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Bombs, Bugs, and Bodies: A Curious Interview with Mary Roach


Mary Roach | | Photo by Jen Siska

Perhaps it’s because I don’t have any specific beat to cover, or perhaps it’s because I just get bored writing about one thing over and over, but going through my post history on this blog reveals a bit of a wandering focus. One of those authors (and perhaps the one I’ve tried to channel most) is Mary Roach, New York Times Bestseller and without a doubt one of the most well-known science writers working today. From her first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, all the way through her newest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Roach covers a wide and often kinda icky variety of topics with curiosity and humor few others can match.

Coincidentally, Roach’s work on Grunt led her through Penn’s campus, as she found herself at the Monell Chemical Senses Center learning about some of the different ways in which humans have tried to weaponize, well, stink. Her exploits at Monell are discussed extensively in the book, though she also finds herself all over the United States, as well as Djibouti, in east Africa.

Mary was kind enough to make my year by agreeing to an interview, which is what you’ll read below. Fair warning: It’s long. It also moves in a few different directions, which is maybe indicative of that wandering focus I mentioned earlier. You’ll have to pardon that; I’ve been reading her books for years and found it hard not to dive into way, way too many different topics.

One of the things I really enjoyed about your previous books and very much enjoyed about Grunt was that you have an ability to communicate a lot of complicated things in a way that’s very easily accessible. With Grunt, you’re tackling medicine, science, and the military—three tremendously complicated fields. What do you think is the key to being able to bridge that gap between the experts and the general public?

I think everybody has their own approach. I’m both helped and hindered by a lack of science background. It makes it a little harder for me to understand things and get up to speed, but it does help me to have a good sense of how I need to write to communicate with an audience that’s not familiar with it—because I am that audience, you know? I’m starting out at the same place they are, so there’s not much danger of me being over their heads because I’m really right in there with them.

I don’t ever really have to take out the jargon or simplify the writing for my reader, because that’s where I’m at. The challenge for me is to just understand it and get it right in the first place—to make sure I’m not misunderstanding a researcher or scientist because I don’t have the background.

We run into that a little bit here, too. I don’t have a background in medicine, and I’ll end up getting into that same loop of just, “All right, well, let me understand it, and then I’ll be able to convey it to others in the way I’m seeing it.”

Yeah. And scientists are, for the most part, really patient and accommodating. I tend to use my sources as unpaid tutors, and they’re very understanding. And I have no shame. I’ll just say, “I’m sorry, I know I’m asking you to make this very simple,” and they’re with me. They’re really good about it.

Two chapters in Grunt deal with urotrauma [note: urotrauma involves traumatic injury to the urinary tract, meaning the kidneys, bladder, urethra, or genitals]—obviously a very tough read and a very tough subject. One of the anecdotes from the book that stuck out to me most was when you were talking to the Walter Reed nurse manager and you asked what the divorce rate was like for sufferers of that condition. Her response was, essentially, “It’s not ‘divorce rate,’ it’s ‘suicide rate.’” Do you get the sense that this is one of those topics like many others in the fields of science and medicine that could benefit from being discussed more out in the open? And if so, what do you think the best way to broach a larger conversation about these topics might be?

I do think so, absolutely. The woman you’re referencing is Christine DesLauriers, and she would just love to see funding for a couple of full-time positions for sex therapy or intimacy counseling: Somebody who can talk about it in a matter-of-fact way, who can say, “You know, this is happening to everybody. There are things you can do, there are different positions you can try.” You need somebody who can speak about it in a matter-of-fact way and take away some of the stigma of asking about it.

And it isn’t just for people with urotrauma. Say somebody’s lost both hands and a leg. What kind of sexual positions will work? What kind of aids are there? It has to start with people being willing to just talk about it and be straightforward. Make it safe and comfortable for veterans to be able to say, “Hey, how does this work?”

It’s not even just amputations and physical damage, it’s also the drugs that a lot these veterans are on that interfere with the ability to have or keep an erection. There’s that side of it, too. So it’s not just people in the urotrauma category. It’s very important, and it’s too often just viewed as a lifestyle thing: “We can’t pay taxpayer dollars for sexual pleasure, my God.”

It’s so much more than that.

Yeah! Yeah. It’s these peoples’ marriages and family lives being shattered by this stuff. So people like Christine DesLauriers are pretty heroic in that way.

You take a brief aside in Grunt to talk about military scientists, and how their contributions don’t necessarily carry the same glory as those that occur on the battlefield. Kind of a similar discussion could be had for medical researchers, who are relatively unsung but contribute to massive advances in medicine. So, having talked to the folks who are out there in the field and the folks who are in the military labs, what would you say is the starkest difference between the two?

I think everybody’s heart is in the right place, but sometimes—because they don’t ever meet, these two groups of people—there’s frustration on the part of people who are out in the desert trying to carry out a mission. Someone comes along telling them, “We have an equation that can predict how much water you’ll need to carry for this mission.” And while it’s a really cool equation and it’s a very helpful thing, I think sometimes there’s a sense of, “You’re not here and you don’t know what it’s like; don’t tell me how to run my mission.” I think sometimes there’s just a misunderstanding.

The two groups are so separate, and there’s often not a direct line of communication. That’s why the military morgue in Dover has this “Feedback to the Field” program. They sit down in these monthly mortality meetings. All of the medical examiners are there, as well as some people from the surgical institutes, and they all teleconference with the people in the field who provided emergency medical care. They discuss cases. There’ll be a slide of a soldier who has come back to the morgue with all of their lifesaving equipment in place, and they can say, “Look, this is what we’ve found. This is what we’re seeing. That tourniquet might have been placed a few inches further down, and it might have worked better.”

So there’s this communication between people in the field and people back in the U.S.—the medical examiners and the research institutes—and that’s a great model. Rather than waiting for a paper to be published that’ll come out two years down the line when the threats may have changed or the conflict may have moved to a different country, this is immediate feedback. I think more of that would be great. It’s a way for the scientists to communicate a little more directly with the units on the ground. It’s not easy to set that stuff up, but that model, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, was a great tool for both sides to better understand what they’re dealing with.

One of the recurring themes in Grunt is a certain reluctance on the part of soldiers to listen to the science and medicine—whether that means they’re not thrilled about taking another piece of technology out into the field, or they’re just refusing to take antidiarrheals so they don’t run into gastrointestinal trouble. Obviously, physicians dealing with regular civilians run into that sort of thing all the time, like when patients are unwilling to go the full dosing schedule with their antibiotics. What do you think it is about people that makes them skeptical to embrace these things?

I’m always surprised by the extent to which people want to just go with an intuitive sense of how the body works. Like that whole business with, “I’m not going to take that Imodium, the body has to flush those toxins out.” Even if you say to somebody, “Well, actually, if you talk to a diarrhea researcher, they’ll say that this is not your body doing something to the pathogens, but the other way around,” they’ll sit there and listen—and they may know this researcher has spent the past 10 years immersed in diarrhea (that sounds terrible!) and knows the field—they’ll listen to that and go, “Yeah, but that doesn’t really make sense. I think your body’s flushing it out.”

I don’t know where this comes from, and it must be very frustrating to physicians and researchers who spend years and years in training and keeping on top of the literature and the research. It seems to be on the rise, over the past few years. There seems to be a growing resistance to science and western medicine. People want to embrace something that feels good, maybe. I don’t know.

People are people.

People are people.

Oddly enough, one of the things in the book that made me cringe the most was the description of “deck-slap,” where a bomb detonates under a vehicle and shatters the fat pad under the heel. I don’t know what it was about that, but it really got to me—

You’re lucky you didn’t watch the video. Don’t go on the Internet and look for that.

I’m almost gonna have to, now.

I’m so sorry.

In a book where you cover a number of the truly horrible things that can happen to soldiers in the field, the reaction I had to “deck-slap” surprised me the most. Have you surprised yourself with the reactions you’ve had to what you’ve seen or read about while writing your books?

In the very, very brief and watered down encounters I’ve had with some of this, yeah. Like being in the cookbox at the University of Health Sciences—where they can turn up the heat and humidity, put you on an uphill treadmill, and throw a backpack on you. I was in there with a couple of army ranger instructors who were completely unfazed by it all, and I lasted seven minutes. With a really lightweight, 30-pound nothing of a pack. Or even just picking up a set of body armor and being barely able to lift it, let alone wear it around with a pack. It’s not like they’re carrying it on long-distance marches the way they used to in World War I, but nonetheless they’re having to move it around and carry it significant enough distances. I can’t even imagine the hardship when things are going well, when things are fine and all you’re doing is going from one place to another or doing something routine. I mean, I complain about a book tour! “I’m so tired, I didn’t get any time for lunch!”

I can’t even believe what these men and women deal with, and that’s before a bomb goes off or your fat pad bursts or your head hits the top of an armored personnel carrier—or you’re shot. It’s really incredible, the things people expose themselves to. It was a real eye-opener, because you see it in movies, but that’s just a movie. Even in my very limited exposure to it, I’m still really in no position to grasp how truly difficult it is.

Working on Grunt and some of your previous books has given you kind of a firsthand look at the ways in which the body can break and be put back together. Obviously you’re not stranger to that topic. How would you say working on your books has impacted your view of the human body? Do you consider it more or less resilient than you did when you started?

More resilient. Way more. People can get themselves conditioned—and not only in terms of strength, but they can get acclimated to heat so their bodies are more efficient at sweating and cooling them down. The body’s this amazingly accommodating thing. Going into altitude, the body’s like, “Oh, I guess I need to crank up the oxygen-carrying cells.” It’s this amazing machine that’s able to crank itself up. It’s amazing how fit these people are. […] It’s not even in a bodybuilding kind of way, it’s just in a, “I move heavy things all the time” kind of way. They seem like a different species to me.

But then there are things like bombs that come along and, in the snap of a finger, just tear it all apart. So I guess “both” is really the answer to your question. Bodies are way more powerful than you could imagine, and they’re also way more fragile.

You’ve spent a lot of time, including in Grunt and your first book, Stiff, around human cadavers—and I swear we’re almost out of the morbid part of the interview. We recently had a ceremony here at Penn honoring those who have donated their bodies to science. It made a few headlines, in part because it’s a difficult conversation in general. Do you think medicine and science could be doing a better job informing people about this decision and how it could benefit others?

I would love to see willed body programs way more out front with what they do and how important it is, and also to just own it more. I’d like to see them hand out t-shirts to people who are donating, like, “I’m going to Penn!” or, “I’m going to Yale!” with, “willed body program” written underneath.

It feels, and I may be totally wrong about this, but it feels like there’s kind of a hiding-in-the-closet thing with willed body programs. Why is it the only time we hear about them is when something’s gone wrong? When somebody didn’t dispose of them properly, or some black market thing happened? It seems to me that too often that’s what makes the news, and I’d love to see them be more out front taking pride in what they do and how important it is, highlighting the gift that people make—talking to the people who signed on, saying, “Absolutely, put me on a blast rig! Totally! I never served in the military, and this is a way for me to help men and women who might otherwise be killed. And what am I gonna do with my body? Throw it in an incinerator?” Just be right up front with it.

I thought that was an interesting point you made in Grunt: “Just do some good with it.”

Yeah! And if it’s not your cup of tea, fine, don’t do it—but I think there are a lot of people who just don’t consider it because it’s just not up there on the option list with burial and cremation. It should be up there on an equal footing: burial, cremation, donation. It should be in peoples’ minds, I feel. Maybe I’m weird, maybe I’ve spent too much time in this world.

I just feel like there’s still some stigma still attached, some fear that some TV news station is gonna come along and go, “Oh my God! They just have them in a pile in a freezer!” Well, yeah. What do you want them to do? “Oh my God, they cut off the leg!” Well, yeah. Because they don’t want to waste the rest of the—I don’t know, I get frustrated because sometimes I get media calls like, “We’ve discovered something going on.” No, you don’t have a story here. And stop it, because you’re gonna discourage people from donating with your stupid, scandalizing, overwrought, bullshit story that you want to do.

So they don’t call me anymore.

I don’t even remember what your question was. I’m sorry, I get carried away.

Believe me, you answered it perfectly. Is there anything you do differently in your day-to-day life because of something you’ve learned while writing your books?

I sit in the window seat on a plane, because of the guy who told me if there’s any kind of a serious jolt on the plane, the luggage can come crashing through the overhead bin and it’ll hit the people in the aisle seats.

Was that the same guy [note: injury analyst Dennis Shanahan, who investigates airline disasters and their impact on the human body] who, when you asked where he sits, told you he just sits in first class?

Yes! That’s right! Good memory. I loved that guy.

So, let’s see, what else…because of Gulp, I use my “internal nostrils.” You can experience food more not only on the inhale but on the exhale. You can sniff food by exhaling. If I have wine or something, sometimes I’ll do that—because it’s kind of amazing how much more you can appreciate food as you chew it up and it warms. When you breathe out, you’re experiencing all these aromas and vapors going up into the nose, and it’s kind of cool.

Most books change me in some minor way, but not in any major way.

You kinda carry a little something with you through every one of them.

Yeah, definitely. And now when I walk through an airport and I see someone in a military uniform, it sounds cliché, but I have this very different respect for them. I want to sit down and talk to them, and hear what it’s like, because I spent most of my time in labs. I wanted to embed. I couldn’t embed […] I had wanted to do that just to be a little closer to the people who live this stuff, not just the people who research it.

At this point, is there anything that grosses you out?

If you “myiasis” into Google, some very disturbing pictures come up. In my person-to-person—or, I guess, person-to-maggot—encounters with maggots, they were not disgusting. Partly because I was learning about them. If you take one out of the mass of them and put it on your finger, it’s kind of cute! But the images of somebody who’s got an infestation in their gumline, stuff like that—it’s just too much. It’s probably the most disturbing imagery I’ve seen while working on any of my books.

When you’re with a researcher and they’re explaining things, your curiosity kind of pushes aside the revulsion—but before I started that chapter, I made the mistake of looking up myiasis (and also some old papers on PubMed that are related…case studies you’d never want to hear about).

Wrapping up with kind of a selfish question: Do you have any advice for us writers who—like I was saying earlier—don’t have a background in science or medicine but do write about these topics routinely?

Oh, gosh. Sometimes I find it helps to read something out loud, because if there’s a passage that needs to be ironed out—because it’s still kind of wrinkly and twisted in on itself—you’ll notice it more when you read it out loud. I think that’s a good exercise, particularly when you’re trying to explain something rather complicated.

I also—and I’m sure you all do this—will send a page or two to the researcher. I’ll say, “Look, I know this is super simplistic, and I may not be touching on the things that interest you that much, but the readers are new to this. Can you read this and make sure it’s accurate?” That makes me feel a little more confident. I won’t send the whole chapter or the whole piece, necessarily, because you want to limit the amount of revising you have to do, but you’re just making sure the science is accurate and you’re not omitting something critical. A lot of the time it’ll be basically accurate, but someone will say, “Well, this is true, but you have to keep in mind this or you haven’t mentioned this.” So that’s inaccurate by omission. I can go back and check the transcript and make sure I was right about what the person said, but then they might not have included the whole story and I didn’t realize there was more.

Also, if you find it fun to read, then it’s probably going to be a good experience for the reader. If it feels like a slog when you’re writing it, it’s probably going to be a slog to read, too.

One thing with science writing, and I should definitely say this: Sometimes when you’re describing the setting or the person you’re in a bit of a narrative voice, and then you get to scientific explanation and the language changes. The style of writing changes. You go into dry science mode. You can’t do that. You’ve gotta tell the science in the same style you’re telling the story of the scientist, or the setting, or the backstory. You can’t cut and paste their words. Bill Bryson does that really well. His explanations are always beautifully written, and they’re always Bill Bryson-y. I’ll get tempted to just lift a chunk from what the researcher said and throw it in there, like, “Yeah, that’s the way it is,” but you’ve gotta make it your own.

Many thanks to Mary’s publicist, Erin Lovett, for setting up the interview. Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War is available now.

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