The stabbing mother – Harlow’s experiments


First part Mothers made from wire – love in the laboratory


Until Harlow’s coming and his Wire Mothers, child psychology was behavioural, it was Skinner’s child, the man who was raising his baby daughter in a box.

They believed that you could mould a child’s character as desired based on rewarding and punishing patterns.

John Watson, another renowned behaviourist, had written: “Do not overindulge them. Do not kiss them goodnight. Rather, give a brief bow and shake their hand before turning off the light”.

Harlow, on the other hand, maybe because was deprived of it, wrote: “Hug saves! Embrace your children!”


At the end of 1950s he was still conducting the torturing experiments of love, but he was looking for it outside his home. He had extramarital affairs and two children who didn’t trouble himself to embrace them. Clara Mears, “Ms IQ of 155” abandoned him.

Harlow didn’t even notice that the house was deserted of his family. He had love affairs with students, although his male students loathed him for he was an utterly tyrannical man.

It was then when he conceived the idea of the Iron Maiden, perhaps the most sadistic experimental machine ever made.


They were the Evil Mothers.

One of the devices was shooting out retractable spikes to the babies. Another version was blasting so cold and forceful air that the infant monkeys were thrown back against the bars of their cages, screaming.

There was also another version that was drenching them with cold water, as well as the Ultimate Iron Maiden that was stabbing them.


Harlow was curious to see what the babies would do, even though he was already suspecting it: the babies kept coming back.

No matter what Mother did to them, they were coming back for a little affection, to caress the towel before Mother stabs them again.


In 1958, Harlow was elected president of the American Psychological Association. His speech was entitled “The Nature of Love”.

He became famous, pop idol, and he was frequently on the TV. He got married to another gifted woman, Peggy Kuenne, and fathered two more children. Peggy jacked in her equally promising job and stayed at home.

In an interview, he commented that he had been married twice, but “both my wives were too bright to be sucked into women’s lib.”

He kept having extramarital affairs.

But a few years after the rise, came the fall.


The monkeys with the surrogate cloth mothers were not growing up normally. They couldn’t play with other monkeys. They were aggressive.

Some others had symptoms of autism. They were moving aimlessly to and fro or they were injuring themselves. One of them chewed its entire arm.

Harlow admitted that he was wrong: Touch and hug alone did not suffice.

He didn’t give up. He went on adding a new variant: the cradle; a surrogate, rocking mother as well as half an hour of play with real macaques. These babies were almost normal when they grew up.

Harlow’s new conclusion was that touch, cradling and half an hour of play were necessary to be able to love.

Soon enough he would figure out that it is impossible to quantify love.


While he kept living away from his house and family, Harlow indulged himself in drinking. His students would spot him in the bars and carry him to the lab.

He was ready for the next step: the Rape Rack.


It was 1966. The orphaned macaques, those who had grown up with Harlow’s surrogate mothers, had arrived at reproductive age.

Harlow wanted to see what kind of mothers would become the subjects of his experiments.  But they could not mate because they wouldn’t let another animal to get close to them. And that’s how Harlow came up with the invention of the rape rack.

The females were bound there, they were immobilized so that the males would mate –rape- them.

Twenty orphaned mothers were impregnated by this way and gave birth to their babies.

Most of them killed their cubs or abandoned them, totally indifferent – or even depressive. Only a handful of them were proved to be “adequate”.

Harlow seemed he was trying to prove what was self-explanatory.

He became notorious for his brutality.


A few years later, his second wife died. Harlow became severely depressed and he was submitted to electroconvulsive therapy, where he was the guinea pig for a while.

When he was discharged, he called his first wife, “Ms. IQ of 155”. She was widowed too, therefore they were remarried.


During his last years, Harlow engaged himself in biopsychology and the remedy of depression. Maybe the figure of his mother, who was staring unblinkingly at him through the glass, was still haunting him.

As a result, he invented one more device: The Pit of Despair.

In a dark, isolated chamber a macaque was bound with the head downwards, unable to move. Another device was feeding the animal that was left there for months or years.

When they were taken out, the animals were emotionally shattered. No medicine or remedy could help them.

Just like Harlow who died of Parkinson’s disease.


Harlow managed to prove one thing with his brutal experiments: every human being (and animal too) needs love and affection to grow up normally and become an individual that, in turn, will be able to offer affection to somebody else.

If we expand this concept on a social level, we could hazard perhaps the following diagnosis: a man who is reared unfree, with competition, cannibalism and bigotry as models, they will never be able to show solidarity.


One hypothesis: if Harlow took care of the animals instead of torturing them to discover the nature of love, maybe he would be able to fill the gap his mother inflicted on him.

The animals would redeem him.


This article was based on Lauren Slater’s book “Opening Skinner’s Box”.


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Translated by Alexandros Mantas: