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“The mother begins to destroy the child the moment it’s born,” wrote the founder of behaviorist psychology, John B. Watson, whose 1928 parenting guide was revered as the child-rearing bible. For their dangerous and “mawkish” impulses to kiss and hug their child, “most mothers should be indicted for psychological murder.”
Behave is the story of Rosalie Rayner, Watson’s ambitious young wife and the mother of two of his children.
In 1920, when she graduated from Vassar College, Rayner was ready to make her mark on the world. Intelligent, beautiful, and unflappable, she won a coveted research position at Johns Hopkins assisting the charismatic celebrity psychologist John B. Watson. Together, Watson and Rayner conducted controversial experiments on hundreds of babies to prove behaviorist principles. They also embarked on a scandalous affair that cost them both their jobs—and recast the sparkling young Rosalie Rayner, scientist and thinker, as Mrs. John Watson, wife and conflicted, maligned mother, just another “woman behind a great man.”
With Behave, Andromeda Romano-Lax offers a provocative fictional biography of Rosalie Rayner Watson, a woman whose work influenced generations of Americans, and whose legacy has been lost in the shadow of her husband’s. In turns moving and horrifying, Behave is a richly nuanced and disturbing novel about science, progress, love, marriage, motherhood, and what all those things cost a passionate, promising young woman.
I found Behave by Andromeda Romano-Lax a few weeks ago when I was browsing Netgalley for a few new titles to read. Initially I overlooked it because the cover turned me off. After reading Dear Thing by Julie Cohen (which led me to writing this post) I just wasn’t sure I could handle another book about children and parenting, especially while my husband and I are still struggling with fertility issues of our own. It wasn’t until I saw the name John Broadus Watson that my curiosity was piqued.
For those of you that may not know, I was a social sciences and psychology major in college and briefly flirted with a career in mental health and behaviorism. I strongly believe that nurture dominates in the nature vs nurture debate and I believe that who we are as adults is strongly affected by the conditioning we experience as children and adolescents. John B. Watson was kind of a jerk in psychology but he did play an important role in developing the study of behaviorism (although most of his theories have been refuted and he was found to be dishonest in his reports).
Behave isn’t about John B. Watson as much as it is about his former student turned wife, Rosalie Rayner.
Rosalie Rayner, a promising young woman with a bright career in psychology ahead of her, became an assistant to John B. Watson after she graduated from Vassar College. She worked with him on the Little Albert experiment (an experiment in which they demonstrated that a child could be conditioned to fear a previously neutral stimulus) during which they started an affair which led to the destruction of his marriage and both of their careers.
Behave introduced a brief backstory on Rayner before continuing to tell a fictionalized account of their affair, subsequent marriage, and life together. The toughest part of this book is that neither Rayner nor Watson are likable, at all. Then again, I doubt that either of them were very likable in real life so I didn’t expect to love them. In fact, I knew I would dislike them before I started reading the book but I wanted to see Romano-Lax’s take on their work and lives.
Rayner is a naive young woman that was so caught up in the “celebrity” of John Watson that she essentially ruined her life for a man that (I believe) never really loved her. She destroyed relationships with her parents, lost any possibility of building her own reputable career, and settled for life as Mrs. John B. Watson.
Watson is a self-absorbed jerk concerned only with proving his hypotheses about behaviorism and conditioning even if it meant ruining the lives of those around him and telling half-truths in his publications. Not to mention, he had multiple affairs when married to his first wives so what in the world made Rayner think that he would be faithful to her? *Sigh*
It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in psychology or the turmoil of these two lives. Rosalie Rayner has a long-lasting reputation of a very cold and distant parent. In fact, she once wrote a paper called “I Am the Mother of a Behaviorist’s Son” in which she encourages breaking the bonds of mother attachment as early as possible. Both of their children, William and James, developed depression as adults and after the death of Rosalie, both boys attempted suicide although James survived. James later stated that his father’s principles on behaviorism in their strict parenting practices inhibited his and his brother’s ability to effectively deal with human emotion, adding that it undermined their self-esteem later in life.
They were very unique people with outlandish ideas on parenting which Romano-Lax brings to light in incredible fashion in Behave. If you have any interest whatsoever in these two psychologists I highly, highly recommend reading this book. See it here.