Science Book a Day Interviews Judy Melinek


Special thanks to Judy Melinek for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Working Stiff: 2 years, 262 bodies and the making of a medical examiner

Judy Melinek is a ABP board-certified forensic pathologist practicing forensic medicine in San Francisco, California as well as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pathology at the UCSF Medical Center. Dr. Melinek trained as a forensic pathologist at the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office from 2001-2003. She has consulted and testified in criminal and civil cases in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Oregon and California. – Adapted from Judy’s Homepage

Judy’s Blog/Homepage:
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#1 – What was the impetus for Working Stiff?

I had a teacher in medical school who encouraged his students to keep a journal, so that we could document our transition from laymen to physicians. He emphasized that in the future we would want to look back and remember our first surgery, our first delivery of a baby, etc—and that the journal would prove helpful to us to remember what changes we went through as we became doctors. I had read Perri Klass’ medical school memoir A Not Entirely Benign Procedure, and wasn’t so interested in keeping a journal myself during med school or residency, but once I started my fellowship training I thought that it was important for me personally to document my transition from doctor to detective. I had read several books about (and sometimes by) forensic pathologists, but none had chronicled the actual training process. So I kept a journal for the entire two year fellowship, and immediately afterwards I re-arranged it, out of chronological order and into a case-based structure. Then I handed it over to my husband T.J. Mitchell, a writer. He had worked in the film industry, but then left to become a full time stay-at-home dad. He figured he could just park the babies in the corner and write all day. That, of course, didn’t happen. Ten years later all three of our kids were finally in school, leaving him enough time to start working full time on Working Stiff. We wrote it together from that point on T.J.turned my diary into a work of narrative non-fiction, and we swapped drafts back and forth by e-mail between ourselves and our editor at Scribner.

#2 – You communicate a broad range of experiences from your career. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?

In passing the book back and forth between us T.J. and I were looking for stories that showed a wide range of experiences, especially those that cases that taught me something new, either professionally or personally. I was focusing on stories that resonated with me, and that showed the challenge of retaining empathy while suppressing your emotions in order to remain objective and do the job at hand. For example, the answer to the perennial cocktail party question, “what’s the worst way to die you’ve ever seen.” I don’t answer that question in person, so I debated long and hard about putting that story in the book. The case is horrible, and gave me nightmares. I decided in the end to keep it in there because I wanted to make sure the reader understood that there are different degrees of pain and suffering in the deaths I see—especially those, like this one, that are homicides, deaths at the hand of another—and that I have to testify in court about these findings. My testimony affects things like sentencing and jury awards in civil cases. It was a bad experience and an ugly case, but it was an important one too, to show that it’s part of my job to voice the suffering of the victim.

#3 – You are clearly enthusiastic about your work in the book, explaining the relevant details. How have people responded to some of the more gross details?

Many reviewers like to quote what they see as the grossest details of the book, and some have said you need a “strong stomach” to handle it. I knew that there was a subset of people who would be turned off by the honest descriptions, but I wasn’t going to pull any punches. It was important for me to get the science right—even when it pertains to something grotesque like decomposing human remains. It is also important for folks to recognize that repulsion is a natural reaction to death; yet we need to find a way to overcome that repulsion if we are going to address certain aspects of death investigation that are critically important for the legal system to work, to achieve a just outcome for the dead who cannot testify about what happened to them.

#4 – You wrote this book with your husband. How did you organise the work for this book?

After I handed the restructured journal over to T.J., he would work on one chapter at a time and then e mail it to me to revise and vet. Our original book was twice the length of the final draft of Working Stiff, and we cut it down either by removing individual cases or by tightening the writing. We made a decision early on in the process of structuring the book that we were going to put the chapter about 9/11 near the end, even though it happened two months into my training. In order to understand the scope and magnitude of the 9/11 recovery efforts, a reader needs to understand what the day-to-day forensics is like.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects that you can tell us about?

T.J. Mitchell and I are now working on a novel, the first in a smart forensic detective series called First Cut. It’s about a young forensic pathologist, straight out of fellowship training, who comes to San Francisco to work at the Medical Examiner’s office after being forced to leave her job in L.A. The book is loosely based on my own experiences, but incorporates the real things I do as a death investigator and scientist into a noir detective novel.

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