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The Man Who Shocked the World

The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram

by Thomas Blass

Hardcover, 360 pages, Perseus Books Group, List Price: $26 |


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The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram
Thomas Blass

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Book Summary

Presents a biography of Stanley Milgram, dicussing among other experiments his obedience experiments and shedding light on his personality and personal life.

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Excerpt: The Man Who Shocked The World


Stanley Milgram was born in the Bronx on August 15,1933, to Samuel and Adele Milgram, both Jewish immigrants fromEastern Europe. They met in the United States and were married in February1931. Like so many thousands of Jews before and after them, theirfamilies had undoubtedly been drawn to America by its idealized reputationas the Goldene Medina-the land of golden opportunity. Samuel, an expertbaker and cake decorator, emigrated from Hungary in 1921 afterWorld War I and returned briefly to Europe a few years later to apprenticein Germany. Stanley recalled that his father seemed "especially sturdy, hisheavy-boned arms strengthened by years of kneading dough in the shops,his face reflecting both Jewish warmth and, in his high chiseled cheekbones,traces of his Magyar birthland." He was 5'8", and Stanley thought helooked a bit like Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. Adele was born in Romaniain 1908 and came to the United States at age five with her mother. She waspetite, short, and gentle. She radiated cheerfulness, and it was easy to makeher laugh. Adele was everyone's favorite aunt, the family sage to whom allturned for advice and for arbitration in family disputes.

Samuel and Adele moved frequently. During the Depression, landlordsengaged in a competition to draw and retain tenants. They offered various"concessions" or inducements, such as free gas and electricity or a month'srent. Concessions could save tenants a lot of money, and when their leasewas up, they could often find a better offer from another landlord. TheMilgrams, like so many others, found themselves packing up their belongingsevery few years, sometimes to move just a block or two away.

When Stanley was born, the family was living in a small apartmentbuilding at 1020 Boynton Avenue, in a section of the South Bronx,bounded on the west by the Bronx River, where it starts its meanderingcurve eastward, and on the south by Bruckner Boulevard. As late as 1925,the area still contained some farmland. This section of the Bronx did nothave an agreed-upon name, but it did possess a cohesive neighborhoodfeeling, and the streets pulsated with the energy and drive of people whowere trying to improve their situation.

Years later, Stanley would describe it this way:

The neighborhood was always abuzz with people: plump, animated women, in patterned cotton dresses and aprons, sunning themselves on bridge chairs in front of the apartment houses, knitting in splendid self-containment or exchanging gossip while distractedly rocking their baby carriages. There were plenty of children running around, and always a mother shouting through an open window for "Sey ... mour" or "Ir ... ving" in that long drawn out sing-song that was their maternal call. It was a mixed neighborhood of immigrants-but not greenhorns-who came mostly from Jewish Eastern Europe. Many of them worked in small shops or owned them. A few clerks, secretaries, and school teachers lived here too, elevating the prestige of the neighborhood.... These bakers, printers, clerks, and housewives were fueled by aspirations, if not for themselves then for their progeny, who played stick ball in the streets, and thought of the local candy store as the outer limit of their world.

Stanley was Sam and Adele's second child. His sister Marjorie was born ayear and a half earlier. Stanley was named after a deceased grandfather namedSimcha-Hebrew for joy, a feeling apparently lost on his sister, who, sensingthat she would now have to vie with the new baby for her parents' attention,demanded: "Throw him into the incinerator." She was constantly tossingthings into Stanley's crib, forcing Adele to spread a screen over it to protecthim. And Marjorie was constantly being reprimanded for hitting the baby.

A younger brother, Joel, was born five years later. Stanley's first recollectionof the imminent arrival of his new brother was sitting with his sister onthe marble steps in the vestibule of their apartment house on Boynton Avenue,speculating about the new baby: "We knew that Mom would begoing to the hospital to get the baby. Margie insisted that it be a baby girl;I wanted a baby brother. We argued, but we knew the matter was not up tous; it would depend on whatever the hospital decided to give out."

When Joel was old enough, he became a willing accomplice in hisbrother's pranks, which continued well into their teens. This shared mischiefnot only enlivened those years, but helped cement the bonds of brotherhood,which held fast for life, no matter how far apart they lived.

In one such incident, Stanley and his buddies decided to try to convince anotherfriend, named Wex (short for Wexelbaum), that he had telepathic powers.To prove it, Stanley brought Wex to his own room in the apartment andtold him that he was thinking of a number, which he had written on a slip ofpaper and put in a lockbox under his bed. Wex should read his mind and saywhat the number was. After Wex said a number, Joel, hiding under the bed,quickly wrote the number on a piece of paper and slipped it into the lockbox.

In another incident, Stanley and Joel were having a friendly tussle on theliving room floor. Among the room's furnishings was a round, ornate Frenchprovincial coffee table with four curving, baroque legs. It was recessed in themiddle and covered by a clear glass disc, about 30 inches across. Theybumped the coffee table, breaking the glass top. To hide their misdeed fromtheir parents, the brothers spread a piece of cellophane tightly across the top.The substitution went undetected for a few weeks, until one day a guestplaced a cup and saucer on the table that quickly sank toward the floor.

For the children of the Neighborhood With No Name, the center oftheir lives was the local elementary school, PS 77, on Ward Avenue. Itsmain entrance was flanked on both sides by two white columns, their statelinessserving to forewarn those about to enter the building of the supremeimportance of what went on inside. The building's symbolic import wasabetted by a dress code: Boys had to wear white shirts and ties. Through thethird grade, it was a red tie; after third grade, it was a blue tie. There was asimilar school "uniform" requirement for girls, who had to wear some typeof white blouse and a red-then blue-sash, bow, or ribbon around theneck. The uniforms served as a simple but effective social and economicleveler. The school's principal believed that wearing them would make allchildren feel equal. Adele loved the dress code, because it took the daily decisionabout what the children should wear and the hassles associated withit out of her hands. A pretty flower garden separated the school buildingand the sidewalk. Adele once told little Stanley that babies came fromtulips. After that, he would periodically inspect the tulips in the school'sgarden, waiting for tiny life forms to emerge.

It was at PS 77 that Stanley's superior intelligence became visible tothose outside his immediate family. When Stanley was in kindergarten, hewould often stand next to his mother at night as she helped his sister withher homework. One evening, the discussion focused on Abraham Lincoln.The following day, when Stanley's kindergarten teacher asked her class totell what they knew about the great president, little Stanley raised his handand proceeded to repeat what he had overheard from his mother the nightbefore. His teacher was so impressed that she had the principal take himaround from class to class to recite his speech about President Lincoln.

Indeed, Stanley was remembered by his elementary school teachers as anoutstanding student. Although as an adult Joel would be proud of hisbrother's achievements, during their childhood years Stanley's school performancemade Joel, a disinterested student who got marginal grades, lookeven worse. Joel's third-grade teacher, Mrs. Stiller, had been Stanley's third-gradeteacher five years earlier. Once, expressing her disappointment whilereturning a paper to Joel with a low grade, she made it a point to tell himhow much better his brother had done in her class.

Most of the boys in the neighborhood spent much of their free timeplaying ball in the schoolyard and in the streets. Stanley was not very adeptat sports, so he did not participate much in those activities. Instead, he developedan early interest in science. An older cousin gave him a chemistryset, and he found himself tinkering with it in his spare time. Occasionallyhe got some of his buddies to participate in his experiments, one of whichinvolved lowering a large flask containing sodium into the Bronx River.When the "sodium bomb" exploded, fire engines and worried mothersrushed to the site. He was always doing experiments. "It was as natural asbreathing," he once told an interviewer, "and I tried to understand howeverything worked."

Among Stanley's childhood experiences, two are especially noteworthy,because they turned out to be harbingers of concerns that would later dominatehis professional life. The first involved the power of groups. In Stanley'sown words:

On [a] summer day, after a child had been knocked down by a passing car, the neighborhood demanded that Boynton Avenue be turned into a one-way street. A crowd of protesters gathered on the sidewalk with crudely fabricated signs. The crowd started to chant, "Sit down strike! Sit down strike!" A barricade of milk crates was formed across the width of the street and protesters sat on the crates preventing traffic from moving through. Police arrived, some words were exchanged and the incident came to an end.... I suppose if I had grown up in a more genteel place this kind of thing would not happen. But this was the Bronx in the thirties. It was not a neighborhood of patsies. We got our one-way street.

The second incident occurred when Stanley was four or five years old. Hiscousin, Stanley Norden, a year and a half older, who lived in the same neighborhood,had come over to play. (The two Stanleys were named after thesame grandfather.) They were playing in the bedroom, with cousin Stanleysitting on the floor between two beds. According to Milgram: "I decided to'measure' the distance between the beds by stretching a belt from one bed-postto the other. The belt slipped, and the buckle, with its sharp spindle, fellon Stanley's head causing a small flow of blood. Stanley began to cry and ranto Aunt Mary [his mother] who was chatting with Morn in the kitchen."

Milgram was soundly scolded by his mother, making him cry. He feltmiserable about his misdeed, even though it was an accident and he hadn'tmeant to hurt his cousin. "Still, to be blamed for such things was a burden.But whether I learned my lesson remains unclear. For many years later, wasI not again to become an object of criticism for my efforts to measuresomething without due regard to the risks it entailed for others?"

Samuel Milgram was a proud father. His children were the smartest andthe most beautiful. He always referred to them as his "treasures." Marjorie washis Hungarian princess, and he often boasted about his four-year-old son,Stanley, who could recite the Pledge of Allegiance and Mother Goose rhymesby heart. Stanley identified strongly with his father, even idolized him:

To any child, who views things from two feet off the ground, all fathers must look big and strong, but Sam seemed especially sturdy.... What intense joy we experienced jumping on Dad's chest as he lay on the rug of our apartment, sliding down his knees.... When, many years later, I had children of my own, I recall how on Sunday mornings, they would jump all over me in bed, balance themselves on my forked knees, enact little circus performances in which my legs became the stable platforms from which they giggled through their antics and I thought of my father and the delicious joy of jumping on his accommodating chest.

It was a special source of pride to Stanley that everyone said he lookedlike Sam. Later, Stanley's wife would comment:

He resembled his father very much physically.... His nose looked like it was flattened at the tip, and I never said anything when I first met Stanley. But when I saw the photo of Stanley's father, I thought, Oh! He resembled his father so much that the story goes when Stanley was a little boy playing in the park, and some family members on his father's side came from Europe, and were looking for where the house was, they saw Stanley and recognized him as Sam's son.

One of Stanley's fondest and most vivid childhood memories was accompanyinghis father as the family moved to a new apartment on WardAvenue, on the other side of the elevated train tracks running alongWestchester Avenue:

After most of the furniture had been packed into a moving truck, Dad wanted to take over some clothing and small items to the new apartment.... He filled [a] cart with clothing, lamps and other household paraphernalia and probably against Mom's objection-she had a stronger sense of decorum-was going to transport the items three or four blocks to the new house. To my great joy I was invited to get into the cart and go along for the ride.... It was not a pushcart type of neighborhood: black Chews and Buick sedans lined the streets. Perhaps the sight of Dad pushing the wagon up Boynton Avenue struck onlookers as eccentric. But I had just turned five. No captain of a frigate could have surveyed the passing channels with greater pride, as I sat atop the bundles of clothing, moving northward on Boynton Avenue toward our new place, the vessel powered by my very own father, strong as Hercules.

* * *

When the United States entered World War II after the attack on PearlHarbor on December 7, 1941, the Milgrams lived at 1239 Ward Avenue,only two blocks from their previous home on Boynton Avenue. One side ofthe block was made up of virtually identical brick two-family houses withpostage-stamp-sized front lawns. The Milgrams occupied the upstairsapartment of one such house. It was larger than their previous apartment,and they had moved there soon after Joel was born to accommodate theneeds of a growing family.

As the country mobilized for war, Sam felt the need to take steps to ensurethat he would not be drafted. He was now forty-three, which madeconscription unlikely. But he had fought in World War I-had even beena POW-and he did not relish the thought of having to repeat the experience.So in late 1942 he moved his family temporarily to Camden, NewJersey, to train and work as a welder in the shipyards.