The Doctor’s Book Club
Lily King’s Euphoria
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga
— Sylvia Plath “Edge”
Set in the 1930s, Lily King’s Euphoria tells the story of the river tribes of New Guinea and the anthropologists who studied and lived among them. A quasi-fictionalized account, the story is based on the lives of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, her second husband Reo Fortune, and her third husband Gregory Bateson, the trio of anthropologists who redefined the essence of social science research.
Nell Stone, the fictional counterpart to Margaret Mead, is introduced as a broken woman on the edge, deeply affected by her experience as a scientist and as a wife in the remote and uncharted South West Pacific. Nell’s experience studying the tribes of Papua New Guinea alongside her husband Fen and their friend Bankson has left her conflicted about the very nature of anthropological research. As Nell paradoxically discovers, anthropology can be the most dehumanizing of the sciences.
Her trepidations begin the moment they land in Papua New Guinea, when Fen elects to divide up the subjects that he and Nell would be allowed to study within a given tribe. A firm supporter of gender roles, Fen assigns Nell the “softer” subjects of food and nutrition, while he takes on kinship, social structure, politics, and religion—the essential topics in anthropology. To Fen, the people on the ground appear to be little more than a collection of behaviors. And by “splitting up” the tribes and their habits, and methodically reducing them to small packets of recordable information, Fen effectively robs them of a humanizing context. Though this tendency places Fen at odds with his wife and with Bankson, who believes that “a biologist would never claim a species… to himself,” the trio nevertheless appears unanimously complicit in their exploitation of the natives.
Euphoria is itself an anthropological work—a study of human lust, greed, and hubris. But it is also an exploration of the early years of the then-new social science of anthropology and of the way in which these human tendencies drove the anthropologists of Mead’s era to create a global movement that ultimately led to the destruction of countless cultures. For fame, money and love, Euphoria’s trio leaves the tribes of Papua New Guinea forever changed by their presence: the newly-discovered tribes are abused in the mines as slave labor and their sacred artifacts are stolen as innocent people are killed in the process. In this way, the novel offers a fresh look at an age-old question in science: where do we draw the line?
Many research projects have defined those lines by crossing them, and their names now serve the foundational examples of misconduct in modern ethics courses. Experiments such as Tuskegee, Little Albert, Henrietta Lacks and Milgram, through their purposeful or accidental neglect of their subjects, have helped draft the rules of conduct in scientific research. While the work of the anthropologists in Euphoria is lesser known, it is can play a similar part in raising the questions of personhood and exploitation in social science research.
Indeed, the novel exists in an era that precedes institutional review boards, ethics panels, and questions of protections for vulnerable populations. Yet, by crossing lines that seem unimaginable to today’s audience, the novel’s characters force us to consider the origins of the limits of scientific research. That is: if these limits are not inherent, then they must be the products of the scientific community’s continuous self-examination.
It goes without saying that without research, science and medicine could never evolve. But it is also important to remember that this progress comes at a cost. Euphoria breathes life into forgotten history, raising specters of the extent of those costs and the fates of those who paid it, reminding us of the necessity of continuously examining the ethics of the decisions we make in the name of science. Though we continue to learn from our history, it is sometimes best to draw a line before it is crossed.
Next Month: We will discuss Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Questions to consider:
— What is the role of truth in the physician-patient relationship?
— Flanagan writes that “a happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else.” What role does memory play in the practice of medicine—both the individual memories of physicians, and the collective memories of institutions?
— What should physicians do when a patient wants to be shielded from the hopelessness of their prognosis?
Daniel Marchalik is completing his urologic surgery residency in Washington, D.C. He writes a monthly column for The Lancet and directs the Literature and Medicine Track at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Claire McDaniel is a second year medical student at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, participating in the school’s Literature and Medicine Track. Additionally, she is an MBA candidate at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.
Competing interests: None declared.