Honesty Is the Best Policy—Especially in Focus Groups
There will always be liars in the focus group, but Fred was never one of them.
The day after Fred went to the focus group, he called to thank me for thinking of him. He kept exclaiming over and over, “It’s just talking about things that I do every day! And getting paid for it!” I promised him that, if I had to fill any groups that needed guys in their twenties, I’d give him a call to see if he’d qualify.
Coincidentally, a spate of such groups came across my desk in the next few months. Fred and I ended up chatting every other week. Sometimes he qualified, sometimes he didn’t. He never wanted to be dishonest in his answers, and he was always my first call when he fit the initial requirements.
Because of all the articulation questions, I learned more and more about the person Fred had become. That he really liked to cook because, as he smoothly put it, “I’m really good at it!” He wanted to one day visit Thailand because “have you ever seen more beautiful photos of a place in your life?” He was saving to buy a condo; “my dad says real estate is the best investment.” And he’d invite Marilyn Monroe to a hypothetical dinner party. “Does that make me cliché?” he asked me. “You know what, I don’t care. I’d still invite her. Put that down.”
When your parents are friends with another set of parents, it’s often assumed that the kids automatically become part of each other’s lives. You skip the step of meeting out in the world by happenstance, the part where you get to know each other. You skip conversations and arranging to hang out because your parents are the ones to do the work of getting together. As you get older, and as you drift apart, you still think that you already know your ‘family friends.’ But that’s not true. The more Fred and I talked, the more I realized how little I knew.
Thanks to the screening questions, I now knew how many packs of cigarettes Fred smoked in a week (two to four), what hair products he used regularly (Paul Mitchell), and what salad dressings he liked (mainly balsamic or Italian). But in between that, we shared what was going on in our lives. We’d make fun of our parents—like how he had to write out two pages of instructions for his mother on how to use the computer and she exasperatedly told him it didn’t work because she didn’t realize she first had to press an ON button.
I even admitted to him that I felt I was lagging behind all my friends in terms of life progression. In the words of our parents, our brothers were the ones who had “responsible” jobs. And we were the ones floundering and finding our path, pursuing creative goals but unsure how we’d get there.
“We are the lost children,” Fred joked once. “The ones who need direction. To find ourselves.” And I felt a pang, even as we laughed, hoping that “lost” wasn’t merely a gentler replacement for “hopeless.”
I added, “The ones also most likely needing to get bailed out of predicaments!”
“Isn’t that the truth,” he agreed. He seemed more optimistic overall than I was and I envied it. But I was also so happy to be privy to it, hoping too that it might infectiously become part of my own mindset.
“I think it’s all going to be ok,” he finally said. “I think it helps when you really know what you want.” He spoke so easily, so confidently, it seemed that he knew what he wanted, that it was so clear to him. I was probably projecting, but I felt that he also believed I would get there too. I just needed to figure out what I really wanted.
At the time, we were both living in our parents’ houses in New Jersey and often went to the same local hangout spots. This sometimes led our respective groups of friends to stand idly by while we reminisced and laughed about how he once introduced me to Freddy Krueger and I had nightmares for weeks. How our moms constantly asked him, “Didn’t that hurt?!” every time he got a new piercing or tattoo. Or how my family had listed his dad as a reference when adopting a dog, but Fred happened to answer the phone, then gave a glowing recommendation, answering “yes” to everything they asked, even though he wasn’t sure if it was even accurate, but he just really wanted us to get a dog.
When it came to addiction and rehab I often didn’t know how to talk about it or if I should talk about it.
“So you’re feeling good now?” I would awkwardly say, whether over the phone or in person. I wanted Fred to know I had been worried, but I had also been raised not to pry into other people’s private affairs.
“Oh yeah. I was into some bad shit,” he’d say. “Really bad.”
“But look you’ve come out the other side!” I cringed at how Mary Sunshine I sounded, wishing I could just say what I wanted: “I’m so glad you’re OK. You and your family are so important to me.”
Fred just laughed easily, as always. “I did! Just in time to help some company sell more cigarettes to hard-working Americans.”
“At least we’re not selling them to children!” I loved making him laugh, considering I’d spent a significant part of my childhood giggling at pretty much anything he said. There were still some vestiges in me of that young kid who desperately wanted to impress him, a surrogate second brother.
“I wanted to feel better,” he added, as if finishing a thought. “So I just had to . . . I had to find my way out.”
I felt more connected to him—on those calls, in those conversations, in that honesty—than I ever had.
A year passed.
I was no longer working as a focus group recruiter, and was a full-time financial headhunter instead. Fred was working as a hotel manager. I was writing on the side; he was drawing on the side. Though we weren’t yet making a living through our passions, we at least had decent salaries and our own health insurance.
I decided to call him one morning, to half-jokingly ask if I could get a friends and family discount on a hotel room for my boyfriend and me. After calling my dad to ask for the direct office number of the hotel (these were the days where most people didn’t answer cell phones during working hours), I kept getting side-tracked with work calls and emails.
Finally, I had a moment to call Fred and started to dial—only to be thwarted again by another line ringing. I answered to hear my father’s strained voice; he said that I couldn’t call Fred at work.
“Because he passed away this morning.”
I felt numb. I couldn’t move. I thought I was just sitting there, with the phone to my ear in shock. But apparently, I’d begun shouting at my father: that he was a liar, that Fred was just a kid, that it wasn’t true. I only stopped when my co-workers surrounded my cubicle, their concerned faces telling me that I was shrieking at an inhuman decibel, that the uncontrollable sobs were bursting out of me, that I was gasping for breath.
I had lost loved ones before. This was something else. Maybe because I was old enough to be aware of what I had lost. Maybe because Fred had initially entered my life as an idolized older brother, and later just became my friend, I always believed I’d have him. Maybe because he was finally happy, because his life seemed to be heading in a positive and stable direction. The unfairness of it rankled most of all.
My entire body felt like a gaping wound, like the slightest movement would cause the pain to exponentially intensify, until there wasn’t an inch of me left that didn’t feel broken. I ran to the bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror. I could see myself shaking as tears continued to pour out of me.
My mind frantically sought and failed to find a way to absorb what was happening. Why it had happened. I was told he just hadn’t woken up that morning. His father frantically called for an ambulance and they couldn’t revive him en route to the hospital or even when they arrived.
I suddenly felt selfish and guilty thinking about how addiction doesn’t just resolve itself. It’s an ongoing underlying demon. Had any of us been checking in on him? Had he been afraid to say anything in fear of disappointing the people who had been so proud of his recovery?
I was half-heartedly told by various friends and family that it was possible he hadn’t been taking his prescribed ulcer medication, that a complication from that might have been the reason he had passed.
“Do you believe that?” I demanded of my mother, who was the third person to offer up that explanation.
My mom, crying silently, shook her head at me, signaling it wasn’t the right time.
And maybe it wasn’t. Did the reason matter if it didn’t change the fact that Fred was gone? I was torn on it, but also too devastated to push any harder. If I did, if any of us did, maybe we’d all have to accept some portion of responsibility. That maybe we failed him.
Did the reason matter if it didn’t change the fact that Fred was gone?
Going through the steps of grief bring you closer to acceptance. At least that’s what I hear. I don’t know that hugs and crying and sermons through a wake and funeral can ever alleviate the pain you feel when a boy of twenty-seven is gone. I don’t know that time can either, since it’s a constant reminder of all that he’s missing, all that you can no longer say to him or share. I don’t know if I felt cheated because, regardless of all the years I’d known Fred, it was the last two where I’d come to know him best, and I was mad because he deserved to keep going.
There were so many things I knew he would have done and the loss of so much possibility ahead of him just filled me with impotent fury. But more than just the accomplishments I know he would have achieved, he would have been a fantastic best man at his brother’s wedding, an incredible uncle to his future nieces and nephews, and, as always, a great friend to everyone who knew and loved him. He deserved to live his life, whatever it might have held.
I did know that I would think of him all the time. I had photos, I had memories, I had stories. I had an illicit photocopy of the screener where he said he wanted to write a book about turning his life around because I believed, one day, I would be able to give it to him as a gift when he did write it. This is what I had left of him. And it would never quell the grief. It would simply keep him with me.
Years later, I found myself in a waiting room, about to be a participant in a focus group, for the first time in a long time. A woman across from me conspiratorially whispered that she does one focus group a week for extra cash. I eyed her Louis Vuitton purse, leather jacket, and honey-blonde highlights, as she explained that she always says she buys whatever product the group happens to be for, even if it’s not true.
I thought about all the screeners I had gone through with Fred, how he once wouldn’t even pretend that he used a specific brand of butter because it wasn’t the truth. I recalled how much I had complained about that part-time recruiting job, feeling envious of my friends in their fancy full-time jobs, while I languished in despair waiting for some interview to go my way. I had scorned a job that had actually given me so many conversations with Fred we may have never had.
There will always be liars in the focus group, but Fred was never one of them.
Danielle Sepulveres has written for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, ELLE, Curbed and various other places. She learned all the best swear words working at a car dealership in NJ, sometimes she tweets them over at @ellesep on Twitter.