Randolph Splitter: “Bonobo on Trial,” an Excerpt from Bonobo Boy, a Novel in Progress

Allowed one phone call, he calls his father.

“I don’t know, Dad. I have no idea.… No, I didn’t do anything.… I know it’s crazy.…Yes. Right.… I don’t know. I hope not.… A lawyer? Yeah. I guess.… Okay. I love you, too.… Say hi to Maria.” His dad’s girlfriend. “Thanks. Bye.”

A policeman escorts Ben to a small, bare cell. It looks a lot like his dorm room except that there are no bookshelves, no computers, no stereo speakers, and no posters on the walls. A tiny barred window near the ceiling lets in a small amount of light. A sink and a toilet are tucked away in a corner.

The policeman locks the cell door and walks off, his heels clicking sharply on the linoleum until the sound gradually fades away.

A man with reddish hair and reddish-black skin is stretched out on the upper bunk.

“What you in for?” says Red without turning his head.

“Uhh, well—”

“That bad? You don’t look like a criminal.”

“I didn’t do anything,” says Ben. “What about you?”

“Burglary,” says the young man. “I stole my mom’s flat-screen and sold it to pay for drugs.”


“Don’t worry. I’m clean now.”

Ben stretches out on the lower bunk and closes his eyes.

“Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” says Red.

In an instant he is asleep. The floor of the rainforest is planted with grave markers. The bonobos are rubbing their genitals against each other’s and emitting high-pitched panting sounds. The bonobo that looks like Gillian is trying to push him off of her. “Stop it!” she cries. “I’m not that kind of girl!”

He wakes up sweating. For a second he has no idea where he is.


The next morning, after a breakfast of stale biscuits and runny eggs, the prisoners are allowed to walk around the exercise yard for an hour. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, but most are black or Latino. Red introduces him to a couple of other inmates. One is awaiting trial for illegal possession of prescription drugs, and another is accused of mail fraud.

Later that day the guard opens the door of his cell.

“You have a visitor,” the guard tells him.

He leads him down several long white corridors to a nondescript rectangular room with a plain oblong table, a couple of hard plastic chairs, and harsh fluorescent lights.

The visitor is a stocky, middle-aged man in a suit and tie. His long black hair is tied back in a neat ponytail, and there is a tiny stud earring in one ear. His face is angular, and the hard light bounces off his high cheekbones.

The visitor extends his hand.

“Francis Higgins. I’m an attorney. Your parents asked me to represent you.”

“But why was I arrested?”

“You’re charged with rape.”

“But that’s crazy. We were making love. She wanted to.”

“She was intoxicated, wasn’t she?”

“Intoxicated? No! I mean, she had a sip of my beer, but she knew what she was doing.”

The attorney takes a small notebook out of his pocket and writes something down.

“It’s my understanding that Ms. Crepelli vomited into the toilet and passed out. Then how could she have given her consent?”

“Crepelli? Consent?”

“Ms. Crepelli claims that you dragged her to the cellar of the fraternity house and took advantage of her there, in the so-called fuck room.”

“That’s impossible. Me and Gillian—my, uh, girlfriend—helped Gordo take Monica to the bathroom, I even held her head while she puked, but that’s the last we saw of them. We left the fraternity house and went uphill.”

“So you didn’t have sex with Ms. Crepelli?”

“No, of course not.”

The attorney finishes writing in his notebook and puts it back in his pocket.

Standing up, he says, “Okay, son. I’ll do my best.”

“Thank you, Mr., uh, Higgins.”

“Listen, your mom told me to tell you not to worry. She said she’s sure it’s all a mistake.”

“Mnn, thanks.”

“She’s driving up tomorrow.”

Ben nods.

“Is there anything I can get you?”

Ben thinks for a moment. “Yeah. Get me out of here.”

“Well, bail has been set for half a million dollars. I don’t think your parents have that kind of money.”

Ben closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and opens them again.

“There is something else. Back in my dorm room. Books. Do you think you can bring me some?”

“Anything in particular?”

“Something anthropological.”

Higgins raises his eyebrows. “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”


Over the next few weeks, both his parents visit him, but the meetings are brief and awkward. Jules blames American society, and Delphine seems to blame herself. Ben doesn’t know what to tell them.

A few days later he has another visitor.

“You’re a popular guy,” the guard tells Ben. “Your roommate here doesn’t have any friends.”

“That’s because I ripped my mother off,” says Red. “No one likes a motherfucka.”

The guard ushers him into the visitors’ room, where inmates and guests are separated by a plexiglass barrier. Girlfriends and wives, some stoic, some tearful, some pregnant, try to cheer up their mates or complain about the mess they got them into.

On the other side of the barrier sits Bao. Ben picks up the phone.

“Hey,” says Bao.


“Never expected to see you in a place like this.”

Ben tries to smile, but it comes out like a grimace.

“Me, maybe. You, never. I was the wild and crazy one.”

“Mnn, not sure about that.”

“Guess what? Me and you, we made it. We’re full-fledged members of the fraternity now.”

“Great. That makes me feel better.”

“They said the magic words over your head in absentia.”

“How about the secret handshake? Did you learn that?”

“Yeah. Remind me to show you sometime,” Bao laughs.

“Have you, mnn, heard anything from Gillian?”

“No, sorry.”

Bao’s smile fades and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

“Listen, Ben, you didn’t do it, did you?”

Ben moves the phone from his left ear to his right.

“Do what?”

“You know. The drunk girl. Part-EE.”

“Of course not. How can you ask me that?”

“Sorry. I know that shit can be confusing sometimes. I used to think, when they say no they mean yes. Now I know, when they say yes they mean no.”

Ben stares at his friend.

“Yes, no. No, yes. What the hell does that mean? Is that some inscrutable Asian Buddhist bullshit?”

Bao stares back at him. For a second Ben worries that he has destroyed their long friendship forever, but Bao just laughs.

“Yeah. That’s what it is, dude. Even I don’t know what it means.”


After the spartan accommodations of his jail cell, the courtroom seems like a luxury hotel. Expensive wood paneling covers the walls, and the judge’s bench is upholstered in plush red velvet. Although Ben has worn a jacket and tie at the urging of his attorney, he feels out of place. All that’s missing is wigs on the barristers’ heads.

Ben’s parents are seated in the gallery, in different rows, with Maria huddled next to Jules. Bao is sitting in another part of the audience.

It takes most of the day to select the jury, and when the process is finished Ben sees five men and seven women scrutinizing him from ten feet away. One man, whiskered and professorial, reminds him of his classics professor, Billingsley. It is late in the afternoon, so the judge, a morose, balding man who gives the impression of never venturing outside his law-book-lined cave, adjourns the trial till the next day.

“How did it go?” Red asks when he returns to his cell.

“I don’t know,” says Ben. “I felt like a spectator.”


The next day begins with opening arguments. The Assistant DA, a plump African American woman with round earrings and a pleasant round face, starts off by warning the jury.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she begins, “you may be inclined to be lenient with this young man, to forgive him for the mistakes of youth. But that would be a mistake. The defendant has scrubbed his face and put on his Sunday-best clothes, but he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The defense will claim that the victim was drunk, that she seduced the defendant, that she is to blame for her own suffering. Let’s be real. The defendant plied an unsuspecting young woman with alcohol, lured her into the remote depths of a cellar, and forced himself upon her. Look at him closely. Examine his face. His expression may seem innocent. Don’t be fooled. He is not the boy next door. Or if he is, you better teach your daughters martial arts and give them a can of mace.”

Ben scans the spectators. His mother is there, his father, Maria, Bao. In the back row Ben spies Fathead wiping the sweat off his forehead.

When the prosecutor is finished, the defense attorney takes over. A silver stud complements his glossy black ponytail.

“You have heard the prosecuting attorney describe this young man as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Certainly the crime of which he is accused is a terrible one. Young women should not have to feel threatened by the men who dance with them, laugh with them, and, yes, drink with them. They have a right to trust their companions.

“But that doesn’t mean”—he steps closer to the jury box—“that doesn’t mean that you should distrust every young man you meet on the street. Or every young man accused of terrible deeds. Sometimes an innocent expression really does mean innocence. Sometimes the animals in sheep’s clothing really are sheep.”

The judge breaks for lunch, and Ben returns to his cell. On his way out of the courtroom he catches his mother’s eye. She smiles, and he tries to smile back.


For the next few days, a parade of prosecution witnesses reports on the questionable reputation of the fraternity, the drunken condition of the party guests, even the pathetic quality of the music. Monica Crepelli takes the stand. Sober and conservatively dressed, the one-time Party Girl looks like she’s going to church.

“Would you please tell the court,” the DA begins, “what brought you to the gathering at the Colonial Eating and Drinking Society that night?”

“Well, this friend of mine knows some of the guys there, and she set me up on this date with Gordo. Gordon Weymouth.”

“What were your impressions of Gordo on that day?”

“Well, I liked him. He was funny. A little off-beat. I didn’t think he wasn’t good-looking, not really. But I kind of liked his beard. It made him look older, more experienced.”

“Off-beat? How?”

“Well, he was always laughing in that deep, growling voice of his, as if there was some private joke only he was aware of. And when he did tell jokes they tended to be a bit coarse, a little vulgar.”

“How did you feel about that?”

“At first I didn’t mind. I figured it was a fraternity house, a high-testosterone zone, with all these guys running around wild and no women to keep them in check, and besides it was a party weekend. A time to let your hair down. But then it began to grate on me. I decided his jokes weren’t that funny, or maybe I wasn’t in on the joke.”

“What about drinking? Did he encourage you to drink?”

Higgins jumps to his feet. “Objection! Relevance? Who is on trial here?”

“Your honor,” argues the prosecutor, “the witness, who was not and still is not yet at the legal drinking age, was not accustomed to alcohol. We intend to show that Mr. Weymouth, Mr. Dubois, and the other members of the fraternity created an atmosphere whose express intention was to take advantage of young women’s youth and inexperience. They got these women drunk for the purpose of having sex with them. Alcohol was their date rape drug of choice. In fact, the whole purpose of the liquor, the music, and the licentious atmosphere of the party was to promote sex. With or without the consent of one’s partner. Mr. Weymouth began the process that Mr. Dubois finished.”

Tugging at his earring, Higgins complains, “Your honor, this is guilt by association. Mr. Dubois is not responsible for the actions of Mr. Weymouth or anyone else.”

“Sustained,” intones the judge, gloomily. He reminds Ben of the long-faced donkey in Winnie the Pooh.

“I’ll withdraw the question,” the prosecuting attorney replies amicably. “Ms. Crepelli, what happened after you had your fifth drink?”

“I got sick.”

“And then?”

“I went to the bathroom to throw up.”

“Did anyone accompany you?”

“Yes. Gordo.”

“Anyone else?”

“Not that I remember.”

Ben’s lawyer rises to object once again. “Your Honor, Ms. Crepelli’s faulty memory does not erase the fact that my client did indeed assist the witness.”

“Counsel’s claim is not the same as a fact,” the DA protests, and the judge overrules the objection.

“What happened then, Monica?”

“Well, sometime later the guy over there, Ben, dragged me downstairs to the cellar. It was completely dark except for some low-watt colored lights, and the place was dank and moldy. He said I could lie down on the mattress. I didn’t want to, but I was too tired and sick to stand.”

“And why didn’t you want to lie down on the mattress?” asks the prosecutor.

“You mean, besides the fact that it was sticky and disgusting?”


“Well, I’d heard about the cellar. I knew it was dark down there, I knew that no one could hear me, and I knew what it was for.”

“And what was that?”

“Screwing. Fucking. Sex.”

The gallery bursts into noise.

Higgins protests again. “Objection. Hearsay.”

“Denied.” The judge bangs his gavel, and the audience quiets down.

The prosecuting attorney takes a long walk near the jury box, returns to the witness stand, and addresses the witness in a soft, soothing voice.

“I know this is painful, Monica, but we need to know what happened.” Crepelli nods. “Can you describe the sequence of events?”

“Yes. He threw me down on a mattress, pushed up my dress, and pulled down my underpants. I tried to resist, but he held down my arms and pressed himself against me while he”—she begins to cry—“fucked me. Then he asked me how I liked it.”

The gallery buzzes once more, and the judge bangs his gavel.

Ben squirms in his chair, but he is afraid to turn around and look at his parents. Monica is crying quietly. The Assistant DA says that she has no further questions.

Under cross-examination, Monica admits that she drank too much, that she sang off-key, that she danced on the edge of the mantelpiece, that she probably took off her bra and threw it into the crowd though she no longer remembers, and that up until that time she was enjoying herself. But she insists that the young man at the defense table raped her.

The judge adjourns the proceedings for the day.


Eventually the prosecution rests. Several character witnesses come forward to vouch for the defendant. One of them is Bao.

“And how long have you known Mr. Dubois?” Higgins asks Bao.

“Since middle school. We used to walk home together. We’re good friends.”

“How did the two of you spend your free time in middle school and high school?”

“Well, we did homework. We got jobs at the same music store. We played in a band together.”

“And how did the defendant behave toward girls and women?”

“He was always, uh, a gentleman.”

“In all that time, Bao, did you ever hear the defendant say anything mean or derogatory to a woman? Or even about a woman?”


“In all that time did you ever see the defendant strike a woman?”

“Of course not.”

The opposing attorney takes over.

“Is it correct to say, Mr. Zhang, that you and the defendant smoked marijuana on more than one occasion?”

Ben’s lawyer stands up. “Objection, your honor. Irrelevant.”

“I’m trying to establish the defendant’s character,” argues the prosecuting attorney while smoothing her dress.

“I’ll allow it,” says the judge, in his usual gloomy way.

“Uhh, well, once or twice.”

“May I remind you that you’re under oath, Mr. Zhang.”

“Or three times.”

“And how many drinks did you have on the day of the house party, Mr. Zhang?”

“Objection, your honor. The witness is not on trial.”


“I’ll rephrase the question,” concedes the prosecutor. “How many drinks did you see the defendant consume?”

“Two, three. I’m not sure.”

“Based on your own experience that night, would you say that the defendant was intoxicated by the time you last saw him?”

“Objection.” Higgins rises to his feet again. “The witness is not a medical expert.”

“Your honor,” his opponent responds, “we are not asking for a medical opinion. We only wish to establish the defendant’s general condition at the time of the crime.”

The judge looks down his nose at Ben’s lawyer as if he is getting tired of all his objections. “I’ll allow it.”

“I don’t know,” answers Bao. “The party started, like, mid-afternoon. We were playing music. We were sweating. I don’t know if I was drunk, but I don’t think Ben was.”

“And why do you say that?”

“Ever since he had too much to drink one night in middle school, Ben has never gotten drunk.”

“So the defendant drank in middle school and smoked marijuana in high school?”


“One more thing, Mr. Zhang. You said that the defendant has never struck a woman, correct?”

‘‘Yes, that’s right.”

“But isn’t it also true that he has studied and practiced martial arts for many years?”

“Uh, yes—”

“And didn’t he in fact strike one or more young women in the course of his martial arts training?”

“Uh, well, yes, I guess.”

“And isn’t he in fact more than capable of holding down a woman and raping her?”

The gallery erupts once more.


“Order in the court!” Wearily, the judge pounds his gavel.


Higgins visits Ben in jail, finally bringing him several books. A collection of essays by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, about a trip up the Congo River.

And a book of crossword puzzles.

“Your father asked me to give it to you. He said it might help you pass the time.”

“Thanks,” says Ben. He still has difficulty holding a pencil. At least it might help him fall asleep, he thinks. He has nothing to do except sleep, but he can’t sleep.

“I understand you’re adopted,” says the attorney.

“That’s right. But I don’t think much about it. It happened a long time ago, and I don’t remember anything about the circumstances.”

“Are you curious about your birth parents?”

“Uhh, yeah. I visited Africa last summer. It was interesting.”

“How did you feel growing up? Different? Out of place?”

“A little. Doesn’t everybody? Didn’t you?”

The attorney nods. “But this isn’t about me.”

“What is it about?”

“Well, your parents told me that you’re—” He takes a deep breath. “I’m not sure how to say this. That you’re some kind of ape.”

“That’s what they told me. I’ve got hairy fingers and flexible toes.”

“Ben, do you know who Sam Kashala is?”

“Sure, he’s my … godfather. I met him on my visit to Africa.”

Mr. Higgins walks over to the door and ushers Sam, neatly dressed in a lightweight suit and pale tie, into the cramped conference room. He gives Ben a hug.

“It’s great to see you again,” says Sam, smiling.

“Me too,” says Ben. “I can’t believe you came all this way.”

“I want to help.”

Higgins interrupts. “I’m going to leave you now, but Sam wants to ask you a few questions about your, mnn, background. That will help him prepare his testimony.”

After the lawyer excuses himself, Sam takes out an envelope and a pen.

“Well, Ben,” he begins, “do you remember anything of those first few months? Life in the bush, trailing after your birth mother, playing with the other infants?”

“No, I’m sorry. It’s all a blank.” Ben fidgets with the buttons of his jumpsuit. “Except I used to get nightmares sometimes. I still do.”


“Yes. I dream I’m back in the jungle, surrounded by bonobos and other animals. I don’t know if those dreams are based on real memories or on the stories my parents—my adopted parents—told me.”

“Mnn, I see.” Sam starts taking notes on the back of the envelope. “How did you learn to talk? Was it hard for you?”

“I don’t know. I suppose I listened to my mom and dad and tried to copy what they were saying. Sometimes the words didn’t come out the way I wanted, but I got over that.”

“How about learning to use a knife and fork, to brush your teeth, to draw with crayons? Was it difficult to use your hands for these activities?”

“Difficult? Maybe, a little. Eventually I got the hang of it, but I’ve always felt a bit awkward.”

“I see,” says Sam. “Do you mind if I look at your hands?”

Ben holds them out. Small tufts of hair are growing on the tops like native grasses. Sam studies the hands for a moment before turning them over and peering at the lighter-colored palms.

“Okay,” Sam continues, “and what do you remember about your first sexual experiences?”

The interview continues like this for the better part of an hour.


It is a long weekend. Wake-up time is way too early. The food is bad. Red offers to buy drugs for him, cheap. The crossword puzzles are hard. Red says he was joking.


Monday morning, there is a surprise witness for the prosecution. Gillian. Walking to the front of the courtroom, she avoids Ben’s eyes.

“How do you know Mr. Dubois?” asks the DA.

“Well, we were in the same Anthro class first semester, and we ran into each other several times after that. We participated in an antiwar action together, and we were in a play by Shakespeare.”

“What was your impression of the defendant during that time?”

“I liked him, but I could tell right away that he was different, not like the other boys.”



“Different? How?”

“More serious, more sensitive, but unpredictable. Like you couldn’t tell what he was thinking.”

“And he was your date to the house party at the Colonial Eating and Drinking Society?”

“I had been working hard, and I needed a break. I don’t like fraternities, but he convinced me to go.”

Wait a minute, thinks Ben.


The judge bangs his gavel and looks down his nose at the defense attorney. “Counsel will avoid interrupting at every opportunity. The court is getting tired of it.”

The prosecutor resumes, “Sometime after midnight, you and the defendant left the fraternity house and started walking up the hill. Is that correct?”

“Yes. It was a beautiful night, very clear. You could see the stars. We walked up to the old cemetery and started, uh, making out. I didn’t want to go further—said I wasn’t that kind of girl—but he convinced me.”

But she wanted to be convinced, didn’t she? Weren’t they—aren’t they—in love?

Higgins jumps in. “Objection!”

“I’ll allow it.”

“Then what happened?”

“We lay down on the grass and, well, we had sexual relations.”

“And what happened afterwards?”

“I was feeling tired, confused, guilty. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt—I know about male hormones and all that—but he told me straight out that he was a freak, a monster, just like Cannibal, I mean Caliban, the character he played in The Tempest.”

“Objection.” Mr. Higgins jumps up, his ponytail swinging behind his head. “Scholars have debated the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays for centuries. Is the court prepared for a parade of expert witnesses with Ph.D.’s in Renaissance drama?”

“Mr. Higgins,” moans the judge, “don’t patronize me or I’ll hold you in contempt.”

The prosecutor presses ahead. “What else did the defendant tell you?”

“He said he was some kind of chimpanzee.”

Nervous laughter ripples through the crowd.

“What was your response to that?”

“I didn’t take it seriously. I knew he was different. I told him he had a wild imagination. But later, after thinking about the grunts and noises he made when we were, you know, and after hearing what happened to poor Monica, I started to reconsider.”

“Reconsider? In what way?”

“I thought he really was some kind of predator.’

Does she really believe that?

The prosecutor sits down, and Ben’s attorney approaches the witness stand.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Macintosh.”

Gillian glances at Ben, then back at Higgins. “Uh, good afternoon.”

“Were you present when Ms. Crepelli got sick.”

“Yes, I picked up her bra and gave it to Gordo.”

“And who else was present besides Mr. Weymouth?”


“Did he not hold Ms. Crepelli’s head while she, mnn, vomited into the toilet?”

The DA objects.

“On what grounds?” asks the judge.

“Relevance, Your Honor. Mr. Dubois’s behavior in the bathroom is not relevant to his actions in the basement.”

“Your Honor,” Higgins insists, “the prosecution claims there was a pattern of abusive behavior.”

“Denied,” says the judge. “Witness may answer the question.”


“So, even though he didn’t know Ms. Crepelli and was not on the best terms with Mr. Weymouth, my client helped Ms. Crepelli throw up into a toilet?”



“Earlier,” Higgins continues, “you described my client as serious and sensitive. Is that correct?”


“And would you say that those words describe you as well?”

“Uh, I guess.”

“Isn’t it true that you and Ben had become very close by the time of the house party and that in fact you were in love with him?”

“Well, I mean—”

The prosecutor objects again.


“Isn’t it true that your lovemaking was completely consensual, that you enjoyed it just as much as he did, and that, later, texting one of your girlfriends, you described it as a blissful experience, the best experience of your life?”

“I’m not sure—”

“Wasn’t it only after telling your mother what happened—”


“—and talking to the District Attorney’s office—”

“Your honor!”

The gallery is buzzing again. The judge bangs the gavel.

“Mr. Higgins, I am holding you in contempt.”

“I withdraw the question, Your Honor.”

“I’m still holding you in contempt. You can join your client in jail.”

Gillian is glancing nervously at Ben, who is staring back at her as if she is not the same person he used to know.

“Ms. Macintosh,” resumes the defense attorney, “do you know what an ape is?”

“Yes, sure.”

“Can you tell the court?’

“Well, it’s a large, hairy animal that lives in the jungle.”

“Are you familiar with Dian Fossey’s book Gorillas in the Mist?”

“I think I’ve seen the movie.”

“Maybe you’ve also seen the famous photo of the mountain gorilla ‘Peanuts’ touching Ms. Fossey’s hand. Maybe you’ve heard that Ms. Fossey gave her life to defend the gorillas.”

“Objection. Counsel is leading the witness.”

“Mr. Higgins,” sighs the judge, “you’re trying my patience.”

“I know, Your Honor. I beg the court’s indulgence in this line of questioning. I believe it’s highly germane.”

“All right. Get on with it.”

Ben hears a stirring in the gallery and turns around to see Sam embracing his father and mother. They whisper excitedly for a moment before taking their seats, his parents on either side of their old friend.

“Ms. Macintosh,” continues Ben’s lawyer, “are you familiar with Washoe, the chimpanzee who learned sign language? Or Kanzi, the bonobo who has developed his own words for grape, banana, juice, and ‘yes’?”

“Uh, no, not really.”

“Ms. Macintosh, do you know what a bonobo is?”

“Is it some kind of musical instrument?”

“Your Honor, the defense would like to enter into evidence this great ape family tree showing human beings splitting off from the branch that gave rise to both chimpanzees and bonobos.”

Higgins hands the chart to the judge, who examines it and scratches his head.

“According to this tree,” says the judge, “we’re apes too.”


As the gallery murmurs, the judge hands the chart to the bailiff.

“Where are you going with this, counsel?”

“I’d like to call another witness, Your Honor.”

“You may step down,” the judge instructs Gillian.

She tries not to look at Ben as she returns to her seat in the gallery.


Sam, wearing the same pale linen suit as before but a darker tie, takes the stand. Fans are whirring in the courtroom, but Sam isn’t sweating.

“Thank you,” Higgins begins, “for coming all the way from West Africa, Dr. Kashala.”

“I’m happy to have this opportunity,” replies Sam.

“Will you please tell the court what your profession is?”

“I’m a primatologist. I study primates like monkeys and gorillas, partly to gain a better understanding of human behavior and human nature.”

“And what have you learned?”

“Well, primatologists are always being accused of anthropomorphism—you know, ascribing human characteristics to non-human animals—but we’ve discovered that human beings and other primates, especially chimps and bonobos, have a lot in common. In fact, I sometimes feel that I have more in common with them than I do with some of my colleagues.”

The gallery titters.

“Please explain to the court what a bonobo is.”

“Bonobos were discovered by humans only in the last century, and for a long time they were known as pygmy chimpanzees. But they’re not chimpanzees; they’re a separate species.”

“How are they different?”

“They’re highly intelligent, like chimps, but typically they are a little smaller and lighter. They’re also less aggressive, the gentlest and least aggressive of the great apes. They seem to be more, mnn, thoughtful and sensitive. The truth is that chimpanzees engage in vicious power struggles, go on border raids, and kill each other when push comes to shove. Human beings do the same thing, on a grander scale. Bonobos rarely do that.”

The prosecuting attorney raises an objection. “Relevance, Your Honor?”

His eyes drooping more than usual, the judge addresses Mr. Higgins. “Get to the point, counsel.”

Higgins turns back to Sam. “Would you say, in your professional opinion, that it would be possible for bonobos to use language, engage in intelligent behavior, and make moral judgments, like human beings?”

“Well, maybe. But one example seems to prove that bonobos are at least as intelligent as human beings.”

“What example is that?”

“He’s sitting over there.”

Sam points at Ben. The gallery breaks out into a hundred conversations once again. The judge raps his gavel, and the noise diminishes a little; after a few more raps, it finally subsides.

“His parents were killed in the wild, and he was rescued by a human being who, along with her husband, brought him up as her own.” As Sam summarizes his background, Ben feels as if they are talking about someone else. “Usually, when people try to raise wild animals, they hit a wall. As infants, these apes are charming and smart, almost like human babies, but when they grow older they become more moody and unpredictable, not to mention bigger and more dangerous. Somehow, Ben turned out different.”

“In your professional opinion, Dr. Kashala, would you say that a bonobo like Ben would be capable of sexual violence?”

Ben squirms in his seat and adjusts his collar.

“Objection, Your Honor.” The DA is on her feet. “The question assumes that one can generalize about an entire species, and the witness has already said that the defendant is not a typical member of that species. Besides, counsel has not offered evidence that the defendant is indeed a—whatever.”

The judge looks down his nose at Ben and seems to study his face for a long time. Finally he declares, “You’re right, counsel, but I’ll allow the question. I want to hear the answer.”

“Well,” says Sam, “bonobos are highly sexualized animals. They have sex at the drop of a hat. They engage in quick sexual encounters to relieve social tension and promote group harmony. But they’re not normally aggressive or violent. In fact, whereas chimpanzees are largely dominated by the males, who can be very aggressive, bonobo society is mostly run by the females. Male bonobos tend to be mamas’ boys. And I mean that in a good way. So my answer to your question is: sex, yes; rape, no. Ben would never do anything like that.”

More murmuring in the gallery.

After introducing a variety of photographs and documents, as well as depositions by Ben’s parents, to prove that he is, in fact, a bonobo, the defense rests.


Besides Monica, no one claims to have seen Ben at the fraternity house at one or two a.m. DNA evidence is inconclusive. The case seems to come down to the jury’s evaluation of character—Ben’s and his accuser’s.

“Ben,” says Higgins, bounding into the jailhouse meeting room with his ponytail flying, “I’ve got some great news.”

The plastic chairs are just as hard as they were the first time, the lights just as harsh.

“What news? This is all a bad dream, and I’m going to wake up soon?”

“No, but the DA is offering a deal. Plead guilty to simple assault and get a year in jail, which might be reduced to six months with good behavior.”

“But I didn’t do anything!” Ben wails.

Higgins lowers his voice and speaks more slowly. “I know you didn’t, Ben, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get off. I’m not sure that a primate—I mean, a non-human primate—can get a fair trial in this state. Or anywhere.”

“Thanks, Mr. Higgins. That’s reassuring.” Visions of King Kong swatting planes on top of the Empire State Building come to mind.

“I’m only trying to be realistic.”

Ben puts his head in his hands.

“Think it over,” says the lawyer. “The deal may not stay on the table forever.”


Ben lies down on his bunk and tries to get interested in Conrad’s novel. The prose is dense, the plot murky, the point of view confusing. He envisions Sam’s ancestors among the natives and imagines his dad as Marlow. “The horror, the horror.”


Ben’s parents come to see him.

His mom is wearing a dark sweater and skirt at odds with the sunny day he can glimpse through a barred window, his dad a t-shirt and jeans. He himself is wearing his blue jail jumpsuit.

“Ben,” says Jules, “we know this is a difficult time for you, but you’ve got to take the best alternative. When this is all over, you can go back to school and pick up where you left off.”

“I’m not going to prison for something I didn’t do, Dad.”

“Wait. I almost forgot. This came for you.”

Jules takes a letter out of his pocket. It is from Gillian. Half-apologetic, half-accusatory, it talks about apologies, compromises, community service, restorative justice. Justice?


Sam comes up with a new idea for a plea bargain, which Higgins relays to the prosecutor. The District Attorney’s office surprisingly agrees. Ben is not thrilled by the proposal, but he knows it is better than prison. He changes his plea to no contest, and the trial abruptly ends. Higgins begins serving his sentence for contempt of court.


In late summer Ben is released from jail. He stays with his mother and goes to a ball game with his dad and Maria. He and Bao and Ashley do a gig at the Jazz Café.

On a cool, partly sunny morning in September, Ben shows up at the Primate Center of a popular and highly regarded zoo. After a few days’ training he starts giving tours.

Each day is more or less like every other. The zoo contains exotic birds, enormous elephants, and majestic lions, but many visitors prefer the big red orangutan lounging in his cage, the monkeys eating bananas and tossing feces at the onlookers, the silverback gorilla rearing up on his legs and surveying his grassy domain. Today ten or twelve visitors are following Ben around the primate preserve.

“And now we come to the bonobos,” he announces through his microphone. His voice sounds tinny and high-pitched. Dressed in a khaki uniform that is too hot even for September, he feels like a freakshow pitchman. At least it’s better than splitting rocks, he figures. “They used to be known as pygmy chimps,” he continues. “But they’re a separate species. In fact, both chimpanzees and bonobos are close cousins of human beings. Scientists debate which ones we”—we? me?—“which ones human beings more closely resemble. The shrewd, clever, manipulative, and often aggressive chimpanzees or the thoughtful, sensitive, and frankly sexual bonobos.”

A little boy is pulling on his mother’s arm.

“Look, Mom, what are those monkeys doing?”

He points to a couple of bonobos who are rubbing against each other in an intimate way.

“Oh my God!” exclaims the mother. “I can’t believe they allow that here.”

She alternately stares at the bonobos and hides her eyes.

“Bonobos are anthropoid apes, not monkeys,” Ben explains through the mike, though he is not supposed to depart from his script. “Monkeys are smaller, with tails, not nearly as intelligent—” Circus performers, sideshow freaks, though he knows that’s not their fault.

“Don’t worry about it, son,” the boy’s father reassures him. “It’s perfectly normal. They’re just behaving like animals.”

“But Dad—” says the boy.

“I can’t believe it,” says the mother. “With all the sex and violence on television, you’d think a zoo would be a safe place to bring a child.”

Ben continues spouting information. “Physical intimacy is a primary characteristic of bonobos. It’s like shaking hands or kissing someone on the cheek for—for human beings. Bonobos have sexual encounters in a variety of positions and with a variety of partners.”

“Well, honey, it’s only natural,” the father tells the mother.

“Two females! I didn’t know animals could be lesbians.”

The father peers through his camera lens and zooms in for a closer look. “Oh my God, you’re right!”

“Dad, what’s a lezbeen?”

“Evolutionary biologists believe that chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans are all descended from a common ancestor. We’re cousins.”

A young woman with wire-rimmed glasses walks up to the edge of the little crowd and joins the almost-completed tour. He can’t believe it. Gillian! She lifts her hand hesitantly and waves. Ben waves back.

“Dad,” says the little boy, “did he say evolution? We don’t believe in that, do we?”

“That’s all right, son. It’s just a theory. Nothing to worry about.”

The bonobos are relaxing on the hillside, grooming each other and engaging in brief but excited sexual encounters. Big, unanswerable questions zip through Ben’s mind. Like, who am I? And: what now, bonobo boy? Occasionally one of the captive bonobos peers at Ben with a quizzical, almost human expression on his or her face. Ben peers back.

Read Randolph’s  interview about “Bonobo on Trial” and Bonobo Boy, his novel in progress