A group of elite scientists prepare for the last conversation humans might ever have. Plus, we meet a corporate attorney who mediates family Thanksgivings.

Show transcript

PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, It’s Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

Once a year, an elite group of British scientists meet to talk about this problem that they call the “silence in the sky.” The meetings are always closed to the public, but I talked to one of the scientists who attends, his name’s William Edmundson.

WILLIAM EDMUNDSON: It’s a—a closed group in the sense that it’s academics who are interested in searching for extraterrestrials. You must be aware that it’s a slightly, off-the-wall sort of topic. And, uh, as a consequence we…feel the need to be fairly careful, uh, about the audience so that we can have sensible and genuinely scientific discussions.

PJ: You want to keep it to academics because if you don’t, it’s going to be people who are going to be like “I know that there’s extraterrestrial life. It talks to me everyday! Or whatever.”

WILLIAM: Yeah, right. “I had lunch with one yesterday.” Or whatever.

PJ: Right.

PJ: So, in September 2015, they go to have their annual meeting. This time it’s in Leeds, warm, cloudy day. But that year, something was different.

[MUSIC]

This Russian tycoon had come out of nowhere to announce a new initiative: $100 million dollars in funding to search for extraterrestrials. This was a huge a deal because there is no money in SETI research, this is something that all these prestigious scientists just do on the side.

And more than that, this tycoon, he specifically was offering a lot of money to whatever group could come up with the best message to send to aliens. This would be a message that would be broadcast using an interstellar radio signal that could reach light years and light years away. Not some dinky little probe like Voyager. A message that could actually get picked up.

So they have their meeting, and somebody asks the obvious question: Do we, the UK SETI Research Network, want to participate? Do we think this is a good idea? Should we send a message to outer space?

PJ: And how heated was the discussion?

WILLIAM: I mean, c’mon. You know, we’re Brits.

PJ: (laughs)

WILLIAM: We’re scientists. It—It’s probably measured by the degree of interruptions like, “No! That’s wrong!” or …

PJ: (laughs)

WILLIAM: You don’t get people standing up and waving their arms around.

PJ: The arguments were polite, but the arguments were intense. Right from the start, there was a whole section of people convinced that reaching out to aliens was the worst possible idea. Astronomer Alan Penny was there, and he says that the “no” argument is pretty simple. Just imagine you’re in a jungle.

[MUSIC]

ALAN PENNY: You’re in a jungle, and you think there might be tigers around.

PJ: You wanna tip toe. Maybe you wanna stand real still.

ALAN: You don’t want to talk loudly. If you tell it, “We’re here,” and if it’s nasty, it might, it might say “Oo!”, and come and kill you.

PJ: It gets worse. According to Dr. Anders Sandberg, the group’s resident philosopher, if the alien does want to kill you, you’re cooked.

ANDERS SANDBERG: It’s very likely that if we encounter another some other civilization in the Milky Way, it’s probably a few million years older than us. So we wouldn’t stand a chance if they wanted to do something bad. Or, just if they wanted to say, “Oh, we need to tell you the good news about Lord Sorgon, and you need to read this pamphlet and believe what we believe.”

PJ: The oldest story in history will get repeated one last time. We’ll be the natives wiped out by foreign explorers. They might use lasers, the way we’re all picturing, or maybe they’ll do it by accident. They’ll plant their favorite alien flower and it’ll take over the whole ecosystem. The point is, it’ll be Christopher Columbus all over again, except this time, our last dying thought will be that we brought this on ourselves. We sent a message inviting them to come. That feels like a good enough reason to not send a message.

But Alan had an argument against this. He was like, “Guys! Come on. You are being so naive. If you really think that these aliens are so smart and so deadly, it doesn’t matter if you send a message or not, they will find us. If they want to kill us, we’ve already given them enough of an opportunity to. Here’s how it’ll work: we’ve got listening stations right now. They’ll send us a message. We’ll get it, it’ll look great. ‘Message from aliens. Cure for Cancer.’ We’ll open it up.”

ALAN: So everybody—uh, some people will get inoculated with this cure for cancer and this will spread and everybody will get the—get the cure, but it turns out that 10 years later, everybody drops dead. So the message might contain, uh, a virus, as it were. So listening…could be dangerous.

PJ: Huh.

PJ: And this brings us to the argument for why we should send a message. Alan says, “Yes. If the aliens wanna kill us. They’re gonna kill us.” But, he says sending a message is worth it because the aliens could also save us. He actually, he kept saying this. He’d say some horrible thing that could happen, and then he’d say, “But they could also save us.” And I kept wondering like, save us from what? And finally, he told me what he was talking about.

ALAN: On a fundamental level, they…is a distinct chance the human race is not going to last that long. There are many ways in which we can destroy ourselves, and some famous scientists say there’s only a 50/50 chance we’re gonna survive the next hundred years.

PJ: If we don’t start a nuclear war, then there’s biological weapons. If we survive that, there’s global warming.

ALAN: So, there’s lots of dangers facing the human race, which could destroy us, and what’s the chance of us lasting the next thousand years? So if you could contact with an ET which has—which has survived all this, they could say, “Well, yeah, we faced all those problems, and here is how we survived.” So, you send a message out and you provoke a response, you might save the human race.

[MUSIC]

PJ: When all the scientists in the conference room had said their piece, the UK SETI Research Network decided it was time to just take a vote: right then, right there.

“All in favor of sending a message?” Hands went up. Turned out half the room agreed with Alan—“`Yes, absolutely.”

All opposed? Half the hands went up. Half the room thought sending a message was completely reckless. They were exactly split. Anders, the philosopher, who everybody knew was kind of a fence-sitter, he voted twice, once in favor, once opposed.

And weirdly, the group that had started all this, the Russian billionaire’s group that had all the money for the message, they actually came to the same decision. They decided they’d collect a bunch of messages to think about what kind of messages to send to aliens, but they couldn’t agree that it was a good idea to send them either. And so they’re also holding.

And that’s where we’ve been for the last two years. With scientists just agonizing over a message that they can’t decide whether or not they ought to send. The thing is though, it turns out when scientists are too thoughtful or overthink-y to contact aliens, it leaves a vacuum. And other people fill that vacuum. I talked to one of them.

MATT BOWRON: My name’s Matt Bowron. Uh … and—sorry my dog’s just walked in. Uh, started whining at me. Ziggy, go! Shoo! Off! (laughs) I think she thinks there’s someone here!

PJ: (laughs)

MATT: Um…so…yeah. So, what was I saying?

PJ: So, a few years ago, Matt and his friend John were super broke, and they heard that Doritos was willing to pay 20,000 pounds to the person who could come up with a Doritos ad that the company could beam into space. So they made one, over a bottle of whiskey, in one night in Matt’s crummy apartment, starring Matt, and they won.

PJ: For somebody who hasn’t seen the ad. Like what is the story of the ad? Like, what happens in it?

MATT: Uh, I mean essentially a guy, uh, comes home with packet crisps, Doritos, uh and he, uh sort of opens them up, lays ’em down, and then I think he- he—he sort of wanders out the room for, for a couple of minutes. But once he’s out of the room, they essential come out—come to life. Uh, I think they climb out of the packet?

[DORITOS AD AUDIO PLAYS]

MATT: I haven’t actually watched it today. But uh—

PJ: I can confirm that they do climb out of the packet.

MATT: Yeah. They—they climb out of the packet, do a sort of Aztec ritual dance around the uh, the salsa pot. Which then opens. And then one of the, uh, single Doritos ritualistically, uh, offers himself to the salsa. And then obviously, then I return and—and kind of [crunching sound] finish him off.

[MAN’S VOICE: Mmm. Doritos!]

PJ: It’s almost like you’re the… salsa god or something. Like you return and you reach into the ritually sacrificed salsa, and take out the chip and eat it.

MATT: I think—I think that’s kind of, yeah, how it ended up. Yeah (laughing).

PJ: (laughs)

PJ: The day after Matt won the contest, Doritos put him on a plane, flew him to a Norwegian island where the EISCAT European space station is housed. Just picture two giant radar domes, pointed at the sky. They put him in the control room, they made him wear a Doritos t-shirt, and they told him to hit a button. He does. And this ad, with Matt’s face in it, is shot out towards Ursa Major for the consumption of aliens.

MATT: Which is—which is terrifying, that that’s—that might be something that—that would be the first thing they would see (laughs).

PJ: What do you mean? Like that—

MATT: That there’s this poor—poor race of, uh, triangular things that are kind of, uh, are ruled by this godly human mess (laughs).

PJ: Well not only that, I mean my—the—I’ve probably thought about this too much. Um, it’s just been the week that I’ve been having. But like—

MATT: Yeah.

PJ: I mean, the story that you’d be telling them is, you know, “On the planet where this transmission is from, there is a being of creatures who are triangular, uh, you know, called Doritos, or perhaps like, Dorito. And uh, and there’s like another species that like, murderously consumes them?

MATT: Yup.

PJ: And that species is you, personally.

MATT: Yeah. Absolutely. (Laughing) yeah!

PJ: I could imagine someone seeing this and being like, “We have to mount a rescue mission—”

MATT: (laughing) Yeah! Yeah…

PJ: “—to Earth, to save these creatures!”

MATT: Yeah. Well, if that happens, you know, I’m happy to like just put myself out of there and they can—they can imprison me or…

PJ: (laughs)

MATT: I mean or-or-or the—or the alternative is that they—they might turn up and want to try these—these Doritos and then you could imagine the brand and the—the advertising agency then being like, “We nailed it,” like—

PJ: (laughs)

MATT: They—you know, the first offering, that kind of, that you know, that moment where the doors open and, you know, President Trump hands them a hot salsa and a packet of cool Doritos, um, would be quite an amazing sc- scenario to see. In a very depressing way.

[MUSIC]

PJ: So what this means is that if there’s intelligent life in the universe, intelligent life that is paying attention and trying to figure out who we are, what they now know about us is that we really like the taste of Cool Ranch Doritos.

And actually it gets worse than that. Here’s another message we’ve sent them. We sent them an audio recording of the sound of a ballerina’s vagina contracting, because a guy at MIT felt like there weren’t enough representations of human reproductive systems in space. Additionally, they got this message from a bunch of Russian teenagers.

[“ODE TO JOY” THEREMIN MUSIC]

PJ: Um. This was part of a project where teenagers picked their favorite theremin songsI think because there’s an idea that theremin’s are sci-fi music and so aliens will probably like them? That feels like stereotyping. Perhaps the worst thing that we’ve sent them, in my opinion, is something that Anders told me about. It was an advertisement for a local theater event.

ANDERS: It was the first Klingon language opera.

PJ: The first Klingon language opera?

ANDERS: Yes. Um, after all, the Klingon language, made up for the Star Trek movies, well there is a community very active in making more of language, developing it, and doing art in it. So they developed an opera and somebody got the idea to send that towards Arcturus, uh, with a radio message, and the invitation for the opening.

PJ: This is the message we wanted the aliens to get. Something that I cannot imagine any being, no matter their culture, no matter their brain, not viewing as a declaration of war.

[KLINGON OPERA AUDIO]

PJ: And if they missed all these messages, we also broadcast the entirety of the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. We sent them messages from a defunct social media site called Bebo. At one point, somebody for some reason sent them all the classified listings from Craigslist. I would not have chosen any of this. None of this represents me. All it does is make me feel very, very embarrassed to be a human.

[KLINGON OPERA AUDIO]

At a certain point, I feel like all I wanted was to find one message we’d sent that didn’t make me just want to crawl into a hole and die…and that’s how I met Martin.

MARTIN LEWIS: Uh, Martin Lewis, uh, producer, writer, and humorist.

PJ: Martin Lewis, like everybody else I talked to, for some reason, is British, although he actually lives in the United States, and the only thing you need to know about Martin Lewis is that he’s a really big Beatles fan.

MARTIN LEWIS: Uh, I was playing around one day and I remo—noticed that oh we were coming up to the 40th anniversary of the recording of the song, “Across the Universe.” And, the philosophy of the song always spoke to me.

PJ: What is the philosophy of the song? For people that don’t know it.

MARTIN: Th—there’s more words in that song—more verses and more words than in any other John Lennon song. It was a kaleidoscope of images and it was just the notion that the power of love, tha- the- the- the—not the romantic love, but just the feeling of love, that that was the most powerful, um, message you could have.

PJ: So it’s a Beatles song. In my opinion, not the best Beatles song. Nobody asked me. Anyway, Martin got in touch with NASA.

MARTIN: And the guy at NASA I was speaking to, I told him the idea. I said, “I want to take the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe”… across the universe. He said, “Yes, it could be done. We’ve never done it. But yes, it could be done.”

PJ: So then Martin tried to get permission to use the song.

MARTIN: Yoko, she loved the idea. And she wrote a beautiful tribute that said something—it—this is a—a short version, that said: “This is great that John and the Beatles’ music will now go out to reach billions and billions of planets across the universe.” Meanwhile, I then got a message from Paul. Just said: “Great idea. Give my love to the aliens.”

PJ: (laughs)

MARTIN: And I comba—contacted the music publishing company, who should be nameless because I don’t want to embarrass Sony. But, um, the guy I spoke to there was completely soulless, joyless, humorless. And said, “Well, if you’re sending a radio signal of one of our compositions, then you have to—a royalty has to be paid.” I said, “We’re beaming it into space, man!”

PJ: (laughs)

MARTIN: “We agree you can collect the royalty, but you have to collect it yourself!”

PJ: Eventually, Martin was able to get everybody on board. And when the big day came, he got to be there. He was at Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California, in the launch room.

MARTIN: It was like mission control in Apollo 13. There was this beautiful room and it was set up with all the scientists and there was a big logo, the NASA logo, the Beatles logo, and the words “Across the Universe.”

PJ: And when they—so they do the countdown and then they hit play…ih- I mean—would then in that room, in the control room with all these NASA people, did you hear the song? Or is it like it’s being sent over waves or something like that, so no?

MARTIN: Uh- uh- we—both. We had uh- the- the- they—they at that point they did it, press the button. A, yes the, um, mp3 file was being trans—started transmission.

[MUSIC]

MARTIN: And then simultaneously, of course, they did play the song in that room. And again, I—I really had a—it was emotional.

PJ: Look. As a person who is very glad that Martin sent this message, I still cannot guarantee it was a good idea. I do not know what a Beatles song is gonna mean to an alien. But maybe the point of these messages is not actually what aliens think of them. These are messages that we’re sending to someone who might not exist, who we really do not expect to get a response from. Which means that maybe we should just think of them more like we think of prayers. Because if you think of them as prayers, messages that are offering hope and comfort to the people who send them, then at least a lot of them make more sense. You step out into the silence and you say something and you don’t get an answer. But that’s okay, because just saying it, it does something to you. Like afterwards, the exact same silence is still there, but now that silence feels different. You feel less alone.

And if we use that standard, I really like Martin’s message. It’s just sending a message of like, love and British rock into the universe. And I think that’s how Martin sees it too, because when he heard that there were scientists who thought sending a Beatles song out had been a bad idea, he wasn’t offended, it just didn’t even make sense to him.

MARTIN: And at first I thought it was a hoax. And, once I realized there were people, um, as crazy to be serious about it, I did remember that, hey, that’s what we were fighting against in the 1960’s. The kind of small-minded, blue meanie spirit. A few days later, uh, I ran into Yoko Ono. And she said, “Did you read about those—” I said, “Yeah! I was just gonna ask you!”

PJ: (laughs)

MARTIN: She said, “Is that crazy or what?”

MARTIN: If there are aliens, they’re going to have a spark of, um, a spark of spirit, and—and I think—and when you listen to great music, I think you’re gonna be full of admiration that, um, some creatures from another planet sent a message out there that if they could decipher it or just listen to the harmonic vibration of it, is positive. It’s not aggressive, it doesn’t—it’s not threatening them, uh, with anything, it’s—it’s surrounding them with love. And that’s not a bad little sentiment to send across the universe.

[MUSIC]

PJ: Coming up after the break, Reply All finally calls in an outside mediator.

[BREAK]

PJ: Hey! Just before we start the second half of the show, there is a brief description of sexual assault in this segment. If that’s not the kind of thing you want to hear, you should skip it.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay. Uh. PJ?

PJ: Yes.

ALEX: So, uh, it’s this Sunday is, uh, Email Debt Forgiveness Day.

PJ: Which everybody knows is the holiday where if you have put off an email to someone, doesn’t matter how much time it’s been, you’re allowed to just email them as if no time has passed and they have to forgive you. We asked people if you have an email that you’re struggling with, we’d like to hear about it. Send us email.

ALEX: And producer Damiano Marchetti, who is in the studio with us right now. Hello.

DAMIANO MARCHETTI: Yes, I am. Hi.

ALEX: Um. He went through all of the emails that we received. Um…and…Damiano, uh, what did you find?

DAMIANO: I wan—I want to tell you about one email in particular, an email from a woman named Kelly. So, you actually might know the first part of this story. Kelly was in the news recently for this really disturbing thing that happened to her. Um. She’s a runner, she’s been training for a marathon.

KELLY HERRON: And on that particular day, which was March 5th, I had a ten mile run. It was a Sunday afternoon and I ran down to Golden Gardens, which is a popular park and beach in Seattle.

DAMIANO: She stops to use a public bathroom. She’s washing her hands.

KELLY: And…I was—kind of got like that feeling of like something’s wrong.

DAMIANO: Yeah.

KELLY: Um… turned around and there was a homeless man behind me. And I was completely cornered. And he kinda came at me like, kind of like a bear. Uh, he threw me down to the floor, um, turned me onto my—got me on my stomach had my left arm pinned, um, was pulling at my pants. And I just had taken self-defense where they teach us, like if you can be more trouble to your attacker than he perceives you to be worth, then that can help you escape, so—

DAMIANO: Yeah.

KELLY: I was trying to show him like, I’m not afraid of you. Like, you should be afraid of me. And I was just screaming, “Not today motherfucker, I will fucking kill you!” Like I was so mad.

DAMIANO: She tears herself away and runs out of the bathroom. And there are some people outside they rush over to help her. One of them’s got a carabiner which they use to lock the attacker in the bathroom. The attacker goes to jail and Kelly, she’s rushed to the hospital. A couple of days later she posts to Instagram about what had happened to her, and the news picks it up and it—and it goes viral. Like it’s—it’s everywhere.

NEWS CLIP: A woman says she was able to fight off a man who was trying to rape her …

NEWS CLIP: A shocking Instagram post sending chills and inspiration to women everywhere.

DAMIANO: And then Kelly starts getting hundreds of messages. Most of them are people saying, “You’re a hero. What you did was amazing.” Then there’s like a—a subsection, she says like, maybe ten percent of the emails are people who are like, “You should’ve been carrying a gun or another weapon.”

PJ: That’s so crazy…

DAMIANO: Or, there are some people like trying to promote their products through her. So there was like—they’re like, “We’re sending you a free body scrub! Tag us on Instagram!”

PJ: Oh my god.

ALEX: Yeah, that’s really fuckin’ obnoxious.

DAMIANO: And…then the last group of people are people who have experienced like sexual assault or sexual abuse and are emailing her to like share their story or like say that she was an inspiration to them in some way. Um.

ALEX: That’s a lot to take on.

DAMIANO: Yeah.

KELLY: So when people started writing to me, I was replying to all of them.

DAMIANO: Mhm.

KELLY: And then it just became impossible to manage and it was becoming really overwhelming and stressful. Um. And I was, uh, like the trauma of what I went through. I couldn’t function normally.

DAMIANO: Yeah.

KELLY: Your—your body it doesn’t let go. It doesn’t move on. Physiologically or mentally.

DAMIANO: And she feels like she just can’t respond to these emails anymore, but they haunt her.

KELLY: Um, and I—I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m not grateful, because I’m incredibly grateful and I love that people like, you know, want to…connect with me. Now that I’m-I’m—that I’ve realized how much better I feel by walking away…

DAMIANO: Yeah.

KELLY: I feel really guilty!

DAMIANO: And there’s this other problem which is like, there’s not really escaping these messages. Like they’re—they’re just clogging every avenue of her life. Like, she wants to go to Instagram and see her friend’s new kid, and you know, she’s—there’s like 400 unread messages—

PJ: Oh god.

DAMIANO: —in her Instagram inbox.

PJ: It’s like having like—like when something happens and like all news media like, descends on somebody’s lawn. Like, it’s like that—

DAMIANO: Exactly.

PJ: —but just with the way she would like, virtually experience her community.

DAMIANO: Right. And, at one point in our conversation, she just makes this like, offhand joke.

KELLY: Do you want to read all my emails and respond for me? (laughs)

DAMIANO: Would that be like a good … like, would—do you wish someone would come and respond to them? Like is that an actual thing that you would like to do?

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I would love that. Yes. Absolutely. Aaaabsolutely. That would just take a huge…I would feel a huge sense of relief.

[MUSIC]

DAMIANO: So I got off the phone with her and I kept thinking about what she had said. And I was going through the email inbox and there was this—there was another email from this guy named Gregory.

PJ: Uh-huh.

DAMIANO: Um. Gregory’s like a—he wrote that he’s like a corporate lawyer in his day job. But his hobby is- as- is—is being a mediator.

PJ: What does that mean? Like, if you are a person who walks around the world looking for a chance to mediate like—

DAMIANO: Yeah.

PJ: Is he mediating at the grocery store is he mediating…

ALEX: (laughs)

DAMIANO: Like—he like—like, he meets—he mediates like very classic conflicts. So like, his mother-in-law and sister-in-law were fighting every year during Thanksgiving about making the meal.

PJ: Uh-huh.

DAMIANO: And so he’s like, “I’m gonna sit you down and make sure you’re communicating with each other and like create like, very clear boundaries about whose job is what on the day and where people can be and all that shit.

ALEX: He’s like a mediation SWAT team. I imagine him repelling off the roof and swinging in through the window—

DAMIANO: Yes.

ALEX: —and being like, “I’m going to solve a problem!”

PJ: And do these things work or do—

DAMIANO: Yeah!

PJ: Ok.

DAMIANO: Like in that Thanksgiving situation, it’s been years but like, they go back to that plan they created with him.

ALEX: Wow!

PJ: Ok. So, he was writing not just to brag about his mediation.

DAMIANO: He was writing to genuinely offer up his services to Reply—

PJ: As a hobbyist mediator.

DAMIANO: Yes. To Reply All listeners for Email Debt Forgiveness Day. If anyone needed help responding to their difficult emails, he could do it for them.

ALEX: What a sweetheart.

PJ: Ok.

DAMIANO: And I was like, “Hm! Maybe this guy really could help Kelly.” So I gave her a call and she was like, “Yeah, I’m totally down to try.”

PJ: (sighs) I don’t want to be the person that like ruins this. It does feel weird though. Like, it feels like—it feels weird that…there’s something weird about Gregory answering these emails from these people.

DAMIANO: Yeah.

PJ: That were not sent to him.

DAMIANO: Totally. I—it was something I was pretty anxious about, I felt better by the end. Uh, and I think you will too. Just like, hold on one second, like hold that thought.

PJ: Ok!

DAMIANO: Let me just tell you what happened next. Which is, Gregory and Kelly and I all got on the phone and Gregory laid out his plan.

GREGORY SCHULZ: What, what I … what I hope to help you do if you so choose, is to take the emotional load of these emails … and I—let me be very clear, let- let- let me—out of tenuity, let me limit it. You’ve gone through a very difficult thing, which I do not begin to understand. But one thing I think I can do, is take the emotional load and difficulty of these emails, and take it off of you and put it on me.

KELLY: Mhm.

GREGORY: These things won’t be your problem anymore. They will be my problem.

KELLY: Yeah.

GREGORY: So let me tell you what I’m thinking about sending, and you can—you can tell me if you like it. What—what I’ll say is, “Hi …” you know, so and so, “Thank you so much for reaching out. Uh, I’m—I’m a friend of Kelly’s,” or you can call me whatever you want, a stranger from the internet that Kelly knows.

KELLY: (laughs)

GREGORY: “And the…and, this experience has been really tough for Kelly and so she’s not going to be able to get to all of the messages right now. But, she’s extremely grateful that so many people have reached out to her with compassion and caring, and she wants to send her appreciation to you.” And then, if that person had said something that indicates that they’re a survivor, I’ll add: “Um. Kelly’s also having me keep track of people who are survivors of, um, you know, abuse or assault like you, and…you know, your—your messages are especially meaningful to her. And she may well, you know, as time continues and as her recovery progresses, she may well reach out to you individually eh—in the future. Thanks so much for your message.”

KELLY: Nailed it.

GREGORY: Great!

KELLY: Yes. Yes.

GREGORY: So…

DAMIANO: So, I spent the next 24 hours just like working out a system to deal with like the privacy issues, so that neither Gregory or I would be able to read any of the emails from the assault survivors, but Gregory would still be able to respond to them. And then, Friday night we got on the phone one last time.

[PHONE RINGS]

DAMIANO: Um…okay, we’re all here, I think. Hello hello!

KELLY: Hi hi.

GREGORY: Hello!

DAMIANO: Hey guys.

KELLY: Hi!

DAMIANO: But, before we could get started, Kelly was like, “Guys, I need to talk to you about something.”

KELLY: I’ve kind of had a few things happen in the last 24 hours that have given me a lot of perspective on this (sighs). Well. You know, how you kind of…clean up your house like before you have the maid come over, if you, if—(laughing) I mean I don’t exactly know what that’s like, but (laughs), um, so I was archiving things and, um, deleting things and…I was struck by a couple of the messages that I came across, and um, one was from a girl who is also a survivor of sexual assault. And she said, “You’re part of this—you’re part of this club now. You know, it’s not one that any of us wanted to be in but…now you’re a part of it, and, you know, we’re all here for each other.” And…I thought…is it my place to allow someone into the clubhouse and look around?

GREGORY: Yeah.

KELLY: And so I had kind of a ethical dilemma with that. And then, I got a message from a person who is in a very similar situation to mine. Um, an article came out and he accomplished something under extraordinary circumstances, and um, he said, “I know the messages that you can—that you get can be really overwhelming, but um, it’s because people are really drawn to stories like this. And, you know, it’s okay to—to be selfish and…your recovery comes first. So draw—you know, you’re not—you don’t really owe anything to anyone, like just draw boundaries.” And um—

DAMIANO: Yeah…yup.

KELLY: And then I…so of course I looked up his story, and I read it and I was like, so inspired by it and I thought it was so incredible. And I got the urge to tell him how amazing it—like, what depth of character he had, to—to do what he did. And then I thought, If I wrote to him, and I got a response from someone else. Like, I thought about how that would make me feel. And um, I think I would rather just…I don’t think this is hanging over anyone, I don’t think there’s people out there who’re—anymore who are thinking, “Oh god, that bitch didn’t even write me back!” (laughs)

DAMIANO: (laughs) Right. And that was just you. It was you that was thinking that.

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah!

DAMIANO: Yeah.

KELLY: I realized that the only person who can…forgive my email debt is me. And I—I shouldn’t blanket that with a, um…you know, with something to just give, give those messages closure, because they don’t really need closure. The closure was when the person wrote it to me. Not in my responding to it. I’ve already done—

DAMIANO: Right.

KELLY: —the thing I was supposed to do.

GREGORY: Well, Kelly, is sounds like you’ve reached a wonderful realization here.

KELLY: (laughs) You’re a really good mediator! (laughs)

DAMIANO: Well…this is not what I expected.

KELLY: I hope I haven’t disappointed anyone.

DAMIANO: No! No! Are you kidding me?! No, not at all. I’ve been like—I’ve been feeling kind of anxious about this because I know that like, I—I was like, “I’m really glad we’re doing this.” But I know that even when we clear all these emails out, like people are going to respond to the emails. And I had this like sense of anxiety that like, ugh! Like this is like—it doesn’t matter how high we build this dam, like we can’t protect you from the world caring about you. Uh…(laughs)

GREGORY: (laughs)

KELLY: (laughs) Right! There are—there are worse problems! (laughs)

[MUSIC]

ALEX: Thanks to Kelly and Gregory and everyone who wrote in with their Email Debt Forgiveness Day Stories. If you wanna share Email Debt Forgiveness Day with your friends and family, you can go to the website emaildebt.club.

[CREDITS]

Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt, and me, Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, and Damiano Marchetti. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. We’re edited by Tim Howard and Jorge Just. We were mixed by Rick Kwan.

Special thanks to Cory Godbey, Natalie Sexton, and Emily Kennedy.

Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Matt Lieber is the satisfaction of pressing send on an email that you’ve agonized over for a year.

You can visit our website at replyall.limo. You can find more episodes of the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

[AD BREAK]

[BREAKMASTER CYLINDER STINGER]

View full transcript