cover image Behave


Andromeda Romano-Lax. Soho, $26.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-61695-653-0

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. (Mar.)