Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.0]

Psychology. The great pseudoscience. A few phenomena explained, a few theories advanced. But no predictions. Because nobody really knows. The tool has not yet been invented that enables scientists to peer into the mind, the personality, the brain, the soul or whatever it is that makes us tick. Until the microscope was invented, man could only speculate about the nature of disease. Until the telescope, we knew nothing of the universe. And until their fantastic gadget does come along, psychologists will remain, in effect, witch doctors.

Donn Pearce (God Is A Variable Interval, Playboy, August, 1972)


 We are all controlled by the world in which we live, and part of that world has been and will be constructed by men. The question is this: Are we to be controlled by accident, by tyrants, or by ourselves in effective cultural design?

The danger of the misuse of power is possibly greater than ever. It is not allayed by disguising the facts. We cannot make wise decisions if we continue to pretend that human behavior is not controlled, or if we refuse to engage in control when valuable results might be forthcoming. Such measures weaken only ourselves, leaving the strength of science to others. The first step in a defense against tyranny is the fullest possible exposure of controlling techniques…

It is no time for self-deception, emotional indulgence, or the assumption of attitudes which are no longer useful. Man is facing a difficult test. He must keep his head now, or he must start again – a long way back.

B.F. Skinner (Freedom and the Control of Men, American Scholar, 1955-56)


This is a work of creative nonfiction. I made every effort to retell these stories in a way that accurately evokes the true feeling and meaning of what occurred, to the extent my memory allowed. In some cases I compressed events, filled in gaps, or made two people into one. All names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved. A very diligent attempt was made to ensure the accuracy of all philosophy, science, and research discussed throughout the book.


Chapter I

B. F. Skinner lived in a box in our basement.

One Saturday afternoon, Dad and I peered expectantly down into the box at him. His whiskers twitched. Stifling a giggle of anticipation, I shifted slightly and jiggled the table. Burrhus froze and flashed a shiny pink eye at me. Dad frowned, put his finger to his lips, looked at his stop watch, and held up five fingers. Burrhus had already been in the box five long minutes—turning some circles and sniffing along the perimeter for the first four.

“Acclimating to the box,” Dad said—a one foot by one foot box with plexi-glass sides and a metal floor he’d constructed from a model and description he’d seen in one of B.F. (Burrhus Fredrick) Skinner’s books. I was worried Burrhus might not “get it” the first time, especially since I’d snuck him some peanut butter earlier. We were supposed to keep him a little hungry.

I held my breath as Burrhus stood up on two legs, turned toward the bar, and rooted in the air for a better whiff. “You can do it, Burrhus,” I thought. He took two tiny steps, stood up on his hind legs again, and stretched forward, whiskers grasping at the air in front of him. At that, Dad squeezed his clicker and released the hopper, which swung down like a pendulum and delivered Burrhus’ reward. Swiftly, Burrhus approached the hopper and reached out both his delicate little paws for the cheese. He then hopped over to a corner of the box, turned his back to my father, and began spinning and nibbling and turning the shrinking hunk of cheese until it disappeared. He watched me with one eye.

“But Dad, he never touched the bar.”

“That’s true, Michelle. But he almost did… his behavior was a ‘successive approximation.’ The odds of him touching it right off the bat are slim. We’ll have to ‘shape up’ his behavior. If we catch him in a behavior that’s close to touching it, he’ll be more likely to move in that direction next time.”

“But how will he know he’s supposed to touch the lever if he can get the food without it?”

“Well, I’ll reinforce only closer and closer approximations to lever pressing for a while, and then when that behavior is strong, I’ll up the ante and make him actually touch it before giving him the food.”

“But that sounds frustrating for Burrhus.”

“Oh Michelle. Don’t feel bad for Burrhus. He’s getting food for learning and will continue working happily. This is like a game for him. He’s not really hungry, you know. He and Burrhus II ‘free-feed’ all they want for the most part. In fact, they overeat with all the snacks we give them. Animals in the wild have to spend energy all day looking for food. Wild rats live at about 75 percent of their free-feeding weight.”

It was true that I got to feed Burrhus I and Burrhus II snacks sometimes. Their favorite was peanut butter, which stuck to the roof of their mouths. I liked to watch their tiny tongues working overtime, dislodging the stuff and licking their naked little fingers clean. It’s also true I sometimes dressed the Burrhuses up in my Barbie dresses, accessorizing to their hot pink eyes. To me, Burrhus was more the subject of a fashion experiment than a psychological one.

“Daddy, what’s the light in the box for?”

“Well, after Burrhus learns to press the bar for food, I want to turn the light on and only reinforce him for pressing the bar when it’s on. It’s called ‘discrimination’ learning. He’ll learn to tell the difference between two stimuli: light on / light off. What do we do when the phone is ringing?”

“Answer it.”

“And when it’s not ringing?”

“We don’t answer it.”

“Right. We’ve been reinforced—with a caller—when we answer a ringing phone.”

“Ah, but nothing happens when we pick up the phone when it’s not ringing.” I picked up the phone and said “hello” just then to be sure. Nope, no one was there.

“Do you want to put Burrhus back for me?”

“Sure, Dad.”

I gently picked Burrhus up, liking the feel of his soft, warm tummy fur on my fingers, and took him over to the cage he shared with Burrhus II and their new pink babies. Burrhus II looked up at me from where she sat, partially on top of her litter, but she didn’t move. Burrhus got a drink from his water bottle and then hopped on his wheel for some exercise.

“Dad, the babies look fuzzier today.”

The tiny albino rats were only five days old. On the day they were born, I was upstairs when I heard one of the Burrhuses squealing. I thought they were fighting again, but when I went downstairs, Burrhus II was by herself in a corner of the cage and little wet, red blobs were oozing out of her. I yelled for Dad who took a look and said, “Ah! She must have been pregnant. She’s having babies.”

“How did the babies get in there?!” I asked.

“Well, females have eggs inside them and males have sperm. So Burrhus’ sperm must have fertilized her eggs and once eggs are fertilized, they grow into baby rats inside the mother’s tummy—inside a bigger sac called a uterus—until they are big enough to come out.”

“But, I don’t see any egg shells.”

“Rat eggs are soft. They’re not like bird eggs.”

“Oh.” I thought for a minute then asked, “How many are there?”

“You count them,” Dad said.

“One, two, three, four, five, six. There are six of them, Dad! How long till they get big?”

“Probably a month or so. Then we’ll take them to the pet store and see if they will take them. We’d also better get a second cage, so Burrhus II doesn’t get pregnant again.”

Now, five days later, the babies’ eyes were almost open. They were cute, and I asked if I could keep one.

“Sure,” Dad said.

“Do I have to name it Burrhus III?”

Chuckling a little, Dad responded, “No, Honey, you can name it whatever you want.”

“Good.” I wanted to name it Shirley, after Shirley Temple.

“Dad, the experiment’s over. Can we listen to our song now?” We couldn’t listen to music during experiments because Dad said Burrhus might associate a piece of the music with his reward.

“Sure, Honey. ‘Lazy Day’ again?”

“Yes! Then ‘Michelle my Bell.’ Wait for me!”

I ran across the cool, gray concrete floor to get my Dorothy Hamill doll, who was permanently attached to a pedestal and frozen in a pirouette, and Railroad Dan the puppet dog, whose bibbed overalls and conductor’s hat were sewn onto him. They were still sitting at the orange and white, plastic flowered table in my toy kitchen in the corner of the basement. By that time, they’d had plenty to eat, so I wiped their mouths and skipped them over to the wooden swing my Dad had hung for me from a beam in the basement ceiling. I pushed off with Dorothy pinned under one arm and Dan cuddled in the other while Dad put the record on and the basement filled with familiar vocals and trance-like chords. I loved The Moody Blues—and The Beatles. So did Dan and Dorothy.

Dad sat down at his huge, gray, metal desk, clicked on his lamp, opened his notebook, and chose a mechanical pencil from his collection. I didn’t have to watch him to know he was recording the date and some notes about Burrhus I’s progress. He reached for a book on his desk shelf and referenced something in it. Although tall bookshelves lined one whole wall of the basement, Dad’s favorite books—all his B. F. Skinner books, as well as Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Watson’s Behaviorism—sat in a neat row on his desk sandwiched between two marble book ends that were shaped like horse heads.

“Dad, what’s a butter sco?”


“In the song, they say ‘wake up for tea and butter sco.’”

“Oh, buttered scones. Those are like biscuits.”

At the end of the song, I reminded Dad to put on “Michelle.” I loved that one because The Beatles sang in a different language, and Dad said that’s where he and Mom got my name. While Dad put the music on, I went over to the marble and leather bar across the room from Dad’s desk and nonchalantly mixed up fake cocktails for Dad, Railroad Dan, and Miss Hamill and delivered them to everyone on a tin serving tray.

After tipping me a quarter and enthusiastically sipping his drink for a bit, Dad turned the music down and said it was “interview time.” I arranged Dan and Dorothy on the swing and climbed up on his lap. He gave me the microphone and pushed the RECORD button.

He cleared his voice. “Okay, young lady. Today’s date is April 14th, 1978. State your name and the day.”

“Michelle Marlene Dean and it’s Saturday.”

“And how old are you?”

“Five and a half.”

“What have you been doing today?”

“Well, today we put Burrhus in the box and he almost pressed the lever.”

“Yes, and what else?”

“Well, Mindy came over and we played cooking with hamburgers and fries.”

“Very interesting indeed. That sounds fun.”

“Can we listen to the recorder now?”

“Not yet. The more you talk into it, the more you’ll have to listen to later. Okay?”

I glanced around the room, looking for material. There were apothecary scales, a collection of hour glasses, a working paper clock that Dad spent months constructing, an assortment of glass paper weights, and a human anatomy model. There were also sets of Chinese and Japanese abacuses, but I didn’t want to mention them because Dad would surely give me more math problems to solve. Then I noticed, on one corner of Dad’s desk, an eight-inch statue of a monkey holding a human skull while sitting on a stack of books.

“Okay. Daddy, what’s that monkey doing up there on those books?”

Dad brought the monkey over and sat it in front of me. I tried to lift it, but it was heavy. “What’s it made of?” I asked.

“Plaster and nickel, I think,” Dad said. “What do you think he’s doing?”

“He’s sitting on books, scratching his head…Hey! He’s holding a skeleton head!”

“That’s called a skull,” Dad said as he tapped it with his fingernail. “That’s what your head looks like under your skin. It’s hard so that it can protect your brain, which is soft.”

“Oh. Whose skull is it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he found it on the ground, picked it up, and is wondering, ‘What in the heck is this crazy thing?’”

I laughed and started fiddling with my shoes. Then I heard footsteps upstairs. “Mom must be up.”

“Yes. Mom’s bowling tonight, so we’ll have to go out for dinner.”

“Can we go to Pizza Hut?” It was the only restaurant in our town where a waitress would come take your order. Plus, they had a small corner booth covered in red velvet that I loved. I hoped it would be empty tonight.

“I suppose.” Dad stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes, as if disgusted by the idea.

We waited downstairs until we heard the front door close and then Dad said, “Will you please sing one of the new songs you learned in school?” He held the microphone to my mouth.

“I suppose,” I said, taking my turn at sticking out my tongue and rolling my eyes.

After three rounds of “Where is Thumbkin?” Dad turned off the recorder so I could listen to the interview and then we went upstairs to get ready for dinner.

We did get the corner booth at Pizza Hut and after returning, I asked Dad if we could go see if “the fountain” was on. We only lived a block from the hospital, which had a fountain near the back door roundabout. We also happened to live directly across the street from the town’s cemetery, so I grabbed Dad’s hand while we headed across our front yard. The air was warm and muggy as I peered into the blackness across the street.

“Daddy, can the ghosts leave the cemetery?”

“Who told you about ghosts?” he said, chuckling.

“Doug Mooney. He’s in my class. He says I’m spooky because of the cemetery and that he’d be scared to live in our house.”

“Oh. That’s silly. There’s really no such thing as ghosts. Have you ever seen one?”


“Well, that’s because they don’t exist. They’re in people’s imaginations and they’re made up on TV with special effects.”

As we got closer to the water tower, which stood on one side of the hospital lot, it loomed larger and larger. Even though it was probably only ten stories high, when I was right next to it, it felt like a space saucer silently hovering above me. It was thrilling and chilling at the same time, and I always pulled dad’s hand hard to run around it, for fear its gravitational force would suck us up and in.

When we got to the fountain, we sat on our bench. Both the lights and the water were turned on tonight. At one end, the lights were red, and at the other they were blue. Lights in the middle shone yellow, so all the colors of the rainbow cycled through the overlapping domes, like scoops of rainbow sherbet. I never tired of watching it because the combinations were always a surprise. We sat there and talked for almost an hour.

“Want a penny for a wish?”

“Sure, Daddy.”

I wished for Burrhus’ babies to grow up fast, and then we raced home. Dad chased me all the way into bed. After we’d both put our pajamas on, Dad came back to tuck me in and asked me to read out loud from my Dick and Jane book. I read my favorite part, where Jane gets a big doll family for her birthday. After that, Dad kissed me good night—four times on each cheek—and left the door cracked.

Alone in the dark, I felt around to organize my stuffed animals. It was Pink Mousie’s night to be cuddled. I counted everyone and discovered someone was missing! White Teddy was on the floor near the foot of my bed. Panic seized me. I’d have to reach over the side of the bed, risking a bite from the monstrous snapping turtle that hid under there in the dark. I’d have to act quickly and silently. Repeating my favorite number “four” for good luck, I slowly crawled on top of my covers and leaned forward to within arms’ reach of Teddy.

Holding my breath, I shot my arm down and back up again and then flung myself back to the middle of the bed and dove under the covers. I checked to make sure Teddy was not hurt or mad at me. He seemed fine, but I felt it was only fair to hug him tightly, even out of turn, next to Mousie tonight. I couldn’t stop thinking that the monster turtle would be mad that I tricked him when he noticed Teddy had disappeared. I could feel my heart beating fast, so I tried to do what Dad told me to do when I got scared in the dark—think of happy, soft, cute things, like bunnies. I thought of an entire field full of beautiful flowers and hopping bunnies. Eventually, my heart stopped pounding and I drifted off to sleep.

Don’t Let the Title Fool You

Before you think this book is all about B. F. Skinner, trust that it’s not. It is first and foremost a personal memoir with many common themes we may all share. In fact, I almost named this book “My Road to Jonah,” because it contains some seriously epic love components. It’s equal parts intellectual and emotional exploration.

I landed on the Skinner title because my greatest influence was my father, who was a devout Skinnerian. I was a highly sensitive and emotional child, and his habit of intellectualizing everything often gave me immediate relief, while causing much cognitive dissonance, and it shaped my inner emotional world “adversely” for a period of time. This story is about me finally breaking out of that logical box to experience the greatest of positive emotions. 

So, if you aren’t interested in Behaviorism, that’s okay – there are numerous other issues explored in detail (experientially and philosophically) throughout the book. Some of these include:

  • Being raised by a single Dad
  • Having a distant mother
  • Feeling like an outsider in a small town
  • Overcoming bullying
  • Living a vibrant childhood with salient memories
  • Being a deeply empathic and sensitive person
  • Coping with a step-parent
  • Going off to college
  • Finding yourself and what you truly believe in [Is there really: free will? a soul? true love? a purpose? life after death? a god?]
  • Experimenting with drugs
  • Attending graduate school
  • Entering and leaving academic jobs
  • Exploring careers in corporate America
  • Deciding whether to have a child
  • Creating a parenting philosophy
  • Getting married, trying to make it work, and getting divorced
  • Having an affair and finding love
  • Seeking meaning and evolution every day
  • Discovering your strengths and weaknesses
  • Learning to love and be loved
  • Trying to live authentically

I hope you’ll read on! – Michelle

Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Final Thoughts]

Final Thoughts

There are many reasons I felt the need to title this book “Life in a Skinner Box.” I’m sure many are apparent, or at least I hope they are. But, there’s one or two I want to state explicitly because they are most important to me. Namely, it pains me to think that some of the most compassionate and brilliant people—such as B.F. Skinner and many of the people I have loved the most—have been misunderstood and misjudged. I simply hoped to tell their stories in a way that shows the value they hold for me and others. In doing so, I hope to inspire people to look deeply into the hearts and minds of others. Those are the places where I’ve found the most joy in life.

Besides that, and especially now that I’m a mother, the kind of behavior we reward in this society bothers me—money, external beauty, power, bullying, status symbols, and the accumulation of material possessions, etc. I’ve seen far too many people equate these things with happiness, and inadvertently teach their children—using rewards, threats, and punishments—to perform for and ultimately desire those same things. However, DO those things really bring happiness? I bet if you asked a small child, they would say they just wanted their parents’ time, attention, and recognition. I know first-hand that the most rewarding experience on the planet is to be captivated in play with someone who loves and enjoys you. Yet, so many people spend their best energy away from their loved ones in order to show their loved ones how much they love them.

For a society that largely repelled Skinner’s philosophies, isn’t it ironic that those are the very people who can’t seem to make themselves jump off the “rat wheel?”







Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.10]

On my drive home I had to wonder…

From each event and relationship in my life prior to Jonah, I learned to appreciate something new about the human condition and acquire some new strength. Once I discovered Jonah’s amazing love, suddenly my whole life—all the pain, all the losses, all the lessons—made sense and felt worth it because they led me to him. I wanted so badly to believe that Jonah was going to love me and add to my life in ways I’d always searched for.

At first, I thought his creative, brilliant, loving brain was just making me up, creating this lovable version of me and all my “worlds.” But perhaps he didn’t create my worth so much as make it visible to me—something I’d never have been able to achieve on my own. My heart expanded in ways I never knew possible. I learned to forgive and accept and give in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I found out how flexible, patient, and understanding I could be. And I discovered how honest and brave I was, along with the honor that inherently exists in my words. So, I’m left transformed. I finally feel lovable. That’s the happy news.

The sad news is that I can’t honestly believe for a second that either of us will feel a love like that ever again. It required a deep mental connection and resonance so powerful we became vulnerable in ways necessary to fully open our hearts for the first time. The beauty we created together with our minds revealed our own souls to us. Our souls then turned physical pleasure into pure ecstasy. So the reality is that losing Jonah has left a painful void. My heart can’t stop loving him. My mind misses the synergy, and my body, well, it has become a stranger to me again.


At least I finally discovered my soul

Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.9]

After a couple months of trying to keep this modified relationship with Jonah together, I finally got truthful with myself and acknowledged that I was miserable with the way things were. I didn’t have the power to fix the problems. Jonah held all the power; he set all the boundaries. And the more I accommodated him, without feeling an equal return, the more I began to resent him. On top of lying to his wife, Jonah was now lying to himself and denying me. This new dissonance was no better than the old dissonance; in fact, it felt much worse. The only way I knew to eliminate it was to end it. So I called Jonah.

I relived the trauma of separation once more. The emptiness fully returned. But, interestingly, I realized I was not grieving for the second-time-around Jonah but for the original one. Knowing I could not change Jonah and that he certainly wasn’t going to change himself, I focused on doing everything I could to accept that it was over. I told myself the old Jonah was gone for good. Jonah had made a choice to “kill” him. It was futile to hold on.

Jonah tried to keep a friendship going with me, and at first, it was too difficult. So I left him alone for two more months and then e-mailed him a brief hello, for no other reason than I missed him. To my surprise, he soon shared that he’d started therapy and was ready to deal with his life honestly. He’d known all along, but finally admitted—out loud to his therapist—that he would never be happy with Amy. He could finally see value in his own happiness and was now ready to explore the possibility of divorce. Jonah knew he needed to evolve for his own sanity. He was just scared and needed time.

I was hopeful. He seemed willing to take more risks, explore different solutions. Repeatedly, HE asked ME to wait for him, and he declared with new gravity, “It’s painful because I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that I’m going to hurt some people. But, Michelle, it’s not a matter of if I’m leaving, it’s when. You are the love of my life. I have realized how critical you are to my happiness. And how critical I am to yours. Life is too short as it is, and I don’t want to spend years of it without you. I just need to get through this period. Then we can begin our lives together, my Love. Please bear with me. I just need to figure out a way to disentangle with the least amount of damage to my kids.”

Not only did Jonah’s words change, but so did his behavior. He stopped exercising any restraint. He made himself available to me again at all times. And instead of keeping a safe distance, he began calling to hear my voice and he insisted we Skype for the first time. As emotions escalated, so did our desire. Our compulsion to see each other reached epic proportions. He suggested we meet soon and arranged for Amy to extend their upcoming vacation in California with the kids while Jonah returned a few days early for “work.” I saw glimmers of the original Jonah, and it felt like his loyalties had shifted back to me again.

The weeks prior to meeting were grueling and difficult for both of us. There was a mess of lust, love, anticipation, and fear always right under the surface of our interactions…we were almost burned-out when the day finally came. Seeing him again was a mix of relief and turbulence. I just wanted the ache I’d been living with for so long to stop, like it had when we were together on our last overnight. But this time it didn’t. It lingered in the room with us. I felt intense love and desire in my head—I’m sure I did—but my body felt tight and my heart was heavy. All I wanted to do was crawl under the covers, smoosh as close to him as humanly possible, bury my face in his neck, and just soak in his furry warm aliveness. I desired him sexually but couldn’t let go enough to enjoy myself. Were there walls in the room with us? Inside me again? I apologized. He said he understood.

The next morning, we were awakened by his cell phone. Amy had called to request that he pick up something from a local shop in the town where she thought he was visiting, a place four hours away from where we actually were. Jonah turned white and hung up the phone. I think he knew deep down his wife may have suspected an affair. He couldn’t help thinking this was her way of gathering evidence. I could tell he was rattled. We walked a few blocks for breakfast and Jonah couldn’t eat. On the walk back to the hotel, Jonah stopped three times to vomit. By the time we were back at the hotel, he was in a full-blown panic attack, choking on rising bile about every ten minutes. He was torn in two again. For a few hours I tried to calm him, problem solve with him, address issues in a way that might help him feel okay but still get at some truth we could build on. But…he was beyond repair.

He had spiraled into a place of sheer dismay, repeating over and over how terrified he was of hurting his children. I sensed his terror of Amy, too, although that wasn’t spoken. He was simply unwilling to conceive that divorce—and especially divorce from Amy—could ever produce anything but a disastrous outcome for his kids.

It became apparent to me after a while that I’d tried everything I could think of. I’d dug as deeply as I knew how to dig. I didn’t know how to get traction and still allow Jonah to be in control of his destiny. There was nothing left for me to say or do that could bring him to me and away from his family of his own volition, and that’s how it HAD to be done—without coercion from me. It was also apparent that Jonah couldn’t handle continuing our affair either. So, once again, I steeled myself and pushed to end things—but less gingerly this time because the presence of something new was in the room with us, the clarity (or maybe acceptance on my part) that Jonah truly did not possess the ability to ever leave his wife.

I thought I’d sensed the evolution necessary for him to come to that place, a place of action, a place I thought he’d already come to on his own terms because he truly believed it was what was best for everyone in the end. But if I was honest, I was only fooling myself. No matter what I said or how hard I loved him, Jonah simply couldn’t value having happiness for himself if it came at the perceived expense of others’. The tradeoff was too big. And I had to admit he didn’t value me enough, either, to go down that difficult road. I needed to face facts that as much as he said he loved me and couldn’t live without me, I was the one he was choosing to hurt. At the end of the day, his loyalties were clearly, understandably, but regrettably somewhere else.

The worst realization of all for me was this: somewhere along the way, long before this visit, I had stopped believing Jonah’s words. Hundreds of expressions of love had passed between us, but because I took great pains to align my actions to support my words, Jonah could count on the truth I spoke—150 percent. It’s not that I thought Jonah ever deliberately deceived me. I genuinely believed he always spoke the truth as he was capable of perceiving it. But something was deeply amiss or this moment wouldn’t be happening. Intentional or unintentional, Jonah had been reckless with our emotions, and I could no longer have unequivocal trust in him. I needed to let go of the fact that even though I’d given all the unconditional love I’d learned to give, it simply wasn’t enough. I needed to let go of Jonah. I couldn’t stand to look at his face while I packed to leave—the pain of self-entrapment and martyrdom—is so very sad to see.

Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.8]

Not long after our visit, it became increasingly clear to me that I wasn’t going to be nearly as brave or strong as I’d like to be “waiting” for Jonah to leave his wife. I justified our situation like hell to myself with all the logic and grace I could muster. I tried to tell myself that we each had our own journey to travel. I so desperately wanted him to come to me on his own time and terms. I wanted no part in controlling it. I only wanted to be in his life and to be what he needed. I thought I could endure just about anything with him.

But no matter what games I played with my head, I couldn’t stop the pain. I yearned for him and for contact with him constantly, yet there were simply times he couldn’t be available when I would have liked. There were times, like when he traveled with Amy over the holidays, we got painfully “out of synch” emotionally, and without good opportunity to sit and resolve things face-to-face, I felt insecure at times that the distance was taking its toll on us. Feelings of hatred grew in my stomach for Amy. Moreover, feeling dissonant all the time was starting to take its toll on my relationship with Jax. Distractible, antsy, and always stuffing my emotions made it difficult for me to engage with Jax the way I always had. I was becoming someone I didn’t like. Something had to give.

Still, I knew his kids didn’t deserve to be a casualty of our affair. There were other—innocent—lives at stake. Would I want the kind of man who would abandon or shirk his responsibilities as a father? Part of why I loved Jonah was that thing in him that caused him to put others before himself, to delay his own gratification, to sacrifice his happiness for the people he’d made commitments to. Admittedly, his own lack of self-worth had often resulted in him doing this to a fault, but still. I mean, how were we supposed to make this work? Would I uproot Jax, take him away from his father and grandparents, take him out of his small Montessori community and support system and put him in a new school when he’s utterly thriving in so many respects? Do I quit the job it’s taken me years to find, the job I love, the one that allows me to grow and thrive? Is it fair to expect Jonah to quit his job, ruin the financial security he’d struggled to build for over a decade for his wife and kids, and relocate someplace that was a five-hour drive away from his children, knowing he would be totally miserable without them in his daily life, knowing he would be tortured without them?

The “un-workability” of the situation became more and more apparent to both of us and the reality of waiting YEARS set in and began taking its toll. I attempted to bargain for a compromise. Was there a way for Jax and me to remain where we were and for Jonah to stay in his town, at his job, close to his family, but find a way to divorce Amy so that he and I could at least be free to talk on the phone, visit on the weekends, take the occasional vacation, spend a holiday together once in a while? I tried for months to get Zen and just float. But I kept sinking…and panicking. I felt my sanity slipping; I was split in two and hovering above myself again—dissociated.

Jonah and I engaged in a series of intense chats about the future. Ending his marriage seemed so complicated because, unlike Chris, Amy would not try to make things pleasant. Nor would her family. In fact, outright hostility and nasty legal battles over financials and child custody would most likely ensue. And, whereas in my divorce, I would get primary custody of Jax, Jonah would most likely not get to see his kids every day. The more clear it became that Jonah was going to have to “choose,” the more he unraveled. I spoke with him on a Friday, and he said he felt like he was coming down with the flu. By Monday, he was vomiting blood.

This affair—lying to his wife, compromising his values, living without me, knowing he was tearing me in two, fearing he would hurt his children—had given him a bleeding peptic ulcer, and it was rupturing. I could hear the pain in his voice and sense it in his written words. He told me he felt he was hovering above an “abyss,” a deep, dark one in which he could look down and see his tiny kids looking up at him. He admitted to wishing they were all grown up, to actually resenting them. Amy had recently had a mild heart attack, and he confessed to feeling a “horrible pang of hope for us” when she did. He was tortured. It was unbearable. In a sacrificial offering, I steeled myself and gingerly pushed to end things, unsure of whether I was really doing the right thing. He resisted for a while, but then out of sheer exhaustion and a desire to end the pain, he accepted my offer. We tried to say good-bye.


I cracked into a thousand pieces. I instantly regretted ending things. I was baffled that he could just shut down the “power-grid” and leave me standing alone in the blackness like that. The feeling of total abandonment was ferocious and came in waves throughout the day. Each one choked the breath out of me. The extraction of Jonah’s soul from mine obliterated every cell in my body. I couldn’t perceive my life force anymore. I lived in a haze. I dropped fifteen more pounds. For a month each night, I woke up around 3 a.m. gasping, sobbing, with instant, unstoppable tears, and would find myself running toward the floor of my closet, crawling to the back under my winter coats, curling into a ball in an attempt to keep my guts together. I wept and moaned and shook.

My first strategy of coping involved trying to stay connected to Jonah somehow. I listened to our music and reread our conversations. I carried his book around with me, randomly reading little excerpts to touch him somehow. I wrote to Jonah often, first in denial, then trying to bargain, then trying to accept. I told him I was prepared to wait if he’d let me. I no longer cared how long that would be. Jonah replied to my e-mails—gently, kindly—telling me he still loved me as intensely as he always had, that a love like ours was forever, and that nothing had changed. I was still the love of his life. I still had his heart and soul. He’d just realized that he didn’t have it in him to live a double life anymore or hurt his children. He was fully prepared to sacrifice his own happiness for theirs.

So, my second strategy involved telling myself he didn’t exist, that I hated his guts for betraying me, and that I didn’t want him anymore because he’d lost his mind. I forced myself to leave him alone and pretend he never existed. Then, after a month without contact, I reached out. Within forty-eight short hours, the affair was back on. Jonah divulged that his strategy of telling himself he didn’t need me wasn’t working. He was as miserable as I was. He said he felt dead inside and wanted me back in his life, that lying to himself was worse than lying to Amy. He didn’t want to lose me again. He couldn’t bear the thought of life without me. When I asked how he would handle the dissonance when it returned, he had rationalized to himself that as long as he and I kept the affair strictly virtual and eliminated all physical contact, he wouldn’t hate himself so much for “cheating.” Of course, I knew this was a lie as well as a very powerful form of self-deception on Jonah’s part. But I also wanted the pain to be over, so I selfishly reengaged in the affair and tried to pick up where we left off.

But something was different. I detected restraint in Jonah this time. He wasn’t as communicative and didn’t make himself as available to me. I initiated most of our interactions. I tried to wait for him to reach out, but the intervals between contact were much longer than before, and sitting in that space of insecurity, wondering how he could block me out of his daily life at times, caused me pain and had me climbing the walls. I spent 90 percent of my consciousness regulating my emotions.

I tried so hard to do everything right this time and not put any pressure on him at all. I tried to open my heart and mind and body again, but I didn’t feel equal reciprocity, so our souls didn’t meet in that secret place anymore. I could see how Jonah was the limiting factor in this. He had convinced himself he was content just having any little part of me. He refused to allow himself to want all of me. That way, he could keep his commitments to his family, but not lose me. He said he was afraid of ending up on that precipice again—that place where he was terrified of breaking up his family. I went from feeling like I was at the center of his world to feeling like a satellite. I told myself I was satisfied with this and that his mere return should prove the love hadn’t gone away—and a part of me was happier. I just didn’t yet fully understand how deeply his betrayal had crushed me and that some of the damage couldn’t be undone.

Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.7]

The pain was getting to Jonah, too. A few days later, I received this email.

To: Me

From: Jonah

Subject: Destination

I can’t really explain what’s going on in my head right now except to say that I’m only recently realizing how unhappy I’ve been at home and in my marriage. There were perennial issues that weren’t getting better, and probably never will. I feel like I’ve been denying or downplaying it for a long time, and now, a lot of it is finally surfacing. This isn’t your fault or the result of whatever it is that we are, so please don’t feel bad about that. You and I probably just accelerated an inevitable process of realization, and that’s not a bad thing. If anything, I’m just being more honest with myself now.

Your situation and mine are similar in a lot of respects, and very different in others. I had never come to the conclusion that mine was over and dead as you had. Perhaps I never put the thought into it, perhaps I lacked the courage to do what you did, and perhaps, as I’ve said, I just thought, “Well, this is as good as it gets, and life’s not perfect, and there are lots of people who have it worse off than you do, so just soldier through it, and there are other things in life—friendships, kids, books, experiences—where you’ll get some joy out of life.” I wasn’t planning on getting out of it any time soon, if ever. I had a sort of vague idea in the future of not being with her, but nothing more than that.

And then you came into my life.

And I know you are farther along in ending things with Chris. But, I’m not in that place with Amy yet. I’ve had two discussions with her, neither of them went anywhere or came to any kind of conclusion. I think she’s just fine being in a shitty marriage so long as it doesn’t mess with her status quo. Once again, it just reinforces the idea that I don’t matter to her and that she couldn’t care less. I mean, I don’t wish her any harm and she will always be the mother of my children, and thus deserving of my regard and consideration, but at the end of the day, she doesn’t, I think, have any regard for me, any loyalty to me, or any affection for me. And you just can’t force someone to have that, or threaten them into having that.

I can imagine that you want (and deserve) some kind of commitment and some kind of timeline, and some kind of hope. Something concrete. And I’m sorry if I can’t provide that to you right now beyond something nebulous, because I simply don’t know. I am torn. Horribly. I love you more than I thought it was possible to love another human being this way, and I think you know both the genuineness and the depth of my feeling. And yes, I want to be with you in every sense of the word. But on the other hand, I have a life here, and you have one there. And turning that life upside down, pulling my family apart, basically knocking down all the foundations of everything that I have—EVERYTHING that I have—is a huge undertaking, and something that I just don’t know how or when it’s going to work out.

But the more honest I become, the more I must admit that I’m not happy here, it’s not going to get better, and in so many ways, I’ve been living a lie, haven’t I? I’ve been playing a role.

Point being, I’m not going to worry about destiny and whether this is fated. I’m going to destine it myself, somehow, if you’re willing to do it with me. So, it’s not a question of if. It’s the questions of when and how.

I can’t see the road ahead, yet. I’m sorry I have no idea what the journey will look like, I only know what the destination looks like. But, please don’t worry, Love. What has become clear to me is this… we only get one shot at life, to have the chance to be happy and to give that, truly, to someone else. If I make you happy and bring you joy…that’s the reciprocity I’ve only ever found with you.

Just know that I love you passionately. I really, honestly, genuinely do. And you know that, I hope. I hope you know how very secure in my heart you are.

To: Jonah

From: Me

Subject: Permanent Resident

I want to start by saying something I’ve failed to say explicitly regarding your children. I do understand you absolutely love and adore them. In many ways, they are your reason for living and the result of all the living you have done to this point. They bring a higher purpose, beauty, fulfillment, and joy into the world, and more specifically into your world. You would long for them as people if they weren’t with you. Leaving them would crush your spirit worse, fill you with regret and remorse. You know it’s your duty and obligation to suffer and sacrifice for them. “Don’t have kids if you aren’t willing to put them first…their happiness before your own.”

I know you would do anything to protect them and bring them as much joy as possible. They are very young and need you enormously right now. I get why you can’t leave now. I really do. I get it more than you know. And I respect you tremendously for it. I would not for one second want you to feel genuine regret or remorse from thoughts that your actions were truly damaging them. I can see that these are qualities in you that should be cherished, adored, loved, admired, respected, and protected. I know with everything I am that these qualities are beyond admirable and you have them in spades. And this makes you utterly lovable.

I was just trying to imagine you not in my life…and it’s completely impossible. You are a permanent fixture. There is waiting and there’s not. I must wait to have you in every way, but I can have you now in ways already beyond my wildest dreams. I couldn’t not wait if I tried. You are critical to me. I don’t know how you could possibly go away. You are inside me and so dear to me, and when I do the math…the pain of losing you is much greater than the agony of waiting.

Please know I live for the day I can be with you to hear firsthand how the world and everyone in it gets filtered through that unbelievable and beautiful mind of yours.

Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 7.6]

Jonah and I planned another visit, a longer, more private one. We were going to meet in a college town midway between where we both lived. A very good professor friend of his at the university served as his alibi.

In spite of my extreme anticipation, I slept soundly and awoke before my alarm, cozy and relaxed. Remembering the day, I waited for the rush of butterflies to come alive inside me. The house was quiet, and warm heat from the furnace hovered above me. How did the cat know I was awake? I hadn’t moved a muscle yet. But there he was, purring and creeping up the bed in gentle pursuit of me. He nestled into my chest as I sank my fingers into his thick gray coat. I didn’t even care that I was the object of his affection simply because he associated me with breakfast. He was good at faking genuine adoration, and I loved him for it. We had an understanding.

It was best to stick with my plan to leave while Jax and Chris—who hadn’t yet found an apartment—were still sleeping. Selfishly, I wanted to enjoy the morning without distraction. It was going to be too taxing hiding my simultaneous enthusiasm and guilt. I’d been doing a hell of a lot of that lately.

The cat and I followed the typical morning ritual with focus, gracefully buffering the sound of every move we made. Showered and dressed, I tiptoed down the stairs to put on my makeup and dry my hair. I’d get breakfast later. Bag packed and in my car, I left a note saying I’d left early and would see them both tomorrow afternoon. I disengaged the automatic garage door opener and slid the door up. If I woke anyone, they didn’t let me know.

I was on the road. It was still dark, and I suddenly felt a pang of aloneness. How often had I left them home alone? Maybe a handful of times. In rushed the guilt when I thought of their faces, still asleep in bed. I put a Mazzy Star CD in the car stereo and I “flicked the switch.” I allowed myself to think of Jonah, to search in my mind for the place I can only go to—have only ever been able to go to—with him.

Jonah was waiting at the hotel for me. I knocked on the door and there we stood, six inches apart. He took my hand and walked me over to the couch. We were both shaking so badly it made us laugh. “I just want to look at you,” was the first thing he said. The spatial barrier between us wouldn’t do, so I kicked my shoes off and crawled onto his lap. We hugged until our breathing returned to normal. “God, you’re so beautiful,” was the second thing he said. The smell of his neck made me woozy. We kissed long and softly until the room was spinning.

I can’t remember how we got there, but things came into focus and we were lying down facing each other on the bed, him slightly on top of me. He was pushing the hair off my face with one hand and exploring me gently with the other. His hands were at least ten degrees hotter than mine, and wherever he placed them on my skin an electric current shot through me. He kept looking directly into my eyes. I’m sure he could tell I was beside myself. He moved his hand down to my groin and said softly, “Just feeling your body so close to mine is blowing my mind.”

“Oh, Jonah…I can’t breathe or move while you touch me.”

“I can’t get enough of you, Michelle. My body is overtaken with heat and light and desire for you. I love touching you, running my hands over your skin…it turns me on to touch you as much as it does to be touched.”

Rush after rush of heat welled up in me.

“Please, Jonah. I’ll do anything. What would you like me to do?”

“Nothing. Stay where you are.” He kissed me long and hard. His mouth was so sensual. “Feel me adoring you, worshipping you.”

“All I can feel is desire. The rest of me doesn’t exist.”

“Oh the rest of you exists, Love. Let that warmth move through you.”

Then, running his finger up my neck to my lips, he said, “God, Doll, I love feeling how you want me. I love the little moans deep in your throat.”

I put his finger in my mouth and sucked it softly, which just made me moan harder. He put his hand on my breast and whispered, “These are perfect.”

I was hazy. My eyes were watering. “You are ecstasy in my veins,” I purred.

He grinned, leaned onto me a little more, and slid his hand back down my stomach and under my waistband.

“Oh Jonah. What are you going to do to me?”

“Open your legs to me.”

I opened them and shuddered. “Jonah. It’s too much.”

Knowing he had complete control over me, he said, “Too bad if it’s too much. It’s what I feel like doing.”

“But…I…can’t…breathe.” I could only keep trembling and moaning.

He gazed straight into my eyes and continued to kiss me, his tongue deep in my mouth. He grabbed my breast with his free hand and whispered into my ear, “Come for me, little Love. Soak the sheets for me,” and that’s when I lost control of my body completely. All I could see were flashes of white light. All I could feel was pleasure. It lasted and lasted, while he whispered “I love you” over and over. It was all too much. I couldn’t help but weep, weep for Jonah, who tenderly kissed the tears off my cheeks.

Jonah and I left the hotel for a brief excursion that day, although I couldn’t seem to get physically close enough to him ever. If he had a pouch, I’d have curled up in it. It hit me that being with him this way was the first time the ache had stopped. We never lost eye contact and the conversation at dinner seemed like a dream, like we were still making love. I could sense the desire in every word he spoke. The intimacy was almost overwhelming, certainly not something I was used to, but I didn’t allow myself to break the connection, so my feelings grew more intense. He sat across from me and poured out his heart.

“I’m soaking in every detail of you. Every one. Here there are no veils, no filters, no electronic connectors. Just you…and me. And, just looking at you is enough to give me more physical pleasure than I’ve ever had. I want to be the only person you’re naked with. Emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, physically. You’re just so goddamn genuine and real and desirable in every way.”

“But, Jonah…I’m really not. I mean I’m…”

“Hussssssssssshhhhhhhhhh, Kitten…just let me enjoy it.”


“I’m not even sure how to describe it. It’s like you’re a little sun or something. You’re this vibrant, life-giving entity. Even if you didn’t love me and none of this was happening, I would still just be fascinated with you. Like a painting or a book. There is something about you—and god knows I can’t even begin to put it into words—that is mesmerizing, captivating, magnetic.”

“Oh Jonah. Your words. I’m just in awe…because of how much I admire and adore you. You are a work of art to me, too. I can’t get enough of you. I kept drawing you into me until I had to stop. You are so sweet and pure. You make me feel so loved down to the core…I think there were times earlier I forgot I was even in a body.”

“Seeing you naked, my god. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. Even watching you get a glass of water was like hearing a symphony.”

“Sweetie, knowing my body gives you pleasure like this thrills me to pieces. Jonah? You know how you say I have all these layers? Well, I think your mind has the ability to and actually creates them. Like one day you turn me into a cathedral…and another day you make me funky. YOU create my depth and complexity with your ability to make metaphors. You can churn something small over and make it into something with greater meaning and fascination. It’s like when you describe us from a spiritual perspective or you turn your fingering me into an expression of love for me.”

“Well, YOUR ability to interject significance into things and examine things from so many angles…well…you keep generating new meaning in ways that keep things fresh and surprising for me, too. And, trust me, Michelle, not everyone is as many layered or complex as you.”

“Well, Jonah, I’m definitely in awe of how your mind works. It’s got a transformative mechanism in it or something, and it turns me on beyond belief. There are so many other examples…but you really are metaphorical. And every time you create metaphors out of our shared experience, it creates some kind of shared ‘inter-subjectivity’ or something between us that gives us our own completely unique world. I’m not freaking you out or anything, am I?”

“Honey, you don’t freak me out! This is why I love you. Forget about my brain. This is why I love you, your intellect. But, I think I get what you’re saying…it’s like you and I are creating our own secret world with its own sort of…myth?”

“Yeah. I find myself using the word ‘spiritual’ a lot with you. And I’m the least spiritual person I know. There are so many things I’ve felt with you that I can’t explain, like those ‘cosmic’ orgasms you can talk me into. And I find myself connected to you in a way so beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in my own body that I needed a term like soul to explain it. I guess that’s human nature… to mystify things we can’t explain, hmm?”

Back in the room, Jonah kept taking over my body and pleasuring it. There were no walls within me anymore and certainly none between us. He kept me filled and overflowing with love and desire. I’d never experienced such a combination of emotional, mental, and sensorial stimulation. I begged him and begged him for more. I fell madly in love with his penis. He taught me how to pleasure it. I felt deep affection toward it. It was a part of Jonah and yet became a separate, complex entity with its own identity. I wanted to understand everything about it. My lust for it felt rabid.

And I wanted Jonah sick with desire too. I wanted him gritting his teeth. At one point, he gently ran his erection up and down and all over my skin. It was so erotic I almost came.

“Please. I need you inside me this very instant,” I ordered.

“Ask me nicely.”

“No! Don’t you dare deny me! I need to feel you. Now. I’m dying. You’re cruel.”

“I said, ‘Ask me nicely.’”

I tried to just pull him into me, but he held strong and said, “You think you’re going to just take me like that? I said, ‘Ask me nicely,’ Love.”

In my most enticing voice, I complimented his penis then said, “Jooonnnaahhh. Please.”

“Hmmmm. Not yet, Love.”

“Damnit, Jonah! Thrust yourself inside me right now!”

He slowly pushed himself in.

“He’s never been so big for you…can you take him?”

“Fuck me and find out!”

He inhaled deeply and said, “God, your lust is intoxicating.” Then he rolled his eyes and finally thrust himself deep inside me. “Being in you is heaven. You are the most desirable woman on the planet. I’m insatiable for you. God, I want you filling every sense of me, so I can’t see or hear or taste or feel anything but you.”

He filled me up entirely and made several long, hard strokes. Then he just stopped while he was deep inside me and told me to lie still. He kissed me passionately then whispered in my ear, “Seeing you naked for the first time was the most heartbreakingly beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Honey, my desire for you is inextricably bound up with my emotions. I can’t desire your body without wanting your sweet soul too. I never think of ‘having you.’ I think of you having me. I don’t think of taking you, I think of giving myself.”

I squeezed him as tightly as I could with everything I had and at that instant, I felt completely sucked into him. Like he’d invited me completely inside. My soul fused entirely with his. With one more thrust, we came and came together.

Needless to say, we didn’t sleep much. We were in and out of a dream. I woke up to his fingers gently massaging and probing. We made love, and then I fell back asleep with him inside me. I memorized the rhythm of his heartbeats and basked in his warm, furry chest. He was the most alive thing I’d ever felt. In the morning, we took a shower and I marveled at how beautiful he looked wet and how soft and vulnerable his penis was in my soapy hands…until it wasn’t any more, and we hopped back in bed.

A few hours before we separated, I felt the ache coming back. Neither of us said much. We just clung to each other. Saying good-bye shattered me. Seeing him drive away tore me in two. He called within minutes and we talked until we both got back home. The absence of him was the worst, the sharpest pain I’d ever felt. Damn. Instead of an ache, there was now an ache and pain. I wasn’t sure how I would survive.