Movie review: The Great Wall

We didn’t plan to see The Great Wall. We actually intended to see Get Out, but owing to an unfortunate accident with a parallax time distortion unit and a group of Brazilian terrorists, we ended up in the theater a week early. The only movie that had not yet started playing was The Great Wall, starring a bunch of CG space aliens, Willem Dafoe as John Hurt doing an impression of Keanu Reeves, Matt Damon as Matt Damon, and Tian Jing as an archer-specialized player character from Skyrim.


Seriously, tell me this isn’t glass armor from Skyrim.

So, with some trepidation, we ventured into the theater, expectations and parallax time distortion unit appropriately recalibrated.

The movie goes something like this:

MATT DAMON: The Chinese have the secret of black powder. We do not. Let us venture to China and steal black powder from the Chinese.
MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: Wait, what? If they have black powder and we don’t, doesn’t that mean they have better weapons than we do, thus making stealing from their military kind of a bad idea?
MATT DAMON: That’s why we brought expendable extras with us. Plus, I have a magnet.
MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: Why do you have a magnet?
MATT DAMON: Because unlike you, I read the script.
EXPENDABLE EXTRAS: Hang on, back up a second. What was that part about expendable–

CG SPACE ALIENS come out of NOWHERE and kill the EXPENDABLE EXTRAS.

MATT DAMON: Matt Damon!

MATT DAMON and MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK kill a CG SPACE ALIEN and chop off its ARM

MATT DAMON: Let’s take that arm with us.
MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: Wait, what? Why?
MATT DAMON: Because it’s a CG space alien’s arm, of course!


Arr! Spoilers be down below!

MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: Hey Matt Damon, we’re being chased by mounted nomadic warriors! We should run away!

They RUN AWAY and discover a GIANT WALL with a whole bunch of ANGRY CHINESE ARCHERS atop it

MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: I think we should surrender.
MATT DAMON: I have a better idea. We should surrender.
MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: Ah. this is going to be one of those movies, isn’t it?
MATT DAMON: Yes. Yes, it is.

They are taken before the HIGH COMMANDER and INTERROGATED. WILLEM DAFOE quietly LURKS in the BACKGROUND.

MATT DAMON: Look! We have a space alien arm!
HIGH COMMANDER: Your space alien arm impresses us, Matt Damon. I will put you in a prison cell.
RANDOM SOLDIER DUDE: I can’t find the key to the cell.
HIGH COMMANDER’S UNDERLING: Put the prisoners on top of the wall instead, because that totally makes sense.

SPACE ALIENS attack the WALL. ARCHERS FROM SKYRIM jump off the WALL on BUNGEE CORDS to SHOOT and STAB the SPACE ALIENS because that makes TOTAL SENSE and it is TOTALLY how you defend a WALL from attackers who have NO PROJECTILE WEAPONS. WILLEM DAFOE quietly MUNCHES SCENERY in the BACKGROUND.

MATT DAMON: Space aliens are attacking the wall! Matt Damon’s sidekick, grab a red cloak and go all bullfighter on them while I shoot them with trick shots using my bow!
LEGOLAS: Eh, I’ve seen better.
ALIEN QUEEN: Oh shit, there are white people up on top of the wall! Retreat! Retreat!

They have a VICTORY CELEBRATION. The CHINESE MILITARY taunts MATT DAMON for his BOW.

MATT DAMON: Watch as I do some complicated trick shots with my bow.

MATT DAMON does some COMPLICATED TRICK SHOTS with his BOW and manages not to PUT HIS EYE OUT or ANYTHING.

HIGH COMMANDER: Your complicated trick shot with a bow impresses us, Matt Damon.
LEGOLAS: Eh, I’ve seen better.
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: Matt Damon, you should put on a bungee cord and jump off the wall.
MATT DAMON: Why?
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: To show that you trust us.
MATT DAMON: Well, first of all, I don’t trust you. Second of all, this is the most inane strategy I’ve ever heard of for defending a fortification.
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: What’s wrong with it?
MATT DAMON:
MATT DAMON: So you have a wall…
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: Right.
MATT DAMON: And you have blades on the wall and trebuchet and archers and all kinds of stuff.
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: Uh-huh.
MATT DAMON: So you just stand up on the wall and shoot the space aliens. And drop things on them. Like rocks. Or hell, I don’t know, like bombs, since you have explosives and stuff.
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: But they climb the wall!
MATT DAMON: So build an overhang at the top! With doors in the floor that you can shoot and drop bombs through and stuff!
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM:
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: Nope, not getting it.
MATT DAMON: You guys suck at walls. The whole point of a fortification is to deny your opponents access to a piece of land without needing to engage them in hand to hand combat. When you really think about it…

The dialog WEDGES

PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: This dialog sucks. I’m outta here.
WILLEM DAFOE: You came here to steal black powder?
MATT DAMON: Yes, we did.
WILLEM DAFOE: I, too, came here to steal black powder. I have devised a cunning plan. I have hidden supplies and weapons all along the road and I have made preparations to steal the black powder from the armory. When the space aliens attack, we can be on our way.
MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: If you’ve done all this preparation, why didn’t you steal the black powder and run away like, ten years ago?
WILLEM DAFOE: Because I’ve been waiting for Matt Damon.
MATT DAMON: Ah, right, of course.

HIGH COMMANDER: You have a magnet. That is how you killed the space alien at the beginning of this movie.
MATT DAMON: How do you know?
HIGH COMMANDER: The legends speak of a time when the Emperor was cruel and wicked, so the space aliens came to punish him. Now, every sixty years, the space aliens come out of hiding in the mountains and roam the earth for food.
MATT DAMON: Wait, what? A large number of organized, highly aggressive, large predators only come out once every sixty years? How does that ecosystem make any sense at all?
HIGH COMMANDER: It worked for Pitch Black, didn’t it?
VIN DIESEL: Hey, leave me out of this. My movie rocked.

A SPACE ALIEN starts rampaging on the WALL in the middle of the NIGHT

HIGH COMMANDER: Quickly! We must kill the space alien!

A SECOND SPACE ALIEN comes up BEHIND THEM and ATTACKS

HIGH COMMANDER: Clever girl.

The HIGH COMMANDER DIES

PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: Now I am in charge!
MATT DAMON: Great. We should capture a space alien.
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: Did you not just hear me? I said I am in charge!
MATT DAMON: Yeah, yeah, whatever. Okay, so what we’ll do is we’ll make some alien tranquilizer–
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: I am in charge. Also, how on earth would we know anything about alien physiology or biochemistry? What makes you think a tranquilizer–
MATT DAMON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Then we’ll put the alien tranquilizer on harpoons, see. And we stab the harpoons into the aliens and use the magnet to keep them from fighting back! And then we put them in a cage!
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: We have never before thought of using harpoons, capturing aliens, or using magnets. Fortunately, we happen to have a whole bunch of harpoons and alien tranquilizer just lying around, even though this idea is completely new to us and we’ve never even considered it before. And look, there’s an alien-sized cage just lying here! Also, even though we learned that magnets incapacitate aliens hundreds of years ago, we have never considered using magnets in any of our fortifications or defenses because of reasons. It’s a good thing you came by to save us, Matt Damon! Also, I’m being so sincere right now. No, really, I am. Sarcasm is not known to my people.

A FOG rolls in. The aliens ATTACK. MATT DAMON jumps off the WALL on a BUNGEE CORD to fight tranquilized aliens HAND TO HAND instead of just waiting for the TRANQUILIZER to work

MATT DAMON: I have captured a space alien!

The PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM opens a DOOR in the bottom of the WALL and they come out and get the CAPTURED SPACE ALIEN

MATT DAMON: Wait, what? You have a door at the bottom of the wall? Then how come I jumped off the top of the wall on a bungee cord like a dumbass?
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: You didn’t ask. I do not think you came here to save us. I think you came hear to steal our black powder.
MATT DAMON:
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: I can’t tell who’s worse, us or the space aliens. At least you don’t see them screwing each other for a percentage of the profit.
RIPLEY: That’s my line.
BURKE: Go for the black powder! Do it! Do it!

MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: The next time the aliens come, you and I and Willem Dafoe should steal the black powder and run away.
MATT DAMON: That’s a terrible idea.
BURKE: No, that’s an awesome idea!
MATT DAMON: I am the hero of this movie. Stealing and running away isn’t very heroic.
MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: You’re a loser snowflake cuck.

The SOLDIERS find a TUNNEL that has been dug through the WALL

PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: The space aliens have dug a tunnel through the wall! Now they will destroy the world, just like the creatures in Pitch Black, which was a much better movie!
MATT DAMON: You guys really don’t understand static defenses, do you?

MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: Willem Dafoe and I have blown the door off the armory and stolen the black powder. Come with us!
MATT DAMON: No.
WILLEM DAFOE: Wait, what? Why?
MATT DAMON: Because unlike you, I have read the script.
MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: You’re a loser snowflake cuck. I am going to write SUCH an angry tweet about you.

MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK knocks out MATT DAMON and writes SUCH AN ANGRY TWEET. WILLEM DAFOE and MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK ride off with the BLACK POWDER

PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: Matt Damon, your friends have stolen the black powder and run away.I will put you in a cell, since we have finally found the key. Also, we will now get onto hot air balloons which have failed all of our tests and fly to the capital, where we have shipped the captured space alien in a cage. Let us be off.

They get into HOT AIR BALLOONS that have FAILED ALL THE TESTS. The NON-PLAYER CHARACTERS all PLUMMET TO THEIR HORRIBLE DEATHS. The BALLOONS bearing MAJOR CHARACTERS all WORK JUST FINE.

WILLEM DAFOE: Go walk up that hill and see where we are. I promise not to steal your horse and all your supplies and ride off into the desert, leaving you stranded.
MATT DMON’S SIDEKICK: Okay.

WILLEM DAFOE steals the HORSE and ALL THE SUPPLIES and rides off into the DESERT, leaving MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK STRANDED

MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: You promised!
WILLEM DAFOE: Ha! I had my fingers crossed!

WILLEM DAFOE is captured by RAIDERS and tied up next to the BONFIRE. The RAIDERS start PLAYING with the BLACK POWDER next to the BONFIRE

WILLEM DAFOE: Oh sh–

WILLEM DAFOE, the RAIDERS, and EVERYONE WITHIN A MILE are blown SKY-HIGH by the BLACK POWDER

MATT DAMON: I will get on a balloon and ride it to the capital city and kill the queen space alien.
CHINESE NERD: Aren’t you afraid the balloon will blow up and send you plummeting to your gruesome death?
MATT DAMON: I am not a non-player character.
CHINESE NERD: I’m riding with you.

They FLY to the CAPITAL CITY. The SPACE ALIENS are RAMPAGING

CHINESE NERD: We can cover the captured space alien with bombs and let it go! When it goes to the queen it will blow her up!
MATT DAMON: See, that’s what I’m talking about. This is why nerds rule the world.

They cover the CAPTURED SPACE ALIEN with BOMBS and let it GO. It heads straight to the QUEEN

CHINESE NERD: Okay, now shoot it with a flaming arrow to set off the bombs!
MATT DAMON:
MATT DAMON: What the…
MATT DAMON: Are you fucking serious?
MATT DAMON: You couldn’t have put a timer on them?
CHINESE NERD: Do what where?
MATT DAMON: A timer! Like a slow-burning charge…
CHINESE NERD:
MATT DAMON: …a glass envelope with a starter charge in it that ignites when the queen bites down, a chemical delay fuse…
CHINESE NERD:
MATT DAMON: Anything? Anything?
CHINESE NERD: Nope, not getting it.

MATT DAMON SIGHS

MATT DAMON: Okay, I will go up this tower and make a daring trick arrow shot that will save the world.

MATT DAMON makes a DARING TRICK ARROW SHOT that MISSES. The world is not SAVED

LEGOLAS: Loser!
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: Okay, I will go up this tower and make a daring trick arrow shot that will save the world.

The PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM makes a DARING TRICK ARROW SHOT that BLOWS UP THE QUEEN. The world is SAVED

LEGOLAS: Eh, I’ve seen better.
PLAYER CHARACTER FROM SKYRIM: Matt Damon, we have captured your sidekick wandering alone in the desert without a horse or supplies. You can take him with you or you can take black powder with you. Your choice.
MATT DAMON: I choose Matt Damon’s Sidekick.
MATT DAMON’S SIDEKICK: It’s like I don’t even know you any more!
PADME: That’s my line! It’s pretty awful, though. You can have it if you want.

PADME dies of CONSUMPTION
The movie ENDS

Moving into the Modern Era

I first released my sex game Onyx twenty years ago. I’ve been maintaining it and distributing it from various Web sites ever since, and to be honest, the Web sites I’ve been distributing it from haven’t advanced a whole lot in that twenty years. Seriously, if you want to see the Web as it was in the 90s, look no further than my Symtoys site. (Mobile browser compatible? Pah! What’s that? In my day, we surfed the Web on dial-up from a Mac IIvx!)

As I work on making Onyx 4 more accessible and modern, I’m also working to dust off my own corners of the Web. And I’ve just completed a big part of that.

I am pleased to announce a brand-new, modern Web site for Onyx. And I’ve also dragged my boots out of the mid-90s and upgraded to a completely new Web shopping cart for all my posters and stuff.

And you can help me celebrate!

Special offer! Use coupon code

newsite17

on checkout for $6 off registration!

Download Onyx here!

On building a culture of consent

It’s predictable. That’s the most infuriating thing about it: it’s so goddamn dreadfully predictable.

If it were a surprise, we could at least say that it was surprising because we didn’t expect it. If we didn’t expect it, that means we were expecting something else. But god damn if it isn’t dreary in its monotonous predictability.

Five and a half years ago, I wrote a blog post called Assault and Consent in the BDSM Community. It concerned a person I know who’d been raped by a well-known leader in the Portland BDSM scene1. When she came forward about the assault, the BDSM scene closed ranks behind him and against her. It wasn’t until many more women stepped forward to say that he had raped them, too, that he was eventually run out of the scene…but it took a long time. And during that time, the predictable and monotonous drumbeat of minimization and victim-blaming and “well I never had a problem with him” bullshit (newsflash: you never had a problem with him because you’re not in his preferred victim demographic, duh) was all you could hear in the local community.

I’ve talked about this before, of course. It, and a succession of similar events like it with that same old same old unwillingness to deal with abuse in the community, was the reason I left the BDSM scene. I am still kinky, and I still consider other kinky folks to be my people, but god damn so many of the organized BDSM communities are dysfunctional when it comes to consent.

Ironically, given all the lip service it pays to consent.

None of this is news, at least to anyone paying attention. We live in a society where access to other people’s bodies, particularly women’s bodies, is considered as much a right as free speech and the right to bear arms. I mean, hell, access to other people’s bodies is a goddamn advertising campaign, as this photo I took of a sign in a storefront in California quite plainly illustrates.


You know she was asking for it.

And here’s the thing: It’s not just about sex.

Access to, and entitlement to, other people is so pervasive, so intimately woven into the fabric of Western society, that it’s the backdrop against which our lives are played out.

Not just access to other people’s bodies, though there is that, but access to other people. Access to other people’s time, other people’s attention, other people’s creativity, other people’s expression.

If you’re a woman, you know this already. If you’re at all creative, or if you’re someone who’s even moderately famous, you know this already. If you’re a woman who’s well-known or even moderately famous, you know this so thoroughly you probably don’t even need to read the rest of this blog post to know what’s coming.


I wrote recently about a storm brewing in the Italian poly scene over the Italian language version of More Than Two. It’s something Eve has also written about.

And before I go any further, I want to say that no, I’m not claiming what’s happening with the book is in any way comparable to rape. If that’s the idea you come away from this essay with, you’re not paying attention.

Instead, what I want to say is that the casual entitlement to other people, the offhand attitude that suggests that person A has, by right, an expectation to access to person B, and should B object to this access, A can be expected not only to trot out the same old tired objections we’ve heard a hundred times, but A’s friends F, U, C, and K can be expected to do the same, is the common thread that unites many different forms of consent violation.

That’s the thing. That’s the maddening, infuriating, and painfully mundane thing about this. People who feel an entitlement to access to other people can be counted on to justify that entitlement in the same exact ways, and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about physical assault, emotional labor, control over another person’s choices, or any other kind of forced intimacy. The same tools–victim-blaming, gaslighting, feigned “neutrality,” cries of “oh, but I’ve never had a problem with him!”–get use against any kind of non-consensual access to other people, sexual or not.

And it’s so predictable we barely even notice. Might I point out how fucked up that is?

Eve recently shared her blog post in a 2,500-member Italian polyamory Facebook group, one of two major groups in Italy. By then there was already a roiling, seething mass of innuendo, speculation, storytelling, and weird narrative growing around the problems with the Italian version of More Than Two, which is what typically happens in the absence of information; we are a storytelling species, and we make up stories to explain the world, without even knowing we’re doing it.

So she posted. And the result was…well, it was indistinguishable from what happened five and a half years ago, around a different issue in a different community halfway around the world.

We don’t like it when people we admire do something wrong, and we are, as a species, quite predictable in the ways we will hold on to the idea that folks we personally like are Pure And Noble, and folks who tell us inconveniently unpleasant things about them are Bad And Wrong.

Different situation, different crime, same disregard for consent, same rationalizations and reactions.

Fuck me if it’s not as monotonous as clockwork.


On each rotation of the center gear, someone says “But she’s overreacting!”

So let’s cut to the chase.

If someone writes a book and you like it, that’s cool.

If someone writes a book and you want to see it published where you live, that’s cool.

If someone writes a book and you work with the publisher to attach a foreword to the book that you wrote without talking to the authors about first, and then you fight back when they want it removed, that’s not, and never will be, cool. That’s the sort of pervasive attitude of entitlement to other people I’m talking about.

If someone writes a book and you go to the publisher misrepresenting yourself as speaking on behalf of the authors, that’s not only not cool, it’s creepy.

If someone writes a book, and you do these things, and the authors complain, and then you begin a campaign of throwing anyone who you think publicly or privately supports the authors out of groups and events and leadership roles, that’s…that’s…

Sadly, that’s as predictable as the rotation of a gear.

Because that’s how entitlement works. That’s what entitlement is. It’s the belief that that access to another person, be it physical or emotional or psychological or whatever, belongs to you, it’s yours by right, and anyone who tries to take it away is depriving you of what’s rightfully yours.

And the victim blaming, closing ranks behind the consent violator, “oh it was all in her head” stuff? That’s also part of how entitlement works, because entitlement isn’t just some random guy who thinks he has the right to have access to you, entitlement is a system. It’s a pattern of beliefs. It’s the water in which we swim.

It’s the advertising message we see hanging in a store window while we’re walking down the street.

This idea, that entitlement is not just a personal failure of boundaries but a toxic environment in which we live, is central to the whole idea of consent culture. And it distresses me when people who represent themselves as part of a community built on a culture of consent behave this way.

I quit the BDSM community because by the time I left it had not succeeded, even after decades, in building a meaningful culture of consent.

I see the poly community headed the same way, and it’s heartbreaking. This is not okay. Let’s do better.


1 Last I heard, he’d moved to Seattle and was gaining a reputation as a rapist in the BDSM scene there, too. Funny thing, though. In all of US history, as near as I can tell, there has never once been a successful rape prosecution against a rapist who was in a kink relationship with their victim. Not one. If you want a 100% guaranteed free ride to rape with total, irrevocable legal immunity, join the kink scene. Now you know.

The Italian language version of More Than Two

There’s a strange thing that happens to writers who are in the public eye.

I’ve been writing about polyamory for many years, starting in the late 90s, when I first started talking about polyamory on Xeromag. The Web site started out as a site for the small-press magazine my former business partner and I are doing, and each of us wrote a little bit about ourselves. I wrote a page on polyamory and another on BDSM. I wasn’t really expecting to reach a large audience, and I was not really writing it for anyone in particular; mostly, I was writing the things I wished I could go back in time and tell myself ten years earlier.

But the things I wrote connected with a lot of people. Pretty soon, the Xeromag site became that site about polyamory–oh, and something about a magazine too. In 2006, the polyamory content was getting so much traffic that the rest of the site was groaning under the load, so I moved all the polyamory content to its own server and its own domain at morethantwo.com.

In 2012, I started dating Eve Rickert. In 2013, she said “Hey Franklin, we should write a book together!” In 2014, we published More Than Two.

Like the Web site, the book exploded, becoming far more popular than even our most optimistic hopes. In 2015, we did a tour of Europe to support the book. We dragged our suitcases around the streets of Amsterdam and Berlin, Bruges and Rome, Madrid and London, talking to people–sometimes through translators–about intimate details of our lives and experiences.

Then the funny thing happened.

When you write about your life in a way that resonates with people, it creates this weird sort of situation where fans of your work feel like they know you, even though you don’t know them. It’s a strange and disconcerting experience to talk to a complete stranger who knows intimate details of your life and feels connected to you. It plays tricks on your mind. Human beings are social animals, hard-wired to attach emotionally and form intimate bonds with other people, but our emotional selves never evolved to cope with the Internet and mass media.

Most folks navigate this very well. We met tons of fantastic people and had some unforgettable experiences, and even though our book tours have been miserable, uncomfortable things that have left us physically and emotionally exhausted, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

But sometimes, that weird one-sided intimacy creates some weird, messed-up situations. The border between self and other can get fuzzy, and when it does, that one-sided intimacy can lead to some dark places.

A person who feels like they know you can feel entitled to you. And that can cause a lot of damage. Entitlement is the soil in which abusive behavior grows.

Eve has written about a situation playing out in the Italian poly scene that’s creating knock-on effects all the way across the ocean. And, as is often the case with these sorts of situations, there’s a lot of speculation, a lot of rumor, and a lot of storytelling going on. (We humans are a storytelling species. We invent stories to explain the world, often without even being aware of it.)

I urge everyone to read her essay, which you can find here. I support what she says.

It started small. Little things, not a problem on their own, but in retrospect pointing to poor boundaries, to that fuzzy distinction between self and others. One of the people who helped organize our book event in Rome, Mr. Boschetto, did a lot of work to help make the More Than Two book event successful. However, in the process, he also sought to attach himself more to us than we realized, involving himself more and more closely with us without really getting consent first. Like all creeping boundary violations, this happened gradually enough that we didn’t recognize it at first.

Things came to a head with the Italian-language version of More Than Two, which has turned into a nightmare. The Italian publisher has not abided by the terms of our contract, a matter that we’re still resolving. On top of that, Mr. Boschetto added a foreword to the book without prior consent, perhaps assuming there was greater personal connection than there was.

Okay, I get it, shit happens, and sometimes boundaries get muddled, and you work it out and move on. But in the past week, things have come off the rails in a spectacular way, one that makes it hard to assume good intent. People who have been trying to work with us to resolve the matter—people we specifically reached out to to help—have been barred from Italian poly events for working with us.

And now, we’re told (and Eve has seen), he’s taken to threatening people who disagree with him under Italy’s antiquated libel laws, under which a person can be imprisoned for saying something that offends another person even if what is said is true.

It’s impossible to reconcile these actions–banning people from events for working with someone in a professional capacity, threatening to have people imprisoned for saying things he doesn’t like–with someone whose heart is in the right place. The poly community can survive a lot, but no community can stay healthy if it silences dissent.

The Lucifer Effect effect

Eve loves to read to me. It’s one of the love languages we share, and it’s been a part of our relationship for years. We’ve read fiction (like Use of Weapons) and non-fiction (like Parasite Rex) together.

The Lucifer Effect is a book by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who designed the now-infamous Stanford prison experiment. The Stanford prison experiment was an attempt to understand the dynamics of deindividuation in prison environments. Zimbardo hypothesized that prisoners lose their sense of individual identity in institutional settings. The experiment, which had been focused on prisoners, ended up showing that prison guards become abusive not because they are evil or abusers, but because the psychological environment of prison creates enormous pressure for otherwise normal people to become abusive and sadistic. The experiment recruited a group of college students to role-play prisoners or guards in a false prison. Within days, the students assigned to guard roles became so violent, abusive, and sadistic, and tortured the students playing the role of prisoners so severely, that the experiment was discontinued.

And the book has turned into a rough ride for me.

Reading the book, which goes into great detail about the physical and psychological abuse inflicted on the “prisoners” by the “guards,” has been surprisingly difficult. When Eve reads this book to me, I find my blood pressure shooting up, I end up angry and irritable, and I have trouble sleeping.


This is Venango Elementary School, in Venango, Nebraska, the tiny town where I grew up.

It’s more fair to say this was Venango Elementary School. It closed for lack of students decades ago. Venango had 242 people living in it when I was there; at the last census, the population had fallen to 167, none of whom are children. The grounds are still maintained by a retired gentleman who’s lived in Venango most of his life, but nobody’s had a class here in a very long time.

When I was in middle school, I was socially isolated and alienated. I was the only kid in town who didn’t follow football, and the only one who owned a computer. I had no friends, and spent my time building model rockets or dialing computer bulletin boards from my TRS-80.

Needless to say, I was bullied extensively during my career in middle school. The two worst offenders were the two Mikes, Mike A. and Mike C. They were both a couple of years older than I was and quite a lot bigger, and they were inseparable. One of them—I think it was Mike C., though time may have garbled that detail—was fond of coming to school in a T-shirt with iron-on letters on it that spelled out “It’s nice to be injected but I’d rather be blown.” (It’s about cars, geddit? Geddit?)

The particulars of the abuse I suffered at their hands is as predictable as it is tedious, so I won’t bother cataloging them. The official response from teachers and faculty was also tediously predictable; they were aware of the abuse but not particularly motivated to intervene.

I went into high school shy and with few social skills. Then, about the time I was midway through my senior year, I changed.

I had always believed that the reason I was bullied was the reasons bullies gave for bullying me: I wore glasses; I didn’t like football; I liked computers. It took a very long time for me to learn that the content of bullying is completely separate from bullying. That is, bullies bully because they are bullies. If I didn’t wear glasses, if I didn’t like computers, if I did like football, they would still have bullied me, they just would have bullied me about different things.

But that wasn’t the life-changing revelation. In fact, it didn’t come until after the life-changing revelation.

The life-changing revelation was that bullies bully people who don’t fight back. If you want to end bullying, you walk up to the biggest, meanest bully of the bunch, reach back, and punch him square in the face. When bullies realize you bite back, they look for easier prey.

So I went into college with a whole new attitude about violence, one that a lot of folks who know me now find difficult to believe. I was, for a while, quite willing to resort to casual violence in the service of self-protection. I got into fistfights often, and learned yet another lesson: victory does not go to the biggest or the strongest person in the fight. Victory, nine times out of ten, goes to the person who escalates fastest, the one willing to do what the other person is not. I could get in a fight with opponents far larger and stronger than I was, and I almost always came out on top, because I escalated swiftly and aggressively.


I am not the person I used to be. Or, more accurately, I am not the people I used to be. I’m not the shy, friendless, unsocialized bullying victim I was in Venango. I’m also not the aggressive, in-your-face, ready-for-a-fight guy with a hair trigger I was in college. In fact, most of the time it’s hard for me to connect with either of those mindsets any more.

But man, this book.

This book does not mince detail. It describes, directly and even clinically, the abuses suffered by the “prisoners” on behalf of the “guards,” abuses that range from verbal bullying to refusing to allow the prisoners to use the bathroom and forcing them to urinate and defecate in their rooms.

When Eve reads this book to me, I’m transported back to the person I was in college. I can feel my body amping up—I can feel the adrenaline, the shaking, the hair trigger coiled up inside me ready to explode that I used to feel back in my college days whenever someone would start harassing me. And I mean that literally; my hands will shake while she’s reading.

I can identify with the group of students who were made into prisoners. I can understand what they’re experiencing. And I believe that if I had been chosen to participate in an experiment like the SPE and had been assigned to the role of prisoner, there is a very strong likelihood I would have injured or killed one of the “guards,” or been injured or killed myself in the attempt.

It’s been rough, this book. It’s brought me viscerally back to a time and place that I haven’t been in for more than half my life now. We’ve had to switch from reading it in the evening before bed to reading it in the afternoon, because when we read it at night, I can’t sleep.

The book is an excellent deep dive into the underworld of institutional evil (and it’s astonishing how closely the casual abuse that happened in the faux prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building mirrored the abuses in the real world at Abu Ghraib, and for exactly the same reasons). It’s a book I think everyone needs to read, now more than ever, and I’m glad we’re reading it.

But man, it’s turned into a painful slog.