July 09, 1990 12:00 PM

by Harold T.P. Hayes

It was clear from Fossey’s 1983 book, Gorillas in the Mist (if not the Sigourney Weaver film it led to), that she was no sweetheart. Dedicated as she was to the east central African mountain gorillas she observed, she also seemed monomaniacal and, in her refusal to acknowledge her own role as a rather odd primate, inhuman if not inhumane.

This fascinating, painfully sad biography offers plenty of evidence why Fossey wasn’t anxious to expose her life to much scrutiny.

Hayes, a former Esquire editor who became interested in Africa while preparing his 1977 book on conservation, The Last Place on Earth, credits Fossey with protecting, perhaps saving, Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. But he also portrays her as a vindictive, insecure, manipulative racist, capable of flagrant dishonesty and brutality—as hateful and pitiable as she was admirable.

Hayes theorizes that Fossey brought some long-standing mistrust of people with her to Africa, “And in her years in the Congo and Rwanda, through the brutalities she survived, the hardships she endured, and the isolation she imposed on herself, the mistrust of people grew until it assumed pathological proportions.”

Certainly the notion of honor didn’t seem at the forefront of her consciousness, from the time she lied to anthropologist Louis Leakey about her credentials to secure financing for her researches in Africa, which began in 1965. Hayes quotes numerous students who came to work with her, most of whom found her cold and sometimes paranoid. He also dwells on her affair with National Geographic photographer Robert Campbell, who spent almost two years at her Karisoke research station but eventually left to return to his wife and work, leaving Fossey, who underwent two abortions during their affair, even more emotionally shattered than she had been. By the last few years of her life, she had grown so single-minded in her obsession with the gorillas that she paid Rwandan park service guards to bring suspected animal poachers to her so she could torture them. Hayes theorizes that her still unsolved murder in December 1985 was in revenge for her behavior toward the Rwandans.

Hayes died of a brain tumor in 1989 with the book mostly finished; his wife, Judy Kessler, a journalist and independent TV producer, completed it. Its final editing doesn’t do Hayes justice, with too many repetitions and typographical errors. A more serious problem is that Hayes relies almost totally on white sources. The crucial question of the attitude of the people whose country Fossey had invaded—whom she often called “wogs,” an equivalent of “niggers”—is not addressed.

Still, this is a vivid, enlightening book. And if Hayes set out to draw an invidious comparison between the gorillas’ quiet strength, dignity, loyalty and gentleness and the nature of their human cousins who presume to study them, he succeeded. (Simon and Schuster, $21.95)

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