Reviews | April 28, 2014

Chimp Lit: In Search of Story in Four New Books
By: Erika Dreifus

The Woman Who Lost Her Face: How Charla Nash Survived the World’s Most Infamous Chimpanzee Attack by NBC News and Meredith Vieira. NBC Publishing, 2012, pp., $0.00 (e-book).
The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans de Waal. W. W. Norton, 2013, pp., $27.95 (hardcover).
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Putnam/Marian Wood, pp., $26.95 (hardcover).

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam. Soho, 2013, pp., $25 (hardcover).
Kindred Beings: What Seventy-three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection by Sheri Speede. HarperOne, 2013, pp., $26.99(hardcover).

The impulse to write a book appears to run like a fever through those of us who’ve lived with apes. We all have our reasons.
—Rosemary Cooke, narrator-protagonist of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Five years have passed since a Connecticut woman named Charla Nash suffered a gruesome and grievously life-altering experience. One February day in 2009, the fifty-five-year-old was attacked by a chimpanzee in suburban Stamford. If you’ve forgotten the specifics, The Woman Who Lost Her Face, a free e-book produced by NBC News, will remind you of the salient, savage details: adopted by Nash’s friend Sandra Herold fourteen years earlier and raised as if he had been human offspring, Travis the chimp “had torn off [Nash’s] hands and mutilated her face. Her upper jaw and eyelids were ripped off. Her nose was almost gone, as was most of her scalp.” Remarkably, Nash survived the attack; ultimately, she underwent a successful face transplant. Efforts to give her new hands failed, and Nash lost her eyes as well.

Travis the chimp’s vicious actions surely wouldn’t surprise famed primatologist Franz de Waal. As de Waal observes early in his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist (the title notwithstanding, the book discusses chimps at least as much as it does bonobos—more about that later), “I feel very much at home with [chimpanzees], but I never have any illusions about how ‘nice’ they are.” Equally comfortable with chimps and other primates and similarly cognizant of the dangers they can pose is Sherri Speede, whose Kindred Beings was released just a few months ago. But lest you think that publishers’ 2013 catalogs featured chimps in nonfiction only, last year also produced two noteworthy novels about chimpanzees: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth. As we’ll see, some of the fictional humans—even those equipped with scientific expertise—take risks with chimpanzees that one cannot imagine de Waal or Speede sanctioning. Together, the four books inspire reflections on the bonds and boundaries between and among humans and chimps.

Unlike most of these books’ authors and characters, I’ve never been what one might call “an animal person.” My only childhood pets were a single goldfish (who survived, if memory serves, barely one week) and a parakeet whose care fell entirely to my mother. No dogs, cats, horses or any other creatures for me. Well into adulthood, I remain happily petless. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that I began my reading journey through the world of “chimp lit” with de Waal’s book. It was the first of the four that I was able to obtain, but more important, I expected to learn from the esteemed author of Chimpanzee Politics and Peacemaking Among Primates some basic facts about our simian relatives.

The book contains many. I appreciated the explanation of what de Waal calls “our immediate family”—the “great” apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, and the “lesser” apes: gibbons and siamangs. Moreover, it was useful to discover that ours is “a tiny family” compared, say, with the multiplicity of monkey and prosimian species. Also helpful and interesting: an illustration that contrasts a pre-1960s evolutionary tree with one that is DNA-based. Its caption notes, “Until the 1960s, humans enjoyed their own branch on the evolutionary tree separate from the apes. . . . DNA-based trees . . . place humans closer to chimpanzees (Ch) and bonobos (Bo) than to gorillas (Go) and orangutans (Or).”

De Waal’s book is also replete with vivid anecdotes and observations gleaned from the author’s many years of fieldwork and research. These serve de Waal well as he provides “evidence for animal altruism” and “community concern,” all of which support the claims that “the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we don’t need God to explain how we got to where we are today.” Again and again, de Waal chronicles instances of tenderness, selflessness and apparent empathy— even among those violence-prone chimps.

The point: chimps are far more complex than they’re often portrayed. “Popular writers prefer to simplify things by describing the lives of chimpanzees either in Hobbesian terms, as nasty and brutish, or by stressing their friendly side, but in fact, it’s never one or the other. It’s always both.” De Waal emphasizes this “crucial” duality, which is apparently far less pronounced among the bonobos.

Before reading de Waal’s book, I’d had no idea that bonobos are significantly less violent than chimps. As he explains, “The most important observation, which has remained unchanged over the last three decades, is that there are no confirmed reports of lethal aggression among bonobos. For chimpanzees, in contrast, we have dozens of cases of adult males killing other males, of males killing infants, and so on. This is in the wild. In captivity, I myself documented male chimpanzees brutally mutilating and castrating a political rival, which led to his death. There is absolutely no dearth of such information on chimpanzees, which contrasts sharply with the zero incidence in bonobos.”

Nor had I even the dimmest notion that, as de Waal phrases it, bonobos are considered “the politically correct primate, the idol of the left, known for its ‘gay’ relations, female supremacy, and pacific lifestyle.” And I certainly didn’t know that “no other animal is as much into sex as the bonobo.” On that last point, de Waal notes that “everyone winks at me when I say I work with bonobos, as if it must be a thrill, a forbidden pleasure that I get to enjoy.” So you could say that I indeed learned a lot.

But despite a plethora of lively passages such as these, this is hardly a book for beginners. Its eight chapters read like discrete scholarly essays or lectures. The text is intelligent, highly informed and utterly interdisciplinary—de Waal brings in philosophy, religion and art history alongside the science—but it lacks coherent narrative between and sometimes even within its chapters.

Most reviewers, especially those writing for science-specific publications such as Nature or Psychology Today, have lavished praise on de Waal’s book. It was something of a relief when I found one newspaper reviewer, Doug Johnstone of The Independent, whose reaction mirrored mine: “This is a strangely scattershot book. De Waal is clearly a thinker of depth and breadth, but he presumes rather a lot of the reader, while there were elements that seemed superfluous.” Johnstone opined further that “there are not enough bonobos” in the book for his taste; since I was more interested in chimpanzee-related material in the first place, this did not trouble me.

I consider myself receptive to interdisciplinary approaches, but I was surprised by my dissatisfaction here. Too often, the mix of subjects and approaches left me confused and frustrated. “It may seem a stretch to move from primate behavior to religion and humanism,” de Waal notes in his book’s concluding acknowledgments section. It may, indeed. De Waal obviously believes that “there is a logic to it,” but this reader was left unconvinced.

It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that many of the same issues—science, morality, compassion and so on—rest at the heart of the book next in my queue, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a novel I approached with endorsements from several reader/writer friends ringing in my ears. Barbara Kingsolver was raving about it, too. In a front-page piece for The New York Times Book Review, Kingsolver called Fowler’s latest “a novel so readably juicy and surreptitiously smart, it deserves all the attention it can get.” Only a few pages in, I understood exactly what Kingsolver meant.

Starting the story quite consciously in medias res, narrator-protagonist Rosemary Cooke situates us in 1996, when she is a twenty-two-year-old student at the University of California at Davis. She tells us that a decade has passed since she last saw her older brother, Lowell, who was a high school senior when he ran away from home. An even longer period— seventeen years—has elapsed since the disappearance of Rosemary’s “sister.”

Rosemary guides us back to her 1970s childhood, returns us to 1996 and brings us up to the narrative present of 2012. But 1996 is when everything that has been rising (and suppressed) converges; it’s when Rosemary finally becomes able to move ahead into her future. The narrative momentum is not entirely forward-moving; it zigzags a bit. But unlike our previous narrator, Franz de Waal, Rosemary Cooke is telling a story; she is guided by a single set of characters and events, and she steers us seamlessly through the necessary shifts. She also signals when we need not attend too closely: “Say goodbye to Scully. We won’t be seeing her again until 2010, when she friends me on Facebook for no discernible reason and with nothing much to say.”

Fundamentally, the novel is a story about a family. But not even Tolstoy could have imagined this family’s particular unhappiness. Cookepère is a psychologist with a specialty in animal behavior. In the 1970s, he is supported by his employer, Indiana University at Bloomington, as he undertakes an ambitious “cross-fostering” experiment whereby he and his wife bring a baby chimp, which they name Fern, into their home to raise alongside infant Rosemary and young Lowell. In Rosemary’s earliest memories, their family life also includes numerous graduate students, to whom both Rosemary and Fern become exceedingly attached.

“Surrounded as she was by humans, Fern believed she was human,” Rosemary reflects. But, as the saying reminds us, the mirror goes both ways. Rosemary’s sense of self has also been influenced by having Fern as her closest companion. Fern’s disappearance from the household when she and Rosemary are about five years old is a defining trauma—though one that Rosemary confesses to no outsiders save the reader.

For Rosemary, some of the recovery is practical. For example, before she begins kindergarten, without her “sister” and behind schedule, Rosemary receives instructions on certain essentials, which she recalls for the reader in list form:

  • Not putting my fingers into anyone else’s mouth or hair.
  • Not biting anyone, ever. No matter how much the situation warranted it.
  • Muting my excitement over tasty food, and not staring fixedly at someone else’s cupcake.
  • Not jumping on the tables and desks when I was playing.

But Rosemary can’t quite erase her past. Part of the problem is that there is so much she doesn’t know. Where is her brother now? Where is Fern? Those two mysteries are solved as the novel continues. Other questions remain ambiguous at best. Which memories are “real”? Whose accounts come closest to reality? The answers aren’t always the point; the process of facing them, at last, is.

Quite possibly, the book’s most artful element is Rosemary herself. Creating a narrator with a voice as singular as it is strong is difficult enough; creating a character who tells a story with Rosemary’s particular blend of wit and vulnerability seems beyond the ability of most writers. But in this novel (it’s her sixth, in addition to three story collections), Fowler has done it.

Rosemary’s voice also helps Fowler integrate history and scientific research and scholarship. It makes sense that Rosemary, who does not discuss her past with anyone, seeks insights and clarity where she can and shares what she learns with the reader. For instance, to comprehend what her long-lost brother has been up to, she investigates the Animal Liberation Front (a real entity). At another point in the book, she runs through descriptions of several notable examples of cross-fostering, which are also historically accurate.

Were it factual instead of invented, the chimp adoption that opens Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truthmight well have reached Rosemary Cooke’s radar. It is 1972 when childless Vermonter Walt Ribke discovers an article in Life magazine titled “Conversations with a Chimp” (this article exists; you can find it in the issue of February 11, 1972). McAdam writes, “As he drove home, the thoughts of [Walt’s wife] Judy, the photo of the chimpanzee in the diaper, the beer and the bleakness of February all swam in his head in a lonely and protozoan soup, till lightning struck, an idea was born, and Walt began making inquiries into how he could acquire a chimpanzee.”

But there’s a major difference between the Cookes and the Ribkes. As we are reminded, Fern Cooke is the property of Indiana University and part of a complex research project. For the Ribkes, the chimp, whom they name “Looee,” is a son, pure and simple.

A Beautiful Truth is the third novel for McAdam, who lives in Canada. If reviewed less widely in the United States than Fowler’s book, A Beautiful Truth has earned acclaim of its own. Perhaps most notably, it has garnered the $25,000 2013 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize from the Writers’ Trust of Canada.

As the brief passage quoted above suggests, McAdam does an artful job with the Vermont portion of the story. He creates distinct characters, employs vivid details and writes in fluid prose. He makes the reader comprehend how the parent-child relationship between the Ribkes and Looee can develop. Consider, for instance, this passage: “[Looee] caused quite a fuss later when he had to sleep in his own bed. He jumped on the dresser and kicked Judy’s makeup, jumped down and halfway up Walt to hit his chest, and sometimes he removed his diaper, smeared his mattress and returned with a look that said you can’t expect me to sleep there it’s disgusting. He would walk to Judy with his palm up and whimpering, and she was quite susceptible to that. But Walt prevailed and Looee later loved his bedroom and bed.”

But it must be said that here, too, we have a disjointed book. The narrative of Looee’s life with the Ribkes alternates with another storyline that is far more challenging and fragmented: accounts of chimpanzees in captivity at a Florida research institute. And it takes quite some time before the two threads intersect.

The first Girdish chimps that appear in the book are part of a language experiment, which surely informs McAdam’s choices in vocabulary, grammar and syntax. But, similar to my experience with de Waal’s book, I found myself floundering, feeling sadly ill-equipped to understand exactly what was being said or done and even to/by whom. Reviewing the novel enthusiastically for The Washington Post, Barbara J. King acknowledged that although “it’s easy enough to decode some of this,” there are times when “the strange words seem forced, too much of a good thing.” It also takes too long before the many chimps we meet in Florida—Ghoul, Mama, Podo, Fifi, Jonathan, Magda, Rosie, Billie, Burke et al.—become distinct personalities in the manner of their human counterparts in Vermont.

Eventually, Looee commits violence similar to Travis’s attack on Charla Nash. This is what brings him to Girdish, where the storylines appear to fuse. But before he joins the colony in the language project, he is subjected to a series of stomach-churning medical experiments. We aren’t talking a matter of days or weeks or months. Years pass before Looee gains some relief. As if the graphic descriptions of the procedures and circumstances weren’t sufficiently disturbing, McAdam gives us well-realized, tortured human caregivers among the characters. Again, reviewer King’s perspective seems apt: “If A Beautiful Truth lingers long after it is read—and I promise you, it will—it’s because even as Looee becomes a son for Walt and Judy, he becomes for the rest of us a heartbreaking guide to how we treat our closest living relatives.”

A yearning to provide more humane treatment for these “kindred beings” is what motivated Sherri Speede, a Mississippi-born veterinarian, to establish the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon’s Mbargue Forest. The history of that endeavor provides the narrative line of Kindred Beings.

If the “Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center”—the name comes from the center’s location near the confluence of two rivers—sounds vaguely familiar, credit likely belongs to a widely disseminated photograph that was taken there, depicting a group of chimpanzees grieving the death of Dorothy, one of their own. The work of one of the center’s human volunteers, the photo won a National Geographic contest; Speede uses it to introduce the book and explain her deep sense of connection to chimpanzees.

Journalists who interviewed Speede when the photo went viral wanted to know if she’d been surprised by the other chimpanzees’ poignant reactions to their comrade’s death. She was not.

For Speede, the photo’s significance lay elsewhere—in the human reaction to it. “Although we share more than 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, and this genetic similarity had become common knowledge, often cited by popular media, I knew that few human people could really comprehend the intelligence and emotional complexity of chimpanzees any more than I had understood it before I worked with them. That this photo showing a simple expression of grief drew such intense interest around the world told me that many of my kind might have opened their hearts to a real understanding that among us animals there is an evolutionary continuum.”

As a dedicated animal activist, Speede notes that chimpanzees “are still killed for meat, taken captive as pets, and cruelly exploited in biomedical and entertainment industries. The story of Dorothy and her circle of friends and family needs to be told and understood. I tell the stories as honestly as I can, not as an unbiased scientist, but more as a loving ambassador who has attempted to understand them.”

Speede began her career as a practicing veterinarian, then shifted into animal advocacy. Working for an American organization called In Defense of Animals brought her into contact with animal sanctuaries, including one in Cameroon that served chimps, gorillas and monkeys.

It was during a trip to Cameroon that she encountered Jacky, Pepe and Becky, three adult chimps being kept miserably in individual cages for display (and, presumably, some sort of entertainment) at a hotel. Speede’s self-described “compulsion to save them” led to the formulation of a plan to take these chimps to a more natural habitat where they could be kept safely within an electric enclosure. As she began working toward this goal, Speede returned to Cameroon to locate a sanctuary site. During this visit, she became acquainted with two more chimps being held in captivity—on long chains, shackled at the neck and too far apart to touch each other—at another hotel. These two were Nama and Dorothy. As soon as she was able to provide a refuge for Jacky, Pepe and Becky, Speede sought guardianship of these two females as well.

Initially, Speede envisioned a small sanctuary for adult chimpanzees such as these, chimps who, for a variety of reasons, had spent decades enduring sad and degraded lives. But the rescue of orphaned infants, nurturing them and preparing them for integration with older chimps, eventually became an increasingly important part of her work. Speede explains that at first she had “a very limited understanding about the scope of the chimpanzee orphan problem in central Africa and about the difficulty of saving and caring for chimpanzees in a country like Cameroon.” Her account describes many of these problems: money, power struggles, cultural disconnects and even weather. And the book reveals how she surmounted them. Sometimes, as with dislodging stuck vehicles from the mud, it was a matter of sheer physical force. Sometimes a Cameroonian government official intervened. Sometimes plain generosity—and a dose of good luck—saved the day and helped Speede realize her goal.

Speede isn’t a literary artist. Take this representative line: “My aching fury was trapped in me as Dorothy and Nama were trapped.” But her writing is more than competent, and Kindred Beings features those staples of a good narrative: vivid settings, distinct characters (human and chimpanzee) and, above all, a plot. True, the reader knows from the outset that Speede succeeded in her quest, but the story of how she reached that point is both compelling and informative.

Moreover, reading Speede’s book in light of the two novels reviewed here, one can’t help but appreciate Speede’s decisions and behavior. Despite her great attachments to and love for the chimps, she knows better than to take them into her own home. When she becomes pregnant in Africa and gives birth to a daughter, she allows the chimps to see her baby “without getting close enough for them to touch her.” To keep her child injury-free and to avoid the exchange of diseases, “I mostly kept her physically separated from all the chimpanzees.”

If only, one can’t help thinking today, Charla Nash’s friend had taken a similarly wise approach.

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