Legal writing was never Mary Roach’s thing. She describes that short-lived stint as an inscrutable “bringing forth of multisyllabic words.” Instead, she’s forged a career by letting curiosity lead the way. The result has been a series of successful books — Grunt, Gulp, Spook, Stiff, and Bonk among them— that all reveal her specific sense of nonsensibility (and love for monosyllabic titles).
She joins Tyler for a conversation covering the full range of her curiosity, including fear, acclimating to grossness, chatting with the dead, freezing one’s head, why bedpans can kill you, sex robots, Freud, thinking like an astronaut, the proper way to eat a fry, and why there’s a Medicare reimbursement code for maggots.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded September 27th, 2017
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: There’s one of your talks where you describe a common theme of your books, that they’re all about something anatomical and vaguely gross. When you write these books, how long does it take you to get used to the aspects of your topics that are gross?
MARY ROACH: I’m thinking it’s somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.
ROACH: I don’t want to adjust too quickly, actually, because something happens when you dive into a topic, and you start out with the sense of wonder and hesitation and curiosity, and it’s all very electric and fresh.
Then after a couple of years, “Yeah, gastrocolic reflex . . . boring.” You start to become like the researchers for whom it’s day to day, and I don’t want things to be day to day. So I actually like to slow down that, or I’d like if I could to slow down that process of feeling comfortable.
COWEN: In your book Gulp, which is about the mechanics of eating, you draw a distinction between stimulated and unstimulated saliva. When you hear that, does it strike you at all as odd? Or it’s like “Oh of course, here’s my unstimulated saliva coming up.”
ROACH: Well right now, yes. I need more unstimulated saliva right now because otherwise you can get those horrible mouth sounds that radio people hate. But that’s the kind of thing I get very excited about, the fact that there are two different kinds. Not only are there two different kinds of saliva, but there’s two different ways of collecting it, so that’s kind of exciting for me — we don’t have to go into that.
The fact that there is stimulated saliva, just chewing — it doesn’t matter what you chew. Your mouth is like, “Well whatever it is that you’ve got in there, I’m going to help you get it down.” So if you’re actually chewing on, essentially it’s like a tampon, and you chew on that, and your body, your mouth confusedly generates saliva to help you swallow that tampon — unused. Unused.
ROACH: Anyway, I’m not sure exactly what you wanted me to say about stimulated versus unstimulated saliva, but I’m off and running, obviously.
On Freud and disgust
COWEN: Arguably it was Freud’s view that disgust is there to act as a kind of barrier to satisfying unconscious desire. Do you agree?
ROACH: Wow, I never really brought Freud into that chapter. That’s interesting. I always discussed the things that are disgusting or often stinky, smelly, dangerous, bacteria-laden things. So it makes evolutionary sense that we would want to push it away.
Tell me again, what did Freud say?
COWEN: One way of reading Freud is that we have these unconscious desires to do things, and we want them very badly. But we’re not quite aware that we want them, and we repress ourselves by erecting obstacles to doing those things, and one of the ways we do that is by having evolved the sense of disgust.
So what disgusts us is, in some way, connected to what we deeply desire, which we’re somewhat unaware of.
ROACH: Right, right. So you’re talking about taboos like incest and things like that, right?
COWEN: But also stimulated and unstimulated saliva and other, perhaps . . .
ROACH: Uh-huh, yeah. Other. Right. Gross, yeah.
COWEN: Facts about dead bodies, facts about sex . . .
ROACH: Right. Dead bodies. OK, yeah.
ROACH: Sure, that’s an interesting theory.
What I found interesting about the things that disgust us, whether it’s saliva or urine or whatever, it is to me interesting that we draw this line: When it’s inside of us, we don’t have a problem with it, but as soon as it leaves the body, even if it’s our own saliva, it becomes disgusting. And you can map the boundaries of the self. If there’s saliva on your tongue and you stick your tongue outside the body, is it gross still? You can map the boundaries.
Paul Rozin writes a lot about disgust. And I believe he talked about that, but you extend those boundaries to include your loved ones. You’re not disgusted by your child’s diapers, you’re not disgusted by your lover’s saliva, so you’ve extended the boundary of the self to include these people very close to you. So I found bodily fluids interesting in that way.
COWEN: It is striking that two of your main topics, food and sex, are areas that are some of our deepest, strongest desires and they’re areas where disgust is quite prevalent.
COWEN: That’s getting, I think, at Freud’s point.
As a writer, how would you think about — writer and researcher, interviewer — how would you describe what is your special talent?
ROACH: “My Special Talent” by Mary Roach.
ROACH: I think that I don’t have any — it isn’t a talent, it may be a character flaw — I don’t have a lot of hesitation or self-censoring when it comes to asking questions. I’m just balls out with my curiosity.
ROACH: It is never uncomfortable. People sometimes say, “The questions that you ask people, is it an awkward interview? When you went to Avenal State Prison for the rectum chapter of Gulp, and you, talking to this convicted murderer about using his rectum to smuggle cellphones and other things, was that not a very awkward conversation to have?”
A little bit, but then you have to keep in mind, this is somebody for whom hooping, as it’s called, is . . . everybody does it. It’s just something that you do; it’s everyday to him. Like for a sex researcher, talking about orgasm is like talking about tire rotation for a car mechanic.
ROACH: It’s not like, “Ooh, you just made me uncomfortable, asking me about orgasm.”
It isn’t really a talent. Secretly, it’s nothing. I don’t know if that’s my special . . . Well, I don’t know. I guess that’s what I’m going to go with. [laughs]
On chatting with the dead and freezing one’s head
COWEN: To do a whirlwind tour of some of your books, you have a book on corpses. If you could chat with the dead, what would you ask them?
ROACH: Oh, if I could chat with the dead. Are we assuming the personality or the body?
COWEN: Well, both.
ROACH: The corpse?
COWEN: The corpse.
ROACH: Oh, is this a research corpse or . . .
COWEN: It’s a research corpse.
ROACH: It’s a research corpse.
ROACH: OK. I’m just defining our parameters here. If you could talk with a research corpse — OK, I know what I would ask it.
As somebody who wrote this book, Stiff, about medical cadaveric research, it kind of behooves me to donate myself, and yet, I still trip over that image. Instead of having the image of my husband, tears coming down, scattering ashes over the Pacific, which is quite lovely and romantic, I have first-year medical students eating a sandwich and looking at, “Girls, look at her skin here. It’s really . . .” You know that.
So what I’d say to the cadaver is, “Is this embarrassing for you? Are you OK with this? Are they treating you respectfully? Do you wish you had some clothes on?” [laughs]
COWEN: One of my friends, Robin Hanson, is always trying to talk me into having my head frozen, either before I die —
COWEN: — when I’m dying, after I die —
COWEN: — depends on your view of death. And he says the amount of money I would have to spend on this, it might be a small chance of being revived in the distant future, but I have no better way to spend the money. Does this argument convince you or does it disgust you?
ROACH: [laughs] To be just a head.
COWEN: Just a head.
ROACH: Yeah, just a head.
COWEN: But with a chance of resurrection.
ROACH: Yeah, Jack, good luck with that. No.
ROACH: No. Because first of all, they’ve got to solve the whole freezing-thawing and that’s going to destroy the cells. Right now, what can they do? One layer of cells, freeze and thaw, right? Your basic sperm and egg . . .
ROACH: You got that freeze-thaw, but a whole head, I just don’t see that coming anytime soon. And then to reattach, and then the spark, how are they going to . . . ? It’s not like you pull the cord on the lawnmower and rev the thing up again. I’m not sure.
You know what else? You know what’s interesting about cryogenics . . . cryonics . . .
ROACH: I never know if it’s cryogenics or cryonics. A lot of interesting legal issues because those people who’ve done that believe they’re coming back. They feel like they’re in suspension and they’re not dead, and that one day, they will be back, and they’re going to need their cash to live. So their heirs, their estates, like, “This is my money,” but legally, they’re saying they’re not dead.
COWEN: The power of compound interest, right?
ROACH: Yes, that’s right. That’s right. [laughs] Who gets that money?
On life after death experiences
COWEN: Why do only 18 percent of people who are in the position to have a life-after-death experience actually have one? What’s your view on that?
ROACH: The trouble seems to be remembering the near-death experience.
COWEN: You think most people or all people have it, but not all remember it?
ROACH: I don’t know whether most people do, but I know for sure that most people forget everything that happens in the OR now because of the . . . Versed is one of the drugs that’s used, and people are coming out of surgery — it’s very, very rare now that anybody said, “Darndest thing, I was floating up above and . . .” They just don’t remember anything.
My favorite study from Spook, my second book, was a University of Virginia psychologist who studies near-death experience, had this idea, because near-death people who’ve had a near-death experience often report floating in the operating room, looking down onto their body on the operating table. So in this, specifically, an operating room where they put in defibrillators, which they then test by flat-lining you, and then making sure the defibrillator will —
ROACH: Hope that works. They put a laptop computer, open, up on top of one of the banks of lamps with a randomly generated simple image, so that if the person travelled up there, left the body, and looked down, not only would they see their body, but they would notice, “Huh, that’s peculiar. There’s a laptop computer here with a flower,” or whatever it is.
Then, when they came out of surgery, they routinely interviewed people, “Did you remember anything about your experience?” And they gave up because nobody remembered anything.
COWEN: Why are bedpans dangerous?
ROACH: Well, funny you should ask. Bedpans are dangerous . . . OK, this is going to bring us to defecation, and it’s your fault.
COWEN: That’s OK.
COWEN: And Jonathan Swift.
ROACH: All right, if you’re using a bedpan, you’re lying flat, and that’s not a natural and facilitative position for defecation. Squatting would be great. Toilet, pretty good. Lying down, not good. You’re going to have to push harder, and if you are in the ICU, if you’re a heart patient, you are at risk of defecation-induced sudden death.
COWEN: How did Elvis die?
ROACH: Defecation-induced sudden death.
COWEN: That’s what I thought.
ROACH: Pushing too hard. Don’t push too hard, people. No, you can induce an arrhythmia that can be fatal. This is why they put heart patients in the ICU on stool softeners. This is why, so you don’t have to push so hard.
This is a first for your show, isn’t it?
ROACH: Defecation-induced sudden death. That doesn’t come up with Atul Gawande. Well maybe Atul Gawande, possibly.
COWEN: Jeff Sachs mentioned it in his session.
On biases toward death and the dead
COWEN: The economist Adam Smith in the 18th century, he actually had a view on some of these issues following Lucretius. He thought that we, sympathetically or mentally or emotionally, we associated ourselves too much with dead corpses. And we felt sorry for them, and this was a kind of defect of the sympathetic or empathetic imagination, and that we would go through life feeling sorry for all kinds of situations that actually were fully neutral.
What do you see as some of the biases we have in terms of how we think about the dead and death?
ROACH: Well, we have a tendency — because dead people look very much like live people — there’s a tendency to project the emotions that we had previously with somebody that you know who has died. It’s a tendency to treat them as though they’re still people and to accord them the same sort of courtesies and respect.
This is problematic for people who do cadaver research because there’s a tendency to say that to cut this person open, and to take their pancreas and do one thing, and send their arm over to the automotive safety lab, and take their brain over here to put them in pieces like that, and to do these sort of seemingly brutal things is disrespectful.
It would be disrespectful if the person were alive. Well, it would be criminal; it would be actionable. But they’re dead; they aren’t the person anymore. And as a cadaver, they have this wonderful superpower, and that they don’t feel anything. And so, you can use them to get answers that you couldn’t in any other way because you don’t want to do that to a live person.
So we trip over this fact that “they look like people,” which is why frequently the face is covered, the hands are covered. Even in surgical practice labs, there’s a lingering tendency to depersonalize and dehumanize the body.
COWEN: I’m a fan of the Zoroastrian practice in Mumbai of having my dead corpse carried away by birds in pieces. If I could have my wish at zero cost, I think that’s what I would opt for.
But let me give you a general sense I get when reading a lot of your work, and you tell me if there’s anything to it. I think of a lot of the books, in a funny way, as a kind of response to actually Catholic philosophy, this notion of the incorruptibility of the body.
It’s in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology. There’s a notion that relics of saints, they don’t corrupt — or you can revisit and it will still be intact in some manner. And that you’re writing a kind of scientific polemic against that, giving us some different conception of the body, coming out of a response to Catholicism. Is that at all in what you’re doing?
ROACH: Not consciously, but my mother was a very . . . not strict, but very Catholic. My mother was very Catholic, and I went to mass. I had to go all the way through high school, so I was definitely steeped in that.
It wasn’t that I decided to take on the church in any way or incorruptibility. I have a personal fascination for those relics though. My cousin, Dominic, who grew up in England, and he’s always telling stories. I never know if they’re true or not, and he did tell me that he’d met someone who is a forensic relicologist, whose job was to figure out, “OK, this saint — how many fingers and toes do we have?” Keeping track, trying to figure out which ones were fraudulent and which ones were . . . Where did they, when did they . . . you know, carbon dating them or whatever and exposing the frauds.
And I thought, “That’s cool. I’ll build a book around that.” And, of course, there’s no such thing as a forensic relicologist. Although, I did find that Oxford University does have someone there who does carbon dating, who has a specific interest in religious relics.
COWEN: Writing so much about bodies and corpses and death and the idea of disgust and also sex, do you feel it has helped you come to terms with your own death at all? And if so, how does it help you or maybe hinder you from processing that fact?
ROACH: I still really don’t want to die.
COWEN: Not even a little?
ROACH: Not even, no. And I haven’t even . . . This is embarrassing to admit, but I haven’t even signed . . . I went so far as to get the forms for donating my body for research. My two choices would be UCSF and Stanford, which are the two schools near where I live that take cadavers. And I have the forms, and I never made the decision.
I’m like a high school senior: “Who’s got the better view from the anatomy lab?” I didn’t pull the trigger. So obviously, I talk, the talk. I believe it’s really important. I think and, practically speaking, I know that I’m dead. I’m not going to feel any pain. I won’t feel any embarrassment. I’m gone! So why don’t I do it? Obviously, I haven’t completely . . . I didn’t glean anything at all from all of the work that I did.
But I sometimes get a nice note from a reader who’s lost someone recently, who found that book, Stiff, helpful in some way, I guess maybe demystifying things or making death, being dead, just the next phase of life. I don’t know. It didn’t help me in that way, but it seems to sometimes help other people. Does that count? [laughs]
On why zippers are (sometimes) a problem
COWEN: Your book on soldiers, Grunt — also, I believe, your latest book — why are zippers a problem?
ROACH: Well, a zipper specifically would be a problem for a sniper who’s spending a lot of time lying down on his . . . I’m going to say his, though there may be his or her. Let’s just say his or her belly. So buttons or a zipper would be uncomfortable.
This is the kind of thing that Natick Labs — where they design clothing and accessories for soldiers — the kind of thing they think about. While I was there, their fashion studio, which is staffed by fashion people with fashion degrees — they had designed a quite streamlined sniper top with a side closure for that reason. Also, if you have a zipper here and you’re lying in the dirt, the dirt gets into the teeth of the zipper, and then it doesn’t work very well.
COWEN: You’re a sitting target for flies also, right? Is there anything you can do about that or do the flies just feast on . . .
ROACH: You mean if you have a zipper?
COWEN: Well, if you’re a sniper.
ROACH: Oh, if you’re a sniper.
COWEN: Without a zipper, a zipperless sniper.
ROACH: OK. Oh yeah, zipperless; a naked sniper even more so.
But flies, yes. There’s a term that is used in agriculture called “fly worry” and that is when flies are particularly dense. In a desert climate or dry climate, where there’s not a lot of food and water, flies are very aggressive — any moisture at all, including the eyes. So they’re going for a cow around the eyes so much so that the cow is so obsessed with and focused on getting rid of flies that it doesn’t eat. And they can die that way.
Anyway, fly worry, it’s a concern. It’s a thing. I have a lot to say about . . . I don’t know how much you want to go into flies in the military. I have more to say than the average person on flies. Flies are both good and bad. Young flies, maggots, can be helpful.
COWEN: Helpful with wounds, right?
ROACH: Helpful with wounds. A maggot does a natural form of debridement. Maggots, as we know, they like dead bodies, they like dead tissue. Their menu preference is dead tissue, so a wound that is infected — This is something that was figured out in World War I. These soldiers would come in with these horrific wounds. They’d been lying in the field. They’d come in, they’d have maggots in the wound.
This one surgeon, William Baer, noticed that, when you remove the maggots, there was this healthy, pink, new tissue growing in and there wasn’t infection. And he saw it over and over and realized that maggots were therapeutic, and they are used to this day. There is a Medicare reimbursement code for maggots.