Stella Falk believed in the healing power of sleep. Her children jokingly called their home “the house of holy sleep”. She was also fascinated by dreams and loved telling them around the family table. Her husband shook his head and said, “Stella, you have such an interesting nightlife.”
Years later, in 1977, when Dr. Cartwright published her first book, it was entitled “Nightlife: Explorations in Dreams”.
Dr. Cartwright grew up believing that sleep was worth studying – why did it heal, she wondered, and what role did dreams play in that healing? Unable to find a sleep program in college, she studied psychology instead, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Toronto and her Ph.D. from Cornell University.
At Cornell, she was an early researcher on empathy, running the first tests to measure it, and questioning the prevailing wisdom that it was an imaginative projection. Instead, she said in a newspaper, it is the ability to “translate yourself into someone else’s experience”. After teaching at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts for two years, she was hired as a researcher at the University of Chicago by Carl Rogers, a founder of what is known as humanistic psychotherapy. He was interested in the work she’d done on empathy.
It would be a decade before Dr. Cartwright found her way into sleep research, and it happened almost by accident. She was a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Her husband Desmond Cartwright, a British psychologist she married in the early 1950s, had attacked her and her two young daughters, as they described in “Crisis Dreaming: Use Your Dreams To Solve Your Problems” ( 1992, co-wrote) Lynne Lamberg recalled), she was devastated and deeply depressed, her sleep was marked by fearful dreams.
Since she couldn’t sleep, thought Dr. Cartwright, she might as well use her nights to do something productive. She hired night babysitters and opened her first sleep lab. She used her training in psychotherapy to understand the narratives in the dreams that her research topics narrated.