“Working Stiff” is the literary equivalent of a car wreck: You can’t resist looking, but you might not have the stomach for what you see.
Judy Melinek was among the 30 medical examiners who dealt with the remains of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City.
Thirty-six pages of the book are devoted to DM01 – Disaster Manhattan 2001, as those cases were classified.
But Melinek’s work as a forensic pathologist with the New York Office of Chief Medical Examiner had begun months before. In “Working Stiff,” she and her husband recount a variety of cases with the exacting detail that her job demands and conversational storytelling that explains the professional jargon and more.
Vivid descriptions and narratives capture the sights, smells and textures at death scenes; in the “pit,” the nickname given the eight-table autopsy suite in the medical examiner’s offices at 520 First Ave.; and the field morgue of tents where Melinek and her colleagues toiled after 9/11.
She has since moved on, both professionally and geographically, to work as a consultant and associate clinical professor in San Francisco.
There’s not much about the subject matter that you can take lightly – at least publicly and in mixed company – but “Working Stiff” still has its moments of comic relief.
“I learned to document every piece of clothing and every item of jewelry on the body – not excluding pieces of precious metal studded into unlikely flaps of the human anatomy. If you knew how much hardware some of your fellow citizens are toting around in their knickers, you might see the world as a stranger and funner place.”
Though police and medical examiners work together to establish manner of death in certain instances, it’s not always a harmonious relationship.
Through two cases – an elderly woman who died after a fall, and a man found with an electrical cord wrapped around his neck – Melinek relates that police were reluctant or outright refused to pursue her findings that suggested the deaths might have been murders, instead of an accident and a suicide.
She serves as a consultant for television shows, but Melinek has a bone to pick with how her profession is portrayed on the small screen.
“I get a kick out of these fictionalized accounts of what I do for a living. The female ME with bedroom eyes, stiletto heels, and a lot of cleavage shows up at a gory, atmospherically ill-lit murder scene. Her diagnoses are instant and ironclad, the banter with her colleagues witty – and smoldering with sexual tension.”
“I laugh myself silly when that stuff is on,” said Melinek, whose training included riding along with police detectives to murder scenes. “I wore sensible shoes and a medical examiner windbreaker.”
Having spent more than a decade on the police beat for The Buffalo News and three other daily newspapers, I’ve seen plenty of things that never could or would be repeated in my articles.
But I’ve never witnessed an autopsy. “Working Stiff” has got to be the next best thing to being there.
Janice L. Habuda is a veteran News reporter.
Working Stiff: Two years, 262 bodies, and the making of a medical examiner
By Judy Melinek, M.D., and T.J. Mitchell Scribner
258 pages, $25