2 | The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist by Mary H. Manheim

 

A quick 100+ page read constituting short 3-6 page case studies and anecdotal experiences, I found this read to have served its declared purpose. In the Introduction, Manheim writes the idea for the book was borne out of “notic[ing] and appreciat[ing] the widespread interest the general pubic has in forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology” and her stated purpose for this book is to “share [her] passion” and the “human stories behind the cases.”

While I agree with many who have reviewed her book, in that Manheim is offers exceedingly little in terms of detail or methodology used in evaluating cases, I also note that this autobiographical look some of her life experiences does not necessitate gruesome descriptions or technical details. In the age of the inundation of television crime drama, including the nature of media’s macabre reporting on everyday crime, I do not think Manheim misses the mark (especially given this book was published almost 20 years ago) on sharing how much coordination it takes between law enforcement, forensic anthropologists, dental experts, entomologists, to name a few, before the advent of advanced genetic technologies.

What drew me to this work is my interest in learning about applied anthropology beyond academia. Manheim explains that as a forensic anthropologist, she belongs to a branch of anthropology sometimes referred to as “the fifth”; the accepted four branches are physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology and archaeology. As her work is outside of the realms of academia for the most part, as her cases are brought to her by law enforcement, cemetery directors and even insurance agents, she explains how her work necessitates working together with forensic entomologists (the study of insects on a postmortem body), textile experts (who yields insight on when certain fabrics were used/worn/in fashion and by who/what social status/gender, the stages of decomposition of the fabric, etc.) and facial reconstruction experts/scientific sculptors (who reconstruct facial features such as skin, hair, the nose, eyeballs using forensic racial/ethnic/cultrual markers to determine what someone might have looked like based only on skeletal remains).

Manheim ties in stories her aunts and mother told her throughout her childhood with some of the cases she visits. She recalls a particular instance while retrieving horse bones in the Louisianan woods in the 1980s when storm clouds began rolling in. Manheim transports the reader back nearly thirty years to when similar storm clouds began rolling in and her Aunt Penny rushed the family into a hide beneath a massive sycamore tree. Aunt Penny grabs her Bible and an axe, opens the Bible up and places it on the ground facing the storm clouds. She then brings the axe down into the ground and turns around to face the family peering out of the storm hide as the clouds begin to part. Manheim quickly interrupts the digestion of the story as lighting, thunder, wind and rain set in as she and her colleagues trek the rest of the way through the woods back to their cars with plastic bags of bones slung over their shoulders. I appreciate the reflective and sporadic nature of the book, as yes, many reviewers point out she is not “a writer”– I agree, as in the professional sense she is not a trained writer who uses flowery language to bring a reader into the story, but I don’t think that should disqualify anyone from writing about who they are and what they know.

My paternal grandfather’s side of the family is from Louisiana– and while ancestral records are complicated by divorce, adoption, remarriage and a certain ambiguity that comes with record keeping from generations past, I can’t help but feel some kind of pull towards these stories. As Manheim’s entire life and career was based in Louisiana, she touches on the history of the Civil War and the Confederate roots, racial/ethnic migrations, industries and spirit of Louisianans throughout the book. There is a certain mystique to the Louisiana– nothing that diminishes or eliminations the lived experiences of the people there; perhaps it is the everchanging landscape of swamps, bogs and bayous, or the patchwork of cultural heritage that remains manifest in the names of places and things that people left. Either way, I appreciate any chance I get to learn about Louisiana.

There are cases of Native Americans who protest at the exhumation of ancient graves for anthropologists’ desire simply learn at the expense of their cultural and spiritual beliefs, the discovery of the skull of a young Asian male only dead for 2-3 weeks but no missing persons report in the area’s Asian community, and the case of the 70 year old man’s body found underneath the house 20 years later after he disappeared, a self-inflicted gunshot to his head. Though disturbing, this is the nature of death– there is so much more than the remains which Manheim is responsible for analyzing. She acknowledges that her work is only piece of the puzzle in figuring out what happened and the circumstances which death prevailed over life. As an anthropologist however, I wish there was a deeper examination of death, the role ritual plays in our society and how important not just empathy for victims and their families is, but how socio-cultural understandings of death and the afterlife inform her work.

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