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The Girl Who Was Raised By Monkeys?

Sunday, June 08, 2014

One of the many enjoyable aspects of blogging weekly for NPR is that publishers send or offer me books, most often nonfiction volumes that in some way involve animals. When this happened with Marina Chapman's memoir, The Girl with No Name: The Incredible Story of a Child Raised by Monkeys, I couldn't resist. In an earlier stage of life, I spent long hours observing the behavior of monkeys and apes. Nowadays, I write frequently about the lives and welfare of our closest living relatives.

The book held my interest. Abducted from her home just shy of her fifth birthday, a little girl in Colombia — now a woman in her 60s living in England called Marina Chapman — was abandoned deep in the forest. She survived there without human contact for five years because a group of capuchin monkeys accepted and guided her.

At least, that's the story, one considered authentic enough for Pegasus Books (a traditional, not a vanity, publisher) and distributed by W.W. Norton.

So why do I have lingering doubts? Why am I skeptical that a traumatized and untutored 5-year-old girl could survive the forest, with its abundant predators and its strange, sometimes toxic foods, all on her own?

Chapman's descriptions of the monkeys' behavior doesn't track with what is reported about the lives of capuchins from thousands of hours of scientific study; this fact does nothing to decrease my skepticism. Capuchins aren't known to construct beds or nests in the trees, as the narrative claims. An anecdote central to the book, about the little girl's interaction with an older male monkey she called Grandpa, strains belief. Not long after her arrival, the girl had become ill, feeling acute stomach pain.

"Tamarind! It suddenly came to me. I feel a grim certainty form inside me. I had eaten delicious tamarind's deadly twin."

But soon, Grandpa came near.

"He squeezed my arm firmly, then began shaking me slightly, shoving me, as if determined to herd me somewhere else."

Following along, the child tumbled down a bank into a basin of water containing a waterfall.

"Almost immediately [Grandpa] began shoving me again, trying to direct me towards the stream of water. ... His expression was completely calm. It wasn't angry, or agitated, or hostile. ... In that instant I trusted him."

So the girl drank in mouthfuls, which led to coughing and vomiting.

"I will never know for sure what it was that had poisoned me, just as I'll never know how Grandpa monkey knew how to save me. But he did. I am convinced of it."

From that point forward, Grandpa became her protector, sharing food with her and grooming her; other monkeys accepted her, too.

Chapman writes that at about age 10 she revealed herself to hunters in the forest and was sold into what was essentially domestic slavery, escaping only to become a street kid. Eventually she was adopted into a caring family and started a new life. The Today Show's four-and-a-half-minute clip conveys Chapman's warmth as she is surrounded by her own family today.

I decided to probe further, while endeavoring to be fair to Chapman. Pegasus Books offered to put me in touch with Chapman's daughter, Vanessa James, who, along with a ghost writer, was part of the team that brought the book to fruition. Here is part of my lengthy conversation with James, conducted by email:

BJK: "Regarding the parts set in the forest with the monkey family, I'd like to ask, if I may, if your mother intends these as fully remembered events? I understand from my reading that in some cases, of course, there's research involved and working backwards — to refer correctly to Brazil nuts let's say, or to a caiman, which specific knowledge a [young girl] naturally wouldn't have."

"But here's the heart of my question: Is your mother saying to us, her readers, that she fully remembers all the key events from, say, her first year in the forest, that are presented? That she and her ghostwriter are not filling in details to make a more exciting and readable narrative?"

VJ: "I wish I could answer this question more, because obviously it would make anyone skeptical to think she would remember that much detail in chronological order. The answer is no. She actually has no sense of chronology in her life, that's something we worked through together by taking a research trip back to Colombia in 2007, interviewing people, visiting places, gathering dates and relying on a bit of imagination to fill the transitions in between. So her floating memories have been stitched together by us with as much backing as we've been able to [find]. We only feel confident that it's fairly accurate with how everything managed to slot in together neatly once we'd got the pieces in some order."

"As for the first year in the forest and the events presented there, all the events did occur, nothing was made up there. All of it happened, but probably not in that order. Although there was some reasoning/logic behind the choice of order. The opening few jungle days were strongest in her memory in terms of order and events. So the first day when she was dumped and her feelings was very strong, but after that, the days became less 'eventful' for her to remember specifics, and her concept of time had really gone astray by then. Life had become more routine, and being a gradual acceptance into the monkey troop, no key event stood out to pinpoint time. It became a mushy blend of basic jungle life and survival."

"So, for that part of the story I originally re-created a potential 'typical day' or two from memories of specific events she DID have. And those have taken a long time to gather, they've leaked out over my whole life very naturally, like when visiting a farmers market and her seeing a Brazil nut pod, or a small banana, or seeing her grandkid hit the other with a long branch, naturally occurring triggers like that would always pull a story out, and I've just always collected them. I re-created a typical day, which was often cross-referenced with any research I could find online, she checked it all over and thought it was all likely, although from interviewing her on this era, it comes across that she really did live there with the mind of an animal, not a human mind so much."

BJK: "From many years of study of and about monkeys and apes, myself, I am struggling to understand some of the observations ranging from nest-making in the monkeys to the very specific incident where the older male monkey persuaded your mother to drink muddy water and thus purge (from food poisoning). Please understand that in order to do this, a male monkey would have a) to grasp in some way that a small child not of his own species was ill, b) to understand something about why that small child might be ill, c) to take the child's perspective and understand that she didn't know how to treat her illness, d) to understand what might cure that illness and finally e) to know how to enable the child to bring about that cure. This is quite a major claim of cognitive complexity for a monkey. In other words, the book contains what are to my knowledge unprecedented accounts vis-a-vis a scientific framework achieved by many primatologists with many hundreds or thousands of hours of observation. How are we to think about this matter, given your mother's age at the time and her vulnerable state?"

VJ: "This is also one of those we discussed heavily. Because with her adult mind she remembers him nudging her, not so much grabbing/grasping, amongst other perceptions of the event. But as it felt at the time, being a very sick girl in pain and fear for her life, she recalls it as a very frightening moment, and acknowledges that to her back then, it felt rougher than it may have been. As for the grandpa monkey knowing of her discomfort. She was already a recognized part of the troop, we believe, and seeing a wriggling-on-the-floor and probably howling child that they had allowed in to their community, I don't see that as too hard to believe that he understood she was ill. I'm sure my cat knows when I'm ill though! The experts we've spoken to say capuchins would be the breed most likely to come down and be curious enough to do such a thing. And observe such a behavior. Mum doesn't think the other capuchins in the group would have done anything other than just prodded her, but she feels there was always some connection to the older monkey."

"Why he knew what to do ... well, mum can't answer that. None of us can. Maybe it was coincidence that he acted like that and that it luckily happened to be the very thing she most needed — to either drink water, or purge. But she vividly remembers eye contact with that monkey. Trust was there."

"It is definitely an out of the ordinary event. But actually, it is those out of the ordinary events that mum remembers more clearly than the rest. I even remember mum once telling me as a young girl how the monkeys would crack into nuts using tools. Then when I was about 10 years old, I saw on the children's news program 'Breaking news! Monkeys are so smart they can break into nuts using tools.' My sister and I laughed, we knew that already! But if we'd told any experts before, based on her memories, they probably would have dismissed it because they'd not found it first. Understandably. But sadly, too. So, the events may have been dramatized by the ghost writer, (mainly in terms of her feelings in each moment, as she didn't have emotional memory so much), but it is as she recalls it."

Katherine MacKinnon, a biological anthropologist at Saint Louis University who has extensive experience studying capuchin monkeys in the wild, isn't buying it. In email correspondence with me, she had this to say:

"The incident with the male capuchin 'forcing' her to drink so she would purge — IF it happened in the way it was described in the book, it sounds more like that male capuchin was trying to drown her. They often thrash prey around, roll it, hit it, play with prey in water, and otherwise dispatch prey items (e.g. small rodents, squirrels, coati pups) in a very messy way. If that male capuchin 'kept a tight grip' on her hair and kept shoving her face in the water, he wasn't trying to help."

"Further, the likelihood of a capuchin having that high of a degree of intuitive understanding of illness in a human (and how to treat it, not to mention the motivation to do so ... ) is low, such behavior has not been documented, and would take a huge cognitive leap of faith. While captive capuchins have shown the ability to sense fairness and show an aversion to inequality (e.g. Sarah Brosnan and Frans De Waal's work) — and many would argue empathy and at times altruism — for a wild capuchin to go through the cognitive steps described in the above example for a strange creature like a starving human child who looks, smells, and acts so differently, sounds like a highly imaginative re-creation of barely-remembered events."

MacKinnon's questions don't stop there.

"I think getting enough basic nutrition with no knowledge of the forest or no human to show her would be near impossible to impossible."

So what are we to conclude about this book?

We know that fake memoirs exist. Just last month, the author of a fabricated Holocaust memoir about being raised by wolves during World War II was ordered to pay $22.5 million to her publisher.

I have no evidence to suggest that this is the case with Chapman's book.

And, of course, human memory is a funny thing. It's a safe bet that no one of us remembers all events from our childhood as they actually happened; as time passes, we continuously reshape what we recall. In this light, perhaps Chapman's book should be understood as accurate to the extent that she, her daughter and her ghostwriter were able to reconstruct faithfully a traumatized young girl's memories.

What's clear to me is that the book isn't a straight-on, nonfiction account. Reading Vanessa James' responses to me, we see that there's simply too much imaginative reconstruction at work for that to be the case.

In reply to my concern about the claim of nest-building monkeys, James replied:

"That particular fact, the monkeys laying branches in trees to make the sort of seating area (I think that's how it was put in the book) was something confused in translation and not what mum endorses. I can't remember how it got so far to be published, but we didn't make the effort to re-write, and probably should [have] ... ."

I wish Marina Chapman — and her family members, too — a wonderful life. Publishing a book purporting to be a true-to-life memoir is serious business, though. And readers in this case will have to decide for themselves how to interpret the words "incredible story" emblazoned on the book's cover.

Also on the cover in the version I was sent, incredibly enough, is a photograph of a macaque. Macaques are monkeys that live in Asia and North Africa, not South America.


Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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