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April 06, 2004

Letters, We Get Letters...

by Ron Hogan

slater.jpg"Has anyone actually READ my Skinner chapter?" asks Lauren Slater late last night. (Scroll down to the bottom.) She goes on to suggest all this hullaballoo over what she said about Deborah Skinner is misplaced because she makes it clear the urban legend is just that: a myth.

Well, I don't have the book at hand, and neither Amazon nor the New York Times, usually good sources for first chapters, could help me out, but I did find the online archives for a psychology-themed mailing list that's been hashing this out. They cited the book to make their cases, so I'll post the relevant passages (assuming they're accurate quotations), tell you what I think, and you can make up your own mind.

Say the name "Skinner" to twenty college-educated people, and fifteen of them will respond with an adjective like "evil." This I know to be true, as I have done it as an experiment. Of those fifteen who responded, ten brought up the baby in the box - what was her name they ask, Julia, Kimberly, Annie May? - who was so traumatized by her father's protocols throughout her infancy that she wound up killing herself in a hotel room, with rope and a pistol - the details are clear. This much we presume we know: Her name was Deborah. He wanted to train her, so he kept her caged for two full years, placing with her cramped square space bells and food trays and all manner of mean punishments and bright rewards, and he tracked her progress on a grid. And then, when she was thirty-one and frankly psychotic, she sued him for abuse in a genuine court of law, lost the case, and shot herself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. Boom-boom went the gun. Its resonating sound signaled the end of behaviorism's heyday and the beginning of the dark suspicions that have clouded it ever since.

Putting aside the wildly inconsistent tone, which veers from the quasi-Victorian "This I know to be true" to the faux-pulp "Boom-boom went the gun"--and, really, starting two sentences in the same paragraph with "this"?--let's zero in on the phrase which might make Slater's case for her: "This much we presume we know." One could charitably read that as an indication that everything following it up to the end of the paragraph is presented as a hypothetical scenario rather than a statement of fact. There are other, less ambiguous ways she could have done it, but you could make the case that's what she had in mind. (Of course, the fact that she could have said it better circles back to the issue of the lurching prose style, but we don't want to take on too much here.)

On to the parts where Slater says she debunks that version of events. First, she searches the Internet and finds a web page with a statement by the daughter:

"My name is Deborah Skinner," the caption read, "and my suicide is a myth. I am alive and well. The box is not what is seems. My father is not what he seems. He was a brilliant psychologist, a compassionate parent. I write to dispel the legends."

Legends. Stories. True tales. Tall tales. Perhaps the challenge of understanding Skinner's experiments will be primarily discriminatory, separating content from controversy, a sifting through. Writes psychologist and historian John A. Mills, "[Skinner] was a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma."

I decided to wade in, slowly.

All the credit Slater needs might be in that first paragraph...except that the following two might seem to call it into doubt for some readers, by suggesting that the truth still remained to be found out. On the other hand, it seems clear upon reading and rereading this passage that what Slater says she "decided to wade in" was not the mystery of Deborah's fate, but the confusion surrounding Skinner's experiments. I did have to read it twice to make sure, but that could say as much about my reading as about her writing.

In another passage, she asks a psychologist about Deborah:

[Bryan] Porter misses just the slightest beat, or do I imagine it?

"No," he finally says. He clears his throat. "Deborah Skinner is alive." His voice drops. "And she’s doing fine really."

But there’s something in the way he delivers this that makes me doubt him. There’s a suspicious sympathy in his voice; as though she’s just survived some horrid kind of surgery.

For those readers who chose to interpret the last passage as evidence of Slater's potential belief in the urban legend, this exchange adds further support. Porter denies Deborah's death, but Slater suggests he's not telling the truth. Looking at this two or three times, it's possible she might only be doubting the part about Deborah "doing fine," while believing the part about her being alive. It's a problem that once again could have been avoided with less ambiguous phrasing--and when, later on, Deborah's sister says she's alive, Slater issues no authorial statement of disbelief, which is the best evidence for what she suggests in her comment to me.

So what to believe? Here's how I see it: Putting aside all the other problems other people mentioned in the book have with Slater's portrayal of them, I'm willing to accept the possibility that she really did mean to debunk the legend and that all this fuss stems from poorly written attempts to jack up the melodrama in an otherwise fairly prosaic story of basic journalistic research by inserting a phony aura of ambiguity surrounding a lurid falsehood. Or maybe not even "phony," since I could accept that some ambiguity did still exist in Slater's thoughts concerning Deborah Skinner's fate; if not her life, then perhaps her sanity. That ambiguity could have been resolved with a little more legwork, but I suppose if you're trying to recap ten separate psychological experiments and their impact, you might be willing to let a few loose ends dangle here and there. That doesn't make doing so any less of a bad move for a writer to take.

In her comment on this site, Slater concludes: "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." (Debbie? What, are they best chums now all of a sudden?) Here's my take: the chapter may not be about Skinner's daughter, but that doesn't provide any excuses for not writing about her, like any other factual element of the story, both accurately and precisely. The way Slater's handled the matter, based on these excerpts, strikes me as somewhat negligent from a literary and journalistic perspective. You might disagree, and that's what literary criticism is all about.


I'm really surprised that people would comment on a book they have not even read. As the above commentator admits, he has not read the book, clearly along with many others who have voiced their opinions on this site; instead he, and others, have formed their judgements from a passage on the web, a passage that CANNOT be accurately understood unless it's read with its connective tissue, so to speak, surrounding it. I have learned a lot from this controversy regarding my book, some of it good, much of it disappointing. I wasn't aware, until now, that so many people would pass such wholesale judgements on a chapter by reading its disparate parts, part, I might add, that have been culled for the purpose of bolstering the particular point of view of my detractors. I would have expected more from educated readers.

Posted by: lauren slater at April 6, 2004 12:26 PM

You might add that, Ms. Slater, but you'd be wrong: Half of those passages were culled by one of your supporters, and one of those remaining was culled by a detractor in the process of changing his mind.

Unless that second "part" in "disparate parts, part, I might add..." is really meant to be "a part" or "part of which," in which case I simply stand by my judgment: you might not have meant to imply that Deborah Skinner was dead and/or crazy, but there would never have been any ambiguity in the matter if you were a better (or at least not so sloppy) writer.

And, yes, I freely admit that I'm basing that judgment not on the entire book, or even the entire chapter, but solely on the prose written above. And it's not a wholesale judgment on the entire chapter, simply on your handling of the matter of Deborah Skinner. You might have something absolutely brilliant to say about B.F. Skinner's experiments for all I know, but offhand I'm not willing to wade through much more along the lines of "Boom-boom went the gun" to find out. I would have expected more from an educated writer.

(Others may feel differently, of course, as Joy Press demonstrates--but then, Press regurgitates the "creepy rumors" without directly stating they've been refuted, either.)

Posted by: editor at April 6, 2004 12:41 PM

I thought Lauren Slater's chapter on B.F. Skinner was sensational, and very accurate based on my extensive knowledge of him and his philosophy. She attempted to clear up many of the myths and misunderstandings of him and pointed out some of his major contributions such as the enormous beneficial effects of positive reinforcement as a replacement to traditional threats.

Posted by: Tom Weiss at April 27, 2004 08:11 PM
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