Throughout the book, Rosemary returns to the theme of what is missing—what is left unsaid, what is repressed, and who is gone. She opens the book by admitting that it will surprise people who know her now to learn that she was a very talkative child, thereby conveying that she is now unusually silent. Another of the first things we learn about Rosemary is that her brother and sister are both gone (though at first it is a mystery why they have disappeared). In this sense, Rosemary is haunted by the absence not only of certain figures, but also by the absence of thoughts, memories, and language. This creates the impression that she is an intensely isolated person.
Indeed, Rosemary frequently emphasizes that as a child she did not have any friends, and that socializing with others remained a struggle when she arrived at college. It becomes clear that Rosemary’s social isolation is rooted in her relationship with Fern. The fact that Rosemary was raised alongside a chimpanzee permanently alienates her from the human peers with whom she is supposed to identify. This is made especially obvious when Rosemary attempts to befriend a boy in her elementary school, Dae-jung. Dae-jung has recently immigrated from Korea and doesn’t yet speak English; Rosemary pretends they are friends and speaks at him so incessantly that his English rapidly improves, enabling him to make real connections with others and abandon Rosemary. Clearly, Rosemary was originally attracted to Dae-jung because of a warped sense of his similarity to Fern. Like Fern, Dae-jung initially did not speak English; however, Rosemary is quickly reminded that Fern and Dae-jung are in reality not similar when Dae-jung learns to speak English and immediately rejects her.
Indeed, Rosemary emphasizes her own distrust of human language throughout the book. She reflects that “language is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we even bother with it.” At another point, she muses that “sometimes you best avoid talking by being quiet, but sometimes you best avoid talking by talking.” There is evidently something about “talking” and language that Rosemary finds unsettling, no doubt a product of the fact that her closest relationship as a child involved no spoken language at all.
It is not just Rosemary, however, who is fixated on silence and absence. Early in the novel, she notes that her family agrees not to discuss certain subjects, such as her mother’s nervous breakdown, her own arrest, or her cousin Peter’s poor SAT scores. Rosemary also notes that the family agrees not to discuss “the past” in general. Of course, such an agreement highlights a strong sense of collective repression and denial. This denial theoretically enables Rosemary’s family to keep up the pretence of normalcy and happiness despite having suffered major traumas (including the absence of Fern and Lowell).
However, it becomes obvious that silence and absence do not necessarily conceal trauma, but in fact can sometimes amplify it. Rosemary writes that Fern’s “disappearance represented many things—confusions, insecurities, betrayals, a Gordian knot of interpersonal complications.” Meanwhile, Rosemary’s efforts “never to think of Fern again” come crashing down when she befriends the Fern-like Harlow and when Lowell comes back into her life. In this way, the novel suggests that a person’s (or animal’s) absence can also be a kind of presence, just as silence can be a kind of language, and that as much as we try to deny and repress pain, it will inevitably surface in some form or other.
Absence, Silence, and Denial ThemeTracker
Absence, Silence, and Denial Quotes in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
In 1996, ten years had passed since I'd last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn't told you that, you might not have known. By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought of either one.
Psychoanalysis was completely bogus, he would say, good only for literary theory. Maybe it was useful, when plotting books, to imagine that someone's life could be shaped by a single early trauma, maybe even one inaccessible in memory. But where were the blind studies, the control groups? Where was the reproducible data?
For a brief period in the third grade, I pretended that Dae-jung and I were friends. He didn't talk, but I was well able to supply both sides of a conversation. I returned a mitten he'd dropped. We ate lunch together, or at least we ate at the same table, and in the classroom he'd been given the desk next to mine on the theory that when I talked out of turn, it might help his language acquisition. The irony was that his English improved due in no small part to my constant yakking at him, but as soon as he could speak, he made other friends.
I came to UC Davis both to find my past (my brother) and to leave it (the monkey girl) behind. By monkey girl, I mean me, of course, not Fern, who is not now and never has been a monkey.
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. I handled the situation by not reading more.
Sigmund Freud has suggested that we have no early childhood memories at all. What we have instead are false memories aroused later and more pertinent to this later perspective than to the original events. Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten. The new representation is called a screen memory. A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering.
Our father always said that Sigmund Freud was a brilliant man but no scientist, and that incalculable damage had been done by confusing the two. So when I say here that I think the memory I had of the thing that never happened was a screen memory I do so with considerable sadness.
Three children, one story. The only reason I'm the one telling it is that I'm the one not currently in a cage.