“Behavior is a Fraction of Who We Are”: Virginia Reeves Interview (2 of 3)

In the previous segment of our interview with Virginia Reeves, we talked about the origins of her new book, The Behavior of Love, and the inspiration for one of its main characters, Ed, a behaviorist working within a Montana institution. In the second part of the interview we discuss behavior, identity, and the windows of poetry and art.

Virginia Reeves

Alex: Ed has got this line in the book, (and I’m sure that it’s straight out of the behaviorist manual): “Behavior is really the only thing of interest and import.” And yet your characters’ behaviors betray what they say they’re interested in. Ed’s attracted to Penelope, but he won’t allow himself to bring it to the surface. Laura can’t move past Ed and there’s definitely a bond that keeps them together through the book. So in a way they are both faithless and faithful through the whole thing.

Virginia: Oh, I like that, yeah! I would say that. Yeah, I’ll steal that.

Absolutely.  So do you find yourself coming out in any particular place on the question of how our behavior relates to our identity and our freedom and to our sense of self?

That’s a great question. If behavior is all that matters then we rule out intention and thought and I don’t agree with that. But then behavior is what results in consequences and so people are often both faithful and faithless throughout their lives as far as what they want to do. 

There are a lot of things that they may want to do and we don’t act upon [those wants] and that is a great thing. Then there are things that we want to do and we don’t act upon them and then we lose something because of that. I don’t know. I think that behavior is often a reflection of a person’s identity. But we also hide so much that you cannot assume to know somebody just based upon what they present and the manifestations of just those physical behaviors. 

I’m teaching this semester for the first time. I taught Interpersonal Communication, which really feels more like a therapy class than a communication class. It has been great, but there’s a lot of introspection and conversation about self and the self we share and the internal self. Watching students go through that process and how different those two selves are—it was pretty consistent across the board that the external was different from the internal. Maybe there are a few who truly know us in the real way but then there’s the public self that definitely does not reflect everything that’s on the interior landscape. 

So behavior is a fraction of who we are. I think Ed probably recognizes this to some degree, even though he may never admit it, but if you can’t look below the surface then you’re missing so much of the story for a person.

I’m thinking about the scene where Ed watches Penelope leading the group in poetry reading at the institution and he’s admiring the way that she’s able to do things with them that he isn’t able to do. I’m wondering about the role that poetry and art play in this book and whether they point to those other dimensions or if they one-up those other dimensions in ways that just studying behavior can’t do?

I think so. I mean I would hope. I’m able to recognize things in the book that were completely subconsciously added. I was sitting down and talking to a friend [about my first book] and it was the first conversation we had about a piece of work of mine that was out in the world in this kind of way. My dear friend said, “So I feel that books in Work Like Any Other were kind of a salvation, throughout this book. They were a thread of goodness and we can go from Marie reading to Gerald, to the library.” He pointed out all of these moments, these points throughout the book and I had no idea but that makes a lot of sense because books are a salvation to me.


That’s probably true of art and literature in general—that that has found its way into this book as well. If you juxtapose that against behavior, art and literature is exploring the interior. It is a counterpoint in a way to just focusing on the external. It makes sense for him to evolve back into a place, in the second half of the book, where he is digging into that—where he is going into that internal way, maybe not necessarily with himself, but exploring that through literature.

Because Penelope starts working in a library, right?

Right, she starts working in a library and then they read together. That’s her way back into Ed’s life—she realizes that’s something that she can do for him, to read to him. Then they maintain this small book group of two in that second part.

Surely this next thing I want to talk about is intentional. If not, just pretend it is. I don’t know if you remember this line: Chip, who is one of the members of that group that Penelope is talking to, is asking to be called on and he says “Oh, Pen, Pen, me!” He’s got to be saying, “Open me,” right?

I feel like all the characters in this book wanted to be opened. Laura wants to be acknowledged and had that part of her open a lot. They want to be open to each other. And, even if he didn’t realize it, Ed wants to be open, too.

Yes, that is a brilliant reading Alex.

No, it’s authorial intent I’m sure! 

The final segment of the Virginia Reeves interview can be found here.

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