Author shares her adventures with the strange

Mary Roach, journalist and author of several books, pursues all things considered weird, fascinating or taboo.

Mary Roach can easily be described as gutsy — fairly often, her work literally involves guts. 

Roach, a journalist and author of several non-fiction books, spoke at Hendricks Chapel Tuesday evening as the second-to-last speaker in Syracuse University's University Lecture series. In a conversation with Sandra Hewett, executive director of neuroscience studies at the College of Arts and Sciences, Roach shared her experiences writing about the bizarre, the surreal and the fascinating things most others shy away from.

Photo: Shumin Lai

Published in 2003, Roach's first book — "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" — delved into the many uses and services bodies donated to science provide. The book, she said, came after looking at some of her most popular column topics: cadavers being used as crash-test dummies, and a Thanksgiving-themed piece on how much food the human stomach can hold before it will actually explode.

"Nobody wants to talk about food after the mouth," Roach said. "So I thought, 'Let's follow it further down the line.' Somebody's got to do that stuff — might as well be me."

Following the unusual has become her trademark, Roach said. Rectal feeding, saliva production and fecal transplants all worked their way into the discussion of Roach's fifth book "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal."

Elvis Presley — famously known to have died from a heart attack on the toilet — actually struggled with chronic constipation and limited peristalsis (contraction of the intestinal muscles to move substances through to the colon), Roach said.

"His doctor, who I interviewed, talked about always having to bring boxes and boxes of enemas along," Roach said. "He had a very ineffective colon. He died, essentially, of a defecation-associated sudden death — he gave himself a heart arrhythmia from pushing too hard."

Presley's problems with his intestines was never properly diagnosed, Roach said, because people don't want to talk about things that are considered gross. There was a surgical cure for his condition, but because of cultural perceptions of what is clean, what is normal and what is acceptable — the King was never treated. 

"I think in general, human beings have a sense of themselves as a mind going around, and not as this big locomoting sack of guts," Roach said. "As for bodily fluids, there's reasons to be wary, especially in terms of pathogens. But things like burping and farting protect the stomach and the colon from rupturing due to gas buildup."

As an intrepid journalist at heart, Roach doesn't hesitate to volunteer herself (or her body) to learn more about a topic she's researching — especially since each book takes about two to three years to write.

For "Gulp," she consented to a drug-less colonoscopy, and for her third book "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," she talked her husband into having some very public private time in a lab.

Dr. Jing Deng, a doctor in London working in a lab that creates 4-D ultrasounds, said he would love to share his work studying human intercourse with Roach for "Bonk." The only problem? He didn't have any volunteers.

"He said if my organization could find a volunteer, then he would set it up," Roach said. "So, my organization called it's husband."

Caitlin Slife, a first-year master's student at SUNY-ESF, said she admired Roach's effortless humor.

"I like that she can make it funny — it's cool that she can make science funny," Slife said, adding that Roach's credibility is helped by her shameless attitude when it comes to being "nerdy" and really interested in a culturally-abnormal topic.

As a first-year Ph.D. candidate studying civil and environmental engineering, Caitlin Eger said she liked Roach's humor as well. Being comfortable with jumping between being the professional writer and the volunteer in a given experiment shows Roach's passion for her work, Eger said. 

"I think it shows that she takes herself seriously as a journalist, but she doesn't take herself too seriously," Eger said. "I mean, people do crazy stuff for science all the time."

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