Aug 29, 2016

The Girl Who Doesn't Exist

In today’s episode, we meet a young woman from Texas, born and raised, who can’t prove that she exists.

Alecia Faith Pennington was born at home, homeschooled, and never visited a dentist or a hospital. By both chance and design she is completely invisible in the eyes of the state. We follow Faith as she struggles to free herself from one restrictive world only to find that she is trapped in another. In her journey to prove her American citizenship she attempts to answer the age-old question: who am I?

Reported and produced by Alexandra Leigh Young. Produced by Andy Mills and Brenna Farrell. Special thanks to Savannah Escobar, Nick Reed, Chris Van Deusen, David Glenn, Zen Allegra, Russell Whelan, Rachel Coleman and Lake Travis Zipline Adventures.

Correction: An earlier version of this episode's web copy incorrectly stated that Faith Pennington was born on a farm. Pennington was born at home in Houston, TX, then she and her family moved to a farm in Kerrville, TX, where she was raised. 

Faith’s original Youtube video is posted here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPtpKNyaO0U

For updates on Faith’s journey, visit her Facebook page Help Me Prove It: https://www.facebook.com/Help-Me-Prove-It-882732628415890/

Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.    

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: My name is Alecia Faith Pennington. And I am a U.S. citizen by birth.

 

ROBERT: We're gonna start ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I was home-schooled my entire life.

 

ROBERT: ... with a cry for help.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I'm now 19 years old, and I'm unable to get a driver's license, get a job, go to college, get on a plane, get a bank account, or vote.

 

ROBERT: This is the story of a woman who became sort of famous ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I didn't pick this situation for myself, and I don't know how to fix it. I don't know how to get out of this.

 

ROBERT: ... for being invisible. For having no identity whatsoever.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: If you've been through a similar situation or know anyone who can help, please contact me.

 

JAD: This story comes to us from our reporter Alexandra Young.

 

ALEXANDRA YOUNG: And the young woman at the center of this story ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I was born in Texas.

 

ALEXANDRA: ... is Alecia Faith Pennington. Goes by Faith.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: In -- born in Houston, and then we moved to Kerrville when I was real little. Like, I don't even remember Houston at all.

 

ALEXANDRA: She grew up in a really small town, about 45 minutes outside of San Antonio.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: And it's kind of country. We lived right outside of Kerrville, actually. So it was even more in the country than Kerrville is.

 

ALEXANDRA: Faith's parents were very conservative, very religious. And they had created a place for their family that was separate from the rest of the world.

 

LISA PENNINGTON: Well, hi there. Welcome to the Pennington Point. I'm Lisa, and I just wanted to say a quick hello before we go ...

 

ALEXANDRA: Faith's mom, Lisa, actually kept a video blog of life in the Pennington family.

 

LISA PENNINGTON: Right now, the sun is shining, the birds are singing. It's so peaceful out here in the country.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: So we had, like, maybe like five acres of land.

 

LISA PENNINGTON: This is our front porch. We bought this old farmhouse about 10 years ago, and started ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: And we had a little home farm. We had goats, chickens. We had rabbits at one point. A cow that we would, like, raise, you know, we'd butcher it and then freeze, like, all the meat and then eat it over the year.

 

ROBERT: So was this sort of approaching self-sufficiency? Or was it -- was it ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I think what my parents wanted to do was kind of reach that self-sufficient point, but they also really wanted to give their -- something their kids to teach them, like, responsibility.

 

LISA PENNINGTON: Every day before you could go play, you had to do a chore. There was a chore -- we had a chart and it would have the kids' names down one side ...

 

ROBERT: How many of the -- how many of you were there by then?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Nine children. Grace, Jacob, Hope, Faith, Patience, Dona, Adam, Elijah and Levi.

 

ALEXANDRA: Ooh! Got that down pat.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: [laughs]

 

ROBERT: Where were you in the pecking order?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Fourth.

 

ROBERT: Oh, right in the middle.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Mm-hmm. Middle Child Syndrome.

 

ALEXANDRA: And her parents, says Faith.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: They were kind, but very firm. Very strict. A lot of rules for how you're supposed to dress, and how you're supposed to look, and how you're supposed to carry yourself.

 

ALEXANDRA: What -- what were some of those rules?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: For the girls, you had to wear dresses and -- with super-high collars. And we always had to wear sleeves. No sleeveless. Kind of Amish, but not like that conservative. And we all had really, really, really long hair. We didn't cut our hair. And we just didn't have a lot of access to things that they didn't want us to have access to. We didn't have internet until, like, you were, like, 18 and could get on the -- allowed on the internet for, like, limited sites and stuff.

 

ALEXANDRA: What -- what about television? Did you guys have that?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: No. None of the kids watched television.

 

LISA PENNINGTON: If they love electronics, then they don't -- they tend to not have as much of a passion for learning and working and their Bible reading, and ...

 

ALEXANDRA: They didn't get to watch a lot of movies growing up. They only listened to Christian music.

 

ROBERT: Were you home schooled or were you -- did you go to public school or how did that work?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: All home schooled.

 

ROBERT: All home schooled.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Every single one.

 

ROBERT: So does that mean that you were, like, always on the -- on the property, or ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: We'd go to church off and on, various times. So we'd go out for that kind of stuff, but just super rarely. Like, we didn't ...

 

ROBERT: So even -- so mostly you were with your family, then?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Mm-hmm.

 

ROBERT: And was just kind of a moral thing? Like -- like, we are trying to keep you holy, and ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I think they just wanted to keep, like, the things that they thought were, like, sinful in the world away from their kids, and try to, like, keep them safe and everything. Doing their best.

 

ROBERT: But they stuck to it. So if you said, "I want this," they would say, "No," and they win.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: They'd say "Nope." Mm-hmm. Yeah, arguing was not allowed.

 

ALEXANDRA: But Faith actually, she was always just kind of pushing that line just a little bit.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I am definitely a lot more stubborn and a lot more free-spirited.

 

ALEXANDRA: And right around her 18th birthday ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I just -- I don't know. I reached a point. Like a breaking point. With -- we were actually on, like, a little family meeting, and I was with the four oldest siblings. And my parents were kind of supposed to discuss things. And then my oldest sister asked -- was asking my mom, she was considering getting a job and kind of asking advice or permission if she could, and they were like, "No. That brings in too much outside influence."

 

ROBERT: But she was 23.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Yeah.

 

ALEXANDRA: Hmm.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: And then my brother said he wanted more internet because he was doing work for our church, and they're like, "I'm sorry, we can't do that," you know? You could be looking at things online and you know, we'd just -- you'd have to shut it off. And then Hope, the one that's right next to me, she was 21, she was asking for a phone. And my parents were like, "Nah, you're not old enough to have a phone." And so I was just like, "Wow!" You know, I'm looking at my older siblings and they have nothing ahead of them. We're not allowed to get jobs, not allowed to go to school. They have no life except living here on this little farm. They have no future. After that night I decided I couldn't live like that. I couldn't. I was not gonna turn out like that. So I had an iPod, and I went down to my parents room and I snuck -- when my mom wasn't there, and I snuck my grandpa's phone number. And since he had an iPhone I could text him over wi-fi from my iPod. So I did and I said, "Hey, when y'all come visit next weekend, I want to go back with you. I need help. Like, I need to get away from here. Can you take me back home with you?" And he said he would.

 

ROBERT: So Grandpa is not of the same mind as your folks.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Well, they weren't really on board with how my parents did things, but they always kept coming to see us. And so I knew that they cared about me, and so I felt safe to reach out to them.

 

ALEXANDRA: So the next week her grandpa and her grandma show up at the farm.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: And ...

 

ROBERT: And your plan was to just, you know -- just -- what were you going to -- bolt? How were you going to do this? I assume ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I wanted to bolt.

 

ROBERT: Yeah, I know. But so ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I just wanted to go. But my grandpa was like, "You need to ask them first. You need to ask permission." So I did, and then they said, "No, you can't go with them." And then so I was like, "Okay," because I couldn't argue. And then I said -- or they approached -- my grandparents approached me and were like, "So do you still want to go?" Or -- and I finally decided that I did.

 

ROBERT: As far as you know, you're the only one so far in the family history that might dare to act on this -- these convictions.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Mm-hmm. No one had ever done anything like that in our family before. So the next morning, September 24th, 2014, my mom was on her morning run and my dad was in his office. He was always there working in the morning. So none of them were in the house. And my grandparents said goodbye to the rest of the kids, then I just walked out the door with them.

 

ROBERT: With a -- luggage? Or just with your ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Just one suitcase. Yeah. My grandpa texted my mom and was like, "We're taking Faith with us, just wanted you to know." And then my mom texted him and said, "Don't go anywhere yet. I'm coming back."

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: She had texted my dad, and then they -- they both came and tried to get me to get out of the car. They were like, "You have to get out of the car." And I was like, "I don't have to." And like, "Well, you have to because we're telling you to." I'm like, "Well, no." So they got in, and they actually asked my grandparents to get out. They were like, "Can you get out of the car and we'll get in so we can talk to her?"

 

ROBERT: So you were alone in the car with your parents then? That's -- and all the safety goes away right here."

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Mm-hmm. The only thing I had on my side is that I was buckled in the car and refused to get out. I think they were just kind of shocked. I was so torn. I mean, it felt like I was just melting.

 

ROBERT: And what was it that kept you in the seat?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I think it was just telling myself over and over that I knew it was the right thing to do, even though it didn't feel like it. I had to take control of my life. And after a while, they -- my grandparents were like, "We have to go. Like, we need to leave now." And so ...

 

ALEXANDRA: They left. Just drove away.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Mm-hmm.

 

ROBERT: So these were like -- this is -- this is, what, eight people? Eight plus two. So this is 10 people that you are ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Yeah. They're my entire world. Like, yeah.

 

JENNY ELENIS: I was astonished that she had the boldness to carry out that plan.

 

ALEXANDRA: This is Jenny Elenis, Faith's aunt, her mother's sister, who like her grandparents didn't really subscribe to the Pennington worldview. But she would visit them from time to time at the farm.

 

JENNY ELENIS: You know for Faith, it's even more than just the boldness of leaving her family. She believed she was walking into this world that was bad, that was potentially going to harm her.

 

ALEXANDRA: So that first night ...

 

JENNY ELENIS: She gets to my parents house.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: My grandparents said, "Hey, you can sleep in this room."

 

JENNY ELENIS: And there's a TV in the guestroom.

 

ALEXANDRA: And they just toss a remote and leave her alone and said ...

 

JENNY ELENIS: You can watch whatever you want.

 

ALEXANDRA: Now Faith ...

 

JENNY ELENIS: She had never been allowed to pick her own TV shows.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: No.

 

JENNY ELENIS: And so she -- she turns it on.

 

[TELEVISION TURNS ON IN BACKGROUND]

 

JENNY ELENIS: And she said it was like a -- like a gardening show or a home improvement show or something.

 

ALEXANDRA: And she's sitting there thinking ...

 

JENNY ELENIS: I don't know if this is bad for me.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Exactly. Should I be watching this? Because that's kind of what my parents did. They were -- they would kind of dictate what was right, what was wrong, you know? When someone would do something, they would be like, "Okay, that's wrong," or like, "Okay, that's right."

 

ALEXANDRA: And now that moral compass was gone.

 

JENNY ELENIS: She suddenly wasn't sure what was good and what was bad anymore. And 19 is a tough place to step into the world being that naive. You know, she was asking me about sex. Like, how do you learn? What do you -- I don't know anything.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I didn't know anything.

 

ALEXANDRA: Even the most basic social norms.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Like, I don't know how I'm supposed to act.

 

ALEXANDRA: When she'd hang out with her cousin or other people her own age.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I didn't know what I'm supposed to talk about. I didn't catch most of, like, the references they'd make.

 

ALEXANDRA: All these other teenagers would be talking about ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Shows.

 

ALEXANDRA: Boys.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Music.

 

ALEXANDRA: Movies.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: School.

 

ALEXANDRA: And Faith?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I had no idea.

 

ALEXANDRA: She wanted to join this world we all live in, even in the most simple ways. She wanted to get a job and learn to drive, have an apartment. But she couldn't.

 

JENNY ELENIS: She didn't, of course, have a driver's license.

 

ALEXANDRA: No. Plus, she didn't have a Social Security number.

 

ROBERT: Oh!

 

JENNY ELENIS: Didn't have the birth certificate.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: No.

 

ROBERT: Well, you were born. Didn't -- when you were born, didn't they say, "Okay, well this is the hospital, we'll ..."

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Wasn't in a hospital. It was all home birth.

 

ROBERT: Oh!

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Plus they specifically sought out midwives that would agree to file no records.

 

ROBERT: Why would you want to do that?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: There's this whole kind of way of thinking it's called -- what's it called? Sovereignty?

 

ALFRED ADASK: If you take some of these documents as they exist, they've got hooks in them.

 

ALEXANDRA: So as I dug into this story, I actually talked to a bunch of people who ...

 

[CLIP: The birth certificate seemed like a paper of ownership to me.]

 

ALEXANDRA: For political or religious or just privacy reasons, don't want this kind of documentation from the government.

 

[CLIP: It's definitely been used for a measure of control.]

 

ALEXANDRA: Now Faith's parents, who actually wouldn't talk to me for this story ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: They're not specifically a part of that movement. But my dad kind of adopted some of those ideas, that the government should not have a number assigned to us.

 

ALEXANDRA: They purposefully raised Faith and her eight siblings to be outside of the system. And that's probably something they thought of as a gift. I guess the thinking is that Faith would be free from the rules of society.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Clearly, my parents did what they did out of, like, the best that they thought they could do. So I mean, I'm not gonna get mad anybody for doing what they think they should do, but ...

 

ALEXANDRA: To Faith it didn't feel like freedom. It actually felt like prison. And this is where Faith's journey really began. Faith and her aunt and grandma, they went online, started poking around. And ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: We realize that the first thing you need is a birth certificate. Yes.

 

ROBERT: Oh, so you start at the beginning. So let's get you born.

 

JENNY ELENIS: Right.

 

ALEXANDRA: So ...

 

JENNY ELENIS: She applies to the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: A government office where they keep track of, like, births, deaths, marriages, adoptions.

 

JENNY ELENIS: And the Bureau of Vital Statistics does a search not only of that name, but of any, like, Jane Doe babies born in that area.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: You know, to make sure that you weren't stolen at birth from some other parent or something like that.

 

ALEXANDRA: But they couldn't find anything.

 

JENNY ELENIS: So they said the next step is to go to court. So my mom contacts the court. And they wanted three pieces of information proving her birth facts.

 

ROBERT: What were they?

 

JENNY ELENIS: Well, there was a sworn affidavit by my mother. A swearing that, you know, she was at her birth. So we got that one.

 

ROBERT: Okay.

 

ALEXANDRA: So they needed two more documents.

 

JENNY ELENIS: She could get a doctor's records, but she doesn't have any.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I've never been to the hospital.

 

ROBERT: Really?

 

ALEXANDRA: Faith says she's never been that sick. Never even had an accident.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Never been to the dentist.

 

ROBERT: Never been to the dentist?

 

JENNY ELENIS: No school records.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I had never even set foot inside a school.

 

ALEXANDRA: Oh, wow!

 

ROBERT: Bank? Any savings account?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: No.

 

JENNY ELENIS: You can't get a bank account without a social.

 

ALEXANDRA: What about immunizations?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Mm-mm. My dad was super against all that.

 

ALEXANDRA: One of the court clerks asked if she had ever been baptized, because the certificate that you get when you're baptized in a lot of churches can work as one of the three pieces of evidence.

 

JAD: All right, okay.

 

ALEXANDRA: But it turns out the baptismal record didn't have her birthday on it, so it didn't count.

 

JAD: D'oh!

 

ROBERT: You -- did you ever go to the library and get a library card?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Nope. You can't get a library card without an ID.

 

ROBERT: Did you ever get any mail addressed to your name at your parents house?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Yes, but it was all, you know, handwritten stuff. Which doesn't count.

 

ROBERT: So you have to go to the judge and say, what? What do you say to the judge?

 

JENNY ELENIS: Well, the judge won't listen. He just said, "We're not gonna hear the case, because you don't have enough to even -- for me to even consider."

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Because you have to have some kind of records.

 

JENNY ELENIS: You don't have enough proof.

 

ROBERT: So you're sitting there at a table and there's a lawyer sitting there opposite you, and you think, "So -- so I know I was born."

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Mm-hmm.

 

ROBERT: "I believe that I am this age."

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Mm-hmm.

 

ROBERT: "I was born in my house at such and such an address. Now, what do we do?" And he looks at you and says -- or she looks at you and says ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: "I've never seen this before."

 

ALEXANDRA: She's seen people undocumented, but not someone born in this country and visible to the state and the federal government.

 

JAD: Wait, but if you're born in America, you're an automatically a citizen. So shouldn't that just ...

 

ALEXANDRA: I mean, but it's not like when you're born there's, like, this halo floating over your house just letting everyone know. You have to prove it.

 

JAD: Yeah. Well then, couldn't she get a -- an immigration attorney to help?

 

ALEXANDRA: Well, no, not really. Because when an immigrant comes here from another country, they have this country of origin. And for Faith, in the eyes of the government, she has no country of origin. They just think of her as being from nowhere.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: So I was in -- just, like, I was stuck.

 

JAD: That's weird.

 

JENNY ELENIS: We called everyone, and we could not get help.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: And we'd get, like, a little bit of a lead. Like, maybe this will work. And we'd go up and we'd talk to somebody or we'd fill out a paper, we'd mail something in, or we'd call somebody or something, and just, like, you're rejected every time. You know, it just looked hopeless. It just made me feel like this is never gonna happen, you know?

 

ALEXANDRA: It got to the point where when she was at parties or just talking to people about her situation ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: They would say like, "Oh, what do you do?" I'd say, "Oh, I don't exist." And it would kind of start this, like, weird conversation, and it would actually start a lot of conversations for other people. And it would kind of help me to, like, navigate stuff. And so it actually kind of helped me figure how to socialize.

 

ALEXANDRA: It's just this funny little thing she could say. But when she was alone, it wasn't funny at all.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I went through a really dark time during that. I went through a lot of depression.

 

ALEXANDRA: How did your depression manifest in you? What -- what happened to you?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I was not self-harmful, but I was having a lot of suicidal thoughts. My family doesn't know, most of my friends don't even know. It's just -- felt like I was just floating in, like, in the middle of just sea of just so much stuff. You know, I didn't know who I was. I kind of felt like I didn't really exist at all.

 

ALEXANDRA: We're going to take a quick break and we'll be right back.

 

[RICARDO: Hello, this is Ricardo from beautiful Monroe, New York. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

 

[PAT WALTERS: Hey, everybody. Pat Walters here. I'm a producer at Radiolab, and I'm here because I need your help. This summer, I'm hosting a series of stories on the show and I have requests for those of you who spend a lot of time with kids: parents, aunts and uncles, teachers. We're looking for stories about what we're calling tiny moments of childhood brilliance.

 

PAT: Basically, I want to hear about those times when a kid you know did something that just made you lean back and say, "Whoa, how did they do that?" Maybe it was the moment that a kid you'd been reading to for months started reading back to you. Or maybe the kid was at piano lessons and you suddenly notice they were doing advanced math on the margin of their musical score. Or maybe the kid was in math class and you noticed they were writing music in the margin of their geometry homework. We're interested in those small, specific moments where a kid does something super-smart, but it doesn't have anything to do with a test. If you have a story, please share it with us and go to Radiolab.org/brilliance and record a short audio message for us. Again, that's Radiolab.org/brilliance. Thank you so much.]

 

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JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today ...

 

ROBERT: The story of a woman who became famous for being ...

 

JAD: Infamously invisible.

 

JENNY ELENIS: So she decided that the only solution was ...

 

[FAITH ON VIDEO: My name is Alecia Faith Pennington, and I am a US citizen by birth.]

 

JENNY ELENIS: ... to make this video.

 

[FAITH ON VIDEO: I was born at home, and my parents neglected to file birth certificate or a birth record of any kind.]

 

ALEXANDRA: She just figured ...

 

[FAITH ON VIDEO: I was home-schooled my entire life, so I have no school records.]

 

ALEXANDRA: Maybe there's somebody out there that has, you know, done this before.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: So I was like, "Well, let's give it a shot."

 

[FAITH ON VIDEO: I want to travel. I want to get an education. I want to just be a functioning American, but I can't until I can prove citizenship. If you've been through a similar situation or know anyone who can help, please contact me.]

 

ALEXANDRA: She put it up on YouTube.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: And then that was it. I didn't expect anyone to watch it. But my phone was just like notification after notification. It was, like, dinging and dinging and dinging. In the first week it had over 1.3 million views. Like, it -- I hadn't even, like, been on YouTube before that, let alone, like, posted a video. So it was crazy.

 

ALEXANDRA: It went up on Reddit, Twitter.

 

JENNY ELENIS: I remember seeing it on Yahoo!

 

ALEXANDRA: On the front of Snapchat Daily.

 

JENNY ELENIS: Oh my gosh!

 

ALEXANDRA: People just couldn't believe it. They were, like, can this seriously happen?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: It just took off.

 

ALEXANDRA: And then she just starts getting all these emails.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: It was insane. I was getting literally two emails every single second. That's not an exaggeration. I couldn't keep up with it. Like, I could not read all of them.

 

ALEXANDRA: Coming from, like, Germany and Israel.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Africa.

 

ALEXANDRA: Australia.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: India. Like, it went worldwide.

 

ALEXANDRA: And what were people saying? What did they email you about?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Oh, all kinds. Like ... "I was not only touched by your screen presence, but I'm also very infuriated and frustrated by the circumstances of your dilemma."

 

ALEXANDRA: I actually sat down with Faith while she read through a bunch of these emails.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: "Hello. I'm very intrigued by your story. I'm currently 23 years old ..."

 

ALEXANDRA: Some of them from home-schoolers.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: "Hello, Alecia. My name is Jose."

 

ALEXANDRA: Some from the children of immigrants who felt, like, a sense of solidarity.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: "I commend you for reaching out to the internet."

 

ALEXANDRA: But a lot of it was ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: "And I pray that you are able to get the documents you need." Just a lot of ton of encouragements saying, "I don't know how to help you, but I just want you to know I'm rooting for you. Like, don't give up."

 

ALEXANDRA: What did it feel like to -- to have eyes on you in that way?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: It was really empowering. Like, I didn't -- I didn't -- I wasn't very confident in who I was, so just to have so many people be like, "We're behind you?"

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I don't know. It felt really good to be recognized a little bit.

 

ALEXANDRA: But at the same time, it kind of made her more famously that woman who doesn't exist, the girl with no identity. And it didn't even solve her problem, because when people did offer advice, didn't really help.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Start working on not paying tax, they'll come to you. I got people who just had, you know, dumb ideas of what to do. "Hey Alecia, if I knew you I'd offer to marry you so you can gain citizenship."

 

ALEXANDRA: Many of them were marriage proposals.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I got a lot of proposals, actually. "I'll get you pregnant if that will help."

 

ALEXANDRA: Oh my ...

 

ALEXANDRA: Some of them not so subtle.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Those ones I'd just, like, delete. I'm like, "Nope, nope."

 

ALEXANDRA: And also inside of those emails and comments, there was a conversation about whether what her parents did was right.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: This one is from like the opposite perspective. It says, "Her parents didn't quote 'neglect' anything. They stood on and exercised their rights and wisely so. What they did was in her best interest. She just doesn't understand it, because she is young and she has led a protective life."

 

ALEXANDRA: A lot of these folks felt like Faith was blowing this gift that her parents had given her.

 

ALFRED ADASK: From my perspective, if you take some of these documents as they exist they've got hooks in them.

 

ALEXANDRA: This is Alfred Adask, who blogs about sovereignty and sovereign citizens.

 

ALFRED ADASK: First off, just to give you a little bit of evidence that maybe I'm not crazy, there's a case called Chisholm versus Georgia.

 

ALEXANDRA: Mm-hmm.

 

ALFRED ADASK: From 1793. And they're talking about European jurisprudence. The distinction between the prince and the subject.

 

ALEXANDRA: Mm-hmm.

 

ALFRED ADASK: And the distinction is that the prince gets his rights from God.

 

ROBERT: Right. That's when they say the king is anointed -- the anointed ...

 

ALFRED ADASK: That's exactly right. In a coronation ceremony. But they go on and they say, "No such ideas obtained here," -- meaning within the United States of America, "At the Revolution, the sovereignty devolved on the people. And they are the true sovereigns." And the word sovereigns is plural.

 

ROBERT: Yeah, I think we all know ...

 

ALFRED ADASK: You're a sovereign, I'm a sovereign and Alexandra's a sovereign.

 

ROBERT: Well, how do you deal with the opening phrase then in the Constitution, which is plural.

 

ALFRED ADASK: We the people.

 

ROBERT: "We" and "people," not I the person, one by one. But "We the people?"

 

ALFRED ADASK: Yup. When it says, "We the people," it means "We the sovereigns." Sovereigns are not a collective ...

 

ALEXANDRA: Which I think many, many people would argue.

 

ALFRED ADASK: I understand that, but if you are ...

 

ALEXANDRA: We ended up getting into this little tussle over the roles of government ...

 

ALFRED ADASK: It's not invisibility ...

 

ALEXANDRA: What happens if ...

 

ALEXANDRA: ... and the Constitution. But eventually, we got back to Faith.

 

ALFRED ADASK: Once you have been recognized as a sovereign, how do you avoid -- it's like getting rid of -- I'm gonna -- I'm just going -- I want to -- "Judge, I don't want blue eyes anymore."

 

ROBERT: But part of you must -- part of you must go out and feel a little sorry for her, right? Like, she's got -- she has a -- she has a will to become something other than ...

 

ALFRED ADASK: She has a will to become a subject.

 

ROBERT: A subject. Yes. So -- but I don't hear you condemning her.

 

ALFRED ADASK: She doesn't want to be free.

 

ROBERT: Oh. You are condemning her then, a little bit.

 

ALFRED ADASK: No. I'm saying she's making a choice. There's proviso in the Bible where people in the Old Testament, if you wanted to remain you could -- you could volunteer to be a slave for some guy. Some people don't want to be sovereigns. It's not an easy ...

 

ROBERT: No, they just want a job and they want to travel and they want to work for a living.

 

ALFRED ADASK: That's exactly right. But there's -- there are consequences for her abandoning her status as a free woman.

 

ROBERT: Here's the weird irony. Because she has no birth certificate, because she has no passport, the state of Texas and the government of the United States say, "Well, we can't figure out how to make you visible." Like ...

 

ALFRED ADASK: Yeah, it is probably true. They may not be able to.

 

ALEXANDRA: But then ...

 

MARSHA FARNEY: Faith's grandmother lives in my district in Sun City. And she ...

 

ALEXANDRA: The government stepped in.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: My grandma was able to get in touch with Marsha Farney.

 

MARSHA FARNEY: Marsha Farney. State representative. I have House District 20.

 

ALEXANDRA: She is a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives.

 

MARSHA FARNEY: We would get together. I deal with my staff and say, "What are the calls we've had come in this week?" And this one really caught our attention.

 

ALEXANDRA: As soon as she heard about it she said, "We need to do something about this." And she did.

 

[CLIP TEXAS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: This bill is an attempt to get a birth certificate for those ...]

 

ALEXANDRA: Around a month after Faith's video went viral, Marsha Farney put together a bill and brought it before the House of Representatives in Austin.

 

[CLIP TEXAS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: I know the committee already read about this bill and they are keenly aware.]

 

ALEXANDRA: So the bill does a couple things. It makes the process logistically easier.

 

MARSHA FARNEY: We expanded where someone could apply for a delayed birth certificate. It was ...

 

ALEXANDRA: But it also outlines punishments for the parents. So in the case of Faith, right? If she asks her parents for documentation and they refuse ...

 

MARSHA FARNEY: Then that's punishable by up to a year in jail and up to $4,000 of a fine or a combination of both.

 

ROBERT: Really?

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah.

 

[CLIP TEXAS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Mr. Chairman, I know there are four witnesses here who want to testify on this bill.]

 

ALEXANDRA: And they held this hearing to kind of weigh the various sides.

 

ALECIA SOUTHWORTH: Hi. I'm Alecia Southworth. Live in Georgetown, Texas, and I'm ...

 

ALEXANDRA: And so Faith and her aunt and her grandma all went to testify.

 

ALECIA SOUTHWORTH: Faith is my granddaughter and my namesake. I was in the room the day she was born. Unfortunately that is not ...

 

ALEXANDRA: Her grandma filled in the state reps on what they've been doing the last six months.

 

ALECIA SOUTHWORTH: We went to the DPS to get her a driver's license and they said no. They said go to the Social Security people. Social security people said no, go to the voter registration people.

 

ALEXANDRA: All the meetings and dead ends and rejections.

 

ALECIA SOUTHWORTH: ... said no, go to the DPS. We were stuck in a do loop. Well, I wasn't gonna quit there. For goodness sakes, she's a Texan. So Marsha Farney has offered us our only hope we have had since this started. I just -- I urge you to pass this bill, take Faith out of limbo, and give her the life she desires.

 

MARSHA FARNEY: My view was, just like we would not allow a parent to physically handicap a child, we should not allow a parent to handicap a child where they can't operate and function in society.

 

[CLIP TEXAS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: She is truly, although you've seen her standing here, a non-person. She could walk off the face of the Earth, and legally nobody would know she was gone.]

 

[NEWSCLIP: I think the bill's a little misguided]

 

ALEXANDRA: That's James Pennington, Faith's dad. He came out to the hearing and ended up on the Fox 7 newscast. And unfortunately, this is the only bit of tape we have of him.

 

[NEWSCLIP: I think it provides some pretty Draconian penalties for a process that's already there.]

 

[NEWSCLIP: There are six other children in this ...]

 

ROBERT: Hmm. It does seem a little -- like, I think I don't disagree with that. I mean, does the State of Texas want to put start putting parents in jail?

 

MARSHA FARNEY: Well, the bill gives the judge some leeway based on what the circumstances are for the parents, but we felt there was a need for some teeth to this bill, to get ...

 

ALEXANDRA: And it turns out that the Texas Statehouse and State Senate agreed.

 

MARSHA FARNEY: So we were able to get it through the House and the Senate.

 

ALEXANDRA: The bill ended up passing. Republicans voted for it. Democrats voted for it. There was actually only one no vote. But the next time Marsha Farney was up for re-election, she actually lost in the primaries, and according to the Texas Observer who actually did a really nice podcast of Faith's story, there's this lobbying group called The Texas Home-School Coalition who donated a bunch of money to Farney's primary opponent.

 

ROBERT: Oh, so it was parental revenge, I guess. Okay. Well then, so where does that leave Faith, though?

 

ALEXANDRA: Well, because of the bill, Faith was able to take her case to a different court, a higher court. And it seems like the bill allowed the judge to consider different kinds of evidence. So in the end, Faith was able to use an old orthodontist record and a piece of paper from her uncle, a doctor, who had treated her toe back when she was a kid. And in just a couple weeks ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: This is the birth certificate. Sometimes I just take it out and look at it. Sometimes randomly. I know it's -- like, it's so dumb. It's like, it's your birth certificate, every person has one. But I'm like, "I have one, too!"

 

ALEXANDRA: Can you read it to me a little bit? Like, what's -- what information is on here?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: It has my name at the top and it has, like, my description, my sex, where I was born, the county, just ...

 

ALEXANDRA: What county does it say you were born in?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Harris County. I was born in Houston.

 

JENNY ELENIS: I'm hoping that the physical papers can, like, mirror the emotional thing that she's going through. Because I feel like it's like as she's getting the papers, she's appearing. So that by the time she gets that last one, She will know who she is, and then she will be that person, whoever that is. She's working so hard for it. I'm hoping that -- that just that will have developed in her something, that she feels like it's more than a piece of paper, you know?

 

ALEXANDRA: Yeah.

 

JENNY ELENIS: I'm hoping.

 

ALEXANDRA: So now Faith, she was actually able to get a driver's license, but she still doesn't have her social security number which means she can't get a real job. She can't open up a bank account. She's still really ...

 

ROBERT: She can't vote yet, right?

 

ALEXANDRA: She can vote, but she can't get health insurance. She might not be able to go to college, so I don't know what's gonna happen to her.

 

JENNY ELENIS: I remember asking her this question. Like, when this is all over, do you know who you're going to be, you know? Because now this is who you are, you're the girl with no identity. And she was a little concerned that she wouldn't know who she was gonna be.

 

ALEXANDRA: If your -- if your aunt asked you that same question again, like, who do you think you are now? Who do you think you are? No. [laughs] What -- how would you answer that now?

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Um, I don't know. Like, I just feel like me. Like, I'm just Faith.

 

JAD: Huge thanks to reporter and producer Alexandra Young. This piece was also produced by Brenna Farrell and Andy Mills.

 

ROBERT: And we had a lot of help from a lot of Texans, I should say. I think they're mostly Texans. Savannah Escobar, Rachel Coleman.

 

JAD: David Glenn, Chris Van Dusen.

 

ROBERT: Zen Allegra, Russell Whalen, liberty consultant Nick Reed.

 

JAD: The group Home School Alumni Reaching Out.

 

ROBERT: And the Lake Travis Zipline Adventure Company.

 

ALEXANDRA: Speaking of that last one, I should say when I went to go visit Faith in Austin, she's got green hair now. She's got a nose ring and a tattoo. She goes home from time to time, and she actually visited with her mom on Mother's Day. But when I was there she wanted to do something with me that she'd never done before.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I'm so excited you guys!

 

ALEXANDRA: So we decided to go ziplining.

 

ATTENDANT: Zip and six.

 

ALEXANDRA: And this one just happened to be called The Leap of Faith.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: [screams] Oh, my God! Whoo!

 

JAD: Hey, this is Jad. One last thing before we close. I wanted to let you know that this fall I'm actually gonna be doing something that I haven't done in the 14 years that I have been working on Radiolab. I'm gonna take a little time off. So you will not hear me producing or hosting this podcast through the fall. I will be back early January. And, you know, the reason is very simply that, you know, in creating this show and then building it up and then going on four live tours, and then most recently creating the spin-off -- our first spin-off, More Perfect, I just need -- I mean, it's all been incredible, but I just need a moment to catch my breath and to reacquaint myself with my children. So I'm gonna be doing that.

 

JAD: But the great thing is that, you know, as much as Radiolab is this thing that I started with Robert and with Ellen, it's now as you know home to a hugely talented amazing group of people. So you'll be hearing more of them. I mean, Robert, my partner in crime, will be holding it down, but you'll be hearing a lot more of Molly Webster, Soren, and Latif and Simon and the whole crew will be doing stories. And I happen to know there's some pretty amazing stuff coming down the pike, and I for one am really excited to be able to listen to it from the outside for the first time.

 

JAD: So yeah, I'll be making a few appearances here and there, so if you find yourself in, like, Missoula, Montana, or Sydney or Melbourne, Australia, come say, "Hey." Otherwise, I will see you in the new year.

 

ANSWERING MACHINE: You have two new messages.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Hi this is Faith, and I'm supposed to read some credits.

 

JENNY ELENIS: This is Jenny.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: I'm not sure if I am supposed to leave a message with the credits on it or not. Anyways, um ...

 

JENNY ELENIS: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design.

 

JENNY ELENIS: Soren Wheeler is Senior Editor.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Jamie York is our Senior Producer.

 

JENNY ELENIS: Our staff includes Simon Adler, Brenna Farrell, David Gebel ...

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Andy Mills ...

 

JENNY ELENIS: Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Kelsey Padgett, Arianne Wack and Molly Webster.

 

FAITH PENNINGTON: With help from Alexandra Lee Young, Jackson Roach and Charles Sinha.

 

JENNY ELENIS: Our fact-checkers are Eva Dasher and Michelle Harris.

 

ANSWERING MACHINE: End of message.



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