Nov 06

“Experimenter”: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study

In a college psychology class over 40 years ago I learned about Stanley Milgram, the titular Experimenter of a new film by Michael Almereyda. But I’m hardly unique, of course, in having been introduced to his work. John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “Readers who’ve heard of only one psychology experiment in their lives probably know Milgram’s…”

Some pertinent background: “An American-born Jew of Romanian-Hungarian extraction,” states Scott Foundas, Variety, “Milgram was obsessed by the origins of genocide and the human capacity to rationalize violent behavior…”

Milgram is portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard. Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap, sets up “Experimenter”:

In response to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in the 1960s, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) set out to study obedience, particularly the willingness of experiment participants to inflict ‘punishment’ on another person simply because the conductor of the experiment instructed them to do so. Milgram’s casual polls of colleagues as well as his students at Yale before the trials began predicted that very few would follow through to the end of the experiment, which involved the person shocking another participant three times with 450 volts.

Turns out they had too much faith in the good of mankind: Out of 40 test subjects, 26 administered every shock as instructed by a man in a gray lab coat (white would be ‘too medical,’ Milgram reasoned), though they all expressed concern about the other participant — who was actually an actor (Jim Gaffigan) and didn’t receive any shocks at all — and displayed physical signs of stress and emotional upset.

Some of the film’s other eventualities, says Foundas, include “…his overnight celebrity, the ensuing accusations of ethical impropriety, and the general unwillingness of people to believe what Milgram was saying: that most people, relieved of direct responsibility for their own actions, might be capable of almost any atrocity.”

Other Research and Film Conclusions 

John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter:

As he ages and suffers through countless shallow readings of his work, Milgram takes to pointing out a chapter of his book few people got around to. There he defines the ‘agentic state,’ in which a person sees his role in an interaction as not human but purely functional. ‘That’s store policy,’ such a person might say, or ‘that’s out of my control.’ Spend a couple of hours trying to get satisfaction on a company’s toll-free ‘customer service’ line, and you might conclude that a version of Milgram’s famous experiment is still being conducted on a massive scale.

David Edelstein, Vulture: “The movie ends with Milgram asserting we can be puppets but still have free will — which would be even freer if we could learn to ‘see the strings’ on us.”

The trailer for Experimenter shows many of the other players. Besides Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife, a few of the research participants are Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, and Taryn Manning.

Selected Reviews

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “In ‘Experimenter,’ an aesthetically and intellectually playful portrait of the social psychologist Stanley Milgram, the director…turns a biopic into a mind game. It’s an appropriate take on a figure who’s best remembered for his experiments in which subjects delivered punishing electric shocks on command.”

Godfrey Cheshire, “…(I)f this is a biopic, it’s hardly a conventional one. It seems not at all interested in probing Milgram’s psychology, to wonder why he would undertake this type of work. And, in effect, the film’s wife-and-family parts have a basically negative function in that, rather than explaining anything, simply tell us he was a fairly ordinary guy.”

Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap(A) largely engrossing sit, even during an unfortunate moment when Sarsgaard sings and the film threatens to become a musical. But as interesting as the developments are, they’re too inscrutable to stay with you for very long.”

Apr 22

“Cambridge” by Susanna Kaysen: Before “Girl, Interrupted”

Cambridge by Susanna Kaysen is her new “novel-from-life” in which she writes of a pre-Girl, Interrupted period—mainly from grades two through six—and she writes of the place she’s called home most of her life.  

Kaysen, now 65, explains to Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globewhy she preferred envisioning Cambridge as a work of fiction as opposed to a memoir:

‘I didn’t want to be hampered by the fact that my memory was not reliable, especially the early memories. I felt a great obligation to be scrupulous about my memories with Girl, Interrupted. I really didn’t want to fudge that. And although I changed a few things to muddle identification, as far as I can tell I was very much being truthful about what happened. I didn’t want that constraint here.’

For those who’ve haven’t read it (or seen the movie version) Girl, Interrupted was Kaysen’s memoir of being a long-term psychiatric inpatient in her late teens. In the well-known 1999 film she was played by Winona Ryder.

The trailer for Girl, Interrupted:


Above all else, Kaysen’s new book is about a place—“an exploration of memory and nostalgia set in the 1950s among the academics and artists of Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

According to the telling, what’s notably hard is when her father’s career as an economics professor periodically takes Kaysen far away from home for extended periods. (Cambridge, Interrupted?) “She comes home with relief—but soon enough wonders if outsiderness may be her permanent condition,” says the publisher.

Megan Labrise, Kirkus Reviews, informs us that Kaysen’s not yet done with this subject of her beloved Cambridge. Labrise quotes the author below:

“I have been obsessed with my hometown all my life, and I’ve always wanted to write a long, great—great as in large—complicated book about this place, which I’ve been trying to do since I was in my twenties, when of course I could not even begin to. Now that I’m heading towards that last section [of life], I feel that maybe I can,” says Kaysen. “My hope is that, if I’m able to write a second volume, that I will continue to be the ‘eye’—the watcher, the reporter—but I would like it to be less about me and more about Cambridge itself.”


That being said, this first volume does focus on significantly personal struggles of the younger Kaysen. So, what was she like back then?

Kirkus Reviews: “Susanna, the narrator of this elegantly written but curious novel, is a precocious girl who has intelligence to spare but a strong dislike for rules.”

Publishers Weekly: “Susanna may not be the most likeable young girl, and she certainly spends a good deal of time wallowing in self-pity (‘I could keep growing and thinking and reading in secret, in my dark, sorry-for-myself basement of failure and neglect, like a little rat’), but for Kaysen and her legion of fans, the focus on adolescence is a theme that works. And why not? Sometimes, parental neglect or some other sad reality is just a fact of life, and the effects are, unfortunately, affectingly real.”


Rebecca Kelley, The Rumpus: “With Cambridge’s careful attention to scene-setting, Kaysen writes interiors that belong on the set of a Wes Anderson movie…Typically novels demonstrate how a character grows, changes, and adapts to new adventures. Cambridge pushes against this notion. With change comes loss. Childhood happens only once. It might be great or it might be awful or it might be ordinary, but once we reach adulthood, it’s gone.”

Carol Brill, New York Journal of Books: “In Cambridge, an astute young girl observes the adults and events in her life, trying to make sense of how she might fit in—or whether she wants to…Susanna’s name is almost never mentioned in the story, a well-crafted technique that powerfully adds to the sense of who she is—or isn’t. Susanna’s voice is Cambridge’s major strength. A touching narrative of coming of age and everyday life.”