About Chimpanzees

Mom and Dad

I was on a date with a woman twenty years ago and there came a moment when she asked me a question and I replied, “I don’t know. That’s a subject I know nothing about.”

“Really?” she said, frowning at me. “Aren’t you going to at least pretend you know the answer?”

“No,” I said, laughing. “My father would do that, but not me.”

“Not just your father,” she said, with a touch of bitterness in her voice. “Most men would make up an answer so they wouldn’t look stupid, even though it would be obvious they were making something up, which really makes them look stupid, but they don’t care because they have to pretend they know.”

“I wonder why that is?”

“Because men think not knowing something is a sign of weakness, and they can’t allow themselves to appear weak, especially when they’re relating to a woman.”

My father was an extreme example of a man who pretended he knew everything, and this was especially true when he was in the presence of women. This trait did not endear him to my mother or to me or to my siblings or to anyone, but he didn’t care, because as my long-ago date succinctly put it, he had to pretend he knew.

I only know a small part of why my father was this way, but here is a true story about when his need to pretend he knew more about something than the woman he was with beats anything of the kind I have ever heard.

My father was a psychiatrist. One of his colleagues was a woman psychiatrist who was married to Meyer Fortes, a very famous anthropologist. I majored in Anthropology during my two years of college and was an avid reader of ethnographies after leaving college. I had read and admired several works by Meyer Fortes about the Tallensi and Ashanti of Ghana. He was a particular hero of mine.

I was also an admirer of Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost authority on chimpanzees. I had read many articles by her and about her, as well as her books My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees and In the Shadow of Man.

So you can imagine my excitement circa 1973 when my mother called me at the commune in Santa Cruz where I was living to tell me that she and my father were hosting an intimate dinner party, the guests to be Meyer Fortes and his wife, and Jane Goodall and her husband.

“I wanted to have you to join us for dinner,” said my mother, “but your father thinks… well, he said if you wanted to come after supper during dessert and meet everyone, you could do that and then spend the night.”

“Yes!” I said. “I’ll be there.”

This was such a big deal for me that I borrowed a car rather than risk unlucky hitchhiking from Santa Cruz to Atherton, and on the appointed evening I arrived at my parents’ house, quietly entered the kitchen through the garage, and looked into the dining room that was separated from the kitchen by a counter.

I will never forget that scene. Jane and her husband were sitting on one side of the dining table facing me. Meyer Fortes and his wife were opposite them with their backs to me. My father was at one end of the table, my mother at the other. My father, as I had feared, was very drunk and slurring his words and pontificating inanely as he always did when he was drunk. He was the only one speaking.

Jane and her husband both sat unmoving, their faces showing distress at being trapped at a table with someone like my father. Meyer Fortes and his wife were also unmoving, and my mother, poor dear, was bowing her head and praying, I imagined, for my father to drop dead.

When my father paused briefly in his babbling, Meyer Fortes turned around in his chair to look at me and I said hello, introduced myself, spoke of my admiration for his and Jane’s work, told them I had come from Santa Cruz to meet them, and for a brief time Jane and her husband became animated and chatted with me, and Meyer and his wife were animated and friendly, too.

And then came the crowning moment. My father, having had enough of my interrupting him, finished his wine, refilled his glass, and said loudly, “Now what you have to understand about chimpanzees is…”

I heard no more because I fled the house and drove home to Santa Cruz, my heart aching for days after.

Broke My Heart