the web site of Austin-based writer Eileen Mcginnis.


a blog about caregivers + creators throughout history.


Love and Cruelty: Psychologist Harry Harlow, Attachment Parenting, and Parental Ambivalence

For here forlorn and sad I sit,

Within the wiry grate,

And tremble at the approaching morn

Which brings impending fate….


The well-taught philosophic mind

To all compassion gives;

Casts round the world an equal eye,

And feels for all that lives.

--Anna Barbauld, “The Mouse’s Petition to Dr. Priestly, Found in the Trap where he had been Confined all Night” (1773)

For Valentine’s Day, I’d thought about doing a sexy post. Or, at least one on the sex researchers Virginia Johnson and William Masters, whose intellectual and romantic partnership was recently explored in the Showtime series Masters of Sex.

But then Harry Harlow’s research on maternal love popped into my head, and there was no turning back. Instead of reading about kinky experiments in the name of science, I found myself haunted by images of traumatized baby monkeys.

True to the complexities of Harlow’s biography, here’s a post about love and its close companions. Rejection. Loneliness. Heartache. Hurt.

Harlow’s findings seem self-evident today: babies and toddlers need a secure, trusting attachment to a primary caregiver in order to thrive in later-life relationships. His research came to support the findings of another psychologist initially on the professional fringe: John Bowlby (today the name we closely associate with attachment theory).

To understand Harlow’s impact, we need to travel back to a world where scientists launched “anti-coddling” campaigns to persuade parents not to touch or pick up their crying babies for fear that they would become weak, overanxious adults. A world where the real fear of disease led doctors to isolate young children in hospital wards and orphanages, and to separate babies from mothers in the immediate postpartum period.

Through the behaviorist lens of the time, psychology also saw mothers as primarily a milk-delivery mechanism, reduced to a lactating breast. In Freudian terms, the infant did not have yet the ego development required to bond with the mother in a meaningful way.

In his University of Wisconsin lab, Harlow devised experiments to challenge this received wisdom. In his initial experiment, he assigned rhesus-macaque infants to either a surrogate cloth ‘mother’ or a wire mother full of hard edges. The result was an overwhelming preference for the soft, comforting touch. Even in cages where milk was placed with the wire mother, the monkeys would quickly feed, then rush back to the comfort and safety of the cloth mother.

Clearly, the cloth mother played a larger role than a mere food source. And far from becoming timid or ‘over-coddled’, the monkeys with bonds to cloth mothers were the most independent and confident of the lot (within a group of admittedly pretty f—ed up lab monkeys, artificially denied a relationship with living caregivers).

Cloth vs. wire mother

Cloth vs. wire mother

As biographer Deborah Blum writes in Love at Goon Park, Harlow’s legacy is “bright and shadowed at once.” His work helped to change the national conversation about raising healthy children who can establish loving relationships. It also shined a light into the dark, subterranean spaces of childhood – into orphanages and hospitals, into the lives of children who had experienced neglect, mistreatment, and trauma.

At the same time, though, Harlow’s experiments raised ethical questions about the treatment of lab animals, particularly of our fellow primates. His work became a classic question of whether the end justified the means. Or, whether the end – a rich understanding of parent-offspring bonding – could have been achieved by more humane means.

In the 1970s feminists also found Harlow's work antagonistic. Attachment parenting was initially viewed as an anti-feminist gesture, an attempt to place the burden of raising children squarely on mothers. This felt particularly rich coming from male scientists whose female partners gave them the freedom to pursue such research. Although this is really a parody of the theory, neither Harlow nor Bowlby successfully pled their case. If anything, Harlow took pride in his sexist, un-PC remarks, and would turn especially caustic and provocative with interviewers.

So, here’s why Harlow’s story got me so curious: I wanted to know how his parenting and research lives intersected. Specifically:

  1. Did Harlow’s experience of fatherhood shape his research questions about love, leading him to question the prevailing scientific wisdom about the parent-infant bond?

  2. And, how, if at all, was Harlow able to reconcile his role as a father with his questionable treatment of the infants in his lab?

As for the first question, it turns out that the mother-love studies began as a fluke. Harlow had decided to breed rhesus macaques for his research on intelligence. He was tired of the cost and prevalence of disease associated with importing them. The infants were kept in isolated cages, much like children in hospital wards and orphanages of the time, in order to protect them from the spread of illness.

While physically hale and hearty, these infants demonstrated anxious, fearful behaviors and were overwhelmed in group settings.

The observations that some monkeys clung fiercely to their cloth diapers, returning to them for security, led to Harlow ‘s curiosity about maternal love. Was a mother more than a feeding tube, but an essential part of a primate’s normal development?

As for the monkeys themselves, Harlow expressed no sympathy for their experiences:

Remember, for every mistreated monkey there exist a million mistreated children. If my work will point this out and save only one million human children, I really can’t get overly concerned about ten monkeys.

The rub, of course, is that the lab subjects were closely related enough that the findings were useful to understanding human children, just not enough to warrant feelings of kinship and empathy. In context, however, Harlow’s attitudes were business as usual according to scientific standards of ethics (or lack thereof) at the time.

Nor are his views surprising given Harlow’s rigorous separation of spheres, his ability to disconnect even when it came to his own human children.

In contrast to the Victorian Charles Darwin, who transformed his loving observations of his newborn children into later-life research on facial expressions, Harlow was a distant, largely uninvolved parent who kept work and family separate. In his roles as a father, husband, and scientist, he was often trapped by mid-twentieth-century norms.

After his second son was born, Harlow abruptly withdrew from his fledgling family. He would leave for work before they had awoken, spend every weekend at the lab. Four tortured years later, Clara filed for divorce.

Harlow began again. He married yet another gifted woman, Dr. Peggy Kuenne (And, I’ll add with a bit of snark, yet another wife whose career in psychology was casually subordinated to Harry’s.) He had two more children, but his relationships with daughter Pamela and son Jonathan were strained.

Rick, Harry’s second child with Clara, would later say that, although they met cordially in adulthood, he didn’t have a sense of Harry as his father: “we never were father and son….My mom was the one who loved me and spent time building that bond.” And Jonathan, Harry’s youngest child with Peggy, observed that it was his mother who wanted and loved them; as for his father, “I don’t think he was that interested us.” 

So, Harlow’s research on early childhood bonds originated in chance rather than any deep-seated paternal feeling. But Harlow’s work wasn’t impervious to the pull of personal ties. According to Blum, Harlow’s depression and alcoholism related to wife Peggy’s cancer diagnosis did shape his later, more extreme experiments on the dark side of love.

Before her untimely death at age 52, Peggy had begun studying how family dynamics and community networks affect children’s well-being. Harlow, in contrast, probed the troubling inverse: social isolation. Harlow devised an experiment in which he placed a single monkey in a device that prevented escape, an apparatus he – provocatively? callously – referred to as a “pit of despair.” For the first day or so, the monkeys would scramble furiously to climb the walls of their prison cell, eager for a glimpse of the outside world hinted at by the cage's mesh top. But by the third day, the monkeys had given up. Even when returned to social environments, these solitary-confinement monkeys displayed withdrawn, abnormal behaviors. Harry had ‘broken’ them.

Shades of Harry Harlow in this parody interview by The State. The fictional researcher here engages in psychological "monkey torture."

There’s a striking contrast between Harlow’s almost-total retreat into the lab and the more porous borders of women’s experiences of work and family life. Take, for example, photographer Diana Michener’s description of her daily work experience, which felt so familiar to me when I first encountered it:

I move from one activity to another without any definite boundaries. Every part of what I am or trying to be is lived within my house. My darkroom is between the laundry and the kitchen, my shooting studio is in a corner of the bedroom, and I find it difficult to shed my house and family and enter into the privacy of my work.

Maybe there’s a surface similarity, in that Harlow essentially moved into his lab, spending nights and weekends there, and forging an informal family of peers and graduate students.

Unlike Michener, though, Harlow more readily shed home and family, at a steep personal and ethical cost.

Sometimes when we’re hanging out, my young son initiates this ‘she loves me, she loves me not’ game, fully of his own devising.

He’ll begin with the teasing accusation: “You don’t love me!” I’ll oblige him my putting on a pained expression and miming tears. “You do love me!,” he’ll quickly respond, already smiling as he anticipates my expression transforming into a joyful one. We’ll go back and forth again a dozen more times, my facial muscles thoroughly worked out by that point.

It’s such a bizarre little pantomime. But it’s also evidence, in a way, of the loving bond we have. The secure attachment that enables him to test the boundaries, to speak the unspeakable to me, and to know that all will be well.

Harry Harlow convinced the scientific community that a strong, secure bond with a caregiver was essential to our mental and emotional well-being. At the same time, he willfully unraveled those bonds in his personal life. Moreover, his mid-twentieth-century brand of science – Rigorous, Mechanical, Male – would have benefited from the human warmth and inventiveness of traditionally female roles and perspectives.

As much as I occasionally wish for Harlow’s set-up, a kind of neat and clean separation of work and child-rearing, I also see the sterility in such an arrangement. My loves – writing, teaching, my partner, my son – sometimes interrupt each other, even fight with each other, like a big, boisterous family. But they also feed each other, and so feed me. Out of the mess and exhaustion of overlapping demands and spaces, new ideas and capabilities also emerge. An introductory lecture on gender to college freshmen begins with an anecdote about my own gender biases during pregnancy. A side project to turn a story my son told me one day into a handmade physical book revives me during a period of writer’s block.

And while the “privacy of work” that Michener writes about is absolutely essential and soul-sustaining, those reminders of my family, and of my bond with my son, still animate what I do and how I move through the world.

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