Ethical Science, Ethical Child-Rearing — Behaviorism (Vassar College, Johns Hopkins Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, Long Island, Whip-Poor-Will Farm, CT; 1916-1935): Many moons ago, I was an undergrad psych major. After taking all the clinical/Freudian offerings, the engrossing emotional stuff, all that was left were classical conditioning experiments with rats and mice (think Pavlov’s dogs). Stimulus-response, observable-measureable behavior — the antithesis of feelings. I hadn’t thought of those emotionless theories until Behave. Ironically, prepare for a roller-coaster ride of emotions!
Told through the complicit eyes of a science-savvy wife, Rosalie Rayner Watson, novelist and non-fiction writer Andromeda Romano-Lax delivers an absorbing, morally affecting fictional memoir taking stock of her life with the controversial founder of conditioning psychology known as Behaviorism or Behavioral Psychology: John B. Watson, a psychological giant of the 20th century. With very little known about the woman behind the larger-than-life trailblazer, the author had rich material to mine, done thoughtfully. (An ambitious novel; 401 pages.) You know you’re in for a ride when Rosalie sets the stage telling us it’s “tricky for any woman to sort out her feelings, but most of all when her husband is an expert on feelings.” Still, Rosalie comes across as a reliable narrator as all is not crystal-clear and things do not wrap up neatly.
Rosalie’s narrative is stunning given the popularity of John Watson’s extreme behaviorist doctrines that flourished in the 1920s to ‘50s. (B. F. Skinner came along and added complexity with his positive-negative reinforcement concepts.) Watson, on the other hand, espoused only three human emotions — fear, rage, and love; and claimed all could be stimulated, predicted, controlled. His radical views went mainstream into parental homes through magazines like Cosmopolitan and Parents and the bestselling Psychological Care of Infant and Child.
Behave opens in 1935 with an ill Rosalie, presumably what sparked this confessional. She examines: her privileged upbringing in a loving and lovely Jewish home in Baltimore; her passion for psychology at Vassar; a conflicted marriage to an influential man with “Valentino looks” and baggage from an unhappy Southern childhood and a troubled marriage to Mary Ickes, whose name rings a bell because her brother served in FDR’s administration (Rosalie and John married right after their divorce); Watson’s pioneering contributions to psychology and advertising; serious mistakes they both made in science and as parents. From the get-go, the prose grabs as you sense this is not going to be a pretty picture.
At the groundbreaking Johns Hopkins clinic run by prominent psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, the reader looks in on Professor Watson’s egregious, persistent breaching of ethical conduct involving human research subjects: fear-conditioning experiments on hundreds of “blank slates,” baby “Albert B” the most famous. Rosalie was his graduate assistant. She said nothing.
Equally ethically disconcerting, she lets us in on what comes later, behind-closed-doors, as Rosalie navigates motherhood to two boys, Billy and Jimmy, under the dictates of her self-important husband. The reader can surmise how these two innocent children turned out; the Epilogue fills in their real history.
Professor Watson was thrown out of Hopkins for improper morals. Not for revelations about “Little Albert,” which came later, but for his scandalous love affair with Rosalie. He was twice the age of his student, married into a well-known family, a father of two, and rumors of earlier womanizing trailed him.
Watson and Rosalie appear to have embarked with good intentions. Partly in response to a topsy-turvy world after WWI, they aspired to “make the world a better place.” Did Watson really think he was helping to create happier children? Did Rosalie really take to heart his preposterous declarations that babies shouldn’t cry or be coddled or hugged? Granted Rosalie was a woefully inexperienced, overwhelmed, isolated mother. Did she go along with her guru husband’s “anti-attachment” approach because she didn’t know better, or didn’t have enough energy, or was she fearful of questioning the great man? By the time her mothering feelings were deep to admit the unnatural state of loving her two boys, it was too little, too late.
Much of their marriage took place during the break-the-mold Jazz Age, when Rosalie says it was “so easy to remake oneself these days.” Excuses? Maybe for her, but not for us. Except, I think, the author wants us to judge Rosalie against the context of history. Not to condone actions and inactions, but to provide perspective to our range of feelings towards Rosalie: disappointment, frustration, anger, outrage, sadness. She had so much, lost so much. As for the esteemed psychologist, you know you’re in good authorial hands because he engenders strong negative emotions!
Rosalie’s telling opens at Vassar College with her psych lab partner and best friend, Mary Cover. Enthused about science, Mary gave her a magnifying glass for her charm bracelet. We meet them in a course taught by the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in psychology, Margaret Floy Washburn. In short, Rosalie’s beginnings were charmed and seemed destined.
Mary Cover is key because in 1919 she and Rosalie, at Mary’s encouragement, traveled to Manhattan’s New School to hear Professor Watson’s lecture on behaviorism. By now, he’d achieved acclaim for his “1913 Behavioral Manifesto” presented at Columbia. In later years, Mary resurfaces, a haunting reminder of what Rosalie failed to do: juggle a career and motherhood. (In 1970, Mary was named “mother of behavioral psychology.”)
At first, working alongside the famed psychologist, Rosalie says she was her happiest:
“As a woman, I’d never imagined such heights of happiness: of being so wanted and so needed, my mind equally filled with our scientific tasks.”
Soon things begin to unravel. It starts with the dewy-eyed grad student hinting at discomfort with Watson’s experimentations with “Little Albert.” During those fear studies, Rosalie resists than falls for Watson’s magnetism. Then, there’s awkward, foreboding scenes of Watson’s wife oddly befriending Rosalie’s mother. Tension grows when Rosalie’s parents greatly disapprove of her marriage. (The love scandal made it into Baltimore and national newspapers.) When Watson moves Rosalie away from science, academia, and her family to the secluded wilds of Long Island, Rosalie is transformed into a lonely, housebound mother. Here, we empathize with her. She’s so out-of-sorts about her parenting skills and so fatigued she can’t even rouse herself to feel jealous about the comings-and-goings of John, now climbing-the-ranks in advertising.
John Watson was a man in a big hurry. In just three years post-Hopkins, he made a name for himself in the “psychology of appeal” at the prestigious J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Contrarily, he was psyching out the desires of the public without asking the same questions about his wife. Did he not care or see how lost she was, slumbering around in threadbare cotton dresses in a sweltering, drab rental bungalow without a phone? Frugal with Rosalie yet he was cavorting, drinking, and dressing in Mad Men style, including finding the funds to join a sailing club.
What happened to that charmed Vassar girl? Why did she give up her identity? Her dreams? Her family? Her moral compass? If she couldn’t stand up for herself, couldn’t she have at least stood up for her children? She admits she was an enabler: “How could two smart people be so stupid?”
Rosalie’s spiral is depressing. Depression is the best diagnosis I can come up with to reconcile how she came to let herself and her children down so badly.
Rosalie tells us there’s “no such thing as a clean break.” This much seems certain.