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Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey…

Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism

by Dawn Phd Prince-Hughes

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I found it almost impossible to review this book straight away, because there aspects of it I strongly dislike and aspects that I find very valuable.

I think it is a very important book: It gives a great glimpse into one person's reality of coming of age with undefined high functioning autism. Most importantly, it describes a strategy for overcoming autistic isolation. Not a cure but a way to kick start the positive feedback loop of social relationships that social learning requires in order to happen.

Dawn is a gifted writer, and the book has brilliant passages and good integrity. Its structure is meaningful, organised into 3 sections:

Part 1. Dawn's childhood and youth history growing up with undiagnosed autism, knowing something is wrong with her socially, but unable to figure out what it is. She is severely bullied and drops out of school, becomes homeless and hungry, and later finds a way to make a living as an erotic dancer. The roots of her passion for primates / ancient humans is described in the childhood part, and runs through her life story as a sub-surface theme waiting to unfold.

Part 2: Dawn discovers the gorillas. She is lucky and gets a job in the zoo, and gets more and more involved with the gorilla family. They become her family, and she learns social skills by observing and interacting with them

Part 3: Dawn’s life post-zoo, with the social skills she learned from the gorillas. She establishes a family, works through relationship problems, discovers the name of her condition and gets a diagnosis, gets on meds, and makes her special interest into her study direction and career.

I appreciate very much that Dawn doesn't generalise herself and try to speak on behalf of all autistics; she doesn't "We" herself but emphasises that this is her version of it, and that it is both unique and overlaps with some others peoples' experiences of living with autism, but not all.

Out of the aspergers/autism memoirs I have read, this is the one that resonates strongest with me on a personal level. Particularly the key theme of learning crucial social relationship skills from animals, creating a Before and After timeline; where the time "before" having started the crucial positive feedback loop of social learning is largely a confused and clumsy, blind fumbling through an alien world (what Dawn calls "the darkness of autism") and "after" is when the social structures begin to emerge as something that can be learned, connections to other become possible, and talents, abilities, joys and opportunities begin to play a leading role (what Dawn calls "the beauty of autism").

That's the core point, but many other aspects of the book hit home too - like the attachment to places more than to people, thus traumatic dislocation and alienation caused by moving from a childhood home, general alienness, strong interests et.c.

I think the book is very important because it is true, but rarely shown, that the social dynamics and social skills necessary for interacting and relating with people can be learned from observing and relating with social animals, as an easier (or even just possible) starting point. Relationship skills are somewhat universal: the attitude and behaviours your dog uses to connect with you and build unique emotional bonds, is similar to what you need to connect and bond with people (in a modified version).

As I said initially, there are also aspects of the book I found hard to bear and strongly distasteful. The worst is the sentimentalism and idealisation of the gorillas. I hate when Dawn calls the gorillas for “people”, and humans for “human people”. Essentially she insists on re-categorising gorillas as a type of ancient humans; and projects her special interest for ancient humanity onto the gorillas. I find that re-categorisation wrong on many levels, none of which denies that gorillas have personalities and social relations and social group dynamics, just like people do. However, so do many other animals... That makes them relatable, but not human. Dawn does explain why she tries to include the gorillas in humanity; I see her views but didn't like to be force-fed them semantically.

That said, overall I think this is an important, strong, beautifully written book with strong integrity, and despite finding some aspects of it repulsive, I'll absolute recommend it as a great source of insights and inspiration. ( )
  Saltvand | Apr 8, 2014 |
The life story of an anthropologist with Asberger's syndrome, but also a lovely argument in favor of compassion and effective action on behalf of the other creatures, especially primates, with whom we share this planet. Prince-Hughes is poetic, graphic and always eloquent whether describing her childhood, her relationships, Woodland Park Zoo and its various inhabitants, or the case for primate intelligence. ( )
1 vote nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
As the parent of 2 boys with Aspergers, I often find value in the memoirs and autobiographies of those who have turned their alternate processing of the world into a strength and who are sharing their successes with us. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into Songs of the Gorilla Nation. I think it had as much to do with external things, because the first few chapters made me dwell too much on my own faults and inadequacies rather than being drawn into Dawn's success. So, I've decided to not finish the book at this time. Perhaps I'll try it again later.

( )
  Julie_loves_to_read | Mar 31, 2013 |
I grew up knowing I was different, but, thanks to my classmates, my extent of understanding of myself was that I was a "freak." In eighth grade, I was diagnosed with Aspergers, but never really understood any of what that meant. In eleventh grade, I discovered this book in my school library. For the first time in my life, I finally understood who I was and WHY I was different.
Though we'll never meet, and you'll probably never read these words, thank you Dawn for helping me feel not so alone in the world. ( )
  benuathanasia | Sep 5, 2012 |
From Booklist
This memoir tells how Prince-Hughes learned to manage her form of autism, Asperger's syndrome, by observing and interacting with gorillas. This "high-functioning" form of autism regularly goes unrecognized because sufferers are often gifted intellectually and learn numerous coping mechanisms. The author's accounts of her early childhood are intensely moving as she describes how she viewed her world and how she tried to deal with it. What makes this book unique is the author's discovery of the gorillas at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, and how she learned about personal relationships, the need for companionship, and the need for a group to belong to by watching them. Though she dropped out of school at 16, wanting to learn more about the gorillas helped her to find a focus and led to an eventual Ph.D. in anthropology. The reader will feel what the author is feeling, and her comparisons of herself with the gorillas she grew to love are fascinating. An excellent addition to any library's collection about autism, this will also resonate with all who understand the human-animal connection.
1 vote | autismsociety | Mar 16, 2008 |
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"In this memoir, Dawn Prince-Hughes traces her personal growth from undiagnosed autism to the moment when, as a young woman, she entered the Seattle Zoo and immediately became fascinated with the gorillas." "Having suffered from a lifelong inability to relate to people in a meaningful way, Dawn was surprised to find herself irresistibly drawn to these great primates. By observing them and later, working with them, she was finally able to emerge from her solitude and connect to living beings in a way she had never previously experienced." "Songs of the Gorilla Nation is more than a story of autism, is is a paean to all that is important in life. Dawn Prince-Hughes's evocative story will undoubtedly have a lasting impact, forcing us, like the author herself, to rediscover and assess our own understanding of human emotion."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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