We Read Dead People: BRAINCHILD

Welcome to We Read Dead People, where authors Stephanie Kuehn (Charm & StrangeWhen I Am Through with You) and Daniel Kraus (The Shape of Water, The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch) read a novel from the glory days of direct-to-paperback horror—the magnificent 1980s—and determine whether it was worth the suggested retail price.

High-school student Lois Wilson is really excited about science! Well, “excited” is probably the wrong word—with cool detachment, she pursues behavioral-psychology experiments on animals, even creating a lil’ Igor from her little brother Billy (she builds him a nifty worm farm to buy his loyalty). Taking an early college class with Professor McShane inspires her to try a new experiment after her father has a stroke that renders him unable to move. Why not create a “Skinner Box,” hooking him up to electrodes to see if she can “condition” him back to health? This and much more unpleasantness in Andrew Neiderman’s Brainchild (Pocket, 1981).

DK: How do we normally start? Six-word synopses? We still doing that?

SK:  From Worm Farm to Skinner Box! That’s awful.

DK: Chilly Gal Spills Ill Will on Billy. I realize that’s seven words.

SK: Bravo!

DK: I think we should be up-front that we stacked the deck this time. Maybe Andrew Neiderman isn’t known to everyone, but he’s something of a hero to us, wouldn’t you say?

SK: “Deity” might be too strong a word, but “hero” is good. I read Pin—a story about two disturbed siblings and the medical dummy who loves them—when I was 15 and heading to boarding school. I was so confused and I couldn’t tell anyone at my new school about it because it was so strange and I wanted to make friends. It was formative for me.

DK: I’ll say—you have a life-sized Pin in your garage, isn’t that right?

Stephanie’s weird Pin.

SK: Yes. It’s homemade. And a little worse for wear. His arms are missing.

DK: Neiderman is a master of psycho-sexual thrillers. Neiderman’s books may have looked like other ’80s paperback horror, but they were on a different level. It’s funny that Brainchild has a quote from V.C. Andrews on it, because Neiderman was V.C. Andrews! He was her ghost-writer.

SK: Yes, after she died. I really enjoyed this. I am currently teaching a course on “psychological tests and measures,” and it was the perfect book to read in conjunction with that class.

DK: Were Lois’s methods, well, psychologically sound?

SK: They mostly were! She was definitely missing any sense of ethical obligation or duty toward her research subjects but her understanding of operant conditioning was for the most part sound.

DK: The book really revs on page 50 with a long scene that’s sort of like three teens playing “doctor,” except ickier. The idea is that she wants them all sexually excited but then do nothing about it, so they can learn to behaviorally establish control over their own bodies. Or something.

SK: The ickiness was really in Lois’ cruelty and control over the other two. And wondering whether she’s oblivious or deliberately unkind.

DK: The real purpose of the scene is, of course, titillation.

SK: The book is essentially a psychological profile of a really strange girl. I just loved the bits of Lois trying out for the play and sometimes trying to fit in and getting her feelings hurt. She wasn’t completely helpless like a Carrie character. But she wasn’t a total sociopath either.

DK: She was kind of like Evil Tracy Flick. I guess you can throw me into the madhouse, because I liked Lois! She was super smart, dedicated, very creative, incredibly capable, and didn’t put up with anyone’s bullshit.

SK: It’s true! I think she pinpointed her own failure early on in the book, which is that people intellectualize to avoid dealing with difficult emotions. . . but she takes that to a real extreme, and she’s smart enough to get away with it.

DK: I think this was clever on Neiderman’s part: he made everyone else sort of insufferable. Lois’s mom was exasperating, Billy was annoying, the Professor McShane was arrogant. You kind of want Lois to get them.

SK: I did feel bad for Dad, though.

DK: Yeah, Dad’s incapacitation is the moment where you, as a reader, feel that dread about what is going to happen. It also brings up the ethical dilemma that her methods on her dad, though repellent, were working!

SK: They worked because she was torturing him! She violated that first rule of ethics: informed consent!

DK: Look, all I’m saying is that torture works.

SK: . . .

DK: I’m kidding!

SK: Also I was very glad the plot didn’t follow Lois getting a crush on her Professor McShane. It looked like that’s where it was headed.

DK: I also assumed that McShane’s too-perfect girlfriend would get Lois-snatched at some point. But no. She was just there as someone for McShane to talk to.

SK: And to do the “lovemaking.”

DK: Always with the lovemaking, these 80s writers. All right, there’s a couple bits I want to mention, a couple quotes. Warning: the first one is not safe for work.

SK: Oooh!

DK: “The two young women with him were totally naked. He could reach out and touch nipples, caress breasts, and stroke ass.” I’m sorry, but “stroke ass” cracks me up.

SK: Oh, Neiderman.

DK: “Stroke ass” should’ve been a thing. “Hey, man, you going to stroke ass tonight?”

SK: You can still make it a thing. That option is still there.

DK: What’s interesting about Lois is that, over and over, it’s not what she’s doing that alarms people (though it probably should), it’s her gender. One adult thinks, “Thank God that I don’t have a daughter like this.” And her mom is always saying how Lois should try to go out with boys and whatnot. And then Lois gives this great speech: “I am me. I do not belong on yearbook covers. I can’t be a cheerleader, and I can’t be the prom queen.” I get the sense that these routes are closed off from her, and it’s not her fault, and she, in some way, is just trying to find a way forward.

SK: Yes, I did empathize with a lot of Lois’s resentment. Other people are continually reminding her of all the ways she fails at being a teenage girl. What Neiderman does so well is to convey that a lot of the pressure Lois gets from her mom and dad comes from a place of real concern. They want her to have fun, but what they see as fun, she doesn’t connect with. I mean, she has her ticket out of there! A full ride to MIT! And she still sets up this awful experiment on her dad, really to take control of a household where she feels like she has no control.

DK: She is purely in it for the science.

SK: No! She is driven by emotion and bitterness and is just good at rationalizing her actions.

DK: I’m such a Lois apologist. She’d be like “Hand me that electrode, Dan,” and I’d be like “You’re the keenest, Lois!!”

SK: All she has to do is make you a worm farm.

DK: *swoon* Time to check the Incest-o-Meter, which, I’m shocked (and appalled) to say is not as high as I expected with Neiderman! I expected wall-to-wall incest! I guess Billy peeked in on her when she was naked with the other kids?

SK: Yeah and she gave Billy some sex book? Or something?

DK: It is time to give our final judgments. Was this worth the $2.75 [or $2 sale price] of the book? For me, yes yes yes yes yes. I wish someone would get off their ass and reissue an Andrew Neiderman box set. I am down like Motown with this guy. I am on like Donkey Kong. I don’t even know what I’m saying. The point is, I like the cut of this guy’s jib. He is my kind of messed-up dude. $2.75 is not enough!

SK: We really did stack this in our favor, but he did not disappoint with his strange and scientific teenage girl hell-bent on milking every opportunity to learn more about human behavior. All the positive reinforcement goes to Mr. Neiderman. Absolutely worth the $2.75!

DK: Oh, lastly, the second cover (the one that’s supposed to show through the die-cut window) was missing, so I think I’m going to put in a series of little guest faces in there. Enjoy.

SK: I hope Pin’s face makes it in there.

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About the Author:

Dan Kraus was Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

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