Nemur, Strauss, Burt, and a few of the others on the project were waiting for me in the psych office. They tried to make me feel welcome but I could see how anxious Burt was to take Algernon, and I turned him over. No one said anything, but I knew that Nemur would not soon forgive me for going over his head and getting in touch with the Foundation. But it had been necessary. Before I returned to Beekman, I had to be assured they would permit me to begin an independent study of the project. Too much time would be wasted if I had to account to Nemur for everything I did.
He had been informed of the Foundation’s decision, and my reception was a cold and formal one. He held out his hand, but there was no smile on his face. “Charlie,” he said, “we’re all glad you’re back and going to work with us. Jayson called and told me the Foundation was putting you to work on the project. This staff and the lab are at your disposal. The computer center has assured us that your work will have priority—and of course if I can help in any way…”
He was doing his utmost to be cordial, but I could see by his face that he was skeptical. After all, what experience did I have with experimental psychology? “What did I know about the techniques that he had spent so many years developing? Well, as I say, he appeared cordial, and willing to suspend judgment. There isn’t much else he can do now. If I don’t come up with an explanation for Algernon’s behavior, all of his work goes down the drain, but if I solve the problem I bring in the whole crew with me.
I went into the lab where Burt was watching Algernon in one of the multiple problem boxes. He sighed and shook his head. “He’s forgotten a lot. Most of his complex responses seem to have been wiped out. He’s solving problems on a much more primitive level than I would have expected.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“Well, in the past he was able to figure out simple patterns—in that blind-door run, for example: every other door, every third door, red doors only, or the green doors only—but now he’s been through that run three times and he’s still using trial and error.”
“Could it be because he was away from the lab for so long?”
“Could be. We’ll let him get used to things again and see how he works out tomorrow.”
I had been in the lab many times before this, but now I was here to learn everything it had to offer. I had to absorb procedures in a few days that the others had taken years to learn. Burt and I spent four hours going through the lab section by section, as I tried to familiarize myself with the total picture. When we were all through I noticed one door we had not looked into.
“What’s in there?”
“The freeze and the incinerator.” He pushed open the heavy door and turned on the light. “We freeze our specimens before we dispose of them in the incinerator. It helps cut down the odors if we control decomposition.” He turned to leave, but I stood there for a moment.
“Not Algernon,” I said. “Look… if and… when… I mean I don’t want him dumped in there. Give him to me. I’ll take care of him myself.” He didn’t laugh. He just nodded. Nemur had told him that from now on I could have anything I wanted.
Time was the barrier. If I was going to find out the answers for myself I had to get to work immediately. I got lists of books from Burt, and notes from Strauss and Nemur. Then, on the way out, I got a strange notion.
“Tell me,” I asked Nemur, “I just got a look at your incinerator for disposing of experimental animals. What plans have been made for me?”
My question stunned him. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sure that from the beginning you planned for all exigencies. So what happens to me?”
When he was silent I insisted: “I have a right to know everything that pertains to the experiment, and that includes my future.”
“No reason why you shouldn’t know.” He paused and lit an already lit cigarette. “You understand, of course, that from the beginning we had the highest hopes of permanence, and we still do… we definitely do—”
“I’m sure of that,” I said.
“Of course, taking you on in this experiment was a serious responsibility. I don’t know how much you remember or how much you’ve pieced together about things in the beginning of the project, but we tried to make it clear to you that there was a strong chance it might be only temporary.”
“I had that written down in my progress reports, at the time,” I agreed, “though I didn’t understand at the time what you meant by it. But that’s beside the point because I’m aware of it now.”
“Well, we decided to risk it with you,” he went on, “because we felt there was very little chance of doing you any serious harm, and we were sure there was a great chance of doing you some good.”
“You don’t have to justify that.”
“But you realize we had to get permission from someone in your immediate family. You were incompetent to agree to this yourself.”
“I know all about that. You’re talking about my sister, Norma. I read about it in the papers. From what I remember of her, I imagine she’d have given you approval for my execution.”
He raised his eyebrows, but let it pass. “Well, as we told her, in the event that the experiment failed, we couldn’t send you back to the bakery or to that room where you came from.”
“For one thing, you might not be the same. Surgery and injections of hormones might have had effects not immediately evident. Experiences since the operation might have left their mark on you. I mean, possibly emotional disturbances to complicate the retardation; you couldn’t possibly be the same kind of person—”
“That’s great. As if one cross weren’t enough to bear.”
“And for another thing there’s no way of knowing if you would go back to the same mental level. There might be regression to an even more primitive level of functioning.”
He was letting me have the worst of it—getting the weight off his mind. “I might as well know everything,” I said, “while I’m still in a position to have some say about it. What plans have you made for me?”
He shrugged. “The Foundation has arranged to send you to the Warren State Home and Training School.”
“What the hell!”
“Part of the agreement with your sister was that all the home’s fees would be assumed by the Foundation, and you would receive a regular monthly income to be used for your personal needs for the rest of your life.”
“But why there? I was always able to manage on my own on the outside, even when they committed me there, after Uncle Herman died. Donner was able to get me out right away, to work and live on the outside. Why do I have to go back?”
“If you can take care of yourself on the outside, you
won’t have to stay in Warren. The less severe cases are permitted to live off the grounds. But we had to make provision for you—just in case.”
He was right. There was nothing for me to complain about. They had thought of everything. “Warren was the logical place—the deep freeze where I could be put away for the rest of my days.
“At least it’s not the incinerator,” I said.
“Never mind. A private joke.” Then I thought of something. “Tell me, is it possible to visit Warren, I mean go through the place and look it over as a visitor?”
“Yes, I think they have people coming down all the time—regular tours through the home as a kind of public relations thing. But why?”
“Because I want to see. I’ve got to know what’s going to happen while I’m still enough in control to be able to do something about it. See if you can arrange it—as soon as possible.”
I could see he was upset about the idea of my visiting Warren. As if I were ordering my coffin, to sit in before I died. But then, I can’t blame him because he doesn’t realize that finding out who I really am—the meaning of my total existence involves knowing the possibilities of my future as well as my past, where I’m going as well as where I’ve been. Although we know the end of the maze holds death (and it is something I have not always known—not long ago the adolescent in me thought death could happen only to other people), I see now that the path I choose through that maze makes me what I am. I am not only a thing, but also a way of being—one of many ways—and knowing the paths I have followed and the ones left to take will help me understand what I am becoming.
That evening and for the next few days I immersed myself in psychology texts: clinical, personality, psycho-metrics, learning, experimental psychology, animal psychology, physiological psychology, behaviorist, gestalt, analytical, functional, dynamic, organismic, and all the rest of the ancient and modern factions, schools, and systems of thought. The depressing thing is that so many of the ideas on which our psychologists base their beliefs about human intelligence, memory, and learning are all wishful thinking.
Fay wants to come down and visit the lab, but I’ve told her not to. All I need now is for Alice and Fay to run into each other. I’ve enough to worry about without that.