Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Tayman, John. (2006). The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai. New York: Scribner. 318 pp + notes. ISBN: 074323300X. $27.50.

Reviewed by Samuel Brenner, Brown University

John Tayman's The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai is a journalistic history of the settlement at Kalaupapa on Molokai, which existed for over a century as the home of the "lepers of Molokai" (patients—or prisoners—who had been exiled and segregated by the Hawaiian government after being diagnosed with Hansen's disease). The Colony is an exciting and intriguing read, both because of Tayman's gripping writing style and because of the natural attraction of a horrific disease and a horrific story. In the end, however, despite the significant research that clearly went into the project, The Colony will prove a disappointment to historians and scholars of disability studies because of its questionable historical accuracy.

The Colony is organized along roughly chronological lines, and is divided (for no apparent reason) into four nearly equal parts. Pictures and photographs are usefully placed in context in the endnotes rather than in an offset section of the text. At the beginning of the book Tayman draws upon newspaper stories, diaries, and government records, but as he comes close to the present day he increasingly relies upon the memories of a few living former patients. This shift in focus from documentary to personal evidence is compelling, but—ironically, given that he is a journalist—means that Tayman is strongest historically when covering earlier periods.

Tayman includes in each chapter title the number of residents at Kalaupapa, so that readers can trace the changes in the size of the colony over the years merely by scanning the table of contents. This interesting device would have been even more useful if Tayman had somehow indicated what years he was discussing in each chapter—at least two chapters, for instance, seem to begin in 1869 or 1870, and yet in one he records a population of 214 (p. 69) and in the other a population of 632 (p. 126). Unfortunately, exact dates are often difficult to find throughout the text and even in the (incomplete) endnotes.

Perhaps the most serious problem with The Colony is that it is never quite clear what is truthful and what has been embellished into sensationalist fiction. At one point, for instance (p. 23), Tayman writes that a physician came up with the idea of segregating those with leprosy after watching the bees he kept in his backyard expel sick bees from their colony. While the expelled bees regularly died, Tayman adds, "that was the price to be paid." More disturbingly, at another point Tayman writes (p. 51) that children exiled to the settlement became commodities as "servants and sexual objects," and that women were "taken for personal use, raped, or sold to another." These are important and rather horrible points—but in neither case does Tayman cite sources or provide evidence to prove that these incidents ever actually took place. This is not to say that Tayman's facts are wrong—simply that their rectitude remains unclear to readers.

Another serious problem is the potential bias revealed in the book. Tayman understandably disapproves of the medical segregation policies embodied at Kalaupapa, but his disgust for the practice seems to color his historical analysis. Tayman thus seems to take as absolutely truthful almost any statement by or story about an exile or relative of an exile, just as he takes as false or malicious almost any statement or action by a policy-maker or enforcement authority. Tayman ultimately appears to overreach in his criticism of governmental policy when he attempts to draw parallels between governmental attitudes towards Hansen's disease in the early 1900s and AIDS in the 1980s and today (p. 305-306). In making this comparison, Tayman seems to be trying to use scattered calls from an extreme and unimportant minority of doctors in the 1980s—calls that were rejected as ridiculous by those in government—to discredit all governmental decisions, including those made in the 1800s and 1900s by administrators relying upon the consensus of the most prominent physicians in the world.

Unsurprisingly, given the controversial nature of his subject, Tayman must tread cautiously to avoid offending one part or another of his readership. He is careful—almost to a fault—to avoid voyeuristic descriptions. (There is in the book only a single photograph of any patient suffering from highly active or late-stage Hansen's disease, and that is a photograph of Father Damien taken shortly before his death.) Tayman's efforts to avoid controversy have not been completely successful: as he notes in his introduction, he has been criticized for employing such derogatory terms as "leper" and "leper colony." More damningly, three of the four former patients whose life portraits make up a good quarter of the book have repudiated Tayman's work, arguing that he misrepresented their comments.

The Colony lives up to at least one part of its sensationalist subtitle: it does indeed tell a "harrowing" tale. The problem lies with the other part of that subtitle—for in the end it remains unclear just how much of this "true story" actually took place. This is not to say that Tayman's work is without merit. The Colony is extremely well-written and will prove an enjoyable read to anyone who is interested in learning more about the human cost of medical policy. Historians, policy-makers, and disability scholars, however, should be prepared to take the book with a large grain of salt.

Copyright (c) 2006 Samuel Brenner

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