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700: Embiggening

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Prologue: Prologue

Man

A quick warning-- there are curse words that are un-beeped in today's episode of the show. If you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

Ira Glass

In a crisis, we learn new things about the people we love. Saw this video online that this nurse, Elise Barrett, in Seattle made for her husband. She works in a cancer clinic but figured she'd be called to work in an ICU once things heated up there with COVID-19 cases, and she had some things she wanted to say to him.

Elise Barrett

Hey, Bubber. I wanted to make this video for you in case you find yourself in a really rough spot. I know you and I have had some conversations about what to do if, you know, I'm where I can't speak for myself, if I'm on a ventilator, if I'm super duper ill. You know I've seen a lot of awful stuff and awful deaths. And--

Ira Glass

She was an ICU nurse for nearly 10 years. And she instructs him, if she's on a ventilator, with no awareness or ability to interact and no chance to wake up again, let her die. Or another possibility--

Elise Barrett

If at some point I'm coding, and I'm coding over and over, they'll be able to tell you. Don't-- don't make them code me over and over. If I've had a protracted hypoxic code, don't make them keep working me. If they're thinking that there's going to be massive brain damage secondary to generalized hypoxia, they'll tell you, there's white on the CAT scan. There's swelling in the brain, generalized. People don't come back from that. And there's not really a lot of hope left at that point of getting me back. So at that point, you got to let me go.

Ira Glass

She's entirely business-like about this-- medical professional running through the things that she needs him to now. Yes, they talked about this before, but now she has some details, some gaps to fill in. And she ticks through the possibilities of what could happen to her. If she's on a ventilator and starts to recover, she warns her husband not to get too hopeful, because it's not unusual for people to turn a corner and get worse again.

If she dies, here's what she's thinking about a funeral. If she does recover and gets off the vent, he should know that it might be months of rehab before she'll be able to come home again. And one more thing she wants a partner to know--

Elise Barrett

You should be aware that when somebody is super duper sick, when they're proned, their face swells up. They look awful. If I'm sick enough to be mechanically ventilated, I'm going to look like shit, and I don't necessarily think you want to see that. It's OK for you not to visit me in the hospital. It's not going to be safe for you to visit me in the hospital.

I would rather you stay home and take care of Kepler, and have this video and other stuff that I've left for you to make sure that your memories of me are not traumatic or scarring.

Ira Glass

Kepler is their two-year-old son.

Elise Barrett

I want you to be safe. I want you to take care of yourself. I love you more than anything else on earth, except maybe Kepler. Thank you for him. Thank you for giving me that beautiful boy and for giving me the life that we've had together. And I love you so much. I'll miss you. Bye, bye.

Ira Glass

When you know somebody so well, what can you possibly say that's going to be news to them about who you are or what you think? I'm guessing nothing in this video was a huge surprise to this nurse's husband. But when there's a crisis, it's important to say certain things-- practical stuff, information and instructions. But also, there's feelings to share. We need to connect. It's not a moment for big revelations. You just want to tint the colors in the picture of you two a little bit, this way or that.

My co-worker, Bim, has been having these daily conversations with her brother, Demola. He's been sick with COVID-19 for over a week now. And these conversations are totally different than that nurse's video. All the ways that nurse, Elise Barrett, is so direct, imagining every possible terrible outcome one by one and discussing it, Bim and Demola are not into that. I'm guessing, with no evidence at all here, that most of us are more like Bim and Demola. We'd rather sidestep the scariest possibilities for as long as possible.

But in their daily talks, there's still new information passing between them than they usually share. She's in New York. Demola and the rest of her family are in London. He's four years younger.

Bim Adewunmi

He, perhaps, remains the most beautiful baby I have ever seen in my life, like aggressively so. My mom will tell you, oh yeah, Demola's the most beautiful of my babies. She makes no qualms about it. He was very beautiful.

Ira Glass

That's just rude to say to your other children.

Bim Adewunmi

It's really rude. But Demola was beautiful. He was pretty. He was a pretty baby. He still has this little beauty spot right where Marilyn Monroe had hers.

Ira Glass

Oh wow.

Bim Adewunmi

Yeah. And these lashes. And so when he was very little, my sister and I would put him on-- there was a short, exactly child level ironing board. It was more like a table. And we'd put him on there, and we would kiss him all over him until he would cry in protest.

Ira Glass

To hear Bim tell it, Demola's relationship with the sisters today is a faint echo of that. His older sister is more expressive with her feelings. Demola, a little bit apart, happy to be by himself, a separate island from the rest of them, keeping his own counsel, very quiet. Before he got sick, Bim would usually text him or talk to him on WhatsApp a couple of times a week. Lots of it was talk about TV shows and quoting Zapp Brannigan from Futurama to each other, and Bim mocking Demola whenever his team, Arsenal, loses.

But now that they're talking every day, and for the first time it's video chats, the dailiness of it gives everything a different feeling. And the subject matter is different too.

Bim Adewunmi

So I'm asking him, did you drink enough water today? What's your temperature? Did the cough go away? Is it a dry cough? So yeah, the questions, on the one hand, are very dry and basic. But on the other, I suppose because I've never asked them before, it feels extra special now to be asking very specifically, what's your temperature, and to be able to track his life in this way. The knowledge that it went from 37 degrees, and now it's 36 degrees. You know?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Bim Adewunmi

I mean in Celsius, obviously.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Bim Adewunmi

It just feels really oddly intimate that I know the temperature of his body across an ocean.

Even though the question seems really bland on the surface-- you know, what's your temperature? It's a way of asking-- and it's a way, I think, also of circumventing the elephant in the room, which is if he had a more serious case of COVID-19, if his symptoms were more severe, if things were really dire-- you know, we just don't talk about it. So when I ask about his temperature, what I'm asking is-- it's like a shorthand. It's half language that we're using.

There's a Yoruba saying my mom often says, which is, speaking from underneath your tongue. And in a way, I feel like I am speaking from underneath my tongue to ask a really serious question but in the most bland language, which is, oh, are you drinking water? What was the headache like? It's asking these very basic questions that are basically pushing back my fear of what this could have been. That's terrifying to me.

Ira Glass

Because the thing underneath it that you're not saying is--

Bim Adewunmi

The thing I'm-- the thing I'm saying-- I feel like I'm screaming it-- is please don't die. I don't want you to die.

Ira Glass

So it sounds like she's learning some new information about this person she knows so well in these daily conversations. But she's seeing such a different side of him. Normally, he's so stoic, she says. But now he's way more vulnerable and way more open to everybody in the family calling him all the time and asking him questions.

Bim Adewunmi

I think he wants to be fussed over, in this at least, a little bit.

Ira Glass

Mm-hmm.

Bim Adewunmi

I think he likes it a little bit. And obviously, it will get more annoying as he gets better and stronger again. But for now, he's basically a baby on an ironing table, and we're going to kiss him.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, moments when we fill in the gaps and see parts of somebody we have not seen before, but we learn it can be a kind of subtle shading around the edges. Though, in all of our stories today, I have to say it is way bigger than that. It's people declaring, you thought you knew the truth, but no, no, no, you did not, not all of it. And the part that you didn't know changes everything.

Now, as Paul Harvey used to say, now you know the rest of the story. Stay with us.

Act One: I Can’t Be Your Hero, Baby

Ira Glass

Act 1, I Can't be Your Hero, Baby.

Certain stories get told over and over about undocumented immigrants in this country. And one of the big ones is about sacrifice-- about hardworking people who work long hours in restaurant kitchens, and farms, and other low paying jobs to support their families, grateful for the chance to be in the US. Or the DACA kids, who strive and want nothing more than college and the American dream. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio has heard lots of these stories and thought she could do better.

Just a quick note about her essay-- there are very brief references in it to rape and suicide. Here she is.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

When I was a senior in college, I wrote an anonymous essay for The Daily Beast about what they wanted to call my dirty little secret, that I was undocumented. This was in 2011, before DACA, and I was one of the first undocumented students to graduate Harvard. The essay got me some attention, and agents wrote me asking if I wanted to write a memoir.

I was angry. A memoir? I was 21. I wasn't fucking Barbra Streisand. I had been writing professionally since I was 15 but only about music. I wanted to be the guy in High Fidelity. And I didn't want my first book to be a rueful tale about being a sickly Victorian orphan with tuberculosis who didn't have a social security number, which is what the agents all wanted.

The guy who eventually ended up becoming my agent respected that, did not find an interchangeable immigrant to publish a sad book, read everything I would write over the next seven years, and we kept in touch. I was the first person who wrote him on the morning of November 9th, 2016.

That morning, I received a bunch of emails from people who are really freaked out about Trump winning. And the emails, essentially, were offers to hide me in their second houses in Vermont or stay in their basements. Shit, I told my partner, they're trying to Anne Frank me.

By this point, I had read lots of books about migrants. I hated a good number of these books. I couldn't see my family in them, because I saw my parents as more than laborers, as more than sufferers or dreamers. I thought I could write something better, and I thought I was the best person to do it. I was just crazy enough. Because if you're going to write about undocumented immigrants in America, tell the story, the full story, you have to be a little bit crazy. And you certainly can't be enamored by America, not still. That disqualifies you.

I did not want to write anything inspirational. I wanted to write for everybody who wants to step away from the buzzwords in immigration-- the talking heads, the Dreamers in graduation caps and gowns-- and read about the people underground, not heroes, randoms, people. I wanted to write about my parents, and that's the story I'm going to tell here, the story of my parents.

If you ask my mother where she's from, she's 100% going to say, she's from the kingdom of god, because she does not like to say that she's from Ecuador, Ecuador being one of the few South American countries that has not especially outdone itself on the international stage. Magical realism basically skipped over it. And our military dictatorship never reached the mythical status of a Pinochet or a Videla. Plus, there are no world famous Ecuadorians to speak of other than the fool who housed Julian Assange at the embassy in London and Christina Aguilera's father, who she said was a domestic abuser.

If you ask my father where he's from, he will definitely say Ecuador, because he is sentimental about the country for reasons he's working out in therapy.

But if you push them, I mean really push them, they're both going to say they're from New York. If you ask them if they feel American, because you're a little narc who wants to prove your blood runs red, white, and blue, they're going to say no, we feel like New Yorkers. They've lived in New York since they left Ecuador in 1991.

I don't know much about my parents' decision to choose New York, or even the United States, as a destination. It's not that I haven't asked them why they came to the United States. It's that the answer isn't as morally satisfying as most people's answers are-- a decapitated family member, famine. And I never pressed them for more details because I don't want to apply pressure on a bruise.

The story, as far as I know it, goes something like this. My parents had just gotten married, and their small auto body business was not doing well. The idea of coming to America to work for a year to make just enough money to pay off their debts came up, and it seemed like a good idea. They left me with my dad's family when I was a year and a half old. That's about as much as I know.

My parents didn't come back after a year. They were barely making ends meet. When I was four years old, going to school in Ecuador, teachers began to comment on how gifted I was. My parents knew Ecuador was not the place for a gifted girl. The gender politics were too fucked up. And they wanted me to have all the educational opportunities they hadn't had. So that's when they brought me to New York. I was just shy of five when I stepped off the plane.

White Americans love academically achieving minorities. And I learned quickly that the most alluring thing about me was that I was young and brown and a good student, the holy trinity. I went to a Catholic elementary school on a scholarship, and we lived in Queens. My mother stayed home, and my father drove a cab. This was back when East New York was still gang country, and he had to fold his body into a little origami swan and hide under his steering wheel during crossfires in the middle of the day.

Then came September 11th, 2001. Here's how I remember the day my father started dying, not long after the twin towers fell. My father comes home from work, and I greet him in the doorway to give him a kiss hello. He walks slowly and comes toward my body at a strange angle a child could only interpret as a terrible fall. He collapses onto me to cry into my neck. I'm little, 12 or 13, but he does, he falls.

The letter says in English something about the DMV suspending driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. It was part of an attempt to strengthen security measures after 9/11. My father had just lost his job as a taxi driver. He had also lost his state ID. Over the next 20 years, he'd lose many more things, but let's put a little blue thumb tack on this memory map, the first place in Hell we visited.

September 11th changed the immigration landscaper forever. ICE was the creation of 9/11 paranoia. It changed my father, too. It was hard to see him fall, because he was the most powerful person I knew. He was a difficult man, and I was a difficult child. I was polite and craved approval from authority figures, but I was also dark and precocious. Not precocious in the, we live in Tribeca, and my kid is a born artist, kind of way. More like, my immigrant third grader is reading Hemingway but is secretly drinking Listerine and toothpaste until she throws up because she wants it to kill her, kind of way.

Only years later would I realized how real my suicidal impulses were. That was too damn young, I'd think, lying down in the dark at my doctor's office with an IV of ketamine hooked up to my arm, hoping to extinguish the suicidality that began when I was five and lay crayons around the perimeter of my bed so I'd know in the morning if I'd been secretly raped at night. I'd know because the crayons would be broken.

My father read parenting books that explained how to raise troubled children. But those children were never straight-A students who were soft-spoken and loved teachers. It confused him, and the dissonance made him angry at me. He saw me as different from other children in a way that troubled him, and he fumbled in the dark to help me with what he couldn't name.

When I was off from school for any kind of break, my father would plan out my day in half hour increments, scheduling everything from bath time, to TV shows, to coloring time, to math drills, to time to play with dolls, and even bathroom breaks. He called it my schedule, and he hand wrote it on graph paper in different colored inks and taped it to my desk. When I became overwhelmed with panic, crying hysterically, he would send me to take a cold shower or take me out on a jog around the neighborhood.

He'd set aside a magazine or a newspaper articles for me to translate. He could not review the fidelity of the translation, but he judged my penmanship. I didn't know what would have happened to me if I had not been kept away from my own thoughts for so many years. My father kept me alive.

After my father lost his job as a taxi driver, he found a job as a delivery man at a restaurant down in the Financial District. In the mornings, he would deliver breakfast to offices-- a raisin bagel with cream cheese and a coffee with hazelnut creamer, orange juice and a banana, a granola bar and chocolate milk. There was no delivery minimum, so my father delivered it all. Because the deliveries were so small, sometimes he didn't get a tip. Sometimes he was told to keep the change, a quarter. Sometimes he was tipped in pennies. He had to say, thank you, sir, thank you, ma'am.

Sometimes he was given a $20 tip for a $5.00 breakfast. He always told us about those tips. They were usually from Puerto Rican receptionists who talked to him in Spanish and asked to see photos of me. When he came home was one of those tips, it was like having my dad back from the dead. He would dance to no music, and he'd make jokes, and he'd come out of his shower looking like a teenager.

My father didn't use a bike. He made all his deliveries on foot. He speed walked while carrying bags of food to offices on Wall Street. The plastic handles of the bags would twist and cut into his fingers, and he developed large calluses on both his hands. His polyester pants rubbed up against his calves so much that he lost all the hair on his legs.

He went through many pairs of inexpensive black rubber shoes. My mother massaged his feet at night. My dad's feet are small and fat, like mine, so you can't tell when they're swollen. After a few years, my dad's feet would hurt so much that he walked like he was on hot coals, sometimes leaning on me to move from the couch to the bed. Aye, yai, yai, yai, yai, he'd say, as he limped, like a mariachi.

When I was 15, the owner of the restaurant where my father worked hired a new manager to oversee the delivery men, who were all immigrants. The guy was Puerto Rican, an American citizen, and became immediately abusive, threatening to call ICE on them, yelling at them, getting up in their faces. My father fell into a bit of a depression.

I had just watched All the President's Men. I put on my best posh accent, dialed *69 to block my number, and called the restaurant. I asked to speak to the owner. I said I was a beat reporter for a big city newspaper and had just received a tip from a customer about overhearing racist abuse in the kitchen. And did he have a comment? The owner said he'd handle it and asked me not to write the story. I don't know, man, I said, it's a pretty good story. In the end, the manager was fired, and the cloud over my father lifted.

My father was furious when I told him what I did. But not for a minute in the 15 years since have I felt that what I did was unethical. Nor have I felt guilty for having a man fired. I'd do it again, but my accent would be better.

I went to a small public high school in Times Square, where around 80% of the student body was at or below the poverty line. We were mostly all black or Latinx. I was a high achiever. I wanted to go to the University of Chicago because I found the unofficial motto, where fun goes to die, appealing. But there is no beating Harvard. That name. I needed the name to keep my parents safe.

Harvard, at the time, did not know how to deal with undocumented students. When I was there, a very successful Wall Street man who knew me from an educational NGO we both belonged to-- he as a supporter, me as a supported-- learned I was undocumented and could not legally hold a work-study job. So every semester, he wrote me a modest check. In the notes section, and he cheekily wrote, beer money.

I wrote him regular emails about my life at Harvard and my budding success as a published writer. He was always appropriate and boundaried. I had read obsessively about artists since I was a kid and considered myself an artist since I was a kid, so I didn't feel weird about older, wealthy, white people giving me money in exchange for grades or writing. It was patronage. They were Gertrude Stein, and I was a young Hemingway. I was van Gogh, crazy and broken. I truly did not have any racial anxieties about this, thank god. That kind of thing could really fuck a kid up.

Different therapists throughout the years have tried to get me to confess to cultural shock about arriving to Harvard as a poor, undocumented freshman. But the truth is there was none. I've always had a really wonderful sense of self-esteem thanks to my mother, who is a tiny bit of a narcissist and has delusions of royalty, and because of my mental illness, which comes with delusions of grandeur of its own. So I kind of felt like it was my birthright. That probably makes a lot of people very mad.

As I began to receive my diagnoses and misdiagnoses throughout my 20s-- depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, complex trauma-- I didn't feel anything other than affinity with writers I loved, people like Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell. It made sense to me that I had my own demons. Of course I did.

I've always been super casual when people ask me about my parents having left me in Ecuador. That's a bravado I'd like to keep on the official record. But sometimes I think about it. I haven't talked with my parents about their having left me in Ecuador when I was a year and a half old. Sometimes I do adorable things, like take pictures of myself chugging vodka bottles or pretending to down the contents of a pill bottle, and send them to my mother with the caption, because you abandoned me.

When I am away from my partner and dog for a few days for work, and it's hard, I wonder how my parents were able to do it for three years. I don't blame either of them for it. I never have. What I'm describing to you is dirt extracted from a very tight pore. I don't feel anything about being left on the day to day, but I am told by mental health experts that it has affected me.

And I fought that conclusion. I denied it. I wanted to be a genius. I wanted my mental illnesses to be purely biological. I wanted to have been born wild and crazy and weird and brilliant, writing math equations in chalk on a window. Instead, therapist after therapist told me I had attachment issues and that my mental illnesses were related to my childhood. I left those therapists, ghosted them.

But it's not just those early years without my parents that branded me. It's the life I've lead in America as a migrant. As an undocumented person, I felt like a hologram. Nothing felt secure. I never felt safe. I didn't allow myself to feel joy because I was scared to attach myself to anything I'd have to let go of. Being deportable means you have to be ready to go at any moment. I've never loved a material object. When my parents took me home after my Harvard graduation, we took the Chinatown bus, and we each took one suitcase of my things. If it didn't fit, we threw it out. We threw out everything that wasn't clothes.

After I graduated from Harvard, I went to Yale to do a PhD. I never wanted to PhD. But DACA didn't exist then, and I couldn't legally get a job anywhere. And I had to buy time for something to happen-- for the DREAM Act to pass, which my dad had assured me would happened since I was in middle school. And I needed the health insurance.

It's allowed me to write, and my parents will be proud when I get that doctorate. I have fetched the American dream and laid it at my parents' feet. But the twisted inversion that many children of immigrants know is that, at some point, your parents become your children. And your own personal American dream becomes making sure they age and die with dignity in a country that has long wanted them dead.

A few years ago, my father experienced heart failure. This was the moment I had been preparing for my entire life. Everything that had happened to me since I took that New York-bound flight 24 years ago had been preparing me for this moment. Learning English, getting bangs, gaining weight, losing weight, getting the sick puppy from the pet shop-- all of that happened to prepare me to this point. My parents were sick, undocumented, uninsured, and aging out of work in a fucking racist country.

Until the pandemic hit, my father was a salad maker, feeding Manhattan's executive class. He had worked for 14 years at the same restaurant, then left. He was invited to a promising new job, lured there by an acquaintance who assured him of better hours, better treatment, a better environment. My dad is very gullible.

He spent a week at this new restaurant, where, for spare change, they had him work all day. And then at the end of the day, he was given just two and a half hours to clean an industrial kitchen-- an industrial fryer, a refrigerator, a stove, an oven, and a sink-- wash the dishes in the dishwasher, take out the trash, sweep and mop the floors, and clean the garbage chute. His body was wrecked at the end of each day. I'm too old to for this, he said. So he quit. His old job wouldn't take him back.

Desperate, he began each morning by showing up at a Latinx job agency, which would send him out to audition at a different restaurant day after day, week after week, to no avail. My dad started texting me blurry cell phone pictures from the job agency. He took the photos when he was sitting in the waiting room of the agency, waiting for his name to be called.

The first picture is of a man, maybe in his late 70s, wearing a green button down, khaki pants, and aviator sunglasses. His lips are downcast. My dad said he was applying to be a dishwasher. The second picture is of a man, maybe in his late 40s, who was wearing a black baseball cap, a gray sweater, and maroon pants. My dad said he'd had a stroke. His right arm was paralyzed, and he had a limp and his right leg. He was also applying to be a dishwasher.

It's hard to see men like that not get jobs, my dad texted. I hope they have children who can take care of them, I respond. What I mean to say is, I hope they have a child like me. I hope everyone has a child like me. I tell god, this is going to kill me anyway, so just take me. Patent and mass produce and distribute me to undocumented immigrants at Walmarts. I am a professional undocumented immigrant's daughter.

I saved the photos on my phone as a reminder to myself of why I need to be successful, so successful, statistical anomaly successful. Then I deleted them because they harmed my mental health. I wish I still had them.

My parents live in New York City, and after the pandemic hit in March, they lost their jobs. They're both in Queens, the center of the center of the epidemic. I've prohibited my father from doing dangerous gig work, like deliveries. And I've begun to financially support them both. My mom is immunocompromised. She has an extremely low white blood cell count.

I have really lovely dreams, crazy fucking cotton candy fantasy dreams, dreams that make my whole body feel warm, where I cut up my chest, no anesthesia, take out my lungs, and implant them into her chest with the tree stitch. And if I'm lucky, in the seconds I have before I die, I would be able to see her heart. We wouldn't even need a ventilator.

There is a Harvard scholar named Roberto Gonzalez who has conducted longitudinal studies on the effects of undocumented life on young people. He found his subjects suffered chronic headaches, toothaches, ulcers, sleep problems, and eating issues, which is funny to find in research because I get these migraines, an 8 or 9 on the 10 point scale. I have a CAT scan, an MRI. I go to the neurologist. The readings are all inconclusive. I'm told it's a migraine with an unknown cause. Have you tried yoga, they say.

The headaches get worse when I write about my parents. From migrants shot in the head by Border Patrol, to migrant children being forcibly injected with drugs in detention centers, US government's crimes against immigrants are beyond the pale. And the whole world knows. But when I was growing up and throughout the Obama administration, similar crimes were happening, if on a different scale, and I'm not sure the same people cared.

I felt crazy for thinking we were under attack, watching my neighbors disappear and then going to school, and watching the nightly news, and watching award shows and seeing no mention. I felt crazy watching the white supremacist state slowly kill my father. I would frantically tell everyone that there was no such thing as the American dream. But then some all-star immigrants around me, who had done things the right way, preached a different story, and Americans ate that up. It all made me feel crazy. I also am crazy. Pero why?

Researchers have shown that the flooding of stress hormones resulting from a traumatic separation from your parents at a young age kills off so many dendrites and neurons in the brain that it results in permanent psychological and physical changes. One psychiatrist I went to told me that my brain looks like a tree without branches. So I just think about all the children who have been separated from their parents, and there's a lot of us, past and present, and some under more traumatic circumstances than others, like those who are in internment camps right now.

And I just imagine us as an army of mutants. What will happen to us? Who will we become? Who will take care of us? We've all been touched by this monster, and our brains are forever changed, all of us trees without branches.

Ira Glass

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio reading an essay adapted from her brand new memoir, The Undocumented Americans.

Coming up, a meaningless high school competition that, years later, becomes very, very meaningful. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Popular Vote

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Embiggening, stories where new details arrive that embiggen in the picture-- and thank you The Simpsons, by the way, for that word-- and change everything. We have arrived at act two of our show. Act 2, Popular Vote.

So there are times when you discover an information gap in your own past, something you thought you knew everything about. After all, it happened to you. And then somebody comes along and says, no, it didn't happen like that at all. What do you do with that new information? Sean Cole has a story like that. It begins more than a decade ago at a high school. Here's Sean.

Sean Cole

The school was Granada Hills Charter High School, GHCHS. It's in the suburbs of LA. Huge, more than 4,500 kids enrolled right now. It's the largest charter school in the country. And in the spring of 2007, it engaged in one of the most hallowed of American high school traditions, senior superlatives. You might have had these at your school. Kids vote each other most likely to succeed, best smile, cutest couple. Marc Snetiker was one of those kids.

Marc Snetiker

I've been embarrassed about my superlatives for 10 years.

Sean Cole

Have you been?

Marc Snetiker

I mean, I won most school spirited. Nobody wants to win most school spirited. I put all of my closeted gay energy into school spirit. You know what I mean? I did the morning announcements. I was on student council. I did theater. I loved high school.

Sean Cole

He also won a category called all around senior. You were allowed to compete in two categories but no more than that. And GHCHS really put a lot into these superlatives. There was an election, like usual, with paper ballots. But instead of announcing the winners over the intercom or posting them on a hallway bulletin board, there was this event run by the Senior Leadership Council, which Marc was on-- a big ceremony and trophies. All of the winners received a little replica of the Oscar statuette.

Marc Snetiker

It wasn't unlike a roast. All the seniors were in our auditorium. And I think I actually-- now that I'm realizing it, I think I helped give them out.

Sean Cole

I see.

Marc Snetiker

But I do remember reading names of some of my friends and cheering them on. And all of my best friends all won things.

Sean Cole

Which make sense. Marc was popular. His friends were popular. But that was 13 years ago, and he hadn't been thinking too much about the superlatives until recently.

Marc Snetiker

I was at home, cooking dinner. And I got a text from my friend.

Sean Cole

A friend from high school.

Marc Snetiker

And all it said was, please stop what you're doing and read this.

Sean Cole

It was a Facebook post, posted to a private Facebook group for Marc's high school class, the class of 2007. Marc's not on Facebook, so it was the first he was seeing it. And the text wasn't just to Marc. Four other buddies from high school were on it as well.

Marc Snetiker

We all read it. And immediately, we were all freaking out. I can't believe this. Oh my god, this makes so much sense.

Sean Cole

I wonder if you could just read the post. Do you have it there?

Marc Snetiker

Totally. So he said, "Hey, guys, one more thing before I forget. In the spirit of the new year, I'd like to take this opportunity to confess to all of you that I and one or two other members of Senior Leadership Council '07, who will remain unnamed, interfered with the class of 2007 senior superlatives. This is not a joke. We went to great lengths to forge no less than 30 filled out ballots, with all of our friends and acquaintances winning their respective categories. We attempted to rig literally every category."

Sean Cole

So classic ballot stuffing, with 30 forged ballots, at least. The perpetrator goes on to say that not everyone he tried to fix the election for actually won. And the nominees for each category, the choices on the ballot, those were all legit. It's just the outcome that was now in question. Again, this confession was coming 13 years after the fact.

Marc Snetiker

"Wow, I feel such a weight lifted off my shoulders having finally confessed this. Thank you for reading." Oh my god.

Sean Cole

Now, it's not like Marc has been sitting around for the last 13 years clinging to as mini Oscar trophy, defining himself by his superlatives. Since high school, he's poured is no longer closeted energy into entertainment-- worked for Entertainment Weekly for a long time, just moved over to Netflix. But it's not like he thinks he didn't deserve his awards.

Marc Snetiker

Whether or not he rigged-- it's interesting to think about who really was rigged. Because me, I really, objectively was very school spirited.

Sean Cole

And very all-around seniory. And a couple of friends on the text thread felt the same way. One of them said, "Do you think people don't believe I had best eyes?"

Marc Snetiker

We particularly were interested because the five of us all won. We all won some different superlative, and we all thought that was pretty cool. Because I think, ultimately, high school senior superlatives are-- I mean, it's complicated. Right? They are absolutely meaningless. And yet, at the time, they are such a huge deal because they are peer-voted. And nobody wants their memories tampered with or invalidated. Right? Subconsciously, we're all thinking to ourselves, oh my god, what would 18-year-old me have thought about this?

Sean Cole

Yeah.

Marc Snetiker

That's really at the core of all this. We're all having imaginary conversations with our 18-year-old selves, thinking, oh my god, he can never know. This will uproot him. This will unravel him to find out.

Sean Cole

Which probably explains what happened next. In short, Marc posted a screenshot of the confession to Twitter, not thinking much about it, went off to the gym. And when he came back, it had exploded-- more than 150,000 likes and retweets and comments at this point, most of them not GHCHS alums.

Weirdly, a lot of people wrote that the same thing had happened at their high school, or that they themselves had rigged the superlatives election, or had always suspected superlatives were rigged, and now here was proof. And a couple of people pointed out something that I noticed too, that the perpetrator never actually apologizes in his message.

Michael Barlevav

I didn't know this was going to go viral. I thought this was going to be shared with 400 people in my high school senior class Facebook page, and that was it.

Sean Cole

This is Michael Barlevav, rigger of high school elections, confessor of high school transgressions, 30 years old now, still living in LA. And I had about 100 questions for him, chief among them why it took him so long to come clean and what it had been like sitting with the weight of that guilt for so many years.

Sean Cole

You say at the end of the confession-- hang on.

Michael Barlevav

Wow, I feel such a weight lifted off my shoulders.

Sean Cole

Weight lifted off my shoulders. Yeah. Did you?

Michael Barlevav

No, that was just me being-- that was just me being cynical.

Sean Cole

In truth, there was no weight, no guilt. In fact, Michael had wanted to come clean right away, but a bunch of more pressing things took his attention. He was diagnosed with cancer, actually. Went through treatment, got better, moved on. It was only when he saw his former classmates talking about a potential reunion on the Facebook page that he thought of all this again.

And the thing you need to know about Michael, unlike Marc, he was a slacker senior year, checked out, only interested in, his words, smoking weed and getting laid. And then he found out there's a superlative for that-- biggest case of senioritis.

Michael Barlevav

And I remember begging everybody in my homeroom to nominate me. And I asked all my friends. I was like, I really want to get senioritis. I want this.

Sean Cole

Because he was competitive about being a slacker. And organized about it-- he only picked four super easy classes senior year, including, he says, Senior Leadership Council, which ran the election. So he knew that no one would notice if, during class, he and an accomplice hung out for a while near the ballot box, where there also happened to be a stack of blank ballots handy. And one thing Michael learned right away, rigging an election can be complicated.

Michael Barlevav

There was actually one category, I remember, where two girls were both nominated.

Sean Cole

Nominated for the same category.

Michael Barlevav

And we were friends with both of them. And so we just filled out an equal number of ballots for each of them, because I didn't want a favor-- I didn't want to favor either one because I liked them both.

Sean Cole

Was it a kind of thing we're other people really wanted a certain superlative? Or were-- I mean, you really wanted biggest case of senioritis, and you were begging people in your homeroom to nominate you for that.

Michael Barlevav

Well, let's not-- let's not go crazy. I wasn't begging anybody. OK?

Sean Cole

I'm sorry, folks. Just pausing here. Can we go back to that tape we played 60 seconds ago?

Michael Barlevav

And I remember begging everybody in my homeroom to nominate me.

Sean Cole

Thank you. Anyway, votes were in, ballot box was stuffed. And it came time for that big event where they announced all the winners.

Michael Barlevav

The whole time I was super nervous. Every time a new category was being announced-- the winners were being announced, I was like, oh man, are we going to win this one? Are we going to win this one? Are we going to win this one?

And every time somebody was announced as the winner, I was like, ooh, that guy won because of me. Or it was like, oh shit, the girl that I wanted to win didn't win. Because like I said, not everybody that we tried to fix it for won. And then when my friend who helped me rig it won his category and then when I won my category, it was just-- it was just so sweet. I'll never forget it.

They announced the winners, and the winners would go up on stage. We got our trophies.

Sean Cole

And then he went backstage for a picture that would go into the yearbook, which was important to him, proof of his victory.

Michael Barlevav

It was something that I would never forget. There would be a page in the yearbook reminding me and my friend that we interfered with this shit and that all of our friends, or most of our friends, won their category, whether or not they would have otherwise. I wanted to make it absurd, like ridiculous, preposterous. Some of the people who won their categories absolutely should not have won their categories.

Sean Cole

And that delighted him in a diabolical way. It did then, and it does now. The lack of apology in his confession wasn't just an oversight.

Michael Barlevav

What is there to apologize for? What is there to apologize for, honestly? Yeah, I was an asshole. Yeah, what I did was dishonest. Yeah, it was shady. Yeah, it was insensitive. But I would definitely do it again the exact same way--

Sean Cole

Really?

Michael Barlevav

--if I had-- absolutely. I wouldn't do anything differently. I think it's going to be a net positive impact. At least I hope so, man. I hope that what people take away from this is that you should not put value into things that are so arbitrary and silly, like popularity and who has the best hair, or the best smile, or who's the biggest flirt, or who's the most likely to become president, or who is most likely to whatever. It's just opinion, man. It's completely subjective. There's no meaning behind it.

Sean Cole

Then Michael's heart's in the right place. But as far as I can tell, the person from Michael's high school class who's most concerned about these senior superlatives is Michael. If you squint at it for a second, he cared so much about getting an award for caring the least, the senioritis award, that he went to, quote, "great lengths to commit electoral fraud."

Also, in the comments below his Facebook confession and my conversations with some of his classmates, no one else seems at all invested at this point in who won or lost.

Elush Shirazpour

We all were just dying of laughter.

Sean Cole

Elush Shirazpour was awarded class clown in 2007. He says he and his friends were not the least upset reading Michael's Facebook post.

Elush Shirazpour

We just laughed and joked about this. And I have some friend that lost. And we said, oh, it was you! They rigged it against you!

Sean Cole

Like you were the one who should have gotten it?

Elush Shirazpour

Yeah, exactly. But yeah, apparently the deep state senior superlative council got to them.

Sean Cole

Did it make you question whether or not you were actually the class clown?

Elush Shirazpour

I think, for sure, I won--

Sean Cole

Fair and square?

Elush Shirazpour

I think so. I like to think I was funny. Back in high school, I was 5'2", very short and looked very young for my age.

Sean Cole

Uh-huh.

Elush Shirazpour

So all I had was a personality. So that's all I could do.

Sean Cole

Pretty much everyone I talked to felt this way. Since there's no way of really knowing, they were like, sure, maybe somebody else got a superlative they shouldn't have gotten, but mine was totally deserved.

David Vigodnier

My girlfriend, Eva, and I won cutest couple.

Sean Cole

This is David Vigodnier. He's a nursing student in Colorado now.

David Vigodnier

And that, for sure, wasn't rigged.

Sean Cole

Because you are the cutest couple?

David Vigodnier

I mean, we're still together.

Sean Cole

He was at home studying when I called him.

David Vigodnier

Eva--

Sean Cole

His girlfriend, Eva, was there too. She's pursuing a doctorate in psychology.

Sean Cole

Did you know the other couples that were up for cutest couple?

Eva

I honestly don't remember.

David Vigodnier

Insert a joke about it didn't really matter, because we weren't going to lose.

Eva

Stop! Oh my god.

Sean Cole

Aww.

Eva

Oh my god.

Sean Cole

If I only knew which names Michael checked off on those fake ballots, I could ask those people what they thought now, if all of this changed anything for them. But Michael refused to give me those names. It was one thing confessing to what he did in a general way. But pointing to individual people and saying, they wouldn't have won if not for me, that just seemed mean and unnecessary.

I did end up asking him about one person in particular-- Marc Snetiker, who posted Michael's confession on Twitter. They were in Senior Leadership Council together.

Michael Barlevav

Yeah! I knew Marc very well. He was really popular. Yeah.

Sean Cole

At this point, Michael took a peak in the old yearbook he'd brought along with him for the interview.

Michael Barlevav

Yeah. So he won most cool spirited, and he won all around senior.

Sean Cole

Did he win those fair and square, or did he win those because you stuffed the ballot box?

Michael Barlevav

You can't-- how the fuck am I supposed to know? That's the point, man. There's no way to know.

Sean Cole

Did you vote for him on those ballots that you stuffed?

Michael Barlevav

Before I answer that--

Sean Cole

Uh-huh.

Michael Barlevav

--let's acknowledge that it doesn't matter.

Sean Cole

OK. We'll acknowledge that it doesn't matter.

Michael Barlevav

OK. So you acknowledge that this answer I'm about to give you is arbitrary. But I'm going to give it to you anyway.

Sean Cole

OK, good.

Michael Barlevav

Yeah. Yeah, I voted for-- I wanted him to win because he was a good guy.

Sean Cole

Uh-huh.

Michael Barlevav

Yeah. So he was definitely one of the guys I fixed it for, for sure.

Sean Cole

I told Marc what Michael said.

Marc Snetiker

Oh, my god! But at the same time, girl, who is to say that everybody else didn't think I was a good guy too, honey? You know? Come on. I mean, look, if he deemed as good friends enough to have rigged it for me, cool. Thanks a lot, dude. You have labeled me as most cool spirited for 10 years, and I would happily disavow myself of that. Yeah.

Oh, you know, I-- this makes me smile, because Michael was fun. We had a good time in high school together. So it's nice to hear that he believed in me enough to rig votes in my favor.

Sean Cole

In other words, while Michael worried that learning the news might make Marc feel bad, it didn't come close. In fact, the opposite.

But here's the real effect that Michael's rigging the election had, in the way that he did it. Because it was just 30 fake ballots, in effect, what he's done is create a superlative sized black hole of information for everyone involved. Like he says, a lot of the winners might have won anyway, but they might not have. A lot of the losers might have lost anyway, but maybe they would have won.

So what we're left with is an extremely rare occurrence-- I can't think of another one-- in which a brand new piece of definitive, clear information that the election was rigged actually makes it so that everyone knows less than they did before.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our program.

Act Three: Tunnel Vision

Ira Glass

Act 3, Tunnel Vision.

So this story was first on our show back in 2015. That was the year Canada hosted the Pan American Games. But a few months before the games began, somebody made a mysterious discovery close to the Toronto venue for the games. It was a secret tunnel.

And it wasn't just some shabby, half-baked construction. This is tall enough to stand in, 33 feet long, with support beams, a plywood ceiling, walls. It had water-resistant lighting, a generator, a sump pump to pump out groundwater. And at the end of the tunnel, two little rooms were still under construction. Even more intriguing, the decor-- a rosary and a plastic red poppy nailed to the wall. Canadians use the poppy to commemorate fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day.

In the United States, all this got a little bit of coverage. But in Canada, in 2015, it was big news.

Newscaster 1

No one knows who dug the 30-foot-long tunnel near the site of this year's Pan American Games in Toronto.

Newscaster 2

A bizarre tunnel found near one of the venues for the upcoming Pan Am Games has sparked fears of an imminent terror attack.

Newscaster 3

Rarely has a dirt tunnel received so much attention.

Newscaster 4

No one knows why it was created. Do you think someone told their kid to dig to China and the kid actually tried?

Newscaster 5

It's not just the sophistication that police say is troubling, but the lack of suspects or a motive.

Ira Glass

When something unexplained like this happens, of course people go nuts, speculating about what it could be. In this case, the media pondered whether the tunnel would be used to plant a bomb at the upcoming Pan Am games nearby. The Pan Am Games are like an Olympics for North and South and Central America.

Or maybe somebody was going to build a meth lab in the tunnel, or an operation grow marijuana. Or they would use the tunnel to hide foreign athletes from the Pan Am Games who might want to stay in Canada illegally. On Twitter, it was hashtag #TerrorTunnel.

But the truth of what was going on in that tunnel, and what its purpose was, was nothing like any of that. And the way the Canadian police figured it out--

OK. First of all, can I say sometimes one is reminded of what a very different country Canada is from the United States. As part of the manhunt for whoever built the tunnel, a policeman tweeted, "If you built a tunnel near the Rexall Center in Toronto, give us a call, OK?" The Toronto Police pointed out that it is not illegal to dig a hole. Apparently, no law was broken. From the start, they said they saw no evidence of terrorism, and they did not want to jump to conclusions.

For instance, here's a exchange between then-Toronto Deputy Chief Mark Saunders and reporters after he showed them a photo of that rosary and plastic poppy.

Mark Saunders

This was found inside the actual tunnel itself, and it was nailed on the wall.

Reporter

What does that tell you?

Mark Saunders

That tells me that this was nailed inside the tunnel on a wall.

Ira Glass

The police basically went on TV and showed pictures of the stuff that they found in the tunnel-- a ladder and the generator and the sump pump. And they asked public, this jog anybody's memory? Anybody know anything about this stuff? And that turned out to be exactly the right move, because watching that coverage was a guy named Boko Marich. He sees that ladder--

Boko Marich

And I said to myself, they look exactly like my stepladder, and I bet you any money this is mine.

Ira Glass

I bet you any money this is mine.

Boko Marich

And then, when I saw sump pump, I said, oh, ho, ho, my stepladder and sump pump. But I couldn't believe-- I couldn't believe-- I couldn't believe myself. I couldn't sleep. I was thinking about that.

Ira Glass

He couldn't sleep because he knew who'd he given the stuff to. Bob is a contractor. And he lent that stuff to one of his favorite employees, this young guy, just 22, Elton. What was Elton doing? And come to think of it, Elton had been asking to borrow a lot of tools lately.

Boko Marich

He was asking me or shovel, for pick, for another shovel, and other tools, so many tools. I just would say, OK, if you need, take.

Ira Glass

Boko loves Elton. He loves that Elton's a great worker. He loves that, unlike other young people Bob's worked with in the past, apparently, Elton always wants to learn, asks lots of questions.

Boko Marich

What do you do when you do the roof? How you connect this? How you put joist hangers? What is distance between in that? Can I do this instead of that? Is this going to carry this support? Unbelievable. You know? And I joked with everybody-- if everybody asks me, who's that guy? This is my adopted son, Elton. Always, I used to tell, this is my adopted son. OK.

So I would lend him any tools he wanted.

Ira Glass

So the morning after he sees the police pointing to a photo of his ladder and sump pump on television, he goes to pick up Elton to bring it to work, like always. Elton gets in the truck.

Boko Marich

He brought two coffees, for me and him. And I said, Elton, tell me one thing. That sump pump-- I didn't even ask full question. He said, Boko, yes, I did. Oh my god.

Ira Glass

Boko went to the authorities and made sure that Elton would not get arrested or go to prison for this. And then he turned him in. The police talked to Elton, satisfied themselves that Elton was not a terrorist or an evil criminal mastermind, but just some guy. And they let him go. They didn't even give him a fine. Though they did suggest that he not dig more tunnels. Canada.

So who is Elton? Why did he do it? Why go to the trouble? Well, Elton has not given many interviews. Though he did allow one reporter named Nick Kohler to spend a couple days with him and his family to write this long story about them in MacLean's Magazine. And Nick was able to tell us a lot about Elton. Elton turned down our request for an interview.

Elton lives maybe two minutes from the ravine and woods where the tunnel was found, in a kind of rough neighborhood in public housing. Nick says both of his parents are from Jamaica.

Nick Kohler

He lives with two sisters, an older sister and a younger sister. And they all live with their mother.

Ira Glass

Elton's the quiet kid in the family. Nick says everybody else is a big talker.

Nick Kohler

And I think in particular, his older sister, Anora, she has a lot of ideas about how Elton should be living his life. And she's not shy about sharing that with him. She's a big fan of self-help books. And so I think Elton is often in the position of listening to life talks, as they put it.

Ira Glass

Advice.

Nick Kohler

Advice. And Elton found refuge ever since he was a kid in the ravine.

Ira Glass

In the ravine, there were no life talks. And from the time he was little, Elton was this introspective kid who loved to build, to take machines apart and put them back together. He fixed up old lawn mowers. He built clubhouses. And like he said in a short interview the Nick recorded for a video that MacLean's Magazine made, he'd go to the ravine.

Elton Mcdonald

OK. What I used to do in the ravine when I was a kid is run around, play hide and go seek. We'd play apple war. We would go fishing. But I started my first tunnel probably when I was in elementary school. I would just go in the creek, walk around. And this was something on my mind. I wanted to build a clubhouse. I had five or six attempts. And I think the sixth one was the huge tunnel that you guys found.

Nick Kohler

I've heard him call it the future of clubhouses.

Ira Glass

Again, here's Nick.

Nick Kohler

The treehouse of the future. That it's underground because one of the fundamental things he wanted from this was that it be secret. It was his secret place that he could go and just relax and be alone.

Ira Glass

Though not always alone. A friend helped Elton dig the tunnel and built it, excavating, he thinks, two dump trucks of dirt by hand. And once it was done, they would go there together, watch movies, listen to music, barbecue.

Elton Mcdonald

OK, I did this because something I always wanted to be doing. But I know I should have grown out of it. And I knew that, OK, if I build a tunnel, it came from childhood reasons. But at the same time, if I build it, who knows? I could probably hang out there, turn that childhood dream into a man cave, a bunker, whatever you call it-- just a place to go hang out. And if there was something that happened, like a natural disaster, or if something were to happen, I could go there-- if there's a blackout-- turn on a generator, charge my phone, even make a small meal down there just to bring back up to my house.

Ira Glass

Back when Elton would go to the tunnel, his sisters did not know exactly what he was doing. But they knew something was up. For months, while he was digging the thing, he would come home just covered in dirt, tracking dirt everywhere. Anora thought he was building some kind of underground house and grilled him about it. But he wouldn't say.

His other sister, Tracyann, found the rosary actually sitting at a bus stop and gave it to Elton to protect him.

Elton Mcdonald

As soon as she gave it to me, like an hour later, it was already down there. I nailed it up. Every day after that day, every day where I would go there, I would sometimes make a prayer. Not every day-- some days I'd forget. But sometimes I would remember to have a little prayer just so I'm safe. And it's a peace of mind. Yeah.

Ira Glass

The reality of Elton's tunnel, it was so different from what people thought it was when it was first discovered by police. I think what that's about is, I think when we encounter something that's inexplicable or mysterious, our imaginations-- we are such hacks. You know? We go to the most standard, stock, seen it in 100 TV shows version of what something probably is. Like, oh, it's a terrorist attack. Oh, it's drug dealers. You know?

When the reality of what this tunnel was-- it was this dreamy guy who just wanted a place to get away from his sisters, be alone for a little while. It's so much smaller but so much less predictable and way more interesting.

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Bim Adewunmi. People who put our show together today include Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Hillary Elkins, Nora Gill, Damian Grave, Michelle Harris, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Ben Phelan, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Julie Whitaker. Our managing editors, Diane Wu and Sarah Abdurrahman. Executive editor, David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks today to Eric Boodman, who first reported on the nurse Elise Barrett for the website Stat, Steve Kolowich, Dr. Christopher Murray and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Any Moskovian, Jerel Calaguas, Brendan Geddes, Ava Schreier, and Katie Cederborg.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org While you're on lockdown or commuting to your essential job, you can listen to our archive of 700 episodes for absolutely free. thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to the public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know the thing he likes to do most while in lockdown? Play Monopoly. But can I say, he is getting so competitive.

Michael Barlevav

What is there to apologize for, honestly? Yeah, I was an asshole. Yeah, what I did was dishonest. Yeah, it was shady. Yeah, it was insensitive. But I would definitely do it again the exact same way.

Ira Glass

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