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The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness

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On July 12, 1969, Ruth Davis, a young American volunteer at Dr. Jane Goodall’s famous chimpanzee research camp in the Gombe Stream National Park of Tanzania, East Africa, walked out of camp to follow a chimpanzee into the forest. Six days later, her body was found floating in a pool at the base of a high waterfall. With careful detail, The Ghosts of Gombe reveals for the first time the full story of day-to-day life in Goodall’s wilderness camp—the people and the animals, the stresses and excitements, the social conflicts and cultural alignments, and the astonishing friendships that developed between three of the researchers and some of the chimpanzees—during the months preceding that tragic event. Was Ruth’s death an accident? Did she jump? Was she pushed? In an extended act of literary forensics, Goodall biographer Dale Peterson examines how Ruth’s death might have happened and explores some of the painful sequelae that haunted two of the survivors for the rest of their lives.

ISBN-13: 9780520297715

Media Type: Hardcover(First Edition)

Publisher: University of California Press

Publication Date: 04-06-2018

Pages: 232

Product Dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Dale Peterson is the author or editor of twenty books, including Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (coauthored with Richard Wrangham), The Moral Lives of Animals, and Eating Apes.

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The Visit

(September 27, 2006)

The address on the envelope was typed. From Raleigh, North Carolina. Postmarked with the date May 17, 2004. It had been sent to George Washington University, but by then he was no longer teaching there, so it was forwarded to his home. He tore it open, read it. The writer's name did not register at first. What puzzled him was that the writer had a Hungarian name. There was no connection to the name Davis, but she identified herself as the "family genealogist" for the extended Davis family, and she wanted to know what Geza could tell her about Ruth's death. More specifically, the writer wanted to know why Ruth "jumped over the cliff."

Why she jumped? The idea astonished him: to realize that this kind of thing was being talked about by God knows how many people. Suicide? Geza had never thought Ruth committed suicide. How wrong that was! How did this ridiculous rumor gain currency among her relatives? What pain the idea must have caused her parents! And yet the rumor of suicide, as he would later discover, led to other, sadder and more absurd fantasies. One was that Geza had jilted her, abandoned her in Africa, isolated and without the funds to leave. In addition, so one branch of the fantasy continued, she had been pregnant at the time. He had left her because of that. In desperation, she had taken a train across Tanzania all the way to Dar es Salaam to have a secret abortion before returning to the forest and the chimpanzees in order to jump off that cliff. It was a crudely melodramatic scenario, and it left Geza playing the role of villain. Other stories were in circulation, he eventually discovered, including the vaguely racist one that some "big black man" in the heat of nefarious pursuit pushed her off the cliff.

The letter was a shock. It really hurt. It was like being hit with something hard, only you're not really hit. It was like being in an earthquake. You don't see it. You hear it, but you hear it in your bones. When you're struck by a message like that, everything goes dead silent. Your ears just stop, and your mind shuts down. That's how it registered with Geza as he sat in his chair and read it for the first time.

The awful letter was folded up and put away. It got buried somewhere in the strata of papers on his desk, deliberately ignored. He couldn't handle it. He hoped it, and the memories and feelings and questions it had touched and opened, would flatten down and disappear. That did not happen. Instead, and little by little, the letter began to provoke him, to bother him. In part because he felt there was a good chance he wouldn't make it through another year, Geza decided to write a note in response. But that was all he would do. On September 22, 2006, nearly two and a half years after he had received the letter, he responded with a brief, impersonal email: "If you wish to pursue the matter, please respond, and I will do my best to clarify the rumors you mentioned."

Once he sent the email, however, Geza realized that he had to do more. It was one of those domino things. He didn't do it for the inquisitive genealogist. He did it because he could not bear the idea of those stories going on. He had been living in the shadowland of denial and amnesia, dropped into an oubliette of his own making, and now he began deliberately and methodically returning to those events of forty years ago: rummaging through old papers, examining old photographs and maps, writing to old friends and associates.

The vision or visitation or visit, or whatever you want to call it, happened during the night of September 27, five days after he had written that email and had begun to pry open the oubliette. He had been lying in bed, thinking about things. It's difficult to sleep with the kinds of physical malfunctions he had acquired. Sleep was not reliable. Not a condition with any longevity. He was lucky to average four hours of torn, scattered sleep a night. That night, he had drifted asleep in his usual restless, haphazard way, but when he woke again, something was different. Something was wrong. Fully awake now, he opened his eyes and knew he was not alone. Someone was in the room. It was the dead of night. A glow from the streetlamp outside slipped in between gaps in the blinds and faintly illuminated the room with a barred twilight.

Geza saw a human figure standing in the murk of the far wall. It was a woman with long dark hair, but her face remained shadowed and indistinct. He said, "What's wrong? What's wrong?" As she moved toward the bed, he understood through her style of movement (in the way you recognize a chimpanzee passing far away at the horizon by the manner in which he or she moves) who the figure was. It was Ruth. She came to the edge of the bed. Then reality split, and he watched as her hand pulled back the covers, while, at the same time, he saw the covers remain unmoved. She began to climb into bed, while, at the same time, nothing of the sort was happening. He shivered with fear or shock, scrambled to get out of the way, but the instant he did that the hand and moving figure vanished.

It was no ordinary dream. Geza had been fully awake and aware the minute he came out of sleep and sensed Ruth's presence in the room. He was awake the entire time, eyes open and seeing, and the experience was dreadful. Terrifying. He turned on the light, scratched down some notes about the event, and then lay awake for a long time.

They slept in separate rooms, Geza and Heather did, because he was such a restless sleeper. In the morning he went in to describe his experience, but before he had a chance, she told him she had been disturbed by a vision. Vision was the word she used, not dream. She had been waiting to fall asleep, passing into the relaxed twilight before sleep, when she saw a woman standing next to her bed, looking down and trying unsuccessfully to speak. Her face was pale, but the right side of her head was grievously injured. There was a dark, open crack on the right side of her head. When Heather sat up in astonishment, the vision faded. Neither Geza nor Heather had known that Ruth died with her skull crushed on the right side, nor had Heather ever seen a picture of Ruth. But when Geza showed her a photograph later that morning, Heather confirmed it: "Yes, that's who I saw."

A word to describe Geza's experience? Was it a vision? A visitation? A ghost? He didn't believe in any of that, although he was fascinated by the idea that people do feel as if they have seen such things. His father, who used to run séances in Budapest, was as much a scientist and a rationalist as anyone — and yet here he was calling out spirits. When it happened to Geza, he didn't have any feeling of contact with the supernatural. He had the feeling that an actual person was there, and that the person was Ruth. Period. He thought she was real, and he was upset. He tried to get away. He was afraid of her getting in the bed, which is what he thought was going on. True, he would not have been afraid of the real person doing that, but there was something extremely odd about it. He felt not fear so much as a sense of withdrawal that was purely involuntary. He wanted to shrink into himself. It wasn't a normal kind of fear, like in response to a dog coming at you. He thought it was real. There was no question in his mind that it was real.

But that was the first moment. After that, everything changed. After that, he began to realize that this could have been something he had dreamed up in his mind. It didn't bother him after that — until he went to Heather's room and spoke to her. That's when it really bothered him.



(November 1967 to June 1968)


"Dr. Leakey?"

Leakey, white-haired, gray-mustached, full in the face, looked up from the mess on his desk and scowled. For a second Carole imagined herself through his eyes — this tall, young, eager American girl interrupting the great man's important paperwork, whatever it was — and she blurted out: "How can I get in touch with Jane Goodall? I want to work for her." She hadn't even introduced herself, and now she was feeling graceless.

Leakey: "I'll give you her phone number, and you can call her up." He scrawled a number on a scrap of paper, handed it to Carole, said, "Here. Call her."

Carole wasted nearly all her change on the museum pay phone, and it took an hour before she finally managed to reach Dr. Jane Goodall at the Grosvenor Hotel. But Dr. Goodall had a calm, melodious voice projecting an open personality, and Carole nervously explained that she was a third-year student at the Friends World Institute, an itinerant, Quaker-run experimental college from America that was based for the year in Nairobi. She wanted to volunteer for work — any kind of work, any kind whatsoever — having to do with Dr. Goodall's chimpanzee research, since she really loved animals. It was a friendly, polite, and positive conversation; and by the end of it, Carole had begun thinking of the person at the other end of the line as Jane. Not Dr. Goodall or Baroness van Lawick–Goodall. Baroness!

Jane had wanted to know if Carole could type and whether she liked babies. They needed a typist to support the chimp researchers at the reserve, as she called it. Occasional babysitting would be welcomed as well. Carole responded affirmatively to such queries and comments, and by the end of their talk, Jane had invited her to come visit them, her and her husband, Hugo van Lawick, at their home. She said, "Hugo and I always like to meet people before they go out to Gombe." Carole could spend a few days there, in fact, and since Carole had felt obliged to mention the interest of her roommate, Emma, in the same project, Emma was invited, too. Jane thought they could use a second typist at the reserve.

Carole spent another hour walking back to the FWI center, which was time enough to float in a billowing excitement snagged by a frustration that focused on her roommate, Emma. Or Em, as she was usually called. Carole had made the contact with Jane Goodall. Of course, the only reason Em hadn't was that Carole had, and only one person was necessary. Still, the frustration at having to share this glorious, life-changing opportunity with someone else, someone who was not passionate about animals in the way Carole was, took some time to dissipate.

Carole and Em spent a week with Jane and Hugo at their home in Limuru, which was several miles outside Nairobi. Jane and Hugo had begun renting the house in late February, only a few months earlier, whereupon she settled down long enough to deliver, on March 4, a baby boy named Hugo Eric Louis van Lawick. By the time Carole and Em arrived, in the first week of November, the baby was called Grub. That was an abbreviation for Grublin, a nickname the infant had acquired in the previous summer when, while the family stayed at the chimpanzee research camp, he displaced in reputation an infant chimp named Goblin Grub as the messiest eater in East Africa. The chimp returned to his original and simpler name, Goblin, while Hugo Eric Louis van Lawick became Grublin, then Grub.

Carole had heard about Jane Goodall and the Gombe chimpanzees before she went to Africa. She was on Christmas break during her first year in college, spending time with her second mother, who said something like: "Oh, we must watch television this evening. It's Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees." That was the first National Geographic television film about Jane Goodall, broadcast by CBS on Wednesday evening, December 22, 1965. Carole was, along with 20 million other American viewers, entranced by that shimmering vision of the brave young Englishwoman. Leggy. Blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. Smart. Brave. Graceful and understated. Living in a simple tent in an African forest with all those wild apes wandering in and out of camp.

As it turned out, Jane looked just like the young woman whose image Carole had seen on television in California not two years earlier. It was strange: meeting someone for the first time who was already familiar, like an old friend or a relative. The real person was glamorous enough, though. She was young (only a dozen years older than Carole, more or less), but also self-confident, good-looking, married to a sophisticated European aristocrat, and living an exciting life with animals in Africa. Carole could never convince herself that she was capable of being glamorous like that, since she was tall and big, with big legs and a sensitive personality. It was hard not to feel awkward in Jane's presence.

The two-story house at Limuru was built of stone and covered by a red-clay tile roof. It included a cat named Squink and two German shepherds named Jessica and Rusty. It was graced with a couple of vegetable gardens, an expansive front lawn with flowers, a rear stable large enough to hold four horses, and an eighty-mile view out the front windows. Jane and Hugo slept in a master bedroom upstairs. Carole and Em were given their own rooms at the first floor level: one in the recently built guest wing, the other behind the kitchen at the back of the house.

Her first morning there, Carole was surprised by a six o'clock knock on the door. Outside the door, she discovered a tray with hot tea in a cozied pot along with milk, sugar, and buttered biscuits, which was Carole's introduction to a tic of civilized Englishness. Jane's Englishness, in fact, produced not only tea twice daily but also her finely modulated speech and reserved manner, which at first made Carole feel boisterous in the American way, with a little naïveté thrown in for good measure. During a casual conversation that week, as Carole would later remember, she asked Jane what her favorite reading subjects were, and Jane said she had "very catholic interests." Carole, puzzled, said, "You mean religious?" Jane said, "Oh!" She laughed, then said, "No, it means just kind of widespread or universal."

Limuru was in the Kenyan highlands, which meant cool evenings. After dinner, they all warmed themselves in front of the fireplace, talking and drinking scotch. Hugo was a Dutchman by birth, a wildlife photographer by profession, and by inclination a raconteur who enjoyed holding forth on the adventures and dangers of life in the wild. In between Hugo's wonderful and often hilarious stories, they conversed generally about subjects of mutual interest, such as animals, conservation, tourists, and poaching. As Carole also learned during these conversations, Jane and Hugo, along with baby Grub, were now spending much of their time in the East African savannas — the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania — photographing and researching vultures and various carnivores. The vultures used stones as tools to break open ostrich eggs, which was Jane and Hugo's new discovery of animal tool-use that would be featured in an upcoming National Geographic article. The research on carnivores was for a book being financed by advance money from a British publishing house. That was Hugo's project. He had signed a contract to write it and take the photographs.

But they were a family, and all three — including Grub, of course — would be heading out to their work in the savannas, so Carole and Em would have to travel to the chimpanzee reserve on their own. Once they got there, they would not be alone. Jane had established a routine for the chimpanzee observations, and that routine was now managed by trained observers who were supported by a first-rate African staff. Jane and Hugo would drop in whenever they could. Fly down, most likely. They would also keep in touch by radiotelephone and then come to stay for the whole summer. There would be cooked meals, a private place to sleep and bathe, other Americans to keep them company, and enough typing of the daily scientific record to keep all their fingers and thumbs fully occupied. Jane wondered whether the girls were prepared for the isolation, but there was only one way to find out. She mentioned, also, that they should bring two of everything, including clothes and, since both Carole and Em admitted to being nearsighted, prescription glasses.

So long talks of romantic adventures and legendary places, of vultures and hyenas and chimpanzees, of impractical visions and practical necessities enlivened the evenings in Limuru. During the day, Hugo would drive off to Nairobi to shop and attend to other chores in preparation for the next photographic expedition, while Em and Carole visited with Jane and the baby and endeavored to make themselves both agreeable and useful.

One afternoon, Jane handed Carole the baby, saying, "Can you take him? I need to sleep." Carole took Grub out into the warm sunlight and bee-kissed flowers of the front yard, where he was fine for about two hours. Then he began to whimper. Carole tried to cheer him up. She bounced him, lifted him up and down. He laughed for a moment, cheered up, but started whimpering again, which was followed by crying. Carole thought Jane could hear them through an open bedroom window, and finally, when she could no longer do anything else, she took Grub back inside, carried him up the stairs, and knocked on Jane's door. Jane said, "Oh, bring him in. I think he just wants me. He's hungry."


Excerpted from "The Ghosts of Gombe"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Dale Peterson.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents

Prologue 1

I The Visit (September 27, 2006) 10

II Beginnings (November 1967 to June 1968) 14

III The Golden Summer (June to September 1968) 73

IV Transitions (September 1968 to March 1969) 110

V Love, Chimpanzees, and Death (March to July 1969) 146

VI Aftermath (July 1969 to 2007) 174

Acknowledgments 205

Dramatis Personae 209

List of Illustrations and Credits 213

Index 215