Review: Working Stiff

By David Amirsadri

Accepting your own mortality is like eating your vegetables: You may not want to do it, but it’s good for you– Caitlin Doughty

Death is a taboo subject in our culture. Never is mortality discussed or contemplated– to do so is ‘morbid,’ ‘gothic,’ or ‘macabre.’ But for those forced to think about their eventual demise, a new perspective worth sharing emerges. Working Stiff discusses precisely this perspective.

Once you’ve overcome your gag reflex at the gruesome nature of the book’s topic, a poignant, elegant memoir emerges. The author, Dr. Judy Melinek, is a forensic pathologist living and working in San Francisco. Working Stiff, her debut book, is a thrilling account of her fellowship training in New York City. Melinek performs autopsies on the bodies of individuals who have died under suspicious circumstances, aiding the criminal justice system. “You have to suppress your emotional responses or you wouldn’t be able to do your job,” writes Melinek. “In some ways it’s easier for me, because a dead body really is an object, no longer a person at all. More importantly, that dead body is not my only patient. The survivors are the ones who really matter. I work for them too.”

This crossover between Melinek’s work with the dead and her efforts to bring closure to the living is a frequently occurring theme in her book.  She discusses in great detail the nature of her work, detailing specific cases that yielded valuable insight. One quickly gains a sense of life’s fragility and preciousness. “‘Maybe nobody cares about you when you’re alive, but lots of people take an interest when your dead,’” notes Dr. Charles Hirsch, New York City’s longtime Chief Medical Examiner, in a wry commentary on the bureaucratic nature of a forensic pathologist’s work. One gains an intimate glimpse at the horrors of gun violence and drug abuse, and empathizes with the pain, sorrow, and grief of families who have suffered loss. Dr. Melinek details one particular case in which a decedent’s pestered Dr. Melinek for months following her son’s death by drug overdose, insisting that he had been murdered. “There was never a breakthrough moment, never any closure,” writes an elegiac Melinek. “I knew it pained Mrs. Ward [the mother] to imagine that Bobby [the decedent] was using those drugs recreationally, and it pained me to keep telling her so… No mother wants to believe that– and, as far as I knew, Mrs. Ward never did.” For Mrs. Ward, as with so many who find themselves privy to the world of Dr. Melinek, the truth can be difficult to bear.

Working Stiff is a gripping account of a fascinating profession. Dr. Melinek’s charming personality shines through in her book– she approaches her work with pluck, a positive spirit, and a can-do attitude. Her book clearly and succinctly introduces basic topics in forensic science, eschewing reams of technical jargon in favour of colloquial language. Dr. Melinek’s book is an excellent counterbalance to the public’s CSI-esque view of forensics. Dr. Melinek’s book confirms what I have long believed to be true: our society’s pathological avoidance of discussing death and mortality makes for a neurotic and fearful populace. “Learning to handle human beings who have begun to return to the soil cycle has, more than any other aspect of the job, made me more comfortable with death,” notes Melinek. For all its merits, however, Dr. Melinek handled the topic of suicide very poorly. Dr. Melinek’s father tragically took his own life when she was quite young, and the topic is an emotional one for her. However, as a medical professional with psychiatric training, her approach to the topic was lacking. Melinek’s seeming inability to understand that depression, like all major illnesses, kills when left untreated was disheartening.

Working Stiff is a positive contribution to the national discussion on drug and gun policy. Aside from its callous handling of the topic of suicide, the book was exceptionally beautiful. One is given an insider look at a world often pondered, viewed frequently in cinemas, but rarely experienced.