by Jerry Waxler
I first learned about Alex while I was on a spiritual retreat in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Our host played a video of a talking African Gray parrot named Alex. Alex’s trainer, Dr. Irene Pepperberg held a tray of objects and asked questions. For example, she asked “which square?” and the parrot answered, “green,” because the square object was colored green. She asked “which same?” and Alex correctly said “key” because the keys were all made of cork. He even concocted his own words, for example describing an almond as a “cork-nut,” a word he was never taught.
Tell me more about that parrot
Alex was cute, zany and unpredictable, and while Pepperberg watched him learn, he was teaching her about the mind of a bird. His bobbing head, hyper-alert eyes, and clever voice mesmerized me, making me an instant fan. I was not alone. Everyone who saw Alex fell in love with him. A few years later I heard that the parrot died, a loss that surprised and saddened me. Then I saw the memoir “Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg, and thought, “Hey, I know that bird!”
The book starts with Alex’s sudden, unexpected death in 2007, followed by the outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Pepperberg read a sampling of the letters and obituaries from Alex’s many admirers. As each one played upon my heart, I was amazed at how much compassion they stirred. Like a group hug, Alex’s well wishers were drawing me in to Pepperberg’s pain.
Outpouring of compassion creates secondary compassion
I looked for a similar effect in my own life and remembered my mother’s memorial service. Her old friends came up to me and said “You were lucky to have such a great mom” and “I admired her so much,” and “We miss her.” Later, I turned their comments over in my mind, and was awed at the complexity of emotions.
How much were they seeking to support me, and how much were they hoping that somehow my presence could help them relieve their own grief? These moments showed me how intertwined we all are. During our communal grieving, we were each trying to make sense of what just happened, while supporting each other as we moved forward.
When in your life did empathy flow towards you? Was it related to the death or illness of a loved one? Or did others reach out to comfort you when you were in the hospital yourself? Describe the scene, keeping in mind that it will give the reader an opening through which they too can feel connected.
Emotional Bonds to Our Companion Animals
Dr. Pepperberg and Alex were close companions and so the book turned out to be a buddy story between human and bird. Sharing genuine emotions with animals has become widely respected, as evidenced by the runaway success of “Marley and Me,” by John Grogan, a memoir about the author’s relationship with a dog.
To make the relationship even deeper, Dr. Pepperberg showed how it evolved over the years. At first, she tried to maintain distance in order to create an objective, scientific perspective. She worked with him closely for years. Then after Alex died, Irene cried and cried, making her and her readers realize how deeply emotionally involved she had become..
List your pets, and other encounters with critters. When you remember a scene, stop listing and start writing. See if you can string a few scenes together to show how the relationship changed over time.
Structure of a story, beginning, middle, and end
Every memoir writer seeks excellent story structure. Pepperberg’s memoir offers a couple of insights. For one thing, she grabs our attention with a bang, shocking the reader into the midst of the action, a technique the Greeks called “in medias res.” Then the story returns to the beginning, and moves forward through the long middle, towards an ending that resolves the dramatic tension. I love this structure.
What powerful event can you start your book with, to grab readers and yank them into the action. Worry about the transition to the flashback later. For now, just consider what event would get readers into the thick of your story.
Alex and Me ends with a Personal Witness to the Evolution of Knowledge
At the end of Alex and Me, Alex dies, as we already knew he would. So how does an author finish a book about loss? Pepperberg has chosen to review what Alex contributed to her and to the world. It turns into a poignant eulogy that contemplates a life well-lived, during which, Alex contributed not only to his trainer but to the world’s understanding of humans and other animals.
Considering his brain was the “size of a shelled walnut,” the vast majority of scientists were confident that Alex could not possibly be learning as much as Pepperberg claimed. But she doesn’t need to debate her findings with me. Even though I don’t have an advanced degree in bird brains, he seemed pretty smart. In fact, I believed that the other scientists were wrong and Pepperberg was right. It turns out that most people believe they know more about their own companion animals than scientists do.
Irene Pepperberg’s experiments herald a sea change in our attitude towards animal intelligence. With incredible persistence and love these two creatures demonstrated a thinking capacity that science had not yet imagined. As Shakespeare said, “There are more things in heaven and earth than your philosophy dreams of.” After reading “Alex and Me” I can feel this little creature’s beautiful influence on Irene Pepperberg and everyone else he touched. And their relationship touched me. My respect for pets, for intelligence, and the evolution of knowledge has been expanded by this loving connection between a scientist and her little winged companion.
Do you have a story about your pet that demonstrates intelligence, loyalty, curiosity, or other “human” characteristics? The writing exercise may come in handy in unexpected ways for comic relief or to help readers identify with particular situations in your life.
Click to visit Amazon’s page for Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg
According to Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” science regularly changes its idea about what is True. My favorite example is that in the 20th century, all neuroscientists claimed that brain cells can never grow, but only die. Around 1995, science changed its mind. After the shift in perspective, scientists have agreed that adults can use their brains and grow. In fact, if you don’t use your brain it will die. This sort of shift in Truth from one decade to another is an ordinary occurrence in the history of science. And so, to study science is to study the constant evolution of ideas.
For another book that shows how the brain has a capacity for wholeness, read Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight – in which she was forced outside the box by direct perception. Click here for my essay.
For another example of starting in the middle of the action, see Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days. Click here for my essay about Fugitive Days.
For another famous buddy memoir read “Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog by John Grogan”