Reviewed by Torrie Jay White | April 26, 2022
Black Lawrence Press, 2021
Paperback, 102 pages, $19.95
“I would characterize myself,” Deborah Thompson writes in the introduction to her book of essays, Animal Disorders, published by Black Lawrence Press in September of 2021, “as having a fairly representative case of early-stage animal disorder.” The title is a blanket term for the conflicting, contradictory, and unexamined beliefs and practices that twenty-century, middle-class America brings to bear on its relationship with animals. And these essays are Thompson’s attempt to bring clarity to these uncomfortable contradictions, contradictions that reared, largely, in the wake of her husband’s untimely death and her cascading grief.
This collection is not, as I expected after reading the introduction she wrote, a series of arguments on the ethical ramifications of commodifying and consuming animals. Instead, it’s an empathetic, compassionate, and thoughtful exploration of the messy middle we humans have created in our attempts to love, admire, and live alongside the animal kingdom. Thompson uses herself as a test and case study to ask uncomfortable and often unsettling questions. How can she eschew the long-term study of radiation conducted on laboratory beagles at the college where she teaches, when her husband benefited from radiation therapy during his battle with aggressive cancer? Where is the line between loving ownership and animal hoarding—and how close does she come when she combs her local shelter’s page for new dogs to adopt? Does her vegetarianism mean anything if she feeds her dogs meat-based kibble? And what about animal testing when, as she admits, “I do want my drugs tested on mice at least, and possibly on dogs, since the latter are much better models of human physiology. But not on my own dogs” (p. 90)?
These questions and more coalesce around the larger and transformative experience of losing her husband, at age thirty-eight, to an unexpected and fast-growing cancer. The book is structured to operate like a tunnel: the first essays introducing what she means when she talks about “animal disorders,” the middle ones moving, evocatively, through meditations on death, grief, and healing, while the essays at the tail end personalize and concretize the questions she raises at the beginning. Like all collections, some essays are more emotionally engaging than others. The opening essay, “Consider the Hamster,” is information-dense, her own experience as a pre-teen hamster owner secondary to a broader academic argument, while “The Blue Heron Returns” and “See Monkey Dance, Make Good Photo” each pulse with a tenderness and surrealism of grief. Each of the ten essays asks the reader, to one degree or another, to confront the discomfort of animal consumption, be it burger eating, hamster owning, dog testing, or tiger hoarding, but none does this better than “The Other Thompson.” In this essay, Deborah Thompson attempts to make sense of Ohio-based, exotic animal owner Terry Thompson’s decision to open the pens corralling his lions, tigers, and bears, cover himself with the carcass of a dead chicken, and shoot himself in the head. “Obviously, I’ve been projecting onto the other Thompson,” she writes, “but…I believe he loved them in the most tragically, pathologically dysfunctional of ways, with the ultimate impossible love, unrequited and unrequitable…Maybe, feeling caged himself, he over-identified with them, and wanted to give them the taste of wild freedom, at least for one brief moment, that he could never have. Because nothing will cage you more absolutely than keeping exotic animals” (p. 79). Though she says elsewhere that she, as an inveterate dog owner and lover, won’t turn a too critical eye on dog ownership, the questions linger in these pages: where is the line between owning and caging, between pet and beast, between love and pathology?
Without forcing a debate, she holds her reader a flame, but when I closed the book, I felt I’d read something meaningful about how to hold life, longing, and loss together in one hand. No essay is too much about one thing, so they all felt searching, discomforting, but ultimately kind. These questions of power are complex, but they are also laced with love. As Thompson puts it, “One animal advocacy group says that you can enjoy animals without enslaving them…but what’s missing in their version is the greediness of touch. Just to hold, in your palm, a beating-hearted thing, soft and warm, furry and nervous. To smooth its angora fur with your fingertips to calm it, to feel so in touch with its slowing beats that the [animal] itself becomes a heart in your hands. To feel your fingers wrap around it and call it your own.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deborah Thompson is a Professor of English at Colorado State University, where she teaches literature and creative non-fiction. She has published numerous creative and critical essays, and has won the Missouri Review and Iowa Review awards in creative nonfiction, as well as a Pushcart prize. She is the author of Pretzel, Houdini, and Olive: Essays on the Dogs of my Life, published by Red Hen Press, and is working on a nonfiction book on mythologies of dogs in American culture.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Torrie Jay White writes about identity, pain, and our place within the world. Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals in both the U.S. and U.K., and she recently completed her first novel. Born and raised in Minnesota, she lives in Minneapolis with her small family. torriejaywhite.com