|The Story of Emily and Control
||[Apr. 7th, 2011|12:15 am]
There's an old joke about a statistician who had twins. She baptized one, and kept the other as a control. Laugh all you like. It'll never be funny to me. I know the true story.
Yes, that's right. It's a degenerate form of a true story. One that isn't funny at all. One that directly caused both of the worst experiences of my life. Yes, I knew them. So here's their story. Don't you dare laugh.
I first met Emily and Control in college. I was TAing a philosophy course; Control was one of my students. I noticed the name, of course, but this was California and I'd heard weirder; in any case it wasn't polite to mention such things. She proved a model student: bright, diligent, enthusiastic. Was I in love with her even then? Maybe.
The next semester I found myself living in a new building, and when I went to meet the neighbors I spotted Control two doors down from me. I went over to say hello; she didn't recognize me and after a brief confusion admitted she was not Control, but her sister Emily. The two were clearly identical twins - the same meticulously styled long straw-blond hair, the same beautiful smile - even their styles of clothing were alike.
She invited me to come in and talk, and discussion naturally turned to her sister. Emily told me of her mother, a statistician, and how she had been so delighted with identical twins that she had named one Control, supposedly an obscure Eastern European name but in fact an homage to the identical twins and their role in controlled trials. At the time, I found this anecdote quite amusing. I was a bit into statistics myself, and between discussions of her twin sister and of mathematics I left an hour later feeling like I had made a new friend.
Our social circles intersected more and more over the next few months, and I found myself coming to admire the twins more and more. They were still only freshmen, but through social graces and strong personalities they managed to climb the social ladder with deceptive ease. It wasn't just socially, either; Control had passed my philosophy course with the highest GPA in the class, and by all accounts her sister was an equally strong student, as impressive at the humanities as the hard sciences. And call me shallow, but it did not escape my attention that they were two of the most attractive young women I'd ever met. They weren't conventionally attractive, exactly, but there was something about their mannerisms and their style that made them stand out.
One day I let my interest get the better of me. I had a chance meeting with Emily at a cafe, and we were chatting about all the usual random topics, and she said something about some clever interpretation of Aristotle that even I hadn't thought of, and I just said, outright “I don't get it. Some people are pretty, some people are smart, some people are likable. But you and your sister are always the best at everything. It's not even fair. What's your secret? Black magic?”
To my surprise, Emily didn't laugh. She actually looked quite serious. “Well, we don't talk about it much,” she said. “But since you asked - we just try lots of different things and do what works.”
And she proceeded to tell me how from childhood, she and her sister had taken their heritage seriously and started performing randomized controlled trials on themselves. Evidence-based everything. It began when Emily made flashcards to study from and Control thought it was a waste of time. They made a bet: if Emily could get a better score on three consecutive tests, Control would start using flashcards. Three tests later, the evidence was in: Emily did on average four points better. Control started studying off of flashcards. From then on, whenever they had a difficult choice, Emily would try one path, Control would try the other, and after a few months they would compare results.
When they grew older and started getting an interest in boys, they dealt with it the only way they knew how. Emily and Control would go to the same club with different hairstyles, or different fashions, or entirely different acted personalities, and whoever got more invitations to dance would win for the night. Emily cut her hair, Control kept hers long; when Control consistently attracted more interest, Emily grew hers back. And so they conducted experiment after experiment, at school and at clubs and with their friends, growing stronger with each bit of knowledge gained.
It was the best thing I'd ever heard, and I told Emily so. She just laughed and brushed back her hair in a way that had no doubt been perfected over dozens of unwitting test subjects. I had never wanted an identical twin more than I did in that moment.
I won't bore you with the next year, but by the time my senior year came around, my fondest wish had come true: I asked Control out, and she agreed. We dated with varying levels of seriousness all through the beginning of the year. Emily, for her part, had broken character and was seeing a stereotypical biker from the city: oiled hair, black leather jacket, the whole works. Control and I found this hilarious. We mocked him mercilessly, never where Emily could hear, of course, and compared their tempestuous on-again off-again relationship to the more pleasant and stable thing we had going. We were both so happy that it was totally obvious it couldn't last.
I don't really know why our relationship started to deteriorate, except maybe the same reasons almost everyone's relationships eventually deteriorate. It was college. Maybe we weren't ready yet. But there were more and more fights, and they lasted longer and longer, and eventually after twenty minutes of yelling over the phone I shouted something like “Well, if you dislike me that much, maybe you should have gotten yourself a greasy bad boy biker like your sister!”. And then I hung up.
And then I realized, with a sort of oh-my-god-it-was-obvious-all-along insight, that of COURSE she had considered that option. But it wasn't her way just to go for it willy-nilly. Emily and Control had sat down, decided they needed boyfriends, discussed a mutual interest in sketchy leather-jacket wearing motorcyclist types, and then Emily had gone off and found one. And Control, as usual, had sought out a standard for comparison. Someone totally inoffensive and neutral. Me.
I called her up, my hands shaking. “Hello?” she said. I got to the point. “Am I the placebo boyfriend?” I asked her. She hesitated. Right away that told me all that I needed to know.
“So that's all I am to you?” I snarled. “A placebo? A control group for your real boyfriend? Well, experiment is over now. And very successful, by the sound of it. You can't help but do better than the control.” I slammed down the phone.
And an hour later, I was treated to a long and desperate-sounding email from Control. The gist of it was that yes, she had been using me, but I had it all wrong. The experiment had gone the opposite way. Emily hated her boyfriend; she was sticking with him only out of a sense that it would be bad experimental practice to end the study prematurely. She and I had had our quarrels, but overall it had been a good time, and she was going to recommend Emily get a boyfriend just like me. She said all the right things, but by that point I had hardened my heart. I deleted the email and resolved to avoid the sisters from then on.
It proved easier than I thought. Emily and Control, who had once moved through college society with masterful ease, were nowhere to be seen.
I learned why one evening after talking to a mutual friend. Emily had tried to break up with her boyfriend. He hadn't taken it very well. He'd beaten her up, then assaulted her. The hospital said her physical wounds were mostly superficial, but the trauma was harder to heal. I started to hear rumors that she was skipping classes - unthinkable just a few months earlier. Then other rumors, that she'd turned to alcohol. I didn't believe them. She'd been too perfect.
But I ran into her one night at the cafe where we used to hang out. As soon as I saw her, I knew the rumors were true. She looked awful. “Hey,” she told me. She didn't sound too good either.
“Control says she's sorry,” Emily told me, nursing a beer. “She really did like you.”
“I guess I believe that, now,” I said. “But what's done is done. You know, I really respected that science thing of yours. Best idea I ever heard. Seriously. But you can't do that kind of thing when there are people on the other side who'll get hurt. It's, you know, unethical.”
Emily glared. “You think I didn't get hurt myself?” she asked. “But finding someone to settle down with is the most important thing you can do. And you want me to take it on anecdotal evidence? I thought Brad would be good for me. I proved the hypothesis wrong. And it's damned good I did, or else Control might have hooked up with someone like him too, and things would've been worse. Really, the whole thing's your fault.” She spat. “ If you hadn't had your little anti-science tantrum, you and Control would still be together, I'd be looking for someone nice like you, and none of this would've happened.”
“Emily,” I started. I wanted to be mad, but right now I was too worried. “You can still find someone. I know what Brad did to you hurt you bad, but you don't need to do this whole downward spiral thing. Seriously, put away the beer, clean yourself up, and I'll introduce you to some of my friends. You can even make an experiment out of it, if it'll make you happy.”
“It's not about what makes me happy,” said Emily, “it's about the truth. As for whether I should put away the beer, that remains to be seen.” She finished her can. “See you around.”
A few weeks later, I saw her again. Control was drinking with her. I hoped it was just a lapse of standards on her part. The alternative - that Control had deliberately stayed sober while Emily drank, that they had compared results, and that Emily had convinced her sister that alcoholism was the way to go - was really too horrible to contemplate.
Although considering what was to come, the phrase “too horrible to contemplate” really shouldn't be used so lightly.
It was a few days before graduation. I hadn't seen either of the twins in a couple of months. I vaguely felt like I should search them out and say some sort of goodbye before I left the university forever, but things kept getting in the way, and I didn't bother. It was the professor I'd been TAing for who first told me the news.
“You know Emily?” he asked. “The twin sister of that lovely girl Control I had a few years ago? Don't tell anyone yet, but the faculty just got an email about her. Apparently she killed herself. Overdosed on some pills, don't know how she got them. Very sad. And everyone said she was such a nice girl, too.”
I was shocked. I really didn't know what to say. I knew that between her experience with Brad and the alcohol that she'd been in a bad way lately, but I never could have imagined it would come to this. The funeral was the day before graduation. I was there. Control was there too. I don't think we spoke two words to each other. I was in shock. She was obviously in shock. We listened to the pastor go through his empty ritual - ashes to ashes, dust to dust - and then I returned to school for a decidedly joyless graduation. Control was a year behind me; thank goodness she didn't have to endure those two ceremonies juxtaposed in quite that way.
After that I left town pretty quickly. I had a job offer a few hundred miles away, so I took that and soon my memories of college were far behind me. I emailed Control once or twice, expressing my condolences, saying how sorry I was that things didn't work out between us, telling her I was sure she would bounce back. She responded with equal platitudes: she appreciated my concern, she was trying her best. After a little while, even the meaningless formalities of email were abandoned, and we lost touch completely.
It was six months after graduation. I'd heard about a better job offer back in the old college town, so I'd driven down for the weekend to interview. It had gone well, I was fully expecting a call saying I'd got the job, and I stopped off in the old cafe I'd spent so many hours in to get myself some ice cream in celebration.
There at a table in the far corner was Control, intensely focused on something. I went closer; I saw the object of her interest. She was hunched over a Ouija board. She looked up. “Oh!” she said, with a look of surprise. “I didn't know you'd...”
My blood turned to ice.
It was the simplest possible plan. I should have guessed it months before. For “who would bear the whips and scorns of time, but for the dread of something after death?” And so the experimental and control groups had been randomly assigned, and one of them had entered the great beyond, and the other had stayed in this world of suffering, and God help them they were going to compare results.
So of course I fled as fast as my legs could carry me, and of course I never returned, not even to hear if I'd got the job. And of course I deleted Control's number from my phone, blocked her email account, blocked her on Messenger, unfriended her on Facebook, cut off all contact with everyone I knew in college where there was even the remotest chance they knew her. Because that was one experimental result I never wanted to hear.
What if the next morning, I had found Control dead? Then I would know with all the certainty of science that it was better to die than to live; that life was empirically and incontrovertibly pointless, that those who passed away were the lucky ones compared to us condemned to remain on Earth.
And if I saw her the next morning, bright and lively as ever? Oh God, how much worse that would be! It would mean scientific proof that no matter how wearisome and unpleasant life become, what awaited us beyond the grave was far, far worse. It would mean living in fear of an eternity whose content was unknown, but whose dreadfulness was incontrovertible. Let others say that “all knowledge is worth having”; I am far happier not knowing.
So if you ever meet a girl with straw-blond hair and a smile to die for, a bright enthusiastic girl with a penchant for statistics, and maybe you are attracted to her and maybe you aren't, but you think you would like to get to know her better; well, before you ask her name, think for a moment about whether you want to burden of knowledge that will go with it. And if she smiles at you and says her name is Control, and that it's a funny story, then you are lost, and all I ask is that you never tell me how she's doing.