Years ago, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a fascinating book that really drove home the importance of Institutional Review Boards and Human Subjects Protection Training. Although I believe most physician/scientists truly have the patients’ best interests at heart, there is no denying that horrors have occurred, whether out of ignorance or self-interest on the part of the researchers.
John Watson was a serial philanderer who made a habit of seducing students, nurses, anyone of a lesser status who crossed his path. He married one of his graduate students when the situation demanded it, then promptly crushed her spirit and blamed her for the failure of their marriage. Enter Rosalie Rayner, a promising Vassar graduate majoring in psychology, who happened to be beautiful and willing to compromise ethics and morals. She was Watson’s perfect prey.
Similarities between this novel and the lovely and sad The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church include the seemingly intelligent, attractive female student falling for her professor on account of his brilliance, and, given the times, the almost inevitable sacrifice of self that the relationship required. However, if physicist Alden Whetstone seemed aloof, selfish, and clueless, he’s a prince compared to John B. Watson.
Watson is known for his premier work in behavioral psychology–work done before he was repeatedly fired from university positions for sexual peccadillos and his refusal to take responsibility for his mistakes. His work is appalling to consider. He experimented on babies without parental consent. In particular, he was responsible for the "Little Albert" studies, a flawed exploration of fear and aversion in infants where one baby’s actions was extrapolated to serve as the basis of a new guide to raising children, one that was essentially a recipe for neglect if not outright abuse.
Sad to say, Rosie was pushed into following the prescription to raise her own children, to everyone’s detriment.
Rosie’s desperate voice, her naivete, her passivity, her need to please, her disregard for Watson’s first wife and delusion that he would treat her differently, carry this novel forward like a train speeding toward derailment. Readers will cringe at Rosie’s actions, while acknowledging the unfortunate realism of the situations.
Although at times painful to read, the novel is well worth the effort. Just as Dr. Watson epitomizes bad science, Rosie is a splendid example of what ambitious, vulnerable young people should never do.