In 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo hired 18 young people for what was intended to be a two-week experiment: In a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University, he split them into two groups of nine, assigning one to be the guards and the other to be the prisoners. In just six days, the experiment was called off; the conditions for prisoners had deteriorated so rapidly and the randomly chosen guards had so quickly turned to perversely cruel punishments that continuing the simulation was judged to be untenable.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was an instant media sensation and, in the ensuing decades, a cornerstone of psychology education. It was was one of the rare few psychology studies to acquire a household name, along with the Milgram experiment on obedience and Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test. The message of the experiment, as journalist Ben Blum outlined on Medium last year, was politically convenient. The stark result of the simulation, with all it claimed to reveal about our craven lust for power, offered expedient rationales for the Holocaust, as well as a damning indictment of imprisonment as a concept.
“What the Stanford Prison Experiment did,” criminologist Francis Cullen told Blum, “was to say: prisons are not reformable.” (In the end, the study did not prevent the U.S. from pursuing mass incarceration, but the idea of developing humane and reform-minded prisons was left by the wayside.)
The Stanford Prison Experiment made the case for the indignity of incarceration in theatrical style: A dramatically human spectacle ― messy, specific, with one prisoner having a screaming meltdown while guards gleefully brainstormed demeaning rules ― arranged with the clean lines of a physics diagram. It wasn’t the individual guards who were the problem, but a system in which they held power. This alignment of forces creates that result. Simple.
As I was reading Kristen Roupenian’s debut collection, You Know You Want This, I could feel something that it reminded me of knocking around my brain. The thing, I finally realized, was the Stanford Prison Experiment. Her stories are peopled by characters, yes, but the real space is taken up by power dynamics ― and by the dark impulses that can be suppressed or unleashed by them.
“The dissection of privilege and power in 'Cat Person' lay at the heart of its appeal; here was a story unafraid to feel out all the psychological rationales that led to a young woman having sex with an older man she didn’t really want to sleep with.”
No story exemplifies this more neatly than the first in the collection, “Bad Boy,” in which a nameless couple lets their nameless male friend crash on their couch following a breakup. They didn’t like his girlfriend, and are secretly annoyed that he seems taken by surprise by his heartbreak, but they politely offer to let him stay as long as he wants and he matter-of-factly takes them up on it. He becomes something like their child ― they entertain him, nag at him to keep his space clean ― but also a sexual obsession, as they giggle behind their bedroom door over whether he can hear them having sex, and whether it turns him on. They’re giddy with the knowledge that they hold the power in this dynamic. He’s on their turf, at their sufferance; he needs them but they rather wish he was gone.
Eventually, the couple initiates a sexual encounter with their friend, and soon they’re enmeshed in a sort of seat-of-the-pants BDSM triad.
“We made up rules about what he could and couldn’t do, what he could and couldn’t touch,” Roupenian writes. “We were tyrants; we got most of our pleasure from making the rules and changing them and seeing him respond.”
His acquiescence makes them more and more greedy; the more fully they control him, the more they wish to extract from him.
“We loved it, his eagerness to please, and then, slowly, it started to get under our skin. Sexually, it was frustrating, his unerring instinct toward obedience; once we settled into this new pattern there was none of the friction or uncertainty of that first dizzying night…. We were devilishly creative about the punishments, and then they, too, began to escalate.”
The stomach-churning power play does escalate, to a truly macabre conclusion. Why do they end up there? Roupenian seems to suggest that it’s because they could; we only have the most generic outlines of these people and what they want, so the most salient thing about them, as in Zimbardo’s experiment, is the power they hold or don’t hold.
You Know You Want This sold as part of a million-dollar two-book deal last year after her story “Cat Person,” included in the collection, was published in The New Yorker and, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, went supernova, garnering a readership well beyond the usual circle of dedicated New Yorker short fiction fans. The story unfolds over the course of a brief relationship between Margot, a 20-year-old college student, and Robert, a 34-year-old man she meets while working the concession stand at a cinema. They have a text flirtation, then, finally, a date; after the date, she goes back to his place, realizes she doesn’t want to have sex with him, and decides to go through with it anyway. Afterward, embarrassed and uncomfortable, she dodges his texts. He doesn’t take it well.
The dissection of privilege and power in “Cat Person” lay at the heart of its appeal; here was a story unafraid to take on subject matter commonly relegated to unheralded women’s blogs, to feel out all the psychological rationales that led to a young woman having sex with an older man she didn’t really want to sleep with.
One recurrent error in the “Cat Person” discourse was the misapprehension that it was nonfiction. It clearly wasn’t ― one hint: it was told in close third person rather than first ― but something about the story did smack of the personal essay. The story feels observed or remembered in the way much first-person nonfiction is, recounting Margot’s interior soliloquy about her situation rather than fleshing out other aspects of her character. Its focus is fixed on how a man and a woman might interact in a certain common situation rather than on the man or the woman themselves. Roupenian’s characterization is broad enough to feel transparent; identifying with Margot is all the easier because she is so bland, so everywoman ― or at least every-white-woman ― much like Bella Swan.
There is something refreshing about this, to read fiction that speaks in the same shorthand as the nonfiction many of us are already more comfortable reading. The granular, almost-incidental-but-telling details writers tend to ignore or cut out of essays, in the interest of being more relatable and less self-indulgent, are the very things usually deployed to make fiction feel dense and alive. We don’t expect a short story to appear to be making an argument, to have an agenda. We do expect that of an essay, that extraneous data points will be trimmed in order to focus on the point. The urgency this lends to the story is seductive.
Roupenian’s collection also investigates the everyman ― specifically Ted, the protagonist of a story instructively called “The Good Guy.” (One senses that he will turn out to not, in fact, be a Good Guy.) Ted, now in his mid-30s, needs to imagine that he’s stabbing a woman with his dick to stay hard during sex and he hasn’t had a real relationship in years ― though, to be fair, he’s always extremely clear that he doesn’t want anything serious with the hotter, more accomplished women he manages to date.
As the story opens, he’s sweating through a relationship postmortem with Angela, yet another woman who was blindsided by their breakup because he was so nice to her, even though he’d told her at the outset he just wanted something casual. After she throws an entire water glass at his forehead and storms out, he reflects hazily on the teenage romances that brought him to this point: his longtime obsession with a popular hottie who kept him firmly in the friend zone, his half-hearted relationship with a girl who shared his social status and unimpressive looks but still somehow felt beneath him, and his eventual snagging of the ideal beloved only to resent her for seeing him as a safe option.
The story feels diagnostic. The title is just the first textual hint that Ted is a self-mythologizing type familiar from feminist blogs: the Nice Guy (TM). Angela comes in for her own diagnoses from Ted’s view, a woman so desperate for male commitment that she’s tricked herself into believing she loves a man she thinks is “an emotionally stunted man-child.” Roupenian’s main insight here, that Ted and the women he ends up using and cheating on and holding at arm’s length are all crippled by their yearning to be recklessly, self-destructively desired, arrives like a knife to the gut.
Who among us can’t relate? Aren’t we all, when it comes to the heart, selfish beasts?
“At its best, what 'You Know You Want This' contains are less stories of people than diagrams of power differentials at work in the mundane world around us, sketches delineating how desire unchecked can guide us into dark places.”
“Bad Boy” takes this implication of the audience to further extremes by erasing names, occupations, specific habits or quirks, anything extraneous to the sexual horror show at its center. It’s even told in first-person plural. The reader is enfolded, forced to identify with characters who are rapidly careening toward violent crime. “Look what you’ve done,” the couple says to their friend at the end, but the finger seems to be pointing back at us.
“Sardines” enacts a similar play with a single mother and her daughter, Tilly, both victims of the cheating ex-husband, the bullying neighborhood girls, their phony mothers. We’re drawn to pity them, until we’re suddenly confronted with where their own self-pity has led them: At her birthday party, the daughter sets a convoluted trap for her two-faced friends, her absentee father’s mistress, and all her other enemies. “You hate them, right?” she asks her mom, who doesn’t deny it. It’s all Tilly needs to hear.
In “Sardines” and, to a lesser extent, “The Good Guy,” Roupenian swirls magic into her realism; the grotesque consequences of the protagonists’ actions metastasize into hellish tableaux. Her fantastical flourishes, though, fall into two categories: cliché or so nonspecific that I found myself squinting at the page, trying to conjure a vivid image out of a “puddle of sentient, erupting flesh” or a “monster that drools and spasms and suffers and does not tease.” She also dabbles in full-blown fantasy and fairy tale, but the effect is somehow impoverishing rather than liberating. In “Scarred,” a woman conjures the man of her dreams with a spell book only to realize that she must keep him imprisoned, and repeatedly harvest his blood, to perform the rest of the spells. The conceit somehow makes the idea of greed destroying the things one loves almost too literal.
In “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone,” a princess rejects every suitor in the land until she finally falls in love with the perfect man ― who turns out to be merely a mirror and a bucket lashed to an old thigh bone. She’d been enraptured by her own face, her own voice, her own touch. It’s a lot of portentous trimming to illustrate what seems a fairly well-trodden concept: the corrosiveness of narcissism. Nor does the trimming entirely work. I found myself repeatedly distracted by the fact that a thigh bone, even the thigh bone of a horse, would not be as tall as a man ― not to mention that tying a mirror and a bucket to a thigh bone with string sounds nearly impossible. (Perhaps they have handles?)
At its best, what You Know You Want This contains are less stories of people than diagrams of power differentials at work in the mundane world around us, sketches delineating how desire unchecked can guide us into dark places. The stories that land ― like “Cat Person,” “Bad Boy,” and “The Boy in the Pool” ― are realist but unapologetically flashy, aiming right for the throat. Too flashy, even. The dazzle makes them feel true, like a revelation from our own bone-deep knowledge of the world: Maybe power and lust are the only forces governing us. Roupenian seems to be approaching fiction like nonfiction, like a psychological experiment with a result at the end of it.
But it turns out the nonfiction is also, perhaps, fiction. Specifically, the Stanford Prison Experiment, as reported in Blum’s Medium exposé. Only decades after the simulation was conducted did the consensus begin to shift in the face of reports that Zimbardo and his associates had incentivized, even scripted, the guards’ worst cruelties and that one prisoner’s famous mental breakdown was an act. Zimbardo, for one, protests that the experiment does not fundamentally say that “prisoners and guards always or even usually behave the way that they did in the [Stanford Prison Experiment]. Rather, the SPE serves as a cautionary tale of what might happen to any of us if we underestimate the extent to which the power of social roles and external pressures can influence our actions.”
The case he’s making for the work is, fittingly, literary rather than scientific: It’s a story, a moral, a healthy warning.
The best literature, though, like good science, doesn’t belabor the message at the expense of truth. If individual people are more than the sum of the power they hold, more complex than their social status or their brutish desire or even the combination of those two things, the best way to illuminate their inner darkness is to look at it honestly and in full.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Francis Cullen.