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Support for this American life comes from the new film Nomad Land, from Searchlight Pictures, written and directed by Chloe Zhao in Nomad Land. Academy Award winner Frances McDormand plays Fern, a 61 year old van dwelling modern day nomad who embarks on a journey through the vast landscape of the American West. Now nominated for four Golden Globe Awards Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Picture of the Year in theaters across the U.S. and streaming on Hulu, February 19th.
It's this American Life. From Chicago, I'm Susan Burton, sitting in for IRA Glass today. There are these videos I've been watching, videos of female politicians telling very personal stories. Here's one of them. Even worse, it shows Gretchen Wittman's. She's now the governor of Michigan, but she's speaking here a few years ago when she was a member of the state legislature.
I've said it before and I will say it again.
This is by far one of the most misogynistic proposals I've ever seen in the Michigan legislature, was explaining why she's voting no on a bill that would forbid women from using insurance to cover abortions unless they bought separate abortion insurance. Wittmer calls rape insurance.
And for those of you who want to act aghast that I'd use a term like rape insurance to describe the proposal here in front of us, you should be even more offended that it's absolutely accurate description of what this proposal requires. This tells women that were raped and became pregnant that they should have thought ahead and bought special insurance for it.
She's been talking for several minutes when suddenly she stops, sets her papers down.
I have a lot more prepared remarks here, but I think it's important for me to just mention a couple of things. So I'm about to tell you something that I've not shared with many people in my life. But over 20 years ago, I was a victim of rape and thank God it didn't result in a pregnancy. Because I can't imagine going through what I went through and then. Having to consider what to do about an unwanted pregnancy. From an attacker.
The whole time Witmer talks, she grips the sides of the lectern, her face looks like she's in pain.
I am not enjoying talking about it. It's something I've hidden for a long time, but I think you need to see the face of the women that you are impacted by this vote today.
I guess that my comments being my no vote explanation, my no vote explanation, she says Wittmer story wasn't planned.
She said later that she decided to tell her secret in that moment, standing at the mic as soon as she left the floor and got into her car. Whitmore called her father. She'd never told him that she'd been raped. She didn't want him to hear about it on the news that night. She hadn't expected to tell the Michigan legislature before she told him. I wondered if the call to her father was harder. I think it's sometimes easier to tell a secret in public than in private.
Safer to have that distance. When I first saw Whitmore's video a year ago, I was on the verge of revealing a secret in a very public way. In a book that was about to be published, I'd written a memoir about my eating disorder and until recently, that eating disorder, it had been a secret from everyone in my life. Sometimes people say everyone and then follow it with an except like except my mom and my best friend. I really do mean everyone, not even my husband knew.
And we've been together for 25 years. I never talked about it, and I'd also never been in therapy for it. When I finally did seek help, I was 45. In the very first session, my therapist trying to get the story straight or maybe just trying to get me to hear how absurd the sounded, said you wrote a whole book about this, but you've never talked about it with anyone.
That was right. Gone to see the therapist, partly because it did seem kind of messed up to me what I'd done. I knew it was just as urgent to understand my relationship with secrets as my relationship with food.
That's where I was when I watched Wittmer speech, thinking a lot about secrets and why we tell them and the form they take when we do.
What made Wittmer speech so powerful was that her secret was not just a confession, it was an argument it was told to persuade. I was moved by her video and I went looking for others like it. Of course, politicians tell personal stories and speeches all the time, but disclosing something you've kept private for years and doing it in a legislative session, sometimes spontaneously. That's pretty new. Almost every example I turned up was about sexual trauma, which I mean, there are a bunch of reasons for this, but a big one is the increasing number of bills that try to restrict access to abortion.
I watched videos from all over the country, Victoria Steel and Arizona, Teresa Fedor in Ohio, Mandy right. In Wisconsin, Nancy Mace in South Carolina. One of the things I wondered about was what prompted them to speak like what exactly made them stand up and say it. A couple said they were infuriated by the conversation in the room. Comments like women lie about being raped. And I wondered what it felt like to say the secret when you knew disclosed to the New York State Assembly that at age 13, she'd been abused by a teacher.
She drew attention to what was happening in her body as she spoke.
I never speak of this for this reason because I literally can't stop shaking. Thank you so much. Just a couple weeks ago, there was another similar video that got a lot of attention from New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. She was talking about the riot at the Capitol and then she revealed this.
I'm a survivor of sexual assault and I haven't told many people that in my life.
Ocasio Cortez didn't say this in a legislative session.
Video was on Instagram live, but it felt like the others I'd watched and that she was using her secret to make an argument in this case about the impact of trauma, the different kinds of trauma compound on each other. She and the others spoke out because there was something important at stake, they disclose their secrets as a public service. Of course, for most of us, the reasons we tell secrets, they're not a straightforward my own reasons for telling my secret.
I can't even call them reasons. That's too rational. What I had was an urge to tell one driven by desperation, obsession, anger, longing to be known and understood. There are all kinds of secrets and all kinds of reasons for telling and not telling. That's our show this week. Why we tell secrets and what happens after we do. Stay with us.
At one, my own very serious comedy about women and food, so let's get into why you might hold on to a secret, why it might be so hard to tell. And if you have an eating disorder or are in recovery, for one, a heads up that there's stuff in here that could be triggering. I want to start by telling you about a movie, one that I saw as a teenager, one that addressed my secret directly. It was an art house movie called Eating Subtitle, a very serious comedy about women and food.
The summer I was 17, my mother and I went to see it together. What are you doing? I've been binge eating for a couple of years by then. In fact, I'm sure I binged before the movie. I'm sitting next to my mother. I was uneasy. I bingeing was a secret. It was like the movie itself might give me away.
You binge, don't you know, just having a commodity binge. And since I was your age, I hope I've been this to my mother.
I'm eating now. You're going to stop eating altogether.
I'm still going to quit eating altogether. This was my only way to within a few years after that movie, I was anorexic, then back to bingeing, then anorexia again. More years past decades, like some of the women in the movie, I never stopped having an eating disorder.
I'm never going to ever be. Able to be like normal people with food, I mean, I'm always going to be at the mercy of it and it's very, very scary feeling. It's very, very powerful. And I hate it. The summer I was 45, I watched eating again, the first thing I felt was nostalgia, shoulder pads, bran muffins, Laura Ashley lines like you got a perm, you got a perm. And the second thing I felt was, oh, my God, not only is this movie about eating, it's about talent, which was the thing I was obsessed with at that point.
The movie is fiction, but it feels like a documentary because a lot of it is women staring into the camera telling personal stories about food. The setting is a fortieth birthday party in Los Angeles, and one of the main characters is a filmmaker named Martine. She's making a documentary to help her understand her own eating disorder. Identified with that at first, Martine tells everyone at the party that her film is about women in Southern California. Finally, she owns up to her real subject.
To tell you the truth, my whole documentary is about that woman and food. That's really why I'm here for. Really? Yeah. Why then did you say the documentary was about women in California versus other Southern Californian behavior is more general?
You know, you seem it's awkward to people when you say women.
And so we just start wondering why women food, the most terrible thing, just like Martien, I'd hidden my real subject, an eating disorder memoir I was writing. I told people my book was a cultural history of the teenage girl.
It actually had started out that way, but it took me a long time to admit what I really wanted to write about. For years, I was ashamed of my own story. Same as Martin.
You know, you can say I'm an alcoholic. I feel, oh, I'm a drug addict. That's OK. It's it's like, you know, kind of interesting. But just say, you know, eating disorders, I just want to eat. I just one that's so unattractive. It's so disturbing. I just was never able to tell that to anyone.
In lots of ways, this movie is dated and judgmental, but it's unapologetically about eating, which still feels radical. One by one, the women come and sit before Martiens camera and she asks them, tell me, do you have any problem about food at the end of the movie? She says that hearing their stories has changed things for her.
And I feel so close to them. It's such a wonderful feeling and makes me feel I don't want to be alone anymore. I want to be able to share things with other people, you know. Maybe this sounds sappy, but these lines did something to me. It's what I wanted to I wanted Martine to invite me to sit in front of her camera and ask, do you have any problem about food? I want it to be Martine asking others that question.
I wanted to be at the party with other women talking. I closed my laptop, I went downstairs to the kitchen from the freezer, I took out a lemon bar the size of a checkerboard square. I put the lemon bar on a plate the size of something a child would use at a Tea Party. I slice the bar into strips and then into tiny bites. I sat at the table and I ate all the bites. Then I wanted more, but I wouldn't let myself have it.
By this point, I'd had enough therapy to understand that what I did with food was what I did with people fearful of connection but so hungry for it. Sitting at the table, I started to fantasize about making my own version of the film a radio version.
I wanted to have a party like in the movie, though I didn't know who I'd invite. A year passed, I got a little better. I told people close to me about my history. I told others I talked more than my memoir was published. I'd expected to hear from readers who connected with my experience of an eating disorder. What surprised me was how many also connected with my experience of not talking about it. I realized here were my party guests.
I emailed them back with invitations to speak.
I've not really had a conversation with another person who has suffered from eating disorder. And that sounds wild to admit that, but it's true.
I think this is the most I've ever talked about it, but it's certainly the most I've ever talked about, like the bingeing side of things and like eating other people's food.
And to be honest, this is aside from my therapist, the first you are the first person I've ever told about that, and because I am so ashamed of it, I am so ashamed of the way I looked, then what I did. Then I just I get singing. Have you talked to anybody else besides the nutritionist about this stuff? Just you, yeah. How does it feel to be talking about it?
I say I'm fine talking about it with you because I know you really get it. Yeah. How does it feel to be talking about this stuff? I asked everyone that question and I paid attention to what it felt like for me. Sometimes I felt self-conscious. I seize up in conversation, have more ease when I write. But I also felt the connection I'd craved. I'd never met these women, but I knew them because we'd been alone in the same ways.
It is such a lonely experience going through your daily restriction purge and forming all the behaviors of a normal diet without anyone catching on. I mean, I think that sharing stories really does help. So that was the scariest piece of this for me, of living with an eating disorder is feeling so alone. Yeah. I mean, yeah, me too. Some of them said your book made me feel less alone, and when I said back, well, this conversation made me feel less alone.
I have worried it sounded insincere and have worried they'd be weirded out if they knew just how sincere I was. And in every conversation we talked about the thing I was so curious about, why it was so hard to tell anyone about this stuff or talk about it.
I think the secrecy, to be honest, is if that how eating disorders, at least for me, are deeply tied to sexuality. I think that that's why it's such a hard thing for me to talk about, because I'm very much tied to that. There's two things for the anorexia side of it, I think that it's because you don't want people to think you're shallow. I don't want people to think, oh, well, she just wants to be skinny.
And with the bingeing to anyone that's never experienced it, you sound out of your mind. It's just it doesn't make any sense at all. And when you explain it, like as though it's an addiction and whatever, maybe people have some better sense of it. But, you know, it's it's helpful to talk to someone who's been there. I think. I mean, I think for me, like one of the reasons why I haven't been able to talk to my therapist about it and get like really meaningful help is because I just don't even know how to talk about it.
Like, I don't hear other people talk about it. Like I don't I guess I kind of know what the vocabulary is. But basically my only experience is like I read other people's books about it, like I don't talk to other people about it. Among these women, there was one who was really brand new to talking about her eating disorder had only recently even identified it as an eating disorder. And that's the conversation I'm going to play next, because on one level, it's exactly what I'd hoped for, just a real and good conversation with a woman who shared the experience of having an eating disorder.
But also, I think it gets at something important about why we keep any kind of secret. The conversation started the same way as all of them with Audrey. That's not her real name, telling me the history of her eating disorder.
I thought nobody else had ever done that. I had never heard of bulimia. I thought I was the only person who had ever done that.
Audrey is 63 and she started bingeing and purging in college in the 1970s. This was before eating disorders were on, after school specials, before bulimia had been defined in a psychological journal. I wondered how Audrey had gotten the idea. Like, do you remember how it occurred to you to do it, to purge? I don't I don't remember the initial time, but I have been eating. As my brain still says, eating like a pig and I thought, well, I've got to get rid of this, I've got to make up for it somehow.
Yeah, and so that's what I started doing. And then I would spend my days in the dining hall eating and then my afternoons finding a bathroom somewhere to get rid of it.
Audrey kept bingeing and purging and then she stopped the purging part.
And what finally stopped me was I went to the health service for something I don't remember what and there was a bottle of ipecac on the counter. And when the nurse was out of the room, I stole it. Ipecac syrup is used to cause vomiting. It used to be a common thing that people had in their medicine cabinets.
And I went back to my room and it was Halloween night, I remember, and I drank the entire thing. And I got so violently ill. Did you had you used ipecac syrup before Defarge? No, just a finger. And how come you drank the whole bottle? I was so angry with myself. I was just so angry with myself, I thought, I'm just going to drink this whole damn thing. Yeah. I knew that anger knew the feeling of standing in a dorm room hating myself, Audrey told this one story about leaving campus to binge that I so related to I knew the same shame.
I was walking up the street to a chicken place that I knew of, that I knew no other college students went to.
And that's why I went there and on my way to a binge. And there was this guy who started walking behind me and he started whispering me, big ass, big ass. And I wasn't scared, I was ashamed, I was embarrassed. I mean, the fact that this guy could have attacked me or whatever his problem was, wasn't and I never turned and looked at him.
Yeah, he followed me all the way to the place and then I went in. And I was embarrassed because, oh, my God, I forgot this, I was embarrassed because I thought, oh, he knew. Now he knows where I was going.
He knows I was going to eat like that. Like that was the problem.
Right. I mean, it just becomes so all consuming that, of course, that's what everybody else is thinking, because it's the central part of of your own experience.
Yeah. I have spent so many years thinking about this. I can't believe it. I mean, really, if you put it all together, years of my life, this has been sort of the the soundtrack going on underneath everything else.
Even as Audrey kept bingeing for most of the next 40 years, that's not what she called it. And then in your head, it sounds like the phrase you used to eat like a pig, is that is that the phrase you used? Yeah, I mean, my phrase was eating bad.
Oh, my God. When I read that in your book, I thought, oh, so get it. I get it.
Yeah, I didn't. So I didn't know binge eating disorder was a thing until I read your book.
Yeah. So how, I mean how did you make sense of it for yourself without, without having a name for it.
I just thought of it as weakness. Yeah, I just thought of it as that I was. So ridiculously weak that I couldn't stop eating binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, but the least talked about it only became a formal eating disorder diagnosis a few years back when I was in college in the early 90s. I spent hours in the stacks reading about eating disorders and I couldn't find mine in any of the texts. The best I could determine was that I had bulimia without the throwing up, but that seems like half a problem.
I know I had a whole problem, a real one. I had this kind of fiery, righteous thing going on where I felt like I knew more than the scientists. But my certainty that there was something really wrong with me that I alone had diagnosed did not feel triumphant.
It was incredibly isolating to have an experience that I couldn't find named anywhere a binge.
It's eating a lot all at once past the point of discomfort, binge eating disorder. I can offer a textbook definition of it here, but Audrey's experience is the textbook definition.
I just kind of disappear. I just kind of eat. And it's a time in which I feel like everything's OK. Actually, while I'm eating, while I'm putting stuff in my mouth, I feel like everything's OK. Yeah, but I'm kind of not really there. Yeah. How do you feel right after oh, god awful. Awful. Another day ruined. I mean, and yes, I have felt hopeless, I felt extremely hopeless having done it again.
Yeah. And then doing it again the next night and I felt completely hopeless and out of control of it and hating myself for it.
That's pretty much the cycle the anaesthetized feeling during the binge, the self-loathing that follows feeling like this is out of your control, but also that you should be able to stop and the secrecy about all of it. So you didn't you didn't tell your roommate senior year, did you ever want to tell anyone about it?
Oh, my gosh, you know, I never wanted to tell anybody. No, it was yeah. I've been in therapy most of my life and I have never told any of my therapists about this. Didn't occur to me that I would talk about it.
Why do you think that is? I think it's just so embarrassing and. It's it's it's really shameful and it's something that I should be able to handle by myself. Hmm. I don't know. I think I just kind of blanked it out when I went to therapy to talk.
It was too personal, which is bizarre. I mean, I told my therapist all sorts of personal stuff, but that was. That was too embarrassing. And I never thought of myself as having an eating disorder, binge eating. I never thought of that as a disorder. I thought of it as a lack of discipline.
Mm hmm. If you had thought of it as a disorder, do you think that would have made you any more likely to talk about it in therapy?
Yeah, if I thought it was a disorder, yeah. I mean, you know, I'm from from a doctor's family. So anything anything that can be, you know, in a book somewhere I can accept. So yeah, if I thought of it as a disorder, I probably would have talked about it.
Yeah. Yeah. You know, in your email, you talked about the movie Eating Right, and I went to see it when it came out with a friend of mine. Yeah. And we came out of the movie and we talked about it a little bit. Yeah. But not a whole lot.
It was way too close to home for me. And I don't know if it was too close to home for her. But it was uncomfortable, it's so interesting, I'm so I'm so glad that you had the experience seeing that movie in the theater when it came out.
You're the only person I've ever talked to who's also seen this movie. This is very exciting for me. So when so how like what age were you when you saw that movie theater?
Nine days. So I don't know.
So you're like in your 30s? Yeah, I would. Yeah, it is.
And I remember lines when I saw once. Yeah. But I still remember lines from that movie.
I remember there's a woman who's sitting in a jacket and she says, I'm wearing this jacket because I don't want you to see my arms.
I wear clothes to conceal it. I mean I have this jacket on because I don't want you to see my fat arms.
And then there's the older one. She's my job. There's the older woman who says, I don't understand these girls. Why don't they just drink? Uh huh.
Food, food, food. That's all I hear is food. Now, I really enjoy eating. I always have in my time. We've got to get it to have a drink of cocktails and order. I mean, that was always, you know, that was a more desirable invitation than going to dinner. And I thought, what is wrong with me?
Why don't I just drink? I really did. I just said, what is wrong with me? Why don't I just drink instead of eating?
I don't think. What else do you remember? Do you remember any anything else?
I remember it was really an embarrassing experience watching the movie and uncomfortable. And the friend I went with is very lighthearted. And then we came out. It was pretty dark there for a few minutes.
Do you think she connected with it too? My feeling was that she connected with it on the level of women in this culture are told not to eat very much or she connected with it like a normal person, like a normal woman who suffers under the onus of you're not supposed to eat too much, but not like somebody like me.
But can I ask you something? Yeah. When you saw it with your mom, do you think your mom was already worried about you? And maybe that's why she didn't really say much about the movie.
She you know, we've talked some now about my eating disorders and she didn't know about the bingeing. And my mother probably is somewhere on the spectrum of, like in between eating, having been really a destructive force. And the friend with whom you saw the movie, who's like a woman so she can relate to it on that one.
So glad you understand what I mean by that about my my friend being a normal woman, bored about it, as opposed to somebody who had probably talk about it.
Well, I always wanted to be a normal woman. Right about it.
Yeah. Honestly, that film drove me further underground. How so? Because I think because of now that I'm thinking about it, I think because of the judgment. It's just thick with judgment of these women and their problems, and I thought, well, you know, I was right. This absolutely must remain a secret forever.
Yeah. And I didn't even I don't even think consciously. I mean, I recently have started thinking consciously about it. But I've I've never even thought consciously about, gee, I'd better not tell anybody that that would never in a million years have occurred to me until tell would what finally prompted Audrey to tell somebody I was learning that this thing she did in secret was something that many other people also did and that it had a name.
It doesn't always work this way, naming isn't always something you want. I talked to one woman who for years didn't tell anyone about her bulimia because she didn't want the label. She didn't want to be saddled with shame. She could never shake as long as she could fix it herself. The eating disorder never existed in the first place. Finally, she did tell and she did name it, which was terrifying because it made it real, but it also made it more manageable.
Another woman I talked to was also reluctant to name her eating disorder, not because she didn't want the label, but because she didn't feel she lived up to it.
I just didn't think I qualified. I didn't feel like I was sick enough. The images I had in my head of eating disordered people were a very, very real thin person wearing a hospital gown was being force fed. You know, that's that's what I thought.
This ambivalence about naming was totally familiar to me. When I first went to therapy, it took me a few months to look at my diagnosis code. I was scared to know what was now on my permanent record and when I looked it up and so it was anorexia, I got nervous in a new way, like my therapist didn't understand. I wanted to take off all my clothes, ensure that I wasn't thin enough to be anorexic when I didn't get it.
Was that one. You can be anorexic at any size. And to that my feelings were the essence of the illness. I'm not good enough to be anorexic. I'm not good enough.
A name gave Audrey the words to say the unspeakable, and it gave her the permission she needed to ask for help after Audrey realized she might have binge eating disorder. She contacted a nutritionist.
So I contacted her. And when I emailed it that I thought I might have this problem. I felt OK. But when I called her and we spoke. I, I, I couldn't commit I was like, I, I don't know if I really have it or not, maybe I do, I don't know. I don't do it all the time, you know. Yeah. And she said, well, you know, we we don't necessarily have to name it.
You may have features of it. And what I thought was no, no, no, I have it.
Sorry, I'm laughing only because I totally relate.
Yeah, I know you do.
So what feels what feels helpful about talking about it or what has felt helpful so far? What's made a difference for me is that it's a named problem and it's not a failure of character, but a disorder that, you know, has that can be treated.
Treatment for an eating disorder involves both changing behaviors and addressing the underlying emotional reasons for them. That's exactly what Audrey's doing in the months since she and I spoke, she's continued with the nutritionist and now she's also seeing a therapist. She's not over this yet, but she's working on it. That's where I am, too. But I struggle with a lot of why can't I just get over it?
Recently, my therapist suggested that I thought that telling my story would release me from shame.
I got a little defensive. No, no, I hadn't thought that. But she was right. Telling my story has opened up a lot for me, especially with the people I'm closest to. But telling is a beginning, not an end. It's not a solution. It doesn't fix your eating. It doesn't release you from shame. To release yourself from shame, you need to understand where the shame comes from. Telling alone doesn't get you there, but it puts you in conversation with people who can help.
It gets you to the party with other women talking. Coming up, keeping your job secret from your children and your children, secret from your job.
That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues. It's this American Life, I'm Susan Burton. Today's program, secrets, stories about why we tell them and why we don't. We've arrived at Act two of our show, Act two, bad cell service. We're told that sharing your secrets will liberate us. We'll feel unburdened, relieved. But sometimes keeping the secret is what sets us free. Rider Pavan Bewigged has an illness that she's kept secret.
My body has a secret. There are days when my body feels as though it is the secret. If one day you are to pay considerable attention, you might figure it out. My body is quick to breathlessness and slow to recover from exertion, but perhaps this is too subtle a clue.
If I go out drinking and neglect to take my folic acid the morning after, notice how the whites of my eyes have yellow slightly, this is my body leaking at Secre. The yellow eyes, this is jaundice, a common symptom of sickle cell disease, which is the secret my body has and try so hard to keep. Sickle cell is a blood disorder where red blood cells take on an irregular physical shape. This diminishes the level of oxygen in the body.
It can be painful.
The most pronounced pain comes from the streamlined cells bumping and scraping along my vessels, producing an unbearable rusty ache in my bones, especially at the joints which sickle cells have trouble squeezing through. And so often they logjam and cause swelling all childhood long. I was the sick girl, notable for my string of absences. I was out for days and weeks at a time due to illness, but also for maintenance purposes. Checkups, tests, transfusions. The burden of being my best friend at school was threefold.
One, you had to have a backup as a friend for the times, I wasn't there too. If we started an art project, I had to explain to you how I wanted it done in the very likely event, I wouldn't be there to do it myself. And three, you had to keep up with all the school gossip and catch me up on it in meticulous detail when I returned. In year nine, I auditioned for the role of a dancing girl in my secondary schools production of West Side Story, my dance teacher who was directing, complimented my strong audition and followed up her praise with If I give you a part in the show day, you had to promise me that you won't get sick.
I won't get sick, I told her hurriedly, without properly considering what she was asking of me. I won't get sick, I repeated it, I'm sure, to reassure myself. I won't. I won't. The following week, the cost less went up and I was the only airline dancing girls get speaking part. It was one line, but it was everything to me. I prayed, stepped over cracks on stars, did my homework early, matures diligently, was nice to my brothers.
Everything I could possibly think of to be good and stay well. I begged my body to keep the promise I'd made. And of course, two weeks before the show, I got sick, the sickness I had ever been, the sickest I have ever been, I caught pneumonia. I was hospitalized for three months, missed five months of school that year. I believe my body did it to spite me. I was so angry, I ride in my hospital bed in pain and frustration, thinking I'm a girl who wants to dance and save her life.
I'm stuck in this body, a place that gets sick. I never auditioned for anything at school ever again as I grew older, I grew a bit healthier. My body calmed down. I went two years without hospital admission, then five, then eight. And I mostly stopped speaking about sickle cell and the bad blood that moves inside me. I convinced myself that discussing it would somehow jinx me into more suffering if I kept quiet about my body. My body in turn would keep quiet about its disease.
I move to the world less a sick person and more as a person with a sickness. That distinction became very important. A loophole. I never lied. I neglected to tell the truth. That's how secrets are made. My secret allows me to control how people see me. I remember revealing the truth to a co-worker, a bookstore. And after that, he attributed every stumble, every dropped pencil to my sickle-cell. I hate to be pitied. Pety says, I'm glad I'm not you.
He says, I'm glad I do not have to struggle with what you do because he feels bad for me without giving me a chance to feel anything for myself. Keeping my secret is the one thing about my body I can control. People would sometimes find out, but it was rare for me to actively tell my husband as the only person I can remember sitting down to explain, I tell my body secret only when it is necessary, when it is apparent I'm becoming sick or when it's a safety concern, like when I fly a long distance because I'd heard that high altitude can trigger a crisis.
Years ago, a doctor got me in the habit of taking this precautionary measure before the seatbelt light switched on. I walked to the front of the plane and hurriedly confess. The first time I did this, my head swam. It had been so long since I had said I have sickle cell out loud to anyone. Now, I accept this unburdening as part of my flying ritual because it's temporary. The secret remains in the air and dissipates as soon as I land at my destination.
Another place I was sometimes OK talking about my sickle-cell with an avowedly black spaces home church with extended family that wasn't really family is Odysseas, so it was our problem. One theory is that the gene mutation in the haemoglobin evolved to resist malaria. Most people had a cousin back home. It suffered an aunt, friend of a friend who died from it.
There was a heavy knowing in this diasporic circles. They understood the specific frustration of being in a body that had an extra thing to contend with.
That jokingly quote that line from Full Metal Jacket at me, thank God for the sickle cell. And I would laugh in these spaces. I felt seen, but also hyper visible as I grew up. I saw places where I could go incognito.
I have been told all my life by doctors, teachers, family, friends that I should tell that it's the only way I will ever feel truly known.
I spent so much of my life struggling with this disease and so of course it has shaped me where form relationships, how suspicious I am of joy, my wholesale resignation to pain, why I hate being cold, telling people lets them in.
But the problem is, I know who I am. I'm a person who has a secret. And so who do I become if I tell. What do I lose? I have tried to be more open, I even wrote about my Sickle-Cell for an online publication a few years ago, the positive feedback from strangers was encouraging, overwhelming, but hearing from people I knew felt embarrassing, exposing. Fortunately, it wasn't that many people I went back to passing out the tellings, keeping the information on the strictest need to know basis.
And then covid happened. At the beginning of it, about a year ago, I received a letter from the Department of Health and Social Care informing me that as I have a high risk condition, I'm considered extremely vulnerable. And so I must stay out of the way of covered by staying in my house for at least 12 weeks. Extremely vulnerable is the nicest thing a government organization has ever said about me, extremely vulnerable, made me feel dainty and precious, like a rare jewel uniquely worthy of special care until the reality sets in and what it would mean to spend 12 weeks inside my house could I have lived for 12 weeks, told people I was staying home because I was anxious, overly cautious, or maybe it would be easier to just tell the truth.
And so for the first time in my life, I slipped into the habit of day to day, face to face, talking about my sickle-cell to old friends, new colleagues, neighbors, the postman. They would come by the house, stand at the front gate. I sat the mandated two meters away on the steps and they would ask me questions. I rambled at them about bone marrow stem cells, rigid red blood cells, anemia, chest crisis's, increased infection risks and how scared I was.
Everybody was so nice, so understanding and listening to me. I felt compelled by their kindness to tell, but always sicker after I told I felt powerless like a child again. My first adult decision was to keep my illness a secret. I spent so much of my life hiding to give myself choices as to how I'd move through the world. And now, in revealing myself, I felt trapped. Once after a visit where I had told someone I found myself playing a game I hadn't played since childhood.
Now there is still on the floor trying to pinpoint where in my body my bad blood was moving. Imagining the evil broken cells swimming through vessels in my brain, heart, lungs behind my eyes, across my belly, focusing my thoughts on pulverizing them. It didn't work then. It doesn't work now.
The most pervasive idea about secrets is that they encumber us. We're told that sharing all the parts of ourselves sets us free. But I have not felt any relief since the knowledge of my condition has become more public. The more I tell the truth to others, the less I feel like me. I would like to return to being sick in the dark. How individual is a writer in London, Act three, mommy's busy right now, back in March of last year when schools were shutting down.
My co-worker, Lena Masisi saw a tweet from a mother who had a problem lots of mothers had, but a more extreme version of it. She makes porn at home. Her tweet, quote, I work when my kids are in school. School is on the verge of closing it. It'll be difficult to make content when that happens. A warning, this story is about someone making porn and keeping it from their kids, you might want to do the same.
There's some sexual content. Here's Lena lot.
What makes ala carte porn short videos of herself for people to buy and her fans can book her for one on one cam shows. We got on the phone in May, two months after that tweet.
So two months into her kids remote learning, I'm just going to escape from the teacher YouTube video for a minute.
By the way, Lana's not her real name to perform her name. And I asked, what is it like now that her family is always home? And she said basically it's been tough. The time she used to spend on her own work is now dedicated to the kids schooling.
And then five o'clock, it's just dinner, bath and bed as as it usually is.
Are you still shooting any content from the house?
Not really. I just don't anymore, because after nine o'clock, I just feel so exhausted now. I just can't I can't do it at night.
Lorna had stopped shooting, which I wasn't so surprised.
But then a few minutes after we hung up, I got a text message from her. She wrote, It's not safe for sex workers to say what they should at home while their kids are home. So I called her back right away. It turned out she hadn't been totally honest with me. You know, you ask me if I made content ever when they're home, like I have to, I have to.
It's like it's like being in the closet in your own home and you're in you're trying to work and you have to deliver this media to people who have paid already for it. You know, you're under these deadlines to make porn.
A big reason. Lena wasn't immediately up front. She doesn't want other moms in her world knowing what she does for work. Lena told me that's because she knows what the other moms think of her job. A couple of years ago, they were passing around a documentary about the dangers of porn.
It's it's vilified. It's something to be afraid of. They look at it as something that's very degrading to women. Like, I'm just degrading myself. I really enjoy my own sexuality and being able to tap into that for other people who are looking for something really neat and specific, they don't see it that way at all. They see it as this like disease. And if they see me as that, I don't know if they would continue to want to plan play dates with my daughter.
So she's kept her job a secret for years from the other moms and of course, from her own kids, which just to say, doing your job while your kids are at home, that's one thing, doing a secret job while your kids are at home. That's a whole other thing.
And on top of that, the kids at home, they're also a secret from Lana's customers.
For them, a lot of it has no family. She exists solely in the fantasy they're paying for so long as having to switch back and forth between these different sides of her life.
Each one has to be completely invisible to the other, but she's stunningly can do about it.
Very matter of fact, whenever I bring up how stressful it seems like it's a puzzle, a bunch of moving parts, all of them have a place just they need solving.
OK, so a typical morning before you know, any kids come downstairs. I'll shoot a small Snapchat clip. One is kind of g rated for my promotional and the other one is adult for my premium members. So that's done in the morning and then it's time for the kids to get up, get dressed.
She makes them breakfast, situates them for virtual learning. By the way, Alana is married.
Her husband knows about and supports her work. But because of the nature of his work, he's often tied up during the day, leaving it.
TALANA And then so while the kids are in school, she looks for small moments when it makes sense to slip away or when they're allowed their screen time occupied by Minecraft or YouTube, or I'll even sneak off into the bathroom with the door locked.
Do you like a shower scene? Sometimes, like there's some pee clips because there's a bunch of pee fans out there.
What's interesting actually, about most of what you just said is that it's the stuff that you'd be doing in the bathroom with the door closed and locked anyway. And I'm like, you're multitasking.
Yeah. Yeah. You work at it. Oh, my God. It's like every time you sit on the toilet or figured, you know, you turn on the shower, you like, OK, wait a minute, should I be shooting this?
Because what what section of my fans will this be good for?
The day before on, I said I had to go into the kids bathroom because that was like the room that was the most far away from where everyone else was, you know, and like there's just there's like towels everywhere.
There's like an owl picture the bathrooms painted yellow, like it's just not the greatest room for porn. So, like, I have to go in really close and speak, you know, like kind of quietly.
Long has been careful to manage what her kids know about her job. At the time, her daughter was eleven. Perceptive, starting to have some questions.
Sometimes she'd notice Lano wearing something out of the ordinary beneath her t shirt and jeans, like full body laundry or something, and she lost her mom. Why are you wearing that?
And I'll be like, oh yeah, that sorry, this is for work. And she'll be like, OK.
Do you do you think it's possible that she just doesn't know that there is more to know than that?
Um, well, I don't know.
I just I don't remember when when do kids figure out that sexuality is like a commodity?
I think that she is pretty close, like she will eventually figure this out.
Here's what Lorna's daughter does know. She knows her mom has a, quote, grown up job, which is why she has a lot of fun clothes and high heels, which she likes to try on. She knows her mom takes pictures for people and makes videos for them. And she knows that sometimes people like to buy her mom's clothes after she's worn them. And that's what she knows. For now, she isn't asking for more and Lana's waiting for her to ask.
And her son, he was six when we talked. He didn't know anything about his mom's work yet, like he didn't even know it was a door he could knock on. Knocking on doors, by the way, a lesson he should probably learn sooner than later. One time when told me, she snuck off for a quick cam show.
I went upstairs, I forgot to lock the door, and I had just, like, pulled down my leggings, still had my underwear on, and like, my son started walking up the stairs and I'm on camera already. And I had to, like, pull up my pants really fast. And I'm like, hey, you know, what's up? It's like my Kendalls not working. Oh, my God.
It worked out fine on put the phone. Before her son even walked into the room and met him out in the hallway, actually almost the exact same thing happened on our phone call to a second. Hold on one moment.
What baby? You know, she gave him Kirkendall. It's not just her kids looking for more screen time, it's also her clients. When the pandemic started, porn consumption in America shot up way up about twenty five percent more streaming, according to the website PornHub, especially in the middle of the day at around lunchtime, presumably people stuck at home. Lahner saw an uptick in her fan base to last spring, she told me she gained about eight thousand followers on social media and that she was getting more and more requests for private shows.
You know, like everybody right now is at home with their families.
And so, you know, men will be working from their home office and they'll contact me and say, you know, hey, like, can we do like a five minute cam session like Lonas doing in her house?
These clients are fitting and what they can when they can from their houses, many of them hoping it'll go unnoticed. So that was early in the pandemic, May three, two or three months, I check back with. And every time we catch up, she sounded upbeat.
And I think this woman is so good at compartmentalizing. But when I called her back a couple of weeks ago to check in, she sounded different. And she told me she's been having a hard time keeping up her porn persona with clients.
It's it's hard to stay motivated, I have found. And it just like it kind of takes a little bit of time to kind of get going and to get in. You know, I have to put on music like I have to sort of get in the mindset to actually create something that's good.
Some things are easier these days. Her kids don't need so much attention during the day. Lorna's daughter is old enough to manage her own virtual learning. And her son, he's seven now. He's in a small pod with other kids his age four days a week. He's not at home alone. I even rented a small office for work where she can go spend a few hours each morning shooting by herself so she has more privacy and doesn't have to toggle back and forth all day between her kids and her secret job anymore.
But the pandemic's been getting to her in some new ways.
There's, I think, a lot of little things like the gyms being closed and like I'm not taking care of my body as well as I did before the pandemic. And so I feel like my body looks different now. So I you know, and that makes you not feel, you know, quite as sexy when you're like looking back at the footage later and you're like, wow, I really don't like that angle, you know? And so I find myself sometimes just having to, like, bust out content because not because I'm feeling it or because I think this is going to be really great.
But it's like I have to get it done.
I actually want to says the hour long foot worshiping session that she'd done just before. This phone call is a good example of what she's talking about. That appointment happened over text. She also sends photos.
So I'm actually like texting with him. And and then I'm also looking for like a restaurant reservation because I really want to go out to dinner this Friday for outdoor dining. And I'm like texting with someone else.
Did you get your reservation?
No, because I have to find a place with heater's and a full bar. And that is a tricky combination right now.
Like lots of us, Llanos weren't down having less fun on the job. And honestly, who can blame her? But since her whole job is to get other people in the mood, well, not as not in the mood. That's a different kind of secret when she can't afford to tell. Lina McCarty's is a producer of our show.
OK, I've got bipolar disorder. My life's not in order. I'm overweight. I'm always late. I've got too many things to say. The just from the time you're young to hide the things that we don't like about ourselves inside ourselves are not the only one who spent so long attempting to be someone else. Well, I'm over it. I don't care. Secrets are our program was produced today by Susan Burki, the people who put our show together today include the metahuman Ella Baker, Dana Jarvis Schenkel survived a cornfield, Hilary Elkin's, Damien Gray Zetland, Tobin Lo, Miki Meek universities.
Don Nelson, Catherine Reymundo, Nadia Raymon, Ari Sapperstein, Laura Stazi, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Spatola, Matt Tierney and Julie Whiteaker. Our managing editor is Sara Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum, our executive editor is Manual. Very special. Thanks. Today to Nita Freya and Julie Mark Spiegler and to all the women who trusted me with the stories of their eating disorders.
The book I talked about, my memoir, it's called Empty Our Website, This American Life Drug, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. This American life is delivered to public radio stations by PRICK'S, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, of course, to my boss, IRA Glass, who took the week off to devote himself to his true calling Star Trek fan fiction.
He finished two stories.
One is kind of generated for my promotional and the other one is adult for my premium members.
I'm Susan Burton. Join us next week for more stories of this American life. What? Next week on the podcast of This American Life, Drew picked up a ninth grader and his friend from school right after she read her son's texts.
They were so happy that day when they got in the car. And all I'm thinking is, oh, my God, it's just in a couple of minutes when I have to turn left. So I kept thinking about. This is going to all come crashing down and I don't know if I'm strong enough to do this. That's next week on the podcast on your local public radio station.