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Changing the Narrative: From Campus to Crime Lab to Crime Fiction | Dr. Kathy Reichs | TEDxOttawa

I have moved from the campus to the
crime lab to crime fiction to crime
drama so many many many changes in my
narrative when I was an undergraduate I
had no idea what I wanted to do I think
I had five different majors until I
finally took a course in physical
anthropology I was always interested in
archeology I was always interested in
the humanities but I’m also my mind
works in that I am a hard science type I
need to be able to measure something and
weigh it and photograph it so when I
took physical anthropology and I learned
all about the human skeleton about bones
I was hooked and I went on and I got my
graduate degrees in physical
anthropology but with a specialty in bio
archaeology it intrigued me how much you
could learn from a human skeleton you
learn the basics what I think of as the
biological profile a skeleton can tell
you an individual’s age their sex their
ancestry their height but it can also
tell you a lot about their life and
their activities and their health and
perhaps their death the type of trauma
that they might have experienced blunt
instrument sharp instrument the type of
scavenging that might have happened with
their remains following death the type
of diseases they might have had such as
arthritis or dental issues so in bio
archaeology I was able to bring together
my interest in humans in culture in
people and their biology by excavating
and analyzing their skeletal remains I
thought I would spend my whole career in
academia I’m on the faculty at the
University of North Carolina at
Charlotte molding young minds and I
thought I would spend my whole career
doing that studying ancient peoples and
writing up research projects about that
then a few years back and you’re going
to notice that as I talk about these
changes in narrative I’m gonna be really
vague about how much time passes between
each one because we’re really not going
to address the issue of my personal age
but sometime in the night the mid-80s
let’s say two detectives visited my
laboratory at the University of North
Carolina because I was the bones lady
and they had a problem a child had gone
missing and three months later a small
skeleton was found in a remote wooded
area and they wanted to know if I could
help them determine if those little
bones were in fact the remains of this
missing child so I agreed reluctantly I
agreed to help them with that case and I
was struck by the relevance of what it
was I was doing that I could actually
help give that family closure they might
not like what I was telling them but at
least I could give them answers and also
the fact that I could help law
enforcement to bring someone to justice
for what had happened to that little
girl so I made the shift into forensic
anthropology I’ve been aware of it
earlier but it really wasn’t the
narrative I thought I’d be following the
basic skills are similar knowledge of
the human skeleton but there are also a
lot of differences when you’re studying
ancient populations addressing
archaeological questions you’re really
talking about groups of people
populations of people but in working in
forensic contexts you are asked to
address questions of specific
individuals who experienced specific
death episodes yes in both you answer
are these remains human yes when did
this individual die but now we’re
talking about days weeks or a very short
time periods not hundreds or thousands
of years and then who is this individual
can we actually put a name on these
bones what was the manner of death and
in a medical legal context there are
really only five its suicide homicide
accidental natural or unknown we really
don’t talk in those terms
archaeologically and then of course what
and this particular individual after
they died yes there is a similarity in
that you go out and you recover human
remains but what you do in a forensic
context is really quite different I go
out with an official police team I never
go off on my own like the heroine of my
books does in the early books she
doesn’t do that so much anymore but I
always go with an official team and we
found a very specific crime-scene
protocol because anything we’re
recovering is now going to become
evidence another situation I might be
involved in is an exhumation where
there’s been a coroner’s request or a
court order we have to go out and get
the coffin out of the ground and then we
have the advantage of having records
cemetery records which tell you
theoretically where the coffin you’re
looking for is supposed to be I have
been in situations where the coffin we
wanted wasn’t actually in the place it
was supposed to be so sometimes that can
be a bit challenging sometimes we get
what we call a clue as to where the
coffin might be I’m not our difference
is that you don’t just work with nice
clean bones in a forensic setting you
might work with decomposed bodies
mummified mutilated dismembered burned
or perhaps just skeletal remains
I’m also asked to look at trauma that’s
very different than anything I might see
in people who died thousands of years
ago I might be asked to look at where
did the bullet enter where did the
bullet exit for example I might be asked
to look at cut marks determine if they
were made by a handsaw or a mechanical
saw again this is not something we’d be
looking at with ancient peoples and I
will be asked to testify in court
and that is not something that I would
be doing in an archaeological context so
I really liked the relevance of that you
cannot be wrong when you tell someone
yes this is your missing family member
or when you testify in court because
you’re really going to impact someone’s
life so I’ve changed the narrative I
retrained I became board-certified which
is also not important in archaeology but
is in very important in forensic
anthropology all the Forensic Sciences
because it’s necessary
for the courts for law enforcement to
know who are legitimate experts and
board certification is a process by
which that is done so come Oh a few
years later and two things happened
I made full professor at the University
that’s the highest rank to attain at a
university so I was free to try
something new I was freed to not publish
another scientific article or textbook I
had also just worked on a serial murder
case in Montreal so I had a very
interest in that was completely finished
and litigated so I had a very
interesting idea concept for a story and
I had the freedom to try something new
so I decided to change the narrative I
decided to write fiction I had never
done fiction before well my resume but
other than that I really really hadn’t
tried my hand at at fiction so I wrote a
book I created a fictional protagonist
Temperance Brennan and created a story
based on this actual case but changing
all of the details for both legal and
ethical reasons and that did pretty well
so I wrote another book and that went
pretty well so I wrote a few more books
and then I wrote a few more books after
that each of the books I try to take the
reader into a different arena in which
forensic anthropologists work the first
book Dasia dead is based on the work I
do for a large government facility the
levirate warda seance judiciary
dimension the gap in Montreal the story
was based on a serial murderer who
operated in Montreal and the elements
that were of interest the elements to
which I testified in his trial had to do
with dismemberment the type tool that
was used but more importantly the
pattern of the dismemberment which said
something about the behavioral profile
of the perpetrator by the way for those
of you that don’t read French unless
Psychopaths that means the psychopath
okay so there are the cut marks this
book doctor sure was forensic
anthropology in a different arena
working for a private entity
I was hired some time back by the
Catholic Church the Archdiocese of
Montreal to exhume and analyze the
remains of a woman who died in 1714 Jean
libéré and whom had at that time then
proposed for sainthood so one of the
steps in that process if there are
remains is to verify that they are in
fact the correct remains so in this book
we learn about how forensic anthropology
works in a private context fatal voyage
takes you into the world of disaster
recovery I for many years was part of
the disaster mortuary operational
response team system in the United
States it’s a network that’s activated
in situations of mass disaster
we worked sorting out the mess following
Hurricane Katrina we sorted out this
madness genius in Georgia that instead
of cremating the bodies stacked 300
bodies at the back of his property but
mostly we work in commercial airline
disasters so we learn about that in this
book ironically one month after fatal
voyage was released I ended up going to
the Twin Towers and doing exactly what I
had been researching and writing about
for the previous two years great secrets
takes us into the world of human rights
abuses I testified at the United Nations
tribunal on genocide in Rwanda and I
also helped the forensic anthropology
foundation of Guatemala exhume a mass
grave so we learn about that in this
don’t panic I’m not going through every
single book spider bones I worked as a
consultant for the United States
military labs out why we promised our
service persons if we send you overseas
we will find you and we will bring you
back and the remains are identified at
the central ID laboratory in Honolulu
Hawaii so I consulted to the joint Pio
wmia accounting command for many years
and we learn about that in this book so
I was doing that for a while and in 2005
I was approached by two gentlemen who
wanted to take Temperance Brennan
and put her on the small screen take
Temperance Brennan and create a
television show I’ve had a couple of
offers up until that point none of them
was really the right one but we were on
the same page about what we wanted the
show to be our showrunner by the way is
a good Canadian boy hard handsome so the
main premise of the show is that you
have seen a booth who’s an FBI agent
working with Temperance Brennan who’s a
scientist he calls them squints and
soonly booth they have very different
approaches to crime solving Seeley Booth
believes in gut instinct and emotion and
good old-fashioned legwork whereas the
scientists the squints believe in
hypothesis formation and testing never
speculate always need hard physical
evidence so we thought that the two the
conflicting approaches to crime solving
would make for good television and some
humorous moments so that is the central
theme of the show which came to be bones
I worked as a producer on that show
changing the narrative again something I
had never done before I mainly promised
myself I would just never let my cell
phone go off while I was on set and we
were shooting and I would never trip
over any of the equipment on set those
were my goals but I did work with our
props people for example to make sure
that our cadavers if you’ve ever seen
the show it always opens with a very
messed up set of human remains they’re
all acrylic if you’re a little squeamish
don’t worry you’re just looking at
plastic right here so all of they’re
very authentic although they are made of
acrylic we get a little more attached to
some than to others
there’s heart Hansen on the left and I’m
the one on the far right and then the
lady in the lake from our pilot is the
one in between us the other thing I
helped with was designing our sets our
science my job is essentially was to
keep the science as accurate as possible
so our sets everything came from medical
supply houses or biological supply
houses you can see the forensic platform
there on the right that is tempe
television tempies storage facility with
her wonderful floor-to-ceiling storage
cabinets in the back lighting and the
bones kind of gleaning through this is
my actual storage facility at my lab in
Montreal so we did take a few liberties
for the magic of television well
somewhere on the fifth season or so of
the show my executive producer said why
don’t you write a script a screenplay I
said I’ve never written a screenplay he
said well you’ve never written a book
and that worked out pretty well so I
said okay so I wrote a screenplay which
is very different from writing a novel
for one thing you do what’s called
breaking the story you go into the
writers room and collectively there are
these terrifyingly empty white erasable
boards and at the end of one to three
weeks collectively you have hammered out
your storylines all six scenes in the
case of our show so there I am after
we’ve hammered out my first episode so
then you pitch it and it has to be
approved and once it’s approved and this
is very different to I’m not used to
this from writing my novels after you
pitch it and it’s approved you’re then
sent to script and then you actually
write the script so it’s a very very
different process of write in many ways
those are just a few from writing a
novel so again I was changing the
narrative and trying something new and
moving out of my comfort zone so my
first episode was actually called the
Witch and the Wardrobe I think that’s
still one of my favorites yeah this is
my son my son is a very bright guy but
he’s also a little weird he went to law
school and he practiced law for about
two or three
years and then he came to me and he said
I really don’t like practicing law why
don’t we write a young adult series and
I said I’ve never written young adult
literature before I have no idea how to
write young adult literature well he was
a litigator so he was very persuasive so
I agreed so in fact we did write a young
adult series of novels which is
something I never pictured myself doing
never thought I would be doing and Tory
Brennan temperance Brennan’s 14 year old
great niece is the heroine of those and
she and her friends undergo a change in
the first book they’re not zombies and
they’re not they’re not vampires but
they acquire some special perceptive
abilities and they use those skills
along with their love of science to
solve cold cases and mysteries it kind
of a middle school or high school level
and the reason we did this is we wanted
to make kids understand that science is
cool science can be fun and particularly
young girls kids or if you’re 90 and
you’re retiring and thinking of writing
a book my advice would be go for it
[Music] you
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