August 24, 2000


Once, long ago, I was a bingo caller. I was fifteen at the time. I got the job through a friend whose grandmother was president of the ladies club in her apartment building. The club had about fifty elderly members, most of whom, to judge from their behaviour, were addicted to bingo. They played in a room in the basement of their building. Every Tuesday I joined them, sitting at a table at the front of the room. For my services I received six dollars an hour plus all the fresh-baked cookies I could eat.

An important part of the job, aside from spinning a small metal bingo wheel and calling out the numbers of the resulting ball, was to confirm the winner of each round. I did this with the aid of a big flat white board that was covered with small round indentations, each of which corresponded to a number on one of the bingo balls. After calling a number, I would place the ball in its proper indentation on the grid. When someone shouted “Bingo” I would ask the player to read off her winning numbers, and as she did so I would check the numbers against the balls on the grid. In this way I would catch a few false bingos each night. I didn’t like doing this; it’s no fun to inform a gleeful winner that she is in fact a humiliated loser. However, since many of the women followed along during the confirmation process, I knew there would be trouble if I ever confirmed a false number.

All of this relevant to the confession I’m about to make, which involves one of the players, a woman who would sit by herself at a nearby table. During the intermission, while I was busy with the cookies, she sat alone, eating cantaloupe out of a plastic container. Thus I dubbed her the cantaloupe woman. She appeared to be the only woman in the room without friends. I would have talked to her myself, but I really had no idea what to say to an elderly woman, aside from thanking her for the cookies.

Each week she sat there, alone, eating her cantaloupe. It was heartbreaking. And then one night I finally decided to do something about it. During the intermission I lingered past her table and memorized a row of numbers on one of her bingo cards. In a subsequent game I called out these numbers during the first eight balls or so, virtually guaranteeing her victory. And it worked: she yelled “Bingo” loudly and proudly. (As a precaution, I had placed the balls on the slots belonging to the numbers I had called, not the numbers on the balls. I did this in case the cantaloupe woman overlooked her bingo, in which case the game would continue and I would need to confirm another winning combination.)

Emboldened by the woman’s reaction, I falsely awarded her at least one bingo a night, and several times granted her the final game, which was worth double. I was never caught, nor did I ever sense that anyone realized that such a thing was even possible. In moments of self-satisfied reverie, I fancied myself the Robin Hood of bingo callers, stealing from the socially rich Ladies Club members and giving to the socially destitute cantaloupe woman.

It was easily the best wrong thing I’ve ever done, or will likely ever do.

August 14, 2000

Happiness = 12 + 6

face charted with underlying facial actions

Paul Ekman, a seminal figure in the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology, is one of the world’s leading experts on lying, having written or edited nearly two dozen books on the subject. Ekman’s central insight is that the human face betrays emotion in a universal language. Over the past thirty-plus years, Ekman has developed a system, the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), that breaks down human expressions into forty-six distinct facial movements. Researchers have codified these movements into seven universal emotions: happiness, anger, fear, contempt, disgust, sadness, and surprise. According to Ekman, few people are capable of hiding these expressions. Try as we might, “micro expressions” slip through, revealing our true feelings.

Ekman’s research has many practical applications, most of which I can’t think of right now because I’m not in a very diabolical mood. But get this: scientists in Japan, in an attempt to boast flagging morale among assembly-line workers, have used Ekman’s FACS data to create a robot “co-worker” who, using a camera embedded in her left eye (yes, the robot is a she, complete with wig and dentures), observes her fellows and responds to their emotions with a “near-human expression of empathy.”

In case you’re wondering, the FACS code for happiness is 12+6. Sadness is 1+4+6+11.

August 8, 2000


I should have gone to college and gone into real estate and got myself an aquarium, that’s what I should have done.
– Jeffrey Dahmer

As part of my research for a novel-in-progress, I recently spoke with a friend, a forensic psychologist, about sexual deviancy. In the course of our conversation she said something that amazed me, which is that most serial killers are sane. As an example she cited Jeffrey Dahmer, the guy who killed and dismembered several dozen young men. (Did he also eat them? I think he may have eaten some, or parts of some.) According to my friend, Dahmer was sane, and her reasoning, the reasoning of her profession, hinged on whether Dahmer could distinguish between right and wrong. About this there can be no doubt: Dahmer went to great lengths to conceal his actions, a sure sign of a person who knows he’s done something wrong, something for which he would be punished if caught.

At first I thought my friend was talking about criminal responsibility – a more narrow concept than sanity, one that applies only within a legal context. But it soon became clear that her definition applied more generally. The key issue, she said, is whether the person possesses an accurate picture of reality. I asked her whose picture of reality can be said to be inaccurate.

“People who suffer from extreme paranoia, hallucinations, delusions,” she said. “People who believe the KGB is after them. People who think they’re god, or that god is instructing them to do things.” (Nearly every Christian saint was insane by this definition, but that’s another matter.)

Her rationale reminded of arguments I’ve had with computer tech support people about whether a particular problem is hardware- or software-related. Tech support people invariably claim that one’s problems are software-related, which means that they aren’t responsible for fixing anything, and that in fact they can’t fix anything because nothing is broken.

My friend was saying that Dahmer’s problem was software-related. Something bad had gotten into the machinery, but the machinery itself was in good working condition: Dahmer could hear what we hear and see what we see, and that’s what matters.

For what it’s worth, my friend did say that when interviewing people who’ve committed sexual crimes, she has difficulty interviewing the so-called sane ones, that it sickens her to be in the same room as them. So it’s not as though she equates sanity with morality. In fact, in her view, insanity and immorality are completely unrelated. It’s not insane to be immoral, nor is it sane to be moral.

Perhaps this is how it should be, but the fact is, Dahmer is insane. It’s insane to murder innocent people and cut them up and possibly eat them. It’s not just that these things are immoral (plenty of things are immoral without being insane; say, cheating on your taxes or your lover). It’s that it takes a truly crazy person to be that immoral.

Psychology passes the buck and in so doing becomes a tech support function for humans, one that applies only in cases in which people come to believe grossly false information about themselves or their environment.

I had so much trouble accepting this that I approached my friend again to confirm I’d gotten it right. She assured me that I had. Dahmer is sane, she said – or was sane, having long since been murdered by a fellow inmate, a convicted killer who claimed to be Christ because he was a carpenter and his mother’s name was Mary.

You know: a crazy person.

The Black Knight

On November 18th, 1999, my great-uncle, Al Rubin, died of a heart attack while attempting to lift his wife, Dot, from their living room floor. Al was 92; Dot was 90.

Al and Dot were found lying foot-to-foot, their heads at opposite ends of the living room. Al was naked. Evidently he had been in the bathroom when Dot fell and called for help. A wooden coffee table was turned on its side, most likely toppled by Al during his fall. Dot was alive but badly disoriented.

In the hospital my mother and her sister Dee (Dot’s closest living relatives) agreed to spare Dot the news of Al’s death until she recovered. That is, assuming she recovered, for she was in critical condition, suffering from severe dehydration.

Two days later Dot was alert enough to ask for Al. Where was he? Why wasn’t he visiting her? In answer to these questions Dot was told that Al was in another part of the hospital or in another hospital altogether (I’ve heard different versions) and that he would visit when he could.

Most people wouldn’t object to the lie, but I do. I ask myself if I would want to be lied to like that, if I would want my family to conceal the death of my spouse for fear that the news would kill me. The answer is no. It’s not so much the lie that bothers me but the underlying presumption – born of love and concern – that when sufficiently old or infirm we can be stripped of the right to the truth. We treat children that way. We tell them stories to protect them. To lie to Dot was to treat her like a child.

Kant believed that no lie is ever justified and that we are obliged to tell the truth even if it means leading a murderer to his victim. I fall somewhere between Kant and my family: I would lie to the murderer but not to my great-aunt, as I believe that Dot deserves respect, and a murderer does not.

When Dot was deemed well enough to know the truth, my mother and Dee told her what had happened.

“Do you remember falling?” asked my mother. “Do you remember that Al tried to lift you?”

Dot remembered nothing. Moreover she had no idea what she was doing in the hospital. When told that Al was dead, that he had died trying to lift her, Dot showed no emotion. Dee, remembering this moment, believes that Dot never understood. I would go further and say that the thought of Al dying was not something Dot was capable of thinking. She knew what mortality was and she knew Al was mortal, but she could not complete the syllogism.

A few days later I visited Dot in the hospital. She was the same as always, though noticeably diminished. We made small talk. No mention was made of Al until Dot asked how I was doing, and I said that my heart was heavy because I missed Al.

“So what’s the weather like in Cambridge?” asked Dot.

Dot’s deflection didn’t surprise me. Over the years she and Al had refused to accept or even acknowledge their deteriorating ability to care for themselves. Despite failing health, they rejected all offers of assistance. Since neither could cook anything more involved than canned soup, they would eat dinner in restaurants, and Al would drive, to the collective horror of my family.

As painful as this was to witness, I admired it. It took great strength for Dot and Al to be so persistently stupid. I’m convinced that they survived as long as they did because they refused to face the truth. Their final years together – sad, pitiful years, but years together – were testament to the power of denial.

I’m reminded of the battle between King Arthur and the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s arm, but the Knight refuses to give up and claims that the wound is “but a scratch.”

King Arthur and the Black Knight

“Well, what’s that, then?” asks Arthur, pointing to the severed arm on the ground.

“I’ve had worse,” grunts the Knight.

Arthur slices off the Knight’s remaining arm, and then a leg, and still the Knight is loathe to concede.

Arthur is incredulous. “What are you going to do, bleed on me?”

“I’m invincible!”

“You’re a loony.”

My great-aunt is a loony. Living in a nursing home now, she remains unable, or unwilling, to admit that her husband is dead. To hear her tell it, Al is forever indisposed, puttering in another part of the building. Recently Dee, exasperated by such remarks, reminded Dot that she had attended Al’s funeral and had watched his casket being lowered into the ground. Dee expected Dot to claim that no such funeral had taken place, but Dot had her outflanked. “That wasn’t him,” she said.

In the end King Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s remaining leg, and yet the Knight, now a legless, armless torso-plus-head, cannot admit defeat. As the King gallops off into the forest, the Knight shouts, “Running away, eh? You yellow bastard! Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!”