Fiction - Dropping Balm, The Absinthe Literary Review

Moving On
a short short 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 thirty 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 showing him. 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” a hundred times.

In eighth grade, I wrote about a sheriff who atoned for his role in the My Lai massacre by killing ten members of the KKK that had 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 males, considered him quiet, even docile. Only the few that engaged and interested him saw what Sam and I did.

Every story he has 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 his comments. Several times after reading his observations on the first two Milgram drafts, I’ve gone to his room to accept his offer to talk, only to leave 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 once at dinner when Mom made me eat with them. Over salmon and salad, he studied me, like a new strain under a microscope.

Sam is yelling something in the other room, pounding on the table. Martin says something in reply 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, 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.

Many attacked Milgram’s methods as unethical given the psychological damage inflicted upon the teachers. The experiment is no longer allowed. Before barred, it was replicated 12 times, some in other countries. Those experiments reached the same 2/3 ratio, including a 1985 Netherlands study where all the teachers were female nurses.


Given the passive verbs and “eerie, dead silence” (sure to be stricken, “The Horror! The Horror!” next to it), I’m glad I haven’t shown it to Martin. Why had I felt compelled to do it instead of just talking to him or starting the fourth draft I had mulled (about a Milgram-obsessed frat president who conducted Milgram’s experiment on pledges during Hell Week)? Had I hoped stripping away the fiction would reveal what had me entranced?

Alec, Billy, Stephen? Basinger allegedly left Alec because of his temper. And his “Coffee is for Closers” performance still scared the hell out of me. He could tell Milgram to fuck off, or he could get pissed that the fucking imbecile couldn’t repeat a few words and push to go to 465 volts. Billy looked natural in Internal Affairs letting Gere slap him around and screw his wife. Stephen showed balls in Crossing the Bridge but did a Pauly Shore movie and got photographed in racing jackets at the ESPN Zone. Billy and Stephen.

I drop the narrative summary next to the three drafts on the desk, the last hundred days of my life spread out before me. I shake my head at the image of the Intro to Psych class when Levine moved past the assigned reading and into Milgram’s experiment. As he did, I watched the other students pass notes, stare at the clock, read newspapers. If one had stared back at me, shrugged the shoulders or after class told me it was “better not to dwell,” maybe I’d have left it in the fading textbook, not started the first draft that night.

I flip the pages of that first draft, “Grandma’s Secret,” about a boy at his grandfather’s house who stumbles across Milgram’s Obedience to Authority, and then learns from his grandpa that grandma taught and murdered the learner, and after that night didn’t talk about it until two days before she died. That day, as she watched kids play in the street, she said, “They think I’m some doddering old lady; they don’t know I’m a murderer.” After he sees her buried, he finds the book in the back of her closet and reads it all. The grandpa then sends the boy to bed. The boy tries to sleep but keeps seeing himself as the teacher, murdering every time. He pictures the My Lai massacre and joins in each time. In the end, he flips the light back on and falls asleep.

I revisit Martin’s comments. “A felt piece of fiction. Beef up the boy-grandpa dialogue after grandpa explains about ‘Grandma the Terrible. ’ My Lai references are forced. It’s at least your fourth story mentioning it, including the understated beauty about the sheriff who atones for it with another massacre. My Lai is an interesting concept but fictionally difficult. See Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, about running for senator and from My Lai. ”

The night I first read those comments, I went to the library and studied books, newspaper articles on microfiche, essays and web sites. I learned that in the My Lai massacre, Lieutenant Calley’s platoon murdered about five-hundred civilians, many old women and babies. Soldiers crept up on kneeling, praying old women and shot each in the head. Lai is pronounced Lie; My is Me. One researcher described Calley as a “bland young man burdened with as much ordinariness as any single individual could bear.” A soldier described him as “a kid trying to play war.” His commanding officer openly referred to him as “Lieutenant Shithead” and began every answer to his questions with “Listen, sweetheart.” Court-martialed, Calley served less than five months of his life sentence, most under house arrest, before Nixon pardoned him. Of US citizens polled, 7% agreed with the life sentence, 78% disagreed, and 15% lacked an opinion and cerebrum. No other soldier served any time for the massacre. Calley returned to Columbus, Georgia, a hero and now lives there, managing his father-in-law’s jewelry store, anonymous.

The library didn’t have O’Brien’s book so I left with my notes and holed up in my room to pound out the second draft. It took a week of skipped classes and take-out to finish, mainly due to the game.

While flipping channels at the end of a writing break, I stopped at “The Three Stooges.” Moe ordered Larry and Curly into a dark building, gouging and poking both to hurry them up. Within minutes I had a game for breaks: examine in threes, linked famous athletes and entertainers, based on behavior on and off the field, stage or set, to determine which two Milgram’s experiment would expose as murderers. At the next break, taken a bit earlier than usual, I settled on Crosby and Nash over Stills. Towards the end of that week, I couldn’t finish a paragraph without stopping to play.

Somehow I finished the second draft, “Me Lie,” about a private hiding behind a shed during the massacre, listening to Calley scream at soldiers to shoot anything moving in the pit. While hiding, the private figures out what had set Calley off. That morning, the commanding officer ridiculed Calley’s new ring and made him admit that it was not from his fiancé but from her father and that Calley couldn’t wait to get home to suck the old man’s shriveled dick. The private peers around the shed and sees another soldier shoot into the pit, throw his gun down, and bawl, putting his hands over his ears as Calley screams at him. The private resumes hiding and smiles at his circumstances, how after Milgram’s experiment exposed him as a murderer he joined the military to strengthen his will and resolve. This gets him laughing. Soon he can’t stop. Calley drags him out and orders him to shoot a girl soldiers have dangled over the pit. Blood spews from her ears, mouth, crotch and anus. The private sprays four bullets, blasting her eyes and ears.

Before I revisit Martin’s comments I take a break, stretch my legs. Nothing for awhile. They’re coming much slower now. Then, like a rainbow it’s there, and I sit back.

Joyce DeWitt, Suzanne Somers, John Ritter? Dewitt always seemed shifty, flitty. She made snide comments about Somers during an interview. I don’t think playing Chrissy was a real stretch for Somers. Though he didn’t fight the writers to let Jack really give it back to Roper and Furley, after his Slingblade turn, I don’t see Ritter going past 60 volts. Dewitt and Somers.

Unable to think of another group, I review Martin’s comments to the second draft. “Aside from the ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ symbolism in the end (jackhammer’s subtlety), this premise is interesting, delivery mediocre. You’ve regressed to driver’s ed characters. Only the private and one other soldier questioned the slaughter? I won’t talk you out of exploring the Milgram-My Lai connection, but revisit Gutman’s Crimes of War. Look at Rwanda where Hutus, aided by nuns, murdered 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in two months. Look at the Balkans, Milosevic’s turn as the Fuhrer. Look at Cambodia, Pol Pot: four years, two million murdered. Each happened after Milgram’s experiment and My Lai. To the world-weary person still reading short stories, Milgram and My Lai lack a certain gravitas. Let’s chat about this. ”

Seeing again Martin’s plea to move on to something else reminds me why I haven’t yet read his comments to the third draft. I eye the third draft warily, then close my eyes until another group comes. Several times I get the feeling that someone’s hovering with a pencil to stab my right eye when I open it. Finally it comes, triggered by Dad’s voice in the hall.

Terry Gordy, Buddy Roberts, Michael Hayes? I’ve resorted to the Fabulous Freebirds—“bad guy” wrestlers I liked in fifth grade until Dad spotted them on a flight buying drinks for their sworn enemies, the Von Erichs. Gordy weighed over 300 pounds. His face resembled the one I pictured Charlie having at the end of Flowers for Algernon. Roberts, the short guy, deferred to Hayes and Gordy in interviews, always dying to get a tag so he could get in an arm-bar or headlock before tagging out. Hayes led them. His Crystal Gayle-length blonde hair had to cause grief on the circuit. Gordy and Roberts.

I scan the third draft, “Unused Ticket,” about a Jewish widow in New Haven whose husband killed himself years after living through Auschwitz. She volunteers for Milgram’s experiment. The story examines what she and Milgram think and feel from her first, 15-volt to the last, 450-volt shock. The story ends with him explaining the real experiment, her passing out, him throwing out his plane ticket to Germany.

No groups come to me. I peek at Martin’s comments on the third draft. “Go to StanleyMilgram. com and click on ‘little-known facts about Milgram.’ Looks like C. Kirk beat you to this approach and I think it works better in his format. On an unrelated note, you and Peter Gabriel have something in common. Come on by, seriously, let’s talk. ”

I fire up the computer and go to the website. In 1976 CBS aired a prime-time drama of the Milgram experiment. Milgram consulted. William Shatner played him. Peter Gabriel, an “avid admirer,” titled a song “We do what we’re told - Milgram’s 37” on So. Before he died at 51 in 1984, Milgram moved on to other studies, establishing the “small-world method,” the source of “Six Degrees of Separation,” theorizing about the perceived rudeness of his native New Yorkers, and testing the effects of televised antisocial behavior.

The brunt of this new information clogs my brain, leaves my stomach gut shot. I ran “Stanley Milgram” in Yahoo and didn’t get Stanleymilgram. com? Why hadn’t I tried Google? Had I wanted only two sites to pop up, making my job all the more key? Shatner?

I take a break, rub knuckles into my eyes, try to decipher what Sam just yelled.

I smile at the screen, remembering the glow after completing the first draft, plotting which literary journal I’d submit it to after making Martin’s sure-to-be-minor revisions, what I’d say when the editor called to thank me for sending it in, making the connection to My Lai.

It’s pretty clear. Milgram published Obedience to Authority and then helped CBS air a drama of it, played by an acting punch line. The typical father watched with his wife, sent his daughter out at certain points, gave her a huge hug when he tucked her in. Before he went to bed, he slowly brushed and flossed, studied his face in the mirror, judged himself, his wife, his daughter, his boss, his secretary, the dry cleaner, his ex-girlfriends, the quiet widow next door, his racquetball partner, the guy he talked sports with on the train. He didn’t come to bed until deciding he, his wife, and daughter were each in the one-third minority and, in fact, would have stopped well before three-hundred volts. He held his wife tight that night and within a few days he moved on. Now, twenty-five years later, days full of missed pars and long walks, did he want to hear that when his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter visit he should bear in mind two are murderers? That his daughter’s wedding ring may have passed through Calley’s hands?

My Lai gets a sentence, maybe a short paragraph in textbooks, a footnote to the Balkans, Rwanda, Indonesia, the Middle East, Cambodia, Liberia, many others.

After Captain Kirk played him, Milgram thrived another eight years, responsible for key studies and theories unrelated to conformity.

A bland young man burdened with as much ordinariness as any single individual could bear.

I shake my head to jar the mess encased in my skull, wipe it clean. I gather the three drafts and the narrative summary. I yank each apart, using teeth to pry staples when fingernails fail. I destroy each page, dump them all in the trash, erase from disk and hard-drive.

A bit woozy, I head over to Martin’s room, and stand outside his door. He and Sam sit in the same positions. Sweat lathers Sam’s face.

“Hey Sam,” I say. “You okay in here?”

“We’re talking conformity,” Martin says, grinning. “Care to join?”

I take a seat and stay all afternoon, only once trying to decide which two of us are murderers.



© 2003 David Erlewine

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