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From why in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with Fresh Air today, Natasha Trethewey, a former U.S. poet laureate and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of her mother's murder two bullets. The man who shot her was Tretheway stepfather who had beaten and threatened to kill her mother before she'd left him. But he found a way to get into her new home. Trethewey, his memoir about her mother, includes transcripts of the last two calls her mother had with him, taken from recordings she'd made to be used as evidence to get a restraining order.
Natasha Trethewey was born in 1966 in a segregated ward of a Mississippi hospital on Mississippi Confederate Memorial Day, when the streets were lined with rebel flags. Her mother's home had a view of the largest Confederate monument, Stone Mountain. Later, we'll talk about Trethewey, his reaction to Confederate monuments being taken down. My guest, former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, says the landscape of her childhood was overwritten with monuments to and symbols of the Confederacy. She was born in Mississippi in 1966 on Confederate Memorial Day with Confederate flags waving in the streets as Klansmen celebrated.
The last home she lived in with her mother was in a suburb of Atlanta, a memorial drive where from their home they could see Stone Mountain, the largest Confederate monument in America that's been described as a Confederate Mount Rushmore, with sculpted images of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Trethowan mother was black. Her father was white when they married in 1965. Interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi where they lived, so they eloped. In Cincinnati, they returned to Mississippi, although it was even illegal there to have married interracially in another state.
After Tretheway parents divorced, her mother married a man who ended up tormenting Tretheway and beating her mother, threatening her with death. He followed through on that threat 35 years ago and murdered her with two bullets, one in the neck, one in the head. Tretheway was 19. Over the years, Trethewey has written poems about her mother, but now she tells the story in a memoir titled Memorial Drive. Trethewey is now the board of trustees, professor of English at Northwestern University, Natasha Trethewey.
Welcome back to Fresh Air. It's a pleasure to have you back again. It's a really beautiful, very sad book.
It's so beautifully written and I'm glad to have the occasion to talk with you again. I'm sorry that the occasion for the book is such a is such a sad one. You know, you had written poems about your mother in the past and you were on before on our show and we'd spoken about her murder. But this book has documents that were saved by the police and one document that the police found in your mother's briefcase, and that was, you know, that was used as evidence.
Tell us the story of how you came to have these documents 20 years after the fact. It was such a a chance encounter, I had moved back to Atlanta in 2001 to take a job at Emory University, and in 2005 my husband and I were walking downtown Decatur to a restaurant that we frequented and a man saw us and came over and asked if we had been walking from the hotel. And I said no, because we'd been walking from our home, not thinking that he might have meant sort of in the vicinity of the hotel.
It turns out that he was the first officer on the scene the the morning my mother was murdered and recognized me. And so he struck up a conversation with us and told me that the police department's usually expunge the records. They clean out their files after 20 years. And so they would be getting rid of this file of my mother's case. And he offered to get it and give it to me.
And if you hadn't gotten it, those documents would have been destroyed. That's right. And I would not have ever had the opportunity to read my mother's last words in which she is describing her life and getting away and how she understood the effect of being with her former husband on me, the document that she left in her briefcase.
Would you mind reading an excerpt of that? I know it must be a little bit hard to do that because it is your mother's last message. But there's an excerpt I'd like you to read.
And and there's there's a reference in this excerpt to your half brother, your brother, who your mother had with your stepfather.
The beginning of the end started in the fall of 1978 when I changed jobs, not to imply that there had not been trouble during the other nine years. I was thankful when it was a hole punched in the wall or beaten into a cabinet with a hammer. My physical damage over the years ranged from black eyes, a hairline fracture of the jaw to bruised kidneys and a sprained arm. All four things he thought about. I quickly learned to gauge his moods and became a master at diffusing him.
One of our problems was my successful employment. While he enjoyed the things my income allowed us to purchase, he was jealous of my success. The new job came about as a surprise to me, I discussed thoroughly with him that my new duties would entail travel, some overnights and occasionally long hours, and we decided that I should take it. The other major problem was my daughter from a previous marriage, he insisted that I loved her more than our son, and while he was not overtly cruel to her, he managed to do little things to keep her upset if I attempted to intervene.
It only made matters worse. She spent most of her pre-teen years in her room. At work, I became a master at scheduling that would keep me out of town as little as possible, my co-workers soon learned not to invite me to happy hours or any activities after office hours because I always had an excuse. I had an excuse for myself to my children needed me. There would be time for activities later. While this wasn't 100 percent true, I knew I could never depend on my husband to be there when I needed him.
Finally, in the summer of 1983, I started doing things after 10 years. Each time I did, my husband's reaction grew worse. His accusations and threats increased. And for the first time, he had a gun. Did you know he had a gun?
I did not. She was able to keep most of what was happening in that house from us. But for me, waking in the night and hearing him abusing her. She kept a very stoic facade and kept me from knowing that his threats included us, the children. You know, in this passage that you read, he threatens her in part because he thinks she loves you, her child, from her first marriage more than she loves her son that she had with your stepfather.
Did you have any idea that that was an issue for him in the marriage, for your stepfather? I thought that the issue was that my father was my white parent and that he was somehow angry about that. My father was also like my mother, educated. And I thought perhaps he was more he was jealous also of the level of education that they both had that he with a technical college degree, did not have.
But you didn't know that he was jealous of.
You know, I didn't know that he thought my mother loved me more than my brother. It because she never did anything that made that seem possible. She seemed to love us equally. There's also transcripts of phone calls, the last phone calls that she that your mother had with your stepfather, because when she went to the police to, you know, to say she might be murdered by your stepfather, the police said the district attorney said we need more evidence.
Look, your word isn't enough. So basically we'll tap your phone and record conversations with your husband. And in one of those conversations, he's threatening to blow up the house that your mother and you were living in, using the tools that he had as a repairman for refrigerators and heating and air conditioning.
And he learned how to blow things up when he was in Vietnam in the military. And your mother interrupts the conversation for a minute to talk with you. And it's the last words you spoke to each other. Did you hear any of her end of the conversation? Did you know what was going on in that call? I knew that she was working with the DA's office in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and I could hear a series of clicks as she must have been disengaging the tape recorder so as to not record the personal conversation with me.
So you knew something was going on? You didn't know what? Yes. Yes.
You know, when when she's talking to your stepfather and he's basically threatening to kill her, she sounds so like she's being so rational with him, trying to explain to him why that would be a bad idea, why she can't really return to the marriage like he's asking.
And she was a trained social worker. Do you think she was using those tools to talk with him? You know, I think she she was probably combining both the tools that she learned as a social worker with an MSW, but also something that was. Part of her overall character, she was she'd always been very calm and rational and matter of fact and direct, and she's able to say exactly what she means, what she wants, what she needs without equivocating.
And I think that combined with her training is the voice that you hear come through in those transcripts.
Your stepfather is almost trying to flatter your mother into returning like he keeps alternating between threats. You know, I'm going to kill you. And flattery, like, oh, you know, you don't understand how much I love you. You stole my heart. I don't think I could bear to live without you. It's so, you know, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other. What was it like for you to read these final conversations between your stepfather and your mother, hearing his desperation, hearing his threats and hearing your mother's attempts to just be rational with him and try to calm him down and explain, no, I can't go back with you.
There's no there's really no love there. And it won't be good if you kill me. It won't be good for anyone.
You know, when I it was very hard to listen to them to to to read them and to hear my mother's calm voice in response to what I would call manipulation. I don't I don't think of it as flattery. I think of it as manipulation. I mean, at this point, he yes.
I sort of say I meant manipulation through flattery. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I, I, I think I hear I hear in his tone and maybe it is because I can still. You know, hear his voice in some ways in my own head. What looks on the page like beseeching, I think, must have sounded very different when he tells her you're going to love it, it's going to be wonderful, you'll see. You'll learn to love me again.
That sounds very frightening to me.
You learn from the transcripts that he had considered killing you and that he'd actually been following you so he could shoot you. Can you read into an excerpt of the 12 page message that she wrote in which you learned that? Sure.
This is a part of the statement that my mother gave to police on Valentine's Day of 1984, the first time he tried to kill her. He drove down Memorial as we near 285, I told him it would be quicker to take me to work to go straight down memorial. He took 285 south to Covington Highway, exited, then turned around to get back on 285 North and exited at memorial. We drove down Memorial to the Cinema five theater. He turned in there and drove back to my apartment.
He told me to go in and call my office and tell them I would be in. But in a half an hour he listened with his hand on the cord to disconnect. If I said anything else, then he told me to sit down. I did on the couch and to remove my coat. During all of this time it was now seven fifty. He had to make sure my kids had gone to school before we came back. He was talking about hurting someone close to me.
He named my daughter, not his daughter and my mother. He said he had been following her. My daughter. He had previously told me he was following me too, and could shoot her any time. What was your reaction when you read that? Um, I had known for a while that even before we escaped from him, that he had followed me if I had to leave home to go to school for practice of some kind, gymnastics practice or cheerleading practice or even to meet a friend to go to the movies together, he would often follow me and I would see him frequently like that.
And I just learned to ignore it so that the friends I was with wouldn't realize that this strange person was actually following me. So it wasn't completely surprising to know that he. In the aftermath of us getting away, was following me also, I mean, in fact, the week we left, the first thing he did was find me because she was at a shelter and he couldn't find the location of the shelter. But he knew I'd be at the high school football game on a Friday night with the other cheerleaders and describe it.
Just describe what you did when you saw him. Well, I was down there on the track with the rest of the cheerleaders, and he came in and walked all the way down to the front of the bleachers and sat there right in front of me. And when it was impossible for me to ignore him anymore, I looked at him and smiled and waved and spoke a little greeting. And he stayed there for a while. And then finally he left.
But he told a psychiatrist or psychologist at the VA hospital later that he had shown up at the football stadium to kill me, to punish my mother, but hadn't done so because I had waved and spoke in a greeting to him. Do you think he might have shot you had you not waved and smiled?
I've lived with. The. Survivor's guilt of that moment ever since, because I I think that had he killed me, then he would have been arrested for that and she'd be the one alive today.
Would you like to take a break here? No, no, I'm OK. It must be so hard for you to have written this book and read those documents. I mean, it sounds from your book like you really tried to forget a lot of this because it was just too painful to remember. And now, like, you've totally immersed yourself in the in the story, in the transcripts, and now I'm asking you to retell it and other people are asking you that to.
So I apologize for, you know, putting you through it again. Oh, you know, I it it feels like an. Strangely, a mixed blessing, because, as you say, yes, I I tried to forget so much of it because it was just. A life I wanted to leave behind. I wanted to forge a new life for myself that didn't include that past, but of course that was impossible in trying to forget. I realized that I forgot or let go of a lot of her parts of our lives together in those years that I would love to be able to remember.
And so when I talk about her now, as painful as it is to go back to that place of world amnesia, to try to recover it, I do find. Some happiness in bringing back, what, few parts of her that I can and forgetting, you probably also lost a part of yourself.
I suppose that must be true. I think perhaps the person I was before her death might be somewhat unrecognizable to me, at least parts of that person.
We need to take another break here. So let me introduce you. My guest is former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. Her new memoir about her mother is called Memorial Drive. We'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross and this is fresh air support for this podcast.
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Let's get back to my interview with former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, who also won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Her new memoir, Memorial Drive, is about her mother and how she was murdered by Tretheway stepfather with two bullets. That was 35 years ago. And Trethewey was 19. He'd beaten her mother before and threatened to kill her. Her mother left him. He wanted her back. She refused.
When you found out that your mother was murdered, you went back to her home. You were in college at this point and living out of town and on TV, you saw footage of you entering your home with a caption underneath saying, daughter of the murdered woman from your memoir. It sounds like that was a really upsetting and haunting experience for you to see that.
Oh, yeah. I felt, you know, I needed him to be beside oneself because there I was in a hotel room.
That the police put us up in to hide because they hadn't captured yet and we turn on the TV and I can see the moment that my grandmother, father and I arrived at the apartment to take some of her her things to to get the clothes she'd be buried in. We got there and there was a news van and police tape over the the door. I think people have seen this again and again, this sort of kind of looping footage of the people either giving an interview, grieving right there for the TV cameras or walking into their home.
We did not talk to them, but they captured that scene of me going into the apartment and shutting the door behind me, looking at it felt like I was watching somebody else. And I think that that's probably the the the moment that I had decided somehow, consciously or unconsciously, to separate myself from the person to whom this horrible thing had just happened, as if I could move forward in my life without that part coming with me to.
And that that refers to what you were saying before about trying to forget the whole thing. I mean, you couldn't really forget it, but to try to not think about it, try to just move forward.
When when I was at the police station that that morning.
The assistant district attorney, Bob, who gave me the file, the man who had been the first police officer on the scene. He told me that he saw me there. And that I looked as if I were already far away from this, and when he told me that, I thought it was the strangest thing because certainly. I was in shock and what he was witnessing was. The look of shock on my face, but then I thought maybe he was right, too, that I was already putting as much distance as I could between that and my future.
He was sentenced to life, but he was recently released after 34 years in prison.
He actually had two consecutive life sentences eligible for parole after 20 years. So he started going up for parole the first time in 2005.
So he's out on parole now? Yes, he is. You don't live in the same state that he did?
No. Fortunately, I moved away from Atlanta in 2017.
You taught at Emory University in Atlanta for a year? That's right. Yeah. So do you feel at all threatened now knowing that he is out of prison?
I think I would feel much differently about this if I lived in Atlanta because he would be in the same world that I inhabit. I feel far away from that here. But, you know, it's hard to answer. But, you know, I have a poem called Letter to Inmate and it says inmate number that I wrote when I first found out he was. Going to get out and I asked the question at the end of the poem, what does it mean to be safe in the world?
Everywhere I go, she is with me, my long dead mother is there nowhere I might go and not find you there to. So even if he's not, you know, physically here, there is a way that the past enters my life, all of it. And I carry it with me and you carried it with you when you were when you won the Pulitzer Prize and you carried it with you when you were named the U.S. poet laureate. So to extremes, this incredible recognition and success, your gift, your talent and also this tragedy that you carry with you all the time.
Well, I think it is what made me, um, you know, I think about Lakas idea to one day the wound that never heals. And in trying to heal the wound that never heals, he wrote lies the strangeness in an artist's work. This is a wound I carry that never heals. But it is the very thing that kind of awareness of death of that possibility.
That undergirds everything I do, has it prevented you from experiencing joy?
No, no, actually, I think it makes me experience joy at a much more intense level. To no such grief means that when you experience joy, you know the depths of that's opposite and that makes it that much sweeter. Why don't we take a short break here? Let me reintroduce you if you're just joining us. My guest is Natasha Trethewey. She is our former poet laureate and now she's written a memoir about her mother and her mother's murder by her stepfather.
And the memoir is called Memorial Drive. We'll be right back. This is fresh air support for this podcast.
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Let's get back to my interview with former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poems, Native Guard. Her new memoir, Memorial Drive, is about her mother, who was murdered by Tretheway stepfather in 1985 when Tretheway was 19. I think your life and your mother and your grandmother's life say so much about modern American history.
Your mother and grandmother participated in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Tell us a little bit about what they each did.
Hmm. Well, my grandmother participated in some of the demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations on the beach in Gulfport. One of them, for example, to protest blacks being denied access to the public beaches. She also organized a group of women at the drapery factory that she worked in in Gulfport to resist the managers searching of the black women's purses every time this was an integrated facility. But he checked the black women's purses and violated them in that way. And she organized a group of women to resist that in a very particular way.
She brought home a copy of the movement, photographs of the civil rights movement and, you know, made my mother look at it as a teenager. She invited activists in Snick to stay in her home. She also invited white missionaries who were Mennonites to stay there as they did work in the community. My mother worked for Operation Headstart and.
Went up to a little town outside of Jackson for training. She also rode a couple of times with integrated groups to go to lunch counters to try to integrate them in New Orleans and places in Mississippi. And your grandmother kept a pistol for self-protection. Yes. Whereas my mother was completely against guns and violence, my grandmother believed, as did my great Aunt Sugar, that that having a weapon in the house was necessary protection while the Klan burned a cross on her lawn.
Mm hmm. Yes. And I think that things like that taught her that she needed to be prepared. She taught me from an early age. That. One needed to fire a warning shot. She would say shoot to maim, not to kill, just to keep someone from advancing, shoot him in the leg. How old were you when she told you that I was pretty small when she first told me about that?
Oh, I don't know, maybe six or seven when she you know, I must have seen her pistol and she wanted to explain why she would have such a thing and what to do with it.
You were born in 1966, so that's a couple of years after the Civil Rights Act was signed, the year after the Voting Rights Act was signed, your birthday, the day you were born was the 100th anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day. I'll confess, I didn't know there was a Confederate Memorial Day. Was this a Mississippi thing or celebrated throughout the South? Throughout the South?
Yeah, yeah. Describe what what what when did it stop? Has it stopped being celebrated and.
Not exactly. It is still a sort of a holiday of record just recently within the last few years. One of the debates about. Confederate Memorial Day led, you know, Mississippi to want to change the entire month of April to Confederate History Month.
Wow. Now they they didn't.
I think it's Civil War, History Month or something. And if I'm remembering correctly, I feel like in the state of Georgia, when some legislatures asked for an apology for, you know, sort of the history of subjugation of African-Americans, there was a threat to make the entire month Confederate Memorial Month, not just the day.
What did your mother and grandmother tell you about that day, about your mother giving birth to you on Confederate Memorial Day and not only just any Confederate Memorial Day, but the 100th anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day?
I don't remember if they talked to me specifically about that irony, but it's something that I would see every year.
The juxtaposition of all those little Confederate flags in the graveyard along the street at the courthouse on a day that was, you know, my birthday. And I knew that there were the there had been into antimiscegenation laws in Mississippi. I knew that, you know, I was sort of rendered illegitimate in the eyes of the law because my parents marriage was illegal. I knew that my grandmother. I was on a list of people being watched because in the among the Citizens Council, because she had tried to place my parents interracial marriage, a marriage announcement in the newspaper.
I knew that those two things side by side were supposedly incongruous that here's this holiday glorifying the last clause and white supremacy, and there I was, a black and biracial child born on that day.
Let me reintroduce you if you're just joining us. My guest is Natasha Trethewey, a former poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner. Her new memoir about her mother is called Memorial Drive. We'll be right back. This is Fresh Air.
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Her new memoir, Memorial Drive, is about her mother, who was murdered by Tretheway stepfather in 1985 when Tretheway was 19.
The home where you last lived with your mother, the home in which she was murdered, was in a suburb of Atlanta where from the home you could see the largest Confederate monument in America. Would you describe the monument, Stone Mountain?
Yeah, I mean, it's huge. It's sort of a southern version of Mount Rushmore with Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee engraved on the face of it.
And what did it make you think about when you would see it from your home as a teenager? That it was looming over us that what was. Important to be remembered. In that landscape, in that geography was the history of white supremacy and black subjugation. And you are surrounded by a lot of Confederate monuments growing up. So what does it mean to you now to see some of them taken down? It means that as a nation, we have a chance at a historical reckoning that will allow us to tell a fuller version of our shared history and not a skewed version or a version that erases a very important part of what we share.
I mean, imagine if instead of all those Confederate monuments that were erected to send a message to African-Americans about their place in society, we had hundreds of monuments dedicated to the Black Union soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War, nearly 200000 of them to save the union, to free themselves and to help this country advance a little bit closer to its own ideals. Imagine what we would know as a people if those were the monuments that inscribed the landscape.
I don't know if you've heard or read about this, but Rush Limbaugh recently said, referring to what he described as anarchists in Portland, I can see secession coming. And in Breitbart News, someone wrote now would be a real good time to do whatever is necessary to obtain a permit to legally carry a handgun.
It just kind of chilling to hear that. And I'm wondering if you've heard or read about that and how it makes you feel.
I mean, I have heard, you know, from those kinds of outlets talk about. The civil war, you know, some kind of race war, those kind of very scary, frightening things. But the thing to remember is this is all so familiar. I mean, this is it's we're just seeing very visibly what has been lurking beneath the surface all along. I used to think that, you know, my problem was I was a Mississippian and Mississippians know it's there.
Black Mississippians, white Mississippians know very well, but the rest of the country somehow didn't get it. I don't know if there's any more reason to be afraid now, as there was before for some people, because that dealing with that kind of violence and racism has always been a threat in the lives of the most vulnerable citizens.
I want I want to paraphrase something that you've written. You know that your father grew up in Nova Scotia hunting and fishing and free to roam the woods. And your mother grew up in the segregated Deep South. And this is like your father was white and and your mother was black. You say your father believed in the idea of living dangerously and the necessity of taking risks, whereas your mother had witnessed the necessity of dissembling the art of making one's face an inscrutable mask before whites who expected blacks to display servile deference.
It's a really interesting observation about them. And I'm wondering if that created, you know, conflicts between them because they grew up so differently and they grew up with such a different sense of what you needed to do to be safe in the world. Yeah, I think that in many ways, they they both they understood the reality of the world that they were living in.
And yet my father had a kind of idealistic naiveté about it.
I think he believed that I was going to be as free as he was, as completely free to just be myself. Whereas my mother, who was, because of her own experience, much more practical about the realities that a black child could face in Mississippi and a biracial black child, that they were different in how they thought I needed to learn what it meant to be safe.
My father used to teach me how to box. This was back.
But, you know, when he would talk to me about Cassius Clay before we knew that he was Muhammad Ali, I first learned to box because my father was trying to teach me how to defend myself. My mother tried to teach me a kind of diplomacy and a way to avoid the kind of confrontation in which I would have to box like Cassius Clay. That's really interesting.
Well, Natasha Trethewey, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for sharing some of your life with us. I wish you good health during the pandemic and peace of mind. Thank you.
I wish you the same. Terry, it's been lovely to talk to you as always, even if it's difficult material. Yeah. Thank you.
Natasha Trethewey, whose new book is called Memorial Drive A Daughter's Memoir. Tomorrow on Fresh Air, we'll talk about the start of a planned 60 game baseball season played in empty stadiums with players social distancing and prohibited from spitting. Despite the precautions, there was a covid-19 outbreak, the first weekend of play. Our guest will be veteran ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian. I hope you'll join us.
Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock, our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Samantha Challoner, Seth Kelly and Joel Wolfgramm, our associate producer of digital media is Molly KVI Necessar. Teresa Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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