It started between Mom and Charro the first night.
Although she wouldn’t admit it, Mom had been dreaming of the first night from the moment it was certain our family was really going to be part of the experiment, that we were really going to raise a chimp with our family.
Mom glossed over the rest of it: the fact that she would have to move me, my little sister Callie and my father out of Boston and to a town in the middle of nowhere, the middle of the Berkshires.
“I bet there aren’t even any other black people there,” I told her. “We’re going to be the only ones.”
“Not the only ones, Charlotte,” she said.
But still, before we left, she bought a case of hair grease and a case of activator spray as provisions, because she was certain the drug store in town wouldn’t carry them.
She tried not to think too much about all that. She told herself times were different–it was 1992 after all. Things would be different for her girls. When Mom did begin to think about it, the sweetness of having the baby chimp in her arms–he was going to be called Charro, how fitting, how lovely, he’d share the same initials as her daughters and her husband–all of that smoothed away any anticipatory awkwardness.
The organization that was sponsoring the experiment was called the Toneybee Institute for Ape Research. The director was a tall, girlish woman named Dr. Marietta Paulsen. Before we moved into the apartment inside the Institute’s walls, Dr. Paulsen spent hours talking to Mom about the guide- lines of the experiment. That this was about, first and foremost, language acquisition. Familial love was a close second but the key was communication. “We want to catch every nuance, every moment on the path to Charro learning to sign,” she said.
“Yes,” Mom said.
“So you have to live with him in an apartment in the Institute. We’re fitting it with surveillance cameras. Only in the common rooms–” Dr. Paulsen said, quickly, when she saw Mom hesitate. “And in Charro’s bedroom, of course. We need the footage if we’re going to make a credible case for language acquisition.”
Dr. Paulsen was as eager to have Mom sign on to the experiment as Mom was to have Charro. Mom was the only applicant to the position whose children already knew sign language. No one in our family was deaf. Mom had become obsessed with sign language as a lonely and bookish child. She taught it to herself out of molding dictionaries she ordered specially through interlibrary loan. It was lucky for her that her college studies and early career coincided with a rebirth of American Sign Language. But even without this new, official sanction, she would have used it and taught it to her children anyways. She thought of it as the most perfect of languages–all elegant gesture, no imprecise spoken words–and she considered me and my sister Callie privileged to have learned it.
Mom understood, in her head at least, that this was strictly a scientific endeavor. After all, she thought of herself, in her work back in Boston as a teacher in a state hospital, as a kind of scientist, too. Mom suggested which signs Charro might be taught first. What, in her twenty year’s worth of knowledge of sign language, might help him learn fastest. But in her heart, she had the fantasy of that first perfect night. She imagined my little sister, Callie, snuggling close to Charro on a cot, and Dad and me hovering close by with blankets and bottles to help. She imagined herself rocking him to sleep, comforting him with some magical, instantaneous bond that would go beyond language. But it didn’t happen that way.
Charro screamed. Mom didn’t think it was possible for an animal to scream but that first night, as we all watched her struggle to put him into pajamas and put him to sleep in her own bed, Charro did. My little sister, Callie, started to cry, too, when Charro wouldn’t stop. She tried valiantly to hide it. Callie bit her lip and shook her head slightly back and forth, as if she could knock the tears loose, but in the end she had to succumb and she started weeping. Dad looked uneasy the whole time. And I, of course, fourteen years old and full of mortification at being forced to move to the middle of nowhere to live with a monkey, let my scorn show.
“You can’t get him to be quiet, Mom?” I said. “Please get him to be quiet.”
“I know, Charlotte,” was all she could hiss at me, helpless. “Can’t you see I’m trying to do that?”
In the end, she banished all three of us from the room. She couldn’t do anything with all of us watching, with Callie’s watery eyes on her, her little nine-year-old mouth open in an O. “Charles,” she said to Dad, “I think the girls are getting upset.” He took me and Callie by the shoulders. He marched us out of the room. He shut the door behind us.
When she heard the door close, Mom felt her shoulders settle down again. She was finally able to breathe without all of us watching her make a mess of it. She thought Charro might relax too, once the room was empty and he felt truly safe. She was already certain he felt safest with her. She could tell when she first met him. That afternoon, when Dr. Paulsen placed him in her arms, Charro gripped her neck tightly. When Dr Paulsen briefly took him back, Charro’s eyes sought Mom’s and he held her gaze: remarkable, unheard of in a chimpanzee, especially one so young. The whole rest of the day, even through dinner, he had to have a finger crooked around some part of her.
But despite all this, he would not stop crying. His entire body bucked with misery, even though she cradled him in her lap, felt him shake with frustration. It was unbearable. She thought she felt an actual tear fall on the back of her hand, and that was what did it, the possibility he might actually be crying. She reached up, unfastened her top button. She let the front of her nightgown fall open. She held him in the vicinity of her heart and felt a strong jerk as he sucked in her nipple.
It was how she got him to be quiet. She hadn’t meant to do it, but his cries were unbearable. She pressed him to her chest and he found the rest of his way on his own. She was surprised it worked: there wasn’t anything to drink there, of course. She didn’t have any milk. But the wailing ceased. It seemed he just wanted to be close.
She told herself she wouldn’t do it again. The second night, they were off to a good start. She put him to sleep in his own room, bedded him down in one of the nests of rough blankets. She stood up, was about to leave, and he started crying again. She picked him up; just to calm him for an instant, reassure him. Dr. Paulsen mentioned affectionate physical contact was key for gaining Charro’s trust. He ran his insistent, rough fingers against the skin of her throat and she knew she had to give in. She squinted up at the ceiling, scouted the camera sights. Huddling over the quivering, hysteric mass of him, she scooted over to the far side of the room, to a corner out of camera range. She opened her nightgown again.
And then it became something she didn’t know how to stop. She felt guilty at first; so guilty she decided to pretend it wasn’t happening. She told herself the nursing didn’t hurt and ignored the cuts on her nipples.
She kept this up until, one night, she looked down and saw Charro looking up at her with such delight that she couldn’t deny it any longer. My mother decided, then and there, she would keep doing it as long as Charro needed. That this was her duty to him. She decided, with a reckless and ruthless resolve, that she would not be ashamed.
But still, she didn’t tell anyone. She didn’t tell Dr. Paulsen and she certainly didn’t tell Dad. She didn’t write it up in any of the experiment logs, and she made sure to do it only at night, with the lights nearly out, in the part of the room the cameras couldn’t see.
Most of the time, she ended up sleeping beside Charro on the floor of his room. The few times she went back to sleep beside my father, she kept her nightgown buttoned up. She got up before him in the morning and changed in the bathroom. She called, from behind the closed door, “This apartment’s so drafty. It’s warmer getting dressed in here.”
Three weeks into it, she got cramps from sleeping on the hard wood floor beside Charro. When she was certain he was still, she eased her arm out from under him and went back to her bedroom, climbed onto a mattress for the first time in over twenty nights. As soon as she lay down, though, she felt something at her back. She held her breath. She felt Dad’s hand, exploring the lower part of her back, kneeding her shoulders. She knew it was the friendliest of invitations, so she tried to keep her back muscles from stiffening, but the whole time her mind was racing through the explanations she would give him for the scabs on her skin–The detergent here at the Institute gave me a rash, I think I’ve suddenly become allergic to wool, I didn’t mention it but I fell face first into a bare rose bush the other day.
She held her breath in anticipation of the lies she would have to tell. But just as Dad’s hand brushed the top of her nightgown, ruffled the bit by her throat, Charro began screaming again.
At the sharp sound, Dad drew his hand away as if he’d been pricked by something. Mom lay still a few moments more.
“You should go get him,” Dad said.
She sprang from the bed.
She was shaking with relief by the time she got to Charro. Crouching over the bed, she held him against her until she felt the hard tug on her skin.
Of course she’d read about other experiments, not with chimps, but with other monkeys, where the scientists took them away from their mothers at a young age and the poor things pined away to nearly nothing. They became so desperate for affection that when the scientists placed soft pillows in their cages, the monkeys took to them as if they were real, live mothers. They needed the feel of something soft so badly, they’d cling to the pillows even as the scientists laced the stuffing with barbed wire. Given the choice between pliable cotton mixed up with sharp needles and nothing at all, the monkeys would choose the pillow every time, even if it cut them. Her breast, Mom reasoned, was just like that, better than that, but kind, not sadistic. Charro was so starved for affection the need was nearly hollowing him out and better some human breast soothed him than some dumb, unyielding pillow. Besides, it would be cruel to try and wean him now, when he was still getting used to us as a family. It would be as cruel as those scientists who hid spikes inside the pillow mothers for the baby monkeys to find, and watched them keen and cry and shiver, desperately seeking comfort.
She tried to limit him to fifteen minutes at most, coaxing him off once he was calm by offering him her finger to suck. She bought a jar of cold cream, hid it in the back of her sock drawer. In secret, she rubbed it into her chapped and bloodied skin.
I found them together maybe a month after it started. I still couldn’t sleep in the dead hush of Courtland County. In the Institute apartment, my little sister and I didn’t share a room like we had back in the city. This fact had been trumpeted as a reason why we would love living in the apartment, but in truth, it was what I dreaded the most about being there. I would never have admitted it at the time, but I missed my sister, missed the steady shush of her breathing, the creaks of her bed as she wrestled her dreams through the night. Without Callie energetically slumbering beside me I couldn’t sleep. The quiet was driving me crazy.
I began wandering the apartment at night. I would get up, walk past Callie’s room where she lay, her door flung open, her little body tangled across the bed. I started going to the living room, lying on our borrowed, bumpy couch, looking through Dad’s record collection and imagining myself on the album covers: inside Pink Floyd’s floating prism; getting tangled up in the swirling ribbons of color on the front of Bitches Brew.
I was on the couch one night, staring at the front of a LaBelle record, when I heard the tiniest gasp. I wouldn’t have caught it anywhere outside of the overbearing silence of Courtland County. The gasp, when I heard it, was so content, so satisfied it was almost smug. I stood up, looked around. I saw a dim gray light under Charro’s door. I was surprised when his door opened easily. They were usually pretty vigilant about keeping his room locked at night: for his own safety, we were told. Dr. Paulsen was worried he might get up and wander if he could get out.
Charro’s room was different at night. He didn’t have any windows. The room was filled with a dirty, watery glow, the diffuse glare from the overhead fluorescent bulbs on the dimmest setting of the light switch. I squinted through the gloom and then I saw them. There, in the corner farthest from the door, Mom sat cross-legged, Charro laid out across her knees. I would like to say I didn’t know what they were doing at first. I would like to say I didn’t understand. But I understood instantly. Something in the way she held herself was sickeningly familiar. I’d seen her back curve like that before. Some part of me remembered from when Callie was a baby.
This was the worst part. Mom heard the door open, but she made no move to cover up or turn away. When I could finally bring myself to look at her face, she was looking back at me, chin slightly raised. Something threatened to break in my throat, something small and muffled, too embarrassed to be a full out cry. At that sound, Charro lolled his head away from Mom’s front, his lips coming off her nipple with a loud pop. Now Charro, my mother, and my mother’s nipple were all starting at me. “Mom,” was all I could say, again and again, “Mom.”
She had the weirdest look on her face: proud, then, as she realized my unhappiness, apologetic and frightened. She pushed back her hair with her free hand, made a slight face, and I could see she was also a little bit annoyed at being interrupted. She scooped Charro up and struggled to stand. When she’d managed to get both of them upright, she came to me and brushed at my arm, “Calm down, Charlotte.” She said. “I’m going to ask you to calm down now.”
“No,” I hissed. I should have screamed right then but I didn’t. For her, I kept whispering. “I will not calm down.”
“He needs it, Charlotte. It’s really ok. He needs it.”
And then she explained it all to me, frankly, the desperation, the guilt, the resolve to keep going. She said, “You remember what he sounded like that first night? You remember how badly he cried?”
“Yeah,” I said reluctantly. “You remember how heartbreaking that was?” “Yeah,” I said.
“Imagine if we had to go through that every night, Charlotte. Imagine if we all had to get that upset every single night.” She paused.
“Yeah,” I said again. “So you see why I have to do it?”
“And you see why we can’t tell anyone about it? You’re still uncomfortable. Imagine how upset everyone else will be. It will just make everything so hard.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“So, it would be best not to tell anyone else. Not yet, anyways. I want to get Dr. Paulsen used to the idea. And I want to talk to your Dad about it, too. I should really talk to him first.”
“He has a right to know. Everyone does. But it’s a sensitive subject.”
“Okay,” I said finally, to get her to stop talking. I started to get up.
“Charlotte,” she said, “I was surprised when you walked in on us. I will say that. But I think this could be a good thing. I think it could be good to have a secret with each other.”
“Yeah,” I said.
I pushed myself up and stood above the two of them. Mom didn’t move. Charro, who had fallen asleep during our talk, stirred when I stood up. He plucked drowsily at the front of her nightshirt. She looked down at him, and she smiled straight into his face. She didn’t even care if I saw that pass between them. She began to unbutton the front of her nightgown again. I stepped away, left the room as quickly as possible, shut the door on both of them before I could see anymore.
Above anything else, Mom desperately wanted to be a perfect mother. She was terrified of being a terrible mother, and this fear was based in ex- perience. She was queasily familiar with the feeling of failure. She’d failed very, very badly at motherhood once before.
Before she had Charro and before me and Callie, she had Ned. Her first year out of grad school, working at a city hospital, her boss gave him to her. Ned was found tied to a metal post in a barn in Vermont. He was seven when Mom met him, but only as tall as a two year old. Ned had a birth defect, a soft opening at the back of his skull where the bone never closed, instead only widened, like a camera aperture, as he grew. Ned’s parents weren’t bad people, just overwhelmed by the maw in their son’s head. They kept him in the barn for his protection, they claimed. They fed him only milk: they were worried the strain of chewing might upset the gap in his head. His teeth were dark brown and nearly mush. He had never tasted solid food. By the time the proper authorities got a hold of him, it was decided that it was too late for Ned to learn to speak. Mom was charged with teaching him sign language.
The hole in the back of Ned’s head was a mesmerizing scoop of thinned skin and membrane. Although she was ashamed of her curiosity, Mom could look at it all day. When Mom got to this part of the story, I would always stop her and try to get her to describe the hole in Ned’s head in detail. All she could say was, “It was beautiful.” Mom slept in Ned’s bed whenever she was on duty at the state hospital. She lay against his back to make sure he didn’t roll over in the night and crush the gap in his head and die in the spoils of his own brain. In the hush of night, Mom would inspect the hollow in his skull. If she squinted she thought she could see, under the whisper of his bright blond hair, the mysterious whorls and lines of his brain. She thought she could see it pulse. Mom would hold Ned to her tighter, careful not to brush his head. She clasped his hands, muffled in hospital mittens, between her own to keep him from scratching.
Mom bathed him twice a day, attempting to rid his skin of the dried mushroom smell of the barn that never completely went away. She finger spelled into his palm, and fooled herself that she saw flashes of recognition in his eyes.
Mom made all these genuflections to Ned’s closed off little face because she felt the world would be more beautiful, would prove to be a kind place, if Ned and his hollow lived in it. But six months after his rescue from the barn, Ned managed to choke to death on a pair of spare shoelaces. Mom’s supervisors told her that it was an accident. Someone of his limited mental capabilities could not possibly understand, let alone consummate, the desire for suicide. But Mom knew in her heart of hearts Ned did it on purpose. After he died, she resolved to love any of her own children harder and stronger than she had loved sweet, feral Ned. What scared her was that she was not sure if this was possible.
Mom was terrified of raising Charro wrong. She would do anything, even biting his arm, even suckling him, to make sure he came out right. She always had this mania for perfection. It was why, in Boston, she was mortally offended by our terrible public schools, why she culled our bookshelves for the right books, made sure our Walkmans carried the right music, why she taught Callie and I the perfect language of sign, so we would not have to use the imprecision of the spoken word.
Most of all, Mom wanted proof, undeniable evidence of her excellence at motherhood. She wanted to prove that Ned had been a terribly sad exception in her career of nurturing, not the rule. For this reason, she took to Charro with zeal. He was a straightforward study, a form of love and affection she could be quantifiably good at.
(“Exception to the Rule” originally appeared in our Spring 2011 issue.)