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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 30, 2006

Island of Exile

 •  Moloka'i book criticized as unethical, inaccurate

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

The wharf at Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, in 1967. More than 1,000 people who had or were suspected of having Hansen’s disease were exiled to the remote peninsula.


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"...Leprosy works with a tortuous deliberateness. A person becomes infected and years pass, then he or she wakes one morning lightly marked by disease. Years more can elapse before the sickness deepens. Koolau waited. Then in the early winter of 1892 a government agent appeared at his door. Escorted to the office of the physician for the western half of Kauai, Koolau stripped off his shirt and pants and stood naked. The physician examined the blemishes on Koolau's face and ears, and traced a needle over the surface of the spots, testing for a loss of sensation. The log into which doctors recorded the results of such exams allowed three verdicts: Leper, Suspect, Not a Leper. Board regulations dictated that only the senior physicians at the leprosy hospital could make the final diagnosis, but physicians in the field were skilled enough to anticipate the outcome. Dr. Campbell told Koolau, Say your farewells."

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St. Philomena’s Church, where holes in the floor allowed worshippers to clear their mouths and throats without causing health problems in the church.

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An eroded gravestone at Kalaupapa

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Confronted with a real and epic story about fear, betrayal, survival and the most unlikely of triumphs, John Tayman, author of the newly released book "The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai," did what so many writers cannot.

He got out of the way.

"What happened on that island was so moving, so disturbing and so inspiring, I felt I had to remove myself," said Tayman, a former deputy editor for Outside magazine.

"I tried to put down as spare a narrative as possible," he said. "There was no need to state my opinion or try to whip up outrage. I knew that if I just laid it out A-B-C-D-E, it would be impossible for the readers not to come to the same conclusions."

Literary critics across the country are now praising the book as the best account of the 140-year history of the settlement for people with Hansen's disease, or leprosy, at Kalaupapa, Moloka'i — no small feat, factoring in earlier pieces by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London.

Others, notably those with ties to Kalaupapa, are less than impressed.

Several people with ties to Kalaupapa asked Gov. Linda Lingle and members of Hawai'i's congressional delegation to lobby the book's publisher to change the title and subtitle of the book, which they consider insensitive. Others have criticized Tayman for inaccuracies and misrepresentations within the text (see sidebar).

"The Colony" tracks the Kalaupapa story from 1866 — when the first group of Hawai'i residents (12 adults and one child, all believed to have leprosy) were taken from their homes and banished to Kalaupapa — through the present day, as longtime residents voluntarily remain to uphold the unique and hard-fought sense of community and belonging they helped create.

Fearful after the smallpox epidemic of 1850 decimated the Hawai'i population, public health authorities acted swiftly to isolate people suspected of having Hansen's disease, which was then mistakenly believed to be highly contagious. More than 1,000 people were rounded up and moved to Kalaupapa. The medical segregation, unprecedented in scope, continued for more than 100 years, long after the logic behind it was proved unfounded.

Tayman, who first became interested in Kalaupapa while covering the Ironman World Championship for Outside magazine, spent 18 months in Hawai'i poring through newspaper articles, books, letters and other documents, and visited Kalaupapa to speak with residents. He left believing what he had uncovered was "the most extraordinary survival story in American history."

Tayman's narrative was intended to be more than a history of Kalaupapa. Woven between spectacular tales of murder, manhunts, escape, rebellion and dubious medical experiments are painfully detailed descriptions of the physical effects of the disease and the lengths patients went through to cope with disfigurement, numbness and blindness.

Tayman also puts the forced segregation into social and political context. "The government undertook the quarantine policy as a symbolic gesture," Tayman said. "They were under pressure from the business community to demonstrate to their trading partners and political partners that they could contain the disease."

Tayman said current events have given his book a resonance he never intended.

"It became clear in November, when the suggestion was made that the government initiate a quarantine in response to avian flu, that it was not just the Hawaiian government that has considered an isolation policy as a solution," he said. "But, we've heard this same thing with AIDS and SARS. It's panic-driven policy."

Tayman wrote the book in his San Francisco office, where one window looks out at Alcatraz.

"I'd look up from the story and see Alcatraz — the searchlight would spin past my window," he said. "It was slightly eerie and slightly clarifying. Kalaupapa was sort of like a prison, and it's slowly becoming a sort of paradise."


Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.