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Playwright Neil LaBute, 'Wrecks'

Playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute has earned a reputation for writing characters who are selfish, mean, misanthropic and misogynistic. His films include In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors. His plays include "The Mercy Seat", "Some Girls" and "Fat Pig". The New Yorker's John Lahr says his plays are "complex and unnerving," and that "there's no playwright on the planet who is writing better." "Wrecks" is LaBute's new one-man play starring Ed Harris. It opened last night at the Public Theatre in New York.

29:15

Other segments from the episode on October 12, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 12, 2006: Interview with Neil Labute; Interview with William Cope Moyers; Commentary on the debate about torture.

Transcript

DATE October 12, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Movie writer and director Neil Labute talks about the
kind of movies he's written and directed, the latest of which is
"Wrecks" which recently opened at the Public Theater in New York
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Neil Labute first became known for writing and directing plays and
movies about mean-spirited, manipulative sexual relationships. As Jennifer
Egan wrote about him, "He has made a career of dissecting sexual betrayal with
an emphasis on the ease with which the deceitful prey on the trusting."

This is not the kind of subject matter you'd expect from a graduate of Brigham
Young, the Mormon university in Utah, and it certainly wasn't subject matter
the university approved of. Before we go any further, let me play you what
the actor Aaron Eckhart told me earlier this year about performing in Labute's
plays back when Eckhart was a student at Brigham Young and Labute was a
graduate student there.

Mr. AARON ECKHART: It's one of those things when we would do plays there,
you know, they would lock the theater so--they would take away the lightboard,
and we'd be scheduled to have a run, you know, at 6:00 or 7:00 for a week, and
Neil would call me up, literally after rehearsing for three months, and he'd
be like, `We can't do it. We have to do it at 8:00 in the morning and tell
all your friends.' So we would kind of do this commando one-time theater
performance.

GROSS: We're going to talk with Neil Labute about why he's created
misogynistic and misanthropic characters and how he reconciled that with his
faith when he was a Mormon. Labute is a playwright, screenwriter and director
whose movies include "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors" and
this summer's remake of the 1973 horror film, "The Wicker Man." He also
directed a couple of films that seemed kind of out of character, the comedy
"Nurse Betty" and the adaptation of the A.S. Byatt novel, "Possession."
Labute wrote and directed the new one-man show, "Wrecks," starring Ed Harris
that opened Tuesday at the Public Theater in New York.

Neil Labute, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to describe your new
play.

Mr. NEIL LABUTE: The easiest way to describe it is a kind of eulogy in a
way. A man has lost his wife of, well, over 30 years actually. They'd been
married about 35 years, and it is at the viewing of his wife, and the entire
show takes place in a very theatrical kind of setting which is that he's meant
to be in the other room, and through his dialogue, we learn that he is with us
in the theater in his mind. He's escaping for both a cigarette and to work
out the complicated history that they've shared.

GROSS: I want to quote The New Yorker theater critic John Lahr. In an
article about you, he wrote, "He brings to his observations about human nature
something that other contemporary American writers have not articulated with
such single-minded authority: a sense of sin." Do you agree? That you're
interested in a sense of sin?

Mr. LABUTE: It would be silly if I disagreed with John Lahr, frankly,
whether it's a good or bad quote. I certainly do have that interest. I think
it has been there for a long time, before I really could consider myself a
writer and before and after the period where I was affiliated with any
particular church, say, the Mormon church, where I was a member for a number
of years. I think just the greater sense of morality, good and bad and the
idea of sin, is in fact...(network difficulties)...to the equation every time
that I write. There's a desire to go back to that question. I think those
are simple questions that sometimes get forgotten to be--I don't know if that
was articulated well, but they're not always asked because they seem, perhaps,
too simple. But I think they're always worth asking, the idea of--and
sometimes I've done it as simply as that, as a character saying, `Do you think
you're good?' or `What is good?' You know, `What is right and wrong?' or `Am I
a bad person?' They're interesting because I guess they're so subjective and
that's what's interesting to me. I'm very much a person who's into the idea
of subjectivity and why it, you know, is such an interesting filter through
which to look at art and life, and so I do go back to those questions
repeatedly.

GROSS: I want to ask you to choose a scene from one of your plays or movies
that you think is very potent in terms of transgressing, in terms of crossing
a line into something that you consider, you know, really, really bad or
sinful.

Mr. LABUTE: Well, I think that probably a scene from "In the Company of
Men," which was written a while ago now, almost a decade, but "In the Company
of Men," I think was based on a very cruel premise because it was very
calculated and two men. If a listener doesn't know it, that story, it's two
men decide to seduce a coworker and simultaneously date her, building up her
confidence and then dump her when they leave town because they're on an
assignment. And there's a scene late in the film that Aaron Eckhart plays,
his character's name is Chad, and he's sitting with the young woman who has
realized what's happening, and she confronts him. And Aaron performed a kind
of textbook of male slipperiness, I guess is the right word. It's, you know,
you watch this guy go through so many phases of trying to deny what the truth
is, from smiling to trying to sympathize with her to saying that he's, you
know, this isn't the truth, that he--there's all of these movements through
which he goes to where he finally makes himself laugh and says, `I--you know
what? Just forget it. I can't keep a straight face.' And you see the
complexity with which this guy's mind works, and I think that that is a scene
that people have often referred to in terms of the kind of laser-like devotion
that I will give to the intricacies of how people can manipulate and destroy
one another even in the name of love sometimes.

GROSS: Neil Labute, why are you interested in creating characters whose goal
is to manipulate, tear people apart and destroy them?

Mr. LABUTE: Well, I guess it's fascinating because I know that we do have
that capacity. I mean, we have such capacity for good and equally a capacity
for great ill, and as a writer, as a, you know, certainly a dramatic, a
fiction writer, you look to create conflict. You're constantly spoiling
people's day and their parties, and you're looking for a reason that people
start throwing china and walking out of the room. And so to me, to find
people with that--often intimate groups of people--friends, lovers, coworkers,
who--at the heart of their relationships is some betrayal and how they deal
with that, that feeling of having been betrayed by someone you're intimate
with, is quite fascinating, and so I think that I'm often drawn to where a
relationship can tumble to.

GROSS: Now you converted to the Mormon faith when you were how old?

Mr. LABUTE: I was in college, so I was, you know, in my 20s.

GROSS: And you got a scholarship at Brigham Young University, which is a
Mormon college. Did you convert after you got admitted there?

Mr. LABUTE: Yes, I went to the school as a nonmember. I had a scholarship
and was studying there, and it was during the time that I was studying as an
undergraduate that I joined the church.

GROSS: It was interesting because you joined the church just in time to write
plays that completely undermine all the principles the church stands for. So
why, like, can you explain that paradox?

Mr. LABUTE: No, I can't actually, but you know, if I could, I would not be
necessarily a rich man but I might be a more complete man. It's something
that eventually drove me, in some ways, from the church. I think I found
myself trying to balance my creative world and this religious idea on the
other side where, you know, the church has very definite views about how art
should be, what kind of art is, in fact, and what should be used. And I think
I had different ideas about that but felt that I could justify my work and
ultimately I was, you know, making R-rated films when the church asks you to
not see them. And so there's a point where you have to look yourself in the
mirror and say, `Are you just self-justifying or is it really the truth?' And,
ultimately, the truth was I couldn't do both.

GROSS: I know you taught film ethics at Brigham Young University, and I'd
like you to describe what some of those ethics were that you taught and also
how it helped you, if it helped you, figure out what lines you wanted to cross
and why. And what you thought the purpose of art is and why.

Mr. LABUTE: Well, it was an interesting class in that I thought it did ask
some strong and interesting questions, particularly ones that were intriguing
for people who are essentially going to a religious school, you know, that--it
asked realistic questions in that these are things you might have to face one
day beyond, you know, would you remove your clothing to be in a scene if you
saw that you were going to be paid for it for this, you know, acting work. It
went to questions about, you know, the nature of politically--you know, how
would you face, you know, a piece of material or do you think it's right to
even work in this particular medium or another medium as opposed to one that
you're more drawn to but you need to pay the bills? You know, it asked kind
of moral and ethical questions, which are always good to ask, and I find no
problem entertaining someone, at the same time handing them over, you know,
questions that I don't have an answer to, and that's part of the dialogue that
you share with them during the show.

That happens in "Wrecks" which we're doing right now. There are questions
there that I don't necessarily have answers to or--but I have opinions on, but
it's not me raising the questions, so I can then jam my answer down the throat
of an audience member but to say, `This is what is curious to me. This is
what is keeping me up, and what do you think of this?' You know, one of the
great questions in that play I think is, what is, you know, what is love, in a
general way, but can someone really have loved a person that they've lied to
for essentially their entire relationship? That's not a question that I feel
the need to answer so much as to raise and see where, you know, where that
leaves an audience at the end of a show. So I think that those are the kinds
of things that I was trying to ask those students, you know, some years ago
and keep trying to ask an audience today, that--the big questions that roll
around in my head.

GROSS: My guest is writer and director Neil Labute. His new one-man play,
"Wrecks," opened in New York this week. It stars Ed Harris.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is writer and director Neil Labute. His movies include "In
the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors," "Nurse Betty," "Possession"
and the remake of "The Wicker Man."

I'm really curious, because we're talking here about the time when you were a
Mormon and at Brigham Young University and writing plays that were considered
very transgressive there. I'm wondering what you think of the controversies
now about art that depicts the prophet Muhammad, whether it's, you know, an
opera, you know, a Mozart opera in Germany or the cartoons that sparked the
riots. I figure this is something you've thought about.

Mr. LABUTE: No, I hadn't actually heard about this. No, I'm kidding. You
know, sure, I think about it, and I find it really interesting. It's--to me,
I've seen the cartoons, and I've read about the opera and what that particular
scene is. I don't have any of the preoccupations or worries that other people
might have about that. It's not my faith, either, and so I'm not one to say
that that's a silly sense, that they're in the wrong, but in terms of art, I'm
a bit of an anything-goes person, and that can be dangerous or frivolous but
it tends to be the way I feel. In a smaller way, we have a--because we're
essentially, even though we're in the mind of a man in "Wrecks," where we see
we're in a funeral home and we hand out prayer cards at the beginning of the
show, and I've already received e-mails from a couple of people saying that
they find that offensive, that, you know, it shouldn't be used as some kind of
a prop, and it's not a site-specific kind of play, and so why are we handed
this thing that they feel is more sacred than we're, you know, letting on.
And so you have to respond to that kind of thing. But I'm not having to
respond to, you know, the theater being burned down.

There's a point where the Thermidor that comes from that, the reaction is so
strong that that's all you can react to, and so there's no dialogue really
about, you know, the right or wrong of the action or the reaction. It all
comes down to, well, you know, people are being killed, and the pope says
something and a nun is killed. So we have to respond to the most violent or
sensational part of that so it becomes difficult to actually talk about the
act itself.

GROSS: Now before you actually left the Mormon church, they disfellowed you,
I think is the expression. They kind of...

Mr. LABUTE: I was disfellowshipped, yes.

GROSS: Disfellowshipped. Yes, which is like a decrease in status within the
church?

Mr. LABUTE: It's a kind of limbo, I suppose, really. It's not an
excommunication. It's--there are certain things that come with it. You can't
take the sacrament. You can't hold a church office. But it's a place where
they're hoping that you'll work your way back toward good standing in the
church as opposed to the other direction.

GROSS: And what--was there a specific cause for that disfellowship?

Mr. LABUTE: My being disfellowshipped came directly as a result of the play
"Bash," which I had done. Some members of the church had sent in materials
and their concern to the offices in Salt Lake, and the local authorities in
the church had asked me to come in and speak about it, and I think that
ultimately they understood that I was not trying to create a negative image
for the church but it was--I had completely understood their feelings about it
in that, you know, someone might see a review of the play and the title of it
could be "Murderous Mormons," and that could be their first contact with the
Mormon church at all, so that they had great concern over that and...

GROSS: I should mention here that in that play there's, I think, a couple of
Mormons who beat up a gay person.

Mr. LABUTE: There are three different plays in that piece, and there are a
couple of incidences of infanticide, and then there is, yeah, there is a gay
bashing in there as well. And so, I think that they were duly concerned over
the depiction of activities that were perpetrated by some characters who had
some affiliation with the church, and so ultimately in the end, I was
disfellowshipped, and it's a place that I remained or a status rather that I
remained at until my resignation from the church.

GROSS: There was an article about you a while ago in The New York Times by
Mim Udovitch, and she had been asking you about the kind of manipulative,
exploitive men who you've created as characters in your work, and you said to
her that you grew up around men who have been quite difficult, and I was
wondering, like, who you had in mind.

Mr. LABUTE: President Nixon, I guess. An old family friend. No. My father
was a tricky character. He was a really intriguing blend of, you know,
handsome and could be funny, and yet he was a person who was quicksilver in
terms of the way his tempers went. And--he was a truck driver and so he was
often gone, and you never knew how he was going to come through the door, if
he was going to be happy or angry or sad or--and so he was someone--I mean,
it's such a strong figure in your life, and he created a real sense of danger,
I think, in the household. So I think a lot of those stronger male figures
who are calculated and frankly a little bit scary have probably no doubt come
from my experiences around him.

GROSS: When you say your father turned the house into a dangerous atmosphere,
are you saying that he actually physically hurt your mother or you?

Mr. LABUTE: There were times when there was, you know--you know, it's funny
today what gets called abuse as opposed to, you know, people say, `Oh, I used
to get spanked,' and now they call it abuse, and so it's a kind of
ever-movable feast in terms of what people call it, but, yeah, there were
times where he was physically aggressive, as well as emotionally or verbally,
so that was always a possibility. It was certainly something that he did far
less than just the kind of pervasive sense of menace that was in the air. You
know, the first time I read a Pinter play, I kind of said, `Hey, that's like
my place.' You know, there was always a kind of hanging pause in the air that
you thought, `This could really go either way,' whatever, you know, has been
said or done here, you never knew really how the man would react.

GROSS: Because your movies are about gender conflict in some way and because
some of the men in your films are so like misogynistic in their own way and
certainly anti-feminist, people will wonder, `What are your gender politics?'
Like, do you think of yourself as anti-feminist or are these just characters
you create to reflect things happening in society.

Mr. LABUTE: Oh, heavens, yeah! You know, for me it's, you know, I'm a
creature of what I do. You know, for me, it's all about I'm a writer. I'm
looking to entertain. I'm looking to provoke. I mean, I don't just always
want to go out there and cause a stir but, you know, it's part of the job, and
I feel like for me it's--I'm much more hopeful than a lot of my characters,
and I'm certainly more of what I would think of as a humanist in terms of, you
know, giving everybody a relatively fair break and then hoping for the best.
But I also am quite realistic and realize the great, you know, capacity we
have for good and bad and--but, frankly, you know, the bad is often the more
interesting thing to write. It's--you can ask any number of actors and
they'll say, `Yeah, it's pretty fun to play the bad guy. They get all the
good lines.' Well, you get to write those good lines when you're writing
somebody who's that way.

So for me, it's a label, particularly the mysogenistic one, that stuck early
to "In the Company of Men," and I think it kind of unfairly stuck there. When
I finally did get women to see the film, I think they looked at it and thought
that it was a pretty interesting take on the office and the way men and women
sometimes interact. So labels are what they are. I don't worry much about
them. But it's always about, you know, how do you get the word out, and for
me, as a person, it has very little to do with who I am and the things that I
write.

GROSS: Neil Labute will be back in the second half of the show. His new
play, "Wrecks," starring Ed Harris, opened this week in New York.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with writer and director Neil
Labute. His new one-man play, "Wrecks," opened this week in New York,
starring Ed Harris. Labute's movies include "In the Company of Men," "Your
Friends and Neighbors," "Nurse Betty," "Possession" and the remake of "The
Wicker Man."

I know somebody who's been very influential on you as a writer is David Mamet.
Could you describe what it is about his writing that is most important to you?

Mr. LABUTE: Yeah. It's good. You know, he gets it. He influenced me, you
know, again, at a time where I was very ready to be influenced and I was
coming from a place, from Spokane, Washington, from Central Valley High
School, and I didn't have a lot of access to new modern work, and Brigham
Young was not a place where I was going to find that either. But you stumble
onto a play or two, and one of the plays that I happened to get in my hands at
an early age was "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." And I thought, this is--it
opened up a whole new world in terms of what could be said, the way that
characters could be approached. You know, I'm sure it was, it not unlike, for
some people, you know, a hundred and some years ago when they see artists
beginning to make workers in the field their, you know, point of reference in
terms of a painting rather than royalty or, you know, landscapes, that it
was--you know, anything is the possibility--possible fodder for subject matter
and the way in which he dealt with language, the kind of muscular writing that
he was doing and the way he tackled subjects and that things could end
unhappily. And certainly plays have ended unhappily before that, but there
was such a modern heartbeat in that stuff for me that I'm sure it was not
unlike someone sitting in the royal court and watching John Osborne's "Look
Back in Anger," you know, or seeing "Brando" on stage for the first time and
going, `Damn, what is that? That is--I'm not used to this.'

GROSS: You know, in some of your work, people speak to each other, people
describe to each other sexual relationships that they've had and how they've
used people. Did you have to lose any inhibitions as a writer to be able to
get there in your work?

Mr. LABUTE: No, I think that, you know, that's a place that I still reserve
for the most freedom that I feel as a person, that there are inhibitions that
I probably have as a person that I don't feel as a writer. And that's part of
that `anything goes' that I mentioned earlier, that to me, it's a, you know,
it's really kind of open season, that if this is not the place in which to
talk about anything, that it's--I think the theater is still a place where
ideas are king or queen or whatever you want to call them. It's a kind of
open forum for talking about anything we sort of damn well please, and I
think--I don't remember the quote exactly but there was a--I think it was
attributed to Flaubert for him saying something to the effect of `I live my
life simply or quietly so that I can write savagely,' and I think that again,
I don't pull from my own life because I don't find it that interesting, and I
mean, I'm not that interested in it so why would somebody else be? And I
don't feel like the stories that come from me, and if they deal--you know, I
have to be--once I decide on a story and I'm going to write that story, I have
to be true to that story and to those characters, and I'm much more worried
about telling that story properly than I am in how the audience will find it,
whether they'll feel it's--I mean I want it to be compelling, but I don't
really care if it ends happily or if it caters to anything that they
appreciate or have been brought up believing.

You know, our audiences today are so used to things working out and the folks
who have done bad getting what they deserve. It's based on bedtime stories
that were altered from the original in the first place, and so it's just a
kind of--I don't even know that they want it, it's just what they're used to,
and so for me, when I get a chance to work in the theater or write, it's--I'm
going to be careful about being honest to what I set out to do as opposed to
catering to the whims of an audience.

GROSS: Well, Neil Labute, good luck with your new play and thank you very
much for talking with us.

Mr. LABUTE: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Neil Labute's new one-man show, "Wrecks," opened in New York this
week. It stars Ed Harris.

Coming up, William Cope Moyers talks about his crack addiction and recovery.
His new memoir includes letters written to him by his father, Bill Moyers.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: William Cope Moyers discusses his new memoir about his
drug addiction and recovery
TERRY GROSS, host:

William Cope Moyers' new memoir about addiction and recovery begins in 1994,
when he walked out on his wife and two children and was getting high at a
crack house in Atlanta's inner city. His father, the journalist Bill Moyers,
had tracked him down and come to get him. It's not the only time in the
memoir when William is rescued by his family. He wrote his memoir when he was
47 years old and 12 years sober. He's now vice president at the Hazelden
Foundation in Minnesota, a drug and alcohol rehab center where he previously
spent time in recovery.

William Cope Moyers, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell me about one of the times
when your father came knocking on the door of a crack house, looking for you.

Mr. WILLIAM COPE MOYERS: Well, there are a couple of stories in the book
about that. One of them was in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I live know. I
was relapsing and he came to the apartment building where I was holed up. He
and my wife and the building manager came into the apartment, and I hid in the
closet from the very people who, you know, loved me and wanted to help me and
they reached into the closet and searched through the clothing and somehow
missed me, and then they were gone.

There was another time in Atlanta in 1994 when I finally took responsibility,
and my father--didn't come to the door per se but he was waiting in the van
when I entered the van.

GROSS: Why was crack your drug of choice?

Mr. MOYERS: It was the drug in the end, Terry, that worked. I had started
experimenting with marijuana when I was a teenager growing up in the quiet
suburbs of Long Island, and I progressed on to the legal use of alcohol, and
then into harder drugs like cocaine and other things. But after a while those
drugs sort of stopped working, and only in 1988, through an accidental
encounter with a crack dealer on Long Island, did I smoke crack for the first
time. It brought me to my knees literally, as I recount in the book. It
became my god, with a small `g.' And it worked. I mean, it sort of filled
that hole in the soul, it had a power over me that none of the other drugs
had. I mean--and it worked to the point where it drove me, not just down to
my knees but down into the hole of my addiction so that in 1989, a year later,
I hit bottom in a crack house in Harlem, New York.

GROSS: In describing how your addiction affected your relationship with your
family and affected your family's life, you reprint some of the letters that
your father sent you over the years, and I'm going to ask you to read one of
them, and this one's on page 64. I'm going to ask you before you read this
excerpt to tell us when it was written and what the circumstances were.

Mr. MOYERS: Well, yes. This letter was written right after I had been
arrested in December of 1980 as I was going back to college and as I was
mulling over what I was going to do once I graduated in '81. So if you look
on the previous page, you know, he's having a frank conversation about the
fact that I got some problems here, but he's willing to let go of me and let
me discover my own way in the second half of this letter.

GROSS: So, would you read it for us?

Mr. MOYERS: OK. (Reading) "And so my father writes: `I think you are
probably right in wanting at least for a couple of years to work on a
newspaper, and I think that as much as I love having you around here or close
by, it's probably good for you to go off on your own. If you stay in this
business, I believe there is a possibility that one day, in some capacity,
we'll be collaborating on a project or two. But first you have to keep out of
my reach. I can't stop being a father right now, and if you're around, I'll
be giving you too much advice, asking you to take on my priorities, putting a
safety net under you too often to allow you to make your own mistakes and
generally do the things a father's here to do. But as the old prayer goes,
"Lord, teach me to let go," and I can't let go as easily if you're in the
house or next door. As hard as it will be on all of us to have you so far
away, we'll be able to get together. We'll meet for long weekends and
vacations, and we'll know all along that the purpose of the sacrifice now is
for some important goal down the road.'"

GROSS: What impact did this letter have on you?

Mr. MOYERS: Well, my father was--earlier in the letter my father was sort of
taking my inventory as to the reality that something was, you know, troubling
me inside. On the other hand, he was saying, `You know, son, you've got to
grow up and you've got to move out from underneath me and get out there on
your own and make your own successes and make your own mistakes and don't
worry. We'll be able to get back together one day.' I think my father was
being both hopeful and perhaps a bit nervous that something was not right with
me but perhaps it would work itself out if I could just get out from
underneath this man called Bill Moyers.

GROSS: When you were in rehab, your father had to fill out a concerned person
questionnaire and you reprint something that he wrote in that, which is,
"Intimacy has always been a problem for me and I show emotions very little,
partly because that is my nature and partly for professional reasons,
journalistic objectivity, that is." And in talking about how his journalistic
orientation affected your relationship, you describe how once when you were
actually talking with him and as you describe, `spilling your guts,' about
what was going on with you and your addiction, he actually took notes. He
took notes on it, and then he sent you those notes years later to help you
understand what you were going through at that time. I found that kind of
amazing.

Mr. MOYERS: It is amazing, and I give my father credit for that actually,
because I think, you know, my father, when it comes to being a journalist,
he's been objective over the years, but when it comes to the love he had for
me as his oldest son, there's no such thing as objectivity, and yet he did
have the presence of mind to write some of these things down, probably so that
it would be the kind of record that both of us could look back on and
remember, you know, without the emotion of the moment that always tends to
sort of tilt the perspective one way or the other.

GROSS: During--for several years, even during some of the years of your
addiction, you worked in journalism. You wrote for newspaper, you worked for
CNN, and you did well and you were even able to function during certain
periods of addiction. In your book, you write that you liked deadlines.
"Deadlines were like drugs. They focused me." And I was wondering, did you
like the adrenaline, too? Did you find that adrenaline was a good drug for
you?

Mr. MOYERS: Yeah. I mean, I'm a guy who likes thrills, I like excitement.
I used to jump out of airplanes from time to time and go flying, and do things
like that. I don't do that anymore...(network difficulties). I guess what
I'm trying to say is, yes, for a long time, drugs worked. They did for me
what I couldn't do for myself, which was to make me feel better, to sort of
pick me up, to keep me up, to help me drive towards some sort of finish line,
and for a while, they worked. That's why I took them. But after a while,
they stopped working, and I still kept taking them. Even though they didn't
work, I still needed them just to function, believe it or not. And for a long
time, I really did live that Jekyll & Hyde lifestyle where I could look good
on the outside and yet I was dying on the inside. I could be productive on
the outside, and on the inside, I was struggling valiantly against a power
greater than myself, in this case, the disease of addiction.

GROSS: My guest is William Cope Moyers, and he's written a new memoir called
"Broken: My story of Addiction and Redemption," and he was addicted to crack
cocaine.

What do you think was different about your fourth stay in rehab, the one that
you emerged from without going back to crack?

Mr. MOYERS: I surrendered. I surrendered.

GROSS: What does that mean?

Mr. MOYERS: It means I gave up trying to do it my way, and I think the most
remarkable moment for me was waking up, in the detox, in October of 1994, and
pondering this question: Now what? And for the first time in my life, I
didn't have an answer to `Now what?' And it was--that stunningly stark
realization that I had run out of options, that I didn't have the answer to
how I could get on top of this problem any more, it was that stark realization
that led me to say, `I'm done. I don't have the answer and if I don't listen
to other people who have that answer, I'm going to die.' And I was at a point
in the fall of '94 when after this last relapse, I just gave up trying to do
it my way. And I've been sober ever since.

GROSS: After you got sober and stayed sober, you heard a voice that you
interpreted as the voice of God speaking to you saying the words `St. Paul,'
as in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is near where Hazelden is, the rehab
facility, which you had been in. And at the time you heard this voice, you
were living in Atlanta, and you actually followed the voice and decided to
move with your family to St. Paul, although you'd be leaving a job, you had
no job options ahead of you in St. Paul. Had you ever had that kind of voice
that you heard before? Had you ever had something that you'd interpret as a
vision or a visitation.

Mr. MOYERS: No, no, I hadn't, and I think that's a good point that you
raise. You know, I--there I was, devastated in detox and in treatment in
Atlanta, out of options, unable to answer the question `Now what?' and while I
was there I had this whisper in my ear, which was `St. Paul.' And in my own
mind, I knew what--where that came from. It came from God and I knew what God
was telling me what to do. You know, ironically, I didn't know the story of
St. Paul the Saint, so I figured God couldn't be talking about that. He must
have been talking about the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, where I'd spent some
time during my early treatment experiences at Hazelden. And so we went back
to Minnesota, Allison and I and the boys did, because I knew that if I was
going to stay sober I'd better do what other people tell me to do, whether
they were counselors or whether it was God.

GROSS: And so you moved back to St. Paul. You were looking for a job, and
eventually, like months later, you saw an ad in the newspaper that Hazelden,
the rehab facility in which you had been in rehab was looking for a--somebody
who would be a public policy specialist. You applied for the job, you got the
job, and suddenly you were working in your area, addiction, that was now your
field.

Mr. MOYERS: Amazing.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MOYERS: And I think that's the power.

GROSS: And again you were working on public policy. It seems to me one of
the things you realized when you started working there with public policy is
how lucky you were that you had the money for rehab which a lot of people
don't, but did it change your views at all about the nature of how American
culture deals with addition once you started working on public policy issues.

Mr. MOYERS: Yes. Because, you know, until that time, I'd always gotten
access to treatment. Like you noted, I did have resources, my family helped
me, I had some money in the bank, I was able to work and make money, and so I
had resources, and when I would go to treatment, I just sort of figured out
that that's--when you had a problem with alcohol and other drugs that you got
to go to treatment.

But when I started working at Hazelden, I realized that I was the exception
rather than the rule. That most people like me never get to treatment or get
the treatment that's less than what they need to recover. I mean I work for
the Hazelden Foundation. We're not-for-profit. It's been in the business of
helping people like me since 1949, and suddenly I was on the other side of the
fence. I'd gone from being a patient there in the early '90s to being an
employee who was working on the very issues that were all about access to
treatment, and I realized right away that this country's public policy
discriminated against people like me, and you know, Hazelden thinks that's
wrong, and that's why we've been doing public policy, and that's why I got
hired to sort of try to change public policy in part by changing public
perceptions about addiction treatment and recovery.

GROSS: President Bush used to have a drinking problem. I believe you've met
him and talked about policy with him, is that right?

Mr. MOYERS: I did actually, in May of 2001 when the world was a very
different place before 9/11. I was in the Rose Garden. I'm not quite certain
how I got invited there, but I was there. And President Bush was introducing
his nominee for drug czar, John Walters, and after it was over, the president
was coming down the line shaking hands, and I stuck out my hand and said, `Mr.
President, my name is William Moyers, I'm from Minnesota, and I'm a person in
recovery.' That's all I said, and without batting an eye, the president shook
my hand, and he said, `Sounds like we have something in common.'

Well, I was born in Texas and the president wasn't, so we don't have that in
common. I know who he voted for in the election of 2000, and so we don't have
that in common. But what the president and I do have in common is that both
of us have recovered from the desperate condition of too much drinking or at
least in my case, drugging as well. And I think the president could relate to
that, and I think this president actually sort of understands the power of
recovery in a way that perhaps other presidents haven't.

Now understanding it and forging good public policy on it are two different
things, but I do believe that the president does understand that people can be
ravaged by this problem and that you can recover from it. He recovers
differently than I do apparently. I had to go to treatment and I guess he
didn't, but the fact of the matter is we've recovered from a desperate
condition of too much drinking and drugging and you know, what happened to he
and I should happen to lots of people.

GROSS: Because President Bush had been a drinker earlier in his life, did you
expect a different kind of policy to emerge from his White House.

Mr. MOYERS: Well, public policy in America is driven by public perception,
and the public perception around addiction is a perception that is clouded in
the stigma of addiction. I guess the fact of the matter is that personal
belief alone cannot inform public policy and that it's going to take a
bipartisan approach before we begin to shift this war on drugs away from one
that punishes the addict and the alcoholic to one that treats them while still
holding them personally responsible.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MOYERS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: William Cope Moyers' new memoir is called "Broken: My Story of
Addiction and Redemption." He's the vice president at Hazelden, a drug and
alcohol rehab facility in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg listens to the debate about torture. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Linguist Geoff Nunberg talks about the hotly charged
debate on torturing terror suspects
TERRY GROSS, host:

The president has yet to sign legislation passed last month that outlined how
the government will prosecute terror suspects. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg
followed the hotly charged debate and says it's a subject you can't talk about
without inflicting some contortions on the language as well.

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: In 1978 the philosopher Henry Shoe wrote an influential
essay about torture that began with the sentence, "Whatever one may have to
say about torture, there appear to be moral reasons for not saying it. Once
we bring the subject up," he asked, "aren't we risking loosening the
inhibitions against the whole terrible business?" It was easy to have that
feeling over the last month or so as the country debated just how much cruelty
and degradation we were going to allow in interrogating terror suspects. Were
we really having this conversation?

In the end, Shoe himself wound up saying that torture had to be talked about.
But then the topic is irresistible to philosophy professors, since it seems
ideally suited to getting students to question their most cherished moral
certainties. On the face of things, you'd figure the prohibition of torture
would be a top candidate for a categorical moral rule that admits no
extenuating circumstances. But what about the scenario of a captured
terrorist who's hidden a nuclear bomb that's set to go off in a couple of
hours. Would torture be justified then? Some people try to dodge the dilemma
by saying that torture never works anyway, but that `never' is a leap of
faith. How can you be sure? And anyway, that response leaves the deeper
moral question open. Could you torture him if you thought it would get him to
tell you where the bomb is? Say no and you're risking a million lives. Say
yes, and you've suddenly become a situational relativist, balancing the moral
cost of inflicting pain and humiliation against the potential saving of lives.

Most of us find this hypothetical scenarios troubling, as of course we should.
But if we're honest, we'll admit that the idea that torture might sometimes be
justified can also kindle a prurient thrill. That explains the fascination of
the last two seasons of "24," where episode after episode presents agent Jack
Bauer with another opportunity for shooting somebody in the kneecap or
shocking him with an electric wire, always in the interest of getting him to
reveal some bit of lifesaving information. Whatever your intellectual
position on torture, you don't change the channel. This may be a morbid
fascination but it has deep roots in the folklore of childhood.

Who doesn't recall all the ordeals and torture games that children visit on
each other? Depending on where or when you grew up, you called them `pink
belly,' `the Indian or Chinese rope burn,' `the noogie' or `the Russian
haircut.' The names often evoke alien archetypes of cruelty and inhumanity
since even then we knew that Americans didn't do this stuff. But the rituals
were compelling, a setting for acting out our forbidden fantasies and proving
our toughness.

Not surprising, the administration was at pains to keep any of that atavistic
fascination with torture from bubbling to the surface. `We're not talking
about permitting actual torture,' they insisted. `If a terrorist doesn't
break under waterboarding or sleep deprivation, we're not going to go all Jack
Bauer on him, ticking bomb or no.' The challenge was to find language that
made the appropriate distinctions, carving the gray breaches of the Geneva
Convention from the lesser ones, the inhuman from the merely regrettable, the
stuff that shocks the conscience from the stuff that merely rocks it back on
its heels a bit. Alternative sets of procedures, enhanced interrogation
techniques, vigorous questioning--the phrases struck a comforting sound of
professional routine. In a September 15th speech, in fact, President Bush
used the word `professionals' 26 times by way of reassuring Americans that the
people administering the procedures would not only know what they were doing,
but would presumably take no pleasure in doing it.

Still, some of the administration supporters were clearly enjoying the
discussion, particularly when it came to making light of the procedures under
consideration. Bill O'Reilly reported that one terrorism suspect had broken
when placed in a freezing room and subjected to Red Hot Chili Peppers music,
and then added, `Well, wouldn't you?' And the American Spectator's Emmett
Tyrrell argued that waterboarding was infinitely less dangerous than
skateboarding, which causes sprained ankles and broken bones.

The point of those comparisons, of course, was to contrast the
tough-mindedness of the administration supporters with a wimpy moral
fastidiousness of its critics. When Colin Powell voiced reservations about
the proposals, William F. Buckley called his objections `maudlin.' But there
was something disturbing about that ostentatious unconcern about what we might
be getting ourselves into. Thoughtful people might reluctantly conclude that
the terrorist threat really does require us to augment the techniques that
were deemed adequate for interrogating the Vietcong or Jeffrey Dahmer. But
that's a conclusion that you ought to come to with a sense of gravity and
unease, not with belligerent gusto. People have often said that
state-approved torture coarsens a society. But what's striking about last
month's discussion is how eager some people were to embrace their inner
schoolyard bully. But then, we knew that in fifth grade.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley. His new book on political
language is called "Talking Right."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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