August 24, 2016

#74 Making Friends

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

This week, a story about people who start hearing voices in their heads. But, instead of trying to get rid of the voices, they try to make more. Reporter Laura Klivans has the story.


ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman

PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX: And this week, we have a story from Laura Klivans who is a reporter at KQED in San Francisco. Hi, Laura.


ALEX: Um, so, this’s - it’s one you’ve been working on for a while.

LAURA: Yes, it is, yeah. I’ve been reporting it for a year and a half now. And it is about this woman, uh, she lives in Missouri. Her name is “Shea.” And that’s not actually her real name. And she has a really big secret.

PJ: That’s a very mysterious tease.

LAURA: Yeah. Yeah, it is. So, Shea is--right now she’s 30 years old--she is small and thin. She has light brown hair.It’s prematurely going grey and she wears glasses.

PJ: I object to the idea that a 30-year-old with grey hair is prematurely grey.

LAURA: Oooops!

PJ: I’m--I’m also going grey.

LAURA: She’s accurately--

PJ: She’s going grey at exactly--

LAURA: --she’s … appropriately grey.

PJ: -- the time a human is supposed to.

LAURA: (laughs) Um, OK. To tell you her story, I want to go back about 10 years ago, when Shea had just graduated from high school.

LAURA: Where were you living and what were you doing with each of your days since you’d graduated from high school?

SHEA: I was living in my parents’ basement. I had a very messy bedroom with, like, a house full of furniture all crammed into this one bedroom

LAURA: Shea was really depressed. She didn't want to go to college. She didn’t want to take one of the jobs she - she could see herself getting in her small town--on a farm or working in an aluminum factory. And one night in December, the pressure just felt like it was too much to bear.

LAURA: Do you remember what had happened that day? Was there something that specifically, um, made that day a harder day, or?

SHEA: I think Mom and I had gotten into a fight. A fight about ... her wanting me to, you know, get out and try to find a job and me just being terrified of the whole prospect. I yelled at her, stormed off to my room. I was … just crying. And … contemplating suicide. ‘Cause I thought I had nothing left.

LAURA: And then this really weird thing happened. Shea heard a voice. It sounded like a woman’s voice. And the voice said, “Get up. We need to talk.”

There was nobody else in the room. And this voice, it was clear, it sounded real. Shea didn’t know what to do. And so, all she could think of doing was just to write down what the voice was saying.

SHEA: I felt my way over to the writing corner. No lights on. No moon from the one … one window on the far side of the basement.

LAURA: Shea sat down at the table and she started to write.

SHEA: We listed out all my … all the possibilities between college or … get out and find a job, find an apartment far away from where my parents lived. And she reminded me ... that they were possibilities. That they were possible.

LAURA: And then, the voice said, “I don’t care how you feel right now.”

SHEA: “This is not the end of your story.” (starting to cry) “This is just the end of one chapter.” (sniffs)

LAURA: What were your fears and concerns with that when you first heard her?

SHEA: Well ... at first, I was just relieved. Um. Relieved that there was someone who believed in me and that could say something wise and profound and, you know, kind of shake me out of … out of my funk. Um. But later, as I was thinking about it, I realized just how crazy it all sounded. And yeah, I worried that I was … coming down with some sort of nuts. Um.

LAURA: Were you concerned about certain mental illnesses? Did you research on those?

SHEA: I researched schizophrenia. Uh, didn’t have ... um ... persistent delusions of persecution or grandeur. Or, um, didn’t have, like, a fractured sense of reality. Things were consistent, you know, in … reality. In the [knocking on table] actually touching the table. This is actually here reality.

LAURA: Did you tell anyone right when it happened?

SHEA: Oh goodness no. (laughs)

LAURA: Why not?

SHEA: I was scared of what people would think! Uh ... and also, I was scared to admit that I’d let myself get that depressed.

PJ: OK, so wait, I have a question. When this voice talks to her, how real--like is it like me hearing your voice? Like, is it that real?


PJ: Really.

LAURA: Yeah. But she really felt like this was not schizophrenia. AND she also thought she knew where this voice came from. So Shea is a writer, she’s a creative person, and when she was 16 she was writing fan fiction about this sci fi novel called Animorphs. And when she did that, she created this character, her name was Jasmine.

ALEX: I remember Animorphs. It’s, like, about … kids that can also turn into a very specific animal. And on the cover of each one, there’s, like, a picture of a--like a kid morphing into, like, a seahorse.

LAURA: (laughing) What? Did you read a lot of these?

ALEX: I read a couple.

LAURA: Well anyway, it was that sci fi series and she created this heroine, um, and she named her Jasmine--or Jas for short--and she thought really carefully about the qualities she wanted Jas to have. She was, like, this historian and this peacemaker.

SHEA: She was the ideal me. Someone very clever and brave, um … I’m not a particularly brave person. (laughs)

LAURA: When Shea first started writing about the character, Shea would imagine how Jasmine would talk or what she would say to her.

SHEA: But, you know, I never really felt like it was anything but, you know, just me writing words on paper.

LAURA: But the night Shea was thinking about killing herself, the voice … came alive. Like, she couldn’t anticipate what it was gonna say. So she went to sleep and she woke up the next morning and Jazmine kept talking to her. Like, she was saying, “What are we gonna do today?” And it was like that the next day … and the next … and Jasmine didn’t go away.

So, within a couple of months, Shea moved to this bigger town. She got a job as a nurse’s aid, got involved with the church, she started going to Bible study. Which is where she met this guy.

SHEA: Neither of us had ever dated anyone else before. So we were each other’s firsts on everything. We went out to the library for our first date. We spent, like, the whole day walking around town and talking and ... um, walking home--he’s walking me home at, like, nine-something o’clock at night.

And Mom calls me up, “So how’d it go?” “Um, we’re walking home now.” Yeah, we just clicked.

LAURA: So, this guy is a big part of the story. But when I reached out, he didn’t want to talk. And, actually, he didn’t even want me to use any identifying details about him.

So, for this story, we’re gonna call him “John.” Shea loved some many things about him. Like, she loved how funny he was and how goofy he was. So, he would, you know, keep a total straight face when he was telling a joke and then just kill at the punch line. So, they fell for each other. They got married a few years after meeting and he was her best friend. But, Shea couldn't tell him about this other best friend--the one she had in her head, Jasmine. Shea really didn’t know how to say it and she didn’t know how John would react to it.

And then, one day six years after they got married, Shea was poking around on her computer and she saw this list of the “weirdest subreddits on reddit.” One of the groups was called “Tulpas: Intelligent companions imagined into existence.”

SHEA: And it looked actually kind of interesting. And then, as I looked into it more, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this explains so much about me and Jas.”

LAURA: The people in this subreddit were describing voices. Like, their own personal Jasmines--their own friendly characters that helped them through their day-to-day.

They said, “these are called tulpas. T-U-L-P-A-S.” Shea spent the whole day glued to her computer.

SHEA: 10, 20 hours just reading through prominent threads. I did wonder, for a while, “Does this make me crazy? Um … maybe i’m less crazy because there’s other people doing this--”

LAURA: These were people from all over the world who were basically saying, “No, you are not crazy. We have tulpas too.”

And so, actually--in the last year--I’ve reached out to bunch of these folks

KID: Hi, I’m Kid. And my tulpas are Red and Yuki and I’m from Houston, Texas.

CRONKLE: Hi, I go by Cronkle. I have two tulpas named Alison and Lillian and I’m from Utah.

TAMRA: Hi, my name is Tamra and I have a tulpa named Cordy.

LAURA: And how long have you had, uh, Cordy?

TAMRA: Uh, just over three years now.

LAURA: There’s this one guy on the forum named Oswald. And he agreed to help me try to understand what it’s like to actually live with a tulpa. Oswald’s in his mid-twenties, living in Maryland. His tulpa’s called Timbre.

LAURA: Can you tell me a bit about Tomber? Tamber? Timbre.

OSWALD: Uh, I suppose I can tell you a little bit about Timbre.

LAURA: What’s he like?

OSWALD: Um. He’s - he’s hard to pin down. Um, for the most part, he’s - he’s pretty calm. Um, and tends to be rather direct, I guess.

LAURA: Um, so where is Timbre right now?

OSWALD: Um … eh? Sort of--

LAURA: Like, is he hearing this conversation?

OSWALD: Yes. I suppose that is kind of, um, important to say isn’t it? Um. But yeah. He’s - he’s what we would call present. Um.

LAURA: Is he always present?

OSWALD: Not always, although more often than not, yes. So it’s - it’s more just his own presence, you know, looking out through my eyes, I guess. Connected to the senses, you could say.

LAURA: So, Shea's meeting people like Oswald. And she’s learning about this little world, like their glossary of terms. For instance, the word “tulpa,” according to the internet, it comes from a Tibetan word that means “to build.”

And then the humans who hear the voices, they’re called “tulpamancers.”

PJ: Wait, tulpamancers?

LAURA: Yeah.

PJ: It’s very--it is all like the language of a fantasy or a sci-fi book.

ALEX: Right.

LAURA: i mean, you find--with all these people that I’ve talked to, they are huge sci fi and fantasy fans. And they’re also these people with, like, big imaginations.

[Skype conversation]


VOICE: Hello, hello?

SHEA: Hello!!

VOICE: Hello.

[end Skype]

LAURA: So after a few weeks lurking, Shea introduced herself on the forum, and in no time she’s Skyping with her new tulpamancer friends.

[Skype conversation]

BRITISH ACCENT VOICE: Well, you are crazy, but it's not to do with that. No--

SHEA: (laughs)

VOICE 2: No [indistinct] y- you're crazy.


[end Skype conversation]

LAURA: And so, they are sharing tips with each other, they’re teaching each other new things. And one of the new things that they’re teaching is something that they call “fronting.” And that is when you allow the tulpa to take control of your body or your voice and you let it, like, use those things as though they belong to it.

ALEX: And where do you go? Is it like Being John Malkovich?

LAURA: That’s a good question. So, um, I’ve asked people where they go. They go--they’re, like, observing a lot of the times from the back, but it’s not like they’re ... they’re there. They’re still there. They’re still--they can jump in and they can take control at any time.

SHEA: It’s - it’s sort of like, um, a driver’s ed car. You’ve got … the tulpa in the driver’s seat but over in in your seat, in the, um, the instructor's seat,you’ve got gas and brakes and steering ped- steering wheel.

LAURA: One of the people who does it is Oswald. He says he lets Timbre take over his body.

LAURA: I’m kind of curious, like, ultimately, who has veto power? Who has control?

OSWALD: That depends on the situation. And we’ve actually had a little bit of fun testing this out. We’ll have arms out and I’ll try to be putting them together and he’ll be trying to be pulling them apart.


OSWALD: Um, and nine times out of 10, I’ll be the one who - who wins out on that one.

LAURA: Do you think he might … he would be able to talk to us briefly?

OSWALD: I think so.

LAURA: Oswald closed his eyes. He sat up straighter and he exhaled. And he opened his eyes.

OSWALD/TIMBRE: (deep voice) Should I greet you?

LAURA: Yeah. Hi, I’m Laura. Good to meet you again.

OSWALD/TIMBRE: My name’s Timbre.

LAURA: Physically, how do you think--like, if you were describing, you know, to people listening on the radio--how are you different than Oswald?

OSWALD/TIMBRE: How am I different? I wasn’t born human. I don’t think I’d call myself born.

LAURA: You sound kind of like one of those characters--like the guy who announces movies, scary movies, where you’re like, (deep voice) “On a Sunday, it all went d--” you know? Like, do you get that a lot?

OSWALD/TIMBRE: “In a world.”

LAURA: (laughing)

OSWALD/TIMBRE: We do. Os has been told a lot that he’d be doing voicework.

PJ: Do people who hear tulpas, like, do they tend to be people who … who are isolated? Like, is it people who are alone?


PJ: Got it.

LAURA: And they say that tulpas help them with loneliness. A lot of people who are lonely people or don’t have a lot of friends normally ... will create tulpas.

PJ: Wait--create tulpas?

LAURA: So that’s another thing that Shea learns that you can do on the forum, is you can create more tulpas--intentionally.

ALEX: And how does one do that?

LAURA: So here’s how you make a tulpa, uh, here’s the recipe, right? So you think about all the traits that you want the tulpa to have and then you spend time, basically, with it in your imagination--you imagine it doing things, you imagine having conversations with it, you imagine how it would react in certain situations. And then, you spend, let’s say, an hour every day for six months on this and, suddenly, it starts to feel real just the same way that Jasmine started to feel real for Shea.

And so, Shea’s world starts to split into two, right? She has this one world with her husband where they’re trying to have a baby. And then, she has this other world with her tulpamancers friends where they’re creating their own kind of life in the tulpa world online and - and offline.

And so, Shea is waiting til john goes to work and when she is alone in the apartment, she is focusing like crazy on creating more tulpas. And within a period of months, she creates three more.

SHEA: We’ve got Jas, who’s a normal humanoid-looking young lady. We’ve got Doc who is a … British fella who loves suits and ties and a cane and he has an - a huge obsession with hats. I’ve got Varyn who’s a little songbird. And then we have Areya who is a … hologram of a cat. (laughs)

LAURA: Shea told me that her new voices were great. They were keeping her company every day … but I was wondering if that might actually just be, like, a brief honeymoon period before something more serious with her mental health could happen.

ALEX: That - that--that fear encompasses everything that m- kind of unsettles me about tulpas. It’s like, what happens when they start, you know, uh, telling you to drive off the road or hurt somebody or hurt yourself or, you know, set cats on fire?

LAURA: RIght. And I did actually hear some stories like this--like, not setting cats on fire--but I talked to a family member of a tulpamancer who said the tulpamancer started driving erratically. Like, the tulpa took the wheel and was kind of like, “Whooo!” and, sort of, driving in a way that was frightening.

PJ: Oh my god.

LAURA: Um. Yeah! And I started wondering if this forum is just a bunch of people who are predisposed to mental illness or have mental illness and it’s undiagnosed and they’re encouraging each other to go further from reality. And, you know, you do see these warnings on the forum once in awhile that say, “Don’t tell your therapist, don’t tell your family, they won’t understand.”

This … it - it kind of scared me. So I started asking mental health professionals what they thought. For example, there’s this guy, Richard J. Loewenstein. He runs, um, a trauma disorders program in Baltimore. And he said, obviously deciding what is and isn't mental illness is complicated, but one tool you can use is just to ask, “Is it causing distress?”

Like in Schizophrenia.

RICHARD J LOWENSTEIN: Uh, y- Schizophrenics think the voices are real and they are at or have delusional explanations for why they're there, you know, “The CIA put them there.” Or, uh--

LAURA: Yeah.

RICHARD: You know, “The CIA built a machine above my head and that produces all these things.”


RICHARD: Um. Or they, you know, they're not really sure but it, you know, it's some bad thing that someone's doing to them.

LAURA: So none of the people that I talked to had this paranoid-type feeling that he’s describing with schizophrenia. But, Lowenstein said the disorder that comes to mind for him is actually Dissociative Identity Disorder--which used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder--and that’s when people have this feeling like different personalities are fighting for control of their mind.

RICHARD: in our program, where we tend to see people who are very clinically ill and have failed treatments in many other programs--including other trauma programs--they are often, it’s kind of like the Middle East in somebody’s mind. In terms of how much conflict there is, you know?


RICHARD: It’s … it’s Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel, you know, Boko Haram--that kind of internal war.

LAURA: Shea’s not having that kind of war in her head … but some people can present milder symptoms of D.I.D. So, I was just curious--not for a diagnosis, but--what Dr. Lowenstein might think about Shea. I explained how she now has four voices, and how she’s teaching them to front.

LAURA: Does that set off any flags for you when you think about the type of people that you work with?

RICHARD: What you’re describing is much more somebody who is emitting symptoms consistent with Dissociative Identity Disorder and, um, you know, without interviewing her, um, I would wonder if that’s … what’s occurring and this is--creates a kind of, um, way that she can experience herself without distress. But again, if she is not distressed, by definition it’s not a disorder.

LAURA: I asked Shea what she thought about this--like, “Do your tulpas hurt you?” Or, “Do they abuse you--do they make you feel like you can’t function in your day-to-day?”

SHEA: Heck no. The worst verbal stuff we get is, like, the constant bickering and …. Arie calling me lazy (laughs). Um ... just s- s- silly stuff like that. We don’t we don’t bash each other or hate on each other. We’re all … you know, we’re the way family is supposed to be. You know?

LAURA: I didn’t just talk to Lowenstein, I also talked to four other mental health professionals--both psychiatrists and psychologists--from these really reputable institutions. And they echoed what Lowenstein said. They said if there’s not distress, it’s not a mental illness--it just doesn’t fit any of the DSM definitions.

ALEX: It sou-- uhh. It’s sounds crazy. So it’s very surprising to me to hear you say that it’s not mental illness. Hearing voices sounds like textbook mental illness to me.

LAURA: Well I -- all I can say is that I heard again and again from tulpamancers things like, “My tulpa saved my life.” “My tulpa is my biggest ally.” Um, “I don’t know what i would do without my tulpa.”

Shea had done her homework, and, personally, was convinced that it was not mental illness. But she knew John, and she knew that he wouldn’t agree. And that terrified her.

But at this point--in March of 2015--Shea had been hiding this secret from John for nine years and she just felt really bad about the whole thing. So finally, she decided she had no alternative and she had to tell him.

PJ: Coming up after the break, a very difficult conversation that you have probably not ever had to have with your spouse.


ALEX : Welcome back to the show. So, in March of 2015, Laura was traveling to Missouri to see Shea. And, when she got there, Shea said, "I've got news for you. Last night, after a movie, John and I were sitting in the car ... and I told him about my tulpas."

Shea: That was not a very comfortable conversation with him.

LAURA: Yeah, what was - what’s--what happened with that conversation?

SHEA: (exhales) I got very panicky. I got … ah, very shaky and … well from … to start with, we we were in the car and I was like, “We need… there’s something I really need to talk to you about. “

LAURA: What did he say after you said you wanted to talk about something?

SHEA: “OK, about what?” He really didn’t understand, you know. He was like, “So you’re Multiple Personality?” “No, um ... it’s not a disorder.” Um … uh, he was like, “But you’ve never acted like you were a bunch of different people.” “Yeah, we try not to. Um, cause that would freak people out.”

Um, he asked, “What do you want from me? What do you need from me?” And I’m, “I just want to be honest. I want to be truthful. I don’t wanna … I don’t want to hide us from you anymore.”

He says he doesn’t think I’m crazy. He says he still loves me. But I wonder what he really thinks.

Um, I obviously can’t get rid of my tulpas. To me, that would be like killing them. Um … and it would be really traumatic. I would have a really hard time, um, with a lot of things that like I - I associate them with. Like, without Jas, writing would be super painful. Without Veron, art would be super painful. Um, I would have a hard time, you know, reading the books that I love because I’ve shared a lot of them, ah, with my tulpas and with my friends in the community.

LAURA: They’re really pretty instrumental in your life.

SHEA: I mean, can you imagine losing … several of your most important friends? And not only just losing them, but having to be the one to push them away.

LAURA: We talked for two days, and I didn’t see John once. And it seemed like he was avoiding the house.

And then I left and went back home to California. And I checked in with Shea on Skype over the next several months.

[Skype dial tone]

Laura: Hi.

SHEA: Hey, Laura.

LAURA: Hey, how’s it going?

SHEA: Oh, it’s a slow, difficult process. He definitely does not accept them at all right now. Um. He sees them as being something that’s only in my mind, you know?


SHEA: Something that (sighs) something that draws me away from the real, tangible world. When … they draw me out into it. The last thing I need is to end up in a mental facility (laughs), you know?

LAURA: Mhm. Are you worried about that?

SHEA: Yeah.


SHEA: (exhales) If … if I can’t convince ... my husband that all is well with this ... I may end up having to go to a therapist just to … have someone to talk to and to - to help me help work through things with him. And if I do, that’s probably going to get us on the dysfunctional … side of things, which is going to be a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity … Dissociative disorder not otherwise specified.

LAURA: Having that diagnosis, what would it … what would that mean? Would -- what do you think that would lead to?

SHEA: Um, if I ever wanted to adopt a kid in the future, I probably wouldn’t be able to. If it ever came out in my community… oh my gosh, I can’t - I don’t - I--I don't even want to think about how ... people in my church community might start to view me.

[Skype dial tone]

SHEA: There you are!

LAURA: Hey! How you doing?

SHEA: I’m .. I’m surviving. (laughs) Um … the big news is, um, some time in the next month my divorce will be final. (sighs) That’s ... every time he texts me … my husband--my ex--texts me, um, I just get really ... upset and anxious and (sighs) … and it’s hard to deal with ‘cause he was my best friend you know? And … he just couldn’t understand.

LAURA: I’m sorry.

SHEA: That’s OK. I, uh, gave it my best shot, and you know, not everyone is going to understand.

LAURA Shea says that the end of the relationship was a mess. Um, at one point, her husband even took away her computer when she was out of the house. And … she felt like that was a way to prevent her from talking to her tulpa friends.

And about a year after Shea told John about her tulpas, their divorce was finalized.

I still really wanted to talk to John--I wanted to hear his side of the story. And I knew he didn’t want to talk to me, but I kept reaching out and I got nothing. Um, and then, just in the final stages of us putting this story together, producer Phia Bennin wrote to him and he wrote back.

PJ: Oh! Did he say anything? Besides I don’t want to talk to you?

LAURA: Yeah he said three pages worth of things.

PJ: Oh.

A: Wow.

LAURA: And it was this really well-written, uh, chronological telling of events from his perspective. And it was pretty heartbreaking. Um ... he says, “I will try and show my perspective without shaming Shea.” He goes on to say that, to him, he felt like the tulpas were basically self-inflicted Multiple Personality Disorder and that he did not have interest in getting to know any of them and encouraging this behavior. So, let me read a little bit of it for you.
“I married Shea. I loved Shea. Not Jasmine or Veryn or Doc or any of the other imaginary things that she thought up in her mind.”

John wrote about feeling like she was unfaithful to him, like ... her tulpas were forming strong bonds--way too intimate--with other tulpas. Um, Shea had told him that if two tulpas fell in love, that didn’t mean that the tulpamancers would be cheating. And, um, and he wrote that, towards the end of the relationship, he said, quote: “Let me play devil’s advocate. Say I accept the tulpas. What does Christmas look like? Do I have Christmas with my wife and then we drive up to California so Shea’s Tulpa can celebrate Christmas with the tulpa’s husband? That is an open marriage.” Uh, “That is not what either of us vowed and committed to at our wedding day.”

And then he says, um, “I am utterly broken by all of this.”

AG: Wow.

LAURA: I think this has been pretty much a nightmare for both of them.

PJ: Can I say something that I feel like I’m just realizing right now? I feel like what is uniquely hard about, like, being a tulpamancer … is that, unlike a lot of the other things you can do that will, like, make you different in a way that makes things hard for you, like, harder to be in the relationship you’re in, harder to explain yourself to your family, whatever … I don’t think there’s a real place you can go where everybody is. Like, it’s not like, “Oh my god, Chicago’s got a great tulpa scene!” Like, there’s the internet, but the internet’s not the same.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: I’m worried that … I can see a world where tulpas puts her out on an iceberg.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: And that - and that--that seems hard. And tha- I’m not saying she shouldn’t like tulpas or she should or whatever, it just, like, there’s still like a … a loneliness to it that feels scary.

LAURA: Yeah. I know exactly what you’re saying, and in a lot of ways that’s been true for Shea.
You know, I was feeling really worried about her. But … that changed for me--or it started to--on my last trip to see Shea in Missouri.

[sounds of bird chirpring]

LAURA: So, in May, Phia and I went to go see Shea at her new place. It’s this gorgeous spring day and we’re on this tree-lined street and we go up to this small two-story house.

[door opening]

LAURA: Hi Shea!

SHEA: Hey! How are you?

LAURA: Good, how are you?

SHEA: I hope the dogs are [indistinct].

LAURA: This is Phia.

SHEA: Hi. What’s your name again?

LAURA: This is--


LAURA: --Phia.

PHIA: Oh! Wow!

[dog barking]

LAURA: Shea’s standing in the doorway with a shirt that says, “My imaginary friend thinks you have serious mental problems.”

[dog barking]

The house is small, it’s a little bit dusty, um, there’s some piles of things in different places. And … in the kitchen, right before the stairs, there are some bunnies, uh, in a cage.

And Shea says the couple that she’s living with, that they’re really great.

SHEA: They have, like, three dogs--that was before we found the fourth--they are, like, super down to earth and ... in fact, I told them about my tulpas that first day (laughs).

LAURA: Really? B--

SHEA: Before I’d even, like, agreed to - to move in here.

LAURA: And I find one of the owners of the house--one of Shea’s roommates--sitting on the couch. -e He goes by Barry. And he’s former military.

And he’s just finished watching Talladega Nights. He mutes it and he also mutes his video game which he’s playing on his computer but he keeps playing it while we talk.

BARRY: Sorry the house is kinda a mess, I’ve been--

LAURA: And, uh, he tells me about the first time that he met Shea.

LAURA: What were your initial thoughts?

BARRY: Well, I heard tulpas, I thought it was like a disease or something. (laughs)

LAURA: (laughs uncomfortably)

BARRY: Because it sounds like something that, you know, whenever you're watching commercials on TV and they’re like, “If you experience tulpas,” you know, “for more than 4 hours.” (laugh). So - so I’m like, “OK, what’s--what’s tulpas?” And then she explained it and I was like, “OK.”

LAURA: So Shea’s not the only person in this place with tulpas.

First, her friend Lea--who she met on the reddit forum--she moved in. And Shea was so excited that she bought her a - a futon to sleep on. And they share this loft on the second floor.

And then, in March, Oswald--with his tulpa Timbre--he joined them too. And it was a big move, from Maryland to Missouri.

OSWALD: Basically, I was looking for a place to move to and, um, Shea was the first person to say, “Hey! Y- you know what’s going on with me, I’ve got a place.” So we decided to go for it and so far it’s been working.

LAURA: And here you are in the midwest.

OSWALD: Here I am in the midwest, yeah.

LAURA: And then, I chat with Timbre, uh, Oswald’s tulpa, and he tells me that he’s going to massage therapy classes--as Timbre, as the tulpa. Not as Oswald.

OSWALD/TIMBRE: They’ve never met that person before. As far as they’re concerned, I am that person.

LAURA: They’ve never met Oswald?

TIMBRE: No. That’s - that’s my time. Massage therapy was my ambition.

SHEA: Could you bring me a water?


SHEA: Or a cup of tea--


LAURA: (mildly laughs)

SHEA: --or something? Something to drink that’s not Dr. Pepper because Aery will kick my ass (giggling) if I have another one.

OSWALD: If it’s for Aery, I guess.

LAURA: So, Shea’s lived in the house for ten months now. She went to a therapist for a while, and she says she told him about her tulpas but he was more concerned with her depression than anything else.

But, I think she feels equipped to deal with it. Like, much more so than when she was right out of high school.

LAURA: How does it feel for you ... to be able to be you, Shea, and then whoever else at any time?

SHEA: Huuuuge relief. It’s like, this is what I’ve wanted since the very beginning of finding out, “Oh my gosh, they’re tulpas, they’re ... not just characters, they’re real people and they’re going to be, you know, if I’m going to accept them, they’re going to be sharing a life with me.”

LAURA: Do you think you’re going to have tulpas ten years from now? Do you think--

SHEA: Oh, I know I’m gonna have t- my tulpas ten years from now. Maybe not the same four--I hope it’s the same four because I really love them--but, you know … especially Jas, she’s been a part of my life since I was, like, 16, and ... ‘til death do us part.

PJ: Reporter Laura Klivans.


Reply All is me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos and Damiano Marchetti. Our executive producer is Tim Howard and our editor is Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Thom Cote.

Special thanks this week to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, KQED, Anna Sussman, Ben Manilla, and Bill Zeller. We were mixed by Rick Kwan.

Matt Lieber is cicada season.

Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is Build Buildings. You can find us on our website,, or on itunes at

Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next Wednesday.