Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Love in Infant Monkeys (Lydia Millet review/interview Part One)

Love in Infant Monkeys: Stories 

I believe I was in high school when I first read about Harry Harlow's famous studies with infant monkeys.  In the classic experiment, the baby monkeys were raised in isolation, and they were given a choice between a surrogate mother made of wire and one made of terrycloth.  In one version of the experiment, the "soft" mother offered no food while the wire one did.  In the reverse version, the terrycloth surrogate offered food and the wire one did not.  What Harlow found was that the monkeys always preferred the soft mothers, even when they didn't give food, and  they only chose the wire mothers when they needed food.  These experiments were considered landmarks in the study of infant imprinting and are still referenced in psychology texts today.  They are one of the studies that everyone with an interest in psychology knows about, but often without being intimately aware of, or giving much thought to, how they were conducted.  They've become part of the background of psychology, something taken for granted and often cited, like a metaphor whose literal meaning we have forgotten.

The truth of Harry Harlow's experiments is a little harder to take.  In the fifties and sixties he conducted numerous experiments on the effects of total and partial isolation on the behavior and mental states of rhesus monkeys.  These were infant monkeys taken from their mothers soon after birth.  In addition to the often cited "surrogate mother" experiments, Harlow and his students also kept monkeys in total isolation for extended periods of time.  This isolation produced monkeys with extreme psychological disturbances, including catatonia, repetitive stereotyped movement around their cages, and self-mutilation.  (You can find a video of Harry explaining his most famous experiment on YouTube .  The "mad scientist" feel is hard to miss.  You can also find a detailed and surprisingly uncritical description of the experiments at a site called Adoption History Project .  There's a somewhat more critical description on Wikipedia  -- but the reference notes to that article show that similar experiments in the effects of deprivation and manipulation of maternal bonds were still going on with rats and mice, at least as recently as the 1980's and '90's).  

Harry Harlow called his most famous paper, first published in Scientific American in 1959, "Love in Infant Monkeys".  He is quite open about his reasons for performing these experiments on his chosen subjects:

The first love of the human infant is for his mother. The tender intimacy of this attachment is such that it is sometimes regarded as a sacred or mystical force, an instinct incapable of analysis. No doubt such compunctions, along with the obvious obstacles in the way of objective study, have hampered experimental observation of the bonds between child and mother ... it is difficult, if not impossible, to use human infants as subjects for the studies necessary to break through the present speculative impasse. . . . Clearly research into the infant-mother relationship has need of a more suitable laboratory animal. We believe we have found it in the infant monkey.

Lydia Millet borrowed Harlow's title -- and Harlow himself -- for the central story of her 2009 short story collection -- "Love in Infant Monkeys".  This collection, which was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, is situated at "the rare intersection of wilderness and celebrity" (according to the jacket copy).  Each of the stories is built around the encounter between a famous human and an animal -- some very tenuous, some intimate -- and as a collection the stories show an impressive range of style, technique and point of view.  It has the titillation of a supermarket tabloid -- all those celebrities and their "hidden" lives --  wrapped up in stories that are at once accessible and challenging.  The best of them pack an emotional charge that will stay with a reader (they have with me), and as a whole the collection is one of the smartest I've read in a long time.  Millet seems to be a writer who thinks deeply about difficult problems and isn't afraid to let them remain difficult on the page.

But let's go back for a moment to Harry Harlow.

Millet's story adopts a distanced, almost biographical tone.  One of the greatest pleasures of this collection is its rich variety of points-of-view.   The stories contain everything from stream-of-consciousness (Madonna after shooting a pheasant on her English estate) to hearsay (a wife recounting an incident that happened to her husband), to fairly straight forward first and third person stories.  I was delighted to see so much range so I asked Millet about point-of-view and how conscious her decisions about it are while writing: 

I don’t typically think about point of view, I have that when I start; in this collection the voice was demanded by the celebrity-animal conjunction, I felt, where there wasn’t much room for choice on my part. I couldn’t have written about Madonna without interior monologue, or about Harry Harlow in the first person; these were dictated, form by content.

"Love in Infant Monkeys" (the story) begins with an almost text-book tone:

Harry Harlow had a general hypothesis:  Mothers are useful, in scientific terms.  They have an intrinsic value, even beyond their breast milk.  Call it their company.

One of the less high-minded pleasures of this collection is guessing exactly where the real lives of famous people end and fiction begins.  With some stories its easier.     For instance:

But he spoke harshly of his test subjects.  "The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out to be a property I can publish," he said.  "I don't have any love for them.  I never have.  How could you love a monkey?"

I'm not sure how much those words reflect either Harry Harlow's feelings -- or his publicly stated feelings -- about monkeys.  Indeed, I couldn't find any public statements from Harlow that seemed to reflect feelings at all.  He talked about feelings, as a subject for scientific study, but never seems to have expressed his feelings at all.

More importantly -- in the world of Millet's story -- we still can't be sure how much Harlow's words reflect his true feelings, and how much they reflect a repression of feeling that is killing him.  He wanders through his laboratory, checking on the monkeys in his "pits of despair" -- the total isolation tanks in which he confines young monkeys to observe the effects.  He singles out one young female who is "still plucky ... still game to try and get out, to change her situation."  But he knows that the end is always defeat, surrender and depression.  Harry himself seems to be sinking into a pit of despair -- he is haunted by dreams of monkey mothers, fierce and protective, forced to watch their infants wasting away.  The bleakness and hopelessness, for both the subjects and the scientist, is inescapable.

I will continue the review of "Love in Infant Monkeys" along with Lydia Millet's most recent novel "How the Dead Dream", and have more of my interview with her in my next posting. 

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