Tom (Photo credit: Gloria Grow, Fauna Foundation)

I'm starting with the man in the mirror,
I'm asking him to change his ways,
And no message could have been any clearer,
If you wanna make the world a better place,
Take a look at yourself and then make a change


We may have grown accustomed to, if not sanguine about, the landslide of today's devastating truths. Drowning polar bears, birds falling from the sky, and blistering out-of-season temperatures are hard to shrug off, but humanity plugs along obsessing on celebrities' crises and Wall Street's temperamental cycles. Life's much more inconvenient, but business is usual.

Nonetheless, a singular inconvenience will not go away—one essential truth disrupting all the untruths making up the fabric of modern life. We aren't who we said we were—and in corollary, neither are nonhuman animals who serve as counterpoint to human identity. Despite itself, science is unable to come to any conclusion other than human uniqueness lies on our insistence that we are different from the rest of nature. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide—the man in the mirror stares out demanding reconciliation with truth. This is the subject of Neil Abramson's brilliant confessional novel, Unsaid. [2]

Set in the liminal space of the living and the dead, human and nonhuman animal, Unsaid carries the reader through a maze of knowing and denial interwoven into the master narrative of science. The tale is recounted in the first person by Helena, the recently deceased wife of David. The two met through accident, when "a large deer suddenly jumped from the woods into the road and froze in the glare of our headlights." Helena was able to "cut her wheel" and lodge in an embankment. However,

David and the deer were not so lucky. He stomped on his brakes, but he was too late by seconds. I heard the sickening thud of metal against soft tissue and then the sound of his wheels scream as he spun off the opposite side of the road.

Helena, a veterinarian at Cornell, is quick to respond, while David, a law student, stands stunned. Their stray encounter unfolds into love and marriage that is interrupted by Helena's untimely death. Steeped in the pain of loss, David stumbles through a haze of grief trying to care for their family of animals. But the past will not lie still. Reluctantly pulled into a vortex of white lies and dark reality, David must follow a disquieting loose thread left hanging from the time when Helena was a research assistant in a primate lab.

In the story of two chimpanzees, Charlie, a casualty of biomedical subterfuge and Cindy, marginally privileged by her languaged status, we watch protective untruths peel away to reveal the raw reality of animal suffering. We also meet an intriguing cast including Jaycee, Cindy's friend cum researcher, who presages our own trial by fire, as she transforms from participant to witness of science's frenzied violence codified as the search for truth.

Unsaid is a novel, but Abramson's stark portrayal echoes the litany of real Cindys and Charlies, many who remain incarcerated in American research facilities. [3] David, Helena, and we, the readers, as fellow travelers, are challenged to come to terms with the consequence of denial. Denial that the face, the man or woman staring back from the mirror whom we label "animal" is in fact a reflection of our own fearful countenance. Unsaid is an unrelenting story of the times—a pivotal moment of recognition and atonement:

I came to believe that I could not face these failures without any offering of true and demonstrable repentance. For me this means not just empty words of apology, but finding meaning in and justification for the decisions I've made.[2]

Sue Ellen

Sue Ellen (Photo credit: Gloria Grow, Fauna Foundation)

Literature Cited

[1] Ballard, G., and S. Barrett. 1988. Man in the Mirror, performed by Michael Jackson.

[2] Abramson, N. 2011. Unsaid. New York: Center Street.

[3] Capaldo, T. and G.A. Bradshaw. 2011. The bioethics of Great Apes: Psychiatric injury and duty of care. Animals & Society Policy Series.

About the Author

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D.

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

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