BONUS: Youth Radio Girl Mystery : Invisibilia Years ago, producer Yowei Shaw taught high school students how to make radio. And in one of her classes, something bizarre happened with one of her students, something that she's never been able to make sense of. In this episode, Yowei tracks down her former student and uncovers a story much stranger than she ever expected.
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BONUS: Youth Radio Girl Mystery

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BONUS: Youth Radio Girl Mystery

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

Hey, it's Hanna and Alix here. And we are really excited to make more stories for listeners just like you.

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

Because we're givers. We basically give and give and give. And through the selfless act of giving, boom - we basically change your life.

ROSIN: And in the spirit of giving, we're proud to give you, the listener, the ability to give back. So this holiday season, give some of that giving in the form of cold hard cash. Just visit donate.npr/org/invis before the year ends because when you give to your NPR station, you're giving to yourself.

SPIEGEL: And that's self-love. We are literally giving you self-love when you donate at donate.npr.org/invis. So...

HANNA ROSIN AND ALIX SPIEGEL: You're welcome.

SPIEGEL: But seriously, thank you. We really appreciate your support.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And today we are bringing you another bonus. We've been trying to do these pretty much every month. This one is from one of our fabulous producers Yowei Shaw. Yowei, just explain what you got.

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: OK. So this story is about a moment where I totally did not see something coming. And I was just like, what? It was six years ago when I was teaching radio to teenagers in Philadelphia. And something really, really strange happened with one of my students that I just have not been able to get out of my head.

ROSIN: So listeners, before we get going, I want you to know that there's going to be some cursing and talking about sex in this story. Also, we're only using the first names of some characters to protect their privacy. OK. Take it away.

SHAW: There are few things in life that will make you cringe as hard as listening to a younger version of yourself. So here we go.

Closer to your mouth. Put it right in front of - right below to the side of your mouth. No, no, no, no, no. You've got to point it at...

The year is 2012. And this is me explaining to five teenagers how to hold a microphone, as if it were a matter of life and death.

Let me give you an example. Ha! Do you see how bad that sounded?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

SHAW: It's way too loud. So you want - ideally...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Students later tell me I'm always, quote, "super excited," which I think is code for intense. And it was - an intense, idealistic, young person. We were on a mission to storm the castle of public radio and get young people of color and the stories they wanted to tell on the air. This was guerrilla warfare. And if we wanted to actually infiltrate the mainstream media, we had to make our stories sound professional so the people in suits couldn't say no.

There you go. Follow the voice.

I actually give a version of the speech to my students. And I think it goes a little over their heads. Most of them don't even listen to public radio, really. But the kids put up with me, dutifully listen, nod their heads, raise their hands politely - all except for one girl, who's slouching in her chair, legs splayed out, her face buried in a paperback book - basically, a teenage FU.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Her name is Aaliyah (ph), and she's the youngest of the bunch at 14. Aaliyah is small and wiry like a horse jockey - a tomboy in sweatshirt and jeans, no makeup. She has perfectly arched eyebrows and bags under her eyes, like she's just woken up from a nap. We go around the circle, spit-balling about what stories they want to tell. A girl is going to college but distressed about leaving her grandparents. A boy wants to make an homage to the literacy program he mentors at. But they got nothing on Aaliyah, whose story lands like a grenade. And I lean in closer. She announces she's in a rocky relationship with her on-and-off boyfriend named Samire (ph), who she has a 2-year-old daughter with, named Zainaya (ph). And she's trying to figure out if he's good or bad for her, whether she should go back out with him or focus on taking care of their daughter. And she needs advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: We send the kids home with recording equipment to work on their stories. And to my surprise, Aaliyah brings back the most tape out of anyone - in her case, all diary entries. These incredibly intimate recordings of her thoughts, feelings and daily life.

AALIYAH: It's Monday the 13. I'm bored, like...

SHAW: She's refreshingly real behind the microphone. She says things kids don't normally say to adults, like getting grossed out by her mom's love life.

AALIYAH: My mom in the room with her boyfriend. I just heard them in there, freaking. That's nasty. Like, I don't want to hear that. I'm right next door to y'all. Like, that's just nasty.

SHAW: Each week, she keeps coming back with new diaries. And they unfold like an R-rated inner-city soap opera.

AALIYAH: It's just too much. Like, I got pregnant at the wrong time.

SHAW: Aaliyah says her family thinks Samire is bad news. In fact, when Samire got locked up early in the relationship and wrote to Aaliyah, she says her older brother intercepted the love letters and stashed them under his bed. But they can't keep her away from Samire. She's googly eyes in love, even when he makes her angry by cheating on her. One day, she says she heard this loud knock on the front door. It was someone Samire was seeing on the side.

AALIYAH: So I went downstairs in my pajamas and everything. I just got out the shower. I wrapped my hair up. She like, I want to fight you, you dirty ass bitch. You stole my man. I'm like, listen. You not even his baby mom. I'm his baby mom. So you need to get off my step.

SHAW: Listening to her diaries, it's a little like being on a roller coaster with a blindfold on. A lot of what I hear really concerns me. But it also sounds like one of the gritty youth radio stories that inspired me to do this work in the first place. There was drama, stakes, action, even tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: One afternoon at workshop, Aaliyah gets a text saying that her boyfriend has gotten shot six times. When she tells me the news, I'm totally overwhelmed, ice in my veins. I've never known anyone who's gotten shot. The other adults and I don't know what to do, except to give her cab fare to get to the hospital ASAP. Like, forget about this youth radio thing. Life's real. Go be with your man. And I feel terrible for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Aaliyah later tells us Samire miraculously made it through, but she's haunted by what happened, understandably. A few weeks later, she wakes up in the middle of the night from a dream where she'd gotten shot herself.

AALIYAH: And when I woke up, I just started crying because, like, too much is just going on. But I'm tired, and it's 4:24 at night. And the sun is about to come up. And it's 44 degrees outside. Bye.

SHAW: And then we're almost finished, about to record our final scripts in the studio, when Aaliyah disappears. At first, I think she's just under the weather. But weeks go by, and no one hears from her. I get really worried. Maybe she got hurt in a fight. Maybe her daughter's sick in the hospital or maybe there's something else going on in Aaliyah's life that she can't tell us. On a sweaty, spring day, I finally walk up to Aaliyah's front stoop to check on her. My teaching partner, Beth Patel, was there that day, too. Here's how she remembers it.

BETH PATEL: If I'm remembering correctly, it had sort of that, like, AstroTurf - green AstroTurf, like, covering it. And it was sort of, like, an unkempt porch. There was, like, stuff on it. And I was nervous because I felt like almost, like, invasive. Like, are we being invasive? Are we being, like, weird social workers right now, like, showing up and knocking on someone's door and kind of, like, asking where their child is?

SHAW: When Aaliyah's mom opens the door, I try to dilute the weirdness by immediately telling her how proud we are of Aaliyah, how excited we are about her story. Aaliyah's mom looks confused, like she's surprised we're talking about her daughter. Oh, she says, turning to me. What's her story about? I give her the gist.

PATEL: And her mom just kind of, like, laughed it off and was like, she's lying. She's a liar. And like, that's all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Aaliyah's mom almost seemed amused by her daughter's behavior. But I couldn't believe it. Aaliyah doesn't have a baby. Aaliyah doesn't have a boyfriend. She's lying. It didn't make sense. I remember standing on the porch with Beth, continuing to say reasonable words to Aaliyah's mom while my brain just replayed all the diaries I'd heard. Were they all just an act?

AALIYAH: Should I go back out with him or...

If my daughter was to grow up...

I'm not a fighter, like, that's not...

When I woke up, I just started crying because, like, too much is just going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Like, did you see that coming at all?

PATEL: No. There's no way we could've predicted that. We had, like, been listening to like hours of things she recorded about this exact part of her life.

SHAW: Beth and I were so stunned, we didn't even think to ask follow-up questions. We just stumbled away from the porch. We had a deadline to hit, so we pushed forward with the other students' stories. They aired on the local station. And a few months later, another batch of students walked through the door. The years rolled by. And here I am today, no longer teaching youth radio. But the mystery of what happened with Aaliyah has stayed with me ever since. I think of her from time to time when I'm waiting in the grocery line or biking to work. Who was Aaliyah? And what was her life really like? What was true? What was not true? And why would she tell us that story?

SPIEGEL: After the break, Yowei goes searching for answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Before we get back to today's episode, just a quick reminder that this is a perfect time to donate to your local member station. I mean, giving back is actually good all year round. But the end of the year is the perfect time because we want to start 2019 off strong so we can keep bringing you all of the news and entertainment that you rely on. So donate to your local station or your favorite station or a whole bunch of stations. The important thing is that you give. And you can do that now at donate.npr.org/invis. That's donate.npr.org/invis. Your support helps us make stories like these for listeners like you. And thank you

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Welcome back. This is INVISIBILIA. So Yowei was in the middle of her story where she just found out that Aaliyah might be lying about her entire youth radio story. Yowei takes it from here.

SHAW: Being a journalist, you know, someone whose job involves sussing out the truthiness of stories and picking up on slippery vibes, Aaliyah's story being a fake just got under my skin. Recently, I listened back to her diaries knowing what I know now. But she still sounded so real - so emotionally honest. And I hate to admit it. I felt almost vindicated, like, whew, OK, maybe I wasn't that much of a dummy to believe her. It made me wonder if Aaliyah had pulled one over everyone else in the class. So I called up two other students from the program, Shayla Torres and Nyseem Smith, to see what they knew at the time.

SHAYLA TORRES: Honestly, I never thought she had a kid...

NYSEEM SMITH: It seems as though she had no problems with lying.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TORRES: ...'Cause she was just dramatic. It was like she would always have a new story - some off-the-wall, crazy story that we were always just like, OK.

SHAW: Do you remember the workshop when Aaliyah's boyfriend got shot?

SMITH: Oh, I remember hearing about it. But I was like, girl, you're reaching; you are really reaching.

SHAW: You probably saw that coming. I certainly didn't, which is why I demanded that Shayla and Nyseem walk me carefully through the red flags they noticed, to which they said they were a bunch of them - that she didn't have any pictures of her daughter, or she never seemed to be able to get her daughter on tape.

SMITH: We remember hearing about her not being able to record things. And it was just really weird because if you're a single parent, your child is always with you.

SHAW: Oh, my God. There's so many - I feel like a chump.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAW: Why didn't you guys ever tell us or tell me?

SMITH: We didn't think it was our place. But we also kind of thought it was like - it was really obvious. Like, the painting was on the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Obviously, I had no idea what was really going on with Aaliyah. It was time to get answers from the only person who had them.

All right. Let's go in.

Aaliyah is 21 years old now. It's been six years since I've seen her. But when I pick her up after a shift at Old Navy, I immediately recognize her on the street - the same perfectly arched eyebrows, a small wiry build, just now a young graceful woman. We sit down at my kitchen table and eye each other up and down almost like we're on a first date.

OK. So Aaliyah...

AALIYAH: Hi.

SHAW: I've thought about you a lot over the years.

I run my version of events past Aaliyah, and we begin the careful process of fact-checking the past together, beginning with the moment I knocked on her front door.

Yeah. Like, were you there that day? Like, did your mom tell you about our conversation?

AALIYAH: Well, actually, I didn't know that you came to my house. My mom never said anything to me about that.

SHAW: Aaliyah wasn't there that day at her house because she disappeared from her entire life. She says she got into a fight with a school police officer. And she bounced around juvenile detention centers around Pennsylvania for the next three years. At one point, Aaliyah says she started a riot on the inside. And she ended up getting 302'd. In other words, examined by doctors and moved to a mental health facility. When Aaliyah finally got out of juvy at 17, she told me she made up her mind to never go back - that she would remain free. And she has.

AALIYAH: Everybody that doubted me, everybody that, like, said bad stuff about me - like, I'm just happy to be here. I'm happy to see 21.

SHAW: I talked with Aaliyah's mom about all this, and she confirmed everything. And we also requested the official juvenile detention documents from those facilities and heard back from one that corroborated a lot of these details. But as far as the youth radio story that Aaliyah's mom said her daughter was lying about all those years ago - well, it's more complicated than that.

AALIYAH: Samire is real. I have his name tattooed.

SHAW: Where is the tattoo?

AALIYAH: On my back right here. Oh, but best believe it will be covered on my birthday because this tat's been sitting here for too long.

SHAW: They broke up a few years ago, but Samire was real. I even talked to him on the phone. Like practically every teenage girl around the world, Aaliyah had neglected to fill her mom in on the details of her dating life. Though that part about him getting shot six times, Aaliyah says that was just a dumb joke he played on her.

AALIYAH: Yeah, I was pissed. I cursed him out.

SHAW: But what about Zaniah, her 2-year-old daughter?

AALIYAH: OK. So like, the only thing that I lied about was the baby - was the daughter. That's the only thing that I lied about - was having a 2-year-old daughter by Samire.

SHAW: I tell Aaliyah that my teaching partner Beth had a theory - that maybe the baby had something to do with the book she refused to put down during that first workshop.

Is that true, or is that not true?

AALIYAH: Well, yeah, it is true because it's like - the books that I be reading, like, they'd be so interesting. They're hood novels. It's with drugs, money, sex...

SHAW: Back then and to this day, Aaliyah has always been a huge hood novel nerd. As she tells it, she can read up to 15 e-books a month. And when she was in the program, she was reading a novel called "Justify My Thug." And there was a character, a girl around Aaliyah's age, who had a daughter and an absentee cheating boyfriend.

AALIYAH: And I felt as though, like, that reminds me so much of me. So I was like, all right, I'm going to switch it up a little bit; I'm going to make this as my own story.

SHAW: (Yelling) Oh, my gosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AALIYAH: At the time, I didn't think that my story - originally what I was going to tell y'all would be interesting. It was, like, the kids that was there with us - they was telling their stories. I was basically, like, in competition with them. So I was like, I'm going to make my story whereas though, like, they'd be like, oh, yeah. Keep doing more. Like, keep - I want to know more. I want to hear more.

SHAW: Did you notice any difference in how we reacted? Like, how did we react?

AALIYAH: Yeah. I felt like y'all was paying more attention. Like, I felt like y'all was like, all right. Yeah. I like that story and stuff. That's why I just kept going on, going on, going on, going on.

SHAW: This was not what a journalist wants to hear. In fact, it's one of the things you fear most - participating in the creation of a lie. Maybe I'd been so hungry for an over-the-top story, I'd not only missed the real story. I pushed Aaliyah into a performance without realizing it - a total youth radio fail on my part.

Wow. I remember being, like, the most excited about your story. But then now that I'm looking back, also, like, you know, you were 14. And you're, like, going through all these really hard things. What do you think about that?

AALIYAH: Don't feel fucked up because it was like - it was my own fantasy, basically. Like, it was just, basically, my own fantasy. Like, I knew what I was doing. So it wasn't y'all fault. It was - it wasn't nobody fault.

SHAW: I feel like you're being very nice. I mean, it's - I mean, I'm not - it's, like, not even about fault. It's, like, about - well...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Aaliyah needs a cigarette, so we sit in my backyard and soak up the last rays of the afternoon sun. She asks how Beth is doing. And then Aaliyah tells me something I'm not quite able to process at first. Yes, Aaliyah lied about having a daughter back then. But also, Aaliyah did have a daughter back then - a baby doll she'd tell everything to.

Wait. So would you talk to your daughter?

AALIYAH: Yeah. I would - everybody used to be like, who are you talking to?

SHAW: (Laughter).

AALIYAH: Like, who are you talking to? And I used to be like, my daughter.

SHAW: Aaliyah knows how weird this whole doll things sounds, but she doesn't care. Back then, she needed an imaginary daughter to talk to and take care of so that she'd be able to take care of herself.

AALIYAH: Now y'all understand because, like, when I needed nurturing, that was my nurturer - a baby doll. That was my source of comfort. Like, all I needed was somebody to listen to me. I really didn't need advice. I just needed to let a lot of anger out that I had built up because if I don't talk to nobody, it's going to build up. And it's going to keep building up. And then it's like if somebody pissed me off to the fullest, I'm going to snap. And once I snap, it's over because it's like I got anger on top of anger on top of anger on top of anger. So it's like, when I come home, I would go upstairs, lock my door and talk to my daughter. So it was like - I would tell y'all, like, I got a daughter. And that was my daughter. Like, the baby doll was my daughter.

SHAW: Aaliyah is doing all right today. She just graduated high school. She's in a loving relationship with a girlfriend. And she hopes to write romance novels herself one day. She now even has a real, live 2-year-old son, who, this time around, I got visual confirmation of.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY LAUGHING)

SHAW: Aaliyah doesn't need the doll anymore, but that doesn't mean she's thrown her away. When she turned 16, she says she gave it away to a little girl who was a friend. Aaliyah doesn't know if she's using the doll in the same way. But Aaliyah doesn't need to know the full story. She just wants her to have someone to talk to if she needs it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: That's producer Yowei Shaw. When we come back, Aaliyah takes over the mic with a story of her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Welcome back. This is INVISIBILIA. And now a story we worked with Aaliyah to create - telling the origin story of her imaginary daughter. Here is Aaliyah.

AALIYAH: The first time I meet the baby doll, I don't want her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AALIYAH: In the living room, my dad pulls her out from behind his back. And when I'm told to open up my eyes, I'm like, oh. She's got blonde hair, blue eyes, a pink dress and chestnut skin. It's not that I'm weirded out by dolls or anything. It's just that Dad only gives presents on Christmas and birthdays. Other than that, it's just strict cash - cash he hustles for at A. Bob's Towing Company, cash I want way more than a stupid baby doll. I look at her, then look back at him. Like, bro, I'm 11 years old. I don't play with no baby dolls.

Dad's face stays balled up, not fazed. It's one of the superpowers I got from him. If you was to see us walking down the street, you would think we're mad. But in reality, we're straight. We're chilling. No one can see into us. Well, I spent money on it, and you're going to keep this doll, he says. You ain't got to open it. I threw that baby right into the closet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AALIYAH: For seven months, she sits in a box, still unopened. Then, one afternoon, my mom and I get into it again. My little brother draws circles on a wall with a blue crayon. But my mom doesn't believe it's not me. I rage at her, and she rages right back in my face. You always put the blame on your little brother. You don't never take responsibility for yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AALIYAH: Back then, everybody thinks I'm a liar. And I did lie about homework, boys, getting suspended. But this time, I wasn't lying. Why wouldn't anyone hear me? I stumbled to my room and flopped on the bed. And out the corner of my eye, I notice the flash of pink in my closet. And for some reason, I'm drawn to her. I open the box, set the doll on my bed and face her. We stay like that for 5 minutes, stuck in a staring contest. And to be honest, I'm a little weirded out. It's like she really is looking back at me. So I start talking, just like I'm talking to you now. Nobody wants me to have peace in this house. They don't give a [expletive] about me, bro. Sorry - little kid Aaliyah was foul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AALIYAH: I want the doll to talk back to me and give me feedback. But of course, the doll just keeps staring at me. And surprisingly, it feels great. She is such an effective listener. I call the doll Zainaya and paint green nail polish over her blue eyes because my favorite color is green. I talk to Zainaya a lot, sometimes for hours. At night, I lock my room, sit her on my bed against the wall, put a pillow behind her or cradle her in my arms. I tell Zainaya about things that I tell no one else - when I popped my first Xanax, when I first had sex with a girl, about the time I'm hanging with two friends in a park and bullets start flying. When my dad goes to prison, and I can't just call him up anymore, at least I have her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AALIYAH: One night, my mom comes home from work, and she hears me talking in my room. She comes upstairs and asks, who are you talking to? I tell her, nobody. She feels around my room, goes through the closet, checks under the bed, but doesn't find anyone. Good - it's none of her business anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AALIYAH: My real baby, Aiden (ph), is born January 9, 2017, at 12:50 PM. And when I hold him for the first time, I think they've given me the wrong baby. His skin is way lighter than mines, and his eyes are just little slants. Being a full-time mom now, I love it, and I love him, of course. But I have to say, there are some advantages to having an imaginary kid over a real one. I can't just put my son in a closet when I'm tired of him. And he cries and squirms, while Zainaya won't move or say nothing ever. But I think the main difference is that Zainaya's job was to comfort me, and now I have to comfort Aiden. Sometimes I try to tell him when his grandmom is getting on my nerves, but he won't sit down and let me talk. He does do one thing to comfort me that Zainaya couldn't. When I cry, Aiden wipes my tears with his tiny hands and sometimes even cries in solidarity. Now, that's a good baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: That's Aaliyah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: That's it for today's show. INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf. Cara Tallo is our executive producer. INVISIBILIA is produced by Meghan Keane, Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom.

ROSIN: We had help from Jake Arlow, Julie Carli, Davide Gudhertz (ph), Mark Memmott and Micah Ratner. Fact-checking by Greta Pittenger and help with editing from Maria Paz Gutierrez, Anjuli Sastry and Parth Shah. Our technical director is Andy Huether, and our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

SPIEGEL: A huge thank you to Aaliyah and her entire family, also to Beth Patel, Kyle Pulley (ph) and all of the amazing former students and volunteers of the Philly Youth Radio program and to Hailey Howell (ph). A version of this story originally appeared at the fabulous Pop-Up Magazine.

ROSIN: Thanks also to Yung Kartz for the song "Liberal," Liz De Lise for the song "Slow Carnival" and for "Swim" (ph), Steven Riche for the song "Constellations" and Blue Dot Sessions for additional music used in the episode. For all things INVISIBILIA, visit our website, npr.org/invisibilia.

SPIEGEL: Now for our moment of non-Zen (ph).

ROSIN AND SPIEGEL: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSIN: That's, like, a core part of your identity (laughter).

ROSIN AND SPIEGEL: No, no, no, no, no.

SPIEGEL: We have more bonus episodes coming your way, so stay tuned.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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