The sky was grey. A light drizzle forced me to turn on my windshield wipers as I headed to my 8 AM class. Other students at the college hunkered under umbrellas as they quickly made their way into buildings, coffee in hand. I pulled the hood up on my raincoat and made sure my backpack was zipped. I headed inside.
There’s nothing quite like the sterile light of a classroom. Desks form rows and whiteboards cover the walls. The professor sat behind her desk, looking over notes before class started.
“Hello everyone,” she said. “Today we are going to talk about the Tuskegee experiment, then hopefully move onto some other examples of research that challenge ethics. Get your stuff put away and let’s get started.”
Everyone got ready. I’m often surprised by how many students still use paper and pencil to take notes. I figured by 2014, everyone would use laptops or something else. One guy recorded all the classes and listens to them again at home. Others don’t seem to pay attention and spend class time on their phones.
“Okay,” the professor started. “As it says on the syllabus, we are going to talk about ethics in research. We’ll cover procedure and morality behind the experiments. This lecture often proves to be a tough one, so I’d like everyone to be considerate in their discussion today. I don’t like this stuff any more than anyone else does, but it’s important to cover it. Has anyone ever heard of the Tuskegee experiment?”
A couple of hands went up. Everyone else either shook their head or looked disinterested.
“What do you know about it, Amanda?” the professor asked.
“Nothing really,” Amanda said. “I’ve just heard of it is all.”
“Well,” the professor said. “It was an experiment that began in 1932 that studied the effects of syphilis on African American men. They were offered free medical exams, meals and support if they allowed researchers to follow their recovery.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” another student said. “They get free help in exchange for research.”
“That’s what they were told,” the professor countered. “That’s not what they received. You see, in the Tuskegee study these men were not given medical treatment. They were monitored at the disease progressed through its various stages. None of them were ever given actual medical treatment.”
“You’re kidding me,” the student said.
“No, I’m not. The study went on until the 1970s when a newspaper article uncovered the experiment. Perhaps the worst part is that the study was conducted by the US Health Service. It was sanctioned by the United States government.”
“All the participants were black?” Amanda asked.
“Yes,” the professor responded. “They were.”
My cheeks flushed with anger the more the professor talked about the study. She went on to explain that Penicillin was a known treatment for syphilis, even during the study, yet none of the men were administered with it. The news became worse when we learned the study went on for 40 years, resulting in the death of 28 men from the disease. Over 100 died from complications and many ended up infecting their wives. Some children were born with it.
The classroom discussion broke down at that point. Students expressed how appalled they were. They called the study racist. How come white men weren’t also studied? How could they just let them die? How could they let their families get sick? I had to get some air.
Outside, the light rain continued to fall. A group of people huddled under a tree as they finished their cigarettes before their next class. I couldn’t stop thinking about the study. How could researchers treat people this way? I wanted to find the researchers and hurt them. I managed to calm myself down and went back to class. The professor sat at her desk. I looked at Amanda. She nodded in response and started to pack her stuff. I went back to my seat.
“What happened?” I asked a girl nearby named Katy.
“The professor gave up on today’s lecture right after you walked out. I can’t believe she’s pissed at us for not staying on track.”
I sighed and started to pack up.
“Where are you going?” Katy asked.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” I replied.
“Yeah,” she said. “After you left, some people started to shout at the professor. They asked her how she can just go on. It got kinda bad. Dylan tried to talk to Amanda, but she ignored him.”
This was the most Katy had said to me all semester. She was a pretty girl in her late teens. I’d heard her say she was a sophomore. Men over 40 didn’t exactly make it on her radar.
“I’m glad you left,” she said.
“Because you made a statement. A couple people said it was cool.”
I smiled weakly in response.
“Time to go,” I said.
I saw Amanda about 20 yards ahead of me as I exited the building. She looked back at me, but I couldn’t tell her expression. I wondered if I would see her in class the next day.
When I got home, I smelled coffee. My wife was at work, but she had set the timer on the pot to brew some fresh for me. I appreciated the consideration, but kept thinking about class and the Tuskegee experiment. Then I remembered my grandfather worked for the US Health Service in the 60s and 70s. My face went white.
“Damnit,” I said out loud. “I hope he wasn’t part of this.”
I poured another cup and sat down on the couch. I tried to find some information online about the participants, but couldn’t. I wanted names, but it didn’t look like any were published. Truthfully, I didn’t look that hard. I saw pictures of men getting blood drawn by doctors. I felt tired.
I put the mug down and closed my eyes. Sleep came instantly, as did my dreams. At first they were filled with pictures I saw online of the Tuskegee subjects. Then the images changed. I was inside the head of one of the subjects. I didn’t know his name, but thought of him as Joseph. Then I was Joseph. I felt…so happy when I told my wife I was going to be cured.
“Honey,” I said. “I’m good.”
Suddenly, I was Joseph again, except 10 years older. I was losing my memory. My wife died a few months ago from bad blood. My kids, Joshua and Betsy took care of me. Betsy made soup in the kitchen while Joshua fixed the roof. I felt crazy.
Two years later, I attacked Betsy and almost beat her to death. I didn’t know who I was and thought she was the devil coming to get me. Joshua locked me in the house and the police came. I stayed in jail until I died. Betsy never came to see me and Joshua only did at the beginning. I was an easy target and was continually raped for the rest of my life. Men around me were diagnosed with syphilis and soon, I was left alone in my cell.
The researchers kept coming to see me. Bill always brought me chocolate. The last few times, I didn’t recognize him and the guards had to tie me down for Bill to take my blood. I died in July of 1946 as a part of the Tuskegee study.
I woke up with sweat pouring down my face. I wept openly. I could still feel what Joseph felt. I could hear Bill’s voice and felt the pain on my fist when it broke Betsy’s jaw. The bars in jail were cold. No one talked to me. To wake up, I poured myself another cup of coffee, but sleep quickly overtook me again when I sunk into my lazy boy chair. The coffee spilled on my lap and I didn’t even notice.
This time, I was Bill the clinician. I lied about my name to the participants. My real name was David. I acted like I liked these people, but I hated them. In fact, I felt happy they were going to die. I had a son of my own named Jason and I didn’t want Jason to have friends like…them. I would melt the chocolate and mix some of my own feces in then wrap it up again to give it to the subjects. These people were animals.
I wrenched awake. The abject hate David felt filled me with nausea. It consumed me as I crawled to the toilet. I made it to the bathroom door when the full force of my digestive system exerted itself on me. Everything I ate over the past day forced its way up. I tried to crawl to the toilet or sink, but again fell asleep in my own mess.
This time I was Joshua, Joseph’s son. He knew other participants in the study. He suspected something was going on and tried to tell people about it, but they wouldn’t listen to him. Joshua was good at math and reading. People thought he was trying to be white. Joshua was going to kill Bill. He hated Bill and the other researchers.
Again, I was awake. The smell of my vomit hit me as I struggled to my feet. I threw my clothes in a garbage bag and quickly cleaned up the mess. I took a shower and staggered to my bed to sit down. Sleep took me again.
This time, I was everyone I’d met in my previous dreams. Bill’s and Joshua’s hatred filled me. Betsy’s fear consumed my psyche. She never married or dated anyone after the attack. I felt the horror of the experiment from every perspective.
Bill was eventually removed from the project — doctors around him had doubts about his ethics. Other researchers mentioned him as “David,” and I saw a document that revealed his full name: David Samson. He had the same last name as me. I could hear myself scream in my sleep as I realized who he was. Bill — no, David was my grandpa. He was a nice man who gave all his grandkids chocolate. We loved him for it.
I felt a pressure on my neck that caused me to wake up. I opened my eyes to see a figure standing over me. It was Joshua standing over me with a shaving razor at my throat.
“You git me,” he asked. His voice was filled with hatred.
I nodded in response.
“Don’t move or I’ll cut you,” he ordered.
“I get it Joshua,” I said.
“Good. Now you understand.”
“Yea I understand,” I said and closed my eyes again, fully expecting to feel the slice of the blade as it carved through my neck. I wanted to feel the blade to cut me and feel my life force exit my body. There was nothing I wanted more at that moment than to be free of the knowledge that my family had a part in this.
But when I opened my eyes, Joshua was gone. There was no mess downstairs, nor any indication of what happened, except for a scar on my neck. I felt my body tense up as I heard the door open to the kitchen.
“Hey honey, I’m home!” It was my wife.
“O-okay,” I said. I cleared my throat. “I’ll be right there.”
I made my way to the kitchen and tried not to break down.
“Hey babe,” she said. “What’s that on your neck? Is that a scar? I’ve never noticed it before.”