This is a remarkable book not only for its content, but for the way it is written. What Lauren Slater does extremely well is (1) provide a context for the experiments and personalize them; (2) insinuate herself into the narrative in meaningful ways; and (3) write the kind of prose that is vivid and psychologically engaging. She has the gift of the novelist, and she is not satisfied with the conventional surface of things.
But there is an edge to Slater's prose. She dwells on the horrific: the lobotomies, the monkeys being abused for the experimenter's purposes, the living rats with their brains exposed... She does/doesn't believe that the means of animal experimentation justifies the ends of neurological knowledge. This dialectic that she holds in her mind, now favoring the value of experimental psychology, now questioning it, may leave the reader dissatisfied and confused. Where DOES Lauren Slater stand? She says she stands "with this book" for which there is no conclusion, even though she writes a concluding chapter with that title.
So it is not so strange that among these "great psychological experiments" she finds nothing like solid ground. Instead she waffles between experimenter and experiment, between one interpretation and another. And while she addresses the experiments themselves and the controversies they raised, more significantly she addresses the experimenters themselves, challenges them with sharp and sometimes impertinent questions; and when the experimenters are not available, she finds relatives or friends and fires loaded questions at them. Slater wants to find the truth, if possible, and to be fair; but often what she finds is that she doesn't know what the truth is, and that life is oh, so complex.
This is refreshing and of course disconcerting. She began with an attitude of deep distrust, for example, toward B. F. Skinner, the man who had put his daughter in a box, the man who apparently cared more for experiment and establishing behaviorism than he did for human beings, a man whose conclusions could pave the way to a new and more horrible fascist state. But Slater plunges in and finds that his daughters loved him and that the one who supposedly committed suicide is alive and well. Slater even realizes, after being confronted by Julia Skinner Vargas, one of the daughters she interviewed by telephone, that she, Slater, hadn't read Skinner's magnum opus, Beyond Freedom and Dignity--had instead, like most of us, myself included, known it only by reputation, bad reputation.
So Slater reads the book and when she is through she compares Skinner to a "green" Al Gore and speculates that "maybe" Skinner "was the first feminist psychologist." Quite a turnaround.
But this is characteristic of Slater's approach. Become engaged. Keep an open and flexible mind. Dare to believe what others are afraid to believe. Turn on a dime. And this is right for this book since many of the experimenters did exactly that: they sought to show where the conventional wisdom was wrong; and they sought to turn psychology on its head.
The first piece I read (opening the book at random) was "On Being Sane in Insane Places." This is about how in the early 1970s, Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan and eight collaborators showed up at nine different mental hospital around the country and told the shrinks they were hearing voices. The voices said one word: "Thud." They were committed even though otherwise they acted normally. Their stay was from fifty-two to seven days each.
This experiment created a sensation and a scandal in the psychiatric community and caused a complete overall in the DSM II (we have DSM IV today). The diagnostic language was rewritten so that the definitions became measurable, and the volume grew by two hundred pages.
Slater decided to replicate the experiment. She went to mental hospitals and said she heard a voice that said, "Thud." What she got were prescriptions for antipsychotics and antidepressants.
There are ten chapters and a conclusion. "Obscura," the second chapter deals with Stanley Milgram's infamous electric shock experiment which showed that ordinary people would, guided by the authority of the experimenter, administer what they thought were possibly lethal shocks to fellow human beings. Another chapter looks at Leon Festinger's experiment with infiltrating a doom's day cult and seeing what happens when doom does not arrive at the appointed hour. What happens is "cognitive dissonance"--which I would call "elaborate rationalization."
Still another chapter is devoted to the famous "Lost in the Mall" repressed memory experiment by Elizabeth Loftus which demonstrated how subject to suggestion are our memories. Loftus who, along with Katherine Ketcham, wrote The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (1994), showed how a false memory of being lost in the mall as child could be suggested to people and how they would not only come to believe it, but would confabulate all sorts of "remembered" detail around an event that never happened.
This is a book that may make some practicing psychologists uneasy. (And they may write nasty reviews.) Certainly Slater does not play to their feelings. Quite the opposite. Toward the end she asks: "At what point does experimental psychology and clinical psychology meet? Apparently at no point. I interviewed twelve licensed practicing psychologists...and none of them even knew most of these experiments, never mind used them in their work." (p. 253)
And Slater is not enchanted with the new psychopharmacology. She argues that Prozac, Zoloft, and other psychoactive drugs may have long term effects worse than lobotomies. In fact the point of Chapter 10: "Chipped" is to tell the story of a man who benefitted from a cingulotomy (the modern, streamlined lobotomy) after electroshock therapy and after "more than twenty-three...psychiatric medications" had failed him.
The walnuts pictured on the cover come from this statement about the brain on page 249: "there is still something holy about that three-pound wrinkled walnut with a sheen."