Publishing Info: Harper Collins, 2008
Number of Pages: 226
Book Category: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Irene and Alex worked together for 30 years, and, in the process, shattered ideas about what level of communication animals could achieve. Alex was an African Grey parrot and had a brain the size of a shelled walnut. Yet his work with Irene proved he was capable of complex intellectual feats—such as adding, sounding out words and understanding concepts such as bigger, smaller, more, fewer and none. He demonstrated that birds have a capacity for language that is deeper than simple imitation. He also exhibited a sense of humor, playfulness and seemed capable of emotions. Consider his last words to Irene: “You be good. I love you.”
The book begins with some background on Irene Pepperberg’s formative years—her lonely childhood, her early experiences with pet birds, her scientific background and her eventual decision to pursue human-animal communication as her life’s work. Her work with Alex was ground-breaking and often occurred at great personal expense to both Irene and Alex—both financially and emotionally. For much of her career, Irene had to hustle to find lab space, funding and staff support. Multiple moves to different academic environments characterized her early career until her research began getting recognition and financial support. In fact, much of her research happened only because of Irene’s own tireless efforts to raise funds for The Alex Foundation, which supported her work when funding and academic positions were scarce.
The bulk of the book documents Irene’s work with Alex—descriptions of his training, first-hand glimpses at his multiple breakthroughs, understandable explanations of linguistics and why what Alex was doing was so remarkable. Throughout her research with Alex, Irene always applied scientific methods and approaches. Conscious of the naysayers who criticized the field of human-animal communication, Irene was careful to avoid being too “close” to Alex—rigorously documenting their training and forcing Alex to repeat tasks again and again to ensure her research was scientifically sound.
Yet when Alex died prematurely at the age of 31, Irene succumbed to grief and allowed herself to feel—perhaps for the first time—the full measure of love she had for Alex. With his death, she finally allowed herself to discard the clinical distance she always attempted to maintain with Alex and feel the full wave of her love, respect and grief for him. With this book, Irene is finally able to present the full story of her work with Alex—not just the scientific aspects but the emotional bonds they shared and developed over their long relationship.
This book was wonderful on so many levels. The writing is clear-eyed and accessible, and the descriptions of the training and breakthroughs are down-to-earth and easily understandable. Yet Irene also manages to provide a loving and affectionate look at Alex himself, who the reader comes to know and love during the course of the book. Irene does a brilliant job of explaining just enough so that non-scientific readers understand what was so remarkable about their research together but balances it out with anecdotal stories that make Alex’s personality come alive.
Although the book sometimes covers Irene’s personal life, she keeps the focus firmly on her work with Alex. In the course of the book, Irene gets married and eventually divorced, but she doesn’t spend too much time on these aspects of her life. Most of the personal information is provided simply as a way to explain how she came to her life’s work and some of the personal costs involved in her dedication to her work with Alex. I admire Irene for not delving into self-pity as it is clear that she sacrificed much of her life to her work with Alex. She never comes across as sorry for herself or regretful of the high price she may have paid in her personal life.
The book was a fast and enjoyable read, though I can’t imagine any reader coming away without being moved and saddened by Alex’s early death. (African Greys typically live up to 60 years.) As I read, I kept marking page after page of passages I particularly liked and wanted to share in my review. Here are just a few of them to give you a feel for Irene’s writing and the tone of the book.
He’d answered these kinds of questions dozens of times, and yet we still kept asking them, because we needed our statistical sample. You could imagine him thinking, I’ve already told you that, stupid or simply, This is getting very boring. He was like the bright little kid at school who finds none of the work challenging and so passes the time by making trouble.
Sometimes, however, Alex chose to show his opinion of the boring task at hand by playing with our heads. For instance, we would ask him, “What color key?” and he would give every color in his repertoire, skipping only the correct color. Eventually, he became quite ingenious with this game, having more fun getting us agitated rather than giving us the answers we wanted and he surely knew. We were pretty certain he wasn’t making mistakes, because it was statistically near to impossible that he could list all but the correct answer. These observations are not science, but they tell you a lot about what was going on in his head; they tell you a lot about how sophisticated his cognitive processes really were.
By now I had realized he was just messing with my head. I knew he knew the correct answer. “OK, Alex,” I said sternly. “You’re just going to have to take a time-out.” I took him to his room and closed the door.
“Two…two…two…I’m sorry…come here!” Linda and I immediately heard coming from behind Alex’s closed door. “Two…come here…two.” Linda and I were laughing to the point of tears.
“I guess Alex is fully himself again,” I finally was able to say to Linda. “The little rascal!”
After a local television program that featured Alex, someone sent him a toy parrot, one that played songs when you pushed a button. We suspended it over one side of Alex’s table, and he completely ignored it.
After about a week, one day he looked intently at the suspended parrot, walked up to it, and said “You tickle.” He then bent his head over toward the toy, the way he would to a student, who would then dutifully tickle Alex’s neck. Nothing happened, of course. After a few seconds he looked up at the toy, said “You turkey,” and stalked off in a huff. The students sometimes said “You turkey” to Alex when he did dumb things. He had apparently learned how to use that stinging epithet without any training.
Why and Where I Got The Book
I received my review copy of this book from Harper Collins as part of a TLC Book Tour. Thank you to Trish from TLC Book Tours for this opportunity. If you would like to visit some of the other stops on the book tour for Alex & Me, here are the links and the dates of each stop.