We spend many waking hours immersed in imaginary worlds. (Not to mention our sleeping hours, filled with fantasies both alien and of our own devising.) Art, for one, allows us to suspend reality. We turn the pages of a novel and replace our thoughts with the thoughts of characters we could never meet; we squeeze into chairs at the movie theatre, jostling with a stranger for the armrest, and emerge two hours later, blinking in the suddenly bright light as if lifted from a trance.
We’re so eager to play make-believe that we can exit reality without an artwork’s guiding presence. Daydreams and ruminations fill our stray minutes, transporting us out of our never-wholly-satisfactory selves so that we can roam through vague sensations of who we might become and what other lives might be like.
These common forms of make-believe—art and daydreams—tend to be private activities. Art usually positions us as voyeurs, not participants: we read a poem, gaze at a painting, watch a play, peering from the outside in. By contrast, we might star in our daydreams; but those imagined events remain within the confines of our minds.
The land of make-believe, as sketched by This American Life producers Miki Meek and Jonathan Menjivar, encompasses more than secret reveries and wistful reading. Meek and Menjivar report on acts of make-believe that are sustained over long periods of time and which enlist multiple participants. These acts carry indelible consequences—positive in Meek’s report, negative in Menjivar’s—for the make-believers involved.
The episode’s first section introduces us to Jim Steinfels, who created a parallel fantasy world for his twelve children by building them a 24-foot-long ship, outfitted with portholes, flags, and even a landline phone. Its elaborate construction notwithstanding, the vessel was, in one respect, thoroughly un-nautical: it was “docked” in the driveway of the family’s suburban Chicago home.
Steinfels assigned on-deck jobs—culinary specialist, master-at-arms, chief storekeeper—to each of his children. They performed these duties wearing sailor’s uniforms (as we can see in this adorable photo). Steinfels, with a canniness that the parents of Cheaper by the Dozen would envy, delegated to his children much of the labor involved in organizing a large family. The kids, in their roles as shipmates, divvied up chores and kept track of who was behind on medical appointments.
Steinfels, a Navy veteran, bolstered the fantasy by inserting snippets of authentic detail. To create engine noise, he attached a motor from a blender to one of the ship’s walls. He made sure that the daughter who played the storekeeper had a tiny cigar smoldering on an ashtray at her desk, just as the grumpy storekeepers of his Navy years did. (Never mind that she was six at the time.) To communicate with the ship’s crew he distributed real military paperwork picked up from local recruitment offices.
The episode’s second section, reported by Menjivar, relates the story of Saeed Torres, a longtime FBI informant. Torres targets a man named Khalifa, a convert to Islam who attracted federal attention with incendiary Facebook posts about 9/11 and Islamic extremism. The FBI places Saeed in Pittsburgh a block away from Khalifa and gives him the alias “Sharif.” His job is to get close to Khalifa and dig up evidence linking him to terrorist activities.
Lyric Cabral, a documentary filmmaker and Saeed’s former neighbor, convinces the operative to allow her and another filmmaker, David Felix Sutcliffe, to document his work on the Khalifa case. Eventually, Lyric and David, unbeknownst to Saeed, start interviewing Khalifa, too.
Saeed’s attempts to get close to Khalifa—by joining his mosque, asking him out for coffee, friend-requesting him on Facebook—fall flat. He turns up no intelligence the FBI can use to score an arrest.
Skillful editing and precise narration make Saeed’s winding story easy to follow. Menjivar tracks multiple interlocking points of view—the frustrated Saeed; the increasingly suspicious Khalifa; the eager filmmakers—without getting tangled in the lies the characters tell, and without unduly privileging one voice over another. In addition to interviewing the two filmmakers, he airs clips from the documentary they eventually produced, a move that allows us to hear Khalifa and Saeed directly.
As we might have predicted, Saeed’s cover is ultimately blown. And in a biting twist, which I won’t reveal here, it turns out his fabrications were unnecessary.
The episode’s first section ends with discussion of how the children’s time on the ship shaped their lives into adulthood. The kid who served as “culinary specialist” on board now runs a kitchen at a Chicago restaurant; four boys went to the Marines, and two other siblings trained at the Naval Academy.
The second section ends on a different note. Saeed finally watches the documentary that Lyric and David produced. The operative has one comment: “I look fucking depressed all the time,” he says. Menjivar suggests a reason for his haggard appearance. “Lying to people for a living can take a toll on you,” the reporter says in his closing narration. “Now he [Saeed] could finally see it.”
Why would This American Life juxtapose these two stories? The first casts make-believe as a way for a father to express love for his children, organize an unruly household, and, by happy accident, prepare those children for their careers. The second ends with an image of Saeed’s face, drawn and cheerless. A life of lies, the story suggests, is both morally and physically disfiguring.
Possibly, the producers felt that the two stories would show how creating imaginative worlds can be a value-neutral activity—good or bad depending on the purposes for which the make-believing is harnessed. But the episode embeds a moral, one made blatant by the closing image of Saeed’s gaunt face. Make-believe is safest when done by children; when we reach a certain age, imaginative play tips disturbingly close to delusion or sinister falsehood. The land of make-believe is pleasant to visit, but no adult wants to live there.
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