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676: Here’s Looking at You, Kid

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Gary did not want to become a football player, no interest in the game at all. He was a timid kid, the kind of kid who in baseball would close his eyes when he was up at bat, he was so scared of getting hit by the ball. But when you're in high school, your personality is still up for grabs. And at Gary's high school, there was not one person, but two people with a very different vision of who he was. They were assistant high school football coaches and very noticeable, big personalities. And they were twins.

Gary Gulman

And I didn't really know their name. I'd seen them around. They were super handsome and in great shape. I mean, they were ripped. And they would wear Gold's Gym tank tops and Jams, these shorts, these Hawaiian shorts. They would wear those. And they had really long hair. And they were very charming, charismatic, funny. And they were known as the Jetsyns, which was this self-proclaimed nickname, I think.

Ira Glass

Wait, they called themselves the Jetsyns?

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

They referred to themselves--

Gary Gulman

Yeah, because the Jetsyns was people from the future. And they felt that they were like that. They were definitely the first people I ever noticed who referred to themselves in that-- is it the third person?

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah.

Gary Gulman

So the Jetsyns are coming to get you. The Jetsyns will see you. The Jetsyns--

Ira Glass

That's what they would say?

Gary Gulman

Sometimes they would say, Johnny Jetsyn will be with you today. Joe Jetsyn will be with you tomorrow.

Ira Glass

They're like magical figures.

Gary Gulman

Yeah, they really were. [LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

And these magical figures, these assistant football coaches, they gave Gary his own nickname in the fall of junior year. It was not a glittery name like the Jetsyns, kind of the opposite, actually. Waste, they called him.

Gary Gulman

As in waste of talent, to goad me into playing football.

Ira Glass

They told him that football would get him a college scholarship. It'll get him girls. They said the newspaper would write about him. They wanted him on the team so badly because Gary was a giant compared to most of the kids playing football back then.

This was in Peabody, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb near Salem in the late '80s. Most high school players back then were 5' 9", 5' 10". Gary was 6' 6", 200 pounds. And he was athletic, played basketball on his high school team. Those coaches scolded him for his complete lack of aggression and for crying.

What he really loved doing was art projects, going to the arts and crafts store, reading. He kept an enormous stuffed animal collection in his room, even in high school. He was also pretty depressed at the time. Gary is a comedian today, Gary Gulman. And on stage, when he tries to describe what he was like as a kid--

Gary Gulman

I talk about being Charlie Brown. I say picture my childhood-- Charlie Brown if Snoopy had died. That was my--

Ira Glass

[LAUGHING]

Gary Gulman

That was my childhood. I felt so sorry for him.

Ira Glass

Because Charlie Brown, the whole point of his character is that he's sad and lonely.

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

But even that wasn't lonely enough. You have to kill off his dog?

Gary Gulman

Yes. Yes.

Ira Glass

So when the Jetsyns started telling him that they were going to make him into a star, he laughed it off. He liked the attention from the Jetsyns, sure, but he did not consider this seriously at all. Football seemed brutal-- just nonstop, violent, physical contact.

He did not think he could cut it. Guys he knew who played football, they were so tough. Gary, on the other hand, he got picked on. He got bullied. He was bullied out of Little League. So football? No way.

And then his junior year ended. And just a couple of days into summer break-- it was June, 6:30 in the morning-- he got a phone call, woke him up. It's the twins.

Gary Gulman

They said, Gulman, this is the Jetsyns. Meet us at the Universe Gym at 7:30. We are going to train the Gulman this summer, and get the Gulman a scholarship, and make the Gulman into a star. By the end of the summer, you will be 245 pounds and ripped like Arnold.

Ira Glass

It was so weird and bold. And on the spur of the moment, he figures, what the hell? And he has this thought that you have sometimes as a kid. He thinks, these adults say I can do this. Maybe they're right.

Gary Gulman

They were so convincing. They were so convincing.

Ira Glass

And then there was a part of you that thought, like, yes, magical men.

Gary Gulman

[LAUGHING] It was intoxicating.

Ira Glass

It was?

Gary Gulman

Because they were so cool. And my entire life, my family was more of a don't get your hopes up type of attitude or philosophy, if things don't always work out the way you want them to. And so it was a very negative house. And I remember asking them. I said, you guys really think I'm going to play on this high school football team? I don't have that much experience. And they're answering-- should I swear?

Ira Glass

Say what really happened.

Gary Gulman

Every single time I would ask them any kind of question, they'd say, fuck, yeah. And not everybody was using that expression back then. That was the first instance of somebody saying that to me instead of "don't get your hopes up" and "we'll see." It was, fuck, yeah. And I was like, oh my gosh. These guys are so, so exciting. And they believe in me.

Ira Glass

So that summer, every morning he works out with the Jetsyns from 7:30 to 9:30. Then they take him to a diner, and they buy him a big breakfast with eggs and other proteins. At night, sometimes they'd teach him running routes. Remember, Gary had never played football. And it was just like the Jetsyns said.

Gary Gulman

It was incredible. It was like a Rocky montage. I was getting stronger and bigger. And they would say things. They had this thing, "The Gulman is getting huge. The Gulman is getting huge."

Ira Glass

And so by the end of the summer, how did you look?

Gary Gulman

I looked fantastic, man. I'd grown my hair long like them. And clothes started to look really cool on me as I was filling out.

And they were right. I weighed 240 pounds. I could bench press 225 pounds. I ran a 48.40, which was very impressive to everybody. Everything about me had changed physically. I had built this really great costume.

Ira Glass

Why do you say costume?

Gary Gulman

Because it covered up who I really was. I was still the same Gary who cried at movies.

Ira Glass

So you have this man costume--

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

--that you're wearing, which is your new body.

Gary Gulman

Yes. I feel terrific.

Ira Glass

And as it came time to start practices, you would think that he would be psyched to use this new body that he had created for the purpose it had been made for. Like, OK, he's Captain America. It's World War II. Bring on the Nazis. But in fact, he was terrified of just getting hit, of the physical contact that's just built into football.

And a week before practice, he talks to a friend. And he says to the friend he doesn't think he can do it. He doesn't think he can go through with it. Should he call the Jetsyns and tell them he's thought it over? It's not for him.

Gary Gulman

I'll never forget what he said. He said, Gary, they will kill you. They spent their entire summer training you and feeding you. You can't. You have to go through with this.

Ira Glass

So he did. He went through with it. But the problem was, as John Jetsyn put it, he was a daisy in a field of wheat, a lamb among conquerors. You can put a kid into a tough guy costume, but it doesn't always make him into a tough guy.

And of course, adults are always trying to convince kids and inspire kids about who they can be. That's what good parents do. That's what good teachers do.

But some kids, like Gary, just have trouble going along with the plan. They want to please the adults. They want to do what they're asked. But all the while, they genuinely wonder, can they actually become the person the adults are telling them to become? Is that them? Is that who they should be?

And it's totally confusing for them. The adults in their lives seem to know what they're talking about. They're adults, for God's sake. They're supposed to know better. But the kids end up wondering in a really primal way, who am I?

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our show today in two acts. In the second act, adults make it so a woman can't even decide what is true about some of the most basic facts about her own history. But we're going to start with this story, act one, Gary's story, which we're calling "Jersey? Sure."

Act One: Jersey? Sure.

Ira Glass

Gary went to his first football practice, and it was just as bad as he'd imagined it would be. Guys rush at him and smash into him on every play. It's totally painful. He's completely miserable, bruised. He was in this one play.

Gary Gulman

This guy hit me helmet to helmet. And it was so loud, like a gunshot. And everybody noticed it. And they called it a biz. And the way it got its name was they said-- and the Jetsyns told me this-- they said the biz is the sound that it makes when you get hit in the head during a game, which is-- [MAKES BUZZING SOUND]

And each week, the guy who had the best hit on somebody else would get this T-shirt called the biz of the week T-shirt. And now we know that these things, these bizzes, they were concussions. But at the time, in 1988, the concussion protocol was pretty much, you good? You good?

And that first time that I got bizzed, the Jetsyns were so proud of me. They high-fived me, and they patted my head. "The Gulman got bizzed, his first biz!" I was laughing along with them, but I was like, I hope that never happens again.

Ira Glass

So every day, Gary would show up at practice and hated it until, finally, they started to play real games. And these are just preseason scrimmages, but they're against other high schools. There's a crowd in the stands. That changed everything from the very first time they put him in on offense.

Gary Gulman

They set up a play for me. It's this pass where they just throw it over the middle. They throw it up high. And nobody can reach as high as I can jump.

I catch it. It takes a couple of guys to bring me down, just because I'm big and I want to run away from contact. There were fans. And they were cheering. I will say that was exhilarating.

Ira Glass

Coaches try him out on defense. He barely knows what he's doing. And he sacks the other side's quarterback.

Gary Gulman

I had no technique.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Gary Gulman

But I was just so much bigger than this kid that he couldn't outrun me, because he wasn't as fast as me, and he wasn't as strong as me. So I was able to wrestle him to the ground. Anyhow, we go into the locker room. And the coach is berating the other players on the team for not being aggressive.

And he says, the only person out there sticking anybody-- which I don't know if they still use that expression, but I like that expression-- sticking anybody is Gary Gulman, a kid who never played football until this summer. And I had goose bumps. And it was like a movie.

Ira Glass

So it's all happening, just like Jetsyns said.

Gary Gulman

All happening, just like the Jetsyns had said. It was uncanny.

Ira Glass

Opening game of the real season, the coaches start him. This newbie player, he sacks the opposing quarterback right away. And on offense--

Gary Gulman

They threw me the ball three times. I caught every single one. I mean, that night I go to my first high school party. I'd never--

Ira Glass

Really?

Gary Gulman

--gone to a high school party. And it was such a letdown. Because you see--

Ira Glass

Oh, really?

Gary Gulman

--high school parties in movies. They're so exciting. And there's sex.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Gary Gulman

And I just sat on a couch because I didn't drink. And it was an incredible letdown. But I was invited--

Ira Glass

But you were in. You were in. That's what's important.

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You were there.

Gary Gulman

At the party.

Ira Glass

You were there at the bad party.

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You made it.

Gary Gulman

And then Sunday night, the night before school, a local newspaper reporter called me and interviewed me about this game. He said that I was the talk of the town. And it talked about how everybody knew the ball was coming to me, and they couldn't stop me. And just like the Jetsyns had said, there were going to be newspaper articles. There was a newspaper article in the Salem Evening News the next day that called me Mr. Raw Potential.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And it did not last. The season opener, his first great game, was also his last great game.

Gary Gulman

I had one more decent game where I caught a pass, and I made a really, really good tackle. But the teams started to do this thing where they would send guys to block me and my legs. And they would send a couple of guys, and they would just roll into my legs. I think it's called a cut block, if I remember properly, but that was how they would sort of neutralize me.

Ira Glass

And didn't the Jetsyns have some technique you could use to get around that?

Gary Gulman

No. Either they didn't suggest one, or I wasn't able to employ it.

Ira Glass

Opposing quarterbacks learned to stay away from the side of the line that Gary was on. So he wasn't sacking anyone anymore. And after this one time when Gary fumbled the ball on a big play at the goal line, suddenly he says they stopped sending him out for passes. So no more heroic catches. He wasn't making big plays. He was not living up to all that bright potential.

And some dark part of his personality kicked in, like maybe he was a waste after all. The man costume had fooled them for a while, but he was still the same person he had always been. He started to dread practices and games.

Gary Gulman

I would throw up before every game. On the sideline I would throw up because I was overcome by nerves and anxiety. I started to feel really lousy about myself, and my grades suffered.

And I just knew that I was starting to disappoint these guys. And they never said anything. To their credit, they never said, wow, we really had high hopes for you. It sounds crazy. I still have nightmares about it.

Ira Glass

His plan back then was make it through the season, one game a week. Never play again.

Gary Gulman

And in the middle of this, a college football coach came into our locker room and introduced himself to me at my locker. And that was sort of a, what the hell is going on here?

Ira Glass

Introduced himself to you?

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And said what?

Gary Gulman

He said, you had a great game, which I hadn't. And I am an assistant at Dartmouth College. And we'd love for you to take a visit to Dartmouth.

Ira Glass

OK, here's the thing that Gary didn't know or understand at the time. As disheartened as he was, his coaches did not think he was having a bad season. Sure, they weren't sending him out for passes, but the main reason for that, John Jetsyn told me on the phone, wasn't the fumble that Gary had made-- like Gary obsessed over-- it was that the quarterback couldn't throw reliable passes. Their team wasn't that good that year.

And sure, yes, Gary didn't know how to stay on his feet when players threw themselves at his ankles, but John Jetsyn says he'd only been playing football a few months. Of course he hadn't mastered that. There wasn't time to teach him everything.

The Jetsyns still saw Gary as a diamond in the rough. Gary was doing everything they asked, ran his plays well. He was more reliable than most of the team. And so the coaches did what they did with any player with a ton of potential. They took video of Gary's best game, that great first game, made a bunch of copies, and sent it around to colleges.

And after seeing that video, a parade of recruiters showed up at Gary's school. He'd get called out of class to meet them. He was approached by Harvard, Holy Cross, UMass, University of New Hampshire, University of Maine, and some top Division 1A schools, Syracuse and Boston College, his favorite, who'd recently won the Cotton Bowl.

Gary Gulman

And also, there were players on the team who were All-Americans. I mean, this was a big time program that played a big time schedule against Penn State, and Notre Dame, and Ohio State, and USC. I mean, they were big time football. And they had Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie. He was the hero to everybody in my neighborhood.

Ira Glass

And what do you remember of them recruiting you?

Gary Gulman

I remember this man, who I had seen on TV because he had recruited Doug Flutie. And he was a New England celebrity. His name was Jack Bicknell. I'll never forget it because he had an office at Boston College, and it overlooked the stadium. And he had a Heisman Trophy.

And he said, son-- I always loved being called son, and I would just melt. It's like an arm around the shoulder. I don't know what it is about that word. He said, son, I'm going to go ahead and offer you, which meant a scholarship. I'm going to offer you.

And he said something to the effect of, you're 17 years old-- or maybe I was 18. He said, you have an NFL body. And I remember thinking, wow, I've really fooled another one. And part of me was thinking, I was afraid this was going to happen because I'm going to have to take this scholarship. And I know I'm going to be in over my head. And then the other side of it was, this is so exciting, and somebody believes in me.

Ira Glass

And did part of you feel like, oh, my god, I'm going to be playing for this incredible coach? Whatever problems I had in high school, this guy is the guy. He's a genius. He's going to fix whatever problem I had. I'm going to be a star.

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So he takes the scholarship. He says he has no idea how he would have paid for college without a football scholarship. He works out all summer. And by the time he gets to training camp, he was bigger than ever, 260 pounds. His speed and strength, one of the best on the team. But it's clear right away.

Gary Gulman

I just felt so small. I mean, these guys really were supermen. Their aggressiveness, their strength-- it wasn't the same sport. And it was quite clear early on to the other players that I wasn't like them. I didn't talk like--

Ira Glass

Oh, is that true?

Gary Gulman

Yeah. And I could be pushed around. And I could be bullied. There were guys who were going to go on to the NFL. There was one player who played for the Vikings.

And I remember one time I was lollygagging on a play, and he hit me and bizzed me. And he said to me afterwards-- and his nickname on the team was The Maniac, which you really have to do something impressive to get a nickname like that amongst these lunatics. He said to me, he said, you can't just stand there like that. I could have killed you. In the nicest way possible he said that he had let up, even though he had hit me harder than I had ever been hit in my life.

Ira Glass

Gary went into a full-blown depressive crisis-- not eating when he should've been eating like a horse, sleeping all the time, crying.

Gary Gulman

The prevailing thing going on in my head is, I want to kill myself. I'm worthless. I'm useless. Everybody hates me.

Ira Glass

And did you have this feeling of, oh, I'm actually as strong as any of these guys? You're stronger than most of them. You're faster than most of them.

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Like, I should be as good. Did you have a feeling of, well, if I just psych myself up in the right way, I'm going to be able to do this?

Gary Gulman

Well, I just knew-- I knew who I was. And the problem is, I know who I am, and I hate him. I hate him. He's so weak. And he disappoints. And he lets down. And I just wanted to go back to the room and sleep and cry. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Did you have your stuffed animals with you?

Gary Gulman

No, but I had brought my blankie. I grew up with a blankie that was in my crib, and I could never sleep without it. But it was this thing that I was so ashamed of and never spoke about, really, to anybody because I thought that if anybody ever found that out, they would just be like, this guy's insane and also a woman.

Ira Glass

Did you have a roommate?

Gary Gulman

I had a roommate, yeah.

Ira Glass

That you had to hide the blankie from?

Gary Gulman

Yeah. Yeah.

Ira Glass

And you would call it the blankie, not the blanket?

Gary Gulman

No, I always-- I mean, I referred to him-- I referred to him-- I called him blankie.

Ira Glass

And whatever happened to it?

Gary Gulman

Oh, I still have it. It's on my pillow right now in Harlem, yeah.

Ira Glass

Wait. Wait. Seriously?

Gary Gulman

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Wait. How old are you?

Gary Gulman

I'm 48.

Ira Glass

Do you need it?

Gary Gulman

No, but I-- it-- [SIGHS] I love it. It's there with the pillow. I put it in my computer bag so I can carry it on planes when I travel.

Ira Glass

And is it a comfort?

Gary Gulman

Yeah. It's a comfort. It helps me sleep. I don't know how common it is. And the fact that you keep asking me questions about it makes me think it's really odd.

Ira Glass

But you'll have like-- people who you're sleeping with will come over, and they'll sleep in your bed. And there will be the blankie?

Gary Gulman

Yeah, my partner, Shaday-- she's a woman-- she's been aware of it since we've been dating. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Not a problem?

Gary Gulman

Not a problem, not until today.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Sorry. I'm not trying to blankie shame you.

Gary Gulman

[LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

I'm not.

Anyway, back in college, first time Gary goes home for the weekend he stays in his room, cries, and sleeps, and won't talk to anybody. And his brother suggests he find a therapist. The football team actually has counseling services set up for anybody who needs it. And when he gets back to school, Gary meets with the therapist, who asked him a lot of questions.

Gary Gulman

And he said-- point blank, he said, why don't you just quit the football team? And I-- like, that was ludicrous to me. And the way I would explain it now is, you have to understand my entire identity is wrapped up in this. And if I quit, I will be proving the voice in my head that keeps telling me I'm weak, and soft, and worthless right.

Ira Glass

So he made it through the season. The doctor prescribed him antidepressants, and the sadness and ruminations lifted. And in the spring, Gary's therapist asked, what are you going to do about football for next year? And Gary was like, I'll continue till I graduate.

Gary Gulman

And he said, listen, I never give advice. It's not my place to give advice, but I'm going to give you some advice. You need to quit the football team.

I said, if I quit the football team, I don't get to wear the uniform. I don't get to wear that jacket that gets me special treatment in the cafeteria and makes me interesting to the other students and the professors. I said, if I'm not a football player, then who am I?

And he said-- and I'll never forget it, the best answer-- he said, you'll be a man. But he didn't mean it, you'll be masculine, you'll be macho. He meant, you'll be an adult.

Ira Glass

Gary quit the team. He did keep the scholarship. The counselor went to bat for him and convinced the school to let him keep it for four years. And that same year, the year he quit football, Gary took the first real steps towards a different vision of who he'd be as an adult, a vision that was not handed to him by any of the grownups in his life, not his coaches, or his parents, or his teachers, but something he invented for himself. That's the year he started writing jokes.

Gary Gulman

Do you know that I listen to your show, and I've heard people reveal things about themselves that I wouldn't reveal?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Gary Gulman

And I never thought that the blankie would be one of those things, that there could be somebody being like, huh, I'd never tell anybody about a blanket. I could care less that everybody knows now.

Ira Glass

So you feel no self-consciousness about it at all?

Gary Gulman

Not anymore. I did for 47 years though. I only mentioned it on stage this this year. People laughed, and it redeemed everything.

Ira Glass

No, no, no. Now that you say that, I don't want to make you feel weird about it.

Gary Gulman

No, no. I think it's healthy. But you love Charlie Brown. Who was the wisest character on the Peanuts cartoons.

Ira Glass

Linus?

Gary Gulman

Yeah. And he had a blankie.

Ira Glass

He was five.

Gary Gulman

[LAUGHING]

He wasn't five.

Ira Glass

All right, he's eight, or whatever he's supposed to be.

Gary Gulman

No, you're right. He was old enough to have--

Ira Glass

He's a child.

Gary Gulman

No, he is a child. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

Gary has an HBO special coming out later this year called, Gary Gulman: The Great Depresh. If you're curious about his work, you can find it at garygulman.com.

Coming up, a 17-year-old tries to understand a moment that shaped her whole life. Fortunately for her, there's video. Unfortunately for her, it's more complicated than that. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Grownups Know Things

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Here's Looking at You, Kid," stories of adults telling kids what they should think of themselves and kids trying to make sense of what they're told.

We've arrived at act two of our program, act two, "Grownups Know Things." That act title was actually a line from Lord of the Flies. Piggy says it, that grownups have a cup of tea and talk things through. And then everything is all right. That's how grownups do it. It's hopeful, and of course, wrongheaded. So often things don't work out that well here in the adult world.

But in the story, it's this moment where a bunch of the boys chime in with their desire that they could turn to adults. And in this next act, a girl turns to an adult with that same kind of hope that the adult will set things right. But over time, the adults that she turns to simply do not agree about some very fundamental things about her. Eleanor Gordon-Smith reported this story for a book she wrote.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

I got interested in uncertainty years ago. There's a kind of uncertainty that we all live with where you don't know the answer, and it's not a big deal-- like what time the bus is coming, who left the front door open, where that pen went.

But I wanted to know about the opposite-- high stakes uncertainty where the facts aren't decisive, and it hurts to not know what to think, where there are big consequences, it affects your whole life. I wanted to know, is it possible to just sit in that kind of foundational doubt? Or do you just have to flip a coin and pick something, anything to believe?

Which is how I got interested in Nicole Kleumper. She's 40 now, but this starts when she was 16. And she just couldn't catch a break. She was in foster care after her dad, who had sole custody of her for most of her life, had a stroke and died. She'd bounced around between friends' houses, but wound up in a group home.

Nicole Kleumper

I just felt very adrift in the world and unanchored. Having lost my father, my best friend, I was so alone. And I just-- I was reaching out for something to feel connected to.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

She started really wanting to know about her mom. She lived nearby, just a couple hours drive, but they hadn't seen each other in more than 10 years. The custody court hadn't even allowed visits. And Nicole didn't know why. A quick warning-- what I'm about to go into mentions different kinds of abuse.

Nicole had a foggy thought that her mom might have done something bad to her as a kid. She remembered saying something to someone when she was young about her mom burning her feet on a stove and remembered something about a sexual abuse allegation. But could that be right? Surely, she'd remember those things actually happening, but she didn't.

What if her dad had just made her say those things about her mom? It had been a really ugly custody battle. Each parent said all kinds of things about the other. What if her dad wanted custody so bad he invented all these awful stories?

There was so much about her mom that Nicole didn't know, so she arranged to meet her mom in person. They did. They started seeing each other more regularly, but it always felt off. Once, she remembers sitting next to her mom at dinner and putting her head down on the table in front of her.

Nicole Kleumper

She rubbed my back, and it was very, very uncomfortable. And I had a pretty strong reaction to it.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Nicole says they didn't talk about any abuse. And then in the middle of that doubt, a piece of evidence seemed to fall from the sky, and with it, the promise of knowing what had happened in the custody dispute.

Dr. Dave Corwin phoned Nicole. He was the child psychiatrist in the custody battle that had split Nicole off from her mom. And he had videotapes of interviews he'd done with her when she was a very young girl.

It had been his job to investigate the abuse allegations. He'd had a question. He was speaking at a conference. Would it be OK if he showed those people the tapes?

Nicole remembered Corwin. She remembered that he'd been nice to her as a kid. She said, yeah, he could use them, but could she see those tapes too? He agreed and recorded their meeting.

Dave Corwin

I don't know the effect-- because it's never been done, to my knowledge-- this will have on you, OK?

Nicole Kleumper

So I'm sitting across from Dr. Corwin, and there's a video camera. I'm getting ready to watch the tapes of myself at five years old. And he went through a very lengthy informed consent.

Dave Corwin

At this stage, you're 17 years old. What I'm doing is I'm doing this informed consent directly with you, saying here's the issues, as I understand them. And then it's up to you, OK?

Nicole Kleumper

Finally, we got to the point where he was going to shut off the video camera so that I could watch my five-year-old self. And he asked me, what do you recall?

Dave Corwin

Why don't we start with, if you could just tell me what you can recall of that time.

Nicole Kleumper

I think I described one of the offices that he did one of the interviews in, in a striped sweatshirt that I was wearing at the time.

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

I was wearing a sweatshirt that was striped this way, OK? I don't know why. When I think of these interviews, that's the first thing I think of.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

17-year-old Nicole says she can't remember whether her mom really did hurt her.

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

I told you, I guess, I told the court that my mom burned my feet on the stove. And I still don't remember if that's, in fact, how I was burned. Really, that's the most serious accusation against her that I remember. That's what I'm having a problem remembering.

I've come here trying not to determine already that she's done it or that she's guilty. And I've come here trying not to say, well, she's innocent. She didn't do anything. I refuse to believe she's done anything. I really want to know.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

And then Corwin brings up the allegation of sex abuse.

Nicole Kleumper

David Corwin literally asks me, do you remember any allegations of sexual abuse?

Dave Corwin

Concerns about possible sexual abuse?

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

No.

Nicole Kleumper

And my initial reaction is actually, no.

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

I mean, I remember that was part of the accusation.

Nicole Kleumper

And then he starts to speak, and I say, wait. Hold on a second.

Dave Corwin

You don't remember any--

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

[INAUDIBLE] I do.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

17-year-old Nicole's whole demeanor changes at this moment. It's instant and kind of strange to watch. She becomes completely still, and she's staring into middle distance.

Dave Corwin

What do you remember?

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

Oh, my gosh. That's really, really weird. I accused her of, when she was bathing me here, whatever, hurting me.

Nicole Kleumper

And that's when I started to recount some details of a memory that came back to me.

Dave Corwin

As you're saying that to me, do you remember having said those things? Or you remember having experienced those things?

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

I remember it happening, that she hurt me.

Dave Corwin

Hurt you, where, how?

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

She hurt me.

Dave Corwin

There's tissues right here, right over there.

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

But see, I don't know if it was intentional hurt. She was bathing me. And I only remember one instance. And she hurt me. She put her fingers too far where she shouldn't have, and she hurt me. That's the first time I've remembered that since saying that when I was six years old, but I remember.

Dave Corwin

You remember being--

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

Yeah, I remember it happening.

Dave Corwin

OK.

Nicole Kleumper

It was like a movie set where the walls-- there's no roof, like I was sitting up on the walls looking down into a bathroom and my biological mother bathing younger me. And she touches me inappropriately. That's where the memory stops.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

So it's like you're watching it from outside of yourself, from above?

Nicole Kleumper

Yes. But I could feel the pain though. And I remember saying, it's like I took a snapshot of the pain.

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

A picture of the pain and what was inflicting the pain.

Nicole Kleumper

It was my biological mother.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Even before she saw the tapes, Nicole at 17 felt she'd got the certainty she wanted. She remembered her mother actually hurting her. She watched the videos of herself as a small girl anyway. Corwin shut off the recorder while she did.

And this remarkable thing happened. Nicole saw herself as a young girl, describing the very same abuse, almost verbatim.

I've seen the videos. It's the '80s. A very small Nicole is in pigtails and white stockings. Corwin's in a big plaid shirt and shaggy hair. And he asks right away about Nicole's mom.

Dave Corwin

What's she like?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

Mean.

Dave Corwin

Why is she mean?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

Hurts me.

Dave Corwin

How does she hurt you?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

Like sticks her finger up my vagina, about up to there on my finger.

Dave Corwin

When did she do that?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

All the time when she gives me a bath.

Dave Corwin

Uh-huh. What did you say to her when she did that to you?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

I said, don't do that. I said, ouch.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

She says her mom burned her feet over a hot stove. Corwin tries to figure out if Nicole knows the difference between what's real and what's make believe. He asks her to separate things like President Reagan-- real, which she knows-- from things like Superman-- make believe, which she also knows. He gets her to swear on her oath as a Brownie that what she said about her mother is real. She does. She holds three little fingers up in the Brownie salute.

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

There are other concerning details about Nicole's mom. Once, she had dropped Nicole off to see Dr. Corwin for one of their recorded sessions. And Nicole, who'd seemed happy to be recorded and speak clearly into the microphone when her dad dropped her off, is suddenly concerned that the microphone would broadcast what she's saying into the waiting room where her mom sits.

Corwin asks her about the abuse she described the week before. Did she remember talking about that? A little bit, Nicole says quietly.

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

I don't.

Dave Corwin

OK. Tell me the little bit that you remember.

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

Does that talk out to the waiting room?

Dave Corwin

No, it doesn't. They can't hear us, OK? They can't hear us out there. And you're safe here, OK? And I'm not going to-- after we get done talking, I'm not going to tell them what you tell me, OK? It's just between you and I right now,

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

(WHISPERS) OK.

Dave Corwin

OK?

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

OK, she whispers, before going on to talk about being burned and touched in the bath. In another interview, Nicole says her mother's told her to lie.

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

When's my dad going to be back?

Dave Corwin

Hm? I don't know. I don't know when he's going to come back.

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

He's in court.

Dave Corwin

I guess. What's he in court about?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

My mother.

Dave Corwin

What about your mother? Do you know?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

That she threatened me.

Dave Corwin

That she what?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

Threatened me.

Dave Corwin

Threatened you? How's that?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

Threatened me that if I didn't lie to the CPS, that she would do something bad to me.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

She's talking about CPS, Child Protective Services.

Dave Corwin

If you didn't do what?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

Lie to the CPS man.

Dave Corwin

That she would do something bad?

Six-year-old Nicole Kleumper

To me.

Dave Corwin

Well, when did she say that?

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

So that's the video of six-year-old Nicole. Corwin then asks 17-year-old Nicole how she's feeling about what she just saw. She says there are some questions that might never be answered, but her biggest question about why she didn't grow up with her mom, that had an answer. She was sure her mom had abused her.

17-year-old Nicole Kleumper

But I do have an explanation in my mind. And I can now realize it's not my fault. And I can put that chapter behind me, and I can go on. And yeah, I do think it's a very healthy thing to not run from something.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

For Nicole, the tapes end her memory, proved what had happened to her as a kid. It was a relief. She'd been worried that she was going to learn that her dad really did coach her to lie about her mom. Now she could put that aside. She could remember him the way she always had, as her best friend and a good dad.

But then Corwin published a case study about Nicole. He didn't use her name. He called her Jane Doe. But Corwin's case study became part of a huge dispute that was fracturing psychology in the '90s.

It was called the memory wars. And the argument was about whether repressed memories, adults suddenly remembering trauma, were real. Some scientists believed repressed memories were possible, others said no way.

Nicole's videotapes and Corwin's article were co-opted by the side that thought repressed memories were real. They thought Nicole's case proved it. Corwin hadn't seen this coming. I've spoken to him. He says he wasn't on either side.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus read Corwin's article with one eyebrow firmly raised. She was a psychology professor at the University of Washington and a big deal. It was her experiments that proved memories are malleable. And she was a star witness in high profile court cases where she argued that eyewitness recollections aren't reliable.

So when the memory wars began, she knew which side she was on. She thought repressed memories were almost never real. She wrote a doorstop of a book called, The Myth of Repressed Memory. And when she read the Jane Doe case, she was alarmed.

Elizabeth Loftus

I knew that people were using this case as the new proof of repressed memory. It was being discussed academically. It was being introduced into court cases to prove that repressed memory is real and has been proven. It was being used against people whom I thought were innocent because they were on trial in their cases. And so we had to get to the bottom of it.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Part of her suspicion was the message, and part was the messenger. She'd seen Corwin testify in court on another case. A patient accused their therapist of abuse, and she didn't find him persuasive there either.

Elizabeth Loftus

I already had a suspicion about Corwin and his judgment, I think, going into this situation because of the work I had seen him do on this other case and how he had pretty much helped to ruin the life of this poor female psychiatrist who was the accused person in this other case.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

You're saying that the female psychiatrist was accused of abuse?

Elizabeth Loftus

Yes, by, I think, a former patient.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

And Corwin was saying that that had happened?

Elizabeth Loftus

In so many words, yes. He was an expert for the accuser.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Loftus decided to investigate the Jane Doe case. She wanted to know whether the abuse had really happened. But to do that, she needed to know the real name of that little girl. Rather than ask Corwin, which would be normal for a researcher looking into someone else's study, she decided to dig around on her own. Loftus knew where to start.

Elizabeth Loftus

Clues in the tapes. At some point in the tape, he called her Nicole. And I just made a little mental note. Hm, her name is Nicole. He said something like, and when you were living in Fresno. And I thought, hm, it has something to do with Fresno, that kind of thing.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

She contacted a private investigator to run down some tips. She searched death records for Nicole's father. She found dozens of matches. And she started narrowing them down, closing in on the real Jane Doe.

Nicole, meanwhile, was thinking very little about her time as Jane Doe. She left foster care and was making her own life as an adult. She joined the Navy. She was learning to fly military helicopters.

And she decided to become a psychologist, she says, because she wanted to be like Corwin. She felt safe when she was talking to him as a kid, when she was being listened to. She wanted to make other people feel that way. She started acing her psychology classes at night while she trained as a pilot during the day. A couple of years into her military service, stationed in Hawaii, she got an odd phone call from a close family friend.

Nicole Kleumper

Said, hey, there's something going on. There's a private investigator looking for you.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

And what did you think?

Nicole Kleumper

Oh, my gosh. Why on earth? What on earth? What is happening now? And I knew within moments of hearing the words "private investigator" that this had something to do with Dave's journal article.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

It was the only thing she'd ever been part of that might be interesting to an investigator. She called Corwin, who learned Loftus was behind it. Loftus interviewed Nicole's foster mom, former step-mom, family friends who knew her growing up. She'd even interviewed Nicole's biological mom and said she might have been wrongly accused. Nicole, hearing about Loftus, was like, absolutely not.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Why did you want her to stop?

Nicole Kleumper

I felt intruded upon. I felt violated, very vulnerable, very exposed. And I understand that that probably sounds weird, given that I had already given Dave my consent to publish a story about intimate details of my life. But there's a very, very big difference between someone asking you to investigate parts of your life and someone doing so without your knowledge or permission. I did exchange emails with her, and I asked her to stop what she was doing.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

And what did she say?

Nicole Kleumper

In so many words, no.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Did she ask you any direct questions while she was looking into the case?

Nicole Kleumper

No.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Did that strike you as kind of odd?

Nicole Kleumper

It struck me as kind of infuriating.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Nicole complained to Loftus's university, who told her to stop investigating the Jane Doe case.

Elizabeth Loftus

I just got the call from some administrator on my campus, saying, are you looking into this case? I said, yes, I'm looking into this case. And they came and seized my files. I mean, I couldn't believe this was happening. When can the administrators come to your office and just take your files?

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Loftus was eventually cleared, and she published her findings on Jane Doe. She argued that the abuse might never have happened. Of course, this was the opposite of what Nicole had believed and clung to since she was 17.

Loftus printed eight pages worth of doubts in a magazine and called the article "Who Abused Jane Doe?" When Nicole heard the article was on stand, she took a friend from her military base and drove 50 miles to Barnes & Noble where they stood side by side reading it.

Nicole Kleumper

It was so hurtful. It was so ridiculous to me that someone basically interviewed everyone in my life who had known me when I was a child, except me, and then went ahead and patchworked together this story that just so happened to completely support her hypothesis. How dare she? She just had no right. She just had no right to do what she did.

Elizabeth Loftus

Whose story is this? This isn't just her story, this is the falsely accused mother's story. Other people are part of this story.

I don't think one person gets to just decide, I'm going to only tell the story one way and only let people tell it who believe me uncritically. What about the other people in the story? I thought I was investigating an accusation against a possibly innocent person.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

I don't think the claim is that you should have just believed her uncritically. I think Nicole says that the way that you went around this research was sort of traumatizing and demoralizing to her. It made her feel like she didn't have any control over her own records and her own confidential information from her childhood. Can you put yourself in her shoes at all? Can you understand why she feels like this was a trespass?

Elizabeth Loftus

Well, yes. I mean, I think she had her way of telling her story, and she didn't want there to be another way. And then that might be upsetting for her.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

It doesn't seem to me like what she was upset by was that there was another way of telling the story. I think what she found upsetting was that you found out who she was and looked into her life without asking her or without thinking about her.

Elizabeth Loftus

Well, don't you think that that's what journalists do all the time?

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Usually, when you write a story about someone, you contact them, or you ask them what they think of the things that you found out.

Elizabeth Loftus

Actually, I-- you know, there were times when I would have liked to have talked to her. I think I even wrote up some questions that I might want to ask her. But in the end, we decided that it was just too risky.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Risky, how?

Elizabeth Loftus

I just remember there were going to be conditions. And it just made us nervous. And so we decided we would just publish what we had found out through many, many other sources and leave it at that. And that's what we did.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Nicole sued with the help of a lawyer who took her case for free. They went after Loftus and everyone who'd helped write the article for 21 complaints, from defamation to invasion of privacy. But even though she was angry with Loftus, Nicole read her article over and over again, until something happened that she wasn't expecting. She found herself agreeing with Loftus a little.

Nicole Kleumper

It planted a seed of doubt. It did, yes.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

What was that like to feel like there's this thing that you've been so certain of for so long, that you felt like you had resolution of with Dr. Corwin and seeing those tapes, and then to have it be the subject of doubt again? What did that do to you?

Nicole Kleumper

It made me feel very small. It made me feel very insignificant, as though my opinion on my own-- the events of my own life were the least important.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Nicole started changing her mind back and forth, over and over. Some days, she thought she'd been abused, other days, she thought she'd lied about it.

I have to say, as someone who spent months looking into Loftus's article, it is really hard to work out the responsible thing to think. When I first read it, I remember thinking, game over. There's no way Nicole's mom abused her. But as I looked into each claim Loftus made, what had seemed like a nine on the convincingness scale turned out to be more like a four. Like Loftus found a report from another psychologist who'd interviewed young Nicole, who said she sounded mechanical and rehearsed when she talked about abuse.

Loftus told me that was the evidence that impressed her most, but I don't know. He says, quote, "Nicole has told her story numerous times to a number of different people, and she now sounds mechanical." He could mean Nicole's lying, or he could just mean she's been asked to tell it too many times.

And Loftus interviewed Nicole's step-mom, a woman who'd been there for the custody battle. She told Loftus that she and Nicole's dad had tried to win custody with what she called the sexual angle. Loftus heard that as sinister. But did she accidentally reveal that she'd had an agenda? Or did she just use sexual angle as an unfortunate shorthand, like saying, we won custody with the abuse thing?

And take the burns. Loftus found out that Nicole has a fungal condition that makes skin peel like a healing burn. But there are photos of young Nicole's feet with big blisters. Could they be explained by a fungus? It genuinely torments me. I still don't know what to think.

Every piece of evidence seems to pinball back and forth like this. I went mad trying to find out the answer. I thought if I read enough court documents, I'd finally find the one thing that no one else had, the thing that would give me certainty either way. Of course, I didn't.

And Nicole didn't either. She sat every day in the suspended animation of not knowing, caught between two really distressing ways of seeing her past. In one, her mother abused her. In the other, her father manipulated her into lying. And because she lied, her innocent mother was cut out of her life and wrongly accused of abusing her child.

Nicole Kleumper

It just created this back and forth that I continue to live with today-- it did happen, it didn't happen. Some days, I fall somewhere in between.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

How disorienting was it to feel like you had the truth, and then you lost it?

Nicole Kleumper

Disorienting is a good word, but I don't think it fully captures. It goes to my identity. It really goes to the heart of who I am, and who I thought I was, and who I think I am. The most important, the key memory on which I rebuilt and then rebuilt again my identity has now been called into question. It's just frustrating multiplied by a million. It's just so, so frustrating.

There is an intangible to be gained from the process of transition from being a victim to becoming a survivor. And in my case, now all of a sudden, am I neither? I don't know. Am I either? I don't know.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Nicole's lawsuit against Elizabeth Loftus dragged on and on over five years, all the way out to the California Supreme Court. In the end, Nicole lost. The First Amendment protected Loftus as a journalist. And Nicole had to pay Loftus's legal fees, nearly a quarter of a million dollars, which she could not afford.

The court garnished her military wages. She quit the Navy, lost two houses, and her car was repossessed over all this. She filed for bankruptcy.

These days, instead of being stuck between believing she was abused and believing that she wasn't, Nicole's found a third option. She tries to care a little less. She can't dial down the uncertainty, so she tries to dial down the stakes.

Nicole Kleumper

I'm never going to know. I'm never going to know. And even after all these years, I think I still thought that at some point I would come to a solid decision, yes or no. And really, really, I'm never going to know. And that just has to be OK.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

There's so much that Nicole can't be certain of, so she hammered out a certainty about herself. She found a way forward. She became a pilot. She got two master's degrees and a PhD in psychology. She's now a therapist, like she's wanted since she was six.

And she's never cut her mom out of her life. Nicole's mom has always said that she never abused Nicole. She maintains that today. And she says she didn't tell Nicole to lie to Child Protective Services.

Her mom's in her 70s. They live in the same state. It's not an easy relationship.

Nicole Kleumper

There's a possibility that I ruined my biological mother's life. There's a tremendous amount of guilt associated with that. We're close for-- well, we're relatively close for a period of time, and then things sort of fall apart again, just as they have.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

When was the last time that you spoke?

Nicole Kleumper

Five months ago.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

And what was that like?

Nicole Kleumper

It's still awkward. It's still very pressured, if you will. She still wants very much for me to believe that she never did anything to me, and I still don't know. So it's really, really hard to move past that major sort of elephant in the room.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Do you ever talk about it?

Nicole Kleumper

No.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Is she able to accept that you might just not know?

Nicole Kleumper

No, I think she really wants me to believe that she didn't.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Do you think you could? Do you think there's anything that could change your mind?

Nicole Kleumper

No. The waters are so muddy now. There's no-- I'll never know one way or the other.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Nicole is no more certain about what happened today than she was when she was 16. She never flipped a coin and picked something to believe, but she landed on a certainty about what to do, that doesn't rest on what to believe. It doesn't matter what the evidence says, she wants her mom.

Ira Glass

Eleanor Gordon-Smith. A version of this story is in her new book, Stop Being Reasonable: How We Really Change Our Minds.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Neil Drumming and Emanuele Berry. The people who put our show together includes Whitney Dangerfield, Aviva DeKornfeld, Hillary Elkins, Damien Graef, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Catherine Raimondo, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks today to John and Joe Teche, a.k.a. The Jetsyns, Amy Burtain, Michelle Johnson, and Keith Woods. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks as always to our show's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He is so excited about the superhero he created, this guy who gets bit by a radioactive seagull, patrols the beaches, saving lives. Torey swears it's super popular.

Gary Gulman

The Gulman is getting huge. The Gulman is getting huge.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - BRENDA RUSSELL, "A LITTLE BIT OF LOVE"]

(SINGING) A little bit of love can go a long, long way. So what you're thinking of.