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 months Atlantic makes clear. Blairs
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 hed been a novelist (or an advertiser) his star would have blazed
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 doesnt matter how much it
sounds like its true, its got to meet some minimum standards. Its
a question of what authority you want to claim for yourself. Were at round
1,000 and counting of Pen Vs. Sword, but lets say at least that Pen has
won a few along the way, and sometimes those victories move the lever of the
world, whether its 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
youre 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. Id
been reading Lauren Slaters Opening Skinners Box lately,
and enjoying it. However, even before reading todays
article in the New York Times, there were things that worried me
about it. Like others, Id heard the story about B.F. Skinners daughter,
and Id heard it debunked. The Times piece raises a lot of other
concerns. Some of them strike me as at least ambiguous: some of Slaters
sources sound like theyre wishing they hadnt talked to her or said
what they did. (Im not sure why Kagan wants to disabuse people of the
diving-under-the-desk thing, anyway: I found it charming.) Theres 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 Skinners 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 attackin
fact, had she written it a bit more carefully, shed be fine. It doesnt
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 weve 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
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 its possible that madness can be performed, or that wed hurt people when were told to by an authority. Its not hard to see why todays 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 dont want to undo that laborand when bad experimental work in social psychology undergirds public policy constructions or common social narratives that I dont 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.