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In the early decades of the 20th century, psychology was still a fledgling scientific field dominated by men. When Rosalie Rayner graduates from Vassar College in 1919, the ambitious and intelligent young woman is eager to make her mark on the world. She enrolls in graduate studies in psychology at Johns Hopkins University where she meets John B. Watson, the founder of the psychological school of behaviorism. Watson hires Rosalie as a research assistant in his lab and they begin conducting controversial experiments on newborn and infant children--including the famous Little Albert experiment where they condition an eleven month old boy to fear items which he had not previously been afraid of, such as a white rat, by scaring the child with a loud noise each time the item was presented. Fear conditioning isn't the only thing to develop during their experiment as Rosalie falls for her charismatic research partner, who is also twice her age and married. The affair and scandal that follow transform Rosalie's life. No longer a student or researcher at Hopkins, she becomes Mrs. John Watson, a wife and mother intent on raising her sons under their father's revolutionary, albeit questionable, behaviorist standards and with the same detached objectivity as in the research lab.
My Rating: 3 out of 5  

Behave is a fictionalized account of the life of Rosalie Rayner Watson. Not much is known about the woman behind one of the most influential men in psychology but Romano-Lax makes gives us fascinating glimpse at what the real life Rosalie might have been like. The story is told from Rosalie's perspective, starting out as a naive teenage college student from a well-regarded wealthy Jewish family through to her eventual death from dysentery. We see Rosalie wrestle with her changing roles, her work ambitions and her obligations as a mother and the wife of a man who believed that traditional child rearing methods and motherly affection were ruining children. (Seriously, Watson believed that baby farms were the best way to raise children!) The narrative sporadically reveals Rosalie's retrospective opinions throughout each stage of her life and she even expresses regret regarding some of her actions and her husband's theories. Pioneering psychologist Mary Cover also makes several appearances in the story as competitive Rosalie follows the flourishing career of her former Vassar classmate.

Overall, I found this historical fiction novel to be quite interesting, though it's certainly not the most compelling page-turner that I've read. The plot lacks a dramatic arch and climax, but I found the steadiness of the plot to feel much more relatable and real. The narrative has a lot of introspective qualities and it's always fascinating to explore the world of previous decades, specifically a woman's place in that world. The ideas about psychology and child rearing from the beginning of the previous century were quite different from today, as were the ethical standards for the scientific study of human behavior using human subjects, particularly children. In fact, some readers may be horrified by how the children were treated during experimentation (though it's nothing gruesome or physically abusive). I remember studying behaviorism in my undergrad psychology courses but B. F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov are the two behaviorists I best recall. I appreciated getting to explore some of John Watson's behaviorist principles in Behave, disturbing as they were, and to learn about his wife's contribution to the work for which his name is remembered but hers has been forgotten.

#1 - The Assistants by Camille Perri
#2 - Behave by Andromeda Romano-Lax

NEXT BOOK: #3 - The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros