based on a true story

When we first began to talk about making this piece, we knew the story of Maurice Temerlin and his daughter, Lucy, via Radiolab. Using excerpts from Temerlin’s memoirs and the testimony of those who knew Lucy, the show touched on some of the more remarkable aspects of Lucy’s 12 years with the Temerlins (such as Lucy’s use of language) as well as the more sensational aspects (such as her sexual interest in human males). The episode spanned Lucy’s entire life, which opened cute (with Jane disguising Lucy for the trip home on a commercial airline) and ended tragically.Although I haven’t done the math regarding the comments on the RadioLab piece, on a quick scan most people seemed to regard Temerlin’s project as “appalling,” “disgusting,” “repugnant.” I don’t disagree — none of us do. But a one-sided villain makes for pretty boring material for a one-man opera. And besides, as the show made clear, Temerlin did love his daughter — even if he made some very, very poor choices. Indeed, we suspected the information about Lucy’s terrible end made it difficult for RadioLab listeners to consider some of the more subtle questions the story raised about how we relate to other species.

Our next step was to get Temerlin’s side of the story, so we located a couple of copies of Growing Up Human, his memoir. I can’t say it made me like him more, but book did a lot for us in terms of allowing us to think of him as a human being — albeit a somewhat freakish one. (One person who commented on the RadioLab story knew Temerlin, and she confirmed this impression: “It was generally understood that the Termerlin’s were pretty far out, and perhaps a bit crazy.”) Certainly, he comes across as devoted to Lucy. But while he displays a commitment to being a good father, he also has a commitment to science, which often leads him down some disturbing paths.

John has used the word “objective” to describe our intent with this piece, though that’s not exactly right. Lucy’s story unfolded over years, with countless players. In reducing the story to manageable size — a radio show, an opera, an article, a book — it’s impossible to be completely objective. Every choice about what to include, what to leave out, shapes the story in a way that may have more to do with the storytellers than the subject.

We are primarily interested in everyday life in the Temerlin household, and the degree to which each of the inhabitants traversed the spectrum of behaviors that we typically label “beastly” to “human.” In order not to distract the audience, we made a conscious choice to leave out some of the more sensational facts, including the circumstances of Lucy’s death. Still, the deeper we got into the story, the more we learned about chimps, the more horrified we were by the Temerlins’ decision to adopt a chimp.

Recently I encountered an overlapping true story told by Roger Fouts, Lucy’s sign language tutor and a leading primate researcher. His book, Next of Kin, tells of his life with chimpanzees. As I read about these animals’ extraordinary — shall we say, “human” — capacities, I was even more heartbroken about Lucy’s fate. But I also learned something new about Temerlin — or at least, the world in which he lived. According to Fouts, the Temerlins were one of many families that adopted baby chimps at the urging of one Dr. William Lemmon. Not only was Lemmon, a psychotherapist, interested in how the young chimps would develop, he felt that a chimp in the household would have therapeutic value for certain of his patients.

Somehow, the knowledge that Temerlin didn’t cook up the harebrained scheme on his own caused my feelings about him to shift yet again. Fouts also suggests that Lucy’s return to the wild was somehow tied to an ugly break between Temerlin and Lemmon. Luckily, this new information does not conflict with the sliver of the story we have chosen to tell (though I suspect it may inform Andy’s performance in some way).

After the first reading in St. Paul, we had an audience talk-back. One person was angry at Temerlin, whom he called “arrogant”— and worse. Another said that her strongest impression was of Temerlin’s love for Lucy. We were pretty happy with this pair of responses. We know a 50-minute opera cannot tell the whole story. But I hope we will begin to do justice to its complexity.

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