Why Harry Harlow
The setting is as compelling as the main character. Much of the novel takes place in Harlow’s primate lab during the years before the animal rights movement brought national attention to the treatment of lab animals. A researcher I spoke to in 2011 described those years as the “wild west” of primate research where expanding federal moneys and weak oversight gave lab directors great latitude.
The plot is driven forward by the convergence of three related stories: the facts of Harry Harlow’s biography, a man known for his creativity and brilliance and his defiant commitment to following his muse in the lab, no matter the pain it caused; the development of human psychological attachment theory in the 1940s and 1950s (in today’s language “attachment parenting”); and the evolution of primates in biomedical research during the Cold War, culminating in the formation of eight national primate research centers in 1961. Primate research enabled important developments in pharmaceuticals, automobile safety, and the treatment of human ailments such as cancer, Parkinson’s, fertility and depression.
The novel moves between past and present, between Harlow as a young and old man, and between human and primate visions. Like Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, Harlow finds himself vividly transported to key moments in his past, giving him ample opportunity to examine at the man he was, the price he paid for his success and the collateral damage of his work. Yet perhaps as accurate a comparison for Harlow is Tony Soprano. Like Soprano, Harlow’s deeds and his very real human vulnerability spur readers (or viewers) to take measure of their own compassion. Can we see ourselves in a man who has, essentially, tortured animals psychologically? Do the benefits out weight the harm Harlow brought into the world? Does the fact that none of us can “opt out” of the consequences of primate research make us willing to witness the experiences of lab monkeys? Readers are offered a chance to hold these moral questions even as Harlow himself struggles to reconcile his life, his good intentions, and his reputation as a monster.
I began work on this project three years ago. I researched the book extensively, including reading Harlow’s papers archived at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and his entire body of published work. I interviewed people who knew Harlow and met one of his sons. I bring to this project a robust knowledge of the history of psychology, psychological theory, Cold War science and mid century culture. Debra Blum’s Love at Goon Park about Harlow’s research inspired me to write a fictional account of Harlow’s life. A full biographical treatment has yet to be written.