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Mommy and me

July 22, 2007|Laurel Maury

Wire Mothers

Harry Harlow and the Science of Love

Jim Ottaviani and Dylan Meconis

G.T. Labs: 88 pp., $12.95 paper

Mid-20th century psychology has a spooky attic. Terms like "refrigerator mother" and "Skinner box" are ghouls that still haunt us. Jim Ottaviani and Dylan Meconis' graphic novel, "Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love," which is aimed at young adult and adult audiences, humanizes a man who spoke out against psychology's own psychological sterility. The effect is enlightening and touching.

Harry Harlow, né Israel (though Episcopalian, he changed his name because of anti-Semitism in academia), was the scientist made famous by "Mother Love," a 1960 segment that aired on the CBS television show "Conquest." In Harlow's day, psychology said that babies shouldn't be hugged or cuddled. The television program was both a glimpse into the bright heartlessness of a psychology lab and the first time Harlow's shockingly controversial theory that maternal affection is necessary was put before a wide audience.

In his experiment, Harlow put baby monkeys into glass boxes with maternal stand-ins: two "monkey mothers," one of wire, one of cloth. The baby monkeys invariably clung to the soft cloth "mother," even when the wire "mother" had bottles to nurse from. He demonstrated that without this cuddling, baby monkeys never became curious infants able to connect with other monkeys. Harlow put his research on television because he was having a devil of a time getting other scientists to believe him. His plan worked. The unsettling images of the wire mother and the cloth mother endure to this day.

"Wire Mothers" is drawn in a newish comic style often called global, or OEL (original English language), manga. The big-eyed kids seen in "Astro Boy" have grown up to become a form well suited to literary adaptations and nonfiction, in which the drama lies in the emotion, not the action. Similar editions of Shakespeare are in the works. Ottaviani and the artists he works with have previously used the form to humanize science, such as in "Suspended in Language," about physicist Neils Bohr. The form gives stories a thriving warmth.

So it's a fitting way to depict the man who put the idea of love back into psychology. Harlow is an unsympathetic block of wood on television. But Meconis' illustrations give us a square-jawed man with a speech impediment who drinks, chain-smokes and works in his shirt sleeves. The image of him on the night he conceives of his famous experiment is marvelous. Working late on Christmas Eve, Harlow accidentally locks himself in the monkeys' cage. The animals crawl all over him, nestling against his shoulders, and the annoyed look on his face is priceless. Outside, carolers sing "Silent Night" ("Round yon Virgin, mother and child

"), and Harlow has a revelation. Later, the expressiveness, beefy lines show him slipping into alcoholism. The story is pure Americana, but Harlow's vulnerability shows its manga roots.

What grabs the reader are Harlow's quiet despair and the utterly tragic faces of the monkeys. Ottaviani and Meconis aren't exaggerating the latter. The television show begins with a baby monkey whose only comfort is a cloth pad. When this is removed for cleaning, the animal begins rocking as if is in great distress. If anything, the book exaggerates the comfort Harlow's monkeys derived from their cloth mothers. The monkeys on television never look at peace.

One small flaw is that the book doesn't go far enough with the science or with Harlow's inner darkness. Though excellent, it feels truncated. There could have been more on how Harlow's colleagues spurned him, causing him to sink into depression. And imagine that, before 1960, psychologists could think a mother cuddling her child pathological. Had Harlow not put his monkeys on TV, this notion might have continued for a long, long time. •

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