By the time I had finished reading the Observer this week, I was shaking. There was a review of Lauren Slater’s new book about my father, BF Skinner. According to Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, my father, who was a psychologist based at Harvard from the 1950s to the 90s, “used his infant daughter, Deborah, to prove his theories by putting her for a few hours a day in a laboratory box . . . in which all her needs were controlled and shaped”. But it’s not true. My father did nothing of the sort.
She goes on to say:
Slater’s sensationalist book rehashes some of the old stuff, but offers some rumours that are entirely new to me. For my first two years, she reports, my father kept me in a cramped square cage that was equipped with bells and food trays, and arranged for experiments that delivered rewards and punishments. Then there’s the story that after my father “let me out”, I became psychotic. Well, I didn’t. That I sued him in a court of law is also untrue. And, contrary to hearsay, I didn’t shoot myself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. I have never even been to Billings, Montana.
My early childhood, it’s true, was certainly unusual – but I was far from unloved. I was a much cuddled baby. Call it what you will, the “aircrib” ,”baby box”, “heir conditioner” (not my father’s term) was a wonderful alternative to the cage-like cot. My father’s intentions were simple, and based on removing what he and my mother saw as the worst aspects of a baby’s typical sleeping arrangements: clothes, sheets and blankets. These not only have to be washed, but they restrict arm and leg movement and are a highly imperfect method of keeping a baby comfortable. My mother was happy. She had to give me fewer baths and of course had fewer clothes and blankets to wash, so allowing her more time to enjoy her baby.
I was very happy, too, though I must report at this stage that I remember nothing of those first two and a half years. I am told that I never once objected to being put back inside. I had a clear view through the glass front and, instead of being semi-swaddled and covered with blankets, I luxuriated semi-naked in warm, humidified air. The air was filtered but not germ-free, and when the glass front was lowered into place, the noise from me and from my parents and sister was dampened, not silenced.
I loved my father dearly. He was fantastically devoted and affectionate. But perhaps the stories about me would never have started if he had done a better job with his public image. He believed that, although our genes determine who we are, it is mostly our environment that shapes our personality. A Time Magazine cover story ran the headline “BF Skinner says we can’t afford freedom”. All he had said was that controls are an everyday reality – traffic lights and a police force, for instance – and that we need to organise our social structures in ways that create more positive controls and fewer aversive ones. As is clear from his utopian novel, Walden Two, the furthest thing from his mind was a totalitarian or fascist state.
His careless descriptions of the aircrib might have contributed to the public’s common misconception as well. He was too much the scientist and too little the self-publicist – especially hazardous when you are already a controversial figure. He used the word “apparatus” to describe the aircrib, the same word he used to refer to his experimental “Skinner” boxes for rats and pigeons.
The effect on me? Who knows? I was a remarkably healthy child, and after the first few months of life only cried when injured or inoculated. I didn’t have a cold until I was six. I’ve enjoyed good health since then, too, though that may be my genes. Frankly, I’m surprised the contraption never took off. A few aircribs were built during the late 50s and 60s, and somebody also produced plans for DIY versions, but the traditional cot was always going to be a smaller and cheaper option. My sister used one for her two daughters, as did hundreds of other couples, mostly with some connection to psychology.