It Could Be Us

I’m a non-traditional psychology student, which is politically correct code for really old for an undergrad. Most of the time, I ignore the occasional odd look I get from classmates. I chuckle at back-handed compliments like, “You’re much cooler than my grandmother.” But once in a while, my senior status makes me doubt the wisdom of sitting in a classroom of 20-somethings.

Last fall my social psychology instructor ran a video on Stanley Milgram’s 1964 “Shocking” experiment, where participants believed they were inflicting dangerous levels of electricity on people they heard but couldn’t see. Many of the participants grew agitated and wanted to stop but they continued, simply because a guy in a lab coat asked them to.

Then our teacher spoke about Kitty Genovese, the twenty-eight year old Queens, New York woman who was stabbed to death within the earshot of over 30 of her neighbors, none of whom lifted a finger to save her life. When asked why, most said “We thought someone else would call the police.”

He followed with a video on Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 “Prison Experiment,” constructed to study the way role-expectations effect behavior. Zimbardo recruited twenty-four healthy Stanford undergrads and randomly assigned them to participate as either “guards” or “prisoners.” One third of the guards became overtly sadistic; the remaining eight never attempted to thwart their peer’s cruelty; Zimbardo ended the study early as the play-acting spun out of control.

When the lights went up the crowded classroom was quiet. “So who was to blame for this behavior?” asked our teacher.

All forty-eight of us sat in silence as seconds ticked by. I was about to burst.

“They all were,” I blurted. “The good guards were just as guilty as the bad ones because they did nothing to help the prisoners. And the healthier prisoners were guilty for not rallying around their more fragile peers.”

A woman in the back disagreed. “They did nothing wrong. They were just innocent bystanders.” 

Again, the room was silent. Heat crept across my skin. I bit back tears, wanting to yell at her. I wanted to know how’d she feel if she’d been the one attacked in a dark courtyard, or brainwashed into believing she was less than human by one of Zimbardo’s sunglass-wearing bullies. I wanted her to give me one good reason why she believed we must fend for ourselves when victimized by random acts of cruelty. I wanted to know how she’d live with herself if she turned her back on someone in need. I steadied my voice before I spoke.

“Bystanders who do nothing are not innocent; they share in a perpetrator’s guilt. There is no good reason to ignore someone who needs you. People have a responsibility to help one other.”

Our instructor, a doctoral student, started to look uncomfortable. “Okay class let’s talk about “Self-perception Theory,” the belief that we act before we assess our feelings.”

I groaned to myself. We aren’t robots. I always think before I make a decision. The remainder of the session went by in a blur.

Walking through the parking lot after class I couldn’t shake my agitation. How could people be so cold? How could a room full of intelligent students watch videos of those old experiments and have nothing to say? Were they unmoved? Shy? I unlocked my car and slumped behind the wheel. I closed my eyes and remembered the first time I was confronted by the Bystander Effect: the reluctance many people feel when their conscience calls them to “get involved.”

I grew up in the sixties in one of the suburbs that sprouted outside the bulls-eye of Manhattan. Developers bought up potato fields on the cheap and erected neighborhoods without bothering to strip the acres of woods that separated the old farms. We lived at the end of a long street, our house identical to all the others in the neighborhood: brick-faced, flower-boxed: connected to the others through a network of sidewalks and telephone lines. Most of the families who lived in those houses were similar, too: second or third generation Irish or Italian Catholics who followed church law and had lots of kids.

On summer evenings my sisters and I hurried through after-dinner chores, anxious to escape the tension of our house for the outdoor sanctuary of our friends. One dusky evening in August of 1964, a bunch of us gathered on the street corner, perched on bicycles. We ranged in age from eight to ten; all but one of us girls. “What do you want to do?” Bobby asked Dee. As the unchallenged leader of our group, Dee wore her invisible crown without conceit or humility. It was her due and that was that. I didn’t just admire my best friend, I wanted to be her and spent jealous hours contemplating what it was that drew each of us to her.

“Want to play t-t-tag?” Christine asked. Skinny and awkward, Christine’s membership in the group was always shaky. The rest of us were a daring lot; beyond our mothers’ vision we ran along the railroad tracks, hung upside down from the highest willow branches, and invented circus tricks that today would have gained us viral status on YouTube. We danced across my backyard balance beam and raced to decide the fastest swimmer. No matter the event, Christine always came in dead last.

“Nah…too hot for tag,” said the queen. She gave us one of her “I’ve got a secret” smirks. “Let’s go see if the grapes are ripe.” We protested that the woods were off-limits, but she ignored us and pedaled away, certain we’d follow. As dutiful subjects, we sped off after her.

Rounding the corner at the top of Greenway Drive I pumped toward Conklin until my legs ached, smiling wide and gathering momentum. At the crest of the steep hill, I stopped pedaling and savored the frightening speed, the hot wind, the exhilaration only freedom gifts us with. Conklin Hill gave me the finest moments of my childhood.

Coasting to the edge of the woods at the bottom of  the hill, I rested my bike against the new galvanized fence that blocked our entrance to paradise. Second in command, I waited with Dee as the others glided toward us, popping over the low curb and lining up in a long row. “Stash your bikes behind those bushes,” she commanded, hands on hips. “My brother said his friends cut a door somewhere. See if you can find it but if you hear a car, don’t look suspicious. Just act like you’re taking a walk.” (Television shows featuring spies were big that year; we’d practiced skulking down the sidewalk past Mrs. O’Doul’s, humming “Secret Agent Man,” pilfering roses from her hedge.)

 Earlier that summer, trucks of county workers had invaded our territory. We watched from a distance as they revved smoky chainsaws and amputated the lower branches of our climbing trees. Two hard-hatted men worked together, feeding disconnected limbs to the jaws of an orange monster. With a sickening krraaww…krraaww…krraaww, it spat leafy wood-chunks into a tarp-covered truck. Like rubberneckers at an accident scene we couldn’t pull ourselves away.

By the next afternoon we understood their mission. A six-foot-high, prison-like barricade severed our tidy neighborhood from the wild we loved, all because of Frankie Fortunatta. That April he careened his dirt bike off the narrow path that wound through the pines toward the parkway, intending to dart between the afternoon traffic to the big kids’ hang-out on the other side. His destination was an abandoned brick tunnel, its gaping mouth adorned with graffiti: “f-u a-hole” alongside spray-painted hearts promising “Sean luvs Karen 4 eva.” Someone said they’d found arrowheads there, but all I ever saw were cigarette butts and amber shards of glass—artifacts of teenage parties—probably left by the kids we had to thank for cutting the fence.

Frankie miscalculated but he was lucky, escaping with a broken collarbone and a mangled bicycle. And so the county erected its apology to Mr. and Mrs. Fortunatta: a webbed sentry that stood guard along the tree line of our sacred woods. 

As I searched with the others I hoped Dee’s brother had been lying to her and there was no portal. I loved the woods but they felt different now that they’d been judged dangerous. Plus it was getting darker.

Dee was the first to find the entrance.

“Ta-da!” She stood in front of a triangular flap cut in the links, as proud as if she had carved it herself. She rattled it forward. “C’mon,” she motioned. “Be careful of the sharp parts.” The rest of us looked at each other like stunned owls. Who us? After learning about the Joey-fiasco our parents had warned us to keep out. I had my younger sister with me; she was sure to tattle if I ventured to the other side.

The crickets began to chirp. “Maybe we shouldn’t,” said Bobby. He motioned to the street lights already glowing pink—our reminder it was time to head home. But Dee sneered, disappearing behind the wire wall and into the gloom.

Christine chased lightning bugs through the tall grass, gathering burdocks on her lacy socks. Everyone else looked as if Dracula might be hanging from one of the scarred trees. I tried to sound convincing as I bent my torso forward and yelled, “Hey, Dee, let’s come back tomorrow before we’re grounded for the rest of the summer.” I loved her and hated her, especially at that moment. Feeling coerced inspired a sneaky, passive/aggressive side of me, an ugly trait I still stand on guard for. I rolled my eyes and tossed my hair for my audience, hoping to prove what a much better leader I’d make. I called again, “Dee.”

No response.

Louder this time.

“Hey, Dee, let’s go. We can come back tomorrow.” A mosquito buzzed my ear sending shivers down my spine.

Susan whispered “I’ve got to go. I hear my mother calling.” Stalling, she removed her pink harlequins and checked the lenses against the fading light before retrieving her bike and walking it back to the group. Straddling her banana seat, she rolled back and forth on sneakered toes as if she had a nervous tic. None of us would grant her permission to leave. We were afraid of our parents but crossing Dee was unthinkable.

A car drove past, its headlights reminding us it was getting harder to see. “We can’t just leave her here,” said Jeannie.

I called again, emboldened by the impending mutiny. “Deeeeee. Come ooouuut.”

The leaves rustled and like Peter Pan, her face shiny and triumphant, Dee bobbed through the fence hole.

“Hey, guys. Guess what? There are thousands of them.” She flashed a grin with purple teeth before darting back through the hole. We heard her thrash through the brush. Again, we refused to follow.

A moment later we heard a staccato burst of screams. We froze, isolated by private fears. Bobby was the boy so I figured he’d be the one to rush to the rescue. He ran for his bike instead.

“I’ll get help,” he called over his shoulder. Susan pushed off after him; Christine laughed nervously.

Without thinking, I darted through the hole and chased after my best friend’s screams. My lungs burned from fear and exertion.  Please don’t let it be a wolf. Please don’t let it be a bad man. Please help me find her. Please let her be okay. The shadowy twilight sucked the color from the trees; even the air seemed grey.

I found her in a small clearing, her back rigid, both arms shielding her face. I heard them droning between her screams; hundreds of yellow jackets swarmed her bare skin. Why was she still standing there? I ran to her and tugged at the hem of her shirt. “Dee, hurry,” I cried. Out of her trance, we darted through the trees with hundreds of the tiny witches chasing us. I didn’t feel the stings until we found the escape-hole. Running blind, we passed our frightened friends and screamed our way up the hill toward safety. We parted on Deerfield Drive, her to #27, me to #30.

The next day I learned she had stepped into a camouflaged hornet’s nest, splitting it wide. I expected her to thank me for plunging into that dark forest after her; she didn’t. For her, it would have been a sign of weakness. A few years later an adolescent squabble killed our friendship. Living right across the street, outwardly I ignored the  passing of shared milestones, but peeked through kitchen curtains as first dates and proms became college graduation and a wedding day. When I moved to Canada in 1976, I doubted I’d ever see her again, but Facebook reconnected us after a 30-year hiatus. During one of those first conversations she reminded me of that awful night in the woods, and thanked me for a long-ago decision.

Remembering her words as I sat in that hot, Florida parking lot, it occurred to me that she rescued me. Finding courage that night, without conscious thought, began to change the way I saw myself. No longer the scared girl who believed herself inferior to everyone else, I became someone who took action. It’s helped me to ignore the darker part of me that demands:  Don’t get involved. Back away. Leave before anyone notices. 

Since that night in 1964 other rescues were performed without deliberation; a silent house glowing red in the night as my sister and I passed, a loved friend out of control in the throes of addiction, a beaten prostitute stranded in a city’s shadow, a tormented wife perched on a balcony, contemplating death in the presence of her children, a Sunday morning-cyclist hit by a car, laying unconscious in the road.

Psychologists study the reasons people hesitate to help. Studies have shown the sub-conscious works to weigh the risks before help is offered by the conscious mind. But they don’t discuss what happens when you decide to be the person who gets involved: you recognize your place as an integral part of the whole. You understand your connection to the rest of the world on a gut level. And that connection enriches your life and helps explain why you are here.

The people in my Social Psych class might think of me as the grandma who got annoyed over nothing. Hey, that’s something I can live with.


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2 thoughts on “It Could Be Us

  1. Michael says:

    Deb, I found myself spellbound reading this. Not because it’s part of my own past, but because of the artful way in which you presented your story. Amazing.

    I remember that film from Psych 101 as well. It might have been a grainy B&W production, but it left a real impression on me as well. I think it was titled: “obedience”.

    It’s been nearly 40 years since I’d seen it, but I can still hear the man in the white lab coat telling the subjects “the experiment requires that you do this”, just as I still get chills down my spine when I think of how they complied.

  2. deb reilly says:

    Dear Michael, Brother Dear!

    Your comment came at a twilight, as I sat, contemplating my stupidity at wrestling a degree at “my age,” when peers are planning retirement parties and 401K pay-outs. Thank you for the best gift you ever gave me. (And it wasn’t even wrapped in the Funny Papers!)

    I love you. ❤

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