The often troubling dynamics of family life haunt Rosemary throughout the narrative. Although Rosemary has moved across the country to free herself from her family at the time the novel is set, she cannot ever truly escape them. This shows that even if one’s interactions with family remain permanently in the past, they fundamentally shape who we are in the present. Just as the absence of her siblings Lowell and Fern continues to haunt Rosemary as a kind of presence, the history of her life with her family continues to define Rosemary’s sense of self and her perspective on the world.
While emphasizing the intensity of family’s role in shaping a person, the novel also suggests that families are connected less by biology and more by a sense of shared history and tradition. After all, Fern is not only biologically unrelated to Rosemary’s family, she is from an entirely different species—yet despite this, Rosemary considers Fern her “sister,” and in some ways is closer to her than any other figure in the novel. The similarity between the sisters emerges through the evidence of their matching preferences and traditions. After Fern is taken away, Rosemary grows concerned that she will be forced to try unfamiliar foods in her new home. While Rosemary’s father tries to assure her that this will be exciting, Rosemary remains adamant that Fern will not enjoy it, insisting: “We like what we’re used to.”
Rosemary and Fern’s shared experience and habits are presented in a positive light, and are shown to be the source of their strong, loving bond. Habits and tradition can thus create a sense of kinship and closeness, but—they can also pose their own dangers. When habits are broken and people (or animals) are forced to deal with unfamiliar environments, this can be traumatizing and isolating. This is true of Fern, who struggles to adapt after she is taken from the Cooke family and placed in a primate center with other chimps in North Dakota. However, it is also true of Rosemary, who throughout the novel struggles in isolation to deal with the legacy of her family’s adoption (and subsequent giving away) of Fern.
Rosemary spends significant portions of the narrative reflecting on the nature of the past and memory. Indeed, memory is a rather troubled topic for Rosemary, no doubt in part due to the fact that her family have an agreement not to discuss “the past.” Rosemary makes a similar kind of agreement with herself after Fern is taken away, vowing not to think or talk about Fern anymore. Of course, a vow to repress something as significant and important as all thoughts of one’s sister is bound to cause problems. In Rosemary’s case, it leaves her with a fragmented sense of her own past and identity.
This sense of fragmentation is emphasized when Rosemary discusses her access to her own memories and her family’s past. She writes: “There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened. The mist lifts and suddenly there we are, my good parents and their good children, their grateful children who phone for no reason but to talk, say their good-nights with a kiss, and look forward to home on the holidays.” The fact that Rosemary characterizes history and memory as the mist—rather than the forces of denial and pretence—highlights how confused her sense of history and reality has become.
At another point, Rosemary describes a moment in which, at the age of 8, a memory of her early childhood came back to her like pieces of a puzzle. Rosemary’s presentation of the past through the metaphors of a “mist” and “puzzle” illustrates the difficulty, pain, and confusion inherent to her relationship to her own history, family, and self. The novel thus highlights a tension between the fact that people are defined by their family and past, yet must also constantly struggle to make sense of these things.
Family, Tradition, and the Past ThemeTracker
Family, Tradition, and the Past 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.
Bed-hopping was an established custom in the house—Fern and I had rarely ended the night in the bed where we'd started. Our parents felt that it was natural and mammalian not to want to sleep alone, and though they would have preferred we stay in our own beds, because we kicked and thrashed, they'd never insisted on it.
Lowell’s room smelled of damp cedar from the cage where three rats, washouts from our father's lab, would chirp and creak in their spinning wheel all night long. In retrospect, there was something incomprehensibly strange about the way any of the laboratory rats could transform from data point to pet, with names and privileges and vet appointments, in a single afternoon. What a Cinderella story!
I would say that, like Lowell, I loved her as a sister, but she was the only sister I ever had, so I can't be sure; it's an experiment with no control.
Was my father kind to animals? I thought so as a child, but I knew less about the lives of lab rats then. 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.
He was a great believer in our animal natures, far less likely to anthropomorphize Fern than to animalize me. Not just me, but you, too––all of us together, I'm afraid. He didn't believe animals could think, not in the way he defined the term, but he wasn't much impressed with human thinking, either. He referred to the human brain as a clown car parked between our ears. Open the doors and the clowns pile out.
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.
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.