Case Study: Brian the Bonobo and Sexual Abuse

Picture of a cat resting next to a Shinto shrine in Japan.

In earlier posts I described two archetypal reactions to sexual trauma: the wounded healer and the scapegoat. Which archetype is activated depends on societal conditions. In the presence of a supportive community, the archetype of the wounded healer is more likely initiated, leading to psychological and social integration. In oppressive and abusive conditions, the archetype of the scapegoat is more likely triggered in response to trauma, contributing to chronic states of psychological fragmentation and feelings of alienation. 

But is this correct? Are the wounded healer and scapegoat archetypal reactions to trauma? Does their activation depend on social conditions?

To test these assertions, I used Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens’ criteria for archetypes. Stevens believed  “… whenever a phenomenon is found to be characteristic of all human communities, irrespective of culture, race, or historical epoch, then it is an expression of an archetype of the collective unconscious.”⁠1 He also created three specific criteria for archetypes:

(1) Universality: the archetype is present in all cultures;

(2) Evolutionary Stability: there are physiological consequences when the archetype isn’t activated; and,

(3) Continuity: the archetype is similar to archetypes found in other mammals.⁠2

As examples of archetypes, Stevens included maternal bonding, dominance striving, and home building, all of which are observed in humans and other mammals. 

With regards to Stevens’ first criteria of universality, in communities around the world, victims of sexual trauma are scapegoated by their abusers, if not also by their communities. The vast majority of women feel shame after sexual trauma, which can lead to fear of rejection and self-isolation. Survivors try to avoid parts of themselves that hold memories of the trauma as they struggle with returning to the status quo. Similar reactions are witnessed in survivors of ongoing childhood abuse, domestic violence, and war.

In contrast, communities that create conditions for psychological and social integration following trauma —e.g., practitioners of shamanism, trauma-informed care — activate and nurture the archetype of the wounded healer. Furthermore, early in human history, shamanism was a universal phenomena, found in all foraging societies, and used to integrate psyches and communities. Similar to shamanism, trauma-informed care also witnesses the necessity of psychological and social integration for recovery from trauma.

The archetypes of the wounded healer and the scapegoat also meet Stevens’ second criteria of evolutionary stability. Abundant evidence suggests unaddressed trauma — a state I associate with the archetype of the scapegoat — is harmful to mind and body. Research on the effects of traumatic stress and adverse childhood experiences reveals that unaddressed trauma leads to mental disorders, diseases, and death. For sexual trauma survivors, there is also increased likelihood of revictimization. In contrast, intentional efforts to recover from trauma increase psychological integration and physical and emotional well-being, as well as contribute to more satisfying relationships. 

Stevens third criteria of continuity is met when, “the record of evolution shows no sharp break between human and other mammalian species with regard to the pattern concerned.”3 This criteria in particular drastically limits what can count as an archetype. By demanding continuity with other mammals, Stevens avoided the type of psychological theorizing that panders to the theorist’s personal history (if not egocentric pursuits). Instead, we must humbly look to the behaviors of our fellow creatures to determine what really counts as an archetype.

One of our closest genetic kin, the bonobos, appear to activate the archetype of the scapegoat when forced to live in oppressive and abusive conditions. In the presence of communal support, however, bonobos appear to activate the archetype of the wounded healer, contributing to psychological and social integration. 

In her book Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman relayed the story of Brian, a bonobo born at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.⁠4 Brian endured an abusive and alienating upbringing. For his first seven years of life, Brian lived in a cage alone with his father, a research animal at Yerkes. Brian was repeatedly sodomized by his father. Such sexual violence is an aberration for bonobos, despite their reliance on sexual stimulation for maintaining solidarity and creating alliances, as well as relieving stress related to status differentials within the community.⁠5 Braitman noted, “Sodomy may be the one sexual act that bonobos don’t engage in and sexual violence is rare. Brian’s father, a research subject, doubtlessly had his own emotional problems.”⁠6

Brian began to engage in self-injurious behavior in his attempts to cope with the ongoing abuse. He would “repeatedly thrust his fist into his rectum so hard that it bled.”⁠7 Brian lost so much blood the researchers at Yerkes worried he might die. They gave Brian Prozac and Valium, but the self-harm continued. In the unnatural and traumatizing conditions of the laboratory, Brian could not recover. 

Eventually Brian was moved to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which had a “reputation for healing distressed bonobos.”⁠8 In the beginning, Brian seemed incapable of adapting to his new environment. He was socially avoidant and relied on obsessive-compulsive behaviors to manage anxiety, which is similar to how some humans attempt to cope with childhood sexual abuse. “Normal social interactions were impossible for him. He couldn’t eat in front of others and required a series of repeated, OCD-like rituals before he’d take food. He was scared of any new thing, and when he got stressed, he’d just curl up into the fetal position and scream.”⁠9 

Even more distressing, Brian would “hurt himself over and over, tearing off his own fingernails and intentionally cutting his genitals. He was socially outcast, left to clap his hands, spin in circles, and stare blankly at walls by himself.”⁠10 Without the appropriate socialization at Yerkes, Brian lacked the capacity to distinguish signs that someone was friend or foe. Instead, he was overwhelmed with fear.

In his book On The Origins of Human Emotions, Jonathan Turner noted the importance of learning a “cultural grammar” for emotions, which makes possible functioning effectively and harmoniously with other members of one’s social group.⁠11 This is true of both humans and bonobos. Although many emotions are instinctual, mammals also rely on their social groups to guide emotional development.

Humans and bonobos alike use emotions to become social beings and to feel like members of the group. This felt-sense of belonging is made possible through a shared language of emotions, gestures, and patterned ways of behaving. While at Yerkes, Brian missed opportunities to learn and express emotions that signify to himself and others his membership in community. 

Fortunately, Brian’s early life isolation did not foreclose to him later becoming part of community. He still had the capacity for healthy bonding; this was his archetypal destiny. Yet when Brian first came in contact with signs of safety and the potential for belonging, he didn’t know how to react. Part of him still suffered from being scapegoated. His survival had depended on learning the subtle signs of when aggression was imminent, and his flight response was still on high alert. Yet the archetypal tendencies associated with attachment, exploration, and play were also there, waiting to be activated by a supportive community. 

Brian’s psychiatrist at the Milwaukee Zoo, Dr. Harry Prosen, gave Brian Paxil to dampen his anxiety so his unlived, prosocial aspects could be revealed. Dr. Prosen remarked, “The beauty of drug therapy was that the other bonobos could start to see him for who he really was, which was a really cool little dude.”⁠12 Unlike at Yerkes, where drug therapy had little impact, in the right conditions, Paxil helped Brain calm down enough to recognize the kindness and safety present in his new home. With his anxiety dampened, Brian began to anticipate affection and safety rather than continued abuse. He could begin to recover from his trauma, and eventually flourish.  

More likely than Paxil, it was the safety created at the Milwaukee County Zoo and the kindness shown to Brian that helped him overcome his tragic beginnings. According to Braitman, “All his meals were served at the same time, in the same place. He was given quiet time every day after lunch. The keepers also kept their voices low and tried their best to use consistent mannerisms and words of praise. Every new object was introduced to his environment slowly so that he could look at it, touch it, smell it, and get used to it at his own pace. Daily training sessions were short, and the keepers made sure to end them on a positive note.”⁠13 

Brian especially benefitted from the companionship of his fellow bonobos. He was placed with younger bonobos so he could learn how to play. Brian was also shown kindness and protection by two of the older bonobos in the tribe: 49-year-old Kitty, who was blind, and 27-year-old Lody, a male Bonobo who was a leader and also known for his calming presence. Through his relationship with these respected elders, Brain experienced safe intimacy and learned prosocial behavior.

By his sixteenth birthday, Brian was not only off Paxil, but he also had become a valued member of the tribe. When Lody became older and unable to lead, Brian who took over this important role. Like the shaman who gains the wisdom of recovery through the journey of the wounded healer and returns to guide her or his people, Brian became an inspiration for his tribe.

Activity to ponder: Like Brian, those of us with histories of sexual trauma benefit from a manageable routine and a calming environment. Take some time to review your routine and your environment. Are there changes you can make that would reduce feelings of anxiety or obsessive worry? If so, commit to making one simple change this week.


1 Stevens, Anthony. (1993). The two million-year-old self. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, p. 65.

2 Ibid., pp. 65-66.

3 Ibid., p. 65.

4 Braitman, Laurel. (2014). Animal madness: How anxious dogs, compulsive parrots and elephants in recovery help us understand ourselves. New York: Simon & Schuster.

5 For more discussion of Bonobo behavior, see Diamond, Jared. (1992). The third chimpanzee. New York: Harper Perennial; Waal, Frans De. (2005). Our inner ape: A leading primatologist explains why we are who we are. New York: Riverhead Books.

6 Braitman, p. 256.

7 Ibid., p. 255.

8 Ibid, p. 257.

9 Madrigal, Alexis C. (2014). Brian the mentally ill bonobo, and how he healed. The Atlantic.

10 Ibid.

11 Turner, Jonathan H. (2000). On the origins of human emotions. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

12 Braitman, p. 259.

13 Ibid.


© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).