IMS: Hello, this is IMS, the author of The Program audio series. At the beginning of the last episode, I kindly asked you to find two more fans of the show and help keep us going. If you haven't done so, don't worry - you have another opportunity now. After all, as events in this episode will show, sometimes life does give you a second chance.
ANNOUNCER: The dramatization you are about to hear is based on recordings generously made available by Dr. Lucia Vitale and Dr. Emanuel Beck from the Institute for Psychological Well-being. They have been edited for brevity and understanding.
LUNA: My name is Luna Josephson and I’m sixteen years old.
DR. VITALE: Can you tell me about one of your favourite childhood memories, Luna?
LUNA: It was probably my sixth or seventh birthday… I guess it stands out because it was the first one I celebrated with my dad. He and mom were separated for as long as I can remember, so I’d see him maybe twice a week if I was lucky. That was definitely one of the lucky days. He was waiting for me in front of the school holding a big cardboard box. I grabbed it with my little hands and started shaking it, you know, to get a feel for what was inside. But father immediately jumped and made me stop. Then he opened the box and I understood why: inside was a small white kitten. My heart stopped for a second, and then it exploded into happiness. Dad asked how was I going to name him. I couldn’t think of anything, so he suggested Blacky, even though his fur was white as snow. I didn’t understand what irony was back then and thought it was a really dumb name, but at that moment I would have said yes to naming him Charlie Manson or Margaret Thatcher! So he became Blacky. He’s still with me - unlike my father. I mean he’s alive and well but... Three months ago I found out the truth.
DR. VITALE: And what is the truth, Luna?
LUNA: That he’s not my dad at all. That he’s an actor who’s been paid to play the role of my father for the last 15 years! [cries]
DR. VITALE: Okay, okay Luna. Okay. I’m going to help you work through this. That’s why you’re here in therapy. It’ll be okay.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. BECK: Testing, testing, one, two, three… It’s on. Thank you for letting us record these sessions. Remember, we can turn this off at any time, just like we agreed. [clears throat] Could you please state your name and age?
ERLAND: My name is Erland and I am going to turn 47 in May. People tell me that I look younger. Or - well - they used to anyway. I probably aged ten years in the last three months.
DR. BECK: What is your utility?
ERLAND: Up to three months ago I would have replied that I’m a father. And also that I identify myself as an actor, even though I never received my certification. You see, I was never accepted at the Academy.
DR. BECK: It seems like this experience was very important to you. I’d like to hear a little bit more about that period.
ERLAND: Must have been almost three decades ago. I was fresh out of high school, spending weeks inside my room preparing a dramatic monologue. Of course everybody was going for Shakespeare, so I decided to be a little different, and prepare a poem by T. S. Eliot called "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". But I didn’t get in.
DR. BECK: So what did you do?
ERLAND: I doubled down on preparations for the next year. Rejection didn’t deter me, and I was taking any amateur role I could get.
DR. BECK: Any of them offered through the Program?
ERLAND: No, of course not - my credit score was not high enough to be offered real acting gigs. But I was determined to get there. Entry exam was at the end of June - I think it was May when I stopped eating. My appetite just turned itself off. I got so weak in the end I didn’t even make it to the tryouts. So I spent another year preparing for my third attempt. My mother made me promise that if I didn’t get in this year, I’d give up on my acting dreams and go to med school, forever forgetting about the Academy.
DR. BECK: Do you remember what was your father’s stance towards the subject?
ERLAND: He wasn’t opposed. He was killed when I was two years old. He was something called a “hedge fund manager” so when Karmageddon started he didn’t really stand much of a chance.
DR. BECK: Oh, thoughts and prayers. I’m sorry for bringing it up.
ERLAND: No drama, you couldn’t have known. Long story short, I got rejected for the third time. That’s when I took a long, hard look and concluded that I’ve reached my limit in this reality.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. VITALE: What about your mother, Luna? What kind of memories do you have of her?
LUNA: Funny, I can’t remember concrete memories that I had with her like I can remember those I had with Erland.
DR. VITALE: Perhaps that is only natural in an arrangement like that, in which every encounter with Erland was a special occasion.
LUNA: True, unfortunately it’s always mothers who get stuck with unglamourous jobs of washing and cooking. Of course, I’d try to help her out as much as I can. All in all I’d say we get along well together.
DR. VITALE: Are there any things you don’t see eye to eye on?
LUNA: Well, I guess there’s one thing… The expectations for my future. Mom wants me to get certified in something in addition to doing basic gigs. Currently all I want is to produce dramatizations, but she wants me to study medicine. I honestly don’t understand why all parents are so obsessed with their children becoming doctors!
DR. VITALE: Well, you do save people’s lives and you get a better credit score. Why do you think your mother is so keen that you get certified?
LUNA: I know, I know, she wants the best for me. And I realize that, it’s just that sometimes I wish she’d give me a bit more space. I mean, one would imagine she learned her lesson about meddling too much!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. BECK: So, can you tell me the story how you met Luna? Did you know her mother from before?
ERLAND: No, I didn't know either of them actually. Just met them through the Program. A decade after I first applied to the Academy I was still living off the occasional random gig. And then one day I received a gig through the Program that offered acting jobs at 200 credits per hour!
DR. BECK: Was there anything else about the gig that grabbed your attention?
ERLAND: Two things. The first was its duration - it was set at 20 years.
DR. BECK: 20 years!
ERLAND: And that wasn’t even the strangest part. The person offering the gig - completely anonymous.
DR. BECK: What was written under the description?
ERLAND: It mentioned a single mother with a girl in need of a male role model. The job consisted of spending a minimum of 16 hours monthly with the child one-on-one. Also said the role would come with helpful scripts at the beginning but would require a lot more improv later on. There was no other contact information, so I had to walk over to the house and introduce myself. Felt like auditioning all over again!
DR. BECK: So was that the purpose of this last requirement - you had to face other actors for the role?
ERLAND: No, not at all. As it turned out, I was the only one who was offered the gig - not even Luna’s mother knew about it!
DR. BECK: Really?
ERLAND: It took quite a bit of explaining what I was doing there. However, she agreed with the plan in the end. I think she could see that my intentions were good. Besides, this was an official Program gig, and that’s what the Program does - it rectifies injustices. And what’s having to grow up without a parent but a grave injustice?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. VITALE: What’s the earliest recollection you have of your father?
LUNA: Erland. I am trying to get people to call him by his name.
DR. VITALE: Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.
LUNA: No drama.
DR. VITALE: So what’s the earliest recollection you have of Erland?
LUNA: It’s hard for me to say, because I’m not sure I can distinguish between real memories and those I think I remember because the event was captured on camera. There are photos or clips where I am three or four and I think I remember the occasion, but then I realize that I only remember the photo or the clip itself. Does that sound weird?
DR. VITALE: No, not at all. In fact, what you are describing is a perfectly normal occurrence.
LUNA: Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one with this problem. In fact, I now have a trick I use to distinguish real memories! The only memories I really trust are those in which I also remember the smell. Luckily I have loads of those, since Erland had a pastime any kid would assassinate Santa Claus for - he baked! Cheesecake, carrot cake, carrot-cheesecake… It would be difficult to choose which one was his best! But the reason I’m telling you this is Blacky. You see, we discovered he’s crazy about chocolate!
DR. VITALE: But isn’t chocolate poisonous to cats?
LUNA: It is, just for some reason not Blacky! [laughs] The way we discovered this is after Erland once baked his famous chocolate cake and left it on the table to cool off when he went to pick me up from drama class. When we returned home, we found Blacky sleeping on the table next to the cake. He licked the entire frosting and his white fur was now brown! [laughs] He wouldn’t move on his own so dad had to literally pick him up and put him into his basket. He basically OD’ed!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. BECK: Did getting the father gig fulfill your desire for acting?
ERLAND: Oh yeah. To tell you the truth, it completely consumed my life.
DR. BECK: Just to be clear, you never had any biological children of your own?
ERLAND: No, no, definitely not, and that worried me at the beginning of all this. I had no experience of being a father. And you have to remember - I also didn’t have a father. So how the hell was I supposed to create a persona of a loving dad? But then I realized this actually presented an opportunity - I had a chance to develop the perfect role model. So I did a ton of research, for example reading parenting books or watching movies exploring the parent-child relationship. That way I identified four characteristics of a perfect father: being loving, being strong, being wise, and being just. So I carefully prepared for every meeting with Luna to bring these four qualities. And you know what? I think I did a pretty good job. I even taught myself to bake!
DR. BECK: Do you know what happened to Luna’s real father?
ERLAND: I know he was a violent alcoholic. After beating Luna’s mother once, his credit score sunk so low he was disposed of by the Program. The whole thing traumatized her so much she vowed to never pairbond again. I still remember how she told me: “Make no mistake, I only want a father for Luna, not a husband for myself.”
DR. BECK: What’s your cover story when Luna asks you why you spend so little time with her?
ERLAND: Luna thinks I have another family now.
DR. BECK: So in a way you have two made-up families?
ERLAND: I guess, yeah. Two fantasy families, and not one real.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
LUNA: There is another memory I strongly connect with a smell, and that’s chlorine. It always reminds me of the time Erland took me to a pool to teach me how to swim.
DR. VITALE: Please, tell me more.
LUNA: So there was only one real swimming pool in our town, and it belonged to a hotel. And unfortunately it was only for their guests, meaning you couldn’t use it even if you wanted to pay. So Erland decided that we are going to pretend we are tourists in order to get in. He acted like we were Italians, even though he spoke altogether maybe ten words of Italian! So he approached the receptionist and asked him: “Scusi signore, dove swimming pool?”, followed by an awkward pause. You can imagine Erland’s surprise when the receptionist started giving him instructions in fluent Italian! [laughs] But I have to hand it to him, he didn’t lose his cool - he just kept nodding and saying “si, si”. When the receptionist finally stopped talking, with neither of us having the slightest clue what he just told us, dad simply said “grazie mille!” and simply strode towards the swimming pool with me under his arm. [laughs] Every 10 minutes or so he would call me Francesca just to keep up with the appearances! [laughs] Not only that, but the ruse continued for two weeks - which is how long it took me to learn how to swim!
DR. VITALE: [laughs] That sounds like an exhilarating memory!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. BECK: How would you describe your feelings towards Luna?
ERLAND: I didn’t allow myself to develop any feelings. That said, I did feel an enormous responsibility towards her.
DR. BECK: What would you do when she was unruly or angry?
ERLAND: I can tell you what I wouldn’t do: no matter what, I never yelled. It was part of the gig description.
DR. BECK: Hm. Would you be equally willing to put up with her tantrums if she wasn’t your customer?
ERLAND: I never looked at her as a customer. But you know what, perhaps we all should view each other like that. Maybe we would all be nicer to each other!
DR. BECK: Wouldn’t that make all human interactions fake?
ERLAND: Let me ask you this: which would you rather get - a fake smile or genuine bile?
DR. BECK: Let’s get back to Luna and her feelings. Would you say Luna loves you?
ERLAND: She does. It’s easy to feel her love. She talked about her relationships and we talked about intimate subjects. She would open up to me.
DR. BECK: How come your feelings never became real then?
ERLAND: I told you, it’s a business. I’m not her father 24/7. It’s a set time. Same reason why I never drink on duty - I’m a professional after all.
DR. BECK: So to follow that line of reasoning, professionals don’t have feelings?
ERLAND: Well, when the sessions were over and I had to go, I do have to admit, I felt sad. There were times when I was done with work and would come home and find myself feeling guilty. I’d notice myself wondering, is this the real me, or is this the actor? But it’s not uncommon for actors to feel that way. Part of being good at this is feeling through that kind of discomfort.
DR. BECK: What was the reason you didn’t tell Luna the real nature of your relationship?
ERLAND: Same reason why her mother didn’t tell her. It was for her own good.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. VITALE: Luna, can we talk about the day you found out the real nature of your relationship with Erland?
LUNA: I will never forget that day. I just arrived at synchro, when I received a message.
DR. VITALE: Synchro?
LUNA: Synchronized swimming.
DR. VITALE: So what was the message you received?
LUNA: It was from an anonymous sender. And it was quite straightforward really. It simply said “Erland is not your biological father. He is an actor who is paid to play the role. Attached you will find a list of his engagements in the last 15 years.”
DR. VITALE: How did you react?
LUNA: At first I thought it was a joke and paid it no mind, because my training was just about to start. But I had just enough time to open the list and skim through it. And then I saw entries like “Luna’s 6th birthday - buy her a white cat and give it to her in front of the school”. Or “Take Luna to Imperial hotel and teach her to swim - the receptionist will let you through”. It contained the dates, the fees, everything!
DR. VITALE: So what did you do?
LUNA: Nothing. I don’t think my brain was able to process the information, so I entered the pool and started synchro practice. But I couldn’t follow the choreography at all. I had to quit practice halfway through. It was only when I got out of the pool I realized tears were flowing out of my eyes. Then I went home and spoke with my mother. She didn’t deny it for a second. She immediately said it was true.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. BECK: Did the implications of your engagement with Luna bother you? Presumably you knew you’d have to tell Luna one day that you are not her real father.
ERLAND: No, no, I would argue that it was better than growing up without a father at all. I grew up without one and I know how deep that hole is. So in my mind, giving a child a dad was a noble thing to do.
DR. BECK: Did you ever have a feeling that what you were doing was somehow misguided?
ERLAND: If the whole gig was wrong, then how come it was even offered as a gig? I think people get hung up on the fact that I was also getting paid. Imagine I never got the gig through the Program; think about it like if I was doing it for free. How would what I was doing in that case be any different from adopting a child, which I think we all regard as the pinnacle of altruism?
DR. BECK: I guess most people would say the difference is precisely in motivation. The person who adopts a child does it because he inherently wants to help it.
ERLAND: That’s what I’m trying to tell you - I did want to help her. Listen doc, Luna grew up to be confident, creative, and genuinely a warm person. So I don’t understand how anyone can condemn this arrangement when the outcome is so obviously positive. Sure, I agree, like everybody would - truthfulness matters; but so do the results. So would it have been better for her to live her whole life knowing the bitter truth, or to find out now, when she’s well adjusted?
DR. BECK: But...
ERLAND: Is fake fatherhood really worse than no fatherhood at all?
DR. BECK: But what's the message here, not having a father is not okay? Why are you so certain that a lack of a father wouldn’t have made her grow up in different ways? What I’m interested to hear is what makes you think that wouldn't have happened over time by itself? What I’m trying to say is the following: we don't need people in our lives as mannequins. We need real connections. Otherwise, why not simply give Luna money to be happy, or keep her permanently high on drugs?
ERLAND: Ah, but now you are asking a different question: can we really trust reality?
DR. BECK: [chuckles] That question is better left for philosophy.
ERLAND: All questions are, if you dig deep enough.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. VITALE: What did you say to your mother when you found out Erland was not your real father?
LUNA: I was… Disappointed in her, but I didn’t blame her. She did what she thought was best.
DR. VITALE: Has it ever occurred to you that Erland did what he did because he also thought he was doing a good deed?
LUNA: That’s exactly the thing that stings the most - people act like I should feel grateful that I was given this opportunity to have a dad, even if he was a surrogate. But no one asked how I felt about having a father who I would see so rarely. A father that I could not call unannounced! For example, there was this one time last year when I went out with a few friends. I skipped dinner and had a couple of drinks and I got really sick. Mom was out of town so I called Erland. It’s only now that I understand why he never picked up that evening - he was off the clock!
DR. VITALE: But is this something you can really know?
LUNA: That’s just it - I can’t really know anything! I can’t be sure of any of his motives now! It’s like having a shop assistant smile and laugh with you, when all he’s thinking about is making a sale! Now imagine having a parent like that. You want your dad to love you for who you are, not because he works on commission!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. BECK: Do you think Luna’s love would cease if you no longer maintained the perfect father persona?
ERLAND: I don’t know how to answer that. I can tell you it’s definitely not me she loves - it’s the actor. It’s part of the reason why I think Luna is luckier than most people - she didn’t only have a father, she had an ideal father.
DR. BECK: What do you mean by ideal father?
ERLAND: You know, a father who is never tired from work; a father who is always on time; a father who gives her the maximum attention when she’s with him. And trust me, I speak from my experience - my mother was unprepared for having me. But I can’t blame her, she had me at 19 and lost her husband when she was 21.
DR. BECK: Your mother is still alive, is she not?
ERLAND: She is. Still asking me about grandchildren every time I call her.
DR. BECK: So she doesn’t know about Luna?
ERLAND: No. I mean, sure, she knows that she exists. But she probably thinks she’s a daughter of a woman I’m dating. I never told her the true nature of my arrangement.
DR. BECK: I’m more interested to hear why you didn’t tell her the false nature of the arrangement. I mean, following your philosophy, wouldn’t it make more sense to make her also believe Luna is your daughter, and give her the joy of being a grandmother just like you gave Luna joy of having a father?
ERLAND: Actually the thought had crossed my mind. But I ultimately decided not to. You know how they say, two people can keep a secret only if one of them is dead.
DR. BECK: [chuckles]
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. VITALE: How did this whole experience make you feel about the Program, Luna? After all, that is how Erland got the gig.
LUNA: Oh, so it makes it the big bad brogram’s fault? I mean it’s not like he had to accept the gig, did he? And it’s not like anyone understands who’s behind the Program anyway. What if it’s someone who doesn’t have other people’s best interest in mind? What if the Program is one of the bullies of the world?
DR. VITALE: Who do you think is behind the Program?
LUNA: Erland has this theory we are all living in a computer simulation. But I am now sure we are not; no computer would get off at pulling stunts like this. This has human fingerprints all over it. We are just someone’s playdolls!
DR. VITALE: Do you view Blacky as your playdoll?
LUNA: Of course not.
DR. VITALE: Have you ever done him any harm?
LUNA: [silence] Once.
DR. VITALE: How did you hurt Blacky?
LUNA: It was an accident! I didn’t notice him and his tail got caught in the door! It was awful, I had to take him to the vet and he lost a part of his tail.
DR. VITALE: Do you think Blacky still loves you?
LUNA: I do.
DR. VITALE: What if you stopped feeding him or caring for him?
LUNA: Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate that. But I am sure he wouldn’t stop loving me because of that.
DR. VITALE: Interesting…
DR. VITALE: Luna, do you think Erland loves you?
LUNA: I… I wish I could tell you that.
DR. VITALE: What are some things you like about Erland?
LUNA: It’s a difficult question to answer. Not because he lacks qualities, but because there’s so many of them. I like how he’s always kind to people no matter their credit score. I like how he took me to plays when I was little - I don’t think my mother ever set foot in a theatre, and look at me now, wanting to pursue production. I appreciate that he taught me to bake… And how at the same time he taught me to swim so I don’t gain weight. [chuckles] I like how he says my name. [choking up] I like how he’s such a good person - people sometimes think he’s distant because he can be quite cynical, but he’s truly the most caring, the most moral person I know.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
‘Tis a dream that I in sadness
Here am bound, the scorn of fate;
'Twas a dream that once a state
I enjoyed the light of gladness.
What is life? 'Tis but a madness.
What is life? A thing that seems,
A mirage that falsely gleams,
Phantom joy, delusive rest,
Since life is a dream at best,
And even dreams themselves are dreams.
DR. BECK: Captivating. I can’t say I’m familiar with the text though?
ERLAND: It’s a play called “Life is a Dream” by Calderón de la Barca, the bard of the Spanish Golden Age.
DR. BECK: So in a way it’s about the truth.
ERLAND: And there’s that word again.
DR. BECK: Erland, can we talk about the day Luna found out the truth?
ERLAND: That was without a doubt the worst day of my life. I got a call from Luna’s mother. She sounded very upset. My first thought was that something happened to Luna. So I asked her, is Luna okay? She replied that no, Luna wasn’t okay. She said that Luna had found out the truth. In that moment a part of my mind went blank. I had no words; I couldn’t say anything.
DR. BECK: What happened after?
ERLAND: Two things happened: the gigs stopped, and Luna stopped talking with me. I’ve been calling her and sending her messages... But she still hasn’t responded.
DR. BECK: How does that make you feel?
ERLAND: I… was... Surprised. Surprised at how much I miss her. It’s like I fell in a big hole; one I wanted to spare her from.
DR. BECK: And this surprised you?
ERLAND: It did, ‘cause, well I never guess I never thought of myself as an emotional type. But this made me aware of my feelings.
DR. BECK: Erland, would you like to see Luna again?
ERLAND: I’d love to see her! I’d do anything to see her! But, I’m afraid she wouldn’t want to see me... I’m afraid she hates me… And that I lost her forever.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. BECK: Testing testing… This is dr. Emanuel Beck recording at the Institute for Psychological Well-being. I am here with dr. Lucy Vitale.
DR. VITALE: Hello.
DR. BECK: This is the final session of our two subjects who were treated individually up to this point. Luna, 16, and Erland, 47, are in their respective rooms, and we will now introduce them to one another and try and manage that encounter.
DR. VITALE: How is Erland holding up?
DR. BECK: He’s emotionally distant but it’s obvious he is concerned about the meeting.
DR. VITALE: Luna is extremely distressed. I am not sure how she is going to react when she sees him. I’m concerned she might become even more agitated.
DR. BECK: Are you having second thoughts about this?
DR. VITALE: Second and third. But they need to confront each other and talk. If we do it in a controlled manner we can help them try to mediate a resolution.
DR. BECK: Okay, I’m going to get Erland, and you bring Luna.
DR. VITALE: Alright. Let’s get this fox into a box and hope for the best!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. VITALE: So Luna, if you’re not feeling comfortable, let me know. We can always leave. Luna, are you listening?
LUNA: Yeah, I’m okay.
DR. BECK: So Erland, just be yourself. Just relax, it’s not a confrontation.
ERLAND: No drama.
DR. VITALE: Just stay calm, everything is going to be okay.
LUNA: Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.
DR. BECK: You know, I’m sure she’s looking forward to it, it’ll be fine.
ERLAND: It’s gonna be fine.
DR. VITALE: You know we can leave if you become uncomfortable, just let me know.
LUNA: I’m okay, I’m okay.
DR. BECK: Just - just relax, okay?
ERLAND: Thanks doc.
LUNA: [breathes heavily]
DR. VITALE: Luna, just try to stay calm.
DR. BECK: Everything’s okay.
[sound of footsteps running towards each other]
LUNA: Dad... Dad… [crying]
ERLAND: My girl… My beautiful girl… My sweet, sweet beautiful girl… [crying]
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
DR. VITALE: Luna, can you verbalize your feelings right now?
LUNA: I feel like... Like I’ve awoken from a dream. But one of those bad dreams, which makes waking up seem like a huge relief!
DR. BECK: Erland, what about you?
ERLAND: I feel like I went on a diet and lost 10 kilos.
ERLAND: Luna... I’m so sorry that I never told you the truth. You should have known. And you should know that I love you very, very much. You know, all my life I was bitter that I got rejected at the Academy. But now I finally know why - it was to have you. Being your dad, it's my role of a lifetime.
LUNA: Thanks dad. I love you too. There is one thing left grinding me - it’s who sent the message?
ERLAND: You know what, I don’t really care. The memories we have together is something no one can take away from us. Well, not until we get Alzheimer's.
DR. VITALE: I’m not sure that that line of thinking leads anywhere constructive.
DR. BECK: You’ll get accustomed to Erland’s sense of humour. Besides, he is saying the truth in this regard. And if there was any point of this exercise, it’s that we all got to learn to live with unpleasant truths.
DR. WALES: Unless Erland’s wish to reunite with Luna was yet another gig received through the Program.
ERLAND: [laughs] Sure... Wouldn’t that be a funny twist.
[The Program main theme]
ANNOUNCER: This episode of the Program was made by five people: Zach Valenti, Robyn Ashley, Suzanne Wales, Michael Buchanan, Christen Ledroit, and IMS. Visit programaudioseries.com for more details. Have you heard of the bystander effect? It is a social phenomenon stating that individuals are less likely to offer assistance when part of a group. So please, if you are hearing this, rise up against the bystander effect and personally spread the word about The Program. Because you yourself are the best recommendation engine.