Stella Falk was a believer in the healing power of sleep. Her children jokingly called their home “the house of sacred sleep.” She was also fascinated by dreams, and loved to tell hers at the family dinner table. Her husband would shake his head and say, “Stella, you have such an interesting night life.”
Years later, in 1977, when Dr. Cartwright published her first book, she titled it “Night Life: Explorations in Dreaming.”
Dr. Cartwright grew up believing that sleep was worthy of study — why was it healing, she wondered, and what role did dreams play in that healing? Unable to find a sleep program at college, she studied psychology instead, earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Toronto and her Ph.D. from Cornell University.
At Cornell, she was an early researcher of empathy, conducting the first tests to measure it and challenging the prevailing wisdom that it was an imaginative projection; instead, she said in a paper, it was the ability to “accurately transpose oneself” into the experiences of another. After teaching for two years at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, she was hired as a researcher at the University of Chicago by Carl Rogers, a founder of what is known as humanistic psychotherapy, who was interested in the work she had 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 whom she married in the early 1950s, had walked out on her and their two young daughters, and as she recalled in “Crisis Dreaming: Using Your Dreams to Solve Your Problems” (1992, written with Lynne Lamberg), she was devastated and deeply depressed, her sleep roiled by anxiety-ridden dreams.
Since she couldn’t sleep, Dr. Cartwright figured she might as well use her nights for something productive. She hired night babysitters and opened her first sleep lab, using her training in psychotherapy to understand the narratives in the dreams her research subjects reported.