What do you see when you look at me.
The Girdish Institute had its origins in the 1920s, when William
Girdish made a trip to Buenos Aires. He had heard of a large private
zoo owned by a wealthy woman in that city, and it was there that
he saw his first chimpanzees. He was beguiled by them and endeavoured
to learn as much as he could about their nature and habitat.
He heard stories from the staff and zookeeper and witnessed their
obvious empathy and charming curiosity, and he bonded with one
At dinners in the US he would tell stories from this place, like
the one about the chimp who developed an attraction to one of
the pretty cooks of the household. This chimp would watch her
in the kitchen from his cage with obvious desire, and over time
she grew unsettled by his attention. She asked one of the staff to
erect a barrier to his view, and boards were nailed to the outside of
his cage. The man with the boards who took away the sight of his
beloved was attacked a year later. The chimpanzee had harboured a
grudge all that time, and found an opportunity when the man was
doing repairs to the door of his cage.
Girdish set about gathering his own collection of chimps and
other primates, bringing them over to one of his properties in
Florida, near Jacksonville. He was a gentleman amateur, the only
son of a land-owning family, and he had property throughout
He believed that much could be learned from primates, chimps
in particular, that they were a link to our past and could explain
much of our behaviour. In this respect he was ahead of his time,
and there were few in the world who knew as much about apes
as he did. He travelled and sent envoys to Africa and housed a
growing collection of apes and monkeys in and around the greenhouse,
observatory and staff buildings of that property.
He established the institute and started a breeding program.
He developed a philosophy of what the ideal research subject would
be in terms of health, size and character. He and his colleagues
steadily developed tests, both mental and physical, which slowly
confirmed, in demonstrable scientific terms, how closely we were
linked to these creatures.
When he died in the 1940s he left a large endowment and his
work was carried on. Through the development of breakthrough
drugs the institute attracted funding from the federal government
and from companies around the world.
The old observatory and staff buildings were kept and it
was here that behavioural studies remained and the field station
developed. The new main building expanded and the biomedical
studies became the lucrative focus of the institute. But the beating
heart for many was the field station.
The original buildings had an Art Deco quality, soon hidden
by various additions. There were the sleeping quarters, which had
expanded over time, a winter playroom and a large safe area where
cognitive tests took place. There were kitchens, offices, bedrooms,
a garden which supplied some of the produce for the chimps, and
numerous old rooms whose purposes changed over time.
David Kennedy eventually became director of the field station,
and oversaw its expansion. Since the late 1970s you could say that
this part of the institute mimicked the life of a man. Its early days
were of directionless and unlimited enthusiasm and were shaped
over time by conflict, financial reality and the needs of others. When
David realized his personality, where his true interests lay, the field
station took its present shape. But while curiosity sometimes dies
and old enthusiasms seem foolish, the nature of the field station
prevented it from ever being static, and passion never diminished.
Even when the population settled, nothing was ever settled.
In vivid memory, his family were Podo, Jonathan, Burke and Mr.
Ghoul. Bootie, Magda, Mama and Beanie. Fifi and her open heart.
All the names he didn’t want to give them and the sadness that he
didn’t want to see.
David tells his assistants, when they first arrive, that they can
never choose favourites. Observe, but never judge. He knows that
it is an ideal—as if any ape can look without assessment: fruit is
never fruit, it is either ripe or rotten. People are never people.
He had an assistant once whose logs were always coloured by
her distaste for promiscuity. It was never simply Jonathan mounts
Fifi; there was always a hint of morality, a suggestion of wantonness
or assault. He sat her down and said do you have a boyfriend. She
was twenty-nine and had been married for seven years.
He said when you go home tonight and you find whatever way
you find to encourage your husband to hold you, make sure that
you forgive him.
His staff have come and gone in numbers. He has grown, he
hopes, more compassionate with age.
It’s a guideline, a piece of advice that David repeats, despite
himself. Try not to choose favourites, try not to dislike some of
He brings prospective assistants out to one of the towers and
tests how quickly they can distinguish between the chimps. If
they have that rudimentary skill, he gives them twenty minutes to
observe a group. If the group seems peaceful and pensive and the
kids have fun, a bad observer will say they were peaceful and pensive
and the kids had fun. A good observer will say the alpha slept, as
did two of the females. Male chimp C sat near the moat as if on
guard, and the juveniles alternately rested and played. Male chimp
B, before he lay down, bowed to male chimp A (though asleep).
The females stayed closer to male chimp B as they rested. Female
chimp C would look towards sleeping male chimp B whenever the
juveniles made noise, instead of reprimanding them directly or
looking to the alpha, suggesting a possible shift in power.
Small things are big, every movement matters, morals blind us
to seeing the bigger picture, and if you don’t have the empathy to
watch for these things, get out of here.
But, at some level, it really was impossible not to judge. Their
talk over lunch was always about personalities. Who was mean and
what was wonderful.
Do you have a favourite, David.
He could rarely think of Podo without imagining some beloved,
Something about Fifi, who weighed two hundred pounds,
made him think of Farrah Fawcett.
And he had never met a chimpanzee as gentle as Mr. Ghoul.
Looee was quiet and still for over a month, waking only to feed
or if he felt Judy moving away. His lips quivered whenever she
put him down, though he was neither feverish nor cold. She knew
he needed the feel of her body and she felt his panic when she
saw him shiver. She rested him on her shoulder when she cooked.
Applesauce, candied carrots, everything warmed by stove, mouth
or hand till it held the heat of a body surprised by love. She crushed
bananas, scooped the purée with the tip of her little finger, felt the
tickle of his pink boy’s tongue as he sucked, the pull inside at her
feet, groin and heart.
Walt got sick and said I think I caught whatever it was he
caught, and Judy looked after them both. Walt was ever brave
before the wailing train of life’s horrific surprises, but he wasn’t
good with the flu. Judy he said, and nnn he said, and I feel sicker
than, and he rarely finished a sentence. He wondered whether it
was right to be sharing a bed with a chimpanzee and he dreamt of
eating prunes on a wavy sea.
New life was in the house. Two arms, two legs, grasping fingers,
inquisitive hunger, a shock from a dream that freezes the limbs,
subsidence into adorable sleep, and mouth on skin, he needs me I
need him to need me I need him. I’m tired. She slept.
She kept the fire burning into May and the house acquired a
sweeter, nuttier smell that was unpleasant to visitors. The bedroom
grew layers of terry cloth and tissue and she kept the bathroom hot
in case Looee needed warmth and wet for his lungs. Walt was hot,
Walt was cold, Walt was grateful and uneasy and finally hungry and
better. He explored the changing house and watched her cook with
their new friend over her shoulder.
He’ll hold your finger like a baby.
This house is hotter than inside a moose he said. Maybe it’s
time to crack a window.
The cloud of rheum, the film of incomprehensible memories,
was lifting from Looee’s eyes, and looking down was Judy. The
more his eyes cleared, the more curious and intimate Judy got.
Walt bought some toys like a ball and a doll and a bone. He
wondered what the hairy little guy could do.
These were the days that Judy, months later, remembered when
she sat on the living room floor and pondered the strangeness of
her life, how none of it seemed strange till now, and now there was
nothing strange, this was her little Looee. She fed him formula, not
plain old milk as Henry Morris had suggested. He was fifty percent
bigger in four months and Dr. Worsley was correct in figuring he
was smaller than normal when he had come to them. He figured he
was possibly a year, year and a half, who knows.
The loss of a mother and the travel from Africa typically killed
most chimps his age, but Judy’s presence saved him. Questions
naturally occurred to them about where he came from, what
ground, what air, but Henry and the circus had moved on. When
you plant a sapling, sometimes you don’t care where the seed was
from. They decided that as far as Looee was concerned, this was
where he came from, right here.
He slept in their bed for the first several months. Walt would
sometimes be awakened by Looee running his fingers through his
hair or playing with his lips and trying to pry his mouth open
with those little fingers of his, I’ll be darned. They always woke up
with him in the middle of the bed—he never liked anyone coming
between him and Judy.
The difference between Looee and a less hairy baby was that
he could move a lot better. He could support his weight, hang on
to things and climb. He never left Judy, but she could usually rest
And he did enjoy a tickle.
Walt thought back to the laughing chimp in the circus and
figured Looee’s laugh was different. Looee’s laugh was real. You’d
get him on the bed and when you’d wedge your fingers into his
little armpits he smiled with his lower lip more than with his upper
and then he started this little chuckle like the uck in chuckle or the
ick in tickle but softer and Christ it was funny and cute. And he’d
stand up and squeeze your nose then throw himself down again
and away you’d go with more of a tickle on his belly and thighs,
Walt and Judy’s four hands on their little hairy piano.
He had pale hands, black fingernails, a pale face and feet, and
a little white tuft of hair on his rump that Judy liked to pat before
she put his diaper on. The hair on his body was a little wiry, though
Judy found ways to soften it up. There was a little boy’s body under
He was squirmy in their bed and they didn’t sleep well for
a long time. Walt set things up for the future. It was a large old
house, with a couple of spare bedrooms that Judy had long ago
decorated with insincere finality. Solid desks for future business,
beds that only existed to display her latest linens. Walt took a big
oak wardrobe, laid it on its back and made a sort of crib.
They were happy to see that room change. Walt took a
chainsaw to the mattress and resized it so it would fit in the flatlying
wardrobe, and why they thought the walls of a crib would
contain a chimpanzee was part of a daily chorus of I didn’t think
He caused quite a fuss later when he had to sleep in his own
bed. He jumped on the dresser and kicked Judy’s makeup, jumped
down and halfway up Walt to hit his chest, and sometimes he
removed his diaper, smeared his mattress and returned with a look
that said you can’t expect me to sleep there it’s disgusting. He would
walk to Judy with his palm up and whimpering, and she was quite
susceptible to that. But Walt prevailed and Looee later loved his
bedroom and bed.
He hung around Judy’s neck or back throughout the day
watching everything she did. He slept a lot, but wouldn’t sleep
unless she lay near, and Judy cursed the noisy floorboards whenever
she snuck away. His screams when he awoke had a visceral effect
on her—she had no choice but to drop whatever she was doing
because it felt like either the world was ending or his noises would
make it end.
Sometimes he played on his own, but never beyond the
bounds of whatever room Judy was in and not for very long. He
was a toddler with the agility of an acrobat, so his play was usually
She had to think of him constantly—that’s what occurred
to her over the years as she looked back; that’s what soon made
him more than a pet. He wasn’t self-sufficient, he always needed
company—not just the presence of bodies, but society; he needed
the emotional engagement of others. There was no denying him.
You could step over Murphy on your way to doing other things
or tell him to shush if he was barking. With Looee you simply
couldn’t ignore him, and if he was complaining about something
it would have to be addressed with just as much care as with a
child. When Judy first used the vacuum cleaner, Looee screamed
and leapt onto her face. She had to turn it off, show him how the
power button worked and how the hose sucked up dirt. He was in
a heightened emotional state whenever it came out of the closet,
but he was soon able to turn it on, pull it around the house and
vacuum in his own way.
The truth was that Walt and Judy woke up most mornings
with the happy suspicion that something today would be new.
Despite her tiredness there was a new sense of vitality in Judy,
and as much as she sometimes yearned for peace she couldn’t
imagine returning to their old routines or waking up to days
without these fresh concerns.
You look rosier in the cheek said Walt. Let me kiss that.
There was a loss of spontaneity in their lives but it was more of
a shift than a loss. They couldn’t decide out of the blue to drive to
Stowe for dinner or make love on the couch with that surprise of
skin and heart. Looee had an especially uncanny knack for knowing
when they were getting close to each other, sensing the change of
energy between their bodies like a blind man knows that a flower is
red. He added a different range of surprises to their life.
Looee wasn’t keen on going outside at first, but he ventured
onto the verandah. He was so attached to Judy that she was never
worried about him going far. When it was really warm the following
year she let him roam without clothes. She held his hands above his
head and stood behind him, trying to teach him to walk upright—
assuming that he would one day walk on twos despite his arms
seeming longer than his legs. They walked hand in hand to the old
apple tree which had just lost its bloom. He sat down and picked
up some dry blossoms, smelled them, scattered them, made a soft
noise and handed some blossoms to Judy.
Thank you Looee.
She didn’t know that he had ridden his mother’s back when she
had climbed trees and he didn’t remember himself, but one day he
looked up the apple tree and climbed it.
He went to the top and she told him to come down. She tapped
on a branch that was just above her head. He came down and hung
from the branch and she couldn’t believe how strong and dexterous
his limbs had become.
There was a long period of keeping to themselves, making
adjustments, enjoying the fact that sometimes family is society
He understood a lot of what they said, and they were regularly
surprised. They sensed how he learned, and taught him the
names of body parts. The three would sit on the couch, and Judy
would say where’s daddy’s nose. Looee would point to Walt’s nose.
Where’s daddy’s eyes. Where’s Looee’s belly.
Sometimes he stared off in space and sometimes he pointed to
his own eyes when Judy asked him to point to hers. He was either
getting it wrong or showing there was no difference.
He was always watching, and aware of anything new. A wallet
in the hand, a hairpin, rubber boots on a rainy day—anything
unusual attracted his inspection. And he had unusual preferences
which might otherwise be called taste. He screamed at a La-Z-Boy
that Walt bought and was terrified when it reclined.
The house was mapped in his mind, and he didn’t like change
unless it came from himself. Judy had a rubber plant which she
was very proud of, that she would move around the house at
different times of the year to find the right light and humidity.
She moved it to the landing and found it later in the living room
where it had been for its first few months. She moved it again,
and again found it back in the living room. She asked Walt why
he kept putting her rubber plant back in the living room and he
said why do you keep stealing my toggle bolts. Looee rested on
Judy’s hip and stared at a pendant piece of amber as though it was
a caramel Shangri-La.
Judy stared at Walt. I don’t think I know what a toggle bolt is
The work required was staggering. For the first year or so Looee
stayed close to Judy, and even though his curiosity meant spills and
surprises, it was kept within a limited range. His constant presence
would have been a trial for any mother, and Judy was the tiniest bit
relieved when he got bored with her for a moment. But when his
range expanded, they had to be prepared.
A padlock on the fridge was an obvious measure. The old high
doorknobs on most of the doors in the house were a boon to Walt
and Judy because he wasn’t tall enough for a while. But he had
quietly observed them in all their daily tasks and soon knew how
to deal with every handle, knob, lever, door, switch, clasp, plug,
button, tie or unlocked lock in the house. And because he was so
good at climbing there was little they could put beyond his reach.
Walt remembered the cage which Henry Morris used for
Buddy. He proposed it, and Judy said absolutely not.
Judy made checklists all around the house and tried to keep
loose objects secured unless they were willing to sacrifice them as
missiles or toys. Walt put padlocks on most of the cupboards. He
tried to make the electrical outlets safer and always kept an eye over
his shoulder when he was manning the grill; but he also figured a
burn here and there was the surest way to learn.
Looee had an insatiable appetite for playing. And because of the
weather in Vermont it often meant that diversions were required
indoors. He loved hide-and-seek, but sometimes played it when
others didn’t know he was playing. He climbed onto the mantel
one afternoon and watched as Judy walked around the house
calling his name. Looee it’s time to clean up the dining room, come
on my little man, my Looee where are you. When she came around
the corner he leapt from the mantel onto her shoulders and she lost
control of her bladder. He then walked to the bathroom, took toilet
paper and ran around the house, unravelling it and laughing.
Judy’s concern was not her own emotional state so much as
how he reacted to it. When he saw her fear or anger he got frightened
himself and he would run around screaming, trying to find
comfort where he could until he felt he could touch her or get a
hug. It magnified the impact of simple frights and required massive
mental energy from Judy to feel calm almost before her fear.
They usually found such delight in seeing how much he could
do, though, and, when they were in the right mood, they loved to
watch him play. He learned by observation, by staring and remembering.
He learned to crack eggs. You sit up on the counter there.
He held the electric beater. He could spread butter on his toast with
a knife. It was rarely done with grace or without a mess, but they
imagined he would one day be more careful.
He loved to wear Walt’s ski-doo helmet, which was half the size
of his body. He wore it backwards and walked into furniture. He
laughed every time he hit something, and it was impossible not to
laugh when he laughed. Larry saw him do this, and Walt said do
other animals laugh.
Sometimes he could sit still. He liked magazines, especially ones
that focused on home decoration and women. He loved pictures of
women sitting in family rooms and he would make his I like this
noise, that creamy repetition of ooo through his soft lip-trumpet,
and he would look at Judy and tap the page with the back of his
fingers. There were lovely minutes where she could settle him down
with a magazine and read one of her own or do some work in the
kitchen with the sound of I like this in the house.
When he misbehaved they tried to be patient with him, but
they had their own ways of making him obey when patience was
exhausted. With Judy, the most effective was to make him feel
guilty. You’re going to make mummy sad if you do that. Do you
want mummy to cry.
His natural way of apologizing was to come to you with his
hand held out, shrugging and bowing as if to acknowledge that,
while he had had no choice, what he had done was wrong.
Walt found that shouts and threats were the best way to bring
him in line. He was never physical—he never had to be. Looee
instinctively understood that shouts were a prelude to something
worse. Shout at him, and be done with it. They always got on well
immediately after an outburst.
At some level these negotiations and struggles for power meant
that Walt couldn’t help but see him as an equal—a child perhaps,
but certainly not an animal. There was never any sense of ownership
Walt shouted and took Looee in his arms and they went out
for a drive, and Walt slapped his hands away whenever he reached
for the wheel.
When it came to the artificial niceties of human life, he had his
own approach. He ate with cutlery. They never taught him or said
that he should; he just saw them doing it and wanted to do everything
they did. If they presented him with a bowl of food, he never
dug in without a fork or spoon. He only drank from a cup or glass.
He wore diapers for the first couple of years and they tried to
train him to use the toilet. Looee had always been fascinated by
it; he would let neither of them go into the bathroom alone and
would flush for hours if he had his druthers—but getting him to
use it himself had been a struggle. Walt had placed a step up to
the toilet to encourage Looee to pee standing up, but he wouldn’t.
Walt demonstrated how it was done but Looee either tapped on
Walt’s penis or drank from Walt’s stream, and the two would
emerge from the bathroom confused for different reasons about
the significance of urine. Looee now went into the bathroom on
his own sometimes and otherwise used a portable potty. There
were accidents, of course, as with any other child, and sometimes
he was deliberately dirty.
They learned that the ability to lie comes naturally to everyone.
They never taught him to toy with the truth but they saw him do
it early and it was often potty-related.
Judy had annoyed him by refusing to tickle or play with him,
having done so for two hours. He went into the living room and
shat on her sheepskin rug.
She was very upset when she discovered it and said why did you
do that. He shook his head as though it hadn’t been him and he
gestured towards the garage where Walt was tinkering.
It was daddy who did that, was it.
Walt put up a swing set in the front yard. Looee helped him fetch
pieces to put it together, and as soon as it was upright he couldn’t
get enough of it. He ripped the seats off and swung from the chains.
Walt built a wonderland for Looee out front. Tires from tractors
and cars which he flipped, hid in, gnawed on and rolled. Looee
spent hours out there, not yet eager to explore beyond the property.
He and Walt would come in sweaty and hoot when Judy said we’re
eating Italian rice balls tonight.
Judy bathed Looee and relaxed him with body lotion. She put
him to bed while Walt envisioned his next day’s work downstairs.
Conversations foreseen and successes planned, if this goes that way
and that goes that way.
On the weekend Walt and Looee worked in the garage.
Walt said get me the ballpeen hammer. The one with the black
Excerpted from A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam. Copyright © 2013 by Colin McAdam. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.