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people-in-the-trees

Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel The People in the Trees is the story of a Nobel Prize-winning doctor and the scientific finding he made in 1950 on the fictional island of Ivu’ivu that may have unlocked the secret to eternal life, but ultimately leads to further ruin and his own downfall.

As Yanagihara admits in several interviews, she based the main character in her book on the story of Nobel Prize-winning Hungarian-Slovak-American medical researcher Daniel Carleton Gajdusek who made significant contributions to the study of viruses and medical anthropology, but was also accused of, and subsequently arrest for, having molested children he had adopted from Papua New Guinea and was raising in Maryland.

The question in Yanagihara’s mind, as she told Vogue magazine, is:

…if we call someone a genius, and then they become a monster, are they still a genius? How do we assess someone’s greatness: is it what they contribute to society, and is that contribution negated if they also inflict horrible pain on another? Or—as I have often wondered—is it not so binary?

Excerpted here is the first chapter from The People in the Trees.

Yanagihara joins the AAWW on Thursday, October 24, along with poets Kimiko Hahn and Michael Leong to talk about science as a muse for her fiction, and the way colonization, the extraction of resources from indigenous communities, and moral relativism in the social sciences have informed her novel.

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March 19, 1995
Renowned Scientist Faces Charges of Sexual Abuse
By the Associated Press

(Bethesda, MD) Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, the renowned immunologist and director emeritus of the Center for Immunology and Virology at National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was arrested yesterday on charges of sexual abuse.

Dr. Perina, 71, was charged with three counts of rape, three counts of statutory rape, two counts of sexual assault, and two counts of endangering a minor. The charges originated with one of Dr. Perina’s sons.

“These charges are false,” said Perina’s attorney, Douglas Hindley, in a statement yesterday. “Dr. Perina is a prominent and highly respected member of the scientific community, and is eager to resolve this situation as quickly as possible so that he may return to work and his family.”

Dr. Perina won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1974 for his identification of Selene Syndrome, a condition that retards aging. The condition—in which the victim’s body remains preserved in relative youth, even as his mind degrades—was found among the Opa’ivu’eke people of Ivu’ivu, one of the three islands of the Micronesian country of U’ivu. It was acquired through the consumption of a rare prehistoric turtle for which Dr. Perina named the tribe, and whose flesh was discovered to inactivate telomerase, the naturally occurring enzyme that disintegrates telomeres and thereby limits each cell’s number of cellular divisions. The victims affected by Selene Syndrome—so named for the immortal and eternally youthful moon goddess in Greek mythology—were found to be able to live for centuries with the condition. Perina, who first traveled to U’ivu as a young physician with the noted anthropologist Paul Tallent in 1950, spent many years in the islands conducting field research. It was also there that he adopted his 43 children, many of them orphans or sons and daughters of impoverished Opa’ivu’eke tribespeople. Eight of the children are currently under Perina’s care.

“Norton is an exemplary father and a brilliant mind,” said Dr. Ronald Kubodera, a longtime research fellow in Perina’s lab and one of the scientist’s closest friends. “I have every faith these ridiculous charges will be dropped.”

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December 3, 1997
Prominent Scientist, Nobel Laureate, Sentenced to Prison
By Reuters

(Bethesda, MD) Dr. Abraham Norton Perina was sentenced today to 24 months at the Frederick Correctional Facility.

Dr. Perina was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize in Medicine for proving that the ingestion of a now-extinct turtle from the Micronesian country of U’ivu would inactivate telomerase, which limits each cell’s number of divisions. The condition, which is known as Selene Syndrome, was found to be transferable in a variety of mammals, including humans.

Perina was among the only Westerners to be granted unlimited access to this most remote and secretive of islands, and in 1968, he adopted the first of what were to be 43 children from the country, all of whom were raised in his Bethesda home. Two years ago, Perina was charged with rape and endangerment of a child; his accuser is one of his adopted children.

“This is a great tragedy,” says Dr. Louis Altschur, the director of the National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Perina was a scientist for many years. “Norton is a great mind and talent, and I fervently hope that he will be able to get the treatment and help he needs.”
Neither Perina nor his lawyer could be reached for comment.

 

Preface

I am Ronald Kubodera—but only in academic journals. To everyone else, I am Ron. Yes, I am the Dr. Ronald Kubodera about whom you have no doubt read in the magazines and newspapers. No, not all the stories are true—they rarely are, of course.

But in my case, the most important ones are, and I am proud of them. I am proud, for example, to have any sort of relationship with Norton at all (and mind you, just eighteen months ago, I would not have even needed to have said this), whom I have known since 1970, when I began working in his lab, in Bethesda, Maryland, at the National Institutes of Health. Norton had not then received his Nobel Prize, but already his work had revolutionized the medical community, forever changing how scholars would perceive the fields of virology and immunology, as well as, it should be said, medical anthropology. I am proud, too, of the fact that after establishing a relationship as colleagues, we began an equally intense one as friends; indeed, my relationship with Norton is the most meaningful one I have ever known. Most important though, I am proud of the fact that, after the events of the previous two years, I am still his friend, and he is still mine.

Not, of course, that I have had the opportunity to speak or communicate with Norton as often as I’d—or, no doubt, he’d—like. It is a strange and lonely thing, not having him nearby. In fact, until I moved here1 some sixteen months ago—a month after Norton’s sentence was handed down—I don’t believe that, in the natural course of daily events and so forth, we’d spent more than two days not in each other’s company. Maybe not even that long. (I am, of course, excluding special circumstances, such as the occasional vacation with my then-wife, or trips we made independent of each other to events such as funerals and weddings, et cetera. But even on those occasions, I would make an effort to communicate with him daily, either by phone or by fax.) The point is, talking to Norton, working with Norton, being with Norton, was simply a part of my quotidian life, much the way some people watch television daily, or read the newspaper daily: it is one of those forgettable yet not insignificant rituals, one that reassures you that life is progressing as expected. But when such a rhythm is suddenly interrupted, it is worse than unsettling, it is unmooring—you cannot help but feel terribly discombobulated. It is how I have been feeling this past year and a half or so. In the mornings I wake and go through my day as always, but in the evenings, I invariably delay bedtime, wander through my apartment, stare out into the night, wonder what it is I have forgotten. I tick down the tiny dozens of chores that I complete, thoughtlessly, in a typical day: letters opened and answered? Deadlines met? Doors locked? until finally, regrettably, I climb into bed. It is only on the lip of sleep that I remember that the very pattern of my life has changed, and then I experience a brief moment of melancholy, one that eventually slides into something that passes for resignation. You would think that I would be able by now to accept the changed circumstances of Norton’s—and by extension, my—life, but something in me resists; he was, after all, part of my routine for almost three decades.

But if life is lonely for me, it is far lonelier for Norton—I don’t mean to sound ignorant of this fact. When I think of him in that place, I am, quite simply, angry: Norton is no longer a young man, nor a healthy one, and imprisonment hardly seems an appropriate or reasonable punishment.

I know this belief is a minority opinion. I have lost count of the number of times I have tried to explain Norton—his humanity, his intelligence, his extraordinariness—to friends, and colleagues, and reporters (and judges, and juries, and lawyers). Indeed, there have been many times over these past sixteen months when I am reminded of Norton’s former friends’ treachery, how quickly and mumblingly they forgot and abandoned a man they claimed to love and respect. Some friends—people Norton had known and worked with for decades—all but vanished as soon as charges were brought against him. Worse, though, were those who left him after he was found guilty. I was reminded, then, of how disloyal and duplicitous most people are.

But I am digressing. One of the primary difficulties of incarceration for Norton has been battling the intense monotony that has inevitably come to define his situation. I must admit, I was a little surprised when Norton began, less than a month into his term, to complain of crippling boredom. It had always been that one of Norton’s fondest dreams—the dream, I think, of many brilliant and overextended men—was that one month, or one year, he’d find himself in a warm place with absolutely no commitments. There would be no speeches to give, no articles to edit or write, no students to instruct, no children to look after, no research to conduct; only a blank, flat expanse of open time, which he would be free to clutter with whatever he wished. Norton had always spoken of time as a sea, a mirrorlike, endless stretch of emptiness, and indeed, this dream—“sea time,” he called it—became a sort of joke, a shorthand for talking about subjects he hoped one day to pursue but had no way of doing at the present moment. And so he would make vows: he would breed tropical ferns in “sea time.” He would read biographies in “sea time.” He would write his memoirs in “sea time.” No one, least of all Norton, ever thought he would actually ever have “sea time,” but now, of course, he does, minus the warm location and the carelessness and pleasant, lazy torpor that one associates with hard-earned and temporary idleness. But unfortunately, it appears that Norton is perhaps simply not equipped for leisure; indeed, it is has been torturous for him (although of course, I admit that a great deal of this may be attributable to the unfortunate circumstances under which this leisure was granted him). In a recent letter, he wrote:

There is little here to do, and, after a certain point, even less to think. I never considered that I might find myself in such a state, so exhausted, really, that I feel exsanguinated, not of blood, but of thought. Boredom—I’d always thought, really, that I would treasure a period of unceasing emptiness, that I would easily fill it with reading, and writing, and conversation and so forth. But time, I’ve come to realize, is not for us to fill in such great, blank slabs: we speak of managing time, but it is the opposite—our lives are filled with busyness because those thin chinks of time are all we can truly master. 2

It seems a wise insight.

But even despite the obvious severity of the circumstances in which Norton now finds himself, there are some who have had the temerity to suggest that Norton should be grateful for what they consider the leniency of his current condition, a suggestion that seems not only obtuse, but cruel. One of these people is a man named Herbert West (whose name I have reluctantly changed), another of Norton’s research fellows from the early ‘80s, who stopped by to visit Norton in Bethesda while on the way to a conference in London. This was before the trial but after the arraignment, when Norton was under what amounted to house arrest and all of his children had been removed from his care. West, whom I had always considered more tolerable than many of Norton’s previous fellows, visited with Norton for an hour or so, and then asked me if I wanted to have dinner at a restaurant with him. I did not want to, particularly (and thought it awfully rude that he had invited me in front of Norton who, after all, was not allowed to leave the house), but Norton told me I should go, that he had some work he wished to complete and would not mind the privacy.

So I was made to go for dinner with West, and although I found it difficult not to think of Norton, alone in his house, we did manage to have a surprisingly pleasant talk about West’s work, and the paper he would present at his conference, and about an article Norton and I had published in The New England Journal of Medicine before he was arrested, and some mutual acquaintances, until West said, as our desserts were set before us:

“Norton’s aged a great deal.”

I said: “He is in a terrible situation.”

“Yes, terrible,” murmured West.

“It is grossly unfair,” I said.

West said nothing.

“Grossly unfair,” I repeated, giving him another chance.

West sighed and blotted the corners of his mouth with the point of his napkin, a gesture that struck me as both contrived and effete, as well as ostentatiously, obnoxiously Anglophilic. (West had studied—decades ago, and for two years only, might I add—at Oxford University on a Marshall fellowship, a fact he was unusually talented at alluding to in every social and business interaction.) He was eating blueberry cobbler, and it had stained his teeth the livid purple of bruises.

“Ron,” he began.

“Yes?” I said.

“Do you think he did it?” asked West.

I had by that time learned to expect that question, and also what to say in response. “Do you?”

West looked at me, and smiled, and then looked at the ceiling before looking at me again. “Yes,” he said.

I said nothing.

“You don’t,” said West, a little wonderingly.

I had learned what to say to this as well. “It is not relevant whether he did or not,” I said. “Norton is a great mind, and that is all that matters to me and, I should say, to history as well.”

There was a silence.

At last West said sheepishly, “I’d better get back soon. I’ve got some reading to do before my flight tomorrow.”

“All right,” I said. And we finished our desserts in silence.

I had driven us to the restaurant and after we paid for dinner (West tried to treat me, but I refused to let him; there was some tussling over the check, but I prevailed) I drove West back to his hotel. In the car, he made some attempts at conversation, which infuriated me further.

In the hotel parking lot, after sitting in silence for a few minutes, West expectantly, me angrily, he at last extended his hand, and I shook it.

“Well,” said West.

“Thank you for visiting,” I told him crisply. “I know Norton appreciated it.”

“Well,” West said again. I could not tell if he had appreciated my sarcasm or not; I thought not. “I’ll be thinking of him.”

There was another silence.

“If he’s found guilty,” West began.

“He will not be,” I told him.

“But if he is,” West continued, “will he go to prison?”

“I cannot imagine it,” I answered.

“Well, if he does,” West persisted, and I remembered how unattractively ambitious, how grabby West had been as a fellow, and how impatient he was to leave Norton’s lab and run his own, “that’ll at least be a lot of ‘sea time,’ for him, won’t it, Ron?” I was so appalled by this flippancy that I found myself unable to respond. As I sat there gaping, West smiled at me, said another goodbye, and got out of the car. I watched him enter the hotel through its double doors and walk into the brightly lit lobby, and then I started the car again to return to Norton’s, where I spent most nights. In the months after, the trial began and ended, and then the sentencing began and ended, but needless to say, West never again came to visit Norton.

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1 Palo Alto, California, where I hold the John M. Torrance Chair in the immunology department of Stanford University Medical School.

2 A. Norton Perina to Ronald Kubodera, M.D., from a letter dated April 24, 1998

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Hanya Yanagihara is the author of the novels The People in the Trees and A Little Life (Feb 2015), and is the executive editor of Conde Nast Traveler.

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