When Rosemary is five, she is sent to her grandparents. She doesn’t know what’s happened to her sister Fern. When she is returns home the family has moved from their farmhouse and orchard to a house in town and Fern is gone. Rosemary’s older brother is angry, her mother is grieving and her father starts to drink. What has happened to the missing child, Fern? Well, turns out Fern is a chimpanzee.
I came to We are All Completely beside Ourselves biased. A few years ago a close friend defended a case involving a chimpanzee sanctuary. The plaintiff was an intern who had been attacked by a chimp and lost most of her thumb. The issue in the case was the enforceability of the waiver of liability, but the message was clear, chimpanzees are dangerous animals. Add in Jane Goodall’s examples of warring chimpanzees, why would anyone try to raise a chimpanzee alongside their own children? I wasn’t expecting a good read, much less, a great story with such pathos that I wiped tears from my eyes.
The narrator of the book is Rosemary, as she tells it she’s starting from the middle of her story, her college years. Her parents advised her to start her stories in the middle as a little girl because she couldn’t stop talking. The novel begins with her in a cafeteria, seeing a young woman tear some things up and Rosemary immediately follows suit. Monkey see, monkey do. She then goes back to the beginning and tells the story of a childhood filled with grad students and a sister named Fern, both of whom were studied and compared. Fern could sign better, thus Rosemary talked and talked. Fern did what she could to behave like a little girl, Rosemary picked up Fern’s habits and mannerisms. After Fern’s removal from the family, the family is damaged more than they realize. A Her mother shuts herself in the bedroom. Her father drinks more than usual. Her older brother is angry, blaming Rosemary in part for Fern’s banishment. He later runs away, leaving the family with one child where once there were three.
This story is full of humorous incidents, sassy asides, and incredible sadness. Rosemary endures a lonely childhood, in part because she has adopted a few simian behaviors: she doesn’t respect people’s personal space as expected and has a habit of touching other kids. More unfairly, her reputation precedes her, the kids know her past and call her monkey-girl. Loquacious precocious Rosemary disappears, a quiet lonely girl takes her place.
Foster reminds the reader of real-life experiments conducted on chimpanzees and other animals in the mid-twentieth century. Rereading about the Skinner studies of depriving infant monkeys of their mothers is heart wrenching. It is difficult to think of our species as compassionate when reading the about those experiments and their fallout. Chimps were treated as family members, or portrayed as family members in entertainment and most often were later sold as chattel. Perhaps it isn’t so strange, since we have done the same to members of our own species.
The story goes back and forth from the middle of the timeline to the beginning until she works her way to the end. As the lawsuit predicted, bringing chimpanzees and humans together is dangerous, but even more so when the heart is involved.