Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.11]

One Saturday that November, I spent an entire day on the living room carpet, styling and restyling my Pretty-Cut-N-Grow doll’s hair and watching TV—Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Wonder Woman, Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, Little House on the Prairie, Eight is Enough, and Three’s Company—in that order. I lost interest when Mom’s shows came on—Charlie’s Angels, M*A*S*H, Barney Miller, and The Carol Burnett Show. I ate Chicken-and-Stars soup with buttered crackers on a TV tray. After dinner, I decided to go down to the basement before it got dark and take Shirley and the Burrhuses some peanut butter. As soon as I stuck the spoon covered with peanut butter into their cages, they each grabbed a pinch off and went to work. When the peanut butter was all gone, Burrhus kept looking at me eagerly. I wondered if maybe he wanted me to put him in the experiment box. Dad said he was “retiring” Burrhus after he repeated his final schedule of reinforcement trial one more time. There was a stack of graph paper on Dad’s desk with carefully drawn lines and scallops. Dad always kept the hopper full of sunflower seeds.

So, I lifted Burrhus out and placed him in the box. He went right over to the lever, stood up, and pushed it down. Good Burrhus. He was such a smart little guy. I loved him. Burrhus fed himself about ten seeds before I looked at the window and noticed it was getting dark outside, which meant it would soon be dark in the basement, too. I reached in quickly to grab Burrhus, and as I did, he turned and bit me hard on the hand. Ouch! It stung and blood began oozing out of two small lines in my skin. Furious at his betrayal, I grabbed Burrhus and squeezed him hard between my hands. He squeaked and tried to scratch his way out. I felt so angry toward him, that before I knew it, I’d turned and thrown him as hard as I could square against the concrete wall behind the stereo.

Horrified, I ran over to get him before he could run and hide somewhere. But when I got to him, he was lying there limp on his side, like a beached whale, one eye looking up at me. My heart burned as I gently scooped him up, petted him, and begged him to be okay.

“I’m so sorry, little guy. Please be okay,” I kept repeating. I waited for him to perk up, but he didn’t.

It suddenly occurred to me that he could die. I cried and cried, petting him and cuddling him to my chest. His eye blinked, but he didn’t move. I remembered from Ice Castles that when a person breaks his neck, he could be paralyzed. I must have broken Burrhus’ neck! I hated myself. Then I thought of Dad and how he would hate me if he knew what I had done. I couldn’t let him know what had really happened. I carefully pulled Burrhus’ metal cage door open and placed him on top of it, with his neck hanging over the side. I could lie to my dad and tell him I accidentally closed the door on his neck. I snuck up the stairs and sat on the couch next to my mom, happy that all the lights in the room were on. She was writing a letter to a friend, watching The Carol Burnett Show. I asked her if I could write a letter to someone too. She handed me a piece of paper and a pen from the end table.

I wrote, “Dear Dad. I am so sorry. I accidentally broke Burrhus’ neck in the cage door. I hope you will still love me.”

As soon as Dad came home the next day, I waited until he was in the bathroom, then I pushed the letter under the door and waited. After five agonizing minutes, Dad opened the door, put me on his lap, and let me cry and cry. I was surprised at how easily he believed my story, my lie. I was relieved, but it felt wrong, too.

I remembered from Sunday school that one of the Ten Commandments was “Thou Shall Not Kill” and that people who broke the Ten Commandments were “evil.” I felt weird inside, like I was naughty and there was something wrong with me. To make matters worse, Christmas was coming. Wouldn’t Santa also find out what I had done? Killing and lying were both terrible. Surely I wouldn’t deserve presents this year. Oh no…when Santa didn’t bring me any, Dad would wonder why and realize that I must have done something bad. Then I’d have to tell him the truth.

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