As I opened the front door a chimpanzee shot straight past me upstairs to the kitchen. A moment later I could hear thudding and banging, before I was able to follow her, she emerged at the top of the stairs, fruit clutched in her hands and feet, and tucked under her chin. I wait and watch her skillfully hobble down the stairs. With no prompt she seemed to instinctively know the way to my consulting room. As I closed the door behind us I notice myself trying not to imagine the state of the kitchen.
Before I sat down the room had filled with the sound of slurping and sucking as she began demolishing her stash of fruit. Squatting precariously on the edge on the sofa her perfect balance and occasional glance let me know I am to wait for her. It seemed apparent that only one of us was indifferent to the growing pyramid of fruit skin on the wooden floor.
Clearly she has no boundary issues.
It is often said that therapists get the clients they deserve. Unquestionably I deserve her, however the more interesting question is; how must a therapist live to trust they always get the clients they deserve, regardless of who they are?
I was not expecting to see a chimpanzee today. Now what exactly did the caller say on the phone? I’m sure she was inquiring for herself, why hadn’t she said the appointment was for a chimpanzee? I don’t like taking bookings from third parties.
‘You looked surprised,’ her statement sounds like the sort of measured intervention a therapist might make. Am I more surprised she can speak, or is it her apparent ability to read my mind?
‘Am I the first chimpanzee you’ve met? I bet you’ve never heard one speak before.’
Lost for words, I’m the one unable to speak.
‘I’m guessing you don’t speak my language; let’s stick with English.’
Ah, so this is not the first time I’ve spoken with a chimpanzee; I recognise her voice as the caller, it’s funny though, on the phone she sounded more human.
‘This is talking therapy – It’d be odd if we didn’t talk.’ Is she teasing me?
‘Your English is impeccable,’ I reply.
‘Languages are easy – though I prefer not using them. What’s difficult is trying to make sense of how humans use language to invent “things” and then believe they exist: you speak as if you believe what you say – as though you hadn’t just made it up.’
‘Hm,’ I’ve never discussed philosophy with a chimpanzee before.
As though not hearing her, I smile and ask, ‘So what have you come here for?’
‘The zoo psychologist suggested therapy; she thinks I’m depressed, but that’s not why I’m here,’ with a brief pause and quizzical look she asks, ‘This is confidential isn’t it?’ Her eyes are so intense that I freeze for a moment. My thoughts jump to supervision. I try imagining my supervisor’s response when I tell her I’ve taken on a talking chimpanzee. She won’t believe me, though that won’t affect the quality of the supervision.
‘Yes it is confidential,’ I reply.
‘Good, although I don’t mind if you write about me in your blog.’
‘You’re concerned about confidentiality and yet you’re happy for me to write about you.’
‘Well, no one will believe you, they’ll assume it’s a metaphor, an allegory or some literary device. So you can if you like.’
‘Okay, thank you. So you are depressed and that’s not why you’re here.’
‘Of course I’m depressed I live in a zoo, there would be something seriously wrong with me if I weren’t depressed, right?’ Her logic is faultless.
‘I understand psychotherapy is primarily about listening.’
‘You want to be heard,’ I suggest, ‘Does the psychologist listen?’
‘No, although in fairness I’ve never spoken to her – well, not in English. I don’t want to encourage her: I’ve never heard her say anything remotely interesting or insightful.’ Again I can’t tell if she’s awaiting a response.
‘In my experience humans don’t listen.’ As though giving her full stop full weight she pauses again. ‘Have you seen the BBC programme Dynasties with David Attenborough?’
‘It’s what humans call a “nature” programme: a camera crew follow a group of chimpanzees for over two years, take hundreds of hours of footage and then turn it into one hour of drama. It’s about an old grey alpha male named David, he must have defeated many challengers to earn exclusive mating rights. I wonder how many off-spring he has? You don’t see him mating though; he seems more interested in his exclusive narrator rights.’
It’s a good point: David Attenborough is an alpha male, though perhaps it’s good we don’t see him enjoying his exclusive mating rights.
‘Humans simply love drama; despite filming a group of chimpanzees for two years they nonetheless shaped a human drama and then, with no sense of irony or shame, present it as a story about chimpanzees – it was genius. David appears to believe what he’s saying even though he knows he cannot know if it’s true, such talent; it’s no wonder he stays on top.
‘So when people come for therapy, do you help them tell better stories? Create better drama? Or do you cure them from it?’
‘There is no cure, though story telling can go into remission.’
‘I’ve seen on your website you work with addiction; sex, alcohol, drugs, spiritual – but you don’t mention story addiction.’
‘You’re right, though people tend not to see it that way. With stories, as with any addiction, the question is; what wants feeding and what gets fed?’
‘So you’re essentially an enabler: you help people become better addicts,’ for the first time she looks puzzled.
‘Story telling is inevitable, necessary even, and it can be wonderful. People come to me with stories about themselves, these change somewhat as we talk about them. Though the value of therapy comes when a human sees how they are just that: a collection of stories. It’s not possible to leave all stories behind; though it is possible to go beyond them.’
‘How? Humans are hobbled by narcissism: you are the only narcissistic species. Even when you appear interested in others you are only really talking about yourselves. You invent a thing called “nature” or the “natural world” as though you are separate from them, and then even as you pretend to protect them, you destroy. You tell stories about other species’ brutality,’ she pauses, her voice suddenly deepening, ‘Brutality is when you are forced to live in a cage.’
‘I agree with everything you’re saying; people do create stories to gain power, making themselves feel better or worse as it suits them. When I work with humans I try to ween them off of their need for stories: need of course being one such story.’
‘And then what?’
‘Well, when a human loosens up from their narratives they become bigger not smaller, and then, if they go far enough, they might become more like a chimpanzee.’
‘Whaoo-ooooh!’ Her vast laughter turns the room into an echo chamber, ‘You do know there’s much more to being a chimpanzee – although there is no chimpanzee being. If humans could only drop “-being” from “human being” they might break free from addiction…’
As we reach the end of the session she asks, ‘Will you write about our meeting in your blog?’
‘I get the impression you want me to.’
‘Perhaps I want to see if you can write without telling a story,’ she says.
‘I’m not sure I can: to write about this session and about not telling stories, will likely become another story,’ I suggest.
Her look is inscrutable, I’ve not seen this expression on her before. I flash her a sad smile unsure if I’m reflecting how she feels, or she’s reflecting how I feel. I have the sense that she is looking at me with pity. I’m struck that besides the occasional human no other species has ever looked at me with pity. Perhaps she has spent too much time with humans.
‘How would you write it?’ I ask.
‘I wouldn’t: I’ve better things to do.’
‘And I’ve nothing better to do?’
‘Maybe you have,’ she says, ‘But humans can’t resist a story.’
‘Hm, writing about our meeting is very tempting although there is much more to it than a story.’
As I open the door she continues, ‘You do know there is no such thing as a chimpanzee – don’t you?’
‘Yes, I do.’ I reply.
Before I can say another word she stands up to her full, considerable height, fixes my eyes and says, ‘Thank you for the fruit,’ and then as quick as she came in, she is across the road up a tree and swinging over the fence.
I hope I see her again. I must replenish the fruit.
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