Interview with a Death Investigator, Part I of II
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Joseph Scott Morgan is a man in the truest sense.
He was a death investigator from 1985 to 2005, first in New Orleans then in Atlanta. Think about that for a second… 20 years on the front lines, staring into the abyss. Then, like the man said, the abyss looked back. Long and hard. Joe, as I like to call him, was medically retired in 2005 with PTSD. Now, what makes him a man to me is that he went through all that and came out even more human t
han he was when he started. He is one of the realest people I have ever spoken with.
After he left the medical examiner’s office in 2005, he took some time to put himself back together. When he was ready to face his past, he wrote a book called BLOOD BENEATH MY FEET-THE JOURNEY OF A SOUTHERN DEATH INVESTIGATOR, released by Feral House in 2012. I loved it. When I knew I was going to be interviewing him, I knew this would be personal for me. I was an EMT in a 911 system for a chunk of time. There were things I saw and I knew here is a man who has smelled the same things I have.
This interview will be presented in 2 parts. It was a truly cathartic experience for me. I am thrilled to have this opportunity and I am proud of the result. It’s not going to be an easy read for some of you. The nature of the subject matter is heavy. I will tell you that this was one of the most honest and soulful conversations I’ve ever had in my life.
Joe is now a teacher. His proper title is Distinguished Scholar of Applied Forensics. This is really cool to me because he is distinguished to me in every sense. His classroom can be found at Jacksonville State University where he holds the faculty rank of Associate Professor of Applied Forensics. Joe holds a Master of Forensics Sciences degree from National University and is a Board Certified Fellow of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.
Joe can be found on TV on CNN, Headline News, and Discovery ID – How Not to Kill Your Husband as the on air forensics expert. BLOOD BENEATH MY FEET and other works by Joe are being developed for a TV show by Rich Middlemas along with Sean McEwen and Charlie Baby Productions. McEwen produced the Jack Black film “Bernie” among others. Joe is writing the pilot and I for one will be watching when it comes
Joe was the 2013 Georgia Author of the Year.
And I’m proud to call him my friend.
D: Usually when I do an interview, I have a list of prepared questions. I read your book twice in a week and every time I started to write down questions I figured it would be better just to let it be a free for all conversation. In the words of that asshat Bill O’Riley, “Fuck it, we’ll do it live.”
J: (laughs ) All right. I’m down with it man, you know what? Let’s go!
D: You wrote so many things where I thought to myself, in my career and it helped me (reading your book) thinking that “Wow, someone else has thought these things. I’m not the only one”. First thing I wanted to ask you: Between the time you left the medical examiners office until you wrote the book, how much time passed and what made you finally decide to write the book?J: I guess it was probably a period about 10 months to a year at least, I put my toe in the water around 2010 and when I was at the office, I was officially separated from them in 2005, so I had this period of recovery, I guess not really recovery as much as it was survival. Survival in two ways, you know I have a family that I had to take care of and then I’ve been, for lack of a better term, nursing that idea of death of for so long I knew nothing else.
J: I was told by Dr William Eckert, who was this famous forensic pathologist (I worked with him for years), and he told me when I was initially hired it appeared that I was the youngest medical examiner in the country. That’s kind of a back handed compliment; on one level you can be all puffed up about it, on the other hand it’s a way of saying you are too damn young to be in the business.
It’s all I knew and it was hard. I had to find something to do in order to support me and my family. There are a lot of different dynamics going on, when I separated, the county I was working for sent me to a psychiatrist, a little lady from India. She was older, she had come to America and done her residency in the VA up in New York or something during the Vietnam war and she told me at that time that I have the worst case of PTSD she’s seen since her days there, and I had all kind of things, tremors, I couldn’t hold my hand still, my wife was there with me, and you know she had to take care of me and she was pregnant, and the lady looked at me from across the desk and said, “Listen, if you try to get back I will make every effort to have you committed.”
And here I am, in this kind of reduced manhood. Everything kind of leaked out onto the floor if you will. I was nothing, because my whole identity was wrapped up in that. But when my wife called and tried to, you know, get everything squared away relative to my break… My breakdown and with what their psychiatrist had told me, the lady at the county had told her, this is in Atlanta told her, uh, “Well, I can tell you right up front he’s not going to get any disability because too many people can fake PTSD.” And so at that time we had no choice but to literally dig into everything; all my retirement savings. And we were left with our pockets turned inside out and we had a baby on the way, and thankfully Cobra, the insurance policy, covered the birth of our son, who died. He died within the same day he was born.
D: I’m sorry.
J: Yeah, I am too but you know Dave, it was, that’s one of the things I’ve gone onto write about. Still and having shared it with…really at this point, it will hopefully be revealed with this future work I’m doing with these people. You know it’s one of the worst parts of working as a medical/legal death investigator that you don’t really see in Hollywood because they show some cop going up to the door. I was tasked in my position with making notifications. That’s what we did, other than being the eyes on the scene, making the examinations of the bodies, and one of our big tasks is to notify families in all kinds of death.
I used to say a prayer. I really put a lot of pride into trying to show mercy to people who didn’t really get a lot of mercy extended to them because I’d see people at their lowest points in life. You know, you go through a divorce, that’s pretty low. And losing somebody, that’s pretty low. Those are the two lowest points, I’d say, and I always tried to extend mercy.
I had this caveat in my mind where I’d say… I’d bargain with God. I’d tell God, “Look, you know, I know I’m gonna die because I’m brushing up against death all the time. I just hope whoever tells my family is going to show mercy to them.” And in this weird kind of thing that maybe only holds irony to me because of where I came from, when Isaac (my son) passed on, I was sitting in a chair in Macon, Georgia, in this hospital. My wife was there. I’ve got PTSD. I can’t really begin to describe to you how low we were at that point. I had been literally, you know, literally but figuratively castrated. You know, my ability to take care of my family.
I was just this weak, quivering mass just holding my son and he dies there and that whole time…. I had a choice as to whether or not I was going to shoot myself because I had to tell myself that he was dead and I bore witness to it. After all these shells that were left behind for so many years, these things that I would bear witness to, and had to tell people these horrible things, these visions that would kind of pop on my horizon… I was historian of record and you go and impart that to these people and then here you are, you kind of become your own historian for a moment. Your mettle is tested at that moment in time, you know, how badly do you want mercy? And you have to make a choice at that point in time how much mercy you are going to show yourself.
For me, going forward with everything I bore witness to and in kind of this… you know, prism that I view the world through, it has that film of death that sits on it. It reflects light in a way that really only a death investigator can see it. You know that someone like yourself that has been exposed to these horrible things, that your life in this world is refracted in a way that some insurance salesman or bus driver, somebody that’s just sitting around the crib on the dole, they never see it really. You know they never really see it quite the way you do.
J: They just uh…They just… There’s a great line in movie not many people like. I actually like this movie cause it’s kind of hokey. It’s “Joe Versus the Volcano” with Tom Hanks. You know the great line in there, “90% of the world just walks around in like complete obliviousness to the world and the other 10% walk around in total amazement.*” And there is an amazement that comes along with that essence of death that you’re touched with, in my estimation, at least and that’s just my…. I didn’t mean to go so far around the barn but I think that you really need to understand. So that’s one of the big questions that people have always asked me. They’ve read this book, and they’ve read other stuff that I’ve written, and they say, “We wanna know more about what happened.” Because when I wrote the book… You can see it’s very non-linear and the reason it’s not linear is it kind of started out as a task; journaling, almost as a therapeutic memoir.
D: I can see that.
J: I had no intent, in the beginning, for people to see this. And one of my wife’s closest friends is a poet. She’s great at creative writing. She’s very, very talented. I was hesitant to tell anybody about a lot of this stuff. After she read it she said, “You’ve really got a book here,” and I thought, “Who in the world would wanna read this?” She’s said, “Your voice is something different. You have a unique voice in this.”
I don’t have any formal training, and my writing Dave – I sit and I’m intimidated when I’m around people like yourself. And one of the great pleasure’s I had about two years ago I got invited to hear Pat Conroy speak. He embraced me and told me that he was pulling for me. Mr Pat died this past year and I have no business even being in the same room with that man, you know, I’m not a writer. I didn’t set out to be a writer. Yet the voice I have just comes. It has kind of a natural patina to it. It’s not refined; it’s nothing. I went to some kind of University of Iowa workshop to learn how to do it and I hate journaling. I don’t know if you were one of those kids, I was one of those kids in school, you know, when the English teacher would tell you well we’re gonna journal.
D: Oh, yeah, I hated that as well.
J: I hate it man, I can’t stand it. It gets to me. I don’t want all the minutiae of my life down in a book, day in and day out. It’s self serving but I understand what they are trying to do with it. It’s just…So, when I sat down to do this I gotta tell you, it’s like uh…When I started doing it because I was not… The thing was, I didn’t wanna be on dope man and you wouldn’t believe the kinds of drugs they try to put you on. I needed to find kind of an alternative to that. It’s horrible. Seroquel in particular.
D: Yup, I took that and it fucked me up.
J: Taking it was like being in a hellish nightmare, you know, because you can’t…At least when you wake up from dreams that you have from PTSD, you wake up. From the dreams with Seroquel, you’re kind of trapped in there with them.
J: It’s just this horrible, horrible other worldly existence. Very black. It’s very, very black.
D: I took Seroquel for a period of time and the side effects did a number on me. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD myself. I tell her (my doctor) about stuff I saw on the job and from other areas of my life. And she asks me how have I managed to be so ok or well adjusted with it and I say, “I’m not necessarily ok with it, I just kind of acknowledge it’s there. And at times you know, it comes out. I’ll see something and it’s gets out there.” You ever see a war movie where a guy will be hit, usually in the belly, he’s eviscerated and he’s trying to put everything back in while saying, “I’m ok, I’m gonna be ok?” I feel a lot of times, when these memories come up for me, it’s like I’m that guy trying to put everything back in going, “I’m gonna be ok,” over and over.
J: Right, you’re right. And you have to convince yourself that you’re going to be ok. Sometimes I thank God for my wife because you know, if it wasn’t for her… I would become almost childlike and she would just begin to rub my head and reassure me and man, that was better than any drug in the acute phase. But to try to…. As my granny used to say, “You gotta get the core out of it,” which means you’ve got a huge sore coming up out of you up out of you. You might get relief temporarily but you gotta get that core out of you.
And the way I was able to do this was to bleed on the keyboard if you will. When you read it, there was a lot of stuff left out of the book and I’ve written so much more since then that I haven’t shared. I could fill volumes with what I have and the way I saw cases. But just that taste that the reader gets and they kind of got a little bit of a view into the person I am. In my eyes, the way I view the world.
This is another big thing for me and, Dave, I don’t know if you picked up on it. There was an underlying kind of spiritual religiosity in some of the stuff I talk about. A lot of it has to do with growing up in the South and the worldview that we have you know. It’s an interesting worldview. I’ll just put it to you that way, particularly when it comes to religion. You know, at the end of the day, when some slicked back hair Baptist preacher tells you, “Come on down front and leave all your cares at the altar,” it just don’t cut it. It goes deeper than that and people want the flash, they don’t want the tears. You know they don’t want to hear what the reality of it is lots of times. They don’t want to hear about those kinds of horrors in the world.
D: People don’t understand that at the end of the day, for a lot of people like you, like me, you’re alone with it. There aren’t too many people that you can say, “Hey, I just dealt with this…” My coworkers, at least in my field from talking to police, fire, paramedics, EMT’s, everybody had a different way of dealing with it. Some drank, some worked out, some prayed but the one thing you couldn’t do is admit to any kind of weakness or that you saw something that affected you.
J: Exactly, you’re right.
D: That was something that you know, for me, one of the best things I had is my Dad. My Dad was in Vietnam on the medical side of things. He worked in military hospitals, emergency rooms and he was a surgical tech for over 20 years. I used to work night shifts and a lot of times I would get off and I would just drive to my parents house. We would sit out on the back deck and just kind of look at each other and just be like…He could just look at me and he knew. And I would look at him and it was just total understanding without a word.
D: And that meant more to me than I could ever imagine because it’s… Shit man…. When you talked about literally shaking at scenes…
D: Working the night shift, I could never sleep and I used to sit there, right next to the radio going I want a call, I don’t want a call, over and over. I want to move, I don’t want to move and you get a call and the bell rings and you’re on point and afterword it’s like everything stops on a dime and you’re back to that point.
J: There are very few rushes in this world, it was, you know, in the ME’s office you don’t just deal with homicides. You literally deal with every death. You’re dealing with suicides and accidents and natural deaths and, uh, undetermined and so it was a grab bag. It was almost disappointing sometimes when somebody would call and say they have a homicide. Because I’d gotten so numb to that level of adrenaline that the calls I really longed for at that point that would give me such a rush and numb me… They’d give you a call and say, “We got a body and we have no idea what this is.” Because then, at that moment in time, they would totally be dependent on what you’re going to offer them when you show up and do the assessment.
You do these things and go into these places even though a lot of the cops will stay outside while you go in. You know the flies are lighting on you. The same flies that have been lighting on the body. And they are going in your nose and are getting into your mouth and on your hands with maggots crawling up your gloves. But you’re there discovering these things that no other human being on the face of the earth will ever find or discover.
You know a lot of people will climb Mount Everest and have conquered the top of it but it’s the same mountain every time. You’ve got something that is an unknown like death. You’re digging into something and looking at something that no one else will ever have an opportunity to dig into. And back to the twistedness of that mentality, you have to numb yourself with that kind of intellectual adrenaline rush in order to fight off the ghosts for just that period of time because they’re going to come back. It’s not necessarily ghosts, it’s taking on.. I tried to anthropomorphize to a certain degree because I always envisioned death as I described death in my writings: as a slobbering drunk that shows up to a party and throws his arm around you and breaths his breath into your face.
D: I thought that description was absolutely brilliant. Great writing.
J: Death is that annoying person that will never be asked to leave the party because even if you did he wouldn’t. He is incapable of leaving the party and he is always going to be there irritating everyone. He is that pebble in your boot that you can never be free of, that will always be there and in the back of your mind you know that he lingers.
You know half the world, actually over half the world, is not aware that he’s there and that’s kind of the horror that you see. You know that he is there but you become numb to him until he starts wagging his finger at you and drawing you closer to him and he’s telling you that he can take you anytime he wants because with everything you’ve seen, you know what his potential is. You know that you can be just driving down the road and suddenly the back tire on an 18 wheeler can come loose and smash through the window of your car. You know that you can drive down an interstate going to the grocery store and a guy in a Cessna has to put his plane down and he puts it down on top of your car. You know that you can walk into a McDonald’s with your family and a crackhead can walk in and because you dare stand in between him and your family he will shoot you in your face.
These things are real, they are there and they feed the beast that is PTSD. It’s not so much for me because it’s for those you hold close and you love. Now I think it’s that way a lot with people who are in public service because they see the horrors that are out there as part of their jobs. You know that’s why the Dad is sitting in the front room with a pistol when his daughter’s first date comes to the door. You know what I’m saying? That’s why they are aware of these things that are out there, that’s why we are so jaded. I’m not saying I’m better. I’m saying I’m different in a sense of that fact I’m part of a very small minority of people who do what I do for a living.
There are very few of us out there- medicolegal death investigators that are the eyes and the ears of the pathologists that are out in the field. We have a different worldview of death then, say, the police do. We don’t look at it just to see, we are not out to get our man and, you know, for a cop the body is merely a means to an end. For us, the body is the case. Everything else is peripheral to us. We’re looking at the science of it, trying to figure out what happened to this person and not run off half cocked. You have to try to break into those bones, into the marrow to get in there and try to figure out what happened. And, you know, who other than some nerd or geek like me is going to care about some medical misadventure case? I care. I want to find out if this doctor actually killed this person while they were working on them. I want to find out of this person was given a fatal mix of medication’s because they have four different doctors prescribing them meds. And it’s like I always say about doctors: If you or I, in the course of our work, cause someone to die, they’re going to charge us with manslaughter – involuntary manslaughter or whatever the case may be. The doctor who goes out and kills somebody in the course of their work – they are going to call that medical misadventure.
D: I know many paramedics that have that as their greatest fear. You know the process of intubation? I know that with a high percentage of intubations, the process can go sideways. And as an EMT or paramedic, it’s all about the airway. And they all know it’s the one thing that could very likely get them sued.
J: It’s a delicate process under not very delicate circumstances.
D: I know I did God knows how many calls and their are a handful that I can remember every single detail: the room, the smell, the patient, the other first responders in the room. Like it was yesterday and every once in a while I’ll catch a smell. Where me and my girlfriend live, 3-4 blocks away I had a call back in 2014. Now, when we get of a call man down, no further information, that can be anything. A drunk that fell over to the broadest spectrum you can imagine. We pulled up in the truck and it’s 4 in the morning. Uh, sorry, do you not want to hear this? I apologize.
J: No please, go ahead.
D: So we pull up in the truck, I open the door and I hear this screaming, this godawful wailing, like an animal caught in a trap. I’ve heard screaming before but never like this. The street was a one way street, we’re facing the opposite way, cars on the other side are blocking something on the ground. I can see police and fire standing looking down and something.
I remember time slowed to a crawl. The expressions on their faces- I knew this was different. I walk over and there is a woman on the ground, pants around her ankles and shirt up above her breasts, her head looked like a pumpkin that somebody had dropped on the ground, all mis-shaped, her face wasn’t even a face anymore. She had been beaten with a pipe. There was blood everywhere. The firemen were trying to hold her still so c-spine could be protected. She was thrashing and blood was flying everywhere. I remember I could feel the bones in her head slide around as my partner put the collar on her. I remember how slow it all went when in reality we mush have been there no more then 5 minutes.
Got her to the hospital, blood all over us, the stretcher, the truck…. Anyway, she died a few days later. I never knew her name. I realized later that I was bearing witness to her last few minutes that she was semi conscious on earth. The docs induced a coma immediately because of the nature of the injuries. I will never forget her. Every fucking day I drive by the spot where we picked her up.
J: I was going to ask you that or if you avoid the street.
D: Ha ha, I wish I could but the way this city is laid out, there are only like three roads in and out and it just ends up like that. I think I’m supposed to remember her every time. Anyway, she is one of my ghosts, as you wrote in your book. I bore witness to her last minutes on earth. I can remember being in rooms where a family member looked at me like, “Are they gonna be ok?” And I’m thinking, “No, most likely not.” And you know there is almost nothing you can say to make it better. When I read about you giving notifications, I know it was hard but I have nothing but the utmost respect for that. I know the strength you have and I know it took a toll, but clearly to me I know you’ve dealt with a lot. Got nothing but respect for you.
J: When the book dropped, I got essentially three categories of people who picked it up. I had people the I call gorewhores or gorehounds.
D: I fucking hate them.
J: Ha ha, they got my book because they saw the cover and title. And I think they thought it was going to be a true crime book and there are certain things in it that might give people pause. They must have thought it was going to be the next JonBenet book. I remember one really cutting kind of thing that was said, it wasn’t so much and I kind of felt sorry for this person and this person’s family. They wrote, “I don’t want to hear about his depression,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, you paid your nickel so you want to see the guy with two heads. That’s what you’re looking for.”
And I would have the group of people that were amazed because they didn’t know my profession existed. They would pat me on the back and say, “You made me aware that’s there’s another level to all this forensic stuff and death investigators and we never knew what happens dead bodies or who has to deal with all that.”
And then I had people like you and a whole group of police officers and firefighters and a few EMT’s. And they came to me and they would always extend their hand to me and in real hushed tones say, “Thank you for saying exactly what I’ve been thinking for so long.”
Part II will appear next week.
￼Patricia: “My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.” Joe Vs. The Volcano