Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to LoveMasters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love by Thomas Maier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If ever anyone needed proof that being scientific, secular and atheistic is no guarantee that a person will be a Humanist or even a decent human being, one need look no further than William Masters. An amazing doctor and great researcher in his early days, Masters was driven more by ego and self-interest than by his desire to help people or chart new territories in the science of sex. His manipulation of those around him, and especially of Virginia Johnson, is striking in its cold blooded narcissism.

Masters pride and force of personality helped him change the discussion of matters of sexuality in the United States and the world, and his discoveries, made with the help of Johnson, were apt refutations of Freudian theories that had no grounding in empirical evidence. Masters' pride eventually lead him astray, when he falsified the research that went into his book on homosexual sex and claimed unwarranted success in "conversion therapy," that is the transformation of homosexual desires to heterosexual desires in patients, which still resonates and causes real harm today.

Virginia Johnson comes off as a much more sympathetic character in the book, a woman more than willing to be, in her own words, whatever men wanted her to be. She stuck by Masters throughout his first failed marriage as his partner in research, his mistress (of a sort) and eventually as his wife of twenty years. The revelation that Masters divorced Johnson so that the man could marry his childhood sweetheart in his mid seventies is almost as astounding and crushing to the reader as it must have been to Virginia Johnson.

Another blow is the loss of the Masters and Johnson Clinic archives, invaluable reams of letters, patient records and audio recordings of patient interviews and therapy that would be astounding primary source research material if Johnson hadn't ordered her son to destroy it all after the clinic closed.

There is so much good about this book, and about the research Masters and Johnson conducted, the lives they helped to improve, and the positive effect they have had on the culture. Like all great pioneers, they sacrificed their normal lives for their greater ambitions, and Virginia Johnson, at least, lived her later years in regret for opportunities lost. She died shortly after this book's release, so her death is not recorded within these pages, but we get a sense of her final days nonetheless.

Just as those who lead ordinary lives often dream of adventure and discovery, it is apparent that many who live extraordinary lives often dream of the pleasures of the ordinary.

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