The chimpanzee shot past me straight upstairs to the kitchen. Thudding and banging she emerges hobbling down the stairs laden with fruit clutched in her hands and feet, and tucked under her chin. I follow her into my consulting room. Perched on the edge of the sofa, only the sound of her slurping and sucking breaks the silence. We sit watching each other as a small pile of fruit skins form a pyramid on the wooden floor. I imagine them going into the bin.
‘You looked surprised; am I the first chimpanzee you’ve had? I bet you’ve never heard a chimpanzee speak before?’
I’m the one unable to speak.
‘I’m guessing you don’t speak in my tongue, so let’s stick with English.’
She’s teasing me? ‘Okay,’ I smile and blink.
‘This is talking therapy right? It’ll be odd if we didn’t talk.’
‘So what do you want to talk about?’ I say as though I’m used to conversing with chimpanzees.
‘The zoo psychologist referred me; she says I’m depressed, but that’s not why I’m here.’ She interrupts herself, ‘This is confidential isn’t it?’ Her look is so intense that I freeze for a moment. I’m trying to imagine describing this session to my supervisor. I want to stay with this image.
‘Good. Um, 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 our session.’
‘Well no one will believe you’ve worked with a speaking chimpanzee! They’ll assume it’s a metaphor, a literary device or something. So you can if you want to.’
‘Thank you. So you’re depressed and that’s not why you’re here …’
‘Well of course I’m depressed – I live in a zoo. There’d be something seriously wrong with me if I weren’t, right?’ She pauses; I can’t tell if she wants a reply.
‘I’ve heard that psychotherapy is primarily about listening.’
‘And the psychologist doesn’t listen to you?’
‘No, actually I’ve never spoken to her – well, not in English. I’ve nothing to say to her. I’ve never heard her say anything remotely interesting or insightful.’
Again she pauses as though awaiting a response.
‘In my experience people don’t listen. Have you seen the BBC programme Dynasties with David Attenborough?’
‘They followed a group of chimpanzees around for over two years then edited hundreds of hours of footage down into just one hour. David is this old alpha-male who has somehow held off challengers and remained at the top to keep his exclusive mating rights, though they didn’t show any of that. Actually he didn’t really seem to do very much. It does show him enjoying exclusive rights to narration.
‘Anyway humans love drama; with all their resources and all that film of chimpanzees they managed to shape a human drama and then, with no sense of irony or shame, present it as chimpanzee behaviour – it was genius.’
I’m trying not to imagine David Attenborough asserting his exclusive mating rights.
‘So people come to talk to you, you listen for maybe hundreds of hours, and then you make up stories, create drama? Or is that what you cure them from?’
‘There is no cure.’
‘I’ve seen it on your website: you work with addictions – sex, alcohol, drugs, spiritual addiction – but you don’t mention addiction to drama?’
‘Well people don’t see it as an addiction.’
‘So you help them become better addicts?’ For the first time she looks puzzled.
‘Ha! I suppose so. Once their stories have been listened to they can get beyond them.’
‘And then what?’
‘They become chimpanzees.’
‘Whaoo-ooh!’ her laughter reverberates around the room. ‘You know that’s not all there is to being a chimpanzee …’
Our conversation meanders until ‘our time is up’. As we move towards the front door she asks: ‘Will you dramatise this is your blog?’
‘I get the impression you want me to?’
‘Maybe it’s the only way I can tell if you’ve listened to me.’
‘Oh, so you’re testing me.’
I flash her a sad smile, her face is inscrutable; I’ve not seen this expression before. I imagine she’s reflecting back my smile, though less apologetically and perhaps more pitying.
‘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, but then you are only human.’
‘You do know there’s no such thing as a chimpanzee, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I reply.
Standing to her full height she looks intensely into my eyes and says, ‘Thank you for the fruit.’ In the next moment she is across the road, up a tree and swinging over the fence.
Glenn suggests …
… stocking up on fruit if you work with chimpanzees.
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