The House of Dreams (Ep. 106)

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The “House of Dreams”: the Dubner farm in upstate New York, circa 1960.

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “The House of Dreams.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript here; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

In this episode, Stephen Dubner returns to his childhood home in Quaker Street, N.Y. It’s a drafty farmhouse on thirty-six acres where his parents, a pair of Brooklyn-born Jews who converted to Catholicism, raised eight devout children. The house, Dubner says, felt like the eleventh member of the family. Which is why his family took it so hard after his mother finally sold the house and the very bad thing happened to it. A while back, Dubner wrote a New York Times essay about this terrible turn of events. But now, as the podcast explains, there’s been a new development — a “boomerang story,” if you will.

(Some of) the Dubner family, clockwise from left: Stephen on Mona’s lap, Ann, Marthe, Gary, Dad, Peter, Patty, Joe, Beth.

As a teenager, Dubner stocked shelves at Wolfe’s Market, and in this episode he calls up Chris Wolfe, still a family friend, to talk about the moment he found out what had happened to the house:

DUBNER: I came into the store, and I said, “Hey Chris.” We were catching up, and I think I just said something like, you know, “How’s the house?” And you said, “You don’t know?” And I said, “Know what?” And you’re like, “Oh boy.”

You’ll also hear from Dubner’s oldest sister, Mona DeMay, and from Quaker Street residents Aaron Yerdon (check out Yerdon’s symphonic metal band here) and Danica Linn about “The House of Dreams” and what it has become.


I was fairly surprised and disappointed at the judgmental, derogatory, sex-panicked tone of this story. Underlying the whole theme of the house (sorry, The House) being "perverted" was an implication that consenting adults congregating at a private venue for sexual purposes is the most morally corrupt thing imaginable, as though being used to house a sex club was just as bad as the house being used to cook meth or traffic child slaves. The obsession with purity, with the right kind of people vs the wrong kind of people... how grossly sanctimonious! Professional sex workers and facilities can provide valuable and necessary services for some people. Sure, they can be seedy and disgusting just like any industry, but the assumption here was that kinky sex - I'll say it again, by consenting adults - is necessarily a perverse, shameful state of affairs whose very existence is so offensive that Dubner & family are actively angry at its presence in their lives. For a show that so often looks at controversial issues from a sane and rational perspective, I was very disappointed in the knee-jerk sex-negativity in this story.



I think most people would consider a sex club to be seedy and morally corrupt. I certainly do. (I don't think I should have to say this, but personally, I LIKE sex. I don't consider myself obsessed with purity, but I do believe that casual sex with random people to be immoral.)


My comment yesterday seems to have got lost but the point is that this is a personal story about the deeply-held moral views of Dubner's parents. and the dissapointment that the family felt. They are entitled to their views. Some of us find this to be a touching story.

Seminymous Coward

That was a rather odd look into what pretty much amounts to puritanical fun-hating and bizarrely assumed malice.

Blaise Pascal

I think MsLeading said what I was thinking. Would it have bothered you as much if the house had been turned into some other legal small business that was distasteful to you but not sexual? If your old bedroom housed the small offset presses used to print a white supremacist/anti-semitic newsletter?

It seemed to me that it would have been in keeping with the nature of the program for you to have tried to interview the owners of the sex club, to air their view on the matter. I would have liked to hear why they chose that house, and why they decided to leave it.

At best, you said you went there, did not mention that you were a journalist, but rather a previous inhabitant, and got blown off.


I likewise don't see anything wrong with the sex club. Far worse things could have happened. At least the place is still a house, isn't it, and not a suburban development or strip mall?

But I do have to argue a bit on one point, where you say "So, today, a twenty-five-pound bag of manure mulch can sell for about fifteen dollars." Now that's strictly true. My yuppie neighbors in the McMansion down the road (yeah, suburban blight is stretching out its ugly tentacles) probably buy the stuff, just as they carefully rake up fallen leaves, stuff them into plastic trash bags (about 40 of them) and leave them out for the trash* pickup, instead of making a compost pile. Which just proves the old adage about fools and their money, because there are about a dozen horse owners within say half a mile, who would gladly give them manure by the pickup load.

*The trash company, though, has rules about how much trash they will take each week, so the pile of bags has been there for a couple of months, decreasing by two or three bags a week.



This was possibly the most pointless Freakanomics story ever. First, there's nothing interesting that happened. Second, there was nothing to be learned from this story.

That aside, I don't see how its any business of yours what legal activity is going on in a house that you don't own and I'm appalled at Stephen's puritanical attitude.


I found this episode of Freakonomics preposterous, petty and verging on bigotry. Your podcast is one of my favourite, this is what makes the story of your house particularly difficult to listen to. With so many people sleeping on the street, people who do not have a house nor a country they can call home, your lament about the destination of use of what used to be your house seems obscene, to say the least. If you wanted to keep your house so badly, you shouldn't have sold it. And I really don't understand the problem you seem to have with consenting adults paying to have sex. Get over it. Probably you did, I don't know because I just couldn't bring myself to listen to the end.

I am really looking forward to listening to your next podcast. I love you work, love the stories you tell, the angle you choose. I'll forget about this last one.

Have a great break,



Did I really just hear this podcast, or was it all a bad dream? Either way it was awful. By that I mean truly, remarkably awful. Here's my synopsis: I used to live in a nice house. Then it became a sex club. Now it's a nice house again. The end.

But the broadcast would have simply been an innocent misfire if it wasn't for Dubner and his sister's intolerance. That took it from dull to downright obnoxious.

Let those people do what they want with the house. It's theirs, after all. You have no right to approve or disapprove of their decisions.


Agreed. The sex-negativity is appalling. It's nothing whatever to do withi economics, everything to Puritan sexual ideals. I wish Stephen and his sister the best with their blindly simplistic and narrow view of sexuality, conflating "purity" with the absence of sex.


I'm so glad it wasn't just me!

Chris Hubbard

I normally love this podcast. Today I'm super disappointed and no longer quite the fan I used to be. I'm almost tempted to just delete it. I'm offended and bummed out....

Some people bought "your" house and did something that agree with your moral standard, and suddenly their "Jerks" What the hell man.

I can understand the surprise, ok. I would be too if I found this out about an old home of mine. But the judgmental tone in this story is pretty strong for me. I don't listen to the podcast because I want to know your personal values, and opinions of other peoples choice of lifestyle. I'm not a swinger myself, but who cares?

Hope you address this publicly and clear up any misunderstandings we might have now....


Perhaps my reaction is partly due to listening to 'House of Dreams" immediately after Dan Savage's podcast, but I must say I was quite put off by what I felt was a smug and judgmental tone throughout.

So your childhood house was sold and turned into a sex club for consenting adults. And... why is this a problem? One allows for a certain nostalgia about a beloved home, and I might have been sympathetic if a terrible crime had taken place. But you seem to be bemoaning the fact that people had SEX there. The sort of sex which you do not approve of. Horror of horrors!

Besides the fact that it's none of your business and shamefully sex-negative, one wonders about your reaction for two reasons. First, having come from a large family it seems close to certain that SOMEONE was having sex in your house, albeit not the kind that gives you the vapors. Second, what exactly does this have to do with economics? If there was a larger point to the story, other than your gloating about the sex club's departure, it has escaped me. As a "boomerang story" I feel certain there are just as many examples to be had of the "bad guys" winning in the end.

I usually find Freakonomics interesting and challenging. Your shrewd analyses of value and incentive are typically quite engaging. But this value judgement on the personal lives of others makes you come off as some sort of Victorian prude.



I do not care what everyone else is saying about this episode. I absolutely loved it. It brought tears to my eyes at the end. I loved hearing more about Stephen's life and his childhood home. And I loved the redemption in the end of something their family treasured so much.


This episode was disappointing. With ownership comes the freedom to have the culture you want in your home. Sexuality is legal and fun. There are risks but they are manageable. Different people have different preferences. Some are common, some less so. This story was no more than finger pointing at people who are different.


I pretty much agree with the majority opinion in these comments - the show was jarring, judgmental, unpleasant, and pretty far afield from the usual subject matter of the show.

I totally get & understand the longing to revisit one's childhood home; mine, too, was sold 23 years ago and I've not been inside those walls since. I dream about it regularly, as it was obviously a terribly important place to me. I miss it, and I am a bit resentful that I can't revisit it. So in that sense, I understand Stephen's longing and sense of ownership and nostalgia.

As a recovering Catholic and a gay man, the part of Stephen's story that was, I think, intended to show the house as idyllic and full of love actually made me cringe. Prayer sessions on the front lawn - if I was driving by and saw that, I'd think THAT was strange. All a matter of different perspectives.

Which is what made the sex-phobic (and I use the word thoughtfully) aspect of the story so jarring. I would likely never visit a sex club like the house became, but I have no issues with such a place - it's just not for me. Other people like it, it's legal, so they can have at it. Also, was Stephen really surprised when the sex club owner refused to let the kids inside? I'd consider him a RESPONSIBLE adult since he was keeping the kids from seeing things they shouldn't.

In sum, I think I had the exact opposite reaction than what seemed to be intended - I was ambivalent about the sex club and cringed during the description of the "idyllic" childhood. Just my reaction, but I see others felt similarly regarding the sex-phobia. And, as someone else here commented, delving into the sex club aspect - the business, the location, the decision to move, etc - would have been much more in keeping with Freakonomics subject matter.



I've lived in Quaker Street for about 16 years, and remember the gossip about that house. Most of the folks I knew were mostly bemused by it, but it was certainly deemed a scandal in the mostly conservative community. I was in the Quaker Street Volunteer Fire Department when we did a controlled burn of the dangerously dilapidated barn (just out of the photo on the left). The police couldn't shut the operation down, but the building code enforcement people did force the removal of the barn (it was genuinely unsafe). I have no idea which fantasies, if any, were staged in the barn. The fire chief was clearly delighted to see it go, though.


This is not an economics article - its a personal religious essay in which the Dubner family express their sexual phobia. Aside from its inappropriateness as a Freakanomics podcast , it's offensive in its presumption that all listeners have (or should have) the same anti-sex attitude. It’s clear that their livid anger and personal affront is due solely to their sexually repressed attitudes. Such outrage would not have resulted from the house being converted to an antiques shop.

It’s great the Dubners have fond memories of their family home, and it would be interesting to hear their personal beliefs if they were relevant to an article about economics. But I do not subscribe to an economics podcast to be instructed in appropriate sexual mores. This article’s censure of adult sexual behavior as being de facto anti-family and desecrating to home life is myopic and offensive.

The insertion of moral essay into this stream is inappropriate - and that would be true even if I personally were not offended by the content. I would suggest that Stephen Dubner start a separate blog for his family stories and personal moral beliefs.



I was very disappointed with this episode. It wasn't a story about economics; instead it was a bunch of prudish moralizing about how the previous owners of a property can somehow feel personally insulted by the perfectly legal business run in said property by its later owners.

The anger and hurt the narrator and his sister somehow manage to feel are perfect examples of the ridiculous sex-negativity of American culture. If their house had instead become a crack den or an illegal gambling parlor, do you think they would have been so horribly scandalized? Would they have asked the police what can be "done about it"? Of course not. This kind of baseless moral outrage is reserved for victimless non-crimes such as operating a 100% legal sex club.

If sex clubs aren't your thing then fine, don't go to one. But save the histrionics for something worthwhile.


I find it ironic that everyone is complaining about this podcast not being related to economics, yet there are PLENTY of past podcasts that haven't been specifically linked to economics either. In case you have forgotten, this is Dubner's blog--he can do whatever he wants with it in telling people's stories, just as economics seeks to do. Am I to understand that many of you are going to complain that the episode is not related to economics ONLY when it applies the religious and moral understanding of the author with which you tend to disagree rather than all the other episodes unrelated to economics that present a more post-modern, relativist point of view because it does NOT ask you to reexamine your own moral code? Or is it that Freakonomics is allowed to call people out on irrational behavior in their personal lives when it comes to finances and efficiency, but a discussion on the moral framework that defines people's choices is somehow off limits? Try some intellectual consistency, please. But then again, most of these listeners, though not economists, think they know the story of how economics explains human behavior because they read a blog casually...