The Idea of 'Normal' in We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves

Sergio Chen deconstructs the ‘idea of normal’ and how it plays an important role for family connection in contemporary texts. Growing up, most children experience that unforgettable moment of wanting to leave without saying goodbye. With the slightest thought, we packed our bags with clothes. We wrapped one shoelace over another until we finally gave up. We practiced that big speech to give if we got caught, not knowing we would all end up silently asleep in our beds that same night. Family bonds are unbreakable. No matter how much we hated that bond, the amount of love would never change.

The twisted complexity of family connection is what the novel, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler captivated. The incompleteness of family is when the ‘idea of normal’ from one individual collaterally damages the family socialisation. However, through the progression of both contemporary texts, it is when the differences are suspended where the family begin to connect.

Rosemary, the unreliable protagonist of We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, narrates her story through medias res, where her world of abnormalities and incompleteness is discovered in the middle. The use of a non- linear timeline draws us to conclude many things while she actively withholds information from the readers. Fowler hints the importance of how Rosemary’s family contributed to her current abnormal self. Through the recollection of Rosemary’s thoughts, it is not until the middle of her story where we discover the cruel twist of Rosemary’s deviant family. Rosemary’s family consists of her brother Lowell, her mother, her father, and of course, Fern. As an interest in animal behaviour, Rosemary’s psychologist father decided to raise a chimpanzee named Fern alongside their family. With daily experiments and being unusually raised within a chimpanzee household, Rosemary began to adopt some animal traits. As a result, through all her schooling years, the name ‘monkey girl’ was a never-ending story.

Before reconnecting her thoughts, Rosemary solely blamed the loss of Fern at her parents. Based on the made-up stories for Rosemary’s sake, the theoretical remembrance of Fern being sent away by her father has been the turning point of her current attitude. Fern was the lynchpin of the family. Like a dominos affect, one by one, the roots of family connection were ripped out. As Fern left, Rosemary’s childhood attitudes began to change. Her loud persona turned quiet. The number of things she would say would go from three to one.

“My parents persisted in pretending we were a close-knit family…. In light of my two missing siblings, this was an astonishing triumph of wishful thinking”. The use of this metaphor compares the ‘close-knit family’ as a wish, describing Rosemary’s abnormally close relationship with Fern was indescribable. The questionable leverage to the loss of a chimpanzee over family connection describes the depth of their relationship. “I didn’t even last the four days I promised”. With the thought on who was responsible for Fern’s disappearance, Rosemary was always hesitant when returning to Bloomington. Baby chimpanzee living with human. With the continuous blame for the loss of her sibling, Rosemary limits her visits to see her parents. This disconnects their family by damaging socialisation. Having a chimpanzee sister is crazy. But, choosing an animal over family is overly abnormal. Her unenjoyable times in Bloomington did not go unnoticed as she continuously targets her family based on fake news.

In Bloomington, most households had known the Cooke’s situation. Growing up, Rosemary was chased out of her hometown by finding out the level of embarrassment she would’ve faced. “First, it was far enough from home that no one would know anything about me”. Rosemary’s concern on people finding out about her childhood experiences explain her ‘idea of normal’. Knowing her family’s abnormalities remained unchallenged, Rosemary limits her answer to “not really” when asked to reflect on family. Like us, she believes her family is abnormal. However, regardless of how far she left her memories behind, it eventually caught up.

Basically, Rosemary disconnects herself from her family by studying at UC Davis, somewhat distanced from Bloomington. Rosemary’s ‘idea of normal’ on her family is what tears them apart. I don’t blame her though. Having a childhood like that is quite daunting. By rarely seeing her parents, Rosemary’s ‘idea of normal’ on her family damages the socialisation within. Since We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story that is told through medias res, where only the progression can reveal significant information, the negative affects from childhood are contradicted. It is known later that through her remembrance of memories, the loss of Fern is blamed on Rosemary’s selfishness. Now knowing the real news, Rosemary suspends her ‘idea of normal’ to reconnect with her family by teaching at a Kindergarten, closer to her childhood memories.

To sum up, abnormalities were what disconnected family. Though, it is through the identification of abnormal being the only normal where we see them been brought together. Rosemary ‘idea of normal’ against her family is what limited socialisation within. The blame on her parents for losing her alter ego is what was responsible. 

07 July 2022
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