Gabfest Reads: Heartbreak

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S1: Welcome to Gabfest reads a monthly series from the political Gabfest, I’m David Plotz, and this month I’m super happy to talk with my friend Florence Williams, who’s the author of Heartbreak A Personal and Scientific Journey, which is out this month. I Florence

S2: hello David. I’m so honored and pleased to be your guinea pig for this series. Thanks for having me.

S1: Well, you’re always good on self experimentation, so it’ll be it’ll be good to self experiment with this podcast form. And what’s more, Florence, you’ve done an amazing enhanced audio book with my old colleague Jacob Weisberg over at Pushkin with notes audio notes that you took as your reporting and interviews with people. And what else is in that?

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S2: Yeah, we slid in actual tape from some of my therapy sessions and some of it’s pretty raw. It features material that’s not in the

S1: book and the interview with the with one of the guys. You rebounded with a little bit.

S2: Yes. Oh yes, he is heavily featured, in fact.

S1: Yeah. So I want to give a little bit of background on Florence. A Florence is a science journalist, a very distinguished science journalist. She’s based here in Washington, D.C. like me, although we’re in different rooms and she is the author of two celebrated earlier book Breasts, A Natural and Unnatural History and the Nature Fix. And I wanted to have her on this month because heartbreak is a very personal book. It’s a very personal book, obviously for Florence, as she will talk about. It’s also personal for me because Florence, you’re a friendly acquaintance who became a real friend as you were working on this book because you were going through heartbreak. You were sort of maybe a year ahead of me on the Heartbreak Train as I was going through a heartbreak. As my heartbreak was beginning, we both, as I said, live here in Washington. We both saw 20 plus year marriages collapse at kind of unexpectedly around us, and you were a guide and counselor to me. You know, there’s a way to the other side for most of us, and I want to hope that you can be a figure of hope and possibility for Gabfest listeners who might be having distress now because of a loss of love. So it’s a big task. It’s a big responsibility for you.

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S2: It is. Well, I hope so, too, and I hope it was helpful to you and I hope it will be helpful to others.

S1: All right, I’m sure it will. So, all right, let’s let’s get to the basics. So you’ve written a book called Heartbreak. It’s personal and scientific. Get the quick and dirty. What is your heartbreak and what is heartbreak anyway?

S2: You know, I think heartbreak can have a wide definition, and I try to sort of nod to that in the book because I think certainly right now we can all argue that we’re going through a sort of collective heartbreak in a time of grief and struggling with loneliness. You know, collectively. But I do, of course, focus mostly on romantic heartbreak that is the particular earthquake, you know, that I was experiencing. And actually, it started before the pandemic, for which I was grateful in some ways. And I think it would be interesting to talk about that how how heartbreak sort of prepared us, you know, for the uncertainties of the pandemic. But my particular heartbreak, I guess, really began. One evening, 25 years into marriage, when I happened upon an email that my then husband wrote sort of professing his love for another woman,

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S1: what percent of heartbreak do you think in this era begins with happening upon an email? It must be or right or text. I think more likely to text me. I think I feel like 98 percent a huge percentage. Lock your phone’s friends.

S2: Just in my defense, I want to say I was not snooping. My my then husband actually handed me his phone and he said, Here’s an email about my dad. And lo and behold, there was a very different email on there.

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S1: That’s the trigger. But what is that? That was

S2: the trigger. It really starts with this moment. I think of shock. Then it progresses to this kind of, you know, disbelief and denial and sort of, you know, a certain amount of rage and upset. And then, you know, real grief and the feelings of rejection and humiliation, you know, that go along with that. And then, you know, I think it risks progressing into loneliness. And I don’t think, you know, for me, it definitely did to an extent. And then, you know, sort of how long that loneliness lasts is a really big question in terms of what I really talk about a lot in the book, which are the health effects of this kind of heartbreak.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things I was going back and looking at my notes in the book and like, and it’s it’s it’s almost like like the worst doctors visit ever that every, every page you have something like heartbreak is worse than smoking. Fear or divorce is a greater risk factor for death than smoking, fatigue, anxiety, poor impulse control, depression, cognitive decline, early death, all impacts of this. So talk a little bit about what? What does. Heartbreak do that just sort of like being bombed does not do.

S2: Yeah, and this was a huge surprise to me and you know, part of why I thought maybe there was a book here, I was so surprised to learn. I think we all tend to think of heartbreak is as existing sort of in our heads. You know, it’s this, it’s this emotional calamity. And yet it turns out it has these really direct impacts on our immune systems, on our nervous systems, literally the way our white blood cells get reproduced in our bone marrow and which is, you know, a sort of rabbit hole that I go down quite a bit in the book. And that, you know, increased inflammation in our body caused by the feelings of grief and threat and so on can have really serious implications.

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S1: You talk in the book about how you lost all this weight. And I just remember, I mean, for me, it was the not sleeping like that was what I found absolutely murderous. You went through a period of about a year where I didn’t get a single good night’s sleep. I mean, I would get high. Sometimes just that would like get me to sleep. But man, I just couldn’t stay asleep. It was so terrible.

S2: It’s it’s brutal. One of the first people I interviewed when I didn’t even know I was writing a book yet was this biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who writes a lot about what happens to your brain when you’re falling in love. And she’s one of the few people who’s actually kind of started to look at what happens on the other side of love, too. And you know, the way she explained, it really helped make it make sense to me. You know that basically our stress hormones are just going nuts when our primary attachment partner has taken off, you know, and we’ve been used to having this person around, you know, for decades. Suddenly, we do feel very, very alone. And our bodies, you know, from from our sort of our deepest evolutionary pasts, consider that a major threat state. It’s sort of like when we are preparing to be attacked by predators because we’re suddenly not with our people.

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S1: Do you think that the dumper feels it, we’re both kind of the dump, the dump energies. Yes, the dumper has us to the dump.

S2: Bees have been much more studied than the dumpers, but it looks like they have pretty different experiences. I think sometimes the dumper seems to sort of skate away, you know, into into a state of sort of relief and happiness. Sadly, for those of us who are in the dumps, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I think the dumpers also probably feel quite a lot of conflict and guilt, certainly. But but I think they’re also maybe better at compartmentalizing that and and thinking everything is going to be just fine.

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S1: I mean, every person who’s ever been in a marriage has told has said or had this said to them, Well, you know, of course it’s mediocre. Of course it’s blah. You just kind of got to endure this and get through it. And that that, you know, just soldier on through it. Like, is it healthier to soldier on through something that has blabbed or to go through? What’s your what’s your take? It’s heartbreak worse for you than mediocrity.

S2: Every marriage goes through the blogs. You know, it seems to be better to be married than to be unmarried. But if you’re in a bad marriage, you know it, then it gets a little bit. It gets a little bit. If you’re certainly to be single, actually, maybe better than to be in a bad marriage and certainly then being divorced.

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S1: Maybe, I mean, the one I have very few criticisms of your book. I think the one, the one area you underplay we haven’t gotten to the areas that you play just right. But let’s the one area you underplay, I think, is the financial impact of heartbreak or divorce or of an end of a marriage. For most people, the financial impact is so profound that it basically is a health impact too, right?

S2: Absolutely. And especially for women, women who are divorced or more than twice as likely to live in poverty than men who are divorced men do end up with the majority of assets after divorce, typically because they have higher earning power and they continue to have a higher earning power afterwards. So, I mean, the gender disparities actually were very fresh on my mind. To tell you the truth, I was a little bit careful about not talking about it more sort of out of sensitivity to my ex-husband, who asked me not to talk about that too much. But the key it would make him look even worse, you know, than I am. But but absolutely. I mean, and I think that’s why, frankly, a lot of professionals and college educated people have much lower divorce rates because there’s this need to sort of protect the assets and because there are bigger financial implications of divorce.

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S1: Here you are. You’re a woman in your late 40s, maybe early.

S2: I was exactly on the brink of being 50.

S1: So you’re suddenly like despairing. You’re losing weight. You’re freaked out or freak out. Terribly sad. And I think what’s amazing about this book, what is so it is a, as you say, a personal scientific journey is that like when life gives you lemons, make content you you made a book, but you made a book by exploring yourself and trying to like set out to figure out like, what is it that I can do? I Florence Williams can do to make myself happier to get through this. You try every fucking thing. What did you try? You know, I know some of the stuff. It’s research, but like every act was genuine.

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S2: When I found out how imperiled I was in terms of my health, there was this incredible urgency. I just felt like I needed to get better as quickly as I could. I tried mostly things that had some scientific evidence, you know, behind them. I debunked. Actually, I think quite a few myths that don’t have so much science behind them. You know, there’s a certain amount of power, one that were like, Oh, like, you know, you shouldn’t get in another relationship too soon. You know, you have to love yourself first before you can enter another relationship and you have to be, you know, in a great place already have done your growth. I’ve even heard that sometimes it’s repeated that for every year of marriage, you should wait six months. That’s like, forget it. Right? Like, I’m going to be to

S1: share Social Security,

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S2: what? I’m going to be spoon fed by that. Like, that’s just not going to happen. OK, so you want to know what I tried? So. So yes, I did try flinging myself, I think, into the arms of of other relationships, which for me did provide a certain measure of comfort. I also, you know, I had written this book called The Nature Fix about how being in nature or Cure is everything. So I was very invested in the idea that God, if I just go hiking and rafting and into the woods, I’m going to feel so much better. And so I did a lot of that. It partly worked, but not completely. I tried psychedelics as kind of a breakup drug. You know, we sometimes hear of. Things like MDMA, ecstasy being used in couples counseling. But lately, people are starting to talk about it also as a breakup drug, so I thought that was absolutely worth trying. Did that?

S1: What works?

S2: Everything was slightly disappointing because nothing really was a magic bullet. Of course. And that’s, I think, the big lesson of heartbreak. You know, it’s you don’t really get to a destination. It’s all sort of a process. The passage of time, you know, helps a lot. My friendships a huge help. I don’t know if you found this David, but I I really felt like I had a really profound appreciation for my friends. Yeah. Not everyone. I mean, some people sort of disappear and fade away. But but the ones who who are there for you are really there for you. And boy, when you’re feeling lonely and feeling your self-esteem sort of at rock bottom to have your friends really come out of the woodwork and tell you how much they love you. I mean, that was that was some of the most powerful lessons of heartbreak that I received.

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S1: Yeah, I’m so with you on that, I remember I think Emily Bazelon, fellow Gabfest host, was maybe the first person outside of a very immediate, narrow circle like my brother, who I told what was going on and we were out for a walk in New York and I was just weeping as we were walking through the streets of Manhattan. I don’t even actually remember what her words were, but they were just so like, so comforting. And so that sense of like, OK, well, with a friend like this, how bad can it be? And you know, that just stuck with me. You know what? The first thing you said to me, just going back to friendships and and also kind of the new relationships after I remember we had our first, we had a first walk. It was like maybe in July of 2019 or something. I was newly separated and we went out for a walk. And as we were, as I was saying goodbye, you said something like, you don’t get an STD. That was your that was your big advice,

S2: and you should thank me for that.

S1: It’s true. Seriously, I actually but I do want to I actually want to get to to the sex piece of this, both for sort of personal, prurient reasons, but also because I think it’s really important because I’ve spent so much time talking to men in particular who have just separated or like marriages falling apart or whatever. It is just the feeling of touch and sex and kind of like being desired. If you’re if you’re coming off a period where you felt undesired and where you felt, you know, bad about yourself, that that makes an enormous difference.

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S2: Yeah, I mean, the science is really supportive of that on two fronts. Literally, it seems like certainly with men and probably with women, too, who of course, haven’t been studied in this context, unfortunately. But your testosterone levels literally increase after a after divorce, which is really or after a split, I should say. And I think it’s probably part of that threat response. You know that your body goes into your sort of gearing up for a fight on some level, your testosterone levels increase that is going to actually increase your sex drive. There’s a lot of science, too, about how one of the central ways that mammals, especially primates, calm our nervous systems is through touch. You know, it literally releases oxytocin, right? It releases these bonding hormones. It makes us feel safe, and it was really helpful to me that way.

S1: Yeah, I certainly found like that that scent, that touch sex touch desire being desired was, you know, it was just a huge mood elevator. And like it, it was. It was. And even at a time when I felt like, Oh, I know that I’m hiding from some of my grief through this, like, I realize that some of what I’m doing is like avoiding

S2: there’s a distraction to

S1: spare and distract you and distract myself. On Tinder, I understood that I was doing that at the same time. It really it felt really good. And I wonder, but but maybe it’s better for men because it’s just easier for men than it is for women to do that.

S2: Plenty of women do that, too, but I had a really interesting conversation with my therapist at one point and I said, maybe for for me one that one of the things I was doing was I was traveling a ton. Like I was saying yes to every single speaking arrangement, every every travel gig. That was kind of my distraction. Like, I just needed to move, move, move, do stuff, do stuff, do stuff, work, work, work. And I said to my therapist, like, shouldn’t I be just sitting still in my grief? Like, don’t I need to feel this more? And she looked at me and she said, You know what? You are feeling it plenty. And she was right. I mean, certainly I was still crying every day, you know, maybe for five minutes or, you know, maybe not all day, but but the distraction piece doesn’t totally work because there’s still plenty of grief, though, that I’m sure you were experiencing, right?

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S1: I do think that I’m wired. I don’t know if you’re wired this, I’m totally wired for like, well, if if this is what I’ve been dealt, I’m just going to, like, make the most of it. At least, you know, I’m going to. I just I just I’m so wired for action as opposed to inaction, and I’m in a. introspective person for the most part.

S2: And that’s actually that. That is a psychologically healthy.

S1: I think it felt healthy. It felt healthy, like who were, I guess, which made me ask myself, What do you do? Say there’s some set of people who don’t get beyond heartbreak? Who who are they and why does that happen?

S2: Well, you know, I think there are a lot of things that make a person less resilient, starting all the way with childhood trauma. You know, all kinds of things. But I think I think you’re right that the introspection piece does seem to be in the profiles of people who kind of linger in their heartbreak longer. So this sort of ruminative personalities are introspective personalities, and I actually think I probably lean more toward that, actually. And those are the people. Well, who I think, you know, many, many months out are still replaying, you know, what went wrong, what happened? You know, what does it mean? What’s my future? So I think I probably lean more towards the introspection category for sure.

S1: And you think that but what is the good of that? I mean, there are good things of that. It’s not just absolute long in my misery, like it’s one

S2: of the good. Well, I’d like to think that one is maybe art making. You know, we’re the ones who can, like, provide some wisdom and some deep thinking about about what this does mean, what it means for us and what it means for other people and what it means for our society. I think artists are known to be a little bit higher on the anxious neuroticism scale, perhaps. And and yeah, maybe sometimes we sit in our pain a little bit longer.

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S1: Oh. I want to also talk about terms because hopefully no officials, no officials of the Department of Justice are listening to this. But you were the person who kind of pointed me towards. Towards hallucinogens for myself, to which I after you’d had an experience with with with shrooms, psilocybin, you pointed me and it was I found it incredibly helpful. What’s the case for MDMA or psilocybin or some mix of them for heartbreak?

S2: Yeah. I mean, one of the first people I talked to was a psychologist at the University of Utah who said, we think that one of the keys to resilience is the ability to see beauty, the ability to to feel off. There’s something about experiencing, Ah, that actually, you know, pulls us out of our own kind of egos and our own problems, puts things into perspective, makes us feel more connected to other people. It’s almost a sort of spiritual kind of concept, but I shudder to sort of use that word spiritual. But but anything that I think makes us think that there are things beyond ourselves can do that and so on is a really essential emotion actually for that and for resilience. Then I talked to another psychologist. This is Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, who writes, He’s kind of the guy. He’s the author guy. He writes a lot about art. You know, he’s my age. He’s got sort of long hair. He’s, you know, it looks kind of surfer groovy. At one point, I, you know, I told him I was interviewing him for something else. I told him about my my split. And I said, You know, do you think I should try psilocybin? And he said, Yes, absolutely you should. And I said, Well, how can it help with heartbreak? And he said, all those things, you know, it can kind of give you perspective, pull you out of your own funk, make you feel more connected, like make you less fearful. And certainly, there is a lot of science showing that people, for example, with a terminal illness who take psilocybin, become much less afraid of death and afraid of it’s kind of their future. So with his, you know, sort of approval, I guess his stamp of approval, I decided to try it. And I was really careful. I interviewed different therapists. I wanted to find someone I could really trust, someone I could feel safe with. Because, you know, the thing about taking these psychedelics is you, you really do lose control of your mind. And I knew I wasn’t very good at that and I wasn’t super comfortable with it. I wanted to find someone I really felt safe with. And so, so I did finally find someone. This was someone actually in Portland, Oregon. She’s anonymous in the book for obvious legal reasons. And I ended up having this really, really kickass, fantastic experience.

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S1: Yeah. Well, I’m so grateful to you.

S2: How do you think it was helpful to you, David?

S1: Uh, it was helpful to me. It was the unhappiest day of my life. You recall I because I called you afterwards. Do you remember this? I do remember. I called you afterwards.

S2: It was very serious.

S1: It was the unhappiest day of my life. I was. I had never been. As sad as I was, I was doing it in a group and the other people in the group are extremely happy and extremely upbeat. And it was a it was a real contrast, but I think for me, it just it it. The closest thing I can think is sort of an accelerated therapy. It felt like it felt like six months of getting the sorrow. I mean, going back to what I was saying earlier about using sort of distraction to distract myself from the grief, and this was a way of directly facing the grief I felt and the sadness and the kind of the loss of the loss and the love that I that I, you know, felt for for my ex-wife and how powerful that still was. And just like addressing it and seeing it was there and saying hello to it and. And it was it was great and I felt such an incredible sense of relief and it

S2: was a catharsis.

S1: Yeah, it was cathartic. And also, I I loved the kind of psychedelic roominess or to it, like the parts, you know, my notebook is filled with ruminations on the trees and the spider webs and stuff like that. So I love that part of it. But but that was it was mostly the sorrow, and I’m such a smug, arrogant person and a smug, arrogant person who mistook like great good fortune for virtue. And I feel like the sense of loss and of and of failure and of a recognition of like that. I hadn’t done what I needed to do to keep my life going. The way I wanted it to was really it was humbling in the best possible way and maybe gave me a lot of thought of it. Just it just made me less of an asshole. Probably.

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S2: Hmm. Yes. Oh, I think I think heartbreak does that in general, you know, in the growth part of it, I think it does sort of increase your capacity for empathy and increase your capacity, ultimately for love. You know, which is really what it’s all about.

S1: Do you think that that’s like that heartbreak is that heartbreak that does that grief that does that? I guess those are all tied together.

S2: I think there is something particular about the heartbreak. It’s just sort of terrors your identity down so, so deep that you have to kind of start back up again when you’re hurting that much, you are seeking out kind of other people who have also hurt. You know, there’s this sort of secret society, a little bit of wisdom amongst people who have heard a lot. And I think that you and I and you know, a lot of, you know, successful professionals or mean we’ve been insulated from from that kind of thing for a long time. And it does make us assholes for, you know, to some extent. Right.

S1: Here you are your what is it, four years?

S2: I’m four years out, yeah, yeah.

S1: Is there any part of you? What part of this do you appreciate? Is there any part of you that’s like, Oh, well, this is good somehow.

S2: Oh yeah, a huge part of me. A huge part of me thinks this is good. I feel like I am a more empathetic person. I feel like I think about and talk about and act out sort of how to be a better human, how to communicate. You know, I’m currently seeing someone and I work really, really hard to figure out how to how to do better, how to be better at it this time around. And I think a lot of it has to do with vulnerability. You know, writing this book was there was a really vulnerable exercise, but being heartbroken is an exercise in vulnerability. And I think it has really just opened me up in some really profound ways that I’m very grateful for. There’s something about just even the disclosing of this kind of vulnerability, right, that creates a space for intimacy that, you know, had been lacking, frankly, in my life. And now that I now, I met like an intimacy bunny. I just I just so groove on it. I love it.

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S1: Right? No, it’s so it’s so funny. I mean, there’s this line about, you know, men that men don’t make friends after a certain point that men have no friends, that men’s friends only come through their family or through their spouse generally. And it’s been such a revelation to be to have that to have this possibility of friendship because of the possibility of intimacy and vulnerability. And there’s so many people in my life who I am so much more deeply connected to because I’ve gone through this sorrow and they have helped me in some way or I’ve helped them, maybe because they they’ve had something similar in their life, and that’s what a great feeling that is.

S2: And I think, you know, the the emotional range that’s implicit in that, you know, so expanded. I think I used to sort of exist in this sort of narrow emotional range and now it’s really big. And because of that, the world is sort of italicized. You know, it’s like the colors are brighter. The feelings are richer. I do feel more alive. It’s it’s really it’s been a really interesting experience.

S1: Is there anything that’s worse?

S2: Oh, my financial state. My my retirement fund. Yeah, I mean, you know, I’m losing my house. I mean, you know. Yeah, sure. That all of that, you know, you lose so much when you lose a long marriage, you lose a group of friends, you lose a sort of social status. There’s a different way of moving through the world as a as an unattached person. And I kind of miss I miss some of the trappings of married life. You know, I miss that. You know, we both used to go to the parent teacher conferences together, and we used to walk the dog together, and we had this certain expectations or, you know, how we were going to spend our years as we aged. There’s a lot of loss there, and I still find myself sometimes dreaming about my ex. You know, I mean, he was such a part of my life from actually the time I was 18 years old. He’s still a part of me, and I still, you know, there are still still those adventures that I dream about, which is really, I think there’s an element of law still there.

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S1: Do you try to think about your past? You know, I’ve made a lot of progress, I think, and you know, I’m certainly and now in no sense, the sorrowful person I was when when this first started for me. But I do find it really hard to think about happy moments with my ex wife, like even though I know there were tons of them and I know that that was a, you know, most of my adult life. But I just like, don’t kind of allow those memories to surface, and I feel that that’s that’s probably mistake.

S2: Somehow, I can relate to what you’re saying. I think I was like that for a while, but I’m getting over that. I now can sort of look at the photos, you know, from our from our river trips, you know, in our 20s and 30s and and look at them and not have to daggers, you know, in my eyes, for for my ex, I actually there’s a lot I I still appreciate and love about about who he was then. And I feel like I don’t have regrets either about those years of marriage. I’m really glad I had them. There were there were fun. Right until they weren’t.

S1: Right? Florence Williams book is heartbreak a Personal and Scientific Journey? It’s a wonderful book. It’s obviously especially good if you’ve experienced heartbreak, if you anticipate experiencing heartbreak,

S2: if you know someone

S1: good prophylactic. If you have friends who are heartbroken.

S2: Exactly. Florence.

S1: Thanks for letting me talk to you about it.

S2: You’re so welcome. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you about it now and earlier. So thank you.

S1: That is our show for today. Gabfest Reade’s is produced by Jocelyn Frank, a researcher with Brigitte Dunlap, June Thomas of managing producer, and Alicia Montgomery is the executive editor of Slate Podcast. Follow the Gabfest on Twitter at Stephen. Gabfest for Florence Williams. I’m David Plotz. Thanks for listening. We’ll hear from Emily next month.