The weird, true story behind ‘The People in the Trees’

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I’ve been reading voraciously for the last few weeks. I know I promised to write about Godel Escher Bach, but… right now I’d rather discuss The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel and my latest literary conquest.

The People in the Trees follows the story of Dr. Abraham ‘Norton’ Perina, who is invited on a research expedition to a fictional Micronesian country. There, Perina meets a lost tribe of islanders deep in the unexplored jungle. He also accidentally stumbles upon a rare species of turtle that, when eaten, allows you to live forever. The discovery brings Perina fame and glory — even a Nobel Prize — but the doctor’s name is eventually tarnished when one of the many children he adopted from the island accuses him of sexual assault.

Yanagihara’s book is both captivating and troubling. It’s also, apparently, inspired by a real guy: D. Carleton Gajdusek, 1976 Nobel Prize winner and a self-described “pedagogic pedophiliac pediatrician.”


Gadjusek. Courtesy of richonfilm

Gadjusek. Courtesy of richonfilm

Gajdusek rose to fame for his years of work with the Fore, a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea.

Like the fictional islanders of The People in the Trees, the Fore people were entwined in a medical mystery; unlike the islanders, their condition was sinister rather than miraculous. The Fore were slowly being wiped out by a disease known as kuru, or laughing sickness. “Victims descended into trembling and madness before death,” explains New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil. “After an autopsy, [they] were found to have brains shot through with spongy holes.”

Here’s that NYT article again: “The Fore, who lived as they had in the Stone Age, cooked and ate the bodies of tribe members who had died, and smeared themselves with the brains as a sign of respect for the dead.”

Gajdusek performed autopsies on kuru victims in an attempt to find an answer. He eventually discovered a disturbing connection between the victims: They were cannibals. All of the kuru victims participated in ritualistic eating of the dead several decades earlier. (Cannibalism was later officially outlawed by the Australian government in the 1960s.)

He tried to study the disease further by injecting mashed samples of the victims’ brains into the brains of chimpanzees. If kuru was caused by a bacteria or a virus, then symptoms would probably show up in the chimps within a few weeks. Instead, it took two years for the animals to get sick.

Godjasek hypothesized that kuru was carried by a new kind of slow-moving virus. However, scientist later discovered that the disease was caused by something totally new: a prion.

Tissue riddled with microscopic holes by prions. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tissue riddled with microscopic holes by prions. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Prions are made up of normal, ordinarily harmless proteins. However, the proteins are misshapen, folded in the wrong permutations. When a prion enters the host, it teaches the body’s correctly-folded proteins to follow its incorrect pattern. This process takes a long time, depending on the growth rate of the proteins in question. (That’s why it took so long for signs of kuru to show up in the Fore victims and the lab’s chimps.)

Mad cow disease, a.k.a. bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is probably the most well-known example of a prion disease. If you want to read a chilling passage about prions, check out D. T. Max’s The Family Who Couldn’t Sleep on Google Books.


The People in the Trees mirrors more than the science in Gajudsek’s story. Gajdusek, like Perina, adopted children from the South Pacific — more than 50 in total. One of the sons, as an adult, later accused Gajdusek of molesting him. The doctor was found guilty, spent a year in jail, and then lived out the rest of his life abroad in Europe.

After Gajdusek left the United States, he spoke more openly about his inclinations. Here’s a clip from the biographical BBC Four documentary The Genius and the Boys. (Warning: This clip is not for everyone.)

Yanagihara wrote about using Gajdusek as literary inspiration in a guest post this summer at BookPage:

“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?”

I’ll just leave that question here.

3 Responses to “The weird, true story behind ‘The People in the Trees’”

  1. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara | Not Enough Bookshelves

    […] The entire time I was reading this I had to know if this was based on any kind of true story.  So I googled “people in the trees true story and a wonderful blog post came up.  It is loosely based on Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, 1976 Nobel Prize winner.  He was found guilty of child molestation of one of the 50 children he adopted from the South Pacific.  Read the story here: The Raptor Lab. […]

    Reply
  2. Outlier Babe

    Interesting post.

    Narrator/Filmmaker assumes guilt on the part of the scientist. It is possible he continued to raise the topic not out of guilt, but indignation. Someone who worked for me–whom I hired–turned out to be sympathetic to NAMBLA (possibly a member). He truly believed all boys want sex with men. He thought I was naive to believe otherwise.

    Reply

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