Hanya Yanagihara's fascinating debut novel, The People in the Trees, was our fiction top pick for August. And we were curious: Was Yanagihara's charismatic, brilliant yet morally corrupt hero, Norton Perina, a project of her imagination? Or was her novel based on a true story? The answer might surprise you.
Weird science: The stranger-than-fiction life of Carleton Gajdusek
guest post by Hanya Yanagihara
The main character of The People in the Trees is based on a real man named Carleton Gajdusek, who spent much of the 1950s in Papua New Guinea, working with a tribe called the South Foré, who were beset with a mysterious and fatal neurodegenerative disease they called “kuru,” or the shaking.
This tribe had once been cannibals, and although they had ceased the practice by the time Gajdusek arrived on the scene, they still performed a ritual that involved handling their deceased elders’ brains, and it was from this—from passing shreds of diseased tissue from hand to hand—that they infected themselves.
What Gajdusek did was discover that their disease was caused by a slow-acting prion, which is a kind of virus that can hibernate in the body for years, even decades, before jolting to life. And while kuru is of course a singular condition, its cousins—including mad cow and scrapie—are the stuff of everyday Western life, and it was for this discovery that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976.
[W]hile the outlines of Gajdusek’s story remain intact in my book, I can safely say that the specifics—from the character’s voice to the island and people he encounters to the disease he discovers—are wholly invented.
As fantastic as this accomplishment was, however, Gajdusek’s personal life was perhaps more so. At some point, he began adopting children from Papua New Guinea, and eventually ended up with around 50. In the late 1990s, he was accused by several of his own sons of sexual abuse, and he served a short spell in prison before moving to Norway, where he lived the rest of his years.
It’s difficult to overstate Gajdusek’s importance to a certain segment of the medical research community. Certainly he was a figure of fascination to my father, who was for many years a research doctor, including at the National Institutes of Health, where Gajdusek had his labs.
It wasn’t just his intelligence, as wild and inventive and inimitable as it was: It was the grand figure he cut, his unabashed eccentricity, his very largeness of personality and imagination. His was a truly idiosyncratic mind—wide-ranging and curious and unfettered—in a very closed world. And so I always knew, probably by the time I was in college, that I would write about him, and that he was too good a character to not fictionalize. Therefore, I was very careful to limit my exposure to him: I never read his diaries, which are available at NIH. I never read Richard Rhodes’s Deadly Feasts, which addresses Gajdusek’s work in Papua New Guinea. (I did read D.T. Max’s fascinating The Family That Couldn’t Sleep, which does concern some of Gajdusek’s work.) And so, while the outlines of Gajdusek’s story remain intact in my book, I can safely say that the specifics—from the character’s voice to the island and people he encounters to the disease he discovers—are wholly invented.
Gajdusek’s story is a novelist’s dream. Not only are the circumstances of his discovery, and of his fall, vivid and fascinating, but he makes us ask how much we are willing to forgive, and how much we’re willing to tolerate in the name of science, in the name of progress: In other words, is a great man still a great man if he does terrible things?