Review: Storyville: The Genius And The Boys (2009, Bosse Lindquist)

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This man made a massive and historic contribution in his field which still persists to this day. However, he was to tarnish his reputation following accusations of child sexual abuse against boys. During and after his trial his status brought him an extremely high level of support, much more so than if he was a non-famous offender.

He was also recently deceased though unrepentant about his unconventional lifestyle and the way in which he sought his career breakthroughs, and still has colleagues and fans that play down the abuse to celebrate his wider achievements.

However, I’m not talking about Michael Jackson; the man in question was scientist Carleton Gajdusek, whose story was the subject of this BBC documentary in the Corporation’s Storyville strand.

His scientific research and endeavours throughout his life took him from Cal-Tech in California when that institute was still quite new, to travelling across the world making contact with hitherto undiscovered indigenous tribes and researching their customs and also plant life. The fruits of his work gave rise to the discovery of prions, the transmitters of degenerative brain diseases. The first one that was localised to the Asian/Oceanic tribes, known as Kuru. That early research would reveal links to BSE in cattle and as a result, the base work for CJD decades later. Gajdusek was the pioneer though the reaseach also contributed to further progress on Measles, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and polio and malaria. All of this led to a Nobel Prize in 1966.

So far, so great. In the more innocent first half of the 20th century, Gajdusek’s decision to adopt 57 kids he encountered on his journey across the world (one of which was a girl) was not questioned. In fact it was celebrated as an act of kindness befitting anyone wit a mind to adopt. The children were essentially “billeted” in Gajdusek’s large home, naturalized to America, but no abuse complaints were formally indicted into charges against Gajdusek for another 30 years. In fact he was accurately described as a “Rock star” by one of the cops in the case when describing his stature among his scientific peers.

Gajdusek didn’t restrict himself to abusing his adopted charges. The children of professional peers and/or colleagues were also victimized and one grown-up survivor spoke on camera about the abuse and its effect on him and other victims. We also get the view of the lead police officer that took the scientist to trial. Like Deliver Us From Evil, the viewer listens to the comments from the offender himself in what turned out to be his last days.

It’s Gajdusek’s unrepentant nature (at the hour mark of the documentary) and his narcissistic Messiah complex that may prove more triggering than anything that the policeman or adult survivor describes, not to mention his scientific colleagues calling the abuse and legal fallout “boring” compared to the research, or one peer symapthising with the offender. I hate spoiling the ending, but having made history and after enjoying a comfortable lifestyle, it will be some limited comfort to his victims that he is dead. His sentence was as expected, derisory, even without the plea bargain.

A spectrum of reactions to the abuse was reported, whilst the on-camera survivor represents the worst affected, the post-film credits and the survivor recount other reactions which, as ever, vary according to duration and degree.

As is almost taken for granted, the documentary is well structured, balanced, acknowledging the historical achievements whilst paying equal attention to the crimes for what may possibly be the first time since the trial and conviction.

Despite its transmission nearly six weeks earlier than Michael Jackson’s death, The Genius And The Boys provides proof that the divided reaction to talented individuals accused of child abuse has happened before, in a totally different field than the music world. It’s a piercing, challenging film that you should definitely catch and it was a good move by the BBC to offer its Action Line service with a toll-free number to call for anyone affected by those issues.

For anyone who cannot access the documentary, the wiki file on Carleton Gajdusek is here.

– CBG

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