Science’s Schrödinger’s Cats: The Fractured Self in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

“It gave me back the things I knew– that my father was a kind man, that he would never do such a terrible thing. To this day, I can feel the bump of the tire over the cat’s body. And to this day, I am very clear in my mind that it never happened. Think of it as my own personal Schrödinger’s cat.” (Fowler 91)

Rosemary, the protagonist of Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves writes this of a black and white kitten she remembers her father driving over with his car. Unsure of the legitimacy of the memory, she takes it to her grandmother who dismisses it. Rosemary is comforted by her dismissal; it confirms the benevolent image of her father that she wants to persist in believing in.

Rosemary, the plant for memory, is aptly named; the entire story revolves around memory and it’s unreliability. The novel’s narrative is a remembering– multiple rememberings. As a middle aged woman, Rosemary writes of her younger years, going back to the same life-shaping events again and again, trying to tell a story she has spent her life forgetting. One of these memories (quote above) revolves around a black and white kitten she may or may not have remembered her father, a scientist, deliberately driving over in his haste to get somewhere. Rosemary remembers this kitten, curled up and left to die after her father has hit it. She, in shock, protests. Her mother defends her father: the cat had refused to get out of the way and there was nothing else he could do.

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves is one of the most difficult, painful novels I have ever read. It is a work of literary genius; a tumultuous romp through a mirror-panelled, dystopic funhouse of an experiment, and therefore a life, gone wrong. It is a wonderland of literary device, a total treat for any literature enthusiast. Yet, reading it was very, very, heartbreaking.

In the novel, Rosemary Cooke spends the first five years of her life being raised alongside a chimpanzee, Fern, as part of a funded experiment and research program on chimpanzee and human interaction, intelligence and development. They are raised to be mirrors of each other– everything one gets to do or have, the other does too. This means the extreme anthropomorphism of Fern, but also the animalisation of Rosemary. Rosemary is isolated from other children as Fern is a danger to them. As a result, Fern and her human brother Lowell are all Rosemary knows for the first five years. “Until Fern’s expulsion, I’d scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my fun-house mirror, my whirlwind other half” (79). Rosemary overcompensates for this lack of proper human interaction by speaking nonstop as a child, with an abnormally large lexicon. She also invents an imaginary human friend called Mary, from the part of her name she doesn’t use. This strange, happy, human-chimp pairing ends abruptly one day when not only the funding stops, but also when Rosemary’s parents concede that Fern will eventually grow too big for the family. Fern gets sold to an lab where she gets experimented on (likely abusively) and artificially inseminated/raped multiple times. With Fern no longer around, Rosemary starts mingling with other children. However, they find her, the monkey-girl, uncanny. She is clearly not-quite-human, clearly part ape, from the way she does not understand personal boundaries, to the way she jumps up on the tables at times.

One day, Lowell, who believes that Rosemary made their parents choose between their two daughters, discovers that Fern has not been sent to a farm as her parents have lied. She is held captive in an inhumane laboratory. Hurt and enraged, he leaves the family and spends the rest of his life staging violent campaigns as part of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a group devoted to violently opposing animal cruelty. Lowell slowly loses his mind, and when Rosemary finally meets him again in college, he is clearly unhinged.

Rosemary has an unclear memory of that which caused her parents to abandon Fern: A cat in her family’s compound has given birth. Two of the kittens are black, or the same, but one is grey, not-same. She is drawn to the one that is not-same, takes it, and hands it to Fern, who kills it. She tells on Fern and believes that it is this telling that causes her parents to give Fern away. It is a guilt she carries for life.

Considering its short length, Fowler’s narrative addresses a surprisingly large gamut of issues. We could easily spin out multiple dissertations concerning animal rights and veganism, anthropocentrism/anthropomorphism, madness and the human condition, and so on. The topics that pique my interest the most here are the tragedy of the human-chimp experiment and its effects, as well as its connection to Rosemary’s memory, false or otherwise, of both the grey and black-and-white kittens.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is written in an ironically upbeat tone, for all the tragedy it contains. It is ambiguous where this tragedy begins. Rosemary gradually stops speaking soon after Fern has gone– she needs to hide her monkey-girl side (defined partly by her talking) to fit in, but finds her voice again after discovering what happened to Fern. On the other hand, Lowell stops speaking towards the end of the novel when he gets arrested. He wants to get tried as an animal. Rosemary draws a dividing line at Fern’s departure: before Fern, after Fern. To her, the latter is the where everything starts to goes wrong. However, it is clear to me that the sadness permeating her narrative runs much deeper, and much earlier, than that.

There are many things left unsaid in the narrative. Caught up with sibling rivalry and loving her whirlwind of a sister, Rosemary’s narrative does not explicitly acknowledge that both she and Fern are but factors in a science experiment, conducted by a father too besotted with his work to see past it. He sees his wife and children as but an extension of his work; the jargon he uses to address them thus defines them as such. Throughout her whole life, her father is constantly giving her scientific advice on how to carry herself, how to talk. She continues their little “experiments” through college– the way she engages with her professors her father’s idea. In fact, it is her father with whom she plays the game of learning a new difficult word everyday as a child: it is unclear if this is part of the human-chimp experiment or an attempt to salvage the humanity in his daughter (science has discovered that a chimp cannot be taught to speak, no matter what), even as he subjects her to his experiment.

For years, Rosemary has heard her parents talk through the bedroom wall. For years, all her father talks about is his job, his funding, his experiments. Her parents’ marriage is riddled with his work. It is only after her father’s death that Rosemary learns her mother’s side of the story– that she had loved Fern as a daughter. Of course, it is no accident that this access also exposes Rosemary to the primal scene. (In life, Rosemary has continuous problems with sex and relationships. She attributes this to her monkey-girlness. However, adopting the Freudianism in the novel, the unwonted exposure could certainly be a contributing factor.)

Her father’s work scars her incredibly deeply, its damage encompassing a far wider scope then even she herself realises. It doesn’t spare an aspect of her life. She is denied childhood’s normalcy as she grows up acting, thinking and talking like a chimpanzee. She is denied entry into social circles as a result. The greatest of all, ultimately, is the trauma of losing both her siblings, one to animal cruelty and the other to its eradication. It is unclear whether her father ever realises this. At the end of his life, he has a delusion that he is on an expedition, and in a state of confusion, asks his family to carry his pack for him, to which Rosemary replies that she would hold it, for as long as he needs. This parallel encompasses their whole family dynamic: her father pursues science to his family’s detriment, the bulk of its weight falling to Rosemary. And indeed, she has carried his mistakes for as long as he has needed– in fact, she has for her whole life.

Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment about superposition in quantum mechanics, the possibility of two states at once. Likewise, Rosemary revisits her memories several times. The instability of memories means that they can be altered or invented. In the format of a science experiment, the only format she knows, she goes back to the same set of events again and again, testing her hypotheses, comparing notes, seeing if they fit.

The memories of the two kittens are particularly interesting. There are two parallel killings: her father kills the black and white kitten and Fern kills the grey one. The black and white one, like the normalcy in Rosemary herself, is killed off in her father’s haste to arrive at scientific enlightenment. In his fervour for science, he sacrifices his daughter and everything he robs her of. Under his care, Rosemary is denied the black and white boundary between different species. The grey kitten, a mixture of black and white, is, like Rosemary, similar but at the same time obviously different from its family of black cats. The experiment subjects Rosemary to Fern’s influence, which renders her a grey area– not fully human, not-quite chimp– a burden she carries for life. From the epigraph above, it is clear  Rosemary does not accept that her father would do such a thing. Indeed, it is a slight so terrible she can barely face it head on. She therefore translates her two “deaths” into the much more palatable memories of dead kittens. (Ironic, considering how she identifies as part animal. Or perhaps just chimp. A thought that could lead down the rabbit hole of the 18th century’s Great Chain of Being. But we shall not go there just now.)

The memories of these kittens symbolise the crux of the tragedy she doesn’t explicitly state. That which she has lost in life is translated multiple times over into stories that are more easily told– into the halting, spiral narrative that is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The novel is as much a remembering as it is a forgetting. The Schrödinger’s cat at stake here is not the existence of the kittens per se. The Schrödinger’s cat is Rosemary herself, the different states she occupies, her whole self; its damaged counterpart.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a memoir of a woman that’s just a little different than the rest of us. It is a meandering effort to try and fix its wrongs through story-telling on multiple levels. The novel has a somewhat happy ending, a closure of sorts. But for all the text’s genius, it is difficult to get at Fowler’s message(s). On the one hand, she opposes animal-based science experiments, on the other, Lowell, the voice of this opposition, sinks into madness. On the one hand, it is clearly grotesque the way Rosemary is animalised, on the other it is only with Fern that her fractured identity finds its match, its equal, its rest.

The main problem with the Schrödinger’s cat experiment is often missed– it lies not its inability to definitively determine the cat’s position, but in its inhumanity. One thing about Fowler’s narrative is clear: the entire business of animal and human testing is a very twisted, very sad one. One that leaves fracture lines that may not be immediately apparent, but reach deep and far. For its perpetrators, victims and opposers– its Schrödinger’s cats.




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