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.


Nick_Canada

The judgemental attitude and discriminatory comments in this episode were quite uncharacteristic and very disappointing. This is one of my favourite podcasts this is my first time feeling utter disapproval bordering on outrage. Consenting adults engaging in legal activities...where is the problem here??? Poly-amory/non-monogamy/prostitution/swinging/swapping/fun parties: whatever was going at that house is likely to become more acceptable and more explicitly legal in the coming years and shame-ridden puritans are going to have to live with that.

Rewind 30 years and the same story might have been told about a gay couple moving into someone's childhood home. Jump back another 30 and perhaps it's a black family moving into a good (white) town. The fact that Dubner and the producers of this podcast failed to see the bigotry and hatefulness here is shocking. Wake up, guys. Dubner, you are certainly entitled to your views and you can't be blamed for your sex-negative Catholic indoctrination, but there was someone on your team should have vetted this better and squashed the story. The whole team bears responsibility for letting this go to air, and I believe you should apologize to your listeners for the blatant prejudice your program exhibited.

There are still racists and homophopes among us, but at least today most of them know when to shut up. Dubner, take note.

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opennhonest

I always listen to Freakanomics podcast while i clean my home on Saturday. Today i found myself disturbed by the closed-minded comments of Dubner and his sister. I found myself agreeing with his mother. As a devote Catholic she spoke very rationally noting that the house was not their family, but brick and mortar. As an old farm house I'd presume they were not the first people to live there or the last. If vegetarians moved from a home and a butcher shop moved in, the vegetarians would not be just in petitioning for the butcher shop to be shut down. Once a property is sold, you no longer have control of it's new character.

Gavin Sweeney

Hi,
Firstly, let me say that I love your podcast. I think it's creative, thought-provoking and insightful. You and your team should be commended for the consistent high quality of your output. That being said, I have to agree with some of the comments above: this podcast was self-indulgent, judgmental and worst of all, pointless. Stephen, I'm not interested in the religious hang-ups of you and your family. I greatly admire you as a journalist but I think this podcast was a mistake. I look forward to the return to your exemplary reporting in the future.
A fan,
Gavin

Nick_Canada

Gavin, I already gave you a thumbs up but I wanted to emphasize my approval of this very eloquent and fair-minded comment. Well said!

Caleb B

So, I could not help the slow, almost Grinch-like, grin that appeared on my face when I read the comments section.

Write a blog that appeals to an audience with a low level of repugnance...but don't be surprised when they don't find the idea of a sex club in your happy, religious, childhood home to be repugnant.

(To the comment section: it was the 11th member of the family! How would YOU react if your loving, consenting, mother decided to join this club and be the glory hole girl for five days a week? Yeah, I thought so. Some things are, and always will be, revolting as a thought. It's called being human..)

Gavin Sweeney

To be honest Caleb, I'm not entirely sure what your point is here.

I would imagine most people don't find the idea of their mother engaging in sexually explicit acts particularly appealing; when you add the implicit infidelity it becomes particularly unappealing. However, any discomfort that might arise, I would think, would be derived from a desire not to sexualise your mother, rather than stemming from some trumped-up sense of morality and is not equivalent to what was described in this podcast.

And as for becoming a "glory hole girl", well I don't think any such thing was mentioned in the podcast and perhaps the mind of an individual who could conjure such vivid imagery would feel more comfortable encased in such a house of depravity.

Ronald

Next Dubner's going to do a podcast about how marriage is supposed to be between one man and one woman.

AH

I'm not a racist nor am I trying to be a jerk but I'm sure commenters will think otherwise. The first thing that came to mind after listening to this episode was " White People Problems." Long time listener. Keep up the good work. (Minus this episode.)

Beth

Loved this podcast! Did not get the uptight or judgmental feelings that some saw. It seems completely rational to not want your childhood home to be a Swinger Farm.

Christian the Lion

Inspired by the example set by Dubner and his sister, I've decided to follow up on the current residents of every apartment I ever rented to make sure I approve of the new residents' lifestyle choices. If there's anything going on in those apartments that I don't like, I may be forced to publicly castigate the perpetrators.

After that, I may also investigate the current owners of every car, bike, piece of furniture, and book I've ever sold. If I find out there are any womanizers, racists, or tax cheats among them, I can't be held responsible for my actions. How dare anyone besmirch my former property with their disgusting conduct!

Kevin Shmevin

I'm glad to hear everyone felt basically the same way as me about this, but I'm going to add my comment anyway because Freakonomics has been my favorite podcast for years, but this episode was the worst podcast episode I've ever listened to, and I want my favorite podcast back.

I get that you don't like the idea of your childhood house being used for a sex club. That seems like a weird thing to care about to me, but whatever. What's not fine is that the entire story of this episode takes 3 seconds to tell: "The house I grew up in was turned in to a sex club for a while, but now a nice couple lives there." The rest of the 22 minutes was just filled with judgement and indignation.

Maybe you could have tried to get some different perspectives on the issue, or look in to the economics of it. (Why did they eventually sell the house? Were they losing money?) Anything other than "Ewww! Casual sex! Horrible!"

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Outraged Listener

Forget the sex. Striped shirts with plaid pants! The horror!

G Marcus

I stumbled across your show the other evening, on KVMR out of Nevada City, CA - it was about babies and what they know and included an interview with a French researcher. I was unable to listen to the entire show and want to do that. Is that possible? How? I also listened last night, and missed the end of that show (rural radio reception is not consistent during storms) which was also very interesting to me. I am a new convert to your obviously popular work.

Moodylampy

hmmm. disappointingly christian biased - which was a huge surprise given the previous output.

yes, a sex club is perhaps immoral...
but this was so christian right wing sounding i had to turn it off before half way.

maybe it got better but i couldn't bear to listen!

Morgan

I agree, this was (unexpectedly, I'm a fan!) terrible. I only kept listening to hear what I supposed the ending to be - that in further researching the history you had discovered that the house was really first occupied as a bordello or the like and that you discovered that your puritanical thoughts about what is 'nice' and 'not nice' were the real issue, not that you pooh-pooh the (legal) activities of the next owners after your own family. Maybe the last 3 minutes of this story was cut off? Less of a 'boomerang' story, more of a 'lead balloon'. Meh x infinity.

Nasty One

Worst episode ever

TonyG

We need some sort of reaction from Dubner - whatever it may be, I'd like to hear him react to these comments. Does he see no problem with how the story was received (here, at least)? Does he think we misinterpreted it? Does he defend it?

I know it's his show, and I realize it's FREE to us, but I am curious to learn what he thinks about the reaction. HIS reaction will also inform my future listening - meaning, if I listen, I'll know where he's coming from a bit more. And that's a good thing.