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June 06, 2016

Interview: Author Mary Roach on penis transplants, exhausted submariners and the healing power of maggots

She'll talk about her new book, "Grunt," at the Free Library on Tuesday

Books Military
Mary Roach Jen Siska/for PhillyVoice

Mary Roach

It's probably a bit limiting to call Mary Roach the Bill Bryson of gross — her books offer a lot more than moments of humorous, disgusting zen — but she certainly likes to get her hands dirty. Driven by morbid curiosity and boundless energy, the journalistic author often treads where few others dare. In "Packing for Mars," she investigated astronaut sex. In "Gulp," she explored the digestive tract from tongue to bung. (For a primer on that, check out the "Guts" episode of RadioLab.) 

In her latest, "Grunt," she explores the U.S. military from an interesting angle: Instead of bullets, guns and tanks, she's talking about diarrhea on the battlefield, maggots used to treat wounds, chronically underslept submariners and so many other places where science intersects with modern warfare. The only weapon discussed in detail is the elusive universal stink bomb, on which many researchers — like the ones at Philly's Monell Chemical Senses Center — have been working for quite some time. 

Perhaps the most memorable parts of "Grunt" had to do with penis transplants. More than ever, soldiers are surviving explosions, leading to an increase in research into the science of making them whole again. In detail, Roach describes observing doctors from Johns Hopkins transplanting a penis from one cadaver to another. Just last month, doctors at Massachusetts General performed the procedure on a living person. That was the first thing I brought up when I spoke to Roach, who will appear at the Philadelphia Free Library on Tuesday.

When the news broke that a penis had been successfully transplanted, I immediately thought of you.

That’s so sweet!

What did you think when you heard the news?

My thought was: Could you not have waited two more weeks till my book was out? Then I could have gotten all the press calls, I could have been the color commentary on penis transplants — it all would have been so perfect. But no! You had to go and do it when you wanted to! That’s kind of along the lines of what I was thinking.

Actually, I was surprised because it was not my guys at Johns Hopkins, it was the team at Massachusetts General, so I was a little like, 'What? Who? How dare they?' Because I was rooting for the gang at Johns Hopkins. Nothing against Mass General.

All the articles I read about it also mentioned the Johns Hopkins team. It seems like maybe there was a race of sorts.

I thought so and I asked Dr. Redett [at Johns Hopkins]; he didn’t comment. He didn’t indicate that there’d been any kind of heated competition to be the first. He was very low-key about it, saying, 'You know, well, we’re just going to continue our work.' So I didn’t get any dirt on the penis race.

I didn’t get any dirt on the penis race.

Could you have written about penis transplants without being there, without describing the surgery as it was being performed on the cadavers?

Oh, and where’s the fun in that? I like to have a setting and a scene with characters and dialogue in every chapter, so I would have spent a few paragraphs, certainly, on it, but I might not have done a whole chapter on it because it wasn’t being done at Walter Reed.

Do you worry about turning off readers when things get gross?

No. I’m sure that I do turn off some readers, but they’re not Mary Roach readers. You know, the cover and the title and my reputation — I think that kind of warns the wrong kind of people away. ...  I sometimes worry about the people in the book. I don’t want them to feel betrayed. I try to send them a copy of one of my previous books so that they know. If they don’t like it, they don’t want to be included, I want to know upfront because I don’t want people to be like, ‘What is this? I thought you were writing a textbook.’

There’s that part where you walk up to a special operations soldier eating dinner and try to get him to talk about diarrhea. And he’s so suspicious because he doesn’t know what he’s getting into.

It was a reporting challenge. The special operations guys, as you know from the book, they live in a restricted zone — if you don’t have clearance, you can’t even go in there, so I had to wait for them to come out to eat. They don’t have their own dining facilities. That meant walking up to some kind of very intimidating stranger over dinner and trying to start a conversation about diarrhea. And he’s like, 'Why are you targeting me?' He’s obviously special operations, just look at the guy, but he doesn’t know how I’ve made that assumption. He thinks he’s been singled out. He thought we were NCIS. 

The part about the sleep schedules of sailors on nuclear submarines gave me pause. All science points to these people being woefully underslept, maybe dangerously slow. Did you find it troubling or disturbing?

That they were operating on four hours sleep?


On paper, yes, but honestly, when I was there, I didn’t see a single person yawn. I didn’t catch anyone napping. I wandered around that sub a lot because I didn’t have a lot to do while I was there. I was on there for four days. I wasn’t seeing any evidence. ... Obviously, it’s a problem or there wouldn’t be that much effort going into trying to change the watch schedule.

But, yeah, those subs. I remember seeing an article somewhere about how in the future, they’re looking into having them fully automated. It kind of made me [think] ‘What?’ Like just fully automated Armageddon. But then I thought about, you remember when ATMs first appeared, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, I don’t use an ATM, I go to the teller.’ And the teller was the only one who ever made a mistake. The ATM never made a mistake. So, in the future, you won’t have to worry about sleep because there won’t be any humans on those subs.

It’s all — anytime you step into the world of nuclear arsenals and deterrents, strategic deterrents, it’s so surreal for me. But it exists, there it is, and we’re in it. We gotta figure out how to do it [as] safely as possible.

In the book, you make maggots sound like a reasonable treatment for a wound.

You know what, I actually thought about intentionally — this is gonna make me sound like a frickin wing nut, but — because I couldn’t imagine, what is it like to walk around with this little colony of maggots in your wound, like, ‘Oh, look, here they are. Aren’t they cute?’ I actually thought, because I had recently burned myself on Korean soup… I had this little third-degree burn and I thought, wow, if I just, like, did that again, if I just touch my hand to the Korean hot stone bowl and got a wound — what if I put a few maggots in there, to see what it’s like?

What if I put a few maggots in there, to see what it’s like?

And both the people who I called about this, who are involved in this world, were like, ‘Please don’t give yourself a third-degree burn, and no, I’m not sending you maggots to put in your self-inflicted third-degree burn. No, I’m not doing that.’

That seems extreme, even for you.

It does seem kind of extreme, but one of these researchers, David Armstrong, was saying that the people who have this therapy are, they’re not only just OK with it, but they get into it, and they wear T-shirts that say “maggots on board” and they get into watching them mature. If you have one of those god-awful foot wounds that diabetics get that don’t heal, and you’re looking at amputation as an alternative, you’re not worried about the gross-out factor of maggots. And they dig down in and they’re feeding. They’re not squirming around like in a horror movie. You just see their butts because they breathe through their butts. It doesn’t look — all right, it does look pretty upsetting. Don’t go on the internet and look up myiasis. Don’t do that.

I wonder if your insurance will go up now that you’ve admitted you thought about burning yourself just so you can put maggots in the wound.

Shh. Don’t tell!

This book required getting a lot of permission slips to gain access to so many places. Did you witness anything restricted?

Well, one time, when I was on the USS Tennessee sub — I would interview the commanding officer … and something came over the loudspeaker while we were talking, I didn’t even notice it, but he said after the interview, ‘Um, something was said over the [public address] that was classified, so you need to delete that from your tape recording.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s a digital file, I can’t, I don’t know how to do that. You could delete the whole file, you can’t go in and delete a word.’ And he said, ‘Well then I’m gonna have to transcribe this interview.’ So over the next two days, this poor guy — I would go by his quarters and he’s like hunched over his laptop typing.

Does he not know that transcribing is by far the worst part of journalism?

Apparently not. He does now.

You often see the humor in some otherwise serious or disgusting subjects. Were there any jokes you cut?

I’m aware that this is a grim, sensitive topic and, you know, the humor is mostly in the historical chapters, or at my own expense because I’m such a kind of clueless outsider. I was definitely aware of it, and I don’t know if I went far enough in policing it, but I definitely had that in mind. I didn’t want to upset or offend people who had served in the military who, by and large, have a pretty good sense of humor. They’re pretty funny, people in the military. I think you have to be.

They’re pretty funny, people in the military. I think you have to be.

Is the military sustainable? Does all the training work?

The military is owning up to some things, like the high suicide rate. They’re openly talking about it and trying to do something about it. You see a lot of coverage of traumatic brain injury and PTSD and suicide and urinary tract infections in women who don’t have any place to take a piss because they’re on a long convoy and they can’t just piss out the side of the vehicle. There’s a lot of just the kind of stuff that isn’t traditionally a concern of the military brass. And also like toxic leadership and sexual harassment. This stuff has been all over the news lately, and there hasn’t been an effort to cover it up. On the contrary, there’s been a lot of transparency about it. So I think that the military has started to come around.

Seems like the researchers butt heads with the soldiers sometimes.

I got a sense from talking to, like, that army ranger; I was talking about heat and body armor, and he’s talking about these directives, or here’s what you’re required to wear. ‘Here’s how much water you’re required to take,’ and his feeling was like, ‘Look, you don’t even know what this mission is, you don’t know what the circumstances are. It should be the unit commander on the ground who’s making this decision, not some pogue.' 'Chairborne ranger' is the name that they would use.

Anyway, you definitely hear that kind of resentment; that probably goes both ways between [soldiers and scientists] — partly because they’re not spending much time together, so there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the other person’s job is, and what they’re trying to do. ... That’s a product not of anybody’s intention but of just the massiveness and lumberingness of such a big bureaucracy.

Mary Roach

In conversation with Jason Freeman
Tuesday, June 7
7:30 p.m. | Free
Free Library of Philadelphia
1901 Vine St.