Songs of the Gorilla Nation

Songs of the Gorilla Nation, My Journey Through Autism

by Dawn Prince-Hughes Phd.

This is an interesting autobiography of a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, and how her relationship with gorillas eased her acceptance into human society. Asperger’s was only classified as a dis-ability in 1994 and so we have the situation of people like Susan Boyle who were not classified until three years ago. That is they lived for 51 years, aware that something was dreadfully wrong with them, but they did not know what it was, nor did anyone else.

Autistic people are often described as “on the spectrum”, meaning that there is a large range of symptoms. Asperger’s Syndrome usually refers to high-functioning autism. These people are often skilled in certain intellectual subjects, geeky, have extraordinary memories, and excel with maths. Mozart, Jane Austen, and Paul Cezanne are commonly known to have had Asperger’s Syndrome.

Dawn was in this predicament. From the time she was a young child she knew she was different in many ways. She was unable to communicate with other people; yet she was able to understand some complex subjects such as anthropology and philosophy, but not sure how to find her way home, did not recognise people she saw regularly, was afraid of sounds, confused if interrupted when doing something, distracted by bright lights, and when stressed had panic attacks.

From her earliest schooldays, Dawn was the butt of jokes and vindictiveness from teachers and classmates. She was treated like a rebellious idiot because she found it difficult to conform to the norms of others, difficult to relate to people, difficult to understand some things that were simple to everyone else.

She ran away from home at 14 and lived on the streets in squats, drinking and doing drugs. As she got older, she worked as an erotic dancer in strip clubs. Even here she was misunderstood, she often wore heavy leather clothes, even when dancing, which led other dancers to believe she was into S & M. In fact the leather was to give her body a sensation of touch, a tactile feeling that let her feel who she was.

Dawn’s sexuality was blurred; like many Asperger people, they are confused about who they are, what they are, and how they relate to other people. It is known that there is a strong hereditary link with autism, and this becomes absolutely clear when she describes her parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents – all of whom exhibited various aspects of autism.

In the second part of the book, she tells how she began to go to the zoo to watch the animals. It was the gorillas that attracted her attention and she spent hours, days, weeks, and eventually years, watching them, taking notes on their actions and movements, and in particular how they communicated with each other.

It was during this long process, spread over some years, that she began to learn about herself by watching and understanding the gorillas. She came to empathise with the way they were deprived of their real lives, locked in a prison. Although the zoo she attended was one of the best, people walked past the gorillas and mocked them, yelled insults, laughed, or tormented them.

We understand that chimpanzees and gorillas are the smartest of animals, the most human-like. But we know very little about their social life. Dawn examined this, keeping meticulous notes about how they communicated with sounds, movement and actions. She saw the sadness and the crying of the gorillas when one of them died. She learned how they played games, chasing and hiding in the bushes. She watched them as they avoided rain and mud, how they used tools, how they lived in an artificial environment — if they were human we would say a prison. It was just as much a prison to them as it would be to us.

And by her observations and understanding of the gorillas, Dawn learnt to communicate with humans. She copied the movements and actions of the gorillas, she pondered on what they did, how they expressed facial emotions. Her research has been valuable towards the understanding of primates, for herself it led to a PhD.

At one point in the book, Dawn describes a situation where one of the older gorillas is ill and refuses to get up for food. Some of the younger gorillas throw sticks at her. The public watching these events, said it was because they callously want to drive the sick gorilla away. In fact the other gorillas were quite concerned that the sick gorilla would not get up and eat. None of the gorillas would eat while she lay on the ground. Eventually, a stick hit the sick gorilla, and she did get up, and went with the others to eat. Yet the onlookers assumed they were indifferent to the sickness of one of the group.

The book, fairly short at 220 pages, describes her journey through autism, and the lives and actions of the gorillas. They are not the stereotypes we are shown in movies, but more human than we could possible imagine. It is just that too often we see gorillas under threat in the wild, or confined in zoos, their family group torn apart, and so we misunderstand what they mean by their actions.

An interesting auto-biography presenting a different view of gorillas, leading us to a greater understanding of our relationship with animals.