Dr. Cassandra Kuba Interview, Part II: More Down and Dirty on Forensics Real-life and Fictional
So dear readers, have you seen my interview in CrimeReads with the amazing Doctor Cassandra Kuba, PhD biological anthropologist, university professor, expert on-call with police, and consultant on TV crime dramas? If not, run, don’t walk, to this spot right here (or maybe just click) and give it a read.
My CrimeReads article is an abbreviated version of a longer discussion I had with Dr. Kuba. I am sharing the rest of our interview TODAY, exclusively here on my blog . . . because I am assuming that, like me, you can never get enough of the gory details.
Evie: Cassandra a lot of what you do involves the human remains of folks whose lives ended prematurely and sometimes tragically Even in its toughest moments—scientifically or emotionally—what makes your work with the dead worth doing?
Dr. Kuba: Scientifically, the challenge of finding the right solution or the best approach to getting the answers needed can be invigorating, as well as frustrating. Knowing that I have to be very careful in my work because the life and freedom of another person might be determined, in part, by the quality of my analysis and my judgment, can be daunting. For example, someone may be tried or not tried for a crime depending on our findings. That’s something worth getting right. The scale at which forensic anthropology has grown since I went out on my first case is amazing. It keeps me on my toes and inspires me to constantly look for ways to see a skeleton in a new light. Emotionally, when you are exhausted or upset by the nature of a case, knowing that you are there for the deceased, to help tell their story . . . that’s what keeps me going. To help find the truth, as the bones would speak it, is important.
Evie: Do you have a memory—gory or otherwise—you’d like to share of an “ah ha” moment while working with a set of human remains?
Dr. Kuba: It is easy to wonder—especially early on in one’s career—whether you have it in you to handle being exposed to bodies that have been though violent, traumatic events or have significantly decayed. Do you have the stomach and the mental fortitude for the work? As a student of forensics, you speculate about this, but you can’t really know how, or if, you can handle such situations until you actually confront them. Photos in forensic anthropology and pathology books, even horrendous images, cannot prepare you for the full attack to the senses that you’ll experience when confronted with an actual body—the smells, the textures, the sounds, the colors!
I will never forget when the first garbage bag was lifted off a set of remains in front of me, and I leaned in close to record my mentor’s observations. The odor of decomposition hit me full in the face. I recall thinking, “that’s what death smells like.” A deceased human smells different than any other animal, hence the science behind Dr. Arpad Vass’s sniffer used in the Caylee Anthony case. There is a hint of the familiar. The enteric bacteria, normally residing happily within our guts, turns against us in our deaths, helping to break down our tissue, and producing a smell that says “human” in the process. That’s jarring. You can get used to it, but it stays with you.
I recently showed my students footage from a cave in Bosnia where over 100 bodies had been dumped in the 1990s. The largely decomposed bodies covered every inch of the moist cave’s floor. The footage showed the faces of the recovery crews as they tried to deal with the scale of what they were seeing. Those faces reflected how truly overwhelming the situation was—the totality of death. Imagine what it must have been like on site trying to determine how to maximize recovery of the dead, to help in identifying them. Imagine the complicated task of collecting evidence so that those responsible could be held accountable for the atrocity. I found myself thinking how difficult something as simple and necessary as breathing must have been inside that cave.
As forensic scientists, we want to do right by deceased . . . but the toll that so much death and decomposition must have taken on the forensic teams standing in Bosnia must have been devastating. And we are seeing a similar situation unfolding in Ukraine right now. Forensic science will play an important part in collection of evidence of atrocities there, too. Scientists will smell, see, and touch the unimaginable in hopes that their work will allow those responsible to be held accountable.
Evie: My work as a crime writer requires me to go places—mentally—that I wouldn’t otherwise go. Would you say that applies to being in forensics as well?
Dr. Kuba: Yes. When one is working on a forensic case— trying to find a body or trying to determine what could have caused the injuries observed on that body—you have to embrace your darker side. Don’t ask me what I am thinking about if you see me pause in front of a display of tools when I visit a hardware store. I’m not usually thinking about what I need to purchase for a home improvement project. I’m more likely thinking, I wonder what identifiable characteristics that tool would cause to the bone if it were used on a person? The home store employees probably worry and wonder, though, when I offer them a dark little laugh when they ask me if I need any help. You can see, however, this line of thought lends itself to helping out with fictional scenarios for television and books.
Evie: That brings us rather neatly to your double life as an expert assisting those of us who create fictional crimes whether for TV or in novels. Readers may not know this, but you’ve consulted on some very popular shows like Bones and CSI! At what stage of a television episode or script are you generally called in?
Dr. Kuba: How soon I am asked questions depends on the need of the particular writer. Writers who have been working in the genre of procedural crime shows for a while often have developed a good foundation, so they might only need help with details as they start to craft a particular episode. Viewers may not know this, but most of the episodes I’ve worked on are based upon real life forensic cases or, at least, loosely inspired by them.
Script writers ask very specific questions, often linked to traumatic injuries and what a body should look like if a person died a certain way, found in a particular environmental setting, or discovered after a certain period of time. So, for example, I might be asked: “If we have a 35 year old man with a history of working in construction and using a jackhammer, how might the our protagonist be able to tell the victim worked that kind of job?” Or, if a person was killed with a particular weapon, I could be asked how the wound might resemble one caused by a different type of weapon so that it isn’t readily apparent to the TV investigators what specific weapon was used in a killing. Let’s face it—the audience, whether for a TV series or a book, doesn’t want the case to be too easy to solve.
Sometimes, crime or police procedural writers have a very particular set of things that they want to have happen to their victim, and this forces me to sit down and try to visualize that series of events. Fun fact, this can get physical. For example, I might need my husband to stand in a certain position to help me visualize what bones might be impacted if I were to hit him from a certain angle. Or I sometimes hold various implements up to my own body to get a “feel” for what might show up on bone that could be helpful to the fictional forensic teams.
Evie: Does fiction NEED strike a balance with strict scientific fact in the name of entertainment? The timing of test results comes to mind for me, because as one of my characters jokes: “can you imagine if clever Endeavour Morse had to sit and wait weeks for DNA test results? That’d make for scintillating viewing.”
Dr. Kuba: I know what you mean. The scientists on the shows do tend to get speedy results, skeletons are never left unidentified, and they always seem to get definitive results. If only reality could emulate fiction! It doesn’t.
When I work with TV writers or novelists, I am always cognizant that these are fictional stories. That’s not a mark of disrespect. These creators are generally very intent on honoring real forensic science, but their primary purpose is to entertain. So, I am always respectful of what the writer is trying to achieve and make useful suggestions of places they have room to fudge the science a bit versus those where they should aim to be more accurate. There absolutely does need to be a balance.
My belief is that if I go into my entertainment consultations with an intent to provide responses that represent my field while honoring the entertainment needs of a given show or book—that’s a win-win. The audience of crime fiction still gets riveting, twisty mysteries, but ones that are also believable and more realistic.
Giving viewers a more accurate picture of the science can have real world consequences. I recall reading once that the average juror sitting on a trial has the equivalency of a 4th grade education. So, if a prospective juror has the wrong impression about the field of forensic science, s/he might not believe a scientific expert is credible when they appear in a case. There is actually something called the CSI Effect on juries, where folks rely on things they consumed as entertainment in making real-world assessments in criminal cases. I hope, this many years into the wild popularity of TV crime dramas, people have begun to realize that such shows don’t offer 100% accurate portrayals of forensic science, but you never know.
Evie: I’ve heard a rumor that as one of the television series you consulted on came to an end you were given a little creative decision-making power—can you tell us about that?
Dr. Kuba: Yes, there was a series finale where the writers wanted something to happen to a male character where the lead character would have to save the day. They needed the guy to suffer an injury that someone like me, who is not an MD but has knowledge of bones and associated soft tissue, could resolve in an emergency situation. I got to suggest that injury.
They didn’t want anything as extreme as a compound fracture, so I went with a wrist dislocation caused by a fall. I really appreciated this—the fact that the people who serve as liaisons between the writers and experts wanted me to have that opportunity. Generating that idea for the episode felt like sort of a nod—a credit without being a credit—because, believe it or not, I do not appear anywhere in the credits for the shows or series that I’ve advised on over the years. And that’s actually fine by me. I am content helping people achieve their visions. That being said, I still got a thrill out of that wrist injury.
Evie: In your civilian life are you a fan of Crime Fiction and Mystery novels?
Dr. Kuba: I do enjoy crime fiction and mystery novels. I have been a longtime fan of Elizabeth George and her Inspector Lynley series (though, I’m always rooting for Barbara Havers…I love that character). I also enjoy Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey, Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby, and Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. I love historical mystery—what can I say.
Evie: In mysteries, both on the screen and in books, there’s a bit of a trope where murderers get caught because they’re cocky, and sometimes seem bizarrely inclined to brag about what they’ve done. Does that reflect the needs of crime fiction, or does it have some connection to the real world?
Dr. Kuba: Oh, it totally is a real thing. Not every killer feels the need to talk about the murder they committed, but enough do. It is often men. I’m not sure if it is an attempt to earn more street cred, or appear to be a big, bad, tough guy that drives them to seek out validation by telling others about the foul deeds they’ve committed. But if the person they tell is either 1) an actual decent person or 2) a fellow criminal who is trying to cut a deal with the cops, chances are whomever the criminal brags to is going to speak to the authorities. Thinking of murdering? You’ll have better luck being a successful killer by doing everything yourself and keeping your mouth shut.
Evie: If you could give one piece of advice to crime fiction creators what would that be? Because hey, this IS your chance to do it.
Dr. Kuba: Don’t hesitate to reach out to local experts for help. You may be pleasantly surprised. Many of us are down to earth people and happy to answer questions and provide suggestions. When I am consulted, I often I get my students involved to help develop their research skills, or to put their critical and creative thinking skills to test. It is a beneficial experience for everyone. And no question is too weird. Sure, I might pause a moment and have to think about where to find that info, but that challenge is part of the thrill. And who knows, your question might be the catalyst that starts a student down the road to becoming a research scientist by igniting their curiosity!
Well, I am certainly glad that I reached out to you while writing And by Fire! And I was nervous, because you punch way above my weight as a debut crime novelist given your association with shows like Bones and CSI. So, thank you for your eyes and advice on keeping my fictional detecting in And by Fire from crossing over into forensic fantasy!
Thanks also for sitting down to answer my questions. I’ve learned a lot, and I feel certain my mystery-hungry reader audience is going to eat this interview up!
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