Book: Love at Goon Park

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Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

Author: Deborah Blum
Publisher: Perseus Publishing

We take it for granted today that we should kiss our children, hug our friends, and comfort our partners. But until recently, the “experts” thought otherwise. In fact, in the early 20th century, affection between parents and children was very much discouraged—psychologists thought it would create needy and demanding offspring; doctors were convinced it would spread infectious disease. It took a revolution in psychology to overturn these beliefs, and prove that a loving touch not only didn’t harm babies but in fact ensured their emotional and intellectual growth.

In Love at Goon Park, Deborah Blum charts this profound cultural shift by tracing the story of the man who made it possible: a brilliant, alcoholic, work-obsessed psychologist named Harry Harlow.

Pursuing the idea that human affection could be understood, studied, even measured, Harlow arrived at his conclusions by conducting experiments—some beautiful, some profoundly troubling—on the primates in his University of Wisconsin laboratory. Paradoxically, his darkest experiments may have the brightest legacy: By studying neglect and its life-altering consequences, Harlow confirmed love’s central role in shaping not only how we feel but also how we think. The more children experience affection, he discovered, the more curious they become about the world. Love, it turns out, makes people smarter.

But as this meticulously researched and masterfully written book shows, there was a side of Harlow as dark as some of his experiments. An eccentric, driven scientist with a fondness for alcohol, he was a difficult husband and a distant father who spent precious little time with his own children, even as he preached the importance of bonding. Yet Harlow’s legacy is truly monumental—and his reputation, in Blum’s hands, is at last restored. The biography of both a man and an idea, Love at Goon Park is a powerful and at times disturbing narrative that will forever alter our understanding of human relationships.

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