“People could probably find it listed under “primatology,” but it’s really a memoir that happens to have gorillas in it…”
John Fowler’s description of his book’s categorization is delivered wryly; he knows most people don’t go looking for exciting primatology reads. He’s probably right; I would never even consider primatology as “must-read.” But Fowler’s book, A Forest In The Clouds, is hardly the stuff of dry research on primates. It’s just this side of scandalous—a tell-all account that candidly exposes the truth about famed primate researcher Dr. Dian Fossey and her “difficult” personality.
It’s this truth-telling, said Fowler, who now lives in Tallahassee, that has made his book unpopular with some—usually with those who still have favorable impressions of Fossey and her work studying the mountain gorillas in the Rwandan jungle. The story is unsettling, like the feeling you get when you finally openly address a well-known but uncomfortable truth everyone else would rather avoid. And Fowler would know unsettling; he spent a year living in Fossey’s camp Karisoke, first trying to study the mountain gorillas with her, but ultimately just trying to survive the year.
“Dian was…difficult. And people tried to warn me. I can see that now, looking back on it,” said Fowler. “But it truly was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Fowler was 23 when he traveled to Rwanda and Karisoke to spend the year studying gorillas with Fossey. Many research students only lasted a few weeks in camp. Fowler was determined to last at least a year, a resolve that was sorely tested time and again as he was berated, belittled and abused by the irascible and always unpredictable Fossey. To the outside world, she was the researcher who doted on her gorillas from the pages of National Geographic; in camp she was volatile, prone to appropriating her students’ research and often resorting to violence to protect her fiefdom and her gorilla subjects.
The book is, as Fowler said others have told him, impossible to put down. I couldn’t stop
reading about Fossey, the erratic anti-hero who often preferred gorilla vocalizations over human language to express her dissatisfaction with those around her (I mean, WHO DOES THAT?!). It helps that Fowler is a masterful storyteller, probably because the story is so personal to him. But you don’t have to take my word for it; Fowler will be in conversation with editor and anthologist Ann Vandermeer at Midtown Reader (1123 Thomasville Road) on Saturday, March 9 at 6pm.
(This piece was originally published in the Tallahassee Democrat on March 6, 2019.)