An Early Halloween Surprise

I am writing this at 1:30 AM –

Tonight we were awakened at midnight by an older woman screaming outside. “Help me, help me, somebody help me.” She was screaming bloody murder. In a daze, I found myself sitting up at the edge of my bed looking for a cell phone. I wanted to look out the window, but the air-conditioner which I still haven’t put away was blocking my view. The woman then began screaming, “I need a man. I need a man.” Was this some university student with a twisted sense of humor? Or the low life neighborhood crack addict who once approached me in the middle of a hot summer day with tight denim shorts on and a tube top, telling me with desperation that she was menstruating and had no tampons? Unlikely. The voice was a little more dignified. “My husband is hanging there. I need a man. I need a man.” I had no idea what was going on but I was starting to put two and two together. I ran outside along with half my building. A young woman from upstairs who is in the Department of Biology at the university was clutching her throat and gagging as she ran past me back inside. He hung from a tree by their third story porch.

She needed a man to help get her husband down. A neighbor who watches too much CSI said that we shouldn’t move the body. The new widow was having none of that. She wanted her husband down and it would happen now. The guy from the condo downstairs helped lift him up and back onto the porch. The woman kept screaming for an ambulance. She screamed the entire time. Putting on my FUCT hoodie, I edged over to the porch of the four bedroom next door. The classics grad students live there. “Hi, Alex,” I said. I had given Alex his cat, a stray I found when he was three months old. He was watching the tree. He brightened up when he saw me: “Hey, how’s it going?” I directed my eyes to the screaming woman and then back, “Uh? Not good!” “Oh, yeah,” he said. There wasn’t much left to say after that.

12 hours later –

I’d fallen asleep last night at around 10:00 reading Lauren Slater’s chapter, “In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing,” from her controversial book Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century. Along with Eli Zaretksy’s Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis and Geof Eley’s Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000, it’s one of those amazing intellectual histories that have actually taught me something – ones I started a few years back but whose reading was interrupted. I’ve been eager to get back to them, and the other day, I sidelined some of the stuff I’ve been working on to read something I want for once.

Slater opens the chapter by describing the post-911 paranoia that led her to order rubber gas masks for herself and her daughter (the husband refused to participate). “Now I pick up my gas mask and try it on. It fits to my face with a loud sucking sound. The gas mask for my daughter is really unbearable. It is so small, such a dense miniaturization of horror. I hold it in my hand. I call her over and try to put it on her, but she backs away, cries out, of course. Help is so hard to give.” Slater’s signature style in the book offended quite a few people in the psychiatric profession (Good). It was OK for her to do in such memoirs as Welcome to My Country, about her experience as group counselor for a schizophrenia patients at Harvard while she was a graduate student. What her supervisors did not know was that Slater had been a patient in this same ward and a member of the group when she was a teenager. In Lying, she details how prone epileptics are to exaggerating the magnitude of their seizures, as well as the way many non-epileptics who are given to lying pathologically enjoy faking seizures. Opening Skinner’s Box, however, was a different matter altogether as Slater employed narrative techniques found in fiction and autobiography to describing scientific case studies. Her method is appropriate, though, insofar as these are the psychiatric case studies of the 20th century that captured the popular imaginary and questioned the “scientific” groundings of Psychiatry. Slater is pretty up front by using this style: Psychiatry isn’t a science and the essay form allows her to subject to moral and ethical questioning.

The gas mask incident helps her think through why “helping” others has been such a vexing problem for psychiatrists. She discusses the study by John Darley and Bibb Latane, inspired by the public murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese at 3AM after parking her car by her apartment building. A man followed her and stabbed her. She cried out. Ran away. Lights went on in the nearby buildings. The attacker followed her and continued his rape/attack. She escaped again and he followed her. The murder took 35 minutes and took place in front of 38 active witnesses, none of whom phoned the police until after the murder was complete and the rape consummated. Once the story was reported by the New York Times in a series of articles, readers who were outraged by the bizarre behavior of the witnesses wrote in demanding that the Times publish their names on the front page of the paper. It was especially enraging that New York State had no by-stander law (à la the final episode of Seinfeld) that would prosecute witnesses to a crime who did not in some way intervene.

What were the psychological forces at work?

Experts from all corners offered hypotheses to explain why the witnesses did what they did. Renee Claire Fox of Barnard College’s sociology department said the witnesses’ behavior was a product of “affect denial”; they had been, in other words, shocked into inaction or numbness. Ralph S. Banay hypothesized that TV was to blame; Americans, he said, are so subject to an endless stream of violence from the television that they can no longer separate real life from the screen. The same Dr. Banay also offered up the proverbial psychoanalytic explanations, the sort of thing that, a decade later, Rosenhan would so discredit in his pseudopatient study. Banay said, “They [the witnesses] were deaf, paralyzed, hypnotized with excitation. Persons with mature, well integrated personalities would not have acted this way.” Karl Menninger wrote, “Public apathy is itself a manifestation of aggressiveness.”

Slater claims that Darley and Latane “were not not happy with these explanations, in part because, like [Stanley] Milgram, they were experimental social psychologists who believed less in the power of personality than in the power of situation, and in part because the explanations defied intuitive sense.” I’d say from reading about their study that they were more interested in developing a social theory of the “scene” than the “situation,” but that’s just semantics. Slater’s account of their study on offering help discusses the way in which the crime and the response didn’t quite “fit.” She offers mundane examples of this lack of fit. A fire alarm is going off in your building, “and no one seems worried,” so you ignore it as well. A person falls in the street, and no one offers help, so you keep walking. I’ve seen that one before. You just assume that everyone else around saw the fall differently, realizing that the collapsed person was drunk, not having a heart attack. Someone else already phoned the ambulance, etc.

Darley and Latane’s experiment, which involved checking to see if a test subject would respond to a cry for help (taped) from someone in the next room who was having a seizure, was less important for my purposes in its details than it is for its results. Only 35% of people stood up to find help for the seizure victim over his six minute seizure. More importantly, this percentage dropped according to “group” size. If more than four test subjects were present during the experiment, a helping response would be unlikely. Chances that someone would take on a leadership role dramatically increased to 85% if only two test subjects were together at a time with the epileptic student next door.

You would think that the larger the group, the more emboldened you would become, the less fearful, the more likely you would be to reach out across danger. After all, do we not feel most intimidated alone, in the dark, in the back ally, where no light shines down? … Latane and Darley’s experiment challenges the evolutionary adage of safety in numbers. There is something about a crowd of bystanders that inhibits helping behavior.

They called this “diffusion of responsibility,” which means that we start relying on someone else to do the helping for us. Also, social etiquette norms mean that no one wants to be the one to make a fuss. The more time passing decreases the chances that someone will help. This is not apathy. It’s the conscious choice not to respond with a helping action.

It struck me, after I came back in and thought about what I had been reading before I fell asleep, that last night I did not get off my bed until the woman announced that her husband had hanged himself. Until then, I was sitting on the edge of the bed holding my head, listening to her screams for help and for a man, trying to decide what to do. I’d had a beer, which I’m not supposed to take with medication; felt incredibly woozy. But was my mixing of substances a moral alibi?

When I came outside probably three minutes had passed since her screams first woke me up. At least 20 people were mingling outside watching the “victim’s” feet hanging in the air. The woman I mentioned earlier, who was running back in to vomit, had made it outside and was already turning back before I shuffled unhurriedly down the back stairs in my flip flops. Through early inaction, I’d already decided that this wasn’t my problem. One of my co-workers said, after I’d described the Catherine Genovese murder, “At least you all went outside.” “Sure,” I answered, “and people were calling an ambulance and a neighbor was helping by swinging the husband down off the tree after he lynched himself. The difference is, while our response was helping and immediate, it was secondary. People were ready to offer help when we knew the crime was over. I guarantee you, none of those people would have gone outside if there was a crime/murder in action.” He was interested by my answer.

“How come no one heard the guy setting up the rope to hang himself?” I explained, “The neighborhood is class mixed. My street is nice, but we also have a lot of losers in our building and all around who aren’t interested in bourgeois respectability. There is noise at night sometimes. Some of the neighbors are always trying to sell my friends weed or porn VHS tapes when they come over (who watches VHS anymore?). Also, one of the neighbors has a retarded kid who runs around screaming in the same monotone all afternoon long. You get used to screening things out.”

“But if you had seen the guy rigging the rope, would you have shouted something out or called the police?”

“He thinks he would,” said another co-worker. “But according to the study he mentioned, he probably wouldn’t.”

“I have no problem calling the police on my neighbors. Actually, I know I wouldn’t in this case. I know the woman was in that instant destroyed by the death of her husband, but suicide is a personal decision. It’s no one else’s business. My opinion on the subject is pretty anti-social. Hanging, though, that’s the most performative way to kill yourself, and probably the most passive aggressive.”

When I think about last night, the most disturbing image wasn’t the guy’s feet floating in the shadow of the falling tree leaves, illuminated by porch light behind him. Rather, it was after he was down. By then, we had all dispersed back to our respective apartments. From my windows, by the computer where I was to start typing this entry, I watched the EMTs and police arrive to “take care of” the situation. It only took ten minutes for them to arrive and then vacate. And while the backyards of these buildings are like an echo chamber (condos on one side, separated from the backyard of our apartments by a picket fence), they did their jobs in a surreal silence. Conversation was out of the question. I did not want to talk to anybody. I wanted to watch as the EMTs climbed the porch stairs like in a silent film. The police with their notebooks climbed down. The body was carried down. An EMT held up a giant measuring stick to get the height of the tree limb where the guy hung from.

I think the giant stick was the creepiest thing.


One Response to “An Early Halloween Surprise”

  1. Evan Says:

    Something that I once found interesting was that in some places, women who are being threatened by an intended rapist are told to yell “FIRE!” rather than “HELP ME!” because we don’t really care that much about acting upon what happens to someone else ‘removed’ from their life.

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