Chapter 7: Friday, Oct. 13

In which the God gene, among other things, is discussed, and there's some rather heated talk about growing a second sex organ.


Alfred Alcorn
July 13, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

Lieutenant Tracy, an edge of worry to the serious set of his face, came by this morning to make what appears to be in retrospect a curious request. It seems that Police Chief Francis Murphy has been putting pressure on. I watched attentively as the Lieutenant rubbed his hands together. "Of course, Norman, he's only getting heat from the Mayor's office. His Honor is planning to run for Congress and doesn't want a monkey around his neck."

I nodded, indicating my understanding in a general way. Then the Lieutenant told me something I had heretofore more felt than realized: it would be better for all concerned if Ossmann-Woodley was a clear-cut murder case, if someone had deliberately dosed them with the intention of having them kill each other in a sexual frenzy.

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"People can tolerate evil," he said. "It's the unknown that frightens them. Especially when a genetics lab is involved. We still believe in monsters."

"But, Richard, we don't have enough evidence yet to call it murder," I pointed out.

He nodded his agreement. "Would you or the Museum mind if we did make it official, as a murder?"

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I thought over his request for a moment. "It won't help us much. Any new hook gives the Bugle and others the opportunity to drag the whole thing through the muck again. But I appreciate being asked."

"And it wouldn't be the truth, would it?"

I rebuked myself inwardly for having neglected that most important consideration. But I said, "Perhaps it would be more effective for your purposes if you could announce new evidence at the same time."

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He turned thoughtful, then said, "I think you're right. If the M.E. has anything new from those follow-up tests, we can do it then." He smiled and rose to go. "Norman, thanks. And I'll keep you updated."

I wish I could be as positive about the special meeting of the University's Oversight Committee I attended this afternoon, an ordeal by pettiness. There are people who ask me why I bother at all with the Committee. Why do I mouth bromides about maintaining cordial relations with the University; why do we want to remain, however independently, a member of the greater Wainscott family? Especially since the Museum has become, in their opinion anyway, the institutional equivalent of the rich eccentric uncle everyone secretly hopes will pop off sooner rather than later and leave them a bundle.

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In part it's because I do want to continue the long and fruitful bond between the two institutions, a bond based on mutual respect. Indeed, I would not like it to become well known how highly I regard the faculty at Wainscott. Perhaps it's because I am, at heart, an academic manqui, what Elsbeth calls a wannabe. I feel that the involvement of Chad Pilty and even Corny Chard, not to mention Father O'Gould and Izzy Landes, makes us, as an institution, an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

What I want very little of in the Museum is the management style of Wainscott, especially the forces represented by Malachy Morin. They are the people who would corporatize, to bastardize a perfectly innocent word, hell itself. They would bring in their systems, which never quite work, and their regimentation, which renders everything and everyone colorless, all the while basking in the glow of the work done by the scholars.

While independent in fact and in law (the University is challenging us in the courts, but that, we have good reason to believe, will come to nothing), we need the University as a buffer between the outside world and ourselves, especially where the Genetics Lab is concerned. Groups such as the Coalition Against the Unnatural remain under the mistaken impression, which I do little to rectify, that the MOM is part and parcel of Wainscott. I know the public relations apparatus of the University would like to direct such obloquy towards us, but to do so would be to admit our independence. As may be obvious, after a few years of real institutional responsibility, I have turned into something of a Machiavel.

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Ah, yes, the Committee meeting. We assembled in the Rothko Room, one of those repellent boxy spaces filled with raw light that you find in the upper reaches of modern buildings. It was designed to hold the "paintings" of the eponymous dauber, but thank God those have been stowed away. It's the kind of place you would expect to find in Grope Tower, that offensive slab of concrete and glass that mars the redbrick gentility of the older Wainscott buildings surrounding it. (Why, I often wonder, has there been, in the long stretch between Gaudi and Gehry, such a paucity of architectural imagination?)

But I digress. The usual suspects, all getting a bit grayer, showed up for the meeting. Professor Thad Pilty, creator of the Diorama on Paleolithic Life that now graces Neanderthal Hall, has stayed on as a member. I don't doubt his intentions; I believe he's being vigilant and with good reason. Any changes in the models and the roles of the Neanderdroids, so to speak, still come in for close scrutiny by certain members of the Committee.

Thad has certainly branched out in his professional interests. Just last year he published, to very mixed reviews, a book on the sex life of the Neanderthals titled, "Pair Bonding and the Rise of Sexual Gratitude in the Late Pleistocene." One critic dismissed it as nothing more than "a work of the imagination."

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Constance Brattle, the expert on blame, preened a little in accepting congratulations about the success of her latest effort, "Achieving the No-Fault Life." I'm told it's a sequel to "Effective Apologizing," her bestseller of last year. She remains the somewhat wooden chair of the committee.

Berthe Schanke, larger than life, no-fault or otherwise, her head perfectly shaven, in studded black jacket over a tee shirt lettered with some slogan about the patriarchy, rootled as usual in the donuts that had been provided. She remains the guiding force behind BITCH, a coalition of groups comprising what Izzy Landes has called "the complaining classes."

Izzy, himself, academically resplendent in bow tie, his nimbus of white hair swept dramatically back, took a plaudit from Father S. J. O'Gould, S.J., regarding the publication of his latest tome. "The Evolution of Evolution," successor to "The Nature of Nature" and "The Science of Science." And while not a bestseller, it has been very well received in those quarters where it matters.

Understatedly dignified in Roman collar, Father O'Gould, now best known for "Wonderful Strife: Natural Selection and the Inevitability of Intelligence," took me aside before the meeting to offer his sympathy regarding Elsbeth's situation. He said he would like to drop by as a friend to see her. I thanked him and said I was sure Elsbeth would be delighted. I told him I looked forward to hearing him give the first Fessing Lecture.

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Corny Chard didn't show up, of course, being down in the Orinoco trying to document people eating other people. Standing in for Corny for the semester was John Murdleston, also a professor of anthropology and Curator of the Ethno-coprolithic Collections in the MOM. He recently published an article, "Expressive Flatulence and Male Prerogative in an Evolutionary Context," which created a small stir in those circles devoted to such things.

Professor Randal Athol of the Divinity School arrived late and a little breathless. He apologized and voiced the hope he hadn't missed much. Even he has published recently, something on the nature of divine fairness titled, I believe, "When Good Things Happen to Bad People."

Ariel Dearth, the Leona Von Beaut Professor of Situational Ethics and Litigation Development at the Law School, sat restlessly, as usual, looking around him, as though for the press or for clients. He cranks out books pretty regularly, "Sue Your Mother" being his latest. I'm told there are cases now where children have sued their parents for wrongful birth, bad genes and all that.

We have a couple of newcomers, chief among them one Luraleena Doveen, a very fetching young woman of color from the President's Office of Outreach. I think she may be the only one not in the toils of publishing something.

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A Professor J. J. McNull, who joined the Committee last year, smiled on everyone. He strikes me as one of those academicians that, with a bottomless capacity for boredom, sit on committees trying to look sage and saying no. I'm not sure what he's professor of. He glances around a lot, either smiling with approval or glowering with disapproval.

Ms. Brattle opened with a short statement about "what appear to be dark happenings in the Museum of Man again leading to concerns about the administration of that institution." A large woman with the self-obliviousness of a professional, so to speak, Ms. Brattle looked over her glasses at me in a manner meant to level blame. She spoke darkly of the need for "a very active subcommittee to monitor the day-to-day operations of the Museum, especially the part dealing with the very sensitive area of genetic research." She concluded by reminding us that, as chair, she reported directly to President Twill himself.

Remaining imperturbed, I responded that the Museum's Board of Governors were not likely to allow me to acquiesce in such a step even if I were inclined to do so. I informed the Committee that the Museum is in strict compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and all other local, state, and federal regulations governing the kind of research conducted at the Lab. I told them that I was cooperating very closely with the Seaboard Police Department in their on-going investigation into what transpired the night that Professors Ossmann and Woodley died. I reminded them that what happened that night might very well have nothing to do with the Lab or with their research there.

Ms. Schanke, in the kind of non sequitur to which she is given, stood up and spoke as though reading from a prepared statement. Looking directly at me, she said, "I know that people like you, Mr. Ratour, think that people like me are perverts. But we all know that what's going on in those labs is the real perversion. You people are perverting nature and you're going to fuck everything up. You pretend to be scientists, but all you're really interested in is the bottom line, how much money can you make ... " After several more minutes of this kind of diatribe, Ms. Schanke sat down and helped herself to a Chocolate Frosted.

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I let the silence to her outburst gather and provide its own answer.

Attorney Dearth bestirred himself. "What Berthe's trying to say ... "

Ms. Schanke, standing again, interrupted him. "I'm not trying to say anything. I just said what I wanted to say."

In what appeared to be an attempt to strike a moderating note, Professor Athol opined how "the research into the secrets of life needs a spiritual dimension."

"Yeah, until they find the God gene, and they'll find a way to market that as well," Ms. Schanke rejoined with some bitterness.

Izzy perked up at that. "Well, judging from what's out there, there must be a lots of different God genes. I mean a Methodist God gene, a Catholic God gene, a couple of Jewish God genes, one for the Reformed and one for the Orthodox. And think about the Hindus ... "

Professor Murdleston, who is hard of hearing, asked, "a Methodist gene?"

"Well, not a Methodist gene, per se ... "

"I think Randy is trying to say something important here," Mr. Dearth put in.

And in rare agreement with the attorney, Father O'Gould, the lilt of his native Cork still in his speech, said, "If we are nothing more than our genes, then what are we?"

No one seemed to know.

Mr. Dearth wondered aloud what two people were doing in the lab alone at night.

Izzy asked the learned counsel if he were suggesting there ought to have been chaperones.

"No, I am wondering where the security guard was."

I informed the Committee that there were, as usual, two guards on duty in the Genetics Lab building itself, one making rounds, "who can't be in all places at all times," and "one watching an array of monitors."

"You mean to say there was no video monitor set up in the Lab where this tragedy occurred?" Attorney Dearth asked me in his best withering courtroom manner.

"There was a monitor," I replied, "until several of the researchers led by Professor Ossmann took the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union and forced us to remove it on the grounds it was an invasion of privacy."

Mr. Dearth subsided.

Izzy waxed philosophical at that point. He noted that we are increasingly taking over our own evolutionary destiny, that, vide his latest publication, evolution itself is evolving. Once Crick and Watson let the genie out of the bottle, well, there was no putting it back in.

I agreed. I pointed out that before long we will be raising pigs with genetically altered hearts that can be transplanted into human beings.

Ms. Berthe declared that for most corporate types the genetic modifications wouldn't be necessary.

Thad Pilty weighed in at that moment, saying that "transgenic swine are already old hat." In an attempt to lighten the mood, he added, "Before long, theoretically, anyway, you'll be able to grow yourself a second sex organ."

Not everyone laughed.

Izzy chortled "I think it's quite enough to manage one."

"Tell me about it," said Ms. Doveen, trying not to giggle.

Ms. Brattle brought us back to the frowning level by recalling the attempts of Dr. F. X. Gottling to produce a new "perfect" human genotype at the Lab using chimps as experimental models.

Professor McNull scowled his approval of her disapproval.

The question, Professor Athol stated somewhat pretentiously, "Is not what is to become of us, but what are we to become?"

"I see lots of room for improvement," Izzy said.

Ms. Doveen inquired if it might be possible for someone to concoct a potent aphrodisiac in the Lab without the knowledge of management.

I told her such a thing was possible but not very probable given the protocols in place for developing and testing such a drug before it would be allowed on the market.

"But you don't know for certain?" Professor Athol spoke in an accusatory tone.

"That's true," I said, "any more than you would know for certain whether one of your deans was downloading pornography into the hard drive of his office computer."

Ariel Dearth revived from an uncharacteristic somnambulence. "But if such a drug were under development in the Lab, it would be in your interest to cover it up, wouldn't it?"

"I resent your insinuation," I replied. "And what possible motive could we have for covering up that or any other research?"

Mr. Dearth smiled. "What I mean, Mr. de Ratour, is that should you be experimenting with anything like a powerful aphrodisiac, then the Museum could be liable for wrongful deaths."

Izzy gave a snorting "ha!" Then said, "And what rich post-mortem pickings there would be for you, Ariel, and the members of your ... profession."

It was Father O'Gould who stepped in then to point out that we were meeting to offer advice to the Genetics Lab, if it were needed, and not to indulge in accusations based on speculation.

I thought at that point the meeting might be over or move on to something else, perhaps whether the University's health coverage should pay for sex-change operations and that sort of thing. Instead, Professor Athol brought up Bert and the chimp's participation in the development of ReLease, and, with that, the ethical issues surrounding the use of animals in medical experiments.

Father O'Gould, I noticed, leaned forward, evincing a close interest in what I had to say. "Well, first," I began, "we subscribe, as I've noted, to all the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act. Additionally, we take every measure possible to assure the comfort both physically and psychologically where the latter applies of the organism in any experiment."

Father O'Gould nodded. "The question is one of stewardship. We need always balance the mercy due our fellow creature with the mercy due our fellow man ... "

"And women," Ms. Brattle interjected.

Ms. Schanke, visibly agitated, burst forth: "What you're both really saying in fancy language is that it's all right for us so-called human beings to torture other animals, even those that share ninety-eight percent of our DNA, so that booze-swilling men don't have to suffer hangovers ... "

"Even sinners deserve mercy," Father O'Gould said gently.

" ... and so that big price-gouging companies like Pyramed can make billions in profit ... "

"We don't torture animals," I replied coolly.

"I think inducing fellow creatures to drink alcohol to excess could be called torture," said Ms. Brattle, the expert on blame.

"What did you give him to drink?" asked Izzy.

"Vodka in orange juice."

"And you don't call that torture?" Ms. Schanke demanded.

Ms. Doveen, an unexpected ally, turned to Ms. Schanke and asked, "How do you know? Maybe he liked getting high. I mean all they do is sit around all day like prisoners."

"Well," I said, correcting her gently, "we do have an exercise yard where they spend considerable time together."

"How do you keep them from breeding?" Professor Athol asked.

"The females are fixed," I replied, without thinking. "With the exception of one or two that are on special medication."

"You spayed them?" Ms. Schanke asked with outraged incredulity.

"Yes."

"Without their permission?"

I shook my head, wondering what Alice in Wonderland realm I had stumbled into.

"Why didn't you fix the males instead?" Ms. Brattle joined in, sensing blood.

"We followed the recommendations of a respected consultant."

"A man, no doubt," said Ms. Schanke.

I ignored her and said something to the effect that the Committee might be interested to learn that the Museum had had in place for some time a de-acquisition program regarding the chimps.

Which opened me up for another round of abuse led by Ms. Schanke. "Right, right. Now that the Lab is finished torturing our poor cousins, you're going to get rid of them."

I explained in detail how we were placing and repatriating the chimps in the most humane way possible. What I could not admit to before the Committee right then is the fact that I have profound misgivings myself about any kind of experimentation on animals, however humble their rank on the evolutionary ladder. I am privately very embarrassed by what happened to Bert during the trials for ReLease. Indeed the treatment of our animals is one area in the Genetics Lab where I am a stickler for protocol.

The fact is that under Elsbeth's gentle suasion, I have become far more sensitive to the rights and sufferings of our fellow creatures. We regularly have several "vegetarian" days a week now. But right then was not the time for a soul-baring confession.

As though sensing my thoughts, Father O'Gould held forth that the time had come in the moral evolution of our own species to consider the possibility of moving beyond the use of animals for our food and fiber needs.

Near the end of the meeting, Ms. Brattle announced that early next week there would be an executive session of the Subcommittee on Appropriateness regarding a very sensitive case that had arisen between two employees in Sigmund Library, which serves the Psychology Department. The Subcommittee, on which I serve -- another gesture of goodwill -- investigates and arbitrates on sensitive issues dealing with ethnic, gender, and sexual conflicts arising between students, faculty, and members of the administration.

The meeting concluded in a muddle of inaction, good intentions and declarative excess, the way most such meetings end. I simply stopped trying to explain anything. The pall of impending grief that I had held at bay all afternoon descended like a bleak cloud. How trivial everything before me seemed, how like shadows on a stage that had come and would go, leaving no trace. My dear, precious Elsbeth is under sentence of death.

Well, I must call it a day. Or a night. I must go home now and help Elsbeth, as much as I can, into that other, ultimate night that awaits us all.


Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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