I think by now I’ve made my love for medical nonfiction abundantly clear on this blog. You can refer to my book list of my favorite scientific nonfiction books here for proof, as many of them are medical nonfiction titles.
When I heard about Working Stiff, I knew that it was going to be exactly my kind of ideal mix between instructive and gory. I read Mary Roach’s Stiff a few years ago and I therefore knew I didn’t have a problem reading about what happens to the body after death. I’m not really squeamish in that way, and to be honest post-death physical changes, rituals and techniques actually fascinate me rather than gross me out.
While in Stiff, Mary Roach explores the different ways in which your body can be used or disposed of after death, in Working Stiff, Dr. Melinek (in collaboration with her husband) discusses her life as a forensic pathologist and more specifically how autopsies are carried out when necessary to determine cause of death for legal or insurance purposes. If you’re like me and reading about decomposition sounds like a great way to spend a few hours, make sure to check out both.
Working Stiff by Judy Melinek MD and T.J. Mitchell
Narrated by Tanya Eby
Published: August 12th 2014
Plot Teaser (From Goodreads)
Just two months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Judy Melinek began her training as a New York City forensic pathologist. With her husband T.J. and their toddler Daniel holding down the home front, Judy threw herself into the fascinating world of death investigation, performing autopsies, investigating death scenes, counseling grieving relatives. Working Stiff chronicles Judy’s two years of training, taking readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the Big Apple, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.
Lively, action-packed, and loaded with mordant wit, Working Stiff offers a firsthand account of daily life in one of America’s most arduous professions, and the unexpected challenges of shuttling between the domains of the living and the dead. The body never lies, and through the murders, accidents, and suicides that land on her table, Dr. Melinek lays bare the truth behind the glamorized depictions of autopsy work on shows like CSI and Law and Order to reveal the secret story of the real morgue.
What I Liked
*For simplicity’s sake I will refer to Melinek when mentioning the author throughout the review, but the memoir was a collaboration between Dr. Melinek and her husband T.J. Mitchell.
The extensive and often gory scientific details of the autopsies. Melinek pulls no punches in getting into the nitty gritty of her very hands-on experience working to identify corpses and determine cause of death. If you’re squeamish, this isn’t the book for you. There are detailed descriptions of crime scenes, states of decomposition, and extremely atypical injuries, and Melinek, as a consummate professional, sees no issue with sharing the gory details with her readers. Expect maggots, crushed skulls, skin sloughing off from the flesh and a section all about the gases that become trapped in the human body between death and autopsy. You have been warned.
The author’s explanation of her collaboration with law enforcement and the justice system. Unlike what you might have seen in Bones or similar crime procedural series, forensic pathologists often have limited agency in the criminal investigations to which they are assigned. Melinek describes waiting for months to be sent paperwork she needed for a murder investigation in order to be able to rule on cause of death. She also recounts being nearly pressured by detectives to rule a particular case a suicide rather than homicide, implying that the detectives would have preferred the suicide ruling, which would have spared them a lengthy investigation. I would have liked even more information about Melinek’s experience testifying in court on her medical findings.
The chapter on the process of examining and identifying 9/11 victims. I was in my third year of high school at an American school in Italy when the September 11th attacks happened. Since then, I’ve made an effort to inform myself about the attacks, from their inception to the ensuing war. This has been in part due to my interest in learning more about terrorism as one of the most significant issues faced by humanity today, and also in part because I feel a duty to be informed about such an important historical event in order to never forget. The aspect of September 11th which Melinek shares in her memoir is a very difficult one to hear about – there are definitely people out there I think who would prefer not to know the details of the injuries suffered by the victims of the attack. I found this section of the book to be the most moving, however, and I felt that Melinek treated the topic with the utmost respect and in a way that truly did credit to the many professionals who worked alongside her to identify the victims’ remains.
What I Didn’t Like
Several of the murder cases discussed had no real resolution. The difference between Bones or other forensic pathologists portrayed on television and real-life forensic pathologist Dr. Melinek is that Melinek had limited involvement in the murder investigations whose victims she examined. Often, Melinek never found out the result of the judicial proceedings regarding a particular case and whether the alleged murderer was convicted or not. This left some of the stories in the memoir unresolved for the reader as well. I think it would have been considered inappropriate for Melinek to seek out information about the resolutions of the cases on which she worked once her work on them was complete, but I still wished as a reader that I could have found out if justice was served or not.
Let me start off by saying that Tanya Eby was a technically flawless narrator. Her narration was clear and easy to listen to from a purely practical sense. However, I found that in trying to imbue emotion into her reading, she ended up sounding a bit over the top in tone and expression. When considering that she was often discussing sensitive subjects like distraught family members or innocent people’s corpses, I think her overly-exaggerated tone sometimes came off as jarring and even borderline disrespectful in comparison. I think the book could have been better served by a more sober-toned narration.
An engrossing and eye-opening exploration of the work of forensic pathologists that will in equal parts inform and bemuse you.
Have you read Working Stiff? What did you think? Leave your opinion in the comments!
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