DATE June 7, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Allen discusses the outlook for the papacy of
Pope Benedict XVI
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Since his election in April, we've become more familiar with the sound of the
name Pope Benedict XVI. My guest, journalist John Allen, has been following
the new pope. In fact, he also followed him for years when he was known as
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the
National Catholic Reporter, an independent news weekly. He's also a Vatican
analyst for CNN and NPR. In the '90s he wrote a book about Cardinal
Ratzinger. Now Allen has a new book called "The Rise of Benedict XVI."
Cardinal Ratzinger had been Pope John Paul's right-hand man since 1981. For
almost a quarter century, he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith. In that capacity, Allen says, the cardinal was the driving force
behind some of the most controversial aspects of John Paul's pontificate,
including the crackdown on liberation theology, expanding the borders of
infallibility to include the ban on women's ordination and the disciplining of
John Allen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. One of Pope Benedict's most famous
statements back in the days when he was Cardinal Ratzinger had to do with
doing battle against, quote, "a dictatorship of relativism." What did he mean
by relativism?--because I assume this is still going to be a big issue with
him as pope.
JOHN ALLEN (National Catholic Reporter; CNN & NPR Analyst): Well, Terry, I
think it is going to be the defining issue of his pontificate, actually, and I
think what he means by that is the following. What the Catholic Church has to
do is reassert belief in Truth, with a capital T; that is, the existence of
objective truths that are not relative to person, to time, to culture but that
transcend all of that, things like the inherent dignity of each and every
human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death; the
Catholic insistence that salvation for humanity comes exclusively and only
through Jesus Christ and so forth. And I think Cardinal Ratzinger and, in the
same way, Pope Benedict XVI believe that for four centuries in the West, we
have been living in a culture that has sort of been in decline intellectually
towards subjectivity, towards the idea that each person can create his or her
own truth and so forth, and he intends to do battle against all of that.
So this is going to be a papacy that is very actively engaged, for example, in
what we call in the States the culture wars, on issues such as stem cell
research, gay marriage, abortion. And it will also be engaged on other issues
where he thinks human dignity is at stake, especially issues of peace and
justice around the world. So it's going to be a surprisingly activist
GROSS: We'll get to some of the issues that you just mentioned a little
later, but let's start with how his stance on, quote, "relativism" relates to
an issue that's very important in the United States now, an issue of a lot of
debate, and that is the separation of church and state.
ALLEN: Well, I think basically--I mean, then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote on this
question extensively, and I think his understanding would boil down to this,
that there is a legitimate autonomy of the civil sphere, and it is wrong for
the church to try to impose particular political solutions to given problems
that crop up. But at the same time, this separation cannot become an absolute
compartmentalization, that Christian values have something to say to social
and cultural debates and that ultimately, circling back to this question of
objectivity, that the truths the church has to defend do mark out certain
limits to the power of the state; that is, from his point of view, the state
does not have the power to treat a human being as a means to an end, and if it
does, it's the responsibility of the church to call the state to task.
And you have to remember that some of this passion for truth that he feels I
think was forged in the crucible of his experience of Nazi Germany. Joseph
Ratzinger was seven when the Nazis came to power, when Hitler came to power
for the first time in 1933. He was 18 when the Third Reich fell in 1945, but
I think he believes he saw in first person what happens when the state
believes that it is no longer shackled by any limits to its power, when it
starts treating lies as truth. And so while he would say that it's not the
business of the church to decide budgets or to decide tax policy, it certainly
is the function of the church to be an active participant in insisting upon
these sort of, you know, root principles of truth that ought to have
consequences in the culture.
GROSS: Again, you say that his battle against relativism will be the new
pope's defining issue. Let's talk about how that relates to religious
pluralism. If Christianity is the only way, in his opinion, where does that
leave him in terms of religious pluralism?
ALLEN: Well, I think the pope is certainly going to want to pursue good and
neighborly relations with the other religions of the world. I mean, the
morning after his installation Mass on April 25th, for example, he had a
session with leaders of other religions who had come for the installation
Mass, made a special point of reaching out to them, particularly to Muslims.
And so--and I think he believes that on a wide range of issues, there is
fertile territory for Catholics, Christians and members of other religions to
cooperate, especially on moral questions. You'll recall in the mid-'90s, for
example, the Vatican and a number of Muslim states were great allies in
struggles at a couple of UN conferences over abortion and reproductive rights
and so forth.
But having said all that, you know, this pope's chief concern, I think, is a
robust defense of Catholic identity, making sure it's clear to the world what
Roman Catholicism stands for, and part of--one of the core claims of Catholic
tradition is that salvation comes exclusively through Christ; that is, that
Jesus Christ is the lone and unique savior of the world and that there isn't a
man or woman alive who wouldn't be better off if they didn't know that and
accept it and order their lives accordingly. So he is certainly not going to
launch new crusades. He is not going to try to impose Catholicism on anyone,
but he certainly is going to insist on what, in Catholic parlance, is called
evangelization; that is, you know, inviting people to come to a knowledge of
the Gospel. His argument would be that that clarity about who we are is
actually a precondition of dialogue.
In other words, you can't really have effective conversation with anyone if
you don't know who you are. So in that sense, he's going to try to have his
cake and eat it, too; that is, it's going to be a very robust defense of the
church's traditional doctrine when it comes to other religions, but at the
same time, a very genuine desire to have good relations with those religions.
And obviously it remains to be seen the extent to which he's going to be able
to pull that off.
GROSS: How do you think Pope Benedict relates to evangelical Christians? And
I'm asking this because both the pope as a Catholic and evangelical Christians
have a missionary mission...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That sounds redundant, doesn't it? But, you know, a mission of
evangelizing. But the bottom line is a little different for Catholics than
for evangelical protestants. And you say that the pope has been concerned in
the past that evangelical Protestants in, for instance, Latin America are
trying to convert Catholics into born-again Christians and that that might
undermine the mission of the Catholic Church.
ALLEN: Yeah. Well, they're not just trying. I mean, they're doing it with
great success. I mean, if you look around the kind of religious demography of
Latin America--I mean, you take a place like Guatemala, for example, which,
you know, a generation ago was almost entirely Catholic and today's it's just
about 60 percent Catholic. And the attrition, so to speak, has been in favor
of these neo-Protestant, aggressively missionary evangelical sects--the
Pentecostals, charismatics and so forth. Peru, you have the same phenomenon;
southern Mexico, you have the same phenomenon. And, of course, it's not just
Latin America. I mean, the same thing is happening in Africa. The same is
happening in the countries of Eastern Europe, the countries of the former
Soviet Empire. And that is a subject of obviously grave concern for the
Catholic Church. It's certainly a subject of concern for Benedict.
But, you know, the broader question you ask about relations with
evangelicals--on the one hand, I think this pope has a great admiration for
many aspects of evangelical Christianity. He thinks that it's--first of all,
it's preserved Christian orthodoxy. They're as clear that salvation is only
through Christ as he is and so there is a terrific simpatico there.
You know, they also have a great conviction about the proper role of religion
in public life. Just earlier this week, we saw the governor of Texas signing
legislation about abortion and gay marriage in an evangelical church. And
this is a kind of witness to the kind of social and political activism of
Christianity that certainly Pope Benedict would appreciate.
On the other hand, there certainly are concerns that Pope Benedict would have.
I mean, he would see, I think, many strains of evangelical Christianity as
being a bit too individualistic, not having a sort of sufficiently grounded
concern for the whole community. You know, he would also see it as being
perhaps a bit too seduced by American capitalism. And, of course, Pope
Benedict has, I would say, a kind of ambivalence about capitalism as many
European Catholic intellectuals do.
And so there are points of convergence and points of difference there. I
think in general Pope Benedict, however, would believe that the prospects for
what's called ecumenism--that is, attempts to heal divisions within
Christianity--are probably better for the Catholic Church, all things
considered, with the evangelicals than they would be with the mainline
Protestant churches of the West--you know, the Episcopalians, the Methodists,
the Lutherans and so forth--that have in recent years kind of moved steadily
to the left in terms of many of their teachings on faith and morals and so
forth--I mean, you know, the consecration of an openly gay bishop by the
Episcopalians in New Hampshire and so on.
I think this pope's top ecumenical priority is going to be with the Eastern
Orthodox churches--above all, the Russians, but probably in second place will
be the evangelicals.
GROSS: My guest is John Allen. He covers the Vatican for the National
Catholic Reporter. His new book is called "The Rise of Benedict XVI." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Allen. He covers the
Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter. His new book is called "The Rise
of Benedict XVI."
Let's talk a little bit about where the new pope stands on women in the
church. One of the things that he did was extend infallibility to cover the
ban on women's ordination. How did he do that? Why did he do that?
ALLEN: Well, his argument is that after the definition of papal infallibility
in 1870 and developments in Catholic theology forward that what happened is
that a lot of people sort of developed this binary understanding of church
teaching, which is that either something has been formally declared infallible
or it's completely up for grabs. You know, these are the sort of two
categories out in the popular mind. And his argument was that, in fact,
that's not really the Catholic understanding, that there is a whole range of
teachings that have never formally been declared as infallible by a pope, but,
nevertheless, because they've been taught universally and they've been taught
constantly and so forth, you know, are part of the binding teaching authority
of the church. And he gave several examples, you know, one of which would be
the ban on women's ordination.
And so, you know, I mean, to put this very simply, if anybody is expecting
that Pope Benedict XVI is going to ordain women, they're living in a fool's
paradise. I mean, this is not going to happen under this pontificate, but I
think there may be surprising room for conversation about women's role in the
church apart from the ordination question. I mean, let's not forget that in
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for many years, one of the
pope's collaborators was a Belgian female theologian by the name of Marie
Hendrickx. He has a very close collaborator, a German woman by the name of
Ingrid Stampa. I think there is--and the man he just appointed to be his
successor at the Congregation for the Faith, Archbishop William Levada of San
Francisco, appointed the first female chancellor of a diocese in the United
GROSS: Like President Bush, Pope Benedict opposes stem cell research as do
many political conservatives now in the United States, but Pope Benedict also
opposes in vitro fertilization. There hasn't been a lot of political
opposition in the United States against in vitro fertilization. What are his
reasons for opposing in vitro fertilization and stem cell research? I guess
stem cell we'd know from the arguments here, but what about in vitro
ALLEN: Well, I suppose it's both a kind of philosophical objection and then a
practical one. I mean, at the practical level, the techniques of in vitro
fertilization that exist at the moment tend to involve one of two things that
the Catholic Church would consider morally objectionable. I mean, first is
that in virtually every case we know of embryos are created which are
subsequently destroyed; that is, you just don't create one embryo, implant and
bring it to term. Usually a surplus of embryos is created with the intention
that not all of them will eventually be born, and that, in the church's
analysis, is treating a human life as a means to an end and that an embryo has
the same dignity and, therefore, deserves the same protections of the law as
any other human being.
The other is that even in cases where you've got, you know, a married
heterosexual couple that is attempting to reproduce, if they go to a clinic to
try to get help with in vitro fertilization, you know, the husband has to
somehow donate his genetic materials, and quite often that involves
masturbation which is also considered morally illegitimate by the church.
But I suppose the deeper, philosophical question here is that the church
insists that each human being has the right to be born in and through natural
marriage. This is, in some ways, the same logic the church opposes birth
control, that it separates what is considered to be the sexual act from the
procreative act and sexual acts ought to be open to the transmission of life.
That's the traditional teaching of the church.
And so both of these positions--that is, the condemnation of embryonic stem
cell research, because, of course, there is also adult stem cell research,
which the church would support and endorse--but embryonic stem cell research
and in vitro fertilization both flow from that. And you're quite right that
the position of the Republican Party in the United States or for that matter
the conservative parties in Europe might be closer to the church on many of
these questions, but it certainly is not, you know--there's not a uniformity
between the two things, which is why, when the church gets involved on these
political question, you know, usually what they will say, church leaders will
say, is that on these issues, the position of the conservative parties is
perhaps preferable but it certainly is not the totality of what the church
GROSS: Well, the church's position is going to be basically put to a vote
soon in Italy. You write that Italy had no law governing reproductive
technology until February of last year, and then it adopted a very strongly
restrictive statute. But there's going to be a referendum on that statute
coming up pretty soon, right?
ALLEN: Next week. Yeah.
GROSS: Oh. (Laughing) OK, then.
ALLEN: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, Italy used to be the Wild West of assisted
reproduction. I mean, you know, when I moved to Italy five years ago, there
was a story about a 65-year-old woman who had gone to a fertility clinic and,
you know, gotten help with being impregnated and so forth and, you know,
carried a child to term. I mean, it was really an anything-goes environment.
And then last year, Italy's conservative government under Prime Minister
Berlusconi adopted a very restrictive statute, the heart of which is that it
bars in vitro and assisted reproductive techniques to anything other than
married heterosexual couples. So gay couples, single mothers and so forth
don't have access to these services. It insists that only three embryos may
be created, and they all have to be implanted; that is, there's no cryogenic
preservation. And it declares embryos as holders of human rights.
And what has happened is that forces in Italy opposed to those restrictions
have organized a referendum seeking to overturn each of those provisions. Now
this is a classic case in which the church would say that even that
restrictive law wasn't enough because it still allows for the artificial
creation of embryos, which it is opposed to, but it's certainly better than
the proposed alternatives. So rather than urging a yes-or-no vote, what the
church in Italy has done is urge voters to abstain; that is, simply not show
up at all, because under Italian law if fewer than 50 percent of Italians fail
to vote, then the referendum automatically dies. And I would add that this is
not just a kind of, you know, good moral analysis on the church's part from
its own principles, but it also is very crafty politics because trying to get
a no vote on this referendum could be difficult because typically in Italy,
only the people who are really motivated to support the referendum show up.
So--but by persuading people just not to go at all, they stand a much better
chance of success.
And so, you know, most polling right now says it's very much a jump ball which
way this is going to go. Pope Benedict, by the way, has very clearly and
publicly endorsed the activism of the Italian bishops trying to promote
abstention on this referendum.
GROSS: Now when it comes to, like, reproductive issues, the pope has opposed
condoms even as a way to prevent HIV. How has that been playing around the
world, particularly in places like Africa where the AIDS epidemic is so
ALLEN: Yeah. Well, I suppose the first thing to say here--and, you know,
you're asking a fully legitimate question, which I'll come to in a moment.
But, you know, we shouldn't think that particularly on the HIV-AIDS issue that
the only thing the church has to say is its position on condoms. I mean, you
know, 27 percent of HIV-AIDS sufferers around the world actually are under the
care of Catholic facilities. It is by far the largest humanitarian
organization of it kind engaged in providing relief to victims of this
epidemic. And I think at that level, there is kind of universal admiration
for Catholic religious orders, diocesan facilities, you know, individual
operations supported by the church in some way that are engaged in running
hospices, running clinics, trying to get drugs to people and so on.
Obviously the church's position on condoms has been the subject of great
controversy and great debate both inside and outside the church. One thing I
think a lot of people don't realize is that the specific question of whether
or not condoms can be legitimately used in the context of heterosexual
marriage to try to prevent the transmission of disease, that specific
question, the pope, either John Paul II or Pope Benedict, has never directly
spoken on that question. And this is why even at the very senior levels of
the Catholic Church, you get debate on this. I mean, there are cardinals who
have suggested that the church ought to accept that the use of condoms in this
context, as a means of fighting disease, on the grounds that, you know, OK,
the church disapproves of extramarital sex, but if someone is determined to
engage in that kind of conduct in any event, surely it would be better if they
also at least tried to do so in a way that preserves the health of the other
person involved. That's a position that other senior officials in the church
would disagree with.
But my point is this is to some extent theologically an open question, and it
certainly will be a question that a lot of people are waiting to see if
Benedict XVI is going to try to settle.
GROSS: John Allen is the author of the new book "The Rise of Benedict XVI."
He covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter. He'll be back in
the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Allen. He covers
the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsweekly.
He's also a Vatican analyst for CNN. He's written a new book called "The Rise
of Benedict XVI."
As a journalist who covers the Vatican, what was your reaction when Tom Reese,
the longtime editor of the Jesuit publication America, was forced out of his
position because the church objected to some of the articles and commentaries
that it ran?--because some of the articles and commentary questioned some of
the church's positions.
ALLEN: Yeah. Well, my first reaction was sadness because Tom is a friend and
a colleague. And, you know, I also just know where he was sort of emotionally
and professionally we both had just lived through covering the conclave and,
you know, the death of John Paul, the election of Benedict XVI and everything
that followed. It was an enormously, both professionally and emotionally,
intense month, and it was just a terrible way for him, you know, to have to
come out of all of that. And, also, I mean, I would add that over the years
I've been a great admirer of America magazine and Tom Reese. I think they do
a first-class job in trying to promote a forum for discussion in the Catholic
Church and trying very faithfully to represent all points of view in that
discussion. You know, on the other hand, you know, that's my personal
As a journalist, I would say I also recognize that this discussion is
complicated by the fact that America magazine is an official publication of
the Jesuit order, and, therefore, it is, in a sense, an official publication
of the Catholic Church and from the Vatican's point of view and the point of
view of a number of bishops; therefore, different standards ought to apply.
That is they would argue that the fundamental obligation of an official
Catholic publication is to make sure that the teaching of the church is
faithfully and clearly articulated. Now that's not to say that you can't
acknowledge that there's discussion about some of these points. That's not to
say you can't publish other points of view, but that in the balance, you know,
what ought to predominate is the clarity of the exposition of what the church
The other thing I would say is that I wouldn't exaggerate how catastrophic all
this is going to be. I mean, the new editor there, Drew Christiansen, is
a man--certainly an admirer and supporter of Tom Reese. And he will want to
maintain America's reputation as a place where all points of view can heard.
No doubt, on some particular questions, like abortion and condoms and stem
cell research, some of the things we've been talking about, there will be a
slightly greater degree of caution. But I don't think it's going to be the
case that America magazine is going to be destroyed by any of this.
GROSS: Pope Benedict, back when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, was the head of
Pope John Paul's doctrinal office. And what can we learn about Pope Benedict
to see who he's chosen for that position?
ALLEN: Oh, I think it's actually fascinating. I mean, Pope Benedict has
named as his successor Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco. This is
the only really significant personnel move he's made to date, and I think it
is very telling because I think there--some of the expectations about Pope
Benedict, I think both on the Catholic right and the Catholic left in some
ways, is that because he had been for 24 years the top cop of the Catholic
Church--that is, the great enforcer, the great bruiser in Catholic
affairs--that once he took over the top job, there would be this kind of Night
of the Long Knives that would follow, and there would be a great purge of
dissent and so forth. And to date--and, you know, we're now almost 50 days
into the pontificate--none of that has materialized.
And I think in the Levada appointment, what you have is a man who clearly is a
doctrinal conservative, as you would expect for anyone who would move into
that job. But by no means does he have a reputation as a headhunter. Quite
the opposite, he is seen as somebody who is very clear on his principles but
is very flexible in the application of those principles, who is always seeking
to defuse conflict rather than to allow it to fester. And, interestingly,
when his appointment was rumored and then announced, the most ferocious early
criticism of it actually came from the Catholic right in the United States
that felt Levada should have been tougher against the gay culture in San
Francisco. And they pointed especially to something that happened in 1997
when Archbishop Levada was faced with a new law in San Francisco that
threatened to cut off any city funds to organizations that did not provide
health benefits for same-sex domestic partners. And Archbishop Levada
insisted that that would force the church to compromise its teaching on
homosexuality. It looked like the church might actually lose about $6 million
in public funding that went largely to care for HIV/AIDS patients and other
And the end what Archbishop Levada proposed was a solution that sort of
shifted the focus from homosexuality to health care. And he said, `Well, how
about this? We'll adopt a policy where our employees can designate any
legally domiciled member of their household they want, whether it's a same-sex
partner or it's their mother, it's their aunt or whoever. And that way we're
expanding health care. We're not specifically endorsing same-sex
relationships.' The city bought the compromise, and the conflict was avoided.
So, bottom line, I think by putting Archbishop Levada in this job, Pope
Benedict has opted for someone who clearly will safeguard the teaching of the
church but is not going to be looking to create conflict if he can avoid it;
who is actually a very adept administrator and a very creative administrator;
and, therefore, this does not auger the great crackdown or great purge that I
think some people have been expecting.
GROSS: Now how do you think covering Pope Benedict is going to compare to
covering Pope John Paul?
ALLEN: I think it's going to be a better gig for the pencil press than the
TV. Let's put it that way. I mean, I think it's going to be a
less-theatrical, less-dramatic, less-showy papacy. There'll be fewer trips,
fewer grand gestures. But it's going to be an enormously thoughtful papacy.
I mean, this is probably the best-prepared intellectual to be elected pope
since Leo XIII in the 19th century. I mean, this is a man who has published
more than 50 books. He has thought deeply over the course of a lifetime about
the intellectual trends, particularly in the developed West, and the need of
the church to confront them. And in that sense I would say that anyone who
believes that a 78-year-old German was elected largely as a transitional pope
has got another thing coming because, to be honest with you, there is not a
transitional bone in Joseph Ratzinger's body. This is a pope who intends to
do business. And so I think it's going to be a papacy very much worth
GROSS: So what's the biggest change you think he's going to make?
ALLEN: Well, I think there are--he is going to want to try to shake up the
internal culture of the church. I think one of the things about John Paul II
that everyone would agree on is that his real passion and his charisma was
directed at the world outside the church. I mean, he actually did very little
tinkering with the kind of internal levels of power of the Catholic Church for
26 years. You know, his was very much a road show, and he wanted to
evangelize the broader culture, you know, reach out to other Christians and
other religions and so on.
I think Pope Benedict is going to be a little bit more focused in terms of
those kinds of internal dynamics. And I think his concern is that the church
tends to mimic the secular world in creating institutions and creating
structures and breeding career paths and so forth. And at the end some of
those structures and some of those career paths end up forgetting why they
exist. They become self-perpetuating and, you know, self-justifying. And he
wants to challenge all of that. So I think we're going to see a smaller
And I think in senior positions you are going to see him appointing more
experts and more people of substance and fewer people who have simply, you
know, risen the career ladder, so to speak. And so there's going to be a bit
of a culture change inside the Catholic Church. It may be a bit slow in
coming, but it's going (audio loss) I think that, too, is going to be
fascinating to see develop.
GROSS: Well, John Allen, thank you very much for talking with us.
ALLEN: Terry, it's always a pleasure.
GROSS: John Allen is (audio loss) "Rise of Benedict XVI" (audio loss) Vatican
for the (audio) reporter.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, a single, gay man in Manhattan takes in his troubled
13-year-old niece, and both their lives are changed. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Edwin Wintle discusses his book, "Breakfast with
TERRY GROSS, host:
Edwin Wintle was a single, 40-year-old, gay man working in Manhattan,
negotiating book-to-film deals when overnight he became a parent to his
13-year-old troubled niece from Connecticut. It was her mother, Wintle's
sister, who asked for this change. Wintle has written a memoir about how the
first year of this new arrangement changed his niece's life and his own. He
calls her Tiffany in the book and titled his memoir "Breakfast with Tiffany."
Ed, why did your sister ask you to take her 13-year-old daughter?
Mr. EDWIN WINTLE (Author, "Breakfast with Tiffany"): In a nutshell, my sister
felt that she was losing control of my niece, that she couldn't keep her safe
GROSS: Safe from what?
Mr. WINTLE: I guess from her own inclinations. She started running with a
crowd that my sister felt was really dangerous insofar as just, you know,
getting in cars with older boys and, you know, staying out past when she was
supposed to be out, experimenting with things she wasn't supposed to. I think
my sister felt that she could no longer impose restrictions on my niece that
my niece would honor, and therefore she couldn't keep control of her and keep
her safe from harm.
GROSS: What the proportion of anxiety, fear and enthusiasm when your sister
asked you to take your niece in to live with you? Was there a part of you
that really wanted to do this, or was this more of, like, a duty that you felt
obliged to fulfill?
Mr. WINTLE: Definitely a part of me really wanted to do it. I had offered
sort of in an emergency situation. I said, `You know, if it ever comes to it,
she's welcome to come live with me.' That was, of course, a little bit off
the cuff, but I think it came from a place of really desiring that. I just
had an incredible relationship with my niece her whole life. She had stayed
with me for a couple of summers, I think six weeks one summer and then three
or four weeks the next summer, a couple years earlier to study acting and
theater arts here in the city. And I just am nuts about the kid, and I think
there was a part of me that really wanted to pitch in, really wanted to help
make a difference in her life. And then quickly the anxiety and the
self-doubt and the nervousness took over when I realized the enormity of what
I had just said I would do.
GROSS: What were the first things you thought you had to change about your
life and about your home when you knew your niece was going to come to live
Mr. WINTLE: Well, I knew I had to get rid of my porn collection, which is,
you know, a joke but not a joke. And I had a part-time roommate.
GROSS: How big is it if that was a big concern?
Mr. WINTLE: It wasn't very big. It was sort of a small duffel bag.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WINTLE: And then, of course, I saved the best of it and gave it to a
friend to hold on to, but the rest I threw away. And my diaries--I had
diaries that I'd been keeping since high school, and I didn't want those to be
lying around. You know, you gotta have some boundaries. I had a part-time
roommate, so I had to quickly ask him to find another arrangement. But,
mostly, it was just kind of getting the environment ready for her, you know,
clearing out, getting it prepared for her to come, which was going to be in
all of one week's time. So it was a very, very quick turnaround from the time
my sister asked me to take her in till the time she arrived.
GROSS: Did you know how to be an authority figure? Had you ever been in the
position before where you were really responsible for a young life, and you
had to be the one that created the limits and drew the line?
Mr. WINTLE: No. I have never been a teacher. I did work with kids in
college, and I, of course, baby-sat as a teen-ager. But I think I have a
predisposition to being somewhat of a strict parent. I think I--my own
parenting predilection would be toward being a tough parent. I think that I
would be able to impose discipline and not worry that the child was angry with
me, you know, trusting that our love would ultimately carry us through. So I
hadn't had a lot of experience, but I kind of had the idea that I would be
tough but loving, I guess. I guess tough love.
GROSS: That's interesting that you thought you would do the tough love thing
because one of the things that you were worried about with your niece was that
she had close friends who smoked a lot of marijuana. So you were concerned
about that. You knew that she had friends who were having sex--very concerned
about that. On the other hand, you write that when you were in high school,
before you graduated, you tried nearly every drug under the sun. You had
never really held yourself back from sexual adventures. So you had done some
of the things that you were now determined to make sure she didn't do when she
was young. So what are some of the things that you told your niece about your
own life that you thought would be--serve as kind of like cautionary tales for
Mr. WINTLE: Well, I told her--I would say in general terms--I told her I felt
that in high school, when I began to smoke more pot, that I began to lose some
of my motivation. I told her that I felt that I wished I had spent more time
pursuing creative things, creative endeavors, rather than just hanging around
kind of killing time with my friends. That was kind of it. I mean, I would
include pot in that and include some of the, you know--I don't think I went
into too many experiences about drugs 'cause there weren't really that many in
But--and as far as sex goes, I talked to her about boys because I felt like I
was qualified. I had one conversation with her where, you know, I
said--whenever I would start talking about boys, she would say, `Oh, no, not
the boy talk again.' And I would say, you know, `Tiffany, I am--I grew up
with two older sisters. I have a zillion female friends who have been through
every kind of relationship under the sun with men. And I myself am gay,
so--and I dated hundreds of guys.' And I had kind of been through all of
that, and I was hoping that I could share my experience with her about that.
You know, I know a lot about how guys operated because I'm also a guy myself.
And so I tried to share that with her.
GROSS: How did you handle your own private life when you became a full-time
guardian of your niece? You know, did you feel as comfortable, you know,
bringing men home or going out at night?
Mr. WINTLE: Oh, it completely changed. I wasn't much of, you know, a party
guy or a man about town, really, as far as--you know, I was 40 when she moved
in. I had kind of left a lot of the bar-hopping and stuff behind quite a
while before that. But I had quite an active social life, and, you know, I
would date. And when my niece moved in with me, that completely changed.
I--dating was the farthest thing from my mind. I had no time and no energy to
give to somebody else. So it actually didn't feel like a sacrifice because I
didn't feel like doing it. So--but my life changed, social life, schedule.
Everything changed so drastically when she moved in, but I was happy to do it.
It gave me a renewed sense of purpose. It gave me a great feeling to try to
do something for someone else.
I mean, let's face it, I was 40, single, gay, not a whole lot of
responsibilities to other people and living in Manhattan, where we kind of get
involved in our careers and involved in our social lives and it's--pursuing
little hobbies maybe. It's not about other people that often. And I hadn't
been doing any volunteer work for quite some time; I used to work with the
elderly. And suddenly I was able to do something for somebody, and it just
GROSS: My guest is Edwin Wintle. His new memoir is called "Breakfast with
Tiffany." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Edwin Wintle. His new memoir, "Breakfast with Tiffany,"
is about what happened when his troubled 13-year-old niece, Tiffany, came to
live with him in Manhattan. Her mother, Wintle's sister, suggested this
arrangement because she'd lost control of her daughter.
Is Tiffany still living with you?
Mr. WINTLE: No, she's not.
GROSS: She back with her mother?
Mr. WINTLE: Yes.
GROSS: How did you, Tiffany's mother and Tiffany decide that it was time to
go back and live with her mother?
Mr. WINTLE: Well, what happened was I think Tiffany--we went through the
first year, and the book ends at the end of the first year. She made the
honor roll. She had won an award as the best freshman writer in her class.
She'd really made a big turnaround. And in her second year things were going
very, very well, very, very smoothly. And then after she turned 15, in a
nutshell, I would say she kind of began rebelling against me the way she had
against her mom. She began to feel that I was not--it wasn't my place to make
decisions for her. And when you have a 15-year-old under your care and they
feel that you can't basically tell them what to do or be the final word on
things, it becomes a very untenable situation because I wasn't going to put
myself in a situation of not being able to keep her safe because she was going
to be making decisions that I thought were bad for her well-being.
So somewhere in the middle of that second year, I had to begin warning her
that if she kept battling me on the limits that I was setting and on the
decisions I was making, that ultimately the situation might not work out. And
so at the end of March of the second year, I had to follow through on that
warning and insist that she leave.
GROSS: What's one of the most disturbing things that happened after the book
ends, before your family agreed that it was time for her to go back to
Connecticut; that you couldn't--you no longer felt that you could protect her
Mr. WINTLE: I would say it would be that she had met these two girls, one of
whom--two girls who were completely unsupervised. And my niece began sort of
wanting to be parented the way these girls were being parented, which was
basically non-existent. And it was causing a great deal of tension in our
relationship, the kind of freedom she was asking for, and it led to several
very intense verbal arguments on our part. And she did actually walk out of
the apartment one evening on a rainy January night and--with a bag in tow.
And I had to go to the police station, and we had to go do a drive-around and
look for her and, you know, put out a--whatever they put out to other police
officers to keep an eye out for her. That was a very, very disturbing night.
The police did find my niece on the train heading upstate again, and they
intercepted her and delivered her into the hands of my parents. And that was
a very, very rough night. And I think it was disturbing to me that things
could, you know, escalate to that degree after all the progress we had made
while she was living with me.
GROSS: This is the kind of thing she had pulled when she was living with her
Mr. WINTLE: Right.
GROSS: ...that she would disappear.
Mr. WINTLE: Right. And this is now the second year of her living with me,
and it was a result of having met these two--in her high school in New York
City, Lower East Side public high school, she didn't make very many close
girlfriends. It was kind of cliquey, at least to hear her describe it, and
more the boys were, you know, befriending her. And it wasn't until Halloween
night of her second year that she met two girls who were very much like the
friends she had in Connecticut. She met them outside of the school situation
through a friend who lived downstairs in our building. And once she met those
two girls, it's almost like she completely regressed into wanting to do what
she had been doing in Connecticut again. You know, she kind of got a taste of
that again and wanted to be running around and staying out late and, you know,
going to clubs and all of that.
And, ultimately, that led to these arguments that we would have, which led her
to walk out, you know, against my will with a bag at hand at, you know, 10:30
or 11:00 at night. So that was a very, very disturbing, dark night, as you
could imagine, because I felt like so much of the progress we made had been
GROSS: Do you have any second thoughts about sending her back to Connecticut?
Do you think maybe it would have been better for her to stay in New York, even
if you were losing control, even if she was defying you?
Mr. WINTLE: No. One of the two girls that I mentioned became completely
addicted to heroin. The other girl ended up dropping out of school. And not
that my niece would have done these things because these girls had, but I felt
that it was really bad news ahead here in the city. But also, more
importantly, Terry, is that the choice would have been for me to let her stay
and just let her do what she wants, and I was not comfortable with that. I
could not be an adult living with a child of 15 who was able to do what they
wanted. I couldn't live with that situation. I was not willing to accept the
responsibility for what could happen to her if I were to let her do what she
wanted. And it was becoming no way to not let her do what she wanted because
she would do what she wanted, if you follow what I'm saying. So I realized
that was beyond the responsibility I was willing to accept.
GROSS: Are you still close? What's your relationship like now?
Mr. WINTLE: We're very, very close. It's sort of nice because now we're--I
can be the cool uncle again because I'm not the authority figure. So there
was definitely a little chilling period there after she first left. We
actually got her into another program, a live-in program, for a while, but it
didn't work out. And then she went back to live with her mom. So it wasn't
like I just sent her back to her mom. Really, what I felt was that she needed
more help at that point than I could give. In other words, my discipline
wasn't able to break through her willfulness. And so we got her into another
program, and then ultimately she chose to not stay there and moved back in
with my sister.
Now we're very close again, and she calls me with, you know, boy problems.
And we talk about stuff more like we used to. And I think she's turned a
corner, too, just by virtue partially of getting a little older; she's now 16.
And I think she's left some of that behavior behind. And she also has seen
the effect it's had both on her life, in that she needed to--she was forced to
leave the city and, you know, not able to live with me anymore, but also some
of her friends. She's seen them drop out of high school. She's seen
different things happen. And I think it suddenly has become a bit more real,
the consequences of behavior. It's like when you're 12, 13, 14, it still
doesn't feel real. But when you're 15, 16, 17, I think it starts to become a
reality. You start to realize, `OK, my college choices are going to be
limited because I haven't been good grades,' that sort of thing. So I see her
now as being a bit more mellow and towing the line a bit better than she had
been for a little while there.
GROSS: Well, Ed Wintle, thank you for talking with us.
Mr. WINTLE: Oh, my pleasure.
GROSS: Ed Wintle's new book is called "Breakfast with Tiffany: An Uncle's
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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