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674: Get a Spine!

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, 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

OK, so it's a big crowded singles bar. One regular described it as the place you go at the end of the night when they play old hip hop and R&B that everybody knows the words to.

Woman 1

People are grinding up on each other like it's a high school dance, like it is just shameless and fun and a little sloppy. And it's a meat market. I like it because it's shameless. Someone will always hit on you. That's like, why I come here.

Ira Glass

So, lots of pick ups, lots of ghosting afterwards. It's early evening and that's what I'm here to look for-- serial ghosters, people who kiss and disappear, which are not hard to find at all. And yes, some of them definitely agreed, ghosting is bad. They felt guilty, like this woman. She ghosted a guy after seeing him for two months. Great guy, she said. Hit it off immediately. Saw each other a couple nights a week.

Woman 2

And then I went to a wedding, met another guy that I was very into.

Ira Glass

First guy kept reaching out, texting.

Woman 2

And I just wasn't responding as quickly or as often and we weren't making plans. And he said, I wonder if I'll ever see you again. And that-- I didn't respond to that. I feel really bad about it. I feel really, really bad about it still. But he's a great guy, he did nothing wrong. A great guy and I feel bad for ghosting him.

Ira Glass

There are so many reasons to ghost. This guy for instance, has a boyfriend. He's there at his table. They're in an open relationship. And basically, he got drinks with another guy, one he met on Grindr. And it was fun. It was kind of romantic.

Man 1

I should have disclosed that I have a boyfriend, but I didn't. I think I perceived him kind of to be more monogamous. There was kind of a point where he was talking about, like, gay guys who sleep around too much.

Ira Glass

So he said nothing about his boyfriend and the open relationship. They kissed when they say goodbye. And, knowing he messed up, he ghosted the guy-- his first ghost, he says.

Man 1

So this, for me, is weird. And it is like a vortex of feelings, absolutely. It is like, why did I do that? I feel guilty about it. You're not--

Woman 2

Shame.

Man 1

I mean, shame, yes. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Some of the ghosting I heard about, it made me wonder about the correct usage of the word ghosting. Like, OK, what if you've dated somebody for years but it's on and off, and they're your drug dealer. And you're in college.

Woman 3

And then he was just like, listen, I feel like you're only in it for the weed. And I was like, no! Not at all. And then he stopped getting me weed and--

Ira Glass

As a test to you, to see if you really cared about him?

Woman 3

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And were you were only in it for the weed?

Woman 3

(silence)

Ira Glass

OK, that pause gives you the whole answer, right? The answer is yes. And she cut him off.

Ira Glass

Why not just tell him? Why not just be direct?

Woman 3

Because I was afraid that if I was honest, like, then I wouldn't be able to get weed at all. I sound like I have a problem here. But--

Ira Glass

Are you high right now?

Woman 3

No, I'm not. I'm not, I promise.

Ira Glass

That was just a joke.

Woman 3

OK. No, I'm not. I promise I'm not.

Ira Glass

She feels bad about ghosting him, but you know what? Ghost a few more people, apparently you can get over that. This woman, Carrie, was at a table with friends celebrating somebody's birthday. She told me that she's ghosted five or six people. Like anything else, you get used to it as you watch them flailing in your texts like fish thrashing around on the deck of the boat, gasping, desperate.

Carrie

A couple of them would just text me like every couple of days with like a question mark. But then they just realized what was happening. And then one of them tried to reach out to me on LinkedIn.

Ira Glass

OK, not what LinkedIn is for. But her friends around the table are all like, oh yeah, that's happened to lots of people.

Carrie

Some men apparently think that LinkedIn is the way in.

Ira Glass

She felt like, explaining to these guys exactly why she did not want to see them-- people had done that to her and it felt terrible. It just seemed less cruel to ghost. A real estate guy named Jason had a slightly different way of looking at this. He sees ghosting as tactical, like he only ghosts rare, special circumstances when it is called for. Case example, very recently a woman on the subway asked him the title of a book that he was reading. They got to talking.

Jason

She was really attractive. She thought I was attractive. And then before she gets off the train she goes, we should exchange numbers. And I go, all right, yeah, let's exchange numbers. Yeah, sure. I mean, yeah, I'll take you out sometime.

Ira Glass

Wait, you got picked up on the train?

Jason

Yes. It's not strange. It happens to me all the time.

Ira Glass

I'll say for the radio audience, you're very good looking.

Jason

Thank you.

Ira Glass

Anyway, they go for drinks. At first it's all normal. And then--

Jason

This was the first red flag. She said the second I got off the train, I called my sister and told her about you. I was like, are you really close with your sister? And she's like, yeah, we talk every day. And I'm like, oh, OK, that's kind of cool.

Then she was like, yeah, then I told my brother about you. And I go, what? So, this is the turning point of the drinks. This is where I stopped ordering drinks, because we were two drinks in and she starts telling me about her pet rats. OK?

She has three pet rats that have cages, but they sleep in her bed and they chew through her sheets once a week. So she has to buy new sheets once a week. And I go, wait, are-- what are you? I'm sorry, rats? She's like, yeah, they're so cute but they chew through my sheets. And I go, OK.

Ira Glass

She goes to the bathroom and he asks for the check while she's gone, walks her to the bus.

Jason

Because she was taking the bus uptown even though the train was a block away, another red flag. Waited for the bus with her, never spoke to her again. She sent text messages, she's called, I have never responded again. There is no way I am doing anything with the rat lady, not happening.

Ira Glass

If somebody seems too out there, he says, if they seem like they are beyond reasoning with, he ghosts. He does not see this as cowardice. He sees it as standing up for himself. These unrepentant ghosters, sometimes talking to them felt like talking to hardened commandos, you know? Fresh off some battlefield who have learned that feelings are not always helpful.

Woman 1

I would describe my dating life as a series of infrequent one night stands.

Ira Glass

This woman said that after one Tinder date, you go home with somebody, you don't owe them anything. She ghosts unapologetically.

Woman 1

And if you're going to dwell on this date that happened and be like, well, why didn't she text me back? Why didn't I get a reason? Why did I do wrong? You're just overthinking it. I don't want to get into answering all their questions and making them feel better about themselves or giving them feedback, you know?

Ira Glass

Do you feel like you're being a coward or you're being practical?

Woman 1

Can both be an answer? I would say both.

Ira Glass

I love that she says that. I find her to be completely convincing in every way, and also a coward. She wants to avoid confrontation. We all tell ourselves all kinds of things to avoid confrontation, and we can be very convincing-- you know, with ourselves. It's so much easier to never say anything, to never dig in our heels, to never say the truth. That's why it's so popular. Today in our show, we have stories of people, for a change, summoning the courage, getting it together, the spineless getting a spine. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Finally

Ira Glass

Act 1, Finally. So we start dealing with somebody getting up the nerve to do something that really, it would be nice to see more often. He makes an apology. And not just any apology. Nancy Updike has a story about the anatomy of this one particular and unusual instance of "I'm sorry." Quick warning if you're listening to our podcast, we've unbeeped a few curse words here in the internet version of today's show. If you want a beeped version, it is at our website. Here's Nancy.

Nancy Updike

I read about this apology at the time it happened, but I never listened to it until recently. I listened in headphones on the subway and it was the auditory equivalent of seeing a snow leopard stroll through the subway car. This apology was about sexual harassment-- another one about sexual harassment-- but it was startling because it was not curt or vague. It was not a lawyered up mess of non-contrition in the passive voice. It was a true reckoning, publicly and fully accepted by the person who'd been wronged.

She forgave him. That almost never happens-- a public apology that lands. And everything that went into this apology, which is a lot, is an answer, one answer, to a question that keeps wafting up from stories about sexual harassment in the last couple of years. The question of, what are men supposed to do? What are they supposed to say?

I'm not talking about situations where a man denies anything happened. I'm talking about the ones where they've agreed that something did happen, something bad. But, what do they have to say to be forgiven, to move on? Let's start at the end, with the apology. Then we'll hear from the people involved.

The person who's apologizing is a writer, also actor and many other things, named Dan Harmon. He co-created the TV show Rick and Morty, and also an NBC comedy called Community about a group of adults going to community college. Dan was the creator and showrunner of Community. He had a bunch of writers who worked with him on the show but he was the boss, essentially.

The thing he's apologizing for happened there. Dan delivered his apology last year, in 2018, on his podcast, Harmontown. I'm going to play most of it for you-- seven and a half minutes of it-- which is short if you're getting a foot massage but long for a public apology.

Dan Harmon

It-- in 2000 whatever whatever, I can't remember, 2009, 2006, 2000 something something, I had the privilege of running a network sitcom. And I-- I was attracted to a employee. I really want to be careful about that language. I think a huge part of the problem is a culture of feeling things that you think are unique and significant because they're happening to you, and saying things like, I had feelings for, and I-- I fell for, and all these things. I mean, the most clinical way I can put it in fessing up to my crimes is that I was attracted to a writer that I had power over because I was a showrunner.

And I knew enough to know that these feelings were bad news. And so I did the cowardly, easiest, laziest thing you could do with feelings like that and I didn't deal with them. And in not dealing with them I made everybody else deal with them, especially her. Flirty, creepy, everything other than overt enough to constitute betraying your live-in girlfriend to whom you're going home every night, who is actually smart enough and respectful enough to ask you, do you have feelings for that young writer that you're talking about, that you're paying all this attention to? And saying to her, no, because the trick is if you lie to yourself you can lie to everybody. It's really easy.

And so that's what I continued to do, telling myself and anybody that threatened to confront me with it that if you thought what I was doing was creepy or flirty or unprofessional then it's because you were the sexist. You were jealous. I was supporting this person. I'm a mentor, I'm a feminist.

It's your problem, not mine. You're the one that actually is seeing things through that lens. And so I let myself keep doing it. And it's not as if this person didn't repeatedly communicate to me the idea that what I was doing was divesting her of a recourse to integrity.

Nancy Updike

Integrity meaning integrity is a writer, learning her craft. This writer told him, when you focus on me, praise me so much, pick my jokes-- if you were doing it for the wrong reasons, even a little bit, that would undermine me devastatingly. How will I know if I'm truly doing my job well?

Dan Harmon

I just didn't hear it. And it's because it didn't profit me to hear it. And this was, after all, happening to me, right? And so after a season of playing it that way I broke up with my girlfriend, who I had lied to the whole time while lying to myself. I broke up with my girlfriend, then I went right, you know, full steam into creepin' on my employee.

And then after that season, you know, I got overt about my feelings after it was wrapped because then-- and said, oh, I love you. And she said the same thing she'd been saying the entire time, in one language or another. Please, don't you understand that focusing on me like this, liking me like this, preferring me like this, I can't say no to it. And when you do it, it makes me unable to know whether I'm good at my job.

And because I finally got to the point where I said to her, oh, this is-- you know, I love you, because that's what I thought it was when you target somebody for two years. And it was therefore rejected that way. I was humiliated. And so I continued to do the cowardly thing, and continued to do the selfish thing.

Now I wanted to teach her a lesson. I wanted to show her that if she didn't like being liked in that way, then oh, boy, she should get over herself. After all, if you're just going to be a writer then this is how just writers get treated.

Nancy Updike

Did you get what he's saying here? She said, I don't want to date you. His response was, fine. You don't like my praise and attention? All right, then, look out.

Dan Harmon

And that was probably the darkest of it all because I drank, I took pills, I crushed on her and resented her for not reciprocating it. And the entire time I was the one writing her paychecks and in control of whether she stayed or went, and whether she felt good about herself or not, and said horrible things. Just treated her cruelly, pointedly. Things that I would never, ever, ever have done if she had been male and if I had never had those feelings for her. And I lied to myself the entire time about it and I lost my job.

Nancy Updike

I feel the need to say, he didn't lose his job because of this woman. She didn't report him to his bosses. He's describing a more general crisis in his life.

Dan Harmon

I ruined my show. I betrayed the audience. I destroyed everything. And I damaged her internal compass. And I moved on.

And I never did it before and I will never do it again. But I certainly wouldn't have been able to do it if I had any respect for women. On a fundamental level, I was thinking about them as different creatures. I was thinking about the ones that I liked as having some special role in my life. And I did it all by not thinking about it.

So I just want to say, in addition to obviously being sorry, but that's really not the important thing, I want to say I did it by not thinking about it. And I got away with it by not thinking about it. And if she hadn't mentioned something on Twitter, I would have continued to not have to think about it, although I did walk around with my stomach in knots about it. But I wouldn't have had to talk about it.

Nancy Updike

The person Dan Harmon was talking about is another writer, Megan Ganz. She's now an executive producer on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. When she heard Dan's apology last year, she was in her car on the 101 and 170 in Los Angeles.

Megan Ganz

Yeah, I was driving to work which, about halfway through listening to it, I thought, well, this is a mistake. I probably should have saved this till I got home tonight. Honestly, I started listening to it expecting to be angry. So that was also kind of a roller coaster, going from angry to feeling this immense relief at the end of it. And I listened to it, I think, again right away, sitting in my car in the parking lot of my work.

Nancy Updike

When she heard Dan's apology, they hadn't talked face to face in six years.

Megan Ganz

It was cathartic in a way that I could have never imagined. It was like receiving the antidote to a poison I'd been self inflicting. It's the only way I can describe it.

Nancy Updike

Megan thanked Dan via text and also forgave him publicly on Twitter, saying quote, "please listen to it. It is a master class in how to apologize. I only listened because I expected an apology, but what I didn't expect was the relief I'd feel hearing him say these things actually happened. Ironic that the only person who could give me that comfort is the one person I'd never ask," end quote.

Whatever you think of this apology, the content of it, the result was not the way these stories have usually ended. Both parts are unusual-- the apology and the acceptance of it. It's so unusual, I think it's worth looking at how exactly that moment in the car, Megan listening, feeling relieved, how did that come to be? How did they get there, to forgiveness? Could their path be a map for anyone else? I don't know, maybe.

A quick outline of their history. Dan was Megan's boss, the creator of a TV show that was pretty much all consuming for the writers who worked on it. It was Megan's first job writing for a sitcom. She was among the least experienced, least powerful people in the room. But Dan was impressed with Megan from her first script and he favored her flagrantly, insisting it was only about her work.

When he came clean about his feelings and she said she didn't feel that way, he turned on her, started savaging her work, berating her in front of the other writers. This all went on for about two years, start to finish. The apology that gave her relief-- it did not spring forth all at once. It was actually built out of earlier, not successful apologies.

The very first one was in 2012, after Dan was fired from Community. Dan texted Megan saying basically, sorry for being a bad boss-- very general, short. Megan felt nothing. Another early attempt was on his podcast, 12 weeks before the apology that stuck. It was more in the nature of an admission than an apology.

Dan Harmon

I have abused my power dynamic at work. I didn't know I was doing it when I did it.

Nancy Updike

He drops this excuse in the later apology.

Dan Harmon

I didn't-- I never took notice that-- I never thought to myself, until after the whole thing happened and I looked back and I was like, why was that such a relative disaster? Oh, because if you have a crush on someone that works for you, you are not-- it's not the same as having a crush on someone at a library or a bar that doesn't work for you, you fucking idiot.

Nancy Updike

Megan didn't hear this at the time. If the possible beginnings of an apology fall in a podcast and no one's there to hear it-- the pace really started picking up on Twitter at the end of 2017 in the wake of Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, Louis CK, on and on. Dan tweeted, quote, "This was truly the year of the asshole, myself included. We don't have to make 2018 the year of the mensch, but I hope it can be the year of the not as much of an asshole. #realisticgoals."

Megan read that one and what drove her to respond was the reaction she saw-- people praising him for admitting to big bad behavior in the past and declaring he was trying to be better. She wrote back on Twitter.

Megan Ganz

I responded to him by saying, care to be more specific? Redemption follows allocution.

Nancy Updike

What does allocution mean? I had to look it up.

Megan Ganz

Well, it's a term I took from Law and Order, because I'm a big Law and Order fan. Allocuting to a crime is basically what happens when you take a plea deal and the judge says that you have to, as part of the deal, say what you did. And if your allocution is found to be lacking in any way they can pull your plea bargain back, basically. That's how I understand it. So I guess that was a weird mix of my Law and Order knowledge and my Catholicism, Catholic school, coming together because I thought, well, the way that it always worked in confession was, you had to say what you did wrong first before they would absolve you.

Nancy Updike

Dan tweeted back, saying quote, "I've talked on my podcast about the lines I crossed," end quote. And also, quote, "I will talk about it more in any way that you think is just. I am deeply sorry," end quote. That, I am deeply sorry, was the first time Megan felt like he was speaking directly to her about how he'd behaved with her.

She says she might have left it there with the deeply sorry except Dan sent out another tweet saying quote, "I'm filled with regret and a lot of foggy memories about abusing my position, treating you like garbage. I would feel a lot of relief if you told me there was a way to fix it. I'll let you call the shots. Till then, at least I know I was an awful boss and a selfish baby," end quote. The foggy memories line got to her.

Megan Ganz

Yeah, I wrote, "I wish my memories were foggier. I wish there was a way to fix it. It took me years to believe in my talents again, to trust a boss when he complimented me and not cringe when he asked for my number. I was afraid to be enthusiastic, knowing it might be turned against me later. You want relief? So do I. Figure out how to give me that relief and I'll return the favor."

I guess what I was reading into that tweet was, I was like, you're already thinking of you. You're already thinking of how you can move on from this, instead of just sitting with the awful knowledge that I've been sitting with this for six years. And nobody helped me out of these feelings. Nobody showed me a path back. I had to figure that out for myself.

Nancy Updike

Over the course of this exchange, which went on for a couple more rounds on Twitter, Megan essentially wrote the outline of her own apology. She laid out some specifics that needed to be addressed. I doubted my talent. I didn't know how to act around bosses or co-workers afterward. I am still roiled inside. I have lost time to this. And of course, allocution-- a full account.

Dan kept saying, I want to do the right thing. Tell me what's the right thing. And Megan kept saying, I appreciate you're trying. Try harder. Dan didn't want to be interviewed on tape. He said he didn't want to make this story about him, any more than it already is. But he answered questions via email and confirmed facts.

Dan said via email that after he read Megan's tweets, his first reactions were fear and self-pity. It was his 45th birthday. He talked to his agents and accepted the possibility that his career in TV might be over. And he had a reaction I've seen other men have-- it felt unfair. He wanted to defend himself.

He says he realized, slowly, that there was no defending himself. He couldn't do it if he was honest. And also, maybe he didn't need to do it because no one was attacking him? He emailed, quote, "someone doesn't have to wish me harm to tell me that I harmed them," end quote. Dan says he got advice from women he knows in the business. And he read a book called, On Apology by Aaron Lazare, recommended by his therapist.

Lazare says a complete apology has to start with quote, "an acknowledgment of offense, i.e. wrenching your brain away from its justifications and putting yourself in the other person's place." as Dan put it via email quote, "it seems crucial that you not skimp there." He said part of not skimping with Megan was to face that, quote, "I could have had the same feelings I had and not caused damage. I could have shared the feelings and been told they weren't reciprocated and not caused damage," end quote.

Apologies are powerful-- they can be. But power is also amoral. It can be used for a pernicious goal as easily as a better one. One reason Megan needed a full account of Dan's intentional damage, and not just a big, I am deeply sorry, is that Dan actually apologized to Megan a lot back when she worked for him. It was part of the slow buildup of the harassment.

Megan was 25 when she started writing on Community. Dan was 37, creator and show runner. In the room there was this imaginary lack of hierarchy that a lot of creative endeavors have-- we're all just making a cool thing together. The best idea wins. That vibe is a lot easier to surf when you're older and can appreciate the ways in which it's true while seeing all the ways in which it's ridiculous.

And of course, the notion of a pure meritocracy is easy to believe in to the point of delusion when you're on the winning side. Megan didn't want to rehash specific incidents with Dan on the radio, but she did talk about the way apologizing was a key part of the dynamic.

Megan Ganz

Like for instance, he would do something, say something to me that I wouldn't take as inappropriate. And then he would apologize for it, for some little thing that he had said. And I would say, oh, don't worry about it. Like, I wasn't offended. And then the thing, the next thing that would happen, would be slightly more inappropriate.

But I had forgiven him for one thing and I thought, oh-- every time that he apologized I thought, well, look, this guy is-- he knows. Like, he's real switched on. He knows where the line is. Not realizing that all of those instances were slowly moving the line to a place where I had forgiven him so many times that it started to become maybe something that didn't seem that big of a deal to me. And had the last interaction happened first, maybe I would have had a stronger reaction.

Nancy Updike

Megan could see that other writers on the show, more experienced writers, noticed Dan's focus on her, his eagerness to choose her jokes, to leapfrog her into opportunities they'd had to work years to get. People made little comments in front of her, or jokes about her favored status.

Megan Ganz

Yeah. Yeah, I mean, instead of in that moment thinking, oh, my god, are people picking up on something here that I'm not picking up on? I thought, well, you're just jealous. You're jealous that I'm doing better at this job than you are. And he would say things to me like, I never want you to think that my interest in you is anything other than professional. I think you're a really great writer. And I reward you because I feel that you're a great writer. And I wanted to believe that so badly that I, in wanting to believe that we're all equal and that there isn't any sort of untoward affection going on, I was not looking at it. I wasn't perceiving it.

Nancy Updike

And then when Dan told her he loved her and she turned him down and he began punishing her, that's when Megan caught up to some of the other writers' perception of what had been going on the whole time.

Megan Ganz

Yes, it felt like-- I know it sounds silly. It felt like an M Night Shyamalan twist at the end, where all of a sudden you have these flashes of all these things that happened and you realized, oh, my god.

Nancy Updike

All these people are dead!

Megan Ganz

It was sexual harassment the whole time.

Nancy Updike

Megan says she loves Community. It's one of her favorite shows of all time, still. She wrote one of the funniest episodes. Writing on the show was collaborative, but she is the credited writer on this one. It's a Law and Order parody, of course. The murder victim was a yam, part of a biology experiment.

Remember the characters are all students at a community college. Grades were at stake, motives were complex. There's a quasi trial scene out of A Few Good Men. Donald Glover plays one of the detectives, Michael K Williams, who plays Omar on The Wire, is the biology teacher.

The actors are having a ball. There's so many layers of jokes-- jokes within jokes. It's just a delicious piece of pop culture baklava. How are you supposed to tell that someone who says you're really talented has another agenda when you are, in fact, really talented?

Megan Ganz

There's this thing of like, you have this experience that only one other person shared and you can't talk to that person about it because they're the cause of your pain. So, hearing him be so specific, especially about how when I rejected his feelings, how quickly that turn happened to the punishment for having rejected him-- that's how quick it felt to me. But having him say that he made that choice consciously, and the fact that he said I treated her in a way that I wouldn't have done if she was a man, just can't be understated, like how important that is to hear.

Nancy Updike

In his apology, Dan urged his fans not to attack Megan. And most of the responses she got were positive. Some of the writers from Community reached out. Women she didn't know got in touch to tell her they'd lived vicariously through her apology-- said they'd never gotten ones of their own. Dan ended his apology with a lot of hope.

Dan Harmon

And I think that we're living in a good time right now because we're not going to get away with it anymore.

Nancy Updike

He said via email he feels less optimistic now. He said one of the few responses he's gotten from men since he apologized was a guy who reached out to say how he felt frustrated that Dan had quote, gotten away with it, end quote, and he hadn't. And he wanted to know what he could do to get away with it, because Dan's still working in TV.

Dan's apology worked, partly because he finally took a risk. He admitted to things that, if Meghan had wanted she probably could have used against him. Lawyers advised him not to say those things, he says on the podcast. By admitting them openly, he chose her well-being over his own comfort, maybe for the first time in their whole relationship. A lot of people just aren't willing to do that, even for seven and a half minutes.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is a producer on our show. Coming up, starlings and finches and crows, oh my! Why spiders and mollusks and slugs should hate their guts. I mean, OK, a new reason why they should hate their guts that you've never heard of. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

A Brief Catalogue of Spines Recently Grown

Ira Glass

This is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Get a Spine!" Stories of people standing up for themselves, shaking off their fear, bracing themselves and doing what they have been scared to do. And as we were putting together today's show, we put out this call looking for people who are actually in that situation of having to face something that freaked them out. And by face it I mean, face it right now. Over 200 people wrote in, people square in the front of big, life changing moments, and some smaller ones too. Here's a brief catalog of spines recently grown across the country.

Zoey

My name is Zoey. I am almost eight years old. I'm about to try to dive off the diving board. It makes me feel nervous but I don't know why.

Man 2

I am at North Heights Lutheran Church in Roseville, Minnesota. And in about 20 minutes we're going to start the service. I'm going to preach my first sermon. I sat at my desk today at work and read through it kind of softly so no one could hear. Tonight after work I actually read through it full volume and I was walking around the room like I normally would in the church. I was holding my Bible. My wife actually came and interrupted me and she's like, it's time for dinner but you're doing a great job, so she could hear me from down the hall.

Woman 4

I am about to have my first baby. I guess I'm nervous for how long it could take, and to get too tired. I've been thinking a lot about like, what I eat because I want to make sure that something that it's going to fill me up and things like that.

Woman

What did you eat today?

Woman 4

A fried egg.

Michael

I'm Michael.

Piper

And I'm Piper.

Michael

And we're in our bedroom.

Piper

And we're about to have sex for the very first time.

Michael

I'm excited.

Piper

Me, too. A little bit nervous?

Michael

A little bit nervous. It'll work out.

Piper

It's the kind of thing where, you know no matter what it's going to be weird the first time. But, it's only going to get better from here. So, why not start now?

Michael

I love you.

Piper

I love you, too.

Woman 5

I do not want to be married anymore. I'm finally able-- I'm admitting, OK, I did all the things. Let's go.

Man 3

On Saturday at the end of this week I have to deliver my mother's eulogy. You know, what I really need to do is focus on just really honoring her memory. But I'm a little angry with her, a little angry with myself, and a little angry at the universe for, this is the way things played out.

Man 4

So Zoey, they're moving a lap lane so that you can use the diving board. How does that make you feel?

Zoey

Excited and nervous.

Man 4

Ready to give it a try.

Zoey

I don't know.

Man 4

Well, honey, there isn't-- unfortunately there's a little bit of pressure here because they're giving you a special chance to do it, but the board's still supposed to be closed. So now's your chance.

Zoey

I don't think I want to.

Man 4

Today is not the day?

Zoey

Yes.

Man 4

All right, today is not the day.

Ira Glass

What do we say to the god of diving? Not today. Those voices were collected by Aviva DeKornfeld and Diane Wu.

Act Two: Because You’re Spine, I Walk the Line

Ira Glass

Which brings us to Act Two, Act Two of our program, Because You're Spine, I Walk the Line.

So our show today is about the spineless getting a spine. And in this act we turned to those who are truly spineless and by that I mean literally, they are literally creatures who have no spines. Also featured in the story, the scientists who study them, who, like us all, could sometimes use a little more spine. Lilly Sullivan explains.

Lilly Sullivan

A while back I was talking to my friend Jackie and she tells me, oh man, Malcolm started a bunch of drama at work. Malcolm's her husband. And that surprised me because Malcolm's workplace has never struck me as all that traumatic. Here's Jackie.

Jackie

He works with spiders, wolf spiders. Like, the bulk of his research has been about wolf spiders mating. He watches wolf spiders have sex.

Lilly Sullivan

Malcolm Rosenthal, he's a scientist, a behavioral ecologist. And wolf spiders, if that name sounds wild it's actually one of the most common spiders out there-- brown, nondescript. If you turn over a rock and you see a spider, it's likely a wolf spider.

Jackie

He thinks they're cute now. Like, he frequently calls them like, they're like little puppies! They look at me with their little puppy eyes.

Malcolm Rosenthal

They're kind of like little puppies. They look around at you, they follow you, they-- you know, watching the males do these sad little dances and try to get the attention of a mate, and fail more often than not. You can't watch that 1,000 times without getting a little bit attached. Yeah, spiders are shockingly charismatic.

Jackie

Now I think you've gone too far.

Lilly Sullivan

Nope. Let's go a little further. That sad little sex dance, the spider's serenade while they do it.

Malcolm Rosenthal

Oh, no, I'm going to have to do my song impersonation. [IMITATING WOLF SPIDER SONG]

Lilly Sullivan

Anyway, here's how the drama started. Jackie's a journalist but she'd often hang out with Malcolm and his spider co-workers. They'd go to this one bar every week. And they'd often end up doing what co-workers do.

Jackie

They're like, complaining about work. They're complaining about like, the gossip. It's just workplace shit talking, but like, scientists.

Lilly Sullivan

They're giving Jackie the scoop on the thing they're all worked up about. There'd been a big meeting earlier that week with a bunch of people in the animal behavior department. So it was the spider lab, the cricket lab, and the bird lab. Someone had just heard that a paper they'd submitted to a journal had been rejected.

Malcolm Rosenthal

My PhD advisor just casually said, oh, well, of course, it probably has something to do with the fact that it's so much harder to get things published when you work with invertebrates. And this other guy, who coincidentally worked with birds--

Lilly Sullivan

Birds-- not invertebrates.

Malcolm Rosenthal

--kind of took offense to that and said, that's not true. That's ridiculous. And then it kind of turned into a whole heated argument over whether this was true or not. And none of us really had any evidence beyond our own experiences. And you know, our experiences were that we felt this was happening and his was that he felt like it wasn't, which I guess isn't surprising given what we worked with. And I remember just being steamed about it.

Lilly Sullivan

Among invertebrate scientists, people like Malcolm who study spineless creatures, there's a feeling that worms, beetles, mollusks, kind of get the shaft and that people who study animals with spines-- finches, chimpanzees, the fricking bottlenose dolphin-- they're the golden children of animal behavioral research. Malcolm calls this the vertebrate divide.

Malcolm Rosenthal

Maybe the broad strokes version of it would be that there is a lot of research done on birds and mammals, specifically. And that for those of us that don't study this kind of very special group of organisms there is a sense that the work we do is valued less, or is at least given less airtime. I mean, this is definitely the number one bar topic when you get a bunch of invertebrate scientists drunk together-- which happens a lot, actually.

Lilly Sullivan

The fact that the bird guy not only didn't know about any of that but also told them they were wrong, it infuriated Malcolm. And it stuck with him. He couldn't let it go. Months passed and he and Jackie moved to Canada. Jackie's excited to explore their new neighborhood and Malcolm is still thinking about that fight.

Jackie

We went out to breakfast and he was like, yeah, and he said this thing and I still can't believe that he said that bird papers don't get published more. And I think I said, like, oh, well, is there a way that we could-- is there a way to prove that? Or is there a way that you could find out if bird papers or vertebrates get published more than spider papers?

Lilly Sullivan

He couldn't actually get a list of all the rejected animal papers ever written, though he thought about it. But there was a next best thing.

Jackie

And then I think he made a joke about like, yeah, if you went through the whole archive of a journal and went through and looked at every paper they'd ever published. And I was like, can you do that? Is that-- like, is that possible? And he was like, yeah, I guess you could do that. I mean, yeah. I was like, I could do it. We could just like split up the data set at night, because we always like watching dumb TV in the evenings. But I don't think he was actually going to do it.

Lilly Sullivan

A few weeks later, Malcolm had to attend a mandatory training session about biosafety techniques-- nine hours of training and videos about proper glove use, lab coats, a three hour presentation on how to use a special kind of biology cabinet which are for like-- never mind. Malcolm would never have to use them anyway.

Malcolm Rosenthal

So I was bored. I was so fucking bored. I was so bored that I just went to the journal Animal Behaviour's website, and just started downloading every single paper that they'd published, and just copying down what the animal was for every single paper. And then by the end of three hours I had like, 400 papers done.

Lilly Sullivan

And you start doing this thing just because you're bored out of your mind?

Malcolm Rosenthal

Bored, and a little bit of spite maybe towards that person who disagreed with me during that conversation. Like, how cool would it be just to throw this massive data set down on this table and be like, ah! I told you!

Lilly Sullivan

Malcolm picked one of the flagship journals in the field of animal behavior, which is called Animal Behaviour. He picked it because it had 61 years worth of publications. It's a good indicator of what's going on in the field. And he starts going through, paper by paper, counting up. How many papers on birds? How many on insects? Like a scorecard for every living creature.

He hires a bunch of undergrads to help out. There's estimated to be something like 10 million species out there-- most haven't been studied at all and a few have been studied a ton. Here's what he found.

Malcolm Rosenthal

I mean, I hate to just throw numbers out instead of emotions, but birds and mammals together are less than one half of one half of 1% of all species and they represent half of all papers published in the past 50 years. I don't know, it just kind of-- I find it almost hard to imagine. I mean, if 99% of all animals are not them-- and it was even crazier than that. I mean, 20% of all papers published are published on passerines, which is a subset of birds.

So it's not even like it's all birds. It's the perching birds, the little chirpy tweet birds, the ones that aren't ostriches or birds of prey. And it's really this tiny, tiny little group. And then within them, it's really just starlings and finches and crows.

Lilly Sullivan

Starlings and finches and crows are to behavioral ecology what the golden retriever is to living rooms across America-- beloved and ubiquitous. But the stuff he found went way beyond birds and bugs. He discovered that just 10 species of animals represented a shockingly high proportion of papers published-- 15% of all papers. That means one in seven papers is dedicated to just 10 species out of millions.

Malcolm Rosenthal

The magnitude of it was so totally shocking to me.

Lilly Sullivan

It's a lot worse than you thought?

Malcolm Rosenthal

Oh, it's a lot worse. It's so much worse than I thought that I think it really-- it totally floored me. You know, we talk about the natural world and all the animals in it and all the things they do. But if you think you know the world because you've studied hundreds and hundreds of birds and mammals, maybe you don't know the world. Like, maybe it isn't that bad but maybe the whole world is different than we thought because we just haven't been focusing our attention on the bulk of things. Yeah, like we've been only looking at just a tiny sliver and we thought it was the whole world.

Lilly Sullivan

Not everyone sees it this way. I talked to a prominent bird scientist, William Searcy, who actually for six years was an editor of the journal that Malcolm analyzed. He told me he wasn't all that surprised by the findings. Everyone knows that more papers come out on vertebrates than on invertebrates. But he didn't agree that that's some big problem.

As for birds, there are lots of very good reasons to study them. For one thing, they're bigger. You can see them, observe them, study them in their natural habitat. And they do interesting things that other animals don't do-- the way they communicate. They can even develop and learn dialects.

Also, we've studied them for ages. We know a lot about them. So you can build on that research and make progress, really understand stuff in detail. But his main argument is this-- scientist should first identify a question, a theory that they want to explore, and then pick the species that best helps them explore that question. He says that's how science moves forward.

He thinks that prioritizing the animal over the question could lead to inferior science. Like, to try to study every kind of beetle-- and there are a lot, something like 450,000 species known so far-- would be untenable, he says. Malcolm says he's not arguing that there should be 450,000 papers on beetles for every one paper on starlings, just that maybe things are so out of whack that we're missing things and we don't even know what we're missing.

Malcolm figures, if he could just lay out the facts it might get people thinking. They're scientists, after all. His plan is that he'll present all his numbers at this annual conference of the Animal Behavior Society, which is called the Annual Conference of the Animal Behavior Society. All the prominent people will be there, who are mostly bird and mammal scientists because that's how it goes. This is in 2016.

Malcolm Rosenthal

You know, I'm still relatively early in my career. I don't need to be pissing off people who might later be able to give me a job. And I was really worried that the big names would come to the audience and get grumpy. I guess it's kind of the tame science version of speaking truth to power.

Lilly Sullivan

Mm. Were you nervous?

Malcolm Rosenthal

Oh, obviously, I was terrified.

Lilly Sullivan

He goes on stage and he does his PowerPoint. Jackie's at home during all this. She doesn't usually go to Malcolm's conferences. She'd kind of forgotten when his talk was since they usually just talk at night so she was surprised when Malcolm texted her mid-afternoon.

Jackie

He was like, I just presented my paper and it was bonkers. He described it to me as the most raucous animal behavior panel he'd ever been to.

Lilly Sullivan

Wow.

Jackie

I mean, science conferences are not exciting places. And I didn't think people would go nuts for it.

Malcolm Rosenthal

It has to be the coolest talk I have ever given, and probably the coolest talk I will ever give. Just the most outrageous 11 minutes I have experienced in a conference.

Lilly Sullivan

How was it outrageous?

Malcolm Rosenthal

So, these things are pretty staid usually. This talk was like being at a rock concert. People were yelling at me from the seats.

Lilly Sullivan

What were they yelling?

Malcolm Rosenthal

They were screaming-- someone definitely stood up and yelled, "hell, yeah," at me, which might be relatively tame but for a science conference is outrageous. People were standing up, there was applause in the middle-- which never happens. You get tame, sad applause at the end. People were packing the room till there was no space to sit and people were standing jammed in the door frames, which is a great, awesome feeling, and has never happened to me before or since. It was weird.

The end was basically a call to action. We were saying like, we think it's time for people to start paying attention to this. And we were getting cheers and fist pumps from the audience. It was nuts.

Lilly Sullivan

Fist pumps?

Malcolm Rosenthal

Yeah. And the whole rest of the conference, people I didn't know were patting me on the back, which I really hate. I don't like being touched. But people would come up and say like, hey, man, I super love your talk. My name is Mark and I work on butterfly nest site locations.

Lilly Sullivan

It was like, people had been sitting there with all these feelings with no way to talk about them until now. It was like the people who studied the millions of species that did not have a spine, they now had a leader, one with lots of spine who was finally standing up to the authorities with their spiny menagerie of chimps and finches and dolphins and making them listen. And now that invertebrate scientists had seen how the bar graphs were stacked against them, they did not want it to end there. Like this one guy at the conference started counting audience members at every talk, looking for patterns of preferential treatment.

Malcolm Rosenthal

So he'd gone to different talks and noted down how many people were sitting in the audience. And he was like, I only went to six talks today so it's not a huge sample size because I got real tired. But it looked to me like in the vertebrate talks there were more people watching. He sent me a photo of his notebook. So he just like took a screenshot with his phone of his notebook where he'd handwritten this and then emailed it to me, which was hilarious.

Lilly Sullivan

All this felt great at first, but as Malcolm moved through the conference his scientist's brain noticed another pattern.

Malcolm Rosenthal

We slowly started to realize that every single person who came up to start a conversation with me because they had been at that talk worked with an insect or with a spider or was an invertebrate researcher.

Lilly Sullivan

Which led him to this unwelcome conclusion.

Malcolm Rosenthal

The bird and mammal people, they weren't at that talk. I had been terrified and nervous to stand up and speak truth to power, so to speak, in this kind of like very marginal way. And then it was like discovering that power had just decided not even to show up that day. And everyone who came up to me-- the thing people would say was, oh my god, all the things I thought seem to be true, which is nice. But not as nice as, I'd never thought about this before and you really changed the way I think about the way our field is working.

Lilly Sullivan

Malcolm finally got his findings in front of the people who skipped his talk, the vertebrate majority, when he submitted his research for publication.

Malcolm Rosenthal

OK, yeah, the title of the paper is Taxonomic Bias in Animal Behaviour Publications. Evidence suggests that certain taxonomic groups are more thoroughly studied than others.

Lilly Sullivan

The way scientific journals usually work is that when they consider a paper, they send it out for peer review. Basically, they get a bunch of other scientists in the field to look at it. It's all anonymous. When Malcolm gets back his peer reviews, they're unlike any he's gotten in the past. For one thing, they're twice the number of reviewers-- four when you usually get two. What's their response like?

Malcolm Rosenthal

The response was mixed, I guess, would be one way to put it. But mixed maybe doesn't explain how intense the extremes of the mixture were.

Lilly Sullivan

Because some people were very into it and some people were very not into it?

Malcolm Rosenthal

Yeah. And the degree that people were into it was very high and the degree that people were not into it was also very high. Yeah, people were angry.

Lilly Sullivan

And they went to a place he did not anticipate. I ask him to read me one of the negative reviews.

Malcolm Rosenthal

Ugh "The solution advocated by the authors of this study is affirmative action by journal editorial boards to promote and highlight work on underrepresented taxa. Taken to the extreme this could lead to some kind of quota system policed by officers of taxonomic diversity on funding panels and journal editorial boards, and perhaps also on promotion and tenure committees," which is just outrageous. I'm getting all steamed just reading this again. Ugh.

I don't know. I mean, the idea that we were proposing a quota system is crazy and it also kind of just means that they didn't read the paper. It means they got mad. They read part of the paper, got mad, and then didn't read the rest. I mean, honestly it does remind me of the conversations around affirmative action. It sounds very similar.

Lilly Sullivan

They go there very quickly.

Malcolm Rosenthal

I know. We were just pointing out that it is a problem and that we need to think about how to solve that problem, and that may be assisting people who might be struggling working in underrepresented research groups might be something that we could do. I guess maybe that's affirmative action. I don't think it is, though.

Jackie

It was weird. The words were so similar. One, I just loved that they were like, the assumption that affirmative action is bad, which, cool. And then two, they immediately are just like, we bird people are under-- if we do this, bird people will be under attack. Like the way that people would be like, we only take the papers that are the best, and the bird ones happen to be the best.

And it's like, that was so similar to hearing about like, we just happen to take the best candidates. They're all white and dudes, but that doesn't mean anything. It's like, really? Does that not mean anything? Yeah. I was like, you can't even-- even here, in like, even in this very, very, very tiny scale thing, we can't even talk a little bit about how we might be a little bit biased about anything.

Lilly Sullivan

Jackie, by the way, is Filipino and Chinese, and Malcolm?

Malcolm Rosenthal

The opposite-- white. White is too bland, very white.

Lilly Sullivan

I mean, it sounds like there's some kind of an element with her, just like, ah well, yeah, you know, now you know how it feels.

Malcolm Rosenthal

For sure. I definitely approached this with the energy of a person who has never had to fight any of these fights before.

Lilly Sullivan

Not so for Jackie.

Jackie

It was just like replaying so many dumb conversations, but it's like birds. And then I mentioned that sometimes I didn't want to talk about it. I would be like, OK, do you mind if we maybe not talk about the paper today, or whatever, because I've had this conversation a lot. And I'm tired of talking about it.

Lilly Sullivan

She felt like, I know how this is going to end. But her exhaustion with the subject did not deter Malcolm. He was fired up, like they were on the verge of a revolution and it was time to lead the resistance for the ignored creatures of the world-- the boneless, the slimy, the microscopic.

Malcolm Rosenthal

Like, the iron is hot. We've got the editorial staff at Animal Behaviour thinking about this. This is the time to strike.

Lilly Sullivan

And it seemed like it was working. The powers that be, a.k.a. the journal, a.k.a. Animal Behaviour, accepted the paper and they got behind it. Later that year, one of the scientific organizations that publishes the journal, they asked Malcolm to do something big about this for their conference. He and two colleagues organized a special symposium. They flew in invertebrate scientists from around the world to come show off their bad ass research on their bad ass species-- parasitic larvae controlling and bursting out of their hosts, extreme mating weaponry in the New Zealand giraffe weevil.

The plan was to end the symposium with this big two part conversation. First, how does this bias limit what humans know about the animal world? And second, what should we do about it? Let's brainstorm solutions.

It was a big deal. It's exactly what Malcolm had wanted. But when it came time to start the big two part conversation, they began by asking the audience, who here works with vertebrates? Raise your hands.

Malcolm Rosenthal

And no one there did. Again, it was like the people we were hoping to talk to had just chosen not to show up for our symposium.

Lilly Sullivan

Mm-hmm.

Malcolm Rosenthal

You know, like other symposiums were more exciting and ours was kind of underwhelming to people. The people who were actually in the positions to do things had apparently thought there were better things to do than be there.

Lilly Sullivan

Malcolm said that even some of his own friends, his bird friends, also skipped the symposium. It's a conference. There was another cool panel at the same time about animal cognition, which is almost exclusively vertebrates with researchers who study like hyenas and nightingales and all kinds of passerines. After that, nothing else really happened.

Lilly Sullivan

It occurs to me, too, that I feel like you learned this thing that a lot of people learn when they're trying to talk about diversity and have to point out something awkward, which is just like, it quickly gets turned into a panel discussion and sanitized and becomes this awkward conversation that doesn't go very well. And then in the end, nothing really changes.

Malcolm Rosenthal

Yeah, that's the perfect summary. That's exactly what happened.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, man. Have you seen any concrete changes at all?

Malcolm Rosenthal

No. None that I can think of. No, not really.

Lilly Sullivan

One of the reasons we study animals is to learn about humans. Malcolm doesn't think that that should be the main goal. Nonetheless, studying the way that we study animals did teach him a lot about humans.

Ira Glass

Lilly Sullivan is one of the producers of our show.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Aviva DeKornfeld and Miki Meek. People who put today's show together includes Bim Adewunmi, Emanuele Berry, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Neil Drumming, Hilary Elkins Damien Graef, Chana Joffe-Walt, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updike, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks today to Gary Gullman, Nathan Englander, Lauren Weisstein, Anny Celsi, Kevin Allison, all the people we phoned about the spines they were growing, Yannos and Ashley Misitzis, Dai Shizuka, Wesley Hochachka, and Alexa Junge. Our website, Thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to her archive of over 650 episodes for absolutely free. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, last Halloween he draped a bed sheet over himself and chased his little nephew around yelling, boo! Boo! I swear, he scared the hell out of that little kid.

Woman 2

I feel really bad about it. He was a great guy, he did nothing wrong. A great guy and I feel bad for ghosting him.

Ira Glass

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