StoryCorps 503: The Son You Wanted
Michael Garofalo (MG): Back in 2006, we met a kid who we’ve never forgotten.
Joshua Littman (JL): Alright. My name is Joshua Littman. I’m 12 years old. We’re in Grand Central Terminal and I’m here with Mummy.
MG: Josh wrote his own questions for that interview, and they were not easy.
JL: Have you ever lied to me?
Sarah Littman (SL): I probably have, but I try not to lie to you even if sometimes the questions you ask me make me uncomfortable.
MG: And although that questioning 12-year-old voice stays fixed in our minds Josh, like the rest of us, had to grow up at some point.
And he and his mom, Sarah, have documented that process through a series of StoryCorps interviews.
JL: And how was it when you went to college?
SL: I think I was a lot more excited leaving home than you were.
MG: In this episode, we are going to revisit those conversations — and hear their latest interview, in which they reflect on the past ten years, and look toward the future.
This is the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Michael Garofalo. Stay with us as we trace one remarkable kid’s journey into adulthood, right after this short break.
MG: Welcome back. I’m really excited about this episode because we get to do something completely new for us. You know, we usually only get a brief glimpse into the lives of people who record StoryCorps interviews. After all, you can’t cover all that much in a 40-minute conversation.
But today, we’re going to follow one young man over more than a decade — from middle school through college and into the working world.
MG: Josh Littman first came to StoryCorps with his mom, Sarah, when he was 12. Sarah used to do these one-on-one days with her kids (Josh has a younger sister — he’ll tell you plenty about her later. And on these days, they’d come down to New York City from Connecticut where they live, and do whatever activity her son or daughter wanted.
On one of these trips, Sarah asked Josh if he might want to interview her for StoryCorps and he agreed. So, after composing some original questions in his notebook, and after a trip to the Nintendo store, they sat down to talk.
Josh was an 8th grade honors student at the time but was having a really hard time socially.
Josh has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that makes it hard to read social cues and body language. Sarah called it “being born without social genes.”
Kids with Asperger’s can come off as eccentric and they often have obsessions. For Josh. it was animals.
JL: On a scale of 1 to 10 do you think your life would be different without animals?
SL: I think it would be about an 8 without animals because they add so much pleasure to life.
JL: How else do you think your life would be different without them?
SL: Well, I could do without things like cockroaches and snakes.
JL: Well, I’m okay with snakes as long as they’re not venomous and can constrict you or anything.
SL: Yeah, I’m not a big snake person.
JL: But the cockroach is just the insect we love to hate.
SL: Yeah. It really is.
JL: Have you ever felt like life is hopeless?
SL: When I was a teenager I was very depressed and I think that can be quite common in teenagers who think a lot and that are perceptive.
JL: Am I like that?
SL: You’re very much like that?
JL: Do you have any mortal enemies?
SL: I would say my worst enemy is sometimes myself. But I don’t think I have any mortal enemies.
JL: You don’t have like a [BLEEP]?
SL: No, I don’t. But I’m sure when I was probably in middle school there were people there that made me feel the way you feel about him. But to be honest I don’t really remember that.
JL: Have you ever lied to me?
SL: I probably have, but I try not to lie to you even if sometimes the questions you ask me make me uncomfortable.
JL: Like when we go on our walks? And some of the questions I might ask?
SL: Yeah. But you know what? I feel it’s really special that you and I can have those kind of talks, even if I feel myself blushing a little bit.
JL: Have you ever felt like you couldn’t cope with having a child?
SL: [laughs] I remember when you were a baby you had really bad colic and you used to just cry and cry—
JL: What’s colic?
SL: It’s like when you get this stomachache and all you can do is scream for hours and hours—
JL: Even louder than Amy does?
SL: You were pretty loud, but Amy’s was more high-pitched.
JL: I think it feels like everyone seems, like, to like Amy more. Like, it seems like she’s, like, the perfect little angel.
SL: Well, I can understand why you think that people like Amy more, and I’m not saying it’s because of your Asperger’s Syndrome, but being friendly comes easily to Amy, whereas I think for you it’s probably more difficult. But the people who take the time to get to know you love you so much.
JL: Like Ben or Eric or Carlos?
JL: It’s like I, like I have better quality friends but less quantity?
SL: I wouldn’t judge the quality, but I think really the quantity of friends isn’t what matters, it’s the quality of friends.
JL: Like Amy, like two years ago, like, it seemed like, first it was like Amy loved Claudia then she hated Claudia, she loved Claudia then she hated Claudia.
SL: Yeah, You know what, part of that’s a girl thing, honey. The important thing for you is that you have a few very good friends, and really that’s what you need in life
JL: Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born? Like, did I meet your expectations, and?
SL: You’ve exceeded my expectations, sweetie. Because, you know, sure, you have these fantasies of, you know, what your child’s gonna be like, but you have, you have made me grow so much as a parent because you think –
JL: Well, I was the one who made you a parent.
SL: You were the one who made me a parent. That’s a good point. But also because you think differently from, you know, what they tell you in the parenting books.
SL: I really had to learn to think out of the box with you. And it’s made me much more creative as a parent and as a person, and I’ll always be thankful for that.
JL: And that helped when Amy was born?
SL: And that helped with Amy was born. But you are just so incredibly special to me, and I’m so lucky to have you as my son.
MG: Ok, so those questions, right? And there’s more that didn’t make it into the cut from the full interview, but they’re too good to keep to myself, so, here you go.
JL: Do you think the U.S. is becoming a mess of a country? Seems today that young people have an obsession with, like, swearing and sex.
JL: Ok, next question, do you think I am unhealthy?
JL: Is there anyone you wish was dead? Anyone at all?
JL: How does getting married feel?
JL: That question was stupid, I’ll skip it.
SL: There’s no question that’s stupid, honey.
JL: It’s just a ridiculous question. I’ll forget about it.
MG: Josh’s questions are so un-forgettable, because, I think, he’s asking the questions that every kid has for their parents, but never ask: Are you telling me the truth? Are you proud of me?
Not only that Sarah is incredibly forthcoming and honest even when he throws her a curve. Turns out there’s a reason for that.
Sarah is American, but spent a good part of her childhood in England. She thought her father was a documentary filmmaker, but that was a front. He actually worked for the CIA.
SL: I remember when he told us I was 12. I said to him, “Wait. You mean you’re a spy, like James Bond?” You know, and, my kids accuse me of of oversharing. Part of the reason I overshare is because I was brought up with secrets.
MG: That honesty that comes through on both sides struck a lot of people when we first put them on the radio. Tons of listeners wrote words of encouragement to Josh; admiration for Sarah’s parenting; other kids with Asperger’s wrote in; parents of kids on the spectrum.
And Sarah did something really cool with these emails that we got. For Josh’s Bar Mitzvah, she put them together in a binder and gave them to him. And told him whenever he was feeling bad about himself he could just open up that binder and be reminded of what a great kid he was.
As Josh moved into high school, things did get a little better for him. He continued to do well in his classes and had some great teachers.
Things went well for Sarah, too, over the next few years. Her career as a young adult author took off and she fell in love.
Then it came time for Josh to go to college.
Transitions have always been tough for Josh — they moved to the US from England when he was 5 and to help ease him into his new life. Sarah went and took pictures of his school, his classroom, even a school bus, which he’d never been on — so that the new experience wouldn’t be too jarring.
The transition to college, though, didn’t go so well. Sarah wrote us in the fall of 2011 to say that she was worried about Josh. He was in his first semester at a university several states away. She could tell he was depressed but couldn’t get him to talk to her about it. She thought that maybe another StoryCorps interview might help. So, when he came home on a break they headed back into the city for this conversation.
SL: I thought I was gonna cry the whole way back from college but I managed to make it until I got home. And then I walked upstairs and I saw your door shut and I just lost it.
JL: Well at least you had the dogs.
SL: Yeah well, the dogs aren’t my kids. You know.
JL: But they snuggle with you when you’re feeling upset.
SL: They do but it’s not quite the same. Does it bother you to think of home?
JL: I miss it.
JL: I miss the dogs and everything.
SL: You miss the dogs?
JL: And you, and–
JL: What? Wouldn’t you miss the dogs?
SL: I miss the dogs but I think for even political sake I might say, ”I miss you, mother” first. [laughing]
JL: So how was it when you went to college?
SL: I think I was a lot more excited about leaving home than you were. I did have some rocky times where I was homesick but I made some really good friends in college, and that’s I guess that’s why I want you to get out of your room. Is it just you’ve been feeling overwhelmed a bit?
SL: So, that’s ok. Maybe when you get your feet under the desk a little more as they say.
JL: Yeah well, I have no idea why am I’m in college. ’Cause I, I don’t know why I’m there.
SL: Well, remember how a few years ago you hated sushi?
SL: And now, like all you ever wanna do is eat sushi.
SL: Sometimes you have this resistance to trying things and then, when you try them, you end up really liking them. And really I just want you to do more of that when you’re at college. Just like take that chance.
JL: So how would you react if, like, I failed?
SL: Failed your classes, or?
JL: Failed my classes, failed college.
SL: Well, if you came to me first and said, ”Look I’m having a really tough time.” That’s one thing. But if you just sort of announce to me that you failed, then I’d be upset. Because I know how much potential you have. Is there anything you wanna tell me?
JL: What do you mean?
SL: Or was that a hypothetical question?
JL: That was like a hypothetical question.
SL: All right.
JL: So, do you think I’ll move out of the house when I’m done with college?
SL: What do you think?
JL: Well I don’t know, like, maybe I’ll move to Denmark or something.
SL: Well that’s where you were telling me that’s where people are happiest, right?
SL: Hopefully you won’t move so far away that it’s really hard for me to come to visit you. You know, I’m really so happy to have you home. I miss you a lot when you’re not there.
JL: Yeah. I miss you as well. As well as the dogs and everything.
SL: Yeah. Make sure you do write to me, okay? ’Cause, ’cause I love you and I worry about you. Make your old mom’s life a little easier. Deal?
SL: All right.
MG: Josh’s depression got worse in the weeks after this interview and he ended up leaving school before the semester ended. They decided he should take some time before trying again but eventually he found a program at another university for kids on the Autism spectrum. It was closer to home, so he could come back on weekends and see the dogs — and his mom.
Then, just a few days ago, in June of 2017, Sarah and Josh came in for their third interview, to mark another transition — this time into the adult world.
SDL: Well, Josh, it’s been 11 years since our first interview. You’ve just graduated from college.
SDL: Mazel tov!
JL: Thank you.
SDL: And I’m very proud of you.
SDL: I mean, you certainly did really well.
SDL: You graduated with honors.
JL: Yeah, but not great honors.
SDL: Josh! You’re my favorite curmudgeon but you’re allowed to actually be proud of yourself.
SDL: What did you major in?
JL: You know that.
SDL: Well, I know, but not everyone else does.
JL: Political Science with a minor in History. I mean, I’ve been political from an early age. Like, I remember we had just moved to the States and you took me with you to vote and you let me pull the levers and then–
SDL: That’s why I wish we still had voting booths.
JL: You mean they don’t? I mean…
JL: I, I’ve voted by post the past several elections. Do you at least get a sticker still or?
SDL: You still do get a sticker, yes.
JL: Because I’ve some friends of mine at university they didn’t get a sticker when they voted. And I’m like, what’s the bloody point?
SDL: Well, there is another bloody point, but, um it’s been an interesting road, the whole college experience.
JL: Tell me about it.
SDL: You weren’t that crazy about the whole idea of going.
JL: Yeah. From the beginning I thought, like, I wasn’t ready, like, I definitely think it was rushing into things. And I was only, what, seventeen at the time?
SDL: I know. I know. I pressured you to go.
JL: And it ended up being a disaster.
SDL: I’m sorry about that. It was a mistake. I’ll never forget I went to this lecture about kids on the spectrum going to college. And the person who was giving the lecture, I spoke to him afterwards and said, “This is the situation — my son is at college and he sounds really depressed, like, what do you think I should do?” And he was like, “I would go get him right now.”
SDL: And do you remember when I called you. I asked you if you were thinking of hurting yourself?
JL: Yeah, I do remember that.
SDL: You said, no. But I said, don’t hurt yourself. I’m coming to get you tomorrow.
SDL: You know, I screwed up.
SDL: And even though I think I did a pretty good job until then in being able to think outside the box in the way I raised you, that really made me doubt my judgement as a mother because I know it hurt you a lot.
SDL: When you were going through that bad patch, did you feel like you would get to today where you were going to graduate from college?
JL: Well, no, I mean, that’s the thing about depression, I mean, it doesn’t really let you imagine that things will get better. It often just, you know, holds you down and puts your face into the dirt, if that makes sense?
SDL: Oh yeah. I know the feeling well.
SDL: I think you’ve come a long way. And one thing that I felt was a really pivotal moment–
SDL: –was when Mom died. I see such a change in you and your maturity since that happened.
JL: Since Grandma died?
JL: Really? How so?
SDL: When we found out, we were together. I literally stopped breathing for–
JL: I remember.
SDL: Yeah, and I fell apart so completely in that moment. You know, like, I had spent my life looking after you–
SDL: –but for the first time you had to look after me.
JL: I mean, I’m sure Amy would’ve done the same thing.
SDL: I’m sure she would. But she wasn’t there. You were. And you were a rock. I mean, it’s hard to find a silver lining in losing my mother.
SDL: But I’ve always tried to think of that as the gift that Mom gave me, that you stepped up to the plate.
SDL: So, the one thing that I want to say to you as you’re about to enter the work world I just do you remember what I said to you at your Bar Mitzvah?
JL: You said a lot of things at my Bar Mitzvah. What are you thinking of?
SDL: I quoted Shakespeare to you, “Above all, to thine own self be true.”
JL: Well, yeah sorry, go on.
SDL: Well, I said it to you then and I want to say it to you now because you’re a good person and you’ve got an amazing brain. [laughs]
SDL: And just go out there and use it to do good things. And I know you will. And I love you.
JL: Thank you. Love you, too.
MG: Josh and Sarah Littman. The week that this podcast comes out, Josh starts his first-ever post-college internship. He’ll be working on a campaign for governor in Connecticut. He says he hopes it leads to a job in politics.
Sarah Darer Littman has written eight books her two latest are In Case You Missed It, a novel about digital privacy, and Fairest of Them All, which one review said was a cross between fairy tales, Project Runway, and tween drama.
As for the question of whether there will be forthcoming chapters in Josh and Sarah’s story, they currently don’t have plans to record another interview with us, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
That’s it for this episode. I produced these stories, and the podcast is produced by me and Elisheba Eittoop.
If you want to leave a voicemail for the Littmans, the number to call is 301 744 TALK.
And write us a review where ever you get your podcasts — tell us what you think. And why others should listen to our show.
Visit our website, www.storycorps.org, where you can sign up for your own interview and see an animated version of the first interview with Josh and Sarah. It’s called Q&A. And Sarah will never forgive us for giving her blue hair.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Michael Garofalo. Until next time, thanks for listening.