In This Episode
Vince Granata starts his book, “Everything Is Fine,” with the truth: His brother, in the midst of a schizophrenic episode, murdered his mother. The rest of the book tells the story of how and why Vince never stopped loving him.
And on “With Adorables Likes These” this week – Penny and her human Leo Duran.
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox. Welcome to With Friends Like These. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And as someone with a few diagnoses, I really appreciate taking some designated time to talk about, and hopefully destigmatize, one of the most common disabilities around. But not all mental illnesses are stigmatized equally. I see a lot of conversations about anxiety and depression, about addiction, and about eating disorders, and those conversations are really important and we need to keep having them. I just want to add in a conversation about a diagnosis that people don’t usually talk about unless it’s in the news: schizophrenia. Vince Granata’s brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult. He resisted treatment and Vince’s family had trouble finding resources and support. His brother continued to decline, and eventually, in the midst of a paranoid delusion, he killed their mother. And that made the news. Vince has written a book about what the news didn’t and couldn’t cover, what a lot of us are afraid to look at, the quiet desperation that led up to the tragedy, and the healing that has come afterwards. His memoir is called “Everything is Fine” and he is coming right up. I want to note this is a pretty emotional conversation, and it involves discussion of violence and of institutionalization. Everyone here will understand if you want to take a break or maybe a few breaths before we get started. And if this is already hitting too close to home, and you want to talk to someone right now, I want to suggest NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. They’re a resource for those facing mental illness, and for family members of those facing mental illness. Their helpline is 800-950-6264. You can also text NAMI that’s NAMI to 741741 for 24-7 confidential free crisis counseling. Conversation with Vince Granata, and we’ll be right back.
Ana Marie Cox: Vince, welcome to the show.
Vince Granata: Thank you so much for having me.
Ana Marie Cox: So I was trying to come up with a great first question, and I was also trying to think of a way to summarize your story and do it some emotional justice, and with respect, and I realized I don’t know if I can do that. So I wanted to ask you, I mean, how would you set up your story?
Vince Granata: I appreciate your sensitivity to the difficulty of summarizing this particular story. And I think that that difficulty is one of the reasons why writing a full book about my family story was something that felt necessary. So the way I describe my family and what happened in my family is I typically start with talking about my siblings. I have three younger siblings. They happen to be triplets. They’re 4 1/2 years younger than me. And Tim, who the book that I wrote is is mostly about, he became fairly sick when he was 19. He had just started college and he was at that point falling into what we sort of understood was a deep depression. He was feeling a sense of hopelessness that eventually materialized into suicidal ideation, and some fairly specific plans to end his life and die by suicide. At this point my family, not having much experience or really any experience with mental illness, sort of shuffled to try to get him the help that he needed. And for a period of years that followed, Tim would be sort of in and out of periodic treatment while his illness accelerated in ways that went beyond the initial depression that we we recognized when he was 19. During that time, he started to experience what some clinicians thought could be psychotic delusions, disordered thinking, hallucinations—things of that nature. And when he was a senior in college, he had been in and out of school during this period, he reached a pretty acute breaking point. And at that stage, he told our mother that he in his words, planned to blow his brains out in his college library. And that led to my mother driving the four hours to his college campus to pick him up. And almost miraculously, he agreed to go with her. He had been very resistant. There were a number of challenges that got in the way of him receiving care. But he agreed to go with her, and they traveled back to our hometown where Tim was admitted to the E.R. against his will. He, upon arriving at the E.R., decided that he didn’t want to be in the hospital and he became quite agitated. And it was during that time that he told the the staff at the E.R. that our mother was lying to admit him to the hospital, and that if she left him there, he would he would kill her. So what followed was a two-week period of involuntary hospitalization in which the illness that was then determined to be schizophrenia, began to get some very beginning treatment for the first time. Tim was put on anti-psychotics and some of the symptoms of his illness started to have quieted a bit. And after two weeks, sort of the length of time that legally it was permissible to hold him against his will, he was released. And at that point, the only place for him to go was home to my mother’s care. And for a period of months during which he flushed his pills down the toilet, refused to attend outpatient treatment, he sort of festered behind his bedroom door, his world becoming increasingly unrecognizable to him and to all of us. We didn’t know how to speak to him. We didn’t know what he needed. And after several months of deteriorating delusions and hallucinations that started to bend towards our mother, one day when they were alone at home, he attacked her and killed her. And that’s the story. That’s the experience that I’ve been grappling with for for almost seven years now, and that is what I write about in my book.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s trauma, you know? One of the points you make in the book is that it was sort of a turning point for you or a revelation for you, that you did need to be able to tell this story to other people, to people that didn’t already know you. Why was that important?
Vince Granata: It absolutely became something that I think wasn’t just important, it was something that I had to do to survive. I, in the years before my mom died, was not knowledgeable about what was happening with my brother, knew very little—next to nothing—about schizophrenia, about the numerous hindrances to receiving mental health care, all of the things that prevented him from getting the treatment he needed. And I was also far from my family. I wasn’t living at home. I was several hours away, and I didn’t fully appreciate what, my mother in particular, but other members of my family as well, was going through with him on a daily basis. So in the aftermath of what happened, as shocking and devastating as it was, initially the only way I tried to cope was by avoiding thinking about the really difficult realities that led to my mother’s death. And for about a year, I sort of tried to, you know, white knuckle my way through grieving, you know, returning to work, returning to my same routines. But the pain would sort of seep out in all these different ways. And it wasn’t until about a year afterwards I decided to try writing to try sort of exploring my family story and seeing if I could understand some of these pieces that seem so far beyond my understanding, that I started to really grapple with what it actually happened, and all that I didn’t know, and all that I was unable to to help with.
Ana Marie Cox: You could have used a few different metaphors or descriptions of what the process was like for you to get beyond this inability to talk about it and feel it, you finally get to a place where you could. In one thread that I picked up in the book was that in some ways your journey consists a little bit of trying to blame people, and then realizing you can’t blame them. There’s like, it’s like it’s a litany of people—
Vince Granata: absolutely.
Ana Marie Cox: That you really want to be able to blame [laughs] and then you kind of have to talk yourself out of it.
Vince Granata: Oh yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. And it’s all kinds of people, from your mother— blaming her—to even the photographer at your, at your mother’s funeral, where there’s this sort of, what seems like on first glance, like a gross invasion of privacy—she’s taking your picture and it’s very tragic. And then you have this thought: not her fault. Talk a little bit about this journey to blame, and then finding you can’t.
Vince Granata: Absolutely. I spent a long time pointing fingers wherever it seemed easy, you know, at someone like that photographer who was really just doing her job, as as you know, unfortunate as that job was in that moment. For a long time, I looked at the various people who treated Tim. I looked at the people who took care of him in the hospital. About a year after my mother died, when I was just starting to think about writing, I, I got a hold of his his hospital records. And he had been only been there about two weeks, but still hundreds of pages. And I went through, the first time I read them and I was just underlining names and circling places where I felt someone had made a mistake, and just cursing in the margins, and just unbelievably angry at really the only people aside from my mother who tried to care for Tim. And it just, it left me feeling so exhausted, the fact that I was trying to find these places for my anger to land when I couldn’t reflect at all on where I had been when my brother was most needing me, most needing support. And I couldn’t see the forces that were actually at play in this tragedy. And it just felt so much easier to point other ways.
Ana Marie Cox: And you did go through a period where you thought a little bit about blaming yourself and blaming your mother as well for this. And that must’ve felt really shitty. [laughs]
Vince Granata: Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: But I also understand the impulse, like you’re just trying to make sense of it. But what was that like?
Vince Granata: It is still extremely hard to to consider ways my mom might not have gotten Tim the support he needed, and it is so beyond what I what I could possibly, you know, in terms of putting blame, I would never, ever put blame on her. I would never consider that she she failed in any way except for perhaps loving her son so much that she might have not seen the extent of the danger. I think if there was any feeling, it was a failure of too much love. And I think in the process of sort of going back and trying to write this story, I discovered a lot about what my mother had tried to do to help Tim. I can remember, I was—about a year and a half after she died—I was back at home where my father still lives and was going through some of her things, sort of cleaning out some of her stuff, and I was standing on the other side of the bed and I stubbed my toe on something under her bed, and I knelt down to see what was there. And there were several stacks of books hidden under her bed and when I knelt down to sort of pull them out and look at them, I realized they were all books about psychotic illness, about schizophrenia, about helping a loved one find treatment, accept treatment. And she had just this this arsenal of books that that she was consulting to try to help Tim, and I, I had not read a single book about schizophrenia at that point. So she went to extreme lengths to try to figure this thing out.
Ana Marie Cox: But what do you think would have made the biggest difference, or what might make—let’s forward look a little here—what might make the biggest difference for another family, if you could offer that bit of experience?
Vince Granata: Ana, I appreciate you asking that question. Going back to the one time where Tim really received consistent care during his two week hospitalization—at that point, two weeks was really the extent of the sort of involuntary hospitalization. There’s, in Connecticut and this is the case in many, many states, they have what’s called a physician’s emergency certificate, which essentially says for 15 days a patient can be held against their will if they’re deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others. The language shifts a little bit by state, but it’s something along those lines. And that as sort of a continuum of care, creates the situation where we treat people in acute psychiatric distress like they have a gunshot wound. We treat what are chronic illnesses like they are, you know, acute wounds that can be stitched up and patched together. And that’s a basic misunderstanding of what these illnesses can do to people who suffer with them. The one chance we had to get Tim into consistent care before our mother died was that hospitalization. For a number of reasons, he wasn’t going to come to take that care voluntarily. There are elements of his illness that that prevented him, that neurologically blocked him in a way from understanding that he was ill. So when that hospital care was truncated—and there are a variety of other factors, a huge shortage of psychiatric beds, insurance denials for inpatient psychiatric stays, a whole laundry list of things that many other people have written, lots of excellent books about, too—because we couldn’t get him the care he needed over a long period of time in the hospital, he didn’t have the best chance to battle what was taking over his mind.
Ana Marie Cox: Despite the fact that this is a book about a terrible tragedy, and about a person that did become violent, you feel strongly about destigmatizing all of this as a subject, and as a way to talk about severe mental illness. I have to say, like one reason I—we’ve talked about this on the show before—but that whole treating mental illness like a gunshot wound idea, we really should shift to treating mental illness like your heart. You know? Like no one’s embarrassed to go in for a heart checkup. Right? And that should maybe apply even to severe mental illness. What do you want to contextualize about severe mental illness here?
Vince Granata: It absolutely should apply to severe mental illness. And I appreciate what you’re saying about stigma, and I think a lot of stigma that sort of has arisen around serious mental illness intensifies when a story like my brother’s is only reported in a headline, when people see a news article that, you know, just uses the word schizophrenia and matricide. The link that they’re making between those two isn’t nuanced, it’s not a complex understanding of what was actually happening with my brother and all the things that he faced. So one of the reasons why I think writing a book like this one can help destigmatize the illness is that by explaining this long journey that Tim was on and all of the challenges that prevented him from getting the help he needed, we can understand that while it’s extremely rare—and I really want to stress that—it’s extremely rare for someone with illness like Tim’s to become violent, very rare, it’s also not impossible if we let very serious illnesses go to their sort of most serious extremes, if we let them go untreated for long periods of time. So, like when I think about treating a disease like Tim’s disease, it’s in some ways, you know, it’s if not a lifelong, or in many cases it is a lifelong sort of focus, it is something that has to be paid attention to for periods of time in a way that is befitting a chronic illness, in a way that, as you say, you know, we were going to have our hearts taken care of. And I think, and to speak about him now, he has received treatment for a very long period of time now—a number of years, four plus years. And to see him now, to speak to him now, actually, I just spoke to him hours ago. He called me because it happens to be my birthday.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh! I was going to ask when the last time you spoke to him was and there you are.
Vince Granata: Yeah, no, it was not even two hours ago. And to speak to him now, I mean, and in the years past as well, to hear him as a thoughtful, caring brother—this sort of treatment has worked for him. It’s worked quite well and while I’m obviously very encouraged and incredibly happy that he’s been able to have this experience with his treatment, it also makes this story so much more gutting because this absolutely did not have to happen.
Ana Marie Cox: To stay on de-stigmatizing, you point this out in the book and I want to make sure that we point it out here, which is, as you said, the vast majority of people with severe mental illness are not violent. And of those that are, they are far more likely to hurt themselves than to hurt someone else. I wanted to ask about how that fact kind of lands with you.
Vince Granata: So for many years and really almost up until the moment my mother died, our greatest fear with Tim was death by suicide or self-harm. That had been a lot of, a lot of the ways that his hallucinations and delusions would sort of materialize would be in suicidal ideation, suicidal language. So when I think about writing about an illness like schizophrenia, I do want to make sure that it’s incredibly clear that many, many, many more people who have to deal with this disease are at risk of self-harm or death by suicide than violence towards others. At the same time, while—and I think this is one of the greatest difficulties I had writing the story, the story exists because of an act of violence that someone with a psychotic illness committed while they were under an incredibly strident psychotic episode—and I think that there is a huge danger, as you say, to sensationalize this sort of story, and often the way that it gets reported in media is sort of necessarily sensationalized because you just don’t have enough space to really discuss the real issues at play. And so what I wanted to be very careful about, and one of the reasons I structured the book as I structured it, is I open with the details of what happened in my family, with my brother, with my mother, and I tell that part of the story first to make it very clear that while this tragedy is sort of what is inciting the book, the book is not about a violent act that someone committed. It’s about how we arrived there. It’s about how we lived afterwards. And most importantly, it’s about showing the human being who was taken over by this illness and how my brother, who, before he was ill was a caring, loving brother, and now in treatment is, you know, as someone we could, we could talk to right now and he would be a considerate, thoughtful guy. How an illness like schizophrenia, if left to go unchecked, can have this horrible, transformative experience on a human like my brother. And as you say, it’s the illness. It’s not the person.
Ana Marie Cox: We’re going to have to jump in for some ads. We’ll be right back.
Ana Marie Cox: We are going through the list of people that you tried to blame and couldn’t.
Vince Granata: Yes, we were.
Ana Marie Cox: Tim . . . is on that list. How did you come to understand his responsibility in this? Like you said, what you just said, and I agree, it’s, the person gets sick, right? They don’t have control over it. However, this happened. And part of the process has to be trying to assign blame.
Vince Granata: I think part of the reason I looked for blame other places in terms of, you know, the people who tried to care for him or, you know, places innocuous as that newspaper photographer, is that it was so difficult for me to think about Tim’s culpability. And I even hesitate to use that word because I think it’s a little more complicated than that. But for a long time, I really resisted even thinking about sort of what role his agency may have played in what happened. And in my conversations with him from the very beginning, from when I first visited him several months after my mother died, the way I would phrase sort of this to him would be to say: I don’t hold you responsible, I don’t think you were responsible for what happened. And I think that’s a little bit different than sort of saying, you know: you had no role in this. In my mind, the real culprit here is the untreated illness, and sort of the failure that falls on, you know, really all of us for being in a situation where these types of illnesses don’t get the attention and care they need. But at the same time, even if I didn’t want to think about Tim’s role, it was something that I think was working on me in ways sometimes that were unconscious. I, I would have these terrible nightmares about him and I would see him in this sort of monstrous way that I really did not want to see him. I think the way that I was able to eventually get to a place where I could really fully believe it when I said I don’t hold you responsible, was by visiting him, you know, as often as I could and having conversations with him that began to show me that he wasn’t this monster. Of course he wasn’t this monster. But at the same time, there was that potential that the illness brought with it, that it was such a disrupter of worlds that it really overthrew this person that I thought I knew very well. So I think, you know, as we’ve stayed in touch over the years since, I very much still firmly believe he should not be held sort of responsible for what happened. But telling him that doesn’t necessarily help him, because I know that he, what he deals with, what he feels in terms of his own guilt, it far exceeds anything that I could, you know, fully assuage or fully take away. So knowing that he carries that with him is both painful for me, but I think unavoidable in sort of our conversations.
Ana Marie Cox: One of the things we’ve talked about this season in terms of forgiveness is that self forgiveness is probably the hardest thing to do, of any kind of forgiveness. And obviously that’s something that Tim is going to have to struggle with or not get to—sometimes you don’t, sometimes you don’t get to that, but this is a season about forgiveness and reconciliation. And in reading your book, I did have the thought that this is much more reconciliation than forgiveness, in part because of what we’ve been talking about throughout this conversation, which is that there’s not any one person to blame. How can you forgive if there’s not a person to blame? So how do you see that journey, is that does that sound right with you?
Vince Granata: It absolutely does. I think reconciliation is something that makes more sense when I think about rebuilding a relationship, because I think a lot of what Tim and I have tried to do together over the years is rebuild a relationship when it seemed it would be almost impossible after what happened. And I think part of, you know, staying in touch and part of me trying to visit when I can, as difficult as that can be sometimes, is sort of learning to trust each other, and me in particular, as Tim’s gotten sort of, you know, more stable on medication. To really listen to him when he starts to grapple with just the immense difficulty of what’s happened, and what he’s living with. And from the moment I started writing, I told him I was writing this book and I wanted him to be aware of it and I wanted him, if not a direct participant in the writing, to at least know that it was important to me to try to understand this story that we share, that our family shares. And early on, I think he didn’t quite understand sort of the process, and he would say things to me like, you know: you can write whatever you want to write, but I just don’t want you to make me look any worse than I already look—is what he would say quite often. And I would try to, you know, tell him: hey, you know, that’s not, that’s not my aim here. But I mean, even that’s too simple of an answer, because in order to tell the story, I had to explain what happened. And it’s impossible to read what happened and not be taken aback by sort of the shocking nature of what happened to my family with Tim. So eventually when, you know, when he read the full version of the book and we talked about it, what I think he came to believe and what I hope is true, is that the picture of him in the book shows sort of a full, a full human being and shows the person that I’m talking to, you know, when we visit or when he calls. And I think him understanding and being supportive of that story, of me telling that story and trusting me to tell that story, it is definitely part of this process of reconciling. I think his support of the book is, it’s really it’s a, it’s a selfless act of love, I think, for him, of all people to be supportive of me doing this. It’s something that I can’t fully describe, the fact that he both understands that it meant something to me in my healing, but also that it’s something that might help him someday. It was incredibly important to both of us, I think.
Ana Marie Cox: I was going to ask, you mentioned the full picture of Tim. What do you want people to know about him besides the most horrible fact that is going to be at the center of most people’s view? How can you de-center that?
Vince Granata: Thank you. Thank you so much for asking that question, that’s incredibly important to me. I would describe Tim as is one of the most thoughtful, one of the most sort of intellectually rigorous people I’ve ever met. And by intellectually rigorous, I mean, not only does he read, you know, he reads everything you get his hands on. He’s a patient thinker. We, I’m trying to think of a conversation we had recently that might illustrate this—he’s taken to playing chess quite often where he’s currently living and when I say he’s taken to playing chess, I don’t mean sort of casually with some of the other people who are, who are on this unit with him. I mean, he’s finding every available book on chess, every, you know, strategical guide out there, and he’s really dissecting sort of the philosophy behind chess moves and he approaches his interest that way. He was a philosophy major in college and that became more complicated when he was ill. But to this day, when I talk to him, you know he’ll talk about philosophy he’s read, he’ll talk about sort of his theories of of good and evil, he’ll talk about his theories of spirituality. And the way that he listens to me, I mean, it’s obviously quite different than when he was most ill, but he listens in a way that I think is rare. He listens to really try to understand, you know, where I’m coming from, and to try to understand, you know, the challenges I face in having certain conversations with him. So while, as you say, it would be easy to see this book and then just to kind of see the shocking nature of what he did, the person he is now and the person that he could have been this whole time, is a much gentler, much more thoughtful, much more considerate human being.
Ana Marie Cox: And one more set of ads.
Ana Marie Cox: So there are some other characters in this book besides you and Tim: your two other siblings and your father, of course. And I want to talk about them especially, there’s one line, it felt like a hard-won realization in your book that I wanted to expand on, if you can: families in pain don’t simply coalesce. I think we do have a hopeful idea that that’s what happens in a stressful situation, in a tragedy is that we come together, but that isn’t what you experienced.
Vince Granata: Absolutely. I think, that being said, I mean, I have incredibly supportive family members and I love them all incredibly, and I am sometimes not deserving of the love they give me. And I know that for sure, especially in some of the difficult moments that the book describes. But one of the real challenges of writing a book like this one is that while I obviously have a big personal stake in what happened, so do three other people—three people who have their own relationships with Tim, who had their own relationships with our mother, who have their own relationships with me. And to not try to address that element of the story, especially when someone like my brother Chris, who was Tim’s triplit brother, their bond was beyond a best friendship. It was closer than any bond I’ve ever seen—to not try to at least honor that and say that there are people in my family whose pain exceeded mine, to not try to address that would be hugely wrong. And in the aftermath of what happened to my family, you know, while we were you know, we always had each other’s back, and we were there to support each other, there were always going to be moments when we saw things differently or we had a different response to sort of grieving or we we grieved in ways that looked unrecognizable to each other. And I think in those moments, sometimes it was it was difficult to communicate. And I think most of that lies with me, because I think in the process of that first year, in the ways I sort of avoided trying to think about sort of the details of my mother’s death and the complex feelings I was feeling, I wasn’t as transparent with what I was struggling with as my siblings in particular. And I think, you know, that hurt them. I think there are ways, especially around my mother’s death—because I wasn’t nearly as close to home as they were, I was quite far away—that me being distant, not being able to to help, I think that hurt them, too. And, you know, they were right, absolutely right to feel, to sort of feel that, that complicated our sort of understandings of the story.
Ana Marie Cox: I want to offer a little bit of grace, because I actually think that your point is a helpful one to anyone, to any family, which is that it’s just, it’s going to be work to come together again. That this idea that we may have that families, we stick together in times of crisis—that’s wonderful, and sometimes it happens that way, but a lot of times it’s not the natural, it’s not like, the thing that just automatically happens after all of you are in pain—that you had to work at it. And that’s OK. [laughs]
Vince Granata: Absolutely. It’s not a linear, not a linear process. It’s not you know, I think it can be easy to think about is sort of like a binary, you know, like a family is broken and then one day a family is healed. But there are so many intermediate phases. And I think too with having written a book about sort of, you know, my whole family story, because the book is complete, because it’s finished, because it has a back cover and a final pag, it can be easy to look at that and say: oh, that is a complete experience. And one thing I hope in reading the book is that—well, obviously a lot of my thoughts and a lot of the things I struggle with in the year after my mother’s death, I did get a better handle on—you know, this is the sort of thing that I’ll be working on for many, many years, if not the rest of my life. And that’s OK. That’s the reality of the situation for sure.
Ana Marie Cox: I wanted to talk to you about the very end of the book because it ends with a story about a game your mom invented called Getting Lost.
Vince Granata: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: So many books end with finding something, and you chose to end your book with Getting Lost. Why is that?
Vince Granata: So I think as an ending this story, I mean, the story doesn’t necessarily have a distinct ending in the sense that my relationship with my brother is obviously ongoing, and the memories I have of my mother are also ongoing in a different way. It’s not like I have a sort of a final memory that sort of a capstone on my understanding of her. Absolutely not. But that particular memory of us playing this game where the goal was to get lost. And it was a game we played when my siblings were very young and my mother was worried that, you know, all her time was spent with them and that I was feeling somehow less loved. And when I remember that game, I remember thinking about how delighted I was to be lost with her, to turn randomly until we found ourselves in a place that at least, you know, I as a young child, thought was unrecognizable. There was a lot of comfort in that, in that moment because I knew that she was there with me. And I think one of the hardest parts of navigating her death and everything that’s happened to my family is that she hasn’t been here to help me figure this stuff out, because she was probably the only person that could have helped my grieving ,and she was the person that we were grieving. So in closing the book with that memory, I’m trying to demonstrate, I think, what I do, what I try to find some peace in this story, is I try to think of her and think of the time that she spent with me and how even when we were playing this game to get lost, and still felt like it was going to be OK because she was right there.
Ana Marie Cox: I know that interview was a lot. Again, I will direct you to NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. For those facing mental illness and their loved ones, you can call 800-950-6264, that’s 800950-6264 or text NAMI to 741741. We’re going to switch tempos now. Though we’re going to stay in the realm of mental health, because now I think is a great time for some virtual self care in the form of the latest installment of our new series: With Adorables Like These. This is where we go behind the scenes at Crooked Media and with our guests to learn about their relationships with their animal companions. This week, I talked to Leo Duran. He is the senior producer for Crooked Media’s daily news podcast “What A Day.” His adorable is Penny, a very cute tuxedo kitty with bright green eyes and a lot of poise and dignity. You will find pictures of her on all the obvious social media outlets, including my Twitter, which is @AnaMarieCox, Leo and Penny.
Ana Marie Cox: How long have you been companions and where did you get your adorable?
Leo Duran: So Penny is 17-years old. I got her as a birthday present to myself on 2005, and I kept on going to the Humane Society near where I live—this is Dane County in Wisconsin. And I just kept on going back over and over and over again. It felt like I was doing like all these Tinder dates in a way, like waiting for the right match. I got sold on her because when the person dropped her into my lap, he let me hold her like a baby, and she was so calm, and I was like: this is the one, she’s so cute and cuddly.
Ana Marie Cox: She is gorgeous.
Leo Duran: So her name is Penny, it’s not a particularly interesting story in that I originally was looking for a male cat. I don’t know why. Because I thought it would be funny to call the male cat Peter, like one of those generic normal, like regular Joe names, because I always thought that’s funny. But when I met her, I was like, you know what? Gender does not matter. She is so cute. So Penny was close enough to Peter.
Ana Marie Cox: [laughs] Gender doesn’t matter. She’s cute. It’s not the gender, it’s the person. Yeah.
Leo Duran: Oh, yeah. She’s a cool cat.
Ana Marie Cox: We believe that all animals are emotional support animals. How has your adorable supported you?
Leo Duran: Well, I can say especially during this pandemic, my God, I needed some companionship. And the weirdest thing is that like, she’s become even more bonded to me now that I’m at home all the time. Because like she is, she’s old by numerics, but not by how she acts, because she has just wanted to play so much more, become so much more active. She like, it’s usually like once every three hours that she wants to play. And it’s just as a friend, like I talk about her enough that people always want to meet her. And I have held two birthday parties for her . . . with a large number of people. One of my friends said, like: Leo, you had more people at your cat’s birthday party than I had at my own. We’re talking like 25-30 people in my apartment. She hid the entire time, and I recognize, like, yeah, this is just kind of more about her than for her. She really did not like the big crowd. But I mean, it’s just kind of nice, like even though she doesn’t really interact with other people like she does me, at least I talk her up enough that people want to meet her.
Ana Marie Cox: Well, the next question, you may have already answered, but what’s the most you’ve gone out of your way for your adorable or the biggest why you spoil them?
Leo Duran: OK, so one yes, the birthday parties is one thing. This is going to sound a little nuts, I’m always reluctant when I talk about this—there was a long period of time where I used to make her own food. I somehow got suckered into the raw cat food movement. So I tried some pre-made stuff before—for people who don’t know, this is like, they say that raw cat food as opposed to cooked cat food is supposed to be biologically more similar to what they’d get in the wild. I was living in hippie dippy Madison at the time and I was like: I might as well try it, let’s see what happens. She seemed fine with it. And then I’m enough of a cook or I just thought: you know what, I bet I can make this for cheaper at home.
Ana Marie Cox: What cause would your adorable support?
Leo Duran: She’d most likely support any cause that helps all animals no matter what. Like dogs, she gets along with dogs very well. If I had a bigger apartment, I would most definitely have a dog. But I think she would be very happy to see other animals just in general have a very happy life. I mean, she is a very chill cat around any other animal. I’ve rarely ever seen her hiss at anything, period. So I think at the, yeah, if there is any big cause it’s either that or, as I do with every single one of my stickers: voting. Because I always put them on her head right afterwards.
Ana Marie Cox: So can you do her voice?
Leo Duran: Oh, God!
Ana Marie Cox: Does she have a voice?
Leo Duran: I, I do. Can I not. I always hate it when—somebody has pointed this out to me that I have a cat voice and I do have a voice around her and I’m like: I don’t want to dive deeper into this idea that I’m single.
Ana Marie Cox: [laughs]
Leo Duran: It’s not saying that actually I don’t give her a voice. I don’t like pretending as if she’s speaking.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.
Leo Duran: I’m mostly with her like: hey, dude, what’s up? How’s your day? Do nothing, as usual. Coo.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.
Leo Duran: I call her my pal than my pet, mostly than anything—because she is my pal, or my buddy. [meow]
Ana Marie Cox: Oh, hi! There’s her voice. Hi there. Well, thank you so much. This was delightful.
Ana Marie Cox: And that is it for the show. With Friends Like These is a production of Crooked Media. Our senior producer is Alison Herrera, and our new producer, Jordan Waller, is also a producer for—and I will get it right this time—Pod Save the World. Izzy Margulies is our booker. This episode was engineered by Louie Leno. Whitney Pastorak would like you to know that Wally was robbed. But you can still follow his adventures on Instagram @whittlz. Also thanks to Leo and to Penny, and especially Vince, whose book is entitled again “Everything is Fine.” If you or someone you love is facing a mental illness, you both deserve help. Please talk to someone about it. If you need help finding that someone, again one option is NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, 800-950-6264. You can also text NAMI to 741741 24-7. Please, take care of yourselves.