December & January, Kathryn D., Reviews
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Stiff: An Interesting Case for Coping with Humor


As a physician and, I guess more specifically, someone who has participated in a gross anatomy lab, I have a specific point of view about human cadavers.  I will start by saying this – the book provides some truly interesting history on the matter.  For that point alone, I would say Roach’s book is a worthy one. Albeit, it is not one for everyone. The subject is a bit – um – macabre.  If you didn’t know that from the cover, I’m not sure reading is for you.

Now what I really took away from this book is that how we deal with things that make us uncomfortable is rather universal. I often wondered why I wasn’t more bothered by anatomy lab my first year of medical school. I didn’t particularly want to get physically sick or feel overwhelming guilt. But I also didn’t want to feel how I did – like it was normal. There was nothing normal about what I was doing. History may suggest otherwise. Personally, though, gross anatomy lab was decidedly NOT normal, but it felt that way. It felt normal. I would go to lab, dissect the assigned part of my assigned cadaver* and then go home.

Now don’t read on if you can’t deal with “gross” things. During the day of orbital (fancy word for eye) dissection, I carefully enucleated my cadaver (fancy way of saying of taking out the eyeball). I passed on the globe (fancy world for eyeball) to my lab partner. I told her to be careful as she moved to dissecting open the eyeball. Instead she was a spaz (fancy word for one who spazes) and aggressively stabbed the globe. Basically, this ended with me with eyeball goop (technical word) all over my face screaming and running around the anatomy lab. Not even 10 minutes later, I was sitting in the locker room (with an aggressively scrubbed face) retelling this story and laughing. Because it was funny. I still maintain it is funny. In fact, I found myself writing this story as if it was funny without thinking about it.

Why is that funny? Because that is how we cope. Medicine is a shining example of humor as a coping mechanism to the nth degree. I’ve laughed at things that are decidedly horrible and make me look like an even more decidedly horrible person to an outsider. But to those in it, really in it, know. They know that we laugh so we don’t feel too shitty. So here I am reading Stiff and every other sentence is undercut with a joke, which I understand to extent is Roach’s style of writing. Largely, though, I think it is reflective of how we all deal with things that make us uncomfortable. We call it the human narrative because we are all telling our own story. Sometimes, we just want the cheerier story, even when we are talking about death.

* His name was Lloyd. My medical school thought it was more appropriate to let us know their names, how old they were when they passed, and how they died. The goal was simple but overwhelmingly difficult to grasp – to make you realize that they were a person, they had a life, and this was the last gift they gave – their being for your learning.


Thank you, Lloyd.

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