Erikson Scholar Dale Peterson, PhD, Explores Love and Death with Chimpanzees in the Middle



by Aaron Beatty

Erikson Scholar, Dale Peterson, PhDCurrent Erikson Scholar, Dale Peterson, PhD, has been many things throughout his career: a finish carpenter, a video game designer, a technical writer, a primate researcher and collaborator with Jane Goodall, a world traveler and more. As a graduate student at Stanford, he studied under Wallace Stegner and earned his PhD in English and American literature. Through it all, he has been steadfastly a writer and author of books, remarking “I am driven to it [writing]. I need to think and give my thoughts form.” Translated into nine foreign languages, his eighteen published books have been distinguished as Best Book of the Year by the Boston Globe, Denver Post, Discover, The Economist, Globe and Mail, Library Journal, and the Village Voice. Two were named Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times. During 2013 and 2014, he was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University.

At the heart of Dr. Peterson’s current book-in-progress, Ghosts: A Story of Love and Death with Chimpanzees in the Middle, is the real life story of a woman whose accidental death, during a research project studying Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees in Africa, reverberates throughout the rest of the international research team. Told from the perspective of the survivors, Dr. Peterson calls the story “a complex psychological case history of grief and depression.” 

Dr. Peterson is no stranger to the intricacies of psychological case studies, having authored A Mad People's History of Madness in 1982, which presents a history of psychiatry through a close study of the published autobiographical writings of mental patients from 1436 to 1976. This work was informed by his time as an attendant in a Veterans' Administration psychiatric hospital, where he served after receiving conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. 

Had Dr. Peterson not been persuaded to apply for the Erkison Scholar Program at Riggs by former Erikson Scholar Lewis Hyde, his current book may have taken on a different focus. “Applying for the Erikson Scholar Program transformed my idea of the book” stated Dr. Peterson. While he recognized certain psychological elements existed in his work, it was through speaking with Mr. Hyde and applying for the program that “a different sense of the work took place.”

Remarking that “it is helpful to be here at Riggs and think about grief,” Dr. Peterson referenced Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia as a touchstone in writing about the informants/survivors he interviewed for the book. Freud wrote of mourning as normal and melancholia--or depression--as something to be treated. “Successful grief ends” said Dr. Peterson. “It is a natural process we are built to go through.” The survivors, according to Dr. Peterson, did not go through the natural process of grief and, in turn, the death of their research partner “transformed their lives in a negative way.”

Beyond grief and depression, Dr. Peterson is exploring what he calls “the spectrum of alienation and attachment,” in his current work; he contends we all feel attachments along this spectrum, dependent on variables such as environment, situation, individual personality, etc. This emotional spectrum figures prominently in the relationships that develop or fail to develop, in his book, among the woman who dies, the other members of the research team and the chimpanzees at the research site. 

Dr. Peterson will be giving a class on writing for the patient community at Riggs during his tenure as Erikson Scholar and presenting to the Riggs clinical staff as well. To read more about his life and his work, visit: www.dalepetersonauthor.com

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