The Elephant is a Chimp

I took Charlie to represent everything that went unanswered about race, for Charlotte in particular, so he became the elephant in the room throughout the novel. It could partly explain why most of the class felt the book was anticlimactic or unfinished. Charlotte’s rage was mostly over discovering a huge secret past and then realizing that it wasn’t really a hidden secret, just ignored. Being that her parents already knew, her discovery was anti-climactic and her resistance trickled into acceptance of the obvious, that there’s a lot still unaddressed about racism in our country.

If we look at Charlie as the placeholder for unspoken or unaddressed racism, the experiment takes on the enormous task to start a dialogue that will somehow erase past wrongs (Julia Toneybee admit as much in her self-indulgent apology letter). The question that bothered me and wasn’t answered explicitly in the book, was why the family was so obsessed with loving Charlie or receiving his love in return (personally, not just because of the experiment). They take him into their family and give him their name (which is curious because it looks like all the character names tell something about what they believe). This acceptance as one’s own is why I related the book most to the Hustvedt’s Shaking Woman. She goes on a journey to accept that her healthy self and the shaking woman are one and the same. There’s something self-empowering to owning all parts of you, even those you can’t understand. In that sense, the book relates more to the Eleanor Longdon’s TED Talk we watched in class, and how she came to listen to the voices she heard as meaningful input, rather than a debilitating mental illness.

Another strange similarity I found with the talk and the book was how the voices became antagonizing and told her to harm herself in order to prove her worth. I’m not claiming the Freeman family heard literal voices, but they all seemed to have something to prove to themselves regarding Charlie. Callie’s internal dialogue was the clearest example because both her overeating and magic was harmful to herself (and Charlie at the end) but she genuinely thought Charlie’s love would fix everything in her family. Her final attempt was interesting because she stopped a few times to note what felt wrong or right, like sharing spaghetti with Charlie out of bag felt strangely like love, or how drugging Charlie and hiding outside in the cold didn’t feel quite right. Callie is the youngest and she has some instincts about right and wrong, but she’s the most vulnerable to believing the voices that tell her she needs to prove her worth.

I think this ties back to Langdon’s approach to distinguish between the literal and metaphorical things her voices were pointing to, like realizing there wasn’t a real intruder getting in her house, but that she felt a very real fear due to past trauma. She stopped treating the voices as the enemy and looked deeper into her past for what was causing them. Langdon supports a holistic approach that uses this kind of self-therapy and I couldn’t help but look at Charlie the same way. It’s as if Charlie is a literal manifestation of a racist past and everyone is trying to come to terms with this traumatic history through him (or ignoring the trauma by focusing only on him).

Laurel seems to be of the mind that aggressive self-therapy, by engaging the “voices” or speaking with Charlie, will fix everything. Its interesting she’s excited to use sign language to do this considering that sign language is what she used to insulate herself from racism growing up. She doesn’t tell her children about this racism she dealt with, she bans her children from listening to any “booty music”, and she’s completely against Adia’s influence over Charlotte. It’s as if Laurel wants her family to be on board with an experiment that will treat their “symptoms”, but at the same time she won’t admit to her daughters that there’s a traumatic past that induced them.

Charlotte and Adia’s more direct approach sounds like when Langdon was over medicated and then discarded as hopelessly incurable by the medical community. Laurel fears that her daughter attacking racism head on, like the exclusively physiological approach in medicine, will only make things worse. Adia’s mother made a really interesting point when Adia was rallying to spread flyers about Toneybee’s history. Her mother told the girls there was no point because they’re trying to fight something metaphorical, and flyers won’t do anything if there’s no literal enemy. This defeated attitude (which Charlotte was angry to notice was more like her own mother’s) is similar to Langdon’s despair under traditional diagnostics and medication. Again, there’s this issue of what is metaphorical or literal, or whether to treat the symptoms or address the trauma.

I think Callie, because of her young age and being sheltered from all the secrets, is ignorant to the fact that they’ve inherited a tramautic history, and that her issues come partly from her family ignoring it. On the other hand, Charlotte gains self-awareness through the novel, but it seems she’s not completely in agreement with her mother even at the end. As an adult, she’s disappointed Adia gave up her radical ways and Charlotte admits to herself that own pettiness surprised her. Part of her wanted to see Charlie struggle with the gift box and revel in his inadequacy. I think part of her still resents her mother believing that new dialogue can somehow erase the past.

Going back to this post’s title, its sort of like Charlotte thinks it’s an absurd idea that if we can only just talk to the elephant in the room, we can pretend he’s part of the family. Charlotte would probably agree with Langdon’s holistic approach where the goal isn’t necessarily to cure, because one isn’t mentally ill simply because they hear voices. People can be mentally different and still be full individuals in society. Similarly, as an adult, I don’t think Charlotte wanted to get rid of Charlie (or that it’s possible to undo the past) because she still visits him. She only wished her mother would acknowledge that he was a chimp living with them, not a human brother, and that they could speak to and learn from him without having to adopt him.

I can’t imagine Langdon saying “I love hearing voices”, but she did mention jokingly at the end that it’s not all bad. She had to learn to talk to her voices respectfully before she could put her life back together. Similarly, I don’t think Charlotte believes in the book’s title completely, but learning to move on means respecting all parts of herself and her history.

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