By coincidence, I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes shortly after finishing A Beautiful Truth. In both cases, chimpanzees are held in cages and used by scientists conducting medical research for “the greater good”, as in the hope of finding a cure for human diseases. After reading A Beautiful Truth, I felt baffled, sad and depressed. Somehow Rise of the Planet of the Apes with its tale of intelligent chimps revolting against cruel and stupid humans was just the balm I needed at the time.
* CONTAINS SPOILERS
A Beautiful Truth criss-crosses between different narratives. Mostly we follow the story of Walt and Judy, a Vermont couple who are unable to have children and adopt a chimpanzee they name Looee. As Looee grows up, he learns how to act like a person and he wears clothes, eats with a knife and fork and watches TV. The question of whether they are doing the right thing weighs on them, but Walt and Judy can’t imagine life without Looee. The second story readers follow takes place at the Girdish Institute in Florida, a medical research facility where a number of chimpanzees are held. Sometimes the story is told from the perspective of the chimps as they interact as a colony in an outside enclosure or from the cages they inhabit inside the facility. The chimps have their own unique dialect and way of describing the world they see. At other times, one of the facility’s staff will tell the story, such as Dr. David Kennedy, a scientist who is determined to prove chimpanzees can learn language and are capable of empathy. However, with all their good intentions, whether in a loving home or subjects in a research project, chimpanzees living to such an extreme degree away from their natural environment are not destined for a happy ending.
What I enjoyed about A Beautiful Truth is the touching story of how Walt, Judy and Looee became a family. In their eyes, Looee was their son and a person. Looee taught Walt and Judy how much they are alike despite being different species. It was a pleasure reading about their lives together and how Looee lived day-to-day. Imagining a chimp eating spaghetti, watching Blue Lagoon and going hunting with Walt made me smile.
I have a really bad habit of skimming book descriptions. For some foolish reason, I thought the story was only about Walt, Judy and Looee. I wasn’t prepared to read about the chimps at the research facility. Yes, I could have stopped reading the book, but I didn’t and that’s my bad. It was heartbreaking to read how much stress the chimps endure between trying to survive a vicious existence with other chimps and the violation of medical tests. In one part of the book, a chimp is so broken he just lies down and holds out his arm for the needle.
What is the truth author Colin McAdam wants us to glean from A Beautiful Truth? I think he wanted us to see that humans and chimpanzees have more in common than we realize. But truthfully (no pun intended), I don’t think he was entirely successful with this odd mishmash of narratives and strange descriptions like Looee moans “like a woman surprised by how good something feels” or the chimp tried to put his penis on her face “like husbands do to wives on their birthday”(!). When you read a book about a chimp maiming the humans that love him because he can’t hold back his true nature or healthy chimps injected with HIV that become chronically sick in the name of science there is no beautiful truth; only that the truth sucks.
My apologies, I realize this is depressing. Writing this review makes me relive the experience of reading the book. Again, it’s my own fault for reading the whole thing. I badly hoped there would be a Hollywood moment where Walt, Judy and Looee would be reunited as a family. Nope.