READ: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I have a membership to the San Diego Zoo that I bought when my niece and nephew were in town last summer. The zoo is in Balboa Park, one of my favorite spots in town, and it is an incredible space with lush greenery, beautiful flowers and plants, and a wide variety of awesome animals.

In spite of all the positives I listed – I’m done with zoos. For good.

Every time I leave I feel horrible and haunted by all the sentient beings that are in their enclosures being stared at by an ever-changing group of visitors. I’ve tried to talk myself into liking the zoo, after all, the animals may have a better chance of surviving at the zoo than they would in their natural habitats that are being decimated by our destruction of the environment. But I am done trying to fool myself. Whenever I look at the animals I see all the similarities between them and me. They feel pain, pleasure, hunger, excitement, fear, compassion, and yes, they  share the most important quality that humans have – love. Check out the love in this video that was just released by the San Diego Zoo of a momma gorilla being reunited with her baby.

My sincere hope is that this momma gorilla and her baby are never separated because the San Diego Zoo decides to sell one of them to another zoo or park. When watching videos like this it is important to remember that zoos are breeding grounds where families are often separated.

I am familiar with the argument that zoos are good for animals and that they educate people. But in reality, they reinforce humans dominance over animals and we talk ourselves into thinking that zoos are good for animals. Much like we reassure ourselves that it is acceptable to eat some animals and not others.

The hardest part for me at zoos has always been the gorillas and chimpanzees because it is like I am looking in the mirror. Chimps are the closest relative to humans – Karen Joy Fowler’s spectacular novel “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” explores our similarity. I read this book awhile ago, but I didn’t know how to write about it without giving away the “surprise.” Who wants to be the spoiler? Barbara Kingsolver (my favorite author!) wrote an amazing review of this book in the NY Times, and in it she gives the “surprise” away because  it does not detract from the power and message of the book.

For the first 100 pages it is not obvious that a chimp is in the novel, because she is referred to over and over again as the long-lost sister of the narrator, Rosemary. The sister of Rosemary is a trouble-making, antic-loving chimpanzee named Fern.

Rosemary and Fern are a part of an experiment where they are raised together to see what characteristics they share, etc. Fern is raised in a human family and treated like the other two children, Rosemary and Lowell Cooke. Tight familial bonds are created – of course those bonds include love, friendship, sibling rivalry, and misunderstandings. Since Rosemary is raised side by side with Fern, she develops “ape” like tendencies such as standing close to people, touching others a lot, and acting a little out of control. Rosemary and Fern mirror each other in many ways.

Fern leaves the Cooke family when she is 5 years old. Her departure creates a huge hole in the family that tears them apart. This novel explores family dynamics, while at the same time it scrutinizes the relationship between humans and animals.  At one point Lowell says about the way that we treat animals: “The world runs…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 who made them look.” Of course this statement is so, so true – we like to shoot the messenger instead of thinking about the message.

Fowler does not lecture or preach in this novel – she is way too much of an expert novelist to do that. Instead she weaves a subtle, powerful story with well-developed characters and an intense plot that involves the way our memories can play tricks on us. It is well-researched and is loosely based on a true story. I love that she challenges her reader to think about so many things that we try to not think about. At one point Rosemary says: “You might be shown the photos of the space chimps in their helmets, grinning from ear to ear, and you might feel an urge to tell the rest of your class that chimps grin like that only when they’re frightened, that no amount of time with humans will change it. Those happy-looking space chimps in those pictures are frankly terrified and maybe you just barely stop yourself from saying so.” We fool ourselves into thinking the chimp is having fun, just like we tell ourselves that animals like being in a zoo.

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I have been obsessed with podcasts lately. I think people around me on the freeway think I am crazy because I am always laughing or crying in my car. If you get a chance, listen to two of my favorites:

Animal Sacrifice|This American Life – The story about dogs during WWII surprises and bewilders.

Space|Radio Lab – I’ve listened to this podcast at least 3x over the last 2 years. Anne Druyan gives a beautiful interview about her love for Carl Sagan. If, like me, you are obsessed with the TV show COSMOS this is a MUST listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “READ: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler”

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