Karen Joy Fowler's novel 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' is a disturbing morality tale

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I often choose a novel because of an interesting title. This was true with Karen Joy Fowler's new novel, "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." Our narrator informs us early on that this was the way her mom described her family's frequent joyous revels. Little did I know that by the time I finished this thoughtful book I would be profoundly jolted with an alternative, more meaningful understanding of the title.

Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child she was such a prolific and inexhaustible talker that her family would sometimes require her to start her stories in the middle, which is exactly where we begin.

She tells the story of a typical middle-class family in Middle America, ordinary in every way except one. That single exception causes Rosemary's beloved older brother to become a fugitive wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism, her once confident and knowing parents to retreat from the world, and our effusive narrator to become entombed in silence.

There's another sibling, Rosemary's "twin" sister Fern, and herein lies the heart of the story. Rosemary has shut Fern out of her mind as a deliberate survival strategy. Fowler cleverly withholds information about Fern in the early chapters making for a delicious mystery and a knockout punch.


By Karen Joy Fowler.
A Marian Wood Book/Putnam ($26.95).

You see, Fern is a chimpanzee. The breezy tone of the early chapters gives way to a very disturbing tale. We who thought we were the narrator's confidants now realize that much has been withheld, and what is in store can't be good.

Part of my fascination and admiration for this book is the non-linear story line. Fowler skillfully keeps dozens of plot threads fresh in the reader's mind as she moves backward and forward in time. The instances where I needed to retrace my steps only added more substance to the journey.

There has always been interest and fascination with the relationship between humans and primates. Darwin, Tarzan, Bonzo, Lucy, American Tourister luggage, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Sunday afternoon trips to the zoo, and of course, the many attempts over the years by cognitive psychologists and animal scientists to foster baby chimps into human households.

Rosemary's story of a girl raised with a chimp as a twin sister is loosely inspired by the work of Winthrop Kellogg at Indiana University, who raised his baby son Donald alongside a chimp named Gua for several months in the early 1930s.

Gua regularly outshined the young boy with typical toddler tasks like using a fork and drinking from a cup and inspired many more experiments of this kind. The problem with these adventurous, well-meaning families, including Rosemary's, is they believed they were making a lifelong commitment, but in the end certain unavoidable factors and too much biology were stacked against them. As this understanding sinks in, readers realize we have walked right into a complex morality tale.

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" is not a polemic against animal research, although she pulls no punches letting us understand the "fathomless misery" that chimps have been subjected to in medical and scientific research settings.

Ms. Fowler cleverly weaves research and anecdotes from the scientific record into her story of human inquiry and fallibility. You travel through this story hoping to proclaim a villain, but you can't. All the players are treated fairly. There is plenty of blame and praise to spread around, and for the reader, wisdom gained.

This book arrives at an interesting time. We are just three years removed from the tragic story of Charla Nash, who was grievously mauled by Travis the chimp, who had been raised by humans, an accepted family member with a successful television career, only to turn so violently on a family friend and then be immediately put down.

Recently, the federal government moved to declare all chimpanzees endangered on the heels of new findings that it is not necessary to use chimps for research on human diseases. This act will provide stronger protections and end nearly a century of using apes as test subjects in medical research.

We learn from Rosemary and Fern just how close we are in intelligence and emotion, even in what we thought were more complex functions and activities like empathy. Empathy is a natural human behavior, but we learn it is natural to chimps as well. "We access our own experiences with pain and extend them to the current sufferer."

As so many chimp researchers have learned, in the phrase human being, the word "being" is much more important than the word "human." As members of this larger, more inclusive community, we are next to, of the same, and completely beside ourselves.


Rob Zellers is the education director at Pittsburgh Public Theater and a playwright.


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