Friday, March 24, 2006
Something shocking happened to my brother John one Sunday night in 1974. He was at his girlfriend’s house watching the CBS news show 60 Minutes and half paying attention to the screen when correspondent Morley Safir started a segment titled “Following Orders.” Safir introduced the piece by showing black and white footage of a psychological experiment that was conducted at Yale University. John was about to turn the channel when he noticed that one of the men in the film looked exactly like my father. My father had died nine years previous to this broadcast, so he was perplexed. He jumped off the couch in order to get a closer look.
As Safir narrated, the film showed a short, stocky and bespectacled man. He was middle-aged and wore suspenders. He was seated in a stark white room while a man in a long white lab coat attached electrodes to his arms. When he finished connecting the wires he asked the man if he had any questions or concerns.
Man in suspenders: About two years ago I was at the Veteran’s Hospital in West Haven.
While there, they diagnosed me with a heart condition…nothing serious, but as long as I’m having these shocks…how strong are they? How dangerous are they?
Man in lab coat: No, although the shocks may be painful, they are not dangerous.
THAT GUY IN THE SUSPENDERS IS MY FATHER! John shouted. He called home and my mother answered the phone.
John: Mom, quick turn on 60 minutes. Daddy is on there…and they’re electrocuting him.
Mom: What are you talking about?
John: It’s some kind of psychological experiment and every time he gets a word association question wrong… they shock him.
Mom: Oh THAT experiment (as if my father had been in several experiments.) Yes, I vaguely remember him doing an experiment at Yale about 12 years ago.
The shocking truth is that in 1961 through 1962, my father, who worked as head auditor for The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad,(predecessor to the railroad I work for) took a part time job with a Yale professor named Dr. Stanley Milgram. The railroad did not like their management employees taking part time jobs but my father had nine mouths to feed and was employed at Yale for about a year.
Milgram, a social psychologist, took out an ad in the New Haven Register that offered to pay volunteers $4.00 for one hour's work, to participate in a psychological experiment at Yale University in a study to investigate memory and learning. Participants were told that the study would look at the relationship of punishment and learning. Volunteers would work in pairs; one would be the teacher, the other a learner. The two men would draw straws but it was fixed that my father (a confederate) would always draw the short straw and be the learner.
My father was strapped to a chair and electrodes were attached to his arms. It was explained to the teacher that the electrodes were connected to an electric shock generator and that the teacher was to shock my father for every wrong answer he gave in a series of word association questions.
The teacher was then brought to a separate room and sat in front of the shock generator. The machine had about 30 switches. The switch farthest to the left read 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 volts (severe shock). The switch farthest to the right was simply marked XXX. Every time my father got a question wrong, the learner had to give him a shock that increased in severity with every wrong answer (in reality, my father never received any shocks). My father’s groans and screams were pre-recorded and played each time the teacher gave him a shock. Many of these teachers expressed concern for my father’s well being, some even protesting about continuing, but the researcher in the lab coat urged them on.
Milgram’s results were shocking. He found that 65% of participants, even after hearing my father’s screams, zapped him all the way to the last switch. This study proved that everyday normal people could cause pain and suffering to another person under the right set of circumstances (think Nazi Germany). This experiment is still talked and written about today. Just last year The New York Times ran a piece on it, after US soldier Lynndie England said that she was innocent of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, because, she said, “I was just following orders.”
Shortly after the 60 Minutes broadcast, Dr. Milgram, who then chaired the Psychology Department at City University of New York (CUNY), appeared on the Phil Donahue Show. He had finally released the findings of the experiment and had written a book about it. It was titled, “Obedience to Authority.”
As we watched the show, we were all in a state of shock. They ran the footage of my father being strapped to the chair and we could hear his protests when the teacher started flipping switches and doling out discipline.
“Let me out of here!” He cried, “You can’t keep me here! Let me out!”
We still weren’t certain if my father was really getting shocked or not. We wondered if this might have had something to do with the fatal heart attack he suffered less than three years later at the young age of 49. After the show, my mother contacted CUNY and asked to speak with Dr. Milgram.
The next day our phone rang and I answered it. The man on the other line said, “Hello, this is Stanley Milgram, is Mrs. McDonough in.”
Dr. Milgram could not have been more pleasant. He told my mother how much he enjoyed working with my dad and he reassured her that he was unharmed in the experiments. He sent my mom an autographed copy of the book that was inscribed:
To Mrs. James McDonough,
I thought you might like to have a copy of this book.
As you know, your late husband was part of the
research team at Yale University. It was a pleasure
to work with him, and he was a very fine man.
After her conversation with Dr. Milgram, my mother rented the 8mm reel to reel version of the “Obedience to Authority” movie so we could all watch it at home. We gathered in our living room as my brother Jimmy set up the projector and hung a white bed sheet from our living room wall. I really didn’t remember much about the movie, probably because the quality of the projector was so poor. It had no audio and the picture was grainy (perhaps the sheet just needed washing.) I do remember making some great shadow puppets on the wall though.
My father had died just two weeks prior to my third birthday and I have no recollection of him. We used to have an 8x10 picture of him that hung over the TV in the den of my mother’s house. This picture was an icon for me, a photo of someone from the past, not known but idolized. Much like the pictures of Jesus, Pope Paul and John F. Kennedy that my grandfather had hanging on the walls in his house next door. When anybody spoke of my father this was the picture I had in my mind’s eye.
In 1994, when I purchased my first VCR, I wanted to get a video of the “Obedience to Authority" movie. I contacted Yale University which in turn referred me to Penn State University who now own the rights to the movie. The librarian told me that they normally only sell the video to institutions of higher learning and that they never had an individual request a copy for home use before. He said he could sell me a copy, but the going price was $1000.
I explained to the librarian that I was the son of one of the experiment’s main participants and I just wanted a copy for the family archives.
The librarian told me, that under the circumstances, he would talk to Alexandra Milgram, Dr. Milgram’s widow (he died in 1984 at 51 years of age) and see if they could give me a break on the price.
I was shocked, when a few days later I received a call from the librarian at Penn State. Mrs. Milgram said that I could have a copy of the movie for free, as long as I paid shipping and handling. The video arrived in the mail a few weeks later.
Unlike the 8mm home movie we had watched, this video was crystal clear. The hair stood up on my neck as I heard my father speak for the first time (he sounded nothing like I suspected). I had never seen his picture taken from behind before and I inspected his bald spot. I had to laugh when I saw that we had the same smile and mannerism. I pushed the play button over and over again as I wiped the tears from my eyes.
Recently, I had a middle-aged woman on my train, a Yale name tag hung from her neck. We began talking and she told me that she was a psychology professor at the University. I asked her if she was familiar with the Milgram experiment.
“Of course,” she said.
I then launched into the story I’ve just told here and how I received a copy of the video from Milgram’s widow.
“How strange,” the psychologist said, “ that the only memory you have of your father is that of him being a victim.”
“Shocking really,” I said.
For more information on the “Obedience to Authority” experiment, please visit: stanleymilgram.com