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Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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If you managed not to hear about the animal rights theme before reading Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), do comment with your experience of the novel. Or, it you haven’t yet read the book, maybe stop here, skip the cover blurbs, and go directly to your naked experience of this exquisite novel.

The book is finely structured so that the identity of the protagonist’s sister may come as a revelation — it won’t spoil the novel to know ahead, but will it change your experience?

Readers of EcoLit, however, might be enticed to read the book precisely because they know this is Fowler’s chimp novel, includes a sympathetic character who takes action for animals as a member of the Animal Liberation Front, and takes on animal testing. It addresses animal cruelty, “the world runs on the fuel of an endless, fathomless animal misery” and the definition of person, “Something that sieves out dolphins but lets corporations slide on through.”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves tells the relatable story of a young adult re-examining the events of her upbringing and trying to understand them with maturing perspective. It’s told in a first person point of view and alternates between 1979, Rosemary’s childhood, and 1996, her college years. As a child, Rosemary competed for attention with her sister, Fern, a chimpanzee raised as a human family member in an elaborate experiment to study language development. For true-life examples of this, see The Washoe Project (1967) and Nim Chimpsky (1973).

This upbringing shapes Rosemary’s character. In college, she befriends a physically expressive theater major, a wild child trouble magnet — just the kind of person someone raised with a chimpanzee would find familiar. As a child, Rosemary bests Fern only with words and becomes loquacious (this gives the novel a lovely — eliding, Melpomene, gamesome, psychomanteum, hypnopompic — vocabulary too).

Rosemary’s father displays scientific detachment, “Let’s just say that my father was kind to animals unless it was in the interest of science to be otherwise. He would never have run over a cat if there was nothing to be learned by doing so.”

Her mother nurtures and intends to raise Fern, too, as a “forever” child. Yet, when Rosemary is five, Fern disappears and the family breaks. The experience scars Rosemary and represses her talkative nature. Is she the reason Fern has been exiled? Could she be gotten rid of just as easily? Was it something she said?

Fern’s departure causes a rift between Rosemary and her older brother, Lowell, as well. He cannot silently accept Fern’s absence and eventually takes action on her behalf. While society deems him a criminal, Rosemary notes, “Lowell’s life has been the direct result of his very best qualities, of our best qualities — empathy, compassion, loyalty, and love. That needs to be recognized.”

The book contains a call to action for women to add their voices to the animal rights movement. Rosemary eventually seeks out her sister, and allows herself to confront the horror of what Fern’s life must have become, “What did they do to her in that cage? Whatever it was, it happened because no woman had stopped it. The women who should have stood with Fern — my mother, the female grad students, me — none of us had helped. Instead we had exiled her to a place completely devoid of female solidarity.”

Rosemary doesn’t talk about her sister and, if so, doesn’t mention that Fern is a chimpanzee. She knows that revelation will irrevocably shift people’s perception and invalidate her own experience: Fern is her sister. As her mother puts it, “So much like you, only with a lot of suffering added.”

There’s not an anti-science message here, but a strong critique of methods: “I didn’t want a world in which I had to choose between blind human babies and tortured monkey ones. To be frank, that’s the sort of choice I expect science to protect me from, not give me.”

As her awareness grows, Rosemary realizes that she must use her words on her sister’s behalf, for Fern, for the voiceless animals.

“The spell can only be broken by the people. They must come to see how beautiful she is. They must storm the prison and demand her release. The spell will be broken only when the people rise up. So rise up already.”

What to read next?
For a perfect pairing, go to Pat Murphy’s Nebula award-winning story “Rachel in Love,” (1991) about a girl who comes of age in a chimp’s body. Kafka’s short story “A Report to An Academy” (1917) referenced in Fowler’s novel is also worth a read. RachelinLove

For another smart, well-crafted novel that contains a perception shift, read Monique Troung’s novel Bitter in the Mouth (2010) on themes of identity.

In nonfiction, Fowler’s novel mentions Donald Griffin’s Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (2001), and for examples of how women’s voices and participation in rights movements (human, civil, homosexual, women’s, and animals’ and, in general, “…a commitment that other living things, no matter how distant or dissimilar, be safe from harm and exploitation.”) do make a difference read Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011).

Inspired by We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves?
Visit Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest and Save the Chimps.

Shel Graves
A reader, writer, and @Utopianista living by the Salish Sea, Shel served in the Peace Corps and earned her MFA in Creative Writing.