Family Sentence

November 1st, 2004 | Produced by Jeanine Cornillot & Viki Merrick

Dad and Grandpa.
My grandfather and father in jail in 1958. My grandfather was a commander of a Cuban revolutionary group called Prio’s Organizacion Autentica. They, along with 31 other men, were imprisoned after US authorities arrested them in 1958 while attempting to sail to Cuba to fight Batista. Click Image for Full View.

“Family Sentence” Photo Gallery
More photos from this feature, including letters written by Jeanine’s father while in prison
Jeanine at 2.
This is me, 2 years after my father was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Click Image for Full View.

From Jeanine Cornillot

My father was arrested for political bombings when I was two years old and sentenced to 30 years in prison. For years the myth of my father was like a mysterious constellation in the night sky. Every time I connected the points of light, a different story of him emerged from the empty space. A revolutionary. A martyr. An escaped convict. A hunger striker. A drug dealer. A guerilla fighter. An addict. A prison activist. A free man.

A mysterious and confusing life — that left behind a family of five. So to capture my father’s life on tape seemed a reasonable and sane reason to visit my father after his release from prison. Where it starts to get unusual is that I had only visited him once as an adult in prison. It had been 10 years since I had seen him last, and now that he was released, I brought a mic and mini disc to record him.

I secretly harbored the belief that my mic gave me an air of authority, a sort of power I imagined only journalists have. It was the perfect prop to get to know my father very quickly. I was looking to connect with him. We didn’t have time for small talk, unlike in prison, where everything is left unsaid. And – this is harder for me to admit – some part of me felt that recording my father was a way of holding him accountable to my family.

Dad & Hector
My dad and my brother Hector playing in the snow after my family moved from Miami to New Jersey for a short time. Click Image for Full View.

I went to Miami spur of the moment and bought the mini disc recorder at the last minute. What started out as a recording about my father’s life ended up a story about us — a father and daughter. An “us” — that really didn’t exist until this conversation.

Afterwards, I heard about Transom from a stranger on the street. There was a woman recording with a mini-disc recorder, and she told me if I wanted to sculpt something out of my recording, I could learn at I contacted Jay Allison and told him about my home recordings and how the father/daughter aspect dominated the tapes. But my secret hope was that he would hear the tapes and suggest I go back to Miami to get the rest of the story. What I thought was the “real” story. The one about my dad’s interesting life.

The 3 Hectors
My grandfather and brother Hector visiting my dad in prison in the early 1980’s. They are all named Hector. My brother was in High School at this time, and my grandfather died a short while after. Click Image for Full View.

Instead, what happened next was an extraordinary opportunity to collaborate with Viki Merrick. In the beginning, it was surreal. No one in my life, outside of my three brothers and mom, had met my father. Not a best friend, not boyfriends, no one. No one knew what he sounded like, that he was a great storyteller, a complicated human being. Here was Viki, a total stranger, who had opinions and insights about a man who was so personal to my family. A man, who took up such a large invisible space in our house, but was a secret to the outside world. Viki was listening to our secret. I realized even as an adult I didn’t know how to articulate to outsiders about our father. My mom, brothers and I had our own language about him. A private language. There was love, but he never existed in the present tense. He lived in the past.

As I began to write about this conversation I had to create a new language. I had to stop telling the story I knew. Start telling the one about the father and daughter, the two people I was listening to on the tapes. What stood out to me about the conversation was that my father and I are so present in that moment. We are completely there — in that space — for good or bad, with each other.

Viki always challenged me to go deeper, and embrace all the moments that made me cringe. She let me know that I had the power to write my own story. The power to examine, uncover, recover myself in the story. I will always be deeply grateful to her for all her sensitivity, patience, and the creativity that she poured into this project. It was beyond my greatest expectations that she would take this long journey with me.

I would also like to thank my father who was so generous to let me in to his home with my microphone. To answer all my questions, every last question, and to undergo so many hours of what he referred to as “the interrogations.” Thank you so much.

Deep gratitude to my brothers who were also interviewed — tapes I will always treasure because it allowed me to get to know all of you as adults. I realized that I didn’t know the men you grew up to be, until these conversations. I’m amazed by each of you.

Mom & Dad
My parents when they lived in Cuba in 1959. They lived with my
grandparents in the Vedado section of Havana. Click Image for Full View.

Most importantly, my greatest thank you goes to my mom. Who also underwent long interviews. The hardest part was not to give my mom’s perspective and voice a large presence in this piece. I so wanted to tell her story, which is no less than that of a Superhero. (I shouldn’t trade out one myth for another, but it’s true!) I thank you for being the great protector, and encouraging me to find my own story. Thank you for being such an inspiration to me.

Finally thank you to Jay Allison for bringing me into the Transom fold, and for all of his support and his sensitivity working on the final mix with Viki. Thank you to all the folks at for all your hospitality during my stay on the cape.

Last, but not least, thank you to Raquel Velasquez for convincing me to go to Miami to meet my father after his release. Thank you to Karin Gutman, Kim Levine and Cesar Hernandez (and Raquel) for all your insight and endless support during this process.

From Viki Merrick

Keeping it real is the mandate. This story is so cocked with emotions, dreams, regret and a very healthy dose of personality in both subjects. Along the way, I sometimes felt as though I had to hold Jeanine and Hector still or at my arm’s length in order to see clearly. It takes a lot to shake out the real from the past and separate it from what we wanted that past to be.

I remember a couple of years ago sitting on my porch listening to 7 hours of Hector and Jeanine’s encounter. Raw tape, SEVEN hours — I never left the porch. Those 7 hours I listened, I had headphones on, it was the only way you could actually hear anything. As Jeanine pointed out, it was a home recording. Some of our favorite bites were maybe unusable, but we kept faith and forged ahead.

Second mandate: Keep Dreaming.

Jeanine came to Woods Hole and together we re-worked the script and recorded it. So there’s two hours to stare at in protools. Most of my producerly life I’ve been making sonic id’s of about a 90 second length, max. It was another world. I pared the piece to 40 minutes but didn’t think I could remove another word.

Enter Jay Allison, ostensibly to just help the mix with his multi-colored plug-ins. But Jay has another something in his doctor bag you can’t purchase at Sweetwater or anywhere else: timing. His daring instinct for sustaining the rush or the ponderous beyond what’s natural is just uncanny. Sometimes his suggestions feel dangerous, almost sacrilegious at first but he’s almost always right and, yes it can be irritating. At Transom/APM we benefit from the irritation. I HAVE to thank my cohorts there, Sydney Lewis, Chelsea Merz and Helen Woodward. They never seem to tire of listening or propping me up. Working with Jeanine was a remarkable experience. She’s a strong writer and strong-willed like her Father. It’s awkward at times to edit someone on such personal issues; to force her to go beyond what “she thought she’d thought”, she didn’t duck but responded with grace and honesty and more grace even when she must have been wincing. Hector likes to say: Life is a paradox — and it is, to keep it real and keep dreaming.

Photo Gallery

Click on Images for Complete View

Dad in Baseball Uniform
This is my father in his baseball uniform in Cuba. Baseball is big in Cuba, but my father was not that great at sports. He told me he remembers when he would strike out his father would get up and walk out of the game.
Dad & Magda
This is a picture of my dad and his little sister, Magda. Our family owned an apartment building in the Vedado section of Havana. Behind the apartment building there was a prison. My dad said as a boy he watched the prisoners walking in circles for hours around the prison yard. What he remembers most about the prisoners was the “expression of persecution they wore.” He said it was an expression he came to know well when he walked around the prison yard as an inmate.
3 Brothers
This is a picture of my brothers Danny, Hector and Carlos. This picture was taken soon after we moved into our first house after my father’s incarceration. We were homeless for a period, and we were all SO excited that our mom found this house. We loved the backyard. The rent was $99 dollars a month.
Hunger Strike
A letter written by my father during his hunger strike in 1976 to Governor Askew.
Letter to the President
This is a letter my father sent to my brother when he was elected president of his class. (I love when he writes basketball is “in” now.) My father always took advantage of any opportunities offered in the prison system, from college courses to intensive and experimental therapy. He led his own therapy groups in prison.
Jeanine and her Father
This is the only picture I have with my father as an adult. This was the week I interviewed him. I just finished interviewing him in the car. His wife, Teresita, took this picture on13th Avenue where there is a Memorial park to Cuban heroes in LittleHavana. I spent my summers two blocks away with my grandparents. We are standing in front the Jose Marti memorial (poet and revolutionary).
Dad & Grandma
This is my favorite photograph of my grandmother and my father making their way down a street in Havana in 1940. We don’t know who took this photograph but they appear completely unaware that someone is taking their photo. Just beautiful.
Dad as a teenager
This is my dad in the Bahamas when he was a teenager. Taking a vacation from the revolution?
This is my mom when she lived in Cuba in 1960. In this picture she’s pregnant with my oldest brother Hector. This is the year she left because she didn’t want my brother born in Cuba for fear that she wouldn’t be able to get him out. My father had to escape Cuba through Mexico. He swam across the Rio Grande where he was arrested for entering the country illegally. Later, our family settled in the little Havana section of Miami.
Grandma & Grandpa
This is a picture of my grandparents after they re-settled in government subsidized housing in the Little Havana section of Miami. After my father was sentenced to 30 years on bombing charges, my grandfather was so angry with him that he rarely visited him in prison. He made a few exceptions. One was when the prison officials thought my father was going to die during his 40 day hunger strike. A priest was called to give him last rites. My father said he remembers floating outside of his body looking down on his parents and the priest giving him last rites in the prison hospital.
Letter to Jeanine
This is a letter my dad sent me from prison when I was a kid. I was horrified by his comment about my spelling and grammar, especially since English was not his first language! Now I can see it his attempt to parent from prison.
Dear Jeanine
A letter my dad sent me from prison in 1975.
Belle Grande
I have been receiving so many powerful emails since the show has been up on Transom. I received this photograph of my father that was taken by political prisoner Luis Crespo at Belle Glade Correctional Institution in 1975.

Tech Info

by Viki Merrick

There were lots of moments of wondering if the outside world could understand the audio – Hector’s lovely accent and modulations, microphone distance, background flip-flops and general ambience – so I’d test it (this is ridiculous since I mostly had the whole thing MEMORIZED), I’d turn the volume down, move to the doorway, squat down, lean out the window, anything, to keep reassuring myself it would be intelligible. Waves “Restoration” plug-ins wrasseled the audio to the ground under Jay Allison’s baton. Watching Jay mix is always inspiring but it needs to be said: he’s got the best toys of anyone (it’s part of his job). He’d select a bit of audio, like he was making an example of it to the rest of the bad audio and then teach the plug-in to make it all sound better. X-hiss, x-hum, x-noise. I love these words. Plug-ins are a high. They let you have your way, sometimes.

About Jeanine Cornillot

Jeanine Cornillot

Jeanine Cornillot has worked as a freelance writer and producer for CBS This Morning, CNN Perspectives, MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures. Currently she works as a show producer for NBC’s daily docu-soap series Starting Over, Cornillot is also the co-creator of an original fictional prime-time series Pookie Santos, in development with National Geographic. Cornillot devotes her free time to Free Arts for Abused Children and Venice Arts Mecca where she teaches teenagers in Los Angeles living in juvenile facilities how to document their lives through photography. In February 2005, she will travel to Beslan, Russia with the foundation Children as the Peacemakers, working with children on The Banner of Hope, a mile-long red-silk memorial inscribed with the names, photographs, and ages of children killed in war across the planet.

She plans to develop a radio documentary called “How to Succeed in Prison Without Doing Time,” made up of first person stories from children of prisoners. “Family Sentence” is her first radio project. She can be contacted at:

About Viki Merrick

Viki Merrick

Viki is an editor and project coordinator for Previously, she worked in Rome, Italy for ABC News as a “fixer” and radio stringer moving on to freelance as location/production manager for film documentaries for North American venues. In 1994 she became Operations/Production manager at Fabrica, an international school of guerilla communications in Treviso, Italy for film, video, audio and print. Returning to the US in 1996, she is currently a producer at Atlantic Public Media where she produces local commentaries, essays and slices of life for NPR stations WCAI and WNAN for Cape Cod and the Islands. Viki lives in Woods Hole with her two kids Allegra and Ben.

Additional support for this work provided by
Open Studio Project
with funding from the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting

74 Comments on “Family Sentence”

  • Jay Allison says:
    Family Sentence

    Some premises are simply intriguing. Like the one Jeanine Cornillot brought us. "My dad spent 23 years in prison. He started off as a Cuban Revolutionary and later ended up a convicted felon in the United States. We only talked once in the last 16 years. Then, out of the blue I got an email from him. He wrote, "I’m home. Your biological father, Hector."

    Jeanine went to meet Hector and recorded the meeting. Then, with producer Viki Merrick, she told the remarkable story of their relationship, forged in the imagination, built on disappointment and hope. Check out the eloquent Family Sentence, Jeanine’s first piece for radio.

    NOTE: This half-hour piece is available to stations for broadcast at the Public Radio Exchange (PRX)

  • Christy Hughes Cox says:
    Excellent Piece!
  • Hal Humphreys says:

    The art of being honest is a dying art, at best. Frederick Buechner says that the writer’s responsibility is to, “…be a steward to one’s own pain.” (or something very similar to that). You’ve done a fine job of stewardship. Escorting us through your shattered myths has to be a tough job and Jeannine, you’ve done it with grace.

    Your use of juxtaposition, Bravado to Frail, Revolutionary to Shy little boy, is great. The image of unraveling the myth is a nice bit of writing. I don’t know who chose Ry Cooter for the scoring, but…perfect.

    I’m curious, would you be willing to give us a wrap up on your feelings about this piece. Obviously, you should be proud of the work. But as a daughter, a child, how do you feel about it now. Personally, I know my dad is a flawed, sometimes bigoted, and sometimes inaccessible man, but I choose to think of him as my daddy, the one who held me when I was upset, etc. I hold on to the myth, the “bionic” dad. I fear that being so honest might strip me of my happy myths. Again, if you are willing, how does listening to this piece make you feel now?

    Thanks again for sharing this story. It’s wonderful.


  • Hal Humphreys says:
    Viki, my hero…

    Viki, didn’t mean to leave you out of this. You are a champ for sticking with this story, searching, dreaming, keeping it real. Nice work.

    Feel free to chime in on my question to Jenine. I think this story encourages us to question reality in some way. But I’m afraid (and I think most of us are) to grab the gauze and pull too hard. I like my little myths. Thoughts?


    ps. it was great to see you again in Chi town.

  • Lynn says:
    What a touching story!

    That is a very touching story! I cried and even laughed at some parts and found myself wanting to hear more after it ended. How did your visit with him end that day?


  • Tory says:

    Dear Jeanine The show was great, I’m so proud of you for being so brave and baring your sole. And I’m very happy that maybe now you have found some peace in knowing that our father is not a myth. He was just a boy raised by a patriot, in a rush to fight in a revolution. And one lession was left out of his training, No one taught our father what a patriot is! it’s to fight oppression for the right to live free. the rights we hold so dear as Americans. and what our grandfather never taught him. What he was fighting for.It’s for family and your children and your children’s children. He just didn’t know what a patriot is. And that makes me sad. you have helped me with my own issues on this.I love you always your big brother Hector USMC

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:
    Myth Slayer

    Hal, thanks for the question about myth – this is a tricky subject. But I’ll give it a try. When you recall a hug from your dad – that’s a sweet and endearing memory. It actually happened, and yes, he was inaccessible and flawed at times – but those are your memories too. I think in my case, a myth had replaced the part in me where memory/history was supposed live.

    As a child, my father was a mythic hero who I visited in prison yards. In my mind, everything he did was justified. The bombs didn’t kill anyone, just destroyed property. He didn’t want to abandon the family — he had to. He was a political prisoner. He was innocent (or guilty for the right reasons.) He was fighting a (hazy foreign) war so his children could have a better life.

    That myth really served me as a child. It put an extra bounce in my step as I walked down the street in my neighborhood. A bit of a swagger, if you will.

    But, of course, that story didn’t add up as an adult.

    And about twenty minutes into the conversation with my father, I had a sinking feeling that the myth was no longer serving me as an adult. Yet, I couldn’t seem to control the way the myth kept re-inflating in our conversation. It felt like an air bag that kept releasing during a car crash.

    I’m relieved to have torn the myth down. I think what was underneath was far more interesting. I was able to discover a man who was far more interesting, human, and complex.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    Lynn, thanks for your thoughts. I went back to the transcripts to help me remember how it ended that night. This is how the transcripts ended.

    Jeanine: If Cuban culture is so important to you, how come you didn’t infuse it any of your children?

    Hector: I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there.

    Music from radio.

    So then, I guess, I turned off the recorder after that. It was a long conversation. Seven hours with no stopping. I think we started going in circles. The next day was a difficult one, and the following day I returned to Los Angeles.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:
    Beautiful words

    Tory, thank you for your beautiful words. I think, other than me, Viki can understand the power of this post — having listened to our long conversations. Thank you, for sharing SO much of yourself with me. And for your never-ending support.

  • Viki Merrick says:

    your words are so unencumbered – it’s obvious you’ve been doing your own sifting and I admire your clarity. It’s been a jagged road. Your post also got me thinking – and it might be an off-the-wall comparison but I know a lot of Palestinian kids living in Lebanon, "after" the war, used to play Russian Roulette, the real kind, like the way I played jacks. They were maintaining their reality, having grown up on guerilla warfare;and thinking about Hector’s life, I guess he too didn’t know where his father’s quest ended and his own began, having been weened only on revolutionary fare. It makes my guts uncomfortable.
    You make me think Jeanine’s quest was more accomplished than perhaps even she thought. You got eachother moving the furniture around and opening the windows, you’re probably all a little taller.
    Thanks for sharing yourself in this public place.

  • greg s says:
    another layer

    Jeanine, I can imagine this was not an easy road to go down, confronting your father about some of these things. I really enjoyed listening to your story and thought it was very moving.

    There’s a particular layer of it that resonated with me for some reason; it’s kind of secondary to your story, but interesting in its own right. Maybe it’s your next documentary: While you were busy breaking down the myths you carried in your head about your father, it was obvious he was still trying to sell those myths. It raised the question with me, does he still really believe them? Does he truly believe that putting his family aside to remain true to his political cause, was worth it? He seems to say that with a brave face, but I couldn’t help wonder if it was a front. Not that it’s impossible to conceive somebody sacrificing their life to an urgent political calling, but I couldn’t help wondering: did Hector get to an age where he HAD to believe what he’d done his whole life, so that it didn’t destroy him? Did he have to believe the hype, so he didn’t feel like he’d wasted his life? I wonder if you got a sense of that, during your days together in the interview process. A personal question perhaps, but you’ve got me wondering…

    Just one of the interesting layers of your story! Great job–

  • Sydney Lewis says:

    I loved the journey this piece took me on. As a peripheral observer to its progress, I saw a very early script and heard the odd conversation about work as it progressed. The music is such a strong part of the piece. Would either or both of you talk about how your idea of how the piece would sound changed over time? And anything anyone, including Jay, wants to say about the technical aspects might prove useful. I heard some of the raw tape of Hector and it’s amazing what a little tweaking can do.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:
    Was it worth it?

    Greg, these are great questions. Maybe Viki can comment on some of these, since we discussed this aspect of my father during the process.

    "…It raised the question with me, does he still really believe them? Does he truly believe that putting his family aside to remain true to his political cause, was worth it?"

    There were periods when I could see in his face that he no longer, completely, believed in the myth he was telling me. Although he talked passionately about a Democratic Cuba, whenever the subject of family came up, his revolutionary fervor would grow to a much higher pitch. Only he can answer if it was worth it. But during the week, I did feel that he wished he could make amends with his children, ask for forgiveness, but didn’t know where to begin.

    The only place we could begin was by deconstructing the myth — because in his version of the myth his family didn’t exist. The myth erased us, yet we continued to uphold it because the fact that he may have simply been an irresponsible father and husband – was too unbearable.

    “…but I couldn¹t help wonder if it was a front. Not that it¹s impossible to conceive somebody sacrificing their life to an urgent political calling, but I couldn¹t help wondering: did Hector get to an age where he HAD to believe what he¹d done his whole life, so that it didn¹t destroy him?”

    As time passed, my father’s political calling took him on a downward spiral. His road as a revolutionary, in and out of prison, was much more complicated than what we were able to touch upon in the piece. He was released in the 1980’s, and returned to Philadelphia and asked my mom to marry him again. She said no. He then drifted for awhile and re-emerged involved with the contras – traveling to Nicaragua and training guerilla fighters. He started peddling cocaine to fund the cause. He became an addict himself, and was arrested on drug charges, and re-entered prison soon after. After he completed his full sentence, he was transferred to INS detention where he languished without much hope of release because he was considered “an un-deportable” to Cuba.

    So the myth of the hero became a very fragile construct. It was a myth that he could never live up to, yet couldn’t live without. Because without it what would have been the point to our suffering?

    Although, I don’t think he wasted his life. As he said “…it’s not where you are, it’s what you do.” He found purpose in prison. I honor that because those are his life experiences, and they have power and meaning.

  • Viki Merrick says:

    Greg, you ask the tough questions. I think as we review our lives it’s hard to be honest, but it’s also harder and harder to defend the myths. I think the fascinating thing about Hector is the way he reveals this now and then in the conversation. When he brutally denies the family, he is also struggling in his heart – you can hear the thickness of his voice. It’s hard to balance this stuff. One simply CANNOT just toss an entire life experience, and certainly he was raised in a certain rhetoric that he had to rely on to make sense of WHY and HOW he was doing what he was doing. If you think about the premise, it’s pretty wild. Within that context, his certificate for being a "role model" for revolutionaries is something he can live with. And all the rest, you try to digest, to accept, which is no small thing. I remember at one point he says simply: we lived this.
    I think his approach to life baffles a lot of people, but I think he’s spent a lot of time thinking about it. Jeanine gets at him pretty easily with a direct question, and when it’s mythical to a useless degree, he let’s it drop, either with an annoyed "aaaaargh" or a quiet yes or better yet, he laughs. At one point she asks him something profound like "why" and he tries to answer profoundly "for freedom" and he laughs. He kept the bits he likes, for company maybe and then the rest…he lets go, because really, what is the point? I think both father and daughter have pared things to a shape and size they can live with – a fine objective.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:
    Writing on the cringe

    Hi Sydney,

    I had a hard time listening to the raw tapes because I would immediately start to cringe. What I soon discovered was that extended cringing – with small outburst of “…this is a nightmare!” – can be so exhausting. I finally managed to complete the transcripts and I never listened to the raw tapes again. (until problems in the script forced me back.) I just worked off paper.

    But Viki soon noticed that the narration was getting too far away from the experience. I was writing so much that it was starting to squeeze out the actual conversations. I admitted to Viki I wasn’t listening to the tapes, just reading the transcripts. So she suggested I go back and listen to the raw tapes. Start writing again.

    What I discovered was that when I was working off paper – my dad and I seemed more like literary characters, and my writing reflected that in the prose. I started falling into an omniscient storyteller, disconnected, floating above the experience. But when I listened, I reacted strongly to the sound of our voices. The story existed in the *sound* of our voices, not in our words. That was my big radio lesson.

    When we finally got the paper cut down to an hour, I recorded a scratch track for the narration. It will go down in history as one of the worst readings that Transom has ever received. I had no idea what I was doing. I just read the entire one-hour without stopping. I ran out of breath, but kept going. My voice fell into a peculiar rhythm, not unlike the sound of someone reciting a strange lullaby about prison. Viki said I sounded like Goldilocks. But I felt like I sounded more like Goldilocks attempting a spoken word piece ala Sonia Sanchez. I’m sure my “read” unnerved her, but all we could do was laugh at that point. So I don’t know how she worked with that scratch track. Because when she pieced it all together – the reading was so strange on the ears – I couldn’t tell if the writing had any meaning.

    It wasn’t until we got into the studio on Cape Cod where we began to really re-work the sound of the script. Viki was an amazing coach. When I learned how to read in my actual voice – we could tell fairly quickly what was working in the writing, and what wasn’t. What had meaning to me, and what was just a cover up. That process took up the entire week I was there – we never got to the final mix as planned.

  • Chris Cox says:
    Post script on a great piece

    I wrote you about some similar stories others have. I come from this quarter as you know.
    Dads and Cuba.

    I wonder Jeanine if your approach was always from the personal. My father was in prison, I grew up with an image I made some peace with later. At anytime in your project, did you consider the political or have you any research on historical context of your family’s life? I notice you mention "revolutionary" in describing your father yet he spent his life incarcerated as a "counterrevolutionary?"

    Also I agree stories like this leave the viewer with a need for the happy post script. Are you, as are your viewers apparently, satisfied with how it all went after the wrapup, or is there a need to continue the story in some way?

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    Thanks for a great question. In the piece, my father and I both refer to him as a revolutionary. As he said, “…the medals of a revolutionary are prison or death.”

    I never felt the need to connect with my father via politics – it was always personal for me. I’ve always been more interested in the human stories behind a person’s politics – what life experiences and myths shape who they are and their road in life.

    I have done some research about the political history of my own family in Cuba. My grandfather was a revolutionary who attempted to overthrow three different dictators in Cuba, starting in the 1930s. He was a great follower of Jose Marti’s writing and teachings. I don’t know if, at any point, he or my father would have labeled themselves “counterrevolutionaries.” They were all for revolution. They fought to overthrow Batista’s dictatorship and spent time together in jail under his government.

    A counterrevolutionary, strictly understood, is a person who wants to reverse or re-instate the former government, and opposes revolutionary tendencies. Those were never my father’s objectives. He fought to bring about a revolution in Cuba, with a desire to create a new government in the spirit of Jose Marti’s vision, one that embodied individual freedom, justice and equality for every Cuban, as well as economic freedom.

    The people we often refer to as counterrevolutionary are actually more diverse in their objectives and vision than this monolithic term might suggest. I believe my father sees Castro as just another dictator in a long succession of dictators that needed to be overthrown in Cuba.

    So due to my family history, and their involvement in different revolutionary movements in Cuba, I just always considered my father to be the son of a revolutionary, born and raised as a revolutionary.

    It’s a paradox that my father spent more of his adult life as an inmate than as a revolutionary. But he said he never stopped thinking about a new future for Cuba. A segment from our interview that didn’t make it into the piece was when he said, laughing, “I was a destroyer in order to re-build. But now I’m too old to destroy – and now I know how to rebuild.”

  • Marianne McCune says:

    Jeanine – I’m home sick today. I wanted some inspiration and I got it from your work. I was thoroughly moved. Thank you.

    One of the things I liked about your piece (just one – besides, for example, your defiant voice during the interview, unquestionably the daughter of a revolutionary!) was that you left open the question of whether your father being a ‘revolutionary’ was indeed important enough to justify his neglecting his family. Maybe I missed something, though, because it sounds like others who’ve posted here felt it was clearly NOT worth it.

    I didn’t feel that your father had necessarily lied to himself or put his priorities in the wrong order, even though he wasn’t successful in his quest. Part of me felt, even while listening to the pain in your voice, that we need people who harden themselves to the comforts of family and consistency and love and all those good things. I felt your piece allowed me to admire your dad’s role in society, even though your words made me very aware of and conflicted about the impact he had on your family.

    Then I read all these postings and saw that you’d described parts of your dad’s life that weren’t in the story -

    "He then drifted for awhile and re-emerged involved with the contras – traveling to Nicaragua and training guerilla fighters. He started peddling cocaine to fund the cause. He became an addict himself, and was arrested on drug charges, and re-entered prison soon after."

    That made me feel differently about a lot of what he and you said in the story. It doesn’t change completely my feeling, but it does put a different light on things. Why did you leave it out?

    Finally, I wanted to tell you that your story is making me think of a story told by the son of the architect Louis Kahn. If you haven’t seen his documentary film about his quest to understand his father, you MUST! It’s called My Architect and is a beautiful, beautiful film in many, many ways. It is also very much about what’s worth neglecting your family for.

    Congratulations Jeanine for making us all think and feel so hard. I’m grateful.


  • Viki Merrick says:
    changing color

    There are so many things, even very small things, that change the face and movement of a piece. Cutting out a thought, or a beloved bit of tape. Syd mentions music: when I first cut the piece there was no music, and strangely, I felt no calling out for music. Even after a hundred listens I found the story pretty compelling; but people need to breathe and catch up. Jeanine was looking for "another character" to participate, a character of sound. I was afraid of the competition with the tape but I played around (torturously so) and found this music with american/cubano spirit and dimension that in fact seemed to quietly comment and keep the motion forward, but also to help the listener stop when necessary. The use of music is an endlessly interesting subject and my opinions change with every piece. I think – thanks to music – this piece moved from a spotlit scene with a bare bulb to something with natural light and lush plants.

    Also as Jeanine mentioned, letting her natural voice surface had a reality effect on her writing. I think what ever fell off the script did so easily like perfectly cooked meat falls from the bone.

  • Eric Vos says:
    The True Cost(s) of Incarceration

    A thrilling and moving piece. Thrilling in the sense you have no idea where you are going. Is it to be a celebration or an indictment? Moving in the sense you see the brutal honesty surrounding the carnage associated with Hector’s absence. Moving for you see the suffering brought about by not only a father’s act of abandonment but Hector’s own pain which is evident between all of the lines of bravado.

    I also marveled at the peeling away of Hector’s patina. In one sentence he talks about not remembering his daughter’s early visits. Yet, soon thereafter, he talks of the indelible image of a little girl reaching up for a hug. Clearly, Hector has spent too many years trying to convince himself, and others, that prison was just fine and that he suffered little from not having his children in his daily life. Yet, the letter he sent to his daughter, where he anthropomorphizes a prison yard kitten and whispers his daughter’s name, speaks volumes to the man’s true loneliness and pain.

    While there is certainly no lack of “prisoner’s stories” this piece uniquely deals with the children’s pain. Can one imagine any more of a traumatic image than a little girl living in fear someone is going to hurt her father? Can one imagine the adult child’s pain in having to confront their elderly father with the necessary dialogue of what transpired?

    I was left with the thought of this little girl wanting to be loved by her father and thinking she had but that brief prison visit to gain this love and her father living with the false notion his “little kitten” wanted nothing more than another father.

    In the end it is hard to say if Hector is a revolutionary or a man ruined by his father and who is left to bestow the same gift of pain upon his own children. The piece certainly provides all of us with a raw dose of reality which runs counter to our society’s glib notions of warehousing human beings in prisons.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:
    Parts left out

    Marianne thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. The later years of my dad’s life that included the contras, drug sales, and drug addiction were part of a longer version of the script. There are large pieces to the puzzle that were left out. I think Jay wrote once (something like) that this is only a small window onto a much larger life.

    We couldn’t tell the entire story. It was difficult to edit parts out. But we had to make choices, and not only for time. I think the question I had to ask myself was, Is this the story about my dad’s journey in life? Or is this the story of our journey in life together? Sometimes it was hard to distinguish where his story stopped, and mine began. I found that our lives always seemed to intersect in the prison yard, regardless of why he was there. To me he was always a hero in that space, albeit a fallen one at times.

    Now if I had made the documentary I originally intended to make (one just about my dad’s life), I would have explored his involvement with the contras, drugs, and addiction much more thoroughly. I believe those parts make his life journey more complex, and therefore more interesting. His path was not a straight line. He stumbled along the way. It seems he was filled with a BIG heroic desire, but his progress was littered with flawed choices. Those choices would ultimately have such far reaching and severe implications on his own life. I also think that along the way there were some smaller, but no less heroic, human moments that have never been acknowledged, like his recovery from addiction in prison. Moments like that don’t fit neatly into the myth. But now with the myth gone, they can be embraced.

  • operations says:
    A New Photo From Jeanine

    Belle Grande
    Click Image for Full View

    I have been receiving so many powerful emails since the show has been up on Transom. I received this photograph of my father that was taken by political prisoner Luis Crespo at Belle Glade Correctional Institution in 1975.

    ~ JC

  • Eric Vos says:
    There are no revolutionaries!

    I know it sounds crazy, yet, there are no revolutionaries. There are simply men/women who wish to free themselves of the day to day humdrum and abandon their more mundane responsibilities for the romantic image of the revolution. Hector could have been a boring father doing the nine to five or he could take on the romantic and awe inspiring role of a man fighting for a larger cause. It is easy to fail as a parent and provider. Yet, it is harder to fail as a revolutionary in prison.

    Yes, of course there are revolutionaries! Yet, we must ask ourselves does the “cause” pull the man away from his “normal” life or does the normal life push the man to the “cause?” Or is there a combination? Hector’s ideas of badges, and prison being such a badge, provides us with the sense he sees the revolution as a romantic adventure. Of course the piece can’t allow for time to explore Hector’s political views. Yet, it would be interesting to see the underpinning of his ideologies from which he proudly wears these badges.

    In the end did the attempts and failures of the “revolution” justify a lost life and abandoned children? Certainly, we must weigh the deep scars to the four children and abandoned wife when looking to a balance.

  • Lynn says:

    Ok, you answered my question “literally” but what I was interested in was how you left it with your father that last day for the first time in years? I mean, the conversation made me like Hector for his candor but you are his daughter and I want to know what it felt like to not only ask your dad tough love questions but who is your father to you now?? Do you still talk to him today?

  • Viki Merrick says:
    sins of omission

    Eric I’m puzzled. Your first post seemed right on (at least with my interpretation) and yet the 2nd post you seem to have changed your mind. Do you really think that Hector was ever living a "normal" life that would have pushed or pulled him to another life?
    I think your theory about escaping the daily drudge is also accomplished by many things less dramatic, like going homeless – but behind EVERY person’s choice of life, there is an individual story. I am not convinced that in hindsight Hector thinks his life choices were so great, but WHAT DO YOU DO? Hector is a survivor, regardless of the mire. In order to keep breathing, I think you have to make SOME kind of sense of your life. A soldier may regret having gone to war, he may only have his medals to make sense of the experience. I am not equating Hector with a war hero, but I think given the context in which he lived, and given the failure, doing time was about as close as he could come to the original objective his father set him to.

    All that said, I don’t really know which revolutions are worth the scars to the families involved. If Hector had "freed" Cuba, certainly Jeanine’s scars and her brothers’ would be no less deep. Would it have been worth it? Is it ever?

    Here’s another question Eric, while we’re stirring it up: What if Hector HAD stayed "home"? I know a lot of fathers who have and well – for all the heart scars or the emotional lack they brought in not being really present – they may as well have lived away in, I don’t know, Cuba.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    Eric, I was moved by your thoughtful post. Your comments cut to the very heart of the piece for me. Thank you for listening so deeply.

    I realized that I have been writing a lot about my dad as a revolutionary – which is part of the myth. The myth is powerful and it reinforces itself again and again. Always demanding to be center stage even outside of my father’s presence.

    I conceived the piece as a meditation on family and prison. I think it’s more seductive to talk about revolutionaries than about the true costs of incarceration. Your post reminded me that my father was for much of his life a long-term incarcerated prisoner. That I was the daughter of a prisoner. That at the core, this is a story about prison. The rest is about how our family negotiated that in our hearts and minds.

  • Jackson says:
    Our dads, the revolutionaries

    Jeanine: Having been trawling through my own family history of late, I wonder, as the bloggers now say, if there isn’t a larger meme you’ve hit upon here. So many people here responding deeply to this story, responding to something that’s clearly more than — don’t take this the wrong way — a story about a woman and her dad.

    Romantic notions of Papa is not, I suspect, gender-specific. I feel a real inner glow when I think that my father had been a union organizer in the Pew shipyards back in the late ’40s and a World Federalist a couple of years later.

    What’s great here, in your story, is that you as a skeptical reporter type are banging your head against the familial myth — even though you long ago bought the myth on a deeper level.

    Which leads me to another thing entirely: the truly mythic nature of editorial insight. Viki, I wonder how you knew the content of tape Jeanine hadn’t played for you. I have, as a writer, gone through this several times with editors and have found it somewhat unnerving.

    Jeanine, I wonder if Viki didn’t discover from the stuff you presented things you had originally wanted left unsaid.

  • Eric Vos says:
    Pull and Push of the family


    First, the post was clearly meant to both agitate and then address. The first paragraph asks the ridiculous question of whether or not there are really any revolutionaries. The second paragraph answers the first but clarifies the notion of duality- revolutionary/escape artist.

    Obviously, people make choices for a multitude of reasons. In Hector’s case there is the father image he needs to address, the actual political motivation and the family which will either push him into or pull him from becoming a revolutionary. Don’t mistake, this should not demean the work and dedication of those seeking change. Yet, we must ask why people allow themselves to go where the rest of us can not. Attachment, or possibly repulsion, to family MUST play a role. The children, given that there were four, were not incidentals. These attachments, or repulsions, will undoubtedly emerge as important factors as the family deals with absence and incarceration. It is balderdash to think the family was a non-issue.

    What I most loved about the piece was Hector’s maturing view of his family. I started to believe that Hector grew to place far more importance on his family. While I’m guessing, I think Hector was far more glib about his children when he was bombing and far more attached to them when he whispered his daughter’s name upon seeing that adorable kitten. In the end, I think Hector may view the family as a more important loss then he originally estimated and thus, the family’s roll as either a pull or push has changed. In either event, they had to be a factor.

    While it was not part of the broadcast, clearly Jeanine’s writings and people’s posts address the period of time between the two periods of incarceration. Thus, we are left to ask what is the common denominator between the original Cuban struggle, the Contras and drug dealing/addiction. It would be too simplistic to say Hector is a multi-faceted revolutionary who then got caught up with the underworld of drugs. In an interesting way, the characteristics of a man existing amongst a closed group of people, whom act in a secretive manner, fits neatly into both the world of drugs and illegal revolutionaries. Clearly the motivation behind the acts which led to Hector’s plight(s) will effect his family relations. At one end of the spectrum you have the pure revolutionary and at the other a man who was merely unable to cope with the obligations of life and thus, chose an escape with only a manufactured ideology. Where Hector falls along this spectrum will undoubtedly be an important factor in how the family is left to deal with what then transpires.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    I have lost track of my dad since the making of this documentary. He has not heard the piece, and I think he would be very puzzled as to why people are having a discussion about him. He would probably laugh in disbelief.

    Now when I hear the piece, I smile. I no longer cringe (so much). Our voices (already) make me feel like I’m listening to a grainy, warm, old record. Or watching a photograph developing a sepia glow.

    It has become an official family record, a marking of time. A concrete memory to pass onto the next generation, along with the photo albums, and letters.

    I would recommend to anyone to go out and buy a mic from Guitar World, and a mini disc from Radio Shack — and record those that you love, the ones you don’t understand, and the hard to catch in your life.

    Viva Transom for encouraging and teaching citizens how to take our stories into our own hands.

    (**Important Tech note: Viki and Jay may have different recommendations about the equipment I just suggested.)

  • Patrick Creadon says:
    Family Sentence — a masterpiece in storytelling

    Thank you to everyone at Transom for this incredible piece of storytelling, and especially to Ms. Cornillot for having the courage and empathy to face her father after all these years. AND, for calling him what he is — an abandoner. His family matters — maybe not to him — but they matter! I hope he finally realizes that.
    Patrick Creadon
    Los Feliz, CA

  • Viki Merrick says:
    new courage

    "I think Hector may view the family as a more important loss then he originally estimated"

    Amen. You can hear it, stuck in his throat.

    I think Jeanine was looking for that very validation and it feels like she got it. For Hector,how to embrace the loss and live with it actively, in the present, will take a new kind of courage. These two are warriors both, they have the potential and always, tomorrow is another day.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    Patrick, thanks for your thoughts on the piece.

    I believe it took a lot of courage for my father to let me survey his interior world, to hold a flashlight up and expose the parts of him that are still intact, as well as the parts that have been demolished by time and prison. To lay bare it all.

    That was the gift he held out to me. I can’t think of a greater one to receive. For me, his desire to share was a courageous act of love.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:


    Thanks for your post. It has me wondering about why and how people respond to stories.

    You wrote “…So many people here responding deeply to this story, responding to something that’s clearly more than — don’t take this the wrong way — a story about a woman and her dad.“

    I don’t know if I agree that people are necessarily responding to something other than a father and daughter story. Why does it need to be broader for people to respond deeply? Is it possible that people are engaged by this story precisely because it is so specific? The parent and child relationship is so fundamental. The personal nature of this account may be what echoes somewhere in our collective consciousness. The political and social context, however vivid, are secondary to the human story.

    I think what is really interesting is that men and women seem to be reacting very differently to this piece.

    I’m wondering if anyone has thoughts on why that might be…?

  • ali berlow says:

    The first thing I did this morning was listen to this – so no phones, child or dog could interrupt. Being an observer from the very, very peripheral edge of the making of this piece, I’m dumbstruck by Viki and Jeanine’s bravery and commitment to the process – how together they dug in and got to the marrow of her story. This seems to me to be proof – of their belief and faith – that story telling is so very worthy.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    no secrets

    There are a lot of good reasons to tell a story. One big one, for me, is the possiblity of resonance, more specifically, reviving sensation of protected inner spots. While this story is FABULOUSLY specific, it also reaches across the stage to many for a myriad of reasons; the huge category of parent and child, fathers, forgiveness, daughters, courage large and small, prison reverberation etc. When a story has arms like these that reach out, it’s a story that’s gotta be told, and it seems logical that a lot of people would respond; for Jackson it was the father myth which almost always needs re-shaping, re-sizing and I think that happened right before our ears. If I helped bring that forward in Jeanine’s script, that is the extent of any mythic nature or insight, merely that of an observant outsider. I had heard ALL the tape Jeanine had (you weren’t holding out on me were you Jeanine?)so no secrets there, I’m not really sure from where Jackson’s impression came.

  • Jackson says:
    Clarification re: editorial revelation

    In the past, I have had editors ask me for things that hadn’t been included in the materials I presented. Not stuff necessarily withheld as in "kept secret," but stuff that I didn’t think of as part of the story — or maybe, on occasion, didn’t want as part of the story.

    So, when an editor divines the existence of undisclosed material — for whatever reason — it’s a mindblower. Having said that, since Viki had heard all the tape, then the scary/magical divination of undisclosed material doesn’t apply here.

    And maybe this magical moment can occur simply when another pair of eyes, another set of ears discerns a different thread in the text. All the more magical, perhaps, because it was already there and could be seen…

  • greg says:

    I think what Eric posted above is right on:

    i "At one end of the spectrum you have the pure revolutionary and at the other a man who was merely unable to cope with the obligations of life and thus, chose an escape with only a manufactured ideology. Where Hector falls along this spectrum will undoubtedly be an important factor in how the family is left to deal with what then transpires."

    In light of this, I think the most important part of the piece, for it speaks so directly to the father-daughter-family relationship, is when Hector cops to his mistakes. Jeanine asks him if his actions weren’t ego driven, acts of machismo, if he wasn’t living a “movie in his own head.” Hector admits that these things had at least something to do with how his life turned out. He apologizes for it. He seems to admit his failings, admit to a hole in the myth he’d continued to prop up for much of the conversation. I’m curious if you saw it this way, Jeanine. It leaves it for you and your family to accept Hector’s apologies as sincere, accept that he’s seen his own flaws and forgive them. Or not. This is of course a personal decision you all must make and you will all undoubtedly go about it in different ways. I think it’s one of the more compelling parts of the story and one we can all relate to. We must all decide to forgive our parents at one time or another.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    Yes, absolutely, my father’s acknowledgment led to forgiveness. But it didn’t happen that night. There were parts of my father’s conversation that I didn’t *hear* in the moment. It wasn’t until I listened to the tapes (over and over again) while writing – that I found new layers to our conversation.

  • Eric Vos says:
    In The End

    For those who have lost a loved one, be it father, mother or other, you have times when you want to reach into the ether and find the dead. You want to feel the glow of their smile, rock in their arms and have them make you feel alright. You want to be enveloped in what you fantasize they were. You want to feel the weight of their absence slip away.

    For many, that is impossible. They are either dead or really lost. Even when found, few can resuscitate them. And for those who successfully do revive the once dead, that which returns turns out to survive is an unacceptable reality.

    Hector’s re-birth, after years of missing, is done with a beautiful mix of fantasy and reality. It is a tough landing but seems so natural. A big plane to put on the tarmac. To hear Jeanine’s voice push life back into the relationship, and hear what may be some of Hector/Jeanine’s first breaths, as their relationship is reborn, is moving. It is not always pretty but it is certainly fantastic.

    To hear this piece of art gives you that sensation of groping in the dark ether and actually finding that missing soul you long to hold, warts and all.

  • Eric Vos says:

    "soul” not "sole"

  • Ira Glass says:

    I admired the skill and sensitivity with which this was put together. It’s the sort of story that’s hard to do without falling into a number of cloying public radio cliches and you guys managed to avoid all of them.

    Some favorite moments:

    The sequence about what it means to be a revolutionary ending with "sounds like my mother."

    Him talking about how her mom should have aborted the babies and her fantastic, unflourishy but utterly heartfelt, perfect writing about hearing him say that – like someone floating above the room.

    Her question about how his dad felt when he was put away for 30 years (his answer is less satisfying than her question – but that doesn’t matter)

    Her saying she was scared for him.

    Much later, him saying he was the predator, not the one victimized. And her uncertainty over believing him.

    The whole sequence where she tries to talk to him about her visits as a girl and how he doesn’t remember them at all. That’s heartbreaking and done perfectly. The stuff after, where it becomes clear that he really basically viewed the family as completely separate, as not his concern, the whole thing, is also all perfect.

    That moment at the end where he says he hates to see her cry is really beautiful and her writing about is also great … how she feels like they’re really talking to each other at that moment, for a change.

    I also thought you guys handled the poor sound quality and general hard-to-hear quality of his quotes with an elegance that’s rarely achieved.

    And the dad comes off surprisingly well — often fascinating and even sort of charming — even in moments when he seems completely full of shit.

    I loved the letter where he admits he thinks about her. Wish you’d talked to him about that letter – about how it shows that your interview with him in prison was a true reflection of his feelings, but not of ALL his feelings. Clearly at times, you meant something more to him than he admits in the interview. You could’ve called him on the phone late in the production process and talked to him about this; it would’ve been interesting to hear you read him the letter and ask him about it. It would also fullfill one of the underlying premises and dramas of the story: to figure out what if anything you and your siblings meant to him. I can understand if that phonecall would step on the careful architecture of this story you guys made. There’s a downside to it also. You’d have to put it near the end.

    Finally – lovely mixes overall. And her performance is very solid on the hardest kind of script imaginable.

    There’s some other stuff I thought didn’t work as well. I didn’t totally follow the thing about him getting out of prison – did she say he got out 16 years ago? Couldn’t quite catch that. The scene in the airport is perfectly written – her wanting to tell herself to remember to remember it – but I didn’t catch the basic time sequence, even on listening back again.

    Also I don’t understand, what year did this interview take place? And then the tape at the end … is it from that same interview or a much later interview? Maybe this last point is clear but I was listening and taking notes on a plane at the end of a very long workday so if I missed this, apologies. And I downloaded and listened without reading any of the explanatory stuff here on Transom.

    Also, I didn’t quite catch why he’s in prison in the first place. It sounds like complete bullshit, some bomb for revolutionary purposes? In the U.S.? What’s he talking about? What does she think of it?

    His whole thing about how he’s a different kind of person from the rest of us, a revolutionary, I don’t totally understand. I mean, his side won. Castro won. So what was he a revolutionary about after that? He was a revolutionary for Cuba in the U.S.? In the end, she confronts him, but I gotta say, when he was talking about this stuff in the middle of the story, I wished I knew her attitude about it. He seems like a very interesting, charismatic, honest man, but one who’s completely kidding himself about his life and his choices. And she doesn’t call him on it till much much later. All this would’ve been cleared up by one paragraph in the first third where she tells us his crime (and his romantic revolutionary vision of his crime) and what she thinks of it.

    Finally, I think the story doesn’t start so strong. It gives us no reason to listen to the rest of the story. No question to motivate our listening and drive the story. It’s clear this story means something to the narrator but not clear why we should care. And all that early tape where she’s sort of naive – the bionic stuff, the superhero stuff – doesn’t make me want to listen further. I think this stuff could be in the story somewhere, maybe. But I don’t think it’s your strongest material.

    Maybe a stronger opening would be (if you think his revolutionary crime is bullshit) to come out and say that as the opening. "In 1965 my dad was thrown in prison for 30 years for a crime that – to me – is complete nonsense. To him it was heroism. A bank was bombed. There were four of them. Etc." That would make me curious because there’d be a conflict between two characters (you and him and how you see his crime) – one that’s going to play out over the course of the story (and of course end in your final confrontation).

    But I think starting with the whole "we didn’t know him and I idealized him" isn’t so gripping. I see why you went with it, but it didn’t make me want to hear more. Like I say, it felt more like a person working out her issues for her own sake than something more generally interesting. I reread that sentence and it comes off way more – um – mean than I intend for it to be. I’m trying to say that it doesn’t point to a conflict or question that’s as intriguing to me as it could be, given the material you’re working with.

    Another approach that might work better: If you started by saying "All my life my dad’s been in prison. All my life he’s been a distant son of a bitch. A few years ago – six to be exact – I went to visit him with a tape recorder. I figured I’d get him to open up. I figured at last we’d hash things out. I was wrong." And then go to one of the instances on tape where he’s stonewalling you. Instead of to the stuff about you idolizing him. The advantage of this version is that it brings two characters on the stage and puts them in conflict immediately. It also makes you more KNOWING than you are in the top right now. I’d trust you more than I do with that bionic stuff.

    Not that the bionic stuff is without its charm. It’s just a bad opener.

    So … those are my notes. Like I say, despite my qualms with some parts of this story, overall I found it very impressive. I wonder if other people had trouble with the opening. I know some of my fellow producers on This American Life weren’t so keen on the opening as well.

  • Eric Vos says:
    Bully Book

    First, I love This American Life. I can do Billy Holiday selling Hotdogs better than Sadaris and I have read “The Bully Book.” Yet, it made me a little antsy reading Ira’s critique. I think This American Life is a show which is tighter, story driven in its chapter form and delivers a whole different package. American Life looks for the laugh possibly more than the subtext. The mere deliveries, be it by Glass, Sadaris, etc., hark back to the days of vaudeville and the golden age of radio. The segments do their brutal best to create a crisp picture over radio and make you laugh. At times, they leave little to the imagination given their exquisite detail. Simply put, look to the physical descriptions offered up by This American Life’s narrations and look to the TOTAL absence of attention to the physical descriptions offered up by Family Sentence.

    Family Sentence is a very different animal. First, there is obvious mystery in where we are going. Is this going to be a romantic story about Father’s heroic years in prison as a revolutionary or are we talking nothing but failure, family pain and denial? Is this going to be cliche or deconstruction of cliche? Thus, the need for Ira’s “strong opening” really doesn’t do it for me. This is the melding of two weird and wacky worlds. Crisp staccato beginnings with clarity, as to hook the listener, really belts the beautiful mystery right out of it. All you have to say is the guy was in jail for decades and now after 16 years I’m going to make contact. If this doesn’t get you on the edge of your seat what will? Jeanine’s rush to see him before he disappears again is all we need to stay listening.

    The lack of clarity as to time lines, Dad’s true crimes, etc. surely are the needs of a news story looking for facts or a show creating edgy pictures through narratives. Yet, why Dad is in prison, when, etc. really don’t help us understand the way these two people are attempting to meld. In fact, I prefer the confusion since it really lets us understand the total lack of importance “facts” deserve. Would any of these facts have helped the little girl trying to look cute? Would any of these facts help either party with honest introspection? If you look at Mamet’s Homicide it is driven, and hard, by a mysterious story. You spend the entire movie trying to solve a mystery which, in the end, never existed. As the movie ends you realize their was never a mystery. Rather, relationships and people introduced during the mystery were the story. Here, we have just that, Jeanine and Hector are the story as they meld fantastic with real. Mamet is telling us that the mystery is merely a vehicle to introduce people. Thus, the cold facts of the story really shouldn’t matter as much as some would think.

    As to the letter about the kitten: it stands by itself. Ira’s format may need to fully clarify the letter then and now in retrospect. Yet, are we really to trust what Hector is going to say years later? Especially when the emotions of the letter betray the whole construct Hector has attempted to devise to insulate himself. Is there really any explanation which would help illuminate the image of a grown man, stuck in prison, away from his daughter, secretly whispering her name to a kitten? Ira’s creations are funny, fantastic, concrete and concise. This is certainly a different animal. Both good animals yet, different.

    “The bionic stuff” surely may lack sense to an adult/child who has their parent in their midst. Yet, for children who lose parents, be it by death or imprisonment, nothing is more real than the notion of bionic. When a child is left to battle a scary world, without a parent there to fend for them, they create a super hero who will save them. This theme is constant in life and literature. For children with the parent at home the “real world” serves as an anchor. You are constantly reminded Dad is not a super hero. Yet, when Dad is gone, his stature takes on the magnitude necessary to help save the child from what they fear. A recent example of this may be found in Irving’s Garp. The child imagines his father a super war hero romantic and rather, he was a man reduced to vegetation and the union between mother and father is coldly clinical. The myth of bionic is so strong it still makes sense to Jeanine as an adult. The collision of the fantastic and the real world are tremendous. To minimize the notion of bionic would be like knocking legs off the table. Bionic is the starting point. It shows you exactly from where Jeanine must travel. It shows the sheer force behind the child’s need for safety. Safety which may only be provided by a parent(s).

    Certainly Ira’s “producers’” problems make perfect sense for American Life. Yet, one show is in fuzzy focus and the other is crisp. One lays it out and pulls you through with the upmost attention to clarity and the other requires more of the listener’s imagination. Please, do not take these as qualitative differences. One is abstract impressionism and the other is photo realism. In the end they are both great art.

    In the end, I am a 42 year old man who lost his much loved father when 10 years old. Moreover, as coincidence would have it, I deal daily with men who are to spend the better part of their lives in prison. While Jeanine’s first project had its flaws, it kept me in a trance every time I heard it. Each listening begged me to ask another dozen questions about Hector, Jeanine and the collision which was taking place between two people and their real/fantastic worlds. The work made me ask who was my father and to what degree was his bionic nature nothing more than my need to feel safe with him gone. The piece spoke directly to the notion of a child’s loss and aspects of incarceration. It made perfect sense to those who see it first hand and hopefully it introduced the more fortunate to this other world.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    Thanks Ira for your great notes on the piece. It is invaluable to get this sort of feedback. I think (maybe?) when a piece is of a personal nature, like this one, people may feel a wee bit uncomfortable sharing what isn’t working for them as a story. But I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to hear. We want to hear what works and sometimes, even more importantly, what isn’t working for the listener. I appreciate you taking this to the next level. Not only is it constructive for Viki and I – but also for all the people in Transomland who are developing their projects.

    The beginning was the most difficult part for us. We fretted over it. In the end, we decided to start with the idea of the myth as the frame. Then show how the picture inside of it gets decimated during the course of the night.

    “I think the story doesn’t start so strong. It gives us no reason to listen to the rest of the story. No question to motivate our listening and drive the story.”

    I think this is an interesting point for two reasons. Whenever there’s a problem, I always go and revisit the writing. I think it comes down to honest writing. Those early moments about the myth were much more complex — and I wonder by simplifying my narration due to time — I lost some of the honesty.

    I also think that is one section where maybe the subtext (narration) and the text (tape) are saying the same thing. My dad and I are both in agreement. We love his myth. Wondering what people think about that?

    Regardless, I think the myth is a really important ingredient to the story. Maybe the position of it, and the framing of it needs to change.

    “I loved the letter where he admits he thinks about her. Wish you’d talked to him about that letter – about how it shows that your interview with him in prison was a true reflection of his feelings, but not of ALL his feelings.”

    I found the letter much later in the process. I did want to ask him about the letter. In the end, the letter was cut from script. It only found its way back when Viki suggested I record it during our recording session. I’m so glad she did that. Hearing this other man that exists inside my father is one of my favorite parts in the piece.

    “ I didn’t totally follow the thing about him getting out of prison – did she say he got out 16 years ago? Couldn’t quite catch that. The scene in the airport is perfectly written – her wanting to tell herself to remember to remember it – but I didn’t catch the basic time sequence, even on listening back again.”

    I was wondering if this is confusing for others? I thought this was clear — and wondering if it needs to be repeated through out? I had not seen my dad outside of a prison visiting room/yard in 16 years. I decided to go visit him right after his release from prison and record him. This is our first moments seeing each other again in the airport.

    “Also, I didn’t quite catch why he’s in prison in the first place. It sounds like complete bullshit, some bomb for revolutionary purposes? In the U.S.? What’s he talking about? What does she think of it?
    His whole thing about how he’s a different kind of person from the rest of us, a revolutionary, I don’t totally understand. I mean, his side won. Castro won. So what was he a revolutionary about after that? He was a revolutionary for Cuba in the U.S.?”

    Now this information was in the beginning of an earlier version of the script. It’s hard (for me) to simplify without feeling like I’m droning on with facts. Basically there were three different revolutionary groups that were attempting to overthrow Batista for years in Cuba. Fidel Castro was the leader of one group. My grandfather and father belonged to another one called Prio’s Organizacion Autentico. Although my father initially supported Castro when he came to power, he soon became disenchanted. He became a political dissident and escaped Cuba via Mexico – swam across the Rio Grand to the United States. Later he became an anti-Castro militant in the United States. In the end, he was the leader of an underground militant group that set off midnight bombs in places of business that were breaking the new (at that time) US embargo on Cuba.

    “Maybe a stronger opening would be (if you think his revolutionary crime is bullshit)”

    This would be a tough one. I don’t want to play judge and jury with my father. He served his time. The reality is I spent a good amount of time on tape (not in the script) trying to figure out how we could have gotten him less time. We went over all the details of his court cases. I think you often fall into two categories when your father is incarcerated — faux defense attorney or faux prosecutor. I don’t want to do either. Both are futile.

    “Another approach that might work better: If you started by saying "All my life my dad’s been in prison. All my life he’s been a distant son of a bitch.”

    This is much closer to the truth.

    …The advantage of this version is that it brings two characters on the stage and puts them in conflict immediately. It also makes you more KNOWING than you are in the top right now.”

    I like the idea of starting with conflict. It makes sense. It would make me want to hear what happens next as a listener.

    “It felt more like a person working out her issues for her own sake than something more generally interesting.”

    I think it’s hard to decipher where that line is — and I’m still not sure in this piece. For me, all the material is personal. It’s hard to disguise. Is it dictated by the quality of writing? How do you know what side of the line you are on? I can’t tell.

    Ira, thanks for taking the time and sharing your thoughts on the piece.

    I’m not sure what Viki’s thinking..very curious. And others out there..

  • Jay Allison says:

    This is a great discussion.

    I agree with Ira that the piece has some flaws in the departments of what happened when, what’s the backstory, and why should I care? This American Life is so solid in this regard, and their stories always respect the power of "I wonder what happens next?"

    This piece has non-narrative attributes in the way it compounds questions and adds dimension in a poetic layering, but may pay a price for not observing certain narrative imperatives.

    We didn’t quite nail the opening. We tried a million things in the effort to quickly establish who is who, get in a quick hook, introduce the musical motif, and let you hear some of Hector’s voice while explaining why the recording was bad. The "superhero" tape was the best we could find, but it’s not perfect. It feels premature. Maybe we could still find ways to set things up better, but we hoped this particular father/daughter encounter contained sufficient intrigue to make you want to keep listening.

    Regarding the "revolutionary" background, we didn’t want Jeanine to have to give a history lesson and thought maybe the host could outline it sort of like Jeanine did above. But without it, listeners have nagging questions which keep them at a distance and prevent them from hearing what we want them to. Interestingly, some of the timeline stuff is in there, but we revealed it before listeners had other facts they needed to receive it. Sometimes you even have to repeat things, take a step back and then keep going.

    This is simple, obvious, foundational stuff and it’s so easy to lose sight of when you’re building a complex story.

    I think this piece holds some mysteries about fathers and daughters that resonate beyond the bounds of the story itself. You want listeners to solve some of that mystery by leaving room for them to relate things to their own lives, but you want to be sure they have the facts they need to do it.

    I should mention that we asked Ira to consider the piece for This American Life which is why his response is framed in terms of that show. He emailed his notes to Viki and Jeanine and we thought they’d be useful for anyone to read so he offered to post them here. His amazingly thorough analysis of a piece that may never even air on TAL gives you an idea of why that show is so good.

  • Ira Glass says:

    Eric, yes yes yes, I agree that on our show we tend to hit the plot points rather hard. That’s the kind of thing I and my co-workers like, and I completely respect that it might not work for you. Especially with a story that’s so heartfelt, and hitting you so personally besides.

    This thing you wrote completely changes my whole point of view about the bionic stuff:

    For children with the parent at home the “real world” serves as an anchor. You are constantly reminded Dad is not a super hero. Yet, when Dad is gone, his stature takes on the magnitude necessary to help save the child from what they fear.

    I’ve read that last sentence over and over. "When Dad is gone, his stature takes on the magnitude necessary to help save the child from what they fear." That’s really beautifully put and fascinating and I’d never thought that it would have to be that way but of course it makes so much sense. When dad is gone, there’s so much more to fear about the world, and so you invent a version of him that’s somehow big enough to combat those fears.

    But for me – not having the experience you and Jeanine had – when I heard the bionic tape, it didn’t evoke that bigger idea, or the feeling behind it. I think to get that across to me, and to other people who didn’t have the experience, she’d have to say something like what you said in your post, and then play the bionic tape. Then that clip of tape would have the power for me that it had for you.

    I’m guessing that being so very explicit would feel wrong to you – after all, you got the bigger idea without anything explicitly pointing you there. In fact, it would probably do exactly the thing you’re maybe finding annoying (or at least a bit obvious) in the style of This American Life: she would state the bigger idea very firmly, so there could be no mistake about it. It’s less poetic my way, for sure. But I think in the end, more people would get the feelings and ideas that you’re getting out of that section, if she’d do it the TAL way, and be more explicit.

    Having said all that, and not to be stubborn or anything, I’m still not sure that opening with the myth stuff starts with the material that’ll pull the most people into the story. Reading the posts here – Jeanine’s and Eric’s – make me feel like that myth stuff should be in there somewhere. But later.

  • Eric Vos says:
    I am not a biolent man

    Ira Glass:

    I feel bad b/c my emotionally driven response mistakenly intoned that I didn’t hold TAL in the highest of respect or maybe I had some “issues” with it. I feel compelled to say TAL has been a fantastic beacon in radio for my wife and I. My ONLY problem with TAL is when I get stuck in my car b/c I’m too afraid to miss something by running into the house. This is so even though I constantly stream the archives into my office against the rules which govern our Internet use.

    Recently, I was asked to return to my alma mater and discuss law related topics. Naturally, the election became a main topic. I repeatedly told heart broken students to go to TAL and listen to “Swing Set” and pay attention to the 18 year old and his decision making process. For me, it provided nothing but hope for our country’s future and the possibility a notion of democracy would prevail. I actually heard Swing Set hours after the election was decided and it had an opiate effect on me. And believe me after "that" I NEEDED DRUGS. The young man’s last words just really shook me and made me a very proud and hopeful American. That is the power of radio and certainly the power of TAL. I say this not only for Ira but also to all of you involved in the medium. Obviously you know this I only fear you may, for brief moments, forget this and the effect it could have on us lucky recipients.

    Lastly, Mr. Glass’s participation on this board, and his support of the work, says volumes about him. I shudder to think your largess would result in my comments being taken as an attack on either you or your wonderful show. But, enough butt kissing and boring others.

    The idea of introducing the listener to the import of the bionic idea, prior to hearing it, certainly makes sense for radio. Obviously, literature allows us to reread and ponder at our own pace. Yet, radio, despite streaming data, has none of these luxuries and thus, a little more care may be needed when dropping big themes on the listener. I have zip to do with the making of radio so I’m taking this in for the first time. My picking up the subtlety of the theme may be attributed to my repeated listenings and personal experiences. Surely, without these, a more casual listener may have missed the gem all together. Thus, I can understand where others are coming from in this regard. You certainly don’t treat an important point in a manner which could risk being missed.

    What really impressed me about Jeanine and Vicki’s work was that they had the luck of the misinterpretation and ran so well with it. There is no “v” sound in Spanish. “V” is always pronounced as a “b.” Thus, Hector’s claiming he is a “biolent man” was linguistic luck and was easily heard as “bionic.” Yet, taking that luck and weaving it in as a necessary, integral and poetic aspect of the piece, at least for me, was great and showed the participant’s great skills in taking an amass of interview data and creating such a compelling story/piece. One can only imagine how other less skilled artists would have never taken pause and merely cut that lucky moment out. Genius certainly is the exploitation of luck.

    As to the temporal problems – can a powerful message eclipse, and thus forgive, the temporal confusion? What if Hector’s time line, and the limited time a piece may be allowed, made a coherent explanation impossible? With my novice understanding of radio and the narrative I can’t seem to imagine an easy quick fix to the confusion and thus, I keep sticking to the weak notion of embrace the confusion. Hence, I’m keeping my day job.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    day or night

    There is so much to respond to here, I can only begin by saying that sometimes checking off the list of rules doesn’t always work, especially when you’re desperate to do just that. How to provide fast emotional, historical/factual background so we get you up to speed and get on with the story? At the risk of repeating myself, this story is cocked with so many emotional issues my first job was to make sure to keep out any stardust that tends to permeate the past. On tape Hector never gives a succinct description of what the hell was going on politically, and Jeanine didn’t press the issue for clarity on tape, so, ironically, that didn’t feel like a vital part to either of their story. When Jeanine did include the history in the script, I got antsy, it never felt key, I had that feeling of wanting to get on with the story. So we did.

    Opening is a bitch – you want to create a timeline, grab the listener by the lobe, and get the facts out of the way. That works pretty well for careful listening, but life isn’t careful (at least not mine anyway), so that’s risky. You give the facts, a little music/time for the listener to dust themselves off, and you hope to God you kept the volume loud enough.
    Opening with a conflict, at least in this story, might actually be unfair to the listener – conflict encourages choosing sides quickly and mostly that can be very effectual but I don’t think either of us was aiming for that. It’s not just a story about Hector, and it’s not just about Jeanine growing up without. It’s more like human frailty, failings and resiliance, letting go and forgiveness. So, sometimes, I find it effective to just choke on a little something at first to get me to lean in. For me, the bionic/biolent moment got stuck in my throat like a hot pepperoncino seed. Yeah, we could have put it in later, but I was figuring if the goal of the piece (and ultimately the taped meeting itself) is the deconstruction of the myth, then that begs for a witness to that myth: its size, shape, the whole shebang. and right up front.

    If you think your Dad is bionic and you’re surpised to hear that your Revolutionary Dad is violent, all in one moment – well it seemed like a tidy package to me. Also, it had the neat trick of not only warning the listener to lean in because of the accent, but on another level, Jeanine’s misunderstanding, linguistically, introduces yet another obstacle (as if one were needed), unusual for a father and daughter: language and culture. (more complex by the moment, that’s how we serve it up around here)

    But hey, that’s just one approach.

  • Jose Rivera says:
    Biolent with a V

    When Jeanine, Viki and I were working on the screenpaly for Family Sentence I said to myself ‘Jose we are going to leave in that bionic line. Maybe we lose the abuelo but we keep bionic.’

  • Viki Merrick says:
    how d’ya solve a problem like Maria?

    Here’s a question ( I’m really mulling this over, cause you know, when Ira speaks…. so I hope Jeanine and Ira both weigh in on this) If you start a story with a conflict, aren’t you compelled to solve it? Isn’t that the purpose of presenting a conflict?

    In addition to the honorable premise that Jeanine held to, not wanting to judge and jury Hector, regardless of some childhood myths she’d been lugging around, she never asked for a solution. As a writer, she wanted a wrap for sure, but not a solution.

  • Ira Glass says:

    >If you start a story with a conflict, aren’t you compelled to solve it? Isn’t that the purpose of presenting a conflict.

    Yes, you do solve it. But you have the material to solve the conflicts I’m recommending. If the conflict is the difference between his point of view and hers, you do resolve that by the end. There are enough moments where they see eye to eye. That resolves it.

  • Ira Glass says:


    conflict encourages choosing sides quickly and mostly that can be very effectual but I don’t think either of us was aiming for that.

    I don’t think the kind of conflicts I’m recommending would make anyone choose sides. The conflict is HER conflict, her conflict with him, and pointing it out at the top helps us relate with her and understand the situation.

    When someone’s presenting two different pictures – two different interpretations of their family – it doesn’t make you choose sides, it makes you want more information. That’s what a lead is supposed to do. It’s supposed to set something up so you go "So what’s true? What happened??"

    It’s okay to start with the bionic tape simply because you love it, Viki honey. The only argument I can muster against that is that not everyone’s gonna hear it the same way you are. Me, for instance. I didn’t think she really believed he IS bionic. I thought it was a more momentary misunderstanding … like, did he just really say that? The same as when he said he was a superhero.

    In the end, we may never see this one the same way, V. This happens a lot on the TAL staff. We don’t agree on a quote or moment and how it plays. Then we just talk about it for a while and muddle through to a decision.

  • Eric Vos says:
    Hearing what you can

    Is Jeanine hearing "bionic" based on her ability to hear it? Was hearing bionic based on pulling it out of thin air or because it is part of her deep seeded psycho-lexicon? When we are not sure what we hear we dig for possibilities. For some children bionic was not a possibility and thus it wouldn’t have been a question which makes sense. As soon as Jeanine says "I thought you said you were bionic" the listener thinks "what made her think that was in the realm of possibilities?" And thus, the show begins.

    Going back to my very early posts, what pulled me in was the idea of "where the heck are we going?" Is this going to be a cliche or a train wreck? The deconstruction of the bionic man was merely an intense layer to the story which began early.

  • Bella P. says:
    bionic narcissist?

    First of all, I think Jeanine did a phenomenal job in piecing together what is clearly a multi-layered and complex story – particularly a subject so raw and inextricably linked with her entire notion of identity.
    The honesty of her journey is powerful; personally, the mythology of Hector and his role as an absent superhuman parent is one of the most compelling themes for me. I disagree with Ira – I entirely believed that Jeanine felt her father to be bionic. In fact, it felt like it was the guiding thread in unraveling a lifelong search for truth in their relationship.
    However, I do have one question for Jeanine – did you ever consider that your father might be a narcissist? As the child of two narcissistic parents, the rhetoric and themes of self-aggrandizement, fantasy and self absorption(in this case under the auspices of revolution) felt like extremely familiar territory to me. His lack of empathy with regards to you and your siblings situation make me strongly question whether there is a greater personality disorder at play.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful feedback on the project. But one thing no one has said yet is “great beginning.” They certainly haven’t said bad beginning, but they don’t seem to mention it.

    I agree with Jay and Viki that the piece was hard to start because of a variety of challenges. Various elements conspired against us. I think we did a great job finessing the beginning and managing to “get on with the story.” But if there is a more compelling way to start the story – with conflict – why not be open to it?

    I don’t believe that conflict introduced at the beginning of a show must be resolved by the end. This is a story about transformation, not resolution. My dad and I arrived at a different point from where we started, but the essential conflict remains unresolved.

    When I think about conflict, I think about what motivated me to go to see my father. I didn’t go to see my dad in order to deconstruct the myth. I didn’t go there to question him about the authenticity of his revolutionary quest. What motivated me, on a deeper level, was to hold him in some way accountable to my family. To give him an opportunity to make amends. After I received his first email, I read a newspaper interview with him in prison, during his hunger strike, just before his release. At the end of the article I vaguely remember his quote was something like: “All I want is to go home and ask my family to forgive my sins.” I wanted to see if that was true.

    And I wanted to forgive him. I also wanted him to forgive me, for leaving him behind in prison when I became an adult. To let him know I never forgot him, even though (at one point) I gave up on him. To hear he had not forgotten me, even though (at one point) he gave up on me.

    So of course, we never get there in the story because neither of us can completely relinquish the myth. But we tried. And because we tried, we are changed.

  • Eric Vos says:
    For 50K

    I loved the opening. You have around 30 secs before the music starts. In that time you have Cuban Revolutionary, 23 years in prison, 16 years of disconnect, an announcement “I’m home, Hector your biological father” and a daughter’s rush to catch the ghost before he dies, disappears or goes back to prison. Sure we didn’t get the contestants who are being forced to eat caterpillars to win 50 thou but c’mon. Moments later you have Hector’s great voice and talk of bionic and myth. You can slice and dice it but at the end of the day we are all taking a new peek at our parents and the myths which surround them. Not a bad day at the radio races.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    Eric in the morning

    "Not a bad day at the radio races "

    Ya know, that and a cup o’coffee’d get me up every morning.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    the hundred stories

    Ira wrote: It’s okay to start with the bionic tape simply because you love it ( Viki Honey).

    well that’s a problem isn’t it? I mean if you were missing facts and not driven to sit down, then there must be another entry big enough for anyone to get into that world of myth and admission, disappointment and acceptance.
    I wanna try that. carve another doorway. free entry. Nothing better than telling a story and you never want anyone left lagging, or not feeling it – it’s anathema to good rhythm among other things. I never assumed that anyone would swallow that Jeanine actually thought her dad was bionic – but there is that stumble, in the slipstream of misunderstanding, that place of nanoseconds when that awkward little piece of subconscious jumps out and chokes ya – just for a second. Maybe more writing, more upfront could make that moment work for everyone..

    Hey but what about this:
    "I also wanted him to forgive me, for leaving him behind in prison when I became an adult. To let him know I never forgot him, even though (at one point) I gave up on him. To hear he had not forgotten me, even though (at one point) he gave up on me."

    So many levels of conflict to chose from, so many pockets of story.

  • Daniella says:
    Thank you, Jeanine!

    I also sent you an email…so, if I sound like I am repeating myself, I am! Thank you so much for having the courage to produce this piece. I am so grateful to you for your courage. You truly inspired me. I, too, am the daughter of a Latin American man who chose the revolution over the warmth, intimacy and stability of a home with family and a child (me). I was raised by my mother and only saw my dad when I was three months old and then not until I was 21 years old last November. You are a great storyteller!
    My best to you.

  • Ira Glass says:

    >Hey but what about this:
    "I also wanted him to forgive me, for leaving him behind in prison when I became an adult. To let him know I never forgot him, even though (at one point) I gave up on him. To hear he had not forgotten me, even though (at one point) he gave up on me."

    I like all this writing, but think it’s wrong for the top, because it’s about what she wants for herself. Which is different from what we want or need as listeners.

    There’s a thing that happens near the top right now at :34, where she says she wants to go to talk to him because she wants to have something of him to hold onto. She thought she had to act quickly, she wanted to bring his voice back to her brothers. I think this moment doesn’t work for me because it’s too typical of this kind of story … it’s not as surprising as everything around it … and because it’s about what she wants, not about something I want as a listener. Even tho it’s true, it’s not right for the opening. To me.

    I feel like we’re picking on the poor little opening so much I want to take it in my arms and coddle it.

  • Jay Allison says:

    I’m fascinated by this talk about beginnings.

    Sometimes, I hear stories, even TAL stories, that are so perfectly set up, that observe all the rules of the hook and establishment of conflict, suspense, stakes, particularity, and universality–that I’m almost lulled by it. Do you know what I mean? It’s as though the story-teller knows my innate human narrative needs so perfectly, that they are simply strumming my chords and I am at peace… but not excited.

    Then, other times, I’ll hear some story that’s all rough and weird and seems to have no idea about "what the listener wants" but is just bulling ahead because of some internal-to-the-teller imperative. I feel jarred and want to jump in and edit, but something draws me to listen… maybe because I don’t know what to expect, I don’t know the rules, anything might happen.

  • Viki Merrick says:

    we kicked the opening bits around so much before they saw the light of Transom, they’re tough and calloused.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    Jose: The abuelo should definitely stay in the picture.

    Bella: I’m not convinced my dad fits the clinical definition of a narcissist. I did a bit of research – and I don’t think he meets all the criteria on the checklist for this disorder.

    But I do know that people who have experienced long term incarceration can suffer from some of the symptoms you listed. Just as they can exhibit anti-social tendencies. What narcissism and anti-social seem to share is a damaged sense of self.

    Prisons systematically diminish inmates’ self-worth. (You are a number, not a person etc…) So to compensate prisoner’s sometimes display an exaggerated and false sense of self. Also, I imagine, if your understanding of self is damaged, it must be a struggle to feel empathy.

    Thanks for the interesting thought.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:
    Daughter of The Revolution

    Daniella: I’m so glad that this piece speaks directly to your experience. I think we are a little known population. Revisiting. Thank you so much for sharing a little bit about yourself. Your story holds meaning — for me too.

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:
    Wants and Needs

    "…it’s about what she wants for herself. Which is different from what we want or need as listeners."

    Ira: I think what you are saying is that my internal conflict is too personal, therefore too narrow an entry into the piece. That listeners have different wants and needs, when listening to a piece. In your opinion, what are their wants and needs when listening to a story? How important is being true to the real motivating factor for the journey?

    It is my understanding that the more specific you are about a personal truth, the more universal the impact. But are you saying step back, and look at it in broader terms? Is that correct?

    My question is what, exactly, constitutes a great beginning?

    It would be great, if you could suggest a few radio pieces that you feel have great beginnings. I’d like to hear from Viki and Jay (and from listeners out there) who would like to share some of their favorites radio “beginnings” too.

    What you think works well, and why.

  • Anaheed Alani says:

    I’m not a radio person, but I’m an editor, and what I like best in a lead usually comes down to: How would I describe this story to someone else? When I come home and tell my boyfriend about the piece I’m working on, what do I tell him to get him excited and make him want to hear more? Usually it’s the open question of the story, which may or may not get answered.

    I realize this is really basic stuff and I’ll probably delete this post out of embarrassment tomorrow.

  • Viki Merrick says:

    Hey hey hey – Anaheed – you can’t just walk away like that ! Your "rule of thumb" may be fundamental (to you) but it is the perfect reminder…so now that you’ve piqued our interest, you coyly exit???
    So, what’s the open question here, for you?

    (but you gotta admit " I’m home, your biological father, Hector" is a nice tease, it IMPLIES so much, like coldness and swagger or maybe just vulnerability dressed in distance, resignation. This goes to the questions raised during this script editing: how much do you leave to the listener’s interpretation? I am allergic to overstating but there is danger in that stance as well. (we all have our issues) I am wondering about this whole conflict thing still. Spit it out at the get-go or let it be revealed like the colors and texture in a ball of undyed icelandic wool. Icelandic wool? You don’t get that, if you don’t knit, but if I start to unravel a ball of it and show you the variations from gray to cocoa, maybe some black and the varying thickness in the yarn, you end up possibly imagining yourself with some mittens, or a scarf maybe)
    whoa. long parentheses. So anyway, you’re a good editor, what’s a good question? and is there one that works, for everyone?

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    Anaheed: I think that yours is a great suggestion – to go back to the basics. Your question – how would I tell this to a friend? — immediately makes me think about that first quote from my dad. I love that first story he tells, but it might not be the initial thing I would mention when recounting my experience to a good friend.

    I think the “telling a friend” approach works well as a road map when finding key moments – but the creative process of framing and writing holds more mystery for me. The danger with the “friend” approach is that while it might be more entertaining – it might fail to capture the depth and meaning of the meeting with my father. When I’ve told this story to friends it has actually come off as more of a comedy of errors. A series of missed connections between my dad and me — that end in a train wreck of a reunion.

    Surprisingly it’s exactly the parts in the script that I wouldn’t tell a friend that hold most meaning for me. The parts that deal with abortion, the prison yard, the airport, the letter. These parts are not exactly confessions, but they do reveal feelings that live below the surface. Elements that are more mysterious, harder to give words to. The best way I can describe it is to compare it to the feeling of diving under the water and looking at something where it lives. In its natural habitat. Rather than snatch it up – showing a friend – and saying, look what I found. By doing that, I fear that I’d rupture something important to me in the story.

    Does that make sense?

    One of the reasons that the beginning might not be as powerful as the rest of the piece, is that it resembles how I would tell a friend. Look at this – I thought my dad said he was bionic! Look at this, now I’m shocked he said he was biolent. It doesn’t quite nail the complexity, the conflict, of those moments. That’s why I like the idea of taking one step back – and placing a more honest conflict at the top. The bionic and biolent works, absolutely, but the placement and framing of it might be too anecdotal.

    In this sense, I’m open to the idea of altering the beginning. But I think it would hurt the piece to re-arrange major elements, I fear that would upset the interior sense that I care so much about.

  • Barrett Golding says:

    a fine story. well-narrated and paced, and great use of music.

    one big prob i had, tho, was you never really let your dad talk for very long, before you’re back narrating and explaining. so we never really get to hang w/ him, to hear him out. which means we never really feel like we’re there, in a place, listening — cuz we now that any moment you’re gonna pull us out again w/ more narration. it becomes a bit predictable and so, unsatisfying, because not rhythmically surprising

    maybe that narration was needed to prop up tape that needed it. in that case, maybe the piece should have been shorter so it needed less props. or maybe it needed another character:

    I love that part where your dad’s describing a revolutionary as "dedicated, selfless", then you say: "that’s my mother". i really thot we were gonna here you mom right then, and how brilliant that would sound.

    (as an aside: another part i absolutely love is when you tell your dad "i don’t believe you." i think this is crux: you say you hold onto a myth, but really i think you don’t believe a word of it. another aside: was there no talk about him hurting innocents back in his bomb-days? seems like that would have provided a real topicality to piece.)

    I also agree w/ others that beginning lacked pull-you-in power, and that we never really got the history/facts clear, which can be diverting to a listener’s attn.

    as to lede, something like this might intrigue & inform (info via googling):

    JEANINE: FBI File number 742 605 C: "Hector Cornillot, Cuban male, date of birth October 27, 1938, head of a faction of Poder Cubano, Cuban Power."

    Metro Dade County, Organized Crime Bureau File on Terrorism:
    "In 1968 anti-Castro Cuban Power members bomb offices around L.A.: Mexican Government tourist bureaus, airline ticket agencies, an oil company. In 1972 Hector Cornillot is convicted of 2 of these bombings. He is sentenced to 30 years."

    I’m Jeanine Cornillot. In the past 3 decades I’ve seen my father 3 times, and always in prison. Until now…

    TAPE: (Hector talking)…

  • Jeanine Cornillot says:

    Barrett: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the piece.

    one big prob i had, tho, was you never really let your dad talk for very long, before you’re back narrating and explaining. so we never really get to hang w/ him, to hear him out.

    I agree. In the 40 minute version, we heard a lot more from my dad. It was hard to cut him down for time, because he was so fascinating. But between his accent and my poor home recording we were afraid it might cause too much ear fatigue.

    as an aside: another part i absolutely love is when you tell your dad "i don’t believe you." i think this is crux: you say you hold onto a myth, but really i think you don’t believe a word of it.

    I don’t think my belief in the myth was that black and white. He was the great mythic hero of my childhood. Although, it might be hard for other people to comprehend how a prisoner could be a heroic figure. But what is more surprising is how much of the myth I carried into my adulthood. In the section you mention, I am swayed by the myth. I am genuinely uncertain. Listening to that part is disconcerting to me too. It makes me sound like a person deep in denial about my father’s life. And I am, in that moment.

    I love that part where your dad’s describing a revolutionary as "dedicated, selfless", then you say: "that’s my mother". i really thot we were gonna here you mom right then, and how brilliant that would sound.

    Yes, the hardest part was not to give my mom a voice in this piece. Her silence allows him to define their relationship and marriage in a way that is both shocking and very skewed.

    We did have her in the piece at one point. She added a lot of humor. The juxtaposition between my parents’ viewpoints just kept becoming more and more humorous. These are two very different people. One of my favorite lines was my mom characteristically understated remark, “Your dad was never a coach potato.” Then you hear him going on about the revolution.

    another aside: was there no talk about him hurting innocents back in his bomb-days? seems like that would have provided a real topicality to piece.)

    No one was injured or killed. They were planned as midnight bombings.

    But I remember telling my best friend about my father’s incarceration when I was in fifth grade. Her dad was in prison and, I think, I was trying to brag a little that my dad was in prison for a nobler crime. I remember saying smugly, something like nobody was hurt by the bombs, except maybe a few ants in the buildings. I remember her angry response was: Ants got souls too!!

    I always thought that was such a great kid response. It just really captures how you feel when you have a parent incarcerated. Like an ant that no one notices. And although no one was physically hurt – the reverberation of an act of violence continues to ripple out in powerful and invisible ways, not only to the family of the prisoner, to victims, and anyone connected to the crime.

    JEANINE: FBI File number 742 605 C: "Hector Cornillot, Cuban male, date of birth October 27, 1938, head of a faction of Poder Cubano, Cuban Power." Metro Dade County, Organized Crime Bureau File on Terrorism:

    I think it would be dehumanizing to present him first as a file, a number. As if he’s a couple slug lines from and FBI document. I understand the dramatic value. Totally. It’s very CSI Miami. I feel like next we will hear he has a toe tag, and he’s in the morgue under suspicious circumstances.

    I don’t want the FBI’s clinical tone to define the central conflict in the relationship between my father and me. My father, like many Cuban exiles involved in these movements, was expertly trained by the CIA not only in how to make bombs but in how to execute such bombings. He was found guilty decades ago, and served his sentence. At this point, I’m more concerned about if and how he survived prison.

    Starting the piece with that tone might suggest I’m an investigative journalist. I’m just a person who bought a cheap Guitar World mic, as an excuse to ask my dad some tough personal questions. I asked a thousand ridiculous and embarrassing questions like, “What was your favorite prison? — and “Would you visit me if I were in prison?” Until I finally got to a few that were okay.

    It’s really only through the magic of Viki’s editing that I might sound vaguely like a journalist type.

  • greg says:
    Re the opening

    Funny enough, I wonder if it would help to look at this piece like a Hollywood love story. There are similar elements: You introduce a man and a woman with a conflict between them. You begin to see good reason that these two are important to one another. You see one of them is love with the other and you begin to badly want them to be together! But alas, fate and their personal failings conspire to pull them apart…Until they finally come clean with one another and realize they are meant to be. This isn’t so unlike your story.

    Perhaps better framing your conflict with Hector up front would help set up the rest of the drama more satisfactorily: It seems to me you didn’t visit your dad in order to tape record him for your brothers. I imagine you were motivated by a lot of things. One important one was that you felt wronged and you went there to get your father to admit he made a mistake. That’s the most you can get from him at this point. It seemed so apparent to me throughout that you want him to break down and say that he gave up what was really important (his family) for some cloudy motivation behind a bunch of articulate excuses. As the piece continues he’s very stubborn about the importance of his cause and the lack of regret, to the point where I questioned his honesty. It’s a satisfying element of the drama. His failings kept you apart when you were a child and they may do so for as long you live. The tension builds: will he finally give you what you want?! Can’t he see what you need for godsake?! And I think he ultimately comes around, in a small way. Not as powerfully and on the nose as it would be delivered in the movies, we all know by now not to expect Hollywood endings. But I certainly did feel some sort of new understanding between you two by the end…

    Maybe the casual way you set up the story (I went to get my dad’s voice on tape so my brother’s could hear it…) doesn’t reveal the true drama that’s sitting beneath it from the beginning, and so gets us off to a slow start?..

    Food (popcorn?) for thought–

  • Grazia Caroselli says:

    Jeanine, I love how you are so open, and let us explore your pain with you. I love the way you express yourself so simply, you are indeed a poet. Your words so eloquently and beautifully accompany the immensity of your feelings. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is shocking to hear your father’s resolve and justifications and reasonings, unwavering to this day. I only wanted to hear more, and to hear him say he missed you and your brothers and your mother more, like you.

  • Karen Guerrero says:
    West Portal school San Francisco

    Grazia, are you my friend from S.F. who invited me to her home to watch Dark Shadows after school? Do you have a sister named Daniela?

    Karen Guerrero

    Karen Crawford

  • Gregory Manougian says:
    Another Ghost From the Past

    I was flipping through recently retrieved 7/8/9 grade yearbooks and was reminded of some funny and strange times back then. With my own kids in jr. and high school now, I am compelled to make a connection, like Karen Guerrero did in 2005 to your original entry.
    I am also reminded of a chance encounter when I was in Europe during the Romanian revolution and coverage of Ceacescu’s demise (1989). I recall catching your name in a movie credit (no recall of the title). You’re credits since then are lengthy and highly commendable. My very best and welcome a reply to catch up.

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