I recently had the pleasure of talking with Kathy Reichs, the creator of Bones character, forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan. Joining us was her daughter, Kerry, who co-wrote this season’s “The Woman in the Whirlpool” episode. Though Kathy reviews every single Bones episode for scientific accuracy, this is only the third episode the mother-daughter team has envisioned from concept to completed script, the first two being season 5’s “The Witch in the Wardrobe,” and season 9’s “The Dude in the Dam.” A novelist and forensic anthropologist herself, Kathy uses her own life experiences as the inspiration for the character of Temperance Brennan in her crime series from which the Bones television series concept sprang.
Before we delved into details (and some juicy episode news) about how the mother-daughter team developed the concept for “The Woman in the Whirlpool,” I wanted to know more about the real Kathy ‘Temperance Brennan’ Reichs in comparison to the Bones’ Brennan, (or the literary Brennan for that matter), and who better to ask than the creator herself? Then I wanted to know what is most difficult, and what is most amazing about being a forensic anthropologist. Kathy’s answers revealed an unexpected and palpable tenderness toward those whose remains came into her care. Not surprising was how many of the tiny and fascinating details of Kathy’s experience have woven their way into the fabric of Bones.
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How Does TV Tempe Differ From a Real Forensic Anthropologist?
“As we have seen, there is little TV Tempe doesn’t do,” says Kathy. “She sleuths, she interrogates, she shoots. In real life, a forensic anthropologist would not be so involved in pursuing the investigation, interviewing witnesses, and accompanying the investigating officer.
“Sometimes I’m not involved in the litigation if it’s not a criminal matter. If I have to testify, of course, I’ll know where it went because I’ll be in contact with the attorney. Sometimes you send in your report and that’s the last you hear of it.
“A forensic anthropologist would go to the crime scene with an official police team, perform analysis in the lab, and testify in court. Having TV Tempe involved in the legwork permits Bones the interesting central premise that the squints have one mindset and cops have another, and this “head and heart” blend of logic and gut instinct is essential to criminal investigation. Having Tempe in the field also yields irresistible opportunities for both tension and comedy.”
How Accurate Is the Science on Bones?
“One of my favorite things about Hart Hanson, Stephen Nathan, and the Bones team is their commitment to accuracy. From the beginning they wanted to present the science as truthfully as possible. It’s television, so there has to be a good story, and every story has to have a resolution, which doesn’t always happen in real life, but we don’t make anything up. We may make small concessions, but we keep everything within the bounds of scientific reasonableness.
“The characters don’t get DNA back in 22 minutes, and they don’t use technology that doesn’t actually exist. Even with our fancier effects, like Angela’s computer graphics, the technology exists. Now, does the average lab have all the technology we use on Bones? No. It would be cost prohibitive. Definitely TV Tempe’s office and storage facilities are a lot nicer than those of any forensic anthropologist I know! But in a magical lab with an unlimited budget, you could see the same amazing science they use on the show.”
Now on to the difficult and the amazing ….
What Is the Most Emotionally Difficult Aspect of Your Job as a Forensic Anthropologist?
“The cases with children are the most difficult. When you have really vulnerable victims, battered women and just innocent victims that didn’t do anything to put themselves at risk and somebody killed them. Those are tough. And those that remain unsolved.”
Kathy reverently refers to her cases as people she has met, as with the case of Neely Smith.
“Neely Smith was both. When I met Neely in 1981 she was the same age as my daughter. Both were friendly, talkative, five-year-olds. But Neely had been snatched from her east Charlotte neighborhood two months earlier. She would not grow older as my daughter was doing. She came to me as a fragmentary skull, rib cage, and lower jaw. It was my job to confirm her identity, and, if possible, to determine what happened to her. Neely Smith was identified. Her killer was not. That was hard. My work is filled with names like hers. While I strive to keep personal and professional separate it is never entirely possible. Sadly, there will always be another unsolved child murder. There will always be more work to do.”
Which Cases are the Most Forensically and Physically Difficult to Work?
“From a forensic standpoint, the most difficult cases are those that provide the least amount of evidence. I have worked on remains that consist of only an isolated foot. A single mummified digit. A fragmentary skull lacking face and dentition. In these situations, I am limited in the conclusions I can draw. At best I can provide broad estimates of age, sex, race, and height. Perhaps not even that. But I don’t work in a vacuum. Help often comes from a colleague in a different branch of forensics – entomology, ballistics, perhaps DNA.
“From a physical standpoint, mass disaster recovery is very tough. I was privileged to work at ground zero following 9/11. The charge was simple: sift the rubble and triage human from non-human remains. The job was physically demanding and psychologically draining. But, again, I didn’t work alone. It was humbling to see the enormous team of skilled people that came together to investigate all aspects of the tragedy.”
What Are Some of the Most Amazing Parts of Being a Forensic Anthropologist?
“I’m drawn to cases of historical significance,” says Kathy. “One of my favorites involved Jean LeBer, a woman who died in 1714. In the early nineties, Jean LeBer was proposed to the Vatican for beatification. I was hired by the Archdiocese of Montreal to exhume and analyze her remains. This experience lead to one of the plot lines in my second book, Death du Jour (1999).” (I’ve read it folks. It’s fantastic.)
“Another of my favorites was the inspiration for Bones to Ashes (2007). In this case I exhumed and analyzed the remains of Raoul Leger, a Catholic lay-priest from New Brunswick, Canada, who was killed in the Guatemalan Civil War and buried there in a common grave. When the Canadian National Film Board made a documentary about Raoul, his family realized they didn’t truly know what had happened to him. They hired me to see what the bones could reveal. Through this experience I learned about the Acadian culture, and about recent Guatemalan history.
“Grave Secrets (2002) was another, earlier book involving Guatemala. For this story I drew upon my trip with Dr. Clyde Snow to work with the Foundation for Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology. The task: recover skeletons from a mass grave in the highlands of southwest Guatemala, victims of the long-lasting and tragic civil war. I will never forget the wizened old woman who came daily to keep silent vigil. Her four daughters and nine grandchildren were buried in the pit we were unearthing. Our pilot for Bones in 2005 opens with Temperance Brennan returning from Guatemala and a similar human rights exhumation.”
Have You Come to Any Conclusions About Why People Kill?
“Yeah I have. I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist or a profiler but we read again and again and again that it’s a cycle. Those who abuse have been abused so I’m sure there’s an element of that. The more important question is how do you stop it? How do you get that generation where you just stop that cycle? That’s the more important question.”
How Do You Remain Hopeful in the Face of So Much Death?
“I work with the dead, yes. But I work for the living. For those left behind. Hope comes from giving a voice to the dead. Whether it is an individual case or a major event such as Guatemala or Rwanda, every resolution is rewarding in bringing peace to victims and their families.
“Like Temperance Brennan and the Jeffersonian team on Bones, I tend to get the difficult cases – the mummified, burned, decomposed, dismembered, or skeletal. Cases that can’t be resolved by a pathologist through normal autopsy. So, as demonstrated in every episode of Bones, my line of work is not for the squeamish.
“Those arriving at my lab are homicide, suicide, and accident victims, people who have suffered violent deaths. Unlike most non-professionals, I don’t simply view the aftermath of violence on TV, online, or in print. I see it up close in the morgue, and there is almost always someone left behind who is grieving. A husband, a daughter, a friend. And these individuals want answers. Closure.”
We’ve heard Brennan reflect the same sentiment on Bones. To further explain their motivation, I give you Kathy’s own words delivered through her literary character of Temperance Brennan in Fatal Voyage (2001):
“The dead have a right to be identified. To have their stories drawn to a close and to that their places in our memories. If they died at the hands of another, they also have a right to have those hands brought to account. The living as well deserve our support when the death of another alters their lives: The parent desperate for news of a missing child. The family hopeful of remains from Iwo Jima or Chosin Hue. The villagers bereft at a mass grave in Guatemala or Kurdistan. The mothers and husbands and lovers and friends … they have a right to information, explanations, and also a right to have murderous hands brought to account.
“It is for these victims and the mourners that I tease posthumous tales from bones. The dead will remain dead, whatever my efforts, but there have to be answers and accountability. We cannot live in a world that accepts the destruction of life with no explanations and no consequences.”
Check Back Next Week for Part 2 of Kathy and Kerry Reichs’ Interview
The second part of our interview includes the dynamic mother-daughter duo and discusses how “The Woman in the Whirlpool” came to be, what significance cookie jar collecting holds for the entire Jeffersonian team, and what lies ahead for Brennan and Booth after he moves out of the Mighty Hut.
Bones airs Thursdays at 8pm on FOX.
(Images courtesy of @KathyReichs).