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Transcripts will be posted within 1 week after the episode airs.

LULU MILLER, HOST:

So let's begin today with the American dream achieved. Gifford Briggs had found himself a beautiful wife.

JENNIFER BRIGGS: My name is Jennifer Briggs.

MILLER: A beautiful home, a great job.

GIFFORD BRIGGS: I work in construction.

MILLER: And then they had a daughter.

MACKENZIE BRIGGS: Hi. My name's Mackenzie.

MILLER: And another daughter.

MORGAN BRIGGS: I'm Morgan.

MILLER: And another daughter.

BERLIN BRIGGS: I'm Berlin.

MILLER: And another daughter.

GRACE: I'm Grace.

MILLER: And...

MARNIE: Hello.

MILLER: Another daughter.

MARNIE: I'm Marnie.

J. BRIGGS: So we kind of figured we better stop because we're just going to continue to have girls.

G. BRIGGS: I had more than I could handle. Trust me.

MILLER: But he loved it. Their house was full of laughter, pig piles, everything he'd ever dreamed of.

G. BRIGGS: Yeah.

MILLER: However, as the girls started growing up Gifford started noticing something troubling taking over his house.

G. BRIGGS: Hair.

MILLER: It was on their couches, their carpet.

G. BRIGGS: Half of the bag of my vacuum is hair.

J. BRIGGS: And it's in our food.

MORGAN BRIGGS: My brush.

G. BRIGGS: When I go to work, the first thing I do is I sit in my chair at my desk, and I start picking the hair off of my legs and my shirts.

MILLER: And worst of all in the shower drain.

G. BRIGGS: We're talking a huge amount of hair.

MILLER: Every couple of weeks, one of them would have to get down on their hands the knees, stick a wire coat hanger down the drain and dredge up clump after clump of hair.

J. BRIGGS: Isn't that disgusting?

MILLER: The whole thing usually took about 20 minutes.

J. BRIGGS: Giff and I would, just depending on who was in the mood to clean it.

G. BRIGGS: You would clean it?

J. BRIGGS: I did.

G. BRIGGS: I don't remember you cleaning it.

J. BRIGGS: I cleaned it.

G. BRIGGS: OK.

MILLER: But whoever would do it was gross and time consuming, a tiny wrinkle in their American dream.

G. BRIGGS: Yeah.

MILLER: But then one day...

J. BRIGGS: We were both in the shower, and I looked down. And I was like, oh, my goodness, there's something moving in the drain. And my husband gets on his hands and knees, and he's like what the heck is that?

MILLER: It looked like a rodent.

J. BRIGGS: Like a gopher.

MILLER: Trying to climb its way out.

J. BRIGGS: And he takes the screws off the top of the cover, and this long piece of dental floss comes out. And on the end of it was this massive, disgusting, wad of hair.

G. BRIGGS: It was the biggest thing I've ever seen. You had the big ball that was on the top with the - attached to the dental floss. But then you had a string of hair, so it looked like the drain version of a comet.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: And while most people would look into that tangle of hair and see an astrological horror to be rid from this Earth, Gifford for some reason that day saw a solution.

G. BRIGGS: I saw that dental floss, and the light went on.

J. BRIGGS: And I saw the light bulb go on in his eyes.

MILLER: And this moment, this search to find a solution is what we are talking about today - the ability to see through the haze and find the one tiny fix that can transform reality. For Gifford, the fix was that dental floss. He was stunned at how effortlessly it was able to pull out the hairball It took about a second instead of 25 minutes of scraping.

J. BRIGGS: He looked at me, and I looked at him. And he's like, Jen...

G. BRIGGS: I wonder if we could make a product out of this.

MILLER: So they began refining their solutions searching for the best materials that could reliably catch hair.

J. BRIGGS: Would this work? No. Would this work? No.

MILLER: They turned their shower into a board room.

G. BRIGGS: We would use the shower door as our...

J. BRIGGS: Drawing board.

G. BRIGGS: As the drawing board.

MILLER: And they finally settled on a name they liked.

J. BRIGGS: The DraingWig.

MILLER: They got a patent. And just this fall, they entered into that distinctly American landscape of infomercials.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Introducing DrainWig - with DrainWig you'll never have to worry about clogged drain again.

MILLER: Turn on the TV any night past 2:00 a.m., and you will be bombarded with this message that there are solutions waiting out there for any problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Now, there's the Snuggie, the blanket that has sleeves.

MILLER: Solutions that once discovered can transform your agony into relief.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

RICHARD HEENE: Hi. I'm inventor Richard Heene. If you itch like a son of a twitch, then you need my latest invention the patent-pending Bear Scratch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Shake Weight is the flab-busting breakthrough that trims your arms.

MILLER: And it's not just on the airwaves. This belief in solutions is in our politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Know this, America - our problems can be solved...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W. BUSH: With enough good sense and good will, you and I can fix Medicare and Medicaid.

MILLER: Our approach to crime, poverty, drugs, war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KERRY: A political solution is the only real solution to this conflict.

MILLER: But it is, of course, just that a belief, a mindset that there are always solutions waiting out there. Like, do you think it's that impulse to solve the problem is ever a bad thing or something you should ignore?

J. BRIGGS: No, I don't think so.

G. BRIGGS: I think it drives the world. It drives us forward. It drives the economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.

G. BRIGGS: Think of the things that were unfixable up until now - the problem of flight, the cure for polio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALLY SCHIRRA: There's a foot going down.

WALTER CRONKITE: There is. There's a foot coming down the steps.

G. BRIGGS: And I think that's the American way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRONKITE: Armstrong is on the moon...

NEIL ARMSTRONG: I'm going to step off the LM now.

CRONKITE: Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old American.

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

Do you think that - do you think that there are some problems that can't be solved?

G. BRIGGS: No. I think - I think there's a solution for every problem.

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: And I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: What we do on our show is look at the invisible forces that shape human behavior. And today, we are looking at the belief that every problem can be solved.

G. BRIGGS: It's all about your willingness to do what it takes to solve the problem.

SPIEGEL: And how that attitude, that belief alone, can have really surprising effects on a problem that many of us privately face.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: So today, we begin with the story of one woman who went searching for a solution to a problem that ultimately she found, in a way. But the story doesn't start with the woman. The story actually starts with Lulu and an experience that she had when she was young.

MILLER: So this story begins with a hole. It's about the size of a kite cut into a wooden door. It was cut into the door in front of my eyes when I was 8 by a person wielding a serrated knife. That person was my oldest sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: She was 16 years old at the time and had developed an obsession with the phone. She would repeatedly call this one teacher, a teacher who had once shown her kindness in the middle school hallways where my sister had been bullied for - I'll probably never really know, but I'm guessing that standing too close to you when she talked and ripping out all her eyebrows and eyelashes couldn't have helped.

And so this teacher had been kind. And now a few years later, my sister couldn't stop calling her - calling for help, calling to apologize for calling too much, calling to apologize for calling to apologize. And now this teacher had taken a restraining order out against my sister. And so my parents had come up with a pretty good solution to this problem. Every time they would go out, they would simply rip the old kitchen phone out of the wall and lock it up in the basement, which was a pretty good solution for a long time. But that night, my sister got an idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: I remember her eyes suddenly lighting with a happy thought. She disappeared into the kitchen and returned with the knife and just cut through the door like it was a saw (imitating saw noise).

She wanted in, in, in. She got in, and the cops came. And my dad yelled at my sister and my mom yelled at my dad, and my middle sister Alexa (ph) came home and comforted me in the furthest corner of the house. And my oldest sister wailed and wailed and went for the last couple eyelashes she had.

This pain in my oldest sister is something I have always wanted to stop. When she is free of its grip, she's charming, hilarious. But over the years, it only got worse until eventually my family came up with another solution.

When she was in her early 20s, we drove her up to a nice-sounding institution on a farm where she could tap maple trees and help out in a garden and hopefully, finally, be cured of this pain. When we drove up a few weeks later, the person there was not my sister.

ELLEN BAXTER: At first I barely recognized her because she was heavily medicated, sitting in a wheelchair and her speech was seriously slurred.

MILLER: This is a woman named Ellen Baxter. And she's actually not talking about my sister but about her own mother, seeing her in a similar situation - overmedicated in a mental institution.

BAXTER: I hadn't expected to see her that far gone.

MILLER: We're going to leave the story of my sister for a while, though we will come back to her at the very end. But now we're going to stick with Ellen, who, like me, grew up with a family member afflicted by a mental illness. And in her mom's case, it also sometimes involved substance abuse, the combination of which, as Ellen remembers it, could sometimes drive her to do things which were destructive.

BAXTER: She would become a mean person, threatening my father and saying that my sister and I had been seriously hurt. And then she would laugh at him.

MILLER: Wow.

BAXTER: It just made her do things that were very cruel.

MILLER: And like many people living alongside this kind of pain, Ellen ran from it.

BAXTER: I had the chance to escape and go to college.

MILLER: Bowdoin College, thousands of miles away from her home.

BAXTER: And this might sound sort of heartless, but I didn't ever go back home again.

MILLER: But, but, but, but this is not a story about sad and intractable problems. No, this is a solution story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA will be back in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: And I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: We're in the middle of a story about mental illness that is now going to magically become a story about solutions.

MILLER: Right. So Ellen Baxter gets to college in the early 1970s, and once she's there decides she is going to find a more humane way to treat mental illness.

BAXTER: Exactly.

MILLER: So she became a psych major. And then one day, in one of the most dedicated acts of research ever, she grabbed a suitcase, put on her best depressed face and faked her way on to a mental ward.

BAXTER: (Laughter) Yes.

MILLER: She'd convinced her favorite psych professor to help her out, and he got the town psychiatry to give Ellen a fake diagnosis.

BAXTER: And they received me at the admissions office and took me to the ward.

MILLER: Ellen would go on to spend seven days at the Augusta State Hospital. She says no one there knew she was a fake. And she spent her time just watching to see if there were any useful therapies being practiced.

BAXTER: But I didn't see any therapeutic activity taking place with any other people on the ward at that time.

MILLER: What would people do all day?

BAXTER: Television.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Does this mean I missed the Polish girl?

BAXTER: So people would hang out really looking out the windows, waiting for the bells to ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BAXTER: Time for the medicine line...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BAXTER: ...Time for morning snack.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BAXTER: One can almost see the humanity of people evaporating.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

MILLER: Ellen was horrified.

MILLER: I thought it was cruel. So once she got out, she started looking through history books and journal articles.

BAXTER: I was searching for some place where dependent and disabled people were not thrown away.

MILLER: And then one day...

BAXTER: In the library...

MILLER: She stumbled across a reference to a little town in Belgium called...

BAXTER: Geel.

MILLER: It's spelled G-E-E-L.

Can you just read that one paragraph?

BAXTER: Sure. At the village of Geel in Belgium, it was well-known that the insane have been placed under the management of the villagers.

MILLER: Geel, it turned out, was a quite radical society, a place where everyday people welcomed strangers with mental illness into their homes.

BAXTER: Like a beloved aunt or uncle.

MILLER: And would allow them to stay there, often for decades.

BAXTER: When I asked several foster families why they had welcomed a guest, they seemed confused. Why would they not? Their parents and grandparents had all done the same.

MILLER: As Ellen kept reading, she learned that the tradition had begun hundreds of years ago because of a saint.

BAXTER: Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of the mentally ill.

MILLER: Who had supposedly been martyred in Geel. And in the 1300s a church was built around her supposed remains. And in time, that church became a pilgrimage site for people seeking a cure for mental ailments.

BAXTER: And townspeople would permit those pilgrims to stay with them.

MILLER: And the tradition just stuck till by the 1930s, a quarter of the town was mentally ill.

BAXTER: The atmosphere in the town is conditioned by many years of exposure to mental patients. I have seen coffee served in a cafe with as much deference to actively hallucinating psychotics as to anyone else.

MILLER: And it was this deference, this kindness that in the 19th century earned it the nickname...

LULU MILLER AND ELLEN BAXTER: Paradise for the insane.

MILLER: Ellen was amazed.

BAXTER: Yes.

MILLER: Perhaps Geel was the solution she'd been looking for.

BAXTER: Right.

MILLER: So she gets herself a grant to spend a year there.

BAXTER: Watson Fellowship.

MILLER: And just a couple months after graduating college, she finds herself on a train hurdling through the Belgian countryside toward this magical-sounding town.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAXTER: There were plots of land on the train that you pass, farm after farm.

MEGHAN ECKMAN, BYLINE: Do you want to describe what we're seeing so far?

MILLER: Pretty white horse in a field of buttercups.

So we went to Geel.

MILLER: Producer Meghan Eckman and I went together to follow in Ellen's footsteps.

ECKMAN: A little pond with some little ducks...

MILLER: And once we got just about two miles outside of town, like Ellen, we saw it.

ECKMAN: I see it.

MILLER: This huge spire of a medieval church, almost beckoning.

BAXTER: It's quite dramatic.

MILLER: We're getting there. And when we arrived, we found a modern town. It's 35,000 people these days - cafes, buses, everything seemed totally normal. Except when we began walking around and looking at people...

BAXTER: I did immediately see some people who were talking to themselves.

MILLER: We couldn't help but wonder.

Are the, or aren't they? Are they? Aren't they? A guy just drove by and spat off his bike. Is he mentally ill? Oh - or the lady talking to herself - that's me - is she?

BAXTER: There was a market. And there I was certain that I saw people whose behavior gave their mental illness away. They were not making any sense, walking from side to side instead of going in usual direction.

MILLER: And were people fazed?

BAXTER: Not at all.

MILLER: Not at all because severe mental illness was totally normal in Geel.

BAXTER: There's clearly something different here.

MILLER: So Ellen got herself a bicycle and began riding around the town, trying to figure out how it all worked.

BAXTER: Yes.

MILLER: First stop, the doctor's. There's this big medical facility right in the center of town called the OPZ, where patients come when they first arrive in Geel. They're prescribed meds and paired with a therapist. And it is there that the doctors discuss and choose which family the patient will go and live with.

BAXTER: Right.

MILLER: And, of course, it was those families that Ellen was really curious about.

BAXTER: So I began to ride my bicycle to go to people's homes.

MILLER: To ask them her main research question.

BAXTER: Do you find it to be a burden living with someone with serious mental illness?

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MILLER: So Meghan and I went out to ask families the same thing.

TONI: Oh, hello. Nice to meet you.

MILLER: Nice to meet you.

TONI: Come in, please.

MILLER: We met with about a dozen families. But the one we spent the most time with was a family who lived in a gorgeous spot out in the countryside - flowers, a little patio.

TONI: If you want sugar or sweeteners or whatever...

ARTHUR: Will there be food?

MILLER: The mother is a woman named Toni who's actually originally American.

TONI: I was born in Salt Lake City. And no, I'm not a Mormon.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: The father is Arthur...

ARTHUR: Nice to meet.

MILLER: ...A handsome bus driver. And their patient is a man named Luc.

TONI: That's our border.

ECKMAN: Hi, Luc. I'm Meghan.

MILLER: In Geel, by the way, the patients are never called the patients. They are always called boarders or guests.

LUC ENNEKANS: Luc.

ECKMAN: What's your last name?

ENNEKANS: Ennekans.

ECKMAN: OK.

MILLER: Luc is 51 years old - green eyes, slight build. And he first came to live with Toni and Arthur about 10 years ago, after struggling with an addiction to pills.

ARTHUR: He was so nervous - he was so restless.

TONI: Couldn't sit, not 10 seconds.

MILLER: Luc had been institutionalized briefly and said the experience had been horrible.

ENNEKANS: (Speaking Flemish).

TONI: "It's enough to go crazy," he says (laughter).

MILLER: It's enough to go - yeah.

ENNEKANS: (Speaking Flemish).

MILLER: And he said that by the time he got to Toni and Arthur's house, he was on edge.

ARTHUR: And I said to him, you know, I don't think it's someone for us.

MILLER: But Toni said maybe he needs an activity. So she put him to work in the garden, got him a bicycle.

ARTHUR: And then he'd get more calmed down.

MILLER: But with the calm came new problems.

TONI: If it were up to Luc, he would be hugging me all day and kissing me all day.

MILLER: He grew very attached to Toni, to the point where it began to interfere with her relationship with Arthur.

TONI: You can't even give each other a hug.

ARTHUR: You're losing all your privacy.

MILLER: And as difficult as that sounds, Toni and Arthur have dealt with much worse. For 10 years, they boarded a man named Dis, who struggled with hallucinations. Toni said he'd sometimes wake up in terror because he thought there were lions coming out of the walls.

TONI: He was really demanding.

MILLER: They've had six boarders over the years. One of them had a gambling problem, and one stole Arthur's wallet. Another would frequently lock them out of the bathroom, and one once threw a hammer at the door.

TONI: Yeah, yeah.

MILLER: As Ellen went from door to door, she saw all kinds of things like this, families who had invited people into their homes who were really difficult, aggressive or incoherent.

BAXTER: Constant talking and rattling and movements and up-and-down and in the chair and out of the room and in the room and - you know, I said that would drive me out of my mind.

MILLER: And so, in a private moment, she would finally ask the host parents her question.

BAXTER: Do you find it to be a burden?

MILLER: Is it tiring? Is it painful?

UNIDENTIFED MAN #1: No.

UNIDENTIFED MAN #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: No.

UNIDENTIFED MAN #3: No, not at all. It's just a normal life, yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFED MAN #3: Yeah, I don't see it as being painful, yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: No.

MILLER: This was exactly what Ellen heard.

BAXTER: I saw that over and over again with the families that I would visit.

MILLER: Ellen was mystified. While there was the occasional family who struggled with it or couldn't keep a boarder, for the rest of them, she wondered - had she stumbled on a race of angels?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: It's normal. It was normal for us. It's no problems.

MILLER: It's true. The families do get small stipends for taking in the boarders. But it didn't seem like enough to offset the struggle.

BAXTER: That would drive me out of my mind.

MILLER: None of it made any sense to her - until she met the buttons guy.

BAXTER: Yes.

MILLER: The buttons guy was a middle-aged man, a boarder who, every single day, would twist all the buttons off his shirt, sort of nervously twirled them off every single day. And so his host mom?

BAXTER: She has to sew these buttons on every night.

MILLER: And Ellen remembers thinking - this is just a waste of this poor woman's time.

BAXTER: I just was really perplexed by that chore - that she had to sew all these buttons on every day. So I suggested that she use fishing line, you know, so it wouldn't twirl off.

MILLER: Yeah.

BAXTER: And she was almost offended. She says no, no. You don't understand.

GASTON VAN DYKE: That's the worst thing you could do.

MILLER: This is Gaston Van Dyke, a good friend of Ellen's that year in Geel who still remembers the case of the buttons guy because Ellen had been so transformed by it.

VAN DYKE: Ellen was very impressed by (laughter) that woman.

MILLER: Because the host mother had told her - no, I will never use fishing line because this man needs to twist the buttons off. It helps him - to twist the buttons off every day.

VAN DYKE: The philosophy behind that is first, you have to accept mentally ill people. You have to accept what they are doing.

MILLER: You have to let them take off their buttons every day.

This was Ellen's breakthrough. Accept these odd behaviors. Don't try to make them go away.

BAXTER: Some things you can't fix. But you can work around them, or you can not let it bother you. The psychiatric profession is - you know, is really stuck on recovery.

MILLER: Which makes sense when it comes to a lot of illnesses.

BAXTER: But it's not so applicable to people whose disabilities are more chronic in character. And that, I think, is where Geel distinguishes itself.

MILLER: In the families where it works, they aren't really trying to fix the problem.

BAXTER: Sometimes, people just like - that's who they are.

MILLER: They twist off their buttons. They hallucinate lions. They pull out the lashes on their eyelids.

Which, given Ellen's background, was revolutionary - letting people be was the antithesis of the medical model she had studied in college, a model built on the hope of fixing the problem. And after the buttons guy, Ellen began to notice acceptance was everywhere in Geel.

BAXTER: You know, there were so many small things that people accommodated, the behaviors that could appear very bothersome, things that they had learned over time by living with them for many, many years that were calming to the boarders.

TONI: If he got mad, he would throw things and do things.

MILLER: For instance, Toni told us that when one of her boarders got violent, her husband Arthur would simply take him by the neck and have him go stand in the yard.

TONI: Calm down. As soon as you've calmed down, you can come back inside.

MILLER: Or when their boarder Des hallucinated those bloodthirsty lions, Toni would just chase them away.

TONI: And that would work every time.

BAXTER: It's, like no, we don't do things like that.

MILLER: Professionals, you mean?

BAXTER: Yeah. I guess it would definitely be unprofessional.

MILLER: Ellen was realizing something about the rules of the psychological profession.

BAXTER: It's almost like their professional experience and language clouds them from seeing who people are. They don't even see them when they're being jerks. They - oh, well, it's their mental illness. Well, no - sometimes it's because they're being really nasty. But then the person doesn't become accountable for what the behavior actually is (laughter).

TONI: If it were up to Luc, he would be hugging me all day and kissing me all day. Arthur has kept this a little down because Arthur said, hey, that's my wife. You find your own girlfriend. And it took a while...

MILLER: ...But it worked. Luc has found a girlfriend.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: I love you.

MILLER: This is her he's just kissed. She's got a pixie haircut and big blue eyes.

ENNEKANS: I love you, too.

MILLER: She's a boarder in another family, and they meet up at the cafe where Luc buses tables once a week. And it's now a bond on top of his great bond with Tony, which only makes him happier.

Just for scene detail they are both beaming, I think it's accurate to say. Big smiles.

And it wasn't just Ellen noticing the strange healing powers of not trying to fix the problem. The doctors in Geel believe in its power so much that they have dispatched with the thing most sacred to the profession - the idea that there is a problem to fix. When a patient comes to stay with a family in Geel, they are told nothing about the diagnosis.

Nothing?

WILFRIED BOGAERTZ: No. No, of course no diagnosis. Nothing about the past.

MILLER: This is Wilfried Bogaertz (ph), one of the lead psychologists who oversees the family foster care system in Geel.

And what's the theory behind that? Why not tell someone the diagnosis? Why not tell the family?

BOGAERTZ: Why tell them?

MILLER: So that they could -

He said it's a huge debate - the labels hurt or the labels help. But he thinks that from the family's perspective, labels are limiting.

BOGAERTZ: Because people have their idea - schizophrenia, you should do this and this and this and this. And that's what we do not want them to do. We just want them to share family life with them, share life and do not treat them.

MILLER: When you do away with the label, says chief nurse Bert Lodewyckx, amazing things can happen.

BERT LODEWYCKX: It's like some of our people can get a new start by living in a new family, in a new context. It's amazing.

MILLER: Toward the end of our second day out in the countryside with Luc and Toni and Arthur, Luc takes me down to the gate at the bottom of their driveway. He's pulled out two bicycles, one for me and one for him. And then he unlocks the gate.

ENNEKANS: (Speaking Flemish).

MILLER: (Speaking Flemish) means let's go in Flemish, so I follow him out the gate on to the road.

ENNEKANS: (Singing in foreign language).

MILLER: We turn right at the end of the road and then pedal alongside a busier road for a few miles. Then he takes me back on to quieter streets to his favorite church, a medieval abbey with a reflecting pool, past his favorite ice cream place. Hours go by and he keeps leading me on, his green eyes bright. As I rode, I couldn't help but wonder where Luc would be in the U.S. Would he be in some dark, underfunded group home? Or what if he got hooked on pills again? Would he be in a hospital? A jail?

BAXTER: You see examples where people would be clearly institutionalized for life.

MILLER: But instead, in Geel they've found families who allow them to be free.

TONI: Luc can stay here until I die.

MILLER: Indeed, Ellen found that the average length of stay with a family in Geel is 28.5 years. And a third of the boarders stay with the same family for over 45 years.

TONI: We drink coffee or whatever.

ENNEKANS: (Speaking foreign language).

MILLER: What does that mean?

TONI: It's good for his figure (laughter).

MILLER: Which led Ellen at long last to her conclusion, which is that while she certainly thinks the medical side is crucial to the success in Geel, when it comes to the day in and day out care that families are often more capable than professionals, that their hands have a healing touch in part because they aren't bound by the rules and they aren't blinded by diagnosis, but most important because they have let go of the mission to cure.

BAXTER: I think what people living with mental illness in Geel finally get to be is who they are.

ENNEKANS: (Singing in foreign language).

MILLER: Ellen figured she had found the solution. The solution to healing a person you love with mental illness was, oddly enough, to not seek a solution.

BAXTER: Exactly.

MILLER: And so all she had to do now was bring the solution of no solutions back to the homeland of solutions.

SPIEGEL: When INVISIBILIA returns, we're going to America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: And I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: We are in the middle of a story about Ellen Baxter, who has just returned to America and is ready to revolutionize mental health care with her no-solution solution. And Lulu, what happened?

MILLER: Well...

You just get sucker-punched by reality.

BAXTER: Yes (laughter).

MILLER: This is Ellen Baxter, again, who applied to a bunch of grad schools with this plan of trying to bring a family foster care model back to the U.S. And she got rejected by every single school.

BAXTER: That's right.

MILLER: Their reason?

JILL HOOLEY: It's a nice idea. I don't know how viable it would be.

MILLER: This is Harvard psychologist Jill Hooley, who, like the schools that rejected Ellen, thinks it would be very hard to replicate Geel in the U.S.

Why?

HOOLEY: I think it would be quite difficult to find willing families.

ANDREW SCULL: Very, very difficult, given the attitudes that have developed around mental illness.

MILLER: And this is Andrew Scull, a sociologist at UCSD who wrote a book called "Madness In Civilization," who agrees with her.

SCULL: Sadly...

MILLER: But Scull thinks the problem runs deeper than not being able to find families. He thinks the whole notion of healing someone by not trying to cure them is at odds with the American mindset.

SCULL: Americans are always attracted to things that will cure a problem. When LBJ launched his war on poverty, he was going to get rid of it. When Nixon launched the war on cancer, we were going to cure cancer. When we can't do those things, we become much less disposed to spend money.

MILLER: In fact, Ellen found out she was just one in a long line of people who have tried to start Geel in America and failed.

SCULL: So that's one of the sad realities about the situation.

MILLER: The message to Ellen was clear. The profession has considered it. It has tried it. But it will not work in America.

So now in this building here, how many people here have a severe mental illness?

BAXTER: So there are 70 apartments here. I think it's about - 30 percent are seriously mentally ill.

MILLER: It's actually 40 percent. We are standing in front of one of seven buildings that Ellen has raised money to create in Harlem and Washington Heights over the last 30 years, where a large portion of the tenants have severe mental illness. And they live alongside people who are mentally healthy.

BAXTER: Hey, how are you? I didn't know you were a soccer player.

ORLANDO: Yes, I am.

MILLER: And although they are not living in families, they live right next door.

So this is your place?

ORLANDO: Yeah, this is it.

MILLER: Oh, nice.

And many of the results you see in Geel - a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a person's symptoms getting better - are happening in these buildings, which, by the way, are called Broadway Housing Communities.

ORLANDO: Hi Lulu.

MILLER: Hi. Great to meet you.

ORLANDO: Yeah, nice to meet you.

MILLER: For instance, this is Orlando, who's been living in one of Ellen's buildings for 23 years.

What's your story? How did you find your way here?

ORLANDO: I got lucky, really. You know, I'm bipolar manic depressive, you know, with suicidal tendencies and stuff. And I used to dip and dab, you know. We used to medicate ourselves, you know, to keep down - keep the pain down, you know? And then Ms. Baxter said to me one day, if you go to rehab, you know, I have a home for you when you come out. So I went and did the rehab. And when I came out, they moved me right in here.

MILLER: To a studio apartment on the third floor.

ORLANDO: Right now I have an old man over here that reminds me of my grandfather. And I call him dad. You know, I adopt people as I go along, you know?

MILLER: (Laughter).

ORLANDO: And that's the cool thing about it, you know?

'Sup buddy?

MILLER: He introduces me to his buddy Wong...

WONG: (Laughter).

MILLER: ...His next-door neighbor Pat...

PAT: Hey.

MILLER: ...His friend Yvonne...

YVONNE: Hi.

MILLER: Hey, it's lovely to meet you.

YVONNE: And you, too.

ORLANDO: She'll smoke a cigarette and we'll talk, you know? She'll tell me straight up look, you're screwing up. I don't want to hear it. You know, you got to chill out a little bit.

YVONNE: It's like social work without the credentials.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: So how did Ellen find willing strangers to live alongside people with mental illness, a thing scholars everywhere said Americans would never do? Well, when she talks to prospective tenants...

BAXTER: We probably wouldn't necessarily use the word mental illness.

MILLER: She would instead focus on the beautiful facilities and the low, often subsidized rents and leave the part about your neighbors having severe mental illness for the website and the apartment documents.

BAXTER: To avoid triggering that bigotry and that hatred.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: Ellen's rationale was this - she had heard the scholar's point that it would be very difficult to find willing families because stigma around mental illness is so high. But if you simply got people into the building, then through sheer contact alone, stigma would be reduced.

BAXTER: Exactly.

MILLER: And did you know, like, when you moved in what you were getting into in terms of there being a lot of people there with mental illness? Was that something you were aware of when you moved in?

CHARICE DICKERSON: No.

MILLER: This is a tenant with no mental illness named Charice Dickerson.

When you showed up and that was the reality, did you feel, like, tricked in any way?

DICKERSON: No because, I mean, I know people in my - you know, my personal life that, you know, suffer from mental illness. So, you know, like, it's not like, you know, it's a big shock or something brand-new where I'm just like oh, my goodness. What is this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: No because I was so happy to get out the shelter.

MILLER: The other key factor in Ellen's design is that many of the mentally healthy tenants were formerly homeless.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: So it didn't bother me.

MILLER: So you are Orlando's next-door neighbor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Right.

MILLER: And how long have you been in the building?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Fifteen years, going on 16.

MILLER: Fifteen going on 16?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Yeah.

MILLER: And did you feel, like, tricked at all when you showed up and turns out half the tenants are severely mentally ill?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: No. I mean, if there were people here dragging around and heavily medicated, I wouldn't be able to live here. But these people are lively. They have lives. Some of them have jobs.

YVONNE: Everybody has a touch of mental illness (laughter). Everybody.

MILLER: It's not to say these buildings are perfect. Some of the tenants complained of drug use or of feeling isolated, especially in the winter. But Ellen keeps learning as she goes. She now employs tenants to monitor the front door, and she keeps building in new features, like art gallery spaces or daycare or rooftop terraces to draw the community in.

Now, if you're wondering about the expense of this miniature Geel at the tippy-top of Manhattan, well, compared to a cot in a homeless shelter...

BAXTER: Which is between 20,000 and 35,000 annually...

MILLER: ...A studio apartment in one of her beautiful buildings cost taxpayers...

BAXTER: Twelve-thousand dollars a year, so it's less costly.

MILLER: By a lot.

BAXTER: Yeah.

MILLER: Only, have you noticed a catch in this seeming paradise, what both Geel and Ellen's buildings in New York have in common?

What did happen with your son?

TONI: Tell you later - not now.

MILLER: OK.

Remember Toni...

TONI: (Laughter).

MILLER: ...The angel in Geel, the saintly smokey-laughed woman who boards not just Luke but has ushered men who throw hammers and hallucinate lions back to life? Well...

TONI: It's a long story, but I've had a lot of problems with my son.

MILLER: Her son Ido, when he was in his early 20s, was working construction and fell off a wall. He hit his head and suffered really serious brain damage.

TONI: And he is lifetime mentally handicapped, as they say.

MILLER: And so she tried to have him come live with her among the young men who she so effortlessly boarded over the last couple decades.

TONI: That was mostly temporary.

MILLER: It didn't work out.

TONI: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: And this is what Geel and Ellen's building in Manhattan have in common. For the most part, nobody's families are there. Toni said trying to care for her son was difficult for her and Arthur in a way that none of the other borders were.

TONI: Maybe because - my son, we knew how he was beforehand and how he is now. That's difficult to accept sometimes. But that's something I don't want to go into now because we'll never agree on that, so that's always given problems.

ARTHUR: Yeah, it's giving lots of problems in our marriage.

MILLER: See, Arthur isn't Ido's biological father. He is Toni's second husband and only came into the family when Ito was 19.

ARTHUR: I see the things in her son that bothers me a lot. And I think she doesn't see the right problems because she's a mother always defending him, not seeing clear.

MILLER: He turns to Toni.

ARTHUR: You're not seeing - you're too close and not seeing the things naturally and...

TONI: As other people do.

ARTHUR: As other people do.

TONI: That could be a problem.

MILLER: So is there any truth to Arthur's theory? Is closeness a curse? Are we somehow incapable of healing our own?

HOOLEY: I think that's kind of the puzzle and the irony in all of this. If you care too much and you try too hard, your efforts may backfire.

MILLER: This is Harvard psychologist Jill Hooley again, who was intrigued by this particularly cruel idea that closeness somehow makes you worse at healing. And she spent much of her career trying to figure out if there is any scientific truth to the idea.

HOOLEY: Right, so the mystery began more than 50 years ago when a British sociologist, George Brown, made a very surprising observation. Male patients who were suffering from chronic schizophrenia did a lot better after they left the hospital when they went to live in lodgings rather than going home to live with their wives or their parents.

MILLER: He noticed that patients going home to their wives or parents were way more likely to relapse.

HOOLEY: They were coming back into the hospital, and their schizophrenia seemed to be less well-controlled overall.

MILLER: And what he eventually discovered after extensive recorded interviews with family members was that the more the family members expressed these three very particular emotions about their family member with schizophrenia, the more the person with schizophrenia was to relapse.

HOOLEY: And they have relapse rates that are 2 to 3 times higher.

MILLER: Those emotions...

HOOLEY: Criticism, hostility and then a third, which they called emotional over-involvement.

MILLER: So Hooley pulled up transcripts to read me an example of each emotion. So here's an example of a father being critical of his son.

HOOLEY: (Reading) He doesn't eat breakfast, just morning coffee right away - coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, smoke, smoke, smoke, coffee, coffee. With tone, clear dislike of the fact that this is what his son is doing on a habitual basis.

MILLER: And hostility.

HOOLEY: (Reading) She's very selfish. She doesn't care about anyone else but herself.

MILLER: Pretty brutal. And then that third one, which is a bit less intuitive, what they call emotional over-involvement.

HOOLEY: (Reading) It breaks my heart to see him suffering. I'd do anything for him if it would help. There's nothing I wouldn't do for that boy.

MILLER: This kind of comment or even just that yearning, that hope for him to get better as expressed through tone, precisely the thing that Ellen had wondered about in Geel. That desire to fix the problem, it oozes out of a person, they have found, and works to trigger relapse in the person they're thinking about.

That's so odd because that one sounds so, like, compared to hostility and criticism, that sounds like you're just being a champion of that family member.

HOOLEY: It's very different, and it's not negative in the same way at all. The reason that we believe it is associated with relapse is because from the part of the patient, they're just feeling too monitored. They're feeling too cosseted. They can't breathe. They feel stifled.

MILLER: Whatever the reason, they have seen this again and again in...

HOOLEY: Mood disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders.

MILLER: It's almost like this law of the land. And in fact, this effect is often called the law of expressed emotion. The more you express these emotions, the more likely the person you are thinking about will suffer.

HOOLEY: Right.

MILLER: Crazy as it sounds, our private thoughts about a person, our disappointment in them or even our wishes for them to get better, shoot out of us like lasers and can change their very insides.

HOOLEY: Studies suggest that there is an increase in blood pressure. There are changes in the brain. So we've looked at this in the context of depression. We've had people in the scanner. We have played them the voice of their own mother making critical remarks. And their mothers were wonderful doing this for science and helping us out.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: This sounds like the most brutal study to be a part of. That's my worst nightmare, to be trapped in an fMRI with my mom telling me what she doesn't like about me.

HOOLEY: And she would begin by saying, Lulu...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: I wish you'd really call me back when I call you or email me back if I email you. It just makes me feel really low.

HOOLEY: And what we found is that...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: You want me to go on? There are, like, 20 more.

MILLER: We're all good here, mom.

HOOLEY: In our fully recovered depressed participants, when they heard criticism from their mothers, there was less activation in an area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

MILLER: A brain region that usually helps you regulate your emotions.

HOOLEY: Seems to go offline in some way.

MILLER: Wow. So the cure in this light, the fix, would be to teach families to more carefully monitor the emotions they express.

HOOLEY: Right.

MILLER: And Hooley he has worked with colleagues who are trying to do just that, trying to teach families to be less critical or much trickier, to stop trying to fix the problem.

HOOLEY: But it's not a quick fix, and it's not intuitive, I don't think, for family members to think about changing their approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: And so there's a scientist at Harvard named Jill Hooley who's studying this thing called...

At the end of this reporting journey, I told Ellen that there is scientific and clinical evidence to her idea that the fix comes from not trying to fix, that people truly can recover better when you aren't trying to fix them. And so I asked her if after dedicating her life to the idea of acceptance...

Did ever change how you thought about your mom?

BAXTER: Yeah. I think I - I'm probably less accepting with my mother's situation than I am when it's not my mother because one still has wishes...

MILLER: Yeah.

BAXTER: ...That there would be, you know, a perfect family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: And maybe this is the true magic of Geel - that strangers are better healers because on some far, far away level, they don't really care if you get better.

HOOLEY: I think that may well be the secret ingredient.

MILLER: And perhaps that is what my oldest sister knew all along. With that knife, she was trying desperately to get into the arms of the people who could actually heal her - strangers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Maybe. Yeah maybe, a little bit.

MILLER: This is my sister. She said growing up in our house, it did feel like we were often trying to fix her, to get her to stop pulling out her eyebrows or to be quieter, calmer. And that...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: That shows that - you know, that you care, and I know you do. But sometimes I want to say, you know, this is who I am, take it or leave it.

MILLER: She didn't get to strangers that night with the knife. After the cops came, we kept her with us. And after that horrible day at the institution, we again brought her home, where for three more years we bombarded her with this message - how can we fix you? Translation...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: You want me to be someone I'm not.

MILLER: According to my sister, there were also quieter ways we all delivered this message of not accepting her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: It's hard watching your other siblings who were friends.

MILLER: She's talking about me and our middle sister.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: You know, you had your own thing going.

MILLER: And how did that make you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: That at least you had one person you could look up to.

MILLER: This was actually news to me. The thing about my oldest sister is she is not a complainer. She had been quietly accepting this message that she was somehow not good enough the whole time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Dad, through his body language, you know, I could get the impression he wasn't thrilled that, you know, I'm not as smart or, you know, I don't - I didn't do as well in school and - you know, as my sisters. And, you know, it's kind of like he wasn't as proud.

MILLER: I told my parents about all this, how she felt rejected by us in all these little ways and how scientists have now shown that when you instead just accept a person wholly, completely for everything that they are, it can have this crazy healing effect. And when I said that, my dad got a funny look on his face, suddenly remembering this time...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It was a time...

MILLER: From when my sister was really little.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: She was 2 or 3. And she was having a huge freak out at 3 in the morning, just screaming and yelling in her bed. And I went in there, and I got angry at her. And I sat on her bed, and I was trying to calm her down. And I was sort of holding her shoulders, and I got angry at her. I said stop it, stop it. And I remember in her tears - as I was getting angrier, in her tears, she kept saying I can't help it. I can't help it. And I didn't hear that. It's - it's something I will always regret that my feeling anger instead of empathy - didn't know what I was doing as a father.

MILLER: It's almost like she's even been saying this since she could speak of, like, I can't help it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: This is who I am, take it or leave it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I just didn't understand.

MILLER: We didn't understand when she was 2 or when she was 16 with that knife. But finally, just a couple weeks shy of her 24th birthday...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: I can't - I couldn't live with them anymore. I just - I couldn't.

MILLER: So one summer day...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: You know, Dad - we hired a U-Haul.

MILLER: And they drove to an apartment eight miles away. My sister said she was terrified. Other than a couple hospital stints, she'd never lived away from my parents.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: It took time, but - it took me 45 minutes to get used to living alone.

MILLER: Did you just say it took 45 minutes?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Yeah.

MILLER: Wait, that's how long it took you to get used to it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Yeah. And that's when it got better - 1999 to be exact.

MILLER: 1999?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: June 1, 1999...

MILLER: Independence day?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Yes, well put. I like that. Forget July 4. It's my Independence day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: She gets help from the government and from my parents. She's gotten jobs and lost them, torn her eyebrows and let them grow. She ebbs and flows, like any of us. And she said of all the things that have helped her heal...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Age, meds, therapy programs I've been in...

MILLER: ...Perhaps most healing of all...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #11: Oh...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #12: Hi.

MILLER: ...Has been spending the majority of her time with friends, neighbors...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Hey.

MILLER: ...People who, my sister explained after her neighbor dropped by, don't see you as a bundle of problems to be fixed.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: It's hard to explain. It's like interacting with them on a different wavelength.

MILLER: It's funny to watch her move through her day, her world, her apartment building, where she greets a middle-aged woman whose eyes twinkle to see her, the couple whose kids she sometimes babysits, the mysterious phone calls she fields.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Hello? Oh, yes, that's fine. Also...

MILLER: This person - this person I barely know, who is not a person who has triumphed over problems but is just a person, a person I hope to get to know better.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #13: Very nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Say hi to your family for me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #13: OK, that's - will do. I don't know...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: Well, Alix...

SPIEGEL: Yeah.

MILLER: Dance party?

SPIEGEL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLEACHERS SONG, "I WANNA GET BETTER")

SPIEGEL: One last note here - the Geel we have been describing may be disappearing for a variety of reasons. Doctors explained that fewer people are getting placed with families. It's now down to 250.

MILLER: However, for anyone interested in community care in the U.S., a researcher named Jackie Goldstein has just come out with a book called "Voices Of Hope For Mental Illness" which profiles all sorts of neat programs across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA GET BETTER")

BLEACHERS: (Singing) I wanna get better. While my friends were getting high and chasing...

MILLER: Special thanks to Nicholas Duprey who did lots of the original music this hour and the band Bleachers, who has given us permission to play this epic song "I Wanna Get Better" to close out our hour. You can find information about all of this on our website npr.org/invisibilia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA GET BETTER")

BLEACHERS: (Singing) So now I'm standing on the overpass screaming at the cars hey, I want to get better. I didn't know I was lonely till I saw your face. I want to get better, better, better, better. I want to get better. I didn't know I was broken till I wanted to change. I want to get better, better, better...

SPIEGEL: And now for a moment of non-Zen...

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is a show about all of the invisible forces that shape human behavior, beliefs, emotions. What else?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Assumptions.

MILLER: Ideas.

SPIEGEL: Isn't ideas beliefs?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Kind of, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLEACHERS SONG, "I WANNA GET BETTER")

SPIEGEL: Join us next week for more...

MILLER: (Whispering) INVISIBILIA.

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