Romano-Lax (The Detour, 2012, etc.) gives voice to the remarkable woman behind a controversial man in this fictional memoir of parenting psychologist Rosalie Rayner.
In the 1920s, John Watson and his team at John Hopkins conducted extensive psychological experiments on babies to test Watson’s theories about the importance of nurture over nature and the potential of behavioral conditioning. The ethics of their landmark set of early experiments on one anonymous child, called Little Albert, remain the subject of considerable criticism today. Rayner, then a recent college graduate, was Watson's right hand during the trials but soon became just as controversial as her mentor. They began a romantic relationship, which ended Watson’s marriage and forced him to leave Hopkins. The couple went on to marry and write parenting books based on their research. Watson is still at the center of the story, which begins when Rayner meets him while still an undergraduate at Vassar. But Romano-Lax skillfully transitions between the early academic allure of Watson's work, the heady days of the pair's illicit relationship, and Rayner’s later difficulty in bridging the life she thought she’d have and her own reality. The book spans decades quickly, at times dizzyingly, following Rayner through her gradual disillusionment. While the author paints a compelling portrait of Rayner’s life, much is left unexplored. Rayner’s response to her husband’s continued infidelity and her withdrawal into the domestic sphere leave the reader with many questions, particularly after the deeply detailed earlier chapters. Romano-Lax trusts her readers to make connections across chapters with little to jog their memories, which can take the reader out of the story at crucial, dramatic moments. These hiccups aside, however, the book succeeds in bringing to life a complex, driven woman who has largely been lost to history.
Rayner finally has the spotlight in this compelling fictional memoir, even if the occasional lack of explanation and detail glosses over key moments.