Doing Her “Science-Writerly Best” on Taboo Topics

“After the publication of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, I became the go-to gal for all things cadaver,” author Mary Roach ’81 confessed to those who flocked to her WESeminar at Homecoming/Family Weekend.

“People conclude that I must always have been obsessed with dead bodies–although I don’t think people assume that the author of Cod has had a lifetime fixation with fish. Still, readers think I must be Goth, or at least a little weird.”

A writer whose work has appeared in Outside,, The New York Times Magazine, and Discover, Roach spoke about her desire to do her “science-writerly best,” tackling topics that combine science in some unusual venue. Her second bestseller, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, “is really about people who have applied all sorts of research, creativity, and ingenuity to probe what was always unknowable.”

Ask her about turning points in her life, and she’ll say one was her freshman year at Wesleyan: “When I stepped onto campus I knew this was the right place for me. I became who I am today. What Wesleyan did for me is gave me this self-confidence to believe that spending a year writing about cadavers would be okay and that someone would want to buy it.”

Questions from her audience probed her thoughts on the existence of an afterlife: “I’ve accepted that I don’t want to know.” And whether she will donate her body to science, “I have the paperwork but it’s like college applications–I’m not sure where I want to go. Like, which lab has the nicer freezers, a better view out the window,” she quipped.

Would she write a novel in the future? Roach didn’t think so; she loved the research, which she likened to “collecting sticks” which she then “stacked up,” writing the book.

Roach’s next book, she said, will be about sex researchers because she had happened to read about a device that would film internal physical changes during female arousal.

How did you decide, someone else queried, that humor was the correct tone in which to write about cadavers? “The humor I use is directed at my own discomfort,” she explains. “In some odd way I think my tone makes the readers more comfortable with this subject.” It was less of a decision, she explained, than it was her natural voice, and it harbors no disrespect.

Quite the reverse, she cites as heroes the cadavers who taught–with their own post-mortem broken bones and torn aortas–the automobile safety researchers how to calibrate the strength of impact for crash dummies. The lessons learned continue to save lives, she says, at an estimated rate of 147 lives per cadaver each year–and adds editorially that they performed these heroics “without feeling any pain or discomfort themselves.”

As for those whose bodies will be divided among, perhaps, physicians needing a head on which to practice a new maxillofacial surgical technique, or a knee for arthroscopic surgery, a heart for a cardiologist- to-be, Roach offers a cheery outlook: “After you die, your body can be in several different places, teaching several different things all at once: Think of it as the ultimate in multi-tasking.