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689: Digging Up the Bones 

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Some people, they read those old stories from 3,000 years ago, The Iliad and The Odyssey. They read them in school, and it just gets to them. One of the producers here at our show, Emanuele, was like that.

Emanuele Berry

I loved the heroes, Hector. I thought Agamemnon was such a diva. I loved The Aeneid. We had to translate it in my Latin class. And in addition to translating passages, I decided to make, like, a 9x3 foot mural out of magazine paper depicting Aeneas' journey into hell.

Ira Glass

Wait, when you say magazine paper, you mean you're cutting letters out of a magazine, like a serial killer?

Emanuele Berry

I mean, I was-- no, I mean, I was meticulously ripping teeny pieces of different colors of magazine paper and making, like, a mosaic basically.

Ira Glass

Oh, I see.

Emanuele Berry

And I remember that J.Lo was on the mural for some reason, because she was wearing, like, a white dress that kind of looked Grecian, so.

Ira Glass

It was like a toga-y dress.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So she got to be Dido in hell.

Ira Glass

When a teacher assigned a 20-page research paper on any subject in the world, like they could do anything at all, it was obvious to Emanuele what to do-- the story of Troy, the place where the Trojan War happened, the walled city that they pulled the Trojan horse into.

Emanuele Berry

And in doing research for this project, I found out about this guy named Heinrich Schliemann.

Ira Glass

Heinrich Schliemann, a man who also read those old stories and got obsessed.

Emanuele Berry

He's born in Germany in the 1800s. He's like a business man, a merchant in Russia. And then he moved to California during the Gold Rush and opened a bank. It's said that he would carry around, like, copies of Homer. And he taught himself ancient Greek.

Like in two years, he taught himself ancient Greek, which is insane to me, just so he could read the books in the language of origin. Anyway, but basically, he amasses this huge fortune. And once he has this fortune, he decides that he's going to find Troy. At the time, people weren't sure if it was a real place or just, like, a story, like Atlantis.

Ira Glass

And I know this is kind of a dumb question, but in that period, did archaeologists even exist? Was that even a job yet?

Emanuele Berry

It's not really a job. It's like a very new field, this whole idea of digging up the past. And so there are like sort of hobbyists dabbling in it.

Ira Glass

But these hobbyists by the 1870s have figured out from various geographic clues that Homer gives in the text about Troy's proximity to the Dardanelles and to Mount Ida. They figured out where a likely location for the city might be. It was in the place that we now call Turkey. And at that spot was kind of a big mound of dirt. And Schliemann gets going.

Emanuele Berry

So he starts to dig. He hires dozens and dozens of workers. And when he's digging, he starts to find basically like these layers of cities that are sort of built on top of each other. So there's bits of pottery and foundations of buildings. When a city burned to the ground, they would just build another city right on top of it.

Ira Glass

Right.

Emanuele Berry

But none of them are what he's looking for. What he is looking for is he wants to find basically gold, silver, and bronze. That's the thing he thinks is going to be the signifier that this is Troy. Because he's thinking of this treasure rich city that Homer describes in The Iliad. And he's also thinking that, well, it's got to be further down. It has to be at the bottom, right? Troy is going to be at the bottom of this pile. And so he keeps digging.

Ira Glass

And he keeps finding more and more layers with cities.

Emanuele Berry

Yes. And then he gets to the bottom of these piles of cities. And that's where he finds this treasure. He finds exactly what he's looking for. He finds this gold. He finds the silver. He finds bronze. He calls it Priam's treasure, Priam being the king of Troy in The Iliad. He says--

Ira Glass

But there's nothing on it that says, like, Priam's--

Emanuele Berry

He didn't write his name.

Ira Glass

You've reached Priam's bank or something. No, OK.

Emanuele Berry

No. No, nothing like that.

Ira Glass

He doesn't have hard proof that it's Troy. He doesn't find writing, which would have really helped. Can I ask one question?

Emanuele Berry

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Did he find a huge wooden horse? 'Cause that would have nailed it.

Emanuele Berry

No huge wooden horse. Wouldn't have survived.

Ira Glass

Hm. OK.

Emanuele Berry

I'm sorry.

Ira Glass

Fine.

Today's show is about the inadvertent things that happen when you start digging up the past. And this is the point where Schliemann's story gets more complicated. Schliemann announces to the world that he's found the city that Homer was writing about. He's found Troy. He becomes internationally famous.

Emanuele Berry

But the truth of the situation is, is that the Troy at the bottom of the pile, with all this treasure and all this gold, that actually was not Troy. It was not Homer's Troy, at least. Like, that's from thousands of years before Troy would have even happened. The Troy that he was looking for was actually one of the cities that he had just dug through and destroyed in the process of digging through it.

Ira Glass

So in other words, he's just digging down. He reaches Troy. He's like, no, no, this isn't it-- throws it on the side as, like, debris.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah.

Ira Glass

That's garbage.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah. And basically, he destroyed a big chunk of the ancient city in trying to find the city.

Ira Glass

The Troy he was looking for archaeologists understand now was just three layers down, and he dug nine layers down.

Emanuele Berry

So what this means is that for any archaeologist today who's trying to figure out anything that's going on at Troy, he kind of screwed them over. I called one of these guys. His name is Brian Rose, and he was the co-director of excavations at Troy for 25 years. He's not a fan of Schliemann.

Brian Rose

So he didn't really know what he was doing. So there's a lot of information that we've lost on account of his speed and digging. When I look through his notebooks, he'll say something like, "Byzantine building and debris found today, dismantled." Now that doesn't tell me if it's early, middle, late Byzantine, what the building looked like. Was it many rooms? Was it only one room? What did he find there? Or was it just debris that was in his way?

Emanuele Berry

Debris that was in his way that Schliemann would just dig up and throw in a pile on the side.

Brian Rose

Yeah, Schliemann excavated extensively, and he had to put the earth that he removed somewhere. Schliemann dumped all the earth from his trenches in the areas where I want to dig.

Emanuele Berry

And part of the reason that he wants to dig in that area is because there might be writing there.

Ira Glass

And so Schliemann has now made that very hard.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, because there's all this dirt, all these uprooted ruins that are just on top of that area. And then it would take years and, Brian says, technology that doesn't even exist now to dig it up without doing more damage.

Brian Rose

So you have 20 meters of dump through which you would have to go in order to get to a deposit that might have writing of Late Bronze Age date. That's something I'd love to be able to do. But for now, it's just too monumental an undertaking to do it.

Emanuele Berry

One of the things that has always kind of bugged me about this story is that before Schliemann died, they actually figured out that he was wrong.

Ira Glass

Oh, they did?

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, but he's still remembered to this day for discovering Troy. And one of the things I remember from that paper I wrote was that I really ended up mad at him. Like-- [LAUGHS] I was mad at him for, like--

Ira Glass

Like you were going to go visit Troy, and he messed it up for you.

Emanuele Berry

Basically, kind of. But when I talked with Brian about it, he's kind of zen about it.

Brian Rose

I would certainly express frustration with Schliemann in the same way that an archaeologist digging at Troy in 100 years would express frustration with me.

Ira Glass

Oh, I like his attitude.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, I mean, I think when you're an archaeologist, you kind of have to take the long view. You're aware that people are going to come after you, and they're going to know more than you. So you're very aware of your own limitations.

Ira Glass

And that's actually our show today. Today on our program, we have all kinds of people going and digging up stuff from the past, full of hope, but definitely with their own limitations. And the search changes things. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Family Plot

Ira Glass

Act One, Family Plot. We move now from the losers of the Trojan War to the winners-- or anyway, the descendants of the winners, the people of Greece. Here's something you probably didn't know about Greece. They don't have enough cemetery space. And cremation is not very popular there. So what they do is, when you die, you're buried in the ground.

And then three or four years later, your family gets together and digs up your bones. Get you out of the ground, give the space to somebody else. One of the producers of our show, Lina Misitzis, her parents were both born in Greece. And she traveled there in September with them to do this for the very first time.

Lina Misitzis

We're in a rental car driving from Athens to a small village in the south called Stoupa. It's about four hours away. My dad's driving. I'm in the front seat. Mom's in the back. We're on our way to Stoupa to exhume my grandmother, my father's mom. My dad's talking about the cost of gas, how much money it'll cost to keep this car full of gas, also other things about gas.

Dad

There's no gas station here.

Lina Misitzis

I recognize this conversation not for its content, but for its design. My dad, an extraordinarily kind and thoughtful person, he fills so much space with small talk. I hate small talk. Today, September 19th, is my mom's 66th birthday. We weren't supposed to exhume my grandmother on my mom's birthday. It was supposed to happen tomorrow. But because of forecasted rain, we're doing it today.

Mom

What a gift for my birthday.

Lina Misitzis

This will not be the last time she brings up her birthday. My grandmother spent the last third of her life dying. Her disorder was never successfully diagnosed. It kind of looked like Parkinson's. It kind of looked like Huntington's. But it was neither of those things. A caretaker, a distant cousin named Crisoula, would come and change her diapers twice a day, feed her baby food. Growing up, I was kind of afraid of my grandma. She'd lost her ability to speak, and she just kind of looked at me, and moaned, and cried.

Dad

It's called chorea. When you have it, you cannot control your movements. You have jerking, uncontrollable movements of your hands and face.

Lina Misitzis

And chorea is actually a Greek word, right?

Dad

Chorea, yeah. Chorea.

Mom

That means I'm dancing.

Lina Misitzis

It means I'm dancing, my mom says. She's always answering questions for my dad. I think he prefers it that way.

Dad

Mommy remembers better than I do, and I have to pay the toll now.

Mom

Pay the toll.

Lina Misitzis

My mom didn't go with my dad to his mother's funeral. He went alone. I figured he'd be doing the second funeral, this reverse funeral, alone, too. And while I don't know what this process looks like at all, the thought of my dad exhuming his mother's body by himself, it just sounded sad.

Dad

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

And so a few months ago, I decided I wanted to go with him. To be there for him. In my fantasy of it I'd be by his side, holding his hand, patient, curious even. Which isn't how it usually goes between us. My dad doesn't talk about his feelings too often. Half the time, I think he doesn't even know what they are. But then when I'm around him, I get impatient.

I guess this moment just seems really big, like a chance for us to be different with each other. But then when my mom found out that I was going, she decided that she would come, too. She doesn't want to pass up a chance to see me. She agrees to sit in the backseat while I try talking to my dad about what we're on our way to go do.

Dad

In general, I'm not very comfortable in cemeteries.

Lina Misitzis

Why not?

Dad

I don't know. I never was.

Lina Misitzis

Right, most people are uncomfortable in cemeteries. But for some reason, I just can't let it go.

Lina Misitzis

Well, there must be a reason.

Dad

I don't believe so, no. You expect me to say more now. I don't know what to say.

Lina Misitzis

No, you're fine. You're fine. You don't have to say anything.

Dad

I'm driving, too.

Lina Misitzis

You are driving.

This back and forth is so typical, it's practically scripted. He tries to play along to engage. But I never think it's enough.

Lina Misitzis

Do you know when your mom was born?

Dad

I believe 1928.

Lina Misitzis

Actually, she was born in 1925.

Lina Misitzis

Was she a smoker?

Dad

No, she never smoked.

Lina Misitzis

Was she a drinker?

Dad

I don't think she ever had any alcohol.

Lina Misitzis

What did she do for fun?

Dad

Cross stitch.

Lina Misitzis

Cross stitch.

Lina Misitzis

Did she have friends?

Dad

Very few.

Lina Misitzis

Do you think she was depressed?

Dad

Um-- I guess so. I never thought in these terms at the time, but yeah, I guess now you mention it, I think so. Probably she was.

Lina Misitzis

Was she a good mom?

Dad

I don't know. I guess. Uh-oh.

Lina Misitzis

What's wrong?

The check engine light comes on in the rental.

Dad

Check engine oil.

Lina Misitzis

It derails the rest of the car ride, each conversation circling back to the potentially faulty engine.

We pull up to his family's village at 2:00. The woman who took care of my grandmother, Crisoula, is waiting for us in her yard. I haven't seen her in five or six years. She brings us cool water, keeps remarking on how absolutely different I look. I wouldn't recognize you anywhere, she says. Then a different family friend, Sotiroula, walks into the yard and joins us. You look exactly the same, she tells me. You haven't aged at all. So much of what there is to talk about is how old each of us is, what age looks like on us, and how we all wear it.

An hour later, we walk to the graveyard. It's me, my mom, my dad, Crisoula, and Sotiroula. Crisoula is carrying recycled plastic water bottles full of vinegar. She's also carrying small white brushes, the kinds you used to scrub dirty pots and pans. The village we're in looks like a caricature of a Mediterranean village. The roads aren't paved. The homes are all stone.

You can see the Mediterranean Sea and the Taygetos Mountains from anywhere. The graveyard is connected to the church, which is connected to the school. Everything is dusty. The graves are all white. The buildings are all white.

The grave digger is already at my grandmother's grave. He's wearing blue overalls and a yellow T-shirt. He has on a Yankees cap. His name is Arturo. Baseball isn't really a thing in this country. I can't imagine where he got the hat. My mom walks to the opposite end of the cemetery, where she sits down on a stranger's grave beneath some shade.

She doesn't want to see my grandmother's body, she says. It's a small cemetery, just a few dozen graves. And they're all so loved, which makes sense. No one is buried for long here, so as long as the body's in the ground, people come to visit. Each plot has photos on it, bottles of beer, and liquor, potted plants, candles, many of them lit. My dad hobbles around, inspecting the other graves to see who else has died since the last time he was here.

Dad

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

Whenever he recognizes a name, he confirms with Crisoula that yes, the person whose name is written on the gravestone is, in fact, dead.

Dad

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Crisoula

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

One of the graves is occupied by the priest who blessed my grandmother's body just a few years ago at her funeral.

Crisoula

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Dad

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

"But I just saw him," my dad says, "at my mother's funeral. He's dead?"

All week, people have been saying to us, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], which I understand as, "We hope she's melted." Such a strange way to say, I hope your grandmother's flesh and organs have finished decomposing. My taxi driver who picked me up from the airport in Athens told me that at his aunt's exhumation, he'd had to wash the residual skin and blood off of her bones, which is a thought so unnerving, I don't think I fully fathomed it. Still, I stand beside the grave digger, defiant, as though to say, even if none of you are going to look, I'm going to look.

For more than an hour, there's nothing to look at. Arturo's just shoveling out rocks and dirt, placing it all in a pile at the foot of the grave. And I stand there, sweating, waiting for whatever is going to happen. My mom keeps sitting on her shady grave. My dad keeps reading the names off of headstones, though he's running out of names he recognizes. Growing up, this village, like the rest of Greece, was homogeneous. Everyone was related to everyone. But now, there are Balkan migrants living here, retired Germans and Brits, even some expats from the US. In Greece, they're called [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], strangers.

Dad

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Crisoula

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

They're listing off all the foreigners in here.

Dad

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

Eventually he walks over to where I'm standing, I think to check in on me.

Dad

Do you want me to say something out loud?

Lina Misitzis

No, I want you to just be normal. How do you feel?

Dad

Kind of numb.

Lina Misitzis

Yeah.

Kind of numb.

Dad

You know what I'm saying? I'm not saying the--

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

He interrupts himself to say, "Look, there's water to drink." Then he walks away to the corner of the cemetery, where Crisoula has set up a makeshift water station. Arturo's dug 4 or 5 feet down and switches his shovel out for what looks more like an ice pick.

Arturo

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

"We're getting close to the body now," he says. Dad walks over to stand with me. So does Crisoula. My mom comes over, too, which at first, I find shocking, but it's not really. She doesn't want to feel left out.

Crisoula

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

"Slowly," Crisoula says.

Dad

That is the coffin.

Lina Misitzis

That's the flowers that they put on the coffin, right?

Dad

Yeah.

Lina Misitzis

Crisoula is hovered over Arturo, holding out a giant trash bag. She's collecting any pieces of coffin that haven't disintegrated in the past few years. For a moment, everyone is silent.

Arturo

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

"It's time," Arturo says. "Be very careful. The body is ready."

Crisoula

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

Arturo pulls my grandmother's head out of the ground and hands it to Crisoula. There's still some hair on it, but no skin. She plucks the hair off the skull, which isn't white like the fake skeletons I remember from science class. It's dark brown, closer to black. My grandmother's eye sockets are filled with dirt. Crisoula rubs her skull clean with a scrubby brush. She holds it up to us to look at, pointing out my grandmother's gold teeth, still intact. It's like she's saying, see? It's really her.

Arturo keeps pulling out pieces of coffin and pieces of my grandmother. They're not connected to anything anymore. Most of these bones have come loose. He pulls out some ribs, a shoulder bone, what I think is a femur, but my mom says is a clavicle. Crisoula collects each bone one by one and lays them out in the sun.

Crisoula

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

"This was her left shoulder," she tells us. "See? You can still see the metal pin in her bone from when she got her surgery." For the next 20 or so minutes, she reconstructs as much of the body as Arturo can salvage. It's all so bizarrely DIY. Crisoula climbs into the grave with Arturo mid-dig to help pull out bones.

Neither of them is wearing gloves. "In Greece," Crisoula explains to me, "we bury the dead with their heads pointing west because that's where the sun sets. And so that's where life ends." And this process of exhuming, it's conducted from the head down. The head comes out first, and Arturo works his way down the body. The last thing that comes out are my grandmother's feet.

Crisoula

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Arturo

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

Both of my grandmother's socks, thick wool, are intact. This fabric doesn't disintegrate. She was buried in them on purpose, so that they'd know when they'd made it to the end.

Lina Misitzis

Those are her socks?

Mom

Yes.

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

Do you mind saying it in English?

Mom

She's emptying the sock so all the little bones from the feet can come out. See all the bones? The heel of the toes, and the-- oh, my goodness.

Lina Misitzis

We stand there for a moment, watching Crisoula wipe down each bone. It's jarring how practical this whole process is, how unceremonious it feels to bury your loved ones in socks so that you'll know when you've finished un-burying their remains.

Lina Misitzis

You OK?

Dad

I'm sitting down. Yeah.

Mom

I'm OK.

Dad

This is going to be with me for a while now, but.

Mom

This is not scary.

Lina Misitzis

"This is going to be with me for a while," my dad says, right as my mom says, "This is not scary." I feel annoyed with my mom for stepping on his answer, on what he might have said, just so she can say that she's fine, that she's not scared. But then when my dad does have the space to tell me what he's feeling, he can't seem to catch his breath.

Dad

The skull, it's--

Lina Misitzis

The skull--

Dad

--all her bones.

Lina Misitzis

--it's all her bones.

Lina Misitzis

When it first came out, it looked like a coconut because there was still hair on it.

Dad

Yeah, it has hair on it. Yes. All right.

Lina Misitzis

What's wrong?

Dad

I'm OK.

Lina Misitzis

"I'm OK," he's saying. Crisoula tells us that it's over. We can go. While we're away, she'll keep scrubbing the bones, first with water, then with vinegar. She'll place them in a small box that'll go in a shed, which holds the remains of all the other exhumed residents of this graveyard, many of them people my grandmother grew up knowing, and some [NON-ENGLISH], some foreigners.

I asked to see the shed, which really is just a shed, like where a friend's dad might keep his lawnmower, except for this one's got stacks and stacks of small boxes in it. Some are labeled. Many aren't. It doesn't seem like anyone visits this place.

Crisoula

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Lina Misitzis

Later, we'll come back to the cemetery to watch a priest, one that's alive, bless my grandmother's bones. One last goodbye. But for now, we three-- me, my mom, and my dad-- we pile back into the rental to drive to a neighboring village where we're staying for the next few days. And suddenly, my dad starts to talk about his feelings.

Dad

And I just-- it was-- that was my mom.

Lina Misitzis

That was what?

Dad

That was my mom at some point. It's-- I was expecting it to be-- I don't know. I feel peaceful. I was expecting it to-- I did not know what to expect. I spent a lot of hours up at nights. I'm just muddled, you know?

Lina Misitzis

No, it's-- no, I hear what you're saying. I thought it was going to be upsetting, and it really wasn't for me.

And that was it. It was over. Not as traumatic as we thought it would be.

Dad

Here is a sign for it.

Lina Misitzis

And here, in this car, all my family has is what we've always had. I start fussing over my dad's driving.

Lina Misitzis

Well, when that sign that said--

Dad

Yeah.

Lina Misitzis

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

You'll go left.

Dad

We'll need to look for it.

Lina Misitzis

And then I start feeling carsick. Every bad habit I have with my parents begins to bubble up. And instead of doing the thing that I came here to do, instead of engaging with my dad, I become a kid again, complaining about an upset stomach.

Lina Misitzis

I'm going to throw up. I can't. And it says here, Dad.

Dad

Yeah, but I don't have a good--

Lina Misitzis

I want you to not drive if we don't know-- I'm sorry. My stomach feels like [BLEEP].

Dad

What is this? Somebody's seat belt is not on, or something? Is the door open?

Lina Misitzis

Daddy, can we make a decision about what we're doing?

Listening back to this car ride, what sticks out to me most is the moment my dad tries doing the exact thing I came to Greece hoping for. He tries talking about his feelings. And he probably would have if I hadn't so quickly stopped listening.

Lina Misitzis

Yes, Baba, but you have the phone.

Dad

But you have the phone, and you can talk to her and she can say.

Lina Misitzis

I think you should stop driving.

A couple days later, my last night in Greece with my parents, we decide to go out for dinner. And when we get to the restaurant, my mom pulls me aside to ask if I'm going to be good tonight, if I'm going to be present. "I'm always present," I lie. She says no. The only time I was present on this trip was at the cemetery. Otherwise, I'm the same as ever. We're all the same as ever. The only thing that's different, really, is we have one less day.

Ira Glass

Lina Misitzis is a producer on our show.

Act Two: Next of Kindle

Ira Glass

Act Two, Next of Kindle. So our show today is about people unburying the past. And when people leave us, they don't just leave behind physical objects. Bim Adewunmi talked to a man about a digital excavation.

Bim Adewunmi

Gloria Wayne was a voracious reader. Her son, Dave, has vivid memories of when he was six or seven, going with her to the library in the whirl, in Northwest England. They made a trip to Haswell Library every couple of weeks, returning and replenishing her stack of borrowed Mills and Boon novels. It was a habit Gloria maintained all through her long life. And so for Christmas, back in 2011, her sons got her a gift to aid in that habit-- a Kindle.

Gloria was suspicious of online security in general, so they paid her Kindle with Dave's existing account and added an unlimited subscription so she could read whatever she wanted whenever she wanted to read it. Earlier this year, Gloria died. She was 83 years old. I spoke to Dave on the phone about his mom, and we talked about the weird life admin that suddenly becomes super important after such a loss.

Dave

One of the first things that occurred to me, even though it may be the most insignificant, was that my mum hated wasting money. She would absolutely go mad if she thought that the next month's subscription was to come out, and she wasn't around to use it.

Bim Adewunmi

So only hours after she'd gone and still in a daze, Dave went to do the responsible thing, the thing he knew his mom would approve of-- cancel the Kindle subscription.

Dave

And then I thought, well, just for old time's sake, let's have a look at what was there. So I clicked on to Library, and there before me I found 3,046 books. In the time period between Christmas 2011 when we bought the Kindle to her said passing on April 16th, she had purchased over 3,000 books, which was quite remarkable, really.

Bim Adewunmi

Dave had had an idea of his mom's literary interests. Her bookshelves contained a good amount of romance novels of the sort he remembered from childhood. He also used to get email notifications every so often. Remember, his account was linked to her Kindle all these years, but he didn't really pay attention to what his mother was buying. Romance novels, he'd kind of expected. But--

Dave

But what there was, was a number of-- I'm trying to put diplomatically really-- should we say, erotica. It was just erotica.

Bim Adewunmi

And it wasn't just the vanilla stuff. It was a real pick and mix of sexual expression. If you're listening with kids right now, don't worry. This is not in any way X rated.

Dave

I mean, not wanting to throw a whole cornucopia of acronyms at you, but there were MFM, MFF, FFM, triple MF, all kinds of different combinations of relationships and sexual encounters, which was quite staggering, to be honest. You know, there was no one aspect. There was no one peccadillo that she got drawn to. It was a whole variety.

Bim Adewunmi

Dave tweeted about both his mother's passing and his inadvertent inheritance of a library of what he described tongue in cheek as magnificently epic sleaze. He concluded it with a tribute of sorts. "Mother," he wrote, "I raise a glass."

Discovering the library made Dave curious. He and his mother shared similar tastes in music and film. Maybe there would be unlikely common ground here, too. He decided to make a project of his discovery. He would delve into his mother's virtual stack of saucy literature-- his words-- and maybe find one more thing they had in common. It wasn't especially taxing.

Dave

You know, it was only a fairly short kind of thing. It was a 90-minute endeavor. So for 100 days on the run, I read a book each day.

Bim Adewunmi

Do you have a favorite title? Was there any title that stuck out to you as just either abominably bad or actually fantastically good?

Dave

Probably a bit of both, to be honest. And that's, without doubt, Spanked by the Italian Mob.

Bim Adewunmi

[LAUGHS]

Superb.

Dave

Because it does what it says on the page. It is literally about a girl who wants to be spanked by the Italian mob. And that's the beginning, middle, and the end. I mean, the whole series, to be honest, of Spanked by books. There's about six or seven--

Bim Adewunmi

Wow.

Dave

--with this poor girl being spanked by a variety of men.

Bim Adewunmi

I checked out the series, by the way. It's by Alexis Starr. The actual title Dave is thinking about is Spanked by the Irish Mob. Each book features a heroine looking for a spanking and getting it from the Yakuza, a Navy SEAL, an unaffiliated mob boss, and others. As Dave read more books, he found himself enjoying some of them enough that he started to have a few favorites.

Dave

Opposing Briefs was an MM romance that was quite fascinating.

Bim Adewunmi

That's great.

Dave

I quite liked the playful nature of the title. That was written by Ian Finn. I did like that a great deal. And a one called-- one written by Anyah Omah, called Sexsomnia, Sleepless in Manhattan. And that was very good indeed as well, which was a lighter tone and slightly less of an explicit nature to it.

Bim Adewunmi

Now that the 100 book challenge is over, Dave has kept his mom's subscription going, and he's still reading her books. They're a reminder that his mom was more than just his mom. She was a real whole person with her own quiet obsessions.

Bim Adewunmi

In reading these books, do you feel is it helping? Is it, in any way, a balm for you?

Dave

Yeah, because it keeps her spirit present. You find yourself almost having a conversation, why do you read them? You read a particularly horrific and explicit line. You think, good grief, mother, what were you doing? So yeah, it does tend to extend that relationship. And while we can never reverse what happened, it does keep her memory more vivid.

Bim Adewunmi

According to Dave, his mom was a homebody. And in her eighth decade, after a lifetime of working hard, Gloria liked to stay home, watch a bit of Murder She Wrote, and enjoy her smutty novels. Finding her library is a confirmation that his mom always did whatever the hell she wanted. And more than anything else, it just makes him admire her more.

Ira Glass

Bim Adewunmi is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, the hip bone's connected to the-- it actually is not connected to anything in this case-- like, nothing at all. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: A Curious Bone

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, Digging Up the Bones-- stories of people unearthing things from the past, trying to make sense of them. We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, The Case of the Curious Bone. David Kestenbaum has this story about a man obsessed with a single bone, a bone that is inexplicably large, really just too big to make any sense out of at all.

David Kestenbaum

It was a fragment of a bone, so old it had turned to stone. The man trying to puzzle it out was a naturalist and professor in England named Robert Plot. He writes about it in this beautiful meticulous book, The Natural History of Oxfordshire, published in 1677. "The curious bone," he writes, "was," quote, "dug out of a quarry in the parish of Cornwall and given to me by the ingenious Sir Thomas Pennyston." He writes that it seemed to be some part of a thigh bone, except way too big. It measured 2 feet and weighed almost 20 pounds.

This is the 1600s, and no one in the world had a good explanation for a bone that big. Plot writes for almost nine pages in his book about the strange bone, and he is methodical in trying to reason out what the heck it is. First, he considers the possibility that maybe it's not a bone at all, but just some natural rock formation. Which is admirable. It's so easy to jump to conclusions.

But the more he studies it, it really does seem to be part of a colossal bone. He writes that it has the capita femoris inferiora and, quote, "the seat of the strong ligament that rises out of the thigh and gives safe passage to the vessels descending into the leg." And then inside the bone, there is what looks like marrow. He can see the marrow preserved inside. But what in the world was it from? Quote, "It will be hard to find an animal proportional to it," he writes.

He runs through the possibilities, eliminating them one by one. Horse, oxen, too small. He considers something other people have suggested, that maybe the bone is from an elephant, perhaps brought over during the Roman invasions, back around 50 AD. He spends two pages on this possibility, but it seems unlikely to him. He's clearly read through lots of historical accounts.

Quote, "Suetonius in his life, where he is very particular concerning this expedition into Britain, mentions no such matter. There was one elephant, 'tis true," he writes, "sent as a present to King Henry the Third from the King of France in the year 1255, and perhaps two or three other elephants brought to England for show since then. But," quote, "whether it be likely any of these should be buried at Cornwall, let the reader judge. Also, if the bone is from an elephant," he writes, "where are the tusks?"

Finally, as he's writing it, he explains that an actual live elephant comes to town, which he examines and decides, no. Elephant thigh bone-- completely different shape. Definitely not elephant. And here, you can feel him starting to piece things together. He's on the edge of seeing this thing. He mentions other large bones. After the great fire in London in 1666, under the wreckage of St. Mary Will Church, quote, "there was found a thigh bone, now to be seen at the King's Head Tavern in Greenwich in Kent, much bigger and longer than ours."

And also, people had been finding unusually large teeth. In fact, people had been finding unusually large bones for centuries. There's one account by a Chinese scholar from the 300s BC, but none had a satisfying explanation.

It is remarkable reading Robert Plot's book to think how close he was to such a stunning fact about life on this planet. But you can know a lot and still not see. Sometimes you don't even know what you can't see. You just can't imagine the possibility of it, even when you were holding the thing in your hand. By the end of the section of the book, Plot has reasoned out the one remaining possibility, the only thing that makes any sense to him. The bones, they must have come from giants-- people just a little bigger. Which, I have to say, is way more sensible than the truth.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is the executive editor of our program. Robert Plot died in 1696. People didn't figure out the whole dinosaur thing for another 100 years. The bone Plot puzzled over was lost a long time ago, but from the drawings, scientists think that it was a Megalosaurus that lived in Cornwall some 170 million years before him, and yes, a thigh bone.

Act Four: Revision Quest

Ira Glass

Act Four, Revision Quest. So we end our show today with somebody who dug up bones from her past, and then, years later, went back to the same site to dig them up again. Susan Burton explains.

Susan Burton

Jill's husband died a few years ago. They met in 1970 when Jill was 16 and he was 47. And in spite of the age difference, they were passionate about each other from the start. It was a happy marriage.

That's one way to tell the story. Here's another. Jill's husband died a few years ago. They met in 1970 when Jill was 16 and he was 47. She was a student, and one evening after class, he kissed her. They started sleeping together. You might call him a predator or say he abused his power, but everything turned out OK. It was a happy marriage.

Jill's a writer. Her full name is Jill Ciment. And years ago, when she was in her 40s, she published a memoir that told the story the first way. Now she's writing that story again and considering it from the second angle. Not to correct the record-- she's trying to understand why she wrote her story the way she did. The first memoir is called Half a Life. The one she's writing now is called The Other Half.

Jill Ciment

When I wrote Half a Life originally, I wrote this thing from the depths of my heart. I was supposedly telling the truth, which I really deeply believed I was. But with the beginning of the Me Too movement, it was a kind of catalyst that made me think, what if I told my story again from this vantage point, from the vantage point of me being 66 and the vantage point of the world having completely changed.

Susan Burton

Jill knew exactly where she wanted to start-- by writing down the story of their first kiss. What she wrote about it when she was in her 40s is not how she remembers it today. Here's what she remembers today. The night of that kiss, Jill and Arnold, her teacher, were in an art studio. It was an evening class. Most of the other students were retirees. The class had ended, and Jill was alone with Arnold.

Jill Ciment

And for the past six months, he'd been doing things like saying, I wish you were older, and not making sexual advances, but certainly making me aware he was attracted to me. And I was completely attracted to him, and all I did was fantasize about him. And so we went into his studio.

Supposedly, he was going to give me the names of people-- I was about to drop out of high school and move to New York to be an artist. And he was going to give me the names of other artists who would become maybe mentors or hire me as an assistant. And as we got into the room, I remember he took my wrist and pulled me towards him, and we kissed. And I look back, and I realized I hadn't written it that way, OK? I had written it as if I had been the sexual aggressor.

Susan Burton

Could you go ahead and read how you described the scene in Half a Life?

Jill Ciment

Absolutely. "On the last night of art class, I dawdled in the hall until the other students were finished. As soon as they were gone, I slipped back into the classroom and shut the door behind me. Arnold was leaning against a window frame, arms folded, eyes shut, yawning. This time I approached him without a hint of coyness, without the spark of a blush. I unbuttoned the top three buttons of my peasant blouse, crossed the ink splattered floor, and kissed him."

Susan Burton

Why did you write it that way in 1996?

Jill Ciment

I don't know. I think I viewed myself as-- and I always have. I viewed myself as someone who was always in charge. I never felt powerless. And so maybe a way of illustrating that was to make me the sexual aggressor, at least as far as the kiss went. But I don't honestly know. I mean, that's why I'm writing this whole book, to try to figure out why it seemed the truth then. I would never have done it purposely, OK? It did seem the truth when I wrote it in 1996. Why it seemed the truth there is what interests me.

Susan Burton

One reason it seemed like the truth was that later, when Jill and Arnold slept together for the first time, she was the one who seduced him. She's certain of that. They both were. But that first kiss--

Jill Ciment

When I look back on it, he did instigate this. And I don't know if I would have had the nerve at 16 and then later 17 to have acted upon all the things that I acted upon without him being the initial instigator.

Susan Burton

In making yourself the instigator, were you protecting him?

Jill Ciment

I don't think so. I think that I was trying to tell the truth of my own desire. I saw him. I wanted him. And I went after him. And I don't think I knew how to reconcile that with the idea that he kissed me first.

Susan Burton

In her 40s, Jill wanted to write a love story about love across a great age span-- this kind of story. It's almost always told from a man's point of view. Jill wanted to write it from the perspective of the young woman and also not make her the victim. And even though Jill still emphatically does not see herself as a victim, some of the choices she made in writing her first memoir seem startling to her now, like her account of a letter Arnold sent her after they slept together. "Dear Jill, are you ever coming back to class?" When she didn't respond, he called her. In the first memoir, Jill plays the anecdote for laughs.

Jill Ciment

The first time it's treated like, of course it's funny. What 47-year-old man is going to write a little girl at her house when her mother can open the mail? But when I rewrote it this time, what I saw was I saw a 47-year-old man having made love to a 17-year-old girl, after which he doesn't hear from her for a month. He writes a letter to her house, soliciting her again in this sort of fake love letter. And when he doesn't hear back from that little girl again, he calls her.

Now, in today's world, we would see that as a predator going after an underage girl. And when I think about that, I'm totally shocked. I'm shocked that I didn't see that the first time. But the end of a story really, really makes you change the beginning. And so I think that that's part of it. I think that part of the reason that I wrote it this way is because I was having a wonderful marriage. And part of the reason I wrote it this way was because in 1970, when all this stuff was happening, it wasn't as appalling for an older man to do this.

Susan Burton

Back in 1970, nobody ever said to Jill that they saw anything appalling in Arnold's behavior, at least not directly.

Jill Ciment

Here's the thing. I mean, I remember going to a party one time when we were first going out, where the hostess served everyone a martini and me a glass of milk. So I'm sure people noticed, OK?

Susan Burton

When Jill looked back at the first book, she was struck by the part she left out-- parts of scenes, the messier, more revealing parts, but other omissions, too, ones that are more profound, like about her father, who was the exact same age as Arnold. Most of the first book is actually about Jill's father. She only meets Arnold about 2/3 of the way through. By that point, her father had moved out. She rarely saw him. He was troubled, and explosive, and incapable of emotional connection, essentially absent from her life. I found her writing about him wrenching, but weirdly incomplete.

Susan Burton

It was just so clear that your art teacher was a substitute for your father in so many ways. And you don't write explicitly about this in Half a Life. And I wonder if you could talk about why.

Jill Ciment

I can't believe I didn't do it. I mean, I'm doing it now in this version. At 45, it seemed obvious. And the obvious in those days, I believed, made things less literary. God knows why, OK? But that's what I believed. And I just don't think it's true anymore. And I think the idea that a fatherless girl goes out and finds then a father and then uses that man to heal themself of having never been loved by an older man, I mean maybe I didn't know how to handle it at that age. Maybe it was impossible to do while both my father and my husband were alive.

Susan Burton

What has reexamining your story like this done to your picture of your husband, or your memories of him, or your perception of your marriage?

Jill Ciment

Well, I mean, it changes the picture because I can't now look at him without realizing the lines that he crossed. And at the same time, I'm really glad that we crossed those lines. I really question a lot of these inferences that it is always wrong. It wasn't wrong for me. And it will never change my feelings about it being an amazing marriage.

Susan Burton

What things do you say in the new book that might have been hard for him to read?

Jill Ciment

Oh my god, the whole thing. I mean, I would never have written this book if he was alive. I mean, it would be so hurtful. Like in Half a Life, he seems like he has always been a successful older man. And to describe him as somebody who had a midlife crisis and was struggling to find himself again, I think would have been really painful for him to read.

Susan Burton

Arnold was a painter. He was struggling as an artist when Jill met him. But he flourished in the years that followed.

Susan Burton

It's interesting to hear you say that the thing Arnold would be hurt by is the depiction of him as a struggling middle-aged man, and not the questions about his role as possible predator or aggressor.

Jill Ciment

I don't think he was-- I mean, I don't think he ever thought of me-- but maybe he did. Who knows, OK? I think that he never thought of me as someone who wasn't as strong as him. And so I think he would be-- I think he'd be shocked and surprised by these nuances in which I'm looking back at our relationship.

Susan Burton

The questions Jill's asking about what she included and what she left out, about what she realizes now that she didn't back then, those questions interest me because they're questions I'm asking myself right now, too. I'm almost exactly the same age as Jill was when she wrote Half a Life, and I have a memoir coming out in a few months. The book tells the story of my adolescence, but I assume it reveals just as much, if not more, about who I am now at 46 than who I was at 16.

It's about the eating disorders that defined my teenage years, and if I'm being honest, my adulthood, too. Until recently, I'd never talked about this stuff with anyone. So in that way, the book is very exposing. But maybe what's not there is just as revealing. I know there's a lot I can't yet see, and I wanted to talk to Jill about that. I know that if I'd waited another five years, I would've understood more. And sometimes I wonder, should I have waited to tell my story until I understood it better?

Jill Ciment

But I don't think I understand my story any better than I did at 45, OK?

Susan Burton

Yeah.

Jill Ciment

I look back at my 45-year-old self, and I think, oh my god, she didn't have this information. I see how young I was at 45. I look at my 45-year-old self in much the same way that my 45-year-old self looked at my 16-year-old self. And it's a kind of compassionate view of who you were before you had all the information.

Susan Burton

Yeah. When you think about yourself at 45, how do you see your 45-year-old self now differently than she saw herself?

Jill Ciment

At that point, I was still thinking about the ascent of life. I was still moving in this forward motion. I was maybe at the height of my powers. And when I look back at that, I realized how delusional that is. What happens is you're writing at 45 from all the information experience that you've had. What I didn't have was the experience of taking my husband all the way to death.

Susan Burton

In her new book, Jill's not just exploring the beginning of her relationship. She's writing about the end of it, too.

Jill Ciment

It's the second part of sleeping with your professor. It's the part where suddenly you go from being the young lover to the caretaker. And that's an entirely different transition. Taking someone to death, that's the most extraordinary experience there is. And so in some ways, who kissed whom first seems really small in the length of this journey.

Susan Burton

Jill always thought that the more interesting way to write memoir would be to return again and again to a monumental moment in a life, rather than telling the story in order all the way through. Revisiting a story doesn't necessarily make it any better, she says. But it does make it different. Even when we write about the past, we're always telling a story about the present, whether we mean to or not.

Ira Glass

Susan Burton is one of the producers of our show. Jill Ciment's latest book is a novel called The Body in Question.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Emanuele Berry and Neil Drumming. The people who put our show together today include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Damien Graves, Michelle Harris, Seth Lind, Jessica Lussenhop, Lina Misitzis, Katherine Raimondo, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Christopher Svetala, and Matt Tierney. Our managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum. Special thanks today to Theresa and Ryan Hynes.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 680 episodes for absolutely free. And there's videos, and favorites lists, and tons of other stuff there, too. Again, 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.

He and I were running to an appointment this week on this 50-story skyscraper. We stopped first at the 45th story, where we thought our appointment was. We were sure it was 45. It wasn't right. Then we looked on 44, and 46, and 42, and 48. I was confused about which story. He was confused about which story.

Jill Ciment

I don't think I understand my story any better than I did at 45.

Ira Glass

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