By Leslie Lindsay
An astonishingly disturbing and well-written account of the little-known Rosalie Rayner Watson, the “second” Mrs. John B. Watson, father of Behaviorism, BEHAVE should be on the top of everyone’s to-read list, if not for the writing, the contribution gleaned from behaviorism.
While that may be a very broad statement, I do mean it. Though I may be a bit biased having a background and strong interest in child psychology/psychiatry. BEHAVE (Soho Press, February 2016) is a fictional biography of Rosalie, a promising Vassar graduate with a keen scientific mind. Yet her story is harrowing in that it’s not as straightforward as one may think. To me, BEHAVE was about the 1920s, science, progress, motherhood, marriage, child psychology, and love.
But there are parts that involve behavioral experiments with infants that may leave parents/those who love kids a little squeamish.
I am so excited to welcome Andromeda Romano-Lax to the blog to chat with us about this deeply moving historical-biographical fiction that shaped the early views of ‘not spoiling’ one’s child(ren), several early parenting books, and so much more.
Leslie Lindsay: Welcome, Andromeda! So glad you could join us today. Some people read the last line first, but not me. I often read the first few pages of a book, then quickly flip to the ‘about the author’ and ‘acknowledgements’ section at the back of the book. In your first round of thanks, you mention a psychology textbook editor whom you met at dinner party. She mentioned the case of little Albert B. (the primary test subject in BEHAVE) and that got your gears turning for this book—can you talk about that, please?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: Yes, getting heated up about something can be productive—at least for a writer.
I was sharing my vexation with a textbook editor named Christine about ethics in both creative nonfiction (one of my fields) and psychology (hers). As an example of questionable behavior, she talked about the experimental practices of “Father of Behaviorism” John Watson.
John Watson was vaguely familiar to me from old college psych classes. I remembered something about a baby, rats, and conditioning, but I didn’t realize that John Watson had a female assistant—Rosalie Rayner—who helped with those disturbing experiments, which frequently involved exposing babies to uncomfortable or frightening situations.
After the party I drove home and immediately started Googling. By midnight I knew I wanted to write about Rosalie Rayner, the forgotten scientist, scandalous lover, and professionally-sidetracked wife of Watson. I have never felt so sure about a storyline so quickly. I wanted to know the story from Rosalie’s perspective. I felt compelled to understand how a woman scientist could be so easily forgotten when her husband remained famous for decades. I wanted to be with Rosalie, in that lab and later, at home with her first baby, during those early days of confused exhaustion, when she finally had to learn how to parent a real child instead of experiment on a mere subject. I wanted to ask her a hundred questions!
L.L.: It’s funny how those little seeds of a new project can creep into consciousness. But the ‘creeping’ is the easy part! How did you tease out the myriad information I’m sure you uncovered during your research in order to shape it into the story that became BEHAVE?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: I started with the Internet and accessible published works for background on John Watson, but when it came to Rosalie, the record was thin. That’s when the fun really starts: when you head to the archives. I visited the Library of Congress, Rayner’s home and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Vassar College in NY, and the Center for the History of Psychology in Akron, Ohio, for starters. In addition to library-style research, I relished spending time in those places that shaped Rosalie, visiting old neighborhoods, strolling the Vassar campus, eating Baltimore crab cakes and sipping bourbon in a historic bar. (It isn’t all hard work.)
I loved learning about the era—especially women’s roles in the teens and 20s. It felt like a gift to start connecting the experience of women then with the experience of women in, say, the ‘60s-‘80s—and women now. History repeats itself. So much became clear to me about the lives of 20th century women by following one woman’s life story in detail. And isn’t that why we read historical fiction?
L.L.: John and Rosalie have a tumultuous love affair, marry, and then have children. This part of the story became quite fascinating to me. It’s almost as if they had their own two ‘test subjects’ in Billy and Jimmy. Still, I can’t really say that’s much different than parenting today. Wouldn’t you say that on some level, we’re ‘experimenting’ with our own kids?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: That’s a great takeaway—for good or for bad, we are all experimenting on our children, and the pendulum keeps swinging between styles that are more or less pro-attachment, or more less based on children’s perceived independence or dependence, for example. I do believe parents should take guidance from their intuition as well as what they read or hear from “experts.” But on top of this, I think some historical and cultural perspective goes a long, long way. What did people think 20, 50, 100 years ago? How do people raise babies in other countries? What can we learn by critically examining the evidence for the latest trends and comparing today’s ideas with ideas from other eras and other cultures?
L.L.: Many of the experiments with little Albert B. made me feel a bit…well, squeamish and then mad at Rosalie and John for doing such a thing to an innocent baby…making him fear bunnies and even Santa Claus. Did you have a similar reaction?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: Yes, but perhaps less so than many readers. I understood that psychology was in its infancy and today’s experimental ethics didn’t yet exist. In judging the past we have to put ourselves in that time period, with all its limitations. Watson had extremely good intentions. He thought he was saving future children from pain and emotional anguish. And most of the infants Watson studied were brought into the lab briefly and were not hurt. (Albert was the possible exception because he was brought into the lab on multiple occasions.)
Now, what did bother me was knowing that Watson didn’t bother to decondition Little Albert—in other words, to reverse the emotional damage caused. Watson was very flippant about that fact. And what bothered even more was how Watson took such a poorly designed experiment on a single, possibly abnormal baby and then used it as the foundation for some very bad parenting advice which was sold to hundreds of thousands of moms and dads, persuading them to withhold the most basic kinds of affection from their babies.
The experiments are mildly disturbing. The later application via Watson’s and Rayner’s parenting guide is horrifying. The takeaway is not to hate Watson but to evaluate “expert” findings and read parenting guides of the future a little more critically.
L.L.: And their parenting books! Did you have the opportunity to read them? What can you tell us about these guides for raising children? Are they still in publication?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: The Watsons’ 1928 parenting book (Psychological Care of Infant and Child) is out of print. It contains bad advice—like don’t kiss or cuddle your children—and sensible advice, like help your children establish stable routines. It was actually more progressive than other guides of the early 20th century, especially in its recommendation that physical punishment is not necessary. But its main message, the disturbing message, was don’t form attachments to your children—which is as different from my own parenting practices as possible. If John Watson had seen me nursing, reading to, sleeping with, and endlessly snuggling with my two babies he would have pegged me as a child abuser!
As a researcher, my aim was to read about parenting guides as a larger genre, in order to understand where this book fit in the progression from anti-attachment (Watsons) to pro-attachment (Dr. Spock) style parenting. For general readers interested in this topic, I’d
recommend Ann Hulbert’s Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children.
L.L.: I found it absolutely fascinating when John resigned from his post at Johns Hopkins and then became an ad man. This was before the days of “Mad Men,” but still many aspects of psychology play into consumerism. Can you talk about that, please?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: Long before “Mad Men,” the top advertising pioneers recognized that emotional reactions and interest in sex, for example, could be useful in selling products. As psychology blossomed into a more respected science, behaviorists were recruited. John switched from the academic to the advertising world at just the right time, contributing his own interests, including a fascination with the power of fear. We have him and others to thank for making us worry that we aren’t pretty enough, or don’t smell right, or on the verge of making our children sick or miserable if we don’t buy the next new product.
L.L.: And Rosalie…it appears as if I’m not the only one who didn’t know much about her. But I’m so glad you brought her story into the open! It was the roaring 1920s and she had a degree from Vassar, promising future in psychology, and then she met John. Part of me wanted to scream, ‘no…don’t do it!’ and another part of me wanted to see her and John get together. Did any of your research indicate what she may have done if it weren’t for John Watson?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: First, you’re not the in the minority for being unaware of Rosalie. Second, in terms of guessing what other life she might have led, the research can’t tell us because she got involved with Watson so early. My hunch is that she would have loved to enter the glamorous world of advertising, which (as I hadn’t realized but soon discovered) already included women pioneers, even before the ‘20s. Rosalie was social, fun-loving, interested in city life, the arts and fashion as well as psychology. She would have done a great job selling the excitement of the 1920s to other women.
L.L.: What’s captured your interest these days, anything keeping you up at night?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: Most recently, my fiction research takes me into the world of AI, where the robots are not only coming, they’re already here. In the nonfiction world (I write both fact and fiction) I am absolutely obsessed with language acquisition and have spent most of the last two years intensely studying Spanish while living in Mexico.
I won’t mention politics, which keeps everyone up, except to say that while I was writing about John Watson, many people asked me how someone with such inflexible views and a provocative manner could have been such a famous public speaker and celebrity—or why any woman would put up with him. Trump, anyone?
L.L.: What should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: No one has asked me yet what kind of reader I was imagining for this book.
In a general way, I think this book is suited to those with an interest in science or the 1920s. But additionally, I was hoping that some readers who puzzle over the cold parenting styles of their parents, grandparents or great-parents would read this novel and say, “A-ha. Finally, I understand.” I also hoped that any readers who are parents now will feel more empowered to make their own decisions about how to raise their children.
L.L.: Andromeda, it was a pleasure connecting! Thank you for this amazing contribution to literary historical fiction.
Andromeda Romano-Lax: Thank you Leslie!
For more information, or to follow on social media, please see:
NYTimes Book Review of BEHAVE
About the Author: Born in 1970 in Chicago, Andromeda Romano-Lax worked as a freelance journalist and travel writer before turning to fiction. Her first novel, The Spanish Bow, was translated into eleven languages and was chosen as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, BookSense pick, and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her second novel, The Detour, was internationally published in 2012. Her third novel, Behave, was published by Soho Press in 2016 and was chosen as an Indie Next pick and named by Amazon “One of the Best Books of the Year So Far.” Among her nonfiction works are a dozen travel and natural history guidebooks to the public lands of Alaska, as well as a travel narrative, Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja’s Desert Coast, which was an Audubon Editor’s Choice and will soon be released in a new ebook edition.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through this various social media outlets. Hope to “see” you there!
[Special thanks to Soho Publishing and A. Romano-Lax. Cover and author image courtesy of A. Romano-Lax. Image of John B. Watson retrieved from, image of John & Rosalie together from, baby experiment image retrieved from, vintage ad from , all retrieved on 9.2.16]