Harlow’s Monkeys

by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

Assume that we are not monsters for we mean well.
— Harry Harlow (1905-1981)


To be a Monkey
is to be funny

If funny
you don’t hurt

& if you don’t hurt
you don’t cry

& if you don’t cry
the noise you make is funny

& if it is funny
people can laugh

for it is all right
for people to laugh
at a Monkey

& people are happy
if people laugh

& the one thing they agree
is a monkey is funny


Oh! it is not funny
to hear a Monkey
scream for a Monkey
scream is identical
to a human scream
& a human scream is
not funny

So in the Monkey Lab
to maintain calm
Dr. Harlow had
no choice but
to “surgically remove”
Monkey vocal chords

so if there is a (Monkey) scream
not heard
how is it a scream?


We were Harlow’s Monkeys
& Dr.Harlow was our Daddy
in the famous lab
at Madison, Wisconsin
from which you did not leave

hairless bawling infants
taken from our mothers
at birth to dwell
in Harlow’s hell

“social isolation”
“maternal deprivation”

to be a Monkey
is funny
nursing the dugs
of a bare-wire doll

clinging to
a towel
draped over
a bare-wire doll

seeking milk, love
where there’s none
yet: seeking milk,
love where
there’s none.
yet: seeking

How could a Monkey
be sad, could a Monkey
spell the word—"sad"—?

In the bottom
of the Monkey cage
listless & broken
when the wire doll too
is taken away

“learned helplessness”
“pit of despair”

You laugh, for you
would never so despair
mistaking a wire doll
for a Mother
or a devil
for a Daddy


(Look: in any lab
you had
to be cruel
to publish
& succeed.
As Israel, Harry
changed his name
to Harlow, Harry
to publish
& succeed.

Just had
to be cruel
the way today
a baby calf
in its cage
to veal.)

Last updated September 26, 2022