The Real Me

On our travels over the long weekend, we had the opportunity to listen to several Christmases’ worth of CDs that had never made it out of the packaging.  I especially enjoyed my brother’s gift of This American Life, a radio show that, very simply, plays real stories told by real people.  It can go from heartwarming to heartbreaking in a moment, avoiding preachiness in favor of the drama of true life.  (The only downside, so far as I can tell, is the way the music interrupts the flow of the story every so often – generally very good music, but misplaced, in my opinion.)

Anyhow, in my musing about this piece I will certainly ruin the ending for you, as well as most of the rising action, so I highly recommend waiting to read further until you have 20 minutes or so to listen to it yourself before clicking below:

The incredible part of this story was watching a father, with all his flaws and shortcomings, struggle to do what was best for his son.  First he sacrifices to work hard and give his son everything he could possibly want in the way of material comforts: they live in Beverly Hills.  But all is not right, as evidenced by the fact that they obviously do not trust each other and the son begins to take his charmed life for granted.

So, when the son’s grades begin to plummet and his personality undergoes a sudden and drastic change, the father worries, but he knows the son will never be honest with him if confronted (and the son confirms this.) He therefore decides to take the rather unseemly step of recording his son’s telephone conversations.

Obviously, I don’t think this is a great thing to do.  It’s certainly not illegal (father’s house, father’s choice) but it doesn’t bode well for future trust in their relationship.  But I found it touching that the father cared enough to try to find out what was going on.  Even more touching was the way in which he used the information he obtained through clandestine means: instead of confronting the boy about it, he simply tried to reroute his behavior.  If he heard his son was planning to get high on Friday after school, he’d tell him he desperately needed his help at the store on Friday afternoon.  Over time, he hoped these interventions would lead to an altered outlook and properly-aligned priorities.

Fate intervenes, however: the son discovers what’s going on, and instead of confronting his father, embarks on his own tour of espionage.  He begins planting false evidence, telling his friends he’s going straight but continuing his downward spiral on the sly.  After a month of this, though, he feels immensely conflicted about lying to both his father and his friends, so he tells his father he knows – effectively admitting to a lot of highly punishable behavior.

This is the magical part, and the reason I’m not sure I could ever be a parent: the father admits what he’s done, says he will stop, and in lieu of a punishment, asks only one thing of his son: that the boy take the dozens of accumulated tapes and promise to listen to them all.

The son, now himself a man, recalls that it took him years to get all the way through the project; it was that painful to hear his own voice, and within it the self-centered and unfeeling person he had become.  I work regularly with teenage boys, and I was shocked to hear such honesty and emotion between them:

Son: That was an interesting look you gave me today.

Friend: Oh, ha, I know. (Laughs)

Son: So what’s the problem with you?  What are you p–-ed off at me for?

Friend: I don’t know.

Son: Is it that time of the month again? (Editor’s note: I believe the friend is male.)

Friend: No …

Son: Well then, what’s wrong?

Friend: Well, I guess the basic thing is, I don’t like your fluctuation in attention towards me.

Son: (Laughs) What are you talking about? If I’m not going somewhere, if I have not got a set place that I am off to, and I’m, like, probably usually late, then I’ll stop and talk to you.

Friend: (Laughs) Uh-huh.

Son: And it’s like … well … forget it, then!  S–-!

Friend: Wait, hold on –

(Dial tone.)

he father somehow knew that the only punishment the son needed was to be forced to observe the changes that had come over him, and the son agrees: “It was valuable to be able to witness myself in that way, although painful … it’s a rare gift, in a way, to be able to see yourself from the outside … given an opportunity, I think most people would probably not want to see themselves that clearly.”

Ouch.  Way to go, Dad.