We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler’s sixth novel, is a masterful and beautiful balancing act, seamlessly unfolding a family tragedy balanced by the sly humor of Rosemary Cook, the first-person narrator who inhabits three ages: her five-year-old, her 22-year-old, and her mid-forties selves.
Fowler’s novel interrogates the processes that form and re-form us: family dynamics; memory; forms of abandonment and abuse; commitment, betrayal, and guilt; how we create and (if lucky) re-create identity; how we learn language; the psychic cost of our use of animals for food and for research; and degrees of love and of knowing. These depths do not lie heavy on the mind, for Rosemary, a young woman so witty, damaged, and different that her voice is, paradoxically, as familiar, and as inclusive, as that of your own sister. That voice makes you think she’s being honest, and she is trying to be honest, but she doesn’t know if she is because she does not trust her memories. She is trying to get down to the truth of what happened when she was five years old. She finds that memories are slippery and often false, replaced by accepted family myth, in which we each live in a different family that that of other family members. Rosemary tells her story as one might talk to a therapist: because it is difficult to know where to start, the pieces of one’s story come together gradually, non-linearly, thrust forward by feelings rather than by intellect, by the need to tell the true story, rather than the one that first comes to mind, except that other stories — the accepted myths of what happened — keep getting in the way.
The difference between the two realities of feelings and verifiable scientific fact is the novel’s heart, for Rosemary and her adopted sister Fern, so close in age as to be twins, are raised as a scientific experiment begun when they are born. The experiment is suddenly abandoned when they are five, an event that turns their family inside out and throws each member into their own secret, disconnected universe of guilt, anger, blame, and madness as a desperately unhappy and shattered family feigns happiness with stoic, Tolstoyan uniqueness.
When Rosemary is born and Fern arrives, Lowell, Rosemary’s older brother, has two new sisters, one of whom he loves more than the other. Rosemary’s economical description of family dynamics:
I was our mother’s favorite child. Lowell was our father’s. I loved our father as much as our mother, but I loved Lowell best of all. Fern loved our mother best. Lowell loved Fern more than he loved me. When I lay out these facts, they seem essentially benign. Something here for everyone. More than enough to go around.
Rose’s father, a rising-star psychology professor at the University of Indiana, uses Fern — a chimpanzee — and his daughter as research subjects, as has been done in real, well-documented experiments.
Rosemary’s early life is filled with interesting grad students who record the minutiae of both sisters’ lives and language acquisition, who see what goes in — the environment — and what comes out — behaviors — but do not know what goes on between.
Rosemary does, or thinks she does, when it comes to Fern, but at the age of five, though a precocious chatterbox filled with complex words she learns to impress her father, she finds that she does not know how to say what she feels or what she knows. She does not know that few people do, ever.
Rosemary does not tell us that her sister is a chimp for the first third of the novel (the cover copy reveals this straightaway). During this necessary prelude, she utterly captures the reader with her voice — ironic (“Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability. I believe the same can be said of many families.”) and wryly humorous as she recounts the behavior of those around her. By the time she tells us what she considers a secondary truth about the character we have come to know as her sister, we understand that, at the inception of the grand experiment, the family deliberately makes no distinction between human and chimpanzee until, quite suddenly, the parents must.
With the same clumsiness with which we deny young children’s deep feelings about death, divorce, and general lack of control of their lives by denying or dissembling, Rosemary’s parents sweep Fern’s disappearance under the rug. Except that her father takes to strong drink, her mother becomes deeply depressed and non-communicative, the grad students disappear, her idolized older brother runs away, and even her grandparents reject her, leaving her alone in many ways, leading her to question what love and commitment are, in her family.
When suddenly thrust into kindergarten half a year late, she begins to understand how different she really is. Having learned to infer Fern’s needs and desires and communicate them (though Fern also learns sign language), Rosemary’s behaviors are based on her “monkey-girl” self. She touches everyone, invades others’ personal space, and behaves impetuously and possessively — not much different than any human child, but still different enough, in an “uncanny valley” sense, to make her feel like an alien. About Fern, Rosemary says,
The neural system of a young brain develops partly by mirroring the brains around it. As much time as Fern and I spent together, that mirror went both ways. Surrounded as she was by humans, Fern believed she was human.
Once so talkative that she tried the patience of the adults around her, by 22, at Davis, Rosemary has learned not to talk about herself. At all.
She re-learns to do so through a catalytic relationship with a drama major, Harlow, whom we meet in the first scene throwing chairs across a cafeteria and railing at her boyfriend. Rosemary’s tamped-down self revels in this wild behavior, and, pulled by Harlow closer to her true “monkey-girl” self, she is arrested. Throughout the novel Rosemary ruminates on and rejects her father’s Skinnerian-based psychology of behavior-as-reaction and begins to act, finding that she really does have a self from which to act, a self that surprises her, as do her own memories and the stories and memories of her family as their fifteen-year emotionally frozen sojourn thaws precipitously and communication resumes, re-opening wounds that can finally begin to heal. The Cook family is parsed, finally, as the ever-elusive target of pure memory and pure truth, neither of which exists, but which are always sought.
Becoming involved in Rosemary’s story is as easy as falling off a log, and loads more fun. Before you know it, it will be the wee hours of the morning and, as you finally finish the story, you will be immersed in so many revelations about families, about humans, and about the world, that you will wonder how Fowler does this so effortlessly, convincingly, and movingly. In the sifting stage-set of memory’s oft-repainted scenes, Rosemary finds, and enacts, a rich instant of resolution, a jolt of pure emotional electricity and connection, to which the entire narrative builds.
Informed by a recent, rich literature written by scientists and anthropologists about animal mind and animal emotion, accompanied and augmented by quotes from Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy,” We Are All… lays bare the ancient human chauvinism we take for granted as we use and misuse other species for our own ends and quite often in the name of good. We guard rigidly against their suffering by denying that they have feelings or a sense of self, and by claiming we are somehow different from all other forms of life when it is abundantly clear that we are not.
Of Fowler’s many gifts, one of the most important is her ability to embed meaning — indeed, at times, several conflicting meanings — into a word, a sentence, an entire narrative, so that the true depth of a story or novel may suddenly be revealed as a pattern we did not know we were absorbing, so suddenly does our knowing switch from seeing a vase to seeing a woman’s face. She plays with reader’s minds with serious intent, with complete control, and with humor and a seeming candor that draws us in. We are not laughed at, but laugh, mourn, and reach gestalt insight with. Those who care about reading a rich, beautifully written novel will bask in the delight of enjoying Karen Joy Fowler at the top of her form, for this book delivers an emotional punch with all the power that makes reading a deep delight, an act that really does change the brain. You will know you have been changed when you are done.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a paean not only to the necessity to advance the cause of animal rights, but also to what it costs us to deny our animal nature: our very selves. It is a tragedy, but a tragedy in which many of the lines and scenes are so humorous that you may laugh aloud, a tragedy that, unlike most, has a deeply personal, elegiac resolution that those who care about the future of life on this planet will take to heart as being universal.