LET'S GET PHYSICAL: the mary roach approach

LET’S GET PHYSICAL: the mary roach approach

Mary-Media-picBonk. Stiff. Gulp. These are titles of books by Mary Roach, having to do with sex and death and digestion. You might say she is preoccupied with the fact that we are physical creatures. Maybe she read Our Bodies, Ourselves at a young age? She also wrote about the disembodied in Spook, and what happens to bodies when they are shot into outer space in Packing for Mars.

In a time when the lies and obfuscations of government and mass media have never been so apparent, people find her work refreshing. “Just the facts, ma’m,” and she delivers those facts with some lighthearted sugar to make them go down easier. You get a clear and unblinking account of how things work, along the lines of Popular Mechanics. People want to know how things work, especially their own bodies. Most of us take this knowledge for granted, but it wasn’t always so available.

A woman told me that when she was a girl she asked her mother where babies come from. Her mother didn’t want to get too specific, so she motioned vaguely to an area below the waist. For years, the girl thought babies would come out of her thigh, although she wasn’t sure how. With Mary Roach, you know where babies come from. You know how messy it is, and in which cultures they eat the placenta. And yet you’re not grossed out. Well, maybe a little, but c’est la vie.

You don’t want to be like the man in Jonathan Swift’s poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732), who rummages through a woman’s private quarters, becoming woefully disillusioned in the process.

And first a dirty Smock appear’d,

Beneath the Arm-pits well besmear’d.

Strephon, the Rogue, display’d it wide,

And turn’d it round on every Side.

On such a Point few Words are best, 

And Strephon bids us guess the rest…

So Things, which must not be exprest,

When plumpt into the reeking Chest;

Send up an excremental Smell

To taint the Parts from whence they fell.

The Pettycoats and Gown perfume,

Which waft a Stink round every Room.

Thus finishing his grand Survey,

Disgusted Strephon stole away

Repeating in his amorous Fits,

Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

I should note that Europeans did not bathe very often in those days, and in the Middle Ages the custom of a bride carrying a bouquet of flowers was to make her smell better.

However, if the man in the poem was worth his salt he (1) wouldn’t be going through a lady’s personal belongings, and (2) wouldn’t be surprised or put off by the animal naturestiff-cover of another human. This is an old routine between men and women, especially in romantic situations: the man has a two-dimensional fantasy which is arousing, and the woman has to deal with that, having a far more realistic view of herself.

That seems to be where Mary Roach is coming from, and she enjoys it. She is like a feminist in the role of Eve, eating from the tree of knowledge like so many men have done. Blaming intellectual curiosity on a woman was the sort of thing you might expect from a desert tribe of patriarchal egomaniacs.

Mary Roach reminds me of a nurse who sees people in terms of bodily functions which may or may not be working. We have come a long way from a time when you couldn’t say “breast” in mixed company without someone blushing. Virginia Woolf noted a sea-change which occurred in 1907:

… one word from one man saw these shackles unceremoniously shrugged off. The man was writer Lytton Strachey and the word, according to Woolf, was ‘semen.’ Or to be exact, ‘Semen?’ Strachey had just entered a room where Virginia and her sister sat and, pointing to a mark on Vanessa’s dress, casually and explicitly enquired as to its origin. Woolf’s first thought was, “Can one really say it?”; but then, a moment later, ‘everyone burst out laughing’ and a new age was born. The age of anything goes. As she puts it in her autobiographical Moments of Being: ‘All barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation…

-from “Lytton Strachey Opens the Floodgates,” Melissa Katsoulis

Now we’re in the 21st century and Mary Roach is referring to the “fecal transplant chapter” of her new book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013). She is being interviewed onstage at the Jewish Community Center by a local writer, Jack Boulware. The theater seats 470 and is more than half full. There is an atmosphere of general Gulp-cover-350merriment as Mary and Jack (who are old friends) discuss everything from oral processing to noises in the intestines (borborygmi – “a rumbling noise produced by the movement of gas through the intestines”). Behind them is a blow-up of the book’s cover, looking like the old logo for the Rolling Stones – a wide open mouth – but this one is less lascivious.

There is much ado about gas and how it can be studied. Someone invented mylar flatus-trapping pants (Dr. Michael Levitt) which I don’t think will catch on with the fashion industry. Mary found a company called Beano which makes anti-gas drops for people who are breaking wind too often. They gave her a Beano wind-breaker to wear on windy afternoons. They also sponsor a hot-air balloon race.

Some of her books overlap. For example, Packing for Mars addresses the question of farting in a spacesuit. There is an activated charcoal filter which takes care of that, as well as anti-gravity toilets. The people who deal with waste management in outer space are the real heroes in her opinion, and I would imagine the astronauts are grateful.

PFMcoverJack asked her what the most interesting part of Gulp was to write. She said it was when she went to Avenal State Prison to talk to an inmate who used to smuggle things into prison in his rectum which, she said, is technically a storage facility. She was interested in the use of the alimentary canal as a criminal accomplice. Gang members often bring in cell phones in this manner. The process is called “hooping.” There was some mention of the “defecation reflex” and how fortunate it is that most of us have a handle on that.

On a side note: women are known to smuggle things into prison by other means. I remember a friend of mine exclaiming at how small someone’s cell phone was: “I could put that in my vagina!” This led to various comments about putting it on vibrate and all of us calling her.

Mary was on the Terry Gross show recently, discussing the difference of male and female farts. The show is called “Fresh Air.” She said that scientists are often surprised that someone would be interested in their specialty and would like to know about, for example, “the forces of chewing” as studied by a physicist. She admitted that some of the things she learns in her research (she doesn’t have a science degree) can make her self-conscious when engaged in related activities like sex or eating. But she loves history and notes the incidents of quackery that she comes across.

bonkcoverWhat got her started on Bonk? Mary read that Masters and Johnson had made films inside a woman’s vagina and became intrigued. Bonk has the most footnotes as the topic seems to generate a lot of research.

Other points that came up in the discussion: She likes the writing of Bill Bryson and Susan Orlean. Some animals eat shit (which apparently has some nutritional value). Elvis had a mega-colon which did not serve him well, as he died on the toilet. Painkillers and psycho-meds can interfere with the colon.

There were a number of questions from the audience. I resisted the urge to ask why she hadn’t called her book Deep Throat, and instead asked about Gandhi’s practice of drinking his own urine. She mentioned Ayurvedic medicine and how there is a lot of salt in urine, but she didn’t know much about Gandhi’s drinking habits. In Packing for Mars she talks about astronauts drinking treated urine.

I think the audience learned something from listening to Mary Roach, but the mystery of life was solved by Sherlock Holmes: “Alimentary, my dear Watson.”

Read the recent Litseen interview with Mary Roach.


Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).