Author draws from his past to pen dramatic new novel about prep school students exploited in a disturbing study “Atlas of Men” by David Sklar releases in October
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PHOENIX, Arizona – In the late ‘60s when David Sklar walked the hallowed halls of an elite New Hampshire academy as a prep school student, it never occurred to him that those unforgettable years would one day serve as the backdrop of his debut novel. Releasing on Oct. 16, 2018, “Atlas of Men” borrows scenes from Sklar’s own experience as the unwitting subject of an unethical research study that left him and his fellow classmates traumatized for years to come.
“Atlas of Men” follows Dr. Robert Thames whose life is turned upside down when three boxes unexpectedly arrive at his Washington, D.C. doorstep, and he begins to uncover a 50-year-old scandal hidden behind the doors of a famed New England preparatory school. Now an infectious disease specialist searching for new antibiotic cures, Dr. Thames grew up as the adopted Filipino son of medical missionaries before attending the mostly-white Danvers Academy, which is modeled after Sklar’s alma mater. As he opens three Danvers-addressed boxes, painful memories resurface sparking his quest to unbury the truth of a research study, from which he was a subject.
In his novel, Sklar raises important ethical questions about research with human subjects and science’s relationship to race and identity, all within a thrilling narrative of scandal and secrecy at a prestigious private school.
“As a physician, teacher and journal editor I found myself thinking, ‘How did we let this happen?’ as I uncovered details about the research project that inspired this novel,” Sklar said. “I hope this story encourages an exploration of how and why we perform human research and the responsibilities of our institutions to protect participants. I also hope readers can identify with the characters I created. They refused to be victims and ultimately triumphed.”
From 1965 to 1968, David Sklar attended a prep school where he was the unwitting subject of a research study that attempted to link body type to leadership potential. This disturbing experience inspired “Atlas of Men” (Oct. 16, 2018). Sklar’s previous book, a memoir, explores his experience as a volunteer in a rural Mexican clinic prior to medical school and how it shaped his later career in healthcare. “La Clinica” was chosen as one of the Best Books of 2008. An emergency physician, researcher, editor of a medical education journal, and a Professor of Medicine at both Arizona State University and the University of New Mexico, Sklar currently lives with his wife in Phoenix, Arizona.
About the Book
“Atlas of Men”
David Sklar | October 16, 2018 | Volcano Cannon Press
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-7323484-0-0 | $15.99
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-7323484-1-7 | $12.99
Literary Fiction | Drama
Dr. Robert Thames, an infectious disease specialist who travels the world in search of new antibiotics, has just learned that his government job is about to be cut when three boxes are unexpectedly delivered to his home in Washington, DC. Inside them are files of a long lost secret research study conducted at his prestigious prep school when he was a student there. Robert has repressed all memories of this degrading “study,” particularly the naked photos .He learns that the research intended to explore the relationship between body type and leadership qualities — and it shocks and infuriates Robert. He decides to track down his four closest friends from Danvers Academy, and together, they uncover the terrible truth of what was buried by the faculty, the school, and the boys themselves.
An Interview with Davis Sklar
“Atlas of Men” is a fictionalized account of real events––can you explain why you chose to write your book as fiction instead of nonfiction? And can you elaborate on which parts are fictionalized and which aren’t?
The initial impetus for this story was the nude photos which upset me and many of my classmates who were only 14 or 15 years old and felt powerless to refuse to be photographed. After I became a physician and researcher I realized that important research principles such as informed consent and protection of vulnerable populations had been violated, and I wondered how this could have happened in an institution that prided itself in service to others and in protecting its students in place of their parents. My story attempts to provide some answers to that question.
I chose to write a fictional story because I wanted to delve into the personal experiences of the characters and how they grappled with their victimization and complicity in the world of Danvers. The research study serves as metaphor for certain values about class and race that were prevalent at the time and in the novel, the characters have the freedom to develop organically and unexpectedly and confront these values in ways that would not be possible in non-fiction.
Why is it important to you to keep the other people who were involved in the study anonymous?
Several of my classmates have already discussed or written about their reactions to this study, but I think that the privacy of individuals is important and for some people this experience and some of the associated events were traumatic and I do not want to assume that I know what is best for them.
Your alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy, will always remind me of Phineas and Gene of “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles, who graduated from the school in 1944. What about the school lends itself to be a compelling setting for a novel?
Exeter is a unique educational environment with small classes, outstanding teachers, and intellectual rigor. For many students including myself it was a stepping stone to engagement with opportunities in every sector of American international life that would not have been possible without the experience. However the intensity of the intellectual experience and closed culture also created an emotional desert which many of us tried to overcome through tentative and sometimes risky relationships with each other and our teachers. It is those relationships and what happened to them over time that I find fascinating and wanted to explore in this novel.
Similarly, how did you go about fictionalizing a place where you spent your formative years? Did you feel a certain obligation to stay true to the setting and culture, or did you let yourself get creative with fictionalized elements?
I did base some of the descriptions upon what I remembered of Exeter, but the story should in no way been seen as a true rendition of Exeter or any of the people who were there when I attended. I created the characters out of imagination and from people who I have known at different times in my life.
The book raises important questions about scientific research and the abuse of human subjects in that research. Can you tell us why this was important to address?
Unfortunately there is a long and sad history of abuse of human subjects during research with the worst examples during the Nazi research during World War II. But in the U.S. we had the research on African American men with syphilis, the Henrietta Lacks story of use of her cells without adequate education or permission and experiments on disabled children with hepatitis virus. The study that I participated in was part of an effort to categorize people based upon physical characteristics. Not only was the scientific basis of the study flawed; there was no effort to seek permission from parents or to inform the children and allow them to decide whether to participate. And there still has been no acknowledgement on the part of many of the institutions that participated or an apology to those of us who participated. This is wrong and we need to discuss this as a community, learn from it, and make sure it never happens again.
Can you elaborate more on how “Atlas of Men” touches on issues of science and identity?
During the time that this study was being designed and implemented there was enormous growth in our understanding of genetics and inheritance. While many characteristics of body type are inherited our identity and our personality are affected by culture, social relationships and individual motivation. The basis for the study that I participated in harkened back to a time when there were beliefs about ideal body types and purification of the human race through genetic manipulation. The classification of men based upon their body types would suggest that we are limited as to who we might become and what we might be able to accomplish based upon our body. I think that is an unfortunate message that is not based upon science. The story in “Atlas of Men” explores some of the history of this idea and how the characters in the story grapple with it.
You’re a physician who travels for conferences regularly. What do you think the response will be from the medical community about telling a scientific, medical-based story from a fictionalized perspective?
I hope this book with provoke a discussion about what inspired the story and the larger issues about class, race and identity that are also themes of the story. I also hope the story will be entertaining and leave the reader with a sense of going on a journey with the characters and becoming better for it.