The novel is narrated from the perspective of Rosemary, a young woman who was raised alongside a chimpanzee as part of a psychological experiment conducted by her scientist father. Rosemary’s perspective is thus fundamentally defined by her unusual attachment to—and identification with—not just her chimpanzee sister Fern but animals in general. She claims: “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee.” However, it is clear that even after Rosemary moves away to college (where she doesn’t mention Fern and thus is no longer defined in the eyes of others by this fact), her experience of being raised with Fern colors her view of the world in a permanent and drastic manner.
Not only is Rosemary particularly attentive and attracted to animals, but she consistently frames the behavior of the human people around her as animalistic. She describes her own chimp-like behavior as acting like “the monkey girl” (a nickname which her elementary school classmates used to taunt her). She disagrees with the prevailing opinion that humans are superior to animals, and although behaving like “the monkey girl” gets her into trouble, she persists in acting this way and is drawn to other people, such as Harlow, who behave in a similarly impulsive, reckless manner. Such behavior is reminiscent of chimpanzees, who—although they are similar to humans in many ways—do not have the same social conditioning as people and thus act in a highly unrestrained manner.
Rosemary’s brother Lowell is also deeply affected by being raised with Fern, and in some ways his life is even more dramatically colored by his intense attachment to animals. As a child, Rosemary resents the fact that Lowell seems to prefer Fern to her. Lowell’s preference for animals over humans is reflected when, as a boy, he builds a “snow ant” instead of a snowman. When he is older, Lowell destroys a university lab in which testing on animals is conducted, liberating the lab rats, and eventually goes on to pursue further activism as part of the Animal Liberation Front. This lands Lowell in trouble with the FBI, a fact that demonstrates the seriousness with which humans endeavor to separate themselves from animals and maintain a position of superiority and control over the animal kingdom. Due to the strictness with which the human/animal barrier is policed, Lowell’s compassion for animals causes him significant anguish, and eventually lands him in prison.
Throughout the novel, Rosemary remains fixated on the similarities and differences between humans and animals. As stated above, there are moments at which she seems to identify more as a non-human animal than a human one, and she expresses this through descriptions of her own “monkey girl” behavior. Curiously, however, she is resistant to classifying Fern as an animal, clarifying: “By monkey girl, I mean me, of course, and not Fern, who is not and has never been a monkey.” Elsewhere she objects to Fern being “treated like some kind of animal.” At first these messages may seem self-contradictory, and it is true that Rosemary maintains an ambivalent relationship to animality. At the same time, Rosemary’s objection to Fern being perceived and treated as an animal is less an objection to Fern’s state of “being” than to the inferior position of animals within society. Rosemary wants people to value Fern as much as they value other humans, regardless of the fact that she is technically an animal. Like Lowell, Rosemary strongly objects to the way her father and other scientists conduct experiments on animals, and is particularly disturbed by the reality that Fern is treated as a commodity that can be bought and sold.
On the other hand, there are also points at which Rosemary expresses the belief that animals are superior to humans, rather than simply being equal to them. For example, she is so disturbed by the knowledge that chimpanzees rape each other that she has a panic attack during the lecture. Of course, Rosemary is well aware that rape exists within the human population. The fact that she is so surprised to learn that it also occurs among chimpanzees suggests that she had believed or hoped that chimpanzees were less cruel or violent than humans.
Humans vs. Animals ThemeTracker
Humans vs. Animals Quotes in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
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.
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.
What is a normal sex life? What is normal sex? What if asking the question already means you aren't normal? It seemed as if I couldn't get even the instinctual, mammalian parts of my life right.
It seemed to Lowell that psychological studies of nonhuman animals were mostly cumbersome, convoluted, and downright peculiar. They taught us little about the animals but lots about the researchers who designed and ran them.
Three children, one story. The only reason I'm the one telling it is that I'm the one not currently in a cage.