When Lena Johnson is invited to participate in a research study that will pay all her bills and provide for a future that is beyond comfortable, it is an impossible offer to pass up. A college student whose grandmother passed away leaving a pile of medical bills, and whose mother, Deziree, suffers from a mysterious health condition that requires expensive care, Lena jumps at the chance to help contribute to the family’s survival.
But she quickly discovers that the experiments conducted at the research facility, located in a small midwestern town called Lakewood, are of a deeply strange and violent nature. Furthermore, all participants in the study are people of colour, whereas the researchers and observers are white.
In this deeply troubling novel, the treatment of marginalized peoples throughout American history is continually evoked, in particular, emphasizing the ways that black bodies have served, intangibly, as the site of exoticization and othering, and concretely, as subjects of violence.
The Great Lakes Shipping Company, the organization which operates the experiments, bestows a fake life upon Lena, to provide a front on those rare occasions that she is permitted to speak with her loved ones. Each day she receives a brief explanation of how she spent her time. In this fake life she learns Microsoft Excel, receives leadership training, and becomes involved in small office spats (who stole whose yogurt, and the like), while in her real everyday experiences, as a research subject, she undergoes various forms of torture, psychological and physical, while being forced to take round after round of mysterious pills. The most disquieting fact of all remains that no one who participates in these studies–not only its subjects but also a significant portion of those performing them–has any idea what the expected outcomes are, or what benefits they hope to provide.
In this double life, one cannot help but notice the way that society and various media create false narratives for individuals that gloss over the actual state of certain oppressed groups. There is something in this juxtaposition that seems to evoke the dichotomy between the individual black woman who has managed to achieve success (a false story that is given to her by a group of white scientists who hold power over her) and the collective violence against a group of marginalized people who are fighting for their lives.
This is not to imply that the individual success if false and the collective violence true. More that behind every story of individual achievement from someone within an oppressed group, lies the collective portrait of a people who are still very much in danger.
This dichotomy could also be explored in terms of the American Dream. Lena has been given a false account of the American Dream–a steady office job with benefits that allows her to support her family–that she is meant to share publicly, while, in fact, she is made to undergo unspeakable torture, which no one outside of the experiment can know about, in order to win compensation that will also allow her to provide for her future. That is, if she does not die in the process. The latter is, of course, a perversion–but an accurate one–of the same American Dream, and one that is often undergone by marginalized individuals, with devastating results. While that false story of success is spread around publicly in the form of individual stories, that very real collective struggle is always hidden behind it.
The book’s great strength is in the way it renders the struggles of African-Americans, black women in particular, into a narrative space that is utterly familiar, while reading in some ways like a dystopian fiction.
In this way, it felt very similar to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, though the setting was quite different. Much like Whitehead’s choosing certain horrific incidents within the enslaved South to magnify and place in close proximity, Giddings picks out various historical threads–violence against black people, medical experiments like Tuskegee, coveting of white beauty leading to shame and self harm, unsafe water sources, poverty and lack of healthcare–and puts them under a lens that is the Lakewood facility and community.
When Lena attends an informational session about why she should agree to join the experiment, the rhetoric of those in charge focuses on patriotism and doing one’s duty by submitting to a variety of tests that will help improve life for all citizens.
While we often enjoy referring to America, and its modern democracy, as the “great experiment” (following Alexis de Tocqueville, or more accurately, Tocqueville’s translators), this book takes the metaphor literally and bluntly points out which populations that great experiment is being performed upon.
Giddings has captured the dark spirit of this age in a way that reflects the desperation of some and apathy of others. Yet, she has also given us characters to believe in, strong women who, though they suffer their traumas–sometimes silently, sometimes with great passion–are still fighting for their lives.
It is a strong debut that deftly walks the fine line between dystopian genre-driven and more traditional literary fiction. Everything in it that is outlandish is also completely possible. Lena’s story is horrific, and yet it would not sound terribly surprising on the news.