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“I Hate the Subject and the Subject Hates Me”: An Interview with Susannah Breslin

When I was a kid, my developmental psychologist parents often used me as a test subject to stage their experiments. The experiments were not by any means horror shows; they had more to do with playing with toys, and less to do with the electric shocks or physical abuse that people sometimes imagine. But the fact of their existence—and the loads of records I found of them after my father’s death—were, to say the least, disquieting. I have spent countless hours trying to figure out what, if anything, this means for me today, but I’ve struggled to get anywhere, in part because I’ve never been able to find anyone else who’s been through anything similar.

So when I heard about Susannah Breslin’s Data Baby: My Life in a Psychological Experiment, I knew I needed to talk to her. Data Baby is about how she was part of the Block and Block Longitudinal Study. This thirty-year study tracked children from preschool until they were in their thirties, and it sought to figure out if elements of personality from childhood could determine how people would turn out as adults.

Breslin writes that the Blocks’ interviews, in a way, were a lot like love to her, that they gave her some of what she needed to get through some traumatic times—including domestic abuse, Hurricane Katrina, and cancer. This was, in many ways, the opposite of what I expected to hear. Thankfully, on January 11, she agreed to meet with me, and we spent a fascinating three hours outside in a Burbank café, talking about science, love, memoirs, parents, story structure, and the publishing industry. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

In the book, you contrast your cold, workaholic humanities professor parents with the intense interest you felt from the psychologists who interviewed you. You also say this led to your choice to be a journalist. Can you briefly explain how that connection worked? 

Sure, my parents were intellectuals. They were academics. They were aloof and distant. My mother was emotionally cold and withholding, so my experiences in the study were very impactful because they were exactly what I wanted, which is to be the center of the world. On how it helped make me a journalist, my shrink talks about something called the passive into active dynamic, where you take the thing that was done to you and you turn it around. You’re now the one in a mastery position. I think as a journalist, it’s a way of turning the tables. Now I’m the one studying other people.

I’ve never actually met someone else who was studied as much as me. In many ways, I had a very similar situation to you, but it seemed to have an opposite effect. I went to creative writing and the humanities to get away from that sort of objectivity. I’ve tried to do journalism, and I fail miserably every time I have to be objective because it just feels so unalive to me. 

It’s funny because I read your essay on this when you reached out to me, and I’m literally getting upset thinking about it. I was so upset when I read it. I couldn’t believe it, but I got a migraine and vomited after.

I want to say I’m sorry, but I also want to say thank you. So often, people say, “It’s not like they hit you with a frying pan.” 

I hate that people say that. When I think about those experiments, I get upset. And if you ask me about my experience being studied, what I’m articulating to you is ideas I came to later. On an emotional level, I have no response. It’s like, because we were children, it’s so normalized at the time. But when you have any kind of distance from it, it is totally weird. Anyway, it’s really interesting to hear how you had this very different experience of a kind of similar dynamic. But to answer your question, I derived pleasure from it in a bunch of different ways. I liked that part of it was physical. Somebody sitting there, looking at me. It’s an experiment room. There’s nothing else going on. It is like a sacred space to me. And so just having that protracted, focused attention—I think I write in the book that it felt like love.

Also, I enjoyed pleasing the scientist by answering their questions cleverly, which was not possible with my mother, who was just generally unhappy with being a mother. I experienced it as kind of a game. I think I felt like I was special to be there.

I think there’s all kinds of problematic pieces to what I just described. One of them I see in what you’re describing with your parents, which is that it was a transactional relationship. That’s not how the parent-child bond is supposed to be defined. What can I get out of the child? To advance my own purposes?

Right, that part of it makes me angry.

I’m also kind of describing a child performer, which is essentially a child working. When I was writing the book, I wondered if it would resonate with somebody who had been a child actor. And I don’t know if you saw that Emma Roberts, who is Julia Roberts’s niece, picked my book to be the December selection for her book club. And then I did an interview or Instagram Live interview with her and her partner in the book club, Karah Preiss. It really resonated with Emma. It should be the child’s mission to figure out who they are, not providing adults with what they need.

That’s very well put. As an example of the infuriating adult attitude, in the book, you write about going back to Berkeley and trying to find the researchers. They’d died, but you went to the building and found somebody, and he said, “Oh, you guys come by all the time, another one, sigh…”

Right? It was the perfect scene. I think it was in the spring of 2018, and I went up there to interview for an investigative fellowship, so I decided to go to the preschool. I was standing out there, and then this guy comes out who looks like a researcher. I said, “Are you a researcher?” He ignored me. And I said, “Are you a teacher?” And then he shook his head. Then while he was walking away from me, I repeated, “Are you a researcher?” He turned around, finally, and I said, “I used to go to school here. I was studied here.” And he said, “Yeah, a lot of you come around here.” It’s like we were haunting him, like these little ghosts.

I just kept thinking of him rolling his eyes and thinking, “Agh, the data points are back again.”

His vibe was: “I hate the subject, and the subject hates me.” I don’t know why you’re coming around here. All I wanted was your data.’ Like, I have an attorney friend who says practicing law would be great except for the clients and maybe human researchers feel like the research would be great if you don’t have to deal with people to get the data.

In one of the papers by Jeanne Block, it talks about the children. And there’s a footnote where it thanks us and our parents for participating. She died the following year, and we never saw that again. When I figured out I had an identifying number, I was pretty horrified.

Right? It’s really hard to describe the sort of horror I feel being the subject of a scientific study.

Will you just talk more about that, for you?

Well, it’s complicated. I feel like my humanity is being taken away from me and, at the same time, I value social science. It’s not really answering your question, but I’ve only figured out how to talk about it by telling this story: My dad caught me with a knife when I was twelve that I had taken to school. And he told me studies show people who carry weapons are more likely to get stabbed. And I said, I don’t care. And that was one of the few moments in my life where he broke down and started crying. He said, I keep seeing you stabbed in the gutter somewhere. And at that point, I stopped carrying a knife. It was that human interaction that worked, that made me feel like he might actually see me, so I? might actually have something to say. 

But at the same time, there is a value to having that scientific information, right? To knowing that you’re more likely to get stabbed if you’re carrying a knife? 

If you don’t mind me asking: what is your earliest memory of being studied?

That’s funny. I don’t have many, because a lot of it was when I was an infant and toddler. The few I have are like yours in that they are a little positive. I’m like, oh, I get to play with these toys and feel important, but also, there was sort of an undercurrent of weird, like something is off. But those good-ish memories don’t gel with all these records I found, where I’m often clearly very unhappy. There’s one VHS—I must have been five or six, my mom was working at Lehigh at the time—and she was the one doing it. And she was trying to get me to do whatever would prove her theory. And I just wanted to play with my He-Man. And I was so miserable, you can see it. My body language is exhausted, afraid, like I feel ignored, invisible, even though she’s theoretically paying attention to me. And in the VHS tape, the sound doesn’t work. So it’s just this visual of me retreating more and more into myself, and she’s just kind of shoving these toys in my face for science, so she can try to figure out her study. And … I don’t know, it’s true that there is no frying pan. And if it’s just once, fine. But what do you do with that when it happens over and over? What does that do to a kid? 

How did you feel when you were watching the video?

Oh, I felt nothing, kind of disassociated. But when I found it, I was like, oh, look at this, Mom. We ended up watching it together. And she left the room because it was too painful for her to watch.

Did she verbalize why?

I think she just said, I can’t watch this. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. And that’s what she keeps saying now, I’m so sorry. We shouldn’t have done that, we were Piaget-heads. And I feel bad for her. I don’t want to say this in public. She’s still alive, and we have a good relationship now. But I also need to talk about it. By the way, do you know who (Jean) Piaget was? 

Yeah, but only in the vaguest sense.

He was this incredibly complex and prolific Genovese philosopher, epistemologist, and psychologist, one of the founders of developmental psychology. But we could be here for hours talking about him, so I’ll just talk about him in regards to studying his children. There is a long history of studying one’s own children going back to Darwin, and even before that. And Piaget, his first big book was based on his kids, Jacqueline, Lucienne, and Laurent. And then, there’s a whole cottage industry until the nineties, when it fell out of fashion. 

Children are free. They’re available. No consent, no form.

Right, exactly, because of the way we see children, their parents almost own them, and if their parents are psychologists? Parents can do what they want with their kids. 

Anyway, speaking of the question of ownership of stories and experiences, I want to change direction and talk about your feelings on memoir a bit. On Brad Listi’s Otherppl podcast, you mentioned that you feel memoirs are artificial. One of my favorite things about your book was how you refused to write a standard memoir. 

Right. Which is why everyone hates it on Goodreads. I hate this whole three-act narrative thing. So many memoirs are written largely for women, by women, and they are the story of a woman’s interior from start to finish, as if she has nothing else to say about the world other than herself. She can only talk about her emotional state. Just reducing the woman to the hysteric is offensive. I’m still angry about it.

So writing the memoir was a real chore. It was not what I had done historically as a journalist. I’m this tough girl, and I’m going to go in and write about this crazy thing and these people doing this crazy stuff. The task of the memoir is to be vulnerable and emotionally open, and I have zero talent in those departments.

I don’t know. I’d argue you made it your own by creating something new. Which is why I want to ask how you would describe the structure of Data Baby. You have a lot of storylines. 

Ha, you tell me.

You talk about your battle with cancer. Domestic violence. Reporting in the porn industry. Hurricane Katrina. I’ve worked as an editor, so as I was reading, I asked, “How are you pulling this off?” If I were an editor of a book and somebody pitched that to me, I would say it’s too many things. But it wasn’t, here, because I felt there was a throughline. So maybe I should ask: In your mind, what is the throughline? 

I don’t know if this is an answer, and it feels like I’m patting myself on the back, but it has something to do with will. There’s this willful drive not to be knocked down by the thing in front of me. Whether it’s cancer, a hurricane, or a bad relationship. Where did this will come from? One take I offer up is what we’ve talked about, this third parent of the study offering this outside validation. Another take is that the throughline is hostility, because of my mother’s narcissism and gaslighting. My will comes from the rage from being ignored, that I was forced to turn to researchers to feel a sense of self. My mother dying is the best thing that could have happened to my book. It gave me the opportunity to assert my story without having to listen to somebody tell me I was wrong.

The hostility within you? Or the hostility you’re facing? Or both? 

Within me towards her. The memoir is an act of revenge, I think. She tried to silence me and ignore me. Well? Her whole thing is she failed to write a book. I’m competitive. I want to win. That’s a little bit from my father. In the end, I want to win. I wrote a book.

Winning is a resolution of sorts, no? How does that interact with your annoyance with the three-act structure?

Well, I guess I would say it’s not a three-act structure in the book. It refuses it in the end. By refusing resolution.

In the book, though, you do say you were looking for resolution. 

In another interview, I called this the money shot question. I thought about it a lot, and the other lie of the memoir is it’s supposed to fucking fix things. I’m healed. I love myself, or now I’m a New York Times bestseller. Memoirs rarely end in failure. So I feel this pressure to write a memoir that shows I emerged transformed and learned to accept myself. None of which happened. So I had to ask myself: Now what? I guess what I want to say is, isn’t it enough that I’m alive? And I think that is a win, given everything, that I didn’t overdose on drugs or slam into a telephone pole in a car driven by a drunk guy when I was a teenager, or kill myself. Isn’t that enough?

I say it is. To nerd out a little, there’s a book on the history of memoir by Ben Yagoda. It draws all of these different lines of different sorts of memoirs, trying to sort out where they come from. Tracing it back to Saint Augustine, among many others. And this transformative impulse comes from a religious—

Right, yes. And that’s why they’re so popular in America. I think most memoirs are garbage. I think they’re emotional porn. I think they’re trash. I hate that I was pigeonholed into writing one. I think they are containers that book publishers put women’s stories in so they know where to put them on a bookshelf. And they are reductionist to anybody who has a sophisticated understanding of themselves or a sophisticated understanding of writing. Data Baby was pitched as an interweaving of narrative nonfiction, memoir, and reporting. But they can’t shelve that. Book publishers just make books worse. You’re a woman. You’re writing a memoir. Why? Because those sell. And they do. Britney Spears sold a million.

Do you think memoirs are—a little bit of a joke intended—redeemable? Like, do you think there is a way to write a memoir that wouldn’t be emotional porn? 

Sure, obviously there are all kinds of exceptions. Is Marguerite Duras’s The Lover a memoir? I mean, there are all kinds of memoirs that are creative and interesting. Or autofiction maybe is and is really just an involved memoir or a more honest memoir. I thought about writing the book as autofiction for a bit. For some reason, that didn’t happen. This was the first project that I did where I wasn’t operating as a lone wolf. All these people get involved. There’s an agent there, an editor, there’s a publisher, a marketing person, and a publicist. And it’s all part of a machine that is not conducive to interesting writing, experimental writing, writing that pushes boundaries. The capitalist machine just ruins things. It’s ruinous. It’s not good for literature.

I wanted to end by homing in a little bit more on the studies. We’ve been through this in a couple of different ways, but I’m going to give it another shot. 


How did these scientific interviews give you the strength to get past things like cancer, domestic violence, Hurricane Katrina? Not overcome, but get past. I understand that it’s good to be paid attention to, but I’m just trying to understand as someone who has uneasy feelings about being studied. 

I’m just throwing shit out there because I’m not answering your question. It felt affirming. It felt like somebody was always there. You know, my parents were inconstant. My mother emotionally and my father physically. And the importance of the fact that this was longitudinal. [The interviews] were a constant. I think I compare it to religion in the book. I don’t believe in God, because I was brought up atheist. But if God is a fiction, its purpose is comfort, right? My father died when I was 27, and I realized writing the book, I had a longer relationship with the study than with him. The relationship was powerful because of the way in which I internalized it. I think that I did that because it was so bad at home. There’s just no one there. So if you’re imaginative, you create this narrative that there are these other people who are there for me.

I see, so it’s the construction of the narrative in your head more than—

Exactly, yes, these people think I’m special. Every day people are ignoring me, or my sister is humiliating me, or my father is gone. And I think maybe I didn’t even fully articulate this in the book, but I think it was just really, really, really, really bad at home. You’re like, I was traumatized when I was being studied. My trauma was existing in the home. It’s like the exact inverse. So there’s all this kind of trauma of intense emotional neglect. Absolute emotional deprivation. I think my mother probably did not have much in the way of emotional feelings towards me at all. And for a sensitive, creative child, that is like being traumatized day in and day out. So I build this narrative as the rope to save myself. These people think I’m special. I am something more than invisible.

That makes perfect sense. And I think it explains why I ran to the humanities and writing because, well, the constant in my life where I felt heard and seen is in creative writing classes and community. 

It’s not the study. It’s the story.

Right? The story is that you’re interesting, that you have something to say, that you matter. I think that’s really powerful. I did not have as consistently cold of a childhood as you did, but there were definitely dark times when I could describe my house as you described yours. How do people who grew up in households like that survive? Where do you find your story and your worth and your validation? 

Yeah. It’s not here.

It’s not here. 

If my mother had watched that video with me, she would have laughed. And then she would have said, you should write about that. She wouldn’t have walked out. She would have thought it was hilarious. And then she would have said something kind of humiliating about what I had done in it.


At least your mother felt bad.

Well, my mother has spent a lot of the last twenty years apologizing to me, it’s true. 

It’s almost like it’s worse. Because it’s the admission of guilt.

It’s interesting that you wrote from this place of hostility and anger. Because I struggle when I write from there. 


I mean, I’m happier when I’m in sort of an imaginative place. But you wrote a whole book from it. What advice would you have for people who are writing out of hostility and anger? 

I guess I feel like hostility is underrated, and so is revenge. Forgiveness is overrated. Especially for women. I wish people would write more from a place of messiness. Expressing inappropriate emotions and telling whatever story they’re not supposed to tell. The one that comes at the highest cost is probably the most interesting story you have.

Is there anything that you wanted to say to interviewers that they just haven’t asked you, or any questions you wanted? 

Write for yourself. Write on your own. Write in academia. But I don’t think the publishing industry is good for writing. It’s good for selling product. And writing is more than that. It’s magical. And there’s nothing magical about capitalism.

Seth Fischer is an associate editor at Air/Light.

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