In high school during the late 70’s, I became a fan of Peter Gabriel. I waited eagerly for his first solo album to come out in ’77, after leaving Genesis in ’75, and have followed his career with varying levels of enthusiasm ever since. His seventh CD, “So,” came out in 1986. It featured such hits as “In Your Eyes” and “Sledgehammer,” but also included an odd, atmospheric tune titled, “We Do What We’re Told (MIlgram’s 37).”
The lyrics were brief, basically a repeat of the title line, somewhat mechanically chanted: “We do what we’re told/told to do.”
I had heard of Dr. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments by that time, and the song made me more curious, so I did some additional research.
For simplicity, let me quote from a site called “Songfacts“:
“This is about the social experiments of Stanley Milgram, a Yale professor who had subjects administer electric shocks to a person if they answered a question wrong. The person being shocked was an actor who writhed in pain as the shocks got larger. Milgram wanted to see if the subjects would administer the shocks when the experimenter told them to, even though they were causing apparent pain in the person. Almost all subjects administered the highest level of shock despite the actor pounding the wall in apparent agony.
Fast forward more than twenty years. I found myself thinking about bullies, and targets, and bystanders. I was reading books and blogs, talking to professionals, trying to conjure a story. The more I honed in on “bystanders,” the silent majority that holds the power and the hope, the more I recalled Milgram’s disturbing experiments. That song lyric by Peter Gabriel. The difficulty we have in standing up to authority, whether that figure wears a white lab coat or simply establishes himself as a cool kid on the playground. It’s hard to go up against that. So we do what we’re told.
For more on Milgram experiments, see the video clips below (when you’ve got some time).
I tried to give Bystander the qualities of a thriller, the twisting knot of tension and conflict. Short chapters flowed into the next, integrated, pushing forward. But midway in the book, I gave the plot a pause — and because of that, I was uncertain if it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t sure about this little detour I wanted to take. In the midst of story, would the fit be seamless enough? That’s an apt metaphor for author, I think. We’re in the haberdashery business: cutting and ripping, stitching and joining seamlessly, until at the end it appears (we hope!) to work together as a unified hole.
In fact, I initially wrote the scene as a stand-alone chapter, and gave it to my editor, Liz Szabla, with the question: Does this work for you? In terms of moving the plot forward, I knew it didn’t. But sometimes plots need to plunge downward, not forward; a well-paced book is a creature different from a fast-paced book (though the two are often confused). When racing off to the next thing at breakneck speed, we sacrifice character and development. I also knew that my upcoming chapters would be increasingly dramatic, with action and conflict, so I felt like this was the right moment to slow things down. At the same time, as I said to Liz, I was willing to be talked out of including it.
Also, and maybe this is the thing: I liked the Milgram stuff. I found it fascinating, troubling, telling. I had to attempt to work it into the story, maybe more for me than for anyone else. Writing books, folks: It’s a balancing act. We’re all circus performers spinning plates, running around like clowns, trying to keep the elements of story from smashing to the ground.
Excerpt from Chapter 18 of Bystander. I include this with some hesitation, because I don’t think it’s a representative excerpt, or one of the book’s shining moments, but . . . whatever:
Mr. Scofield wiped the chalk dust off his hands. He launched into a story. “In the early 1960’s, a Yale professor named Stanley Milgram wondered about the Nazi atrocities in Germany. The Holocaust. The slaughter of six million Jews. How was it, Milgram wondered, that these German soldiers could have committed such unspeakable acts? Someone had to light the ovens. Someone had to stand by and watch it happen. How could these ordinary men have allowed this to go on?
“So Milgram set up an experiment. He recruited forty volunteers. They were average, everyday people like you or me.”
Eric’s eyes roamed around the room. A few kids had their heads on their desks, but overall, they seemed to be listening. Even Mary.
The volunteers, Scofield explained, were brought to a laboratory where they met a distinguished-looking scientist in a white lab coat. One by one, each volunteer met a man whom he or she believed to be a middle-aged accountant. After drawing the short straw, the accountant was selected to be the ‘learner’ in the experiment. “The volunteers did not realize,” the teacher said, “that the accountant was actually a professional actor, hired to play a role. The selection process was rigged.”
A boy called out, “They were punked!”
Mr. Scofield nodded. “Yes, you could say that.”
Each volunteer was assured that this was important research. They had critical jobs to perform. The accountant-slash-actor was taken to an adjacent room, where he was hooked up with wires to a large electrical generator. The scientist in the lab coat then asked the man a series of questions. If he replied incorrectly, the volunteer was instructed to flip a switch, delivering an electric shock to the accountant.
“Here’s where it gets interesting,” Mr. Scofield said.
“Finally,” Mary joked. The class laughed, but quickly grew quiet. They were already curious.
“The machine had thirty switches, all carefully labeled, ranging from 15 volts all the way up to 450 volts of electricity. With each shock,” Mr. Scofield said, “the volunteer was told to increase the voltage. The switches were not actually connected to the electrical generator, but the volunteers did not realize that.
“As the experiment progressed, the accountant began to moan in pain, then scream, then frantically pound the walls. He begged and pleaded for them to stop the experiment. Hearing this, fourteen out of forty volunteers refused to continue. But twenty-six others ignored the cries and completed the experiment. They delivered all thirty shocks, all the way to the maximum level.”
Mr. Scofield looked around the room. “I’m sure that some of those twenty-six people – like you and me – began to have doubts. They sensed it was wrong. They wanted to stop. But each time, the scientist told them in a firm voice that it was essential to continue the experiment. So they followed orders.”
He pointed at the chalkboard. We do what we’re told.
“Do you understand?”
The class remained silent, thinking it through, not really getting it. Some watched the clock, began to gather books, the bell was about to sound.
“Think for yourself!” Mr. Scofield urged his students. His eyes seemed to linger on Mary. “It doesn’t matter what other people do. You have to look into your own heart.”
“What’s this got to do with us?” a boy asked.
“Everything,” the teacher answered. “It’s about having the courage to do the right thing.”
MILGRAM’S OBEDIENCE TO AUTHORITY EXPERIMENT 2009, PART ONE
MILGRAM’S OBEDIENCE TO AUTHORITY EXPERIMENT 2009, PART TWO
MILGRAM’S OBEDIENCE TO AUTHORITY EXPERIMENT 2009, PART THREE