Monday, March 7, 2016

Finding the Past in the Present: Andromeda Romano-Lax on Writing "Behave"



(In)famous psychologist John Watson—the founder of the school of behaviorism--penned a popular parenting guide in 1928 that Behavewarned against the perils of…showing affection toward your children! Society is cruel, you see, so if you coddle your kids they will be ill-prepared to face life's challenges, or so his theory went. To what degree did Watson's wife and the mother of his children agree? Andromeda Romano-Lax's slyly provocative novel, Behave, answers this question, which isn't clear-cut despite the fact that said spouse, Rosalie Rayner, was also Watson's research associate, an active participatant in not only the writing of Psychological Care of Infant and Child, but Watson's controversial "Little Albert" experiment (Google it—it's the stuff of dystopian nightmares). Behave also grapples with some very modern conundrums, something Romano-Lax addresses here, as well as how she became an accidental historical novelist. 

Indignation can be productive.

Four years ago, while at a party, I had my dander up about an issue involving journalistic misbehavior when group conversation turned to yet another question of professional ethics, this one involving a 1920s psychologist named John Watson. New information had come to light, suggesting that one of the scientist's most famous infant experiments was even more disturbing than previously known.

Watson? Sure. I thought I remembered him from my college Psych 101 days. The Father of Behaviorism was known for dunking newborns in water, holding their noses until they writhed with anger, and forcing them to hang briefly from metal bars until they couldn't hold on any longer and fell through the air, landing on pillows held by nurses. One particularly famous baby, Little Albert, was put through a long series of trials designed to make him afraid of furry things, by pairing an ear-splitting noise (mallet against iron bar) with forced encounters featuring rats, dogs, and a creepy Santa Claus mask. Little Albert wasn't afraid of anything during the first baseline test, but after several more weeks of laboratory shenanigans, he was a trembling, sobbing mess.

At the party, I learned for the first time that Watson had a woman assistant—soon-to-be lover, later second wife—named Rosalie. What could this twenty-year-old woman have been thinking as she helped Watson make babies cry in the name of engineering a more perfect future society? What quirk of personal chemistry led the two scientists to plunge into a reckless affair that would end up damaging families and derailing two exceptionally promising careers?

I have never started researching a book so quickly. After the party and well before midnight, I had already read most of what was available online about Rosalie's life, which was surprisingly little.

Let me pause here to say that in my life as a novelist, I have never once set out to write historical fiction, though this happens to be my third book in that genre. What has happened each time is that some stray footnote or comment led me toward an intriguing story which led me—and here's the key—not deeper into history for the past's own sake, but back into a more clearly illuminated present.

I believe this is historical fiction's greatest appeal: that it holds up a mirror to our own times. It allows us to see at a slant what we often can't see head-on. Furthermore, it makes connections between past and present—wires strung across decades or centuries—which, when plucked, play some haunting melody that communicates with our minds and with our hearts.

The melody I heard played as I got to know Rosalie was the song of American women's lives over a century, with particularly strong resonance in key decades. Only by researching and reimagining Rosalie's life did I come to realize that the 1910s (suffrage movement, working women in popular culture) were a heck of a lot like the consciousness-raising 1960s. And the 1920s (fashion, booze, Wall Street; equal rights seemingly on the horizon) were like the "let's party" 1970s and '80s. The post-crash 1930s (hems back down; home and hearth; fear-mongering; rise of loud-mouthed celebrities and prognosticators) were in many ways like the 1990s, 2000s, or even today.  

When Rosalie graduated Vassar College in 1919, that fabulously optimistic summer when Congress passed the 19th amendment, she was poised for a future her own mother couldn't have imagined. She'd gotten a prestigious post doing lab work and she was surrounded by men and women with the latest ideas about love, sex, and social progress. When she was booted from academia, due to her nationally publicized affair with John Watson, she fully expected to get a job in the glamorous field of advertising. (A big company snagged John, but Rosalie's resume went unnoticed.)

When she found herself home with babies, scraping by on a tight budget, and living according to the strict behavioral guidelines of her increasingly conservative husband, she still tried to express her own ideas through jointly authored works. To the very end, she tried to have a chin-up attitude. In a popular magazine article, she even dared to publicly disagree with the famous man whose domineering attitudes had cast a stern shadow over her—and their children's—lives.

Rosalie still believed, in other words, that it was possible to be her own woman, and to have it all. What more contemporary story is there?

This novel is rooted strongly in fact. I wished at times I could make Rosalie's path easier for her. I wished at times I could give her more insight or more energy to resist as her own time period became less progressive and less optimistic, overall. But to make Rosalie's story easier would be to miss it all: the authentic experience of an ambitious woman's life from the late 1910s to mid-1930s, and the rollercoaster of the ecstatic American dream just after a disillusioning war.

Indignation started me on the road to writing Behave. But empathy for Rosalie Rayner Watson and women like her—and amazement at how much our modern times are really no different from times past—got me to the final page.


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