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March 27, 2004

This Is Exactly the Sort of Thing
That Better Not Happen on Tanenhaus' Watch

by Ron Hogan

Peter Singer takes a look at Lauren Slater's Opening Skinner's Box for the NYTBR, and though he finds a few things to quibble about towards the end, he doesn't pick up on the book's biggest problem of all: Slater's inaccurate account of B.F. Skinner's daughter, Deborah, as having been warped to the point of psychosis and attempted suicide by her father's experiments--so gross a misrepresentation that Deborah wrote to the Guardian set the record straight and is pursuing a libel case against the book's British publisher.

But those of us who read literary blogs have known about this development for over a week now, thanks to people like Ed telling us about Skinner's furious rebuttal or Alex Beam's followup for the Boston Globe. And even if the NYTBR lead time was too far ahead to catch this development, it's as if Singer barely registered that chapter of the book at all. There isn't even a "Hmm, that would certainly be damning of Skinner if it were true" curiosity about the bogus biography--instead, he devotes a good chunk of space to recounting and attacking Harry Harlow's research on monkeys.

Hardly surprising from the author of Animal Liberation, of course, but you'd think he'd be just as interested in allegations of that level of abuse being perpetuated on a human infant. (Slater now claims she tried really, really hard to find Deborah Skinner to verify the story but just couldn't, so she ran with it anyway.) That omission, and frankly the perfunctory tone of much of the piece, especially the ending, make it look like Chip McGrath was just happy to get something, anything, because they couldn't ignore a new Lauren Slater book entirely, much as he might like to. The lazy gesture does not reflect well upon the Review, and makes me, at least, that much more anticipatory of the upcoming regime change.


Should be an interesting reading at KGB tonight then :)

Posted by: felicia at March 30, 2004 01:26 PM

It's really a stunning oversight. For gods' sake, even I knew that Deborah Skinner was still alive, and have known it since I read a book called RUMOR! back in the 1980s. Pretty pathetic that a so-called journalist buys into a "Procter & Gamble are Satan worshippers"-type rumor so credulously, and, as though that weren't bad enough, apparently doesn't know how to get access to Lexis/Nexis, which would have taken all of five seconds to tell her that Deborah Skinner is very much alive.

Posted by: The Significant Other at March 30, 2004 07:27 PM

Has anyone actually READ my Skinner chapter? I make it quite clear on page 7 that I am recounting the urban legend, and immediately thereafter, on page eight, I quote from Deborah Skinner saying, "I am alive and well. My suicide is a myth. The box is not what it seems.My father is not what he seems. He was a brilliant psychologist, a compassionate parent. I write to dispel the legends."
Further into the chapter, on page 26, I quote Julie Skinner Vargas saying, "my sister is alive and well."
I describe the famed "baby box" as "really an upgraded playpen in which young Deborah spent a few hours a day...Skinner outfitted his babybox
with padding made of a special material that absorbed odours and wetness so a woman's washing time was reduced by half...It all seems, without doubt, good intentioned and sets Skinner firmly in humane waters."(pp24-25)

One last point: My chapter is not even about Debbie. It's about her father, and his experiments, and the huge effect he had on all of our lives.

Lauren Slater

Posted by: lauren slater at April 6, 2004 12:31 AM

With reference to Lauren Slater's self-vindication on this site, how does she square her saying that she set the record straight about Skinner's alleged mistreatment of his daughter with her remarks in her concluding chapter hinting at a hidden secret about Deborah:

"I began this book in search of Deborah Skinner, the elusive, mythologized daughter of the twentieth century's most radical neobehaviorist, and I never found her. I'm sure she is alive, but I did not come up with any data that would convince me of her mental status. After years as her father's experimental subject, did she fare well? Did she thrive? Is she dented or damaged in some way? I don't know."

Posted by: Allen Esterson at April 13, 2004 05:01 AM
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