Note: As stated under the Source (above), I received this book for free from Soho Press via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review (and trust me, honest is always what you’ll get).
Review: What a smartly written book. The writing was beautiful and the story flowed seamlessly. The characters were very well-developed. There is so much I enjoyed about this book. However, this is one of those books that I loved technically, but had a difficult time with because of the subject matter. I’ve tried very hard, as the author suggests, to consider everything that was done within the context of the times, both socially and scientifically. And also to remind myself that it is fiction that is loosely based on the the limited truth that is known about what really happened.
I’m no expert, but I do realize that times were different. It was the 20’s and psychology was a relatively new field (it still is comparatively speaking). There was so much to be learned and studied and theories abounded. And I imagine that across the board scientists were given more latitude in their research, ethical lines not being as finely drawn as they would be today. Goodness knows enough horrible tortures have been inflicted upon people in the name of scientific progress, and as much as we abhor some of the things that were done, we can’t deny that we have all benefited from those discoveries (making it that much more difficult to swallow). And what they did might not have seemed all that horrible to them at the time (though it seems so to me!), and even I can admit it doesn’t seem as horrible on the surface as what had been done in the past (or even what was done later!). And really no one knew for certain what the long-term impacts would be. After all, the point was, it hadn’t been studied before.
But it seems to me there is something inherently wrong with going against your instincts when they are typical instincts (i.e. there is proof that they are instincts found in most mothers, etc.). We can make excuses for what they did in their experimentations on Albert B. and their own sons. We can claim they didn’t know. But either they a) had instincts that supported their actions – which makes me question their humanity or b) they ignored their instincts – which makes me question their goodness. So, while I can logically separate myself from what they did and look at their actions in the light of a proper context, I cannot shut off my own emotions, my own instincts as a mother, and excuse what they did. I did a LOT of cringing during the reading of this book. And I wasn’t at all surprised to find their children permanently suffered because of their “innocuous” experiments.
Truth be told, I wonder if Romano-Lax wasn’t especially generous in her characterization of both Rar and her husband. Well, maybe not so much John. Honestly, I found him to be a complete ass. Great if he contributed wonderful things to the field of psychology but that doesn’t spare him censure for being a horrible person (a liar, a cheater, arrogant, self-delusioned, and an emotionally disconnected father – just as a start). And for Rar to allow herself to be subsumed for her love by him, that she would allow, for any period of time, for him to experiment on their children, or worse, to do so herself, that she questioned and eventually turned off her own instincts in favor of his logical approach to parenting…I just don’t know what to do with that. It’s so frustrating because overall, I loved her and I was just so perplexed by her willingness to concede everything for his love and approval. And to then just accept what she had done as water under the bridge. I’m finding it very difficult to reconcile all that I loved about her with the reprehensible choices that she made.
So maybe that’s the genius in this whole thing. That Romano-Lax humanized people whose actions, if perceived separately, could easily be demonized. We are so much more than the bad choices we make, and if we hurt others without the intent of doing so, if in fact, we hurt them while trying to help them – or humanity as a whole, shouldn’t that intent matter?Aren’t most bad acts borne of good intentions, committed by people whom others would have labeled “too good to do such a thing”?
If you are looking for a book that is wonderfully written, with deep and complex characters, a book that will make you think, make you consider things from a perspective you might not otherwise, a book that jolts you awake and maybe pisses you off all while making you examine your own quick jumps to judgment, this is a great book for you. I’m still thinking about all of it, and I imagine I will continue to do so for some time. I certainly got a lot more out of this book than I put in. And a book that I can say that about is worth its weight in gold.