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Epstein, O.B. (2012). Project Nim, Director: James Marsh, 2011. Att: New Dir. in Psychother. Relat. Psychoanal., 6(2):160-161.

(2012). Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, 6(2):160-161

Project Nim, Director: James Marsh, 2011

Review by:
Orit Badouk Epstein

This is a sobering documentary about a 1970s social linguistic experiment that was carried out on a chimpanzee called Nim who was raised as a human child in order to prove that chimpanzees could learn to communicate in sign language with humans if they were raised in a human environment.

After cruelly being taken away from his mother at an early age, Nim was fostered first by a family of hippy academics where he was breast fed by the family matriarch and even given a joint. Nim gradually began to show signs of aggression and was transferred to various other academic “parents”, mainly students, who, apart from one caring individual, had no experience of raising a chimpanzee or a child and adopted different parenting styles. As he got older Nim became more violent and eventually was sent to an animal testing laboratory when the scientist that started the experiment had finished his project. Nim was finally purchased by a refuge for animals in Texas after a huge court case on animal rights. The director, James Marsh (who also made Man on a Wire), shows his audience the most harrowing film footage of Nim's mistreatment in the research facility giving glimpses into mankind's darker capabilities in its treatment of our closest primate relatives.

This unsettling documentary is less about language and its aetiology than about the emotional and physical abuse of a young mammal. Nim, just like a young child that has been raised with numerous disruptive attachments, and who has experienced maternal deprivation and constant misattunement, displays many of the symptoms of abuse. What we learn is not about the wonders of language, but the attachment style similarities between the great apes and humans.

From the moment of separation from his mother, Nim showed signs of emotional distress with his first care-giver and behaved in ways that parallel the ambivalent/preoccupied attachment pattern. As he experienced further loss and separation, and the mishandling by clueless care-givers, Nim began to develop all the classical symptoms of disorganised attachment. As a result Nim's aggression increased to a point of full blown psychosis.

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