© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Girl Who Was Raised By Monkeys?

Capuchin monkeys at the zoo in Cali, Colombia.
Luis Robayo
AFP/Getty Images
Capuchin monkeys at the zoo in Cali, Colombia.

One of the many enjoyable aspects of blogging weekly for NPR is that publishers send or offer me books, most often nonfiction volumes that in some way involve animals. When this happened with Marina Chapman's memoir, The Girl with No Name: The Incredible Story of a Child Raised by Monkeys, I couldn't resist. In an earlier stage of life, I spent long hours observing the behavior of monkeys and apes. Nowadays, I write frequently about the lives and welfare of our closest living relatives.

The book held my interest. Abducted from her home just shy of her fifth birthday, a little girl in Colombia — now a woman in her 60s living in England called Marina Chapman — was abandoned deep in the forest. She survived there without human contact for five years because a group of capuchin monkeys accepted and guided her.

At least, that's the story, one considered authentic enough for Pegasus Books (a traditional, not a vanity, publisher) and distributed by W.W. Norton.

So why do I have lingering doubts? Why am I skeptical that a traumatized and untutored 5-year-old girl could survive the forest, with its abundant predators and its strange, sometimes toxic foods, all on her own?

Chapman's descriptions of the monkeys' behavior doesn't track with what is reported about the lives of capuchins from thousands of hours of scientific study; this fact does nothing to decrease my skepticism. Capuchins aren't known to construct beds or nests in the trees, as the narrative claims. An anecdote central to the book, about the little girl's interaction with an older male monkey she called Grandpa, strains belief. Not long after her arrival, the girl had become ill, feeling acute stomach pain.

But soon, Grandpa came near.

Following along, the child tumbled down a bank into a basin of water containing a waterfall.

So the girl drank in mouthfuls, which led to coughing and vomiting.

From that point forward, Grandpa became her protector, sharing food with her and grooming her; other monkeys accepted her, too.

Chapman writes that at about age 10 she revealed herself to hunters in the forest and was sold into what was essentially domestic slavery, escaping only to become a street kid. Eventually she was adopted into a caring family and started a new life. The Today Show's four-and-a-half-minute clip conveys Chapman's warmth as she is surrounded by her own family today.

I decided to probe further, while endeavoring to be fair to Chapman. Pegasus Books offered to put me in touch with Chapman's daughter, Vanessa James, who, along with a ghost writer, was part of the team that brought the book to fruition. Here is part of my lengthy conversation with James, conducted by email:

Katherine MacKinnon, a biological anthropologist at Saint Louis University who has extensive experience studying capuchin monkeys in the wild, isn't buying it. In email correspondence with me, she had this to say:

MacKinnon's questions don't stop there.

So what are we to conclude about this book?

We know that fake memoirs exist. Just last month, the author of a fabricated Holocaust memoir about being raised by wolves during World War II was ordered to pay $22.5 million to her publisher.

I have no evidence to suggest that this is the case with Chapman's book.

And, of course, human memory is a funny thing. It's a safe bet that no one of us remembers all events from our childhood as they actually happened; as time passes, we continuously reshape what we recall. In this light, perhaps Chapman's book should be understood as accurate to the extent that she, her daughter and her ghostwriter were able to reconstruct faithfully a traumatized young girl's memories.

What's clear to me is that the book isn't a straight-on, nonfiction account. Reading Vanessa James' responses to me, we see that there's simply too much imaginative reconstruction at work for that to be the case.

In reply to my concern about the claim of nest-building monkeys, James replied:

I wish Marina Chapman — and her family members, too — a wonderful life. Publishing a book purporting to be a true-to-life memoir is serious business, though. And readers in this case will have to decide for themselves how to interpret the words "incredible story" emblazoned on the book's cover.

Also on the cover in the version I was sent, incredibly enough, is a photograph of a macaque. Macaques are monkeys that live in Asia and North Africa, not South America.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.