In June 2000, a rough draft of the human genome was published, a map of all human genes. Although still two years to completion, this draft was a milestone. In the dying days of his administration, President Clinton declared;
“Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.”
At the time I was in awe, as I still am now, at the height of this collaborative achievement. In my lifetime humanity had pranced on the moon, but we’d also unpicked the very fiber of our being. But in true tabloid style, in June 2000, the tabloids were far more interested in a smear of Bill’s DNA on a little, black-print frock.
This momentous event went almost unnoticed, despite the fact it would inform so much of popular culture’s reckoning. Like Sartre urged the post World War II generations to be our existential selves, that we owed it to ourselves to make ourselves happy, the human genome project released us of responsibility – Baby, I was born this way.
Like most great achievements, it came with side-effects. In the years that followed, the tabloids did howl – the gene for diabetes, the gene for breast cancer, the gene for homosexuality, the gene for psychopathy – all these had been isolated. I felt a swell of regret – how quickly we were prepared to shuffle responsibility on to a single thing as it heralded a quick, easy solution. And how quickly we were prepared to reduce something as complex as human sexuality to one small collection of nucleotides. Our great achievement of mapping the genome reduced us to a child’s first equation 1 + 1 = 2.
I recently said to my analyst that when I start to write serendipity intervenes. Maybe it’s the muse slinging things my way but I suspect it’s more that once I start thinking about something, my antennae are up and news reports, radio (someone still loves you!) interviews, books and life in general rise up from the dross of daily living and slap me in the face.
Whilst I was researching another novel, I found a book, In the Theater of Criminal Justice, on the “theater” of the new extension to the law courts of Paris, the Palais de Justice, built as part of Napoleon III and Haussmann refurbishment in the mid-1800s. The first case to be held in the courts was a young man, Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, accused of murdering Hortense Kinck and five of her children on a field on the outskirts of Paris in 1869.
The subsequent investigation was led by the famous Paris Chief of Police, Monsieur Antoine Claude. The horrific details sent Paris reeling, the newspapers reaching a new level of frenzy, cited as birthing modern tabloid journalism. The case is also often cited as the first thunderclap in the fall of Napoleon III’s Second Empire.
The book contained a photo of the cast of the young man’s overly-large hand. So particular was the hand, it was argued in court that his over-sized hands had allowed him to strangle two children at one time, thus allowing the murders to take place in the described manner and allotted time.
Interest piqued, I found the cast had been made by Aldolphe Desbarolles, a chiromancer or palmist who had lived and worked in Paris in 1860s and 70s. Desbarolles claimed to link various aspects of a person’s personality and disposition to the lines on and shape of their hand. Of course this “art” has a long standing tradition, dating way back in Jewish mythology.
But amongst these modern genetic assertions of the human genome, it seems an interesting point – that the features of a hand, arguably an expression of underlying genetics, expressed truisms of personality. Whilst Desbarolles’ claims seem extreme and the stuff of sideshow entertainment, how were his claims differing from these close and uncomfortable connections made between the tabloids announcing the discovery of a single gene for homosexuality or psychopathy?
So the first pairings of a novel came together. Was Troppmann made by genetics or sculpted by the society he lived in? Troppmann grew up in the small village of Cernay, Alsace, close to the French Prussian border. His father had been cheated in a business deal which led to his bankruptcy. The family had had a difficult time but more from the shadow of this perceived injustice than down-at-heel poverty. At 19, he met the Kinck family. He had a chip on his shoulder but was this enough to kill? Or was his psychopathy, or at the least sociopathy, predestined and held in his hand?
Like Monsieur Claude, with more research I became less and less convinced the case could be reduced to a simple statement that Troppmann murdered the family. As these complexities became apparent, it too became apparent that this simple paring of gene to effect was a too, too simple coupling. But the complex ecology of epigenetics seems out of the hand of modern tabloids and perhaps unimaginable to Monsieur Claude and Monsieur Desbarolles in France’s Second Empire.
G. S. Johnston, October 5, 2015
The Cast of a Hand is now available on Kindle.