Shut into the Dark

In the early 1970s, Martin Seligman led experiments on learned helplessness. He tested whether you could abuse dogs to a point where they just gave up. The answer is of course you can.

One group of dogs was given electric shocks they could easily end by pressing a lever. Another group was given shocks they could not escape. This second group—the group of dogs forced to endure electric shocks—was then put in a new situation. Here, they could easily leap over a hurdle and escape the shocks.

They didn’t. Of course they didn’t.

Instead, the dogs laid down and took it.

The experimenters called this “learned helplessness.”

I’m skeptical. This is not just a bad time for these dogs. A failed test. A few too many rejections. It is torture. And if you discover that torture is inescapable, you learn to tolerate it. Not like it. Not accept it. But to live within it.

There was no way for the dog to figure out that circumstances had changed.

Indeed, the dog had to be physically walked through the behavior that would help it escape the shocks before it learned to jump the hurdle.

But until the dog was given this new information, it continued to cower and whine–taking the shocks and knowing, because it had tried before, that there was nothing to be done.

*             *             *

My father never hits me again. He finds other ways, subtler ways of asserting his power.

He tries locking me in the bathroom. He has discovered my severe phobia of the dark, and the bathroom seems a good place since there is only one light and no windows. So he flicks the light switch first and then shoves me inside. He shuts the door behind me and stands outside. There is no way to lock the door, so he grips the doorknob and holds it firm.

Inside, I cannot see anything. Who knows what is in here with me? My chest constricts. I can’t breathe. What if he put a spider in here? White dots pop against the black. What if it crawls inside my mouth? What if it crawls into my clothes and bites me? My hand brushes against something. I scream.

I know it’s what he wants. I know it dooms me, but I keep on screaming anyway. It’s the only way I can breathe. I cling to the doorknob like it’s a buoy and I am drowning. I try not to feel anything that might be around me. I scream and scream and scream.

And on the other side of the door, my father laughs. Delighted by the fact that he can terrorize a 13-year-old girl.

*             *             *

Does it go on like this for weeks? Months? I don’t remember. But I do remember discovering one day that I can think enough to fumble for the switch and turn on the light.

My father is outside, laughter bubbling out of him. He waits for my screams.

This time he doesn’t get them.

He opens the door to find me sitting calmly on the counter with the light on, waiting for him to let me out so that I can do my homework.

This enrages him. Whenever his methods don’t work, he is enraged. He cannot let me have the last word. He cannot let it end this way. It’s too humiliating.

So another day, he tries again. This time he calls for my brother. I hear footsteps in the hall.

“Go downstairs and flip the breakers,” my father tells him.

My brother obeys. I know he will obey. He is 10 years old. What choice does he have?

I grab the knob and pull while the light is still on. I bang on the door. I shout to be let out. I have no idea where my mother is. My whole body vibrates with the hope of rescue. Somewhere in the house, probably doing chores. I shout louder.

But no one comes.

Maybe she doesn’t even hear my screams anymore. The way one gets used to a clock ticking.

My father is already thrilled. On the other side of the door, I hear his laugh begin low and frenzied in his throat, the anticipation of pleasure. Of checkmate.

My brother flips the breaker.

The lights go out.

I scream.

My father laughs.

And so it goes. For a long time. Until I stop screaming. Until I learn to be silent. To accept the torture. To understand there is no way out.

*             *             *

My father is a deeply miserable man. He storms through the house, floorboards thudding under the weight of his rage. He complains bitterly about work, about coworkers, about people of color, about people at church, about neighbors, about the cost of gas and ballet shoes.

Yet I have seen him happy. The moment he lets me out of the bathroom, I shove past him, tear-slicked and cold with fear. I don’t want to see.

But I am always too slow.

I see his face.

Only one word for it.

Giddy.

The deep-seated, full-chested laugh he never laughs at jokes or slapstick or movies. Only my screams can make him bounce on his toes like a child, grinning from ear to ear, the alarming whiteness of his dentures, so overcome with joy that his eyes water.

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