A “bone doctor’s” gritty, fascinating account of her challenging career analyzing skeletal remains to discover how people died, who they were, and even what they looked like.
Craig, the state forensic anthropologist for Kentucky since 1994, has grisly stories to tell that go way beyond her state’s borders. While a graduate student at the University of Tennessee—site of the infamous Body Farm, where outdoor decomposition of bodies is studied—she was sent to Waco, Texas, to help in the investigation into the disaster at the Branch Davidian compound. Her work there revealed that some members of the cult, including infants and the group’s leader, David Koresh, had been killed not by fire but by a point-blank shot to the head. After the Oklahoma City bombing, she was called in by the FBI to help identify a dismembered leg that had become a crucial part of Timothy McVeigh’s defense strategy, and after the destruction of the World Trade Center, she spent months in New York’s emergency morgue as a volunteer for the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. However, it’s her cases as Kentucky’s “Boondock Bone Doc” that reveal the most about how a forensic anthropologist works in the field. In the backwoods, on the sides of mountain, on the banks of rivers, Craig recovers body parts and pieces together three-dimensional pictures that tell stories of violent deaths. Her images are vivid and homely: cleaning a skeleton is “something like deboning a rotten chicken, though of course on a much larger scale”; decomposed tissue resembles “chocolate pudding into which someone has stirred a few cups of chunky vomit,” and what she has to say about the huge number of maggots she encounters in corpses is not for the squeamish. Throughout, though, what stands out is Craig’s humanity. While the scientist focuses on the gruesome task at hand, she never forgets that what she’s dealing with was once a living human being. An unexpected bonus is the author’s account of her training for and work as a medical illustrator, her career before going back to school in her mid-40s to become a forensic anthropologist.
A mind-boggling, sometimes stomach-churning glimpse of a profession that is far more demanding than TV’s glamorized version of it.