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The Expert, a 1920s novel based on the life of Rosalie Rayner Watson
“The Expert,” a novel based on the life of Rosalie Rayner (1899-1935).
He was the founder of behaviorism and the most influential American psychologist of his day—a famous parenting “expert” who counseled mothers never to kiss or cuddle their children, and who went on to apply behaviorist principles to Madison Avenue advertising. She was the 19-year-old graduate student who assisted his research—and within a year, found her own career derailed when their steamy affair made front-page news in the East Coast newspapers.
John Watson is well known in psychology circles, but his second wife, Rosalie Rayner, the narrator of this based-on-real-events novel, is known mostly as a textbook footnote—a woman involved in scandal who retreated from her own career ambitions to support her larger-than-life, controversial husband before dying at the tragically young age of 35. Rayner’s own little-known story (informed by the stories of other women psychologists and professionals of the same time period) aims to shed light on the life of a 1920s Vassar-educated woman and mother, part of a post-suffragette, interwar, Jazz Age generation that looked to science, technology, and corporate slogans for expert answers on how to live.
As a novelist, I’m drawn to the stories of both real and imagined people who live at important cultural, political, or ideological crossroads. My first two novels, The Spanish Bow and The Detour, explored the intersection of art and politics in 20th century Europe. This new novel, The Expert, examines the life of an intelligent woman whose life was both enriched and complicated by the new science of psychology, especially as it related to child-rearing and social engineering.
I will use project funds to continue the first phase of research (which began with a visit to Baltimore MD, Washington DC, and Poughkeepsie NY and continues with ongoing follow-up historical research) necessary to write dramatically about a woman of cultural and scientific significance who left almost no paper trail. It would be easier to write about her famous husband, but it is the little-known quality of Rosalie’s life – and the story of forgotten women like her – that draws me to this project. To recreate Rosalie Rayner’s life, I will continue to seek out scarce primary sources on Rayner, visit places that were formative to her development, and also continue to learn more about women psychologists and Baltimore life from 1900 to the mid-1930s.
Given that I’m writing about a woman who was committed to experimentation during a time of rapid social change, I think it’s appropriate that I use this fundraising platform and social media as a literary experiment of my own era. Is it possible to attract seed money for an effort like this? What contribution can supporters and readers make, not only in providing research funding, but also in sharing their own insights and suggestions along the way? I ask readers, colleagues, friends and family to join me on this novelistic experiment and adventure.