508: Superpowers - This American Life (2023)

Ira Glass

Act Two, Wonder Woman.

OK. What are the ways to create a superhero? Gamma rays, space alien abduction, prison experiment, or a NASA flight gone awry. And then there's the idea of a list. Is it possible that a to-do list is powerful enough to achieve this incredible result? Hmm. Kelly McEvers met somebody who tried.

Kelly Mcevers

We met in a bar in Flagstaff, Arizona. I'd just moved back from Cambodia, and I was going out for one of my first beers back in the States.

Not long into the first one, I noticed this Amazon of a woman with huge blond and red-streaked hair and frosty lips, wearing a short, red tank dress and at least 50 bracelets. She's six feet tall and showing a lot of leg. People at the bar swivel their heads to watch her every move.

She stands next to me to order a drink and in this throaty voice says, what are those? Pointing to my cigarettes. I tell her they're Cambodian. Her eyes light up, and she shoots out a long, tanned arm and points at a table in the corner. She orders me there. Before I can say no, I'm following her to my seat.

She tells me she's an international private investigator, a bounty hunter, and a bail bonds enforcer, and that her name is Zora. I sit there for hours listening to her.

Within a week, she takes me to Las Vegas. We drive there in her red Mustang. As always, there's a Colt .380 under the driver's seat and a .45 Megastar in the trunk. In Vegas, we skip the casinos and head straight for the male strip clubs where Zora drops at least $200 on lap dances from buff guys with names like Roman.

Her get-up is the same as before-- teased hair, jewelry, and the ubiquitous tank dress-- which, I realize, is the best way to show off her tattoos. One is this big circle with blue and white swirls in it, kind of like a bowling ball on her left shoulder. Every guy she meets asks her about it. And when they hear her answer, they sometimes propose marriage.

Turns out the tattoo is a magic globe she holds in her dreams. And in these dreams, it gives her superpowers.

Zora

Ever since I remember, I've had the dreams. And they're very vivid, but it varies. It usually involves fighting, sometimes with guns, sometimes with superhero powers-- lightning from my fists, and all that. And I usually have super strength, and I can fly, and I have all those things, right?

And it's my most common set of dreams. And it varies. Sometimes it's medieval. Sometimes it's futuristic. Sometimes it's like a guerrilla war in Latin America.

Kelly Mcevers

Can you describe that Zora to me? The Zora in the dreams?

Zora

Very powerful athletically, but beyond the rules of nature that this world allows. So 6'5" and long-- like almost impossibly long silver hair. This sort of otherworldly quality to her where her voice did not sound normal. It sounded almost musical.

It became something that I aspire to be-- aspire to be this sort of superhero, this sort of person who would fight for a cause. Yeah. It was my motivation in life. Ever since I was 10 or 11, I decided that that was my goal.

Kelly Mcevers

Zora took the dreams seriously. So seriously that, at the age of 12, she sat down and composed a list of some 30 skills she needed to learn if she wanted to become as close to a superhero as any mortal could be. She even gave herself a deadline-- to master these skills by the time she was 23.

Zora

I know it's in these.

Kelly Mcevers

Zora pulls out the old spiral notebook that was her diary at the age of 13 and turns to the inside back cover.

Zora

Yep. There's the list.

Zora

OK. The list included martial arts, electronics, chemistry, metaphysics, hang gliding, helicopter and airplane flying, parachuting, mountain climbing, survival--

Kelly Mcevers

Throughout her teens and 20s--

Zora

--martial arts, politics--

Kelly Mcevers

--each time she started a new diary, she would update the list--

Zora

--physics--

Kelly Mcevers

--and write it in the back of the book.

Zora

French, Arabic, Spanish--

Kelly Mcevers

Each one with the same format, each one titled, The List.

Zora

Weaponry, rafting, scuba diving, herbology. Yes, I studied that. CPR, first aid and mountain emergency kind of medicine.

Kelly Mcevers

The list also includes--

Zora

Archaeology--

Kelly Mcevers

--bodybuilding, archery--

Zora

--sailing--

Kelly Mcevers

--demolitions, and explosives. She wanted to learn how to hunt animals and track men.

Kelly Mcevers

And the most incredible thing about all of this is that Zora accomplished nearly every item on the list.

Zora

Throwing stars, and compound bows, and throwing knives, and-- yes. It was a very interesting pastime.

Kelly Mcevers

To keep up with the goals set by the list, she sped through school. Starting in the seventh grade, she began completing entire school years during the summer term and finished high school by the time she was 15. She got her BA at 18, a masters at 20, and completed the coursework for a PhD in geopolitics by the time she was 21. She wanted to live like Indiana Jones, spending half her time in the classroom and half her time saving the world in the jungles of Peru.

Zora

Item number 4, camel, elephant riding. Evasive driving and stunts.

Kelly Mcevers

When you're a kid, you have these romantic visions of what you'll be when you grow up. But how many people are so diligent they commit their dreams to paper and make it their life's work to achieve them? How many keep a list, amending it, adding to it, ticking things off as they go along well into their adult lives?

After finishing the coursework for her PhD, Zora decided to quit school, disappointed at the lack of cliff-hanging adventure in her doctoral program. And since superheroes who live in the real world need jobs, she decided to seek employment at the only place that would allow her to put all the skills from the list to use. Zora wanted to become an agent in the CIA. And so began a rigorous application process-- interviews, psych exams, a three-day lie detector test.

Zora

After that, then they sent investigators out to interview me, interview my neighbors, interview ex-boyfriends, interview friends, ex-friends, former colleagues, people I work with, people I used to work with.

They threw a question out in the middle of an interview. So what would you do in this situation? If you were driving down the road and you had one of your native agents with you, someone who's going to give you some information, and you were in a third-world country somewhere, and you were driving a car, and you accidentally ran into a dog? And people have been out playing in the street, children in the street, they see their dog get killed. And they get upset, and they rush towards the car. What do you do in that situation? You don't want to draw attention to the person who's with you.

So what I said was that I would tell my agent to get down lower in the car. And I would get out of the car and draw the attention to myself and try to appease them in some way, either by giving them money, more likely, but-- and that was an acceptable answer to them. That was a good answer to them.

At the time, when I was going through the process, it felt like everything was coming together. And I had not felt so much joy, probably ever.

Kelly Mcevers

Did you tell them about your dreams?

Zora

Absolutely not. And I would tell them that I had a sense that I could combine the whole street smarts, intellectual, the education, with the sort of adventurer personality. And I was actually told that I had the perfect personality for it and that I would do really well. It was like the fruition of my life, that it was going to be the step into the next-- you know, where I would be using all that list and preparation for the next phase, which would be to actually put it into practice.

Kelly Mcevers

About eight months into the interviews, Zora got a letter saying she'd been rejected. She appealed over the next year and a half, partly to find out why they'd turned her down. But the best they could do was to tell her to try again in a few more years. In the end, the CIA wouldn't take her, and they wouldn't even tell her why.

Zora

Probably it took me more like two years to recover. I was a basket case. I wasn't-- I wasn't-- I was just down, you know? I would have to work. I couldn't concentrate. Sort of slumped down, staring at the wall. I put my whole life into examination, all the years of preparation.

Kelly Mcevers

Most of us give up our dreams of superhero adventure when we're adolescents. Zora was only getting to it at the age of 27. Here she knew how to fly a helicopter and survive in the wilderness, but for what?

She devoted a lot of time to thinking about why she might have been rejected by the CIA. Maybe it was all those months she spent with right-wing militia groups doing her doctoral research. Maybe she shouldn't have told the CIA how she ended up in a clandestine IRA club one night while on vacation in Ireland. Maybe the CIA didn't like the fact that her father, a professor at the University of Minnesota, is an outspoken Serbian nationalist. Or maybe it was simply her own fault-- that she couldn't turn herself into a superhero.

Zora

I had violated the agreement of the list, violated the agreement that I made with myself, that I had not become what the archetype was, that I had become something lacking. The point being that my mythology should have guided me better, and it felt like such a final thing.

Kelly Mcevers

So Zora remade herself. She had been virtually isolated from other people since she was 15, when she started actively pursuing the goals on the list. Her parents were happy she was so busy because she had no time for boys. But now she started working for a woman private investigator.

One day when she went to court, she wore her first pair of pantyhose because she was told it would help her look more feminine. Soon after, she was schooled in the sheer power of lipstick, a short skirt, and a supermodel runway walk to control the minds of others. These days, she works for an international private investigation agency that handles these kinds of cases.

Zora

Child abduction retrieval custody, reverse stings, occult and ritualistic crimes-- those tend to be really interesting, I like working on those-- anti-terrorism, kidnap protection and return, counterintelligence.

Kelly Mcevers

She's happy doing this work. In a typical case, Zora's agency sent her on a mission to Mexico to do what's known as a reverse scam. The agency was hired by the family of a young woman who'd recently traveled there and fallen in love with a man she planned to marry after knowing him for only 10 days. The family suspected some sort of con.

Zora contacted him, pretending she was looking for a girlfriend who used to work with him in the travel industry. She took a photo of a classmate with her to begin the scam.

Zora

I sort of played the distressed American student going to the Spanish school. And he invited me on a couple of dates and asked me to come back for the bullfight.

Kelly Mcevers

What did you wear when you went to the bullfight?

Zora

Oh, I wore like a little, itty-bitty skirt and a little tank top.

I made it seem like I had plenty of money, and that interested him. You know, he kind of perked up at that. He never mentioned, the whole time that I ever spent any time with him, he never mentioned that there was ever a woman. I found him to be pretty emotionally open and a very romantic guy, but I honestly felt that he probably was not in love with her, that he was taking this as an opportunity to live in the United States. And that was the report I gave.

Kelly Mcevers

Before Zora set out for Mexico, I rode with her to the airport. We were late and hurrying through the terminal, just 10 minutes to spare, when she did the strangest thing. She sat down in a chair far from the gate and wouldn't move. I told her she was going to miss her flight, but she didn't budge.

I sat down next to her. She said she was scared. About the case? About which disguise she might wear? About being found out? No, she said. She said she was afraid that when she got to Mexico, people wouldn't like her.

The next time I was at her house, I hadn't noticed before, but I realized her bookshelf was packed with advice on how to build confidence-- titles like Princessa: Machiavelli for Women. Books like that aren't really so far from the idea of keeping a list, having an ongoing plan for self-improvement, believing that if you just put something on paper and stick to it, you can change.

Zora still has her list. But while the old list was all about being perfect and saving the world, the new list is very different.

Zora

I need to learn how to play tennis and golf. And my new list is windsurfing, tennis, golf. I need to develop some kind of talent. Like I need to learn how to sing properly, or to do some kind of comedy or sketches, acting. Acting-- I need to learn how to act. Oh, I need to learn how to sing like Billie Holiday.

Kelly Mcevers

She doesn't take the list so seriously these days. There are no deadlines. She puts things on the list and later decides not to do them. It's not a grand mission anymore. Now, it's just a list.

Ira Glass

Kelly McEvers-- she's the host of NPR's Embedded podcast. Zora is currently doing a kind of superhero work. She's on the UN peacekeeping mission-- no kidding-- in the Central African Republic.

[MUSIC - "GOLDFINGER" BY DAVID SEDARIS]

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