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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Scientists and Psychopathology (p. 38)

From chapter "Cultural Eyeglasses"

Harry Harlow and another scientist, Stephen Suomi, wondered if they could induce psychopathology in primates by removing baby monkeys from their natural mothers and placing them in cages with “cloth surrogate mothers who could become monsters.” They created a cloth frame “monster mother” that would “eject high pressure compressed air” and “blow the animal’s skin practically off its body.” They created another “that would rock so violently that the baby’s head and teeth would rattle,” and finally, a “porcupine mother” that on command would ‘eject sharp brass spikes over all the ventral surface of its body.” In the former cases, the baby simply clung tighter, because, as the scientists reported, “a frightened infant clings tightly to its mother at all costs,” and in the latter case the monkey waited until the spikes retreated, then returned to cling to what it perceived to be its mother.

Harlow and Suomi finally discovered that the best monster mothers they could devise were simply the products of their own experiments: the monkeys they had raised in isolation. These monkeys—depressed, made permanently psychopathological by artificially removing them from the social embeddedness in which they had evolved—were too fearful to interact normally with other monkeys, and were incapable of normal sexual relations. Undeterred, the scientists impregnated them through the use of what they called a “rape rack”. When the babies were born, the mothers had no idea what to do with them. Many of the mothers ignored their infants, while others, in the words of Harlow and Suomi, “were brutal or lethal. One of their favorite tricks was to crush the infant’s skull with their teeth. But the really sickening behavior pattern was that of smashing the infant’s face to the floor, then rubbing it back and forth.”


About two weeks ago I received in the mail the Executive Summary of the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. This comprehensive report estimated that in 1993, approximately 614,000 American children were physically abused, 300,000 were sexually abused. 532.000 were emotionally abused, 507,000 were physically neglected, and 585,000 were emotionally neglected. 565,000 of these children were killed or seriously injured.

What is the relationship between these numbers and our culturally induced isolation from the natural world and each other, from the social embeddedness in which we evolved?