Genius doesn’t look so geeky these days, what with Nobel-winning economist John Nash immortalized as a stone fox on the big screen and physicist Kary Mullis posing shirtless on the cover of his 1998 memoir, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. There must be an unspoken pressure on would-be biographers of geniuses to find the cool factor, the currency that makes a subject ripe for popular appeal.
Although Love at Goon Park sometimes sets him up as a poetic misfit determined to change the scientific establishment’s ideas about love, primate researcher Harry Harlow isn’t exactly the Russell Crowe type. In fact, Harlow’s the kind of man who’d make any sensitive biographer wake up in a cold sweat. Frequently compared to Josef Mengele, his name became synonymous with cruel experiments on monkeys. Deborah Blum nailed him for ethical atrocities in The Monkey Wars, her 1994 book that pitted animal rights activists against primate researchers like Harlow. Blum, a self-confessed “primate junkie,” writes in the preface to Love at Goon Park that she hesitated to take on this biography because the man inspired such queasy ambivalence in her. “I thought, correctly, that he would be a sharp-edged subject—fascinating and troubling, and underneath the prickles the velvety gleam of brilliance.”
Blum has woven her discomfort into a provocative portrait of a man who proved that affection was good for you, in the days when men of science didn’t use the L-word. This was a flamboyant position to take in the ’40s and ’50s, when maternal coddling was so demonized (blamed for everything from homosexuality to juvenile delinquency) that one president of the American Psychological Association publicly warned, “When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.”
Harlow spent much of his career verifying things that seem commonsense today: that affection and touch are crucial to human development and happiness. Blum writes about his disquieting lab tests with graceful pathos, describing studies like the one in which baby monkeys had to raise the window of a box to catch a glimpse of their mothers: “You couldn’t watch the small monkey faces, their eyes anxiously searching for their mothers, without beginning to see love as a tangible force, a physical cord pulling tight between mother and child. . . . You might, if you were a scientist watching those monkeys, start thinking that the tireless blink of that window, the serious little face peering through it, had something to tell you.” Staggered by his subjects’ intelligence and curiosity, Harlow too became a kind of primate junkie—although that didn’t stop him from performing hundreds of cruel experiments on them.
In his most famous study, Harlow isolated infant monkeys with cloth-covered wire creations that served as surrogate mothers. Craving comfort, the babies clung to and stroked their immobile “moms.” Harlow was thrilled with the simple, visual message this conveyed about a child’s need for affection. (Psychological damage from the experiments only became clear in later years: These unloved monkeys often mutilated themselves or huddled limply in their cages.) In another horrific study to observe the effect of a pathological mother on her child, he used booby-trapped cloth mothers who violently shook their babies or poked them with brass spikes. Yet the babies still clung to these evil moms, “expressing faith and love as if all were forgiven,” as Harlow wrote.
Even as he was conducting groundbreaking research into love, Harlow was neglecting his wife and two children, forcing the demise of his marriage. After his second wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, Harlow tumbled into a full-scale depression. “You wonder whether emotional isolation can change the child, rearrange the brain a little?” asks Blum. “It can also change the adult scientist.” As the book frames it, Harlow’s own suffering motored his impulse to get to the root of human misery. He embarked on a diabolical series of investigations into depression, using a slanting box that transformed formerly happy monkeys into hopeless, crushed creatures. Never one to sugarcoat his own research, Harlow dubbed this chamber “the pit of despair.”
Love at Goon Park does a vivid job of unraveling Harlow’s eccentric personality. Blum scatters his pithy poems throughout the book, along with reminiscences from close colleagues attesting to his generosity, creativity, and wicked humor. Yet Harlow himself is booby-trapped: How can you get cozy with a guy whose legacy is an ethical minefield? This book emotionally batters the reader. You’re sucked in by Harlow’s charm and voracious intelligence, then revulsed by his sadistic practices. Blum struggles to remain above the fray, but her Pulitzer Prize-winning objectivity begins to feel forced. She waits until the very last minute—the book’s epilogue, “Extreme Love”—before posing the million-dollar question: “What are we willing to pay for knowledge?” Perhaps Blum delays the inevitable so long in an attempt to give the reader a chance to understand Harlow on his own terms. Harlow never camouflaged his actions, but he did defend them using the traditional scientific justification of “lesser evils” and “means to an end.” “For every mistreated monkey there exist a million mistreated children,” he said, adding with characteristic unapologetic acidity, “If my work will point this out and save only one million human children, I really can’t get overly concerned about 10 monkeys.” Many people violently disagree with this notion, of course. Although Blum clearly finds his experiments heart-wrenching, she argues that Harlow arrived at a “fundamental truth” about the human need for affection—unfortunately for the monkeys, the scientific world required unequivocal proof.
Zigzagging across the decades since his death in 1981, Blum assesses Harlow’s legacy, breathlessly showcasing studies built on his ideas. She makes a powerful case for his influence on everything from the treatment of premature infants and abused children to our most basic contemporary ideas of child rearing. Blum also defends him against his many detractors, including ’60s feminists, who saw Harlow’s emphasis on the maternal role in child rearing as a new attempt at domestic enslavement, and animal activists, who haunted him late in his career. Paradoxically, as Blum notes, Harlow partly laid the groundwork for those very activists with his studies of primate intelligence.
Ultimately, Love at Goon Park does what the best works of biography and cultural history do (and this book is a mixture of both), presenting the evidence in as complex and nuanced a form as possible, and leaving the reader to make the final judgment. A bombshell of a book, Goon Park will leave a thousand shards of shrapnel crashing inside your brain.