Twelve years later the study of human attachment using the monkey as a proxy continues at the lab. Baby monkeys face surrogate mothers that rock violently back and forth, that blast needles of compressed air, that break out in spikes. The instant the surrogates stop their cryptic fits of rage, the distraught babies jump back, cooing. Other monkeys are forced on the “rape rack” and become famously cruel motherless mothers. How bad is bad enough mothering?
By 1970 the study of love has transformed into a study of loneliness. Monkeys are placed in isolation chambers, “pits of despair,” where they will stay for three, six months, twelve months. Cages are built to accommodate adult and infant monkeys. When they come out, the monkeys are fearful and unhinged, living portraits of terror and inescapable solitude. How long can we live without touch?
At the same primate lab, psychologist Harry F. Harlow builds a national and then international reputation. His lab is among the first established and best funded in the country. His research on baby monkeys appears in Life magazine and on popular science documentaries. He wins the Medal of Science. He helps to establish the national primate labs, one of which is built across the street from the lab where he studies attachment. Generations of college students watch films of baby monkeys choosing cloth-covered surrogates and learn about the importance of contact.
Harlow’s work inspires researchers and animal rights activists alike.
Yet despite the success, something ails Harlow and his famous monkeys.
The novel opens in the final year of Harlow’s life. Packages appear at his house warning him that the time of judgment has begun. Dismissing the sender as an animal rights freak, the seventy-five year old Harlow can’t shed his mounting sense of vulnerability. As Harlow’s Parkinson’s worsens, the boundaries between his imagination and reality become more porous until, without warning, he is no longer alone. He finds himself on a journey as strange as Alice’s down the rabbit hole.
With the help of the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman and a tribe of ghosts from his past, Harry revisits his life and his research. His eight-year old daughter Pammy, his wife Peggy who he loved deeply and lost to cancer, a lab employee who watched on the sidelines, and a dog accompany him towards redemption. As imagination and memory become entwined, Harlow comes to understand what he previously could not see: that trauma permeated his lab and his own loneliness guided his work. At the moment of his death, with ghosts and gods for companions, Harlow knows the truth of what every primate baby, human and non-human, knows: we never surrender the dream of love or the desire for connection.