We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

by Karen Joy Fowler
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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701

Karen Joy Fowler's novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a family drama told from the perspective of Rosemary Cooke. The novel is concerned with the effects of trauma on memory, and the way we form, value, and strain kinship relationships. Here are some important quotes from the novel:

  • "Skip the beginning. Start in the middle" (2). This quote is from the prologue of the novel and refers to a memory Rosemary has from her talkative childhood, when her father would tell her to start in the middle of her stories so they would be shorter. This is reflected in the structure of the novel, as Rosemary narrates the story starting from the "middle," or the present day, and recounting the past in flashbacks.
  • "Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture" (48). This quote reflects some of the important themes of the book: language, communication, and memory. In the act of telling the story of her childhood, Rosemary is finding language for the memories she has repressed, while also recognizing the limitations of both language and memory to ever capture the story in its entirety.
  • "Once upon a time, there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and a father who'd promised to love them both exactly the same" (58). Because the novel is concerned with the way we tell stories, the narrator often references and draws upon classic and popular literature and stories. Here, using the conceit of a fairytale, Rosemary introduces the fundamental dynamic of her childhood and also reveals (as we know from fairy tales) that this beginning conceit can never hold true by the end of the story.
  • "Here is the question our father claimed to be asking: can Fern learn to speak to humans? Here is the question our father refused to admit he was asking: can Rosemary learn to speak to chimpanzees?" (100) As Rosemary reflects on her childhood in her father's behavioral study, she starts to question his motives for the study, motives which were never revealed to her. She was five when Fern was sent away, and the memories she has of her childhood with her sister, being studied by her father and his lab, are vivid. But still, she questions how much information she was really given and how much she really understood.
  • "And yet there were ways in which I was the one who carried the damage. For Mom, Dad, and Lowell, Fern had arrived in the middle of the story. They'd gotten to be themselves first, so they had a self to go back to. For me, Fern was the beginning" (107). Reflecting on the individual trauma that each member of her family faced after Fern was sent away, Rosemary concedes that her parents and brother were more visibly shattered by the loss. But she also reflects on how her own trauma was tied up with her very identity as a child. Fern was raised as her twin, and the loss of a twin leaves the survivors feeling "less like singles and more like the crippled remainder of something once whole" (108).
  • "Dad was always saying that we were all animals, but when he dealt with Fern, he didn't start from that place of congruence. His methods put the whole burden of proof onto her. It was always her failure for not being able to talk to us, never ours for not being able to understand her. It would have been more scientifically rigorous to start with an assumption of similarity" (202). This quote is from Lowell, in his long conversation with Rosemary, when he explained much of what he had been doing in his years away from home. Lowell had been working with the Animal Liberation Front, a radical animal rights activist group, freeing animals from lab conditions. He reflects on their father's Rosemary/Fern study with the new views and knowledge he has about animal studies and animal rights. He holds a lot of contempt and pain about the way Fern was sent away, but also about the way she was treated scientifically while they were all together.

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