This article first appeared in the January/February 2003 issue.


Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection
By Deborah Blum
Perseus Publishing. 308 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0278-9

Harry Harlow is ripe to be rescued from obscurity, and Deborah Blum is just the write0r to do the job. In her engaging new biography of the controversial primate researcher who established the importance of affection in human development, Blum hits the trifecta: she gives readers a compelling portrait of Harlow, the man; a nice sketch of his intellectual milieu; and a persuasive argument for the enduring importance of his work.

To appreciate Harlow’s contribution, it is important to remember that when he began his career in the 1930s, most of the best minds in psychology believed that affection, particularly maternal affection, was overrated at best, and quite possibly dangerous. Mothers, to this way of thinking, were hazardous to an infant’s physical health because they bore potentially infectious bacteria, and were inimical to a child’s emotional development because they fostered dependency. That affection might actually benefit a child was regarded as an argument from sentiment rather than science, and cut no ice with research psychologists eager to establish that their discipline was every bit as rigorous as medicine.

Harlow challenged this orthodoxy with experiments that ultimately proved that baby monkeys who formed a close relationship with a trustworthy (if inanimate) mother figure thrived, while those who lived in isolation or were rejected by their mother figure exhibited classic symptoms of psychological distress. In subsequent experiments, he demonstrated that affection allowed young monkeys to feel secure, which in turn allowed them to take the risks necessary to indulge their curiosity, which in turn made them smarter than monkeys who received no such affection.

Harlow’s work established him as one of the most influential research psychologists of his time, yet today he is little known. Blum attributes this to the complexity of his personality and the nature of his experiments. Harlow was a dark, obsessive figure with a sarcastic sense of humor and an utter lack of tact. He clashed frequently with colleagues, especially feminists. He had married two highly accomplished women himself, yet he treated many of his female colleagues with contempt. Simple charges of sexism don’t tell the whole story, however. In Harlow’s eyes, feminists who advocated that women work outside the home were indirectly challenging what he had spent his career establishing: the significance of a close, nurturing bond between mother and child.

His legacy is further complicated by the devastating psychological effects his experiments had on the monkeys who were raised in isolation or subjected to maternal rejection. The fledgling animal rights movement identified him as one of its first villains, and many of his colleagues agreed that at least some of his experiments had crossed an ethical line. Finally, like many intellectual pioneers, his reputation has been diminished by success. Sometimes a new idea triumphs so completely that it seems self-evident. Blum’s highly readable book reminds us of the difficult personality whose sometimes-dark experiments gave affection its scientific standing.


Trauma Practice in the Wake of September 11, 2001

Edited by Steven N. Gold and Jan Faust

The Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press. 164 pp. ISBN 0-7890-1919-1

The title of this book suggests that by their very magnitude, the catastrophes at the Pentagon and World Trade Center have altered our ideas about treating trauma victims. The assumption seems safe enough. Because of the prominence of the targets, and the ubiquity of the news coverage, the attacks of September 11, 2001, had a profound impact on an audience that reached into the millions. In addition, the success of Al Qaeda’s strikes transformed overnight Americans’ sense of personal security. Many trauma experts believe that the attacks require us to rethink how trauma services will be delivered on similar occasions in the future.

Such reflection may be underway, but on the evidence on this book, and a recent survey of journal articles, the results have yet to see the light of day. Steven Gold and Jan Faust have compiled a collection of intermittently useful if not especially ambitious articles. The piece by Green Cross founder Charles Figley and others will help emergency response strategists understand the significant decisions made in the wake of the attacks concerning where to deploy trauma specialists, what types of treatments to employ, and what other types of therapists to enlist in the effort. The article by J. Eric Gentry on guarding against compassion fatigue contains worthwhile self-care strategies. But several of the pieces, particularly the interviews, have little depth.

The only article in the book that explores new trauma treatments is a case study by JoAnn Difede and David Eskra on the use of Cognitive Processing Therapy in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. More disappointing is the lack of attention devoted to coping with future relief efforts. Given the reach of the mass media, it is now necessary to convey coping and treatment strategies to millions of people as quickly as possible. How is this to be done? Where are traumatized people to turn when existing mental health facilities are overtaxed, as they almost certainly will be in the wake of another catastrophic attack?

It may be too early to expect answers to these questions, but it isn’t too early to wonder why they are not being asked.


The Soul of Recovery: Uncovering the Spiritual Dimension in the Treatment of Addictions

By Christopher D. Ringwald

Oxford University Press. 270 pp. ISBN 0-19-514768-5

The primary difficulty in writing about spirituality lies in defining what it is. Not only does the word mean many things to many people, but most of those meanings, on close inspection, are maddeningly vague or outright nonsensical. Christopher Ringwald sidesteps this problem in this lengthy brief for Twelve-Step programs by shifting the focus from the content of an individual’s spirituality to its effects.

He presents persuasive evidence that Twelve-Step programs are perhaps the most effective means of kicking a drug or alcohol habit. And he offers a surfeit of testimony from counselors and former addicts establishing that the spiritual component of these programs is essential. All of which makes for a solid, if not especially surprising, contribution to the voluminous literature on Twelve-Step programs. Yet it leaves fundamental questions unanswered.

When addicts surrender to a “higher power,” does their newfound strength come from this power–is it, for example, what Christians would call “grace?”–or does the willingness to believe in something–anything–endow them with strength they previously lacked? Is the success of Twelve-Step programs a testament to the power of God, cognitive therapy, or both?

Ringwald recognizes that these questions can’t be answered–or even discussed–without engaging in theological speculation, and he doesn’t want to go there. This is due in part to his understanding that Twelve-Step programs have flourished by allowing participants to “suss” through the “higher power” issues for themselves, and in part to his desire to demonstrate that while AA and similar programs are “spiritual,” they are not “religious.” This doesn’t wash. Once you posit the existence of a higher power, you are in tall metaphysical grass, and a tolerance for other viewpoints does not excuse you from articulating your own.

Ringwald fudges the issue by advocating “a spirituality that works.” Judged by this standard, one’s beliefs are valid, to the extent that they are effective (or, if one believes in an active God, one might say “rewarded”). This is not a view that finds much support in the classic spiritual texts. What would St. John of the Cross, who first named the Dark Night of the Soul, have made of a spirituality that “works”? More to the point, what does one do with deeply held beliefs when they stop “working”? Believing in a higher power may or may not bring rewards, but judging it primarily by this standard reduces one’s convictions about the ultimate nature of reality to so many bargaining chips in negotiations with the higher power.