, she's sitting in an office chair, hands in her lap, not glamorous, or sexy, or anything. Jesse says she's just sitting there, being herself. It's just a little something to say "I made a friend."

Ira Glass

Shankar Vedantam, he's NPR's social science correspondent and host of a brand new podcast called Hidden Brain about the world of unconscious bias in human behavior. You might check out especially episode three about poker and women. That's Hidden Brain episode 3, wherever you get your podcasts.

Coming up, romantic feelings popping up aggressively, undeniably in Times Square, on the 405 in Los Angeles. They are everywhere. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: My Love Is Blue

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, The Heart Wants What It Wants. What happens when you find that whether you like it or not, you're having feelings, big feelings for somebody who is giving you signs that it really might not work out? We first broadcast this show a year ago. We have arrived at Act 2 of our program, Act 2, My Love is Blue.

Elsa Waithe is a stand up comedian, young, moved to New York City not that long ago. Two years ago, after the policeman who shot Michael Brown was not indicted for killing him, she felt like, OK, that is not right. And she decided to join the protesters who were out demonstrating about the decision and about police behavior. And at her very first protest, this thing happened she did not expect. She got a very inconvenient crush on somebody she had no desire to have a crush on. And of course, as we have heard this hour, that is something you cannot control.

She talked about this on stage in a storytelling show about crushes. We have a recording from that show that is a little janky but it is totally audible with, as you will hear, a very enthusiastic audience. If you're listening online or to the podcast of our program, I want to say before we start, we have unbeeped a few curse words here in this online version of the program. If you prefer the beeped version of our show, maybe you're listening with little kids, you can get that it's thisamericanlife.org. Anyway, here's Elsa.

Elsa Waithe

And so now once we get to Times Square, we've met up with other groups. And at this point, it's massive. So we spread across the intersection, and we all sit down. And sure enough, the riot cops step up. And the riot police all have the face masks, the face guards. And a part of me is thinking this is very intimidating. And you can't see anybody's face. And they're really big, and it's just one stormtrooper sort of thing of very scary police officers.

And at this point, you guys, I'm really nervous. I'm really scared because they've given a dispersal warning and people are getting flustered and people are starting to leave. And those of us who are sitting down, it's dwindled. There's also lots of cameras here, so I've made my stand. I don't want to get up, OK?

[LAUGHTER]

People are going to see that. And I'm just trying to find a zen place. I'm just trying to look around and just find something to focus on, and really all I'm seeing is my reflection in all of these face masks, until I get to one officer, who has not put her face mask down, you guys. And it was just the most angelic face.

[LAUGHTER]

It was very delicate inside of this. And it almost didn't seem like she even wanted to be there. I was transfixed. And the sergeant, he says line up. And I realize that they're lining up in front of who they are going to arrest, and she's lined up with me.

[LAUGHTER]

And he gives one more dispersal warning. He says you have 30 seconds to get out of the street. You were obstructing traffic. If you do not get out of the street, you are subject to arrest. And I says, well, her?

[LAUGHTER]

The Sergeant gets one the megaphone and he says, OK, that's it. Whoever's here, round them up. And so she leans in and she says, you're going to have to come with me. And I realize I'm being filmed. There's lots of cameras. Flashbulbs are going off everywhere. And so I wanted to be really thug and gangster about it, you know what I'm saying? You know? I was like, in my mind, I said, "Yeah, you're going have to pick me up!" But I think what actually came out and was like, "Yeah, OK."

[LAUGHTER]

She picks me up, and she turns me around. And she goes to put the zip ties, the flex cuffs on me. And it was really-- she put them on really tight, you guys. And I wanted to be upset, but I kind of liked it. I don't know.

[LAUGHTER]

And here's the thing, you guys. I was part of the first 10 people to be arrested in New York City in conjunction with these non-indictments. They were calling us the Times Square 10. My picture was everywhere. In the morning, when I woke up, it was on CNN. It was on Yahoo News. And so all my friends back home, they've seen these pictures, and everyone's like, wow, you look really calm amongst all this chaos and--

[LAUGHTER]

What was going through your mind?

[LAUGHTER]

I wanted to tell people something really poignant, you know? I was thinking about civil rights and I was thinking about Dr. King. And I wanted to tell you that it was all those things. But really it was just like, "Holy shit, there's a lot of cameras! Her hands are soft."

[LAUGHTER]

Gosh. So they load us into the back of the paddy-wagon. Unfortunately, she does not ride with us. But when we get to the precinct now, I'm reunited with my arresting officer, because they have to take you through the booking process, OK? And so then they take your mugshot. Now, I'm ready for this. All the excitement from getting arrested has dissipated. Here's the real shit. I'm getting processed now, but you're partnered up with who arrested you.

So I get her name now. This is Officer Laura. All right. So now I have her name and this is great. So she's taking me through the fingerprinting process, and they have to take your hand. They do it for you. They take your hand. And she's holding my hand.

[LAUGHTER]

And pressing my fingers into the ink, and now we're making a finger picture and it's gorgeous. This is our first piece of artwork together!

[LAUGHTER]

And now it was mugshot time, you guys. It was time for the mugshot. And I am determined. I am going to take a gangster mugshot, OK? I know nothing about this says gangster, but I'm going to thug up and take this mugshot, right? So we take it from the front. Boom. Take it from the side, boom. And then, you guys, surprise, surprise, your arresting officer gets in the picture with you!

[LAUGHTER]

And we get to take a picture together! I was so excited! I was so strong in the first two pictures, and then she gets in for the third, and I was so amped I threw a thumb up.

[LAUGHTER]

She didn't find that amusing. She slapped my hand. She's like, no gang signs! Can I get a copy of this for Facebook? No one's going to believe me! All right, so that's where all the fun stopped, you guys. They put me in the cell. I was in for 8 and 1/2 hours. But I left in the morning. I wasn't tired. I wasn't upset. I just had butterflies, cherubs, rainbows, unicorns. I wonder if I'll ever see her again. You know?

But I finally got the gumption to go back out. I'm not going to let this silence me. I'm not going to let this scare me. And I had some down time. I'm going to go back out. And so I went back out, no friends, nobody to tell anybody I was back out. Went back to Times Square and I was out there taking laps around Times Square with signs, waiting for the crowd to get bigger. And you guys, I see what appears to be Officer Laura.

And you've got to understand, I'm with some really anti-police people. So you really can't say shit to the cops, right? But I got [INAUDIBLE]. And I was like, "Officer Laura." And she turned around and it was her. And I couldn't contain my excitement. I was like, "Oh my God, it's so good to see you!"

[LAUGHTER]

And I gave her a hug.

[LAUGHTER]

Which didn't win me points from anybody. Because the protesters weren't happy and neither were the police. And Officer Laura didn't remember me, you guys.

[MOANING]

So fuck the police. All right.

Ira Glass

Elsa Waithe, she hosts a monthly comedy night in New York called Affirmative Laughter. On Twitter, she is elsajustelsa. She has recorded a monthly storytelling event called Tell at the Bureau of General Service Queer Division on 13th Street.

Act Three: Unbreak My Heart

Ira Glass

Act 3, Unbreak My Heart. So this last story starts in exactly the way you would expect if you were even half paying attention to today's program.

Julia Lillis

I definitely 100% thought he was the one.

Ira Glass

That's Julia. A few years back, when she was in her 20s, she dated this guy who lived in England. She was in Los Angeles. She loved thinking about marrying him and moving to England and raising little babies with British accents who'd call her mummy. And then one day, she was at work.

Julia Lillis

And we were on Skype. Not the video Skype, but the chat Skype, just typing to each other, like instant messenger.

Ira Glass

And he dumped her, not even on video. He text dumped her.

Julia Lillis

And it really took me by surprise. He wrote, "This isn't working for me." And I thought he meant his computer or something. I had no idea he was talking about our entire relationship.

Ira Glass

Well, the wording leaves it vague, to be fair. The wording is very vague.

Julia Lillis

Yeah, I agree.

Ira Glass

She couldn't concentrate on work anymore. Her life was wrecked. No more babies calling her mummy in the future. And as she drove home, sitting in traffic--

Julia Lillis

I called 1-800-Expedia, and I bought a one way ticket to England that left in six hours.

Ira Glass

Maybe you should explain your thinking here.

Julia Lillis

I really thought, OK I'm going to make this big grand gesture. I'm a big rom com fan. And I felt like this was my rom com moment in life. What would Bridget Jones do? You know what she would do? She would go to England right away. So that was the plan. I thought I'd show up at his house. It would be a surprise. And he'll see me and our eyes will lock. And if he sees me, he'll remember that we're perfect for each other and we should get married.

Ira Glass

So packs a bag. Overpacks, actually, because who knows how long she'll be staying. Maybe the rest of her life? Lands in England, gets off the plane, then it hits her.

Julia Lillis

As I'm in the customs line, I start like crying and a little bit freaking out, what am I doing? And I think that was the first time I started thinking, what if it doesn't go as they think that it'll go? You know?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Julia Lillis

When he sees me, he won't say you're the one.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Julia Lillis

So I started crying. And I approach-- I get to the front and I approached this customs agent, who was this adorable little British guy. He was maybe 20.

Ira Glass

He asks her, how long are you going to be in the country? Standard question. But this sets off a huge cry, because of course that is the biggest question in her whole life at this moment. The answer depends entirely on the boyfriend. She spills the whole story to the British customs agent.

Julia Lillis

The whole story, the whole plan. My boyfriend dumped me on Skype yesterday. I bought a one way ticket to England. I'm going to surprise him. And I told him, you know, but he's the one. He just forgets I'm the one. And I looked at him. I'm like, "Is that crazy?"

And I swear to you, Ira, he looked me straight in the eye, and with this adorable little British accent, he says, "You got to do what you got to do for love."

[CHUCKLING]

Which I thought was like, "Yeah, he's right!" I mean, come on. That's straight out of a romantic comedy, right? And I really thought at that moment, I am doing what I got to do for love. That's what I'm doing right now!

Ira Glass

She did not end up with the guy. When he sees her, he does not propose. He doesn't know. You are not the one. She flies home the next morning.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you when you look back on this, the thing that the British customs agents said to you, what was the line again?

Julia Lillis

He said, "You got to do what you got to do for love."

Ira Glass

Do you think he's right, in retrospect?

Julia Lillis

I think, yeah. You know, I think he's right. And I'm glad I did what I thought I had to do for love. Because it really put the nail in the coffin on that relationship.

Ira Glass

Wait, you think you did the right thing even though you also think, with the distance of years, that it was crazy?

Julia Lillis

It was crazy. Don't get me wrong. But if I hadn't done all of this, I don't know. It would feel a little open ended.

Ira Glass

It's so interesting that this is what you're saying to me. Because we began this week's show with a 76-year-old man who on Sunday is flying across the country to tell this woman that he has feelings for her, and to see if she has feelings for him. And he knows, I think, in the back of his mind, that it's probably doomed, and he can't stop himself.

Julia Lillis

Well, he's got to do it, though, right? He's got to do what he's got to do for love, Ira.

Ira Glass

No, I agree. I think you're saying it as a little bit of a joke, but I think he actually does. I think that that's the truth.

Julia Lillis

Yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

If you had any advice for him, what would you say to him, if you could send a message to him right now?

Julia Lillis

It's funny, because I wouldn't even say it like you don't want to prepare yourself for the worst, because that's just going into it having a bad attitude. I think the way I went into it, going into it really thinking this is going to happen, this is my life and this is how it works out, I think that's the best way to go into it. And then just deal with whatever fallout happens.

Ira Glass

Julia Lillis, she now has a baby who calls her mommy, and a second one on the way, and a husband who does not have a British accent but apparently has other good qualities to compensate.

Our program was produced todayy by Zoe Chace, Robyn Semien and me with Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for this show is Brian Reed. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our staff includes Elise Bergerson, Emily Condon, Kimberly Henderson, and Seth Lind.

Research help today from Christopher Swetala and Michelle Harris. Music help today from Damian Graef and Rob Geddis. Special thanks today to Nancy Bermeo, Michael Dodge Weiskopf, Paul Rest, Carol McGuirk Allison, Maggie Penman, Anne Gudenkauf, Jefferson Bites.

This show first aired a year ago. The 76-year-old man that you heard at the beginning of the program did not get a yes from the woman that he flew across the country for. He has moved on. He says he has no regrets. He's glad he tried. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our programs co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he got a new puppy, puts him to sleep every night with these words.

Shankar Vedantam

Good night, my sweet Darling. Let us drift away to paradise in our dreams and wake up together to a new and wonderful day. I kiss you gently and fall asleep in your arms.

Ira Glass

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

Serial Season Three: Hear Every Episode