Transcript

753: What We’ve Got Here is Failure to Communicate

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Sullivan High School in Chicago is a school where communication isn't the easiest in normal times. Kids constantly have to pass their phones back and forth with Google Translate so they can understand each other.

Elly Fishman

Over half the kids are immigrants or refugees. They come from close to 40 different countries. They speak over 35 different languages.

Ira Glass

That's Elly Fishman, a reporter who spent over three years there and wrote a book about the school called Refugee High. She returned there with one of our producers at the beginning of this school year and was there on the second day of school.

Elly Fishman

Kids are really nervous. They're not native English speakers. They don't know each other yet. So they're sitting among a bunch of strangers at this point. So there's a lot of anxiety and nerves.

Ira Glass

Sullivan High School is organized to make them feel at home. Each step at the staircase by the main entrance says welcome in a different language, private spaces for Muslim students to pray, shelves full of winter coats and backpacks for students who arrive with none, special curriculum and services tailored to them. This year, though, was the first time students were back in person since the pandemic, which posed some special challenges.

Like, for instance, English teacher Annmarie Handley was going around the room student by student doing one of the most pedestrian beginning of school tasks-- filling out the seating chart with the basics. What country are they from? What do they speak besides English?

Annmarie Handley

Abdal? What languages do you speak?

Student

I speak Arabic.

Annmarie Handley

What languages do you speak, sir?

Ira Glass

OK. Now, you heard that student perfectly, because our producer was standing right next to him with a microphone just inches from his face. But that long pause, the fact that Ms. Handley asked him the question a second time, that's going to make a lot more sense if I just play you the sound from the microphone that was pinned to Ms. Handley's lapel. This is how she heard that interaction, more or less.

Annmarie Handley

Abdal? What languages do you speak? What languages do you speak, sir?

Ira Glass

Yeah. She didn't hear him at all. Because she's way up at the front of the room stuck there typing into a computer. And there's an air purifier that they put in for COVID humming towards the back of the room. And there's an air conditioner running that's in the window just to her right. And most important, everybody is in a mask, muffling the students' voices, and making it so she cannot see anybody's mouth move.

Annmarie Handley

Now, you can see how much I normally read lips.

Ira Glass

She continues her questions.

Annmarie Handley

And what country were you born in?

Student

Egypt.

Annmarie Handley

Where?

Student

Egypt.

Annmarie Handley

Asia? What part of Asia?

Student

No, Egypt.

Annmarie Handley

Egypt. Cool.

Elly Fishman

So she keeps going around the room. And this keeps happening.

Ira Glass

Again, reporter Elly Fishman.

Elly Fishman

It seemed to me, having spent a couple of years in the school before COVID, that it was just exponentially harder. And there was so much more miscommunication.

Annmarie Handley

All right. And then we have Claude. What languages do you speak?

Student

What say?

Annmarie Handley

What languages do you speak?

Student

Kinyarwanda. Kinyarwanda.

Annmarie Handley

And what country were you born in?

Student

Congo.

Annmarie Handley

Rwanda.

Student

I said Congo.

Annmarie Handley

One more, table.

Student

Dang.

Annmarie Handley

Huh?

Student

I said Congo.

Annmarie Handley

Congo.

Student

Uh-huh.

Annmarie Handley

Oh my gosh. I'm so sorry. I thought you said Rwanda. I will fix it.

Ira Glass

It's painful to listen to-- hearing these students give the teacher exactly what she's asking for. And she can't tell. Everybody is trying to connect. And they are not connecting. In the recording, you can hear Ms. Handley try to manage this awkwardness, save the students from the embarrassment, turn it all on herself.

Annmarie Handley

Sorry. It's the air conditioner. It's not you guys. Your English is good. It's just this is right in my ear. And it's killing me.

Ira Glass

When I reached Ms. Handley, she said, it is a lot harder to conduct this class without being able to see the kids' mouths. But for her, it really just feels like one more thing to deal with.

Annmarie Handley

I think I worry more that the kid is getting frustrated, because especially at the beginning of the year, I need them to know that I'm listening and they can trust me. And I don't want them to feel as though I'm not listening or I don't care.

Ira Glass

She says in the months since then, it's gotten a lot easier to communicate. The air conditioning is off. And more important, everybody is more comfortable with each other and with her, which means they're more comfortable speaking up, projecting, making themselves heard through the mask.

Communication is delicate. And if you don't get it right, it could be disastrous. They got through it here in Ms. Handley's class. But in our other stories today, it does not go so well. Like in one story, the future of democracy is at stake. In another, a mom tries to say something important to her own daughter so ineffectively.

Also, Amelia Bedelia-- remember her-- who hears, but never understands. Where is she today? Here. From WBEZ Chicago, this is This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Until The Cows Come Home

Ira Glass

Act One, Until The Cows Come Home. So this first story is about a man trying to communicate a thing, a very particular thing-- that the 2020 election in the state of Michigan was not stolen, that Joe Biden won. This is not an outcome this man is particularly happy about. He's a Republican, a state senator. But he says, this is the truth.

The man's name is Ed McBroom. He chaired the official state committee that looked into all the claims of election fraud in Michigan. In the end, they wrote a report concluding that there was, quote, "no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud."

Lots of his fellow Republicans do not accept this conclusion. And they are not shy about telling him that when they run into him. So Ed has been on a kind of personal campaign to talk to anybody who doubts him, as long as they want, in the hopes of being able to give them the facts they need to reach the same conclusion that he did. Our senior editor David Kestenbaum wondered if he was persuading anybody, and a few months ago went up to spend a day with Ed at the Upper Peninsula State Fair.

Ed promised, from out in the open for five minutes with my cows, somebody will come up and talk about the election. Here's David.

David Kestenbaum

I met Ed in the dairy barn at the state fair with his cows and his kids. That's kind of how he's known, the state senator with the cows and kids.

Ed McBroom

Helen, Melody, Eddie, Carl, Esther--

David Kestenbaum

These are the kids, not the cows. There are more.

Ed McBroom

Brita, Royal, Odell, Oriana, Kenny-Jack, Edith, Magnus, and Sayla. So there's 13 of them.

David Kestenbaum

You want to say a word about what that life is like? If you had to pick one word.

Ed McBroom

One word-- I think I'm going to say blessed, I guess. Blessed or hard-- blessed or hard.

David Kestenbaum

Five of the kids are Ed's. The other eight were his brother's, who died three years ago and lived next door. So the families were always kind of one unit.

There's one photo I saw on Ed's Facebook page of a kid who had put together some delightfully crazy outfit. But the thing that stood out to me was the stuff in the background of the photo, total chaos in the kitchen behind her. Ed's a farmer, a parent, and a state senator. He says sometimes, it's a bit much to handle.

I was interested in Ed, because honestly, it's alarming to me all the people who still believe the election was stolen. In one poll, a third of Americans and most Republicans. It's bad enough that we as a country seem completely divided on everything-- the climate, vaccines, immigration. But somehow, this idea that so many people look at the official election results certified by the states-- the method we have for settling all these disputes-- and say, that's a lie. That feels particularly unsettling.

And so here was Ed, this guy in the trenches, arguing for the facts in a way that few people are. I wanted to see how that was going and what the conversations were like. Ed ventures out of the dairy barn, where his cows are, past the fair games and the rides, to this indoor area where various vendors are set up, and where the Republican Party has a table.

Ed McBroom

Hello, ma'am. Hi.

Donna

Hi. I was at Cityfest last week--

Ed McBroom

Oh.

David Kestenbaum

People stop by who know him to catch up. A woman from the Gideon's Bible table across the way, comes over to say that they've been praying for him. And then this man and a woman come over. The first thing she says is, why aren't you having a full forensic audit?

Forensic audit is the battle cry for people who want some external group to look at the ballots and everything, which for the record, have already been through a state-led, bipartisan audit in Michigan.

Donna

So why aren't you having a full forensic audit?

Dan

You need one, badly. Those two vans that went in the FTC center in the middle of the night with nobody watching except the cameras-- and I saw it on Gateway Pundit. I know they went in there. And the little black car phone--

Ed McBroom

Well, nobody's denying that the vans came. It's just that we know what was in them--

Dan

Bull--

Donna

Dan, stop.

Ed McBroom

Well, I mean, the facts are--

Dan

You do not know--

Ed McBroom

Well, sure we do.

Dan

Did you see every ballot that was in there and see that it was folded, if it was mail-in? Did you see that it was signed?

Ed McBroom

So listen--

Dan

Did you check any of this?

Ed McBroom

So listen to the explanation, though. I mean, because--

David Kestenbaum

Ed's approach to these conversations is to answer whatever questions people have in detail, however long it takes, which is premised on an idea that I hope is true, but I kind of fear isn't. Basically, if you calmly present people with facts, they'll consider them.

The thing the man is asking Ed about is something that got a lot of attention online, a video of a van arriving at the convention center in Detroit after 3:00 in the morning with a bunch of ballots. Seemed suspicious to them.

Ed lays out what his committee found. Those were ballots that had been placed in drop boxes, which he points out he's not a fan of drop boxes. But he says he looked into it. And the ballots were just going through the normal procedure, though the van didn't have any particular security.

Ed McBroom

So then the question to me is well, could somebody have done something to those ballots on the way there?

David Kestenbaum

Could the driver have been in on it? Switched to a different van with fraudulent ballots? It would have been super hard, he tells them. The ballots would have to have been prepared in advance. The identifying numbers on the ballots and the addresses on them would have to match up with real voters who hadn't voted elsewhere.

Ed McBroom

And so that's a lot of crazy rigmarole. And in the end, what are they going to gain when they know that in Detroit, these absentee ballots are going to run 95% for Joe Biden?

Dan

No way.

Ed McBroom

They always do.

Dan

No way. They didn't the last election.

Ed McBroom

Sure they did.

Dan

Not 95%.

Ed McBroom

The absentee ballots in Detroit?

Dan

Oh, absentee.

Ed McBroom

They tend to run very high for the Democrat side. Trump did better than any Republican for 70 years. And so--

David Kestenbaum

Trump won Michigan, the guy said there. Ed told me in the days after the election, he started out with the same questions these two people have. There were lots of calls into his office after the election. And it wasn't like he automatically assumed there was fraud. But there was stuff he definitely felt deserved looking into.

Ed McBroom

Why am I seeing these news reports of chaos at a polling place? Why am I hearing about late night deliveries? Why did one county here flip so dramatically from one candidate to the other? Why are there rumors of overseas--

David Kestenbaum

It was a long list. Ed thought, well, I can try to figure this stuff out. He heads the Michigan Senate Oversight committee. So he started an investigation.

Anyone who had anything to say could testify. The hearings went on for months. And Ed got way into the details. What if someone was given a Sharpie to mark their ballot and it bled through?

How does the election management software work? What happens if someone runs a bunch of ballots through the counter twice?

Ed McBroom

That took time for me to learn. And then I had to verify that what I learned was accurate, because you don't want to just take one source as authoritative. I wanted to check others.

David Kestenbaum

It took way longer than he'd thought. He'd run down one theory. But then someone would say, well, what if it happened this way? So he'd look into that.

Ed McBroom

As the original ideas started to fall to the wayside, I did begin to grow less and less suspicious that I was going to find anything that was going to overturn the results of the election.

David Kestenbaum

How much time did you spend looking into it do you think, all told?

Ed McBroom

Oh, I don't know. It was hundreds of hours.

David Kestenbaum

Ed put together a 35-page report with a 20-page appendix. He lays out each of the theories and really why they can't be true. When the report came out, both Trump and Obama tweeted about it. Actually, Trump issued a statement, since he'd been banned from Twitter.

Ed says he doesn't imagine either of the former presidents actually read it. Dan and Donna, that's their names, did not seem like they had read it.

Donna

What I want to tell you is that I know you have children. We have seven children. We have 17 grandchildren. And if we don't straighten this out now in 2021-- I don't like Biden. I like Trump. But that has nothing to do with it at all-- our children will never have a free election, if this communism, socialism crap--

Dan

What is so wrong with an audit?

Donna

Because-- you know, because listen.

Dan

Then you could prove Biden won.

Ed McBroom

What is the question you started with?

Dan

And he should be one--

Ed McBroom

That's the question you started with. So for one thing, the state has done two audits.

Dan

Not thorough forensic ones like Arizona did.

Ed McBroom

So I'll tell you--

David Kestenbaum

Again, Ed goes into all the details. The state had already done a thorough audit, where they recounted a sample of paper ballots by hand from all over the state.

Ed McBroom

When we go and recount these precincts by hand, we don't find a single one of them to be out of line. Not one of them is out of line. And we did this audit--

Dan

So both--

Ed McBroom

Actually, a much more substantive audit than just that, because in that audit process, they don't just hand recount the ballots. But they're also checking the signatures. They're checking the applications. They're checking the paperwork for the testing. They're checking the test decks that go in.

Dan

Who is doing the checking?

Ed McBroom

So the clerk's office.

Dan

And are they all Democrats?

Ed McBroom

No. All over the state. You have more Republican clerks than you have Democrat clerks all over the state. And most of the counties have multiple parties.

So you have your county clerk within your townships. You'll have Democrats and Republicans. And so these people are all looking at each other.

David Kestenbaum

He doesn't seem to be making much headway. The problem Ed runs into all the time is that he'll carefully build this wall out of blocks of facts. But the person he's talking to will just pivot to another claim, which is exactly what happens next.

Dan

I'm just wondering what was wrong with doing a full audit?

Ed McBroom

Well, and I'm glad you asked. I mean--

Dan

I mean, of the machines too.

Ed McBroom

Right.

Dan

And did they change the batteries in the machines?

Ed McBroom

So the machines that they changed the battery in--

David Kestenbaum

The idea here is that the batteries had been changed in some of the voting machines, causing them to erase data. Ed tells them, the machines with the batteries in them were just machines that marked ballots for people with disabilities, not ballot counting machines.

You sound so calm in a lot of this. Are you feeling calm? You've said these sentences so many times. Is there some part of you that is tired of it?

Ed McBroom

There's a bit of a exhaustion, I suppose. But no. I mean, I feel very-- I don't know if it's compassionate or just passionate about helping people find the truth. I wanted the truth.

I looked hard. I have resources not every person has because of my position. I used them. Now, I want to give the benefit that I have found to other people.

David Kestenbaum

I feel like that's the perfect answer. I guess I'm asking if you actually always feel that way?

Ed McBroom

I would say 99% of the time.

David Kestenbaum

Ed's been talking to this couple for about 25 minutes at this point. He doesn't seem to be moving them. But again, this is his strategy, answer every question they have.

Then something happens though that throws a wrench in this whole thing. By now, a small crowd of people has gathered around. And one guy who's been watching jumps in. His first word-- baloney.

Ed McBroom

--have proved themselves less than trustworthy.

Man 1

Baloney.

David Kestenbaum

He tells Ed he doesn't understand why they can't have an independent audit. He's pretty insistent.

Man 1

Audits should be done for everything.

Ed McBroom

We've don a very substantial audit.

Man 1

We counted the same garbage that was there in the first place. OK, why were the elections in six states closed off at 3:00 in the morning and only to resume at 8:00, when that's never happened before?

Ed McBroom

It didn't happen in Michigan.

Man 1

It certainly did in Michigan.

Ed McBroom

Absolutely did not. That's a lie. People are lying to you. It didn't happen.

David Kestenbaum

Now Ed says, it's no longer just him having a conversation with this couple. It's like a live version of what happens on social media, and I think why things go so badly there. Ed's trying to have one conversation, and feels like he's maybe getting somewhere. And then this disruptor comes in from the side.

Ed McBroom

And you still had Democrat and Republican poll workers there the whole time.

Man 1

Sounds like you convinced yourself, but I know what I saw. I can't get past the fact that there's no fraud to be seen. Really, Ed?

Ed McBroom

I didn't say that. The report doesn't--

David Kestenbaum

Ed later learned that this guy-- he's the son of the couple who was talking to Ed. Ed doesn't convince any of them. Dan, the dad who'd come up with his wife at the beginning, who Ed hoped to make headway with said he just didn't think Ed had the expertise to evaluate the election. And what are you going to say to that?

A whole half hour of careful effort on Ed's part to lead them down a logical path is undercut in a sentence. He's trying, Dan said, I'll give him that. He's trying his best.

I watched Ed talk to one more woman. She came up after the others have gone. She was middle aged and full of questions. She brought up almost an exact list of things the others did-- the van in the middle of the night, dead people voting, whether the voting machines could have been hacked.

Woman 1

You're saying the modems, or the computers were not connected to the internet?

David Kestenbaum

The conversation feels like it's going exactly like the other conversation. They talk about the hacking possibility for a long time. But then they talk about Afghanistan and the price of electricity in the Upper Peninsula, which they agree on. It's expensive.

This time, they don't get interrupted by anyone else. It's just two people talking at the state fair, which I think maybe more than Ed's laying out all the facts, is the reason why this might work. If he can put in enough time with someone, be with them long enough, they get a sense for him. There's a power in physically being in the same space as another person. They're real in a way that someone online or on TV isn't.

Finally, they circle back to the election from so many months ago. Here's how the conversation ends.

Woman 1

If something comes up, I hope you will support an audit, forensic audit.

Ed McBroom

To look for any new compelling issue that we can't answer with the information we have-- I'm all ears to hear it. I'm curious too. I want answers.

But all the issues they bring forward are either flagrantly impossible or issues that have already dealt with to a deep dive extent. And I just keep on asking them, show me where I'm wrong. And rather than do that, they just call me names or say I'm a bad person or paid off by China and shoot the messenger. And I'm like, please, shoot the message for me, because that would help me then go forward and find out what I did wrong.

But I don't-- they don't do that. And it's frustrating because I'm just as curious as you are about it.

Woman 1

Just in talking to you and getting the opposite, you know--

Ed McBroom

I appreciate you giving us an open ear to it. And certainly, if you have other questions, you hear something else, just call, message me, call the office.

Woman 1

Certainly. Well, it's good to hear from you.

Ed McBroom

Thank you. Thanks for your time.

Woman 1

Yep.

David Kestenbaum

Can I ask, did it-- does it change anything for you?

Woman 1

I'm going to go back and reread several things and re-listen to a few podcasts and stuff, and just--

Ed McBroom

I hope you'll look up the report.

Woman 1

Yeah, I think I will.

Ed McBroom

I'd appreciate it.

Woman 1

Yeah. Like you said, it's 58 pages. So I'll have to take the time.

David Kestenbaum

It was the furthest I saw him get that day.

Ed tells me he has seen people change their minds. But usually, he learns it because they come back to him later, sometimes with follow-up questions. He wasn't surprised nobody switched sides right in front of us.

Ed McBroom

You can't expect anybody to just disregard their long-held viewpoint or the narrative that they've accepted as being true. You can't expect them on the spot to really discard that. They need time to think.

David Kestenbaum

I pointed out that according to that national poll from earlier in the summer, something like 2/3 of Republicans, or people who lean Republican, believe Biden only won because of voter fraud. Ed says in his experience, it's fewer. But he humors me.

David Kestenbaum

Can we do the math for a second?

Ed McBroom

Sure.

David Kestenbaum

How many people are in your Senate district?

Ed McBroom

Oh, around 270-ish, I would say.

David Kestenbaum

Thousand-- OK, how many of those lean Republican?

We go with half.

That is 90,000 people would need to be convinced. If each conversation is 20 minutes, divide by 3, that's a number of hours.

Ed McBroom

If you're trying to overwhelm you with the impracticalities of me one at a timing it, you don't have to. I'm already aware of that.

David Kestenbaum

It comes out to 14 years. And that's if it works.

I was curious if that last woman had talked to had changed her mind at all, the one who had told him, it was nice to hear the other side and was maybe going to go read his report. So I reached out. She said over email she still believed there was election fraud in Michigan, enough to overturn the outcome, and that Ed McBroom was covering it up.

This is maybe the best case scenario for changing people's minds on this issue. Like, I do think if anyone could sway people it might be Ed, someone from their own party who also hadn't wanted Biden to win, who explains it all so patiently and clearly. And it's still so hard.

Ed reads a lot of American history. I asked him if he worried about the same thing I do. They were so divided. Neither side seems to be able to communicate with each other. No one seems willing to question what they think they know.

I asked if he thought we were going off the rails this time. And if what we were going through might be fatal in some way. He said he didn't know. He said the social fabric has been stretched before, and we've gotten through it.

Ed McBroom

I hope that that's going to be the case now. But I think there's reasons to have some doubt about that too and to have some trepidation.

David Kestenbaum

That keeps me up at night, you know? It really does.

Ed McBroom

I understand. I try not to let it worry me, because I firmly believe that we're in God's hands and the nation is in his hands and will trend in the direction that brings him the most glory.

David Kestenbaum

I didn't ask what someone was supposed to hold onto if they don't believe that. Ed's going to keep talking to people. There are lots of issues like this, he says. You just go person to person as long as it takes. That's the job.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is senior editor of our show.

Act Two: How I Met My Mother

Ira Glass

Act Two, How I Met My Mother. So one of the producers here at our show, Elna Baker, comes from a long line of passive aggressive communicators. By the way, they know this, they own it.

When her grandmother wanted to get a message across, like don't leave change lying around, she put an article on the fridge saying, toddler chokes on penny. And then just leave it to everybody else to connect the dots.

Elna's mother communicates in the same indirect way, which became a problem in the years after Elena left the church. Elna's family's Mormon. And her mom had some important things that she wanted to say to her. Here's Elna.

Elna Baker

This all started when I made a joke about me buying weed to my brother. Careful, he said. If mom were to hear that, she'd send an email to the whole family about how you're an addict. I laughed.

And then I was like, wait, what? That was way too specific. Did mom send an email to the whole family about me being an addict?

And he was like, uh, mm, nothing. Never mind, which could only mean one thing, she did. It took several rounds of questioning before I got the whole story.

The email he was referencing, my mom had sent it 10 years ago. At the time, I was about to host a comedy show in New York, where me and a bunch of performers would play drinking games on stage. It was called The Drunk Show. The show is being promoted online.

My mom, a devout Mormon, saw an article about it and freaked out. Mormons don't drink. It's against the religion.

And what I learned from my brother, years after the fact, is that my mom was so worried that I was doing this show, she sent an email to my family, my extended family-- uncles, cousins-- and family friends who I grew up with, like the Mitchells, the Coxes, Heidi, my middle school drama teacher.

Dear friends, it begins. I am writing because I am concerned about the direction Elna's life has turned. She is spiraling downward fast. My mom then explains to them that I'm doing this event called The Drunk Show. Then writes, I am very concerned. In our family, you are either an alcoholic or a Mormon. And I think she may be headed in the wrong direction.

I don't know what I can do personally. She doesn't hear me. I'm going to interject here that I didn't hear her, because she never said anything to me about it.

In the email, she inserts a link to the article about The Drunk Show and then reveals her grand master plan. She's been commenting on the article under fake names, warning me not to do the show. Can everyone else please make up fake accounts and also comment? This way, I'll cancel the show. She ends, thanks, pray for us both, please.

When I read this email, I was mortified. I drink socially. I'm not an alcoholic. But since I'd never intercepted the email, I worried everyone who got it had thought this for years.

I immediately clicked on the link to the article. At the bottom of the page, there were four comments from four different people trolling me, all clearly my mother. Her first fake character is Carol from the West Village who says, quote, "encouraging irresponsible drinking that could end in hospitalization of performers is an invitation to a lawsuit. Don't be idiots."

The three other comments escalate from there. Here's the weirdest part. She wrote all these comments while she was staying with me. She was in town the week of The Drunk Show. We slept in the same bed. But she didn't say a word to me about it.

As interventions go, it was the least successful one I've ever heard of or could imagine. No one else among the family or friends chimed in. And I, the target of the intervention, never knew what happened. I never heard of or read the comments online until my brother accidentally let it slip years later.

Since I found out about this, I've wondered why my mom chose to communicate this message to me the way she did. But I've never asked her, because I figured it would just lead to a fight and no answers. But we're much closer now than we were when I did The Drunk Show. Why not try?

To my surprise, she agreed to talk about it, but on these conditions. Dad had to be there in case we needed mediation. I had to come home for Christmas in exchange. And most importantly, I could only do this story if she got to write the ending, which we'll get to later.

Elna Baker

A talk for a second?

Mom

Hi, Elna, how are you?

Elna Baker

Wow, mom you sound sexy. Wow, Mom.

Mom

I'm trying out a lower voice, because I think my voice is too screechy.

Elna Baker

Don't do that. Don't spend the whole interview not being yourself.

We started at the beginning. How did my mother decide that anonymous comments online would be the best way to reach me? She said my sister Julia told her about The Drunk Show.

Mom

So I'm laying there on the couch. I'm at your apartment, probably about 5:00 in the morning. And I'm stewing over this. I can't sleep, having haven't slept for hours.

And then I just had this little epiphany. I can put this on here in somebody else's voice. I don't have to use my own voice. And then maybe she'll take it seriously. You just need to hear it from New Yorkers.

Elna Baker

Why?

Mom

God, Elna, you're from New York. You live in New York. And you value their opinions.

Elna Baker

More than yours?

Mom

Oh, absolutely, because I'm this fuddy duddy, old fashioned Mormon lady that doesn't know anything. You know, I'm like from 1950. I'm like June Cleaver.

Elna Baker

Are you saying that you are like that or that I think-- you think--

Mom

That's what I think you think I am, yeah.

Elna Baker

Before things get too tense, my mom and I pull up the comments page together. The first thing I learned was how fleshed out these people were in my mom's mind, like Carol from the West Village, who warned that irresponsible drinking could lead to lawsuits.

Mom

She's a lawyer, because that's the way a lawyer would say things, isn't it?

Elna Baker

OK.

Mom

She's dealt with lawsuits that have involved drunk drivers or something with alcohol is involved, right?

Elna Baker

To be clear, nowhere in the comments does it say Carol is a lawyer. For each entry, there's just a name and location, like Don from the Upper West Side.

Mom

Pretty ritzy area, right?

Elna Baker

Who is done in your mind?

Mom

Don is a comedian.

Elna Baker

Oh, OK.

Mom

Who's older. He used to do kind of the old-style comedy.

Elna Baker

Again, reading the comments, you'd never know Don was a comedian.

Mom

Yeah, he's just disgusted with how comedy has evolved in the last 15 years or so.

Elna Baker

What does Don think about me doing this show?

Mom

He says comedy, where you are laughing at the performers and not with the performers is not comedy. It is tragedy. Is this really what NYC comedy is reduced to? Are you really not cleverer than this?

Elna Baker

Why did you think, like, Don saying this to me would reach me?

Mom

Well, you love comedians. I mean, it's all about the comedy for you.

Elna Baker

Mm-hm.

Mom

So of course, if this is not going to be funny, then maybe we shouldn't do this.

Elna Baker

The next comment comes from the East Village, from a commenter named, Please.

Mom

OK, so I'm thinking this is a policeman.

Elna Baker

And his name is Please?

Mom

Yeah, Officer Please.

Elna Baker

It, doesn't say Officer, mom. (LAUGHING) It just says Please.

Why is this policeman writing me? Why is he so offended by this show?

Mom

Well, he says 10 years after 9/11, and this is where New York is? Come on.

Elna Baker

The show was on September 17.

Mom

I think this week of all weeks, we should all be a little more sensitive and full of introspection.

Elna Baker

OK. Can we just-- I think we can both agree that you went-- you went real big on this one.

Mom

I hit the 9/11 button

Elna Baker

Her last comment is a straight-up Mormon talking point. Alcoholism, and all other addictions, take away freedom of choice. Seven minutes after she posted that, she sent the mass email. My mom said she went so hard because--

Mom

So I have two uncles who died of alcoholism poisoning. My uncle died at age 30. My other uncle came to my wedding completely drunk and ended up dead about two years later from alcoholism. Gary's grandfather died of alcoholism. So that's how I get there.

It's not like it's a Mormon thing. It's an experience that has affected me. It affected my mother. She was just devastated over her brother and his alcoholism.

Elna Baker

Stopping The Drunk Show meant stopping me from becoming one of these people. My mom says she saw the promo photo of me sipping a drink on the page announcing the show and thought--

Mom

Has she lost her mind? She has relatives who died of alcoholism. She's been taught since she was little girl to be careful around alcohol. Has she completely blocked out everything I've ever taught her?

Elna Baker

Did you ever consider just calling me?

Mom

Elna, we've already been there. You don't hear me. You just don't hear me. It's just a joke. You have to hear it from somebody who you think is credible.

Come on. Admit it, Elna, you know you would have just laughed. You would have called Kevin. You would have had a good laugh. And you would have had the show anyway.

Elna Baker

But you didn't-- the thing--

Mom

Come on. Admit it. You know it. You know you would have rolled your eyes at me.

Elna Baker

But you didn't even try.

Mom

Elna, just tell me. What's the truth on your end?

Elna Baker

Well, I don't think I-- here's the thing. I think if you just told me not to do it, I would have done exactly what you're saying. But if we'd had a full conversation where we really talked-- like so for example, I didn't know until just now, until we've had this conversation-- like, I didn't really know that much about your family history with drinking.

You don't talk about these unpleasant things. So that like when you're so against drinking, I think I did think it was just had to do with Mormonism and not that it had to do with really painful things you witnessed in your life, because you never told me about them.

Mom

I'm sure I've said this statement before in your life. In our family, you're either Mormon or an--

Elna Baker

Alcoholic.

Mom

--alcoholic, yeah. You heard that one before.

Elna Baker

Yeah, I just didn't believe it.

She'd said this to me all my life, but I was missing the context. I've never met any of these family members who drank. I don't remember her ever mentioning any of these stories. I saw my mother as sheltered. Almost all her friends are Mormon. I just thought, she doesn't know what she's talking about, which was unfair.

When I make a radio story, I listen to my interviews over and over again. And this time, something unusual started to happen. With each listen, my mother sounded less and less like my mother, like I stopped hearing her the way I usually do, rolling my eyes, getting defensive.

And I actually started to hear what she had to say. This is the line that struck me the hardest.

Mom

Elna, we've already been there. You don't hear me.

Elna Baker

She's right. And I can hear in her voice that this has been hurting her feelings for years. And that's my fault. I see why she thinks it's hopeless to talk to me about drinking, about anything.

I'm incredibly dismissive. That's my part in this. And her part, she was totally upfront about that. She didn't want to confront me about drinking, because she has so much trouble with confrontation of any kind with anyone, going back to when she was young.

Mom

I mean, as a little kid, I used to just admit fault to anything that happened in our family in order to get the confrontation to be over with.

Elna Baker

I never understood before this conversation what that feels like for her. She panics, feels trapped, like she needs to run, tightness in her chest, which is what makes this conversation so hard.

Mom

This is what-- we're doing exactly what I hate to do.

Elna Baker

What?

Mom

Talk about conflict.

Elna Baker

So what's happening to you when we do it?

Mom

Well, see, I'm twiddling my thumbs, right? I'm feeling my neck turn to stone.

Dad

This cord, which is already coiled up, has been triple coiled, for the headphones.

Mom

So, yeah.

Elna Baker

Well, thank you for putting yourself in your most uncomfortable place.

Mom

Sure. You're welcome, Elna, anything for my daughter.

Elna Baker

I knew what this meant. From the tone of her voice, it was time to stop. This was the most direct conversation I've ever had with my mother, and the longest real conversation we've ever had. She'd gone above and beyond and did something she did not enjoy for me. I could return the favor and call it a day.

Well, folks, my ticket home for Christmas is booked. And now, for the ending my mother requested. It comes down to three words, she was right. Not about me spiraling downward fast, but about The Drunk Show.

For the record, The Drunk Show was a disaster. I was the one who organized the drinking games. But because I'd only recently left the church, I was brand new to drinking. And all the penalties in the games were things like, take four shots of whiskey.

Things went off the rails quickly. A performer threw a chair at an audience member. I drunk dialed my ex from the stage. And the call went so badly that I started crying in front of the audience.

Ira, who was in the show, got blackout drunk for the first time in his life, he said, and then threw up into a trash bag. And someone ended up in the hospital. My mom knew none of those details, of course.

But big picture, Carol from the West Village knew what she was talking about when she said, irresponsible drinking can lead to hospitalization. In other words, mom was right.

Ira Glass

Elna Baker is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, we hop on a Zoom with the most literal minded character in children's fiction. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today's program--

Man 2

What we've got here is failure to communicate.

Ira Glass

Thank you, Cool Hand Luke. Today's show, we have people trying, sometimes saying the exact right words that you think would get across the meaning. And it does not work for all kinds of reasons. We have arrived at Act 3 of our show.

Act Three: Amelia Bedelia Works From Home

Ira Glass

Act Three, Amelia Bedelia Works From Home. So thinking about miscommunicated messages this week got a bunch of us here at our radio show remembering Amelia Bedelia. You know her? She's the main character in a set of kids books from the '60s that have just lived on about a housekeeper who takes any instruction way to literally.

Like, the family asks Amelia Bedelia to draw the drapes. And then Amelia Bedelia pulls out a pen and paper and draws a picture of the family's curtains.

These stories, of course, are so old fashioned. And we wondered what life might be like if Amelia Bedelia were around today. And we asked a writer, Hallie Cantor to think it through for us. Here is what Hallie came up with. It's read for us by actor Hannah Einbinder.

Hannah Einbinder

It was Amelia Bedelia's first day working from home. And she opened her laptop while still in her pajamas. My, what a nice situation, said Amelia Bedelia. I'm going to like working here.

Amelia Bedelia's boss, Mrs. Rogers, had sent her an email with a list of instructions. Amelia Bedelia read, first thing in the morning, touch base with HR. That's odd, thought Amelia Bedelia. But she knew her job was to do what Mrs. Rogers wanted.

So Amelia Bedelia got a pair of scissors and some paper, cut out the letters H and R and walked to the baseball field. She walked around the whole diamond and touched each base with the H and R. Done.

A text came in from Mrs. Rogers. Morning team, let's hop on the Zoom when you're ready. Amelia Bedelia joined the Zoom call and began jumping up and down. What are you doing, Amelia Bedelia, asked Mrs. Rogers? I'm hopping on the Zoom, of course, said Amelia Bedelia.

Oh, OK, said Mrs. Rogers. You know what, Amelia Bedelia, we actually don't need you on this call after all. Why don't you just go order your lunch? You got it, said Amelia Bedelia.

Mrs. Rogers hadn't said what order to put her lunch in, so Amelia Bedelia decided to be an overachiever. First, she ordered her lunch by height. Then she ordered her lunch alphabetically, bread, cheese, chips, lettuce, tomato, turkey, water, perfect.

Amelia Bedelia checked her list from Mrs. Rogers again. Write some copy for the new home page. So Amelia Bedelia sat at her laptop and typed the words, the new home page, 50 times in a row. Writing some copy sure was easy.

Soon after she had sent in her work, Mrs. Rogers called, sounding angry. Amelia Bedelia, I hired you to increase our brand engagement, not to waste my time. You're fired.

Amelia Bedelia was stunned. When she told her roommate Alexis what happened, Alexis asked how she was going to make rent. I can't think about putting on a revival of a 1996 musical right now, Alexis, said Amelia Bedelia. I just lost my job.

Then she heard the sound of hammering and frustrated cursing from outside. She went to investigate and saw a man trying to construct something out of wood and nails. Amelia Bedelia introduced herself. The man, Alfonso Badonzo, explained that his boss had asked him to build a deck for a presentation tomorrow.

I've been working for hours, but I just don't understand how he expects me to build a deck in one day. The same sorts of things have been happening to me, Amelia Bedelia said. Then Amelia Bedelia had an idea.

She knelt in front of Alfonso Badonzo and proposed marriage. Alfonso Badonzo accepted immediately. Amelia Bedelia was thrilled. Now that I've increased engagement, Mrs. Rogers will definitely give me my job back. Also, can I move in with you? I'm pretty sure my roommate is changing the locks.

Why do the locks need changing, Alfonso Badonzo asked, were their clothes dirty? Amelia Bedelia looked at him, her soulmate.

Ira Glass

Hannah Enbinder, reading a story by Hallie Cantor. Hallie's the main writer of Magical Girl Friendship Squad. Her website, halliecantor.com. You can hear and see more of Hannah on HBO's Hacks.

Act Four: The Importance of Meeting Earnest 

Ira Glass

Act Four, The Importance of Meeting Earnest. So we end today's program with one final act of miscommunication, a dad who has a crucial bit of information that everyone in his family would want to know that he somehow neglects to mention for over a half century. Jeanne Darst tells what happened.

Jeanne Darst

I was the last one to meet Ernest, because I was the last one to find out Ernest existed. Here's what happened. My sister, Amy, stopped by my sister Liz's house to discuss a very urgent matter, an outlandish story that my father was hitting on a priest at the Westport Catholic church.

Liz cut her off. Dad is not gay, but if he was, nobody cares. Amy shot back, well, you don't know dad as well as you think you do. He has a son in New Orleans.

Liz yells, wait! What? Amy says, google "Ernie The Attorney." The second Liz tells me this of course, I flip open my laptop and google "Ernie The Attorney." And Ernie The Attorney's face, which is identical to my father's face, pops up off the screen and attaches itself to my eyeballs.

He looks more like my father than any of us. He looks more like my father than my father. Liz calls my dad. Hey, Dad, Amy said she found you googling this guy late at night and that he's your son-- that you have a son in New Orleans.

My dad says, you mean, the doctor? Liz yells, there's a doctor too? Oh, sorry, I meant the attorney. Oh, well, that's true.

He acts like he wasn't keeping this from us for 62 years. We just weren't asking the right questions. He never told anyone I'm sure, because he knew my mom would never stop bringing it up.

And then he, rather matter-of-factly, tells Liz that when he was a 24-year-old reporter in New Orleans, he met a 22-year-old married Panamanian woman named Raquel Elena Lefevre, he called her Raqui. And they had an affair.

Her husband, a Swedish psychoanalyst who was a decade older, was infertile and didn't tell her that when they got married. He was also a philanderer. Everyone in this story I should just say, men, women, everyone in this story is a philanderer.

So initially, Raqui is just looking to conceive. But she and my father fall in love. Then Raqui's father, a Panamanian businessman, comes to the States. And the three of them have lunch-- her father, my father, and a newly pregnant Raqui. She presents my father to ask if she can leave the Swedish psychoanalyst.

Her father says, no, you're staying put. Catholicism playing some part, but perhaps, my father making $56 a week being another part. So my father feels the child is in a marriage, has a father, and there's nothing he can do. He moves back to St. Louis, marries my mother and has us four girls. And doesn't ever interact with this truth again. How does someone do that?

I call my dad the next day. I've been freaking out. My friends are freaking out. It's like the March girls have discovered they have a brother.

When I get him on the phone he says, now, listen, Jean-Joe, I put Lizabetha about 80% chance of being mine. But you, I got to put your numbers a lot lower than that. But really, the both of you ought to get DNA tests, because your mother was wild and she was beautiful, and of course, she drank too much.

Dad, what? I get off the phone and remember, I had done a 23andMe a few years back. So I go to the site. Suddenly, I'm on a side project of proving my father is actually my father. And I click a link I'd never seen before-- view all DNA relatives.

And Ernie the Attorney's face pops up off the screen again, along with his three kids identified as my half nieces and nephew. I have no idea why confirming Ernest as my brother confirms my father is my father, but it just does. The question now is, do we contact this sweet-looking, innocent 62-year-old man and overturn everything he believes about his identity?

We decide to go for it. And I email him saying, I believe you're my half brother. And then Liz and I act like crazy people for the next 24 hours until he emails back. And the next day, we're meeting for the first time on Zoom.

He tells us that his parents got divorced when he was five and there was a big custody battle. And when he was 17, his mother, in a fit of boozy despair, blurted out that his father was not his father, that his father was a man named Stephen Darst, who is a writer from St. Louis.

And then Ernest, raised by a psychoanalyst, says he considered the information and had no idea what to do with it, and promptly repressed it. And no one ever talked about it after that day. He says he never thought of it again until I emailed him.

One weird coincidence, he tells us that for years, his father dated a woman who lived in Bronxville, New York. And they would go visit her all the time in Bronxville, where we lived. We could have run into him at the A&P.

The following week, Liz goes to my dad's and helps him get on a Zoom with everybody. And suddenly, I'm watching my 87-year-old father meet his 62-year-old son. And I'm seeing Ernie get information about his mother from my dad, who remembers absolutely every detail about everything-- the restaurants they went to, how she called her dog Daisy "Desi" in her accent, how every time they would part they would walk about 100 feet in opposite directions, and my father would turn around and yell, hey, Raqui.

And when she turned around, my dad would make this embracing gesture with his arms. Earnest says to me, it's amazing to talk about my mom with a man who loved her, which Swedish dad did not. Ernie sends us pictures of Raqui. She looks like a Panamanian Sophia Loren. In fact, Raqui was a lot like my mom. She was beautiful, sort of fancy. Her grandfather was the president of Panama.

She drank too much, smoked too much, and had major depression. My dad definitely has a type. The whole thing with Ernie was fun and exciting. My sisters and I were talking on the phone all the time, you know, the three of us that are currently speaking to each other.

But also what made it so exciting was how together an "adulty" he was. He sent me a card with a watercolor drawing of his house in New Orleans on the front, which when I got it, I was like, oh, my God, he's got stationery. None of us girls have stationery.

He's decent and caring and even-tempered. He asks me how I am and how I feel about this or that. And then he waits for me to answer.

He made me Raqui's Panamanian Christmas cookies. He was kind, not something in great supply in my showboating drinking, dancy family. Kind is what my mother would have said about people who couldn't throw a decent cocktail party. People who just weren't with it.

I started to feel like this was our chance to be a bona fide loving family. So Liz and I had a plan to throw an 88th birthday party for our dad and lure Ernie and his wife Donna to New York for it. We never actually said this to each other, but the big question in the air was, is this going to be a real relationship? Is this just going to be a few Zoom calls, or are we going to get together at holidays with our kids for years to come?

We'd get together in person and Liz's backyard to find out. You know, no pressure.

Since Ernie is a lot more normal than we are, after he accepts the invitation to come and meet all of us, Liz and I agree we need to get our curb appeal together, just a light retouching of a few family dramas, just price out some smoke and a few mirrors. I mean, should we say mom died of alcoholism in a West Village [BLEEP] with mice running around? Or should we just say she was a rich girl from St. Louis, who was a champion equestrian and debutante?

And do we mention that Amy married a Tunisian man and took off to his family's farm in Tunisia and didn't speak to any of us for eight years but is now back and never really explained any of this to us? The real worry though is, of course, my father. How do we prevent Ernie from seeing that while my father is the ideal person to sit next to at a bar-- funny, a million stories, a truly entertaining charismatic man-- those aren't the most important qualities in a father? He's painfully unaware of other people's needs and feelings.

And when you really do need him, he's just not able to be there for you in the way that you want him to be. Like, when my mother died of a stroke after years of really grim alcoholism, he offered no words of comfort, but instead asked me what we should do with the bloody couch that she died on. Should I go over to mama's and take that bloody couch out of view so you girls don't have to see it? Although, where the hell am I going to drag a bloody couch? I'll probably get arrested.

Is seeing that bloody couch going to traumatize you girls, do you think? When I tried to get him to talk about what he was feeling or take some interest in what I was feeling, he wasn't mean about it. He's not a mean person. It's more like he just can't do it, like he'd gently reroute the conversation in a different direction.

Get him on the phone, and within two minutes, he launches into a steroid-fueled monologue about his obsession with the beginnings of the neocon movement or with Russian ballerina Diana Vishneyva. And once he's off and running, there's no interrupting him. You just wander in and out of the room with him on speaker, doing your laundry, making dinner, because he can go on forever. You just have to make a decision about when you can no longer go on.

And so I guess I'm worried about Ernie's big day. The day of the party was extremely humid and buggy in my sister's backyard in Brooklyn. And rain threatened to force us inside, where it would be very cramped.

Seeing my father next to Ernie for the first time was mind-bending they looked so much alike. After some hugs and pictures, we all sit at the long outside table. I'm welling up. I can't imagine how emotional this must be for Ernie. His wife Donna is squeezing his hand in support.

I look around the table and wonder, why is Ernie not sitting next to my dad? Shouldn't my dad have said, Ernie, sit next to me? It's like he forgets he's the dad.

But very quickly, we all get talking and laughing. And Ernie gives my dad a picture of Raqui for his birthday. And it feels like the whole thing is going great. Then the rain comes down, and we hustle inside, and we're fumbling to get back to that initial connection.

Then the rain stops. And we're back in the yard, eating, drinking. Down the table, I see my father, now sitting next to Ernie. But Ernie hasn't said anything for a really long time. So I know my dad is definitely talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his theory that Fitzgerald forced his wife Zelda to have an abortion at the Plaza Hotel in 1922, a topic which has dominated our lives for decades. For as long as I can remember, it's the number one thing he uses to avoid talking about anything real.

When my son was four weeks old, and my husband and I were about to move to California, he said he was stopping by with a present for the baby, which turned out to be some Stilton from Murray's Cheese shop. And as I hobbled around post c-section, packing our suitcases and breastfeeding the baby, completely about to fall apart, he nibbled on the blue cheese and talked about Zelda Fitzgerald's abortion and its aftermath.

Liz and I had strategized before the party that if he got on Fitzgerald, we would cut him off before it could get going. But it's too late now. I'm horrified, because I don't think my dad has asked Ernie anything about him.

Does he honestly have zero curiosity about this person, this child whom he almost missed entirely? Ernie looks bewildered and heartbroken. Watching a 62-year-old man get crushed right in front of me, watching him wait patiently to be seen by a man whose eyes are looking elsewhere, it was like watching my spirit get crushed, like a reenactment.

My father produces a fountain pen that Raqui gave him. It's engraved with his initials. Ernest looks really excited. But my father isn't saying, this is for you Ernest. I want you to have this.

We all wait for him to say that. But instead, he says, now, should I hang on to this and give it to you later or now? I yell, now, Dad. The metal tip is slightly bent. It doesn't work. But you have to hand it to my dad for simply not losing it for over half a century.

He gives it to Ernie. Ernie looks thrilled and says, I know a guy in New Orleans who can fix it.

In my post-mortem with my dad a few days later, he talks about the food, about my niece's pretty dress, talks about all kinds of things. But I have to push him really hard to say anything about meeting his son. I'm practically mugging him for an emotion.

Finally he says, I think I'll have a great relationship with Ernie. And I thank you very much for that, Jean-Joe, for bringing us together. So much for my dream of Ernie transforming us into a more loving family.

Let's be honest. My family is like a long-running production of The Fantasticks, where all the actors are too old for the characters they're playing and the lighting people miss a third of the cues. But now, there's this one fresh faced kid just out of drama school who brings down the house in every scene.

Ernie sends an email after the party where he describes our family as, having a bond I truly admire, and that he felt included in a way that felt genuine and from the heart. Wow, Liz says, we really put on a hell of a show. And then Liz and I have a Zoom with Ernie, Ernest, Ernest Enrique Svenson.

Steve sent me something after the weekend, he says. What, we ask? 117 page transcript of Zelda and F. Scott's therapy sessions that Steve hand copied at the Princeton archives. Have you seen it, he asks?

Oh, Ernie, have we seen it? Yes, we have, we say, not sure how much to give away. He's got a long road ahead. And he's got to walk it just like we did. It's pretty interesting, Ernie says. Yeah, we say, yeah, it is.

Ira Glass

Jeanne Darst, she's currently developing her book, Fiction Ruined My Family for television.

[MUSIC - MARIAN BURNS, "COMMUNICATION SONG (SONG FOR KIDS)"]

Well, our program was produced today by Lina Misitzis. The people who put together today's program include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Rudy Lee, Tobin Low, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Alix Spiegel, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Laura Starcheski, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, Chloee Weiner, and Diane Wu.

Our managing editor, Sarah Abdurrahman. Our Senior Editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Special Thanks today to Alison O'Connor, Jesse David Fox, David Iserson, Chloe Ifshin, Jamie Loftus, Zach Zimmerman, and Guns N' Roses.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 750 episodes for absolutely free. Also, we have videos there. We have lists of favorite shows. We have tons of other stuff.

Again, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always, for a program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia.

You know, when I applied for this job way back when, I walked into his office, shook his hand, told him my radio name at the time, Bugseyyyy Leroi. He looked at my resume, looked at me, looked at my resume, then back at me. And said--

Elna Baker

Don't do that. Don't spend the whole interview not being yourself.

Ira Glass

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