When I was a kid growing up in Hamden, Conn., one thing became clear early on in my schooling: The most rabid delinquents, the drooling psychopaths, among my peers were, in almost every case, either the children of cops or child psychologists.
My own father was a psychologist, but not a child psychologist. He wasn’t even a sit-on-the-couch-and-tell-me-about-your-mother kind of psychologist; he was an experimental psychologist, which meant in his case that he made educated guesses about how people learn and remember things, and then figured out ways to test those theories.
So as I entered adolescence, I was a Caspar Milquetoast among delinquents, having never been quite able to muster up the necessary depravity to indulge in arson or torture small animals (other than my ever-suffering sister).
I was fairly normal as a younger kid — or, if not normal, then at least relatively untroubled. I did have trouble falling asleep at night. Particularly if other people were up and about in the house, I wanted to be part of the action, so I would toss and turn in bed until everyone had settled down.
My dad’s solution to this was pretty typical for a psychologist. He’d give me sleeping pills. Not real ones, of course. He’d feed me the same harmless sugar pills he gave to control groups in his experiments. He even called them by their proper name, figuring it very unlikely I would happen on this principle until at least junior high school.
A few times a year my dad would invite his colleagues (never “buddies” in his world) and a few favorite grad students to the house for dinner and drinks. They’d sit around late into the night, making fun of Freudians and cracking increasingly suggestive jokes around arcane topics such as Skinner and his wife’s box.
Of course it would drive me up the wall, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink with the mingled smells of hors d’oeuvres and cigarettes wafting through the ceiling, punctuated by random eruptions of laughter.
You have to picture the scene here: I creep bleary-eyed down the stairs and enter the living room in my fuzzy slippers and pyjamas. I politely wait for a pause in the conversation and then — in a silent room full of psychologists and grad students — I utter the following words:
“Daddy, I can’t fall asleep. Can I please have a placebo?”