Other segments from the episode on April 8, 2015
April 8, 2015
Guests: Brooke Borel - Lucy Knisley
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When it comes to bedbugs, I'm probably a little more phobic than the average person. It's not getting a few bites that worries me; it's the thought of accidentally escorting a few bedbugs into my home and them taking up residence and breeding. So when we decided to interview the author of an interesting new book about bedbugs, our producer, Sam Briger, wisely suggested maybe we should ask Dave to do the interview and let me sit this one out. I wisely agreed. So here is Dave Davies' interview with Brooke Borel, author of the new book "Infested: How The Bedbug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms And Took Over The World." Borel is a contributing editor for Popular Science, who's also written for Slate and other publications. She's had a few experiences with bedbugs herself, and Dave tells me she's turned up a lot of fascinating material in her research about how bedbugs hide and bite and reproduce, and why they all but disappeared a few decades ago and have come back to terrorize so many of us.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Brooke Borel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin by talking about bedbugs - the creatures themselves. How do they know to find us? How can they tell when there are humans nearby?
BROOKE BOREL: Sure. Well, they're alerted by the carbon dioxide from our breath when we breathe out. They are also attracted to the heat from our bodies.
DAVIES: Didn't you have an experience, when you were talking to someone who had some bedbugs, of watching them get excited at your breath? Tell us that story.
BOREL: Yeah, there's an entomologist named Harold Harlan who, in the 1970s, found some bedbugs in an Army barracks in Ft. Dix, N. J. And they were so rare at that time he'd never seen them in person before, and he thought they were really interesting. So he - it was him job to get rid of them, but it was also his - he wanted to study them further, so he collected a couple hundred in these jars and took them home. It's been more than 40 years, and he still has these bedbugs. And one of the first interviews I did - actually, when I was putting together the book proposal, I went to D.C. and sat in his office. He'd brought some bedbugs in, and I watched him feeding them, and we talked about them and everything. At one point he was separating some into a smaller container, and he handed that to me. And the container had sort of a netted top on it so that you could feed them through that, should you want to. (Laughter) I did not want to. But I kind of breathed on the top of that netted top basically, and they came up immediately, alerted by my breath. And then when I held it further away from me, my fingers were on either side of this jar, and they started gathering where my fingertips were touching the jar, attracted to my body heat. And it was pretty unsettling, really, just watching them actually move in response to my presence.
DAVIES: It was the dinner bell.
DAVIES: Now, explain the bedbug bite. What exactly happens when a bedbug bites us?
BOREL: Well, they have very, very thin mouth parts. So you don't really typically feel them going in. That might, you know, be a little bit different from one person to another. They - unlike some bugs that sort of can lap up a pool of blood, which is I'm sure a really thrilling image for people to think about, the bedbug, they fill up more like if you are attaching a balloon to a spigot. So they're trying to get their mouth into your blood vessel. And the difference in the pressure between their body and that blood vessel makes them sort of poof up with blood.
DAVIES: So where do they live?
BOREL: Their name suggests that they live in the bed, but that's not necessarily true. They usually will live in little cracks and crevices near the bed - sometimes on the bed, sometimes elsewhere - mostly hiding during the day and coming out at night when you're sleeping to eat, although they're not necessarily nocturnal. They might - if you were someone that - maybe you're a night-shift worker and you slept during the day, they would shift their schedule to actually feed on you during the day when you're sleeping.
DAVIES: So after the bedbug has its meal, he or she may excrete some material that leaves a telltale black stain.
DAVIES: What is that?
BOREL: Well, that's bedbug poop. It comes out. It leaves a little black flax on your bed - or, I mean, wherever they end up. And usually if you have a really bad infestation you'll see a buildup of this. It almost looks like a black mold or something. Maybe it'll be on the corner of your mattress or wherever it is that they're hanging out.
DAVIES: How common were bedbug infestations in American history, say in the 19th and early 20th century?
BOREL: They were very common back then. I mean, they were all over the place. There were even songs about them. There were - similarly to today, it was just a very common thing to have bedbug infestations all over the place.
DAVIES: So, you know, I guess our grandparents knew a lot about bedbugs, dealt with them a lot. But they virtually disappeared, right? Why?
BOREL: Around World War II - in the beginning of World War II, these scientists discovered the insecticidal properties of DDT. American troops and British troops used it to combat malaria carrying mosquitoes and typhus carrying lice. And after the war it became commercialized in the U.S. and other places. And we went just gangbusters with it. We were really into it. We were using it, you know, on farmland, in orchards, but also in the home quite a bit. There were all kinds of products. There were sprays. There were dusts. We could use it in the garden. We could use in the bedroom. There were wallpapers impregnated with it. There were varnishes that you could paint screen doors and drains with. It was all over the place. And it just happened that it was very effective against bedbugs.
DAVIES: All right. So this pest that was so common decades before, that everybody had forgotten about and many people, like you, didn't even believe they were a real thing, suddenly are showing up and biting people all over the place. And exterminators and entomologists kind of weren't up on it. How did they react to this?
BOREL: Everyone was quite surprised, I think. I mean, for so long it hadn't been a thing. So exterminators, pest controllers, the people that had come up during World War II knew how to treat for these things. But then, as the next generations either took over family businesses or just started out in the profession on their own, they weren't trained to deal with this because they didn't have to do it on a daily basis. Similarly, entomologists like I mentioned earlier, Harold Harlan - most entomologists like him hadn't even seen bedbugs - like live bedbugs in their training at all because they just were so rare. So when the bedbugs came back they had to sort of scramble a little bit to figure out both how to treat them, how to study them, what to do.
DAVIES: Now, the big question I suppose is, where did the new bedbugs come from? Do we know?
BOREL: We don't totally know. The story that is becoming clearer is that after DDT wiped them out pretty well, there were still some pockets of bedbugs that were becoming resistant. And so these resistant populations are popping up all over the world. Then - and it's a little unclear why this didn't happen sooner. Part of - why they didn't come back sooner. But part of the thing might have been international and domestic travel. So in the 80s, in the U.S., we had the deregulation of airlines took effect, and so it was much cheaper and easier to fly. There were more choices on where you could fly, and so forth. And in the decade following that, some similar things happened globally. There were the Open Sky agreements that also made it so it was much easier and cheaper to travel between countries. So what - the prevailing hypothesis is that there are these pockets of resistant bedbugs all over the world, not just in the U.S., and that this increase in travel started spreading them around because they're very good at hitchhiking and moving around with people. They've - you know, we are their foods, so it's in their best interest to follow us around. A couple other things were probably going on, too. I mean, there are more people on the planet now than there used to be, so there's more food, quite literally. And we're also gathering in cities more. At this point, more than half of the world's population live in cities, which is a much different picture than it was back before World War II. And cities are especially easy for the bedbugs to get around. You can imagine a big apartment building. If one family gets bedbugs it is much easier for them to spread them to their neighbors than if you're talking about a standalone house out in the suburbs.
DAVIES: And they can really reproduce, can't they?
BOREL: Yeah, usually organisms are not that into incest, not just because of the taboo but because it sort of can hurt their genetic pool, I mean, if they - it can make it so there's not enough genetic diversity and lead to an unhealthier population. But with bedbugs we don't really know, or scientists don't really know, if there is some sort of negative aspect. They haven't found it yet. But they have found that a single infestation can be seeded from one female who lays eggs and then all of them - from then on it's a family affair. They can just pop up an entire population from that.
DAVIES: So a female bedbug mates with her offspring and can infest multiple units in an apartment building?
DAVIES: A sobering thought.
DAVIES: Bedbug reproduction. You want to describe bedbug sex?
BOREL: I think - well, do I?
DAVIES: I'm asking that.
BOREL: I think that the actual term for it is probably very descriptive. It's called traumatic insemination. And basically the male bedbug stabs the female. He has a sort of needlelike penis, basically. That's not what they call it, but that's basically what it is. And he stabs her in her abdomen - climbs on top of her, sort of wraps his abdomen around and stabs her. And that's what he does.
DAVIES: Brooke Borel's book is "Infested: How The Bedbug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms And Took Over The World." We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is science writer Brooke Borel. She's written a book about bedbugs. It's called "Infested."
So you got your first infestation in 2004 and then a couple more in 2009. How disturbing was it to you?
BOREL: The first time was probably worse because I didn't know what was happening, and it was definitely difficult to get my head around it and to accept it and then move on. Although, I did eventually move on until the 2009 times. Those times, I knew what to expect a little bit more. I knew pretty quickly what was going on because I was getting bites, and they were very familiar.
It was just more frustrating. I mean, there are - you know, you find yourself doing things like - I don't know if I would do this this time around, but at the time, the pest control operator that we were using told me to vacuum all of my books.
BOREL: And I was like, sure. Of course I'll do that. I'll do whatever you want. And so I sat there - like, hundreds of books, like, vacuuming and going through them and looking at the corners and making sure they weren't - there weren't bedbugs in them. And we didn't have a bad enough infestation that it probably - it probably didn't make sense for us to do that, but just doing stuff like that, like steaming. I remember steaming all of the seams of my dresser, which was kind of maddening. And you do a lot of things that you can't believe that you're doing it. So it does mess with your mind a little bit.
DAVIES: So how would you get to sleep when you were worried about this?
BOREL: I mean, I would just do my best. I, you know - the very first time I had them in 2004, I got to the point where I was trying all these things I read online, and it never really worked. But I pulled my bed away from the wall. I put - I made sort of a moat of double-sided sticky tape around - or a barrier, I guess, around my bed. I made sure I didn't have any blankets hanging off of the bed. I had mosquito spray on. I don't even think that works against them. I'm not sure - just to repel them or try to. And I still was getting bitten sometimes.
DAVIES: And what were some of the bedbug remedies you discovered kind of down through the ages that people have tried?
BOREL: Oh, we tried all kinds of things. I mean, some of the more, I don't know if you want to say amusing or frightening - I knew some - there were some suggestions to put some gunpowder in the cracks of your bed and light a match and just explode them out of your bed...
BOREL: ...Which I do not recommend you to try. We used pretty much any kind of insecticide or poison that we would use, you know - that was botanical poisons or elemental poisons, that kind of stuff, cyanide gas, the same cyanide gas that was used in the gas chambers in - during the Holocaust. I mean, some really serious - the people that had - the exterminators that - put through those kinds of treatments would have to wear gas masks when they were treating a home - so some pretty dangerous and serious materials, for sure.
DAVIES: And there's - there were ideas of traps, right? I mean, there's some - is it the kidney bean plant?
BOREL: Oh, sure. Yeah, so we've been trying to fashion all kinds of traps for hundreds of years to catch these things. There are still traps that you can buy on the market today. In general, usually, they are more to show that you do have - indeed have a bedbug infestation. They're there. They need to be treated. You know, if you have enough bedbugs and the traps are effective enough, maybe it can help lower the numbers a little bit.
But the one you're talking about are these kidney-bean leaves, and this is a remedy that's been around for hundreds of years. Originally, I don't think they really knew what was - how this was working. But basically, they would spread these kidney-bean leaves under the bed, and the bedbugs would get stuck on them. And then in the morning, you would sweep up the leaves and throw them away, kill the bugs, whatever.
And a couple years ago, some researchers took some of those bean leaves and had some bedbugs walk across them and then looked at their feet under a really high powerful microscope. And they found that it wasn't just that the bugs were getting stuck on the leaves. There were these little hair things basically sticking out from the leaves that were almost like meat hooks. And they were grabbing - they were stabbing the insects through the feet and immobilizing them that way, which is pretty gnarly.
DAVIES: All right, so I'm sure people listening want some advice. So you've spent some time on this. Let's talk a little bit about some practicalities. First of all, if you think you might have bedbug bites, what should you do to be sure, to confirm you've got a bedbug infestation?
BOREL: What I would do would be to first strip my bed, look at my mattress. They won't necessarily be on the mattress, but that's one of the first places I would look. I would look along the seams of the mattress. That's a place that they like to hide. I might - I would look at my bed frame. And then I would start moving out from there and looking throughout my room. And if I didn't find any, I might still go ahead and do laundry and vacuum and everything, see if I keep getting bites. It's - sometimes it's really hard to tell 'cause it'll be maybe summertime, and maybe you're getting mosquito bites or you're exposed to other insects that might be biting you.
If you stop getting bites after doing - and if you can't find anything and you stop getting bites, I think that - it can be really expensive to hire someone to come take a look, so if you aren't getting bites, if - and if you aren't seeing any signs of the bedbugs, maybe you're in the clear. Some people, though, don't react to the bites, so that's another thing to keep in mind. Just keep an eye on those parts of the bed, making sure that there isn't an infestation building up.
DAVIES: Now, if you have confirmed you have an infestation, would you call a professional exterminator?
BOREL: I would, yeah.
DAVIES: All right, so let's talk about what a professional does. Is there an insecticide that kills bedbugs? What do they do?
BOREL: That's a good question. So the other part of the story of their resurgence that I actually didn't get into earlier is that the bedbugs that we're dealing with now are just very resistant to the chemicals that we're able to use in the bedroom. DDT, of course, is not available for use anymore. It was banned in the '70s. But the class of insecticides that we can, for the most part, use in our bedrooms, pyrethroids - there are a couple of others, but that's the main group - they happen to work...
DAVIES: That's the one that has - that comes from the material from chrysanthemum leaves. Is that right?
BOREL: Yeah, the - so the organic version of this, I guess, is from these crushed up chrysanthemum petals. This is a synthetic version of that. But it works on the nervous system in the very similar way as DDT, so the thought is that those bedbugs that had built up these resistances to the DDT were already naturally resistant to pyrethroids.
And they're - they've also developed these other types of resistances too. So they have - there's certain genetic mutations that make them resistant to the pyrethroids. And they also - some of the bedbugs are developing these enzymes that help them chop up the chemicals more quickly and get rid of them and survive them. Some of the bedbugs may even be growing thicker exoskeletons which might help them deflect some of these insecticides. So they're just - there are chemicals that we can use in our bedrooms, but the - they're getting increasingly - it's increasingly difficult to kill the bedbugs with those.
The professional exterminators will still use those chemicals in addition to some other products. There is a lot of laundry that happens. There's a lot of vacuuming and cleaning that happens to help knock the numbers down, too, in a bad infestation.
DAVIES: You mentioned heat treatments. Exterminators will do a heat treatment. What do they do?
BOREL: Yeah, they bring these heaters into the - and this works a little bit better, I think, in standalone homes. It's - if you're doing it in an apartment, you would really need to do the whole apartment, or at least the big chunk where the problem is because if you think about it, if you go in and treat one unit and then there are bedbugs in other apartments nearby, it's a waste of money because they're just going to come back and re-infest that unit.
But basically, they take these heaters and - there are a bunch of different styles on how they do this, but they take these heaters and they heat up the temperature in the room to - I think it's 125, 130, maybe a little bit more than that. I'm not sure. It works well because they aren't resistant to this. This is something that does kill them. But it's also expensive and time consuming, for sure.
DAVIES: You mentioned that you can clear out one apartment but if the nearby units are infected, that it's probably going to come back. How do these critters travel?
BOREL: Well, I mean, from one apartment to another, they could go through the walls, the electrical sockets, just - you know, I've heard of them crawling across an apartment to the apartment next door across the hallway before too. It just kind of depends on how bad the infestation is and, like, how the, you know, apartments are all situated, how the building is actually structured.
DAVIES: You still live in New York, right?
BOREL: I do.
DAVIES: So what steps do you take to protect your place?
BOREL: Well, when I travel - I'm more lax on this than I should be these days. I usually check the mattress. I don't put my luggage on the bed. I keep it either near the doorway - I might hang up my clothes and I don't usually put them in the drawers. Some people go so far as to put all of their luggage in the bathroom the entire time they're in a hotel. I don't know. I find that a little annoying, so I don't do that. But I usually just pay attention to my belongings. Again, because I'm really allergic, if I do run into bedbugs anywhere, I usually knew it - know it relatively quickly compared to other people.
But when I come home, I usually do my laundry as soon as I can. I inspect my luggage. I might try and steam it with my steamer. But I think a lot of it is just being aware of your surroundings, double-checking the bed and stuff where you're staying and the headboard if you can, making sure there's not, like, a really bad infestation in your hotel room.
DAVIES: You know, I have to ask you. I've done interviews with people who studied bees and ants, and they clearly feel some affection for those insects.
DAVIES: Do you have any fondness for bedbugs?
BOREL: Fondness is not the right word, for sure. I think I use the term at the end of the book that I begrudgingly respect them. I do find them fascinating. I mean, after - I did not even know what I was getting myself into when I started working on this book. And I really do find them endlessly fascinating. Affection - not the right word, I don't think - no fondness. But I do like to talk about them, and I certainly have become either the worst or best person at the cocktail party depending on what kind of person you are and what kind of things you like to talk about (laughter).
DAVIES: Brooke Borel, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BOREL: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Brooke Borel spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who's also WHYY's senior reporter. She's the author of the new book "Infested." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. After we take a break, we'll hear from Lucy Knisley. Her new comic-book-style memoir is about accompanying her elderly grandparents on a Caribbean cruise they never should have signed up for. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Lucy Knisley offered to accompany her grandparents on the Caribbean cruise they'd signed up for through their senior living facility, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. Her grandparents live in a different city than Lucy does. So the cruise seemed like a nice opportunity to spend more time with them, while escaping winter for a few days. But her grandparents' health was worse than her visits had revealed. They were suffering from dementia, incontinence, asthma and more. Rather than spending some quality time with her grandparents, she basically spent 10 days keeping them alive. That trip is the subject of Knisley's new cartoon memoir "Displacement." It's the second travel memoir she's published in the last year. The first, "An Age Of License," was about Knisley's trip to Europe in her mid-20s and the romance she had while traveling. As Knisley says, the trip to Europe was about independence, sex, youth and adventure. The cruise was about patience, care, mortality, respect, sympathy and love. Lucy Knisley spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Lucy Knisley, welcome to FRESH AIR.
LUCY KNISLEY: Thank you.
BRIGER: So how much time had you'd been spending with your grandparents before this? Did you have a real sense of what their condition was mentally and physically?
KNISLEY: My grandparents lived in Ohio for the past 70 years or so. And I had gone for visits regularly to see them in Ohio, but my grandfather is one of those people that into his late 90s would be sort of up on the roof shoveling snow off of the roof in midwinter. And one time, he was doing this, much to my family's displeasure, and fell on his head.
KNISLEY: So (laughter)...
BRIGER: How old was he?
KNISLEY: He was in - I think he was 95 or 96 at that point.
KNISLEY: And he sort of just, like, took a tumble onto his head. And so, you know, sort of everybody kind of mutually made the decision to try and sort of relocate them to an assisted living facility a couple years ago. And they made this transition, and it was really, really hard on them. And they went from being pretty capable, nonagenarian people to suddenly taking a real downturn. And I've read that this happens very frequently with sort of big life changes like this, with moves. But I sort of - I wasn't aware of how much their condition had deteriorated; nobody in my family was. And we - in order to kind of soften the blow of this move, we thought oh, we'll do something really nice. We'll send them on vacation. We'll send them on this cruise ship. And then everybody kind of realized oh, this is not a good idea. They're not in any shape to do this on their own.
BRIGER: Right, and your grandmother has dementia. And she didn't even know who you were. She - I think she kept calling you Jeanne (ph). Was it hard for you that she didn't recognize you?
KNISLEY: You know, it was difficult as it always is with sort of relations who develop dementia. But my grandmother, as I said, is a retired schoolteacher, and she was very a strict, sort of tightlipped, stern schoolmarm type. And growing up, I was a little afraid of her. She and I always had a little bit of a tense relationship. And now that she doesn't recognize me and doesn't know exactly who I am, she's a lot nicer to me, actually, which is a nice change of pace from the usual what you hear about people sort of turning on you. I actually had the experience where she thinks I'm a stranger, so she's very polite and very sort of cordial to me now.
BRIGER: So you're a pretty experienced traveler. You describe yourself in the book as an airport ninja. Like, you pack light. You make sure you have the right shoes on, so when you go through security you don't have any trouble. When you went to your grandparents' home, what was the condition of their packing?
KNISLEY: That was sort of the first moment when I realized that my grandparents had, you know, progressed to a point where this was going to be a really difficult trip. We showed up at their home having repeatedly explained the whole you have to take your shoes off. You can't have any liquids in your bags. You know, you have to pack light for the flight. And we showed up and they had, you know, 14 carry-on bags and, you know, they were all full of liquids. It was just all liquids and just, like, tie-on shoes. And so we had to go through their luggage and kind of edit out what they had done here. And it started to be clearer from my grandmother's packing, especially, that, you know, she had packed things like a one lone sock and, like, a piece of hardware from the cabinetry. And it just - it was very unnerving.
BRIGER: Like, four thermal shirts for a Caribbean cruise and...
KNISLEY: Yeah, well, she never...
BRIGER: A bunch of umbrellas or...
KNISLEY: Oh, many umbrellas, many thermal shirts, many wool socks.
BRIGER: So even the trip to the boat seemed pretty hard for you guys. I mean, you had to take a plane to the boat and you had to spend the - overnight at a hotel before you got on the plane. And in that process, your grandfather had two accidents. He soiled his pants and he didn't seem to really notice or care that much. And you get on the boat and you show your grandparents to their room. And you say, OK, you unpack. I'm going to go unpack. And then you go back to their room and their stuff is just, like, everywhere. I mean, like - from the drawing, it looks like the clothes have just been strewn all over the place.
KNISLEY: Oh, yeah, it was a murder scene.
BRIGER: Yeah, your grandfather can't find his eye drops, though. I think from the packing it looked like he had at least four boxes of eye drops. And your grandmother's crying 'cause she thinks that you and your grandfather think she stole the eye drops. And that's really the moment, I think, where, like, you step up and take charge, is that right?
KNISLEY: Welcome to your dream vacation.
KNISLEY: I mean, it was just descending into complete chaos, and I had this week stretching ahead of me of realizing that I had to keep these two people afloat, literally, on the sea. And, you know, I wasn't going to do that by retaining this old relationship that we used to have of sort of cordial obedient granddaughter and grandparents. I had to kind of step up and take a different role with them.
BRIGER: So this book is a travel log and in between the sort of your own entries, you intersperse excerpts from your grandfather's memoir that he gave - he wrote and just gave to his family - his children and his grandchildren. And it's all about his time in World War II when he was a sky pilot. So why did you add those parts of his memoir in yours?
KNISLEY: Well, something I've really noticed about the act of writing memoir, or the act of writing autobiographical stories, is that the other people in the stories become characters. And it somewhat robs them of this central character aspect that everybody has in their own life. And, you know, you always want to be careful with that. You know, you never want to step on anybody's sense of self. So much of that happens when people get to that age, get to that point, where they're sort of out of control of their own life. And I wanted to underscore this idea of my grandfather as the storyteller of his own stories. And also point out how much of that is lost because he doesn't remember much of that stuff anymore. And I wanted to reread these stories while we were traveling to kind of talk to them about it. They're great stories. My grandfather has really good war stories. And I wanted to bring that up with them and sort of mine the stories a little bit and find out some more details from them. And also sort of place my grandfather back into this role of storyteller.
BRIGER: When you were reading the memoir on the boat, did you compare a lot about how your grandfather was at the present moment and what he was like in World War II?
KNISLEY: Certainly. And, you know, he's this very placid, sweet, kindhearted person, and still is. You know, he wrote these stories about when he was this really vibrant young man, and a lot of the stories are a little bit, like, lascivious and, you know, make allusions to, you know, various brothel kind of doings. And it's - you know, it's something that's always really appealed to me, this idea of this really sweet, kind, family man who also has this sort of mean wife. I mean, I love my grandmother, but their relationship has always fascinated me. They've been married for almost 70 years, and they're sort of opposites in personality. It's so interesting because they're this symbiotic force. It's impossible to kind of separate the two figures.
BRIGER: So you have the book separated into chapters in terms of the days that you were on your trip, and each chapter has a page break. On the top it says day one, day two, and there's this image of a horizon line on the ocean. At first, I thought they were all the same, but as I looked at the book again, I had noticed that each day the water keeps rising, and it's a little higher and it's a little higher. And by day 10, like, the whole page was just this wall of water. It's almost like you were drowning. What were you conveying with those?
KNISLEY: Well, part of it was the idea of displacement, which is the title of the book. I liked the double meaning of sort of the way that my grandparents were displaced from their home in Ohio and the way that they were displaced aboard this cruise ship, which is very unlikely place for them. And the nautical terminology of the weight of water that is displaced by a boat, which is a measurement of the ship's weight and things like that. So part of it is this sort of, like, more and more they're in a foreign situation and more and more we're sort of, like, finding ourselves aware of their mortality, of the progression of their dementia, of their health. And little by little, you sort of start to feel underwater by - or I do. I certainly did start to feel underwater. And, you know, we sort of found equilibrium, but by the end of the trip, I - you know, I had such a new appreciation for caregivers, for nurses and people who take care of the elderly.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Lucy Knisley, whose new illustrated memoir about her cruise with her grandparents is called "Displacement." We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview that our producer Sam Briger recorded with Lucy Knisley, whose new illustrated memoir is called "Displacement." It's about escorting her elderly grandparents on a cruise they never should've signed up for.
BRIGER: So one of the problems with the cruise is that there's not many activities that your grandparents seem like they can enjoy. And as you said, you know, they're not going to gamble. They can't sit and read. They can't sit for very long. So you finally find something for them to do that your grandmother, who's a pretty tough customer, really enjoys. What was it?
KNISLEY: Yeah. We were - you know, it was really warm and beautiful out, and I thought, you know, there's not a lot of stuff they can do physically. But my grandmother, you know, she's in pretty good shape, physically, at least. So you know, I kind of snapped at one point. There was, you know, too much sitting around doing nothing. And I said OK, we're, you know, we're here. It's warm. It's beautiful. Put your bathing suits on. Let's go swimming.
And you know, it was like pulling teeth at first, of course, to get them there and get them to the pool. And I sort of figured that they would hate it just like they sort of hated everything else and that we would be, you know, slinking back soaking wet and miserable. But once they got into the pool - my grandmother especially really enjoyed herself, and you know, I think it probably freed her up a little bit. And she sort of paddled around and relaxed.
And you know, we had really lovely moments of sort of me holding her in the water and her kicking her legs. And she stayed in for much longer than we thought she would. And my grandfather and I were kind of looking at her like she'd grown another head. She was actually enjoying herself (laughter) at a certain pastime. And so it was really nice to sort of have this somewhat authentic experience aboard this ship of inauthentic experiences.
BRIGER: I think that you felt pretty frustrated with your family. I mean, here you are. You're a generation removed from your grandparents. You're not the person who's, you know, primarily in charge of their care, and yet, they send you on this trip. You call them a couple times, I think, exasperated, and you ask, you know, we're on, like - we have a stopover flight on the way back. Can you get us a nonstop flight there? I mean, this was hard on them, and they don't change the flight. I mean, were you frustrated with your family?
KNISLEY: Yeah, I was really frustrated. Like I said, the, you know, the Knisley family is a little reserved. And my Uncle Michael and Aunt Jean are very good. They live close to the assisted living facility that my grandparents live in, and they take really good care of my grandparents. But they also work full-time jobs. And I had only recently moved to New York City. And I'd just finished my book after, you know, a long sprint of drawing and writing and editing, so I was the one with the free time. And I was the one that volunteered to go on this trip.
And you know, I wanted - I didn't want to have to tell them, you guys can't go on this trip that we've bought the tickets for, signed you up for. You're not allowed to. So I wanted to kind of give them this and sort of give it to myself as well. And in that, I wanted to be the good, doting granddaughter who did this for them and had this connection to them. But yeah, my family should've known better. I think they should've known better.
KNISLEY: I shouldn't have been on my own with my grandparents. I think somebody should've come with me. My father, perhaps, would've been a nice addition, just somebody else to kind of help shoulder the - shoulder my grandparents in helping them get through this trip.
BRIGER: So a lot of the trip was really hard, and a lot of it was just, you know, keeping your grandparents alive. But were there some nice moments where you just sort of enjoyed spending time with them?
KNISLEY: Certainly - my grandfather especially, and I had a really lovely connection throughout the trip. I had, as I mentioned, been reading his war memoir and sort of trying to find stories that I wanted more details from. And so every day, I would kind of ply him with various stories and try and draw him out. And a lot of it, he didn't remember, so I had to sort of go about other ways of finding these stories and sort of finding more details about it. And one of the ways that I did that is - he was stationed in Britain when he was being trained. He was stationed in the U.K. when he was being trained for being a scout pilot, and he spent, you know, a year or so there.
And so I found out that they were doing, like, a British pub lunch on the ship, and I brought my grandparents to the British pub lunch to try and jog some memories of that time. And through that experience, he remembered a bunch of war songs that he used to sing when he was in the pubs in Warminster. And so there were really nice moments where I got kind of some insight, I got some lovely individual moments with them.
BRIGER: Well, Lucy Knisley, thanks so much for being with us.
KNISLEY: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Sam.
GROSS: Lucy Knisley spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Knisley's illustrated memoir is called "Displacement." Coming up, our TV critic, David Bianculli, reviews the return of Louis C.K.'s series "Louie" and the premiere of the new series "The Comedians" starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow night, the FX cable network presents the return of Louis C.K.'s comedy series "Louie," along with the premiere of a new mockumentary comedy series called "The Comedians," starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. Both series are unusual and ambitious and both feature celebrities playing exaggerated versions of themselves. But according to our TV critic David Bianculli, only one of them really hits the ground running. Here's his review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The idea of comedians playing themselves on TV, but outrageous, cartoonish version of themselves, is as old as television itself. Actually, it's as old as radio because both Jack Benny and George Burns made fun of themselves as themselves on radio long before shifting to TV in 1950. Jack Benny's comedy program, on both radio and television, was the "Seinfeld" of its day, a hit show about nothing, following a star comic as he made people laugh on stage and dealt with everyday life the rest of the time. Larry David, as co-creator of "Seinfeld" and the creator and star of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is the modern master of this genre, but there are plenty of others. This week, FX unveils a new one, "The Comedian," starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, and begins season five of Louis C.K.'s "Louie." These shows are paired together on Thursday night, but like the two central characters on "The Comedians," they don't really mesh well together. "The Comedians" is based on a Swedish show about comics of different generations forced to work together. For FX, Crystal and Gad play themselves and the wonderful Denis O'Hare plays the fictional FX executive who pairs them together after the pilot for Crystal's one-man sketch series, "The Billy And Billy Show" runs into some problems.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COMEDIANS")
BILLY CRYSTAL: (As himself) What do you mean I didn't test well?
O'HARE: (As FX executive) No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, you tested great. They love you, all right? The show tested poorly, somewhat poorly.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) How is that possible? I am the show.
O'HARE: (As FX executive) And I think that maybe that's where we are running into a little bit of trouble. You're playing all the characters. You're in every scene. We're worried that we run the risk of too much you.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) (Laughter) So, OK, what are you proposing?
O'HARE: (As FX executive) Are you familiar with Josh Gad?
BIANCULLI: Crystal meets Gad with for a drink to feel him out in a wonderful scene that shows what "The Comedians" could've been and might still become. In most of the early episodes, their scenes together feel little a forced, but the tension here is perfect and perfectly natural.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COMEDIANS")
CRYSTAL: (As himself) I just want to tell you I saw "Book Of Mormon" three times.
JOSH GAD: (As himself) No, you're kidding me. You must be very wealthy.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) Must be - must be - oh, fantastic.
GAD: (As himself) It is such a kick. You, sir, have got to do it. You've got to try Broadway. You would get the bug. It is - it is so much fun.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) I did Broadway with my one-man show "700 Sundays." We won a Tony, and it's pretty much one of the highest-grossing nonmusicals in Broadway history.
GAD: (As himself) You're kidding me.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) No, no, no...
GAD: (As himself) Congratulations.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) Yeah. It's OK.
GAD: (As himself) No, I don't - I don't even know why I never even...
CRYSTAL: (As himself) It's all right.
GAD: (As himself) What was it about?
CRYSTAL: (As himself) It's a story that my dad died when I was 15.
GAD: (As himself) (Laughter) Wow, that sounds so powerful.
BIANCULLI: For "The Comedians" to strengthen in the future, its show within a show sketches have to be longer and funnier. Like, mini "SCTV" sketches And the behind-the-scenes clashes have to be more unpredictable. The Showtime comedy "Episodes" about the making of a TV sitcom does this brilliantly. In its first laps around the track, "The Comedians" does not. And then there's "Louie." Louis C.K., by writing, acting and directing in this series, is taking on more than just about any TV auteurs this side of "South Park." And he keeps doing amazing work, pulling off the most unexpected twists and turns anchored by his underappreciated acting ability and his eagerness to go where few comics have gone before. In the first few season five episodes alone, his TV character of "Louie" has sex with a very pregnant woman, gender-bending role-play sex with another woman and a panicked moment on the streets of New York when he suddenly has to go to the bathroom. All three of those scenarios ended up making made me laugh out loud, usually with a mixture of shock and awe. But small scenes work just as well. Louis C.K., like Jack Benny and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, can make a simple trip to the store a very memorable experience. Here's Louie venting his displeasure to a young salesclerk who didn't want to bother unlocking a display of expensive cookware for him because the shop was about the close. Clara Wong plays the clerk, and I love this scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
LOUIS C.K.: (As Louie) So you just don't care about your customers.
CLARA WONG: (As salesclerk) That whole customer's always right approach is kind of old school.
C.K.: (As Louie) Oh, is it? Oh, OK then - then - then noted. Thank you very much. In the future, I will take my business elsewhere.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Please do. Please go to Williams-Sonoma. They'll be very indulgent.
C.K.: (As Louie) Wow. Wow, that's a new approach. So you have nothing to learn from thousands of years of human commerce, just nothing. I really hope that works out for you.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Well, I'm 24, and I own my own store in Manhattan.
C.K.: (As Louie) All right then. All right. I will alert my entire generation that your generation needs nothing from us. We will just be on our way.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Well, if you could help clean up the environment you ruined on your wait out...
C.K.: (As Louie) Oh, is there anything else we can get for you, your majesties?
WONG: (As salesclerk) Do you always get uncomfortable around younger people?
C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah. I don't know - I don't know why.
WONG: (As salesclerk) I think I maybe know why.
C.K.: (As Louie) OK.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Because we're the future and you don't belong in it because we're beyond you. And, naturally, that makes you feel kind of bad. You have this deep down feeling that you don't matter anymore.
C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah, that's - that's - that's pretty true, yeah.
BIANCULLI: In that scene, "Louie," like "The Comedians," is deliberately addressing the new generation gap. "Louie" nails it perfectly in a few short minutes. "The Comedians," in eight episodes provided for preview, hasn't fully succeeded, except for one sequence in an upcoming episode in which Billy Crystal asks Mel Brooks to guest star. In a very funny, very meta scene, Mel turns him down. But it's a scene that doesn't involve Josh Gad. Gad and Crystal have yet to convincingly mesh or clash the way "The Comedians" needs them to. But Louis C.K., all by himself, is doing just great.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Adam Driver, who's best-known for his role on HBO's "Girls" as Hannah's on-again, off-again boyfriend.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")
LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I know that this is complicated, but I also know that we can work it out.
ADAM DRIVER: (As Adam Sackler) Well, I'm sick of trying to work it out. Can't one thing ever be easy with you?
GROSS: Adam Driver co-stars with Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried in the new movie comedy "While We're Young." So I hope you'll join us tomorrow. We'll close with a recording by Tony Bennett with a trio led by pianist Ralph Sharon. Sharon often accompanied Bennett. Ralph Sharon died last week. He was 91.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL OF YOU")
TONY BENNETT: (Singing) I love the looks of you, the lure of you. I'd love to make a tour of you. The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you; the east, west, north and the south of you. I'd love to gain complete control of you and handle even the heart and soul of you. Love at least a small percent of me, do. Yes, I love all of you.
This gentleman right here playing this piano is not only a great musician, but he's nice enough to find all my songs all through the years - Mr. Ralph Sharon, ladies and gentlemen.
RALPH SHARON: Thank you very much, y'all.
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