Magazine article The New Yorker

In the Dark

Magazine article The New Yorker

In the Dark

Article excerpt

In the Dark

Amy and Carl (both pseudonyms) had never met before they decided to move in together earlier this year. Amy was a twenty-four-year-old Upper East Sider with a live-in boyfriend, and Carl was a fiftysomething security guard with two kids. What brought them together was the fact that they have lazy eyes--Amy's left, Carl's right.

A neuroscientist, Elizabeth Quinlan, of the University of Maryland, had found a way to treat lazy eyes in rodents by exposing them to an extended period of darkness, after which their brains readjusted to the light, like infants learning to see for the first time. A team led by Quinlan and Ben Backus, of the SUNY College of Optometry, had secured National Institutes of Health funding for a human trial, but, after a search lasting months, Amy and Carl were the only qualified volunteers, aside from a third subject who dropped out after thinking twice about the treatment: living with total strangers, in complete darkness, for ten days.

"I'm worried about waking up and feeling like I'm buried alive," Amy said, as she and Carl settled into their new home, a small apartment in Crown Heights. The research team had unscrewed all the light bulbs, disconnected the gas stove, and blacked out the windows. (The police were notified that there was nothing nefarious afoot.) The faintest hint of light could invalidate the results, so Amy stepped outside to smoke one last cigarette as Backus explained that his team had installed a series of three doors leading into the apartment, so that meals could be delivered without admitting light. There was no scientific precedent for leaving people together in the dark for so long, so Backus had conducted a dry run in the master bedroom of his house, in New Rochelle. "We're not letting them drink any alcohol," he said. "I downed a glass of wine and ended up in the closet." He had been trying to find the bathroom.

Amy and Carl initially faced the same issues as any new roommates--Amy liked the apartment hot; Carl liked it cold--plus those that come with not being able to see. During one dinner, Amy, who is a pescatarian, accidentally forked a piece of chicken off Carl's plate. The apartment had an exercise bike, and games for learning Braille, but Amy, whose boyfriend wasn't thrilled that she was living in the dark with another man, worried about growing restless. …

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