The Bone Woman: a Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia,and Kosovo|
by Clea Koff
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|A Review of: The Bone Woman: A Forensic AnthropologistĘs Search for Truth in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo
by Todd Swift
American poet and critic Edgar Allan Poe wrote that no topic could
be more poetic than that which related death to a beautiful woman.
Poe's necrophiliac narrative strategies have since become somewhat
commonplace: the yellow police line is one both readers and television
viewers willingly cross often, and the number of "profilers"
and "forensic" experts, fictional and less-so, of whom
we have grown fond (from FBI agent Starling onwards), has swollen
like a body left too long in water. The trope has become a character,
and that character tends to be a determined woman interested in
looking at dead people in order to solve a mystery.
Now it is time to uncover yet another link between repugnant crime
and the ambiguous attractions of the investigator-this one dished
out to us in the form of a very engaging memoir by the young and
brilliant forensic anthropologist Clea Koff. Koff is as photogenic
as her subject is unspeakably ugly. Koff is also, and more
importantly, a very good writer, a sort of Graham Greene for the
Tomb Raider set. Her depiction of squalid, sun-ravaged
"post-conflict" terror and morally-compromised adventure
is spot on.
It is barely believable, but true, that anyone so inexperienced and
young (she was a 23-year-old grad student when she went on her first
mission in 1996) could have become the only expert to participate
in all seven of the forensic fact-finding missions for the UN War
Crimes Tribunal: Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Koff is also
a peculiar and refreshingly honest person. How else to account for
such a confession as: "By the time I was thirteen we were
living in Washington, DC, and I was burying dead birds in plastic
bags so I could dig them up later-I was curious to see how long it
took them to turn into' skeletons."
Such an early childhood interest in rotting animals is often
associated with sociopathic behaviour in later life; and, conversely
(and thankfully) with those who seek to use scientific study of
such decomposition to apprehend psychopathic killers. Koff goes
to the limits of what is acceptable to say and write when she claims
her first day in Rwanda, as she ran out of flags to mark the skulls
she found, was a dream come true. Here readers are treated to a
topsy-turvy world, where those trained to "give voice to people
silenced" in "the most final way" relish the gory
details and their own bone-crunching prowess.
Perhaps the most tiresome trope in an otherwise often startlingly
fresh and always informative story is, in fact, that of the mute
skull or other abject piece of human remnant "speaking"
from the shallow grave of loose topsoil close to the massacre site.
It is one any viewer of "CSI" has encountered, and is a
staple of the crime thriller. Yet, finally, the image of the
unearthed bones that communicate their tale is one that the author
dusts off and makes her own.
Koff's forensic work, inspired by the classic book Witnesses from
the Grave, had always sought to reconcile her wish to "help
reduce oppression by making the bones talk" with her desire
to engage in the visceral thrill of the hunt, however immersed in
the morgue or killing fields. These somewhat conflicting motives
(though not suspect) create the tension in The Bone Woman that makes
it more compelling than a straightforward account might be. This
is because Koff is unafraid to get personal, and admit to her
Her initial happiness on day one in Rwanda decomposes into a grim
need to find meaning in the murder. She discovers, to her dismay,
that, out in the field, the morgue has no "back door" and
an intimacy collects, just as the bones do on a sterile tray, forming
a bond between investigator, victim, and victim's relations. Koff
is good on the subject of the personal costs, and rewards, then,
of working at the thin edge of genocide. What is uncovered establishes
what communities actually were willing to do to each other (these
were organized mass slaughters) and is thus a dangerous truth to
bear; it also, paradoxically, allows the grieving to begin and thus
eventually heal, even as blame is apportioned.
Koff's exploration of the poetics of homicide (indeed mass murder)
and its investigation is equally compelling. Her use of colour and
image in this sentence for instance: "We spent days searching
for surface skeletons, placing red flags in the soil as we worked
until we had located so many that it was more helpful to ring whole
areas in yellow crime scene tape wrapped around tree trunks."
Koff is also adept at offering chilling sentences the average reader
is unlikely to encounter elsewhere, outside of highly specialized
manuals: "One day, most of the skeletons we worked on were
children with massive sharp force trauma and blunt force trauma to
Elsewhere, a description of maggots and putrification is presented
which is without doubt the most morbid and grisly a lay-person could
tolerate. There is something of the "been there, done that"
Less Than Zero cold style in this jaded tone, but that may come
from Koff's intention to form a sort of novelistic purpose from the
non-fictional soil she mines. Then again, perhaps, like many
soldiers, doctors and scientists, she simply doesn't realize how
startling dead bodies can be to "civilians".
This "when Eros meets Thanatos" whimsy (which is problematic
given the context but nonetheless car-wreck fascinating) is
well-evidenced by her relating of anecdote, as when she is menaced
by some of the soldiers meant to protect her encampment. Once,
"having a pee" in the foliage, she discovers she is being
watched, by a soldier who says "I love you". In Koff's
trademark mix of horror and humour the story continues: "He
appeared almost every time I was alone on the hillside with a
skeleton." Such moments of near black humour keep the reader
going through admittedly challenging terrain.
Koff is on thinner ground when, at the end of the book, she moves
from her own personal and professional experiences (admittedly
formative and unique) to the creation of a political philosophy.
Namely, the big question: why? It would be unfair to criticize her
for posing the question, since it would be a perverse person indeed
who, after seven missions searching for the facts behind civilization's
worst crime, genocide, would not wonder at the cause or causes.
Being the only anthropologist to participate in all these missions,
she is able to further compare and contrast, say "Rwandan
genocide" with that which took place in Kosovo, based on their
murderous results. She has seen the dumped bodies, and the cleaved
skulls. It is clearly tempting for Koff to attempt to achieve a
Her argument, then, is disappointing, in that her final claim is
to suggest a basic source for each of the various genocidal outbreaks:
"self-interest". Koff claims that the surface issues,
such as inter-tribal, ethnic or religious tensions, mask a simple
urge on the part of government officials to organize massacres in
order to control and assimilate power and natural resources; her
reference to Israel and water rights in the Middle East, here, seems
Furthermore, after stating that genocide can "happen anywhere"
she admits that it relies on the quick mobilization of many people
willing to brutally decimate their friends and neighbours for bribes
such as "big-screen televisions" or "plots of
land". This kind of greed-based looting is sadly general, but
not necessarily universal. If Koff wishes to base her theory of
genocide on such a mix of psychology and economics, she will need
deeper expertise than that of the body bag and scalpel.
Still, the book as whole is a success. The story that The Bone
Woman tells is of dedication to justice, in very frightening settings,
knee-deep in gut-wrenchingly putrid soil, excavating human remains
that signify the very worst that humans do to each other. Clea
Koff follows her passionate, insightful muse into and past the heart
of darkness, to emerge with an unexpected revelation. In the middle
of the mutilated body lies a radiating marrow: a writer's inexhaustible
power to unearth language, to signify hope's transcendence; to
signify like a red flag, a child's white skull. Koff may have found
harrowing truth, but in the process we have found a new writer of