Authors: Theodore Roszak
But the theory contained a paradox. Characteristics that help people fight off disease in their youth and keep them reproductively fit, might, with the passage of time, become deadly killers. Sugar, for example. We burn sugar for energy. Using sugar as a fuel in early life helps us compete for territory and mates. But that same energizing process fills our bodies with gummy deposits of glucose that harden the arteries, stiffen the joints, and cloud the eye with cataracts. Internally, that is simply oxidation running its course. But view all those chemical reactions from the outside as the world sees them, and they amount to what we experience as aging. Burning sugar is good in youth, but adds up to something bad in old age. Nature does not care. She is opportunistic. She works for short-term gains. Keep those babies coming. The elderly? Who needs them? Let them fend for themselves. But of course they cannot, so they grow frail and die.
Aaron was unconvinced. “It’s really backwards, saying life is just sex,” he argued. “Sex is the way new bodies keep getting made. But that’s not the same as what people are living
. It’s like saying all you have to know about a car is how it gets put together. But cars are meant to go places, aren’t they? Knowing how a car is put together doesn’t tell you where to drive.” Coming from a youngster, it was an unusual analysis. Julia prompted him to continue. “That’s the way very young people look at things,” he went on. “Biologists see things that way too. All they have on their minds is reproduction. You know, sex and all that. You’ve probably heard about raging hormones.”
Julia suppressed her laughter. “Why, yes I have, Sir Genius. But tell me more.”
“Well, it’s one thing to reproduce with your hormones. That’s the way it’s got to be for the good of the species. But you can’t
with your hormones. You think with your brain. Why aren’t brains what evolution is all about? Brains last a whole lifetime. Sex doesn’t. Doctors should know that.”
“Yes, they should.”
“See, if people lived longer, if they lived very, very long, like over a hundred years, there wouldn’t be much need for reproduction. Maybe none at all.” He paused to take a breath, as if ready to make an announcement. “That’s what Plato said.” He pronounced “Plato” as if it rhymed with “Flat-o.”
Julia held back the smile she felt coming on. “So we’ve been reading Plato, have we?” She gave the name its proper pronunciation, a gentle correction.
Mr. Samuels had a copy on his book shelf. I didn’t think he’d mind if I borrowed it.”
Julia was sure he wouldn’t. Edgar Samuels was well advanced in Alzheimer’s; he had not looked into any of the books he brought with him to the clinic for the last three years. “That’s pretty heavy reading,” she said.
“Didn’t you ever read Plato?”
“Once. Way back. In college. Doctors, you see, don’t have to know much philosophy.”
“Why not?” he asked with genuine curiosity. “Philosophy means the love of wisdom. Don’t doctors have to be wise?”
“Yes, of course they do. But I’m afraid not all of us are as wise as we should be. So Plato had a dim opinion about sex. Well, I’m not surprised to hear that. As I recall, Plato was very … Platonic.”
“He said sex is what people have instead of immortality. But if they were immortal, there would be more than enough people without needing more babies. That’s why when people get old, they think about more than just sex. Biologists ought to know that. They should know that old people, like Plato, think about big questions like God and death and, well … big things.”
“But not all biologists are very young …” Julia began, then realized he had caught her off guard. “And what about you, old Mr. Whiskers? I suppose you think of yourself as an elder of the tribe.”
It was not the first time he had tricked her into believing he was older than he was. A few times before, she and Aaron inadvertently took a turn in their conversation that assumed her ten-year-old patient was the elder he sounded like. What he had to say was convincingly “old,” old beyond his years. What was she to make of that?
Julia had developed a special way of listening to her patients. She discounted content, listening instead for the wit, the complexity, the level of intelligence she discerned in their words. A good piece of thinking — a long line of logical connections, for example — encouraged her to believe she was in touch with a healthy, promising patient. She might give ten points. A wandering, incoherent stream of language was disheartening, a sign of decline. Two points, three points. She listened to Aaron that way, never quite taking in what he was saying — until now. This time she focused on the thought. “You know, young man,” she replied, “that was a pretty sophisticated idea. Where does a kid come up with stuff like that?”
He waved her off with irritation. “I must have seen it in a book.”
“Well, you keep reading those books and thinking those thoughts. That’s the best medicine I have to offer you. Mental gymnastics. You don’t have to be right to keep thinking.”
After several weeks of stormy sessions during which Forrester did his best to tutor Aaron in basic and then advanced genetics, the boy suddenly lost all interest. He asked no more questions, read no more of the books Forrester brought him. His conversations with Forrester crumbled away into obvious boredom. Halting remarks, long silences, abrupt, irritated replies. Worst of all, he refused to be examined or to give more tissue samples. When Forrester, meeting him with Julia as an intermediary, asked why, his answer was little short of insulting. “You bore me, Kevin. You’re just plain boring. You have absolutely no idea what to look for or where. I know why you call DNA a code. Because codes are simple. They mean only one thing. Simple minds like simple things.” He fixed Forrester with an unflinching stare. “I might as well be working with a veterinarian.”
Though Julia defended Aaron, she knew full well how aggravating the boy could become. At times, he snapped at her, making the same complaint. “You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t understand what’s happening to me.”
“Help me,” Julia answered. An earnest appeal.
“I’m not the doctor. How should I know?”
“You’re getting better. You’re recovering.”
“You don’t think so? Why?”
“You’re making it harder.” He growled the words out. “It’s like you’re all looking in the wrong direction and I can’t get you to turn around.”
“I don’t understand. What are we missing?”
Aaron’s face glowed with frustration. It was the way he looked when he was struggling to understand something that was beyond him. “You need to go
, not back.”
“But we are going forward, aren’t we?” Julia asked.
“No. I mean … I mean all the way forward. Even if there are things in the way, things that can kill.”
“I don’t understand,” Julia said.
Aaron stood up in a fit of agitation. He was on the brink of tears. Turning away, he burst out, “I don’t either.”
Julia tried to draw him close but he squirmed out of her embrace. “Why are you always grabbing at me? What do you want?”
Trying not to show how hurt she felt by his rejection, Julia said, “I’m simply trying to comfort you.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m not a little kid. I don’t like all this fondling.”
“Come on now,” she said with a friendly chuckle. “You’re behaving like a moody teenager.”
He turned back and lashed out, “Teenager? See? You’re fast-forwarding me. Weren’t you supposed to make me ten years old again?”
But what she said seemed exactly right. Though it rubbed Aaron the wrong way to be told, he
acting like a troubled adolescent. The mood swings, the petulance, the continual demand to be treated like an adult, the hair-trigger temper … every kid Julia knew had gone through that zone of discontent and impudence. True, Aaron’s body was still that of a child; there was no sign of pubescence. But his temperament did seem to have leaped forward. And she was not handling that part of his recovery well. She was fumbling again and again: the wrong words, the wrong gestures, the wrong expectations. She felt certain he needed her friendship now more than ever; she wanted to offer him warmth and wise advice. But he would have none of her consolation or affection he had once wanted so much. They did best when things became purely intellectual, whether an argument or a discussion. Mainly he wanted to talk genetics or geriatric medicine. But even Forrester was unable to satisfy him when he got into technical conversation. There was something Aaron disliked — no,
— about Forrester. The abrasiveness of their relationship was making it almost impossible for them to meet. “Do you want to live at home?” Julia asked after one of their emotional blow-ups. “I can do house calls, if you prefer that.”
“God, no! Don’t send me home,” he snapped, both demanding and pleading. “That would be the worst.”
“Would it? I don’t see why. Your parents are eager …”
“Eager to have their little boy back with them. I know, I know. But,
“You’re free to stay here as long as you wish,” Julia said, “but you don’t seem happy about that. So where else can you go?”
“Where else?’ He gave the question serious thought. “Yeah … I don’t seem to fit anyplace.”
Julia laid the two Polaroid prints on the breakfast table in front of Jake. Seeking a layman’s reaction to her success, she was going to let him play the role of John Q. Public. She was also out to boast a little. The pictures were from her Aaron Lacey file where she preserved a visual record of his treatment. Close-ups of his face, side and front, and full-length photos of his body. Jake, laying aside the newspaper, studied the images. “You’re not going to tell me this is the same person.”
“Aaron Lacey: week one. Aaron Lacey: week ninety-two.”
“I’d say that’s quite a change. I’d never think it was the same person.”
The pictures showed two faces, one haggard with age, bald, toothless, sullen. The other, a handsome, vibrant young boy whose only marked defect was his teeth: they were small and spaced out by large gaps. As bad as Aaron’s dentition looked, Jake understood the importance of what he saw. “Teeth? He’s regenerating his teeth?”
“A full new set. They began to show up in x-rays seven months ago. That was the most positive sign of all. In another few months, he’ll have a full set of adult teeth.”
Jake shook his head. “That’s astonishing. Good for you, Julia. This must be some kind of an achievement.”
“It’s working!” she said, her voice trembling with excitement. “I’m absolutely sure. Every symptom is in remission. Every single one. I’m making a presentation to the UC med faculty today. Word has gotten around. They’re madly curious to know what I’ve been up to with Aaron.”
It was the first time in weeks she had talked to Jake about Aaron. He recalled that she had taken the boy’s case with some trepidation. After that, all he remembered hearing were occasional worried reports — and finally that he had been sent to the ER in critical condition. There followed weeks of bleak despair. But now here she was announcing total success as if she could not hold back the words. “It seemed too much to hope for. I’ve been afraid to talk to anybody. I didn’t want another Mr. Barrington.”
Seven years before, she had experienced a run of encouraging results with an eighty-seven-year-old man. She had reproduced some of the same good effects that other researchers reported with human growth hormone. Mr. Barrington had displayed a sudden burst of energy, better eyesight, improved hearing, markedly less pain in his sore joints, even a burst of sexual potency. In her enthusiasm, she had begun to spread the word. Somebody at the clinic leaked the news to the press. In an interview she was quoted as having proved the efficacy of the new treatment. Then, just as suddenly as he had regained his vitality, Mr. Barrington weakened, withered away, and died. The incident had cost her a good deal of her professional credibility. She had learned to keep her own counsel, even with her husband. She had waited until Aaron’s recovery had entered its third month before breaking the good news to Jake and her closest associates. It was time to go public.
“Who’s Peter DeLeon?” Aaron wanted to know.
Julia, busy filling in Aaron’s chart, looked up in surprise. “And where did you come across that name?”
He held up a magazine. The title was
one of several eternal-youth publications that arrived regularly at the clinic.
The picture on the cover showed a group of smiling, hard-bodied and underclothed men and women frolicking on a sunny beach.
Julia winced. “I wish you hadn’t found that,” she said, sighing hard. “I want you to believe gerontology is a serious science. I’m afraid I’m on every kooky mailing list in the business.”
By this time Aaron knew Julia well enough to realize he had touched a nerve. Still, he persisted. “It says in the magazine that he’s the Lord of Longevity.”
“Oh? Is that what it says?” she answered, more annoyed than amused. “You’re reading the man’s own publicity. That’s self-promotion, not science.”
Aaron continued skimming the magazine. “What does he mean by ‘M+1’ ?”
“He has a chart here for the M+1 rating of all these herbs and potions and hormones and stuff.”
Julia was doing her best to sidetrack the conversation. “I have no idea what that’s all about.”
Reading further, Aaron answered his own question. “Oh. It says M+1 means ‘Methuselah plus one year.’ I guess that means living a long time. Like lactoferrin. We tried that. It has an M+1 rating of fifty. That’s pretty high.”
“No,” Julia said. “That’s pretty stupid. Lactoferrin has no recognized effect at all. Let’s drop this, shall we?”
“Do you know him, this guy DeLeon?”
He had to ask again before she answered. “I regret to say I do.”
Despite Julia’s obvious irritation, Aaron pressed on. “Is this his place?” He was showing her a two-page spread in the magazine. It opened out into an aerial photograph of a palatial estate surrounded by gardens that dominated a bluff above a idyllic stretch of ocean. Glassy blue water, shining white sand.
Julia studied the photo with a sour expression. “Yes, that’s his place. The DeLeon pleasure gardens.”
“Where is it?’
“He owns a stretch of beach in Baja California.”
“You went there?”
“Twelve years ago when things were rather more modest.”
“What did you find out?”
“Nothing of any value. We don’t pay attention to people like Dr. DeLeon, who isn’t a doctor, incidentally, except in his own imagination — and whose name isn’t DeLeon in the first place. He’s bought up a lot more land since then. Sorry to say, the man is prospering. For a while, a few years back, he was running a string of fountain-of-youth franchises across the country. He seems to have cut back on that operation and moved to Mexico, the better to avoid the law.”
“Why did you get mixed up with him?”
“As you know, I give everything a chance, even the lunatic fringe. That means taking some risks. This was one of my misadventures.”
Aaron went on reading. “It says he’s discovered more ways to reverse the aging process than anybody else.”
“Trust me, Aaron. What he has is a mish-mash of trendy stuff, some of it very dangerous. That’s why his Institute is located out of the country. North of the border, the drug authorities would never let him get away with what he does. Last I heard, he was very big on kombucha. He pushes it at a good, high price.”
“We tried kombucha,” Aaron reminded her.
“Yes, we did, in small, carefully monitored amounts. Which we had other doctors check with blood tests and lab work. Just as we tried Siberian ginseng, remember? And ginkgo biloba. We’ve tried lots of things. And what did we conclude?”
“They don’t work.”
“Right. Didn’t work for you. As far as I know, they haven’t worked for anybody documented in the standard literature. All we have are anecdotes — stories people tell, usually about other people, not themselves. That’s what keeps medicine ethical. We try things, we check carefully, and we always have to be willing to say ‘it doesn’t work.’ No wishful thinking, no false promises. But Dr. DeLeon was dosing his clients to the gills on kombucha, on yohimbe, on eye of newt and toe of frog — anything they’d pay for. That’s totally irresponsible. I’m sure he’s gone on to fifty different, and no more effective concoctions since then. And he claims they all work, every one of them.”
“You mean he’s a quack?”
“Yes, my dear, I’m afraid so.”
“Including what it says here about age regression?” He held the magazine opened to an article titled “Discovering the Newborn Within Us.”
Julia’s voice took on a more somber tone. “To tell you the truth, I once took that idea seriously. Much to my regret. It’s just hokum.”
Aaron continued leafing through the magazine. “Here’s something we never tried.” He showed a two-page spread that featured the words, “Capturing the Healing Power of Crystals.” Below the words was a photo: a large, multicolored crystal. The slick paper page caught the light in a way that made the stone seem to sparkle.
“Please!” Julia groaned. “I have my limits.”
“It says you can use crystals ‘to do a diagnosis of the human aura.’ What does that mean?”
“Its gobbledygook. It means nothing at all,” Julia snapped. Why was he not hearing her impatience, she wondered. For the first time in their relationship, Julia raised her voice. “Aaron! You have to trust me. If I tell you its bunk, please believe me.” She snatched the magazine from his hand and cast it across the floor. Then immediately turned to apologize. “I’m sorry. Forgive me. This is one of those things I can’t be entirely objective about. If you’ve been reading what you find lying around my office, you should know that more than half of everything that passes for life extension is quackery. I think you’re old enough to accept that.”
“Old enough?” Aaron grinned. “I thought you were trying to make me young. Which direction are we going?”
Julia smiled back. “Confusing isn’t it? Younger physically, older emotionally.”
She completed her examination and then sent him on his way. But as he left the room, he glanced to see if she was watching, then bent to retrieve the magazine she had torn from his hands. It was still open to the page that showed the crystal.
When Julia said Peter DeLeon had taught her nothing, that was not strictly true. He had taught her a valuable if painful lesson in life. He had shown her the full dimensions of fraud in her field of study. And he had also made her aware of how gullible she could be.
She could have told Aaron a great deal more about DeLeon in that respect. Thanks to the Lord of Longevity, she had experienced the most galling encounter of her professional life. It was only after she returned from his spa angry and insulted that she had looked into his murky background. What she was able to find out about him left her feeling all the more foolish for not doing her homework before she went knocking at his door.
Peter DeLeon started life as Peter Kastenbach, an Austrian body-building prodigy who began collecting medals and prizes at the age of fourteen. In the late 1950s, he brought his reputation to the United States where he opened a gym in west Los Angeles. Given his remarkable gift for self-promotion, he quickly transformed Kastenbach’s Gym into the Mecca of would-be grunt-and-lift champions across the country. The business prospered. It also got him into serious problems with the law. Though he managed to wiggle out of an indictment for steroid peddling, he decided to close down the gym in favor of a higher calling in life. He had, in his own words, experienced an “epiphany.” Upon reaching mid-life and discovering he could still press three-hundred pounds and satisfy the sexual appetites of women less than half his age, Kastenbach felt certain the formula for limitless youth had been revealed to him. Clearly, he was an advanced physical specimen. Who could doubt that the rough, vegetable diet he had faithfully honored since his school days, the monthly bowel-cleansing regimen, the rigorous exercise routine he had invented, and above all the taut mental discipline he imposed on himself were the key to a long, virile life? And if he was to be the Lord of Longevity, he deserved a suitable name. Why not DeLeon, after the explorer who spent his life searching for the secret of youth? Searching, but not finding. Thus, if Peter DeLeon had found that secret, he deserved an appropriately august title. Claiming shadowy degrees from a Bavarian university and an off-shore medical school, he was able to pass himself off as a doctor. Not an ordinary MD, but the world’s first DLE. Doctor of Life Extension, a title of his own invention.
His first commercial effort under his new name — a self-help diet and exercise kit — sky-rocketed to success, quickly leading to a line of high-priced potions and pills. Marketed as the DeLeon Immortalist Method, the concoctions he sold and the exercise routines he invented became a promising franchise. For the first several years of his new, more ambitious career, the hills above La Jolla served as DeLeon’s base of operations. From there he oversaw a chain of Immortalist Centers across the country and abroad, a thriving business. But as his reputation grew along with his earnings, he felt the need of more sumptuous quarters, a facility that had more the aura of a worldly paradise where no one grew older than they were on the day they arrived — yet not too far from his loyal southern California following. He had by then attracted a contingent of clients who encouraged this more inflated vision of his work and who were willing to pay the cost of exclusivity. For the most part these were rich and well-preserved women, who felt the need to achieve physical fitness among their own kind, well-removed from life extenders of a lower social order. It was time to offer a deluxe version of immortality.
After a careful search, DeLeon chose a location on the Pacific side of Baja, a poor beach town several miles south of the seaside resorts. San Lazaro was just close enough to Baja’s luxury hotels and casinos to make for a convenient visit — exactly the right psychic distance to create the sense of “getting away” without actually traveling further than a weekend might allow. The location paid another dividend. During his early years as a life- extension specialist in the United States, DeLeon had run afoul of intrusive medical authorities who questioned his license. They knew his prehistory; under the name of Kastenbach, he had a record for narcotics violations, mainly involving steroids and pain-killers. That made state and federal drug agencies uncomfortably inquisitive about the unusual formulary his longevity centers promoted. His Mexican hosts cared less about such matters, welcoming the trade he brought across the border: celebrities, socialites, people of wealth and prominence. Catering to that clientele made it worthwhile to shrink the size of his franchise business to a few select centers in the United States and Europe.
Julia came across DeLeon and his rejuvenating method soon after she opened her Pacific Heights clinic. At the time, she was eagerly trying everything she came across to slow the aging of the body. Too eagerly. Her search for more wholistic ways to heal led her to one of DeLeon’s overflow public lectures. He was a slick and charming speaker who talked a great case for himself, his daring, his insight, his miraculous powers. He was extremely good at cloaking everything he mentioned in just enough mystery to make himself seem like a medical messiah. Julia should have proceeded with care, but her curiosity got the better of her. When she introduced herself after his lecture, he at once invited her to tour his center in San Lazaro, “Baja California’s garden of Eden,” as he called it. She could come as his guest; he would be delighted to share his research. She took him up on the offer and visited the following year.