The Story Behind the Story:
History and Inspiration
I wrote this novel to give voice to a woman mostly forgotten by history. While much has been written about John Watson, by himself and others, Rosalie remains an enigma, with only a few publications to her name and surprisingly few sources of evidence for what she thought or others thought about her. Even her own adult children, when interviewed, reflected more about their father’s overbearing nature, sparing her the kind of scrutiny that might help us better understand their home and family dynamic. John’s penchant for destroying papers may be to blame for the scant record, but even before Rosalie met her future mentor and husband, she had a way of slipping between the cracks, staying out of photos and yearbook notices, for example, though she was clearly a bright woman with a promising future.
For a fiction writer, this lack of documentation can be both vexing and liberating. To write this novel, I had to make decisions about when to follow the historical or scientific record, as it existed, and when to give imagination looser rein. For the purposes of avoiding adding to the misunderstandings that have surrounded the Albert B. story (see excellent work by Ben Harris for an analysis), I tried to remain mostly true to the day-by-day experiment details, as they are known. (Even John Watson was inconsistent in some details of various descriptions of the experiment.) In one aspect, I had to choose between widely disparate, controversial, and evolving interpretations about Albert B.’s true identity. Two major hypotheses have been advanced: that Albert B. was really a seriously ill baby named Douglas Merritte, who died at age six of hydrocephalus; or, quite to the contrary, that he was a boy named William Barger, who was not ill at the time of experimentation. Neither claim is conclusive, and other possibilities might still be advanced.
There is also the position, of course, that Albert B.’s real identity is not the point. We are fascinated by this experiment, some would say, not just because of the baby who endured morally disturbing, fright-inducing trials, but because it proved to be such a cornerstone of behaviorism—and an astonishingly flawed one at that. Regardless of our much-changed attitudes about experimental ethics (no American psychologists today would ever get away with subjecting infants to the many experiences that were commonplace in Watson’s lab), we recognize larger problems with the experiment’s setup, limited sample size, subjective recording of results, and more.
Historical context should help us understand the limits of Watson’s methods and concepts; it would be all too easy to criticize some of his attitudes and experiments, overlooking the areas in which he sincerely attempted to pioneer a new, more objective, experimental approach to psychology. Just as it is tempting to judge him by imposing modern ethical standards, it is too easy to dismiss his scientific contributions now that psychology has enjoyed advances made possible by the cognitive revolution of the 1950s (a counterrevolution to behaviorism). While John Watson is no longer a household name, his influence is undeniable. A 2002 study placed him at number seventeen on the list of the top one hundred eminent psychologists of the twentieth century. (In a limited survey that made up part of the study, Watson earned an even higher ranking—in the fourth position, just behind B. F. Skinner, Jean Piaget, and Sigmund Freud. His lower overall “eminence” ranking is due to several factors, including the fact that his work is not often cited in modern studies, regardless of his broader historical influence.) It is worth noting, furthermore, that B. F. Skinner, number one in the “eminence” and survey rankings, was a behaviorist whose work grew out of Watson’s original principles. As readers of this novel will realize, Watson’s experimental work was only one aspect of his professional life—and, in terms of time spent and lives affected, perhaps not even the most critical one. In the field of advertising, and as a public figure and popular author with unyielding attitudes against attachment parenting, he had an influence—impressive, and in some ways alarming—that is impossible to quantify.
It will never be possible to know what John Watson and Rosalie Rayner Watson thought, in later life, about the Little Albert experiment, though John began to show signs of doubting some of his work, and Rosalie developed an acerbic, questioning tone in the few articles she published. It’s almost impossible to know what Rosalie’s final days were like. Only fiction can restore deeply personal, albeit hypothetical, accounts of lives that were deemed not worth recording or not worth protecting from erasure by others.
Beyond the parameters of the Little Albert experiment, Rosalie’s mostly undocumented life speaks to the challenges of ambitious young women scientists at that time. In the end, I hope I have been true to the spirit of both people, and I have been grateful for the opportunity to vicariously experience, through them, the social and scientific
atmosphere of the late 1910s through early 1930s.
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The Detour: Inspiration and History
The Detour is populated by fictional characters whose lives are shaped by a factual event: the acquisition of the ancient Discus Thrower statue by Adolf Hitler in 1938, against the objection of many Italians—a first step in what would become a seven-year looting campaign of Europe’s greatest artistic treasures. I have used some historical details from that ultimately-thwarted Nazi cultural project, while inventing others (including some minor variations in chronology) to suit this novel’s needs.
Hitler’s most ambitious plans to collect art for a new museum in Linz, Austria started taking their clearest shape about one year following the fictionalized storyline in this book. The Discus Thrower was repatriated from Germany to Italy in 1948, ten years after its original purchase; it can now be seen in the National Museum of Rome. For a broader historical context, including the work of America’s “Monuments Men,” who helped track down and protect stolen art during and following World War II, I recommend Rescuing Da Vinci by Robert M. Edsel. Another entertaining book that inspired my (and Ernst Vogler’s) ideas about classical art and body image was Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives, by Simon Goldhill.
Much of my information about sculpture and historical context comes from trips to Munich and Rome, including visits to the National Museum of Rome and to Munich’s Glyptothek, where the Discus Thrower was on display for one year. (A brief history can be found in an excellent museum guide, Glyptothek, Munich: Masterpieces of Greek and Roman Sculpture, by Raimund Wünsche, translated from the German by Rodney Batstone.) Aside from research, inspiration for this story may have originated with my own hybrid identity: My first name is Greek, my heritage is Italian and German, and I married into a Jewish family. All of those threads shape my interest in 1938 Europe and the strange confluence at that time of influential and sometimes dangerous ideas about classical art, genetics, and politics.
The author’s family sketching the Discus Thrower, in Rome, 2009.
The Spanish Bow: Inspiration
In this novel, the fictional pianist Justo Al-Cerraz is disappointed when he discovers that Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” was originally inspired by a cheap book that the famous composer had purchased on the rue de Richelieu, in Paris. (Al-Cerraz hears this from Falla himself. I read it in liner notes written by Phillip Huscher.) The Alhambra is a real place, and Falla would later live not far from it, but the Spanish composer started his score without having visited the Alhambra, and he succeeded in conveying the romance of that Moorish fortress rather than the facts of it.
Why should Al-Cerraz have minded? The pianist, I’m sorry to say, always had a hard time deciding whether he favored fact or fiction, romance or reality. (Even Al-Cerraz’s claim to have been mothered by La Belle Otero may not be entirely reliable; the famous courtesan was sterile, evidently. But who can know for sure?)
We all enjoy hearing that a story is based on real people or inspired by real events. I know I do. But we also revel in fiction, a genre that allows us to find meaning and pattern in the otherwise confusing maelstrom of life. No matter how a work is labeled and no matter what we intend or desire—as readers, as authors, as people recounting our childhoods around a dinner table—what we most often end up with is a collage.
I love collages. (Is it any wonder I found room in this novel for Picasso?) I like the look of bits of newspaper and cloth stuck with paint, and violins shaped from torn paper, and familiar items rendered unfamiliar. This book is such a collage. While I would direct readers to pay more attention to the final fictional design, here are some notes on my materials for the benefit of readers like Al-Cerraz, who may be on a quest for unadulterated truth.
I started this book planning to write a nonfiction account about the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. This was in late 2001, about a decade into my career as a freelance journalist and travel writer. Most recently I’d been struggling to find a new way to write about marine environmental issues, but was bogging down in jargon, burdened by the knowledge of a limited audience resistant to hearing more about obscure or intractable environmental problems. Even I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to hear any more about environmental problems. Then, like many Americans, I was jostled awake by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which forced me to ask myself that clarifying doomsday question, If I could do only more thing with my life—if I could write about only one more thing—what would it be?
What I longed for that autumn was a chance to immerse myself in something beautiful and hopeful, and for me, the sound of hope and humanity has always been the cello.
(Why the cello? I wrote this book in part to find out.)
The doomsday atmosphere of 2001 also infused me with the desire to find a heroic story to tell, because that was the kind of story that I needed to hear. The search for a hero led me to Casals, a cellist known for his stance against fascism. In early 2002, I visited Puerto Rico, where the musician spent the last years of his life. There, I studied archival footage of Casals, sifted through documents, and met people who had known the maestro or his students.
Almost from the start, there were aspects to Casals’s life that didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell; aspects of other musicians’ lives that did; questions that could not be answered (problematic for a journalist, but alluring for a would-be novelist); and a rich overlap of incident and experience that showed me that Casals’s life as a musician and public figure was not altogether unique. The lack of uniqueness did not mean I’d stumbled into a dead-end. It promised, instead, a doorway into other places and lives. Casals’s story, itself more complex than I’d first imagined, pointed the way to stories of many other European musicians and composers and even visual artists. Most interesting to me were the similarities of these individuals’ backgrounds, challenges, and moral dilemmas. I found I was interested in these composite stories and situations—a broader scope and larger canvas than my original vision had allowed, with room for quixotic digressions (and even for Don Quixote himself, another source of inspiration).
Where imagination promised to lead me in a fruitful direction, I followed it, becoming, to my complete surprise, a novelist in the process. In the end, I chose to shelve all plans for a nonfiction book and instead write a novel about protagonists who ask themselves some of the same questions I asked myself in 2001: Is this what I should be doing with my life? In difficult times, is art an indulgence or a necessity? Must I sacrifice my own happiness to what is going on around me? And, politics aside: Who will remember me?
While I ask readers to interpret the final work as fictional, music-oriented readers may still recognize purposeful similarities between Casals and my main character, Feliu Delargo. Casals and Feliu share a Catalan upbringing, royal patronage (by different queens), ownership of a gem-studded bow, and Republican political views. However, Casals was born in 1876, Feliu in 1892, putting them in contact with a different range of musicians, politicians and monarchs, and different artistic and political events. Casals never toured with anyone like the Al-Cerraz and Aviva characters of my book, had no relationship with Franco, and never performed for Franco or Hitler. While both Casals and Feliu refused to perform musically (musicians and composers of the 1930s and 1940s commonly struggled with the question of performing in politicized situations), they did so at slightly different historic junctures, and with different consequences.
In a similar vein, Justo Al-Cerraz shares some superficial traits—iincluding girth and a flair for mythologizing—with the Spanish pianist and composer Isaac Albéniz, but the two men are more different than alike. Albéniz lived from 1860 to 1909, meaning that he was terminally indisposed before much of my story takes place. He had no political difficulties or involvement in the Spanish Civil War, logically, and did not disappear at the end of his life. He never toured with a well-known cellist. His compositions, unlike Al-Cerraz’s, were successful and accepted.
Having vouched for the fictional (or mostly-fictional) natures of my main protagonists, I nonetheless admit to filling many smaller roles with characters drawn from real life—partly to enhance the appearance of reality, and partly for my own entertainment and for the entertainment or consternation of my protagonists. These less-fictionalized minor characters include King Alfonso XIII and Queen Ena of Spain, Manuel de Falla, Sir Edward Elgar, Pablo Picasso, Varian Fry, Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler, Bertolt Brecht, and Kurt Weill. Of course, I felt free to take liberties with all of them, where it suited the needs of my story.
Travel, including visits to palaces, musicians’ birthplaces and other settings used in this book, was the most important component in my research. (I did choose to walk through the gardens of Spain, rather than rely on any book from the rue de Richelieu.) For period detail and thematic inspiration, the following books also proved essential: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 and Franco: A Biography, both by Paul Preston; Homage to Cataloniaby George Orwell; The Week France Fell by Noel Barber; Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece That Changed the World by Russell Martin; Kurt Weill on Stage by Foster Hirsch; Theatrical Performances During the Holocaust, edited by Rebecca Rovit and Alvin Goldfarb; and Ena, Spain’s English Queen by Gerard Noel. I learned much from The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan and quoted from it directly in describing the “sin of Liberalism” as taught to young Feliu by his catechism teacher. I also relied upon detail provided by a documentary, Assignment Rescue: the Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee, directed by Richard Kaplan and written by Christina Lazaridi. For impressions of Isaac Albéniz, I am indebted to Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic by Walter Aaron Clark. Interviews and museum visits provided primary source materials from the life of Pablo Casals; however, his voice comes across most clearly in Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals, as told to Albert E. Kahn.
The Spanish Bow: History
While The Spanish Bow’s main characters are fictionalized, composited, or completely imagined, many minor characters are drawn more directly from real life. I had great fun weaving factual incidents and historical persons into the story.
Queen Ena and King Alfonso
Queen Victoria Ena (granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria) survived many attacks on her life and character—from the assassination attempt made by an anarchist on her wedding day, to later criticisms from the Spanish public, who found her cool and uncharismatic. Married to King Alfonso XIII, an immature monarch with a roving eye, she struggled to produce heirs for a royal family whose power was already waning. In Feliu’s music, she finds brief moments of escape from her official duties, which brought the real queen more tragedy than joy. The Spanish royal family went into exile in 1931, after the Spanish Republic was proclaimed. Ena’s son, Don Juan, never ruled. Her grandson, Juan Carlos, is the current King of Spain.
Picasso and Guernica
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to paint his masterpiece, Guernica, for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair, in Paris. He was inspired to create a testimony to the violence unleashed on the northern Spanish Basque town of that name just two weeks earlier. The mural is currently on display at the Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofía, in Madrid. Feliu meets Picasso while he is painting Guernica. The two Catalan exiles face similar challenges: how to reconcile art and politics, especially in the middle of a civil war, when allegiances and responsibilities are constantly shifting. (For a factual account of the painting, see Russell Martin’s Picasso’s War.) To see Guernica and other works by Spanish artists, visit the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía’s website.
Franco and Hitler
Francisco Franco was born in December 1892 coincidentally, the same month the cellist Feliu Delargo was born. Both boys were born small and weak, both revered their strong-willed mothers, and both developed conflicted ideas about the future of Spain. But I’ll leave these and other parallels to the reader. Franco rose to power leading the right-wing Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War and was Caudillo of Spain until his death in 1975—one of the most long-lived dictators, who saw Europe transformed by two world wars. My main characters try their best to avoid him, but how can one achieve prominence in Spain without crossing paths with the Caudillo?
Hitler was a tremendous fan of classical music (Wagner in particular), and understood well how music and the arts both influence and reflect politics. I’m sure he owned every record Feliu Delargo produced, and respected the cellist’s stoic style. Hitler and Franco met only once—in Hendaye, Spain, in 1940. And Feliu and Hitler? Perhaps better forgotten…
Feliu and Al-Cerraz head to Marseilles after the Nazis invade Paris; they must have known something I didn’t, since I’d never heard of Varian Fry until I realized that Feliu and Al-Cerraz must have needed help from a person just like him. The real Fry, an “American Schindler,” raised money for refugees and traveled to Marseilles in 1940 to smuggle artists out of Vichy France. In a short period of time, he saved over two thousand lives. Fry died in obscurity and wasn’t recognized for his efforts until the 1990s.
Manuel de Falla and Edward Elgar
Cellist Feliu Delargo and pianist Justo Al-Cerraz turn to these real-life composers —one Spanish, one English—at junctures in the novel, searching for inspiration or mentorship. Falla is well known for his “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” A museum dedicated to him stands near the foot of the Alhambra, in Granada.
Edward Elgar composed the Cello Concerto in E Minor just after World War I – its opening measures are suffused with modern sorrow—though he is equally well known for his “Pomp and Circumstance” marches. I was disappointed to hear that the U.K. is phasing out the 20-pound note featuring Elgar (in exchange for one featuring the economist Adam Smith), though Elgar continues to be admired by the British as one of their best composers.
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht
Weill, the Jewish-German theater composer, and Brecht, his songwriting partner, collaborated on the successful Threepenny Opera, as well as the lesser-known school opera, Der Jasager (“The Yes-sayer”). This obscure “teaching play,” based on a Japanese story, entices the violinist Aviva into staying in Germany, where she tours with Der Jasager’s performing troupe. Well known for their provocative, explicitly political works, Weill and Brecht both fled Nazi Germany in 1933. (To learn more about Kurt Weill and see his discography, visit the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.)