As a child, Rosemary never stopped talking. As a young woman she wrapped herself in silence –- the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful that it changed Rosemary and destroyed her family. It is 1996 in Bloomington, Ind. Rosemary’s once lively mother is a shell of her former self, and her brother is a fugitive. Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, is removed from the house. The latest novel by best-selling author Karen Joy Fowler, called “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” is a new take on the dysfunctional American family. It raises questions about the power of language and what it means to be part of the animal kingdom.


  • Karen Joy Fowler Author of the novels "The Jane Austen Book Club," "Sister Noon," "Sarah Canary," "The Sweetheart Season," and the story collection, "Black Glass."

Read An Excerpt

Reprinted from “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler with permission from Marian Wood Books/Putnam, a member of The Penguin Group Inc. Copyright © 2013.


  • 11:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Bestselling author Karen Joy Fowler's latest novel draws from animal behavior experiments dating back to the 1930s. Character Vince Cook, a psychology professor at the University of Indiana in Bloomington decides to raise a chimpanzee alongside his two young children in the early 1970s.

  • 11:07:27

    MS. DIANE REHMBut years later the chimp becomes a threat and is removed the house, the family is never the same. The title of the new novel, "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." Author Karen Joy Fowler joins me from a studio in Santa Cruz, Ca.

  • 11:07:50

    MS. DIANE REHMI do invite your calls, questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, it's good to have you with us.

  • 11:08:12

    MS. KAREN JOY FOWLERThank you, it's great to be here.

  • 11:08:14

    REHMYou know, I have to confess to you, this is the most unusual novel I think I've ever read.

  • 11:08:24

    FOWLERThank you very much.

  • 11:08:25

    REHMAnd I gather that the novel came from an idea your daughter had.

  • 11:08:36

    FOWLERYes, actually, this will tell you how long I've been thinking about this novel. My daughter gave me this idea on the millennial new year. We had gone back to Bloomington, Ind. which is where I grew up but she had never been, as we moved to California when I was 11.

  • 11:08:56

    FOWLERAnd I was showing her around my dad's old lab on the campus of IU and told her about an experiment that the Kellogg family did in Indiana in the 1930s, the experiment which inspired the book. And as she was listening to the experiment, which involved raising a chimp and a child together, she said, I wonder what it would've been like to be that child. You should write that book next.

  • 11:09:23

    REHMWow, and you...

  • 11:09:24

    FOWLERI don't have good ideas, but I know them when I hear them.

  • 11:09:29

    REHMSo this novel is about two sisters in a very unusual family and we should backtrack a little bit and say that like the father in the novel your father researched animal behavior at Indiana University.

  • 11:09:56

    FOWLERWell, my father was a rat man so I had nothing to do with monkeys or primates but I do believe that there must be very few people in the world for whom the smell of rows and rows of rat cages contains quite the nostalgic import that it does for me.

  • 11:10:15

    FOWLERMy father studied learning behavior and so he ran rats through mazes and I believe made mathematical models of his results. To be perfectly honest, I've never understood what my father did but we're circling the area somehow.

  • 11:10:32

    REHMYes. Tell us about Rosemary and her sister, Fern.

  • 11:10:40

    FOWLERAs I said, my daughter's idea which I had leapt upon was to write about the child whose childhood had been formed by this psychological experiment. The real experiment lasted only 19 months and in my book because I wanted Rosemary to have some memories of the experiment I made it go on for five years which I think is probably pretty implausible, is the fictional part of my novel.

  • 11:11:11

    FOWLERBut as I said I wanted her at least on the, she's about 40 at the time that she's recounting the novel and I wanted her to have some actual memories of it.

  • 11:11:19

    REHMAnd what does Rosemary's father hope to accomplish by raising Fern with his own children, a brother as well?

  • 11:11:32

    FOWLERI think in point of fact that's not entirely clear to Rosemary and since she's my window into the story I guess it's not entirely clear to me either. The ostensible reason is to study the different capabilities particularly with regard to language of a child and a chimp who were raised in very similar manners.

  • 11:11:55

    REHMBut Rosemary is very suspicious that it may, because her own impact on the her sister, Fern's language development would be pronounced she thinks, it's not going to be a very clean study and her father is a pretty careful scientist. So in the end she's not entirely certain what the exact hopes were.

  • 11:12:22

    REHMAnd what role does Rosemary's mother play?

  • 11:12:27

    FOWLERRosemary's mother is a co-conspirator, I guess, in this experiment. She's certainly accedes to it and participates in it. She does not have the scientific training that Rosemary's father does but she's a very key figure in it and is a mother to all three children, the older brother, Rosemary and Fern, the chimpanzee.

  • 11:12:55

    REHMAnd does Fern, the chimpanzee, begin to adopt Rosemary's behaviors or is it the other way around?

  • 11:13:06

    FOWLERWell, it goes both ways and this is one of the main findings of the Kellogg experiment, the actual experiment in the 1930s, is that although it was predicted and planned that the chimp in that experiment would pick up human behaviors, which did in fact happen, that also the child picked up chimp behaviors which was not anticipated.

  • 11:13:30

    FOWLERAnd we now, research now suggests that humans are in fact much more imitative than the other great apes and that if you make a sort of food puzzle for a chimp and show them how to get to food and include unnecessary steps that the chimp will ignore the unnecessary steps and go straight to the food but that a human child will slavish reproduce every move that you've made and, I don't remember exactly how this is now being defended but somehow now being slavish imitative is smarter than being efficient, now that it's our behavior, it's looking good.

  • 11:14:11

    REHMKaren, this book is so different from the novel that drew you so much attention. In fact, the book regarding Jane Austen, it just seems like such a leap.

  • 11:14:30

    FOWLERThat's the last time I was on your show, was with "The Jane Austen Book Club." Well, as I as said, I got the idea for this novel on the millennium and in between I've written two other novels. The idea for the Jane Austen novel came to me quite suddenly and in a way that made me think that everybody would have the same idea and that I better write it quickly.

  • 11:14:57

    FOWLERSo I put this novel aside and then I wanted or I was planning to go back to this novel but I had another novel in mind as well. Which didn't seem like such a leap I think but I worried that the Jane Austen-loving women of the world would not be interested in a novel with chimps. Jane Austen had never put a chimp in one of her novels after all.

  • 11:15:23

    REHMKaren Joy Fowler and we're talking about her new novel titled, "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." Talk about that title.

  • 11:15:40

    FOWLERIt's a phrase that my mother used to use and that therefore I use fairly frequently and when I use it, I mean that we are a little overexcited but I'm hoping that the meaning of the novel begins to change as you, the meaning of the title begins to change as you read the novel.

  • 11:16:03

    FOWLERThat I am talking about our situation in the world and our relations with the other animals and the creatures that we share the world with and that we have more in common, I hope. One of the messages of the novel is hopefully that we have so much in common with the creatures that we share the world that we...

  • 11:16:28

    REHMAnd of course, one of the elements that occurs between Fern and Rosemary is that Rosemary becomes very imitative and is not very, her behaviors are not very welcome by her peers. They begin to sort of make fun of her.

  • 11:16:58

    FOWLERWell, they more than sort of make fun of her. They make pretty ruthless fun of her. When I began to do the research for the novel I was concerned initially because I did not know very much about chimps. I consoled myself that because of my father and my upbringing I knew a great deal about psychologists so I would start from that position of knowledge and do the research.

  • 11:17:21

    FOWLERAnd what I found was that there was a great deal of information about the chimps who were home-raised in this way. Almost everybody who raised one seems to have written a book about it and I read them all. But there was almost no information about the children so that part I mostly had to make up.

  • 11:17:39

    FOWLERBut one of the remarkable things about the book coming out is that I have begun to get letters from children who were raised with chimps.

  • 11:17:48

    REHMHow many chimps were placed in homes?

  • 11:17:52

    FOWLERNot a lot, but probably more than you think. There was a particular psychologist named William Lemmon who was a, not only a psychologist at the university but also I think a counselor and he seems to have prescribed chimps to his patients in Oklahoma so that, in Oklahoma at least there were several people who were dealing with their own issues by raising chimps. I would guess maybe 30 altogether.

  • 11:18:25

    REHMKaren Joy Fowler, her new novel "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." Short break here, do join us, 800-433-8850.

  • 11:20:04

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Karen Jay Fowler is my guest. Forgive me, Karen Joy Fowler. She is of course the Best Selling author of "The Jane Austen Book Club." Now she's come out with something entirely different about a family in which a chimpanzee becomes a family member. The chimp's name is Fern. The daughter's name is Rosemary. And the title of the book, "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves."

  • 11:20:52

    REHMHere's our first email, Karen, from Chrissie in Frederick, Md. She said, "I watched a documentary about the Rosaires, a multigenerational circus family. One of the adult Rosaire children spoke about raising her performance chimps in their house alongside her daughter. Now 20 something, the daughter reflected about how the chimps were just like siblings. They picked on each other, played games together. I wonder how their experiences were different from or the same as the family in the experiment in your novel."

  • 11:21:45

    FOWLERI think that sounds very, very similar. The -- I did not look really into the performance chimps so much. And of course there were many, many of those as well. I looked more at the ones who were being raised by scientists. But yes, I think that -- and again, this is confirmed from the letters that I've begun to get from people, that the chimps did -- as young chimps seem very much just like other siblings in the family...

  • 11:22:16

    REHMSweet and playful and fun and...

  • 11:22:19

    FOWLER...and annoying and pushy and grabby as well. But, you know, I don't know in the documentary that she is talking about how long the chimp was able to stay in the family. The longest that I've been able to find, the female chimp seemed to be able to remain -- Lucy Timerlin (sp?) is the one that I'm aware of who was in the Timerlin family the longest. And that was about 12 years. But usually at about five years, the chimps are too big and aggressive and dangerous and have to be moved out.

  • 11:22:57

    REHMTalk about the kinds of behaviors that Rosemary began to imitate that Fern was carrying out.

  • 11:23:10

    FOWLERKind of over-excitement over food items. When she goes off to kindergarten she's warned not to stare fixedly at somebody else's cupcake. A kind of sense of the world as a vertical space as well as a horizontal one. She covers surfaces in a way most children would probably like to. And also is very, very aware of her lack of ability in climbing. And she's a great tree climber but of course she's not got a patch on Fern when it comes to climbing trees. And so she has a habit of looking up as well as around.

  • 11:23:54

    FOWLERAnd a little bit of a stoop sometimes when she walks, a little grabby, uses her hands a little more than most of the other kids.

  • 11:24:06

    REHMAnd so how do they react to her?

  • 11:24:12

    FOWLERWell, they call her the monkey girl and she's very, very isolated all through grammar school and even into high school. There's just something about her that's not quite right. And I think all of us have a sense sometimes, or have a concern about how normal we are. You know, sometimes you'll say something at a party and everybody will suddenly be looking at you. And you'll be thinking, oh I guess that's just me who feels that way then.

  • 11:24:41

    FOWLERSo that sense of maybe not quite fitting in, that I think everybody has. Rosemary has real reasons to wonder about how normal she is and how human her reactions are.

  • 11:24:54

    REHMI was interested that you begin the novel in the middle of the story of the Cook family, not at the beginning. Tell us why you chose to do that stylistically?

  • 11:25:13

    FOWLERMore thematically for just the reasons that we've talked about. Rosemary is finally at college and she's gone far, far away from Bloomington. She's in Davis, Calif., coincidentally another place that I lived. And so for the first time in her life nobody knows who she is or how she was raised. And she wants to keep it that way. So she's made a habit of not talking about Fern for now. Of course now in the middle of the story she is in her 20's and Fern has not been in her life since she was five. So she's lived many more years without Fern than she did with her.

  • 11:25:51

    FOWLERAnd it's a memory that's uncomfortable to her, that's unhappy with her. And it's not the way she wants to be identified. So the book -- she does in the book, she has a very clear agenda for writing the book. She is -- there's a lot of direct address to the reader. She's got things she feels she needs to say but she wants to ease into it. And she wants the reader not to distinguish Fern from any other sister. She wants to emphasize the similarities to any other sister.

  • 11:26:24

    FOWLERSo she begins by talking about Fern as her sister, which starting in the middle allows her to do without really alerting the reader that her sister was different in hairy kinds of ways.

  • 11:26:40

    REHMWould you read for us from page 98...

  • 11:26:47

    FOWLERYes, I'd love to.

  • 11:26:47

    REHM...and on over.

  • 11:26:54

    FOWLERI always used to believe I knew what Fern was thinking. No matter how bizarre her behavior, no matter how she might deck herself out and bob about the house like a Macy's Parade balloon, I could be counted on to render it into plain English. Fern wants to go outside. Fern wants to watch Sesame Street. Fern thinks you are a doo-doo head. Some of this was convenient projection but you'll never convince me of the rest. Why wouldn't I have understood her? No one knew Fern better than I. I knew every twitch. I was attuned to her.

  • 11:27:30

    FOWLERWhy does she have to learn our language, Lowell (sp?) asked my father once. Why can't we learn hers? Dad's answer was that we still didn't know for sure that Fern was even capable of learning a language. But we did know for sure that she didn't have one of her own. Dad said that Lowell was confusing language with communication when they were two very different things. Language is more than just words, he said. Language is also the order of words and the way one word inflects another.

  • 11:27:59

    FOWLEROnly he said this at much greater length, longer than either Lowell or I, and certainly Fern, wished to sit still for. It all had something to do with oomphelt (sp?), a word I very much liked the sound of and repeated many times like a drumbeat until I was made to stop. I didn't care so much what oomphelt meant back then but it turns out to refer to the specific way each particular organism experiences the world. I am the daughter of a psychologist. I know that the thing ostensibly being studied is rarely the thing being studied.

  • 11:28:33

    FOWLERWhen the Kelloggs first raised a child alongside a chimpanzee back in the 1930s, the stated purpose was to compare and contrast developing abilities, linguistic and otherwise. This was the stated purpose of our study as well. Color me suspicious. The Kelloggs believed that their sensationalistic experiment had sunk their reputations, that they were never again taken seriously as scientists. And if I know this now, our ambitious father surely knew it then.

  • 11:29:03

    FOWLERSo what was the goal of the Fern/Rosemary, Rosemary/Fern study before it came to its premature and calamitous end? I'm still not sure. But it seems to me that much of the interesting data is mine. As I grew my language development not only contrasted with Ferns, but also introduced a perfectly predictable X factor that undermined all such comparisons. Ever since Day and Davis published their findings in the 1930s, there's been a perception that twinness affects language acquisition.

  • 11:29:37

    FOWLERNew and better studies took place in the 1970s, but I'm not sure our parents were looking in their direction yet. Nor would such studies have been completely relevant to a situation such as ours, for the twins had such disparate potentials. Though Fern and I were sometimes separated while the grad students observed us, we spent most of our time together. As I developed the habit of speaking for her, she seemed to develop the expectation that I would.

  • 11:30:04

    FOWLERBy the time I turned three I was already serving as Fern's translator, in a way that surely retarded her progress. So I think that, instead of studying how well Fern could communicate, our father might have been studying how well Fern could communicate with me. That there was a vice versa here. A tabloid-ready vice versa was unavoidable but acknowledged. Here is the question our father claimed to be asking. Can Fern learn to speak to humans? Here is the question our father refused to admit he was asking. Can Rosemary learn to speak to chimpanzees?

  • 11:30:41

    FOWLEROne of the early grad students, Timothy, had argued that in our preverbal period Fern and I had an idioglossia, a secret language of grunts and gestures. This was never written up so I learned of it only recently. Dad had found his evidence thin, Unscientific and frankly, whimsical.

  • 11:31:02

    REHMKaren Joy Fowler reading from her new book "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." Karen, what about Rosemary's brother? Let's bring him in. How does he react to this so-called experiment?

  • 11:31:28

    FOWLERHe is much older, so he's about six years older than the girls in the family, and very attached to Fern. In fact, Rosemary has spend most of her life adoring her older brother whose name is Lowell and very, very jealous because of his obvious preference for Fern over her. And because of the absolute human way that Fern comes into the family and is treated in the family, he is shocked and appalled when she is removed from the family. He never gets over it. He is angry at his parents for the rest of his life. And angry at Rosemary too. Rosemary is only five when this happens but he blames her for the fact that Fern was sent away. It takes him a long time.

  • 11:32:21

    REHMHe actually becomes a radical animal rights activist.

  • 11:32:27

    FOWLERHe becomes a radical animal rights activist. And by the time the story starts which, as you said, is the middle of the story, he is wanted by the FBI for the burning of a lab in Davis, Calif. As I said, Rosemary goes to Davis for college and she does that partly to get away from her past, to go as far away as she can, but also partly because she's looking for her brother. And that's the last place anybody saw him.

  • 11:32:54

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm going to open the phones now. There are many people who'd like to speak with you, Karen, so let's...

  • 11:33:09

    FOWLEROh, wonderful.

  • 11:33:10

    REHM...first go to Paula in Baltimore, Md. You're on the air, Paula.

  • 11:33:16

    PAULAHi. Thank you for accepting my call.

  • 11:33:19


  • 11:33:20

    PAULAI wanted to say, I'm a librarian in Baltimore County and I read the book as soon as it came out and was just blown away. I thought that...

  • 11:33:29

    FOWLERWell, thank you so much.

  • 11:33:32

    PAULAThank you. The voice of Rosemary was just terrific and it was very compelling, very interesting and just a wholly believable character. And I do a lot of reading and especially reading for teens. I read a lot of adult books but I like to recommend to my older teen readers. And this is definitely one that fits into that category. So I'm wondering if you had thought about the possibility of this being a book that would be open to teen readers.

  • 11:34:00

    PAULAAnd I'm also wondering if you had read Kenneth Oppel's "Half Brother," which was a teen book that came out back in 2010 which dealt with a very similar subject. Although this time it was a young teen boy whose father brought a chimpanzee into the household.

  • 11:34:20

    FOWLERNo. I have not read that book. I'm embarrassed to say until this second I have not heard of this book. I will certainly look for it. I did recently read -- there's a fairly new book out about the gorilla that was raised in a shopping mall. Do you know the book I'm talking about?

  • 11:34:41

    PAULAOh, "The One and Only Ivan."

  • 11:34:43

    FOWLER"The One and Only Ivan," yes. I thought that was quite wonderful...

  • 11:34:46


  • 11:34:47

    FOWLER...and tragic and -- but, you know, wonderfully done.

  • 11:34:51

    REHMWhat about her question as to whether the book -- your book would be good for teens?

  • 11:35:00

    FOWLER...would be suitable for teens. I would like to think so. I would hope so. I think if I were doing a reading aloud and there were younger people in the audience, there would be sections I would not read. But, you know, the question of sort of what kinds of books I write and who the audience for them is is not something that I think about while I'm writing it. And is usually something that somebody else needs to tell me later.

  • 11:35:29

    REHMThat’s wonderful. Thanks for calling, Paula. To Indianapolis. Hi three, Lynn, you're on the air.

  • 11:35:37

    LYNNGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:35:39

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:35:40

    LYNNI wanted to state, first of all, I just finished this book literally two days ago and I had selected it because it was on a summer reading list that was recommended. And I didn't even preview what it was about or anything. I just bought it and read it. And I grew up in Southern Indiana very close to Bloomington. I went to school in Los Angeles in the 1990s for college. And so there were so many things in the book that were very parallel to my life, despite the chimpanzee factor. So I thought that was fantastic.

  • 11:36:08

    LYNNAnd then I also loved the character of Harlow (sp?) and how much unpredictability she brought to that sort of middle part of the story. And I kind of wondered where she came from and how you see her fitting into this whole narrative.

  • 11:36:20

    REHMYes. Talk about Harlow.

  • 11:36:22

    FOWLEROh, I'm so glad to be asked about Harlow. Nobody ever talks about Harlow, although she, you know, starts the book with a bang. In my head she's my Cat-in-the-Hat character. The Cat in the Hat is the bringer of chaos and so she -- Rosemary has made sort of peace with her past. It's a very fragile and unhappy kind of peace but she is proceeding by burying her past and by keeping it from all of the people that she's meeting in college. And then Harlow sort of blows into her life and upsets the applecart in every possible way.

  • 11:37:01

    FOWLERShe's very comfortable with Harlow I think also because Harlow's behaviors are kind of like Fern's.

  • 11:37:07

    REHMHer arms are quite long.

  • 11:37:10

    FOWLERHer arms are even quite long, yes. So she's the most chimp-like person that Rosemary has met in a long time. And although her behavior is, in many ways, most of us would run in the other direction from someone like Harlow, Rosemary is strangely compelled.

  • 11:37:27

    REHMKaren Joy Fowler. Her earlier book "The Jane Austen Book Club." Now a new novel, "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." Short break, right back.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. Karen Joy Fowler is my guest. She joins from Santa Cruz, Calif. Her new novel "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" is as I said at the outset, to me, one of the most unusual novels I've read in a long, long time, having to do with a family that takes in a chimp and raises that chimp alongside a daughter of the same age, until the daughter is five years old. Then the daughter, Karen, spends her adult life being very, very quiet after having been such a loquacious child. What is it that's going on inside Rosemary?

  • 11:41:08

    FOWLERThe book -- in many ways what the book is supposed to be about is language and who talks and who doesn't talk, who can talk and who can't talk, who wants to talk and who doesn't want to talk. And so early in her life when the experiment is going on, as I said, Rosemary is very conscious of all of the things that Fern does better than she does, Fern's physical capabilities outstrip Rosemary's so completely. The only thing that Rosemary really excels at is language. And so -- and because she's surrounded by grad students kind of taking down every word she utters, she believes in her language as a very, very valuable thing.

  • 11:41:51

    FOWLEROne of the joys of writing the character of Rosemary, writing in the voice of Rosemary, is that you're always told, you know, don't use $100 word when a $10 word will suffice. And it gave me a chance to use a lot of $100 words because Rosemary's vocabulary is a little bit preposterous. She's worked very hard to make her language exciting when she was five years from -- up until the time she was five years old.

  • 11:42:21

    FOWLERAnd that continues after Fern leaves for a while. But she realizes that nobody is really interested anymore without Fern there to compare her to. And she's drawing a lot of unwelcome attention to herself at school. So she grows more and more and more silent and then remains that way until -- really until she begins to write the book.

  • 11:42:45

    REHMAnd tell us what happens to Rosemary's mother.

  • 11:42:52

    FOWLERRosemary's mother is devastated by the loss of Fern. It's the loss of a child.

  • 11:42:58

    REHMShe has grown so attached to her as though...

  • 11:43:01

    FOWLERYes, well...

  • 11:43:01 were her child.

  • 11:43:04

    FOWLERFern has been raised as a daughter, so losing Fern is a terrible, terrible thing for the family. And then, you know, they can't even really comfort themselves that Fern has gone someplace where she will be happy, although they have done their best to find a safe place for Fern. So she has a breakdown and that's something that Rosemary remembers pretty vividly is her mother falling apart. And then later in the book, as I said, Lowell has remained angry throughout his adolescence and he takes off, so she loses a second child and she is a very sad and reduced woman.

  • 11:43:48

    REHMAnd the father?

  • 11:43:52

    FOWLERThe father also is quite devastated and carries the additional burden of thinking at least that, although, the mother was entirely complicit in the experiment, of feeling that the family blamed him, that he's responsible in some way for what has happened to all of them.

  • 11:44:12

    REHMYou know what I find most interesting about this book is that you as a novelist would not only have to create this chimp and this family, but in some ways you really do have to get inside the head of the chimp so there's even less division and separation between you as a human being and Fern as a chimp.

  • 11:44:56

    FOWLERI had not actually put it to myself that way. That's interesting. The chimp of my own creation.

  • 11:45:00


  • 11:45:02

    FOWLERI did a lot of chimp research, as I said. And one of the things that I did when I was writing the book is that I went to Ellensburg, Wash. where the most famous of the signing chimps, Washoe, lived up until her death about five years ago. And so I was able to observe the chimps there. Actually they have a program that anybody can go and take for a fee, which helps support the running of the institution, called a Chimposium. You can go take a day long Chimposium, which I did.

  • 11:45:35

    FOWLERThere are three chimps still in residence there. And I was taught proper chimp etiquette so that when we went in to see the chimps, and I should stress that there is a bulletproof glass wall between you and the chimps at all time, but you can communicate with them through the glass wall. But there are facial expressions that are -- that mean something different to chimps, so you're told not to make those. And you stoop over a little bit so that you don't look tall and threatening. And, as I said, a lesson on chimp etiquette. So that was the closest I got to observe the chimps...

  • 11:46:16


  • 11:46:16

    FOWLER...and their behaviors.

  • 11:46:18

    REHMHas the writing of this book created in you more of an activist nature as regards to chimps or perhaps you've always had that leaning?

  • 11:46:36

    FOWLERI have always loved animals and been very interested in animals. And, you know, in some ways I characterize the book as the -- my final word on an argument my father and I started having when I was about six over whether animals could think or not. I think that...

  • 11:46:56


  • 11:46:57

    FOWLERWell, he thought I should be very careful with my language, that, you know, what animals were doing, I should be careful when I called that thinking. I should say in his defense that he was not very impressed with human thinking either. He didn't think any of us was up to much high level -- high level thinking.

  • 11:47:20

    REHMI wish I could've been a fly on the wall hearing that discussion between a six-year-old and her scientist father.

  • 11:47:29

    FOWLERWell, yes, I think, you know, another child might have thought, well, this is actually my father's area of expertise, and I'm the six-year-old, perhaps I should be quiet and listen, but...

  • 11:47:39


  • 11:47:39

    FOWLER...that's not the six-year-old I was.

  • 11:47:42

    REHMAnd what kind of approach did you take and do you take toward animal thinking?

  • 11:47:52

    FOWLERYou know, when I started the book, as I said, I did a lot of research on chimps, but I expanded a lot as I was writing into animal cognition in general. And I was able to sit in on a wonderful course at the University of Santa Cruz where I am on animal cognition. And I have just gotten incredibly fascinated with it. So when I -- when I started the book, I felt that chimps and gorillas and all the great primates deserve some sort of special treatment because of how close to us they were in terms of their genetics.

  • 11:48:30

    FOWLERBut I now think that that was very small minded of me and that their intelligence may be as most easily compared to us. A lot of animal cognition is very alien to the way humans think, but is not diminished by that fact is fascinating. And we are surrounded by all kinds of intelligences. We are just starting to learn about -- I would say that I have gotten more activist. I've gotten quite swept up in it as I was writing the book.

  • 11:49:04

    REHMAll right. Let's take a call from Denton, Texas. Hi, Jerry.

  • 11:49:10

    JERRYHi. You know, I'm reading this book. I've been reading it for the last few days. I guess I'm about a third through. And, you know, I've thought right from the very beginning, it made me think of a movie I saw a couple of years ago, I guess. A documentary called "Project Nim" which was about a chimp, Nim Chimpsky, wonderful name, who was raised in a New York family under the egis of a psychology experiment by a Columbia psychologist. And it was kind of mostly documentary footage and some acting -- actors filling in. And it was a very good movie.

  • 11:49:57

    JERRYAnd I was led to it by a review by Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal. And he pointed that Nim in his chimp-ness was really more worthy than most of the humans in the film in their humanity. And I realize that there have been enormous numbers of experiments on chimpanzees. You know, our species has really badly treated chimpanzees in that regard. And it's interesting that NIH has just recently sworn off...

  • 11:50:35


  • 11:50:35

    JERRY...using chimps.

  • 11:50:36


  • 11:50:37

    JERRYBut in any event, I wondered if -- I know Ms. Fowler has looked at a lot of this research, but I wondered if she related in any way to that family and to poor Nim.

  • 11:50:55

    FOWLERYes, absolutely. I was already writing the book when the documentary came out and had already read the book about Nim Chimpsky, which is I think called "The Chimp Who Would Be Human." So when I saw the documentary, which I thought was quite wonderful, although, the information in it was not new to me, it was of course very vividly portrayed. And I think that I must've also read the same review because I remember also the assessment that none of the humans come off well in that movie at all, that it's a very tragic trajectory and that Nim bears the brunt of it. Although there is I believe the graduate student who gets Nim out of the research laboratories, so there was that one bright spot that -- one human really took his responsibilities and his relationship to Nim seriously.

  • 11:51:51

    REHMThanks for calling, Jerry. To Austin, Texas, Justin, you're on the air.

  • 11:51:59

    JUSTINWell, thank you very much for having me on.

  • 11:52:00


  • 11:52:01

    JUSTINYeah, I actually was, you know, I'm very interested in this subject, you know, and I actually work close alongside apes in the, you know, in the current job I'm in now. And I was -- and, I mean, I'm constantly thinking about how the apes, you know, they -- I mean, they're -- you know, the way that people understand them is just -- it just -- it kind of says more about people than it does about them is what I always find myself thinking. You know, we -- it's hard to not sort of put them in the perspective that we have, you know, deemed highly social animals that they are.

  • 11:52:54

    JUSTINAnd, you know, I mean, they -- I feel like that, you know, it makes me wonder, you know, about just what is that? You know, is that a human quality or is that -- you know, I mean, because these -- chimps, especially, I always feel -- when I'm around them, I always feel like, you know, that they're in some ways a lot smarter than I am.

  • 11:53:22

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Maybe you feel the same way, Karen.

  • 11:53:30

    FOWLERI am afraid, I think, that whenever humans study anything, they are talking more about themselves than about whatever they study. So, yes, I certainly think in the case of chimps that's been -- that's been a characteristic of the chimp studies from the beginning. I also will just mention that since I did immerse myself so deeply in the chimp studies, it's made it very easy to look at human behaviors through a chimp lens so that every once in a while I'll be at a dinner party or I'll be watching C-SPAN and I'll be seeing chimp behavior, a lot of posturing, a lot of...

  • 11:54:06

    REHMThat's for sure, especially here in Washington. Fern is raised by humans. She's removed finally from the family because she becomes dangerous. Is what happens to Fern typical of what happens to chimps at a certain age?

  • 11:54:40

    FOWLERYes. At a certain age the chimp is just too large and too unpredictable, so much stronger than we are that they become -- chimps are incredibly dangerous animals, especially the male chimps and -- yes.

  • 11:54:56

    REHMWe all think of these tiny little chimps as sweet and baby like and to be held and to be cuddled, but they do grow.

  • 11:55:10

    FOWLERThey do grow up. They are adorable when they're tiny. And I don't mean to say they're not adorable when they're large too.

  • 11:55:15


  • 11:55:16

    FOWLERThey're just very, very dangerous.

  • 11:55:18

    REHMAnd dangerous how?

  • 11:55:22

    FOWLERAs I said, they're just unpredictable and so strong that they can't be controlled. So if an incident has not happened yet, it may happen at any time.

  • 11:55:34


  • 11:55:34

    FOWLERAnd there are many cases of chimp attacks on people.

  • 11:55:38


  • 11:55:39

    FOWLERYes. Of course the one in -- I believe it was in Connecticut that got so much attention, terrible, terrible attack where a woman's face was ripped off by a home raised chimp. So, yes, that cannot be allowed to happen (unintelligible)

  • 11:55:59

    REHMSo what you're saying to people is...

  • 11:56:03

    FOWLERDon't home raise chimps is what I'm saying to people.

  • 11:56:07

    REHMYou would never ever do it yourself?

  • 11:56:11

    FOWLERI would never ever do it myself.

  • 11:56:13

    REHMEven to the age of four or five?

  • 11:56:17

    FOWLERNo. I think the expulsion from the home that the chimp has known and the people that the chimp has loved is just too painful. If not on the people, then certainly on the chimp. And there have been numerous cases of chimps who've died for no particular underlying cause that anyone can find except the grief of having been removed.

  • 11:56:40


  • 11:56:42

    FOWLERVery -- yes, death by heartbreak.

  • 11:56:45

    REHMKaren Joy Fowler, her new book "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." It was such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for being with us.

  • 11:56:58

    FOWLERThank you so much for having me on. I've enjoyed it.

  • 11:57:01

    REHMLovely. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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