21 Grams: A Story About My Soul

by: Andrew Marikis

Dr. Duncan McDougall was a scientist. In 1907 he performed a seminal experiment that has or should have shaped how we think about the human soul. He wanted to know if, “the psychic functions continue to exist as a separate individuality or personality after the death of the brain and body.”

Here’s what he did: he laid terminally ill patients on beds with scales in them and he and his hunchbacked assistant[1] went bed to bed keeping track of the weights of each patient as they died. Their conclusion: “we certainly have an inexplicable loss of weight of ¾ of an ounce” at the moment of death. That’s twenty-one grams.

“Is the soul a substance,” asks the doctor, “how other shall we explain it?”[2]

Twenty-one grams – like the Sean Penn movie – twenty-one grams; the weight of the soul.

Here’s a story about my soul.

It starts when my mom becomes a Methodist minister. We have to move to the parsonage of her new church in Tiny Town [3] forty five minutes outside of our current suburb of Cleveland, OH. I leave my friends, my theatre and my sense of self-worth to go to a school in an abandoned factory building whose mascot is the Junk Yard Dogs, and where all the kids seem to think that if you don’t believe in Adam and Eve and a global flood you aren’t a real Christian and are probably going to burn forever in hell.

This is where I meet my first Atheist. His name is Cain. [4] He doesn’t believe in God or Satan or Heaven or Hell or souls or walking on water or The Pentecost or anything. He is known as Cain The Atheist. Just like we have The Black Guy, The Deaf Girl, or The Muslim Kid, Cain is The Atheist. He gets into lots of arguments; he attracts conflict like a corpse attracts flies.

Although I secretly agree with so much of what Cain [5] says about science and other religions and the world at large, I keep my mouth shut. I let him burn. I do this a lot. I am a Minister’s Son. I am president of the prayer club [6] and in church choir. I am a marginalized, flamboyant, wimpy theatre freak in a town without theatre. I am on the thinnest of social ice. Being friends with Cain wouldn’t help.

So Cain and I aren’t friends. I mean, we hang out sometimes, but we aren’t “friends.” We talk. He tells me one day about his plans to create a world where everyone believes like he does. Where there is no sickness, no crime and no hunger. Where murder is more easily justified and the world population is under control. “We’re going to rise up!” he insists.

“No you aren’t…” I say.

“Yeah, I already have people all over the world ready to go. We’re going to rise up and bomb the Middle East and Africa and anywhere where people are poor and starving. Till only we are left.”

“You can’t do that!” I insist.

“Why not? They’re miserable and they’re going to die anyway. We’ll move to Europe and leave the Americas to become one huge forest. And the best part is there will be no Christians!”

“That’s not possible,” I say, “There will always be Christians.”

“We’ll kill all the Christians and burn all the bibles and erase any evidence of Christianity ever.”

“Christianity can’t go away!” I say.

“But if no one remembers it, no one tells anyone else to believe it and all the references to it are burned and gone forever –  it will have to die out!”

“God’ll never let that happen!” I sputter.

He just rolls his eyes and laughs. He isn’t impressed. And honestly – neither am I.

For weeks and months after that I lay in bed in the darkness and ask the ceiling if there was no one to tell me about Jesus or god or souls, would I still believe in them?

That question glows in my mind, hot, like a campfire ember.

Even though he is never really my friend, Cain and I sometimes hang out in math class. I am really good at math. This is my domain. I am Andrew, King of Algebra.

So, after completing yet another math quiz with perfect confidence, I turn to Cain and say, “I bet I got a 100 on that quiz.”

“What do you bet?” he asks.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t bet things. I am about to suggest a pencil when Cain shoots out:

“How about your SOUL?”

His eyes get huge when he says “soul” – all gray and hungry[7] against his dark features.

I waffle for a second.

“Scared to lose your soul?” he asks.

“No.” I say.

“Okay.” He says.

“Okay.” I say.

We shake on it. It is completely legal.

Word of advice – never bet souls with an atheist. He’s got the advantage. At best his soul is worthless; at worst, nonexistent. Your juicy, virgin, Christian soul, on the black market in the mid-90’s? Probably worth a 1969 orange Mustang convertible [8] or a night with Angelina Jolie or a pet zombie Deinonychus[9]. But I don’t think about that until after we shake hands.

Which is why I am devastated when I get my quiz back. “95%” glares bright red off the page. I got one half point off for writing down “8 – -5” instead of “8 + 5” in one of the steps. Even though all the sums are perfect and the math done correctly, I don’t ace it. I lose my soul on a technicality.

Cain loves this. He cackles, “I got your soul! I got your soul!”

I hate him.

“ I’m gunna keep it in a jar under my bed. And shake it once in a while just to piss it off!!”

I don’t really believe he takes my soul that day. Not actually. Not literally. But in a weird way, I do feel different. Maybe lighter?

Because the question that he put in my mind had grown from an ember to a Pentecostal flame in and around my head and now it demands an answer.

And after sleepless nights the answer comes.

“No,” says my ceiling.

No, I can’t believe in a story just because it was told to me by people who I love and who love me back.

And just like that Cain isn’t the only atheist in the Ninth grade.

But, “what about Dr. MacDougall’s experiment?” you may well ask! [10] Well, the doctor and his hunchback only tested six patients. Two results were deemed useless and thrown out. One subject lost no weight. One subject suddenly gained weight. Two subjects did lose weight, but only one of them lost the fabled twenty-one grams. These results have never been replicated. [11]

I am Andrew, King of Maths – these numbers suck.

I escape Tiny Town without ever telling anyone [12] that I don’t believe in a god.

My dad knows a Rockafeller. I don’t know how. I don’t ask. She pays and from the 10th grade on I get to go a prestigious boarding school in Michigan [13] where I hang out with theatre fags and math geeks, roleplayers and bookish nerds: my people. Kids that would go on to Johns Hopkins, MIT and Harvard. And aside from a liberal Jew and a handful of Wiccans, not a god-believer among them.

I actually managed to leave my soul behind in Tiny Town, and I am so much happier, and I never looked back.

Of course that’s not really true. I looked back all the time because my parents called with the latest news from dear old Tiny Town. The conversations often sounded like this:

“You were friends with Cain, weren’t you?”

“Yeah…?”[14]

“He’s managing the McDonald’s in town and he’s doing some sort of reorganization of the frycook line. It may be a big deal; could be a nationwide thing. Isn’t that cool?!”

“Sure.” I’d say, containing my excitement and changing the subject.

Until I was twenty-one, and so was Cain. [15] My mom [16] called with an update.

“You remember Cain, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, he died, honey. He broke into the graveyard and lit himself on fire. Isn’t that terrible? We don’t really know what happened, but his parents mentioned how depression is treatable with medication in the eulogy. I guess he was going through a lot. Did you know his mother had MS? I think he was sort of taking care of her…

“You two were friends right?”[17]

Dr. Duncan MacDougall is dead. His previous experiment debunked, he thought he found new evidence for the soul in the burgeoning technology of x-ray. He claimed that the blurry glow around over-exposed x-ray photos was the soul trying to escape from its boney prison. He wasn’t a scientist anymore. He was just an old man, afraid of death, looking at x-rays and seeing ghosts.[18]

I try to imagine Cain leaving his house that day; leaving his dying mother behind him. At 11:00 PM he sneaks out of bed already wearing jeans and his favorite button-down. Striped. He sneaks past his mom’s room through the ranch-style house and out the back door. He goes to the garage. Everything he needs is ready on a shelf at the back where no one would notice it: a full can of gasoline, a box of windproof, waterproof matches with sandpaper taped to the back, and a mason jar with a pop top, sealed seven years ago. He carries these items in his hands and walks the half mile to the graveyard.

The fence is low and unguarded covered in old and dying vines. He hops it. He walks to the center of the place. He sits down. For a few minutes he watches the old gnarled tree in front of him bend its branches in the Autumn breeze and he remembers his life, his decisions, the deals he’s made. He pulls the stopper off the can of gas and pours it on his lap and down his back, careful not to get any in his eyes. He picks out the match. The next moment is the most delicate. He wants to take his time preparing for it, but it is only a minute to midnight and the gas fumes are getting heady. He takes a deep breath, and in one quick movement lights a match, drops it on his leg, and opens the mason jar.

A bright light, my soul, rushes outward. It’s a little confused by the growing flame and flitters in circles like a moth at a light-bulb. Cain snatches his opportunity. He reaches out one singed hand and snags the glowing mass by its tail. It’s hard to hold on while his skin is hardening and tightening, but he is a strong-willed man. My soul is startled, but is still young and strong, kept fresh by the jar’s airtight seal, and feeling Cain at its back it rushes upward and upward with Cain The Brilliant, Young, Under-medicated Atheist in tow, being pulled up to a paradise with no sickness, no hunger, and no Christians. That sounds good. I’m going to believe in that.


[1] There is no evidence that the doctor’s assistant had a hunchback. But, then again, there is no evidence that he DIDN’T and it sounds good for the story. Let’s just go with the hunchback, ok?

[3] The name of Tiny Town is not actually Tiny Town; it is something else. This is a typical narrative device for non-fiction.

[4] Like, for real.

[5] The Atheist

[6] Run by the same American History teacher who once had me put in detention for using a swear word in class because he expected me to be a better example as a Christian.

[7] I can’t actually remember if his eyes were gray or blue or hazel. But “gray and hungry” sounds good, so just imagine they’re gray.

[8] I have always wanted one of these.

[9] And one of these.

[10] Probably not, but pretend for me, yeah?

[12] Including my parents and Cain.

[13] The same school as Mitt Romney and “Papa Doc” the evil rapper in 8 Mile

[14] What the hell else am I supposed to say? “Sure! He took God from your son!”

[15] No one I can talk to remembers exactly when this happened. But “twenty-one” sounds good. So I’m going with twenty-one.

[16] Again no one remembers who called me, my mom or my dad. I think it makes more narrative sense for my minister mother to call me, so I’ll remember it that way.

[17] This conversation has been reconstructed from shreds of memories and is inevitably inexact. However, all the bare facts in it are true to the best of my knowledge, even though you can’t find internet records to confirm any of it, because Cain’s family has done their best keep this private. Cain’s parents were unreachable for further comment. Because I am ashamed to contact them.

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