“Behave” by Andromeda Romano-Lax

The mood of America during the 1920s and 1930s comes jumping off the pages in this fictional biography. Not in the way of flappers, though illegal booze is often mentioned, but through the work of scientist John B. Watson, the father of the psychological school of behaviorism in child development, and his second wife Rosalie Rayner. The roaring twenties were tame compared to Watson and his then student and research assistant, Rayner, at John Hopkins University. They were immoral with their illicit affair as well as their manipulation of their research which they completely sold to the American public as easily as it was to purchase alcohol during the Prohibition. It appears in this well researched historical fiction that Watson was a cad and Rayner was his willing partner in crime. That is what their child experiments were: crime. They committed the crimes of child abuse and false publications. The novel is narrated by Rayner, the long suffering wife who paid her dues as a home wrecker when Watson repeatedly cheated on her throughout their marriage. For her it was a painful marriage. But what was even more agonizing for Rayner was agreeing to raise their children with as little physical contact as possible to adhere to Watson’s theory. Whenever she caught herself wondering if this was the proper way to raise healthy children, she put her fears aside since there were countless articles and journals claiming that Watson was the next Darwin. So who was she to judge or get in the way of a Brave New World? It began with Watson’s now infamous experiment where his goal was to show empirical evidence of classical conditioning in humans by using a baby known as “Little Albert.” An environment was created where the child was taught to fear white rats or anything furry with the stimuli of loud noises. The child was one years old when they finished the experiment. How classical conditioning works, I learned in school. What I never learned was that there was no attempt to desensitize the child and that he would remain with a phobia of anything furry for the rest of his life; heartless. Watson was desperate to debunk Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Unlike Watson, Freud believed that it is our unconscious mind that forms our behaviors. It was during the “Little Albert” experiment that Watson’s love letters to Rayner were found. In these letters he confessed how he fudged results to prove his theory. The university let them both go. That was Watson’s last full-time academic job and the end of Rayner’s promising career. Later in life, Watson recreates himself as an advertising man. Before his second career takes off, with no money coming in, he writes a parenting guide using his own two children with Rayner (he had two other children with his first wife) as guinea pigs. As a psych major, admittedly many years ago, I don’t remember ever reading in any textbook that the only thing consistent with Watson was his lack of ethical consideration for anything or anyone. Rayner, though twenty years Watson’s junior, died before him, while her children were still young. In the book’s Epilogue the reader learns that three of Watson’s children attempted suicide and that one succeeded. My heart ached for Rayner and I was glad she didn’t live to see her eldest son die by his own hand. All in all this was a very sad story. One does not need any knowledge of science or psychology or even have an interest in them to understand and enjoy this historical novel. In fact, the author does such a fine job of raising one’s interest that I now want to read non-fiction on Watson. But, first I need a bit of a break from him. At the moment I am too angry to process any future reading on him properly.

 

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