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Stanley Milgram, Cinematic Chauvinism, and Psychotherapy: Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter

He always left her, like the perfect gentleman he was, plenty of time to wash her hands, while he strolled by the river. That was typical of their relationship. Many things were left unsaid.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse[1]

Shakespeare’s ubiquity makes adaptations of his work uniquely instructive: a critical and staging history of a familiar play creates a backdrop against which to see the vision of a filmmaker at work. Ideally this juxtaposition of early modern drama and a contemporary auteur’s vision produces work that meaningfully and constructively provokes us, opening up new avenues of understanding.

Before Experimenter — Michael Almereyda’s depiction of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram and his early-1960s obedience experiments [2] — I’d seen nothing of Almereyda’s save his Hamlet. Little surprise to encounter, then, within Experimenter’s opening minutes, a Stanley who addresses the audience directly with a first installment of ongoing, self-serving commentary. Almereyda’s Hamlet fails to say much against the backdrop of the Bard, and in many respects his hokey deployment of soliloquy in Experimenter — collapsing complexity, circumventing hard narrative work — is even clumsier than his Hamlet soliloquizing his way through a Blockbuster.

But Experimenter’s pervasive simplicity does serve a purpose: it elucidates Milgram’s passive neglect of his spouse Alexandra (Sasha). This neglect, in turn, substantively parallels Milgram’s neglect of his shock-experiment subjects, whom he thoughtlessly forced into hyperpressurized situation that, lacking both an ethic and an ethics, predictably proved damning for their self-regard and stability. Milgram was not a psychotherapist, but he was a “psychologist,” a term that is often popularly misinterpreted to mean that one is a practitioner of psychotherapy. It is appropriate, then, that in psychotherapeutic theory we find a lucid counterpoint to Milgram’s slipshod situational ethics.

Winona Ryder embodies Sasha as an impressionable, self-assured nonentity; a patly pretty, wide-eyed husk. Sasha recalls Elaine Showalter’s Ophelia, who, “[d]eprived of thought, sexuality, [and] language” is reduced to “the Story of O—the zero, the empty circle or mystery of feminine difference.” Ophelia’s tragedy is, Showalter says, “subordinated in the play.”[3] Drama has no monopoly among western narrative forms on stock, structural misogyny; it absolutely flourishes in film. As Laura Mulvey argues, “Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.” [4] Mulvey borrows Western director Budd Boetticher’s words to underscore that

What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance. [5]

This is Sasha to a tee. She serves as prop, miming a circumscribed constellation of emotions centering, with coy appropriateness, on shock.

On first seeing Stanley in an elevator heading to a mutual friend’s shindig, Sasha giggles; and, later, at the party, is uncomplicatedly wooed—“I teach, actually,” he says when she asks, adding, after a swig of his brown-liquor drink, “social relations.” “Did you,” he asks, “just give that [other] guy your phone number? So if I wanted your number, I could get it from him?” Sasha giggles again, allowing Stanley to effect a woman who doesn’t have dominion over even her own phone number, which is soon his, along with her.

This experiment having succeeded, soliloquy-Stanley tells us the motivation for his impending, career-defining experiment: the unfathomability of the Holocaust. Born in the Bronx in 1933 to immigrants Samuel and Adele Milgram, Stanleywas very aware of his father’s worries” about European family facing genocide; as Stanley told his bar mitzvah guests, “the tragic suffering of my fellow Jews [makes this] an occasion to reflect upon the heritage of my people — which now becomes mine.”[6] Stanley, involuntarily paralyzed by his youth, witnessed the slaughter of his people from afar.

Cut to Sasha and Stanley, voluntarily paralyzed behind a one-way mirror, witnessing close-up a distraught, anguished man convinced he’s killing a second man. Sasha rebels smally when her hand jolts to grasp Stanley’s. He allows this momentarily then pulls his hand decidedly away, throwing her loneliness, and his indifference to it, into high relief. Sasha’s game for more punishment, telling Stanley to fasten electrodes to her skin so she can experience the shock that “teacher” subjects get as a supposed preview of what their “learners” will endure. He objects, but then sits her down, hooks her up, and presses the lever. Her face flashes the genre of shock one might show on spotting one’s favorite stuffed animal in an arcade claw machine—less tortured than tickled. From her reaction, it is unlikely that he administers the full-force preview shock, which typically sparks at least a sharp yelp. He smiles; she smiles; scene ends.

This shallowness cannot issue from the real Sasha. No human is so one-faceted. And replicating the structural chauvinism of Boetticher’s dictum, consciously or otherwise, is too rote a trick to countenance, and too presumptuous a reading of a real-life relationship about which we know too little. One hopes that Almereyda, having absorbed Mulvey and others, reduces Sasha strategically, for enlightened ends. [7]

The best candidate: illuminating parallels between Stanley’s disregard of Sasha in the film and Milgram’s disregard for his subjects, the latter both treated in the film and historically well-established. Milgram’s interventions are today unambiguously defined as inflictions of trauma. Although he took token steps to attend to this trauma, these were fewer and less strident than he insisted, both in the immediate aftermath of the event and over ensuing months, years, and decades.[8]

Inattentiveness, ignorance, indifference, and callousness — say, Stanley’s disregard – are to be understood not as inborn temperament, but as consequences of the contingencies of one’s upbringing. If early attachments are absent, distant, disorganized, or otherwise flummoxed, one is at increased risk of adopting the sorts of stances we see taken by Stanley, along with sundry other “pathologies” all we of flesh are heir to. Indeed, we see Stanley’s pairing of neglect and feigned attentiveness mirrored in his discombobulated early attachments. These relationships appear to have lacked, much like his experimental situation, an articulated interpersonal ethics of the sort that we find in psychotherapy.

Milgram’s parents wed in 1931, birthed sister Marjorie shortly thereafter, and Stanley eighteen months after that. Marjorie hated her new brother with precocious vitriol, ordering her parents to “Throw him in the incinerator.”[9] Marjorie soon began lobbing things into Stanley’s crib, even climbing in to pummel him without attending to aim. [10] Eventually Adele, unable to attend sufficiently to Marjorie’s violent rage, placed a screen over Stanley’s crib. If we needn’t protect babies from punches and projectiles, surely an adult plopped into a spare room before a fancy block of scrap metal can fend for himself?

Milgram answered affirmatively. He failed account for the fact that his subjects entered into an inherently vulnerable and infantalizing situation in which a new focus and intensity can open one to new perspectives on oneself. In Milgram’s situation, these new perceptive possibilities were sinister and self-sabotaging, but there is a context in which the same propensity for subjective malleability is harnessed to produce salutary change: psychotherapy. It is precisely these conditions of subjective infinitude in a space of loving care, this potential for restylizing and recreation characteristic of infancy, that patients entering psychotherapy fundamentally seek.

Psychotherapy offers an opportunity to begin “confronting one’s contingency” by “tracking one’s causes home,” a process Richard Rorty, following Neitzsche[11], equates with “thinking up some new metaphors.” [12] Psychotherapy attempts to help patients optimize and operationalize such metaphors, thereby finding and forming more fruitful and adaptive truths about themselves. When the will for this sort of restructuring is enkindled, it is not just, as Roy Schafer says, “that the patient sees that he has been active” “whereas he thought he had been merely passive, but [that he] sees, too, that he can also be active in another way that alters his past, present, and future all at once.” [13]

Milgram effected similarly radical change in his subjects, but through traumatic and haphazard refashionings rather than calibrated and adaptive ones. He produced people whose revisions of themselves were not conducted along productive lines encouraged by an empathetic and evenhanded therapist, but along malignant lines forced by a contrived situation. Cut to little Stanley, no screen atop his crib, barely cognizant, fending off fratricide. [14]

Stark illustrations of this sort of psychologist-instilled insecurity feature prominently in Experimenter, implicating Milgram in the ways a therapist is implicated in the care of his patients, from failing to attend to seemingly trivial requests to potentially devastating interpersonal rejections. Milgram evokes a full range of human responses that therapists must be prepared to meet and engage, and in each case he turns away.

Yale forces Milgram to conduct an interview to determine whether his work, now a few years past, had done serious psychic damage. In it, three female subjects are reminded that their suffering allowed us “to learn something about human nature,” before they are barraged with questions. One says nearly nothing; a second volunteers that it was “an interesting life experience;” and the third ventures, annoyed, “Aren’t we supposed to have coffee at this meeting?” She is told patronizingly that yes, coffee will be brought. But only after many more questions does she get it, and only after being asked, as though she’d changed her mind, “You want your coffee?” As caring goes, beverages are comically low-hanging fruit. Yet even in a debriefing convened because of his indifference to suffering subjects, Stanley neglects the most easily-met needs.

Stanley’s hapless neglect of subjects at superficial levels bleeds cleanly into his repudiation of their fundamental existential needs. We see this strikingly in one male subject who approaches Stanley in a Yale parking lot some months after participating. Before Stanley is able to duck into his car, the man forces a conversation across its roof. The man offers, amiably and nervously, that he’s discussed the experiment with his wife, who’d never have kept shocking another human like that — leading the man, who’d maxed out on the voltage scale, to doubt his own humanity. He is disgusted with himself. His wife thinks him a monster.

Stanley replies that he needs to get home to his family for dinner. The man, willfully naive about the nature of his relationship to this psychologist, asks guilelessly: “You inviting me to join your family?” He invites himself to the Milgrams’ meal, to be sure; but his words also articulate a quixotic and unrealistic wish: for Milgram to adopt him, he whom Milgram has convinced that he can no longer trust himself, whose sense of moral character Milgram has severely shaken. The weakly-grinning man hopes, not unreasonably, that Milgram, having fractured his subjectivity, will now take responsibility for the fractured subject.

“[T]he longing to have someone else assume responsibility for one’s life” is not, Safran cautions, pub“relegated to a certain developmental stage.” [15] “[L]ongings for a sense of completion and magical transformation,” Safran continues, are an undeniable “part of the mature individual’s experience.”[16] We all need just this sort of careful care from others. Neither subject nor spouse gets it from Stanley.

Almereyda closes his film with a smartphone-era replication of another Milgram experiment in which a confederate stares up intently from a bustling sidewalk at nothing, while another researcher counts how many passersby join to stare upward at some invisible spectacle. Among this captive audience we see, close-up, the real-life Alexandra, c. 2015. Sirens blare out from behind her, out of sight. None, not even the widely grinning Sasha, turns to look. What do they fathom they’re looking for? From whom are they turning decidedly away?

Milgram is not, as some earnestly contend, as reprehensible as the Nazis whose genocide he sought to unpack. But he also gave no rigorous thought to what would happen to people whom he convinced to see themselves as situated on the same spectrum of evil as the Nazis. But hold a subject, maybe Sasha, in that small room at Yale. Make it clear, as did Milgram, that the experiment requires that she go on. Systematically manipulate her emotions until she is dependent on the experimenter for the moral authority to punish and, in the wake of that coerced abdication, a morally-tolerable self-description. Regress her to dependence, then send her home. See what happens. We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

Footnotes

[1] Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, 1989 [1927]. 176.

[2] For a brief account of the structure of and controversies generated by the Milgram “shock experiments” in the context of today’s neopositivist “replication crisis” in psychological research see Safran, Jeremy. “ Replication Problems in Psychology: Crisis, Tempest in a Teapot, or Opportunity? Public Seminar (30 Oct. 2015).

[3] Showalter, Elaine. “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism.” Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds. New York: Methuen, 1985. 77-95.

[4] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 (1989 [1975]). 14-27. 26.

[5] Ibid. 20

[6] Blass, Thomas. “The Roots of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments and Their Relevance to the Holocaust.” Analyse & Kritik 20 (1998): 46-53. 49.

[7] An era-appropriate counterpoint to Sasha be found in Lizzy Kaplan’s deft portrayal of Virginia Johnson in Showtime’s Masters of Sex, which follows another ambitious man of science surrounded by a panoply of servile women: William Masters, an obstetrician and researcher who in 1957 began experiments, with his then-secretary Johnson, into the physiological effects of intercourse. Virginia is a degree-less, divorced single mother whose talents in science and sex endow her with as much or more agency as any of the horny, patronizing, mostly-married men she fights off. She frightens nearly all of them, including Masters, into submission, relying on no man for definition.

[8] For a thoroughgoing investigation of Milgram’s consistent lack of follow-through on what he called the “de-hoaxing” of his subjects (i.e., revealing to subjects that the man they nearly killed in fact felt nothing and was a Milgram confederate), and his systematic overstatement of whether and how these subjects were indeed “de-hoaxed,” see Perry, Gina. Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Shock Experiments. New York: The New Press, 2013 [2012], and in particular “The Limits of Debriefing” (65-94).

[9] Blass, Thomas. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books, 2004. 1.

[10] Ibid. 2

[11] Neitzsche defines truth as a “mobile army of metaphors,” “a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.” (Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense.” Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language. Trans. Sander L. Gilman, et al. New York: Oxford UP, 1989 [1873]. 246-257. 250.)

[12] Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997 [1989]. 27-28.

[13] Schafer, Roy. “The Termination of Brief Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy.” International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy 2.2 (1973): 135-148. 145.

[14] We are indebted to Perry for an accounting of short- and long-term traumas suffered by Milgram’s individual, real-life subjects; see in particular “Subjects as Objects” (96-124).

[15] Safran, Jeremy. “Faith, Despair, Will, and the Paradox of Acceptance.” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 35.1 (1999): 5-23. 8.

[16] Ibid. 8

References

Blass, Thomas. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Blass, Thomas. “The Roots of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments and Their Relevance to the Holocaust.” Analyse & Kritik 20 (1998): 46-53.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 [1989 (1975)]. 14-27.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense.” Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language. Trans. Sander L. Gilman, et al. New York: Oxford UP, 1989 [1873]. 246-257.

Perry, Gina. Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Shock Experiments. New York: The New Press, 2013 [2012].

Safran, Jeremy D. “Faith, Despair, Will, and the Paradox of Acceptance.” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 35.1 (1999): 5-23.

Safran, Jeremy D. “ Replication Problems in Psychology: Crisis, Tempest in a Teapot, or Opportunity? Public Seminar (30 Oct. 2015).

Schafer, Roy. “The Termination of Brief Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy.” International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy 2.2 (1973): 135-148.

Showalter, Elaine. “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism.” Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds. New York: Methuen, 1985. 77-95.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997 [1989].

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, 1989 [1927]. 176.

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