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Early trauma shapes my perception of the human race

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Overcoming traumatic memories
Desmond Morris Writer
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And there's a reason for this. There was a man, an experimenter called Masserman. And Masserman's experiment with cats – a particularly unpleasant experiment but it was one that taught me something – the Masserman experiment called 'Food in the...' it's called... no, what's it called? 'Snake in the food box'. He had these experimental cats and he would show them snakes and they wouldn't mind. You know, they even sort of hunted them. But then one day, he put a snake in the cat's food box which had a lid on top and the cat, to get its food, had to knock the lid off. So the cat goes to its food box and it knocks the lid off and inside there's a snake. And the cat jumps back and that cat wouldn't feed again for days. It became completely neurotic about food because of the snake in the food box.

Now these aeroplanes crashing on either side of us were the snake, and our strawberries and cream were the food box. And so as we sat there in that field... it was such a lovely, sunny afternoon and I was with my mother and father – it was a happy moment – we were having strawberries and cream and it was wonderful. And suddenly this horror strikes us and nearly... I mean, how we didn't get killed is a miracle, but it was the contrast between the expectation of a pleasant afternoon and the horror that happened that left the mark on my memory. After all, I was a child during World War II and I saw plenty of air crashes and things where you... when you expected them. But it was the shock of the contrast between the cosiness of the picnic and the sudden horror.

So those are my childhood traumas which impinged on an otherwise happy childhood. I told you how the drowning incident meant that I couldn't swim; I couldn't put my head underwater. And as you can probably guess, the aeroplane crash meant that I couldn't fly. I just... I just couldn't bring myself to. My father realised it was a danger, this, and he took me to one of those air shows and tried to get me to go up in an aeroplane and I wouldn't, you know. And he was, oh, come on, come on. No, no, I wouldn't go near an aeroplane. And, indeed, I refused to fly anywhere and I had to... if I went to the Continent, it had to be on a ferryboat until I was 38. My first flight I took when I had no choice. I just had to go to a conference in Zurich and I got onto the aeroplane knowing I was going to die and bathed in sweat, and when I got off the other end I thought, I'm alive, I've actually survived.

And this is, you know, nearly... what was it? 12 years to 38 years. A long... a long gap. But it was still... it was still there – this trauma. So I overcame it. And then, as with the swimming, I not only became passionate about swimming once I'd taught myself, but once I'd flown and discovered that I wasn't going to die, I became absolutely passionate. I love flying and I've flown hundreds of time ever since. I've been in light aircraft, I've been in helicopters. I've even been in hot air balloons over Africa. And every... I've been in Concorde, I've been in every conceivable... I love flying. And so, once you do overcome these traumas, you can put them to bed and, in fact, they don't have to last in that way if you once defeat them.

Born in Wiltshire, UK in 1928, Desmond Morris had a strong interest in natural history from his boyhood. Later, as an undergraduate, he studied zoology, and after obtaining a First Class Honours Degree from the University of Birmingham, he moved to the Oxford University Zoology Department where he began his research into animal behaviour for his doctorate thesis. In 1957, having moved to London, Morris famously organised an exhibition at the ICA of art work created by Congo the chimpanzee. Morris's engagement with the visual arts remains strong and he has often exhibited many of his own paintings since 1950 when his paintings went on show alongside those of the surrealist painter, Jean MirĂ³. 1950 was also the year when Morris began his career in TV creating and presenting Zootime and Life in the Animal World. Soon after this, he began work on a book that has proved a huge best-seller, The Naked Ape. Focusing on human behaviour, it was the first in a series of books in which the author observes humans primarily as a species of animal. Today, Desmond Morris has lost none of his inquisitiveness and continues to observe and write about what he sees in the world around him.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: cat, snake, food box, strawberries and cream, crash, aeroplane, phobia, flying

Duration: 3 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014