A forensic anthropologist’s primary job is to parse through the evidence of some of the most upsetting crimes of humanity, chronicle the aftermath, and try to piece together factual unknowns. When that job requires taking an up close look at the remains of genocide — as anthropologist and Still Life with Bones author Alexa Hagerty was asked to do in both Guatemala and Argentina following years of armed conflict in which hundreds of thousands of citizens were killed by each respective state — how does one’s life’s work not also become innately personal and political?
In this forensic coming-of-age story, Hagerty not only details the forensic markers that allowed her to successfully identify countless victims and bring closure to traumatized communities, but also her own journey into becoming comfortable with the enactment of her branch of science.
“Forensic exhumation is practiced at the crossroads of two ways of thinking about the dead body: as a scientific object to be analyzed for evidence of crimes against humanity, and as a subject, an individual, someone mourned and loved”
— Alexa Hagerty, author of Still Life with Bones
Through the poignant writing of unspeakably upsetting scenes, readers are allowed to glimpse Hagerty at low points early on in her departure from academia, when the bleak, grotesque nature of her line of work brings her to the tipping point of grief. As time goes on, and her brutal labor at each field site develops, she learns to see forensic anthropology as a means by which to care for the dead, and to allow them the narratives they were violently denied in death.
Meanwhile, Hagerty is also forced to confront the still controversial nature of the work she performs in both countries from a political standpoint. Her stories of personal and professional breakthroughs are tinged with an inescapable sense of danger, as she navigates political minefields and seeks to bring voices to those the government intentionally wanted to silence.
Many chapters in Still Life with Bones are difficult to move through for their vivid descriptions that go far beyond what any anthropology textbook could cover. Yet Hagerty still imbues her memoir with a sense of tenderness as she argues for readers to think of forensics not only as scientific evidence of crimes but also as the narrative storytelling of those whose lives were lost.
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