From the author of The Spanish Bow comes a lush, harrowing novel based on the real life story of Rosalie Rayner Watson, one of the most controversial scientists—and mothers—of the 20th century
“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.
Rosalie Rayner wife of real-life behaviorist pioneer John Watson, assistant in his controversial 1920 Little Albert experiment, and coauthor of his now-discredited parenting guide is the confessional narrator of Romano-Lax's scorching new novel. After graduating from Vassar in 1919, Rosalie attends Johns Hopkins, where she works in the psychology lab under Watson, a handsome, gregarious advocate of conditioning over introspection. In their best-known collaboration, they expose a baby to rats, loud noises, and other stimuli, eliciting fearful responses. The baby that Watson chooses for this experiment a stolid, passive nine-month-old referred to as Albert seems the perfect subject to prove almost all behavior is conditioned. Rosalie does not question Watson's ideas or methods as they embark on a scandalous affair. Eventually Watson divorces his first wife, marries Rosalie, and becomes an advertising executive, while Rosalie becomes a stay-at-home mom disconnected from her husband's ideas in favor of schedules, against demonstrations of affection, as promoted in their book on child rearing. Sticking to historical fact, imagining only what history omits, Romano-Lax depicts Rosalie as a modern woman of the 1920s: bobbed hair, driving a Stutz Bearcat, career-focused until her devotion to a controlling behavior-control expert confines her to a traditional role. Scenes of little Albert whimpering are disturbing; scenes of Rosalie trying to raise her own children according to Watsonian doctrine are maddening. By detailing how the study of human behavior differs from understanding people, and how smart women can miss the obvious and make mistakes, Romano-Lax sheds a harsh yet deeply moving light on feminism and psychology, in theory and in practice.