“Project Nim”: Who’s the Villain?

The validating myth of documentary films is that, unlike dramas, they are nonfiction and depict the objective truth of a situation.  This is correct only to a certain degree.  Unlike dramatic films, documentaries focus on real people and situations rather than actors and imagined plots.  But they nevertheless do develop a perspective, a point of view, and have a narrative arc, as a substitute for plot.  That perspective and that narrative arc guide the selection of what scenes and details to present in the flim and what to leave out, for of course no documentary can present every situation and event that occurred, especially when the story to be told condenses many years of events.  Unlike dramas, which can achieve a seamlessness that does not require skepticism on the part of the viewer (“willing suspension of disbelief”), documentaries require that the viewers adopt a critical stance.  What are the unspoken biases of the producer and director?  What is their thesis?  What motives and perspectives are implied by the testimony of those being interviewed?  To take a drama at face value is to enter into the dramatic situation and to enjoy an aesthetic experience; to take a documentary at face value is to be naive.

In the case of the documentary film “Project Nim,” reviewers have focused on the thesis of the film, that it was cruel to subject Nim to a series of confusing interactions with human beings and then to abandon him to a life of encagement and medical experimentation.  Everyone seems to agree that the villain of the piece is Dr. Herbert Terrace, the scientist who conceived and supervised the experiment which sought to discover whether or not and to what extent a chimpanzee could acquire language (i.e., sign language).  Certainly most if not all of the interviewees point their fingers at Terrace.

Noticeably, however, Terrace does not point his finger back.  Whatever ethical judgments one may make about the experiment itself, it is only fair to notice that Terrace does not try to deflect reponsibility onto any of the other participants nor does he romanticize or sentimentalize either Nim or any of the project’s consequences.  And he does not try to claim for Nim more than Nim actually achieved.  He was able to maintain the distinction between a human and a chimp while others did not.  His view is best summed up when he says that no one keeps a chimp beyond five years old.  (The consequences of doing so are best illustrated by the tragic case of Travis.)

Such objectivity is lacking in the accounts of the other participants, the first of whom is the creepily elegant Stephanie LaFarge, who jumped at the opportunity to take infant Nim from his mother and raise him all too much like a human baby in her home, alongside her own and her new husband’s children.  The undisguised sexualness of some of the filmed scenes of Stephanie with Nim are nauseating, and it is neither a surprise nor an indictment of Terrace that he eventually removes Nim from LaFarge’s household and places him in a more controlled environment.

Not that doing so ends the distorted romances.  In assigning 18 year-old Laura-Ann Petitto to a lead role in teaching Nim sign language, Terrace merely opened up another can of worms.  By her own admission, Petitto wanted the kind of life she saw represented by Terrace, and she was attracted to his arrogance and academic success; naturally, a brief affair ensued, which Terrace soon broke off.  Also naturally, Petitto expresses resentment to this day.

Others involved with the experiment are emotionally involved to varying degrees, but in all instances it appears they saw themselves as making a connection with Nim and communing with an animal in a kind of replay of Eden before the fall, especially in the scenes of Nim and his handlers at play among the trees and gamboling across the meadows.  That marijuana played a role in all this is not surprising.  After all, as LaFarge’s daughter shamefacedly admits, “It was the seventies.”

The story of Nim is a sad one.  Separated from his mother, denied the normal life of a chimpanzee (as, indeed, all captive chimps are), subjected to repeated abrupt separations from people who were his substitute chimps, subjected to medical experiments, rescued but left solitary in a large bare cage until finally companions of his own kind were found for him, Nim served human purposes both scientific and emotional throughout his life.  No wonder that, when LaFarge visited him years later and she foolishly, and against all warning, entered his cage, he attacked her and dragged her by the foot from one end of the cage to the other.  It was selfish and ill-considered of her to so willingly take him from his mother and to enter into a pretense that he was just another one of her children.  Perhaps Nim was finally speaking, in pent up protest to the way he had been treated.

None of the humans in Nim’s life can escape blame.  Morally, they are all villains of the piece.  Ironically, Terrace may in some ways be the least of them, for he did not lose sight of what Nim was.  And when he crunched the data, he reached the inevitable conclusion.  Nim Chimpsky had not acquired language.  Sadly for Nim, the experiment was unnecessary.  Noam Chomsky had already told us that animals cannot have language and he told us why.

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