Postal Reading group
March 2022
Notes on the book We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This month’s book was a real surprise, and in a good way. At first I didn’t know what to think of We are all completely beside ourselves, expecting, perhaps, some kind of ‘coming of age’ story. However, once it becomes clear what was unusual about the Cooke family, the real point of this book becomes clear.

The book opens with Rosemary Cooke narrating her story, starting in the middle, which seems an odd thing to do, but presumably she has her reasons. For starters that had me guessing: “Did rosemary have a guilty secret?” It took me longer than it should have done, but I did realise before Rosemary admitted it, that there was something unusual about her family: they took in a chimpanzee and raised it as a sister to Rosemary. This partly explains the disappearance of both Rosemary’s ‘sister’ and brother, although it wasn’t the terrible admission I had been expecting. While Rosemary may have nothing to feel guilty about, I can understand why she is reluctant to share that part of her story. If Rosemary changed from being a great talker to keeping quiet, it was probably out of self-preservation or in the spirit of Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”.

My initial reaction about the book was that the narration was slightly annoying, and I couldn’t quite see the point of the story, much less what made Rosemary special. While the short chapters did make it more readable, the narrator’s habit of telling everything in a number of short episodes in no particular order (although she did keep her promise of starting somewhere in the middle) made it difficult for me to follow. However, once I understood the family’s secret, the point of the book becomes clear and in reality it is a thoughtful and accessible look at animal rights, psychology, and the debate around experimenting on animals.

Upon understanding the real story in this book, like Rosemary, my real anger was directed towards her father. Of course, he was approaching the issue as a scientist conducting an experiment, and as a dispassionate observer. This explains a lot, but it does not justify it, especially where your own family is the subject. If an experiment is considered unethical, and today it probably would be, what kind of person carries it out on their own family, especially without giving them a choice? Ethical implications have to be considered very carefully when performing any kind of experiment on human subjects (and Rosemary was a subject here just as much as Fern, the chimpanzee), but do other animals, primates included, enjoy the same level of consideration?

This is not an entirely rhetorical question, as it raises important issues around the effects of such research on the animal subjects, what we hope to learn from them, and the benefits this brings to society as a whole. My personal belief is that the scant benefits, even of genuine medical research, do not outweigh the harm done to sentient animals. Rosemary was aware that it is a difficult judgement to make, and I would agree with her, although her examples of the medical benefits of such research were perhaps poorly chosen: I haven’t seen any advances in the treatment of alzheimer’s disease, whether from primate studies or otherwise!

While there does seem to be a greater understanding of ethical concerns in most areas of scientific research, animal rights, and our treatment of them, have improved almost inperceptably. Sadly the maltreatment of many species of animals remains all too common, largely because of the low status they are afforded in the legal system. All too often, those involved in the systematic abuse of animals are acting within the letter of the law, even while they have the temerity to claim that animal rights activists are ‘tormenting’ innocent creatures. Releasing laboratory animals into the wild might be a bad idea for all sorts of reasons, but please don’t claim that keeping them captive while experimenting to satisfy your own curiosity is in the interests of their welfare.

Ultimately, how we view other animals, and how we treat them has important lessons for how we regard ourselves. The chimpanzees are our closesest cousins, and we both evolved from a common ancestor which lived approximately 6 million years ago (a brief moment by the standards of evolution and geology), and this has proved to be particularly unfortunate for the chimpanzees, making them sufficiently like us that we regard them with a kind of horror, but not close enough that they warrant any kind of special status. Perhaps too, we see something of ourselves in the chimpanzees, a capacity for violoence towards outsiders for example. Certainly both chimpanzees and humans have inherited good and bad characteristics from that common ancestor.

In conclusion, this is a truly original and surprising book. Although I do have some criticisms of the narration, and the development of the storyline was slow, it developed into a thoughtful account of issues around animal rights and how we view ourselves. Although I have grave doubts about the value of studies involving animals, that is a personal opinion, where, the reality, as the book makes clear, is more complex. However, given that Rosemary’s parents first met at a science camp at the Lowell observatory, perhaps we can all agree that they should have confined themselves to the physical sciences. That too might have been an option for Rosemary as she sought to find a college subject which avoided primate studies!

Comments by Nicholas Cutler