The People in the Trees, p.1Hanya Yanagihara
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Hanya Yanagihara
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
DOUBLEDAY and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Jacket design and illustration by Rodrigo Corral Design
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The people in the trees / Hanya Yanagihara. — 1st ed.
A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers. I will plague them all,
Even to roaring.
The Tempest, ACT IV, Scene 1
Preface by Dr. Ronald Kubodera
THE MEMOIRS OF A. NORTON PERINA
Edited by Ronald Kubodera, M.D.
PART I: The Creek
PART II: Mice
PART III: The Dreamers
PART IV: The Ninth Hut
PART V: The First Child
PART VI: Victor
PART VII: After
Epilogue by Dr. Ronald Kubodera
About the Author
To my father
“Vom Vater … Lust zu fabulieren”
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 the National Institutes 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 adopted 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 in 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 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 divisions. Individuals affected by Selene syndrome—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. A number 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 that these ridiculous charges will be dropped.”
December 3, 1997
Prominent Scientist, Nobel Laureate, Sentenced to Prison
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.
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 at all with Norton (and mind you, just eighteen months ago I would not have even needed to say 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 the way 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, etc. 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, in 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 unsettl
But if life is lonely for me, it is far lonelier for Norton. 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, colleagues, and reporters (and judges, 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 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 he began, less than a month into his term, to complain of crippling boredom. It had always been one of Norton’s fondest dreams—the dream, I think, of many brilliant and overextended men—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 engaging in 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 pleasant, lazy torpor that one associates with hard-earned idleness. But unfortunately, it appears that Norton is perhaps simply not equipped for leisure; indeed, it 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. 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 despite the obvious severity of the circumstances in which Norton now finds himself, there are some who have had the temerity to suggest that he 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 particularly want to (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 to 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 about 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 both contrived and effete, as well as ostentatiously, obnoxiously Anglophilic. (West had studied—decades ago, and for two years only—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 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 had been 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 anothe
But as I was saying, no, people are not sympathetic to Norton’s current situation. Indeed, people condemned and dismissed him before he was officially condemned and dismissed, legally, by a jury of his supposed peers—what must it feel like to be a man of Norton’s intellect and have your character determined and your fate writ by twelve incompetents (one juror, as I recall, was a tollbooth clerk, another a dog-washer), whose decision renders virtually every one of your previous accomplishments insignificant, if not entirely meaningless? From that perspective, then, is it any mystery that Norton should now find himself depressed, bored, and unstimulated?
I should also like to say a few words about the media coverage surrounding Norton’s trial, for it seems foolish to ignore both its tenor and its scope. I will first say that given the nature of the crimes of which Norton was accused, it has not surprised me in the least that the media has wasted pages and pages on stories that embroider, elaborately and with a shocking disregard for the truth, upon the few facts of Norton’s personal life known to the public. (Admittedly, the stories did, rather begrudgingly, detail some of his considerable accomplishments, but only to throw into sharper relief his purported wickedness.)
I recall that in those days I stood vigil with Norton in his house while he awaited his trial (outside, a group of television reporters spent their days congregating on the curb at the edge of Norton’s lawn, eating and chatting in the buzzy, insect-thick summer air as if at a picnic), of the many (unfulfilled, naturally) requests we received for interviews, only one—regrettably, Playboy—invited Norton to write his own defense instead of dispatching some salivating young writer to interpret his life and alleged misdeeds for the reading public. (I had originally thought the offer a good idea, despite the forum, but Norton was worried that whatever he wrote would be manipulated and used against him as a confession. He was correct, of course, and that was the end of that idea.) But I also knew that the realization that he must not allow himself to speak in his own defense infuriated and saddened him.
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