In her third novel, Chicago-born author Andromeda Romano-Lax chronicles the life of one of America's earliest female scientists, Rosalie Rayner. After landing a job at Johns Hopkins in the early 1920s, the bright and talented Rosalie becomes the protegée of the founder of Behavioralism, John Watson, and works with him on some of his most famous experiments. Though Watson is married, the two launch an affair that leads to a headline-making divorce trial. Rosalie trades her career as a scentist for motherhood, but she and John collaborate on a seminal parenting guide—and practice their theories on their own two children.
Behave is a page-turning exploration of a complicated relationship, full of themes that will resonate with modern readers—the enduring debate of nature vs. nurture, as well as the eternal struggle women face to balance family life and career opportunities. We asked Romano-Lax a few questions about the book and the intriguing heroine at its center.
Not much is known about the personal life of Rosalie Rayner. Can you talk a little bit about how you constructed her character?
Only two popular magazine articles written by Rosalie, plus a few unpublished manuscript notes, are available to give us a sense of Rosalie’s voice. To imagine my way into her character, I had to start with her life choices. Interestingly, this has parallels to Behaviorism itself, which suggested that we can never really know what people think, only what they do. In contrast with John Watson, who would have testily asserted that it doesn’t matter what people think or feel anyway, I was fiercely interested in that inner, private world. I wanted to know what was going inside Rosalie’s head and heart as she experimented on babies, fell in love, lost her job, coped with her husband’s infidelities and struggled as a young mother.
I wanted to know what was going inside Rosalie’s head and heart as she experimented on babies, fell in love, lost her job, coped with her husband’s infidelities and struggled as a young mother.
Aside from looking at actions, my other strategy was to delve as deeply as possible into the lives—including thoughts and emotions—of other women of Rosalie’s time period, including people she knew personally, like psychologist and fellow Vassar grad Mary Cover Jones and their teacher, Margaret Floy Washburn. Those women left a better paper trail and were more self-revealing.
Did you always plan to make this a first-person narrative?
I never considered any other point of view, perhaps because the motivation behind the book was to give voice to a woman whose voice was largely taken away by the circumstances of history. (It didn’t help that John Watson burned many of their private papers after her death.) Rosalie was a woman of the shadows, but even from that place I wanted to coax her to reveal, in her own words, as much as possible given what I imagined her personality would allow. She is not always a reliable narrator, but she moves toward insight and honesty with age.
Rosalie is bright and has a promising future, but she still ends living in the shadow of her husband, unlike her college friend and fellow scientist Mary Cover Jones. How do you explain this?
Discovering Mary Cover Jones was a gift, because her life story and tremendous professional and personal success (she was a pioneering researcher who also raised a family) show us what was possible at the time—not easily achieved, but possible. My best guess is that Rosalie was more of a co-dependent (pardon the jargon) type from the beginning. She seemed to desire a close partnership with a strong figure. She needed to be needed. In that way, she was the ideal wife for John Watson—willing to spar with him and play the role of smart lab partner and sassy lover, while still supporting his goals above her own.
What do you think Rosalie’s life would have been like if she were born in 1988 instead of 1898?
If Rosalie were born in 1988 with the same personality, she might achieve more, especially if she avoided having babies early or worked outside the house regardless of having children. But I still imagine her losing herself at least partially to another person or cause and aiming for impossible perfection while trying to keep a smile on her face. There’s that wonderful line about Ginger Rogers—that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. I think that line applies to many women, in every profession and in every era.
There’s that wonderful line about Ginger Rogers—that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. I think that line applies to many women, in every profession and in every era.
Carried by their unshakeable belief in science, the Watsons proposed a strict and clinical approach to childrearing—their book even claims that mothers commit “psychological murder” by expressing affection to their children. Why do you think a theory that discounted so much accumulated knowledge and instinct was so attractive to 1920s parents?
The 1920s was the perfect time to throw the baby out with the bathwater and turn a blind eye to accumulated wisdom. The incredible death toll of the First World War seemed proof that mankind was on the wrong path. Scientific progress, especially social engineering, provided hope—as well as the danger of false prophets. John Watson wasn’t the first parenting expert to say that mothers did nearly everything wrong. Blaming mothers, grandmothers, nurses and nannies was already commonplace. Watson had the added weight of a new school of psychology behind him—one that promised to explain and predict all behaviors and to ultimately engineer a more perfect human being.
John Watson’s most famous experiment, which fear-conditioned babies, would be impossible to replicate today due to its dubious ethics, and the schedule for the Watsons’ first son, Billy—which includes time strapped to a toilet—sounds like child abuse today. What was it like to read and write about these events?
I was less shocked by the infant experiments than my readers seem to be. As a mother, I wouldn’t easily put up with people causing my own child unnecessary pain and emotional distress. But I have little trouble imagining that scientists John Watson and Rosalie Rayner believed that these well-meaning experiments, swiftly carried out, would be mostly forgotten by the infants themselves. The end—reforming human nature—was seen to be more important than the means—dunking babies in water, dropping them and conditioning them to be fearful of furry animals.
The end—reforming human nature—was seen to be more important than the means—dunking babies in water, dropping them and conditioning them to be fearful of furry animals.
Little Albert was an extreme case, and Watson cruelly joked about how the child might end up phobic and needing therapy down the road. But it’s important to remember: Watson thought all children ended up irrationally plagued by unhelpful emotions, due to bad parenting and even to natural events like thunder. In other words, he didn’t think he was doing anything worse than what would happen naturally to children, in time.
As for describing scenes of cruel parenting, the Watson’s methods don’t seem too different from the methods of strict parents in our own time. As a young mom, I winced to hear of other moms letting newborn babies “cry it out.” It seems to me that if we look at the long sweep of human history and raise children the way most children have been raised everywhere in the world—with skin-to-skin contact, lots of stimulation and love, and less concern about measurements and strict schedules—we do just fine.
John Watson may have been a genius and a visionary, but he was not the easiest person to be married to. Do you think he truly loved Rosalie? How did you end up feeling about him after writing this book?
I do believe John Watson loved Rosalie passionately, and though it was easy to poke fun at his particular behaviors while writing the book, in the end, I think he had a lot of likable qualities. He surrounded himself with smart people, including ambitious women, and he appreciated colleagues who challenged him. He fought for the underdog and dedicated himself to improving mankind. He seemed to be aware of his own faults and foibles. From all accounts, he was not only “most handsome professor on campus” but also charming, funny, and endlessly energetic. I ended up feeling sympathy for him while also feeling immensely wary of overconfident men like him who misuse their charisma and power and shout so loudly that quieter voices can’t be heard.
The nature-nurture debate still rages on, and, of course, so does the debate over how to be a “good” parent. What links did you see between these issues in the 1920s and the way they are thought about today?
I think that after seesawing from one extreme position to another we have ended up in nearly the same place, and I hope the perspective from a century ago helps people see our own times and our own debates more clearly. When it comes to many scientific issues, the right answer is often “a little of both,” or “it depends.” Nature and nature both affect us. People are in some ways—but absolutely not all ways—blank slates. Parenting requires both firm boundaries and abundant affection, with plenty of room for mothers’ intuition.
Though the idea of expressing affection to children is no longer frowned upon, some behaviorist principles—like scheduled feedings and sleep-training—are practiced today. What would you say is the Watsons’ most important legacy?
Despite 70 years of wisdom from Dr. Spock, the pediatrician whose “parents know more than they think” philosophy overturned much of Watson’s “don’t trust any mother” dogma, we still worry a lot about when babies will stop crying and when they will be potty trained. So Watson and the anxiety he fostered are still with us. But let me emphasize one benign part of his legacy: the general idea of routines. Children and adults do adapt well to many forms of regularity. Furthermore, Watson suggested that routines and mild, consistent training could replace physical punishment, which he believed had little effect on the shaping of behavior. This stance was unusual in Watson’s time and probably surprised readers.
What is a typical writing day like for you?
There are very typical days, especially in the last two and a half years, since I’ve been living mostly abroad (first in rural Taiwan, later in Mexico). But a really good writing day includes two to three hours of drafting or editing material, another hour or three of research, work-related correspondence, long-distance teaching work, and more emails. Then there is language study for an hour or two daily, exercise (usually running), cooking, shopping. In a foreign country, extra hours are spent waiting in line, dealing with bureaucracy, and doing errands. If I’m not careful, the side jobs and home and family maintenance take over everything, just as they did for Rosalie in the 1920s.
What are you working on next?
My next novel is a story of love, migration and secrets, weaving a forgotten indigenous culture and the plight of social robots, set in 1920s rural Taiwan and 2030s Tokyo. My next nonfiction book is about living in Mexico and struggling toward Spanish fluency.