Rosemary is raised alongside Fern as part of an elaborate scientific experiment conducted by her father (alongside a team of graduate students from the university). As a result, scientific inquiry and authority casts a shadow over Rosemary’s life. Rosemary’s parents—who are both scientists—view ordinary social and intimate life through a scientific lens, as evidenced when Rosemary’s father tries to persuade her mother to donate her personal journals to a library, or when Rosemary writes that they “felt that it was natural and mammalian not to want to sleep alone.” Indeed, the behavior of Rosemary’s parents is dictated by science to a rather extreme degree. Rosemary explains: “My father was kind to animals unless it was in the interest of science to be otherwise.” “The interest of science” becomes a kind of moral and philosophical imperative for Rosemary’s father, who is an atheist, serving the same function as religion in the lives of other characters, such as Rosemary’s lecturer Dr. Sosa.
Although Rosemary understands that her parents’ extremely scientific orientation toward life can be problematic, she cannot help but replicate this behavior herself. As a child, she tells her neighbor Russell “that his mother was cutting up a pumpkin. Only I used the word dissecting.” Not only is Rosemary raised by two scientists, but she spends her early childhood participating in a constant stream of experiments (alongside Fern) in her own home. As a result, Rosemary’s childhood is never free from science’s reach and she cannot help but think of ordinary behaviors (such as cutting up a pumpkin) as scientific experiments.
Rosemary at times narrates in a style reflective of scientific research. For example, there is a passage in which she lays out memories of Fern in a clinical, numbered manner, and another in which she lists the stories of other chimpanzees raised in human families in a similar style. Her adoption of this scientific format blurs the boundary between subjective, emotional experience and “objective” data. Indeed, Rosemary expresses this idea explicitly when she describes the three rats—formerly used in her father’s laboratory—that Lowell keeps as pets: “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.” This opposition between “data point” and “pet” mirrors Fern’s ambiguous status as something between a sister and an object of scientific research. Although many of the characters (including Rosemary herself) betray a fascination with scientific experiments and knowledge, science is also depicted as a rather sinister force in the novel.
Rosemary’s frequent references to scientific studies also serve as a reminder that science does make life richer, easier, and more interesting. While Rosemary disagrees with her father’s hardline scientific perspective, she has clearly inherited his passion for knowledge. Overall, while the book takes a markedly critical stance against science, it does also highlight science’s positive sides and suggests that the field is redeemable. This is emphasized when, toward the end of the novel, Rosemary writes that the National Institute of Health has suspended new grants for biomedical and psychological research involving chimpanzee subjects. Such a major shift indicates that in the contemporary moment, science is moving in a more ethical direction.
Science, Knowledge, and Experiments ThemeTracker
Science, Knowledge, and Experiments 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!
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?
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 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.
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.