Telling the Truth as a Radical Act by Loren Rhoads

My dear friend, Loren Rhoads, is an awesome woman all around and she has a new book out! Today, she’s here to talk to us about zines, her new book This Morbid Life, and telling the truth as a radical act!

Rhoads Headshots 9-18 FINAL-1662I discovered zines in the early 1980s, spread across dealers’ tables at my local science fiction conventions. Those were mostly fanfic, but they inspired me to publish my first zine the summer I left high school. Sanity, Ltd. collected stories, essays, and artwork created by my friends. My best friend’s father surreptitiously copied it on the Xerox machine at work. We sold the zines at the local media convention. Sanity, Ltd. only lasted four issues, but it taught me the joy of seeing my hard work in print.

It’s hard now to imagine the massive variety of zines that thrived in the Nineties. Every style of music had its zines, of course, but there were personal zines and thrifting zines and zines about illnesses and bad jobs and traveling… So many unfiltered voices were published all at once. The spectrum was truly inspiring.

In 1994, my husband Mason and I founded Automatism Press. We published two books in the next couple of years. Lend the Eye a Terrible Aspect collected first-person essays and short stories interrogating North America at the end of the 20th century. Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries was originally meant to showcase cemetery photographs by my friend Blair, but as I pursued the project, I discovered that everyone’s life had been touched by at least one graveyard. The book blossomed into a collection of over two dozen essays and more than 200 photographs involving 27 contributors, ranging from confrontationalist Lydia Lunch to many authors who were published for the first time.

After Automatism Press published those books, I started to think about editing a zine again. I decided that what I liked best about putting together Death’s Garden was discovering the deepest thoughts of its contributors. I never had any doubt about the zine’s title. Morbid Curiosity started out in 1996 as one woman with a dream, but ended eleven years later after publishing 310 survivor narratives about encounters with the unsavory, unwise, unorthodox, or unusual: all the dark elements that make life worth living.

I learned a lot about writing—and telling the truth—from my years editing Morbid Curiosity. My newest book is a collection of my own essays—some previously published in a spectrum of zines, online magazines, and blogs, and others written especially for this book—covering everything from taking prom pictures in the cemetery to spending several days in a cadaver lab, from getting high with a friend dying of AIDS to eating bugs in a science museum, from looking for the limits of consciousness to chasing ghosts. It hopscotches from Michigan to San Francisco to La Specola in Florence. Luckily, curiosity does not often kill the cat, especially if she’s light on her feet.

Here’s a sample of This Morbid Life from the essay “Dead Bodies Everywhere”:

ThisMorbidLife-small coverAs our little family stood before the first peeled human on display, I realized that the guy responsible for Body Worlds was a mad scientist, in the finest tradition of the term. Dr. von Hagens took donated human cadavers, dissected them, posed them, then used a special polymer process to preserve their tissues. That meant the exhibit consisted most spectacularly of life-sized (or larger, in the case of figures like The Cyclist, whose muscles had been pulled off his bones to display their interconnections) human “plastinates” in full color. The goal was to reveal to the average person secrets normally seen only by medical professionals.

I found an esthetic purity to a human being stripped down to its muscles. And while I was disturbed in Florence by the wax models at La Specola, the real thing in LA didn’t upset me. These people had donated their bodies to science and art. While they might not have known exactly what they were in for, they’d chosen a sort of immortality.

Most of the Body Worlds figures stood on their own merits without any defense of where the bodies came from or why they’d been posed a certain way. I wandered among them, wondering what had been so controversial: the flayed penises with naked testes hanging down alongside? The belts of flesh bearing nipples and pubes like some twisted bondage harness? Was it that the plastinates—unlike the plastic teaching torsos Americans are accustomed to seeing in museums—had not been neutered by death? Their genitalia made them real to me: people, rather than mannequins. I kept looking around, waiting to be shocked.

Perhaps it’s just me, I thought. I live in San Francisco and my attitudes about sex and death are fairly inclusive (i.e., everybody should have some). Maybe the people around me were reacting differently than I was. I tuned into their conversations, amused by laughing observations that these “slices of life” were “pretty whacked.” The most shocking thing I heard was the trio of nurses identifying the IUD left inside one of the detached wombs and their memories of the bleeding those devices had caused.

On this busy Friday afternoon, most people seemed absorbed, fascinated in the old sense of the word: bewitched. There seemed to be a lot of learning going on. Visitors studied the diseases that had touched their loved ones: ulcers, cancers, Alzheimer’s lesions. Kids were curious about the graphic dangers of smoking: “It really does turn your lungs black!” I pored over a cirrhotic liver like the one that killed my brother.

Loren Rhoads is the author of This Morbid Life, 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. She was the editor of Morbid Curiosity magazine and the book Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues: True Tales of the Unsavory, Unwise, Unorthodox, and Unusual. Her most recent book is This Morbid Life, a memoir comprised of 45 death-positive essays.

What others have called an obsession with death is really a desperate romance with life. Guided by curiosity, compassion, and a truly strange sense of humor, this particular morbid life is detailed through a death-positive collection of 45 confessional essays. Along the way, author Loren Rhoads takes prom pictures in a cemetery, spends a couple of days in a cadaver lab, eats bugs, survives the AIDS epidemic, chases ghosts, and publishes a little magazine called Morbid Curiosity.

Originally written for zines from Cyber-Psychos AOD to Zine World and online magazines from Gothic.Net to Scoutie Girl, these emotionally charged essays showcase the morbid curiosity and dark humor that transformed Rhoads into a leading voice of the curious and creepy.

“Witty, touching, beautifully written, and haunting — in every sense of the word — This Morbid Life is an absolute must-read for anyone looking for an unusually bright and revealing journey into the darkest of corners. Highly recommended!” — M.Christian, author of Welcome To Weirdsville

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