A redhead—and definitely proud to be one—combines a long personal essay on her own experience and feelings about her red hair with research into the mythology and science of the phenomenon.
Roach, co-author of Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killers (2001) and a commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, examines the question of why we think of redheads the way we do—as oversexed wild women with the power to lead men astray. In “Sinners,” she researches the meaning of red hair (in both women and men) in the Judeo-Christian tradition, finding, for example, that Adam’s first wife, the promiscuous she-demon Lilith, is usually depicted as a redhead, as is Judas, and that in morality plays of the Middle Ages, Jews frequently appeared as diabolical characters in red wigs. Among the more famous historical redheads, she reports, are the Celtic warrior (and the author’s personal heroine) Boudicca, Henry VIII, and his daughters Mary I and Elizabeth I. While the lore and history are often fascinating, when Roach, in Part Two, turns to what science has learned about red hair, her focus on herself does little to illuminate the account. Eager to find out more about her own genetic inheritance, she travels to England and Scotland to interview various geneticists about red hair. She describes their work briefly—the gene for red hair is now known to be on chromosome 16—but keeps herself and her hair very much in the foreground. In the last section, called “Sex,” the net she casts is wide, hauling in both Mary Magdalene and Miss Kitty of TV’s Gunsmoke. Depicting a woman as a redhead, it seems, is now a convenient shorthand way of saying that she’s someone to be reckoned with.
Roach approaches her subject from several angles, providing much that’s entertaining. Unfortunately, though, her near-obsession with her own identity as a redhead becomes annoying.