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Mary Jumbelic on the Campbell Conversations

Mary Jumbelic
Marc Safran
Mary Jumbelic

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Mary Jumbelic. She is a forensic pathologist, serving as Onondaga County's Chief Medical Examiner from 1998 - 2009. She's recently published the memoir, "Here, Where Death Delights: A Literary Memoir".

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Mary Jumbelic. She's a forensic pathologist, and she served as Onondaga County's Chief Medical Examiner from 1998 to 2009. She's recently published a memoir titled “Here, Where Death Delights.” Doctor Jumbelic, welcome to the program.

Mary Jumbelic: Thank you so much, Grant.

GR: Well, thank you for making the time to be with us. Let me just start very basic question. How did you come to write this book?

MJ: Well, I've always been a writer, Grant, starting back when I was 13 and I received a diary for Christmas. My father died six weeks later, and I think I found solace in writing down my feelings and thoughts after that experience. And I just kept doing it ever since. I liked English in high school and all through college, I took creative writing, but I found a passion with medicine and going to become a physician. Some of my writing took a little different flavor. I wrote academic articles and publications, but I also kept journals for all my times through those hard years. So if I did a mass disaster response, I kept a journal about it. So I have notes from the World Trade Center and the tsunami and things of that nature. When I retired, I just decided that I would follow up on some of my interests, and writing was a very strong one of those.

GR: All right. Well, so, briefly explain the title to me. “Here, Where Death Delights.” How does death delight?

MJ: Well, it actually comes from a Latin quote that I won't boggle by trying to say it in modern English, but, basically it's found on plaques in, in many morgues, dating back to the 1450s. And it's, as the quote is, “Let conversation cease, let laughter flee. Here is the place where death delights to help the living.” And so I drew my title from that quote. I think the dead have a lot to teach us, and perhaps delight is a strong word. but they do have a lot to tell us, a lot to guide us by. And two former forensic pathologists have written memoirs, one back in the 1960s, Milton Halpern and Bernard Knight in the 1980s from the UK. And their memoirs were called “Where Death Delights.” So I feel I'm in good company with them.

GR: Yeah. So, at the beginning of your book, you thank the Syracuse Downtown Writers Center of the YMCA. And, I've had, instructors and other participants from that program on the show in the past here on the Campbell Conversations. So just tell us a little bit about your involvement in that group.

MJ: Yes. I found that the Downtown Writers Center was a resource available to me where I could take classes. Oftentimes it was convenient in the evening, and I began dabbling with writing and memoir classes and having readers read my stories and I had no formal other than a few classes in college. I don't have an MFA, and, I haven't gone to, you know, fancy writing programs in Iowa or wherever. However, I felt that the Downtown Writer's Center had very knowledgeable instructors that helped me really hone my craft, and that the process of having my work reviewed every week. Readers comment on it and pick it apart and have no connection to me personally to my story. So they have an objectivity that I can't get from friends and family. It was brilliant and it really forced me to look at my writing with a harsh light and an editorial eye, and I think improved it remarkably.

GR: Yeah, that's my that's been my impression, too, talking to other, writers who have participated in this. Now, the style of this book, is called, I believe, literary nonfiction. You have literary memoir as the subtitle of your book. Explain what that genre is.

MJ: Yes. Well, the general overall genre clearly is nonfiction, and but it's also creative nonfiction. and literary memoir is a more defining term so that I feel that the stories are told in a narrative way. So there's an arc to the book, but it doesn't simply encompass my life in a memoir. It is storytelling, but truthful storytelling, it captures more fictional elements of style than a classic nonfiction would.

GR: Yeah, what I liked about it, and I know this is part of it too. But each of your chapters, stand alone. I mean, there's an end to each of them, but then they all accumulate to something as well. And so I think it's, it's a great book, for, like, reading in the evening or even reading before you go to bed, because you can get to the end of something, but then it's still there for you the next day to continue on. So, I really liked the style. So,

MJ: Thank you.

GR: Let me, let me now shift down to the sort of the meat of the book and, and, your experience as a forensic pathologist. Forensic pathology, obviously is not going to be for everyone, even though death may delight. is there a typical path that you're aware of to becoming a forensic pathologist among the medical profession? And in any way, what was your path if there's not a typical one?

MJ: Well, I don't think it's a popular, choice for a profession. for many reasons. Not simply because death might not delight everyone. it is a subset of pathology. So those doctors that work in the hospital, and they do laboratory work and they take specimens and they're analyzing the urine, and they're also taking sections from surgery and seeing whether it's cancer or not. You know, that's a whole branch of medicine, pathology. And then forensics is a sub-branch of that. And it's small. There are only about 500 board-certified forensic pathologists in the United States.

GR: Wow.

MJ: Now, so there aren't enough to go around, in the country and in the past, because it's often government-affiliated, the reimbursement, the, the salaries haven't really been up to par with other branches of medicine. So that's been difficult to work with. The dead don't vote, as my old boss used to say. So the taxes, go to the living. and, you know, the dead are left trying to scramble for like a little bit of money that might be left over. you know, that being said, I think people have recognized, in government in the past decade that you do need to support that branch of medicine. So I went into it for the interest, for the puzzle solving, for delving into what happened to the person, for being able to explain it to the grieving family members, for helping with recognizing hazards for the living and, for doing, you know, larger scale community work, public health work. So I felt I was drawn to it from that perspective.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with former Chief Medical Examiner for Onondaga County, Mary Jumbelic, who's recently published a memoir titled “Here, Where Death Delights.” So in the book, you write a lot about how your work intersects with your family life and the effects it has on your family. And, you know, I would just think that it would create a lot of, unique challenges. tell us a little bit about the work-family interactions that you had in your line of work.

MJ: Yes. I think, it does create a big challenge, I guess, like anyone who might be in a, you know, first responder type of field, law enforcement, ER work, EMTs, but, you know, so there's, you know, calling out at night for a homicide, you know, having to drop everything and, you know, being late for, you know, maybe family events and that type of thing. That being said, I think what has kept my sanity and kept me grounded has been my family and they've all been incredibly supportive. And I was lucky to have my mother help raise my kids when they were younger. And when I lost her, I had a nanny who became like a second mother to me. I even learned Russian, because she didn't speak any English. So it was very profound. And so my kids always had, like, the village to help, help them. They weren't just relying on some busy parents. It was a very cooperative, environment.

GR: And even setting the family issue aside, it just seems to me I would think that for you as an individual, even though you have a passion for this work and you mentioned the different reasons why you went into it, I would think that the work would wear you down after a while. did you have any special techniques of coping with that phenomenon?

MJ: I think the work does wear you down. And I think, I think part of the motivation of writing the book was to exorcize some of the ghosts that still dwell, in my mind, even years after finishing the work, if you will. so I guess the technique that most people use and that came in handy was, you know, compartmentalization where you have to divide yourself. Here's my role as medical examiner. Here's my role as mother. I'm going home now, you know. but it can't be a really firm barrier. It has to be permeable, because if it's too firm a barrier, you lose your empathetic human nature in the work. So you become distant. You become scientific. You can't respond to the family members. And so you have to have it permeable and yet still be able to put it aside, and enjoy the time you're not dealing with death and sorrow. So, I think my family helped ground me with that and remind me of that, when I came home and, and were very important elements in my being able to cope.

GR: And the essence of your work entails drawing on the body, of the deceased body to reconstruct the deceased final hours or less minutes. Can you just give me an example of how that works?

MJ: Well, oftentimes, we'll come upon a scene. I'll be called to a scene and there's but dead person, and they may be laying in bed. They may be laying on the floor. They may be out in the forest. It may be in a car crash. It's quite, quite the panoply of, scenes. And the very first thing is to absorb and take note of the situation, how the person's lying, where they're what the environment is, what's around him, where they reaching for something, you know, what were they doing right before they… was a phone nearby? Did they write something down? All of these things that you're processing at the scene. And the next time that I will see the deceased is at the morgue, and it's a little bit of a more austere environment. So they are now on the gurney, and I am now observing them. But when I say the dead speak and they and they talk to me, they are talking to me through their disease, through their wounds, through what they did, did they shampoo their hair recently? Have they eaten a meal? I can see that inside their body. I can tell what it is. Have they applied deodorant? Did they paint their nails? what was their state of dress? All of this is giving me so much information. They are really talking to me like this is what I did in the last few hours of my life, and they're. And they're they're showing me and telling me that.

GR: That's interesting. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Mary Jumbelic. Doctor Jumbelic is a forensic pathologist who has served as the Chief Medical Examiner for Onondaga County. She recently published a memoir titled “Here, Where Death Delights,” and we've been discussing her book. So you gave me an example before the break of sort of how this process works, what you're trying to do. Is there one case over and above all the others that sticks with you in your head, maybe even haunts you?

MJ: Well, there are there are many, believe it or not. I guess the prologue to my book was one of the first stories I ever wrote. And it's about a boy who was murdered by his father after the mother was murdered in the same house. And that prologue sets up my book, really because I can envision that so clearly in my mind, going into the house and the situation and seeing the poor child and the mother and then coming home after that to my family and having my boys hug me so strongly and the symbol that stuck in my mind and it's in the story is bloody handprints that were on the wall from the boy after he had been, cut by a knife. And I have on my wall my boy's handprints in finger paint and that contrast of, you know, terror from a child and the love and joy from another child sits with me and is the tension that I feel in many cases, but is emblematic of it.

GR: Yeah, that's very powerful. So how did you know in doing this work, how did you know when it was time to retire?

MJ: Well, I have rheumatoid arthritis. when I developed it, you know, 17 years ago or some something like that. And, it has affected my joints primarily and really got into my ability to bend down, go to scenes, you know, do all this, do all this stuff – manual labor. People don't think of a forensic pathologist as being a manual labor. But we really are in many ways. And, it really took its toll on me. And I had really bad flare-ups of that. So it kind of was time when I felt I couldn't do it to the extent of that I wanted to professionally. Yeah.

GR: So in going through your book, I have to say I was surprised not to find a discussion of the Newlander case. And just to remind our listeners of that case, Robert Neulander was a prominent DeWitt ObGyn physician who was convicted of murdering his wife, Lesley, in their home. He had claimed that she fell in the shower. You were friends with this couple and as I understand it, you were retired by the time this incident happened and the original medical examiner's report, not yours, concurred with Doctor Neulander that it was indeed an accident. But then you develop suspicions about that. Take the story from there.

MJ: Sure. You're correct. It's not in this book. That's because I'm writing a second book and halfway through it now, and it will be included in that one, which, is going to feature stories, of violence against women as part of the lens that I will be using. Yes, I was approached by friends of Leslie about the case, and I had had a devastating medical situation myself, so I was in a wheelchair. I had been in a coma. I was recovering, from a complication related to my rheumatoid, and, I didn't. And when she died, I was shocked and she had visited me just a couple days before, and I couldn't wrap my mind around it. I wasn't well myself, but the friends never let it drop. They never let it drop. And it just kept saying, you know, please look into this. Please tell me what to do. And it went from there. And then, you know, once I did get involved, it was clear to me that this was a murder. And then the rest is kind of, history, if you will. It, there was an investigation already ongoing, unbeknownst to me. Other people weren't settled with this either. was it as if, I was Chicken Little, calling out. So, it went from there and everyone, the prosecution did what they needed to. The police did what they needed to do. They had many other experts look at it, not just a little old Mary Jumbelic and come to the conclusion that, you know, she was killed, and, and didn’t fall in the shower and, and a trial and then an appeal and another trial, and there'll be more appeals. But in my mind, it's settled, yeah.

GR: Well, given all that was going on with you and your relationship to the couple, this whole thing must have affected, you know, very deeply.

MJ: It did, and it was very hard within the community for a couple of years because people didn't know what was going on. You know, nothing was made public. So the evidence was private. And all the investigation was somewhat private, and there are just rumors floating around. And so there was the pro-Bob side and the pro-Leslie side. And I was just persona non grata in the middle of everything. So it was not just because of my relationship with them, but because of the community, very, very difficult couple of years.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is former Onondaga County Chief Medical Examiner Mary Jumbelic. So I did want to ask you a couple of other questions about this and hopefully, I'm not, you know, opening up a wound too much for you here, but I am very curious to get your take on these things. Doctor Neulander's children, I believe, stuck by him during this trial. but in one of the appeals that you mentioned, the evidence was described by the court as overwhelming, in terms of his guilt. Why do you think the children have stuck by him and not kind of, in a sense, taking the side of the dead here?

MJ: Well, I guess, it philosophically gets to, what did the original information that was provided to them do to them? So that's why it's so, so very important that the medical examiner forensic pathologist that's listening to the dead person takes that information and provides it, whether it's pleasant or whether it's not pleasant or whether it confirms or whether it denies what the family thinks, it's important to get it right. It's important to get it right at that at that point, because what happened is, it was called an accident. Everyone thought it was an accident for months. So that has a chance for that settles in. That's the story. That's the oral history. And then how do you change that? Especially when the family doesn't see the evidence, doesn't see everything until court and that's like what, two years later? And so now there's just been too much time for that to jell and set, hard to reverse that.

GR: Yeah, that makes sense. It's kind of a cognitive dissonance kind of kind of thing. Well, you mentioned there were a lot of appeals in this case. My understanding is Doctor Neulander just recently filed another one several weeks ago, and it revolves around the instructions that the judge gave the jurors regarding his daughter not testifying on his behalf, I guess in one of the subsequent hearings. I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a legal expert. But my understanding would be if at this point, if he wanted not to end his life in prison, he'd probably be better off admitting guilt and trying to show good behavior in prison. And, you know, do all the things you need to do to get parole. But he's persisting in these appeals, insisting on his on his innocence. Why do you think he's doing that? Do you have any insight into that?

MJ: You know, I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist or, sociologist. so I don't I don't know what is propelling him forward, but at some point, you're so deep in the lie, I think you can't get out of it. How do you save face and get out of it? “Oh. I've put my family through all this. I've put the community through all this. I still have some support. And now I'm just going to say, oh, well, sorry, guys. you know, I did it.” But, you know, and I'm not sure it's weighing on his conscience. Like, it doesn't strike me as the kind of person who needs to clear his mind before he goes to the grave, so I don't know that, though. But, I don't. What would compel him? What would compel him at this point?

GR: Yeah. Well, we've got about, three minutes or so left, and I want to try to squeeze in, two questions if I can. Okay. I want to change this to a happier note and then the first one is, you know, you've done a lot of, very interesting, philanthropic work helping in different things. You mentioned, going to New York on 9/11. Just tell us about some of the work you've done in various places.

MJ: Well, it started with the crash, off of, Mauritius in Long Island, the TWA crash, where the state, the governor called the response team to help out the local medical examiner. And while I was there, I met the man in charge of the federal team Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. He said, why don't you join our federal team? So I joined the federal team and the next year responded to Guam on a Korean airline crash there. And then one thing led to another, and I started responding to mass disasters, with the biggest, probably the most personal impact being the World Trade Center. But all of them have had, tremendous impact. And I represented the United States, for the Andaman Sea tsunami that occurred back in 2004. I went over to Thailand and there was a big international committee, and I represented the United States as a medical examiner. So my husband has always said, oh, you couldn't take death just on a like a local single basis. You had to really swallow the whole thing. Like really large format. I never saw it that way. I just kind of got drawn into it. But, I guess he's right. It was very impactful because you get to see how different cultures handle death. You get to see what happens to a society in a country when a major event occurs, and you still try to focus on the individual that's on your table.

GR: Yeah. That's interesting. So, we got about a minute left or so. I want to leave you time to talk about the new book you've got in the works. So it will involve the Neulander case. Tell, are you using the same approach or the same kind of literary memoir or something different? Tell us. Tell us what you're up to there.

MJ: Yes, I think that my voice in the stories has been very positively received, and I've gotten a lot of feedback from readers and reviews of the format. And so I feel, emboldened by that. So I'm, I'm continuing in that vein and it will have different stories again woven in with my experiences as a girl and as a woman. So, yes, Leslie will be one large piece of it, but so will Carol Ryan, and so will others that are close to my heart and that I don't that I remember in great detail. And I will interweave that with my own experiences.

GR: Oh. Okay. Well, that sounds great. Just a few seconds left, squeeze something else and go back to what we were just talking about. You going into different areas of the world, working with death. Is there a culture out there or a country out there that you think handles death particularly well in a healthy way?

MJ: Oh, that's loaded. That is a heavy question. I think that every culture has its pluses and minuses when it deals with death, but I think we don't do it well. So I guess I'm answering the opposite…

GR: That's ok.

MJ: …you're saying. But I don't think we do it well. I think we're afraid of it in America. I think we cover it up, we sanitize it, we put deodorant on it, and we kind of ignore the impact of it. If we could just look it in the face, I think it would have a much stronger impact on us.

GR: That was Doctor Mary Jumbelic. And again, her new memoir is titled “Here, Where Death Delights.” It's a very interesting read, and it's very well done. Doctor Jumbelic, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

MJ: You're welcome. Thank you so much for the opportunity, Grant.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.