“The impulse to write a book appears to run like a fever through those of us who’ve lived with apes,” declares Rosemary Cooke, the narrator of Karen Joy Fowler’s recent novel We are all Completely Besides Ourselves. Rosemary goes on to list those who came before her: “The Ape and the Child is about the Kellogs. Next of Kin is about Washoe. Viki is The Ape in Our House. The Chimp Who Would be Human is Nim.”
I’m no stranger to the genre of primate memoir, particular the stories of chimpanzees who were cross fostered and raised as human children to participate in language studies. I read Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin in college. It inspired me to learn American Sign Language and spend a summer with Washoe, Moja, Tatu, Dar and Loulis in Ellensburg Washington. It was at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute that I was then introduced to others who had spent their lives among apes. Like Rosemary, I discovered Leakey’s women: “…I checked out every book, I could find on the monkey girls‑Jane Goodall (Chimps), Dian Fossey (gorillas), and Birute Galdikas (orangutans)”
Years later, I read In the Kingdom of Gorillas, before a trip to Rwanda. When discussing primate memoirs, I cannot forget to mention Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir, which opens with the line: “I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.”
Fowler’s novel is a fictional primate memoir, but hers is not the story of a researcher and his/her subject, but rather about the fate of the human children of researchers who were raised, briefly, with a chimpanzee. There’s not too much known about the human siblings of these cross-fostering experiments. Donald Kellogg was raised with the chimpanzee Gua for the first 19 months of his life. His parents terminated the experiment when Donald started picking up chimpanzee vocalizations rather than Gua picking up human ones. Later in life, Donald committed suicide in his early 40s.
Fowler’s story is loosely based on the Kellogg’s experiment, but also draws from other chimpanzees’ stories. The Cooke Family is based in Bloomington Indiana, where the Kelloggs did their research several decades earlier. At the time of writing the book, Fowler didn’t know the Kellogg’s had another child. Their daughter contacted Fowler after the reading the book. In an interview with BookSlut, Fowler notes “She was born about the time the experiment ended, so she has no memory of it herself, nor would her brother, who was only nineteen months old when the experiment ended. But she feels strongly that it completely deformed her family.”
In the beginning of Fowler’s novel, the reader learns only that our narrator, Rosemary Cooke, has a mysterious sister named Fern who disappeared when Rosemary was 5 years old and an older brother named Lowell who left home when she was 12. Rosemary only reveals the fact that Fern is a chimpanzee about a third of the way into the book. She has her reasons for withholding.
“I wanted you to see how it really was. I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. You’re thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet.”
The novel examines how Lowell and Rosemary’s lives are impacted by being raised with Fern, the trauma of her sudden removal, and the legacy of that loss on the entire family. Lowell, as a teenager learns what happened to Fern, and is then drawn into the world of underground animal activism, disappearing from the Cooke family altogether. Rosemary, too young to understand all the changes in her family after Fern’s disappearance, only begins to piece together the fragments of her traumatized childhood while she is in college at UC Davis.
“I spend the first 18 years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a a chimpanzee,” Rosemary confesses. As a young girl, she was often picked on in school and called “monkey girl.” She naturally corrected her tormentors.
“I could and did quarrel with their word choice— were they so stupid, I asked winningly, that they didn’t know the difference between monkeys and apes? Didn’t they know that humans were apes, too? But the implication that I’d be okay with being called ape girl was all my classmates needed to stick with their original choice. And they refused to believe they were apes themselves. Their parents had assured them they weren’t. I was told that whole Sunday school class had been devoted to rebutting me.”
When she arrives at college, though, she tries to start fresh, and decides to keep her chimp sister and human brother a secret. But as she edges toward graduation, this mysterious past begins to haunt her. Memories come back to her of her childhood. Questions remain unanswered. And she is reunited briefly with her activist brother, who is now wanted by the FBI.
Lowell tells Rosemary about the violence he’s witnessed, and the burdens of sharing what he’s learned:
“`The world runs,’ Lowell said, `on the fuel of this endless fathomless misery. People know it, but they don’t mind what they don’t see. Make them look and they mind, but you’re the one they hate, because you’re the one that made them look.’”
Rosemary observes that Lowell always uses “they” whenever he talks about humans. “Never us. Never we.” Interestingly, her chimp sister Fern thought she was human. There is a game that Fern used to play when they were young called Same/Not Same, pairing things that were alike and different. Fern and Rosemary were always Same. When Fern was introduced to a chimpanzee for the first time, she called him “Crawling Poo.” (Washoe also identified herself as human, and when seeing chimpanzees for the first time, called them Black Bugs in American Sign Language).
Lowell and Rosemary take different paths but each begin to question the societal rules that declare Same/Not Same, between humans and animals, as well as the ethics of science and these experiments themselves. Rosemary at one point considers becoming a scientist and study chimpanzees in the wild at Gombe stream, but remembers what she learned in one of her college lectures about a wild chimpanzee who was raped. “Some scientist had observed all that, had actually watched a chimp raped 170 times and kept count. Good Scientist. Not me.”
But her issues with science have largely to do with her father, the psychologist. Rosemary recovered a childhood memory of her father running over a cat, but does not know if it is real or a dream. “Was my father kind to animals?” she wonders. “I thought so as a child, but I knew less about the lives of lab rats then. Let’s just say that my father was kind to animals unless it was in the interest of science to be otherwise.”
As an adult, Rosemary attempts to uncover the secrets in her family to ultimately discover what happened to Fern and why. Fowler skillfully connects these pieces much like a memoirist would when writing a narrative of trauma. The story is fragmented, associative, and not chronological, starting in the middle while working toward reconciling the ends.
For more primate memoir writing, check out Sister Species: Women, Animals and Social Justice (University of Illinois Press) and Primate People: Saving Nonhuman Primates through Education, Advocacy and Sanctuary (University of Utah Press)