Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Reflections: The Irresistible Henry House

It is 1946. Martha Gaines is reappointed as the head of the Practice House at Wilton College. She teaches young girls that flock to enroll in the program (due to very few career choices), the skills and techniques of good housekeeping and child rearing. Every year or so, the local orphanage provides the House with a “practice baby”. A healthy infant that is abandoned at the orphanage gets to be the hands-on training material for the young girls. Every week, the baby gets handled by a different cooing girl who learns how to bathe, change diapers, dress, prepare the formula, feed, play, and put the baby to sleep, among other parenting techniques such as training the baby not to suck its thumb, disciplining the baby to sleep alone, etc. Basically,  a crash-course on early motherhood for the girls. The young girls then graduate, formally certified and trained to be mothers and housekeepers. When the adorable baby turns one or two years old, s/he is put up for adoption, and eventually leaves the House with a loving family. Sounds like a fantastic idea, right? The babies get cared by so many enthusiastic and loving ladies, ever so warm and pampering, and in turn the babies help teach the ladies some smart skills to prepare for the future. What could possibly be wrong with this win-win situation? That’s the question that intrigues one to read this book.

The book follows the life of Henry, a practice baby, to address the question - how could such a program affect the babies and even possibly, scar them for life. Needless to say, I found it to be a fascinating book. Child psychology and parenting are close to my heart, and I have often wondered if it would be beneficial to for mothers-to-be to attend psychological training sessions, so that they pick up some vital parenting techniques before they fumble with their child. Although I never imagined using an “experimental” baby, it didn’t sound like a terrible idea when I read the preface of this book. Apparently, this story was inspired from the picture of a “practice baby” at Cornell! So, the story is drawn from real, historical evidence from schools in the US.

This book is more than a novel. It is a psychological sketch of Henry starting from his early years. The author brilliantly builds Henry’s psyche and personality, matching every experience he goes through to the ways in which his behavior and thoughts get altered. Poor Henry also has other complications to add to his baggage - he was the only practice baby to never leave the House. The matron of the house, Martha, vows to not get attached to any baby, but she falls for Henry and clings onto him as her last straw of emotional fulfillment. On one side is this suffocating and controlling love, and on the other is a painful void as Henry yearns for his biological mother. Enough to complicate the life of a young man.

The story reiterates the fact that the first 5 years of a child’s life is incredibly sensitive. Mishandling of these years results in lasting scars and psychological issues. Due to being shifted between dozens of caregivers, practice babies never learned to attach to a single caregiver. It is apparently extremely important for infants to feel consistently secure and loved by at least one parent/caregiver. The bond of love and trust that they build in their first year is vital to their emotional development. When handled by so many temporary caregivers, it’s traumatic for the babies to feel betrayed over and over again, every time their caregiver changed. They are eventually unsure of whom to trust, whom to cry for, whom to feel safe with, and grow up with attachment-issues and struggle to commit to any one thing - be it people, places, career, etc. This might seem like an extreme developmental issue, for there are millions of babies that are handled by several temporary caregivers at orphanages, out of no other choice. Are they all doomed for life? Henry's story shows that while attachment-issues can be alleviated later in life, they only worsen so much more if there are more rejections and other issues that aggravate things.

Other interesting themes are part of this story as there is plenty of social documentary in the background. The parenting principles of the 40’s and 50’s are critiqued, and the rise of women’s empowerment in the U.S is traced. I personally appreciated the author conveying the message that there is more to raising a baby or child, than feeding, diapering, and disciplining based on text-book prescribed rules. Parenting is much much bigger than that. And, too much love is not always a good thing, especially if it is misdirected.

The characters are very real - developed with precise psychological sensitivity. The reader can see past their flaws and readily sympathize with them. However, I couldn’t sympathize with Henry’s biological mother - I tried to, but I failed later on in the book.

A very interesting book - but perhaps only to those who are interested in psychological case studies. That is not to say the language is heavy or boring. The writing is simple, yet smart, and there is more to the story than a series of psychological accounts. I recommend it (if it’s worth anything)!

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