When Schreck was 15, she competed in contests sponsored by the American Legion. Each contestant had to make a speech demonstrating their understanding of the Constitution and discuss its importance in his or her life. Schreck won enough money to put herself through college. In the show, she alternates between her 15-year-old self, who thought the Constitution was magical, and herself today, who sees the ways it's failed to protect many people. Schreck is a playwright and actress. She's also written episodes of the TV shows "Billions," "Nurse Jackie" and "I Love Dick."
Heidi Schreck, welcome to FRESH AIR. I don't know if this is the right thing to say or not, but had we been good friends and you came to me and said, I'm going to do this, well, you know, show about the Constitution, I might have tried to talk you out of it. But I actually love the show. So I want you to describe the show in your words.
HEIDI SCHRECK: Sure. Yes, a few friends did try to talk me out of it, actually. So my show, "What The Constitution Means To Me," is a recreation of a contest I did as a teenage girl. I would travel the country giving speeches about the Constitution for prize money at American Legion halls. Basically, I decided to follow the prompt of the original contest, which was to find a personal connection between my own life and the Constitution.
And in attempting to do that, I ended up writing a story about four generations of women in my family, about how the Constitution shaped their lives, about the ways it failed to protect them and about the ways it shaped my own life and also failed to protect me.
GROSS: When you first conceived of this as a short piece back in 2007, did you think that 12, 13 years later you'd be hearing the term constitutional crisis as much as you're hearing it now?
SCHRECK: I did not. I started this piece at a completely different moment. I started writing it 10 years ago and I first performed it while Obama was president. And at the time, I felt like I was questioning the document in deep ways - the efficacy of the document. I did not expect to be performing it at a time when the norms of democracy were being threatened the way they are. I did not expect to be performing it at a time when the Constitution was being disregarded in so many ways.
GROSS: So, you know, your show is, you know, about, like, the strength of the Constitution. It's also very much about the imperfections of the Constitution, the silences and the absences in the Constitution and the people it fails to protect. But when you were 15 and participating in these Constitution debates or performances, was the understanding you were given by the American Legion, that sponsored this competition, that the Constitution was pretty much perfect and it was your job to, like, describe the ways in which it was perfect?
SCHRECK: I don't know if that was the directive given to me by the American Legion or not. I actually don't remember that. I believe that it was my understanding of the Constitution. I believed that about the Constitution at 15. I believed it was perfect. I believed it was a tool of justice. I did not realize, as a 15-year-old girl, how profoundly I had been left out of it. I didn't realize that it didn't protect me. The contest itself, I will say, was very supportive of disagreement. I do remember giving a speech about the Second Amendment where I was advocating for gun control. This was the late '80s and, like now, there was a lot of gun violence, mass shootings, that were happening - that had happened in Northern California about the time I was doing the contest.
And I remember advocating for gun control in front of a room filled with men who were certainly - there were a lot of NRA members in that audience, and I won that competition. So I do believe the American Legion fostered and promoted the sense that you should be advocating for what you truly believed in, even if you were criticizing. But the truth is, as a teenager, I just had complete faith in this document.
GROSS: So one of the things that you talk about in the show is what the Constitution has to say about immigration, what it doesn't have to say about immigration and who becomes a citizen. Your great-great-grandmother, you say, was considered a good immigrant when she came in 1879. Your great-great-grandfather, actually, ordered her from a catalogue. She was a mail-order bride.
GROSS: And he was in the state of Washington where you were born and grew up. And you say Washington needed more women at the time. Why did they need more women?
SCHRECK: They needed more women in Washington because the male-to-female ratio at the time was 9 to 1. In fact, at some points around this time - this was, like, the late 19th century - it was even higher. I think at one point, it was even 30 to 1. So they were doing everything they could to bring in more women. There were a lot of catalogues. There were things called - there was one called the "Matrimonial Times," which is, I believe, where he ordered her from although I can't - I've tried to fact-check it, and it's a little bit tricky. There were also - he was German, so there were also a lot of, like, German-language papers and sort of catalogues and magazines with advertisings in the back that catered particularly to German immigrants, so...
GROSS: So what would happen? Like, women like your great-great-grandmother would go to the publisher of the catalogue and say, put me in it. I want to be eligible to...
GROSS: ...Come to America as a bride?
SCHRECK: Yeah, or their parents would do that. I think there were - in my research, I noticed that a lot of times it was parents who were poor and couldn't figure out, you know, what to do with their daughters who couldn't make money. So they would go and put an ad in for their daughter.
GROSS: So how much did your great-great-grandfather pay? Do you have any idea?
SCHRECK: OK. So this is a slight bit of poetic license because I don't actually - we don't have any records. I've done a ton of research, and so I'm just basing the $75 on the research that I did on what people were likely to pay at that time. So sometimes men would pay the family. So I came up with the figure, $75, by researching. I'm not actually sure that that's what he paid for her.
GROSS: Would that be $75 in today's money or 19th-century money? Because $75 then would have been a lot of money.
SCHRECK: No, I think it was a lot. Yes. I think - I mean, this is based on research that I did. But I think that, yeah, you would save a lot of money for this type of transaction.
GROSS: So, obviously, you never met your great-great-grandmother, but...
GROSS: ...Do you have any idea passed on through family history what it was like for her to come to America as a mail-order bride?
SCHRECK: So I do have a little bit. So my Great-Grandma Bricken, who I did know - who died at, I believe, the age of 98 - she knew my great-great-grandmother. And she said - she described a little bit of what her life was like. She was married to my great-great-grandmother's son. And she said she remembered her locking herself in her room and refusing to come out and that she had pasted newspaper articles - German newspaper articles - up all over her walls and would just sit in her room and sort of stare at these articles.
So that's the story that was passed down to me. I also - we have the medical records from Western State Mental Hospital, which is where she eventually went, and she was diagnosed with melancholia, as it was called at the time, and died there at age 36.
My Great-Grandma Bricken, however, she came from Sweden. And she talked a lot about what it was like for her to be an immigrant woman coming to Washington state. And she said when they were in Sweden, there were all these, I don't know, flyers and leaflets that, you know, urged people to come to America, that said the streets were paved with gold. And she always liked to joke that when she arrived, she discovered that the streets were paved with [expletive] (laughter). She said it was not at all what she expected.
GROSS: So you write that your great-great-grandparents, the women, your great-great-grandmothers, were considered, quote, "good immigrants." Who were considered the bad immigrants at the time?
SCHRECK: So my great-great-grandparents and great-grandparents, especially the women, were considered good immigrants because they just needed women to populate this area. They were also white, which at that, you know, was considered, quote-unquote, "good immigrant." At the time, the, quote-unquote, "bad immigrant" was considered to be an immigrant from China. So there was - there's a huge history of violent discrimination against Chinese immigrants in this country starting with - in 1882, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which made it illegal for immigrants to come from China. They had decided at that time that Chinese immigrants were dangerous, that they were stealing jobs from, quote-unquote, "Americans."
And so they passed this law that was not overturned until 1943, when China became our ally in World War II. And not only did they pass this horrible law, but there was a - there was so much violence actually toward Chinese immigrants. Especially in Washington state, where I'm from, there are stories of incredible violence against those immigrants.
GROSS: Since President Trump has such strong anti-immigrant rhetoric and attitudes towards certain groups of people - like Mexicans, Muslims - I'm wondering what - you know, you've been studying this (laughter) as an adult and as a teenager - what does the Constitution have to say about who becomes a citizen? And what is it silent about?
SCHRECK: The Constitution doesn't have much to say about who becomes a citizen. So the 14th Amendment says that any person born on U.S. soil and subject to the jurisdiction thereof is a citizen of the United States and the state in which they reside. So it does - it is very clear on birthright citizenship. Excuse me. Although it also has this clause - and subject to the jurisdiction there of - which is what the government used to exclude Indigenous peoples from becoming citizens when the 14th Amendment was passed. So that's a little bit confusing.
But most legal scholars have come down on the side of birthright citizenship, that that is a constitutional right, which as we know was questioned by the Trump administration last year. Most people agree that there is no question about that. Birthright citizenship is our right. Beyond that, it doesn't give any guidance about immigration, about how many people should be allowed to immigrate, about where those people might be from. There is no language about that.
The one thing I did learn while making this is that the 14th Amendment does guarantee that immigrants be given all the due process rights that citizens have. So it uses the word person rather than citizen when it talks about due process, which is the right to a fair trial, which is a right not to be imprisoned without a fair trial, the right not to have anything seized from you. So there are quite a few protections for immigrants in the 14th Amendment that I question - I question right now whether those are being upheld.
GROSS: I think a lot of people have no idea that people who aren't citizens would still have those rights.
SCHRECK: I don't think so either. And, you know, there is also in the - I believe it was the '80s, I might be getting this wrong - the Supreme Court also upheld the right of children of undocumented immigrants to attend public school. That's also a case that was decided. So immigrants have actually quite a few rights under our Constitution, even if they are undocumented. And I think it's an important time to remember that and fight for that.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor and writer Heidi Schreck, and she has a new play that is about to open on Broadway. It's in previews now. It opens March 31 at the Helen Hayes Theater. It's called, "What The Constitution Means To Me," and it's really meaningful. It's also really funny. So we'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Heidi Schreck, and she has a new show called "What The Constitution Means To Me," which is what the Constitution meant to her when she was 15 and won a lot of scholarship money at Constitution competitions (laughter) talking about the Constitution. But she also in the show talks about what the Constitution means to her now now that she sees what is not addressed in the Constitution and the people who are not addressed in the Constitution.
So I want to move to another chapter of your play and of your life, and this has to do with when you got pregnant at the age of 21.
GROSS: You weren't - you weren't married. It was somebody in the same theater group that you were in. And this leads you to reflect on how the Constitution has been used to fully legalize birth control and to legalize abortion. Now, you grew up in an abortion-free zone in Washington. What - the state of Washington - what did that mean?
SCHRECK: So eastern Washington when I was growing up was abortion-free zone. I believe that it still is. It just meant there was no clinic within, like, a three-hour radius that performed abortions. There was a Planned Parenthood in my town and they, you know, prescribed birth control and did pregnancy testing and all of that. But you could not - you could not go anywhere for an abortion.
GROSS: When you got pregnant when you were 21 and weren't married, you say you couldn't go to Planned Parenthood because your mother's good friend worked there and that you didn't want your mother to know.
GROSS: Even though your mother was a feminist, you were sure she'd find it very upsetting. And you couldn't go to the pharmacy because you might be recognized there - same problem, it would get back to your mother.
GROSS: But you did go to a clinic that advertised, like, free pregnancy testing. But then when you walked in, you realized it's one of those, like, anti-abortion groups?
GROSS: So how did you figure that out, like, right away? The people there - the women there were going to try to talk you out of an abortion as opposed to helping you get one.
SCHRECK: Well, I knew as soon as I walked in the door because there was a huge poster that said, adoption is a beautiful choice. And then there were pictures of fetuses up all over the walls. So I knew as soon as I walked in. I decided to stay in part because I just - I really needed the test, and it was the only place that guaranteed me anonymity. And also I'm - I was raised to be an incredibly polite person. And the woman at the counter, the receptionist, was very lovely, very friendly. And it's just my natural inclination to be polite and sweet and friendly back. So I felt it would be rude to leave, which is crazy to think about now. But at that age, I didn't want to be rude to her.
GROSS: So you stayed and then found a place where you could - you stayed for the spiel and then found a place where you could get an abortion.
SCHRECK: Well, I stayed for the spiel and, actually, for the test. And I remember. This is seared into my memory, actually, that, you know, she was - first of all, she was the only person I told, except for my boyfriend at the time. She was the only person I told maybe for 20 years. Even though I'm very liberal and I'm a feminist and I'm surrounded by women friends who are the same, I - the taboo of talking about it, the sort of cultural shame around talking about it affected me deeply. And it - actually, it wasn't until I started performing this show that I found out that many of my girlfriends had also had abortions. We didn't talk about it with each other.
So this woman, Marcy (ph), was the only person I told. And she was incredibly kind to me, which is what I needed. I needed someone to hug me at this moment and tell me everything was going to be OK. And when I walked to the bathroom to take the test, she - I remember she actually followed me and tucked in the tag at the back of my dress and said, I just can't help myself - always a mother. And yeah, I remember it - that was what I needed at that moment. I needed a mother.
And one thing I understand now is that until women can talk about their abortions, until it becomes a thing that is not taboo to talk about, it will be very difficult to move the needle politically because, say, if you're a young woman with a conservative dad and your dad doesn't understand that you had an abortion, if people don't understand that the women they love in their lives have had abortions, it's going to be very difficult for them to see it, see the importance it holds for women in this culture to have equality, to have bodily autonomy, to have decision-making power over their own bodies. It's very difficult to move that needle if women won't talk about it.
GROSS: I should mention here that you say you were using birth control when you got pregnant.
GROSS: My guest is Heidi Schreck. Her new play "What The Constitution Means To Me" opens on Broadway at the end of the month. We'll talk more after a break. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will talk about and play music by two pianists born a hundred years ago - Lennie Tristano and Herbie Nichols. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Heidi Schreck. She wrote and stars in the new play "What The Constitution Means To Me," which opens on Broadway at the end of the month. It's about what the Constitution used to mean to her when she was 15, winning prize money in Constitution contests sponsored by the American Legion, and what the Constitution means to her now as a feminist, realizing the ways in which women, people of color and many immigrants were excluded from rights the Constitution guaranteed. In the play, she also describes personal and family traumas and makes connections to the Constitution's protections or lack of protections. When we left off, we were talking about getting an abortion when she was 21 and single.
So this chapter of your life leads you to reflect in your show on how the Constitution was used to fully legalize contraception and then fully legalize abortion. And it's amazing to think about that. It was only in the '70s that birth control was fully legalized in all of the states for single women. An earlier decision, the Griswold v. Connecticut decision in 1965, legalized birth control in all states for married women. But it took years later until single women were included.
SCHRECK: Yes, yes.
GROSS: How was the Constitution used to legalize birth control? - because there were places where it was not legal and wasn't necessarily a law that was followed. But it was certainly on the books.
SCHRECK: Yes, the law was on the books. And they needed to find a way to assert the constitutional right to birth control. In 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut, they essentially decided that case under the umbrella of privacy. So privacy is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, but they use the 9th Amendment and the 14th Amendment to sort of cobble together all of these rights and say, OK, this is a private decision between a husband and a wife, to use birth control, and the government cannot infringe on that decision, cannot - the government can't, you know, walk into people's bedrooms and decide what they do. So that's how they decided birth control. Then in '72, they finally made it legal for single women.
And then when they were deciding Roe v. Wade, they decided the right to choice also under the right to privacy, saying it was a private decision between a doctor and his patient (laughter). So essentially, they sort of decided Roe v. Wade in part by basing it on a doctor's right - a doctor's right to privacy and a doctor's right to do what they believe is right. So this unfortunately has been a problem for reproductive freedom because it bases our right to control our own bodies, to have bodily autonomy, on this right to privacy that's actually quite vague and confusing.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that if the right to reproductive freedom could have been based in equal protection under the law, with the idea that you can't possibly be equal in this country, as a woman, if you don't have bodily autonomy, if you don't have the right to decide what to do with your own body - the right to decide whether to have children or not - if childbearing is obligatory, then you can't possibly be equal in this country.
GROSS: I didn't know this until seeing your play, but the majority decision in Griswold, which upheld the right of married couples to use contraception, was written by Justice William O. Douglass, who - I found this out from your play - at the time, was having an affair with a college student. So what does it say to you that, you know, the decision was written by all white men, and that the majority opinion writer was having an affair with...
GROSS: I don't know whether they were using contraception or not. But women were in the position, until recently, where decisions about their lives and bodies and power were being decided exclusively, on the Supreme Court level, by men.
SCHRECK: Yes. It says to me, first of all, that there is a level of hypocrisy in our laws and on the Supreme Court. I don't know if William O. Douglas and his girlfriend were using contraception or not, but my guess is they were. And actually, if you listen to the whole Griswold recording, there's a sense that all the men, the male justices, know that birth control is something that people use (laughter).
GROSS: And it was legal in most states at the time.
SCHRECK: It was absolutely legal in most states. But the fact that they found it so difficult to figure out how to, like - how to affirm that it was constitutionally protected in spite of this, in spite of the fact that, like, they all knew that people use birth control, the fact that they couldn't even, in Griswold v. Connecticut, constitutionally affirm the constitutional protection for single women to use it is absurd, given that it's something that everyone was using. It's so clear, especially when you listen to the justices, and if you listen to Griswold v. Connecticut, they're clearly so uncomfortable talking about this. They clear their throats all the time. It's, like, very torturous for them.
And I think it's also obviously an argument for why we need more diversity in our government and on the court because, apparently, it's quite hard for us as human beings to fully imagine the circumstances of another person. So if you have nine white, cis-gender men on the court who apparently have trouble imagining what other people's lives might be like, you're going to get bad decisions. If you have, you know, a Congress and an executive branch that's made up of mostly these people, like, you're just going to have bad laws that are made. You're going to have laws that don't take into account the realities of other people's lives.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here.
GROSS: And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Heidi Schreck, and her play, "What The Constitution Means To Me," opens on Broadway March 31. It's now in previews. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Heidi Schreck, and her new show, "What The Constitution Means To Me," is opening on Broadway March 31. It's now in previews. And there's - she plays, like, two selves in it - her 15-year-old self, when she was participating in a Constitution contest, sponsored by the American Legion, and she won enough prize money in that contest - because she knew so much about the Constitution - she won so much money she put herself through college. But she also reflects in the play about what the Constitution means to her now, now that she understands the absences and the people who are left out of the Constitution.
So I want to get back to your family, your great-great grandmother came here basically as a mail-order bride. She came from Germany to the state of Washington. Your great grandmother and your grandmother were both married to men who abused them. Your grandmother, Bette, who you knew very well, her first husband died in an accident. He was hit by a falling tree. She remarried a man who physically abused her, who beat her up, who broke bones. And the stepfather, her second husband, also sexually abused your mother and your aunt. And you say it was your mother who finally called the police and tried to stop this. How old were you when your mother told you this?
SCHRECK: I was 15 years old when my mother told me this. I also just want to say my aunt was very brave in terms of going to - she went to a teacher. And she also testified and was very brave about standing up to this man. So it was both my mother and my aunt.
GROSS: How old was your mother when she called the police?
SCHRECK: My mother was 14-years-old. Yes.
GROSS: So when your mother told the police and her stepfather found out, what was his reaction?
SCHRECK: His reaction was to essentially threaten all the kids with a gun, to kidnap them and drive off, shouting that he was going to kill all of them.
GROSS: So he actually put them in a car, took his gun...
GROSS: ...And drove off.
GROSS: And then your grandmother called the police, and they came.
GROSS: And he was prosecuted. He did 10 years.
SCHRECK: He was prosecuted. He - actually - OK, so this has been very interesting for me because I was told a version of the story, and then there's the version of the story I remembered. When I did an interview for The New Yorker magazine, they were able to fact-check everything. And I actually found out that he was sentenced to three consecutive 30-year sentences for what was termed, at that time, carnal knowledge, but that he only served two years.
GROSS: So how does this physical and sexual abuse in your family connect to your understanding of the Constitution?
SCHRECK: So I grew up believing in the idea of one bad man. There was a bad man in our family who hurt my grandma, hurt my aunts and uncles, deeply hurt my mom. She - you know, her whole life - my mom is an incredible person, and she's a beloved teacher in Wenatchee where I'm from and a drama coach. And she's had an incredibly successful life. But this trauma - she's struggled with it her entire life, and I witnessed that as a young girl.
So I grew up believing that there was one bad man who hurt my family, who hurt the women in my family. And it wasn't until later - really, until I started researching this - that I began to understand this problem as part of a larger cultural problem, a legal problem, a systemic problem. And in working on this, I ended up researching the 14th Amendment quite deeply. And I learned that there are no constitutional protections for women against sexual violence and that, in fact, the Violence Against Women Act was essentially gutted by the Supreme Court in 2005 when a woman named Jessica Gonzales brought her case in front of the Supreme Court. She was suing the Castle Rock Police Department of the state of Colorado for failing to show up to protect her from her violent husband. She had a restraining order against her violent husband. She called the police many, many times. No one came to help her. They refused to come help her. They said, well, he's your husband. And her husband ended up killing her children - her three daughters.
And when she took her case to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court essentially said, you can't sue the police department. They have no constitutional obligation to provide you with active protection. Some legal scholars have said this shuts down the 14th Amendment for women. It shuts down the possibility for women to look to the federal government for protection from gender-based violence. So when I realized that this trauma in my family wasn't just one bad man, one evil man, but a legal and systemic problem in this country, it was eye-opening for me.
GROSS: You were already working on your play "What The Constitution Means To Me" during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. What was your experience of watching Christine Blasey Ford testify to - you know, to the Senate Judiciary Committee?
SCHRECK: I remember sitting on the couch watching that, being - I think like many of us were, I felt like an emotional wreck. I found her testimony incredibly powerful. I believed her. I also found it triggering, and I think a lot of people did. It reminded me of things that happened to me when I was younger, and I cried a lot while watching it. And then I had to go do a show. And when I got to the theater, I was exhausted. And I thought, well, that was a - that was actually a big mistake because now I'm exhausted, and I have to do this show.
But I found when I walked onstage - well, first of all, I had so much rage that sort of gave me the adrenaline I needed to do the show. And then it was also quite powerful to be in a room filled with people who were processing the same thing I was processing. There was a tremendous amount of energy in the room that night, a tremendous amount of audible reaction, both to the humor and - tremendous amount of audible grief, particularly from women. And I thought, thank God I get to do this show instead of sitting home on my couch, scrolling through Twitter in despair.
And that has been one of the great gifts of the show, actually, is to be in a room with people having a communal experience, thinking about our country together, having this conversation together instead of being siloed, instead of being alone at home on social media. It's one of the great gifts of the show for me.
GROSS: So the show you were doing was the show you're doing now - the Constitution show.
SCHRECK: It was this show - "What The Constitution Means To Me," yeah. I will say I ended up in a room with Brett Kavanaugh, which was very strange. I was invited to dinner in Washington with my 17-year-old debate partner, Thursday Williams. Thursday and I were at a dinner, and Brett Kavanaugh was sitting at a table close to us. And I really - well, it was - Thursday said to me, do you want to go meet him? And I said, no, I don't. And she went over - this amazing 17-year-old young woman went over and introduced herself, said she was Thursday Williams, that she was starring in a play on Broadway about the Constitution and women's bodies and that he needed to come see it.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's interesting. She plays your debate partner at the end of the show.
SCHRECK: She's my debate partner, yeah.
SCHRECK: She is my debate partner. She's not playing anything. She's (laughter) - she's one of the fiercest debaters I've ever competed against.
GROSS: Well, Heidi Schreck, good luck with the show.
SCHRECK: Thank you very much.
GROSS: And thank you so much for talking with us.
SCHRECK: Thank you for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Heidi Schreck wrote and stars in the play "What The Constitution Means To Me." It opens on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater at the end of the month. After a break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will talk about two pianists born a hundred years ago, Lennie Tristano and Herbie Nichols. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL MERVINE'S "PEOPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.