Harry’s Monkeys

In the days following my mom’s revelation that I was adopted, I was mostly concerned with reassuring her that I still loved her. Even now, nearly eight years after that talk at her kitchen table, I get a lump in my throat when I think of the circumstances that led to her becoming my mom, and how I’d somehow never before seen the compassion and grace that lived in her.

But naturally I spent some time reflecting on my own life, too, and I had what I thought was an insight into some of its more mysterious corners: Maybe in this secret history of my origins I could find a reason for my decades of depression; my several sincere (if incompetent) suicide attempts; my early and persistent feeling that I had been dropped from a spaceship and was just waiting for my real people to come pick me up.

One of Harlow’s monkeys clings to its cloth “mother.”

I thought the key might lie in how an infant would perceive the sudden disappearance of her birth mother, in whose body she floated for nine months, and who held her in those raw first hours after emergence. Whose smell had probably been imprinted on some primal circuitry deep in her limbic system. Was it possible that there was some kind of neural trauma when, after many hours and days, it became clear that Mother wasn’t returning, and the newborn would have “known”–to the best of her infantile comprehension–that she was going to die?

What if, say, some hormonal cascade initiated by the terror of being abandoned were released in a mammal infant, and then, miraculously, the infant survived–would such an event leave a neurobiological signature? Then maybe there would be a scar, or even just a pathologically altered biochemical response to future events, that could explain the idiopathic seizures I had as a toddler, or the childhood asthma that kept me out of school sports (not that I yearned to participate anyway), or most of all, the depression and suicidal ideation that came with adolescence and persisted throughout much of adulthood.

On the other hand, maybe infant┬áseparation from the birth mother–in humans or in other mammals–doesn’t rise to the level of a trauma, but is just another short, unpleasant event to survive, like a vaccination or an upset stomach, quickly lost in the blooming, buzzing confusion of the infant’s new world.

There must be some research on this out there, I thought. I knew about the famous “wire mother” experiment conducted by Harry Harlow, and that the baby monkeys he took from their mothers preferred a soft, heated cloth substitute over a cold wire substitute, even when the wire contraption was equipped with a milk-dispensing bottle, and the warm cloth doll was not. In a subsequent variation, Harlow separated the monkeys and assigned them permanently to either the metal or cloth “mother.” Because the two groups of monkeys behaved differently–when terrorized, the “cloth mother” infants ran and clung to their lifeless surrogates, whereas the “metal mother” infants just collapsed where they were and screamed, or went catatonic–the study results were widely interpreted as showing that the source of nurturing was irrelevant, and that successful infant development depended on care from any warm quarter, whether birth mother or rag doll. Adoption advocates were especially pleased.

But none of the so-called “isolate” monkeys developed normally, no matter which surrogate they were assigned. As they got older, they engaged in inappropriate behaviors, were rejected by other monkeys, and acted in ways that in humans would be considered signs of depression and even sociopathy. If these socially backwards monkeys did manage to mate and have offspring–Harlow called them the “motherless mothers”–they turned out to not be much good at parenting: when they didn’t hit or bite their babies, they ignored them altogether.

So the experiment demonstrated that infant monkeys preferred warm cuddling over cold feeding, but did not remotely demonstrate that separation from the birth mother was harmless.

Of course, it didn’t show that separation itself was harmful, either. To answer that question, the experiment would have had to compare monkeys reared by their birth mothers to monkeys reared by surrogates who were also monkeys, not clothes hangers or terry cloth towels.