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Drama Creative Nonfiction Suspense

Riding the elevator up, Ernest dried his palms on his shirt. ‘Is it me? Or is it always this difficult?

It had been years. They never communicated. Would his father even be there? He almost stopped his ascent into the forbidden zone.

Elevators terrified him. Could anyone design a better place to make one feel isolated and alone? Ernest hoped not.

Except for the slight rocking, and hissing from the vent, there was no sense of movement. Claustrophobia hovered.

The floors ticked by. The elevator slowed and stopped at the penthouse. The doors slid apart and there he stood. Ernest had dreamed it, and here they were.

He felt like he’d entered a time warp. Before him stood the famous behavioral psychologist, Hunter, his father. Ernest blinked at the figure who could be his twin, or himself, twenty-five years older. Otherwise, they looked identical. Neither could deny their connection. Even their clothes were eerily similar, business casual. No white coats. No butterfly nets.

Hunter smiled, stepped back and waved Ernest into the foyer of the apartment. It was a simple gesture, yet it felt too calculated, so formal. Ernest trusted nothing. He looked about. Were there cameras?

They walked into the spacious living room. One solid glass wall provided an expansive view of the city. To Ernest, it felt like an idealized movie set of a psych clinic waiting room. Only not so cozy.

Hunter pointed to the couch. “Sit. Want something to drink?” Ernest shook his head. He settled near the end of one of the couches. “Talk to me. What brings you here today?”

‘Big question. Where should I start? How can I capture the utter betrayal I feel from this man? He raised me, such as it was, but I gag at calling him father.’

“You’re my father! How could you do that to me?”

“Research. Everyone did it.”

“You’re the smartest man I know. But that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“There’s no such word as ‘stupidest.’”

“There is now. Necessity is a mother, Pops.”

Back in Behaviorism’s heyday, Hunter was one of the main innovators in B. F. Skinner’s shadow. He became impatient with documenting pigeons pecking at targets. Wanting to juice things up, Hunter sought to apply Behaviorism to human subjects. Exploring fear’s acquisition, he used his infant son as the unwitting subject of his experiments.

Each time little Ernest touched a stuffed toy, or a blanket, the blast of an air horn reduced him to utter terror. The baby quickly adapted to avoid anything cuddly or comforting.

Unethical, to say the least, his findings were officially rejected. But said findings having been paid for, they also formed the foundation for ensuing research.

Inducing fear into an innocent subject was bound to have life changing repercussions. Ernest still struggled to understand the effects his father’s experiments had on him.

Hunter said, “Think of what you’ve done for mankind.”

“Yeah… mankind. I still haven’t gotten a thank you card from them.”

“You live in the history books.”

“No wonder libraries give me the creeps. Dusty shelves never felt like home…”

The confrontation was not going well. Ernest realized his father could dance around the issue forever.

“You taught me to fear.”

“Most fears are learned. You would have learned to fear regardless. The mind is malleable, Ernest. You can unlearn them if you want to.”

“Easy to say. How exactly does one unlearn child abuse? I was a baby.”

Hunter responded, “The perfect tabula rasa.”

Growing up, everyone Ernest knew belonged to a close-knit academic community. His parents’ friends worked in the university psychology department and research labs. They treated their children like lab rats. He knew a trio of sisters whose parents did psychological research. Their sensational trial had the tabloids printing extra editions.

One of Hunter’s fellow professors refused to wear a coat, or more than a sweater when going into sub-zero weather. He insisted temperature was ‘all in the mind.’

“Did Mom know what you were doing?”

His father grimaced. “I’d prefer it if you left that woman unmentioned. You know her hysteria better than me…”

“You taught me to fear what any child seeks for comfort. I can never have a pet. Clouds trigger my anxiety.”

“We’re men, Ernest. We deal with hard things. That’s what we’re about.” Hunter chuckled as he lit his pipe. The smell of tobacco smoke brought Ernest straight back to his childhood.

“I’m amazed you had children at all.”

Hunter puffed. “Yes, Dr. Freud. Tell me more.”

Ernest saw an opening. “So, tell me, why fear? Why terrorize a baby? Why not teach it love? Kindness? Mercy?”

Hunter shook his head. “You hippies never change. We researched the human condition. Every person, every society struggles with fear. Everyone learns fear. I wanted to unpack the mechanics of this primal emotion.”

“At my expense?”

Hunter ignored the question. He walked about the room, smoke trailing behind. Expounding on whatever the topic, his voice echoed off the high ceilings. Once he got going, he could be hard to stop.

He went on. “Love? Too complex for the scope of our grant. How can one research such a nebulous, ineffable concept? Needs to be broken down. Dissected. Attachment research happened elsewhere. You investigate within the confines of the grant.”

Ernest had seen his act too many times. “You’ll pay for what you did to me.”

Hunter spun on his heel. He’d waited for this. He leaned in, face to face with Ernest who retreated into the cushions.

“Use this opportunity, Ernest. Use the ‘free will’ you proclaim to spread the ‘love’ you so ardently wish for.”

“That’s rich, Dad. Torture me into submission and then demand forgiveness.”

“You’re an adult. Choose. If you dare. If you can.”

“You know there are healthy fears – of self-preservation from immediate threats. But you treated me less than human. You have no concept of my pain. I’d love to share it with you.”

Hunter waited in silence.

“You made me into who I am. Can you deny it? Everyday objects became the source of terror. I was vulnerable to unspeakable threats before I had words. I’ve been in therapy almost since I could speak. Yet you have the audacity to demand forgiveness?”

“I don’t expect anything, Ernest. You came to me. Forgiveness? Doesn’t your world view command it? By your standards, anything less makes you as bad as me.” Ernest saw his amusement. “What are your options?”

Ernest stared. He waited, watching his father grow impatient. And anxious.

Hunter shifted in his chair. “Well?”

“I’ll keep you in suspense.” Covering his alarm, feigning indifference, Hunter shrugged. “I won’t explain. When it happens, you’ll know.”

Ernest stood to go.

Hunter said, “That’s it? I thought…”

“Nice place you have… Dad.”

He didn’t wait for his father to accompany him. Hunter followed at a distance. Ernest called the elevator. The doors opened and he stepped into the car. He pushed the button for the ground floor.

Ernest said, “I’ll be in touch.”

At the last glimpse, Hunter appeared to be about to say something. Too late. The elevator rumbled quietly in descent.

Both of them, father and son, paused with a common thought. Unheard by the other, they spoke in the same moment.

“What have I done?”

November 03, 2023 23:52

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20 comments

Amanda Lieser
06:16 Nov 28, 2023

Hi John! I don’t know if you know this about me yet, but I am an absolute sucker for a dialogue based story. I think that it’s an extremely difficult thing to do and because of that, I always tip my hat at those who allow the dialogue to guide the stories. This particular one I was impressed with because I appreciated the way that you incorporated the academic language while also including moments of true father, son relationship. This is clearly an extremely complicated one, and I thought that it posed some pretty good ethical questions. Th...

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John K Adams
16:09 Nov 28, 2023

Thank you, Amanda, for the glowing review. I find that dialogue can reveal so much with more economy, and emotion, than mere description. This is based on what I heard in a Psych 101 class, way back when. It's haunted me ever since. I'm glad I found a way to make it effective. As always, thanks for reading and commenting.

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16:02 Nov 18, 2023

The terror of the elevator ride hooked me and made me want to read on to understand why it caused such emotional pain, particulalry after Ernest critiques the design. Not your run of the mill claustrophobia. Something deeper here. Well done.

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John K Adams
16:14 Nov 18, 2023

Thanks, Christopher. I'm glad the story worked for you.

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Chelsea Caffey
18:42 Nov 10, 2023

These characters give such a strong glimpse into what I’d imagine the dynamic of father and son to be if this were a real-life scenario. Ernest’s ride on the elevator was so visceral and Hunter’s ignoring Ernest’s poignant question before leaving pipe smoke trailing in the air was such a strong moment that said so much about the unspoken guilt he may feel but doesn’t want to speak of.

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John K Adams
21:11 Nov 10, 2023

Thanks, Chelsea, for reading and commenting. I'm glad the story spoke so strongly to you.

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Shirley Medhurst
12:44 Nov 10, 2023

This is incredibly powerful writing, John, very well done. What a chilling character you’ve created in Hunter! This cold and clinical sentence says so much: “Each time little Ernest touched a stuffed toy, or a blanket, the blast of an air horn reduced him to utter terror. The baby quickly adapted to avoid anything cuddly or comforting.”

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John K Adams
13:33 Nov 10, 2023

Thank you, Shirley. I've carried the story of the real 'Hunter' and his son since my freshman year of college, psychology class. With power comes responsibility. Not everyone is up to the task.

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Shirley Medhurst
13:40 Nov 10, 2023

Ah ok… 😯 So, Hunter is based on a “real” Skinner-like father? 🧐 Hence the Creative non-fiction tag, I now realise. Frightening stuff!

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John K Adams
14:38 Nov 10, 2023

So I was told in Psych 101. And they told it proudly.

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Tom Skye
18:52 Nov 09, 2023

Great story. At its heart it is a simple story about family, distance and estrangement, but the backdrop of behaviorism gave it a really fascinating flavor. The ending packed a punch. Enjoyed this a lot. Thanks for sharing.

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John K Adams
19:29 Nov 09, 2023

Thank you, Tom. Getting comments on what works and doesn't is invaluable to me. I'm glad this one worked for you.

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Tom Skye
19:40 Nov 09, 2023

Yeah this one worked great. I'll try and tear apart the next one 🤪

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John K Adams
19:46 Nov 09, 2023

Oh yeah? Just try... lol

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Kathleen Spencer
16:37 Nov 09, 2023

Interesting story. I liked how you used more than one example in your story to move the reader into the feeling of the sense of belonging. Everyone has a fear of something. It was well done. You could see the love/hate relationship perfectly.

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John K Adams
18:00 Nov 09, 2023

Thank you, Kathleen. I always appreciate comments. Glad it worked well for you.

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John K Adams
18:00 Nov 09, 2023

Thank you, Kathleen. I always appreciate comments. Glad it worked well for you.

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23:13 Nov 11, 2023

Absolutely loved this story. You create a great little world to envision and tell the story wonderfully. I see, in my head, Kelsey Grammer playing the father. I have a question about your story. I am a independent filmmaker, I make short films for my YouTube channel just for fun and I found your story online and I would love to make a short film about it. I don’t know if I need your permission to do this. Could you email me? Would love to chat about it. Thanks.

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Mary Bendickson
20:19 Nov 07, 2023

You lived this? Or someone you know. How awful!

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John K Adams
21:21 Nov 07, 2023

This is my fictional account of what we, in our Psych 101 class, were proudly told about the early days of Behaviorism. Why anyone would make it up, I can't imagine. Behaviorism has been relegated to the over-flowing dust bin of Psychology. But it was a brave new world at the time. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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