The Fake Bride

Portrait of Jane Mickelson as a young woman. She has long brown hair and is smiling and looking directly into the camera.
The protagonist of our episode, Jane Mickelson, during her senior year of college.

Have you ever felt as if someone else was writing your personal narrative? Controlling what you do, shaping how you act? This week on Hidden Brain, we bring you a surreal tale about a woman who became a reluctant character in someone else’s love story.

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The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Jane Mickelson: I felt like I had lost touch with who I was, that I was somebody else, I was my shadow side or something. I don't know.

Shankar Vedantam: Have you ever felt as if someone else was writing your story, controlling what you do, shaping how you act. Usually when this happens, the currents that hold us captive come from the outside world. But sometimes external forces can be amplified by the currents inside our own minds, the rules that we've been taught, the mandates that we've internalized. This week on Hidden Brain, a surreal story about a very strange con and the scripts inside our heads.

Jane Mickelson: I mean, I became a stranger. I was like a hypnotized person, I wasn't me and yet I was.

Shankar Vedantam: Growing up, Jane Mickelson's father had a peculiar way of getting Jane and her brother to mind their manners at the dinner table.

Jane Mickelson: If one of us put an elbow on the table while we were eating, there was a long metal strap under the table that my father could reach very easily from sitting at the head of the table. And he would pluck it with his thumb like a big guitar string, and the whole table would resonate with this tone. And when we were very little, we thought it was magic.

Shankar Vedantam: What was this ringing sound supposed to indicate? What was the message when you heard the ringing sound?

Jane Mickelson: Oh, the table knew I had put my elbow on it and I had to get it off immediately.

Shankar Vedantam: The dinner tableau was part of a larger pattern. No matter what turmoil raged inside the house, everything was communicated like that pluck string under the table.

Jane Mickelson: And that led to some very sad aspects in our life, our natural mother left when we were very young. My brother was five and I was three and we were never supposed to speak of her again.

Shankar Vedantam: If you didn't talk about bad things, it was as if they didn't happen. It was the 1950s and conformity and domestic tranquility were prized particularly for women and girls. Jane says her father was also shaped by his family roots in Scandinavia, and by his own parents' reserved nature.

Jane Mickelson: He wanted us to be 100% American kids and yet at the same time he was very powerfully shaped by his parents' former homes in Sweden and Denmark.

Shankar Vedantam: A few years after Jane's mother left, a new woman entered their lives, Lorraine.

Jane Mickelson: A very psychologically frail woman who would have a breakdown if we answered back or questioned something that she wanted us to do. We learned very early on not to do that.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane's father married Lorraine, and Jane quickly learned to read her stepmother's moods.

Jane Mickelson: When she was happy and just around the house, she whistled a little song that she liked or something. And that as things grew darker and darker in our mind, it would become this kind of [breathes in and out quickly], that horrible, frantic trapped sound.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane became a target of Lorraine's anxiety and rage. The best way to avoid this Jane learned was to tiptoe around her stepmother to avoid antagonizing her. Her father constantly underscored this message.

Jane Mickelson: Other people's happiness and joy in life is far more important than your own. You're here to take care of them and make sure they're okay and do everything you can not to upset them and to give them happiness.

Shankar Vedantam: The scripts we learn in childhood often stay with us as we grow up. By the time Jane was a teenager, she had firmly internalized the family rules. Don't make a fuss, keep your head down, put other people first. But Jane was to find, as many of us discover, that the scripts that serve us well in one context can harm us in another. When she was 16, Jane and her friend Nancy went for a swim in a lake near their neighborhood. After an hour or so, a couple of older boys approached the two girls and started flirting with them. It was fun at first, but soon got to be too much. Jane and her friend decided to leave and go home.

Jane Mickelson: And we're walking up the hill and I heard something behind me and we turned around and there were the two guys. They were tracking us. And I did what my stepmother always told me to do, "Never make a fuss, you're a lady." The next thing I knew I was facedown on a dirt road.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the boys had tackled Jane and was trying to rip off her bathing suit. The commotion drew a family down to the lake, the boys ran off and the family took Jane home.

Jane Mickelson: When I got there, my brother was sitting watching TV and he looked at me and I'm shaking, I'm crying. And he said, "Are you okay?" And I said, "No, I'm horrible. No, I'm not, I'm not." And I ran up to my bedroom. Our parents got home and he said, "I think something's happened to Jane, better go talk to her."

Shankar Vedantam: Her parents came upstairs. Jane explained what had happened.

Jane Mickelson: I guess my dad called the police because the next thing I knew there was a detective from the Stanford Police Department sitting directly opposite me.

Shankar Vedantam: The detective began asking Jane uncomfortable questions.

Jane Mickelson: "What did you say to these guys?" Kind of like that old junk, about, "Oh, it's usually the young woman's fault. She probably lured him on blah, blah." I was in shock and I was terrified.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane desperately wanted her parents to stand up for her, to put the detective in his place, to say she had done nothing wrong.

Jane Mickelson: They just sat there, silent. And it was like the most horrible sense of betrayal that nobody was doing anything to ease my fears and they never mentioned it again. It was over and done with and in good decorum, you don't talk about bad things after they're done.

Shankar Vedantam: Even in extreme situations, the rule of the family were clear, tranquility or at least the appearance of tranquility was the most important goal. When Jane turned 18, she left for college, an all women's school. She thought she would be able to explore a new side of herself.

Jane Mickelson: They took great pride in being the first women's college in the United States to grant a woman a full baccalaureate degree.

Shankar Vedantam: But college wasn't what she had expected. She had wanted to read literature and act in student plays; instead, she recalls, she got secretarial courses and pleated skirts.

Jane Mickelson: I was very unhappy and my stepmother went and had a nervous breakdown, blaming me for upsetting her by getting bad grades. So I just wanted to get out of there. And one day I just happened to see a brochure from an organization called Scandinavian Seminars.

Shankar Vedantam: The program promised a semester abroad, far from her family, college and anyone who knew her.

Jane Mickelson: So without telling anybody about my fledgling plans, I wrote to them for more information. And when that packet arrived, I can't tell you how many times I took it out and read it over and over again. It was like having a secret lover.

Shankar Vedantam: The packet contained an application and it offered candidates a list of former participants who could talk about their experiences in the program.

Jane Mickelson: I mailed right back and I said, "Yes, yes, yes. I'll take the list."

Shankar Vedantam: When the list of names came back, there were several women on it but Jane decided to write to a young man.

Jane Mickelson: I mean, I really had never had any kind of a deep intimate relationship with a guy. And it wasn't that I was actively looking for one but a lot of my friends were getting boyfriends and I don't know, I kind of thought it would be sort of fun if it was a guy so that's why I chose the guy.

Shankar Vedantam: We're calling the young man Phillip. That's not his real name but it was the name Jane gave us. We've learned more about Phillip as we reported the story, but are choosing to use this name for reasons that will become clear as the story unfolds. Jane wrote to Phillip and asked if he would talk with her about his experiences studying abroad.

Jane Mickelson: He wrote back right away and he answered some of my questions I had asked, and then he asked the name of my hometown. And when his next letter came, he mentioned that he lived not too far away from there.

Shankar Vedantam: Spring break was coming up and Philip asked Jane if she would like him to visit her when she was home for the break. She hadn't told her parents about the study abroad program, but she wanted to meet Phillip. So she wrote back and said, yes. When the date of the meeting rolled around, Jane told her parents a young man was coming to talk to her about some academic study she was exploring. Philip rang the bell and Jane answered the door.

Jane Mickelson: And he stepped in and I was surprised that he wasn't much taller than I was. I had as I say, kind of built up this mental image of him as being tall, handsome, what have you. He didn't look the way I anticipated. He wore a jacket and a tie and he was super polite, but I don't know if there was some kind of aura. "This is the polite house."

Shankar Vedantam: Mind your manners all ye who enter here.

Jane Mickelson: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. We should have had a poster saying that at the end of the driveway. He called my parents Mr. And Mrs. And he was very polite asking little questions about just “How are you?” and “My, you have a nice home.” But the one thing that struck me was how little he revealed of himself. Here he was in my home, seeing where I lived. I think he knew or sensed much more about me than I did of him.

Shankar Vedantam: Any hopes Jane had for romance fizzled out as they talked. The most remarkable thing about Philip was that he seemed utterly unremarkable.

Jane Mickelson: And there wasn't any like that spark between us, at least certainly not on my side and I didn't see or experience any of that on his.

Shankar Vedantam: He stayed for a meal and showed Jane some pictures of his time abroad.

Jane Mickelson: Then he left and I went back to school, and so did he.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane put Philip out of her mind but a couple of months after the visit, one of her dorm mates came to tell her she had a phone call.

Jane Mickelson: We didn't have cell phones back then there was one telephone for an entire floor of girls.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane walked down the hallway to the smaller nook where the phone was kept. She answered it.

Jane Mickelson: And it was Philip.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane was shocked especially after she heard why he was calling.

Jane Mickelson: He was inviting me to come to his college graduation that June. I was more than a little startled. I thought this is a major, major event in a young person's life and you don't even know me really, how strange? But he became quite enthusiastic about it. And he said, "Oh, it's going to be so much fun. You know, this time of year the campus is beautiful and you can meet my family and I'm in a fraternity and they're going to have a big graduation party. It's going to be fun."

Shankar Vedantam: Jane weighed the invitation. It was certainly odd but then she reflected on what else she had going on in her life, an unexciting waitressing job, an emotionally distant family at home, the wide expanse of a boring summer.

Jane Mickelson: So I thought, "All right. I'll do it. It'll be fun. It'll be an adventure."

Shankar Vedantam: She got to get the money for the train fare and started making plans for the trip. A few weeks before the graduation weekend, Phillip sent her a letter. He had discovered a small problem. There weren't many motels in his little college town and the few they did have refused to rent rooms to unmarried students. He had come up with a solution though.

Jane Mickelson: He had to tell the motel that we were a married couple. And then he said, I would still have the place to myself. He was not going to stay there, but that he was worried I'd be maybe put off by that element of our plans, and that he hoped I'd be okay with that.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane had friends who do similar ruses.

Jane Mickelson: I just was desperate to get away from home to have some adventures of my own. I should have paid attention to maybe that little alarm bell but it never rang. So I said, okay and he reserved the room under his name with me as his wife.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane said okay to Philip when he suggested he visit her home. She said, okay, when he proposed out of the blue that she attend his graduation. And she said, okay, when he suggested the register at the motel as a married couple. She didn't realize it but well before she got on that train to Philips graduation, she was already on a psychological ride. He was now gathering momentum. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. In June 1964, Jane Mickelson got on a train to go to Philips graduation. As the New England countryside sped by, she imagined how the weekend might go. Eventually, the train arrived at a tiny stop in New Hampshire.

Jane Mickelson: I got off the train and he was right there with a big smile, took my bags and he had rented a silver Impala for the weekend so that he could drive me back and forth from the train and around the campus. And he put my suitcase in and then he helped me in. I mean, he was such a perfect gentleman. He helped me into the passenger side. And then he got in on the driver's side. And I thought, "Oh, he's going to start the car, and we're going to drive to the campus or wherever." And instead, he turns and he gives me this big smile and he told me to stick out my left hand, so I did. Oh, God, I was so obedient. It scares me. And he took my left hand, and he slipped an engagement ring onto my left finger, the ring finger. And he said, "Now we're engaged." And then he pulled out a wedding band and he added it to that. And he said, "And now we're married, because we have to look like we're really married. And if you come in without any rings on your wedding finger, it's going to look weird." And we laughed and laughed. But I laughed. I have to say more out of kind of.. Not fear, but I found it more uncomfortable than hilarious, but I was trying to be a good sport. And this was where that bell did begin to ring, but I still played dumb.

Shankar Vedantam: When they got to the motel, Philip helped get her bags to her room.

Jane Mickelson: He said, "Now I'm going back to the fraternity house and there's going to be this big party. And so why don't you freshen up from your trip and get ready to go to a really fun party."

Shankar Vedantam: Jane did as she was told. She put on a dress and did her makeup. She thought about the frat party she'd been to before. She knew they could get a little rowdy, but she felt sure Philip wouldn't let things go too far.

Jane Mickelson: He was such a gentleman, I knew that he would be by my side and keeping an eye out for me.

Shankar Vedantam: Soon, Philip was back in the silver Impala.

Jane Mickelson: And it was a glorious evening, everything was so lush and green and flowering and it wasn't much of a drive, maybe 10 minutes and then he turned into this long driveway and there was this beautiful house. And the doors were open, the windows were open and music was pouring out. I just felt pretty and excited at that point. He gets out first. I knew he was going to of course because he was such a gentleman and then he opened my side of the car and he put his hand in to help me out and then when I got out, he tucked my arm into the crook of his arm. And he seemed to get a little taller and he was kind of more formal all of a sudden. And then he walks me up the stairs in an almost ceremonial fashion. We walk up the stairs, and we're kind of laughing about being so proper and we walked in the door, across the threshold.

Shankar Vedantam: Right in front of them was a wall of young men dressed in navy blazers and khaki pants.

Jane Mickelson: But the minute we walked in the door, they parted like the Red Sea opening, my dear and they were shouting, "Surprise!!!" And when they stepped aside like that, I saw one of these long banquet tables and right in the center of the table was a three layer wedding cake with a little plastic bride and groom on the top. I was stunned, I could barely breathe. I thought maybe this is for somebody else but no, I mean, it wasn't. Everybody was coming forward and slapping Phillip on the back shaking his hands. And some of the guys were coming over to kiss the bride and then they started playing the Wedding March.

Shankar Vedantam: Did you say anything? Did you look at him? Did you exchange anything with Philip?

Jane Mickelson: No, no, no, I was so stunned. I just froze. If I had been more self assured, more mature, what I could have done was laugh and then say, "Oh, you guys, he really got you, didn't he? We're not married, come on." But I was too polite.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane couldn't figure out if Philip was pulling an elaborate prank on his fraternity brothers. That had to be it, right? But as she watched Philips' face, she sensed this wasn't a joke.

Jane Mickelson: He was so thrilled he was laughing and just thrilled. And from a couple of the comments, I knew he was the one of the first to tie the knot. I had no idea how to respond. None. None. How do you? How do you respond to something like that?

Shankar Vedantam: So what happens next? The party now is basically getting underway, what happens next? Are there toasts? Are there celebrations? What happens?

Jane Mickelson: Oh, my goodness, yes, they came around with glasses of champagne. Philip gave a toast to his new bride and the other for like, I don't know, one or two of the fraternity brothers proposed a toast. And I just drank that champagne down like it was ice water, zip, zip and somebody gave me another.

Shankar Vedantam: After a few more glasses of champagne, one of the fraternity brothers led Jane outside.

Jane Mickelson: He looked quite serious. Everybody else was laughing and talking and drinking champagne and beer and he very bluntly said, "Are you really married to him?" And I just didn't know what to say.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane's mind began to race, should she tell him or should she lie to say Philip's reputation?

Jane Mickelson: But the very fact that I didn't answer told this guy what he wanted to know. And he then told me that Philip was a really good guy but he is a little different and he's had a bit of a rough time fitting in and this marriage clearly means a lot to him. And you'll never see any of these guys again after this weekend, why not play along with him? Don't humiliate him.

Shankar Vedantam: More than 50 years have passed since that moment, Jane actually has two distinct memories about what the young man said to her. She can't be sure which one is real. In the second version.

Jane Mickelson: Same guy, also telling me that maybe Philip did this to kind of gain some prestige with his fraternity brothers and his friends. And that he would feel more important or whatever, if he had been the first of the fraternity brothers that year to get married. But that that was deception, I would be fostering Phillips deception and that I really shouldn't do that.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane can't be sure which version is accurate, but her recollection of what she chose to do next is crystal clear.

Jane Mickelson: You know, when you grow up not being allowed to get angry, you don't get angry.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane went back to the party. Her memory of the rest of the evening is hazy, possibly because of the amount of champagne she drank. But the celebration must have died down at some point. She must have gotten into the silver Impala with Philip. He must have driven her back to the motel. He must have helped her up to the room. She remembers he came up to the room with her because she has a vivid memory of throwing up in the bathroom.

Jane Mickelson: I was kneeling in front of the toilet and Philip was holding my hair back. And later on I wondered, I wonder who taught him to do that.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane doesn't remember changing out of her clothes or going to bed. She doesn't remember a conversation with Philip about whether he could stay the night in her room. She doesn't recall Philip getting into bed with her, except he must have because she clearly remembers what happened when she woke up.

Jane Mickelson: I remember waking up the next morning with one of my life's worst hangovers. I was just so sick to my stomach. And then I turned over and then he was there and that was startling because he had told me that I would have that room to myself. But luckily, he hadn't done anything. I think he even may have slept on the outside of the bedding.

Shankar Vedantam: And did you have a conversation about why he was there or what happened?

Jane Mickelson: No. It's so strange. I never had any modeling for challenging people, for contradicting people, for being angry at people in an appropriate way. We just weren't raised like that. And at that point, I felt so deep in it. I thought, "Let's just get this over with. Once his family's here this will end because his family knows he's not married. It's just something he's done for his fraternity brothers to have fun or go off on a big bang with his college years." So I kind of put myself in neutral and went along.

Shankar Vedantam: Philip gave her a tour of campus and took her out for lunch acting as if nothing had happened. And every step as Jane went along, more and more people were swept up in the story. And it became harder and harder to say, "Stop. This isn't true. I want out." Philip had written a play and recruited a number of unwitting actors to play roles in it. Jane was in one of the lead roles, but she wasn't alone. The desk clerk at the motel had signed off on them being married. Philip's fraternity brothers had planned an elaborate celebration, complete with a three layer wedding cake.

Shankar Vedantam: Philip had spent the night with her and they had woken up in the same bed like an actual couple. Psychologists sometimes talk about a concept known as "social proof." When everyone around you believes something, says something or acts in a certain way, it's hard to step outside that shared narrative. And the more people fail to question an unfolding narrative, the more that story gathers momentum, the harder it becomes to stop.

Jane Mickelson: I mean, I felt helpless in a way. I felt I was kind of being swept along in a really scary current. I didn't know what to do. I didn't even bring enough money to get a cab back to the train station if I needed to leave right then and there.

Shankar Vedantam: Like all of us in difficult situations, Jane fell back on her coping mechanisms. Except in this case, Jane's primary coping mechanism was a lesson she had learned as a child, "Go along, get along, don't make a fuss." By the time they got back to the motel that evening, Jane was in full "fake bride" mode. When Philip accompanied her into the motel room, she didn't tell him to go away.

Jane Mickelson: He had brought her record player to this motel room that obviously was now ours, not mine. There was a TV show called Dr. Kildare and this actor Richard Chamberlain, he recorded an album of love songs, and Philip had brought this and then he started the music. And he got out a volume of late Victorian poetry, and he had picked out some very romantic poems which he read to me. As Richard Chamberlain was singing softly in the background. I mean, I'm sure he did this to make it a very sweet, romantic evening and so I went along with it.

Shankar Vedantam: It's almost like you must get the sense that he's sort of wooing you at this point, I mean, sort of a bit of an odd thing to have a wedding celebration before you start wooing someone, but presumably that's what he was doing.

Jane Mickelson: It was exactly what he was doing. If he hadn't already given me the diamond ring that would have been the time he whipped it out. There was a part of me that appreciated the trouble he had gone through to make this, what he anticipated would be a romantic experience for me, and certainly, it gave me a sense of what he considered romantic.

Shankar Vedantam: So it's almost weird, you still thought of him as being a nice guy.

Jane Mickelson: I did. Isn't that something? Yeah. I felt almost like a little puppet in his puppet show. And as long as he wasn't going to throw me to the floor, cut my strings or whatever, I was going to be okay.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. As the graduation weekend unfolded, Jane's understanding of what was happening, merged into the narrative that Philip had constructed. The social proof she received, told her how she was expected to behave and the scripts inside her head, kept her from challenging the narrative. The more people Philip recruited to the charade, the harder it became for Jane to step outside it, to stop it. The next morning Sunday, Jane woke up with Philip in bed with her. In less than 48 hours the unthinkable had become unremarkable. It was graduation day.

Jane Mickelson: We were to meet Philip's mother and sister at a cafe just off the campus there for brunch.

Shankar Vedantam: When they arrived at the cafe, Philip's mother and sister were waiting outside.

Jane Mickelson: He introduced me and we went in as I say, and we sat down.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane sat next to Philip's sister on the inside of the booth. Philip sat across from her and Philip's mother sat next to him. Jane prayed this was finally the moment Philip would drop the charade.

Jane Mickelson: But then he said to his mom, "Mom, I want you to meet my wife." And I had been so sure that once this family arrived, the charade would be over and we could go on as just friends, a friend of his who was there just for the graduation. I couldn't bear it, at that point I did crack. I said, "No. No, I'm sorry. No, I'm not his wife. He's teasing. He's pretending." And Philip laughed, and he just said to his mom, "Oh, come on. She's just not used to being my wife. And so she's still a little self conscious about it but she is, we're married." And I said, "No, wait." Well, his mother leaped up with this dreadful look on her face and she literally ran out of that café and he ran after her. And I was almost in tears at that point. I turned to his sister and I said, "Please understand me. I'm telling you the truth. I'm not married to your brother. I hardly know him." Her look was so understanding and sad. And she said, "It's not your fault. It really isn't your fault." And she got up and went out to her mom and led her mom away.

Shankar Vedantam: And I'm wondering at this point after his mom and sister leave, isn't this the point that you basically say, "You know what Phillip? Enough is enough."

Jane Mickelson: Yeah. At that point, I was just so exhausted. I just didn't have the energy to stand up to him. It was as I said before, step by step each time getting deeper into this farce. It was like, how could I back out by then? I mean, he's taking me to the campus for graduation and I couldn't have demanded that he take me to the train station at that point because he was about to graduate. I know that sounds bizarre but it's true.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane had finally spoken up at the cafe. She had stood up to Philip but he refused to acknowledge what she had done. He acted as if she had said nothing.

Jane Mickelson: I didn't say anything to him until we got to the campus and he told me to go get a good seat and I said yes, or whatever.

Shankar Vedantam: The graduation was outdoors. Jane found a seat in a row of folding chairs close to the stage. In front of her were a set of wooden bleachers where the graduates would soon take their places.

Jane Mickelson: I remember, I was kind of rolling and unrolling the order of ceremony because I didn't even know what to do with my hands. I was just wishing it were all over. I was just waiting for it to end. I think there was beginning to be an undercurrent of resentment that Phillip put me into this. I think I was getting pissed off. But then, at that point, what are you going to do? Stand up and yell to the whole college that this is all a farce.

Shankar Vedantam: The seats around her began to fill up with happy laughing families. Everyone was blissfully unaware of the drama consuming Jane.

Jane Mickelson: And then this woman came and settled down the row and it was Philip's sister. So I asked, "Where's your mom? Doesn't she want to come sit with us?" And I looked around and looked around and finally I saw her. She was way at the back behind even the last row of the audience and she couldn't stop moving. She couldn't stop moving. Her shoulders were kind of rocking and she was like holding her purse up against her heart, and kind of rocking from foot to foot and it was clear she was very distraught.

Shankar Vedantam: Graduates began to file in two by two in their caps and gowns. As they took their seats on the bleachers, Jane spotted Philip sitting down with a group of his fraternity brothers.

Jane Mickelson: He looked around at first until he could find me and then he saw my face and he gave a little discreet wave and I just kind of automatically smiled back at him but it wasn't a real smile. It's like, okay, as the Italians who say, "Allora, allora, allora," get on with it.

Shankar Vedantam: The college president stood at a podium and began to give the usual ceremonial speech, how all the graduates would succeed, how they would go on to do great things.

Jane Mickelson: Then he kind of got into the more personal. And he looked out at the audience and he said, "Today is not just an auspicious day in the lives of our graduates but it's also a very special day for their parents. And I would like to invite all the fathers in the audience to rise and be recognized for their loving support."

Shankar Vedantam: The father stood, laughing and groaning at all the attention.

Jane Mickelson: And he said, "Let's not forget the mothers, you have sacrificed as well and may all the mothers please stand." And they did and there was more applause and whistles. I had the most horrible, horrible realization that something was going to happen next. I just knew, it was like a premonition and sure enough he continued. And he said, "Quite a few of our students have spouses who have helped bring to fruition the dream of a college diploma. And would all the wives and husbands married to a graduate, please stand and accept the honor that you are due." At that point, I froze. I physically froze. I couldn't stand up, I wouldn't stand up. And I heard the noise and the bustle of several young men and women standing up in the audience. And I thought, "No, no, I'm not going to do this. I will not do this." But I looked up at Phillip and he was moving his hands. He was lifting his hands, palm up, like saying you should stand up. Then next I knew, a couple of his fraternity brothers were doing the same damn thing. They're lifting their hands up smiling, these big smiles, "Come on, come on, get up. You're his newly wedded bride." I got up. And then this horrible, screaming moan rang out over the entire audience. You could have heard it everywhere in the ceremony and people's heads turned around and I just, oh dear God, I sank back on my chair just as Philip's sister jumped up and slipped out along the row and ran back to find their mother.

Shankar Vedantam: Do you remember Phillip driving you back to the train station or how you got home that weekend.

Jane Mickelson: I remember getting out of the car at the train station and getting on the train and being so grateful that the weekend was over. I never wrote to him again and he never wrote to me or called me. It was over. It was over. I had played a role in his drama and there was no reason for him to ever write and say, "Gee, I'm sorry, I did that to you or here's why I did it or..." Nothing, nothing. It was like it never happened if I didn't ever tell anybody about it.

Shankar Vedantam: For a long time, Jane didn't tell anybody about it. But then, for perhaps the first time in her life, she started to question the scripts in her head that told her to brush what had happened under the rug. She started to interrogate how she had behaved. There was no question, Philip had behaved horribly and that he had put her in a very difficult situation. She was the victim. But Jane decided she didn't want to see herself as a mere victim. How had she allowed things to go as far as they had? It was painful to step outside herself, to look at the script she had internalized to realize she had allowed herself to become a puppet in someone else's play.

Jane Mickelson: I just know that it was a terrible shame for me that I went along with that, with any of it. I mean, I became a stranger. I was like a hypnotized person. I wasn't me and yet I was. I felt like I had lost touch with who I was, that I was somebody else, I was my shadow side or something. I don't know. I just became this strange person who just did what she was told even when she knew it hurt other people.

Shankar Vedantam: That weekend, awful though it was, was the start of Jane's journey to find out which script she wanted in her head, and which ones to discard. She realized she had spent a lifetime going along with the wishes of other people, suppressing her own needs, dancing away from difficult conversations. Jane began to ask herself questions that many people spend a lifetime avoiding. Who am I? Who do I want to be?

Jane Mickelson: I started letting more of my own wishes determine what I was going to do rather than always being concerned primarily by what would my parents think if they knew about this?

Shankar Vedantam: Susan Crawford was Jane's best friend during this period of transformation.

Susan Crawford: We lived in the same dorm, a couple of doors down. And I think we both had the same thought during our freshman orientation week which was that this was not the place for either one of us.

Shankar Vedantam: As they went through college, Jane discovered a new sight to herself. She and Susan even developed a rebellious streak.

Susan Crawford: The president of our college commissioned a sculptor to do a piece called "The Spirit of Woman" which Jane and I always call "the golden bagel" and it was roughly shaped like a bagel. So at first we just thought we would put dishwasher liquid in the water of the fountain and just have it bubble up. And then we decided no, that's just too tame and we went out and got a lot of lighter fluid and just coated the whole thing with lighter fluid and then threw a match at it and it went up in a sheet of blue flame. It was glorious.

Shankar Vedantam: Jane initially didn't tell Susan about what happened that crazy weekend. But one evening, after they had both graduated from college, Jane finally revealed the truth.

Susan Crawford: I couldn't remember her being a little I won't say reluctant, but being a little careful about telling the story. And I do recall her saying, “I don't know why I didn't tell you this earlier. I think I was so embarrassed but now I'd like to tell you.”

Shankar Vedantam: Susan, of course, was shocked. The Jane she had come to know seemed so different than the innocent teenager Philip had manipulated. They both puzzled over what might have prompted Philip to invent such a crazy story.

Susan Crawford: What was this all about and why did he need Jane? Did he interpret her graciousness as weakness that he could prey upon?

Shankar Vedantam: To this day, Jane wonders the same thing.

Jane Mickelson: I start now to think back to the time when he came to our house to get to know me as almost an audition to kind of assure himself that I would go along with this. I don't know.

Shankar Vedantam: We tracked down Philip to his college. We found a photograph of him from 1962. He's wearing a tie and jacket, he has dark hair, the hint of a smile and an earnest expression. We couldn't find much else about him and his life after his college graduation. We don't know why he staged the marriage. Given the hints of mental instability that marked his weekend with Jane, we decided not to identify him by his real name. Jane now lives in California and has been happily married for more than 40 years. She has kids and grandkids she dotes on and she has a radio show about mythology, it's called Questing, and she's really passionate about it. She's become an entirely different person than the naive girl she was that weekend in college.

Jane Mickelson: I've turned out to be quite not forceful, but I stick up for myself. I stick up for my family and my friends and I feel like a pretty strong person at this. In fact, I feel like a really strong person in my life.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Autumn Barnes, Ryan Katz, Kristen Wong, Laura Corral and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero today is my mom, Vatsala Vedantam. She gave me my love for language, but she also showed me through example what it means to carve out a life for yourself. She broke many rules and thought for herself. She challenged the scripts inside her own head, and taught me I could do the same. This episode has made me think of all the ways the world teaches us how to act and think, and the vital importance of learning to be your own person. I'm so grateful to my mother for starting me on that journey. Some of our best stories come to us from our listeners. If you have a story like the one you heard today that you are willing to share with a Hidden Brain audience, please find a quiet room and record a short voice memo on your phone. Email it to us at ideas@hiddenbrain.org using the subject line, Personal Story. The best stories reveal honesty, vulnerability, and moments of transformation. We are especially interested in stories that left you with more questions than answers. Again, that email address is ideas@hiddenbrain.org. If you like the story, please be sure to share this episode with three friends. If they're new to podcasting, please show them how to subscribe to our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you next week.

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