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The Last Living Aztec

‘Perhaps it was not what he did so much as how he put it. He insisted on “killed” not “terminated.” He refused “vertical chamber apparatus” in favor of the lurid “pit of despair.” But he also called love “love.” What reason was there to pretend otherwise?’

By Lisa Chen

FROM THE EDITOR: A tormented novelist, an ensemble actor in the avant-garde theater scene, a pinhead circus performer billed as The Last Living Aztec. What do all of these artists have in common? A shared acceptance of their dying art—perhaps. Or a deep masochistic streak. One imagines the novelist brooding at his keyboard, mucking through the dark matter of his soul for no one’s benefit. Why return to that chamber of tortures, day after day? Why insist on loving when the loved object has no investment in one’s thriving? Perhaps Harry Harlow’s experiments on baby monkeys provide an answer, and one’s own spring-trapped mother is all one has. Lisa Chen’s story is a brilliant meditation on cruel love and lengths we are willing to go to hold on to our mothers of spike and wire.

—Anelise Chen




On the rackety corner of Broadway and Canal I saw a man leading his young son by the hand. India? Pakistan? Fremont? The father could no longer pass for young but still he was handsome, a rogue’s full head of hair, legs thrust in expensive designer jeans. The boy was too tall to be holding hands with his father. His head explained why. It was abnormally small, the size of a cantaloupe. His face had outgrown it. His face was spilling to the edges.



Here’s what people used to think: Too much handling of babies spreads disease. Too much coddling stunts a child. Above all, babies attach to the teat because it is the teat that gives and not necessarily what is attached to teat: the rest of mother. The satisfaction of hunger is our first experience of love.

Wait, just wait, said the scientist. For his experiment with baby monkeys, he fashioned surrogate mothers in his laboratory, one made of wire and one made of cloth. His research demonstrated that, even when Wire Mother fed the baby monkeys milk and Cloth Mother gave them nothing, the babies clung to Cloth Mother, her softness, her light-bulb warmth.

I’ve been studying photographs of these surrogate mothers.  I am creating stage props for “Contact/Comfort,” an off-Broadway show based on the life and times of Harry Harlow, psychologist. Perhaps you are familiar? His work with infant rhesus macaques in the 1950s revolutionized our thinking on the nature of love. That’s how the marketing director wants us to describe it. She also wants us to refer to the show as an immersive theatrical event or, short of that, a musical experience.



In Harry Harlow’s laboratory Cloth Mother was a cylindrical block of wood swathed in sponge rubber and terrycloth. Her eyes were red bicycle reflectors. A green plastic mouth, plastic ears and a hard nub for a nose made from I’m not sure what. Inside her the light bulb glowed. Wire Mother was crafted from wire mesh. Her eyes were two dark holes, her mouth, downturned.

Harry Harlow was himself a distant father. He rose before dawn and left the house early. He came home for dinner then went back to the lab. He toiled over his experiments on weekends and eventually stopped coming home for dinner altogether.

Did his children ever cry out, I wish I were monkey!

Yet Harry Harlow was famously cold toward his monkeys, too: a Wire Father. In interviews he said, “The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out a property I can publish. I don’t have any love for them. I never have.”



I say this to her about him: He is the like novelist version of Harry Harlow!

We are talking about the writer. Most of us know him through his girlfriend, a photographer, or at least a person who composes photographs with a keenness that makes us feel slightly silly about our own sepia effects. To pay the bills she coordinates accounts for the people who manage the accounts under the people who supervise the accounts.

The writer has been working on the book for years now. Five years? Seven? You see him on occasion at parties listing to the side. Always the dark circles under his eyes. On a different person, these rings could be sexually alluring: a young, wolfish Leonard Michaels. But on him, Boris Karloff.

These are Brooklyn apartments with no possibility of wide berth. Sooner or later, the brushing of elbows triggers verbal engagement. And here is where he makes us feel less than. As our mouths are moving, laboring through the formalities, he turns sour. He is like a child at a museum who senses time is happening faster elsewhere. He is thinking his book could be written there.

After a time his eyes shift and go still like a beam from a dropped flashlight: he has accepted the hard truth that being elsewhere is no guarantee of writing the book, that nothing can come of this, or that, all things being equal, as in equally hopeless.

Some of us knew the writer before he started the book. He was the author of a short story collection that received positive notices for its lyric rendering of the lives of city dwellers as they sloped across emotional registers — middle-age, prolapsed ambition, loneliness with others — in an unnamed city, like Toronto in the movies.

And yet, if the writer was so sensitive to the hopes and failings of human beings, why was he such as a shit? One, he was rude to people in the service sector. Two, he managed to diminish our own artistic endeavors with just his face at our gallery openings, our poetry readings, the low-ceilinged bars where our bands opened for other bands. Three, he could be cruel to his girlfriend, whose indulgence surely could not be helping.



After I saw that boy in the street, I searched for his kind on the Internet.

The medical term is microcephaly, which, etymologically speaking, in that flat yet tributary way of the Greeks, means “small head.”

It can be argued that the most famous microcephalic was Schlitzie, a four-foot tall pinhead who had his 15 minutes in that cult movie Freaks. Sold to the circus by his parents, Schlitzie performed in sideshows for most of his life, billed as the Last Living Aztec. He wore a dress, the easier to change his diaper. Later in his life, a chimpanzee trainer became his legal guardian. When the trainer died, his daughter had Schlitzie institutionalized in Los Angeles where he was, by all accounts, miserable.

There he languished until he was discovered by a sword swallower who part-timed at the asylum when the circus closed for the season. It was Frenchy who convinced the hospital to release Schlitzie so he could perform again.



My favorite scene in the play is when two actors march out from opposite sides of the stage: Wire Mother and Cloth Mother. They battle for the souls of the baby monkeys.

Wire Mother, generally speaking: Come to me, I offer this!

Cloth Mother, in so many words: Ignore her, I have what she can never give you!



That the writer does not appear to hold down a day job only intensifies our dislike of him.

The women despise him for mooching off the largesse of his girlfriend. The men disdain his pretention to be the next David Foster Franzen. The nannies scowl at him as he skulks past the playground. The immigrants are appalled at his lack of industry in stockpiling against catastrophe. His neighbors shake their heads and assume he is one of the chronically unemployed they have read so much about. He is a like a pachinko machine that lights up, blurping and blinking depending on which button is being pushed.

Did he even have a contract? Did it matter? The money would long ago have been proffered and tossed away like so many plastic cups at a marathon of coffees, aioli-smeared sandwiches, a few extravagant steak or sushi dinners, the movies, bottles of inexpensive red, their price tags scraped off for dinner parties, books that could not wait for the paperback release — all of it amounting to a salary of dollars a day if you were inclined to do the math.



Years ago a friend promised if I visited him in Oskaloosa I would for certain see more than my share of pinheads.

Oskaloosa is late Midwestern Gothic, he wrote in his postcards to me. Easy listening bleated from the town square gazebo, soundtrack for asylums. The women were depressed, overweight; the men, skinny chain-smokers quick to anger. The pinheads were like the reproductive analogue to their misery. There was a big chemical company in the area. That’s why he was living there, his wife worked for them. It’s possible some kind of toxic effluvia bled into the drinking water and lined itself in the uterine wall.



We learn not to ask about the book. But since the writer doesn’t have a job-job, we can’t ask about that either. The truth is, we don’t really want to know much about the work that most of our friends do for money. It is often the least interesting thing about them. But still we persist in asking because it seems wrong to step around how most of our hours and brainpower are occupied.

So what to talk about? Television programs: how boring. Food can be unifying, with just enough churn for low-stakes disagreement. But wouldn’t you agree that foodie talk — all that infantilized patter about flavors and textures – has come to supplant conversation once occupied by books, theater, film? We should talk about that. Whatever you do, don’t ask about the book.



How strong are the bonds of love? What lengths are we willing to go to hold onto it? In the most harrowing number from our show – the one accented with strobe lights, which, unfortunately, has driven some audience members to cover their mouths and bolt from their seats with nausea — dramatizes Harry Harlow’s study of the effects of pathological mothering on their offspring.

The baby macaques throw themselves from one mother to another. One mother jackhammers violently. Another blasts shots of compressed air. One is booby-trapped with a steel frame that springs forward and hurls the babies onto the floor. One’s chest is studded with brass spikes.

Despite this gauntlet of tortures, the little monkeys do not cower or run from their mothers. They cling even more fiercely. That’s why mothers who are certifiably insane, addicted to Oxy, violent mothers with scorched-earth tempers, cold blueblood mothers, stoics who never hug or say I love you, mothers who love their boyfriends more than you, mothers who clean out your bank account or who wipe and vacuum around and under you when you visit as though you are a gassy body excreting greasy oils that require crime scene-style biohazard clean up, mothers who leave you on subway platforms in your stroller or lock you outside in your underwear, these mothers will always be loved.



When I finally did visit my friend in Oskaloosa, we spotted a microcephalic on the second day, bagging groceries at the Piggly Wiggly. He – she? – was nearly swallowed by a baseball cap. He/she seemed happy enough. I was ecstatic, then remorseful. It is one thing to spot a pinhead in the street and another to search for one.



When his second wife was dying of cancer, Harry Harlow started hitting the drink. He lay his head down on the table like a stone, could barely lift it. And so that became his project: a study of the effects of clinical depression.

To induce the sensation of utter hopelessness and isolation in his monkey subjects, he had a vertical chamber built that resembled an inverted pyramid. The pictures I’ve seen of it look like a coffee filter made of metal. Lowered in, the monkey spent the first two days struggling to reach the mesh-covered top of the cone only to slide down its smooth walls. Within a week they were curled into themselves, hunched, motionless, heartbeats in a chest.



Will we ever see this book?

If and when the book is published, will that change our opinion of him? Will favorable reviews land him solicitations from magazine editors for 50-cents-a-word essays on summer jobs, first apartments, most influential albums? Is it possible that, with the completion of the book, a great weight will be lifted, and the writer will — as though emerging from an era of dictatorship when people justified acts of betrayal to save their own skins — approach each of us, with eyes downcast, hands open, and ask for forgiveness?

What if the novel is bashed, or, more likely, vanishes into the nothing blend? Will that sink him deeper in our condemnation, that he was insufferable for no good reason? Or will such circumstances make us tender toward him, the way we are –the way we should be — with the feeble-minded?



Concerning the matter of Harry Harlow’s inciting role in galvanizing the modern-day animal rights movement: Note that others in his day were dipping animals into boiling water, radiating dogs until their skin crisped, shooting monkeys point blank to study the impact of bullet trauma.

Perhaps it was not what he did so much as how he put it. He insisted on “killed” not “terminated.” He refused “vertical chamber apparatus” in favor of the lurid “pit of despair.” But he also called love “love.” What reason was there to pretend otherwise?



So you’re suggesting that we consider being more generous with the writer, that we should interpret his disposition as “truth-telling.” How else can one be expected to behave when one spends one’s days excavating the dark matter of the human soul?

In other words, his ethos is that of the Chinese chef’s: leave the head and the tail on the fish, leave the bald, crisped skull of the duck on its neck. Let there be no mistaking what we are and how we lived, let there be truth before we devour it.



In the closing number to the show, Harry Harlow, depressed and shaking from the Parkinson’s that will ultimately kill him, climbs onto the lap of Cloth Mother for solace as the entire cast, monkeys, lab assistants, Harry’s two wives and his professional adversaries sing the finale, a melody whose bones have been tinkled on a piano between acts as the sets were rearranged.

The song is called “The Nature of Love.” This, and also the title of the address Harry Harlow gave about the baby macaques and their devotion to Cloth Mother at the 1958 meeting of the American Psychology Association in Washington, DC. The song begins as his speech begins, with these words: Love is a wondrous state, deep, tender, and rewarding.



Thank you for asking, but how else to characterize the reviews of “Contact/Comfort” but abysmal? A few critics singled out the actor who sang the part of Wire Mother, who, despite inhabiting the less flashy role, invested it with a level of emotional honesty that lifted her performance above the material.  

We scowled, vaped furiously. The rest of us, mastodons mucking in the tar pit of the material, were we dishonest?

It didn’t help that we were up against another art house musical in the East Village based on the real-life story of the chimpanzee who tore that woman’s face off. That scene where the chimp spins wildly in an office chair, zonked out on Xanax, gallon ice cream and Doritos – has morphed into a kind of downtown anthem for our bankrupt historical moment.



Now with the show closed, I have time on my hands. With my fellow underemployed, I am discovering that, the more time one has, the more difficult it is to account for how it passes. That is, time used to vanish, fly by, we used to ask of it: Where did you go? Whereas now it “passes,” ghostily, like gas.

Hence: projects. I’ve created a folder on my laptop to file online clips and other ephemera that I’ve begun collecting about Schlitzie.

It’s possible I may write a book about him. I will work in this reminiscence from a man who came to know Schlitzie and the sword swallower when he ran away with the circus to become foreman of the bumper cars. He was eighteen. Schlitzie, he wrote, was a like a child. And like all children, he craved tenderness, affection. He would moan and weep when he was held. Frenchy took the young man aside and warned him, gently, to let Schlitzie be. He explained that Schlitzie would come to want these embraces all the time and never let me go. Reluctantly, I did as I was told.



What happens when the writer’s book is finally finished, proofed, the sample pages and dummies reviewed, when the dispute over e-book rights is settled, when the manuscript is typeset and glued between two covers, when the uncorrected advance proofs are sold by adjunct writing instructors to used bookstores in towns where they migrate for the season, when it is shelved in bookstores —


He may have been a motherfucker but he was our motherfucker. If he were to leave us behind, circulate among the published, the seen and heard, the known, will he blossom into the radiant being that was dormant beneath that thick film of failure, or will he swim his way back to us, always belong to us, mothers of spike, milk and wire?