Reunited, Long-Lost Siblings Face Emotional Journey

Jeff Daly, found sister after decades of separation
Cynthia Mabry, professor of law, Howard University
April Vangesen, co-director, Camp To Belong

Many siblings are separated for years by foster care, adoption or divorce. For minors, staying in touch can be fraught with legal pitfalls. And though eventual reunions can be joyful, they can also pose emotional challenges.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Earlier this week, Oprah Winfrey revealed her long-lost half-sister on her television program. Patricia was born while Oprah lived with her father and remained unknown to her until recently.

Siblings can become separated for all kinds of reasons: an adoption or foster care, because of immigration or institutionalization. Some rediscover each other, sometimes after many years.

Today, what's lost when they're apart, what's found in reunion. If this is your story, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Oscar-winner Kathy Bates joins the legion of TV lawyers. But first, separated siblings, and we begin with Jeff Daly, who came to realize that he had a sister when someone mentioned her at a high school reunion. Jeff Daly would eventually direct a documentary called "Where's Molly?" about what happened next. He joins us now on the phone from his home in Seaside, Oregon. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. JEFF DALY (Director, "Where's Molly?"): Good morning. Good afternoon, actually. Hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks. So what happened at that reunion?

Mr. DALY: Well, gosh, it was a great reunion. My - it turned out to be a reunion that I ended meeting my wife-to-be today. I went to a 25th class reunion. She was not there, by coincidence. She left a note there, said: If you come again through the Sacramento, have a chance to say hi to me, do that.

I did that the next day. We made contact. I told her about the reunion. We got together that week. It turned out we got married, and we've been together ever since. We were actually boyfriend-girlfriend in grade school. It started way back then.

CONAN: So she remembered your sister.

Mr. DALY: She did. We got together and it was literally the first night we got together. We were just having casual conversation. She said: How's your mom and your dad? Because she knew my family growing up in Astoria, Oregon, up here in the Northwest.

I said: They're terrific. She said: How's your sister, Molly? And I fell off my chair. Nobody had talked about my sister Molly before to me, I would say, since I was probably a teenager. And it caught me totally by surprise that Cindy(ph) would not only remember my sister but that she would bring this up in a conversation. It took my breath away.

CONAN: And part of what your breath was taken away by must have been, how could I have forgotten?

Mr. DALY: Well, it's a strange story because my sister was sent away to an institution. She was shy of her third birthday. I was six years old. She was sent away because doctors said that she was profoundly retarded, that she had disabilities and she needed to go to an institution.

So we talked about it occasionally in our family, but it became our family secret that we forgot about Molly. We sent her away, and we didn't talk to her - about her anymore.

And that's what happened during my time as a child and growing up is that we never talked about Molly. So all of a sudden, Cindy brings up, my wife, this conversation about Molly, and it made me think: Oh, yes, I had a sister. I don't know if I have a sister anymore because I don't know where she is or even if she's alive.

CONAN: And you then set out to try to find her.

Mr. DALY: Well, not at that time. At that time, we got together, two years later we married, and she said at that point, she says: I'm ready to go find your sister. I said, we can't. My parents are alive. She is forbidden to be talked about in our family, and we can't bring her up. I said, if you bring Molly's name up in front of my parents, we will be disowned from the family. And she had a hard time understanding that. But she went by our rules and asked me and worked with me and said I will do that.

It was interesting. My mother died in - she died in 1991, and she, Cindy, said let's find out about Molly then. And I said, no, it's too early. Let's wait. We will ask my dad about it. After he gets past this passing of my mother, we will talk to my father.

And as it turned out, my father then died three months later, and we never had a chance to talk to him about it.

CONAN: And you discovered the critical information that helped you find her in your dad's wallet.

Mr. DALY: Well, that's what was so amazing was my father died, and we started the process of going through his paperwork. And we found a card in his wallet that had, it said Molly, it had her Social Security number, had a birthday number, it had my name there, it had my brother's name, my grandmother's name, my mother's name, all of this stuff. It was a cheat sheet. But it had her name, and it intrigued us.

We went and did more searching, and we found, buried in the back of a closet, a file that had Molly Daly's name on it, and as we went through it, we found some research, we found some letters and correspondence that told us that she had been sent, indeed, to Salem, to an institution, and then she was knocked out of the institution and sent to a group home in 1991.

So we had no contact of where she was or any way to track her down. Well, Cindy, my wife, started making phone calls and was literally the fourth call she made that she found, she found out where Molly was.

CONAN: And what is Molly's role in your life today?

Mr. DALY: Oh, boy, that's a tough question. I could go on forever and ever. I have a sister now that I didn't know I had. She has a brother now that she didn't know she had. She has a brother now that is taking care of her.

She needs help. She lives in a group home, about an hour and a half from me here in Oregon, and she has disabilities. She does not speak, she is blind in one eye, she has other issues. And I am there now as a sibling and as a brother to help her out and to help her be able to have a great life because she has not had a good life up until now.

She was in an institution where she was subjected to horrible drugs. She had brain treatments done there. There were just bad things that happened. So it's time now that I am able to be a brother and be family to her.

CONAN: And I have to ask, and I'm sure you've asked yourself, your family abandoned her?

Mr. DALY: Yes, yes. My family abandoned Molly. We did it, at that time, in the '50s, because we were instructed to. It was an institution. It was encouraged to send your children there if they had issues.

We did that, but the problem was we kept a secret in our family. We didn't talk about Molly anymore. We could've still had contact with her, even though she was in an institution. We could've had family support. We could have given her birthday cards. We could have called her on Christmas.

We didn't do that as a family. We kept it as a secret because we were embarrassed that we had this person with a disability, I'm afraid, was actually what the issue was.

CONAN: Jeff Daly and his wife Cindy have made this, in a sense, their lives' work. They were instrumental in the 2005 revision of an Oregon law that simplified the process for families to seek out institutionalized relatives. And Jeff Daly, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. DALY: Well, I thank you, too. Thank you very much. And if you think you have a sibling out there that you don't know about, go find them. Time is short. You can't believe what an input, what a difference you can make in somebody's life.

CONAN: Jeff Daly joined us from his home in Seaside, Oregon. And we want to hear from those of you who have missing siblings who have been separated from one way or another, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's start with Christine(ph), Christine with us from Kalamazoo.

CHRISTINE (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

CHRISTINE: I had the great good fortune of being reunited with two half-brothers after almost 20 years of separation. And my father divorced my mother early in my life and remarried and had this second family with two little boys. And my brother and I knew - my older brother and I knew them for a few years - that's my current little boy.

CONAN: We can all hear him.

CHRISTINE: Yeah, the cycle of life here. And we just, you know, family complications, where there was a lot of estrangement and we lost track of each other. And thanks to the Internet, we kind of, maybe 15 years ago, started - or rather just a few years ago, started spying on each other a little bit. And you can find out a lot about what people are up to.

And I think we were all terribly shy about taking the first step. There was some sense of, oh, they can't possibly be bothered all these years later. Everybody got on with their lives. But what we found is that it's been a huge joy in our lives to have doubled our sibling pack, and they're no less like my brother than my older brother is to me. They're a lot younger, which drives me crazy sometimes, but they're, you know, they're a complete delight.

It was a lot like giving birth, to have - when I first reunited with one of the brothers, he walked in the room, and it was like seeing your child for the first time, someone who looks just like you. He was so familiar to me, and I hadn't seen him in almost 20 years. But I knew him completely when I laid eyes on him.

CONAN: Christine, thanks very much for the call, congratulations.

CHRISTINE: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck with the kid.

CHRISTINE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Bye-bye. Professor Cynthia Mabry joins us now here in Studio 3A. She teaches adoption and family law at Howard University here in Washington, D.C. Thanks for coming in on a snowy afternoon.

Ms. CYNTHIA MABRY (Professor of Law, Howard University): Hello, Neal, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And in the case of foster and adoptive families, do siblings have rights? We've heard about, you know, obviously parents have rights. The grandparents in some cases have rights. What about siblings?

Ms. MABRY: Well, the short answer, Neal, is that they have some rights. Psychologists and sociologists have found that putting siblings in the same placement is in their best interest unless there is some threat to the child's safety, health or well-being, right.

But the adoptive parent decides who has contact with a child. So if the adoptive parent vetoes contact, then the adopted sibling will not have contact.

CONAN: Even so those laws can prevent siblings from even knowing each other exist?

Ms. MABRY: When the children are very young. Now, there are other statutes that provide that when older children, and they must be adults, want to connect with each other, then with the consent of both, they will have contact.

CONAN: So those records can then be re-opened after they are both adults?

Ms. MABRY: Maybe.

CONAN: Maybe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MABRY: It's very complex. There are a few statutes that would allow automatic opening of records when the adoptee reaches the age of 18. Less than 10 states have those statutes, right.

Other statutes have other provisions, including consent, mutual consent registry so that birth relatives who want to contact the adoptee or vice versa can register. And if both register, then the records will be disclosed.

CONAN: And in a divorce case, if, well, sometimes families are split up, one child will go with one parent, one with the other. Can the kids have visitation rights with each other?

Ms. MABRY: Oh, yes. In that case, it's easier because in a divorce case, we're assuming that the children have had some contact before the divorce, right. And if one parent gets some children in the custody arrangement and another parent gets another, that's called split custody. And usually, as long as the contact is in a child's best interest, a court will allow it. And yes, they will have visitation.

CONAN: Well, when we come back, we'll ask the question that I think has occurred to a lot of people. Did Oprah Winfrey have the right to know about her half-sister, who she never knew about? So stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

We've talked on previous programs with twins who were reunited with extended families brought together after many decades. Today our focus is on siblings, what's lost when they're apart, what's found in reunion.

If this is your story, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Cynthia Mabry, who teaches adoption law and family law at Howard University here in Washington, D.C. And we mentioned - on Monday, I think - on the first program of the season, Oprah Winfrey introduced us to her half-sister Patricia, who, well, Oprah was living with her father, her mother obviously living elsewhere. Oprah never knew she had a half-sister. Is this just a case of family miscommunication, or is this something where there's a legal right involved for a sibling?

Prof. MABRY: Well, there are legal rights, there are moral rights, and in this case you have a mother, a birth mother, who gave birth to a child apparently she was young or maybe unwed at the time, gave birth to another child and decided right away to place that child for adoption right?

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Prof. MABRY: And this story is still unfolding, but to the extent that I know, the birth mother did not want to have contact with the child initially, and for a long time, even when she was contacted, when the child was much older, the birth mother still did not want to have contact with her - right?

Again, as I said earlier, siblings do not have contact if the adoptive mother does not want the sibling to have contact with a child who was not placed, right?

But many statutes provide that if, when the children are older, when they become adults, and they want contact - there must be mutual consent - then they can contact each other at that time.

The emotional bond that Christine and Jeff described is real, and it is for the benefit of both of the parties if there is no, you know, adverse reason for them not to have contact.

CONAN: Here's some interesting email from Michael(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. My parents split up several months after I was born, several months before I was born. I was raised as an only child by my mother and her parents.

At the age of 47, I received a call from Becky Rodman(ph), to whom my initial response was: You're the first person I've ever spoken with who had the same last name as mine. She responded: I think I'm your sister.

Within 24 hours I had spoken with five of my half-siblings, followed a month later spending Christmas with them. That was over 15 years ago. This has been a most wonderful expansion of our family.

But this from Leah(ph) in Kansas City: Please know, not everyone wants to relocate their missing sibling, nor are there always fairy-tale endings. I discovered I had an unknown biological father in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and after years of trying to contact him and my half-sibling, they refused to acknowledge me and my twin sister.

Is that unusual, Cynthia Mabry?

Prof. MABRY: No, it's not. In fact, I helped someone named Michelle(ph) to locate her birth family about two years ago. And in preparing her, I said to her: There's a possibility that this family will reject you. So you must be prepared for that.

There are some families who do not want to have this contact, and that is their right. That is their privacy interest. And many of them are birth mothers who have said: I placed this child, I know that this child, that this placement was in the child's best interest, and I am hopeful that the people who parented her have taken very good care of her or him, and I'm through with it. I don't want to have any contact, I don't want to know anything about the child.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Leon's(ph) calling from Athens in Ohio.

LEON (Caller): Hello, Neal, thank you for answering my call. You know, this program is my mother-in-law's story. She and her twin brother were separated at birth. The mother left, abandoned them and left them in an empty home in Missouri.

They were twins, and in fact they were discovered by my mother-in-law's crying. Someone walking by the house heard the children and came in (unintelligible). They were put into an adoption agency in Missouri. A week later the brother was adopted. They came back later, about a month later, to try to adopt her, and she was taken by another home.

He went to a great Christian home. She went to several different homes, was passed from foster care home to faster-care home. Seventy years later, her grand - one of her grandchildren asked her: What would she like for Christmas? She said: Oh, I think I have a brother. I'm not sure, but if I do, I would love to get in contact with him.

She went on - the granddaughter went on genealogy.com, found the brother. The brother was in a situation simultaneously with bone cancer and needing a bone marrow transplant. And they were about to give up on him until one of his cousins came in and said: I think you have a sister.

He had put, at the same time on the Web, a hunt for his sister. She went looking at the same time for her brother. Long story made short, they came together, they spent time together, they were identical twins. For a year they reattached themselves, re-established the family. She was within a couple days of being tested to be his donor for bone marrow transplant, and unfortunately he passed way.

But it was a great reunion. There's a family reunion now and connection between - I live in Ohio, and she lives in Missouri. And there's a great family connection.

So you know, after 70-some years, they had not seen each other for 71 years, and were absolutely identical twins, and it was a beautiful story.

CONAN: And twins, of course, have a special bond, having, well...

LEON: Absolutely, absolutely. Not only do they have a special bond, but it bonds everybody on both sides of their families that they've established as well, and the things that they went through were uncanny, the likes and the dislikes and the preferences and those sorts of things. It was mind-boggling. It was like discovering a whole 'nother world out there.

But the difference too, Neal, is how the background of one family changed the destiny of one child, and the background of another family, how greatly it influenced them.

I know your guest can speak to that. It makes all the difference in the world - two children, same makeup, same DNA, all these sorts of things, but the difference was their surroundings. So environment has a lot to do with the outcome in the situation.

CONAN: And these situations, well, the subject of many nurture-nature arguments.

LEON: Yes.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Leon. And, well, he's right, Professor Mabry, there's been a lot of discussion about that.

Prof. MABRY: Yes, absolutely, that siblings have this innate bond that is indescribable, and I have one example myself. I was blessed to grow up in an intact family. I have three sisters. And one of my sisters got married in the late '70s.

The only thing that we had to bring to the wedding was a pair of white sandals. All of us lived in different regions of the country and did not discuss the kind of sandals that we would buy. All four of us bought the same kind of sandal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MABRY: I mean, that's a little warm and fuzzy story, but there is this bond, this connection between siblings. And the other caller was correct that sometimes it doesn't work out and you can't push it.

Sometimes we have situations where people have not been able to bond initially, but they bond over some other situation later.

CONAN: Uh-huh. Joining us now on the phone is April Vangesen. She's in Port Orchard in Washington, where she runs a camp that reunites separated siblings from within the foster care system. And it's nice to have you with us today.

Ms. APRIL VANGESEN (Co-director, Camp To Belong): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And how do these people find you?

Ms. VANGESEN: Well, Camp To Belong, Washington, is actually an international - actually Camp To Belong is an international organization. And we've been around for 17 years. And we actually have eight camps across the United States and one in Australia. And as far as the foster children in Washington State, really, a lot of the information goes out to the DSHS social workers.

There is a website that we post applications for the campers to apply to. The guardian ad litem and the classes(ph) are made aware of that in our state. So we can try to get the word out as much as possible and get as many applications as we can in.

CONAN: And is it usual that they are meeting each other for the first time there or have been in contact before?

Ms. VANGESEN: You know, it just depends. We have had some campers where - our first camp that we had in Washington State two years ago, we did have one issue where the brother was aware but had never met his sisters. And so that was the first time that he had met them.

It's very common when we select our campers, we really have to do worst-case scenario. We're taking a look at how long it's been since they've seen each other, if they do see each other, what that scenario looks like.

CONAN: And people are sometimes nervous. Of course, some people say: Oh, I felt like I'd known him or her all my life. Sometimes they say: Who is this stranger who looks like me?

Ms. VANGESEN: Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, I know when I first became involved I thought, oh, it's going to be this great, warm, happy reunion. And sometimes, it is. But, you know, some of these children, the last time they saw you (unintelligible) had a significant amount of time with each other, it wasn't a great scenario or a great situation. And sometimes, they can relive that. So it is common for when they arrive at camp, they're looking at each other, like, who are you? You know, I know you're my sister. I know you're my brother. But I'm - yeah, I'm suppose to have fun with you this week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VANGESEN: And the great thing I will share with you is, usually, by day two - the end of day two and into the day three of camp, they are best of buds. You know, their arms are around each other. They're trading hats and they're inseparable.

CONAN: And I understand they also celebrate birthdays.

Ms. VANGESEN: They do. That is one of our signature programs. We do have birthday party nights, because most of our brothers and sisters don't get to have a birthday together. And to be honest, when you're dealing with some of these children that were in foster care, some of them may not have had their birthday when they were at home together. And the great thing is, as part of - one of the activities that we have during camp is they get to go to a birthday party store and they get to secretly pick out a gift that they're going to wrap up, make a birthday card and give to their brother or sister birthday party night.

And it is an incredible celebration. There's - it's a huge decorated party. We had 140 person conga line after the birthday cakes arrive. And it's just - it's a celebration.

CONAN: Well, April Vangesen, I hope you stock up on shiny blue ties because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...that's what I get for my birthday. Anyway, April, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. VANGESEN: Thank you.

CONAN: April Vangesen is the co-director of the Camp to Belong Washington, a summer camp where siblings unite after being separated in the foster care system. She joined us from her home in Port Orchard in Washington.

Let's go next to Christian, Christian with us from Oklahoma City.

CHRISTIAN (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

CHRISTIAN: It's interesting, the - your initial guest who found his sister Molly. And if you've never been in a situation, it's kind of hard to understand. But he'd forgotten about his sister because the family was never allowed to talk about it. And I had a similar situation. My mother had mentioned, when I was 12 years old, that she had another child that she had given up for adoption. And I was running out the door to go do something with my friends. And I filed it away. And I completely had forgotten about it until 2007, when my brother actually found me.

CONAN: And how did you brother find you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRISTIAN: His ex-wife actually had started the process when they had gotten married. She had been trying to find out - he was given up for adoption in South Carolina, which through my research, I have found has the worst adoptees' rights law in the country. It's almost impossible. And in fact, when he turned 18, he went - he lives in North Carolina. He drove to South Carolina, went down to the State Department of Records and the woman walked over to the window where he was standing holding an envelope. She says, in my hand is everything you need to know and I'm not allowed to give it to you.

CONAN: Ouch.

CHRISTIAN: Yeah. And they have made no effort to change these laws for 30 years. And so, he had found - his ex-wife had found a network of a woman. She was doing it out of her home. And on one of the copies of the paperwork, they had forgotten to blank something out. And just using that name and comparing it with some birth records and county records, managed to actually find my cousin who still lives in South Carolina, and backtracked that to my stepfather and found me.

CONAN: And are you part of the family today?

CHRISTIAN: Well, yeah. There's nothing - that's the sad part of it, I guess, is there's nothing left of the family. It's just me and him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Oh.

CHRISTIAN: And, yeah, I get - with a cousin. But this summer, actually, we're planning a road trip to get together and see if we can drive around and find out who his father was. We have some clues. But I'm hoping to actually have some of these links on your website after today's show to help us if - for folks who are trying to look for siblings.

CONAN: All right. Well, good luck with that, Christian.

CHRISTIAN: So - all right. Well, thank you. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: We're talking with separated siblings this hour. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Cynthia Mabry, can - are there things that might have helped Christian?

Prof. MABRY: Yes. Actually, adoption advocates are moving toward - and more states are moving toward opening adoption records. And he described the difficulties in South Carolina that exist in many states.

I'll tell you about one situation that happened in the last couple of years. A Congressperson from Maine wanted to discover her birth relatives at 50 years old. And the state of Maine would not allow her to receive her records.

CONAN: Hmm.

Prof. MABRY: So she lobbied to change the laws and the law was changed. She was able to get her records. And lo and behold, she finds that some of her fellow Congresspersons - I believe there were two of them - were her relatives.

CONAN: Really?

Prof. MABRY: Yes. So it happens. It takes a long time to change the laws. But the laws are changing.

CONAN: Were they in the same party?

Prof. MABRY: Oh, now that's a good question. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. David(ph) is calling us from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

DAVID (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: It was about nine months ago that, while I was stationed overseas, I got a phone call from my wife saying that she had gotten a message on the home phone saying that someone needed to talk to me about an urgent family matter. And she called them right back and, you know, told them that, you know, I was stationed overseas. And the lady is, like, well, you're his wife, right? So I can tell you. And she told my wife that I had a sister. And, you know, she was trying to digest all that and she called me to tell me about it. I'm like, well, you need to call my sister, my full sister, the one that I grew up with.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DAVID: And my sister had gotten the same phone call. And my sister was a little leery about it. And she told my two brothers and they were very leery, like, well, mom died five years ago. What does she want? We don't have any money, you know. And I'm like, well, we need to look into it, you know. Dad never talked about it. We never knew anything about this when we were growing up.

It turned out that - you know, I told my sister to call my great aunt because she's about the only other one left that would know anything about it without having to talk to my father about it, because my mother had passed away.

And my great aunt Mary(ph), it was like a burden lifted off of her shoulders. It - you know, my mother had been pregnant by another man out of wedlock, and my father had met her while she was pregnant.

CONAN: I see.

DAVID: And this was in 1961. And back then, you know, it still wasn't cool to have children out of wedlock.

CONAN: And we return to where we started: family secrets.

DAVID: Right, family secrets. And, you know, it took six months for the adoption to happen, because my mother was very torn about it. And, you know, she put the child up for adoption, and it was a family secret.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left, David. Is your long lost sister, half-sister, is she reintegrated with the family?

DAVID: Yes. We met over the summer when I came back from overseas. We had lunch and we went to her house and met her family and had lunch another time, you know. And we're trying to pick up where we never should have left off, you know? And, you know, I confronted my father about it over the summer at camp. And, you know, he's blind now, but I asked him and he just - as soon as the question came out of my mouth, he just started nodding his head. He's like, I knew this would come up sometime.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the phone call. And we wish the family continued good luck. And Cynthia Mabry, thank you for your time today.

Prof. MABRY: You're welcome.

CONAN: Kathy Bates when we come from a short break. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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