After one book coauthored with Dr. Jane Goodall and four books about her—including a biography that is more than 750 pages—it may seem as if author Dale Peterson has covered all there is to know about the world of Goodall. However, his latest book, The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness, returns to one of his favorite subjects in a more roundabout way. “This book is not about Jane specifically but about her research site and what was going on there in great detail during the late 1960s,” says Peterson. “It’s an important expansion of the biography because it shows Jane in context.”
The book tells the story of Ruth Davis, a young volunteer performing chimpanzee research at the site until she somewhat mysteriously died in 1969. “Ruth was like Jane in that she had a powerful ambition and passionately loved chimps, learning to understand them as if they were human,” explains Peterson. “The book explores what happened to Ruth and the mystery surrounding her death.”
Peterson became connected to the story of Davis through her former lover, Géza Telecki, who also originally introduced Peterson to Jane Goodall in 1989 and suggested they write a book together. “The first thing that struck me when I met Jane was that she was surprisingly small and slight,” recalls Peterson. “The second thing was how quickly she made the decision to write a book with me.” Noting that she originally seemed reluctant to coauthor a book, she changed her mind after only a short discussion. “Being a coauthor means taking a huge risk. It’s rather like getting married in that sense, and so I think it was pretty courageous of her to agree when she barely knew me,” shares Peterson. “But she makes very intuitive, quick decisions about people, and that’s part of her character, as I would later discover.”
Their book together, Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People, was part exposé on the use of chimpanzees in entertainment and laboratories and part a call to action for conservation efforts. Wary of lawsuits launched by some of the powerful parties they were investigating through their writing, Peterson felt a real sense of purpose to get the story right, which he describes as “Journalism 101, with a gun pointed to your head.” At the end of the project, not only did he have a critically lauded book but also the makings of a very solid friendship with Jane Goodall that exists to this day.
Asked why Goodall has become such a resonant figure around the globe, Peterson acknowledges there are many reasons. Of course, he says, “she is a smart, driven person who has done some tremendous pioneering work. Just the very act of going out into the forest and studying chimpanzees, who were at the time considered very dangerous wild animals, took courage. Her approach was to tame them.” It took a particularly calm presence to be able to develop a relationship with the chimps that allowed them to view her as nonthreatening, and though scientists had done this with other species, no one had previously done what Goodall did with chimpanzees.
However, Peterson notes, make no mistake that Goodall is incredibly tough. “When I was looking through her field notes from her first six months in the field, I found a note written to herself saying, ‘Please remember that people need to be fed,’ referring to the guides accompanying her,” he recalls, laughing. “She had this extraordinary constitution and she just didn’t need to eat very much or rest as much as her guides.”
The other reason Goodall is so revered is because of her status as a feminine icon. “She entered a masculine world that was not officially open to women, and she succeeded strictly by talent, strength of character, and determination,” describes Peterson. “There were no other women zoologists or primatologists to speak of. She was the one who broke through.”
Peterson shares that, as a girl, Goodall loved Tarzan and always dreamed of living among animals in Africa. However, to do so as her career—and as a woman—was no easy feat. It was well known that paleoanthropologist and curator of the Coryndon Museum Louis Leakey was the one person in all of Africa in the late 1950s who could launch someone’s career. “Leakey was also a lecher, easily dazzled by young, attractive women, and had a powerful personality,” explains Peterson. In his 50s, when Goodall was in her 20s, Leakey did not hold much physical appeal to Goodall, though she worried about offending him because he was the one setting up the permissions and financing for her to fulfill her lifelong dream of going to Africa. “She would do things to put him off, like calling him ‘Papa’ to emphasize his age. It took some time, but he eventually accepted it.” Still, it was Leakey who made Goodall’s famous study of chimpanzees possible, says Peterson. “She didn’t have an education beyond high school. There was nobody in the world who would give her a grant or look at anything she had to say about chimpanzees because she was an amateur. Leakey got her money, connections, and eventually got her into Cambridge for her Ph.D.”
Later, some would diminish Goodall’s accomplishments by talking about her appearance. And some would reject her observations to protect their sacred cows. “Zoologist Sir Solly Zuckerman, later Lord Solly Zuckerman, who considered himself to be the world’s foremost expert on primates, is a classic example,” Peterson relates. “At her first major scientific conference, Jane made a presentation on chimpanzee eating behavior; among other things, she talked about meat eating because she had been the first to discover that chimps eat meat. Zuckerman, the eminent scientist presiding over the conference, had previously concluded that all primates were vegetarians, and yet here was this young woman standing up in front of a crowd saying she had seen them eat meat. Zuckerman dismissed her work openly, and afterward, he wrote to a colleague, ‘I’m sure [you appreciate] my anxiety lest a subject which has been usually marked by unscientific treatment should continue in the unscientific shadows because of glamour.’”
Origin of a Biography
Dismissive and patronizing talk like this eventually led Peterson to write the “definitive” biography, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man. “I would occasionally read negative comments written about Jane that rubbed me the wrong way,” he shares. “Some of it was just factually in error. There was one piece containing a subtle suggestion that she was racist, which simply made me angry.” What finally launched the biography idea, however, was an article in National Geographic magazine near the end of 1995. “It was a general portrait, and it was kind of laudatory but also shallow, and I felt it was not representative of the person who was this spectacular pioneer,” says Peterson. “I mentioned that to Jane, and I said that someone should write a real biography of her. She agreed that I would do it.”
What came next was a decadelong, total immersion for Peterson in the life of Jane Goodall, between 1996 and 2006. He visited her research site a second time, read her letters, and got to know her family, best friends, and even her childhood nanny. He learned that she was a charismatic child, who was always the center of attention, and everybody who ever knew her saved her letters. “The reason the biography is so big is that I just had this amazing stash of materials, and Jane had very few reservations about revealing things,” he explains.
Further underlining just how open Goodall was to sharing her life in the biography is the fact that she never asked for approval before the book went to the publisher. “It was an act of impressive trust, and I know I was very lucky as a biographer to have her as my subject,” acknowledges Peterson. “She’s a normal human being who has foibles like everyone else, but she’s not very stuck in her own ego.”
Goodall displayed a lot of trust during the biographical process, and also a sense of humor. When Peterson finally finished and handed the manuscript off to the publisher, he sent Goodall a copy as well. “The next time I saw her was in January of 2006 in Paris, when she was being given the French Legion of Honor,” he recalls. “It was a big, fancy event, and at the end of the long day, a few of us were sitting around Jane’s hotel room, and gradually I begin to hear Jane saying, ‘You know, there are journalists who write about me as having gray hair and I don’t have gray hair. What do you think, Dale?’ And I replied, ‘Well Jane, your hair looks kind of … silver.’ She undid the clip to her trademark ponytail, let her hair fall loose, and I saw that she had several shades and colors in her hair. That was the most significant thing she had to say about the book—that I’d incorrectly noted her hair color.” Adds Peterson, laughing, “In the second sentence of the biography, I describe in great detail the color of her hair!”
Following Your Dream
Goodall’s reaction to her life story may have been humorous, but for others, the lessons from her life are very impactful. “Obviously, the problems of dealing with people like Leakey and Zuckerman still exist, but at least now we’re having conversations about that,” says Peterson. “Jane, when she signs books for people, often writes, ‘Follow your dreams,’ so I think that’s the lesson she would want people to take away.” For Peterson, who is a professor as well as a writer, that might not be the only answer. He cites an example of a student who is a child of immigrants and just came to the United States recently, who commented to him that she doesn’t understand why she’s always being told to follow her dreams when all she really wants is to get a job and survive.”
Jane followed her dreams with great passion and finesse, but that may not always be the answer, muses Peterson. “I would advise people to be true to themselves and not be distracted by what other people expect of you. That’s certainly a lesson from Jane’s example. She went through a lot of anguish as a young woman—living in London, working as a secretary, and dating someone—where, when she envisioned her future, it just seemed so boring. She didn’t have to escape to Africa, but she listened to an inner voice to have confidence in herself, figure out who she is and what she wants, and do it even if it’s frightening.”
This is something that Peterson knows personally, having considered engineering, academia, and carpentry as career paths before acknowledging that he really wanted to be a writer. His entry into the world of being paid to write came in the 1980s after he published four books about computers, an area he had to learn as he wrote, though he had been gifted a computer by none other than Steve Jobs. After that bout of success, he was free to ask himself what subjects he really wanted to cover. For him, that meant animals. It’s what led him to primates, Jane Goodall, conservation efforts, and, most recently, the story of Ruth Davis in The Ghosts of Gombe. “It’s fun to be a writer, but writing a book is not easy, and it’s important to have something beyond yourself that you care about,” shares Peterson. “I don’t write because I want to be famous, but because I care about what I write about.”
—Leslie Prives is a freelance writer living in New York City.
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/MWIE.2018.2866891
Date of publication: 6 November 2018