To write a book about cadavers, you have to get in to see some. This is harder than you’d think. You’d think dead people would be easy to make appointments with. Their schedules are pretty open and they rarely go out of town. But of course dead people don’t make appointments. The researchers and surgeons and undertakers who work with them do that, and they don’t do it easily. If you were, for instance, a plastic surgeon who had set up a seminar with 40 severed human heads for other plastic surgeons to practice on, would you want a writer there? You would not. I contacted the organizers of this very head event, and indeed, they did not want me there. As the day drew near, I considered paying the $500 fee and registering as a surgeon. Maybe no one would notice that the woman in the back row was holding her retractor upside down and only pretending to make incisions.
In the end, an acquaintance, a plastic surgeon whom I’d profiled years ago, made some calls and got me in. I fear for his welfare once the book comes out. Not that I say anything negative about surgeons practicing on cadavers. I simply describe the things I saw, and most surgeons would probably prefer that the public not know about these things.
Inevitably, the doctors and scientists I wanted to visit would ask me to tell them about the book. I would assure them that I was in favor of cadaver-based education and research and that the book would support and encourage the donation of bodies to science.
This is true, but it didn’t really tell them much about the book. For instance, that its title is Stiff. That it’s meant not just to inform readers, but to entertain them. What could I say? “It’s a fun book about dead people. You’ll love it!” What scientist would agree to help me?
My past made matters worse. I used to write an irreverent, goofball column about medicine and the human body for the online magazine Salon.com. Occasionally my columns were about dead human bodies. There was one about car crash tests in the ’60s that involved cadavers. I did not criticize these studies, for they were and still occasionally are necessary and have, indirectly, saved thousands of lives. However, my tone was somewhat cavalier. Flippant, you might even say. By and large, it’s fair to say that people who do research using cadavers would rather not be the subject of flippant articles. At one point, I contacted a researcher at the University of Michigan to see if I could observe a cadaver impact test for the book. The man asked me how I’d become interested in the subject, and I said I’d done a little research on the topic for a Salon article. You don’t figure engineers log on to Salon.com.
“Salon!” he said. “I hope you’re not the one who wrote that horrible piece a couple months ago.” My piece had run about a year prior, so I replied that it must have been someone else. Then he began describing the piece, which was in fact my piece. I said, “I have to go now,” and I got off and called a different lab. I became so paranoid about potential sources running a Google search on me and finding my Salon columns that I’d sign off on my e-mails as Marion Roach. (Later I realized that my messages arrive with “Mary Roach” in the From heading.) The man whose automotive impact lab I eventually visited had seen the Salon column too, but he let me watch anyway. To this day I think of him as a kind of saint.
And now comes the part where the people in the book get to read it. There are days when I honestly believe they’ll be okay with it, maybe even enjoy it. Other days I imagine them turning up at my doorstep, saying I’ve destroyed their scientific standing. And then they shoot me, and the author of Stiff is a corpse too. Horrifying, but think of the PR possibilities: Dead author goes on tour to promote cadaver book! Sales through roof!
Mary Roach currently writes the “My Planet” humor column in Reader’s Digest. Her work has also appeared in Outside, Wired, GQ and Vogue. A contributing editor at Discover magazine, she lives in San Francisco. Stiff is her first book.