Regulars and Shorts

Gulp, Bonk, Stiff, Spook and Grunt

By Diane Olson

The curious world of Mary Roach.

If Mary Roach is the “bottom feeder of non-fiction,” then I am the parasite that feeds on the bottom feeder. The Kudoa septemlineata on her flounder; the Camallanus worm to her plecostomus.

She’s a bottom feeder, she says, because she writes about things that nobody else wants to: Cannibalism. Rectal feeding. (After his liver was pierced by an assassin’s bullet, President James Garfield was rectally fed a diet of minced beef, raw egg and whiskey. Clearly it didn’t end well.) Human crash test dummies. Pig sex. Defecating in space. And she doesn’t just write about those topics; she also writes about the unsung heroes who study them: Scientists.

Around eight years ago I found: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Complex facts were conveyed clearly and concisely. The tone was casual and conversational—even intimate—without being creepy, weird or condescending. You learned something in nearly every sentence. It was often incredibly gross. And it was freaking hilarious.

Ye gads, who was this mad genius writer who could make me snort, giggle and gag, all at the same time, while teaching me so much? Who could trigger both my inner eight-year-old’s potty-brained sense of humor and my outer 50-something’s voracious-and-slightly-warped curiosity? Who was this who asked all the right (weird) questions and didn’t just helpfully translate scientific studies, but actually participated in them?

She is Mary Roach. In an event at the Salt Lake City Public Library last month sponsored by the library, the Salt Lake Tribune and Weller Works Books, she chatted with Tribune writer Ellen Fagg Weist before a full-capacity crowd. I spoke with Roach on the phone a week prior.

A psychology major turned scribe, Roach started out writing PR pieces and advertising copy. Including—like Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes—adventure travel copy for a catalog. (It was for the much-loved, if short-lived, 1980s Banana Republic catalog, rather than J. Peterman.

I’m certain now it was Mary’s copy that compelled me to spend half my car payment on a Women’s 100% Cotton Expedition Shirt, and to suffer over my lack of money and height, both of which rendered me unable to purchase the 100% Egyptian Cotton Safari Skirt. “It was fun,” she says of her catalog-writing days. “I loved telling those little adventure stories in 50 to 100 words.”

They also apparently got under her skin, as she next became a freelance travel writer. Then, quite unexpectedly, she found herself smitten with science. “It turned out the science stories I was assigned were meatier and more interesting than any of the others,” she says.

Though Bonk was my introduction to Mary’s world, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife came before it. Stiff had actually been in my peripheral vision since it appeared in a couple of episodes of Six Feet Under, my favorite-ever TV series, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to venture into that world.

As it turns out, I’ll go anywhere with Mary. To morgues, labs (an especially memorable one contained 40 severed heads in roasting pans), operating rooms and training facilities. Antarctica, Russia, India, Africa. Military bases, a Danish pig farm, on NASA’s C-9 Vomit Comet zero-gravity plane, and down the alimentary canal. (Specifically, down Elvis’ alimentary canal.)

She allows us to marvel at the complex workings of the human body while sniggering at its gross emanations. She ushers us into arcane, disturbing and sometimes laughable areas of research, but never, ever demonizes or dehumanizes the people behind it. She pulls back the curtain on topics generally considered taboo and gently and humorously normalizes them.

Which, of course, naturally leads into a discussion of the things she’s willing to do in the name of research.

Most famously, she and her husband Ed had sex for an ultrasound coital imaging study while she was working on Bonk. (They were not, as is often reported, inside an MRI. No, they were in a lab on a bed with a doctor running an ultrasound wand over them.)

She’s also gone ghostbusting, watched cadavers get whacked with high-impact pistons, eaten raw narwhal skin, put her hand inside a cow’s stomach and undergone a colonoscopy without anesthesia (the last three for Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal).

Most recently, for her latest, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, she sniffed the world’s most disgusting scents; ran on a treadmill inside a superheated room while wearing a backpack full of sand and a rectal probe; watched a penis transplant on a corpse and a penis reconstruction on a live body; engaged in military training maneuvers; donated sweat and spent four days on a nuclear submarine.

She doesn’t choose her topics because they are gross—she does not, in fact, find them gross. She chooses them because, as she writes in the introduction to Stiff, “Like all journalists, I’m a voyeur. I write about what I find fascinating.”

I guess that makes me—and her many other devoted readers—voyeur voyeurs, as well as parasites on a bottom feeder. Where Mary Roach shines her light, the world becomes more fascinating.

Diane Olson is a longtime CATALYST writer and former staffer. She is the author of A Nature Lover’s Almanac: Kinky Bugs, Stealthy Critters, Prosperous Plants and Celestial Wonders (Gibbs Smith, 2012).

This article was originally published on July 1, 2017.