Readings and Re-Readings

April 12, 2004

Lauren Slater, Opening Skinner's Box. W.W. Norton & Company. 2004.

I watched Shattered Glass over the weekend. I was impressed at how much drama it was able to wrench from the situation, and how carefully the film avoided becoming a stupid movie-of-the-week psycho-melodrama about Stephen Glass.

It reminded me of why Stephen Glass is interesting and Jayson Blair not, and why one almost hopes that Glass keeps writing novels and Blair vanishes without a trace. The story with Blair is the story of Howell Raines and his time at the New York Times, as Raines’ own piece in this month’s Atlantic makes clear. Blair’s fabrications were dull and lazy, and all he can say for himself now is a catalogue of every lame excuse in the world except that the dog ate his notes. Glass’ fabrications were something else: narratives so dripping with zeitgeist, they ought to have been real. As Glass himself appears to know very well now, if only he’d been a novelist (or an advertiser) his star would have blazed undiminished.

If only. Reality bites. If you label what you write a fiction, the taller your tale, the better. If you say, “this really happened,” it doesn’t matter how much it sounds like it’s true, it’s got to meet some minimum standards. It’s a question of what authority you want to claim for yourself. We’re at round 1,000 and counting of Pen Vs. Sword, but let’s say at least that Pen has won a few along the way, and sometimes those victories move the lever of the world, whether it’s getting Jack Henry Abbott out of prison or helping readers feel the beating of a heart not their own.

This is all so hard when you’re dealing with a story that not only ought to be true, but that even if false in the details, still reminds us of some elusive insight. I’d been reading Lauren Slater’s Opening Skinner’s Box lately, and enjoying it. However, even before reading today’s article in the New York Times, there were things that worried me about it. Like others, I’d heard the story about B.F. Skinner’s daughter, and I’d heard it debunked. The Times piece raises a lot of other concerns. Some of them strike me as at least ambiguous: some of Slater’s sources sound like they’re wishing they hadn’t talked to her or said what they did. (I’m not sure why Kagan wants to disabuse people of the diving-under-the-desk thing, anyway: I found it charming.) There’s enough to raise alarm bells, though, not the least because Slater has previously written provocatively about lying with a professed knowledge of its arts. The little story early in the book about eating the chocolate in Skinner’s study had me feeling worriedly skeptical from the first moment I saw it.

At least some of what Slater has to say even in the challenged parts of the book can survive the attack—in fact, had she written it a bit more carefully, she’d be fine. It doesn’t matter in some sense that Deborah Skinner is living and mentally healthy, or that she was simply raised in a slightly exotic crib. What is more important, as it always is with urban legends, is that we believe them to be true. We believe that Skinner raised his children in boxes because the idea of Skinnerian behavioralism was so powerful as a story of developmental psychology, and because the narrative of self-experimentation and the hubris of science is so strongly resonant with us all (not without reason).

Now I happen to think that the best thing a writer can do for us is show us why we’ve come to believe that something false might be true, and also to show us how the truths we know a bit about are even more intricate than we suspect, as Deborah Blum has done in her book about Harry Harlow, Love at Goon Park. (Slater also discusses Harlow.)

The deeper thing that Slater captures for me that I desperately want to be true and know is not, at least not quite in the way she says it is, is simply this: that a swashbuckling era of irresponsible and sometimes horrific psychological experiments occasionally got at deeper truths about who we are and how we live that the more measured, cautious, controlled scientific work of the present cannot. We know it’s possible that madness can be performed, or that we’d hurt people when we’re told to by an authority. It’s not hard to see why today’s psychologists would reject her slippery descriptions of this work: it unravels decades of working towards respectability, and ignores how some of the experiments she recounts were more careful than she lets on. I don’t want to undo that labor—and when bad experimental work in social psychology undergirds public policy constructions or common social narratives that I don’t agree with, I want the privilege of criticizing the design as well as the intent of such experiments. I still like the idea of irresponsible, quasi-guerilla style psychological experiments, though. Maybe someone will write a novel. Or maybe we can still get this from Slater, for surely she's not all wrong, and surely some of her critics are reacting both to her inaccuracies and her fractured truths.