Blinded by the Love of Chimps

When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be Jane Goodall. Back in the day, we could only get two channels in Etna, NH. Once a year, National Geographic’s Jane Goodall; My Life with Chimpanzees would air on one of our channels on a random Saturday afternoon. I was always captivated by the close-up footage of these human-like apes, and how Jane Goodall connected with them. Hours of my childhood days were spent imagining studying chimps in Africa or having a chimpanzee as a pet. My parents did their best to convince me that having a captive chimpanzee was not what Jane Goodall was hoping for. They suggested I learn more about Jane Goodall’s career and follow in her footsteps. I had stuffed chimpanzees. I read about chimpanzees. I did my fifth-grade animal project on chimpanzees. I was on my way. My yearly viewing of this show kept my obsession strong until it faded to a reasonable level of appreciation as an adult.

When I became a mother of three, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to sign out the Jane Goodall videotape from the library and share my love for chimpanzees. When my kids were ages three, five and seven, I decided they were developmentally ready for the most inspiring video production I had ever seen. The images that I recalled most vividly were Jane and the chimps touching hands, the chimps grooming each other, and the moms cruising around with their wee ones on their backs. I pulled the curtains closed to block out the daylight, made the couch all cozy with blankets and had a snack medley for us to share this special experience.

For the first half, my dream fulfilled itself. My children were as amazed and touched by the sight of these wonderful and interesting animals as I had been at their age The facial expressions and verbal reactions were everything I could have hoped for. It was really panning out just as I had hoped, but then the story made a dramatic shift. Polio struck several members of the group. I had no recollection of that part, so I assured my children that all would be well soon. My youngest had moved into my lap with his snuffly blankie and was sucking his fingers ferociously for comfort. Then one of the featured and beloved mothers lost the use of her legs and was pulling herself around on her arms. It was as heart-wrenching to watch for all of us, but I insisted we forge through to the parts of the story that focus on the glory of chimp life. It turns out I have selective memory because more chimps contracted polio and one died. My older two kids were now snuggled right up on my side. One of them said, “This is awful and sad.” I bulldozed the situation with my determination and optimism that it would shift to be more positive as I remembered it to be. And these little people believed me.

The story moved back to the day-to-day life of chimps in their cooperative groups having playtime in the trees and grooming sessions. My children relaxed until there was another turn of events. One of the mother chimps and her adult daughter had transformed into murderess cannibals. Apparently, some sort of mental illness was affecting several chimps in the group, and they had a dramatic change of personality. These two females would swoop into a group and grab a baby out of its mother’s arms, and eat it. Our oldest was now in the fetal position behind the couch. Our youngest was whimpering into my neck, and our middle child was staring at the TV verbally processing the horror as it unfolded.

This is the point when a reasonable parent turns the TV off and pulls out the ice cream, candy bars and marshmallows. Obviously, I am not a reasonable mother and quite possibly should explore this on the couch of some therapist at some point. Instead, I convinced myself that it was all going to come around and leave everyone with a special warm feeling about chimps the way it did for me as a kid. My blind determination told me it just had to. It wasn’t until days later that I considered the idea that in the 70s they probably cut out the harsh parts of the show to put on network TV for general viewing. Clearly, I am not the sharpest tool in the shed to have such delayed reasoning at the cost of my children’s own mental health. They hung in there until the end of the video.

The horror did resolve, and Jane concluded with a positive summary of the life cycle and the grouping of chimpanzees. My children never developed an obsession with chimpanzees or visions of living with and studying them in Africa. They have not forgotten that experience, even after six years. Luckily, we can all laugh about it now, and they bring it up to derail me when I am trying to relive some wonderful memory by forcing them to partake in an activity that is clearly my own agenda. All they have to say is “This feels a little like Jane Goodall and the chimps video.” It is an effective reminder.

We ended up losing the library’s copy of the videotape in our cluttered mess of a house. It cost $40 to replace at the library. Salt to the wound. Even the woman behind the counter felt badly that she had to charge me to replace a videotape in the age of DVDs. I stopped signing out videos because I didn’t feel I could be trusted to make a developmentally appropriate choice or to keep track of the darn thing.

The other day my kids suggested we find the lost copy of the chimp video or sign it out again to review just how crazy their mother was when she dragged them all down her very spotty memory lane. My own wee chimps have gotten a little snarky in their old age. They won’t be laughing when I get very old and crusty, forget all their names but manage to recall and prattle on about every specific detail of Jane Goodall’s work with the chimpanzees.

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