Moving on  

By David Erlewine  

I stand outside my brother Martin's room as he tells Sam that Jean Amery killed himself after surviving Auschwitz not because he was ungodly but because he lost the illusion of humanity's benevolence. A Theology major and devout Catholic, Sam's forehead vein pulses more than usual. They sit at Martin's table, looking at each other over Martin's grad school applications. After next semester, he'll graduate with majors in Philosophy and History, minors in Creative Writing and American culture. I give Sam 30 minutes before he storms out.

Domingo, Carreras, Pavarotti? Something about Domingo's eyes. Carreras seethes in the shadows, the quintessential third banana. Pavarotti is an alleged philanderer, far short of murderer. Domingo and Carreras it is.

I fiddle with the narrative summary on Milgram's experiment, head back to my room to scour it again. It'll be the first non-fiction I've had Martin critique.

His critiques of my fiction are reflective, incisive and, when warranted, caustic. He first critiqued a story of mine during a family trek to Florida when he asked to read what I had been hunched over. I hesitated before turning it over. Only a seventh grader, he seemed as smart as mom and certainly dad. A fifth grader, I had been consumed with pro wrestling, the Orioles and reciting "Breakfast Club" lines until the week before the trip when I found his "The World of the Short Story" and from it read "The Shawl." I finally handed him the story, studied other cars and "South of the Border" signs until he finished.

Titled "No I in team," it involved a star running back who gained two yards the game that his key blocker missed. The next game the blocker played and the running back gained 200 yards and made the team carry the blocker off the field. Martin's written comments were: "Look up didactic. Avoid in the future."

The problem persisted. In sixth grade, I submitted a story about a nanny who decided to get her GED after a husband fondled her while his wife smoked a long cigarette and laughed haughtily at the nanny's cries and barrenness. For that, Martin made me write "too much inclined to teach others; boringly moralistic" 100 times.

In eighth grade, I wrote about a sheriff that atoned for his role in the My Lai massacre by killing 10 members of the KKK that named their land "Calley's Campsite." Among other comments, Martin wrote, "Your characters are as one-dimensional as actors in my driver's ed films."

Until I tackled Stanley Milgram's experiment, I relished Martin's sardonic digs at my writing, even when others would have felt gouged to the bone. People who met him for the first time, especially guys, considered him quiet, even docile. Only the few that engaged and interested him saw what Sam and I did.

Every story he's critiqued sits on my desk, bound in four thick, black, three-ring notebooks. Often I flip through them to see his comments. I often crack up, sometimes at a comment suddenly registering as an insult, often at how much worse a writer I'd be without him. Many times I make a note to buy him a card and list out all the things he's weaned me off of: clichés, passive verbs, euphemisms, poor similes and metaphors, overusing the imperative, settings in 17th century Wales.

During the first three weeks of this winter break, I've spent hours reviewing all his comments. Several times after reading his comments to the first two Milgram drafts, I've gone to his room to accept his offer to talk, but left without knocking. I'm not sure why I don't hear him out. Maybe because I think he'll get me to move on.

In the last few days, as I've trudged ahead with the narrative summary, I've avoided him except one dinner when mom made me eat with them. Over salmon and salad, he studied me, like a new strain under a microscope.

Sam yells something, pounds on the table. Martin says something and through the wall it sounds like "enormity." I don't hear steps on the stairs. How much longer can Sam stay calm?

I eye the three Milgram drafts, the first two stacked to be hole-punched and added to the fourth notebook, the third draft to the side. Instead, I scan the narrative summary.

Stanley Milgram, upon Eichmann's "obeying authority" defense at Nuremberg, conducted an experiment in the US to get a control group so he could conduct it in Germany and prove Germans' inherent conformity allowed the Holocaust, that it couldn't happen in the US.

His experiment conducted in 1961-62 at Yale involved New Haven adult residents that volunteered for a study on negative reinforcement and learning. Two showed up per session. Milgram placed an electrode on the arm of the "learner" while the "teacher" watched. Milgram took teachers to an adjacent room to read a list of word pairs, and the learners read them back. If correct, the teachers moved on; if incorrect, the teachers shocked the learners. The shocks started at 15 volts and ended at 450 volts, increasing each miss by 15. Before they began, Milgram shocked the teachers to show the shocks were real. If a teacher refused to shock twice in a row, it ended. Milgram said he bore all responsibility for learner injuries.

Despite claims of chest pains, cries to stop, and then eerie, dead silence, two out of every three teachers went to 450 volts, murdering the learner. Of the other third, all reached at least 300 volts. Milgram then said the learner was an uninjured actor who hadn't been shocked, that the experiment really concerned conformity.

Milgram canceled his trip to Germany. He published various articles in the 1960s about the results and in 1974 published "Obedience to Authority." Milgram concluded from the experiment that America is enough like Germany that it should fear an American Hitler.

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October 30, 2002
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