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691: Gardens of Branching Paths

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

OK, so one of my co-workers, David Kestenbaum, started telling me about this thing. And really, I thought he was completely-- I just-- there was no way it could be true. It just seemed completely ridiculous. And then, I got to say, the more he explained, the more it slowly started to seem like, OK, maybe he's right.

Important fact to know about David before we go any further-- he has a PhD in physics, worked at Fermilab on subatomic particles, was on the team that discovered the top quark. And then this whole thing between him and me began when he told me to download an app onto my iPhone.

David Kestenbaum

It's called Universe Splitter.

[DING]

Ira Glass

OK, so now I've opened it up. And there's, like, a gray steel, fake steel background. And it says in white type on top of it, Universe Splitter, quantum-induced universe bifurcation. What do I do now?

David Kestenbaum

All right, so tell me something you are having trouble making up your mind about what to do.

Ira Glass

You and I are recording this on December 31.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And I've had a week off. I grew a beard.

David Kestenbaum

I noticed.

Ira Glass

And I'm trying to decide if I should shave it off. And so that's something I'm trying to decide.

David Kestenbaum

I have an opinion on that, but--

Ira Glass

What's your opinion?

David Kestenbaum

[LAUGHS] Actually, I think it looks pretty good right now.

Ira Glass

OK, so what does this Universe Splitter do?

David Kestenbaum

It lets you do both. Like, it creates a duplicate of this universe so that in one you get to grow the beard, and in the other you shave it off.

Ira Glass

Wait, that's what we're going to do?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah.

Ira Glass

For pretend or for real?

David Kestenbaum

No, no, for real, maybe. This is a thing. It's called the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. And there are a lot of really smart physicists who think this is probably what's happening.

Ira Glass

OK, so how does this work? Like, what do I do next?

David Kestenbaum

All right, so there are two boxes there?

Ira Glass

Yeah. In one box it says, In one universe, I will now.

David Kestenbaum

OK, so put, shave off beard tonight.

Ira Glass

Hold on-- shave off beard tonight. OK, and then the other box is labeled, In the other universe. In the other one, I will now--

David Kestenbaum

Put keep beard.

Ira Glass

Keep beard.

David Kestenbaum

OK. And then what's below it?

Ira Glass

And then below it there's like a button with like, an atom drawn on it.

David Kestenbaum

[LAUGHS] Yeah.

Ira Glass

Like an atom like you would draw it in a 1950s cartoon.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, that's like the aesthetic of the whole thing. It's like an old piece of scientific equipment.

Ira Glass

So what does it do when you push the button?

David Kestenbaum

So if you push the button, it sends a signal to a fancy piece of scientific equipment at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. And the equipment these days can be tiny, like a little box you can hold in your hand. And it does the following. It takes a single particle of light, a photon, it sends it at a kind of mirror that can make the photon either go left or right. You can think of it that way.

Ira Glass

Like at random it'll go either left or right?

David Kestenbaum

Well, according to the laws of quantum mechanics, which govern very small things, it actually goes both. It's not that we don't know. It actually goes left and right at the same time.

Ira Glass

OK.

David Kestenbaum

So that's super weird, right? But that is actually true, and demonstrated, and like we've known that since the '20s.

Ira Glass

OK. So then what happens in this device in Geneva?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, so the device fires a photon which can go left or right. And then the device looks to see, well, where did it go? And we know the particle's in both places, right? But when the machine looks, it only finds it in one place. It shows it went either left or right, which doesn't make sense, right? Because we know from the math that the particle did go to both places. So why did we only see it in one of those places?

Ira Glass

And what's the answer?

David Kestenbaum

All right, so one of the answers is that the photon is in both places, left and right, but just in different universes.

Ira Glass

Wait. So you're saying that when you shoot the photon into the mirror, it actually creates an entire duplicate of our universe. And in one of those universes, the photon is on the left, and the other it is on the right?

David Kestenbaum

Yes. It both went left and right. Those are just in different universes. The math of it makes a lot of-- the math of it is very, like, streamlined and simple. I remember the day I saw it in class, and I was like, oh, my god. Maybe it's true.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

So those boxes you filled out on the app--

Ira Glass

You mean the box where I typed in "shave off beard tonight", and the box where I typed in, keep beard?

David Kestenbaum

Right, right. So it'll basically choose one of those boxes if the photon goes left, and the other box if the photon goes right.

Ira Glass

OK, got it.

David Kestenbaum

You have to do what it says.

Ira Glass

You mean I have to keep the beard or shave off the beard like it tells me?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. Yeah, because when you press that button, you're going to get back one answer. But there's going to be a duplicate universe in which there is a duplicate you sitting in a duplicate studio and a duplicate me and you holding a duplicate phone in exactly the same way. The only difference is that that phone comes back with the other answer.

Ira Glass

And then that version of me will do whatever it says on the phone?

David Kestenbaum

We know that other guy. We trust him. He's going to go do the other.

Ira Glass

OK, I think I understand all this. Let's go ahead.

David Kestenbaum

Do you want to press the button?

Ira Glass

Yeah, go ahead. Push it.

David Kestenbaum

[LAUGHS] I do feel weird about it. I feel weird. I know it's crazy. I feel weird.

Ira Glass

You literally just put your finger right up to the button and pulled it away in fear.

David Kestenbaum

All right, here it goes-- the split universe.

[BEEP]

Ira Glass

OK, it says, Input valid. Internet contacted. Geneva online. Device ready. Photon emitted. Quantum event.

[ROCKET BLASTING]

Your universe has just split. You're in the universe in which you should keep beard. And right now in the other universe, the other you is being told to shave off beard tonight.

So after that, I kept the beard that night. And friends at New Year's parties asked me about it. And if the universe did in fact split, the other version of me in the other universe must have had different conversations. Maybe for instance somebody gave him a great idea for a show today that, in that universe, instead of airing this show, in that universe you're hearing a totally different theme.

Ira Glass

And David, just to be sure I'm understanding this, you're saying this isn't a metaphor. You're saying there are scientists who really believe that a second universe gets created?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think it's not most physicists. And there are some who think it's ridiculous, for sure. But there are some would take it very seriously.

Ira Glass

OK, where is this alternate universe that we're creating?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, I don't really even know how to think about this. But if this is true, the universe is duplicating itself all the time. It's like a fundamental thing about existence.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, in a universe that may be duplicating itself all the time, we have people who have become entranced by the idea of a parallel universe out there where things are different. In one of those stories, things are better in the alternate world in one crucial way. In another story, two parallel worlds overlap. In another, a woman tries to visit-- she actually tries to go to the parallel universe. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Dreams From My Father

Ira Glass

Act 1, Dreams From My Father. So I was e-mailing with a fiction writer that we have on our show sometimes, Etgar Keret, about today's theme. And he told me that his father used to spend a lot of time imagining worlds like we're talking about in today's program-- parallel worlds to ours that are almost the same as our world, but not quite. And he said his father did this starting during World War II. His father was 14, living in Poland-- he was Jewish-- when the Germans invaded and started sending Jews to the concentration camps.

Etgar Keret

During the Second World War, him and his parents, they hid in a hole in the ground that they dug for 620 days. So he had a lot of spare time.

And when he was there, he would imagine all kinds of things. He would imagine a world in which the Nazis didn't exist, or in which he wasn't a Jew, or in which people just in general didn't kill each other, you know? And this kind of thing was something that he associated with being a child. Then he kind of felt that it interested him as a child, then I will probably like it too.

Ira Glass

Back during the war, his father couldn't leave that hole for almost two years. The Nazi headquarters was right there near the hole on the same property. A Christian farmer in his 80s would bring them food and haul out buckets of urine. They couldn't even talk a lot of the time. Etgar imagines it was like two years of meditation.

Etgar Keret

My father, the way that he would talk about his time in the hole, he would say that he would sleep, and then he would wake up, and then he would ask his father if the war was over. And his father would say no, so he would go and sleep some more. That's the way he would tell it to me. I think it's that kind of-- the softcore version.

Ira Glass

And was it like, when you say a hole, could they even stand up?

Etgar Keret

No. They couldn't stand in it, and they couldn't even lie down in it. They had to sit in it. And when the Russians liberated the town and they were brought out, they had to be carried out because their muscles were so cramped that, by the time of the end of the war, they couldn't move them.

Ira Glass

Oh, my god. So basically they're in this hole, and they're sitting there?

Etgar Keret

Yes. And you know, it's like it's very, very cold, you know? It's way beyond freezing. And you don't have food. And you hear voices in German, and you know that you can easily be killed. And you close your eyes, and you think of another universe.

Ira Glass

Etgar's written lots of fiction that imagines parallel worlds of various kinds. And when I asked him if he wanted to do something for today's show, he wrote this story-- a true story that starts when he was a kid.

Etgar Keret

When I was six years old, my dad worked at a pool snack bar not far from one of Tel Aviv's beaches. Every day at 5:30 in the morning he'd leave home for the pool, swim 2 kilometers, shower in the locker room, and get to work. He wouldn't get home till 9:00 at night. 14 hours a day, 7 days a week unloading boxes of soft drinks, dressing toasted sandwiches, brewing coffee in gleaming glasses at the pool snack bar up by the beach.

Years later, Dad always said those were the best days of his life, fondly remembering how the salty air blowing in from the sea would mix in his lungs with the smell of the coffee and the imported cigarettes he used to sell at the bar. Coffee, cigarettes, and the sea were always my father's three favorite things.

For me, those days were not quite as happy. When Dad came back from work, I was already in bed. And other than Saturdays when I'd go off to visit him at the pool with my mom, I never saw him at all. Not that I was bitter about this. Six-year-old children can't really imagine a different world for themselves, one where their father had more time for them. They accept reality as it is. And yet, I missed him dearly.

Seeing this, my mother suggested I go with him every morning to the pool, have a swim together, and take a cab to school from there. I don't remember anything of those morning swims, but the car rides with Dad are crystal clear.

It's still dark as we sit in our Silver Peugeot 504, the windows rolled down, Dad smoking Kent 100s and describing parallel universes that exist at this very moment in other dimensions-- universes where everything is precisely identical to ours-- same road, same traffic light, same cigarette in the corner of Dad's mouth-- all except for one tiny difference. And this difference Dad would change every morning, changing the one detail in the parallel universe that differed from ours.

Here we are in the parallel universe waiting at the exact same intersection for the light to change. Only in this universe, instead of a Silver Peugeot, we are riding a dragon. And here's another one where under my faded sweatpants hide gills which allow me to breathe under water like a fish.

When I was nine, my father got a new job. He no longer had to get up so early in the morning. And in the evenings, we'd all have dinner together and watch the nightly news. I was 22 by the time I moved out of my parents' house, but I still made sure to visit them at least twice a week. And on Saturdays, I'd swim with Dad at the pool where he once worked.

When I was 43, my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was tongue cancer, the result of 50 years of smoking. By the time the doctors caught on, it was at an advanced stage. And though we never spoke a word about it, it was obvious to us both that soon he was going to die.

On Mondays, I take him in for his physical therapy. And as we sat in the waiting room to see the physical therapist with the British accent, my father sometimes still talked about parallel universes where everything was exactly the same as ours, save for one difference-- say, that dogs could speak, or that people could read minds, or that the sky was purple. And when the milk white clouds floated across it, they looked tasty enough to eat.

At the end of every session, the physical therapist would show me how to hold my father's arm when we walked together and what I should do in case he lost his balance. On our way home as we approached the corner of King Solomon and Arlozorov, Dad would always stop. "Do you smell that?" he'd say, and point to the new cafe at the corner. "Just by the smell of it, I can tell you that's the best coffee in town."

At this stage of his illness, the tongue cancer was so advanced my father could no longer eat or drink. Instead, he got all his food and liquids through a clear plastic tube straight to his stomach. On one of these Mondays after physical therapy while walking by the corner cafe on King Solomon and Arlozorov, my father, instead of just posing to praise the place as usual, suggested we actually go in for a cup of coffee.

"Dad," I said after a moment's hesitation, "you can't drink anything. The tumor is blocking your esophagus." "I know," he said and patted me on the back, "but you can."

We sat at a corner table on the sidewalk. I ordered a latte and a glass of water from the pretty waitress. And when she asked my father what he'd like, he asked for a double espresso. I stared at him, confused, and he smiled and shrugged. The waitress noticed Dad's guilty smile and gave me a questioning look. Not knowing what to say, I ordered an oatmeal cookie.

Until the coffee arrived, we sat in silence. I wanted to ask my father why he'd ordered the coffee at all and if it had anything to do with the waitress being pretty, but I said nothing. Dad pulled a cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket and a lighter he had stored in his glasses case and set them both down on the table. We waited.

A few minutes later, the waitress returned with our order. She placed it on the table-- a latte, a glass of water, and a cookie in front of me, and a double espresso in front of Dad. Aromatic steam rose from my coffee. I wanted to drink it. But doing that in Dad's face seemed unfair, so I just kept staring at it.

When out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father quickly snatch the double espresso off the table and gulp it down in one sip. It was impossible. I knew it was impossible. After all, I was there in the room when the oncologists showed me and my mother the X-ray with the tumor resting above the blocked esophagus like a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a waffle cone.

My father, she said then, could never drink again. And here we were sitting together on a pleasant summer day at this hipster cafe, me still staring at my steaming cup of coffee, and him by my side, smiling after killing off his double espresso.

And for a moment there, I thought maybe we were in a parallel universe. Maybe he told me enough stories ever since I was a little boy to tear open a hole in the aching heart of our universe through which we were sucked into a parallel one, identical to our own in every way save for one exception. In this universe, my dad could drink and eat as much as he liked, and he was not about to die in just a few months.

The piping hot coffee slid down my father's windpipe and into his lungs. When it got there, Dad started to choke. He stood up and grabbed his throat with both hands. The wet wheezing noises he made were horrific-- the sound of a man whose lungs are flooded with hot coffee. A bespectacled man from the table next to us leaped up and asked my father if he needed any help.

I just sat there paralyzed. The parallel universe I had shared with my father moments ago had vanished, dropping me back into a far worse universe. A few more seconds of gargling followed, after which Dad leaned over and coughed up, evacuating all the fine Italian espresso that had filled his lungs.

When he was done, he sat up in his chair as if nothing had happened, inches away from the puddle of coffee and phlegm, and lit himself a cigarette. People at the tables around us kept staring at him. "What did I tell you?" He smiled at me and exhaled smoke from his nostrils. "The best coffee in town."

Ira Glass

Etgar Keret. He's the author of many books. He writes about his dad and the rest of his family in stories a lot like this one-- emotional fables that happen to be true-- in his book, The Seven Good Years.

Act Two: Sorry/Not Sorry

Ira Glass

Act 2, Sorry, Not Sorry. So it's kind of grim to say this, but the moon landing-- that story of American triumph-- it could've gone in another way. In some other storyline from the multiverse, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they land on the moon, they walk around, it's great. But then there's a problem, and they cannot take off to come home. NASA thought this was the most dangerous moment in the mission, the most likely spot it could fail.

One of President Richard Nixon's speechwriters, William Safire, actually prepared a statement to be read in case that was the way the story went. At the top of the page in all caps it read, "In the event of moon disaster,"-- first line of the speech-- "fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore it in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace." Pretty good.

David Kestenbaum has this next story about another presidential speech, never delivered, that also feels like it slipped into our world from a parallel universe. You can find this speech framed, hanging in the guest bathroom of a home in California. Here's David.

David Kestenbaum

The speech was to be read on the night of August 17, 1998. It's in the house of Bob Shrum, because he wrote it. Shrum was a longtime Democratic political strategist, speechwriter, and getter-outer of tight spots.

David Kestenbaum

Are you personally good at apologizing?

Bob Shrum

Oh, I've had to apologize so many times for so many things-- sure.

David Kestenbaum

What's the most recent thing you apologized for?

Bob Shrum

Having a fight with my wife about what we were giving various people as Christmas gifts.

David Kestenbaum

This story is about an apology he wrote for a much bigger audience. That August, 1998, Shrum was on vacation in Idaho staying with some friends, and the phone rang.

Bob Shrum

Well, I didn't have a cell phone then, so somehow or other-- oh, my office called me and said Mark was trying to reach me.

David Kestenbaum

Mark is Mark Penn, who at the time was conducting polls and advising the President of the United States, who at the time was Bill Clinton, who at the time was in a lot of hot water.

Mark Penn

Impeachment might very well be an option-- tampering with witnesses, obstruction of justice are very, very serious charges.

David Kestenbaum

A moment when one political party said there were very valid high crimes and misdemeanors, and the other party said that's ridiculous political posturing. Anyway, there had been stories in the press for months at this point that Clinton might have had an affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton denied it, though, under oath in a civil case, and famously on television.

[CAMERAS CLICKING]

Bill Clinton

But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

David Kestenbaum

But there was the dress with Clinton's DNA on it and recorded phone calls between Monica Lewinsky and a co-worker talking about the affair. At the time Bob Shrum got the call, President Clinton was finally going to have to testify before independent counsel Ken Starr's grand jury. He would have to own up to the affair, and then afterwards say something to the nation. But what?

That was what the phone call was about. Shrum called Mark Penn back, who asked if he would take a shot at writing a speech for the president to be delivered on TV just after he gave his grand jury testimony. It would be the president's chance to frame the whole thing, maybe finally put it away and prevent the Republicans from starting impeachment proceedings. The country would be watching. Bob Shrum said OK. He hung up the phone and told his wife and the couple they were staying with on vacation what the assignment was.

Bob Shrum

One of the people there said, this better be good.

David Kestenbaum

Meaning you better do a good job?

Bob Shrum

Yes.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah.

Bob Shrum

So I sat at the dining room table and I wrote in longhand on a yellow pad, which is how I've always written. I drafted it.

David Kestenbaum

What he wrote was a straight up, direct apology.

David Kestenbaum

Do you have it there with you?

Bob Shrum

It's on the-- well, actually, I can go get it. You want to hold on for a second?

David Kestenbaum

Shrum went to go get it from where it was hanging in what he calls the guest powder room. And to be clear, there's other political memorabilia in there. It's a speech he's proud of.

David Kestenbaum

Can you read the speech for me?

Bob Shrum

Yeah. It's not very long, so I will.

"My fellow Americans, no one who is not in my position can understand fully the remorse I feel today. Since I was very young, I have had a profound reverence for this office I hold. I've been honored that you, the people, have entrusted it to me. I am proud of what we have accomplished together.

But in this case, I have fallen short of what you should expect from a president. I have failed my own religious faith and values. I have let too many people down. I take full responsibility for my actions-- for hurting my wife and daughter, for hurting Monica Lewinsky and her family, for hurting friends and staff, and for hurting the country I love. None of this ever should have happened."

David Kestenbaum

Then he has Clinton apologizing for misleading people about the affair. And this is how it ends.

Bob Shrum

"Finally, I also want to apologize to all of you, my fellow citizens. I hope that you can find it in your heart to accept my apology. I pledge to you that I will make every effort of mind and spirit to earn your confidence again, to be worthy of this office, and to finish the work on which we have made such remarkable progress in the past six years. God bless you, and good night."

David Kestenbaum

How does it feel reading that?

Bob Shrum

I mean, I remember writing it. I thought it was the right thing for him to say. And when I hear it now, I still think it's the right thing for him to say.

David Kestenbaum

It's notable that Shrum had the president apologizing to Monica Lewinsky and her family. At the time, Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, called her, quote, "a young tramp."

She was the subject of jokes on late night television. Bill Maher said, "I think Monica Lewinsky is the one who should apologize to America." No one seemed to be thinking about her as a person whose life was now a wreck. Shrum was.

Bob Shrum

Well, I mean, she was an intern, a kid in the White House. And I thought that that made every bit of sense in the world.

David Kestenbaum

Shrum sent the speech into the White House. And then the day arrived. Clinton gave his grand jury testimony, which was not broadcast. And that evening, the president went on TV to give his speech. Shrum sat down with the rest of the country to watch it.

Bob Shrum

We were just sitting around in the living room, watching it on television.

David Kestenbaum

And at that point are you thinking, maybe he's going to read my speech?

Bob Shrum

Sure. I thought he might very well-- Bill Clinton, who I worked with on State of the Union messages, never exactly reads what you send him. So I didn't anticipate that it would be necessarily word for word what I had sent, but I thought it might be pretty close to it. It was almost diametrically the opposite.

Bill Clinton

Good evening. This afternoon in this room, from this chair, I testified before the office of independent counsel and the grand jury. I answered their questions truthfully, including questions about my private life, questions no American citizen would ever want to answer.

Bob Shrum

I not only remember hearing the first words, but I remember the look on his face. He was really, really angry. It's the private Bill Clinton who could get angry. And I have seen him angry, but I don't think the country had seen him angry very often.

Bill Clinton

As you know, in a deposition in January, I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information. Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.

David Kestenbaum

There are moments of apology in there and what feel like honest reflection, like when he straight up admits the reasons he had been so evasive until then.

Bill Clinton

I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors-- first, by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct.

David Kestenbaum

But the overall message is not I'm sorry. I screwed up, he seems to be saying, but the real problem is the fact that I'm having to talk about this at all. It's a private family matter.

Bill Clinton

It's nobody's business but ours. Even presidents have private lives.

David Kestenbaum

He closes not by asking for forgiveness, as Shrum had advised, but by asking people to stop gawking.

Bill Clinton

And so tonight, I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse, and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century. Thank you for watching, and good night.

David Kestenbaum

What do you think would have happened if instead that night he'd taken out your speech and read it?

Bob Shrum

I think it would have lessened the chances that he would've been impeached.

David Kestenbaum

Really?

Bob Shrum

I don't know that it would have prevented the impeachment, but I think it would have lessened the chances.

David Kestenbaum

It's possible his speech gets you to the same ending, just with a slightly different plot. And after all, there was a lot of momentum in Congress toward impeachment. But it's nice to contemplate a world where the leader of your country can stand up and acknowledge having made a mistake, can acknowledge reality.

An apology really is about the truth-- laying it out so we can all live in the same world together. It's impossible to imagine that happening now. Clinton seemed closer to it at that moment, but he still couldn't do it.

David Kestenbaum

I wonder, of all the possible universes, in how many of them does Clinton say I'm sorry, you know? Not I'm sorry for what happened, or I'm sorry if people feel-- but really like I'm sorry.

Bob Shrum

There may be a universe in which he did that. I'm just not aware of it, because I don't live in it.

David Kestenbaum

[LAUGHS] Yeah, that's not the one we live in.

You want to know what I think? I think it's possible there is no universe in which President Clinton reads Bob Shrum's speech. Listening to the speech Clinton did give, I kind of think he gives it in every possible universe. It was exactly how he felt.

David Kestenbaum

And the speech that you wrote, while great, was not at all how he was feeling at that moment.

Bob Shrum

Obviously, the speech that I drafted did not reflect how he felt coming out of the grand jury.

David Kestenbaum

In that sense, can you fault him?

Bob Shrum

I just think you want to do what fits the moment, and you want to be true to yourself. The problem was that, I think, he was true to the angry guy who had just come out of the room, you know? He was maybe not true to the person he was the next day.

David Kestenbaum

There are the yous in all the parallel worlds, but also the you on Thursday and the one on Friday, the one who's had some time to think, and some sleep, and a sandwich. For sure, those are different people.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum. In some other universe, he stayed a physicist for all of his life. In this one, he is the executive editor of our program.

Bill Clinton, by the way, later wrote about this address to the nation that night in his biography. He does not mention Shrum's draft of the speech, but he does say that most of his advisors had counseled him to simply admit that he had made an awful mistake-- not to go out swinging. He did anyway, of course.

Weeks after that speech, he backtracked in front of a smaller audience at a prayer breakfast with religious leaders. He took a different tone there. He said, "I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified I was not contrite enough." It was much closer to what Shrum had written. He included an apology to Monica Lewinsky and her family.

Coming up, worried that you're living in a parallel universe where some very basic facts about your own life have been altered? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Gardens of Branching Paths, stories of parallel worlds and people who get fixated on the way things could be in those other worlds. In the first half of today's show, we had people imagining other better worlds. In this half, we have people pondering the alternate worlds that are right here around us all the time in this world.

Act Three: Sklar-Crossed Brothers

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act 3 of our show, Act 3-- Scar-Crossed Brothers.

So if you think about it, being an identical twin is kind of a parallel world situation. You know, you have this other version of yourself stuck in the same world as you, stuck in the same house as you. You see somebody who's just like you running around, doing things that you might not do.

Dana Chivvis has this next story about a mother, her twins, and a 48-year-old mystery.

Dana Chivvis

Annette Sklar had a lot going on in the winter of '72. In January, she delivered twin boys-- Jason first, followed by Randy 5 minutes later. Weighing 5 pounds, 2 ounces, Randy had to spend the first days of life in an incubator.

They lived in suburban St. Louis. Annette's husband Dick had a job at a paper company, called Tension Envelope. He worked long hours and traveled a lot. Annette was often at home alone caring for two infants-- feeding them, changing diapers, and making sure she didn't lose track of which one was which, because they looked exactly alike.

Dana Chivvis

Were you always scared that you might mix them up? Like from the day they were born, was that a real fear?

Annette Sklar

I tried to be really careful about knowing who either had-- what outfit they were on. I knew-- I was really careful about it. So usually, we had outfits in different colors-- blue, blue Jay, and red, Randy red. And then I didn't think about it too much, once I knew it was.

Dana Chivvis

OK.

Annette Sklar

[LAUGHS] That's how we did it.

Dana Chivvis

That's a good system.

Annette Sklar

I mean, I think I did feed them twice, one of them, and didn't feed the other one. That happens, sometimes. You did that. You did that. One of them was eating, the other one was crying a lot. And I go, why is he crying so much?

Dana Chivvis

She even had a back-up-- a creative redundancy she built into the safety plan for their identities. And that was diaper pins. She used blue diaper pins for Jason, and yellow ones for Randy.

Everything went smoothly for a while. And then at six weeks, they had their first check-up. Annette dressed them in the same outfit-- a fancy number their aunt in Los Angeles had sent them. But underneath the clothes, the diaper pin system was up and running.

At the doctor's office, a nurse took the babies out of the room. Annette can't really remember why. Maybe she needed to weigh them. And a few minutes later, the nurse came back in with the boys.

Annette Sklar

And she goes, oh, we have such a great surprise for you. Now we have Pampers. We're just using them for the first time. So instead of using your diapers, we used your Pampers.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, no.

Annette Sklar

And then they gave me all four of their tins.

Dana Chivvis

The nurse had changed the babies out of their cloth diapers and put them into disposable ones, foiling the system entirely. She handed Annette a little bag with the diaper pins in it. The boys were completely indistinguishable.

Annette Sklar

I was very upset. So they go, oh, you're going to be fine. You're fine. Of course, they go, you're fine. And we got in the car, and I was so upset the whole way home.

Dana Chivvis

When she got home, Annette put the babies on the couch and stared at them. At six weeks old, they didn't have distinct personalities yet. They weighed the same amount. They had the same bald heads. No birthmarks.

Annette Sklar

And I'm not kidding you, they looked exactly alike. And so I was thinking I was a really terrible mother.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, no.

Annette Sklar

Then how can I really look at this and not see my own children and not know which ones they are?

Linda Wallace

You know, she called me in a panic. And she just said, I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know which one's which. I don't know what to do.

Dana Chivvis

This is Annette's best friend Linda Wallace-- Aunt Linda, as Jason and Randy know her. She lived in the same subdivision.

Dana Chivvis

Did you go over there to try to help her?

Linda Wallace

No, I didn't.

Dana Chivvis

Yeah.

Linda Wallace

Because if she couldn't tell them apart, how would I be able to tell them apart?

Dana Chivvis

Right.

Linda Wallace

I mean, I couldn't tell them apart, you know? She had the pins.

Dana Chivvis

Yeah. [LAUGHS] Were you nervous to tell Dick? Were you nervous to tell your husband?

Annette Sklar

Yes.

Dana Chivvis

You were?

Annette Sklar

Yes. I was really nervous. So when he came home, and he saw them, and they were in their crib-- and so finally, I had to tell him. I go, I have to tell you what happened. And I told him. And he goes, really? He goes, oh, we'll figure it out. Let's see.

And then we were both looking at both of them right next to each other. And then of course, they had the Pampers on, and nothing. And he's going, I don't know. What do you think it is? (LAUGHING) I go, I don't know.

Dana Chivvis

Annette was faced with a decision. She had to choose which baby was Jason and which one was Randy. She had nothing to go on but a maternal feeling, so she chose. Dick agreed with her.

Annette Sklar

I really, always felt like I had the right person in my heart. I just said it is, and I'm not going to think about it anymore. This is my life. We know who they are, and it is who they are. And we're not going to talk about it anymore.

Dana Chivvis

Aunt Linda? Not so convinced.

Dana Chivvis

Do you think she got it right? Do you think Annette got it right?

Linda Wallace

I don't know.

Dana Chivvis

You don't know?

Linda Wallace

I mean, I don't think she knows. She says she did, but how does she know? I mean, there's no way. They were so-- they looked so much alike, and so I'm not sure.

Dana Chivvis

Jason and Randy are 48 years old now. They're comedians. They work together. They've done cameos on different TV shows, like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Better Call Saul. And they still look exactly the same.

Dana Chivvis

Randy, can you describe what Jason looks like?

Randy Sklar

He's very good looking. Jason, he is very Semitic looking. He's got glasses. He's about 5 foot, 8 and 1/2.

Jason Sklar

That's generous.

Randy Sklar

Somewhat athletic looking.

Jason Sklar

Less generous.

Dana Chivvis

They found out about their potentially swapped identities when they were about 12 years old, by accident. They were spending a summer weekend at the world famous Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri with their mom and Aunt Linda and her two sons. The boys were playing while Annette and Aunt Linda talked amongst themselves. The story of the calamitous doctor's visit came up. And unbeknownst to them, Jason and Randy were in earshot, and they overheard the whole thing.

Jason Sklar

And we were just-- we hated the story.

Dana Chivvis

This is Jason. He sounds remarkably like Randy.

Jason Sklar

We were livid that this could have happened, and also that she was sharing it in sort of an offhand kind of joking way. And Linda Wallace, who is a funny woman, was making it funnier. And they were laughing about it. And we were like-- we were just very embarrassed by it and upset by it. Like, oh my god, this is an insane thing to hear, because we may not be who we are.

Dana Chivvis

What pissed you off about it? What was so upsetting about it?

Jason Sklar

I think that it just was we were just sensitive, I think, to being confused. And again, it was this narrative that kind of went through our lives, as we wanted to be individuals and we wanted to be seen as individuals. And then here's this thing that happened where we could be so easily confused.

Dana Chivvis

For identical twins-- two people who are constantly being mistaken for one another, who try really hard to make it clear that they're unique individuals-- this was a big deal. Randy was the most upset.

Annette Sklar

He goes, why can't you go to the policemen? I think Randy really wanted me to go there. We were talking all the way to the car.

Dana Chivvis

Not that an actual crime had been committed, just a crime against their dignity. But for some reason, Randy figured the police were the ones who could sort it out. But Annette did not go to the police. And the name confusion did not get sorted out, it remained a mystery in Jason and Randy's lives.

Linda Wallace

The couple times that it was brought up throughout their years, if somebody said something about it, they would go, I don't want to hear about it. Don't bring it up again.

Dana Chivvis

Wow. I had no idea it was that painful for them.

Linda Wallace

I mean, it was a joke between Annette and I that I'm not sure was a joke between all of us, because they were very sensitive about it.

Randy Sklar

Just the simple fact of the matter that for countless times in our lives, someone has said to me, Jason? And I'm like, nope, I'm Randy.

Dana Chivvis

Right.

Randy Sklar

You know? Like, that that's happened so many times in my life. If that's not true, there is--

Jason Sklar

You have to go back to every single one of those people and apologize.

Randy Sklar

--and apologize. No, but there's a notion that you've been living a little bit of a lie. It's a tiny lie, but it's not your lie.

Jason Sklar

Not your lie.

Randy Sklar

It's not your lie, and it's not your fault. But still, that's unsettling in a weird way, to me. That's just weird that for all this time I had it wrong.

Dana Chivvis

If they were switched, then they have to re-imagine something that's so foundational nobody ever thinks about it-- their birth. Who's older? Who was in the incubator? Like Randy says, it's weird. It doesn't really make a difference, but also somehow it does. And not knowing what the truth is, that's even more unnerving.

It turns out there was one way to figure it out. Sometime around the age of 40-- Randy can't remember exactly when-- the topic of their potentially swapped identities came up. And they were like, why haven't we figured this out yet? They were grown ass adults. They should know who they actually were. And also, they were working as comedians at that point, and they thought it might be good material, which-- we'll see.

Randy thought maybe the hospital where they were born would have a copy of their baby fingerprints. They could get those and compare them to their adult fingerprints. He wasn't wrong about the science part of that. Identical twins have nearly the same DNA, so their fingerprint patterns are very similar-- closer than anyone else's.

As you probably know, fingerprints are made up of lines. And some of those lines have tiny variations in them, like forks or loops. And those markings are different between identical twins. For those of you still listening, the reason for that is that the markings develop based on the conditions in the womb, like pressure, which is different depending on where the baby is in the womb.

So Randy called the hospital where they were born to see if they still had a copy of their fingerprints. The hospital told them that they throw birth records out after 30 years. They were old and out of luck.

Randy Sklar

Until I was back home last summer with my family--

Dana Chivvis

This is Randy.

Randy Sklar

--and I was digging through, just looking at stuff--

Jason Sklar

In St. Louis.

Randy Sklar

--in St. Louis. I was back in our childhood home that we had lived in since we were four years old. And I found from the hospital our footprints. I couldn't believe it.

Dana Chivvis

Where were they?

Randy Sklar

They were in a book--

Jason Sklar

A chest--

Randy Sklar

--inside of the--

Jason Sklar

--next to your bed, right?

Randy Sklar

Next to my bed, there was like a nightstand thing that was like a chest that you could open up. And it was just in the bottom of that. I couldn't believe it. And I'd never seen it there before. And I thought, OK, we could find out. It became more real.

Jason Sklar

Real, and the possibility was rekindled.

Dana Chivvis

If they could find someone to compare their adult footprints to their baby footprints, maybe they could put this mystery to bed once and for all. As luck would have it, there was just such a person in Buena Park, California, about 25 miles from Los Angeles where Jason and Randy now live-- a forensic identification specialist by the name of Kurt Kuhn.

But Kurt said there was no way he could use a baby footprint from a hospital. Those aren't made for identification purposes, they're made because baby feet are freaking cute. They're mementos, and they usually don't have much detail.

In June, Jason sent Kurt the footprints anyway, just to check. And when Kurt saw them, he confirmed that they were mostly just unusable smudges of ink. But miraculously, there was a half-inch spot on the ball of the left Jason foot that had nice, clear lines. He shouldn't have any problem making the identification. He just needed Jason and Randy's adult feet.

Faced with the imminent revelation of their true identities, Jason and Randy were forced to think through what they would actually do if they'd been switched as babies, which, let's be honest, is not a long list of considerations.

Dana Chivvis

Do you think you'd swap names?

Randy Sklar

Or would we legally change our names to each other's names?

Dana Chivvis

Right. If you are swapped, then you're kind of like committing fraud all the time right now.

Randy Sklar

I guess, yeah.

Jason Sklar

Unintentionally.

Randy Sklar

Unintentional fraud, yeah. Well, I would be using his social security number.

Dana Chivvis

Right.

Randy Sklar

You know, how does that affect everything we do?

Dana Chivvis

I wonder if it does. I mean, maybe it only matters if one of you commits murder barefoot, and then runs through wet cement or something.

Randy Sklar

Right.

Dana Chivvis

Maybe practically, it doesn't actually matter.

Jason Sklar

That one's out. We can't do that.

Randy Sklar

We can't do that now. Thanks a lot.

Dana Chivvis

Maybe it doesn't matter. I'm probably right about that. Except there's one person who Jason was legitimately worried about-- their mom, Annette, who they're very close with. Their father died in 2009. Annette's had two strokes in recent years. They're protective of her. What if she got it wrong all those years ago?

Jason Sklar

I would feel bad for our mom.

Dana Chivvis

Yeah, say more about that.

Jason Sklar

I would feel like maybe she would be embarrassed, or maybe she would feel like she should have spoken up and maybe found out a way in that moment to get our footprints and just dispel it and figure it out.

Dana Chivvis

Annette, however, was not concerned.

Annette Sklar

I just have a feeling, that's all-- my feeling, my definite feeling that I know who's who. I know who you are. I'm the mother. I know.

Randy Sklar

What if it's different? You want me to change my name? What if I became Jason and Jason became me?

Annette Sklar

Then you have to have different girlfriends.

[LAUGHTER]

Randy Sklar

You mean wives? Mom.

Dana Chivvis

A few days before Thanksgiving, I flew to LA and met Randy, Jason, and Annette at Randy's house where Annette was spending the holiday. We left her at home with her grandchildren and headed down the 5 towards Buena Park, and hopefully resolution. Randy said he was feeling remarkably zen. But Jason?

Jason Sklar

I feel more nervous today than ever before about this. Like, I think when we got into this, I was like, oh, this is going to be so interesting and fascinating. But I really want my mom to be right. Like, I want to be me. I don't know. I just woke up this morning saying, god, I hope my mom was right.

Dana Chivvis

We turned off the highway, drove through the gates of Kurt's subdivision, and pulled up to a house with a Winnebago out front.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, it's a Winnebago.

The garage door was halfway down, and behind it we could see a pair of white legs that ended in a sock tan and flip-flops.

Dana Chivvis

Kurt?

The garage door lifted to reveal Kurt--

Jason Sklar

What's up?

Dana Chivvis

--a tall man with a full mustache and a voice like a cartoon bear.

Kurt Kuhn

And you're not coming in through the garage. Get on the front porch. Let me get rid of the trash and take them--

Dana Chivvis

All right.

Randy Sklar

Done. Done and doner.

Dana Chivvis

We stepped into Kurt's living room, met his wife and granddaughter.

Jason Sklar

Hey, I'm Jason. Nice to meet you.

Dana Chivvis

We made an impressive amount of small talk about Thanksgiving, Winnebagos, hunting.

Kurt Kuhn

Well, have you ever bitten into birdshot while eating?

Jason Sklar

I have not, no.

Dana Chivvis

I have, actually.

Kurt Kuhn

So-- [LAUGHS]

Dana Chivvis

Kurt spent 25 and a half years working as a forensic identification specialist for the Beverly Hills and Los Angeles Police Departments.

Jason Sklar

There it is right there, yep.

Dana Chivvis

He shows us Jason and Randy's baby footprints. He'd had them locked in his safe for five months.

Kurt Kuhn

Take those.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, they're so cute.

It's time to take their adult footprints.

Dana Chivvis

All right, so what do we do?

Kurt Kuhn

Sit down and get rid of a left shoe and sock.

Dana Chivvis

Randy goes first. He puts his naked foot up on Kurt's knee. Kurt takes a special ink pad and presses it against his foot. Then he repeats the process with Jason. And that's it. We send them out the door to walk around the neighborhood while Kurt figures out who is actually Jason and who is actually Randy.

We go upstairs to his office where he scans the footprints and then pulls them up on his computer screen. He enlarges the baby one onscreen, because it's teeny, and stares at the lines comparing it to the adult footprint. After just 20 minutes, he's done. I text Jason and tell him to come back to the house.

Jason Sklar

OK, here we go.

Dana Chivvis

Welcome back.

Jason Sklar

Thank you.

Dana Chivvis

Kurt sits them back down on the couch and proceeds with a line of questioning I had not anticipated.

Kurt Kuhn

OK. Well, my first question is how many other babies were in the doctor's office that day?

Randy Sklar

I have no idea.

Dana Chivvis

Kurt, who's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, by the way, is screwing with them.

Jason Sklar

[INAUDIBLE] OK, let's hear it. Don't keep us in suspense.

Dana Chivvis

So he tells them.

Jason Sklar

Wow. Whoa. My god.

Randy Sklar

Oh, my god.

Dana Chivvis

Thanks, Kurt.

Kurt Kuhn

All right, safe travels. Have a good trip, you guys.

Jason Sklar

Thanks.

Dana Chivvis

Thank you. We'll be in touch soon, OK?

Kurt Kuhn

And you have a safe flight home.

Randy Sklar

Oh.

Jason Sklar

Oh, my god.

Randy Sklar

I'll turn off the air.

Dana Chivvis

No, I'm not going to tell you the results yet. On the drive back to Randy's house, their family calls. First, Randy's wife Amy who asks him not how are you, but who are you.

Kurt Kuhn

Hey.

Randy's Wife

Who are you?

Dana Chivvis

Then Randy's daughter Georgia calls with her sister and Jason's kids in the background.

Georgia

Are you you?

Randy Sklar

I'm going to reveal it when I get home.

Georgia

OK, wait. But can we go to the mall?

Jason's Kid

Can we go to the mall, please?

[DOOR OPENING]

Randy Sklar

We're home. Come on down.

Jason Sklar

Come on in.

Dana Chivvis

We walk back into the kitchen we left a few hours before. Annette is there with her four grandchildren. Jason and Randy's aunt and uncle are there too and an English bulldog named Roman. We gather around the kitchen island. Jason's five-year-old daughter, Noah, clings to him. Everyone's excited, a little nervous.

Randy Sklar

First of all-- OK, so first of all, how is everyone feeling?

Young Boy

Good. Oh, good! Just get to the point!

Young Girl

I'm nervous.

Randy Sklar

We got the results, and we found out that I am me and Uncle Jason is Uncle Jason.

[CHEERING]

Woman

I'm so proud of you.

[LAUGHTER]

Annette Sklar

I'm so glad. You actually saw it, for sure.

Dana Chivvis

Yes.

Annette Sklar

This is great.

Randy Sklar

For sure.

Annette Sklar

We don't have to think about it. But that's what I thought in my heart. I felt like--

Dana Chivvis

You were right.

Randy Sklar

So doesn't that make you feel like-- what does it make you feel like, that you got it--

Annette Sklar

Just in my heart, it felt like that's who you were, when you're a mother. And now I'm excited. [LAUGHING] I'm happy.

Randy Sklar

You feel good?

Annette Sklar

I'm excited.

Randy Sklar

I love that you're so happy.

Annette Sklar

I'm so happy.

Randy Sklar

So we went down, and he did our footprint. I know. Look, she's really so happy. She's like legitimately happy. Look at the smile on Mom's face. She's so happy.

Dana Chivvis

A day later, Randy got Aunt Linda on the phone and told her the good news.

Linda Wallace

Yahoo!

Randy Sklar

Yahoo. So that means that Mom and Dad were right.

Linda Wallace

Well, they had a 50/50 chance.

Randy Sklar

That's right. Thank you, Aunt Linda. Love you.

Linda Wallace

I love you too.

Dana Chivvis

So all is well in the Sklar family. Jason is still older than Randy by five minutes. Randy is still the one who spent time in an incubator. They haven't been committing unintentional fraud. They don't have to change their social security numbers. The world Annette said they were living in was indeed the world they were in all along.

Ira Glass

Dana Chivvis is one of the producers of our show.

Act Four: If I Lived Here, I’d Be Home Now

Ira Glass

Act 4, If I Lived Here, I'd Be Home Now. So our last story today is about somebody who tries to visit a parallel world, one that she almost lived in herself. Diane Wu explains.

Diane Wu

The universe Emily ended up in was like a postcard for old-timey America-- 10 acres in Vermont with five big brothers and sisters eating candy out of glass jars at the family general store.

Emily

Yeah, we just lived in this big house. And my parents were really strict. [LAUGHS] My parents were so strict. They always reminded me of the Von Trapp family, even though that's really extreme.

Diane Wu

Mm-hmm. A lot of rules, huh?

Emily

It was a lot of rules. It was very much do as I say.

Diane Wu

She almost lived a totally different life. Emily was adopted from South Korea when she was a baby. She's 40 now. And as a kid, she rarely thought about the world she came from, what her life would have been like there. It was the '80s. That kind of thing wasn't especially encouraged. Her family raised her not to ask many questions about her past, but there was one thing she really wanted to know about it.

Emily

I mean, mostly growing up I just really wondered what my birth mother looked like.

Diane Wu

Mm-hmm.

Emily

That was usually the question that always came to my mind.

Diane Wu

Her adoptive parents didn't look like her. They were white, as was most everybody else in town, so it was hard for her to picture her birth mother's face. But there was no one to ask.

A couple of decades later, Emily became a mother herself and suddenly, felt connected to and curious about her birth mother again. She started researching how to contact her and, two long years later, finally got in touch.

Then she decided to go on a trip to South Korea to meet her birth mother-- a trip that would allow her to tunnel between the universe that was into the universe that might have been. She recorded parts of it for a podcast called, Motherhood Sessions. All of Emily's emotions about the trip hit her on the way to the airport in New York when suddenly she found herself sobbing while talking to the cab driver.

Cab Driver

Do you have any family in Korea?

Emily

I'm meeting my birth mother for the first time.

Cab Driver

That is exciting for you. Who told about your birth mother?

Emily

I searched for her through the adoption agency. It took two years-- two years of searching.

Cab Driver

Oh, that's good. That's good. And what about your dad?

Emily

I don't know.

Cab Driver

You don't know?

Emily

I don't know.

Cab Driver

OK, don't worry about that anything. It should be better, everything. And it's a very blessing for you. You're going to meet your mother. I know. I know you're feeling, because you've spend your whole life without your mom.

Emily

[SOBS]

Cab Driver

I know you spent your whole life without your mom. You need your mom on when your children-- like you babies, you know?

Emily

Yeah.

Going on the plane, too, for me, it was kind of thinking about the last time I took that flight was when I was a baby. And touching down, I remember thinking that the last time I was here was when I was five months old.

Diane Wu

She had a day to settle in before she met her birth mother. It was the first time she'd ever been to Asia. And wandering around Seoul, it was so easy to imagine the other versions of her life all around her.

Emily

I'd go in stores, or in restaurants, and I'd think, oh, could I be that woman behind the counter working there? When I'd see a mom with her little girl, I'd be like, oh, wow, is that what it would've been like to walk down the street holding my mom's hand?

Diane Wu

On her second day in Korea, Emily carefully did her hair and makeup and headed to the adoption agency to meet her birth mother. Their reunion happened in a worn down meeting room in front of a bulletin board pinned with Christmas cards.

Emily

I see this short Korean woman walk in the door. And we hug, and I cry a lot.

Emily's Birth Mother

[SPEAKING KOREAN]

Emily

And she says [KOREAN], which means I'm sorry.

Diane Wu

It's the very first thing her birth mother says to her.

Emily

[SPEAKING KOREAN]. And I say [KOREAN], which means it's OK. [KOREAN]

[LAUGHTER]

It's like looking in a mirror.

Social Worker

[SPEAKING KOREAN]

Diane Wu

That's a social worker in the room translating for them. Emily's birth mother told her her story. She'd gotten pregnant as a teenager, which was completely shunned. There was no place in society for teenage single mothers.

A few days after Emily was born, a relative came by with a police officer and social worker, and they took Emily away. A week later, Emily's birth mother went to the police station, desperate to get her baby back. They told her it was too late.

She called the adoption agency several times over the years to check in on her daughter. Learned she'd been adopted by an American family. I talked with her on the phone. And when I asked her if she'd ever imagine the world where she did manage to get Emily back, she told me, I haven't really had those thoughts, but I always dreamt about her.

Seeing her birth mother's face, meeting her whole extended family later on that trip, it had a profound impact on Emily. I heard her talk about it on that podcast, Motherhood Sessions. And I was surprised and moved to hear her say that being in the same room with her birth family--

Emily

For the first time, I felt pretty, you know? Because growing up, your parents always tell you that you're pretty, or whatever. But I never really believed it. But being around this family, and we all look alike, you know? I felt like I was beautiful. And I had never felt it that deeply before.

Diane Wu

And what do you think is behind that feeling?

Emily

Because after growing up, living a lifetime of feeling like you don't fit in and wondering why maybe certain guys don't like you, or why maybe you're not the most popular person in school. You know, for the first time in my life, I felt like I made sense. I felt like my being made sense. I felt like my face made sense.

Diane Wu

Emily stayed with her birth family for three days in a town called Dongducheon in a little house by the railroad tracks. There were ceramic pots of kimchi in the yard, a flat screen TV in the living room that was always playing Korean variety shows and soap operas. Lots of visitors came by to welcome Emily. It felt warm, familiar.

On the first night, Emily was getting ready for bed, and her birth mother came in and presented her with four boxes containing gold jewelry for Emily, her kids, and her husband. Emily accepted them, hesitantly. Then using a translation app, her birth mother told her--

Emily

She said Korean mothers sleep with their children. And I'm like, oh, god, here we go.

Diane Wu

Emily had heard about this-- that it's not unusual for Korean parents to sleep in the same room as their kids, even when they're adults. In this room, there was only one bed. She tried to explain to her birth mother, sorry, but I prefer to sleep alone. It wasn't clicking. Emily ended up calling an interpreter she'd hired who had already gone home for the day.

Emily

And so I called her and asked her to explain that I couldn't do it. And she did, but you could see that my birth mother was pissed and not really happy about it. She had missed years and years of my life. I can understand why she'd want to sleep in the same room with me, but I just couldn't do it.

Diane Wu

A lot of the time with her birth mother was like this. As a visitor, it was impossible to fit in completely. She was a stranger and family all at the same time, dropping into a place that really felt like it could be home-- but it wasn't.

Ira Glass

Diane Wu is our show's managing editor. That podcast, Motherhood Sessions, where we first heard Emily's story, it's a show about women and moms in moments of crisis and change. It starts its second season this week.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

(SINGING) In my alternate universe, things only get better, not worse. There's not a cloud in the deep blue sky, and I'm floating along.

Our program was produced today by our executive editor, David Kestenbaum. The people who made today's show include Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Nora Gill, Damien Graves, Seth Lind, Jessica Lussenhop, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker. Our managing editor is Diane Wu.

Special thanks today to Sean Carroll, the physicist at Caltech, who told David about the universe splitter app in the first place. His book about parallel universes created by quantum physics is called, Something Deeply Hidden.

Thanks also today to Peter Bresnan, Alexandra Sacks, Suebee Craig, Christine Lee, Kim Park Nelson, Andrew Parsons, Eric Daniels, Joe Magee, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Devon Taylor, Emma Munger, and Molly Donahue.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Special thanks as always to our programs co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he put a lojack on his car, but not a good one. When his car got stolen, he starts tracking it, and it shows his car, but--

David Kestenbaum

It actually goes left and right at the same time.

Ira Glass

Or-- or, everyone, alternative universe photon firing, here we go.

[ROCKET FIRING]

Torey Malatia, he is so obsessed with the polls for the Democratic primary. But you know, I don't think he really understands how to read them. He was explaining to me the other day that this poll of the electorate in New Hampshire--

David Kestenbaum

It actually goes left and right at the same time.

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC PLAYING]

(SINGING) In my alternate universe.