By Carl Blumenthal
Like all of us, Lauren Slater is a bundle of contradictions: patient and psychologist. Multiply diagnosed but responsive to medication. Once anorexic, now obese. Straight, married with kids and a lesbian lover. Fiction and non-fiction writer. Philosopher and funny girl.
In Welcome to My Country: A Therapist’s Memoir of Madness (1996), Prozac Diary (1998), Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir (2000) and Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century (2004), she upsets our expectations of how peers and professionals are supposed to behave.
The first two books won acclaim for a psychologist who confessed her psychiatric history in vivid prose. As if such honesty were too good to be true, the next two volumes were criticized for playing loose with the truth. Since then Slater’s star has faded as she’s written about her pregnancy, children, fairy tales, and animals.
I find Opening Skinner’s Box her most fascinating work. She believes psychology is more kindness than diagnoses and treatments. More art (intuition) than science (reason). This insight isn’t new, but as a creative writer before, during, and after her stint as a clinical psychologist, Slater’s imagination is her best tool.
Of the ten researchers on Slater’s best-hits list, consumers of mental health care will probably dislike eight. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner and his compliant rats are the worst example. Of lesser ill repute are Stanley Milgram who tricked human subjects into obeying his commands and Harry Harlow who abused monkeys to prove maternal attachment.
Other investigators found bystanders don’t help people in danger, we rationalize our behavior to fit our beliefs, addiction in rats is a matter of choice not genes, people’s memories of abuse can be invented, learning in sea slugs is neurological, and brain surgery on the mentally ill relieves distress.
The main exception to these anti-humanistic rules: volunteers faked hearing voices and were hospitalized against their wills, undermining the validity of psychiatric diagnosis.
Dr. Slater admires these scientists’ ingenuity and how their experiments changed the course of psychology, although some practices are now considered outdated or harmful. Her subjects are an obsessive-compulsive bunch. How else could they have dedicated their careers to proving controversial ideas? If they over-promoted themselves and their theories, this makes them intriguing characters in what reads like a detective novel.
Slater adds to the excitement by questioning our “prejudices.” For examples, she decides Skinner wasn’t really authoritarian and psychosurgery is now sophisticated enough to be beneficial. In the dire situations concocted for many of the experiments, she imagines herself failing such tests of moral courage.
Stating “I’m partial to jokesters, adventure, to people in pain,” she buys gas masks for her family after 9/11, goes to psych hospitals with fake symptoms, and takes opioids to see whether she’ll become addicted. Her husband’s objections to what he thinks are ridiculous, even dangerous ideas, spurs her on.
Whether trying to be an honest reporter or just expressing her natural doubts, Slater generally analyzes the pros and cons of each hypothesis without choosing sides. Rather than pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat of uncertainty, she invites readers to examine the tricks of the experimental trade—mainly overgeneralizing from small human samples and animal models.
As in Welcome to My Country, she can be profound. What she says about a patient with schizophrenia represents her philosophy of life: “Not being is built into us as certainly as is being. Every heartbeat has its opposite, a snatching away of sound, an evaporation of blood. Behind every presence lurks an absence. Loss, loss, the animals cry.”
Who can prove or disprove in 256 pages research that consumed lifetimes? An intellectual explorer, Slater has a knack for filling in missing evidence with descriptions of the landscape, outside and in her mind. She orients us to the possibility we’re going in circles because “all of us are artists where images have only the vaguest relationship to reality.”
Slater says of Elizabeth Loftus, who challenged the recall of child abuse witnesses, “In the end [she] is just like the rest of us, only amplified, a blend of intelligence and blindness, with many soft spots.”
Readers will have to decide whether these soft spots are weakness or the milk of kindness. Though her book was published 12 years ago, Lauren Slater’s misgivings and love offerings are still relevant today.