Book review: Gory Details, by Erika Engelhaupt
Beyond satisfying my own weird inquisitiveness, the larger goal of Gory Details has always been to create a place where it’s OK to talk about gross, taboo, or morbid topics — and then to examine them, up close, through the lens of science.
Science writer and editor Erika Engelhaupt includes this kind of a justification for her interest in the aforementioned gross, taboo, or morbid topics, but honestly, I don’t think anyone who’s likely to pick up this book needs it. Still, she manages to be both thoughtful and eloquent in explaining why, especially as a woman, her interest since childhood in the messier, uglier, unpleasanter side of science has been valuable not only for her but for the readership of her titular popular web column with National Geographic.
I think with the massive popularity of science writers like Mary Roach, who regularly tackles topics of the squeamish and icky, we’re beginning to understand more about why it seems just to be simply human nature to be morbidly fascinated by the more unspeakable workings of both our bodies and the world at large. Engelhaupt makes a good case for it:
Why would I want to spend my days thinking about topics that, on a good day, are unpleasant? What it comes down to is this: I’m less fearful of the things I’ve written about. When I look more closely at whatever rattles me — death, disease, creepy clowns — scientific analysis makes it a little more manageable.”
In each chapter, she explores a different taboo topic, ranging from the gross-and-scary (your pets eating you after your death) to the gross-but-helpful (what we can learn from cockroaches’ amazing resilience and unusual motor skills) to the universally taboo (necrophilia: be prepared to learn some uncomfortable truths about penguins).
It’s beautifully written — witty and quickly paced, making it very fun to read and sometimes completely hilarious. Witness: “Sixty-seven years after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World, another Italian named Columbus claimed the discovery of a territory far smaller, but no less wondrous. In 1559, Realdus Columbus proclaimed that he had discovered the clitoris.”
Yeah, this bold and brave explorer “discovered” it. Okay, actually this whole chapter is a scream: “With its long, curved arms and pendulous bulbs, the clitoris reminds me of […] maybe half an octopus. And, if I’m completely honest, it also reminds me of the alien spaceships in the 1953 War of the Worlds movie, which had a boomerang-shaped body topped by a curved neck and a glowing, hooded head concealing a deadly ray gun. […] I also rather like the idea of a clitoris with a ray gun. In any case, it was nothing like what I’d imagined.”
We need more books with entire chapters devoted to the clitoris. Bless her.
Taking a less sexy angle, Engelhaupt looks into necrophilia, including its existence in the animal kingdom. She writes that penguins “In 1911, Antarctic explorer George Murray Levick described male penguins engaging in necrophilia, rape, sodomy, and masturbation. Levick’s Edwardian sensibilities were deeply offended. “There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins,” he wrote. His report was considered so scandalous that London’s Natural History Museum wrote “Not for Publication” on it and shelved it for a century.” I’ll never be able to not think of all this when seeing adorable little penguins now, but at the same time, it’s so funny to envision the scandalized and horrified Victorians putting this information in the vault for a century. And I’d rather understand the world as it is, rather than what we’d like it to be, another point Engelhaupt underscores brilliantly.
Sometimes it’s not even so much gross and gory as weird, like around common fears and phobias that can be traced to their challenging of societal norms. Writing about the fear of clowns, she actually made me realize why some people even have this specific and widespread phobia: According to social psychologist Frank McAndrew, “what really makes clowns creepy is that they’re ambiguous characters in so many ways. “If a person is willing to flout the conventions of society by dressing and acting as they do,” McAndrew says, “what other rules might they be willing to break?”
That was a kind of lightbulb moment for me. I learned so much from this book.
I feel confident saying it’s similar to Mary Roach’s light, witty but info-packed style although I’ve only read one of hers. It’s reminiscent as well of another favorite, Mara Altman’s Gross Anatomy, which also does the good work of unpacking unsavory bodily bits and functions to teach you something about yourself. The sense of humor is never heavy-handed and makes reading about darker topics not feel that way at all, including some good-humored self-deprecation and the enlisting of highly specific experts to shed light on each of Engelhaupt’s areas of interest.
So let’s ask more gross questions. Let’s be open to discovering the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Let’s see the wonder of nature, even if it has six legs or eats its own young. Let’s be less afraid, and less ashamed of our bodies. Let’s talk about death more.
Lifting the stigma around discussing our darkest thoughts is an important first step toward making sense of them.
Gory Details: Adventures From the Dark Side of Science
by Erika Engelhaupt
published March 2, 2021 by National Geographic
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.