One who is possessed by an idea appears to be a fool.
Temple Grandin’s great initial insight was that cattle like to go in circles. This was ridiculed as obvious by the cattlemen to whom she first expressed it. They saw cattle going in circles, or trying to, all day, every day, and thought nothing of it. It was “hidden in plain sight.” Grandin was at that time a young woman with no career or reputation to help her. She saw it differently than the cattlemen: with her characteristic empathy for animals, she understood the reason for this behavior; the cattle are comforted by the sense that they are going back to where they came from. Going in circles is comfort behavior, like the spinning that some autistic persons use to comfort themselves (including Grandin herself at an earlier age).
This insight expands for her at a metaphysical level, as she asks herself, when someone, person or animal, dies: “Where do they go”? The cattle are acting out the answer to that question: they return to where they came from.
In our tradition, all things and all beings come from God and return to God. This may be a comforting answer, or not. The puzzle of death is very much present in the largely visual awareness of Temple Grandin, as depicted in the film. It first arises on the way to her Aunt’s Arizona ranch, as they pass a cattleyard. “Is that where they slaughter them?” From that time on, her interest and affection for animals is colored by the problem of their death and the peculiar responsibility that people have for it.
When her beloved horse Chestnut dies at her boarding school, she asks, “Where do they go”? All realities for her are visual: something is here, then it is gone. (There is a suggestion of the “Fort-Da” game discussed by Freud as a paradigm of how the psyche comes to terms with death.) In the presence of a body, whether that of Chestnut or, later, of her teacher and friend Dr. Carlock, it is clear to her with the obviousness of visual reality that the “thing,” the being loved, is not present. She cannot believe that it has merely ceased to exist, so she asks persistently, “Do you know where they go?” By her straightforward scientific logic, being, like matter or energy, is rigorously conserved; “they” must have gone somewhere.
In this strangely primitive form, the scientific consciousness proves precisely to be the religious consciousness in ovo.
The special quality of Temple Grandin’s perspective (again, as the film presents it) is to be stripped of sentimentality and posturing. To these things she is tone-deaf; what presents a barrier to her integration with other people, however, is a positive benefit not only to her scientific insight but also to the stark purity of her philosophic views.
It is argued that the “love” spoken of in the Gospels has nothing to do with the sentimental love represented in culture. It is not feeling, but practice. Grandin elaborates a rational framework for the humane treatment of animals, bound up with the idea that cattle’s lives and existence are dependent on human use:
Do you think we’d have cattle if people didn’t eat them every day? They’d just be funny-looking animals in a zoo. We raise them for us. That means we owe them some respect. Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be. I wouldn’t want to have my guts ripped out by a lion. I’d much rather die in a slaughterhouse, if it was done right. (Temple Grandin, Mick Jackson, 2010, 90:40)
Another point appears clearly in this passage. Grandin is attuned to the order of nature in which stronger consumes weaker. Her insights into cattle behavior involve the understanding that they are “prey animals,” normally killed and eaten by other animals. She has insight into the world of prey animals, as she was tormented by others throughout her childhood and as a young adult. In the order of culture, the stronger still consumes the weaker, but it doesn’t have to be done with arbitrary cruelty: “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.” We might call this the “ethical option” in human behavior. Her inventions, like the special dipping track for cattle, are eminently cultural creations, with a curvaceous artistic elegance, recalling somewhat the designs of Gaudí.
Grandin is cut off by her her autism from much of the great unspoken commonalities of human existence, what Lionel Trilling called “the hum and buzz of implication” that surrounds us, guiding our assumptions and limiting our perceptions and judgments. For that reason, her example is of consummate interest. Receiving the world in a powerful echo-chamber of visual and analytic awareness, she is driven to invent and create. Hampered in her access to the “normal” language of human feeling, she is acutely sensitive to the significance of behavior and action and constructs a way of compassion from the elements that she finds in her direct experience of animal life. Her extraordinarily objective sense of the spirit has no taint of conventionalism or righteousness.
A scene near the end, bathed in white light, shows Grandin in helmet and white coat at the slaughter of a cow.
I touched the first cow as it was being stunned. In a few seconds it was going to be just another piece of beef, but in that moment, it was still an individual. It was calm, and then it was gone. And I became aware of how precious life was. I thought about death, and I felt close to God. (100:15)
By the Biblical definition of our species, we are “like gods,” with knowledge of good and of evil and with the power of choice that this implies.