Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection


In the early twentieth century, affection between parents and their children was discouraged—psychologists thought it would create needy kids, and doctors thought it would spread infectious disease. It took a revolution in psychology to overturn these beliefs and prove that touch ensures emotional and intellectual health.

In Love at Goon Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum charts this profound cultural shift by tracing the story of Harry Harlow—the man who studied neglect...

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Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

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In the early twentieth century, affection between parents and their children was discouraged—psychologists thought it would create needy kids, and doctors thought it would spread infectious disease. It took a revolution in psychology to overturn these beliefs and prove that touch ensures emotional and intellectual health.

In Love at Goon Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum charts this profound cultural shift by tracing the story of Harry Harlow—the man who studied neglect and its life-altering consequences on primates in his lab. The biography of both a man and an idea, Love at Goon Park ultimately invites us to examine ourselves and the way we love.

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Editorial Reviews

San Diego Union-Tribune
Meticulous and compelling...Accessible and engaging enough to draw readers from outside the scientific community...poses questions that will keep readers thinking.
The New Yorker
The psychologist Harry Harlow tried to get the rather cruel science of his time to catch up, as he put it, with common sense. Readers may have seen the newsmaking pictures of Harlow's experiments in the nineteen-fifties, which demonstrated that parents are not seen by their offspring as mere food sources: baby monkeys cling to terrycloth surrogate mothers, shunning the cold wire ones that hold milk. Harlow's conclusions dovetailed with the previously much-maligned ideas of the British psychiatrist John Bowlby. Together, they led to the acceptance of attachment theory, which has had a profound influence on child-rearing. The story of Harlow, a combative and morally ambiguous figure, makes for lively reading -- the kind that has you rethinking everything from your analyst to your mother -- but one also wishes that the Pulitzer-winning author had a gift for fusing the larger concepts with character, and a more stringent way with prose.
New York Times Book Review
Well-researched...Blum skillfully weaves [Harlow's personal life] into this history of his science.
Washington Post
Engrossing...Blum does a splendid job of recapturing the attitudes that dominated experimantal psychology at the time. Equally adept is her narrative.
Harper's Magazine
Deborah Blum is a splendid writer...she knows primatology inside and out.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
[Blum] teases out a man who is intellectually engaging and emotionally distant, acerbic, witty, fearless and politically incorrect.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
[An] absorbing account.
Boston Globe
[Blum's] treatment of Harlow is so graceful that it is difficult to imagine his strange life's work in better hands.
From The Critics
Engrossing...[A] remarkably even-handed narrative.
New Scientist
Enormously interesting...Blum shows beautifully how we are all a product of the times in which we live...A marvelous read.
Publishers Weekly
In this surprisingly compelling book, Blum (The Monkey Wars) reveals that many of the child-rearing truths we now take for granted infants need parental attention; physical contact is related to emotional growth and cognitive development were shunned by the psychological community of the 1950s. As Blum shows, Freudian and behavioral psychologists argued for decades that babies were drawn to their mothers only as a source of milk, motivated by the instinctual drive for sustenance, and that children could be harmed by too much affection. Harry Harlow's experiments, Blum finds in this deeply sympathetic investigation of his life and work, changed all this, conclusively demonstrating that infant monkeys bond emotionally with a specific "mother" a dummy figure made of cloth even if it is not a source of food. The experiments also revealed, astonishingly enough, that puzzle-solving monkeys who were not rewarded with food actually performed better than those who were rewarded, leading him to conclude that baby primates and by extension, baby children are motivated by a range of emotions, including curiosity, affection and wonder. Born Harry Israel, Harlow changed his name because 1930s anti-Semitism prevented him from getting a research position (though he wasn't Jewish). His first marriage ended because his wife, who had given up her own promising scientific career, felt he was spending too much time at the lab and not enough at home with the kids. Monkey Wars fans who have been waiting for a follow-up will find this book irresistible. (Nov.) Forecasts: With war on everyone's mind, a book that dwells carefully and passionately on the need for affection may make for a sleeper hit. The Monkey Wars was critically acclaimed; look for this lower profile title to be well reviewed on the strength of the earlier book, and for similar enthusiasm to result. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Not too long ago, the predominant paradigm maintained that infants should be denied love or even physical contact lest they be threatened with infectious microbes. Countering the authority of reigning behavioral psychologists like B.F. Skinner and John Watson, the brilliant renegade Harry Harlow attempted to find the essence of mother love and its influence on child development. Rather than work with rats, Harlow studied primate affection using his classical inanimate surrogate mothers. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Blum (The Monkey Wars) rivetingly recounts Harlow's work while examining the man himself. Harlow argued that mother-child bonding was crucial for normal development, and his experiments with monkeys showed that social organisms cannot survive isolation. But as Blum reveals, Harlow was an enigma, brilliant but distant from his own children, and his work raised ethical and controversial dilemmas concerning the research treatment of animals. Harlow had a major impact on psychologists like Abraham Maslow (who happened to be his graduate student), yet he is little known today outside the scientific community. Blum's excellent biography, the first major new work devoted to him, should change that. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Rita Hoots, Woodland Coll. Lib., CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Blum (journalism, U. of Wisconsin) won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her writing about primate experiments and ethics. A chapter in her The Monkey Wars profiled psychologist Harry Harlow (1905-81) as a villain of the animals rights movement. Here, in a full biography, she views him as a pioneer in demonstrating the vital importance of relationships and love to health and survival. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Kirkus Reviews
Pulitzer-winning science journalist Blum (Journalism/Univ. of Wisconsin; Sex on the Brain, 1997, etc.) offers a biography of an innovative, controversial psychologist. Harry Harlow (1905-81) was a deeply troubled man who struggled his whole life with human relationships; yet, in his primate laboratory at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he worked for 44 years, he discovered how love works. Harlow was one of the psychology pioneers in "attachment theory," the then-revolutionary idea that a close physical relationship between mother and infant was essential to a child's development. Social skills and adaptability were learned in large part from this important first human relationship. Harlow experimented with numerous variations of "motherhood," depriving baby monkeys of mothers altogether, substituting warm and cold "cloth moms," and examining ways in which young monkeys attempted to compensate for their mothers' absence. Defying long-held views that coddling babies or being over-responsive to their needs would spoil their chances of survival, Harlow showed that those who received the most love often performed best in later life. In the 1960s, he turned his attention to its antithesis-loneliness and depression, work that held new meaning for him as he grieved the premature death from cancer of his beloved wife Peggy. No sooner did Harlow's work make him famous, however, than his ideas got him into trouble with the emerging women's movement. His conviction that mothers had a singular capacity as child-rearers flew in the face of a growing feminist consciousness that sought a larger role for women in society. Harlow, a caustic W.C. Fields type with a fondness for drink, onlyworsened his situation by boldly asserting that biological differences between men and women were immutable and, when angered, flashing misogynistic sentiments in print and at psychology conferences. Toward the end of his life, even many old friends and colleagues chose to avoid him. A sympathetic and evenhanded treatment of Harlow's life and work-and an absorbing look at 19th- and 20th-century notions of child psychology.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465026012
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 7/5/2011
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 327,969
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Blum is the New York Times bestselling author of The Poisoner's Handbook. She also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Her second book, Sex on the Brain, was a New York Times Notable Book for 1997. She lives with her family in Madison, Wisconsin.
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Read an Excerpt

Love at Goon Park

Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection


Copyright © 2002
Deborah Blum
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0738202789

Chapter One

The Invention of Harry Harlow

Parental love, which is so touching and at bottom so childish, is nothing but parental narcissism born again and, transformed though it be into object-love, it reveals its former character infallibly.

Sigmund Freud, 1914

He was born out of place, a dreamer and a poet planted in the practical Iowa earth. As unlikely as a rose in a cornfield. The childhood of Harry Frederick Israel-he would become Harry Harlow, but that's a later part of the story-often made him laugh in retrospect. He was such a funny little misfit of a child, hemmed in by the orderly fields, too often dreaming down those rows of green and gold to the point where they met the rim of the sky.

This was southeastern Iowa, after all. Everyone grew up amid the cornfields. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the landscape was a study in domestication. Paradoxically, that very neatness made Iowa a revolutionary corner of the country. Not even a hundred years before, the land had belonged to lynx and wolf, deer and buffalo, the elusive catamount, and the bright copper fox. Tall-grass prairies and wooded hills, undisciplined rivers that had never seen a levee, forests with familiar trees such as maple and birch and forgotten ones such as linn and ironwood. The Fox and the Sac tribes once hunted here, gathered wild plants, quarreled over territorial boundaries, called it home.

The old settlers-Iowans think the term "pioneer" sounds too transient-began transforming the land in the early nineteenth century. The little town of Fairfield, where Harry was born many years later, was chartered in 1836, neatly laid out around a traditional town square. For decades, it retained a frontier quality. Until the 1870s, hogs were allowed to run through the square. When the mayor finally insisted that livestock be penned, pig owners angrily protested this affront to liberty. People paid their bills with what they could grow or raise. The town doctors accepted everything from chickens to tomatoes. The pharmacies on the square sold Indian remedies to their customers, tidily packed cloth bags with chamomile flowers for measles and slippery-elm bark for pneumonia.

Science was something distant, not quite real and not all that important. "Few knew or eared that the world was filled with innumerable fascinating creatures or that the history of the earth was written in the rocks beneath their feet," wrote the Fairfield historian Susan Fulton Welty in a loving tale of her hometown. In the late nineteenth century, some Fairfield high school students formed a science club. They were enthusiastic, but they found the subject mysterious at best. One of the first meetings raised the question "Is a Bat a Bird?" The members were mostly nature collectors. They packed their clubhouse with pinned insects, dried flowers, the brittle remains of ferns and mosses, and assorted bones. At one point, club members assembled almost the entire skeleton of a horse, built from bleached bones found tumbled in a nearby pasture.

By the time Harry Israel was born, the frontier had been tidied away. The town square was neatly paved. The Sac and the Fox had mostly vanished, pushed to the west. The herbal remedies had been replaced by a red-brick hospital and more European-style medicine. The woodlands and feathery fields were plowed, tilled, and rotated into submission. Even the science enthusiasts had given up bone hunting. The local high school now taught the study of nature, "with especial attention to the highest of vertebrates, Man himself." Harry would have preferred it just a little less, well, predictable. Years later, he would confess that completely orderly science bored him. He could never quite accept rules as absolute. He was never really convinced that "Man himself" was an example of evolutionary perfection. A work in progress, maybe. He would have been happy to argue the point-if it had been open for debate in Fairfield. His family would have said that Harry was born to argue. So would his peers. When he graduated from high school, this quote appeared under his yearbook picture: "Though rather small, we know most well, in argument, he cloth excel."

He was born on a Halloween evening, October 31, 1905, at his family home in Fairfield. "Within thirty minutes I had precipitated a violent family quarrel," Harry once wrote. His Aunt Nell had come all the way from Portland, Oregon, and wanted to hold the baby first. But his two older brothers begged her to take them on a quick trick-or-treat outing. When the three of them returned, baby Harry was lying cozily in his Aunt Harriet's lap. "This was a situation in which better late than never did not pertain," Harry would joke later. Harriet lived just around the corner in Fairfield. Nell had traveled hundreds of miles. And the ungrateful baby's parents had named the child Harry. In family lore, the story of his birth always resounded with the ensuing thunder.

"Another memory which I do not have happened when I was three," Harry wrote years later in an unpublished memoir. The entry was typical of the way he recounted his childhood-always flippant about growing up in Iowa. As he told the story, when he was a little boy, he owned a porcelain child's potty, which he loved. He would carry it around the house with him. One day, according to his mother, "guided by uncontrolled scientific curiosity, I dropped a large stone on the potty's bottom to see what would happen." He sobbed over the pieces for days afterward. An incurable punster for most of his life, Harry wrote that his grief was probably caused by his having hit "rock bottom."

His parents were Alonzo Harlow Israel and Mable Rock Israel. If Harry was something of a misfit, that standard was perhaps first set by his father. Lon Harlow-he loathed the name "Alonzo" and as an adult refused to respond to anyone who called him that-had hoped to be a doctor. He gave that up, though, dropping out of medical school in his third year to marry Mable Rock. Lon never quite found anything else that he liked as much as the study of medicine. He reluctantly tried and happily abandoned farming. He tinkered with what Harry called "intermittent, unsuccessful inventing." Lon experimented with home appliances, and once even developed a small washing machine. He dabbled at running a garage and battery business, teaching himself about mechanics by reading books and manuals in a weekend frenzy. He started a small real estate business with his father. Eventually, Lon and Mable bought a general store in a small town near Fairfield and settled there. Harry's parents had been married for ten years and were in their mid-thirties when he was born. At the Fairfield public library today, there is an archived photo of Lon on his wedding day: a slim man with a pointed chin, dark eyes under deep brows, a thin mouth just tilted into a smile at the corners. There is also a photo of Mable wearing a lacy white dress that seems to float at the edges. Mable was barely five feet tall. In the picture, she is as delicate as a fairy, fine-boned and graceful in her posture, her shining dark hair pulled smoothly back from a small, rather beautiful face. The Israels had four sons, in this order: Robert, Delmer, Harry, and Hugh. The boys all had their mother's slight build, their father's brown eyes and heavy eyebrows. In Harry's face, one can also see Mable's finely drawn features and slightly squared, stubborn chin.

Harry remembered his parents as being determined that their children would grow beyond them. They had to fight for that-another lesson learned early. He was just three years old when his older brother Delmer was diagnosed with Pott's disease, sometimes called tuberculosis of the spine. Lon Harlow had outguessed the local doctor on the ailment. Disturbed by the increasingly warped look of his son's back, Lon bent an iron rod into the same odd curve. He sent the bar to a research hospital in Chicago, where doctors made the diagnosis from the distinctive bend in the metal. They recommended that the boy go to a warmer, drier climate-then the standard remedy for TB. Frightened for their son, the Israels sold their house and moved the family to New Mexico. Short on money, they camped in a small canyon outside Los Cruces. Delmer's health did improve in the brilliantly lit New Mexico air. But the family, already poor, grew more so. They lost their remaining possessions in a season of wild spring flooding. At one point, Lon Harlow was forced to carry his children out of a rising stream when it flooded through their tent. In little more than a year, the family returned, near destitute, to start over again in Fairfield.

His parents, Harry said, "literally lived for their children. Fortunately, they did not have enough money to be really indulgent." Not that he wouldn't have enjoyed a little more indulgence-or extra affection. His own research would lead him to realize, many years later, how much he had felt like an afterthought and how much he had minded. "I remember my mother as a tiny, beautiful, hardworking, and efficient woman who reared four sons, and probably a husband, ably, lovingly, providently. I always thought of her as a person who loved me dearly, and I am sure she did." With Delmer's illness, though, he suspected "she was probably hard pressed to shower affection on others." Harry was just a toddler when his brother fell ill. His mother was there, near the home, physically-just not quite all there emotionally for a small, shy younger brother, "I have no memory of partial maternal separation, but I may have lost some percentage time of maternal affection, and this deprivation may have resulted in consuming adolescent and adult loneliness."

Almost five thousand settlers now occupied Fairfield. Ornate buildings, topped with towers and ramparts, housed shoemakers, grocers, barrel makers, tailors, druggists, clothing stores, furniture stores. The square was a gathering place for the farmers who now ploughed the surrounding country. Even in winter, when the farms were iced over and Fairfield's streets were deep with snow, farmers came to town. They simply took the wheels off their wagons and replaced them with heavy, ironclad sled runners. Fairfield's children used to play street games in which they jumped from farm bobsled to farm bobsled. They called the game "hopping bobs," and, as one sled hopper recalled, the farmers were cheerfully tolerant of the leaping children.

Farming was the breath of the town. Harry's father had himself listed farm properties during his real estate venture years. The local high school balanced traditional academics and agricultural education. Girls were required to take domestic art and science, courses such as "How to Cook to Please the Men." The comparable track for boys was farm management, from crop rotation to pest control. The wood-frame homes, brick businesses, and orderly streets of Fairfield merged almost seamlessly with the outlying farms and orderly fields that surrounded it. And here was this quiet dreamer of a child, without a shimmer of interest or ability in even managing a garden. Many years later, Harry's oldest son, Robert, would recall that the few times his father attempted yard work, he routinely uprooted prized bedding plants. "It was always, `Call the yard man' at our house." Harry had no interest in geraniums and nasturtiums as an adult, and less in tilled fields as a child. He liked to write poetry and draw pictures. He recalled once completing an essay assignment that "didn't sound right" and deciding not to hand it in. Later he realized that he had spontaneously written the essay in blank verse. It wasn't just that he could write verse-an impractical talent if there ever was one-he actually liked it. One of his favorite assignments came in the eighth grade. He and his fellow students were told to compose a four-line verse on the "benefits and beauties" of daily tooth brushing:

Students filtered into the class expressing hate and hopelessness at the assignment. I rose to the rescue. By ten minutes of nine, I had completed fourteen verses for fourteen students-aside from the best, which I kept for myself. The teacher was pleasantly surprised at the literary level of the class and she selected five for indulgent praise. All five selected were mine but the one I selected for myself was not among them. It dawned on me that I was a better author than critic.

Mostly he was bored. "My high school academic career was not totally distinguished. I ranked thirteenth out of a class of seventy-one whose average IQ was below 100." The top twelve, he noted, were all girls. He did outscore the entire senior class on an aptitude test created by the University of Iowa. The results were put on a big blackboard-in those times, educators didn't consider sparing the feelings of the students. "I was about two standard deviations ahead of my nearest competitor, who was the female class valedictorian and the girl whom my grandfather hoped I would marry because she was the only daughter and granddaughter of a wealthy family," Harry wrote in his memoir. Not in this lifetime was Harry Israel going to marry into a commitment to stay in Fairfield. He planned to be somewhere else-someone else. In the 1923 yearbook, the year of his graduation, his senior class photo shows an unsmiling boy. He has downcast eyes, a shadow of long lashes about them, smooth dark hair, lips slightly turned down at the corners. In the same yearbook, students are asked to say what they wish to be when they grow up. The dreams are mostly small ones, happy ones. One wants to be a teacher, others want to be pretty, lovable, a farmer, a musician, a farmer, a singer, a farmer. Harry Israel's wish? At the age of seventeen, he wanted to "be famous." He made a prediction, though, for his more probable outcome: He would simply end up insane.

The Israels, you might say, were not a routine Fairfield family. Most of the local businessmen were not building experimental washing machines in their garages. And almost all the townsfolk met and gathered and socialized at one church or another. Fairfield and the surrounding Jefferson County were a paradise of churches at the time. The Israels' home sat in the gothic shadow of the First Methodist Church, a looming brick structure just around the corner. In the county's first hundred years, eighty-five churches were built: twenty Methodist, nine Baptist, seven Lutheran, six Presbyterian, four Catholic; and Dutch Reformed, Christian Science, Adventist, more. One of the few failed congregations was the Episcopalian, which had been the Israels' chosen house of worship. When the modest building burned down, though, the small congregation drifted into other houses of worship.

Lon absolutely refused to drift.


Excerpted from Love at Goon Park by DEBORAH BLUM
Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Blum
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Preface IX
Acknowledgments XIII
Prologue: Love, Airborne 1
1 The Invention of Harry Harlow 7
2 Untouched by Human Hands 31
3 The Alpha Male 61
4 The Curiosity Box 89
5 The Nature of Love 113
6 The Perfect Mother 143
7 Chains of Love 171
8 The Baby in the Box 207
9 Cold Hearts and Warm Shoulders 231
10 Love Lessons 257
Epilogue: Extreme Love 291
Notes 309
Index 327
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