A few years back I was running out of money so I volunteered for a research study at the University of Pennsylvania. The directions brought me to the campus medical center in West Philly and a large auditorium filled with women, all between eighteen and thirty-five years old. There weren’t enough chairs and I was among the last to arrive so I had to sit shivering on the floor. They had free coffee and chocolate donuts and a big TV playing The Price Is Right, but most everyone was looking at their phones. The vibe was a lot like the DMV except we were all getting paid by the hour so people seemed happy to wait all day.
A doctor in a white lab coat got up and introduced herself. She said her name was Susan or Stacey or Samantha and she was a fellow in the Clinical Research program. She read all the usual disclaimers and warnings, and reminded us that compensation would be issued in the form of Amazon gift cards, not checks or cash. A couple people grumbled, but I didn’t care; I had a boyfriend who bought gift cards off me for eighty cents on the dollar, so I was all set.
Every few minutes, Susan (I think it was Susan?) called a name from her clipboard and one of us would leave the room. No one ever came back. Pretty soon there were plenty of open seats, but I stayed on the floor because I didn’t think I could move without throwing up. My body ached and I had the chills. But eventually word got around that they weren’t prescreening people—which is to say, no one was going to test my urine or take my pulse or do anything that might disqualify me—so I popped a 40 in my mouth and sucked until the waxy yellow coating came off. Then I spat it back in my palm, crushed it between my thumbs, and snuffed like maybe a third of it. Just enough to get me back on. The rest went into a tiny piece of foil for later. And after that I stopped shaking, and waiting on the floor wasn’t so bad.
Some two hours later the doctor finally called “Quinn? Mallory Quinn?” and I walked down the aisle to meet her, dragging my heavy winter parka on the floor behind me. If she noticed I was high, she didn’t say anything. She just asked for my age (nineteen) and my date of birth (March 3), and then she compared my answers to the information on her clipboard. And I guess she decided I was sober enough, because she led me through a maze of hallways until we arrived at a small windowless room.
There were five young men seated in a row of folding chairs; they were all staring at the floor, so I couldn’t see their faces. But I decided they were med students or residents—they all wore hospital scrubs, still creased and bright navy blue, like they were fresh off the rack.
“All right, Mallory, we’d like you to stand at the front of the room, facing the guys. Right here on the X, that’s perfect. Now let me tell you what’s going to happen, before we put on your blindfold.” And I realized she was holding a black eye mask—the sort of soft cotton visor that my mother used to wear at bedtime.
She explained that all the men were currently looking at the floor—but sometime in the next few minutes, they were going to look at my body. My job was to raise my hand if I felt “the male gaze” on my person. She told me to keep my hand suspended for as long as the feeling lasted, and lower it whenever the feeling went away.
“We’ll do it for five minutes, but after we finish we might want you to repeat the experiment. Do you have any questions before we start?”
I started laughing. “Yeah, have you guys read Fifty Shades of Grey? Because I’m pretty sure this is chapter twelve.”
This was my attempt at a little light humor, and Susan smiled to be polite but none of the guys were paying attention. They were futzing with their clipboards and synchronizing their stopwatches. The mood in the classroom was all business. Susan fitted the mask over my eyes, then adjusted the strap so it wasn’t too tight. “All right, Mallory, does that feel okay?”
“And you’re ready to begin?”
“Then we’ll start on my count of three. Gentlemen, get your watches ready. That’s one, two, three.”
It’s very weird, standing still for five minutes, blindfolded, in a perfectly silent room, knowing that guys might be looking at your boobs or your butt or whatever. There were no sounds or clues to help me guess what was happening. But I definitely felt them watching. I raised and lowered my hand several times, and the five minutes seemed to last an hour. After we finished, Susan asked me to repeat the experiment, and we did it all over again. Then she asked me to repeat the experiment a third time! And when she finally pulled off the blindfold, all the guys stood up and started clapping, like I’d just won an Academy Award.
Susan explained that they’d been performing the experiment all week on hundreds of women—but I was the first person to deliver a near-perfect score, to report the gaze three times with 97 percent accuracy.
She told the guys to take a break and then ushered me into her office and started asking questions. Namely, how did I know the men were staring at me? And I didn’t have the words to explain—I just knew. It was like a fluttery feeling on the periphery of my attention—a kind of spidey sense. I bet there’s a good chance you’ve felt it yourself, that you know exactly what I’m talking about.
“Plus, there’s a kind of sound.”
Her eyes went wide. “Really? You hear something?”
“Sometimes. It’s very high-pitched. Like when a mosquito buzzes too close to your ear.”
She reached for her laptop so fast she nearly dropped it. She typed a bunch of notes, then asked if I’d be willing to come back in a week for more tests. I said for twenty bucks an hour, I would come back as much as she wanted. I gave her my cell phone number and she promised to call me to set up an appointment—but that very night, I traded my iPhone for five Oxy-80s, so she had no way of tracking me down, and I never heard from her again.
* * *
Now that I’m clean, I have a million regrets—and trading away my iPhone is the least of them. But sometimes I’ll remember the experiment and I’ll start to wonder. I’ve tried to find the doctor online but obviously I don’t even remember her name. One morning I took the bus to the university medical center and tried to find the auditorium, but the campus is all different now; there are a bunch of new buildings and everything’s scrambled. I’ve tried googling phrases like “gaze detection” and “gaze perception” but every result says these aren’t real phenomena—there’s no evidence that anyone has “eyes in the back of their head.”
And I guess I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the experiment didn’t actually happen, that it’s one of the many false memories I acquired while abusing oxycodone, heroin, and other drugs. My sponsor, Russell, says false memories are common among addicts. He says an addict’s brain will “remember” happy fantasies so we can avoid dwelling on real memories—all the shameful things we did to get high, all the shitty ways we hurt good people who loved us.
“Just listen to the details of your story,” Russell points out. “You arrive on the campus of a prestigious Ivy League university. You’re strung out on kickers and no one cares. You enter a room full of handsome young doctors. Then they stare at your body for fifteen minutes and erupt in a standing ovation! I mean, come on, Quinn! You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure this out!”
And he’s right, obviously. One of the hardest things about recovery is coming to terms with the fact that you can’t trust your brain anymore. In fact, you need to understand that your brain has become your own worst enemy. It will steer you toward bad choices, override logic and common sense, and warp your most cherished memories into impossible fantasies.
Copyright © 2022 by Jason Rekulak