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541: Regrets, I've Had a Few

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Prologue

Ira Glass

It's OK to say this, right? There's a lot of long-term joy to being a parent. But the daily job of it, the mundane feeding your kids and driving them around and disciplining them-- there's not always a lot of pleasure in that.

Which is why, whenever I've talked to Elna Baker about her parents-- Elna works here at the radio show-- whenever Elna talks about her parents, I've always been so impressed at the happy originality of some of their parenting moves, like the ingenuity that her dad brought to tasks that no parent enjoys.

For instance, let's say he would discover that one of the kids had broken something, or eaten a piece of cake that nobody was supposed to touch. He would gather the kids together.

Elna Baker

So with five kids, he would ask all of us which one of us had done it, and we would all lie. And so his way of determining who really did it was he would say, line up, tallest to shortest-- he would always make us line up tallest to shortest. I don't know, I think he saw Sound of Music. And if you have five kids, why not?

Ira Glass

Yeah?

Elna Baker

So we would line up against the wall. And he said, I'm going to do the hot knife. And what he would do is he would take out like a butter knife. And he would hold a match or a lighter underneath it. And he would say stick out your tongues.

And so if you're the liar, it'll burn your tongue, is what was explained to us. You're nervous, and all the saliva on your tongue will dry up.

Ira Glass

But if you're telling the truth--

Elna Baker

Then you'll have enough moisture on your tongue and it won't burn.

Ira Glass

OK, of course, that's ridiculous. What was really happening was, he wouldn't hold the flame close enough to the knife to heat it up at all. So the knife wasn't hot, and then he would put the knife on the tongue of his oldest daughter.

Elna Baker

And so she would be the first. And by the time he went to move on to me, the second child, one of us would confess.

[LAUGHTER]

One of us would be like, I did it. I couldn't help it. I'm so sorry.

Ira Glass

So Elna's dad definitely tried to do the right thing as a parent. But he didn't mind entertaining himself in the process. And occasionally, he would ad hoc his way to moves that had a secret kind of long-term genius to them that took years to pay off.

Like, for example, the day Elna hit her sister on the head with a broom. That day began with Elna's parents sending all five kids out to clean up the garage, which her parents would do now and then.

Elna Baker

I think we thought we were doing real cleaning, but mostly they just wanted to spend some alone time with the kids not in the house. They would make up either outdoor chores or the garage.

Ira Glass

Elna's little sister Julia found a pair of skates in the garage and she was just skating around, which annoyed Elna, who was really trying to work and clean the garage. Elna was nine, Julia was five. Elna told Julia to get to work. Elna was ignored, which in her mind was not how things were supposed to go between her and her little sister.

And she got so mad that she took this broom-- and it was one of those big industrial booms with the big, heavy, wide tops-- and she bashed Julia with it, bashed her in the head. Blood pours down Julia's face. Elena suddenly realizes, like, oh my god, this is serious. What did I do?

Elna Baker

It wasn't like a line-- it was like a stream of blood came running down her head. And I genuinely thought I had maybe, accidentally killed my sister.

Ira Glass

Julia runs to their dad, who administers first aid.

Elna Baker

And I remember just watching from the corner of the bathroom, just towels of blood from the top of her head.

Ira Glass

Once the bleeding stops, and Julia's bandaged up, Elna's dad comes out into the hallway, and he asks Elna, what happened? Elna knows how much trouble she would be in if she admitted the truth, so she lies. She says it was an accident-- the broom slipped.

Elna Baker

I remember him saying, are you sure that's what happened? And I said yes.

Ira Glass

Julia, of course, had told him what really happened-- that Elna walloped her intentionally. And now Elena's dad was in the annoying situation that parents find themselves in now and then. One child says it happened one way, one says the opposite. And he gets an idea.

Elna Baker

So he brought everyone in. We all sat on my parents' bed. And he proceeded to conduct a family trial, where each child had to give their testimony of the events in the garage.

Ira Glass

And he videotaped this?

Elna Baker

Yes.

Ira Glass

That's right. There's video of this. They had just gotten their first video camera. And her dad thought, oh, maybe this is the kind of thing you use this for. Or who knows, maybe he just thought the camera added gravitas to the proceedings.

Julia

We were cleaning outside, and I was [INAUDIBLE].

Ira Glass

OK, so there's this shot here of your little sister. She looks like she's been crying, and she's about to burst into tears more any second. Like, her eyes are big and wide and watery.

Elna Baker

Her hair is wet from the blood, and she has a bandage in the center of her head.

Ira Glass

The bandage is like a comic prop. It's just a Band-Aid, a regular Band-Aid, stuck to her hair.

Julia

And then Elna holded the handle up high, and then it went down.

Gary Baker

So was it Elna's fault?

Julia

Yes.

Gary Baker

She did it on purpose?

Julia

Yeah.

Gary Baker

OK, Elna, what's your story?

Child Elna

I just told you. Well, I didn't do that on purpose. I was just holding it.

Ira Glass

All right. Now I just want to describe the way you look in this. First of all, you have a huge smile on your face.

Elna Baker

Yeah. I'm trying to play it super casual.

Child Elna

I asked Julia to come and help me get all the stuff out of the thingamajigger. And then she accidentally got hit with the broom, the side of it--

Ira Glass

I'm just going to note that you never meet your dad's eye, you never look up at the camera, you're totally avoiding everyone's gaze.

Child Elna

And she started crying, and I went over by the car and I said, it's all right. You're going to be OK. And I hugged her and I looked at her head, and I took her inside, and dad fixed her all up.

Ira Glass

Elna's dad pulls the other kids as witnesses. Elna's older sister didn't actually see anything, but concludes in the testimony that Elna probably did not mean to hit Julia so hard, but probably did hit her, which actually seems like the truth of the situation.

Elna's dad turns back to Elna after each bit of testimony, and Elna's voice gets higher and higher as she holds on to her lie.

Child Elna

And the broom accidentally slipped, and it accidentally hit her on the head, and I didn't do that on purpose.

Ira Glass

Can I just say, if there are any little kids listening to the program today-- seriously, learn from this. Listen to how high Elna's voice gets when she says, no, I didn't.

Gary Baker

Do you believe she did it on purpose?

Julia

She did it on purpose.

Child Elna

I didn't.

Ira Glass

The dad moves into the sentencing part of the trial, asks Julia what punishment would be fair. Julia thinks spanking. And it feels like that is where this is headed. Elna's dad turns to her mom to administer the punishment, and then her mom just turns everything upside down when she says--

Mrs. Baker

I'm not convinced that it was on purpose.

Gary Baker

Oh, you're not?

Mrs. Baker

No, because if you think about it--

Ira Glass

She says, the way Elna was holding the broom, it really could have been an accident. It's stupid to hold a broom with the heavy part in the air, she says.

Gary Baker

So the only thing Elna's guilty of is stupidity?

Mrs. Baker

Yeah.

Gary Baker

Elna, what do you think of that?

Elna Baker

It pans from my mom to me, and you see that I've just taken in that I might get off. And I have this-- I go from this moment of where I was just almost crying, and I have this really mischievous smile on my face and I say, I guess I'm stupid.

Child Elna

I guess I'm stupid.

Ira Glass

And with that, she gets off. No spanking, no consequences. And then, Elna says, a funny thing happened. It just stuck with her. Wouldn't go away.

Elna Baker

I thought about it way more than if I'd just been spanked. I carried the guilt of this for most of my childhood. Like in church, when they would talk about lying or sin, this is the thing I would hold onto and relive, because it was the worst thing I'd ever done.

And then also feeling so much worse because I'd then lied about it, and gotten away with it.

Ira Glass

Did you also worry that after you died that was going to keep you out of heaven?

Elna Baker

Yeah, I did. Like I thought a part of me was evil because I was capable of doing it.

Ira Glass

Doing it of lying, she means. Of tricking her parents. It was a scheming, selfish part of her that seemed worse than just hitting her sister.

Elna Baker

And I was afraid of that part of me, because I got away with it.

Ira Glass

And then do you think it kept you from hitting her more?

Elna Baker

Yeah, I never hit her again. I would want to hit her. I would clench my fist and make this face, but I never hit her.

Ira Glass

Not that she stopped being mean. She was still so mean to her sister. She told Julia she was stupid. She said mean things in front of her friends. She trained the baby in the family, Jill, to start crying if Julia ever picked up.

But Elna grew up remembering the trial. She did not remember it was videotaped, though. Then nearly 20 years after the event, her brother found the video in some old boxes. And they popped it in and they watched it together, as a family, with her parents and everybody.

And to Elna's surprise-- OK, she thought, back when she was nine, she thought she was like a criminal mastermind or something to put this lie over on both of her parents.

Elna Baker

And you watch it now as an adult, and I just think watching me, how could you possibly believe me? I'm so obviously lying. Obviously, I'm guilty. And I say to my dad, how on earth did you not think that I was guilty?

And his response was, I knew you were guilty the second you walked in the house.

Gary Baker

I knew that she did it. You could just see her eyes just shifting back and forth, so you knew, or I knew, she's a little liar.

Ira Glass

This, of course, is Elna's dad, Gary Baker. He told me that after she lied to him at the very beginning, he staged the trial, expecting that she would cave, she would do the right thing, she would tell the truth. And then she didn't.

Her mom, by the way, told me she also was not convinced by Elna. She tried to push the idea that it was an accident for Julia's sake, so Julia wouldn't be so scared of Elna going forward.

But once she raised the possibility of not punishing Elna, her dad grabbed at the idea, and just made a judgment on the fly that that would be a more effective punishment for Elna, given Elna's personality.

Gary Baker

I decided that she's going to have to live with this. She knows that she did it. She knows that she hurt her little sister. She knows the truth. And so she's going to live with that for the rest of her life.

Ira Glass

And you thought that would be better than just spanking her?

Gary Baker

Well, because the spanking would be just a temporary thing, a little smack on the behind.

Ira Glass

Obviously, it worked. Her regret over that whole incident-- she still feels it. And lots of other regret about Julia, also. Not long ago, Julia had a baby. And Elna and she are close now. And Elna says she's spent 15 years apologizing to Julia. And she says Julia's baby looks just like how Julia looked as a baby.

Elna Baker

And I would hold the baby and look at her, and she's so beautiful and so delicate. But it made me remember holding and seeing Julia when she was a baby, and how much I hated Julia as a baby. Like, I hated that baby.

And in my mind, I thought, uh, the feeling's mutual. Like, I thought the baby hated me, and I hated the-- we just never got along, me and that baby. It's a baby. The baby had no opinion about anything.

Ira Glass

So it wasn't just the things that Elna did to Julia that were painful to think about. It was also-- what does this say about me that I felt this way about her, and that I did this to her? And how much have I changed?

And Julia's moved on, and the rest of the family's moved on. They joke about how Elna used to treat Julia. Recently, Julia found an old workbook that she did, back when she was a Brownie-- in Girl Scouts, back in third grade.

And there's this one page--

Elna Baker

And the top of the page says, I wonder. And then, I wonder why, I wonder who, I wonder when. And you have to fill in the blanks.

Ira Glass

These are very general questions. OK, yeah?

Elna Baker

And this is what Julia says. I wonder why Elna is so mean to me. I wonder if anyone likes me. I wonder whether my sister loves me. I wonder how come Elna doesn't like me. I wonder where I could be happy.

Ira Glass

You were awful.

Elna Baker

I was awful. And she read it-- the whole family, everyone was laughing, everyone thought it was really funny. But I actually had to leave the room. I just felt really bad. And I still feel really bad about it.

Ira Glass

Some regrets just never go away, you know. People tell us that they forgive us. We try to forgive ourselves. And we still know, we did wrong. We hurt somebody. It was real. And that feeling, it can immobilize you. If you're lucky, it teaches you something that you take into other situations.

But I think, often, it's just like this pebble in your shoe that teaches you nothing. It doesn't slow you down, really. It just hurts. It just hurts in this way that does not stop hurting.

And today on our radio show, it is all about regret. We're taking the title of today's episode from an old Frank Sinatra song.

[MUSIC - "MY WAY" BY FRANK SINATRA]

Frank Sinatra

(SINGING) Regrets, I've had a few.

Ira Glass

This, of course, is from the song, "My Way." It's a song, I should say, I have never liked, except for that one line.

Aretha Franklin

(SINGING) Regrets, regrets, I've had a few.

Ira Glass

No matter who sings that line-- Aretha Franklin, Pavarotti--

Pavarotti

(SINGING) Regrets, I've had a few.

Ira Glass

That line always stands out in this bombastic, ridiculous song as the one sincere thought in the song. Though "My Way" is such a crap song that the line right after "Regrets, I've had a few" basically obliterates any sincere feeling of regret. It kills the one sincere moment in the song.

Frank Sinatra

(SINGING) I've had a few. But then again, too few to mention.

Ira Glass

Oh, really? Too few to mention? Not me, buddy. Not most people. If you don't have regrets, it means you haven't screwed up. It means you haven't had your heart broken. It means you haven't been bloodied. It means you haven't failed, you haven't failed. Like, why even live? Why even live a life?

Today on our show, we live a life that's full. We travel each and every byway. At least, each and every byway that is full of regret. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Frank Sinatra

(SINGING) Much more than this, I did it--

[MUSIC SLOWS AND DISTORTS]

Act One: Tattoos and Memories and Dead Skin on Trial

Ira Glass

Act One, Tattoos and Memories and Dead Skin on Trial. So if you're going to do a regrets show, why not start with a classic. Right? A classic regret. This story is about a tattoo that a guy decided he was not happy with anymore.

If you're listening to our program on the podcast or on the internet, I just want to give you a heads up. There's cursing in here that we have not beeped. If you prefer a beeped version of our program, you can hear that at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

The story was put together by Emily Hsiao, with original music by Merel van Dijk and Anthony Barilla.

[PHONE RINGING]

Bruce Roderick

Hello? Hi, Hannah! Muffin, how you doing? Geez, I haven't heard from you in a while.

Woman

[INAUDIBLE].

Bruce Roderick

How you been?

Woman

[INAUDIBLE].

[LAUGHTER]

Bruce Roderick

Actually, I'm with this girl Emily right now that's interviewing me. She's a fucking college kid or something. She's interviewing me.

Woman

For what?

Bruce Roderick

I don't know. She does a radio thing or something. She saw I have a ad in Craigslist about getting rid of the swastika tattoo I got. She wanted to know about that. So now she's all curious about prison.

Woman

[INAUDIBLE].

Bruce Roderick

24. I'm not doing that. What the fuck is wrong with you? I'm taking her home right now.

Woman

[INAUDIBLE].

[LOUD BEEPING SOUND]

Emily Hsiao

Whenever you're ready.

Bruce Roderick

I'm ready.

Emily Hsiao

I have to ask to turn the radio off because it's going to be distracting. And eventually after you smoke, if we could close the window?

Bruce Roderick

Jesus Christ. Is this going to be a trying experience?

Emily Hsiao

Uh, only if you make it a trying experience. I think it should be relatively painless. Relatively painless. All righty. Let's start with the basics. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Bruce Roderick

I'm Bruce Roderick from Centerville. I was born in Provincetown-- 1951, to Portuguese parents. And I moved to Yarmouth in 1964. And what else?

Emily Hsiao

Keep going. Just start from the top.

Bruce Roderick

What do you want me to say?

Emily Hsiao

I don't know, what were you going to say?

Bruce Roderick

I thought you were here to look at my tattoo. I have a small swastika tattoo on my left arm that I wish to have covered up. I cannot afford to pay what a tattoo shop is charging. It is only on a one square inch area.

Please, if you do tats on your own, call me or text me. I just want it covered up, blacked out. Nothing fancy. I did it when I was young and I want it off.

I just started using drugs when I was 15. Summer kids coming down from New York in Provincetown. They being little rich kids, private schools, they were already using drugs, and they'd bring that shit down.

And the town kids would get around them, and we'd start using it. Sniffing glue, smoking pot, taking pills. And then it just progressed to other things.

I started using heroin, which I liked more than anything. I just continued-- since that day, I've always done heroin. I don't do anything else. I dropped out of school when I was 16. Worked a little bit. Then I started getting in trouble, and was a runaway living the streets of Boston. And started going to prison when I was 17.

Emily Hsiao

What was it for?

Bruce Roderick

That was for a shooting and-- so on drugs. Summer of '69, I believe-- '69, yeah. I was going to go to Woodstock, I got arrested that weekend. I received three year sentence. I made parole, I was out for a month, I went back then. And then I started robbing drug dealers.

Emily Hsiao

Wow. What was robbing drug dealers like? How'd you do that?

Bruce Roderick

I would knock on the door, they would open the door, I'd put a gun in their face, go into the house, and take the drugs.

Emily Hsiao

Have you ever killed anyone?

Bruce Roderick

No. Why would I sit here and admit to something like that anyway, if I did?

Emily Hsiao

Yeah, good question.

Bruce Roderick

Right?

I was robbing drug dealers, and that was my career right up until 1985, when I went to a house. I went into a house in Centerville, and it was-- police were in the house. They posed as drug dealers.

And there was a confrontation in the house I ended up going to prison for. I spent 12 years in jail on that one. Went back in again for selling heroin. Got out, went back in again for selling heroin. Now I just got out again. Now here I am, I been out two years. Almost three years.

This is the longest that I've been out here free and haven't been using.

Emily Hsiao

What's prison like?

Bruce Roderick

What's it like? Prison is very-- there's racial alliances. You have to hang with your own kind. And if you let a black or a Spanish or somebody else not of your race to take advantage of you sexually or whatever, then you become a punk, I guess-- you want some gum?

Which means anybody can take whatever they want from you, because you didn't stick up for yourself. You're fair game. I think I even got some pictures here.

Emily Hsiao

Pictures from prison?

Bruce Roderick

Yeah, I got a couple, I think. That's me when I was younger. I was a jailbird. That's my niece, my niece. That's me in a bar in Boston. That's a jail picture.

That was my father. That's me in my mother's house. My parents were devastated. No one in my family's ever gotten in trouble before. But they always stuck by me.

Emily Hsiao

Do you think your parents should have practiced tougher love?

Bruce Roderick

What, beat me more? What's tough love? They didn't say, yeah, yeah, here's $20, go get high-- no. My father was disgusted by my behavior. My mother was heartbroken. I my mother's favorite.

Of course not, they didn't want me to do the things that I did. Well, you know, what are you going to do? You don't think of nothing else but yourself when you're doing those things you do.

This is North Fork Prison here. That's me there. That's one of my good friends. He's a dope fiend. This guy hung around for like 10 years, right? And he was like my best friend, and I didn't know he was in for rape. And that's prison.

Emily Hsiao

Whoa. I haven't even gotten to your tattoo yet. I've just been so enthralled.

Bruce Roderick

There's the tattoo. See it? It's not even that big, you can barely even see it. And I got it done around 1986, '87. It was supposed to have white power.

I was covering up a question mark I had right there when I was a kid. And this guy, Willie Durette, he did a lot of my tattoos. I think he was in my cell doing a tattoo for somebody else. And I had some biker book or something. When I saw that tattoo, I asked Willie if he could cover the question mark up a bit.

And I put that on, and now I want this covered up. That's all I want, is that blacked out.

Emily Hsiao

Did your buddies get swastikas as well?

Bruce Roderick

Oh yeah, most of the white guys back then had swastikas. Swastikas are SWP-- Supreme White Power. FTW-- a lot of them had that. That used to be another big one. Fuck the world.

Emily Hsiao

Did the swastika represent Nazi ideas in prison?

Bruce Roderick

No, it doesn't represent nothing. It's just a fucking tattoo. I don't have anything against Jewish people.

Emily Hsiao

But that symbol, the swastika, says otherwise, right?

Bruce Roderick

The swastika was just a symbol, period.

Emily Hsiao

What does it mean to you?

Bruce Roderick

I like the way it looks. I used to have a big flag. Above my wall, I had a big swastika flag. I gave it to my roommate up in Revere before I moved out.

Emily Hsiao

But you know that it carries so many connotations?

Bruce Roderick

That's exactly why I'm taking it off my arm. I read an obituary about this Jewish guy that was in the camps. And this guy worked in the gas chambers, the showers.

They would take the bodies out of the shower and bring them to be burned. This guy, that was his job. That's why he was able to survive. He was in there towards the end of the war.

But anyway, he just died recently. And in his obituary, it said he had written this book. And I read the book. And then, I just didn't want the tattoo anymore. Because it's a very offensive thing.

And I am getting older. I don't want to die and have God see that on my arm.

I spent over 30 years in prison. I'd like to have those years back. I never had any kids. My mother and father are both dead. They never saw me succeed in nothing. I'm 61, I don't have shit for money.

All of a sudden, I woke up and I was 60 years old. It just flew by. The time flew right by, all behind drugs. And that's it. Are we done?

Emily Hsiao

No.

Bruce Roderick

Yeah, we are.

Emily Hsiao

We are?

Bruce Roderick

Basically, yeah.

Emily Hsiao

I'm sorry.

Bruce Roderick

But where are you going? Where do you have to go? I'll give you a ride, I'm saying. This interview is over. I'm sorry.

Emily Hsiao

That's OK.

Bruce Roderick

Did it go all right?

Emily Hsiao

Yeah.

Bruce Roderick

We gotta defrost. All right. What did you think, I'm a dirty racist?

Emily Hsiao

I didn't know.

Bruce Roderick

What do you think now? Still that dirty racist? You still got that fucking thing on?

Emily Hsiao

Yeah. I do. Right on.

Bruce Roderick

All right. You gotta get out of here.

Emily Hsiao

OK, thanks.

Bruce Roderick

My patience is wearing thin.

Emily Hsiao

Thanks, Bruce.

Bruce Roderick

Have fun.

Emily Hsiao

Take care.

Bruce Roderick

You better say I'm a nice fucking guy in this.

Emily Hsiao

All righty. Thank you so much.

Bruce Roderick

What's up, [INAUDIBLE]. Why the fuck didn't you go pick up Charlie that day? He is so fucking pissed.

Ira Glass

That story by Emily Hsiao-- it's one of the very first radio stories she's ever made. She created it at something called the Transom Story Workshop, which takes people who have never done radio-- in eight weeks, it trains them to make stories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. You can Google Transom Story Workshop, if you're curious about that.

The music was created for the story by Merel van Dijk and Anthony Barilla from the band Merel & Tony. You can find other music of theirs on SoundCloud-- Merel and Tony.

We first aired this story back in 2014. Since then, Bruce found somebody to black out his tattoo.

[MUSIC - "REGRET" BY ST. VINCENT]

Coming up, a story with original songs by Stephin Merritt. I'll explain what that's about after the break. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: This Is Just As Hard for Me as It Is for You

Ira Glass

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. On today's show, our theme, of course--

The Texas Tenors

(SINGING) Regrets, I've had a few.

Ira Glass

That's right. Stories of regret. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two-- This is Just as Hard for Me as It is for You.

One of the most basic parts of being a parent is trying to sort through a bunch of options and figure out what is going to be best for your kids. Everything from what foods they should eat to where you're going to live so they'll have decent schools.

This next story is about a father trying to do that, trying to figure out what's best for his children, and having some regrets about how things worked out. His name is Will Ream. And the choices Will has had to make have been pretty dramatic ones.

And to tell a story, we're going to try something that we have never attempted before. We asked a songwriter, a great songwriter-- Stephin Merritt, from the band The Magnetic Fields, and other bands also-- to collaborate with us.

And mostly, as you'll hear, Stephin has composed music that's going to run underneath the narration and the quotes, like we always have in our stories. Like the music that we had written for Act One of our show today. Though in a couple places-- and really, it's just a few places-- Stephin wrote songs. Like, real songs, with words, that he'll sing.

Stephin Merritt

(SINGING) I'll sing something that sounds like this.

Ira Glass

So during the story that you're about to hear, when Stephin is singing, he's going to be singing things that the dad in the story, Will Ream, actually said. The lyrics are all verbatim quotes. Or they're as close to it as Stephin could get within the structure of a song.

One of our producers, Miki Meek, first encountered Will Ream when Will Ream had just left everything he had ever known. He had grown up in this incredibly isolated town called Colorado City, in the deserts of northern Arizona.

He'd been raised inside this religious group there-- a fundamentalist group, a whole community of people that had split off from the mainstream Mormon church over a century ago. Has lived out there in Colorado City in the desert since. So here is the story. Here's Miki.

Miki Meek

So when I first met Will in 2012, he was living in a rundown house outside of Salt Lake City, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and just trying to figure out how to start his life over.

He wasn't even sure how he'd gotten to this point, because three years earlier, he was a married man living in Colorado City. He and his wife had four girls and a little boy, and they were surrounded by family and people he'd gone to church with his whole life. He was happy.

But then things started getting strange at church. Church leaders went into this weird paranoid mode, seeing outside threats everywhere, and in everything. And they began to ask Will and some other men to do all sorts of stuff they hadn't asked for before.

The church leadership had people it wanted to intimidate. These were former church members, and people who were questioning them. So they'd send Will and these other guys from church out in the middle of the night to vandalize these people's stuff-- disable farm equipment, change locks on gates.

And the church told Will and the other men-- you can't tell your wives.

Will Ream

My gut reaction was if I am married to her, then we are supposed to be as one. So why am I supposed to keep secrets from her? Because it seems to me like that would be detrimental to our relationship.

Miki Meek

Did you ask that? Did you feel like you could ask that?

Will Ream

I couldn't ask that.

Miki Meek

That's just not something that was done?

Will Ream

No. That wasn't something we did.

Miki Meek

Will says, he felt like he and his wife had a good marriage, that they were close. And now here he was, leaving in the middle of the night and staying out for hours, and not telling her why.

Church leaders told Will, you don't owe her an explanation. If she wants answers, she should pray harder. Even for a young religious wife who was used to a man being the final word, this was too much. It dragged on for almost a year.

Will Ream

She would say, like, what were you guys doing last night? And I would say, I can't tell you. Or, a man doesn't need to tell his wife everything. And I would use that line that they told me, which, now-- even just now, when I said it, it makes me go tense. That's something that hurts, that I was that stupid.

And there were quite a few nights where I remember she would be really distraught. And she would go into the bathroom, into the shower, and just weep it out. And I would turn my back on her. And force myself to not feel.

If there was anything I could ever do to take that back, I would have. But I drove her to a place where she was very depressed, and very hurt, because she loved me with all her heart.

If I'd known at that point what I was choosing at that point, if I was choosing her or the church, I would have chosen her. But I didn't even realize it was really that big of a problem at that point.

Miki Meek

One day Will came home from work and his wife was gone. She left him a note saying she needed to think. He tried to work it out with her for a year and a half after that. She even moved back home for a while.

But in the end, Will says she wanted nothing to do with her old life. She didn't want to be a mom or a wife, and she checked out on Will and their five kids. She wouldn't talk to me for this story.

But Will says they had gotten married when she was 15. So when she left him, she was still in her early 20s. She had never experienced anything outside the church. Now she started seeing other men, and drinking.

Will was devastated, and he resented the church for causing their breakup. And things were getting even weirder at church.

Will's particular branch of fundamentalist Mormonism is headed by the Prophet Warren Jeffs. You may have heard of him. He got investigated in Utah, Arizona, and Texas for sexual assault and marrying underage girls. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Will and the other followers were told if they had enough faith, God would release Jeffs from prison. And so to test their faith, lots of strange new rules came down. Don't eat sugar. Only wear homemade clothing-- and it can't be the color red.

Will remembers one Sunday, a new set of rules came down, specifically aimed at everyone's kids.

Will Ream

They talked about how the kids weren't supposed to play. I think that was probably one of the biggest things for me, was they weren't supposed to play just to have fun anymore. They were asking the people to get rid of their children's toys, and to not allow them to ride their bicycles.

They basically were saying that we needed to sacrifice everything that meant anything to us. Everything from our desires to our physical belongings to our homes to our families to everything. We needed to be willing to sacrifice everything for the good of the prophet.

I just remember leaving that place feeling like shit, thinking, is this really what I want? Is this really what I want for my kids?

Miki Meek

Will got desperate. He reached out to his bishop at church.

Will Ream

I told him, I says, I need some help here. I'm losing it. And he just says, you need to pray more. You need to get over it. That's all he said-- you need to pray more.

And I just thought about that, and I thought, huh. You're turning into what I used-- or you're giving me what I used to give my wife. And there was no life left in me at that point.

I would walk at 2, 3, 4 o'clock in the morning. All through the night, just pace, walk up in the canyons, walk just everywhere, just trying to get some kind of clarity.

Stephin Merritt

(SINGING) I had this big blank sheet of paper, where I was going to write my reasons to live. Or why not end it all today? And kids was the only reason I could give.

I felt betrayed by my religion, and by the only person I had ever loved, and opened up to. You bet I felt betrayed.

They all said pray. Yeah, well, I prayed. I've had the knife sitting in front of me. I've had the pills sitting in front of me.

And I've been sitting right up on the cliff's edge, with one foot dangling off the ledge. And kids was the only reason I could give.

They all said pray. Yeah, well, I prayed.

Miki Meek

When the church told kids they weren't allowed to play, that was the last straw for Will. He'd already lost his wife, and now his whole life was about trying to make things OK for his kids again. He had a radical thought-- maybe they just had to get out and start over.

So on his 33rd birthday, Will loaded his kids into a van, and they headed north. Once they got 20 miles away, he stopped the car and explained to his kids what he was doing.

Will Ream

I says, we're going to go and make a life for ourselves somewhere else. I asked them how they felt about that. And they all said that they wanted to come and build a new life.

Miki Meek

Were you scared at all at that time? Did you doubt yourself at all?

Will Ream

I wondered. Oh yeah. I really did. I wondered if we were all going to be destroyed tomorrow, and I screwed up. Maybe a week from now.

But I actually felt like hope. It was genuine hope for the first time in a long time, that I could give them another shot at life. It was like taking a breath of air after you've had your head under water. You know?

Miki Meek

Will ended up way north in a city called Ogden, not far from Salt Lake. He and his kids moved into a small apartment, and started living among regular people for the first time. Doing stuff regular people do, like going to the movies.

Will Ream

We went and saw Despicable Me, and it was in 3D. And it was the first movie they'd ever seen in their life. And I was watching them jump, bouncing in their seats and giggling and laughing, and jumping backwards when it looked like stuff was coming out of the screen. And I watched them more than I watched the movie.

And I got to see them be genuinely happy, and not get put in check. And to just be a child. And it was amazing.

Miki Meek

The four girls all cut their hair. They painted their nails and got their ears pierced. All of that was forbidden back where they used to live. And for the first time in their lives, they played with kids who weren't fundamentalists.

Back in their old lives, they had names for people like that-- Gentiles, apostates, wicked.

Will Ream

Well, we were at a park in Ogden one time. And they were playing on the swings, and there were some other children there. And one of the other children's mothers came up, and was helping them and stuff.

And I came walking up, and my oldest daughter was like, dad, you know, the wicked people are pretty nice. And the other lady just glared at me. And I was just like, I'm sorry. I didn't really know what to say.

Miki Meek

You're like shrugging your shoulders.

Will Ream

Yeah, I didn't really know what to say. And I just says, hon, these people aren't wicked. They're just like us.

And they would ask me all of the time, so are we apostates now? Are we Gentiles now? So they were concerned about being able to go to heaven. Like, you'd hear them talking about it between themselves.

They would be like, we went to a movie, and movies are wicked, so we're wicked people. And one of the other ones would say, no, we're not wicked people. That was fun. Dad said it was OK.

Stephin Merritt

(SINGING) Back in Colorado City, we did not associate with colored people. But in Ogden, it's OK. These two kids who spoke Swahilli-- we all had this barbecue, and my girls loved them. It was just like night and day, seeing my kids play.

Back in Colorado City, wearing shorts is like rebelling before God. But in Ogden, they don't care, so we wore just what we wanted. Girls went shopping, skirts and dresses, and played music. We could never do that there. Every one would stare.

We couldn't wear red, because maybe that's what Jesus would wear. We couldn't wear anything bought in a store. We couldn't eat sugar, play games. The kids couldn't have toys, or doing anything fun anymore.

But in Ogden, we had parties. And the older kids went on roller coasters. And they went and got their hair done.

Miki Meek

They had a good summer, a fun summer. But when fall came, it was like reality hit. The kids were going to public school for the first time in their lives. They'd been home-schooled before that.

And Will decided to go to school, too. He only had an eighth grade education, so he got his GED, and then enrolled as a freshman at the local college.

It was incredibly tough for Will, trying to hold everything together, the five kids, by himself. When he left the restrictions of their old life, he also left behind all the love and support that came with it.

For the first time in Will's life, he had no family members, no church members, nobody to come over and watch his kids for a night, or to bring a meal. He'd been living in this tightly knit small town, where everybody looked out for each other, where everybody had known him since he was a kid.

And now, he was far away, and they'd all completely cut him off. One of his sisters called him up one day just to tell him that she'd never talk to him again.

Will got increasingly overwhelmed. He couldn't see how things were going to work out. He had no long-term plan for how to support himself and these five children. They were living off his savings, because he was in school.

All his energy had gone into figuring out how to get out. And they got out, but now what? One day in class, Will lost it.

Will Ream

Just something snapped. I just broke down. I started weeping, and I couldn't stop. It was really hard, and incredibly lonely, when you're 33 years old, to learn how to live again. To basically start from square one.

Miki Meek

Will went home and curled up on the couch for three or four hours, crying. Then he went and picked up his kids from school.

Will Ream

And then, I started making dinner. And then, it was like I was kind of out of it. And when I came back to, I just started looking around. And I asked my oldest daughter, did you check on the food in the oven?

And she's like, we already ate, Dad. I looked around, and my oldest daughter had gotten the dinner out of the oven, and served the children and fed them. And they were done, and she'd cleared the dishes off the table, and they were sitting in the seat. And I realized it was three hours later. It freaked me out.

Miki Meek

Will thinks that for three hours, he was just standing in one spot in the kitchen, as his kids walked around him and served themselves dinner. In those three hours, Will could have set fire to the casserole, or the apartment. A lot could have gone wrong.

Will's only goal at this point in his life was to be a good dad to these kids. Now he felt like he was putting them in real danger. His five kids were all young. The oldest was 11, and the youngest was four. I am not stable, he thought.

So Will started talking to some counselors. They told him that his situation was serious. He needed to let someone help him care for his kids. So he started looking for help.

And within a week, Will's friends-- families he was just getting to know-- agreed to let his kids live with them, just for a little while, just until Will got back on his feet. Will tried to explain this to his kids-- that he wasn't doing so well, that he needed someone to help with them. And then his 11-year-old piped up.

Will Ream

And that's when she says, well, I can, Dad. And it just made me feel worse. And I just told her, I says, I can't allow you to do that. I can't. I says, you need to be a kid.

They didn't understand. I mean, they're just like, well, a week? Do we get to come home next weekend? And it was hard. Because I couldn't give them a period of time. I didn't know.

And I was just hoping that somehow, some way, that I would just grow back. That I would be able to, that I'd be able to stand up and take care of it.

Miki Meek

That's not what happened, though. What was supposed to be temporary turned into two years. That's when I first talked to Will. He was living in a house with a beat-up couch and a mattress and not a lot more, and doing pretty badly.

He'd dropped out of school and taken a construction job to support the family. But it just wasn't enough. He'd spiraled into a depression where all he could do was work and sleep. This is from that first interview.

Will Ream

I'll still have some pretty bad lows, some pretty bad days sometimes, where I need to just kind of disappear into the ether and think about things. And it's really hard. Really hard for me to deal with.

I feel like I've failed, kind of. Where I'm not taking care of my kids anymore, my family's not together anymore, stuff like that. It feels like I've had to admit failure, which is hard.

But I always identified myself as their dad. But hopefully, I can get into a place where-- I'd really like to be dad again.

Miki Meek

His daughters were only 20 minutes away, but it was hard for Will to see them. He'd go over and read books and play games with them. And then when he had to leave, they'd always ask, when do we get to come home?

Will never had an answer for them. His life was still a mess. And so he'd drive away, feeling totally wrecked that he'd let them down. Will started going to see them less often, because it was so painful. And because it seemed like the more he stayed away, the better they did.

Seeing him raised upsetting questions. And when he stayed away, they thrived, settled into their new lives, and made friends. They played soccer, which the girls never would have done, back in their old community in Colorado City. They got to be kids.

And so Will came to a hard, awful conclusion. He needed to let them move on, without the question of coming home always hanging over their heads. And so after they've been living with their new families for two years, Will waived his parental rights. He let the families adopt his kids.

Miki Meek

Giving up your kids, you gave them a better life. But it didn't necessarily do that exact thing for you.

Will Ream

It didn't do that exact thing for me. But that's OK. I'm fine with that. Because they have what I wanted them to have now. They have what I couldn't give them otherwise.

Miki Meek

Will had done what he originally wanted to do when he left Colorado City. He'd given his kids a better life. The girls' adopted mom told me that his daughters now see that's what he intended, that he'd tried to do what was best for them, though it took them a while to see it that way.

It's gotten easier for Will to visit his kids and Skype with them. He used to keep all their photos boxed up. It was too hard to look at them. But now his bedroom shelves are lined with their pictures.

The kids' adopted families live farther away now. That's hard. The son is now in southern Utah, and his four daughters are in another state. And so Will took a job driving oil trucks in Texas and North Dakota. The pay was better, and he no longer had a reason to stick around Salt Lake full time.

At each point since leaving Colorado City, Will made what seemed like the best choice for his family. But as a result, he doesn't have a family anymore.

Will Ream

I miss them. All day, every day. They've never left my mind. I think about the way they used to laugh. Their little oddities, the weird little things they would say. The way they would walk, when they learned to walk. How long their mom was in labor with them, the way they looked when they were born.

Miki Meek

If you could somehow go back in time, would you?

Will Ream

If I could go back and have everything that I've experienced been removed from my plate, and just dropped straight back into that, into the same mindset-- I might. It was a good life.

I refer to that point in my life as having everything, back when I had everything. And that was the pinnacle of my life. That was when everything made sense, and I had everything I ever wanted.

Stephin Merritt

(SINGING) I've lost hope, and I lost my youth. Lost my church and my hold on truth. I lost my health. I can't do nine to five. But I could still drive.

I started life again at 33. I hauled my ass to Texas to be me. To save my sanity. I lost my family. All the doors slammed shut.

I know who I am, but I'm not sure what. I did what I had to do to survive. I don't sleep too well, but I can still drive.

Credits

Ira Glass

Original songs and scoring by Stephin Merritt, with Sam Davol on cello and glockenspiel. Pinky Weitzman on viola. Engineering by Charles Newman. Miki Meek reported this story. Miki is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "GAME CALLED LIFE" BY LEFTOVER CUTIES]

Our program was produced today by Chana Joffe-Walt with Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike.

The senior producer for today show's was Julie Snyder. Our editor is Joel Lovell. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Lilly Sullivan. Seth Lind is our director of operations. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our business operation manager.

Elna Baker scouts stories for the show. Kimberly Henderson is our office coordinator. Research help from Michelle Harris, Christopher Swetala, and Julie Beer. Music help today from Damien Graef.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

In the years since we first ran our story about Will Ream, the guy in the last act-- he's now back in Salt Lake, working a construction job. He says they're all doing well.

Our website-- thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. You know who puts baby in a corner? He is the one who put baby in a corner. Like he always says--

Elna Baker

Like, I hated that baby. And in my mind, I thought, the feeling's mutual.

Ira Glass

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