In the early 1970s, Columbia University psychology professor Herbert Terrace speculated that if a chimpanzee were raised like a human child in a human home and taught sign language -- because chimps don't have the physiological apparatus for human speech -- then a door would open up to the animal mind. We'd learn what animals think and feel, perhaps even what they dream. I wouldn't be surprised if he envisioned a best-selling chimp-penned novel or at least a review of a Tarzan movie.
Director James Marsh recounts Terrace's high hopes and where they led in his brilliant documentary Project Nim. It turns out what happened to Terrace's chimp subject, Nim, also known as Nim Chimpsky, was the stuff of nightmares -- or a sick farce. From the start, when we hear how Nim is plucked from his shrieking mother's arms at a research facility, he's more to us than a "project." He has complicated thoughts and emotions. He's practically ... human. No, hold on, he's not -- and that's a problem, too. What people in the film project on this project says more about them than it does about poor, confused Nim.
Get this: His first human "mother," Stephanie LaFarge, a former student and lover of Terrace's, breast-fed Nim, let him puff on a joint and encouraged his PG-13 explorations of her body as he began puberty. She also worried, as hippie types tended to do, that Nim's developing language would constrain his animal nature -- an idea that made me slap my forehead, as that's the whole point of the experiment.
Nim was actually learning to sign, but there wasn't a lot of formal, organized research going on. So Terrace brought in a nice, pretty grad student who bonded with Nim and eventually became his full-time caretaker, and they left the LaFarges for a roomy Riverdale house owned by Columbia. But that student ended up sleeping with Terrace and then fleeing the project, and Nim had to bond with another woman, this time nearly biting off half her face and causing her to flee. Nim did, however, frantically sign, "I'm sorry" as she bled. After that, Nim was lucky enough to get researcher Bob Ingersoll, an enthusiastic Grateful Deadhead who stuck around.
As he proved in Man on Wire, Marsh can stylize his documentaries in ways that only intensify the raw emotions. Project Nim is an artful weave of interviews and re-enactments and a lot of period footage, because much of what surrounded Nim was deemed momentous -- he was even on the cover of New York Magazine in 1975, under the headline, "First Message from the Planet of the Apes." Each interview subject sits in a chair and recalls his or her interactions with Nim -- and then, when they speak of leaving Nim's life, the camera travels away from them, often in a way that breaks your heart.
In the second half of Project Nim, Terrace recalls his disappointment when he realized that Nim wasn't going to be the Noam Chomsky of chimps and lost interest, despite the fact that Nim had learned 125 signs. He didn't spend time playing with Nim. He didn't see the Nim that Bob Ingersoll saw.
Terrace lost his funding along with his interest, and the odyssey that follows the end of the experiment is devastatingly sad. While it's tempting to label Herb Terrace the villain in Project Nim, no one in this sorry saga is totally bad or good. Terrace was right: Nim opened a door. But into the human, not the animal mind. And we can be a crazy species. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.