Transcript

775: The Possum Experiment

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

A while back, when she first moved to LA, Jessica worked at a pole dancing studio, an exercise place. The pay wasn't great. She was just a receptionist. But there were things about the place that she just loved.

Jessica Lee Williamson

You know, we got to take classes, the receptionists. And you're in a class with supermodels. I'm not even exaggerating. Cindy Crawford was in my class. And so then it would be--

Ira Glass

Wow.

Jessica Lee Williamson

It would be like Cindy does her dance. And then it'd be like, all right, that was beautiful. Jessica, it's your turn.

Ira Glass

Oh, and you're soloing?

Jessica Lee Williamson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You have to solo?

Jessica Lee Williamson

Right?

Ira Glass

What kind of exercise class makes you solo?

Another nice thing about the job, when she checked everyone in for a class and class started, she'd take these long breaks. Once, she strode over to Starbucks. On the way, she saw this poster on a telephone pole. Somebody had found a lost animal.

Jessica Lee Williamson

And it said "pet found" above a picture of a cat. And I just thought it was so weird that they said "pet found" and not "cat found."

Ira Glass

Which got her thinking. And when she got back to work, without much to do, she decided to make a poster of her own.

Jessica Lee Williamson

I just wrote "cat found" above two pictures of possums that I had printed off the internet. One of the possums looks like he's crouching, disturbed by an invasive camera lens. And then the other possum is hissing.

Ira Glass

I'd say the second possum is actually kind of scary. It's bearing its sharp teeth, snarling. And then handwritten underneath, there are bullet points. "Male, no collar, not very friendly. I think he might be scared."

Jessica Lee Williamson

I said "not housebroken either," which I drew a sad face next to.

Ira Glass

And then it says, "Found on Sunset Boulevard. If he is yours, please call," and then a phone number.

Jessica Lee Williamson

Yes, my phone number.

Ira Glass

She made a few copies, less than a dozen, and put them up around her neighborhood. The idea that some hapless, well-meaning person would put up a poster like this, thinking that they had a cat, it just seemed so funny to her. So it was obvious that it was a joke. She really didn't expect the calls.

Jessica Lee Williamson

Within two days, my phone just wouldn't stop ringing. And I'm not exaggerating about that. I had to turn my phone off because it was just constantly, constantly, constantly ringing.

Caller 1

Hi. I just saw a poster. It says "cat found."

Caller 2

I'm calling in regards to the sign you have about the cat found.

Caller 3

I'm calling about your "cat found" sign. And I'm just wondering, are you serious? Because I don't think that's a cat.

Jessica Lee Williamson

And then when I started listening to the voicemails, it was kind of like this very unscientific, I would say, social experiment. Because you could really lock the calls into three groups. And the largest group of people were actually very kindly just calling to tell me that it wasn't a cat and that it was a possum.

Caller 4

I just wanted to let you know that the picture that you have is of a possum and not a cat. So you're going to want to call animal control because it could have rabies.

Caller 5

Hello. Kind of a wildlife guy. And that's a possum, a male possum. And you probably want to release that.

Caller 6

I'm not sure if it's a joke or real, but I'm sure you know by now probably it was a possum and should probably let it out so it's not in your house destroying everything. And hopefully it doesn't have rabies, and hopefully you didn't get hurt, didn't bite you.

Jessica Lee Williamson

And it was like they were usually concerned for my well-being or the well-being of the animal.

Caller 7

You probably just want to get rid of it, let it go or throw it away. But all right, God bless. Take care.

Caller 8

Anyway, that was nice of you to try to help a poor little soul like that.

Jessica Lee Williamson

So I would say 70% of the people who called were just calling out of the kindness of their own heart and concerned. And then maybe 20% were calling like they were in on the joke, and so calling to say, that's my cat.

Caller 9

You have my cat. You have my cat. His name is Giorgio.

Jessica Lee Williamson

And then would make up a story about their cat or pretend to cry because they miss their cat.

Ira Glass

Like this next guy, who-- the sound quality, this isn't so great. He says it's his cat, and the cat is a really gentle spirit.

Caller 10

He's a really, really, really gentle spirit, but his behavior is erratic. So he loves to sleep in the same bed with people, but he can get a little aggressive. So you got to thump him in the nose.

Ira Glass

"You've got to thump him in the nose," he's saying.

Caller 10

Just thump him with your knuckle.

Ira Glass

Clearly very bad advice. Jessica says maybe this guy is just trying to mess with her. Which brings us to the last of her three categories of callers, making up maybe 10% of all calls, she says.

Jessica Lee Williamson

They're the ones who are mean and not in on the joke. They're calling to call you an idiot.

Caller 11

Yeah, that cat? It's a possum, you fricking [BLEEP].

Caller 12

Hi. I think you found my cat. I was just calling in reference to your poster. If you could call me back, that'd be really great. Oh, and by the way, you're a fucking idiot. That's not a cat. Bye.

Ira Glass

Jessica ended up getting hundreds of calls from all over the country because someone posted her "cat found" sign on the internet. And the fact that overwhelmingly most people who called wanted to help her out and warn her it was possum, and and then only 10% of the callers went out of their way to be mean. She says normally, she thought, people as a whole were not so great. She wasn't somebody who had much faith in humanity.

Jessica Lee Williamson

I mean, for good reason.

Ira Glass

Sure.

Jessica Lee Williamson

But so yeah. So I was a cynical person, but then when the calls started coming in and the majority of them were so nice, it was very surprising to me.

Ira Glass

It's interesting your conclusion to this is like, oh, people are surprisingly nice.

Jessica Lee Williamson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You never hear that lesson.

Jessica Lee Williamson

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

I feel like so many things in life really come down to if you think people are nice or not, if people are going to try to do the right thing. I feel like it runs all through our politics. It runs through personal situations, whether or not you think people are going to basically do the right thing and be kind most of the time.

Jessica Lee Williamson

Right. What do you think? Do you think they are going to do the right thing and be kind?

Ira Glass

Oh my god. Of course. I'm so squarely on the side of like, oh, yeah, most people are going to try to do the right thing most of the time. But I definitely get into lots of conversations all the time with people in my personal life and just elsewhere who are just like, oh, of course that's not true. Of course that person is trying to rip you off. Of course they didn't mean well when they did this.

Jessica Lee Williamson

Right. When I made the poster, I would say it absolutely surprised me that people wanted to be helpful.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on the program, "The Possum Experiment." We have three stories today on our show of people in wildly different situations, puzzling out. Can we trust people, really? Are people mostly good?

I know that it's such an embarrassingly basic question to be asking, but sometimes you really are in situations where that is the thing you need to figure out. But we don't just ask the question today. We have answers. Stay with us.

Act One: Now You See Me

Ira Glass

Act 1, "Now You See Me." Kiese Laymon's a writer, and he's pretty clear on where he stands on this question, can you usually trust people? He lands squarely in the camp of be skeptical. He says we've all been burned by other people, by institutions. We build up distrust, and distrust protects us.

Which is the opposite of what Darryl Lennox believes. Darryl's a comedian. He says we're better off trusting that most people have good intentions. Yeah, you run into bad apples, but it's not worth constantly being on guard. This is not, however, what Darryl always believed. In fact, until recently, he was more like Kiese. But then something happened, something big, that changed his mind. Kiese talked to him about it.

Kiese Laymon

There's a joke that Darryl Lennox tells that I love. He's a comedian, and a lot of his comedy has to do with the absurdities of losing his vision.

Darryl Lennox

I'm at the baggage claim in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And all of a sudden, this old Black dude shows up in front of me, goes, hey, man, ain't you a comedian? I go, yes, I am. He goes, I saw you on TV, man-- Conan. Yeah, yeah, that was me. He goes, you's a funny dude. I said, I appreciate it. Thank you. He goes, yeah, you're the real philosophical nigga with the fucked-up eyes [INAUDIBLE].

I was like, that is not how I describe myself at all. Yet inarguably accurate, sir. I cannot debate you on this one. He kept going. Yeah, man, you's funny. You're like half Morpheus, half Mr. Magoo. You's a funny motherfucker, man. I was like, half Morpheus, half Mr. Magoo?

Kiese Laymon

I love this joke, because this stranger at the baggage claim, who reminds me of all my Newport-smoking uncles in Milwaukee, is recognizing Darryl and letting him know it. It's like that knowing nod I've gotten my entire life from older Black men strangers, often with a slow shake of a head and a mild smirk.

Darryl Lennox

Yeah, I took it as a compliment, is why I said it on stage that night, because it was really deep to me, the fact that he could sum me up that quickly.

Kiese Laymon

Darryl always had problems with his vision. So growing up, he was able to see well enough to play point guard on his basketball teams in high school and college. He went completely blind in his left eye two decades ago, when he was 33. And then in 2018, he became allergic to his glaucoma meds and started to lose the vision in his other eye.

Darryl Lennox

Be two years ago this month. I don't remember the day, but I went to bed, and I could still look and see through a very small corner window of my eye and read a text message that had come in, and then didn't respond to it. And then I go to sleep. I wake up the next morning, and that window was shut. It was just straight black.

And then I laid in the bed, kept opening my eyes and closing to see what's going to happen. And then I didn't want to stay in the bed too much longer, because then that's when the fear steps in. So I got up, felt my wall all the way to the bathroom. And I stood in the bathroom, tried to stare at myself in the mirror. I just kept turning the light on and off to see if I could register any light coming on, and nothing happened.

So I stared in the mirror. And I felt for the toothbrush, and I brushed my teeth. And I said, you're not allowed to cry. I did my affirmations. I did my affirmations.

I'm the best of all time. I'm the best comic alive. I'm the funniest MF on the planet. And I'm going to change this world, boom. So let's go to work. So I start feeling my way around the house. I just start riding the walls--

Kiese Laymon

Wow.

Darryl Lennox

--sitting down, and figuring out how to use my phone. You can't anticipate absolute blackness. There's just no way to anticipate it. You can't practice it. Because even when you close your eyes, you still can--

Kiese Laymon

I was about to ask.

Darryl Lennox

There's still light and stuff going on.

Kiese Laymon

There's a difference between--

Darryl Lennox

Yes.

Kiese Laymon

My eyes are closed right now. That is not what you're talking about.

Darryl Lennox

That's right.

Kiese Laymon

Before he lost his sight, Darryl described himself as a fighter, nearly completely distrusting of the motives of strangers. He stayed clear of them as best he could. But after he completely lost his sight, that changed. He felt like he had to trust strangers now, that he was getting into situations just getting from one place to another, where he thought he had no choice. This, of course, isn't how everyone who's blind moves through the world.

Strangers started approaching Darryl in a new way too. Realizing he was blind, they would come up to him at bars, restaurants, and airports, and start telling him secrets, lots of secrets, all the secrets. He told me he'd have conversations like this eight or 10 times a week sometimes.

Darryl Lennox

It's like a confessional, like a confessional. People get close enough to me and they start confessing all this stuff. One lady, I was listening to a text message on my phone. She goes, put your phone down, and grabbed my phone. I go, what are you doing? She says, put it down. Life is short. I go, I know. I know, but I'm blind. And I stop to listen to my phone.

She goes, listen, I'm dying. I have two months, and I want to enjoy as much as possible. So now I have to stop and listen so that she can have a complete, fully attentioned listen to conversations about her mortality. And so I asked her the questions about, are you prepared, or what are you afraid of? I have these conversations with people all the time.

Kiese Laymon

Strangers will talk to Darryl about their partner's cheating, their money issues, their brutal divorces. An ex-Catholic priest told him he liked to have sex with straight men. Some dude told him how he once robbed a bank in Seattle and got away with it. Each confession unprovoked, completely unsolicited, and by the way, mostly from white strangers and all from folks who are not blind.

Darryl says people do this because since he can't see them. He can't judge them. I wonder if these strangers are leaning violently almost on that Morpheus idea, that a blind Black man is some kind of oracle, a soothsayer, a wise Black superhuman here to save us all. I wanted to try my best to not be like that. And yet, as we talked about strangers, I wanted badly to confess to Darryl how terrified I've always been of them and how COVID made this worse, made me see every stranger as someone I might kill or be killed by, how two years into the pandemic I've been nudged from being slightly anti-social into a complete recluse.

I didn't say any of that to him. But it was why I was interested in talking to him in the first place, because his experience of the last two years has been the complete opposite. He went blind at the beginning of the pandemic, and since then he's more embracing of strangers, more open to them than he's ever been in his life. I listened to all of his albums and was intrigued, if not fully convinced, by his musings on that and on the relationships between blindness and Blackness. Here's one of those.

Darryl Lennox

Here's something that I philosophized this little trip. It's a trip for me. This fucks with my head a little bit. My blindness is diffusing the scariness of my Blackness.

That was one of my secret weapons to be a big brother, and people get nervous. Oh, fuck. There's a big Black guy. Watch out. That shit is powerful. It was a thrill.

Once people find out that I can't see, my Blackness is out the window. They treat me like I'm a Make-a-Wish baby. Uh oh, watch out. There's a big Black guy. Oh, he just walked into the broom closet. OK, no worries.

Kiese Laymon

I got the joke, but I wasn't sure if I was supposed to laugh at the broom closet trope or nod up and down slowly, signaling that I was aware of the broom closet trope. Darryl told me this one confession story that was also one of these instances where he could see his blindness diffusing his Blackness in real time. It was about a guy he bumped into by accident as he sat down at a bar. The guy seemed unusually mad about it, even after Darryl apologized and explained he couldn't see.

Darryl Lennox

So I felt this hostility, energy just funky right away. So I go, what's your name? He goes, Bob. I go, Bob, I'm Darryl. And I said, come on, man, let me buy you a beer.

Then he goes, so you're really blind? And I say, yeah. And he goes, what's that like? I said, well, I have to trust everybody.

He goes, I would never let that happen. He goes, I'm a cop. I go, well, wait. So if I have to trust everybody, you have to wake up and trust nobody? He goes, that's exactly right.

Kiese Laymon

Bob the cop went on to confess how being so vigilantly mistrustful was taking a toll on him, and he wasn't sure if he could keep doing it.

Darryl Lennox

And he goes, I'll be honest with you. He goes, my name isn't Bob. I go, I knew you was lying. Ain't nobody named Bob. Ain't nobody named damn Bob.

So I said, well, what's your name? He said it was Kyle. And he goes, I'll be honest with you. He goes, when you sat down, I immediately got my guard up. I go, because I'm Black? He goes, yeah.

He goes, I'm always on the lookout for it. And he goes, now-- I go, so now that I'm blind and Black, you don't feel threatened or anything? He goes, I wasn't threatened. I'm just on the lookout for stuff all the time.

Kiese Laymon

Wow.

The cop formerly known as Bob wasn't just telling on himself. To me, he was telling on his entire profession. Darryl told me that when they finished talking, the cop hugged him tightly and did not want to let go.

Darryl Lennox

That doesn't happen if I'm not blind. And then I sense his hostility. I'm like, oh, this cracker-ass dude is on some shit, and I got to be careful of him. He's going to be careful of me. And we have a conversation about something, just stereotypical dumb stuff. But now, because that door has opened where he's not being judged, he can apologize for judging me. Now we get to be on the same plane in existence.

Kiese Laymon

There was something incredibly dizzying and high-key brutal about the "this doesn't happen if I'm blind" part of the story Darryl told me.

Kiese Laymon

So the idea that people are treating you with less suspicion now, what does that make you feel, actually, about other people?

Darryl Lennox

It makes me feel like we're all just one thing away from becoming more connected in humanity. And so if all it took was for me to go blind for you to not feel threatened or weird, maybe we're all just one thing away from realizing we're way more connected than we are disconnected.

Kiese Laymon

That feels like a really positive conclusion. And I don't know that I would see it like that. I would imagine being mad about the hypocrisy or disappointed.

Darryl Lennox

I can't see it. I can't see it anything other than just a positive thing, because I can't-- I'm not going to be a well of somebody else's negativity, to let it contaminate me. It's how I've been trained in my brain anyway.

I've got to be stronger mentally than I've ever been in my life. I've got to be stronger mentally than anybody else. No different than what Obama had to do, or Jesus Christ of Nazareth, or Moses, or Muhammad Ali, or Malcolm X. You've got to be stronger in the head than you've ever been before.

Kiese Laymon

I asked Darryl about this so many different ways. Like, really? And each time, he responded with almost single-minded positivity. His whole album, Superbloom, is about accepting catastrophe and willing that catastrophe into absolute abundance.

I got to confess, I didn't get Darryl's refusal to allow any cynicism or even healthy skepticism in until he told me this story about his response to George Floyd's murder. It made me realize how singularly internal his existence is and how singularly protective he must be of that. Darryl said when he heard about the video of George Floyd being murdered, he immediately remembered the sound of George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin.

Darryl Lennox

I remember how much hearing Trayvon screaming, that sound. And with limited vision, it lasts longer inside of you. That audio stays in you. When you can't see at all, your imagination can run forever, and your mind is very powerful. So the mind pictures what this dude's face might have looked like. Or was the officer smiling? It's the literal boogeyman effect.

Kiese Laymon

Yeah, yeah.

Darryl Lennox

It's the thing under the bed.

Kiese Laymon

I remember watching the video and immediately turning the sound off at the point where George Floyd utters the syllable "Ma" in "Mama." Darryl did not listen to George Floyd call for his mama at all. He knew that the sound of a Black human being accepting death and/or fighting for his life while an officer's knee flattened his throat would take his imagination into places his insides would likely never escape.

While we were talking, I wondered how differently this conversation would have gone if we were alone. I foolishly imagined that it would be just us during our conversation, but that's not how it works. As we talk, there were four other strangers listening in, producers who were neither big, Black, or blind feeding me questions on Zoom, a sound guy standing behind me for three hours in my tiny office. There was the imagined audience of folks who were not big, Black, or blind. It made whatever connection we had feel like a short-lived spectacular performance that neither of us were directing.

Kiese Laymon

I wonder if you could talk, if you have anything more to say, Darryl, about the way Black men have interacted with you since you've lost your sight.

Darryl Lennox

It's been really-- brothers have this way of understanding without getting too personal, but also not letting you get off easy. They let you know, hey, man, you're still a brother. No matter what you are, you're still one of us.

Kiese Laymon

Like there was this one amateur comedian.

Darryl Lennox

So I gave him some notes. He said, damn, man, you funny. He said, all right, man. So I said, all right, bro. He said, all right, Cyclops.

Kiese Laymon

Wow.

Darryl Lennox

Yeah. "All right, Cyclops." And then he bounced.

Kiese Laymon

Wow. [LAUGHS] Wow.

Darryl Lennox

So interesting about the Black community now is because I'm blind, I think they think I'm even more Black than I was before.

Kiese Laymon

Oh, talk to me about that, brother. What does that mean? Why? How?

Darryl Lennox

Because now I'm just my energy, which is just Black. It's not insecurity. It's not I read a lot of books or I speak well or don't speak well. Now I'm just this brother that understands things.

Kiese Laymon

Though I've been firmly on this side of vision and this side of suspicion my entire life, my relationship with both started to shift immediately after my conversation with Darryl. I tried so hard not to be that goofy man whose life is changed in one interaction with the blind Black dude.

But the truth is, the day following our conversation, I didn't wait in the parking lot for my neighbors to go in before I got out of my car. I didn't sit on my couch working all day, wondering what it would be like to actually go outside and play. I went to the park near dusk and swung on swings next to strangers for the first time since the pandemic started. While swinging, I kept my mask on and listened again to Darryl's latest album. I kept replaying the first track, where the older brother from Milwaukee recognizes Darryl at the baggage claim.

Darryl Lennox

Yeah, you're the real philosophical nigga with the fucked-up eyes [INAUDIBLE]. I was like, uh--

Kiese Laymon

That few minutes of swinging next to unmasked strangers, laughing goofily with Darryl's voice in my ears, it didn't make me feel free, or delivered, or fundamentally changed. It made me go home in what feels like a world full of ruin, extremely thankful to be alive, and listen to an unexpected voicemail from a stranger named Darryl. "Man," I texted him back, "I'm so glad we ain't strangers no more."

Ira Glass

Kiese Laymon, he's the author of several books, most recently a memoir called Heavy. Coming up, a guy comes to New York City thinking it's a den of iniquity. And then a stranger walks up to him with a very unusual suggestion. Should he take the advice? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Spring Awakening

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "The Possum Experiment," stories that shed light on the embarrassingly basic question, are most people usually trying to do the right thing? Can they be trusted? We've arrived at Act 2 of our program. Act 2, "Spring Awakening."

OK, so one answer to the question "can you trust people to do the right thing" is that you can trust the people in your own group. And you can define that group however you want-- the people you share a religion with, or a nationality, or a race. Or maybe you grew up in the same place, went to the same school. They're the ones who share your values. Everybody else, don't trust them.

That's how the person in this next story, Clay Elder, felt about things till one day during a visit to New York City. Elna Baker, tell us what happened.

Elna Baker

I've known Clay since we were 15. And when we get together, it's not unusual for us to Mormon out.

Clay Elder

Oh, what were they called?

Elna Baker

(SINGING) Book of Mormon Stories. That one?

Clay Elder

Oh. Well, that one, but-- darn it.

Elna Baker

Try to remember church songs and other stuff from when we were kids.

Clay And Elna

(SINGING) We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly. We also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

[LAUGHTER]

Clay Elder

That's not even a song. It's just words and notes.

Elna Baker

Clay is gay. As a kid growing up in the Mormon Church, he was taught that practicing homosexuality was akin to incest or bestiality. He hid out in musical theater, which, I know, terrible hiding place. But in Utah, that worked.

He studied theater at BYU. That's where he learned some of the musicals that Mormons love, the cheesy G-rated shows like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He didn't think it was something he would be able to do professionally. Instead, he saw it as a hobby.

He did musicals that the Mormon church put on, playing everyone from Joseph Smith, father of Mormonism, to Joseph, father of Jesus, or stepfather. He'd get on stage in front of thousands, help Mary give birth to the Son of God, and then sneak out to gay bars. If he kissed a guy, he'd feel guilty. And then he'd repent, then repeat. It was torture. He knew that a bigger city like New York was where people went to do all the things he wanted to do, but he couldn't imagine going there.

Clay Elder

New York was evil. It was like the great city that would one day fall.

Elna Baker

The great and spacious building.

Clay Elder

The great and spacious building.

Elna Baker

I knew that's what you were thinking when you said that.

Clay Elder

Yeah. I mean, basically, it was.

Elna Baker

"The great and spacious building" is Mormon code for the wicked outside world. In the Book of Mormon, the people who lived in the great and spacious building dressed in fancy clothes and pointed out their windows at the believers, laughing at us and mocking us. Their goal was to tempt us away from the righteous path. Clay saw New York and the people in it as the great and spacious building.

Clay Elder

And I don't even mean metaphorically. It was. You know, I think that everyone said it was.

Elna Baker

So it took a lot to get Clay to New York, a catastrophic event. It all started when Clay got a boyfriend, his first, and almost no one knew. It was a big deal for him. It meant stepping away from the church, possibly losing his family. After they slept together, they decided to get tested for HIV as a precaution. This was 2006.

Clay Elder

And we went down to the Utah County Health Center, and we're like, we want HIV tests. And they looked at us like we had three heads.

Elna Baker

To be openly out like that in Utah County was rare, Clay says. They both did the tests. Clay got called in to get his results-- negative. And then it was his boyfriend's turn.

Clay Elder

They said his name. He walked back. And I waited. And I waited. And like five minutes went by. And there was no way this was possible. We were just two nice, recently out gay guys in Utah.

Elna Baker

Who are only taking this test because you're so paranoid about being gay.

Clay Elder

Yeah, yeah. It was truly just to get one out of the way to see what it was like. 24 years old, 23, 24 years old. I waited, and waited, and waited there by myself. And finally, the nurse came out, and she had tears coming down her face. And she said, can you please come back into this room?

And to say that my stomach dropped-- I could hardly stand up from the chair because I was so shaken. Walked back into the room. He was sitting on the chair, crying. There was a doctor in the room, a nurse in the room, the one who was crying. And he said, my test came back positive, through sobs.

I remember there was like a little stool in the corner that I sat down on. I just didn't know anything. I had not been prepared for this moment.

Elna Baker

The doctor told Clay that since he had been having unprotected sex, he likely had HIV too. It was just too close to exposure for it to show up on the rapid test.

Elna Baker

What do you remember feeling like when you got the news?

Clay Elder

I really remember thinking, of course. Of course this is what's going to happen. Because just when you stick your toe outside of the church and you're like, OK, am I maybe going to do something? Like I said, I still really believed it. It's not like I closed up the Book of Mormon and was like, cool, that's not real. Bye, I'm gay. I still was like, oh my gosh, they were right.

Elna Baker

To Clay, the cruel irony of getting HIV with his first real boyfriend wasn't lost on him. The doctor took blood samples and sent them home to wait a week for the results. The next few days were hell.

Clay Elder

And that's when I said, we're not going to sit at home waiting it out. We're going to go do something. And we're going to go do what I want to do, which is I want to go to New York City, and I want to see musicals.

Elna Baker

Clay spent nearly all the money he had on two flights and a cheap hotel. They got to New York and started getting as many $20 rush tickets to musicals as they could afford-- Spamalot, Jersey Boys.

Clay Elder

I was so excited by it all. I was so excited to see shows. I was so excited to be in the city, but also terrified. And it was kind of like these moments of elation side by side with these moments of terror as I tried to just ignore what was actually happening.

Elna Baker

What was actually happening was that Clay was on the phone during the day, trying to get them both in a medical trial for HIV meds. This is what he was thinking about as he was waiting in line to see another bouncy musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The doors opened. They shuffled into the theater. Their tickets were standing room only, so they hung in the back against the wall.

Clay Elder

And the show ended, and we were all walking. You're all kind of herding outside. And we end up standing next to some people as we're herding outside, and they struck up a conversation with us, what appeared to be this gay guy and his friend, this woman. And they said, are you from out of town? And we said, yeah, we're in New York visiting.

And by that time, we'd gotten outside of the theater. And he said, you know, you look like you were enjoying that show more than anybody in the expensive seats. And he pulled out a wad of cash. And he said, here's $200. Go buy yourself tickets to Sweeney Todd tomorrow. It'll change your life.

And I'm this kid from Utah. And I'm like, OK, what do you want? I was a little bit like, what's going on?

Elna Baker

Yeah.

Clay Elder

And I took the money, and I just was like, thank you. Thank you so much. You're really just giving me this money? And he said, yes, just take the money, as long as you promise you'll buy yourself tickets to that show. I was like, yes, yes, I will.

And we were standing next to an ice cream truck. And I said, can I buy you an ice cream cone to say thank you? So we bought ice cream cones. And I asked also if I could take a picture with them because, again, I just couldn't think of what to do or say. I was so taken aback by it. That was a lot of money to me.

Elna Baker

Yeah.

Clay Elder

I could have done a lot of things with $200 at that time in my life.

Elna Baker

They saw Sweeney Todd the following night. If you don't know the show, it's really different than the other musicals Clay had been seeing all week. It's about a barber who's seeking revenge on society by slitting the throats of his customers. His partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, takes the bodies and bakes them into meat pies. It was nothing like the shows Clay knew from BYU. For Clay, it was like that moment in the movie Pleasantville, where the whole world is in black and white, and suddenly you see a red rose.

Clay Elder

That was the kind of theater I wanted to do. It was weird. It was dark. It was strange. Some people hated it, and some people loved it. That's what I wanted to do.

I wanted experimental, weird things. And this was experimental and weird. And they were pouring buckets of blood around. And Patti LuPone played the tuba. It was like it ignited something inside of me that was always there and that I knew was there. But it was like, oh, that's it. That's the thing I love.

Elna Baker

So this random guy became for you a plot point in your life, where you basically were like, OK, there's the day before I met him, where I wasn't going to pursue any of this. Then I meet this guy and what?

Clay Elder

And suddenly I'm going to move to New York and be an actor, because this is what I want. He gave me permission to move on to the next step.

Elna Baker

Because he was like-- and by being kind, he basically was saying it's safe on this side.

Clay Elder

Yes. That's the perfect way of putting it.

Elna Baker

The very next morning after seeing Sweeney Todd, Clay and his boyfriend got a call from the doctor saying that the rapid test results were wrong, that neither of them had HIV. For Clay, it felt like a sign. His impulse to move to New York, it was the right one.

So he did, a year and a half later. He's been in New York for almost 15 years. And he actually did become a Broadway star. He's currently starring in Company opposite Patti LuPone, who he once saw play the tuba. And Clay still thinks about that guy who gave him money to see Sweeney Todd.

Recently, he decided to do an act of kindness in the stranger's honor. He posted their story on Instagram, including the picture of them in front of the ice cream truck, and offered to buy tickets to Company for someone who couldn't afford it. A friend immediately called and said, I know that guy. They called the stranger over FaceTime. His name is Mark.

Clay Elder

So Mark.

Mark

Hey, Clay.

Clay Elder

I'm sorry. I'm going to get a little emotional. 15 years ago, I went to go and see The Putnam County Spelling Bee. And I was standing in the standing room.

Mark

No way. No way.

Clay Elder

And I walked outside the theater, and you gave me $200 to go see Sweeney Todd.

Mark

Yes. How the fuck did you connect this?

Elna Baker

Clay tells him how he ended up moving to New York because of it, how he's now on Broadway. It's a mushy, cathartic reunion.

Mark

I don't even know what to say, but it's just so amazing that you remembered that, that actually-- sometimes you do things, hoping a random act of kindness will actually resonate with somebody. And that it actually did is really just amazing. What a gift you've given me today.

Clay Elder

Oh, are you kidding?

Mark

Thank you.

Clay Elder

Yeah, of course.

Elna Baker

Clay has heard this recording many times. But when he plays it for me, his reaction is visceral. His face turns red. He's crying. What is it about a random act of kindness that does this to us?

Like Clay, I can't talk about the strangers who've helped me without being reduced to a puddle. I think it has to do with the fact that it feels so unearned. Like if a family member or a friend does something for me, I understand it, because they love me. They care. But if a stranger does it, it breaks my brain a little. That's what I think is happening to Clay.

Clay Elder

It's weird to be so emotional about something that's so happy. It's a great thing. It's all happy. I don't know why I cry about it. It's like I cry about it because it's like I believe in something again.

Elna Baker

Like it makes you feel like a little kid or something?

Clay Elder

Yeah.

Elna Baker

Like hopeful or--

Clay Elder

Yeah. Because it's-- I mean, along the lines of this conversation, it's when you leave a church that has been your whole life, you start to feel like it means you can't believe in anything anymore. And when something really incredible and good like this happens, it makes you believe again.

Elna Baker

By the way, I called up Mark, asked him why he gave Clay the money all those years ago. To explain one of the biggest reasons, he told me a story about this time he went to Italy. He had planned to stay with a new friend who'd recently moved to Rome. But the guy totally flaked on him, and he had nowhere but expensive hotels to sleep.

Mark didn't have that kind of money, so he called up this gay couple he had met his first night in Italy-- they ran a bar in town-- and asked them if they knew of a cheap hostel. Their response? Come stay with us.

For 10 nights they hosted Mark, a complete stranger. Mark says they were total gentlemen, trusting him in a way that frankly shocked him. They gave him keys, told him he could come and go as he pleased. He couldn't believe their generosity. And it changed him into the kind of guy who hands a stranger $200 and says, "Hey, go see this show. It'll change your life."

Ira Glass

Elna Baker is one of the producers of our show. This is one of the songs in the show that Clay is doing on Broadway right now.

[MUSIC - "ANOTHER HUNDRED PEOPLE" BY STEPHEN SONDHEIM]

Act Three: Never Hear the End of It

Ira Glass

Act 3, "Never Hear the End of It." So we close out today's show with this story that is very on point with everything we've been talking about till now from Sean Cole.

Sean Cole

This is one of my favorite stories to tell. I tell it at parties or to anyone who will listen. And since we're here talking about the nature of people and whether they're mostly good or mostly bad, I figured I'd tell it to you. Have you ever seen A Clockwork Orange, the Stanley Kubrick movie-- guys running around in bowler hats and jockstraps on the outside of their pants, committing acts of, quote unquote, "ultraviolence?" It's one of the most iconic films of the 20th century, set in a dystopian near-future where teenage hoodlums speak this stylized, Russified slang. It's also intensely violent and deeply misogynist in ways I don't think I understood when I first saw it and obsessed over it. I was in my teens then, the same age that the main character Alex is supposed to be.

Alex

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim. And we sat in the Korova Milk Bar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening.

Sean Cole

The thing is, the meaning of the story, what it says about the inherent goodness or badness of people, has been largely and grossly misunderstood, or at least the meaning that was originally intended by its creator, Anthony Burgess, the guy who wrote the novel the movie's based on. He talked about this a lot in his lifetime.

Anthony Burgess

Although Kubrick made an interesting film out of it, the film wasn't quite accurate. He didn't follow the book as he should have done. He cut out the final chapter, for one thing.

Sean Cole

The final chapter, chapter 21. The film is actually really faithful to the book until that last part. But that last chapter radicalizes everything. If you know the movie, you know the movie. But if you don't, you at least need to know the plot of it for any of this to make sense. I'll try to summarize it as quick as I can.

So Alex and his three droogs, meaning friends, they spend their nights getting hopped up on drug-infused milk and hurting people. They beat up a panhandler, steal a car, and run other cars off the road. There's a pretty famous rape scene, which incidentally was inspired by Burgess's first wife getting assaulted, though not sexually, by a group of American soldiers. About a third of the way through, Alex accidentally murders someone during a break-in and goes to prison. And after serving a couple years, the government chooses him for a new experimental type of aversion therapy.

Man

He'll do.

Sean Cole

They give him this drug which makes him basically allergic to violence. Any time he so much as pictures hitting someone, he's overwhelmed by nausea and dread, also whenever he hears the music of Beethoven, but that's another thing. Then the government does this presentation where they trot out the new forcibly reformed Alex, subject him to insults, injury, sexual temptation, and in response all he can do is gag and retch. Then a priest in the audience leaps up to object with the operative word--

Padre

Choice! The boy has no real choice, does he? He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.

Interior Minister

Padre, these are subtleties.

Sean Cole

Anyway, Alex gets out. A bunch of bad stuff happens. He tries to kill himself. The government sees the whole thing as a PR nightmare and gives him an antidote to the treatment, transforming him back to his evil, remorseless, smashing-things self. Also he can listen to Beethoven again.

Alex

I was cured, all right.

Sean Cole

The end. It's bleak with a point that it's better to let people choose to be bad than to brainwash them into harmless robots, clockwork oranges, with no will of their own. But in the book, the final chapter that wasn't in the movie, it changes the meaning of everything that's gone before it.

In the final chapter Alex is back at the Korova Milk Bar with three new droogs, whole new gang. But this time when they go out to stomp on random people, Alex hangs back. Something's eating at him. It's like he's bored with all the violence now, doesn't enjoy any of this like he used to.

He wanders into a coffee shop where he runs into a member of his old gang, Pete, and Pete's wife. They look happy, living the quiet life. And Alex thinks, maybe that's what's missing. Maybe I should settle down, have a kid, hopefully a son. "I felt this bolshy big hollow inside my plott," he says, meaning his body. "Feeling very surprised too at myself. I knew what was happening, O, my brothers. I was like growing up."

When I read that, it was like the top of my head blew off. Alex isn't inherently evil. He didn't just go back to doing all the bad stuff he used to do. And he didn't need an experimental drug to reform him. He just needed time to get there on his own. I was in my early 20s when I picked up the novel, so some years after I saw the movie. And the feeling was like I'd unfairly underestimated someone for a long time.

It's also an ending that comports more with reality. There's research that shows a big reason people disengage from gang life is just that they get older, age out of it. But more than that, the two endings represent two completely different ways of looking at the world. One is saying that people can change, even the worst people, whereas the other is saying that evil is evil, irredeemably.

And those two worldviews, they're baked into this ridiculous backstory about that final chapter. According to Burgess, when the book was published here in the States, the publisher told him they wouldn't put it out unless they could cut chapter 21. This was way before the movie was optioned. It was still just a novel. They said the optimistic ending was Pollyanna-ish, naive, and bland.

They were like, we Americans are tougher than you Brits. We can handle a nihilistic ending. Some people are just beyond hope. That's more realistic. Burgess needed money back then, he said. If the only way to sell the story to Americans was to lop off its conclusion, then so be it.

So now there were two Clockwork Oranges in the world with two different endings depending on where you lived. Burgess writes about this whole mishigas and how he felt about it in an introduction to a later edition of the book. I just want to read-- this is probably my favorite part of what he says.

"Now, when Stanley Kubrick made his film, though he made it in England, he followed the American version and, so it seemed to his audiences outside America, ended the story somewhat prematurely. Audiences did not exactly clamor for their money back, but they wondered why Kubrick left out the denouement. People wrote to me about this. Indeed, much of my later life has been expended on Xeroxing statements of intention and the frustration of intention while both Kubrick and the New York publisher coolly bask in the rewards of their misdemeanor. Life is, of course, terrible."

It's funny, but it was also endlessly frustrating to Burgess. He wrote that he didn't think the American edition and thus the movie was a fair depiction of human life. It's as inhuman to be 100% evil as it is to be 100% good. The two need to coexist. He was unequivocal about that.

Further, when the film came out, there was a moral panic about it, both in the UK and here in the States. And it wasn't just the violence people were upset about. It was the ending. An editor for The New York Times wrote in the Arts and Leisure section of the paper, "The thesis that man is irretrievably bad and corrupt is the essence of fascism." I can't help but think how all of this might have been different if that last chapter had never been cut.

And that, for years, was everything I knew. But then recently, as I was getting ready to tell all of this to you, O, my brothers, I thought I should actually do some research, make sure I got my facts straight. And as with A Clockwork Orange itself, it turns out there's a whole other chapter to this saga, one that I didn't know existed. To start with, that quote from Burgess I read earlier that ends with "Life is, of course, terrible."

Andrew Biswell

That's a very entertaining account of the story. I think it's inaccurate in various ways.

Sean Cole

This is Andrew Biswell. He's spent more than 25 years researching Burgess in part for his aptly titled book The Real Life of Anthony Burgess. It wasn't always the easiest job.

Andrew Biswell

He would embroider, and he would be more concerned with telling a good story than with sticking to factual accuracy. Now, I'd been going through the manuscript of A Clockwork Orange as part of my research into Burgess.

Sean Cole

The original manuscript, the one Burgess sent around to his editors in England and America.

Andrew Biswell

And just turning the pages and noting any annotations on the typescript. And I remember coming to this note in his own handwriting, which says at the end of chapter 20, "Should we end here?"

Sean Cole

"Should we end here? An optional "epilogue" follows." "Epilogue" is in quotes. Again, this was at the end of the second-to-last chapter, where Alex turns bad again.

Sean Cole

And what did you think when you saw it?

Andrew Biswell

I nearly fell off my chair. I was very surprised, because I'd grown up with the Burgess introductions and commentaries on his book. And up until that point, I'd been inclined to believe them. And this question, "Should we end here?" I was surprised by the level of doubt.

Sean Cole

Surprised because Burgess publicly was so emphatic that he had been forced to cut the last chapter and that it was the wrong decision. And when Andrew looked into it further, he found that Burgess's editor in America, Eric Swenson, never insisted on scrapping the last chapter. Yes, he thought it was Pollyanna-ish and, quote, "unconvincing," but getting rid of it wasn't a condition of publication.

Not only that, this guy Swenson said Burgess agreed with his opinion and that Burgess told him he'd only added the 21st chapter because the British publisher wanted a happy ending. Also Burgess wrote his own screenplay for A Clockwork Orange that ended at the same place Kubrick's screenplay did, no redemption. And then years later, Burgess wrote a musical, yes, a musical version of the story, which reverted back to the longer redemptive ending and took it even further.

Andrew Biswell

Alex goes off with his girlfriend, and they're going to get married.

Sean Cole

Oh!

Andrew Biswell

That's right. Yeah.

Sean Cole

Is she a character, or is she offstage somewhere?

Andrew Biswell

No, no. She appears and speaks. She's called Marty.

Sean Cole

[LAUGHS]

Andrew Biswell

And then the play has a prologue in the Garden of Eden, where Alex and Marty play Adam and Eve. It's very confusing. The whole thing is messy. It's strange that he tries to pin this on other people, whereas the reality is that it's like the good angel and the evil angel are dictating sort of different endings to him.

Sean Cole

So in the end, which ending do you think that Burgess thought of as the better ending?

Andrew Biswell

By the time you get to the 1980s and he's making his stage adaptation, he's coming down in favor of chapter 21 as the correct or the authorized ending.

Sean Cole

And what does that say, do you think, about his worldview, like about what he believed about the true nature of human beings?

Andrew Biswell

Well, the big thing that had changed in his life was that he had a son by his second marriage and a very wayward son. He was, I suppose, worried that this person should do well in the world. Yeah. I suppose Burgess in the '80s, he's much more of a protective father figure.

Sean Cole

Which, if that's the reason, makes so much sense. When you have a kid, especially one you're worried won't turn out well, you have to believe people can change like Alex finally changed, dreaming of his own son. It's like they literally ended up on the same page, Burgess and Alex. One of them happened to have typed out that page while the other danced across it in a jockstrap and suspenders. They both grew up.

Funnily, Andrew Biswell says he prefers the shorter ending. Just thinks it makes for a tougher book, although he goes back and forth, he says. Depends on what day you ask him.

Me, I come down where Burgess ultimately did. I like believing that we can grow into better versions of ourselves. And besides all that, you get to see Alex walk off into the sunset. On the last page he says, "Farewell from your little droog." Should we end here?

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "TRY A LITTLE KINDNESS" BY GLEN CAMPBELL]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Elna Baker. The people who put our show together today include Bim Adewunmi, Chris Benderev, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Michal Comite, Kyla Jones, Tobin Low, Michelle Navarro, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Will Peischel, Nadia Reiman, Ryan Rumery, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updike, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu.

Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry. Special thanks today to Thomas Reid. Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. Also there's videos. There's lists of favorite shows, if you're looking for something to listen on a long car trip. Again, ThisAmericanLife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He went this week to a Gwen Stefani concert. His review?

Andrew Biswell

I was surprised by the level of doubt.

Ira Glass

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