DATE May 8, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: New York Times correspondent Adam Liptak discusses
the American justice system
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
The United States leads the world in producing prisoners, with 2.3 million
Americans behind bars. China, with four times the US population, is a distant
second with 1.6 million people imprisoned. The United States' high rate of
incarceration is one of several unique features of the American legal system
described in a series of articles by our guest, New York Times national legal
correspondent Adam Liptak.
Liptak is a Yale Law graduate who had a legal career before becoming a
full-time journalist. In fact, he worked as an attorney for the Times before
becoming its legal correspondent in 2002. Soon he'll take over coverage of
the US Supreme Court with the retirement of veteran Times writer Linda
Well, Adam Liptak, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You did this series recently
about ways in which the American legal system is unique, and one of them
involved imprisonment. What's the scale of incarceration in the United States
as compared to other countries?
Mr. ADAM LIPTAK: We have more prisoners than any other nation in the world.
We're hardly the world's most populous nation--we have only 5 percent of the
world's population--but we have almost a quarter of its prisoners. We have
more prisoners in absolute numbers, and we have more prisoners also as a
percentage of the population. So we're actually way off the charts.
DAVIES: How long has this been the case?
Mr. LIPTAK: It's a relatively recent phenomenon. We've had decent records
since about the 1920s; and from the 1920s through the 1970s, the American
incarceration rate was a little bit higher than the rest of the world, but not
very much, and quite stable. And then in the late '70s, as we started to get
tough on crime and as we started to have a serious crime wave, it shot way up.
And there seemed to be a bunch of reasons for this. Part of it is that the
American society is a more violent one, and particularly the murder rate,
although it's fallen in recent years, is still maybe four times that of many
We're also just much more punitive. We put more people in prison for
relatively minor crimes, nonviolent crimes, property crimes, passing bad
checks. And we put them in prison for longer than other parts of the world.
And as a consequence, we recently passed an interesting milestone that more
than one in 100 American adults is in prison today.
DAVIES: OK. Let's look at a couple of those potential explanations in a
little more detail. It's clear we have higher murder rates. We have a lot
more handguns in use than a lot of other countries. Do we have higher rates
of crime generally, or violent crime, than, say, European countries?
Mr. LIPTAK: I'm told that your likelihood of being assaulted in London and
New York are about the same. But the murder rate in the US is much, much
higher. On the other hand, burglaries, robberies, things like that, the US is
relatively safe. So you really have to look at the kind of crime, and it's
murder that's the outlier.
DAVIES: Uh-huh. You know, a number of things can affect how many people are
in prison at a given moment. One of them is the rates of arrest and the
extent to which people are incarcerated. One of the other things is how long
they are kept there. Do we arrest people more frequently, or do we keep them
in jail longer, or both?
Mr. LIPTAK: Both of those things. We have--and there's another factor,
Dave, to think about, which is we also define more things as crimes and more
things as serious crimes. Possessing drugs in the US is very often thought to
be a very serious crime. We have almost half a million people in prison for
various kinds of drug crimes. In much of the rest of the world, the approach
to drug abuse to counseling, rehabilitation programs. In the US it's very
DAVIES: Hm. And so the war on drugs is--I mean, you mention that are
imprisonment rate rose sharply in the '70s. Does that roughly correspondent
to a preoccupation or drugs on the part of, you know, law enforcement?
Mr. LIPTAK: Yes, it does. Yes, it does. In 1980, we had maybe 40,000
people in prison for drug crimes, these day about half a million. So you see
a very sharp spike in that.
DAVIES: Now, do criminologists believe that all of this incarceration has
made us any safer?
Mr. LIPTAK: Most people believe--and common sense would suggest--that
incarcerating people drives down crime. You first of all take a potential
criminal off the streets so that he the or she is not likely to commit more
crime, certainly not on the outside. And you also scare people. There's a
deterrent effect. Some criminals are rational. And if you're going to be
punished very severely for a conduct, you're less likely to commit it. So
that there is a role, there's a connection between incarceration and driving
down crime rates seems to me all but indisputable.
But the question is how much, and is it worth it? Most people say that other
things, like demographics, economic conditions, a social safety net, policing
strategies play as big or bigger a role. And you have to wonder also, even if
you do get some marginal effect, even if you do drive down the crime rate some
through massive incarceration, is that a societal bargain that we want to
make? And those are hard questions.
DAVIES: You know, one of the other things that I wonder if it affects the
rate of incarceration in the United States is the fact that we elect a lot of
our judges in many, many states. Does that matter?
Mr. LIPTAK: Yeah, and, Dave, you mentioned that this is part of a series on
ways in which US law is different from the rest of the world, and that's
another way in which we are different from the rest of the world. With the
exception of scattered instances in Switzerland and Japan, we are the only
country in the world that elects our judges. And once you have elected
judges, they're going to be responsive to popular sentiment about crime, and
that is typically to be tough, tough, tough on criminals.
So you get this so of feedback loop where you don't want to be that judge
against whom--because he's elected, or she's elected--a campaign commercial is
run saying that judge so-and-so let a criminal out and that criminal committed
another crime. And that risk, that terrible risk through the judge's career,
might incline them to be tough across the board.
DAVIES: You know, there's also the critique that American prisons, perhaps
because they are so overcrowded and perhaps because they are expensive to run,
tend to skimp on education and rehabilitation services, which would allow
criminals to go in a different direction once they've gotten out. I mean, I'm
wondering, do European countries look at that differently? Do prisons do a
better job of giving people a different start in life?
Mr. LIPTAK: Mm-hmm. I think, first of all, Dave, you're putting it mildly
that the American prison system skimps. These days, the American prison
system is geared almost only at punishment. Programs have been cut because
they're expensive. Rehabilitation does not seem to be a goal, and it's at
least arguable that prisons produce criminals.
The model elsewhere in the world--and, you know, it's hard to say that every
place else is--I mean, there are variations all around the world--but the
model elsewhere in the world is to try to figure out a way to bring people
back into society, not to sort of cut them off forever. In the US--and people
think that there is a dividing line. If you do something bad enough, we sort
of cast you out from society forever. We keep you in prison for a long time
and then we let you out, but you're a convicted felon. You'll find it very
hard to get a job. There are places perhaps that you're not allowed to live.
There are states in which you're not allowed to vote. We have a very binary
idea of who's a good person and who's a bad one, and I think other parts of
the world think that's a more fluid thing.
DAVIES: Has it always been true that American prisons have completely
neglected rehabilitation, or did we try and address this in past years?
Mr. LIPTAK: In the 1800s, our penitentiary system was the model of the
world. People came here to visit. De Tocqueville came here to visit, to
marvel at how we'd constructed a system in which people would be reformed and
returned to society, and they would go back and write pamphlets and books
about this fantastic American innovation of the penitentiary system, which was
a model to the rest of the world. And we have gone from that to really the
exact opposite. The rest of the world is no longer sending delegations to
American prisons to learn how it might be done.
DAVIES: Let me just throw a couple of other legal ideas out here, which I
know you're familiar with. One is the broken windows theory of law
enforcement, which was popularized in New York in the 1990s and it sort of
swept through police departments around the country. And the notion being
that if one aggressively pays attention to what some would regard as small
crimes--I mean, the street corner drug dealing or even the squeegee guy--that
you create a sense of order, and people are less likely to commit crimes if
they know that people are really on top of them and they're going to be held
accountable. And that you also find some bad actors out there who are
violating parole and maybe having guns. And, of course, in New York City,
that, along with, you know, an increased police force and some other measures,
drove down crime dramatically in the '90s and has stayed down. How has that
interacted with the demands on prison space? And does it argue for, in fact,
a smart, aggressive kind of law enforcement?
Mr. LIPTAK: I lived in New York through those years, and there's no question
that the New York City of today, which is wonderful and safe, is very
different from what we saw in the late '70s, early '80s. And there's no
question that cracking down on turnstile jumping and people, you know, on very
minor crimes must certainly have played a significant role on that. But
that's mostly a story about policing. That doesn't tell you that the person
you catch jumping a turnstile has to be sent to prison for 20 years. It's a
story about, `Let's get that guy, punish him appropriately, perhaps hold him
overnight, perhaps write him a ticket.' And if in the process you happen to
catch, you know, a murderer--and sometimes, as you were suggesting, Dave, when
you go after the small-time crime, you pick up in the net the big-time
criminal as well. That's all a great idea, but that's a story about policing.
That's not a story about the appropriate levels of punishment for given
DAVIES: One of the features of the American justice system which you say is
different is the existence of the bail bondsman. And you write that the bail
bondsman is an insurance salesman, a social worker, a lightly regulated law
enforcement agent, a real estate appraiser and a for-profit wing of the
American justice system. Most of us don't deal with bail bondsmen much.
Explain how the bail bond system works.
Mr. LIPTAK: What a bail bondsman does is, a private businessman is given the
opportunity to get you out of jail in exchange for a nonrefundable fee,
typically 10 percent of the amount the judge said. And that sounds great.
So, you know, you don't have the thousand dollars, but for $100 he'll come up
with bail for you and you'll get out, pending trial.
But think about that for a second. You have someone who is presumed innocent,
has not been convicted of anything, and we're going to hold him unless he pays
a nonrefundable fee to a private business. And we outsource to this private
businessman both the question of should someone presumed innocent get out or
not, and then allow him to make a profit on that person's freedom. And many,
many people, although initially charged, are ultimately not convicted. So we
not only have someone presumed innocent but someone adjudicated innocent, and
nonetheless we've made that person pay a fee in order to retain their freedom.
DAVIES: And the reason the court system does it is that it appears to assure
people are more likely to come back for trial. I mean, does it?
Mr. LIPTAK: The numbers suggest it, although it's a little hard to control
for it. Yes, it is true that bail bondsmen have an economic incentive to make
sure that people show up for trial. They also have an economic incentive to
choose only those people who are likely to show up for trial to begin with, so
it's not as though we live in a world of bounty hunters. Ninety-nine percent
of people would show up regardless. But it is also true that the 1 percent
who goes on the lam, bail bondsmen, because they're on the hook for the whole
amount, will aggressively try to get those people, probably more aggressively
than systems in which the government handles this whole business.
DAVIES: And that's where it gets weird. We've empowered private citizens to
arm themselves and go after criminals and lock them up. I mean, what powers
to they have? Can they handcuff somebody to a hotel bed and transport them
across state lines, things like that?
Mr. LIPTAK: It's extraordinary. They can cross state lines. They can bust
down the door of a private house. They can imprison that person. The theory
behind it is that if you enter into this bail bond relationship with somebody
and you sign a contract, you are their prisoners and they can on a whim revoke
your bail at any time, snatch you up and take you back. This truly is a sort
of frontier, Wild West legacy of Americana that is retained in almost every
DAVIES: Well, OK, so how do other countries handle this, and are they less
likely to get defendants back for court appearances?
Mr. LIPTAK: They handle it in lots of ways. Some countries don't let you
out. They lock you up pre-trial. Some countries let you out, but they make
it a crime for you not to come back. So they'll prosecute you for that second
crime. Some countries will take a deposit from you and give it back to you if
you show up. Some countries will write down a number on a piece of paper, and
if you don't show up they'll make you liable for it and they'll try to collect
it from you later. So there are lots and lots of different ways to do it; but
except for the Philippines, the US is the only one that turns it into a
DAVIES: We're speaking with Adam Liptak. He is the national legal
correspondent for the New York Times.
Another thing that you've written about, which is a distinct feature of the
American legal system as opposed to other countries, is punitive damages, the
idea that a jury, when listening to a civil dispute, can decide to order
compensation not simply for one's injuries and costs but for the punitive
effect of punishing them and preventing this kind of future behavior in
others. This isn't done elsewhere. And you illustrate this with an
interesting case involving an Italian manufacturer, I think, of a motorcycle
Mr. LIPTAK: Yes.
DAVIES: Explain what happened.
Mr. LIPTAK: And just to put this in context for just a second, we've been
talking mostly about criminal cases so far. We're now moving to civil cases.
These are cases where people sue each other for money. I think I've been hurt
in some way and I sue someone else for money. And I say, `I would like not
only to be made whole for the injury I've suffered, I also think that you, the
defendant, should separately--even after I've been made whole--be punished
because you did something really bad.' And it's that punishment that we call
punitive damages. And that in most of the rest world is viewed with disfavor
because punishment, they think, is not to be done in these civil settings but
in criminal settings. Let prosecutors do the punishing and let civil cases be
about making people whole.
The Italian case you mentioned involved an Alabama court case where a young
man falls off his motorcycle and his motorcycle helmet fails and he dies. The
buckle snaps and his bare head hits the pavement, he dies. His mom sues and a
judge awards a million dollars. He doesn't say how much of that is for
compensatory damages to make her whole for her lost, how much for punitive,
but it's clear that part is for each.
The defendant is an Italian company. It has no assets in the United States.
It refuses to pay. Her lawyers go over to Italy and say, `I've got this
Alabama court judgment. Please enforce it.' That's usually a routine thing.
Courts around the world, ours and others, if someone has a valid court
judgment, they don't look behind it, they don't ask questions. They say, `OK,
we will now enforce that and you can collect your million dollars here in
Italy.' The Italian Supreme Court said, `Wait a second. We don't believe in
punitive damages. We think that's a pernicious, bad idea to let the civil
justice system go around punishing people, and as a consequence, I'm sorry,
mom of the poor kid who died, we're not going to give you any money.'
And that phenomenon we've seen elsewhere in the world. The German Supreme
Court did something similar. And the idea that American juries are
awarding--a million dollars is not that much money, but sometimes enormous
sums of money against Exxon, in the Exxon Valdez case, initially $5
billion--that idea the rest of the world doesn't stomach. They think that
prosecutors should be punishing. Regulators should be regulating industries.
And we shouldn't let 12 people in Alabama decide what is and is not good
economic or social policy.
DAVIES: Now, I guess--but the other part of it, of course, is that a lot of
the awards in civil cases are not for punitive damages. They are for actual
losses. And in this case, you know, a young man died; but let's say he'd
suffered serious injuries that required, you know, sustained medical care and
rehabilitation all his life. Now, would an Italian court say, `Fair enough.
If the manufacturer was liable, you do have to pay the real costs that this
injury has suffered. But we're not going to'...
Mr. LIPTAK: Yeah. Nobody disputes that.
Mr. LIPTAK: Everywhere in the world, in the civil justice system, everyone
agrees that the basic point of the lawsuit is to make you whole, to compensate
you for your injuries. And the part of it that's in dispute is, should you
also, in that setting, go ahead and punish a defendant for doing something
DAVIES: You know, the notion here, I guess, is that plaintiffs and juries act
as regulators of misconduct, including government and corporate misconduct at
times, by setting limits and imposing consequences that government regulators
are either too busy or too overworked or too indifferent to do themselves.
Explore that notion a little bit.
Mr. LIPTAK: Mm-hmm. We trust ordinary people, and that's a wonderful aspect
of the American justice system. We empower juries in many settings that the
rest of the world doesn't trust ordinary people, would rather trust, you know,
party functionaries in some part of the world, or bureaucrats in others. We
trust ordinary people to make judgments. But you do want to ask the question
sometimes about whether 12 people with no special training should be making a
decision, say, about whether a car's gas tank was properly constructed, and
whether a car company should have to pay $100 million to make sure that next
time they construct that gas tank better, or whether we should leave it to
The counterargument is that regulators are sometimes lazy or, in a way,
captured by the industries that they regulate. And it's hard to know what the
right answer there is.
DAVIES: And I thought we'd talk about one more of the exceptions that you
write about, and that involves the juvenile life sentence, kids under 18 who
commit awful crimes and are put in jail for life without parole. This is
Mr. LIPTAK: We are literally alone in the world in doing this. No other
nation in the world thinks it's a good idea to send, say, a 13- or 14-year-old
who, without question, did something horrible, away to prison for the rest of
his or her life, without even the possibility of parole. The important point
to pause on is that life sentences--although there, too, we are a very big
user of life sentences but with the possibility of parole--is one kind of
thing. The idea that you can make a decision about somebody who's done
something terrible at 13 or 14, that by the time they're 40 or 50 or 60 they
will remain beyond redemption, that there's nothing they could say about
themselves to anyone that would let you re-open the book and say, `You know
what? Let's take a fresh look. Maybe we let you out. Maybe we don't. But
at least we'll listen to you.' That notion is literally unique to the United
DAVIES: Of course that imperative for punishment is often driven by the
horror of of some crimes that young people commit. And this is illustrated, I
think, so well about this case that you write about involving a young woman
named Ashley Jones. Describe her crime and her situation.
Mr. LIPTAK: Oh, Ashley Jones was a troubled child, and she was sent to live
with her very tough grandfather. And she and her boyfriend got it into their
heads that they were going to kill the grandfather, and they did. And they
killed an aunt. They tried to kill a 10-year-old girl. And they very nearly
succeeded in killing the grandmother as well. And Ashley Jones, as a
consequence, was sentenced--I think at age 14--to life without parole in
I interviewed the grandmother, who had been in a coma for 30 days after being
burned in the process of being stabbed, and she said that she lost dear
members of her family and that this was very hard to forgive, but that Ashley
was a child, and that there might come a time--she suggested 15, 20
years--when the authorities should have a fresh look at whether she had
matured in some way that would allow this to be put behind her.
The prosecutor, though, said to me--and here's the other point of view--that
there are some people who are born without a conscience, who are beyond
redemption and who should never be let out, no matter what.
DAVIES: And how have appeals courts and the Supreme Court dealt with this?
Because you can certainly imagine compelling arguments on both sides of this.
Mr. LIPTAK: All of this life without parole stuff happens in the shadow of
the death penalty. So the people who try to do away with the death penalty
are very often big proponents of life without parole. The courts really
haven't dealt with life without parole, and when they have they haven't had a
problem with it. But there was some reasoning in the Supreme Court's decision
striking down the death penalty for people who committed crimes when they were
under 18 that would suggest that some of that reasoning might someday be
incorporated by some court to question whether life without parole for people
who committed offenses at very ages might be appropriate. The court said
that, you know, young teenagers are subject to peer pressure, are rash, are
capable of change. And that reasoning, while applied by the Supreme Court
only to the juvenile death penalty, might also, by its logic, some day be
applied to juvenile life without parole.
DAVIES: You know, Adam Liptak, you have an interesting bio for a newspaper
guy. I mean, I know you've been around the newspaper business for a long
time, were a copy boy when you were young. Is that right?
Mr. LIPTAK: That's right. Many years ago at The New York Times I was
fetching coffee for some of the people I work with today.
DAVIES: But you really have spent most of your career as a lawyer, including
a number of years as a lawyer for The New York Times. And then in 2002 you
became a staff writer covering legal issues. And I'm wondering, were there
things about reporting that surprised you, misconceptions about how journalism
works or new skills you had to develop? What was it like to leap into this
business that you knew so well but hadn't practiced?
Mr. LIPTAK: It was terrifying. My first six months were sheer terror. I
really didn't have the background to be any kind of newspaper reporter, much
less one starting on the national desk of The New York Times. I didn't have
any sources. I had not really conducted telephone interviews.
There's a skill set involved in journalism which is not the hardest thing in
the world to master, but really you want to do it on your college paper and
maybe at some regional paper and not in the big time. So I remember being
assigned a story saying, `Adam, we need 700 words on this and so.' And not
knowing how much reporting it takes to fill up 700 words, or when to stop
answering the phone to make sure I would finish by deadline, or how long 700
words really was. I'd be hitting the little button to see the word count.
One afternoon I remember I got up to 550 words and I had nothing more to say.
I go, `Oh my God. What do you do now?' You know, all of that over--those are
not the hardest skills to master, and I think I did master those at least, and
I did get to know some people. And now I have, you know, trustworthy people I
know in many, many legal subject matter areas that I can call to get a gut
check on whether a development is important, how it's important, how it's
different from the past. I had none of that. So the early days were
DAVIES: Well, Adam Liptak, thanks so much for speaking with us and good luck
with the Supreme Court.
Mr. LIPTAK: Oh, thank you so much.
DAVIES: Adam Liptak is The New York Times national legal correspondent.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jonathan Paskowitz on new documentary "Surfwise"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
"The first family of surfing" is how the Paskowitzes were described in The New
York Times. It's a family with several championship surfers, a family that
founded a now famous surfing school in California. But surfing may be the
least part of what makes this family atypical. The Paskowitz family is the
subject of a new documentary which opens in New York this week. A few days
ago, Terry Gross spoke with John Paskowitz about his childhood and about his
TERRY GROSS, host:
Dorian Paskowitz, or "Doc" as he's known, was a Stanford educated,
twice-divorced physician living in Hawaii in the mid-1950s when he decided to
give up his conventional life and devote it to surfing. He went to Israel for
a year and introduced surfing there. Then he moved back to the US, married,
and had nine children, eight boys and a girl. He had a dream of a utopian
family life devoted to surfing and fostering mental and physical health by
living as naturally as possible, outside of society's rigid structures: no
rent, no house, no job, a strict diet, no schools for the kids. The two
parents and nine children lived in a 24-foot camper and drove where the spirit
moved them. The new documentary about the Paskowitz family called "Surfwise"
is about Doc's dream and the realities it created for his family. For 10
years his wife was pregnant or breast feeding without one day off. He wanted
his family to live like animals in the natural world.
(Soundbite from "Surfwise")
Dr. DORIAN "DOC" PASKOWITZ: When my wife had my first baby, I said, `Look, I
don't want any gorilla to do anything with its baby that you don't do with my
baby. If a gorilla feeds its baby for two years, I want you to feed my baby
at the breast for two years.' I don't want to be upstaged by any gorilla or
any chimpanzee or any newt or any gecko or any squirrel.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: As you can imagine, Doc's dream had its consequences.
(Soundbite from "Surfwise")
Unidentified Man: My dad, he always wanted us to understand that we were no
different from the great apes. Which was fine if we had stayed there, but we
didn't stay there. We got married, you know, and our wives didn't want to be
married to an animal. So, you know, it's hard to deal with modern life
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Doc's dream included homeschooling his children.
(Soundbite from "Surfwise")
Dr. PASKOWITZ: I wasn't some kind of avant-garde radical intellectual. I
just wanted my kids around me, surfing with me, and education be damned.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: It may have seemed like freedom at the time, but some of Doc's
children now regret being kept out of school.
(Soundbite from "Surfwise")
NAVA: You know, my dad always loves to show off the fact that he's a Stanford
graduate. And it's like what the heck kind of Stanford graduate, what the
heck kind of Jew would say, `I'm not sending my kids to school'? I mean, I
think that was completely unfair. If you were going to keep us in the camper
for the rest of our lives, then that was OK, but you can't keep us uneducated
and then send us off into the world and expect that there's not going to be
some serious problems. You know?
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: The film "Surfwise" was directed by Doug Pray. My guest John
Paskowitz is one of Doc's nine children. He won the US and world longboard
championships in the late 1980s. He's worked on surf comics, surfer gear and
surf-related movies. He's a producer of "Surfwise." I asked him, about living
with his eight siblings and two parents in that 24-foot camper, where did they
Mr. JONATHAN PASKOWITZ: We slept everywhere. You know, we made makeshift
places to sleep. We made hammocks. We slept on the floor. We slept with
each other. It was wonderful. I mean, there's nothing better than cuddling
your brothers and lying around, one brother reading a comic book to the others
or a book that's very exciting, or all of the things that are almost "Little
House on the Prairie"-ish, if you remember that, were happening organically
with us. Reading and talking, and games that we played that interacted with
our surroundings and stuff like that, it was all very wholesome and fun.
And I don't think we ever thought of the camper as cramped. It's not till
later that we look in hindsight at where we were and how we lived that the
concept, even, of being crushed into the little camper came out. We didn't
come up with it. Somebody on an "Eye in LA" show or something that
interviewed us said that. And then later we went, `Whoa, all of us living in
a 24-foot camper, I guess that was hard.' But back then we didn't see it as
GROSS: It seems like your father really sought freedom for himself, but he
was quite the disciplinarian with the children. What were his techniques for
keeping discipline and for punishing the kids when he felt they were out of
Mr. PASKOWITZ: There wasn't a lot of corporal punishment. Most of it was
verbal, to just explain things to you. And then, of course, a physical quest,
walking some place, or paddling your surfboard a certain distance, or running
to a certain location within his point of view and back within a time frame.
As a little sidebar, when we were working for--my dad would get Option
magazine and go and be a doctor in places where they really needed a physician
and make a little money, and then would go, you know, go off on a guest
afterwards. And one time we went to Block Island, Rhode Island. And we got
to this place, and the schoolhouse that he let us go to for the time we were
there had breakfast for the kids. And I sat down and consumed 72 boxes of
Kellogg's Frosted Flakes.
GROSS: In one day?
Mr. PASKOWITZ: In a row.
GROSS: Holy cow.
Mr. PASKOWITZ: In a row. Without pausing.
GROSS: Yeah. Because you were so deprived of sugar. I mean, you weren't
allowed to have any sugar.
Mr. PASKOWITZ: I mean, I got so systematic opening the boxes, I actually
like made a soundtrack to the "slice, slice, open, open, bam, bam, milk." And
72 boxes later, the lady from the class that I was in calls the superintendent
or the principal and says, `This poor little boy. He just ate 72 boxes of
Kellogg's. We need to talk to their parents. Maybe they're starving these
kids.' So my dad was brought into the loop and he explained that we were not
permitted sugar at home, and that's probably what it was. And when I got
home, he didn't punish me at all. And I was going, `Huh, I wonder what's
going to happen?' And later that night, he woke me up at about 3, 4:00 in the
morning, and he wanted me to walk quite a distance in the snow and the cold,
down in total jet black darkness, to a place at the harbor which we
particularly found scary, and make a mark to prove that I had been there, and
then come back. To show me, you know, what the effects of all of that sugar
had done to my ability to process a goal and go on a mission. And it was
definitely--I felt it. I definitely felt it. And I was scared. And it was a
long, hard quest, and I fell into a lake, and it was just, it was scary. And
it taught me a good lesson.
GROSS: Which was what?
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Which was everything in moderation. I mean, you can take
cyanide in moderation.
GROSS: But your father didn't do things in moderation. He was extreme.
Mr. PASKOWITZ: In the sense that you're looking at it from a social point of
view, he was extreme; but from the point of view that he liked to emulate,
which was living extremely fit and spartan in your existence, to be as fit and
effective in everything that you do as possible, and that requires a certain
amount of strictness. One, because you're living in a society where you can
go into a store and just walk down the aisles and be a hunter, gatherer,
farmer--all the things that, you know, took a lifetime for humans to
achieve--at once. You can consume massive quantities of food and really hurt
And number two, if you didn't have the strictness, you would not have been
able to keep the herding of the Paskowitz children together because, like
Joshua says, it's like herding cats, you know, keeping us together. And if
there wasn't some type of framework of strictness, there were times that we
probably wouldn't have survived. I mean, because he took us on bold quests
and big surf and wild adventures. And when you are doing that, you have to
behave in some order.
GROSS: You know, you were all homeschooled. You were never, at least not for
any extended period of time, within the school system. And part of what your
father schooled you in was surfing. Did you love surfing as much as he wanted
Mr. PASKOWITZ: That's a good question. Only once have I heard any of the
brothers say that they did not love surfing, and that was after Moses'
accident and he was basically eviscerated by a surfboard fin at the water's
edge and had to wear a colostomy for a year, and it was a terrible accident.
And afterwards, when he was recovering, he said, `I'll never surf again. I
hate surfing.' And he did surf, you know, lose the colostomy and come back to
the full health, thank God, he took it back.
But for me personally, words cannot describe the euphoria that surfing
provides as a human. Words cannot describe the absolutely magically and
romantic feeling of riding a wave, going up and down on the surface of the
water and feeling just an unlimited power under your feet and to be in harmony
with the ocean, perhaps riding along and seeing a dolphin in the face of the
wave next to you, or a beautiful rainbow as the spray of the wind is offshore,
pluming over the back of the wave. And it's just the most beautiful,
romantic, organic thing, I think, a human can do.
GROSS: John, you've done, you know, very well professionally. You've been
the head of companies and marketing, and it seems like most, if not all, of
your siblings have done well. You were homeschooled by your parents who, I
think by anybody's standards, you'd have to say they were a little eccentric.
You know, so what was home schooling like? Like did you learn--in addition to
learning about surfing--did you learn about literature or science and
medicine. Your father's a doctor. Did you learn about math, history? Like
what was the process of the home schooling? What kind of books did you have
Mr. PASKOWITZ: My mother and father always had a pretty wide array of books.
I think our family favorite had to be the dictionary. We would sit down and
somebody would say a word, and then, you know, read it out of the dictionary
and you had to give us a definition or use it in the form of a sentence. That
was probably one of the funnest games. And we--I hate to say this--but we
fleeced so many libraries growing up. Eventually, actually, we tried to get
the books back if we were staying in a place long enough to do that.
But he would give us the information, we would read it. If you asked him why
the sky was blue, he would give you a book on light. And usually more like
the college version of something. And we loved to read his medical books, and
he loved to talk about family lineage and history. And he always promoted us
knowing more about our families, mother's side. And also my mom brought a
huge aspect into it through music, through classical music, and her
explanation of the stories behind some of the classical operas and arias that
she had learned. And she had a tremendous voice. And she would, you know,
sing stories to us and such.
But there are big holes where, you know, you didn't get everything because...
GROSS: What's an example of that?
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Well, like, I didn't pay much attention to math, but I loved
reading and I loved music and I loved philosophy and I loved poetry and I
loved--so it was really sharing information and interfacing with each other.
Pretty much like, you know, off the hip. There was very little structure.
GROSS: You know, we've talked a little bit about diet in your family. Your
father was opposed to sugar of any sort. And you told us the story about
eating 72 mini boxes of Frosted Flakes the first time you were exposed to
them. So what was the typical diet like? Because the family didn't have
money, either? So they have like these strict dietary prohibitions and no
money. So what did you typically have for breakfast and dinner?
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Most always for breakfast was a seven-grain cereal. And my
father use to go to a place in Escondido that cut rough grains. And my
brothers always said it was bird seed. And it did look like bird seed. It
was flax and various cut grains in big bags. Or there's an Oroweat product
called Seven-Grain Cereal that we would get if we couldn't find that, that
original kind of--it looks like horse feed. In fact, in might have been horse
feed. Because there was like--Moses says sometimes there were sticks and
twigs and branches in it sometimes. And there were. And we'd boil that up
like a gruel, a big pot of gruel. And we'd sing, "Food, Glorious Food." And
my mom would dole it out for us in the morning. And if we were really lucky,
we could have a tablespoon of corn oil on it, and we might have a banana or a
piece of fruit with that, if we were lucky.
And then usually beans and rice would be the typical lunch and dinner, maybe a
soup. My mom's excellent soup and beans and rice maker. And then we were
allowed to have any kind of chili peppers or anything spicy, you know, we
wanted with that. And that would probably be it. You know. If we were
lucky, we could have fruit oddly in the middle of the day or something like
that. But it was a lot of the gruel, a lot of beans and rice. And if we were
rolling, we'd have maybe eggs for breakfast with our gruel, or maybe a chicken
dinner on the Sabbath.
GROSS: And what would happen when you were exposed--like, say, you saw
somebody's television or you went to town and you saw things you wanted? Kids
are always doing "I want."
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You know, `I want this. I want that. I saw a commercial. I saw it
in the supermarket. I saw it in the toy store.'
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did you go through "I want"s and what were the things you wanted that
you couldn't have?
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Before we were exposed, there were no such thing as "I
want"s. It was more like, `What can I do for you, mom?' Or, `What can I do
for you, dad?' I know that sounds ridiculously like civil, but we were always
anxious to do something, work on the car, paint this, fix that, create a
better way of tying on the boards, a better way of dealing with the blivet
bags, what it was. And then once we got old enough to like have sleepovers or
see somebody's house, and actually see towels with their names on it, and like
kids that had their own section in the refrigerator with Twinkies and Ho Hos,
it was unbelievable to us. It was beyond our comprehension. And that's then
we all realized, we wanted sugar. We wanted fat. We wanted salt. We wanted
TV. We wanted to play with little girls. We wanted to, you know, we wanted
all of those things. And...
GROSS: And what did your parents tell you about why you couldn't have it?
Mr. PASKOWITZ: It wasn't so much we couldn't have it as we didn't need it.
It wasn't that we didn't want it.
GROSS: They told you you didn't need it.
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Yeah. And we really didn't. In fact, it was pretty obvious
to us when we first started like having like sprees of sugar consumption or
sprees of burgers or whatever it was that we, you know, we'd get a couple of
bucks. Somebody would give us a tip for taking them surfing or something, and
you'd run up and buy like four hamburgers or five hamburgers and eat them all
in a sitting. I remember like Abe ate two dozen eggs one time.
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Just hard boiled two dozen eggs and ate them, like "Cool Hand
Luke." And we were like, `Abe, we'--he had an analphabetic reaction and we
were just like, `Why would you do that?' And he goes, `I always, when we would
always had eggs, I never got my share of the eggs. I don't know why, but mom
always passed me by with the eggs, and I just had a buck in my pocket, or
whatever. I went and bought two dozen eggs and boiled them and ate them.' To
fill his egg need.
GROSS: When you and your siblings left the family, were you still having
problems learning about moderation once you were in the world and you exposed
to things that you can do in excess, and you have to be careful about?
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Absolutely. Moses, you know, is always worried about his
weight. And, you know, Nava, and...
GROSS: Your sister.
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Yeah. My sister, Nava, and the rest of us all are a support
group for each other pretty much, because nobody understands us like
ourselves. And, yeah, we're all fighting with that. I'm very excited to get
the chance to rebuild myself after this and try another poke at being a
GROSS: What do you mean by that, "Try another poke at being a person"?
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Oh, just that, you know, the Paskowitzes have ephemeral
lives. They go and they grow and they do something, and sometimes they don't
always finish what they start or they don't follow through with it. I mean,
Moses and some of the brothers that have had 9 to 5 jobs that have maintained
them for years and years, I really respect. But some of us--Abraham, myself,
Joshua, Salvador--you know, we've tried and failed on many things. And each
thing is a learning process and each thing prepares us better for the next
GROSS: Are there any of your siblings who are following your father's dream
in how they're living their lives or raising their families?
Mr. PASKOWITZ: Everybody in their own way copies something. Adam really
wants to follow the dream, only he wants to do it in a boat, not in a camper.
David follows his dream in a different way by organizing himself now
physically, because he sees himself getting older and he wants the longevity.
You know, Abraham is more of the philosophical dad. Everyone's got their like
pros and cons. You know, I do a lot of things like my father, and we are
probably--my mom says in some ways we're the closest to each other, but I have
more vices than anybody in the family, I'm sure. You know? I think Adam
would be the one that I would pick out as the one individual that really wants
to make the quest in his life and take his kids on that quest, too.
DAVIES: Surfer John Paskowitz speaking with Terry Gross. His family story is
told in the documentary "Surfwise."
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.