I Took Part In A Psychology Experiment For Some Extra Christmas Money (And I Regret It)

Shutterstock / conrado
Shutterstock / conrado

I’m 25 years old now and I’ve just never been able to get ahead for some reason. My resume consists of one part-time joke of a job after another. Yet I’ve got a degree. I’ve got no addictions and no lack of energy. To make matters worse, I’ve got two children to take care of, by myself.

I guess that’s the long and the short of why I jumped at the chance to participate in the psychology experiment at BYU. They were offering $500 for a single day’s work. There was no way I could pass up that kind of easy money. For once I would be able to afford more than second-hand thrift store presents for my girls.

That excitement is what helped me to skip over all of the disclaimers in the contract that Dr. Phelps put before me. Since that day, I’ve re-read the contract a hundred times, sick at the thought of what I overlooked.

There were clauses that allowed the researchers unfettered access to private documents and records. I guess that was how they got everything they needed to know beforehand. And there was another clause stipulating that they weren’t responsible for any of the lasting effects of the experiment.

Yet somehow they forgot to add a discretionary clause, which is why I can now publicly call them out for what inhumane conditions they put me through. Not just me, either. They put four of us through hell.

The college campus was a short distance away from my babysitter’s house, so i just walked it. It was under 20 degrees out, but it couldn’t touch me. Not through the excitement of the $500.

They had all four of us squeeze into the professor’s little office while we waited to be called out. We were all instructed to make no communication whatsoever while we waited.

First out was a woman named Whitney, who was handed a blindfold and led down the hall. Next was a man named Josh, who was given a little stack of index cards and led down the same direction, not blindfolded.

Next up was me, blindfolded. I felt a little uneasy at first, but the assistant leading me down the hall had a passive, polite voice. When I was directed to sit, I heard a feminine sneeze beside me. I assumed that I must be sat next to Whitney. I heard the last, nameless female participant shuffle in and Dr. Phelps cleared his throat.

“Two of you are seated with blindfolds, and before you stand two more with index cards containing specific directions. You are paired by gender: male submissive, female dominant, and visa versa; those seated and blindfolded being the submissive, obviously. No physical harm will be inflicted upon you, obviously.”

I heard Whitney let out a little sigh of relief. Suddenly I was feeling less tense too. Still, the silence and the blindness was unnerving.

There was the sound of a card flipping over and a shaky voice broke the silence. It belonged to a young man.

“Whitney, your brother was murdered recently was he not? I have some-”

“Wait! Terrance, damnit, we have to muffle the others!” shouted Dr. Phelps.

There was a lot of shuffling and cursing and apologizing and suddenly there were big head phones covering my ears. I couldn’t hear a thing.

So I just sat there, thinking about Whitney and her lost brother. Naturally I started thinking about my wife, Jennifer, before her fatal car accident. I always tried to remember her moments of life, but I could never forget the way she looked in those last moments on the hospital bed, lying in a coma, covered in third-degree burns.

It felt like hours before my headphones were finally removed. A heavy door had just slammed shut and beyond the walls I could hear a woman crying and screaming at someone. I heard the dragging of feet over the wooden floor and impotent yells for them to release her.

From the silence beside me, I could only assume that they had hauled Whitney outside. But why was she screaming and crying so much? I knew in some small part that it must have had something to do with the brother she had lost.

“… It’s just to be expected,” I could hear the professor muttering to someone else. “They read the contract.”

“Still, sir,” replied another hushed voice. “That was… cruel.”

The doctor cleared his throat, cutting off his assistant, and spoke in full volume: “You may proceed, Lilly.”

Still, her screams were outside, growing fainter. It awoke a feeling of terror in me, like an infection and I thought to tear my blindfold off right there. I thought to demand what happened to Whitney. I thought to call the entire experiment into question, but then I remembered my little girls. I remembered what I came here to get.

“I’m so… sorry,” came the broken whisper from the other participant, Lilly. From the sound of her voice, I figured she was standing just a couple feet away, in front of me. “I’m sorry.”

“Read what’s on the card, Lilly,” barked Dr. Phelps. “Do not say anything else, please.”

“My name is Lily Briscoe,” she said, “and I knew your wife before I murdered her.”

Even despite her obvious reading-voice, that sentence managed to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Jennifer wasn’t murdered. It was a freak thing, a hit-and-run accident. Wasn’t it? I tried to convince myself it’s just part of the experiment, but the further Lilly went on, the more convincing it was that everything this woman was saying could be true.

“Your wife and I went to school together here at BYU, with you too,” she went on. “You probably don’t remember me, but I sat in the back of the class in POS 320. I’m the girl you called an idiot in front of everyone because I thought Australia was still a territory of England.”

I remembered that! But not her name. I couldn’t even put a face to the person I had called out like that. Could it really have been her?

“I had more classes with Jennifer, so we started hanging out with the same crowd. I remember you’ve always been anti-social, so you were never around. But your wife only continued what you started. She was always finding ways to make me look dumb.

“She and I had to pee at the same time once at a house party with one bathroom. She spitefully sat in there with the door locked, talking to you on the phone while I waited. And then I couldn’t wait anymore. I peed in my pants, and everyone saw.”

Lilly no longer sounded like she was reading off the cards. The more she spoke of, the more emotionally engaged her tone became. She was slipping into the words and the reality just as much as me. It was starting to really feel like this fucking woman killed my wife.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered again.

“Lilly,” the professor snapped.

“Four months ago it was now,” she said, more quietly than before. Her voice was growing weaker with every sentence. “Four months ago someone drove their car into your wife’s vehicle and fled the scene.

“I happened to be drinking at a bar nearby that night,” said Lilly. “I distinctly remember how I stumbled when I walked to my car. How much trouble I had pulling out, with double vision. I was drunk, but not too drunk to notice Jennifer’s car across the intersection at a red light. And there she was… that… that bitch.

“She started turning right and I punched the accelerator, shooting through the red light. I don’t know what came over me, I felt possessed. My car was just an extension of the hatred that I had developed for her, so I gassed it and braced myself for the impact. I saw her head crash against the window in a plume of red liquid as we collided.

“It took me a second to recover, but my car was still working, barely. I could have reversed. I could have unblocked her driver’s side door, but…”

Lilly broke off and spoke to someone else now, someone beside her. “I can’t. My fucking God, why are you making me do this? Look at him. I…”

“Then you get no reimbursement, Lilly,” cut in Dr. Phelps.

“I saw that her engine had caught fire!” Lilly shouted, powering through the words as if they were venom in her throat.

I could hear the determination to finish, and the reluctance to articulate. She was clearly conflicted, but something drove her on. Was she finally coming clean? Is that what was so hard?

“And so I stayed there,” she said, in that loud, steamrolling voice. “I looked around the intersection, making sure no one saw me as I kept her door pinned shut with my car. Then the fire spread to the interior. Even as she jerked and jerked at the door handle to get out, I never moved an inch. I kept it pinned in.”

Inside me something had come to a boil. I was no longer in a psychology experiment. I was nowhere, and I was nothing if not fury itself. I could see it all happening, every fucking word she spoke was spinning the reels in my mind. I was there in the intersection that night, transported by my blindfold and Lilly’s account to see my wife burning to death.

“And her screams for help were like a sweet song in my ears!” Lilly shouted, straining against something invisible lodged in her chest. “And I looked straight at her and made eye contact… Her eyes got wide as she recognized me and I… and…” Lilly was choking back tears now, unable to go on. “And I laughed at her fear. At her life in my hands. The frail… bitch… And then I saw a car coming so I reversed and drove away before they could see me. But I hear she did quite a bit of suffering before she finally gave up and left your ass here with your kids.”

I heard the notecards crash to the floor, but in the next moment I was on my feet. In one motion I flung my blindfold off and I gripped my hand around her skinny throat. The rage was a sheet covering my eyes, but eventually they let the light in. And I saw. There was no fear in her eyes. There was no malice, no hate. There was only sadness welling in her deep, blue eyes.

So I released her, even before the assistants could reach me. I tried to speak, but no sound came. We just stood there, silent yet awake. In unison.

“You didn’t kill her,” I said at last. “Fucking experiment.”

I would have thought that that realization would ease my mind a little, but I got no reprieve. That sick, acidic burn remained in my stomach as they led her out of the room, shaking and crying. The professor waited a few moments before coming up to me with an envelope.

“Well, you ruined the experiment,” he said. “Contractually, I shouldn’t pay you. You were supposed to remain blindfolded and answer questions about what kind of legal trial and sentencing your wife’s murderer should have gotten… but I think we all know the answer you would have given anyways.”

“I would have said put her down,” I answered, vacantly.

My head was still reeling, so it took me a moment to remember the experiment. I still had that sick, violent feeling like my wife did actually have a murderer, rather than the random hit and run. It was overwhelming, how that dull pain I had become used to could just be reopened and made even more excruciating than I thought possible.

Dr. Phelps pushed the check into my hand anyways and led me out.

“You know this really is a fundamental flaw in our justice system,” he said. “When you make the deceased family hear the accounts firsthand, and hear the voice of the killer, anyone would be ready to push for the death penalty. Or to continue to fight year after year against allowing them parole.”

I thought about that as I walked back to the sitter’s house, through the biting cold. But it just didn’t sound like a flaw to me. Maybe it really isn’t right to sentence someone to death, but it sure as hell seemed right when I was listening to Lilly speak. I would have put her down myself.

That day haunts me just as much as when Jennifer died, but I can at least hope to see my daughters smile and throwing wrapping paper all over the room when Christmas comes. Despite those sick, fabricated images seeded in my mind, at least this I know to be real: my daughters’ are going to have a lot of presents this year.

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