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Transcript: 620: To Be Real

Transcript

620: To Be Real

Originally aired Jul 14, 2017

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life.

Chana Joffe-Walt

How many shows do you think you've started by saying, "So tell me what happened"?

Ira Glass

It's actually very few.

That's Chana Joffe-Walt, one of our producers. But this week, when she came into the studio with me, she did call this one correctly. What else could I say?

Ira Glass

So what did happen?

Chana Joffe-Walt

OK, so this was a few weeks ago. Elementary and middle schools in East Harlem all got together in an auditorium for a talent show, a school talent show. So little kids are coming up to the stage to do orchestra performances and band and dance performances.

And at the end of the night, there's one more act on the program. It says "special surprise performance." And a drag queen comes out on stage, a grown-up. She's wearing this long, red wig and a black sequined leotard that has sheer arms with feathers around her wrists. And she comes out and does an Iris Chacón number, this Puerto Rican icon.

[CHEERING]

Ira Glass

And this is the sound of that?

Chana Joffe-Walt

So this is the sound of that. This is actually the sound of when she gets down on the ground and rolls over onto all fours then rolls back onto her back and puts her two legs up in the air and then opens them. And you can see her underwear.

[WILD LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

So just to be clear, there are elementary school kids here?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yes! Yes. This is a school performance. There are tons of kids. And on the program, it doesn't say who this person is, but it turns out a lot of people in this school know this person because he is a well-known dad in the school. He's the president of the PTA. Longtime president. This is actually his very last term as PTA president. He's the outgoing PTA president.

Ira Glass

Chana tried to reach the guy, but never talked to him. She actually heard about this story in a tabloid newspaper, The Daily News, under this headline--

Chana Joffe-Walt

"Parents Horrified After Man Performs Surprise Drag Show at Manhattan School Talent Event." And that article has descriptions like, "Parents said families' laughter turned to disbelief and then dismay as Quinones"-- the PTA dad-- "opened his mouth and exercised his tongue in a suggestive manner while lip-syncing the Chacn number."

Reporter

School talent show in Manhattan taking a raunchy turn--

Chana Joffe-Walt

So the story spreads to TV. It has a brief, enthusiastic moment on local TV.

Reporter

This outlandish drag performance, put on by the PTA president--

Chana Joffe-Walt

And all the TV reporters talked to this same mother, the one who complained about it.

Raquel Morales

He laid on his back. He raised his legs. Opened his legs wide open. What made you, in your head, think that that was appropriate for elementary school students?

Reporter

Mrs. Morales' report card for both the school and the district? An F and a triple X.

Ira Glass

That is perfect local TV newswriting, I have to say.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It was like she was waiting for the chance.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It was clear from some of the other coverage that lots of people in the school like this guy, know him really well, and that some people liked the performance.

Audience Member

The performance was spot-on. Spot on. He did everything like Iris Chacn would have done.

Vanessa Murdock

Was it OK in this environment?

Audience Member

I think they've seen a lot worse.

Vanessa Murdock

Have they? From East Harlem, Vanessa Murdock, CBS2 News.

Ira Glass

OK. So you heard about this thing that happened, and it interested you. It hit something in you, and your reaction was different.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It totally captivated me. I thought about him so much. And I did not have any of those reactions. It didn't feel like it was super scandalous. I just felt totally taken by it because I spend a lot of time watching shows like this. I have two young kids. I have younger sisters. I do reporting in schools.

Ira Glass

In fact, in that same month as the drag performance, Chana went to a preschool end of the year ceremony and performance, a kindergarten stepping up ceremony, a middle school graduation, a middle school talent show, and a magic after-school program performance.

Chana Joffe-Walt

That was just June. And that was when I saw this video. And I feel like I spend most of the time sitting through those shows just waiting for something like this to happen, like maybe something exciting and unexpected will happen.

Ira Glass

Because those shows are pretty boring.

Chana Joffe-Walt

They're mind-numbing. And then there's the one tiny, tiny moment where your kid does something and no matter what they do, that's amazing, but then you have to continue to perform to be as amazed at every other kid for the next, sometimes, three hours. So all I ever hope for is something in one of these shows will happen that is unexpected. And I know this is not the surprise that people in this school wanted. Like, I get that. It is sexual. There are children. It's drag. It's gay, which is probably even scarier to some parents. That whole thing, I understand. I get that.

Ira Glass

But.

Chana Joffe-Walt

But I feel like the thing I liked about it is not just that it's surprising, but it's him. Like, it is this guy. This is a real thing that is happening. He is getting on stage and sharing a part of himself with his community.

Ira Glass

He's being real.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He's being real. Yeah, he's being real. And that's what you want, right? He's kind of modeling the thing that you want from these shows, is that some kid will get up there and do some weird, strange thing that is just themselves, that is just true, just feels like who they are.

Ira Glass

You're saying that because you've actually seen that?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Well, I was thinking, after watching this video, that one of the most moving things I've ever seen on stage, actually, was at a school talent show years ago that I hadn't thought about for a long time, where this girl got up. She was maybe 10, and she was super shy. She was like one of those kids that you're kind of surprised that she's getting on stage in the first place. And she seemed nervous. And then the music comes on and she very confidently moves into this strange interpretive dance of Billie Jean, where she's--

Ira Glass

Michael Jackson.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah, Michael Jackson, but she's not wearing a fedora. She's wearing a beret. The most striking part of it was just that she was super confident. And she's kind of leaning over like she's like an elderly person and moving her arms back and forth, like octopus arms. I remember she had braids, purple braids, that were also swinging back and forth. And people lost it. Everybody went totally crazy for her. Not because she was good. She wasn't doing the moves very well. But it was her. This was a true thing that was happening. This was a person who the stage gave her a place to perform something that she's interested in, something who she really is, something that just is real, is true.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, that is what we aspire to. That is where we're heading. We are leaving behind the obligatory, the half-baked, the phoned-in, the superficial. We leave behind the meh. And we turn our backs on the word "meh" because the word "meh" is meh itself. And instead, we have stories of people seeking out what is real, what is true in some places you might not expect that. What you find, what you feel, what you know to be real. Stay with us.

Act One. How I Learned To Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb.

Ira Glass

Act One, How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb.

You probably heard a few weeks ago North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, one powerful enough, news reports said, to reach Alaska with a nuclear warhead. And it was big news. People were shocked, North Korea being on the verge of being able to nuke us. Which was strange to one of our producers here at our show, David Kestenbaum. He used to be a reporter for National Public Radio.

David Kestenbaum

When I was at NPR, one of the things I helped cover was nuclear weapons policy around the world. And when it came to North Korea, I've talked to people, various experts, and they would say something like, we have a decade. It's going to take them a while to get there.

Ira Glass

And then how long ago was that?

David Kestenbaum

About a decade ago.

Ira Glass

So right on time.

David Kestenbaum

We're exactly on schedule.

Ira Glass

Right. We said that 10 years ago it would take 10 years. Here we are.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

And I just thought, how did we let this happen? How did we get here?

Ira Glass

How did we get here? All of us, David included, were not being real with ourselves about what was going on with North Korea. To remedy that, and to get some answers about how we let this happen, David turned to a trusted source on iTunes.

Quick warning. There are a couple curse words in his story and in one other story in today's program that we have unbeeped here on the internet version of our program. If you don't want to hear those words, maybe you're listening with kids, there is a beeped version at our website. Here's David.

David Kestenbaum

Back when I was covering this stuff, we reporters all had a short list of people we would call to comment when there was news. And often, this thing would happen. When the interview started and we were recording, the person would get super serious because, you know, nuclear weapons. The world could end. The thing is, that is not how a lot of them actually talked about this stuff. The way they actually talked off mic was more like this.

Jeffrey Lewis

Kim Jong Un posed with a nuclear weapon!

Aaron Stein

We saw everything.

David Kestenbaum

This is from a podcast called Arms Control Wonk. It's helped me understand North Korea in a way that I never had. It was started by Jeffrey Lewis. He's a nuclear policy expert and also director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He says, frankly, he was tired of all the formal diplomat speak.

Jeffrey Lewis

I was giving a talk to the board of Middlebury College. This was a pretty big talk to have to give to show off the research of the center. And at some point, we were talking about a photograph of Kim Jong Un that had been digitally altered. Something had been done to his ears. And we see this a lot. And what I said was, they always fuck with his ears. And everybody was looking at me like, uh, did you just say that?

David Kestenbaum

Wait. Why do they mess with his ears?

Jeffrey Lewis

We think they make them smaller. So I guess he feels like his ears are too big? I don't know. It's a weird thing to be worried about.

David Kestenbaum

That is the kind of microanalysis Jeffrey and the people he works with do-- not just with Kim Jong Un's ears. Whenever there are new photos of a missile or there's been a nuclear test, they dig through the data in a really smart way. I've even gotten attached to the theme song, which has this upbeat time bomb thing going on. It's from a German punk band.

Jeffrey Lewis

You are listening to the Arms Control Wonk podcast, the leading podcast on arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament.

David Kestenbaum

One of the things they spend a lot of time trying to sort out on the podcast is what is real. It can be hard to tell. North Korea will put out some propaganda video saying, "Another successful missile launch." But if you look closer, it is not always what it seems. Here's a clip from the podcast where Jeffrey is talking to one of his grad students.

Dave Schmerler

So this Korean group in Japan that releases all this North Korean propaganda released a little video which they claimed to be footage of the submarine launch but turned out was not.

David Kestenbaum

Launching a missile from a submarine would be a big deal because, if they can put a nuclear weapon on a sub, it's harder to destroy. And they might be able to sneak it closer to US shores. So the video gets posted online and Jeffrey says, looks pretty impressive.

Jeffrey Lewis

They basically show the top of the tube, where the missile is, underwater. And the hatch is open, and the missile pops up, and it goes rushing through the water.

David Kestenbaum

But the grad student, Dave Schmerler, looks at this and thinks something doesn't seem right. So he just starts googling submarine launch footage. And one of the first things he finds on YouTube is this thing that looks very similar. And I mean very similar. Jeffrey showed me the video clip so I could compare.

David Kestenbaum

OK, so here's the North Korean one.

Reporter

[SPEAKING KOREAN]

David Kestenbaum

Oh, so it's footage from underwater.

Jeffrey Lewis

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

Wow.

Jeffrey Lewis

It's this crazy underwater.

David Kestenbaum

That's impressive.

Jeffrey Lewis

It looks cool, right?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, yeah. It looks cool.

OK. So here's the other one.

Announcer

--and a new submarine, faster, quieter--

David Kestenbaum

The other one is an old video of a US missile launch.

They took our footage.

Announcer

--then the Poseidon, or C3 missile--

Jeffrey Lewis

Yeah. It's the same, right?

David Kestenbaum

I mean, it's exactly the same.

Jeffrey Lewis

Oh, yeah. And they do this all the time.

David Kestenbaum

Do you think they actually launched a missile from a submarine that day?

Jeffrey Lewis

I think they may have popped up a missile from a barge, but I don't think it flew. I don't think it worked. I don't think it involved a submarine.

David Kestenbaum

So basically, none of what they were saying happened happened?

Jeffrey Lewis

Right.

David Kestenbaum

You can see why it would be easy not to take them too seriously. The thing that Jeffrey has noticed about North Korea's claims, though, is that there is always some truth to them. Like, OK, maybe they didn't launch a missile from a sub, but they're working on it. And maybe that wasn't an actual hydrogen bomb they tested, but it was probably something else worrying.

In listening to this podcast, you realize how relentlessly the North Koreans have been working at this stuff over the years. It's this running audio diary of North Korea's military program. Missile test after missile test. This is from 2014.

Jeffrey Lewis

The pace at which they are testing is totally unprecedented. It's a little bit hard to count them all up because there have been so many tests. More of those tests this year than certainly any year I know, and maybe than ever. I mean, it is a lot of missile tests.

David Kestenbaum

I had always imagined we'd figure something out. We'd reach some agreement with North Korea, or we'd do something before things got this bad. How did we get here? This was a half hour discussion, but I'll distill it down for you.

Jeffrey says our best chance to stop this was probably in the late '90s. This was before North Korea had nuclear bombs. Jeffrey points out it's always easier to get someone to give up something that they don't have yet. The US-- this was the Clinton administration-- and North Korea had negotiated something called the Agreed Framework.

North Korea would shut down its nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium for bombs. In exchange, they would get two new nuclear power plants, a different type that would make electricity and would be harder to get plutonium out of for bombs. North Korea would also get fuel oil to tide them over until the new reactors could be built. And we'd try to resume normal economic and diplomatic relations. But some Republican members of Congress felt like we were appeasing what was a brutal regime, so ending sanctions was a nonstarter. We were slow in fulfilling our part of the deal. Oil shipments were late. There were also delays building the new reactors, which were to be paid for mostly by South Korea and Japan.

On the North Korea side, it looked like they might still be working on a bomb. In 2002, the CIA said North Korea was building centrifuges, big spinning tubes that could enrich uranium. They certainly had them by 2010, when a US weapons scientist, Sig Hecker, was invited over for a visit. The North Koreans actually had him over a bunch. They took him to this huge building as long as a football field. It was filled with centrifuges. This is from a talk he's given.

Sig Hecker

When I went up to the second floor and I looked into the centrifuge hall through this glass, I said, wow, 2,000 centrifuges in there. They must have noticed that my jaw dropped all the way down to here. It was just totally mind-boggling. I thought it was more like a garage operation, where they had made a few of their own or whatever. Instead, this was different. Control room, all flat-paneled LEDs display, flat-panel computers. It was unbelievable.

David Kestenbaum

Jeffrey Lewis says, looking back, we should have found some way to make the agreement work.

Jeffrey Lewis

We blew it. Yeah, we blew it in a pretty comprehensive, complex way. They didn't help things because they didn't trust us, and they definitely-- cheated is a word with a bunch of moral tones to it, but they didn't make it easy. So now, I think we're at a point where they have these nuclear weapons, and they're not giving them up.

David Kestenbaum

There have been attempts at negotiation over the years, but usually the US has insisted that North Korea give up its nukes, basically wanting to go back to those days before North Korea had a bomb. North Korea, understandably, has said no. Jeffrey says Kim Jong Un believes that, as long as he has nukes and missiles to launch them, no one will mess with him. And he's kind of right.

When North Korea did its first nuclear test in 2006, it was basically a dud. Jeffrey says his reaction at the time was, they are the worst ever at this. But they've gotten better and done more tests since then.

North Korea has been pretty clear about what it wants to be able to do with its bombs. A few years ago, North Korea released this propaganda photo. It was taken inside some military facility. And in the background, on the wall, was this map. If you zoomed in, you could see these lines that terminate at cities in the US, presumably the ones North Korea would like to be able to strike with nuclear missiles. The photo is well-known in analyst circles. It's sometimes called the Map of Death. And then earlier this year, North Korea released an even more remarkable photo-- Kim Jong Un posing with this shiny thing.

Jeffrey Lewis

I was like, holy shit, that's a nuclear weapon. Foreign leaders do not pose with nuclear weapons. That is just not a thing.

David Kestenbaum

Just describe what the photo looks like.

Jeffrey Lewis

Yeah. He's in a missile plant. And he's in this crazy getup, which is kind of an allusion to his grandfather. So he's got like the Russian fur hat and this big coat with this fur collar. And he got these silly eyeglasses that sometimes he wears. And so he looks ridiculous. And in front of him is this spherical object. Actually, it's not spherical. It's a specific type of geometric pattern, but whatever. It's this big-- it looks like a disco ball.

David Kestenbaum

If that's an actual bomb, he says it's small enough to fit on a missile. This picture, of course, merited an entire podcast and included a rant Jeffrey delivers in lots of them about denial.

Jeffrey Lewis

You know what my favorite part about this whole conversation has been?

Aaron Stein

What?

Jeffrey Lewis

I have noticed that there is this incredible reluctance to believe that the North Koreans have actually developed nuclear weapons. So every time the North does a nuclear test-- you know, I have some South Korean reporter asking me like, well, is it possible that they just filled a mountain with conventional explosives? And when you step back from it, it's like, oh, wow. They've done four nuclear tests. Three times they have paraded road mobile ICBMs down the streets of Pyongyang. They put up a map of the United States with targets on it that said Mainland Strike Plan. And now Kim Jong Un is standing in front of-- it's probably a mockup, but nonetheless-- a nuclear weapon. And people are like, what do you think they're saying? It seems pretty frickin clear to me.

David Kestenbaum

Jeffrey says, through all this, we have kind of underestimated the North Koreans maybe because they seem so goofy. Or maybe because it's easier to do that than to admit the truth.

Jeffrey Lewis

I actually had a big argument with-- I shouldn't call it an argument. I had a big conversation with a Japanese government official about this, where we were talking about, oh, I don't know, some missile test. I mean, there have been so many at this point. And he was sort of saying like, well, we're going to have to give sanctions some more time to work. I'm just like, you don't have more time. It's like, no, I think we'll give it a couple of years and, you know, we'll see where we are. And it's like, in a couple of years, they could have a thermonuclear weapon on an ICBM. Maybe it won't be all worked out. Maybe there will still be some problems with it, but I don't think you've got a couple of years, chief.

I was kind of beating him up, and he was taking it pretty well. And I think the reason he was taking it pretty well is because he's a government official. He's got a job to do. And I think he kind of knows that they don't actually know what the heck they're doing. But what kind of government trots out before its citizens and says, hey, you know this really tough problem that terrifies you? We don't have the slightest idea what to do. Nobody does that.

David Kestenbaum

Earlier this month, when North Korea, for the first time, tested an actual intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach Alaska, it was all over the news. Everyone was kind of freaking out.

Reporter

The new provocation from North Korea.

Reporter

North Korea's recent test launch of a missile that could reach the US.

Reporter

This is North Korea's most successful missile test--

Reporter

--which Kim Jong Un called a birthday gift to the US.

David Kestenbaum

But regular listeners to the podcast kind of knew it was coming because just two months ago, North Korea had tested a missile that went pretty damn far-- 1,300 miles up into space and back. So when the ICBM test actually came, I figured Jeffrey's reaction would be a shrug. Like, we told you so. But he was kind of shocked, too. Even though he knew it was coming, just the reality of it was shocking.

Jeffrey Lewis

This one can hit the United States with a nuclear weapon. People keep saying Alaska, but that's people making themselves feel better. It demonstrated the range to go to Alaska. That doesn't mean that that is its maximum range. We've been modeling it, and it looks a lot better than that.

David Kestenbaum

Meaning it can go further?

Jeffrey Lewis

Yeah, it probably can hit New York.

David Kestenbaum

It probably can hit New York?

Jeffrey Lewis

Yeah. This last one went seven times higher than the ISS.

David Kestenbaum

Seven times higher than the International Space Station?

Jeffrey Lewis

Yeah, seven times higher.

David Kestenbaum

So this was significantly further than that other one?

Jeffrey Lewis

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. This is a hell of a missile.

David Kestenbaum

It seems like North Korea might just keep doing this-- setting off bigger and bigger atomic bombs, launching huge missiles. Talking to Jeffrey, I realized I had this question. What exactly does North Korea want?

Jeffrey Lewis

North Korea wants to be treated like a normal country.

David Kestenbaum

Meaning what?

Jeffrey Lewis

Meaning diplomatic recognition and no sanctions and Kim Jong Un gets invited to state dinners. They just want to be-- they want the Kim family to be treated like a legitimate leadership.

David Kestenbaum

And that is the impossible spot we are in. This is a government the United Nations Human Rights Council says is guilty of crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape. The list goes on. Kim Jong Un's people are starving. They're cut off from the outside world. We just ignore all that? Invite him to the White House for a state dinner? Jeffrey comes down firmly on one side of that question.

Jeffrey Lewis

I think the answer is you have to do it, right? That if you're not going to topple the regime-- and there would be all kinds of reasons you would not want to do that-- then you've just got to suck it up and do it. But the politics of it stink. And you can see why no president is willing to do it.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. That's just like-- I mean, that's just terrible.

Jeffrey Lewis

Yeah. Welcome to my world! So I settle for things like, hey, how about this? How about we knock off some of the military exercises and we just see if they'll stop testing nuclear weapons and missiles? How about we do that? It would just try to avoid a nuclear war for the next couple of years. And even then people are like, we can't stop military exercises. You're giving into a terrible dictator. Well, yeah, I guess I kind of am.

David Kestenbaum

Do you think you're more comfortable with the idea of being blackmailed than other people?

Jeffrey Lewis

Yeah, of course I am. Blackmail is this very specific word that has a very specific moral connotation to it. But the reality is that the North Koreans have interests, and they are very ruthless in pursuing those interests. And as unpleasant as they are-- and they're unpleasant-- we don't have the ability to make them go away.

David Kestenbaum

After nuclear weapons came along in World War II, there were two views. One was that, hey, these are just bigger bombs. But the other view was, no, these are an entirely different category of weapon. You build them precisely so that no one will use them. Which is a strange idea, but it's worked so far, and presumably it would be the same with North Korea. In a way, where you stand on this issue comes down to the question, how crazy do you think Kim Jong Un is?

Jeffrey says he does not stay up at night worrying about North Korea launching a nuclear missile at a US city. From everything he's seen, Kim Jong Un seems to be pretty rational. Ruthless and determined to stay in power, but rational. All the tests seem well-planned out, like the countries before that have pursued nuclear weapons. The Map of Death, him posing with the disco ball, that all seems very calculated, an attempt to show the world and the people of North Korea that he is in charge and he's not going away.

Jeffrey says the real people in danger here are probably not us. It's the people stuck living in North Korea. That is another thing nuclear weapons can do. They change the diplomatic calculus in a way, I think, that means the bad guys sometimes win.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is one of the producers of our program. The podcast Arms Control Wonk does seem to have at least a few listeners in North Korea. Their episode "Another North Korean Nuclear Test" was downloaded five times from there.

[MUSIC - "MARROW" BY ANI DIFRANCO]

Coming up, Jon Ronson gets real with people who are specifically paid not to get real. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, To Be Real. We have stories about people breaking through the polite, boring, everyday fog of social acceptability and polite denial of things that none of us really want to face and getting real.

Act Two. The Lie Becomes the Truth.

Ira Glass

We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, The Lie Becomes the Truth.

A couple of weeks ago, when we did an episode of our show on magicians, researching what's going on in that world, I was fascinated by a few magicians who take the premise of magic, that it's all about deception, and try to stand that on its head to get to something utterly real, unfaked, emotional, truthful.

There are two magicians in particular I was interested in. The first was David Blaine, who I think you might know who this is. He's been doing TV specials for 20 years. And I was hanging around Blaine one night at dinner at a restaurant, and there was this moment where a friend of his said to him something like, David, you've told me that some of your tricks these days aren't even tricks, like when you eat glass. And Blaine was like, yeah. And he picks up the nearest wine glass at the table-- this was not his glass; somebody else had been drinking out of it-- and he poured their wine into another glass on the table. And then he raised the wine glass to his mouth and bit off a chunk of the glass. And then he chewed, like, really big chews, like, chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp. And it took a little time, actually, like, chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp. And then he took a huge drink of water and he swallowed. And then he opened his mouth to show us, you know, all gone.

It's not a trick. He just eats glass, grinds it down to little specks, I guess, and swallows it. He said the inside of your mouth gets a little cut up, but it's not too bad. And there's a scene that they filmed for Blaine's most recent TV special where he's sitting in a dentist chair and he talks to his dentist about what this is doing to his teeth.

David Blaine

And they're getting bad.

Dentist

Yes.

David Blaine

Because I feel hot and cold much stronger now.

Dentist

Well, that's because glass is not a normal food that you're supposed to eat.

Ira Glass

The dentist peers into Blaine's mouth.

Dentist

So have you been eating this on your right side of your mouth more than your left?

David Blaine

Yeah, only on the right side. That's so weird.

Dentist

You've worn your teeth down on the right much worse than the left.

David Blaine

Wow.

Dentist

Much worse.

David Blaine

Yeah, it started shifting to the right because the left was hurting so much.

Dentist

Well, your right is much worse than your left. This is totally worn away. All the enamel's gone from the tooth and his nerve is almost exposed.

Ira Glass

Blaine turns to the camera crew.

David Blaine

He didn't believe me--

Dentist

I didn't believe him, either.

David Blaine

--in the beginning.

Dentist

I really didn't. I didn't believe him. I've never seen anyone do it, and I thought it was a h-- I thought there was some sort of trick to it, but he's eating glass.

Ira Glass

So is eating glass a thing that you know that you only can do a certain number of times in your life because you'll gradually grind--

David Blaine

Like I was saying to the dentist, every time I drink or eat everything hot and cold, it's a nightmare.

Ira Glass

So it's a trick like, I get to do this a certain number of times left in my life, so I've got to choose my spots.

David Blaine

No. No. No, no. I still do it whenever I want.

Ira Glass

You still do it? Really?

David Blaine

Yeah. I wouldn't really want to do with that glass because it's so thick. No, but I've done it with way thicker glasses than that. But my teeth are so bad now that I prefer wineglasses, like delicate ones.

Ira Glass

And this is the kind of magic Blaine's been cultivating for years now. He still does card tricks and all kinds of regular closeup magic, but he's also doing a bunch of effects that are like eating glass. There's no trick to it. He just really does this stuff. It's real. He was sealed in a box suspended above the Thames River for 44 days. He lived in a block of ice for over 60 hours. He held his breath for 17 minutes underwater and then explained his techniques for doing it in a Ted Talk. He works on these things for years, trains his body to do this stuff.

And then this funny thing happens. Because he's a professional magician, which is to say his job is to deceive people, when he's actually doing these incredible physical feats that aren't tricks, people often think they are. Like he's caught a bullet in his mouth on stage-- a real bullet fired from a real gun. He caught it in this metal cup that he held in his mouth, filmed the bullet traveling in slow motion, filmed his friends seeming actually upset with him for even trying this, and still some people think, nah, that's not real.

And there's this one moment. There's a video of this online, where Blaine makes use of this confusion over what is real and what is not real kind of brilliantly.

Ira Glass

Yeah, could we just watch that together and--

David Blaine

Yeah.

Ira Glass

--just narrate what's happening? Because it's such an amazing thing. Hold on.

In the video, Blaine is sitting down at a little table with Ricky Gervais, the comedian and actor. And just before what I'm about to play you happens, David Blaine has shown Ricky Gervais how to do this famous trick called "needle through arm." And to be clear, that's a trick. You're not actually putting a needle through your arm. And David is like, I'm going to teach you to be a magician. And then he does the trick with Ricky Gervais' arm. So Ricky Gervais can see how you can make it look like a needle is going through your arm.

OK. Then Blaine picks up a needle roughly the size of a knitting needle and starts to push the tip of it into his own arm.

David Blaine

See how the needle looks? See how it looks--

Ricky Gervais

Yeah.

David Blaine

--like it's going into the arm? You see that?

Ricky Gervais

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So this is like a silver needle. It's like a foot-long--

David Blaine

Stainless steel, yeah.

Ira Glass

--stainless steel. And basically, the point of it is going straight--

David Blaine

Through the bicep.

Ira Glass

--into your bicep, just the very tip of it. And Ricky Gervais is giving you this look like, wh-- wh-- wha?

David Blaine

See how it really looks--

Ricky Gervais

Yeah. Yeah, it does.

David Blaine

--like the needle is actually going--

David Blaine

What I love about it is the stillness of it. It's very slow and still.

Ricky Gervais

[GASPS]

David Blaine

And then he comes to life.

Ricky Gervais

Oh, n-- what the fuck? Seriously. This is mental.

David Blaine

We're seeing a needle being pushed straight through the middle of my arm.

Ira Glass

OK, just to be completely clear here, Blaine is actually pushing a needle through his arm for real. There's a way to do this. He's taught himself.

David Blaine

But there's no blood. So it looks like a magic trick, but it doesn't make sense that it could be a magic trick because you're clearly seeing it go through the arm. And he's holding my shoulder, so I couldn't have a fake arm or a prosthetic on.

Ricky Gervais

What? Th-- this-- this stuff's mental.

David Blaine

See how it really looks--

Ricky Gervais

So-- sorry, David, seriously. Ha-- this isn't a trick.

Ira Glass

And so the needle is popping out the other side of your arm.

Ricky Gervais

How the fuck are you-- wait. What you-- what you do you mean, how are you doing it? You've stuck a needle through your fucking arm!

David Blaine

It looks pretty real, right?

Ricky Gervais

Sorry, I don't understand. How is that not real? What do you mean it looks pretty real?

David Blaine

It's the same as what I just did to you.

Ricky Gervais

What? This is all glue?

Ira Glass

What I love about this is that you're being so deadpan, but you're so happy here, you're breaking character and you start to laugh. You're having trouble not laughing all the way through this video.

David Blaine

[CHUCKLING]

It looks really real, right?

Ricky Gervais

Is that needle going through your arm?

David Blaine

Well, pull it out and you'll see how it works. Pull it.

Ricky Gervais

Oh, fuck me. I don't understand!

David Blaine

Pull.

Ira Glass

I feel like you're seeing such a naked version of him, you know?

Ricky Gervais

I don't-- that's not-- that's real. Sorry, this is real. That's real. That's not a trick. Fucking hell!

Ira Glass

But your stuff, I feel like more than any magician I've ever seen, I feel like when you do tricks, so much of it seems to be about getting a reaction out of the person, watching the person react to you.

David Blaine

Yeah, and that's what I search for. That's the thing that I'm looking for more than anything is finding that unfiltered-- that person inside, basically, like the layers are all being peeled away. They're becoming, like, guard's down, vulnerable. You're seeing a real human being without the covers.

David Blaine

Oh, David! What have you done? Are you a maniac? Why would you? Why would you do that?

Ira Glass

So Blaine loves getting that reaction from people. But interestingly, he says, when he does these physical feats, when he catches the bullet, when he holds his breath under water, when he lives in a box for weeks, he says in those moments, he feels like he's just as bare, in front of the audience, as Ricky Gervais is in that video.

David Blaine

And I think part of that is what I like about the bullet catch. It's like you're dropping all of your defenses and you're exposed in front of the audience. You're like, here's this thing. I have to do what I have to do, but I'm exposed. I'm vulnerable, and I'm not bullshitting you right now. You're watching me do something that's very real. There is no lying.

Ira Glass

This is so the opposite of the way I think of magic. I think of magic as being so about creating a fake world where things are better than ours because they jump from here to there and they show up. You know what I mean? It never occurred to me of like, oh, the whole point for you would be--

David Blaine

The opposite.

Ira Glass

--that you get to see this real, raw emotion in these people, and then, when you're doing the stunts, that they get to see that in you.

David Blaine

Yeah. Yeah, it's like you're not protected. You're not covered. You're not hidden. And as a magician, you're always covered up. You're always hiding everything, right? That's what magic is. You're powerful and almighty, but to me, the interesting part of a magician is not that part. It's the exposure. It's like him being vulnerable and open in front of the audience because that's what we really care about.

Ira Glass

Researching that magic episode, I went to see a lot of magic. David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, Criss Angel, Derren Brown, Mac King, Dan White. And my favorite thing I saw was done by a magician who, like Blaine, is trying something different with magic than most magicians do and going for something that is more real.

The magician's name is Derek DelGaudio. He's a close-up magician who gets awarded those prizes where magicians vote on who's the best in the world. He's invented a bunch of diabolical ways to shuffle and deal cards that give him incredible control of where cards are in the deck and let him do some mind-blowing stuff. But his new show isn't about that at all. I talked to him about it.

Derek's a baby-faced guy in his early 30s with a careful, precise manner on stage and off. A guy who is especially interesting to talk to when he starts complaining about stuff which he does entertainingly and well. For instance, this is him talking about how people view magic.

Derek Delgaudio

There's got to be a reason that people use the word "magician" as like the highest compliment. Oh, you should taste this guy's food. He's a magician in the kitchen. Or, oh, you should see him on the basketball court. The guy's a magician out there. Oh, he's a magician. It's like, oh, Jesus, really? He's a mag-- like, an actual magician? Like, oh, god, you know?

Ira Glass

Wait. And why is that? Why is that it's a positive for everything except for actual magicians?

Derek Delgaudio

Well, it's because a regular, traditional magic show isn't about anything other than the performer's ability to show you these things.

Ira Glass

What he means by that is that most magic shows aren't about anything. They're just a series of amazing tricks. You do a trick. They applaud. You do another trick. They applaud. You do another trick. They applaud. And this is the thing he's trying to do differently in his new show, which is up in New York right now, called In & Of Itself. He's tried to create a show that is more than just tricks, more than people wondering how'd he do it. He's tried to create a show that's about something.

To achieve that, Derek doesn't even get to the first trick till eight or nine minutes in. And over the course of the show, he tells a series of stories that are sincere and personal in this way that you almost never see in any magic show. There's a story from his childhood about him and his mom. And another about something a guy said to him in a bar years ago. And another about the brief period of his life when he worked as a hustler dealing crooked poker games. All these stories are about people not seeing him as he really is.

And when I say he's trying to make a show that's about something, that's what the show is actually about. It's about what it's like when people do not perceive who you really are. And my favorite moment in the show is this moment where everything he's doing comes together-- where what he's saying and the magic and what the audience goes through. And it really does feel like he's invented something new. And it gets to the kind of raw feeling David Blaine talks about wanting to achieve in his shows through very different means.

Here's what happens. Before the show, when you walk into the theater, there's a wall of cards printed with the words "I am." And then, under "I am," just different things that you might be. A baker, a gardener, troublemaker, truth-teller, the one that got away, extrovert, con artist, idealist, over 1,000 different cards. And you pick the one you feel describes yourself best and you walk to your seat. And 90 minutes later, at the end of the show about whether people see you for who you really are, Derek says to anybody who took the exercise of picking a card seriously--

Derek Delgaudio

Maybe you chose something that you feel reflects who you really are, how you'd like to be seen in this world. If you're one of those few people, please stand up.

Ira Glass

It's not a big theater, about 150 seats. And on this particular night, over 100 people stand. And then Derek walks into the audience, walks up to each of those people one at a time, looks right in their eyes, and tells them what they chose.

Derek Delgaudio

Boy Scout.

Ira Glass

Boy Scout.

Derek Delgaudio

The black sheep of the family.

Ira Glass

Black sheep of the family.

Derek Delgaudio

A good Christian.

Ira Glass

A good Christian. Watching him do this, when he tells the people sitting on your row, and the row in front of you, and the row behind you how they see themselves, it makes you look at them differently. Like, no kidding. These people who showed up on a weeknight with their backpacks and their work clothes, and suddenly you get this glimpse of something so private. It stops feeling like a room of anonymous strangers. They look different.

Derek Delgaudio

You're a ninja.

Ira Glass

A ninja.

Derek Delgaudio

You're a very good parent, aren't you?

Ira Glass

A good parent.

Derek Delgaudio

You're a ray of sunshine.

Ira Glass

A ray of sunshine.

Derek Delgaudio

A wallflower.

Ira Glass

A wallflower. Derek told me these moments, when he walks up to people and stares in their eyes and tells them something about themselves, it's everything he was hoping the show would do. Something about those moments is not about magic. It isn't about the trick. The magic is all in service to this very human thing that's happening.

Derek Delgaudio

Yeah. I mean, I get emotional, too, just based on people's reactions to it and I see it in their eyes. And there are some that are truly painful. One stopped me in my tracks, which was someone saw themselves as a failure.

Ira Glass

This was a young woman, maybe in her 20s. Derek hesitated. Then he said it. A failure.

Derek Delgaudio

I mean, I choked up. There was a pause because you don't ever want to have to call someone a failure. And that's how they felt like they were in this world and kind of how they felt others saw them and I called them a failure in front of a bunch of strangers. But you hear-- you heard the rest of the audience go, aw.

Ira Glass

The woman teared up and sat down. It's the sort of moment, watching it, all you can think about is her and her life and what that must be about. What you do not think is, how'd he do it?

Act Three. Fly Girl.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Fly Girl. Quick warning to listeners about this next act. It's about the pornography business. There is nothing explicit in what's about to be said. In fact, it's not about sex at all. But it's about porn, so if you're listening with kids, take this as your heads up.

The porn business is a world of fakiness-- fake bodies, fake excitement, people acting out other people's fantasies. But I heard about this one huge arena in that business where things get very, very real. I heard about it from Jon Ronson, who's on our show now and then. For over a year, he's been working on a podcast that traces how one man changed the porn industry when he aggressively applied modern internet technology-- I mean, keywords, search term optimization-- to porn, at a set of websites, including the most popular porn site in the world-- 75 million visitors a day-- called PornHub.

In his podcast, Jon Ronson documents all kinds of things that happened to all kinds of people because of how PornHub and this man and free porn changed pornography. And one big, obvious consequence of the success of PornHub and other free online sites is that so much pornography is given away for free. The people who make porn videos have a much harder time making a living. And one way he learned that they supplement their income is by creating custom videos. Here's Jon.

Jon Ronson

I've been on porn sites for a year, and nearly everyone I spoke with, performers and producers and crew, is also in the bespoke porn business now. They construct custom films to the detailed specifications of individual fans, contouring into life entire porn films for just one viewer. These are producers like Dan and Rhiannon of Anatomik Media. They're a married couple in their 40s, upbeat. They love their work.

Dan

They send us their idea or a script, and we'll take it and tell them how much it's going to cost and what it's going to take, how long it'll take, who's available for it. And we make it for them.

Rhiannon

Yeah. They're very much involved in the casting process, where we hold their hand pretty much the whole way through it.

Jon Ronson

Dan pulls out his laptop and deliberates on which videos to show me.

Dan

Some of them are crazy because they're just so normal. Yeah, the flyswatter.

Rhiannon

Oh, yes. The flyswatter.

Dan

He wanted to watch a girl swatting flies.

Rhiannon

She remains fully clothed throughout the entire video. She's in the kitchen. And she's getting frustrated because there's flies everywhere.

Jon Ronson

That really is all it is-- a woman becoming exasperated because there's a fly. And to make matters worse, she has misplaced her flyswatter.

Jon Ronson

So now she's looking around for a flyswatter.

Rhiannon

She is, yes. That's the rest of the video is just swatting flies.

Jon Ronson

Did you ask the client what it was about flyswatting?

Dan

Nope.

Rhiannon

No. Sometimes you have to wonder. Maybe he watched his mom swat flies? Ooh. Probably so.

Jon Ronson

They play me another. A woman sits in a kid's paddling pool. She's wearing a tank top and shorts and swimming goggles. She's chewing gum. And then it begins. Huge industrial-sized tubs of condiments are poured over her head. Mustard, relish, soured cream. Gallons of it.

Woman

[NERVOUSLY LAUGHING]

Jon Ronson

It's like someone being slimed on Nickelodeon.

Woman

That was so much warmer than I thought it was going to be.

Jon Ronson

In this case, Dan and Rhiannon know a little about the man who asked for this. Well, they know one thing about him. He owns a restaurant in Georgia, where presumably he deals with mustard and ketchup every day and has to avoid situations like this.

Then Rhiannon gives Dan a look and says they really should play me the stamp video, which turns out to be the most intriguing of all because it raises so many questions. The client is a man in Norway that Dan and Rhiannon call Stamps Man.

Dan

He has had this stamp collection for 40 years. I don't even know-- we didn't ask how much it was worth or anything. We just accepted it and burned it.

Jon Ronson

Burned it?

Dan

Yeah.

Rhiannon

Yeah. He wanted the girls--

Dan

He wanted it destroyed. He wanted the girls to have fun destroying it, and they did. And he loves it. He said he watches it every day.

Jon Ronson

Did you ask him why-- why?

Dan

No

Rhiannon

No.

Dan

I mean, he explained a lot about how it was important to him to see these girls kind of humiliate him for having a stamp collection.

Jon Ronson

Can we watch a bit of it?

Rhiannon

Sure.

Jon Ronson

The video fades in on a book of stamps lying on a living room floor. Three young women enter wearing school uniform. They complain about it being hot outside and wonder if they should take a shower. Then they notice the stamp collection, and one thing leads to another.

Rhiannon

They see his stamp collection spread out on the floor and they start making fun of it.

Girl

[GASPS] Don't do that! Don't you dare do that! He cares about this so much.

Girl

You know what? He would rather look at his stamp collection than have sex with me.

Girl

Well, then all the more reason to go get rid of it.

Girl

Yeah, this is stupid. Really? Stamps?

Jon Ronson

One of the women starts stomping on the stamps.

Rhiannon

He wanted that specifically.

Dan

Wait till they get to the fire.

Girl

So you sure you don't want to burn at least one page?

Girl

Burn it?

Girl

Say goodbye, stamps, baby.

Man

Bye, stamps.

Rhiannon

In real life, these girls, actually they felt sort of bad about it. They felt really bad. But we kept trying to assure them, no, this is really what he wants.

Girls

Burn! Burn! Burn! Burn!

Jon Ronson

After several months emailing Stamps Man, we finally managed to convince him to tell us his story. It turns out that, after years obsessively collecting stamps and spending way too much money on it, he started to feel depressed and isolated. So he went to see a psychologist who told him stamp collecting is a ridiculous hobby because it's so solitary. And so now he pays porn people to destroy his stamps. He says he's had 10 books of stamps, and he's been destroying them in this way one at a time. And he's only got one book left, he says. He's deciding which custom producer to send it to. And after that, he's all done.

I thought I was done, too. I thought I'd learned all there was to learn about custom videos. But then I heard one more time from Dan and Rhiannon. Something had happened. They'd just received an email.

Rhiannon

It was about 4:00 or 5:00 AM. Dan received the email and read it.

Dan

I kind of wanted to wake her up and show her because it's the most unique request we've had.

Jon Ronson

The email was requesting a porn star to sit cross-legged on the floor, fully clothed, and say into the camera, you are loved. Things are bad now, but they won't always be. Suicide is not the answer.

Rhiannon

It was just really heavy. And I wanted to make sure he's OK.

Dan

We basically handled it like a normal request and gave him model options and everything like that and told them we can shoot it really soon. And we haven't heard back.

Jon Ronson

Dan and Rhiannon decided to shoot it anyway and send it to him.

Rhiannon

The location that we're going to shoot at, there's so much natural light and it's up on the top of the hill, and the blue sky and everything, and everything is white-- white marble, white curtains, just bright white and brilliant. I don't know. We want it to just look beautiful.

Jon Ronson

It's the day of the shoot. Dan and Rhiannon and the porn performer, Riley Reyes, convene at the location. It's a sitting room in a mansion. There's a window facing a mountain and the valley and, probably because of all the recent rains in LA, everything outside is verdant. It looks like heaven from a film.

Riley is 28. She's wearing bright pink jeggings and a bright blue tank top.

Riley Reyes

Do you mind if I read the email?

Rhiannon

Oh, not at all. That's-- absolutely.

Jon Ronson

Dan and Rhiannon aren't charging the man. I'll call him Milo. They're not charging him for obvious reasons. And also because he still hasn't responded to their email. But they are paying Riley just like they would in a normal custom shoot. Riley is nervous.

Rhiannon

Are you OK?

Riley Reyes

Mhm. Yeah. It's just that I think lots of people have lost friends this way, right? So it makes me think-- I hope he likes it. OK. I'm going to gather myself.

Rhiannon

That's OK. Do whatever you need, sweet pea.

Jon Ronson

I think it's safe to say that most people needing comfort wouldn't reach out to custom fetish porn producers, who the outside world might think of as cynical operators. But having been here a year, it makes so much sense to me. Custom producers are kind of like a family of outsiders themselves, and they often respond to their clients in the most sincere and heartfelt ways.

Dan

Let's do it.

Rhiannon

OK. Camera ready. Yes?

[CLAPPER]

Action.

Riley Reyes

It's Riley. You're going to be OK. It might not be great for a little bit, but it's all going to turn out OK. Life has its ups and downs. I've been low. I've been really low. I've-- I've thought about dying in the past. And at the time, it seemed-- it seemed like the only thing that made any sense. But I came back up out of the ashes, and I came back stronger. And every day now, I'm able-- able to see these little bits of beauty in the world around me and in the people who open their hearts to me. And that's-- and that's what's worth it.

Jon Ronson

Soon they'll send this video to Milo, even though they've heard nothing from him. It's a leap of faith. Everyone's just hoping that he doesn't do this to get off on it in some way. Everyone is also hoping that the reason why he's gone quiet is just because he's regretful or embarrassed or he's changed his mind. But then the video will arrive, and he'll watch it and maybe, in some small way, it will help.

Riley Reyes

Stick with us.

[KISSES]

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson. That story produced by Lina Misitzis with original music by Joel Ronson. The brand-new podcast that it's part of, an audible original series called The Butterfly Effect, will premiere at the end of July. You can preorder right now at audible.com/butterflyeffect.

[MUSIC - CHERYL LYNN, "GOT TO BE REAL"]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo. Our staff includes Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Jonathan Menjivar, BA Parker, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Woo. Our senior producer is Brian Reed.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

David Blaine is touring with all kinds of physical feats like we talked about in Act Two today. To see when he's coming to your town, davidblaine.com. Our website, 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. You know, I told him, the way I see it, I won't have to start thinking about, your know, Botox or any other aging stuff for a couple of years, at least. And he said--

Jeffrey Lewis

Uh, I don't think you've got a couple of years, chief.

Ira Glass

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

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