Having spent a decade as the executive assistant to Maryland’s Chief Medical Examiner and public information officer for the OCME, journalist and medical writer Bruce Goldfarb has stories to tell. His new book OCME: Life in America’s Top Forensic Medical Center covers the history of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner—from the establishment of Baltimore’s first morgue up through the pandemic era—alongside vivid snapshots of its day-to-day operations. Far from a dry history, OCME is a surprisingly touching portrait of a complex workplace, complete with a cast of unique characters all working together to serve the institutional mission of advocating for the dead, even as funding falters and the already daunting caseload increases.
With OCME, Goldfarb makes a powerful case for the institution’s relevance. Since its inception in 1939, the office has been a feather in Maryland’s cap, with a stellar reputation in the forensic science community. But, like many state organizations, the OCME is in deep trouble. Budget cuts and a major decline in career interest in forensic pathology, along with increased strain from the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing opioid crisis are all to blame. “The average person doesn’t have a reason to think about it,” says Goldfarb, “but when a public safety system fails, the consequences can be catastrophic.”
Goldfarb portrays the staff of the OCME as focused, competent professionals maintaining their composure under immense strain, but weaves in dozens of small moments to let their humanity shine through. From a forensic pathologist building a haunted house in his office to an autopsy tech ruining a bag of pretzels with “cadaver molecules,” these underappreciated workers are presented as complete people—including the author himself. OCME is an honest, nuanced look at life in a difficult, but essential, field.
Baltimore Fishbowl: This is your second popular nonfiction book after 2020’s 18 Tiny Deaths, a biography of Frances Glessner Lee, the mother of forensic science. OCME seems like a very different book—you’re writing about your workplace, about the history of an organization rather than a biography. How did it come together?
Bruce Goldfarb: I was working on another book when my boss, then-Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Fowler, resigned at the end of 2019. So I set that aside and started to work on the OCME book. I envisioned it as depicting a sort of fall from grace. It was a once-great institution—I didn’t know how bad it was going to get, but it was clear that things were in a bad place and going to get worse.
I knew when I got the job that it was an opportunity. It was extraordinary to be in such a central spot and have this bird’s eye view of the organization. From the very beginning, I was keeping contemporaneous notes and filing them away—one day, maybe. But the state has no mandatory retirement age, and right up until the very last, Fowler gave no indication that he was near retirement.
BFB: OCME is structured around this larger narrative around the institution’s struggle over the last decade, but a lot of the book is made up of these small vignettes—sometimes they’re funny, sometimes macabre. And there’s this great cast of characters that get introduced very lovingly. Had you been keeping track of them the whole time you were working there?
BG: Oh, absolutely. I got bunches of them I couldn’t fit into the book. The two questions I got most often were what’s it like to work there? and what’s your day like? So I tried to depict that. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s absurd. And it whipsaws, you know, one moment you’re enjoying a joke and then boom, something really weird or bad happens and that’s the way life is.
BFB: Writing about your job can be pretty emotionally complicated, but in the book it feels like you found a balance between expressing that emotional complication and maintaining a strong sense of professional decorum. How did you find that balance? Did you pull any punches?
BG: I just wrote things as I remembered them. I was not as mean to some people as I could have been—but nobody who presently works there. I mean, it wasn’t the goal to write a tell-all book, you know, all the rotten things that people did. I could have written any number of books, but I wrote this one because it was this story that I wanted to tell.
BFB: It’s clear you didn’t have a chip on your shoulder going into it. Though there were clearly a lot of problems going on that you wanted to highlight, it never felt like you were writing this as a “take this job and shove it” kind of thing.
BG: No, no, no. I didn’t want to do that. It’s an institution that’s really, really deeply in trouble. And I don’t think people appreciate it. I hope that with the new administration, a new governor, that there’s an opportunity to do something because there’s this really important part of the public health system that is failing, not just here in Maryland, but throughout the country.
You know, as awful as things got, the people are good. They’re dedicated to their mission. But they’re overwhelmed, trying to bail out the ship and working as furiously as they can against this increasingly daunting situation. And you have to respect that. It’s not like they can just say, “We can’t do this. Never mind. Let’s go home.”
BFB: So I take it you no longer work there.
BG: I left at the end of August. I was still working there when I finished the book.
BFB: Do you think there’s any potential for this book to be adapted?
BG: Wouldn’t it be wonderful? I’m sure there’s potential. It’s got to be released first so people read it. But that would be nice. I don’t think there’s been a really good, original forensic science ongoing series in a while, right?
BFB: It would be a sort of character-based workplace drama, in the vein of ER or Boston Legal.
BG: Yeah! Let’s see if other people agree with you. I look forward to Steve Buscemi being cast as me.
Book talk and signing: Wednesday, March 1, 2023, 6:oo to 7:30 p.m.
Historic Osler Hall at MedChi, 1211 Cathedral Street, Mount Vernon
Books sold by Greedy Reads
Please RSVP by February 25, 2023 firstname.lastname@example.org