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660: Hoaxing Yourself

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Parents, here is all the evidence you need that TV is bad for kids, especially public TV. When Sean was 14, he loved watching those British TV shows they're always running on PBS-- Masterpiece Theater, Doctor Who.

Sean Cole

And then there was this show that I would stay up really late and watch, and tape, and watch over and over again the tapes, called Dempsey and Makepeace, which was about an American detective who went to London because he had been, like, setup at home. And he was teamed up with a woman who was this aristocrat named Lady Harriet Makepeace. And I was really on her side.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Sean Cole

I thought, you know, she's got it going on.

Ira Glass

You looked down on the American.

Sean Cole

Oh, yeah.

Ira Glass

What Sean liked about Lady Harriet Makepeace, and all the other Brits on TV, was their aloofness, how they seemed above it all, how they looked down on Americans. Which Sean did also, convinced there must be something wrong with the nation that produced jocks and bullies, who harassed him in school. And sometimes, joking around with his friends, he would talk with a British accent.

Sean Cole

And then it was just something that spiraled out of control. I know that eventually, I was just using an English accent literally from waking to sleeping, morning, noon, and night.

Ira Glass

Sean spoke with a British accent from the time he was 14 until he was 16. And at some point, his mom thought, you know, maybe I need to do something about this, and took him to see a psychiatrist.

Sean Cole

I don't know the different schools of psychology, but he was really very confrontative. And he's like, well, you've got to stop doing this, he said, because you're not British. And my mom just sort of sat over next to me, and she sort of went, yeah, to agree with him, and to sort of help him in showing me this.

Ira Glass

Sean was furious. He had an impulse to lecture the guy on how, in fact, he was British. And the only problem with that was that A, he knew very well that he was not. And B, his mom was sitting right there. She was sure to contradict him. He didn't know what to do. His situation seemed impossible.

Sean Cole

Because that's what I was thinking. Like there has to be a way that I can be British still.

Ira Glass

There must be a way that this is true somehow.

Sean Cole

Yeah, exactly.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, stories of people who tell a lie, and they get to the point where they believe the lie more than anybody else does. It feels like it must be true. Happens all the time. And can I say, we are not even going to get into what happens with political figures in this show, kidding themselves about the facts of things. Today we have stories of civilians, people like you and me, basically pulling hoaxes on ourselves.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One of our program today, The Sun Never Sets-- On The Moosewood Restaurant, in which two young men, both from small towns, try on new identities-- false identities-- and what they have to do to keep the lies going. Act Two, Conning the Con Men. Nancy Updike reports on a federal sting operation, and how it caught con men by setting up a con of its own. Act Three, Oedipus Hex. A little kid tries to get rid of his own father with a very, very unlikely plan. Stay with us.

Act One: The Sun Never Sets—On The Moosewood Restaurant

Ira Glass

Act One, The Sun Never Sets-- On the Moosewood Restaurant. So this is the story of two young people who, for a period in their lives, in their search to figure out who they were, pretended to be people who they were not. We're going to hear from Sean Cole and from Joel Lovell. We're going to start with Sean. Today's show is a rerun. This was recorded years ago. These days, Sean is a producer here at our show.

Sean grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, a town that was approximately 3,350 miles from London.

Sean Cole

It was second nature. It was first nature. To this day, I have trouble saying, oh, I faked an accent for two years. I mean, I had an accent for two years. I like--

Ira Glass

Sean, could I just get to take a deep breath, and describe for me what you had for lunch today, or perhaps for breakfast this morning, in as close to the accent that you can--

Sean Cole

As close as I can?

Ira Glass

--muster? Yeah.

Sean Cole

OK. I'm going to take a sip of water here. Well, Ira, I had a salad. I had it at the Boston House of Pancakes-- or Pizza, rather.

Ira Glass

What was the beverage?

Sean Cole

It was a Snapple, just lemon flavored. I don't really like the peach.

Ira Glass

Joel Lovell's story began when he left the working class town where he grew up in upstate New York. His parents owned a liquor store in a small town. He was the first member of his family to go to college. And it was an especially big deal, because he got into an Ivy League school, Cornell.

Joel Lovell

It was one of those first days of college. You know, when you spend a lot of time, everybody kind of moves in hordes, and you spend a lot of time in each other's dorm rooms. And there were about oh, I don't know, 10 or 11 of us in this one guy's room. And we were just like sitting around, eating pizza, and talking, and people were talking about where they were from, and what their parents did, and stuff like that.

And there was one guy whose dad was a doctor for the Knicks. There was another guy whose father was an elected representative from New York State. And then this other guy, whose father was on the World Court-- literally was a member of the World Court.

Ira Glass

Oh, my.

Joel Lovell

And so it suddenly seemed like this incredibly sort of impressive group to me, and they seemed like just sort of worldly in ways that was just beyond my wildest imagination, and worldly beyond what I am now, frankly. And I remember sort of sitting there at the time thinking, oh, my god. I'm so out of my league here. And then completely unplanned, I suddenly said-- as a slice of pizza was passed to me, this pizza with sausage on top of it, I said, you know, I can't take that because my parents are vegetarians.

And everybody in the room sort of turned and looked at me because it wasn't even as if I said, well, I'm a vegetarian. But I said, you know, my parents are vegetarians. And there's a sort of puzzled look on everybody in the room. And I said, well, and I am, too. I've never eaten meat. And I'm not entirely-- well, I mean, I have some ideas now about why I said that.

But at the time, I had no idea what I was saying. It was like, suddenly I'd become possessed, and I had to think of something to say about myself that seemed interesting. And vegetarianism was the thing that I chose.

Ira Glass

Now, do you tell people that you were actually from England?

Sean Cole

No, no, never that I was from Britain. But in a way, that I was British. You know, there was a real distinction there for me. Like I'd taken it on, like I was culturally British now.

Joel Lovell

Well, I think what it was is I think I did some sort of calculus that took like a nanosecond in my head. And I thought, you know, I can't actually lie about what my parents do. But I think the connections that I was making were this, that somehow because I was from this town in the sticks, if my folks were vegetarians, then the whole history that that suggested was that they were sort of these kind of leftist, academic radicals who had sort of dropped out of society, and gone back to the land.

And I was living in this bumpkin town in upstate New York. And my folks were living some sort of life that was driven by their political philosophy, rather than, I was just a guy who grew up in upstate New York.

Sean Cole

You know, I did the old kid thing of, like, wishing that my real British parents would come and tell me I was adopted, and take me back to London.

Joel Lovell

So I'm sitting there in the room, and all these guys are looking at me. And they're like, dude. What do you eat? And suddenly I realized in that moment how little I knew about vegetarianism. And I kind of tried to be sort of vague about it. You know, we eat salads, and lentils. I remember sort of saying lentils a lot.

Sean Cole

And there was a gap, certainly, in my education, because I would be using words that Americans just don't use. You know, instead of saying drugstore, I would say chemist. Or I would try my best to remember to say bonnet instead of hood, or boot instead of trunk, but I often couldn't.

Joel Lovell

On the meal plan, I ended up eating a lot of big piles of iceberg lettuce and chickpeas.

Ira Glass

And during that time, would you find yourself sneaking to go to get meat somewhere?

Joel Lovell

Yeah, definitely. At first, I would go really far from campus in order to have like a BLT. There's this diner downtown in Ithaca. It felt incredibly illicit. I'd be sitting there, and I'd have some reading material or something with me. And I'd be the lonely guy in my booth. And I would order the BLT, and I would sort of watch it coming from across the room with its toothpick in the top of it, and a side of French fries with the meat gravy on top.

And when it landed on the table, it would just seem like this incredibly sort of wonderful moment, you know, when you're doing something just totally unlike what anybody would expect of you.

Sean Cole

I was a nobody. I mean, I was living in an extremely small kind of rural town in the middle of nowhere. It was, I guess, in a way, this was my way of traveling, in a way, and of being somebody, and sort of achieving an identity, which I guess I didn't feel like I had. I didn't feel like I-- I'm just sort of really realizing this now. But I guess I didn't feel as though I had anything that made me up.

Joel Lovell

I mean, what I realized fairly quickly is that if this is going to be believable, I actually have to-- well, I have to believe in it. But I also began to not only believe, but really sort of take on as my persona, all of the stuff that I imagined was associated with vegetarianism.

Ira Glass

Like what?

Joel Lovell

Well, certain political convictions, and ways of dress.

Sean Cole

I wore ripped jeans and I wore combat boots, but I also wore like a kind of stage jacket that you would see in a community theater production of Hamlet.

Joel Lovell

Yeah. You know, I bought sandals. I very specifically remember going down to this thrift store in downtown Ithaca and buying a pair of fatigue shorts, which just seemed like, you know, I might as well have been Che Guevara at that point.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Joel Lovell

I mean, as far as I was concerned, yeah, I was a dangerous leftist.

Ira Glass

Did you, at any point during this, find yourself in the following argument, where you would say, I've never had a hamburger. And somebody would insist, oh, you must've had meat at some point.

Joel Lovell

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

And then you had to argue your side?

Joel Lovell

Yeah, definitely. It wasn't pretty. And of course, you know, I had grown up-- just to put this in context for a second, if you don't mind.

Ira Glass

Mhm.

Joel Lovell

Not only had I had hundreds of hamburgers and gone to the McDonald's drive-through hundreds of times, but the counterpoint situation that I always think about when I remember this time is that when I was a senior in high school, my family, for sort of time-saving reasons, decided that a great thing to do would be to go to Arby's Roast Beef. I don't know if you have those out in Chicago. I think they're countrywide.

So my dad and I would go to Arby's on, say, like a Thursday afternoon or something, after I got out of school. And we would go in there and we would buy 48 Arby's roast beef sandwiches.

[LAUGHTER]

And they would put them in this cardboard box, and we would bring home this giant box full of those tinfoil-covered Arby's roast beef sandwiches. And we would stuff them in our freezer. We would freeze the Arby's roast beef sandwiches, and then we would have them there.

Ira Glass

Buns and all?

Joel Lovell

Buns and all, yeah. And so we would have them there as ready-made snacks whenever we might want one. I mean, that's the kind of meat-eating that my family was engaged in.

[LAUGHTER]

Sean Cole

The other thing was that I had these run-ins with doubting my British identity, like--

Ira Glass

Oh, really?

Sean Cole

Yeah, as though it were slipping away. And I would really go nuts at that point. And there was one time it happened at home. I was at home and I was like, oh, my god, I have to do something. I have to affirm my devotion. So I think I-- well, I know I opened up the window. And I psyched myself to do it. I was like, oh, man. If I don't do this, it won't come back. And I opened up the window. And then I screamed-- this is the middle of the night, or 10:00 at night.

I screamed, I love England, and of course in a British accent, outside the window.

Ira Glass

And then you felt better? You felt like you had reasserted yourself?

Sean Cole

I felt like I had done something, at least.

Ira Glass

For England.

Sean Cole

Yeah. I had fortified my Britishness.

Joel Lovell

I would find myself in these conversations where people were saying, you know, you've never had a McDonald's hamburger? What kind of 18-year-old American has never had a hamburger from McDonald's?

Ira Glass

Quite a legitimate question, I would add.

Joel Lovell

Absolutely. Absolutely. And I would say, yeah, I've just never had one. They scare me. And I would sort of like talk about the ways-- I would make up these stories about how I'd come close a couple of times, how a friend of mine in high school had bought me a Big Mac, and there I was, sitting on the front seat of his car, and I almost ate it, and then couldn't bring myself to do it.

So yeah, there was all this sort of drama that I lied about. My mom and dad came down to visit for parent's weekend. And they were really proud that I was going there, and really excited to come down. And they came down to visit.

Ira Glass

And really proud because you were the first generation to go to college?

Joel Lovell

Right.

Ira Glass

You made it into this Ivy League school. It was a big, big deal.

Joel Lovell

Right, exactly. Exactly. And so they drove down from Camillus, which is about between an hour and an hour and a half. They came down. And in that week leading up to parent's weekend, everybody's talking about their parents coming, and everybody's making reservations at restaurants, where to eat on Saturday night. And everybody's sort of planning on taking their parents to the football game on Saturday during the day.

And it suddenly occurred to me-- this real sort of panic set in that, you know, my parents would come down, and we would go to a football game, and my dad would buy a hot dog. And somebody across the field would see Mr. Lovell eating a hot dog, and then, of course, the cat would be out of the bag.

[LAUGHTER]

And so I thought, you know, I've got to make a reservation at a restaurant, at someplace, either A, where nobody else's parents will be, or at a vegetarian restaurant. And so what I did was make a reservation at the Moosewood Restaurant, which is in Ithaca. And there's the Moosewood cookbooks that are out.

Ira Glass

Vegetarian cookbooks.

Joel Lovell

Exactly. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Mhm.

Joel Lovell

And it's this nice little vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, and a slightly famous place. But then we got there, and I remember sitting down at the table in the Moosewood. And the bowls are these kind of carved wooden bowls. And I mean, everything about it feels like, well, like a vegetarian restaurant.

Ira Glass

Not just a vegetarian restaurant, but kind of a cartoon of a vegetarian restaurant.

Joel Lovell

Exactly. Exactly. And I was looking at my parents across the table, and they were sort of dressed up, and they were excited to be coming down. And I could tell my dad was sitting there and sort of perusing the menu and thinking, well, you know, maybe this lentil salad will be good, or whatever. And I could tell he was sitting there thinking, now, geez. I just drove an hour and a half. All I want is a steak, and a baked potato, and a beer. And there I was, bringing them here.

But they were so game about it. They were so sort of willing to go along with it because, for some reason, they thought I really wanted to bring them there. And I just thought, geez, these people, my parents, have really given up a lot for me to come there. I mean financially, they were really stretching themselves, and we were taking out all sorts of loans. You know, all those things that people do in order to go to college. And they never complained once about doing it.

And they just wanted to come down and see me there, and feel proud that I was there, and I was sort of hiding them out in this vegetarian restaurant. I felt so bad about it afterwards. And they never once complained, and they went home. And sort of imagine them stopping at a Hardee's just outside of Ithaca, and getting a burger as soon as they say goodbye. But after that, I just thought, geez, I got to find some way to come clean about this.

Ira Glass

I mean, is it OK if your child decides to express himself in an alternate personality for a period of two years?

Sean Cole

I think there's-- it's funny. I never thought I would say this. But I think there's nothing wrong with that. I never thought I would say it because I wish that I hadn't done it, now, but I don't know. Maybe I learned something from doing it. I mean, I think that that is par for the course. Now, I think that's part of growing up.

Joel Lovell

But I think it was probably necessary for me at that time in my life.

Ira Glass

Because it gave you more confidence.

Joel Lovell

Yeah. And there was some bridge that this allowed me to cross.

Ira Glass

Joel Lovell and Sean Cole. Joel Lovell is the executive editor of a podcast company called Pineapple Street Media.

Sean Cole

Sean Cole works in public radio.

Ira Glass

Indeed, he does. He's one of the producers of our program.

[MUSIC - "MEAT" BY NOISE ADDICT]

Act Two: Conning The Con Men

Ira Glass

Act Two, Conning the Con Men. The American legal system, for the most part, does not uphold the principle of eye for an eye. If you steal somebody's car, the judge does not steal your car in return. If they catch you selling weed, they do not sell weed to you as your punishment. But if you're in the business of running scams, authorities catch you by running a scam on you.

This is the story of a con man who made millions by fooling people over the phone, until he was the one who got fooled. Nancy Updike reports.

Nancy Updike

The guy's name is David Diamond. That's his actual name. He was one of the most successful salesmen in one of the longest-running telemarketing scams in Los Angeles history.

Dale Sekovich

David Diamond was a salesman at a boiler room.

Nancy Updike

This is Dale Sekovich. He's been a Federal Trade Commission investigator for 29 years. He's the one who busted Diamond.

Dale Sekovich

He was living in a very expensive home up in the hills, in Woodland Hills. He drove a custom Porsche Carrera that he had shipped over here by airplane from Germany, from the factory. They lived very high on the hog.

Nancy Updike

David Diamond was just one of a whole bunch of guys making money, hand over fist, in an operation in Southern California that was basically running the same scam over and over, under different names, for seven years. It was an investment scheme. Give us your money, and we'll put it into this great 900-number business, or this online shopping network, or this hot new internet service provider.

Needless to say, no one ever made a dime, except the people running the scam, who cleared $40 million. Since Diamond was one of the operation's top salesmen, he made $2 million in commissions in just four years on the job. He got 30% of whatever he talked a person into investing. That means he personally conned people out of more than $6 million.

The FTC caught Diamond and the others in the operation essentially by conning the con men. They had volunteers pose as dupes and record their phone calls. Because the FTC brought a case against the operation Diamond worked in, some of those recordings are now part of the public record. I got Dale Sekovich to listen to the tapes with me, and talk about David Diamond and the FBI volunteer who caught him.

Dale Sekovich

The woman on the tape-- I can't tell you her real name, but she uses the alias of Marge. She assumed the identity of a person who is named Marge. Marge was a real person who we in law enforcement, and who people in the telemarketing business refer to, as a mooch. A mooch is someone who will essentially buy anything from anybody who calls her on the telephone. And in fact, she did, over a number of years. She spent hundreds of thousands of dollars--

Nancy Updike

The real Marge.

Dale Sekovich

The real Marge spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on bogus prize promotions, investments, gold coins, you name it. So the FBI went to Marge and said, we really think that we need to take your telephone number away from you, because it's being used to ruin your life. So once Marge agreed to that, her telephone number was installed in the home of an FBI volunteer.

Every time that phone line rang-- the Marge line-- that volunteer would pick up that telephone and answer it, and pose as Marge.

David Diamond

Marge?

Marge

Yes.

David Diamond

It's David Diamond. How are you?

Marge

I'm OK.

David Diamond

Good.

Marge

It's kind of warm here.

David Diamond

Yeah? I sent you off a video, and a package.

Marge

Yes, I have it.

David Diamond

OK. The video is with regard to Mark Ericson. Mark Ericson is the person who is heading up the program, and he is very successful in taking upstart companies and making them successful. You've probably heard of Hard Copy? He's an original producer of Hard Copy.

Marge

I have heard of it, yes.

David Diamond

OK.

Nancy Updike

You're smiling as you listen to this. What are you smiling about?

Dale Sekovich

Well, I'm smiling because it's been a while since I've heard Marge, and she sounds so old, and so fragile, and such an easy mark, when in fact, you know, she's this sharp FBI informant. She doesn't look as old as she sounds, trust me. So that's one aspect of it. The other aspect is this whole Mark Ericson thing.

Nancy Updike

Yeah. Is he a real person?

Dale Sekovich

Mark Ericson is a real person. He was named in our lawsuit.

Nancy Updike

And was he an original producer of Hard Copy?

Dale Sekovich

No. He was a segment producer and on-the-air reporter for Hard Copy for a brief period of time.

Nancy Updike

And I mean, is this sort of typical of the cons in the tapes that you've heard, that they'll try to associate what they're selling with a legitimate business, or organization, or television show? Something that people have heard of?

Dale Sekovich

Exactly. They want to make this-- yeah, something people can relate to.

David Diamond

Here's the thing. You have to invest everything you've got, or do nothing at all. And I'll say that again. You should invest everything you have. You should transfer all of your investments into this program, or do nothing. It doesn't make sense to do just a little bit. You should think about doing $1 million in this program.

Marge

Oh. I don't know. That's a lot of money.

David Diamond

You need to liquidate every nickel you've got. You either want to be in this situation-- you either want to be in this situation wholeheartedly, and upgrade your investments, or you don't. My suggestion to you is just do the whole thing.

Marge

Well, I would never liquidate everything I have.

David Diamond

My question is, why not?

Marge

Because there's always gambles in anything like this.

David Diamond

Anything like what?

Marge

Well, any investment like this.

David Diamond

Like this? What does that mean?

Marge

Well, anything you invest in, there's always a gamble.

Nancy Updike

Now I want to ask you. You told me once that you thought he sounded nervous on this tape. And in this part where she's saying, you know, an investment like this, and he's sort of questioning her, well what do you mean like this. I wonder, do you have any sense that he is suspicious that she might know what he's up to? I mean, do they know that volunteers are out there trying to trap them, posing as dupes?

Dale Sekovich

No. Since we talked about this tape last, I actually sort of had a revelation that came to me as to why. I listened to over 40 individual tapes of David Diamond-- conversations with Marge, and conversations with others-- over the course of about a year. And one of the things, when you've listened to all of them, you find that David in the earlier part of that year was much more kind of sweet, and cautious, and trying to bond with these women, and patient.

And sometimes would spend an hour on the phone with them-- the tape would be an hour long. But this tape was made towards the very end of that year period, probably within a week or two of our raid. Having gone in on the raid, and searched David Diamond's desk that day, I came to realize that David Diamond was starting to question whether he wanted to do this anymore.

He was starting to really have some concerns about--

Nancy Updike

Moral concerns?

Dale Sekovich

Moral concerns about what they were doing. And I believe that in these last couple of weeks, and it's kind of shown in this tape, he was becoming a little bit desperate. He wanted to make a couple more big hits, and he just couldn't figure out why this woman wasn't going to write him a check. So he started getting frustrated, and it comes out in his voice.

Nancy Updike

What evidence did you see that he was starting to have moral qualms about what he was doing?

Dale Sekovich

David had become a born again. There were religious tracts all over his office, and posters on his wall.

Nancy Updike

Just recently.

Dale Sekovich

I don't know exactly what the time frame was. We do know that he had given a lot of the money that he had made to his church. And we believe that a lot of that was sort of a self-imposed penance, that he could justify what he was doing because he was giving, he was tithing this money, that he was taking from these poor victims, into his church.

David Diamond

If $30,000 is what you made on every $5,000, and you put $50,000 in this program, that's $300,000 return. That's why I'm telling you, you need to do $1 million in this program.

Marge

Mhm. I don't know. I would never put that much in any program.

David Diamond

Do you have an obligation to yourself, as an investor, to make the most amount of money possible?

Marge

Well, you know, at my age, it's really not that-- what do I want to say? I have enough to live on for the rest of my life.

David Diamond

I understand. But is it still in your best interest to make the most amount of money possible, if you could finally do it as safely as possible?

Marge

It's my obligation not to lose what I have.

David Diamond

Correct, but it's also your obligation to keep your money working for you--

Marge

Right, right.

David Diamond

--because otherwise, what's the point?

Nancy Updike

When I heard this part of the tape, even though I knew that this particular woman was not getting conned, that she was, in fact, conning him, and trapping him, I started to get so angry because I was thinking, you know, he is really trying to take all of this old woman's money-- all of it. She's saying, I have enough to live on. He's saying, you have an obligation to make more.

Do you ever hear things like that and just get angry? Even though you know that she's sort of in on the con, on the joke?

Dale Sekovich

Every time I hear these pitches, I'm outraged because I am the person that spoke to the people who really did send David Diamond tens of thousands of dollars that consisted of their life savings, and now don't have any money to even buy groceries. I've interviewed them. I've seen them sob. Yeah, it makes me very angry.

Nancy Updike

And what sort of recourse do they have?

Dale Sekovich

Slim and none. Slim and none.

David Diamond

We have public companies that want to take you public. So if you've got a public company that's passed judgment on it, it's not even me talking anymore. If Mark Ericson wants to do business with you, it's not even me talking anymore. You have the ability to make an absolute fortune. And it doesn't make sense not to have every nickel you've got in this particular program. That's why I said it's the emergency investment situation, and you should do at least 50-100, 150 units, while you have the opportunity.

Marge

Mhm. Well, how much are you investing in this?

David Diamond

I'm not investing anything in this. My investment comes in the time that I put with my client.

Marge

Yes.

David Diamond

Right. And the fact that when they make money, they reinvest with me.

Marge

Right.

David Diamond

That's the whole point.

Marge

Uh-huh.

Nancy Updike

You were smiling again when she said, you know, how much are you investing? I mean, is she just screwing around with him?

Dale Sekovich

Of course. She's playing with him. Yeah. I mean, she's trained to ask him those kinds of questions so that he responds with a misrepresentation.

Nancy Updike

But that doesn't sound like it's part of the script. That just sounds like her being mean, in sort of a delicious way.

Dale Sekovich

Well, no. I think what we were trying to do, or her handler was trying to do, was to get him to say, oh, yeah. I'm in it, and I've got my mother, and my grandmother in it, and I'm putting away money for my child's education with it, because then we could show later that he hadn't.

Nancy Updike

Did you ever talk to Marge about what it's like to do this? I mean, do they ever sort of have fun? Just thinking, I'm just turning the tables on this guy. He has no idea.

Dale Sekovich

I wish I could answer the question. I've never spoken to them. I'd love to get the answer to that, myself. I'd like to ask that question, myself. I think they get a lot of personal satisfaction, though.

Nancy Updike

How often do you get a chance to catch a bad guy as just a regular civilian?

Dale Sekovich

Yeah, exactly. You know, I do it, too. I tape people using an alias in cases that I work.

Nancy Updike

And is it fun?

Dale Sekovich

I love it. I love to get these people to tell me stuff. You know, it's like acting. There's a rush.

Nancy Updike

The rush of a con, the pleasure of it, is knowing that you have more power than the person you're conning. You know more. You know that it's a con. And let's face it, given the choice between being the mark and being the con man, nobody's going to choose to be the mark. But the problem is, the more confidence you have in your own con, the more easily you become a mark yourself.

Con men get taken by other con men all the time. There just seems to be something about the particular arrogance of always being on the knowing side of the con that makes for a really, really good mark.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our program. In the years since we first broadcast this episode-- today's show is a rerun-- Dale Sekovich, the FTC investigator who busted David Diamond, has died. Coming up, a child tries to fix his own family by harnessing the most powerful force that exists anywhere. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on the program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Hoaxing Yourself, stories of people who are fooling themselves. Sometimes that is a side effect of trying to fool others. Sometimes they just don't know better, and pin their hopes and beliefs on something that is simply not true at all.

Act Three: Oedipus Hex

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Oedipus Hex. Shalom Auslander tells a story which happened to him when he was a boy in one of those ultra Orthodox Jewish religious schools called yeshivas. A warning to listeners that, although this story is about a little boy, in the story, the dad is not so nice to his kids, which might not be a thing that little kids will enjoy hearing at all. So take that under advisement. Here's Shalom.

Shalom Auslander

Rabbi Breyer walked into our third-grade classroom, hung up his long black coat, took off his big black hat, and handed each student a small black booklet entitled, The Guide to Blessings. We had one week, he told us, to prepare for the annual Yeshiva of Spring Valley Blessing Bee. My heart leaped. This was just what my mother needed. The Blessing Bee would make her forget all the troubles of our home.

To have a son who's a talmid chuchum, a wise student, that was the ultimate. Her brother was a respected rabbi. And if her husband couldn't be one, well, maybe her son could be. The Guide to Blessings was a 70-page-long listing of hundreds of different foods-- soups, breads, fish, desserts. I flipped through it, slowly realizing the size of the challenge that lay ahead. Falafel? Herring? Eggplant parmigiana? I had my work cut out for me.

Friday afternoons, the yeshiva closed early so that we could all rush home to help our parents prepare for Shabbos-- the Sabbath. Rabbi Breyer told us that the Sages tell us that the Torah tells us that the preparation for Shabbos is equal to the importance of Shabbos itself. Most of my preparations involved searching the house for kosher wine and pouring it down the toilet. It was a thankless job I admitted to nobody.

My father's frustrated rage at not having his Manischewitz Concord grape was fearsome, but it was far better than his drunken rage if he did have it. I'd search the pantry. I'd search the garage. I'd search my father's closet. But I was only eight years old, and there was always a bottle of Kedem hiding somewhere I just hadn't thought to check.

That night, my father, drunk on a bottle of blush Chablis that got away, grabbed my older brother by his shirt collar and dragged him away from the Shabbos table. He dragged him all the way down the stairs to our bedroom in the basement and slammed the door shut. Even the silverware jumped. Who wants the last matzoh ball, my mother asked? I made extra.

When my brother returned to the table, his nose was bleeding. My mother brought him a can of frozen orange juice to hold against the back of his neck, which was supposed to somehow stop the bleeding. Rabbi Breyer taught us that it is prohibited to defrost orange juice on Shabbos because changing food from solid to liquid is considered cooking, and cooking is considered working. And even God refrained from working on Shabbos.

There are 39 different categories of work that are prohibited on Shabbos. That's also why you're not allowed to switch on lights on Shabbos. The electricity causes the filament to glow, which is considered burning, which is considered working. Category number two.

My father came back to the table and drunkenly sang a few Shabbos songs, fudging the words and banging heavily on the table with his fist. I sat hunched over, absentmindedly drawing circles on the condensation that had formed on the silver water pitcher. My father slapped my hand. Shabbos, he shouted. Writing, category number five. Eventually, he stumbled off to his bedroom and fell asleep, snoring loudly. We sat in the dining room and picked glumly at our food.

The following Monday morning, as we all sat studying from our blessing books, there was a knock on Rabbi Breyer's classroom door, and Rabbi Greenbaum, the yeshiva principal, solemnly entered. We all rose. The two rabbis conferred quietly for a moment before signaling us all to be seated. After a few thoughtful strokes of his long black beard, Rabbi Greenbaum sighed deeply and informed us that the night before, our classmate Avrumi Gruenembaum's father had suffered a heart attack and died. Some kids have all the luck.

Blessed is the one true judge, said Rabbi Breyer, nodding his head. Blessed is the one true judge, we all answered, nodding our heads. I wondered what Mr. Gruenembaum might have done to deserve death. Did he bow down to idols? Did he walk four steps without his yarmulke on? Whatever it was, it must have been pretty bad. As Rabbi Greenbaum turned to leave, he paused.

And with a stern shake of his finger, reminded us all that the Sages tell us that the Torah tells us that until the age of 13, all of a boy's sins are ascribed to his father. I turned to look at Avrumi's empty chair. Avrumi was a chubby kid with heavy orthodontia and foul breath. But a sudden respect for him grew inside me. I wondered what he might have done to cause his father's death. Whatever it was, it must have been pretty bad.

Scowling fiercely, Rabbi Greenbaum advised each and every one of us to pray to Hashem, the Holy One, blessed be he, for forgiveness, so that he wouldn't kill our fathers, too. My heart leaped. Blessed is Hashem, he said. Blessed is Hashem, we answered. Blessed is Hashem was right. All of a sudden, I had two ways I could save my family. I could win the Blessing Bee for my mother, or I could sin so much Hashem would have to kill my father.

Courageous Avrumi Gruenembaum. Maybe one Shabbos night, he had switched on a light. Maybe he drank milk after eating meat. Maybe he touched himself. That night, just before bed, I ate a drumstick, washed it down with some milk, touched myself, and flicked the bedroom light on and off. Break those lights and I'll break your hands, my father shouted. It was going to be a busy week.

The Blessing Bee worked the same way as a spelling bee. There are six basic blessings on food-- hamotzei, the blessing for bread; mezonos, the blessing for wheat; hagofen, the blessing for wine or grape juice; ha-eitz, the blessing for things that grow from trees; ho-adamah, the blessing for things that grow from the Earth; and shehakol, the blessing for everything else. Bagel? Hamotzei. Oatmeal? Mezonos. Gefilte fish? Shehakol, the blessing for everything else. But that was the easy part.

Things became much more complicated when you started combining foods. Some foods are superior to other foods, and in combination with subordinate foods, the superior food, gets the blessing. To make matters worse, some blessings are superior to other blessings, and you had to know which blessing to recite first. This is where they separated the men from the goys.

Spaghetti and meatballs? Mezonos, the wheat blessing, then shehakol, the everything else blessing. Cereal with milk? Shehakol for the milk, then mezonos for the wheat in the cereal. Twix, the chocolate candy with the cookie crunch? Trick question. Twix isn't kosher.

I spent the next week sinning and blessing, and blessing and sinning, alternately praising God and then defying him, as much as one eight-year-old possibly could. Monday morning, I stuffed myself. I had a bowl of fruity Pebbles-- mezonos-- a slice of toast-- hamotzei-- a glass of juice-- shehakol-- half an apple-- ha-eitz-- and a couple of old French fries I found at the bottom of the fridge-- ho-adamah. One meal, five blessings.

Tuesday, I touched myself. I also partook of bread without first ceremoniously washing my hands. And that evening, before going to sleep, I sat on the edge of my bed and carefully recited [BLEEP], [BLEEP], and ass a dozen times each. My father banged angrily on my bedroom door. Lights out, he barked. I smiled. For you and me both, pal.

Wednesday, I stole $5 from my mother, and didn't recite any blessings at all on the bag full of candy that I bought with it-- a Charleston Chew, which is traif to begin with, and a Chunky, which would have been a shehakol if I weren't trying to kill my father. A Chunky with raisins? Shehakol, then ha-eitz. Thursday, I didn't wear tzitzis. Rabbi Breyer noticed that the strings weren't dangling from my sides, and grabbed me by the ear and pulled me to the front of the class.

Speak to the children of Israel, he quoted loudly from the Torah, as he spanked me hard on my bottom, and tell them to make tzitzis on the corners of their garments. That afternoon, after not respecting my elders by taking out the garbage like my mother had told me to, I touched myself and silently begged God to, just this once, credit those sins to Rabbi Breyer's account. Later, I defiled a prayer book by carrying it into the bathroom.

The Blessing Bee was the following morning and I could barely sleep. Lentil soup? Mezonos. Potato knish? Ho-adamah. Root beer? Is it a root? Is it a beer? [BLEEP] [BLEEP] ass bitch. I tossed and turned, I blessed and cursed, and finally, I fell into an uncomfortable sleep.

After a week at home, Avrumi Gruenembaum conveniently returned to school just in time for the Blessing Bee. It was all I could do to not lean over and ask him how he did it. Psst. Avrumi, tell me. Was it lobster? Did you eat lobster? Rabbi Breyer told us that the Sages tell us that the Torah tells us that when Abraham died, Hashem comforted Isaac. We learned from this that it is a tremendous mitzvah, or good deed, to comfort the bereaved.

Rabbi Breyer instructed us all to line up at Avrumi's desk, to shake his hand, and recite the traditional mourner's constellation-- may Hashem comfort you among the mourners of Zion. Just eight years old, I wasn't entirely familiar with Hashem's system, but it occurred to me that, along with all my sins, my father might also be getting all my mitzvahs. I wasn't taking any chances. Soon, it was my turn in line.

How's it going? I said to Avrumi. Rabbi Breyer pinched me. Ow, I screamed. Shmendrick, he grumbled. After the last boy had asked Hashem to comfort Avrumi among the mourners of Zion, Rabbi Breyer smacked his desk loudly. The Blessing Bee began. We lined up at the back of the classroom, nervously pulling on our tzitzis and twirling our peyis. The rules were simple. Name the correct blessing, and remain standing for the next round. Name the wrong blessing, and you take your seat.

Last year's winner, Yukisiel Zalman Yehuda Schneck, stood beside me. He leaned calmly against the wall, mindlessly picking his nose. Auslander, Shalom, called out Rabbi Breyer. I stepped forward. Apple, he shouted. Apple, I called out. Ha-eitz, the blessing for food from trees. Correct, Rabbi Breyer said.

The Blessing Bee usually started off pretty easy. David Borgen got tuna-- shehakol, the everything else blessing. Ari Mashinsky got matzoh-- hamotzei, the blessing for bread. And Avi Tuchman got stuck with kugel, which he thought was ho-adamah-- food from the Earth-- but was really mezonos, the blessing on wheat. Three other kids got taken out by oatmeal. Borscht with sour cream claimed two others. And by the end of the first round, almost a third of the students were already back in their seats.

Round two. Auslander, Shalom, called Rabbi Breyer. I stepped forward. Mushroom barley soup, he shouted. Mushroom barley soup? Mushroom barley soup? Damn. I knew I should have studied the chapter on soups more. I'd wasted half the week on entrees. Was it ho-adamah on the mushrooms, which came from the Earth? Or was it mezonos on the barley? Maybe it was shehakol, the everything else blessing, on the soup.

Mushroom barley soup, I called out. Mezonos. Rabbi Breyer tugged on his beard, his eyes narrowing into angry little slits. And, ah, shehakol, I added? Rabbi Breyer triumphantly smacked his desk, signaling that I was correct.

Apple strudel took out David Borgen, Yoel Levine, and Shlomo Pomerantz. My friend, Motty Greenberg, got stuck with cheesecake, and I could tell just by the expression on his face that he had absolutely no idea. He wisely offered two answers-- one for thin crust, and one for thick, and somehow managed to stay alive. It was hard to believe this was only round two.

Avrumi stepped forward. I smiled at Motty. Avrumi may have killed his father, but he wasn't very bright, and he never did well at these things. He was lucky to even be in the second round at all. Bagel, shouted Rabbi Breyer. Bagel? I looked at Motty in disbelief. Was he kidding? Bagel? Bagel, called out Avrumi. Hamotzei. This was bull-[BLEEP]. Correct, shouted Rabbi Breyer. Very good.

Ephraim Greenblat, Avrumi Epstein, and Yoel Frankel all got out on cholent with barley and large pieces of meat, while chopped liver on challah with a slice of lettuce and a bit of olive took out four more, including Motty. And then there were three. It was just Yukisiel Zalman Yehuda Schneck, Avrumi Gruenembaum, and me.

Round three began. Auslander, Shalom, called out Rabbi Breyer. I stepped forward. Ice cream, shouted Rabbi Breyer, in a cone. Ice cream in a cone. Ice cream in a cone. I knew ice cream, but why would he add the cone? Was there something different if it was in a cone? What was an ice cream cone made of, anyway? Was it cake? Was it a wafer? Ice cream in a cone, Rabbi Breyer shouted. Is the ice cream subordinate to the cone, or is it the cone's subordinate to the ice cream?

If it's a sugar cone, maybe you really desire the cone. Ice cream in a cone, Rabbi Breyer shouted again. I had no choice. Ice cream in a cone, I called out. No blessing. Everyone in the classroom turned to face me. Looking back on the whole episode, Rabbi Breyer had really left me no choice. No blessing? said Rabbi Breyer. Why no blessing? Because, I explained, nervously twirling my tzitzis, because the room smells like doody.

There was a long silence. Motty giggled, and others followed. Rabbi Breyer slowly rose to his feet, his thick fists pushing themselves into the desktop. It may have been a loophole, but technically speaking, I was correct. Rabbi Breyer himself had told us that our Sages tell us that the Torah tells us that there were three situations in which one is absolutely prohibited from reciting a blessing.

One, while facing a male over the age of nine years old whose genitals are showing; two, while facing a female over the age of three years old whose genitals are showing; and three, in the presence of feces. Frankly, given the other two options, I think I chose the least offensive answer. For a big man, Rabbi Breyer moved pretty quickly.

It's true, I said, as he barreled toward me. The Torah says that-- he grabbed me roughly by my arm, lifting me clear off the ground, and dragged me towards the door, shouting angrily in Yiddish the whole time. But it smells like doody, I yelled. The room smells like doody. Wait, there's a naked girl in the room. There's a naked girl. The door slammed shut behind me. I stood in the hallway and rub my bruised arm. I began to cry. The Blessing Bee was lost. I was not a great rabbi. And my father was still not dead.

I tiptoed toward the classroom door and listened closely. Two minutes later, Yukisiel Zalman Yehuda Schneck fell victim to matzoh brei with maple syrup. And the last man standing was Avrumi Gruenembaum. Apples, called out Rabbi Breyer. Apples, Avrumi answered. Ha-eitz. Mazel tov, called out Rabbi Breyer, mazel tov. Total bull-[BLEEP].

That night, we had the traditional Friday night gefilte fish-- shehakol-- with a little slice of carrot-- ho-adamah. My father was drunk again, singing Shabbos songs, fudging the words and banging heavily on the table with his fist. My mother went into the kitchen and brought out the soup. When my brother said he didn't want any, my father slapped him, pushed him over backward onto the floor, and poured the hot chicken soup onto his face.

My mother took my brother into the bathroom and sat with him on the edge of the bathtub, pressing a cold washcloth against his cheeks. I went back to the dining room to get the chicken soup off the floor. Chicken soup is a shehakol, even if it is cooked with vegetables, since chicken is the dominant taste in the soup. Rabbi Breyer told us that the Sages tell us that the Torah tells us that the Holy One, blessed be he, sent the Egyptians 10 plagues in order to teach us that he gives people many chances to repent.

And only then, if they still continue to sin, does he punish them with death. I went downstairs to my bedroom, took four steps without my yarmulke on, touched myself, flicked the lights off and on, and fell asleep.

Ira Glass

Shalom Auslander. He's the author of many fine books. This story appears in his memoir, Foreskin's Lament.

[MUSIC - "(HE'S) THE GREAT IMPOSTER" BY THE FLEETWOODS]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by me and Blue Chevigny, with Alex Bloomberg, Susan Burton, and Julie Snyder. Our contributing editors for today's show, Paul Tuft, Jack Hit, Margie Rocken, Elise Spiegel, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Mixing up today by Jared Ford and Catherine Raimondo. Production up from Anna Martin. Our technical director is Matt Tierney.

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can listen to over 600 episodes of our show for absolutely free. This American Life is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who is not jealous at all of the fact that the This American Life staff gets to tape interviews all the time.

Torey Malatia

You know, I do it, too. I tape people, using an alias.

Ira Glass

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

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