MADISON, Wis. Gerry van Earle can remember the first time he agreed to be part of a medical experiment as if it were yesterday, even though it has now been twenty years since he first funded his Friday night beer run with the $25 he earned for his labors. “It was like–I’d discovered a way to make money for doing nothing,” he says with a faraway look in his eyes, “something I’d only dreamed of before.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison
But that dream has turned into a nightmare two decades later, as Gerry finds himself addicted to the little pills that provided him with his supplemental income though his undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. “My friends–I’m down to just two–had an intervention last weekend,” he says ruefully. “I had to admit–I’m hooked on placebos.”
Gerry was unknowingly introduced to the power of placebos–substances that have no known therapeutic effect–as part of a “control group” in a double-blind clinical trial of a pharmaceutical compound designed to cure eczema in household pets. “I had just started reading the existentialists, like Jean-Paul Sartre,” van Earle recalls, “so I was really into the ‘nothing’ part of ‘Being and Nothingness,’” Sartre’s most famous work that people pretend to have read.
Sartre: “I could really go for a little nothingness right now.”
The potent combination of something–money–for nothing, a ”drug” that had no effect on him, set van Earle off on a quest to accomplish as little as possible with his life, leading him to perform graduate work in several irrelevant disciplines, including the History and Philosophy of History and Philosophy and Teleological Hermeneutics, whatever that is.
“We’d hang out and listen to Marcel Marceau albums, or go to concerts and clap with one hand,” he recalls. “It was sort of my zen period.”
Ultimately, van Earle found that he couldn’t go for long–six hours at the most–without taking a placebo, and checked himself into a clinic that offers placebo addicts some hope, handing out real drugs to counter the harrowing effects of pre-packaged sliced cold turkey one experiences during withdrawal from fake drugs.
A ten-day stay put him back on the right track and gave him the determination to kick his habit, even though it wasn’t a real one. “I don’t put anything in my mouth anymore,” he says with a new-found sense of self-respect, “unless I know what it isn’t going to do to me.”