Susannah Breslin, DATA BABY: My Life in a Psychological Experiment

Susannah Breslin, DATA BABY: My Life in a Psychological Experiment

Zibby welcomes journalist Susannah Breslin to discuss DATA BABY, a provocative and poignant memoir about her experiences as a “lab rat” in a lifelong psychological study and her pursuit to reclaim autonomy as an adult. Susannah describes the preschool experiment her parents enrolled her in, which followed over 120 kids for thirty years, aiming to predict their future based on early childhood observations. She reflects on her awareness of the study and her views on the stability of personality traits. She also talks about her whirlwind marriage, battle with breast cancer, the impact of the experiment on her identity, and the emotional challenge of putting it all into words.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Susannah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your book, Data Baby: My Life in a Psychological Experiment.

Susannah Breslin: Thanks so much for having me, Zibby. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: My pleasure. Please tell listeners about your book, about the experiment, about your parents ending up — just the whole thing, please.

Susannah: Data Baby is a memoir. I grew up in Berkeley. My father was an English professor at UC Berkeley. The university ran a preschool where the kids who went there were also studied by professors and researchers at the university studying early childhood development. It just so happened that when I started preschool there, I became one of over 128 kids who were followed for thirty years. Basically, the researchers who were studying us were trying to figure out, if you study a child, can you predict who that child will grow up to be? At the time, there was this crisis in psychology about whether or not personality traits were real. Do people actually have a distinct personality, or are they just responding to the circumstances in which they find themselves? The only way to identify that and find out if personality remained relatively stable over time was by following people from childhood into adulthood, which is exactly what they did.

Zibby: When did you know that this had happened?

Susannah: I’m not sure. The analogy that I have given before is, in my mind, it’s kind of like being adopted for somebody who always knew they were adopted. They don’t remember having a sit-down conversation. It was just always there. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t involved in the study. When I was a preschooler, when I was around four years old, I wasn’t aware of what was actually going on behind the scenes. That preschool was designed, essentially, for studying children. It had mirror-twin classrooms. Between those classrooms, there was an observation gallery where people could hide and watch what we were doing. There was a transparent screen that hid them, but they could also hear what we were saying. Then later, we were assessed on campus in Tolman Hall, which was where the psychology department was. Those experiment rooms had one-way mirrors. Although, to me, they just appeared to be mirrors. I think some time around seven or eight years old, I kind of started to figure out, these adults are interested in me. There’s a little bit something more going on here than I might have thought.

Zibby: What is your view on whether personality is a stable trait?

Susannah: I’m not a scientist. I don’t have a PhD. I’m not a psychologist or a researcher. That was one of the challenges of writing the book. I’m a journalist. I’m a writer. I’m not an expert, but I’ve had experts studying me. Researchers come from the premise that what is in front of them is quantifiable. I think what I ultimately took away from investigating my past and the story behind the study once I grew up was that there is something about people that’s beyond science, that can’t simply be reduced to something that is quantifiable. We were essentially, as a cohort, a data set. I certainly like to think I am something more than a bucket of data.

Zibby: I think you’re more than a bucket of data.

Susannah: Thank you. That’s very nice.

Zibby: I was a psychology major in college. I went through hours and hours of coding children’s behavior. I was doing eating and weight research. It was the snack of an actual study. They were doing a study on something else, but they had this free moment where they gave the kids snack. Instead of just throwing that footage away, the eating and weight department was like, oh, wait, let’s study that and see if there are any links. All to say, I spent a lot of time coding for every different behavior. I am aware of the ins and outs of studies and psychological experiments and all of that. To be in one for so long, oh, my gosh, that’s a lot. It’s just a lot.

Susannah: It was. When I was an adult, I would tell people I was in the study. People would always be like, that’s really strange. That sounds so weird. Why did your parents let you do that? When did you find out? All those questions. It was always so normal to me. I was a journalist for many, many years before I even really strongly considered writing about this. It was so much a part of me and I think, in a lot of ways, actually shaped me. It didn’t seem unusual to me, but I understand it seems weird to grow up and have people spying on you. One thing that was weird when I started doing the research into the story was finding out that I had a number. My number in the study is 758. That was just jarring. It was kind of like, am I this number? I had a very romantic vision of what the study was. They made me feel special. I felt like I was part of something that was bigger than myself. It gave me a sense of meaning in my life. To reconcile that with being a number and looking at yourself as part of a mathematical calculation took some mental gymnastics, you could say.

Zibby: Have you watched the reality show Squid Game? It’s based on the movie.

Susannah: No, I haven’t seen the reality show version.

Zibby: In the reality show, everybody gets a number. That’s why I’m bringing it up. You all wear the same thing. Everyone gets assigned a number. They don’t use your names, ever. It’s like, oh, remember that guy, fifty-eight, who got eliminated last week? You see how it makes people feel when they’re all — you lose your identity. How do you maintain an identity when you’re just another number?

Susannah: Right. I should go on the show, obviously. It’s like I’ve been training my whole life for it. I’ll be an expert.

Zibby: You can even go — now this sounds like an ad. I swear to god this is not an ad. In LA, Netflix has this pop-up where you can go in and be a Squid Game contestant and go through it for an hour.

Susannah: I’m definitely going to do that.

Zibby: You can actually go do it if, maybe, you would like.

Susannah: Perfect.

Zibby: Your book is not just about the experiment. It’s not all science. You go into a lot about your personal life and everything. Can I read a small section of it. Is that okay?

Susannah: Of course.

Zibby: This is from chapter six. You said, “Three weeks later in mid-September, I was on a plane heading west. As I watched the verdant landscape slipping away from below me through the oval window, it seemed like I could see things more clearly from this bird’s eye point of view. Bird, that’s it. I was a bird in a gilded cage. I had all the trappings of the good life, a house, a partner, a BMW in a three-car garage, and once I had those things, I didn’t want to lose them. For decades, I had struggled to take care of myself. It was hard to picture giving up everything. You’ll be fine, I could hear some wiser of me telling myself. I knew if I left my husband, I could take care of myself, but what if the breast cancer came back? Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, I considered, but what if the devil kills me? So far, my husband had only threatened to hit me, but what if he actually did? What then?” My goodness.

Susannah: I waited a long time to get married. I grew up in Berkeley. My mother was a feminist. My father left her when I was ten. She told me over and over again, “Don’t get married. Men want you to take care of them, but they don’t want to take care of you.” I think for her, having children was an impediment to her professional ambitions. She was an English professor. My father’s career as an English professor as well was more successful than hers. I think she felt like she paid the price of being a mother and a wife. Then he left. I always had that voice in the back of my head essentially saying, you can’t trust men. I was in relationships, but I didn’t get married until I was forty-three. When I was forty-three, I was on a dating app. I met a man. We fell in love. I got married in Vegas nine days after we went on our first date. It was very much a whirlwind romance. Then four days after that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram. At the time, I actually felt like I was being punished for betraying what my mother had told me to do. It seemed very clear cut. The honeymoon was over immediately. It was challenging to walk through that breast cancer process and figure out how to be a wife and still retain my sense of self at the same time.

Ultimately, the marriage was not what I thought it would be. We married in Illinois but moved to Florida. Found myself in the role of an executive’s wife living in a house in a planned community where all the houses looked very similar. There was a fake lake behind our house that would periodically shoot up this stream of water. It was so far from where I had started. Berkeley has this amazing history, and this crazy, creative place. I was studied when I was a kid. My parents were English professors. There was this sense of, you are exceptional in some way. I felt, at that time when I was married, that I was simply a supporting actor in somebody else’s life. Part of what I wanted to understand — I had survived cancer — was, what is my purpose here? Is this who I’m actually supposed to be? That’s part of why I got interested in the study and asking myself, who did they think I would be? Did they think I was going to win a Nobel Prize, or did they think I was going to end up sort of rotting my brain in suburbia? Ultimately, that investigation into myself was not compatible with the marriage that I was in. I exploded my life and got divorced and pursued the story that I tell in the memoir, which ultimately took me back to Berkeley for a year where I was fellow at the investigative program at the university trying to understand how the study played a role in shaping the person I became in ways that I didn’t fully understand until I start looking into it.

Zibby: So you would recommend waiting more than nine days to get married, or you would not recommend it?

Susannah: I’ve said before, it’s a great story until it isn’t. I wouldn’t recommend it. I wouldn’t do it. People do it. People have arranged marriages. I haven’t lived a super normal life. I do kind of pride myself on throwing myself into things. That didn’t work out. The process of writing the book and publishing it is hard for me because I find so much of it embarrassing. Recounting my failures publicly is not on my list of things that I love doing. There’s a lot of failing and flopping and insecurity and missteps in that story. I have tried throughout my life to do what I think to be brave. My mother lived with a lot of fear and inhibition and resentment and paralysis. I always just wanted to be courageous as a journalist or in the things that I’ve pursued. I don’t want to come down too hard on some of the crazy decisions that I’ve made.

Zibby: I was totally just joking around.

Susannah: I know.

Zibby: I’ve made so many bad decisions. That’s part of life. We do these things. I can almost understand — not almost. I can understand why you would do it that way, though, because if you’ve been so cautioned against making a mistake or doing something wrong, it’s like you have to just blindfold and run through the rain. Okay, I’m going to make a mad dash for it. It makes sense, in a way. You either have to do it that way or else you’ll be in your head about it for so long. I get it.

Susannah: I tend to overthink things or act very impetuously. I’m good at the polars and not so great at the balanced approach.

Zibby: I totally understand. I make a lot of decisions, and I’m like, yes, let’s do this right now. Then eventually, I have to be like, okay, let me think about the ripple of that. I understand. How is your health now?

Susannah: I’m great. Totally fine. It’s been eleven years.

Zibby: Okay, good. I’m knocking wood for you.

Susannah: Thank you.

Zibby: Not wanting to put your mistakes on display doesn’t necessarily jive well with putting out a memoir at all. It’s part of the territory. Did you think about writing this for yourself and not publishing it or leaving chunks out or anything like that?

Susannah: It’s a good question. I’ve said I became a writer because it was the only thing I did well. I love writing. It’s been my career. The idea of writing something for myself actually seems like sort of a waste of time. I do like to write and share. I think I just didn’t realize how vulnerable a position writing a memoir would put me in and how hard that would be for me. One thing I talk about in the book is, there was a lot of pressure on me growing up. The study made me feel special, but it also made me feel like I had to perform. My parents thought I was smart and had hopes that I would be as successful as they were. I put a lot of pressure on myself and am very intolerant of any sort of imperfections that I have. Memoir is a kind of parade of imperfections. It’s about sharing your feelings, which is not something I’m good at at all. Being studied or having the type of mother I had, who was intellectual and distant, doesn’t make you into a person who’s good at sharing their feelings. There is a way in which I tried to respect that in myself in the memoir. I almost have a journalistic relationship to myself in my story. I think it’s not a typical memoir in that way. I have a complicated relationships to memoirs. I think they can be kind of just a vomiting of feelings, often written by women for women. I don’t really like the idea, personally, that women are sort of supposed to be relegated to a literary genre that’s all about feelings, and maybe men are the ones who are better suited for telling the stories of the world. I struggled with the straitjacket, as I experienced, of writing a memoir. How could this be about something more than simply my own interior? I have something to say about the world that goes beyond how I’m feeling or my personal journey.

Zibby: There’s a line between nonfiction and memoir. Reported stories and science, nonfiction books with you as a subject, that’s a very different book than a memoir or what you think of traditionally as a memoir. Are there any books that when you were writing yours, you were like, I would just want it to be like this one?

Susannah: One of my favorite books is Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. I think she published it or wrote it when she was seventy. The opening scene is her encountering a man when she’s older. He looks at her and says, “I like the way you –” I’m paraphrasing terribly. He’s basically saying, “I like the way your face is better now.” He says, “It’s ravaged.” There’s this brutal honesty. She’s muddying the — it’s based on a true story. Do they sell it as a novel or a memoir? I don’t even know. A memoir is a story the author tells you about themselves, but is it the whole story? Is it the most true story? What is the true story? I prefer stories that understand the limitations of what we consider to be true.

Zibby: I love that. Tell me about the process of writing the book. Was it emotional? What was it like on a day-to-day basis?

Susannah: It was just terrible. I feel like I should lie.

Zibby: Don’t lie. No.

Susannah: I’m not saying this to you personally, but I feel like when I’m supposed to give an answer, I’d be like, oh, my god, I really had to go deep. I really had to connect with my core. Then I found when I started telling my story, I just really came into myself. Then it was done. Then it came out. I was like, oh, my god, I am now a fully actualized human being. That was not my experience of it. It was just agonizing. It never got easy. I had really intense migraines, I think from the stress. It went on for a really long period of time. One thing, I felt like I didn’t have an ending. The book came out late last year in ’23. In ’22, in June, my mother died. I had become estranged from her by that point. She kind of gave me, in dying, a third act. We always had a curious bond. I was born on her thirtieth birthday. When she died, it kind of freed me up to tell my own story as if it was my own. The fact that we shared a birthday, it was like my own birthday is not quite my own. My story is not quite my own. When she psychically got out of my way, I was able to move forward on the book in a way that I hadn’t. In addition, I hired a freelance editor who was just amazing. Peternelle van Arsdale is her name. I started calling her my book doula. In a way, she was like a substitute mom for the baby I was delivering, which was my book. Being able to ask for and get the help that I needed was impactful. The book would not have ever been finished without that help that I was able to ask for and get, which I think was something that was hard to do.

Zibby: I’m so sorry about your experience.

Susannah: I feel like I’m such a complainer.

Zibby: No, don’t be silly. It’s hard. It’s all hard. It’s not roses and rainbows. This is complicated terrain to navigate. It’s just so nice to hear the truth that it’s not always perfect. It’s not always easy. You might as well tell it. I’m sorry about your mom and her passing. I’m glad it enabled you to figure out a way through, but sorry that you had to go through that as a means to an end. I also understand that. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors? Don’t just say not to do it.

Susannah: Don’t write a memoir, ever.

Zibby: Don’t ever write a memoir. Turn off this podcast immediately.

Susannah: Another thing that complicated my own creative process is — I’ve been a freelance journalist for over twenty years. I’m kind of a lone wolf operator professionally. I like to live on the fringe. This book was different in that regard in that it had an agent. I sold it on proposal. The creation of the book itself took place, in part, within the capitalist machinery of book publishing, which I did not feel was particularly compatible with the creative process. What I would encourage writers to do is to find their voice outside of the economic system if they can. Either find other ways to make money so you can write as you wish, or you can do what I have done, which is bifurcate your writing abilities. I have a set of writing that I do, journalistic or copywriting or whatever, that I do for money where I make compromises and collaborate, but then I also have my own work, which is fiction or different types of essays or what I write on my blog where I’m writing just for myself. I think writing for the market and writing for the audience or writing for somebody you think might read it who lives inside of your head, that’s not you. Then you’re just figuring out what somebody else wants. Women already have enough of that in their lives. Who do my parents want me to be? Who does my spouse want me to be? Who do my friends want me to be? I would like to hear more stories from women that are creative and original and are just born from that woman rather than in service of giving something else to somebody else.

Zibby: Interestingly, you said it might seem like a waste if you just wrote for you at the beginning.

Susannah: I know. I’m incredibly contradictory. I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is. I will write for myself, but then I will publish it. I’ll publish it online. I don’t want to write for myself and put it away in a drawer.

Zibby: No, I get it.

Susannah: I think the creative process should take place outside of the market, ideally. Then you can put it in the market.

Zibby: Then you put it in, yes.

Susannah: That’s my advice.

Zibby: Backstage. Yes, I get it. Thank you so much, Susannah. I really appreciate you coming on. Congratulations on your book. For your sake, I’m glad it’s done.

Susannah: Thank you so much, Zibby. I really appreciate it.

Susannah Breslin, DATA BABY- My Life in a Psychological Experiment.jpeg

DATA BABY: My Life in a Psychological Experiment by Susannah Breslin

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