An affair between a married professor and a young grad student. Controversial scientific theories tested on infants. A messy divorce splashed across the headlines. Sons raised as guinea pigs for behavioral research. If you think this sounds too sensational to be true, you’d be wrong.
In Behave, Andromeda Romano-Lax’s novel released today from Soho Press, we’re introduced to the father of behavioral psychology through the eyes of his research assistant-turned-lover-turned-second wife: Rosalie Rayner. More often regarded as a “historical footnote” (in Romano-Lax’s words) than as a scientist, Rosalie now boasts an entire fictional biography. Behave spans Rosalie’s adult life, from her undergraduate career at Vassar to her tumultuous relationship with Dr. John B. Watson in the Roaring Twenties to her waning years as a mother in the 1930s. Detailing a multitude of infidelities and contentious views on love and child-rearing, Romano-Lax’s narrative delivers a researched yet passionate exploration of, well, sex.
We interviewed Romano-Lax to discuss her inspiration for Behave, writing the novel’s first seduction scene and John’s divisive parenting views (“ignore your babies and children, but party all night with your girlfriends”).
Paste: What sparked your interest to write about Rosalie Rayner?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: At a party four years ago, a friend who edits psychology textbooks mentioned a new controversy involving the pioneering psychologist John B. Watson. He’s infamous for his 1920 experiment involving a baby named Little Albert, who was conditioned to be fearful using techniques and standards that would never pass muster today. I thought I remembered Watson from my college psych class days, but I’d never heard of his assistant—later lover and second wife—Rosalie Rayner Watson. Not only was she the “woman behind the man,” her own career derailed by their headline-grabbing affair, but she was pressured to basically try out John’s ideas in the raising of their two children. In other words, Rosalie ran lab experiments, but she was also a sometimes willing, sometimes unwilling subject in a years-long, real-world experiment involving everything from sex and love to fear, jealousy and rage.
I was immediately eager to know what more about her, and only later would come to realize that her life trajectory, from ambitious college grad to partying young socialite to ambivalent wife and mother to historical footnote, tells us volumes about women’s dilemmas from the 1910s to the 1930s. Disturbingly, nearly everything Rosalie experienced almost a century ago as an aspiring professional, and as a woman, still happens today.
Paste: What was your research process like for Behave?
Romano-Lax: Online searches covered everything that could be known—almost nothing—about Rosalie within hours. (Since I started researching the book, she’s become an entry in an online inventory of key women in psychology.) Errors and mysteries abounded in the few sources available. Next steps took me toward writings by and about John, including biographies, excellent scholarly articles, new debates about the notorious Little Albert experiment and materials about other scientists of the era as well as the science of parenting.
With nearly every book I write, the fun starts after secondary materials are exhausted. In search of letters, photographs, interview transcripts and academic documents, I traveled to Vassar College, Johns Hopkins University, the Library of Congress and the amazing Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron. I communicated with Watson experts who were extremely generous in sharing leads and their own unanswered questions about Rosalie, especially her personality and inner motivations. (One scientist told me he feels he understands her better now, having read the novel’s dramatized scenes.)
So little indisputable information is available about Rosalie herself that almost everything we do know has to be inferred or stitched together from the life stories of other people—including other women scientists, like Mary Cover Jones—around her. Even Rosalie’s own children, who lost their mother to dysentery when she was only 36, declined to comment about her much; in interviews, they focused more on their domineering father. There would have been no way to write a straight biography of Rosalie. The gaps were occasionally frustrating, but also intriguing and sometimes liberating. Only through fiction, using dramatic license, could Rosalie’s thoughts and private experiences be portrayed.
Paste: What was the most challenging scene to write?
Romano-Lax: There’s a scene in Chapter 8—the first failed seduction scene between John and Rosalie, completely hypothetical—that I had to rewrite several times. First, I had John come on too strong, and I made Rosalie too passive, naïve and opaque. Most readers already dislike John, and I felt the need not just to soften the interaction, but to make it more authentic.
I don’t believe John held all the cards or was a cardboard Casanova. I’m sure he was charming and flirtatious, but I also think he was sincere (if self-deluding), often honest (especially when it suited him) and vulnerable. I think Rosalie was complicit—that she was open to his advances and, perhaps, more than open. In the scene, I try to portray the first near-seduction as more of a dance, with steps forward and back, or to use more behaviorist vocabulary, with attempts to stimulate and respond or note responses.
I don’t actually think John would have pressured Rosalie into a relationship she didn’t want. I think they were both blinded by their own beliefs in rational, predictable, controllable behavior. I also think that they both sometimes acted in opposition to what they publicly espoused. (John was sentimental and romantic to a fault, writing goopy love notes even while he claimed romantic love didn’t exist.) I love the contrast between the Behaviorist philosophy, including the idea that all fruitless behaviors or flawed traits can be eliminated, and how John and Rosalie actually lived. John and Rosalie believed in control, but they lived out of control, and they repeatedly suffered the consequences.
Paste: You hint at John’s complicated past with his mother, which influenced his views on love. Can you elaborate more on his belief that love is rooted in sex?
Andromeda Romano-Lax: The historical record is more clear about John than about Rosalie, and biographers seem to agree that he had all kinds of issues with his parents, including an alcoholic father who abandoned him and a mother who may have relied a little too much on young John as a replacement figure from whom she expected great things. John seemed to feel his mother’s behavior was inappropriate (in ways he did not specify) and that mother love in general was suspect—leading him to outrageous statements about how all mothers inevitably destroy their children.
As for love and sex, for John, the two were supposed to be exactly the same: simple responses to erotic stimulation of sensitive areas (lips, genitals). That means a mother who is nuzzling, kissing or tickling a baby is essentially having a sexual experience with him. For John, this was a no-no—not because sexual arousal at any age is wrong (John loved sex and hated Victorian attitudes of all kinds), but because he distrusted the child-parent bond. Ignore your babies and children but party all night with your girlfriends—that’s what John would have believed.
When it came to studying sex or sexual health (he did a little-known survey of 5,000 military men and civilians about attitudes toward venereal disease), John seemed to be more objective, more careful and more insightful. He was completely frank and open-minded, and seemed to resist others’ agendas easily. So when the government was using fear tactics to try to convince soldiers not to have sex, he had no problem documenting that fear and propaganda just don’t work to control that particular kind of behavior. In the novel, I have Rosalie voice the opinion, which is actually my own, that John missed out on his true vocation as a sex researcher.
Paste: How much of John’s infidelity (before and after his marriage to Rosalie) and Rosalie’s infidelity (after her marriage to John) in the novel was true in real life?
Romano-Lax: When it comes to John, it’s all true, including the specific names, consequences, professional positions lost, people angered and headlines inspired. When it comes to Rosalie, the pattern remains: we don’t know for sure, we can only guess. She was definitely described as a flirt, and she enjoyed parties. Her husband seemed to think that jealousy added spice to a marriage. He found the subject of infidelity and of marriage (he predicted it would die out quickly as an institution) interesting. He also thought that men got better with age but that women were washed up after their twenties. If you were that man’s wife, would you have an affair or two, especially during those years when your husband was ignoring you?
Paste: Why do you think Rosalie’s relationship with John lasted while his others (marriage and affairs included) did not?
Romano-Lax: I believe, without a doubt, that they loved each other, were sexually attracted to each other and that, despite John’s outrageous misogynistic statements in later years, they respected each other. I’m not as sure that John’s first wife was his intellectual equal, or that she bought into the “contract” of living with John—a contract that seemed to include the acceptance of infidelity. Not only do I think they would stay married in today’s world, but I think the relationship was extra tempting for a woman in the 1920s, when most men were actually less supportive of women than John was. For a short time, he worked with Rosalie and supported her research interests.
He seemed to treat other women scientists and professionals fairly, seemingly comfortable with assisting some strong-minded female pioneers (behaviorist psychologist Mary Cover Jones, advertising maven Helen Resor). Then the raising of family—and I’m not convinced John and Rosalie’s first pregnancy was on purpose, given that scientists’ understanding of the rhythm method was exactly backwards for a while—intervened. Then Rosalie died young. If she’d lived longer, I suspect they might have negotiated a different relationship over time.
Paste: What do you think Rosalie’s life would have looked like if she had never taken the job with John at Johns Hopkins?
Romano-Lax: Only able to work from shadows and inferences, I had to construct Rosalie’s personality, including her most private thoughts. I had to work backwards from her observable behaviors to guess at the inner workings of her mind—a process that John would completely reject, since he didn’t believe in the human mind at all. I had to be especially liberal in understanding the younger Rosalie, since there is almost nothing known about her pre-1919. The portrait I ended up creating was of a woman who was always driven to be second fiddle to someone: first, a friend in college, later John. I imagined her as an outsider (Jewish in the privileged, mostly Christian world of Vassar), shy and reclusive—but also fiercely loyal. I think she was somewhat malleable and not only John—but her time period—shaped her. She seemed optimistic and progressive in the late teens, sassy and fun-loving in the twenties, perhaps more sober or simply more mature in the thirties.
Paste: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Romano-Lax: What I’ve tried to add to the discussion, via the conjectural possibilities of fiction, is our ability to imagine how everyday human failings, including simple erotic distraction, can compromise supposedly objective science. Scientists are real people. During and between experiments, they are falling in love, getting turned on, worrying about money, battling envy, nursing hangovers, working through their own psychological problems and so on—and this absolutely affects what is perceived, recorded, published and publicly accepted as fact.