Mary Roach uses journalism to squeeze everything she can out of life, even if what she's writing about is dead.
"I'm really all over the map," says Roach, whose book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, is due in April. "I'm drawn to all the odd corners of the world that other journalists seem to have overlooked."
A longtime freelance writer who's become known for covering the bizarre and unheard-of, Roach has satisfied numerous odd curiosities in the name of getting the story. She has jousted, fought a bull, acted as a "pee buddy" for a man with a bashful bladder, eaten a raw fish eyeball, bowled with amputees, attempted vaginal weight lifting, and smeared herself with costly bottled pheromones to test their effectiveness.
"I have a short attention span," Roach smiles and says of her diverse repertoire. Being a freelance journalist "gives me a temporary visa into these strange little lands."
Her science stories can be as alarming as they are as humorous. (For example, do you happen to know how many insect parts the government allows in your Fig Newton?) Her headlines can make you laugh before you've even read the stories. ("Come the apocalypse, who will fill your prescriptions?") She has fun with less dire topics -- the Museum of Menstruation, for instance -- and can be funny about more serious ones without seeming disrespectful.
The New Hampshire native moved to the Bay Area in 1981 after graduating from Wesleyan University. That first summer, she rented a very cheap room in a Berkeley fraternity house, from which all her belongings -- a backpack, an alarm clock, and a pair of sneakers -- were promptly stolen. Since then she's lived in San Francisco. And since then she has written for Health magazine, Vogue, Discover, Reader's Digest, Sports Illustrated, and USA Weekend, among others. She was a regular contributor to Salon.com from 1999 into 2001.
Stiff is her first book. Publishers have pitched several ideas to her in recent years, but none of the topics fitted her sensibilities. "It had to be a Mary Roach kind of book," says the author, who will be at Barnes & Noble in Emeryville on April 29.
As it turns out, she amassed much of the material for Stiff without knowing it. At Salon she'd researched cadavery from various angles for a would-be column called The Dead Beat, but the column expired prematurely because of a money shortage. But a publisher who learned of her efforts brought the idea back from the grave.
Stiff examines the various ways in which live people learn from dead bodies. Chapters cover the medical (anatomical study), the industrial (human crash-test dummies), the religious (crucifixion experiments), and the just plain bizarre (attempted human-head transplants). Some chapters -- especially the historical accounts of how early anatomists obtained bodies are at once gruesome and fascinating. Others can easily be filed under "What were they thinking?"
Asked about her most memorable moments spent researching Stiff, Roach doesn't hesitate.
"Clearly, the room full of heads," she says, referring to a one-day course at UC San Francisco in which cosmetic surgeons practiced facelifts on disembodied noggins. "There's just no way you can anticipate what it's like being in a room with forty heads."
She named that chapter "A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste" -- Roach sticks to what she knows by adding levity to an uncomfortable situation. But she also practices a crucial trick of the trade: dissociation.
The surgeons in the class, along with anatomists, crime-lab technicians, medical students, and others who work with cadavers, see bodies as learning tools left behind by people, not as the people themselves.
In fact, Roach's second most memorable moment from working on Stiff came when she inadvertently read the personal data of a corpse being embalmed at a morticians' college. After she digested the information, everything suddenly changed. The corpse became a person, she says, with a life history, a family left behind, and all the sadness associated with death.
Roach says this illustrates how Stiff is about the dead, not about death.
"Death is sad and tragic," she says. "Dead bodies are removed from all that." As she sees it, the cadavers discussed in her book "weren't anyone's loved ones. They were interesting, and interesting things were going on around them."
And she knows what she's talking about. Just before her mother's funeral, she and her brother were led into a room and shown the body without having asked to view it. It felt odd to see the body, but it brought a revelation as well.
"My mother was never a cadaver; no person ever is," Roach writes in the introduction to Stiff. "My mother was gone. The cadaver was her hull. Or that's how it seemed to me. ... Seeing her cadaver was strange, but it wasn't really sad. It wasn't important. It wasn't her."
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