It was a sideshow story whose horror was so extravagant that it bordered on vulgarity: On Feb. 16, 2009, a 14-year-old male chimpanzee named Travis, who had been raised from infancy by Nancy Herold, attacked a friend who was visiting her home in Stamford, Conn. Over the next 12 minutes, he ripped or chewed off one of Charla Nash’s hands, almost all of the other one, and most of her face. (Miraculously, terribly, she lived.) A desperate Herold tried beating Travis back with a shovel and stabbed him repeatedly with a butcher knife, but the chimp continued his assault until an arriving police officer shot him four times at point-blank range. Travis reeled away and fled into the woods. As police searched for him, he made his way back into the house, leaving a path of bloodstains that ended in his room. He was trying to climb into his sleeping enclosure when he died.
The overwhelming temptation for most writers would be to begin with that scene of carnage, going either for grotesquery, the maimed woman lying in the driveway in a pool of her own blood, or pathos, the dead chimp clutching his bedpost at the end of a trail of his. But for Dan P. Lee of New York magazine, “Travis the Menace” (the jokey title is the only thing about it that feels wrong) is a story of omissions. Its power derives from what Lee doesn’t say or postpones saying until absolutely necessary. Of course, the delayed payoff is one of the hallmarks of suspense, but here Lee’s reticence seems to reflect deeper questions of how one tells certain kinds of story, whether it’s even possible to tell them.
Lee starts “Travis” long before the chimp’s arrival in Sandy Herold’s home. He starts with Sandy:
Throughout her life, Sandy Herold had long, straight hair so black it almost looked wet. She wore it down below her shoulders, her bangs cut straight across. She applied bright-pink lipstick and copious amounts of bronzer. She wore skintight size-7 jeans. She spoke with a strange accent, a New York-New England hybrid, and spent her entire life in Stamford, Connecticut.
This makes sense for both narrative reasons and thematic ones. Although for a while Travis was the most famous ape in America, his life story doesn’t amount to much: He was born in captivity and taken from his mother by breeders who stunned her with a tranquilizer dart, then sold him to Sandy for $50,000 in cash. For the next 14 years, he lived with Sandy and her husband, Jerry, in a sprawling house with separate chimp-friendly living quarters, though he mostly ate and slept with his adoptive parents. He learned to brush his teeth, use a computer, and get around on a bicycle and a riding mower (and, according to rumor, drive the Herolds’ Corvette). He appeared in TV commercials for Coca-Cola and Old Navy; Maury Povich had him as a guest on his show. He developed a taste for lobster tails, filet mignon, and the nightly goblet of wine he drank with his human father, who taught him to clink glasses with him as he said cheers. Then Sandy’s only child, Suzan, was killed in a car accident. Jerry died of cancer. Sandy sank into depression. And Travis, whose one earlier episode of misbehavior had been written off as monkey business, either went berserk or, in the view of some primatologists, reverted to type. Chimps in the wild are known to practice cannibalism.
And the truth is that no one can write a biography of an animal, even an animal as human as a chimpanzee. A biography is more than a record of its subject’s actions; it’s about what those actions meant to the subject and his or her contemporaries. For all that we share – a common ancestry and 98 percent of our DNA – we can’t know what something “means” to a chimp. Its mind is a black box, into which its hoots and pantings and nimble feats of mimicry offer only a partial glimpse. What can be known about Travis is knowable only because of the human beings who spent time with him. Nobody spent more time with him than Sandy.
And, if we believe that a nonhuman animal, like a human one, can be shaped by its early environment, nobody did more to shape Travis than her.
Lee refrains from labeling Travis’s adoptive mother clinically or morally, though the temptation to do so must have been strong. It would have taken a mental health professional barely one session to diagnose Sandy as a pathological narcissist with severe dependent features, and you don’t have to be Peter Singer to see that raising a chimp like a human is profoundly wrong. Instead, the journalist portrays Sandy as a doted-on only child who grew up to become the doting mother of an only daughter: “a platinum-blonde version” of herself. When the daughter betrayed her by marrying and leaving home, Sandy found a furry surrogate child who couldn’t leave and doted on him. Lee doesn’t ask whether doting is the same thing as loving, but, then, if he had, he might have avoided writing a lurid story only to write a sanctimonious one. As she emerges here, Sandy is cringe-worthy, but she’s also heartbreaking, never more so than when, after Jerry’s death, she writes a letter to the proprietor of a chimp sanctuary that concludes:
I have no family, my only child, Suzan had gotten killed in an auto accident 4 years before Jerry died and who Travis also loved. My grand kids live in North Carolina and I don’t see them very often. I live alone with Travis, we eat and sleep together but I am worried that if something happens to me as suddenly as my husband what would happen to Travis, therefore I have to try to do something before that happens. I set up a trust fund for him but that’s not enough, he needs someone to play with of his own kind and have the best most possible life if I’m not here to care for him. I would love to see and talk to you if that’s possible. I am flying down to see your member event enclosed is our donation. I am looking forward to meeting you.
She signs the letter, “Sandy (Jerry) and Travis,” and encloses a check for $250 signed in both her and Travis’s names. But she never mails it.
It’s at this point that episodes that felt as weightless as anecdotes – Travis playing with Charla Nash on an earlier visit to the house and fondling her long, blond hair; Travis escaping the family car in the middle of downtown Stamford and spending two hours clowning for passersby and taunting police before he can finally be taken home – start sounding like the hoofbeats of approaching fate.
In Michael Paterniti’s New York Times obituary of Travis, a police detective calls his death “a Roman tragedy.” But the detective is wrong, and not just because tragedy was invented by the Greeks. For both Greeks and Romans, tragedy was always about honor. What happened to Travis happened because of love, or something that passed for love, and nobody cares more about love than Americans.
There’s something almost classical about the way Lee tells this story, the way he refuses to rush to the irresistible nightmare of its conclusion but lets its incidents play out with magisterial calm. Only at the end do we understand what we have been witnessing: the slow destruction of one being by another. It could be no more terrible if it had been done on purpose.
Peter Trachtenberg is a nonfiction writer and journalist whose books include 7 Tattoos and The Book of Calamities. His latest book, Another Insane Devotion, the story of a search for a missing cat that opens into a meditation on love and marriage, was just published by Da Capo. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
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