DATE November 5, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Gretchen Worden on medical exhibits at Mutter Museum
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Mutter Museum is a medical museum affiliated with the College of
Physicians of Philadelphia. Its exhibits are of tumors, lesions, spinal
malformations, Siamese twins and other deformities, pathologies and medical
anomalies. Although it was created for medical students, it's also open to
the public and attracts many people who are interested in observing the
mysteries of the human body. My guest, Gretchen Worden, has worked at the
museum since 1975, and has directed it since 1988. She's compiled a new book
of photos of the exhibitions. Many of the photographs were taken by artists
who Worden says are not interested in conventional beauty but want to explore
its opposite: the deformed, the broken, the disfigured body of those who
suffered congenital abnormality, trauma or destructive disease. She adds,
`While these bodies may be ugly, there is a terrifying beauty in the spirits
of those forced to endure these afflictions.'
I asked Worden to explain the original reason the Mutter Museum collected
these medical anomalies.
Ms. GRETCHEN WORDEN (Director, Mutter Museum): It began as a museum of
pathological anatomy and it was based on the collections of Dr. Thomas Dent
Mutter, who was a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College here in
Philadelphia, 1841 to '56. And at that time it was the way you taught
medicine from actual specimens and models. And so its primary purpose was for
the education of medical students.
GROSS: So it wasn't uncommon then to collect and preserve diseased organs or
to make plaster casts of deformities?
Ms. WORDEN: Oh, absolutely not. No, the idea of preserving both normal
anatomical bodies and pathological specimens goes back hundreds of years
GROSS: I guess there weren't really good photographs yet.
Ms. WORDEN: Photographs didn't come along until 1839. That was when the
first daguerreotype was produced and so it was much more practical at that
time if you wanted a teaching specimen to either preserve it in fluid or dry
it out or reproduce it as a wax model or a plaster cast.
GROSS: Now why are they exhibited now? These aren't used to teach anymore,
Ms. WORDEN: Oh, we're still very educational. Only the audience has
Ms. WORDEN: We're part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which is
a private medical society that was founded in 1787 and it has a tremendous
medical historical library, the fourth largest in the country. And the museum
collection was seen as a complement to the information in the library for the
benefit primarily, when it was acquired by the college, the members of the
college and their professional colleagues. But the public was always welcomed
ever since it became part of the college in 1863. And it simply is a fact
that today, most of our visitors are from the general lay public, not people
with medical backgrounds. But they're seeing the same materials that were
collected and used to educate physicians in the previous century.
GROSS: I want to talk about some of the specimens that are in the Mutter
Museum. And let's start with a plaster cast of a French woman's head with a
horn growing out of the forehead. Who is this person and what's happened to
Ms. WORDEN: Actually it's a wax model. The woman, as far as we know, was
known as Madam Dimanche, which has been translated as the Widow Sunday. And
she was an 80-year-old washerwoman living in Paris and she'd actually had some
previous growths of this type. It's called cornu cutanium. It's horny
substance in the skin that starts overgrowing and producing these excrescences
and in this case, it happened to be a spectacular growth coming out of her
forehead. And the model that we have shows it about six inches long. The
reports--there's a published report in an 1851 journal that describes it as
being, by that time, nine or 10 inches long. And she had to support it in a
sack sewn onto her nightcap until she finally got to the doctor and had it
GROSS: How do you live with a horn growing out of your forehead for so long?
Ms. WORDEN: Well, I keep telling people--even today, people put off going to
the doctor. And I think we all have a little reluctance. Back then, there
was less that a doctor could do for you so the hesitation was natural. That's
one of the biggest questions. People look at her and wonder how can you let
it grow so long. And I point out that she was a washerwoman, and this is
someone who takes in laundry. She probably was not dealing with the public.
She was a widow, didn't have a husband around to nag her about getting that
thing off your forehead. So I'm just speculating that that's what she did.
GROSS: Now is this a problem that still exists? I mean, are people still
growing horns out of their foreheads?
Ms. WORDEN: Absolutely.
Ms. WORDEN: Anybody can develop this. And it can be found in animals as
well, cats and dogs. But as they say, it doesn't usually get that large.
GROSS: Now there's a plaster cast of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese
Ms. WORDEN: Right.
GROSS: How did the Mutter Museum get a plaster cast of the Siamese twins?
Ms. WORDEN: We had it made, and we had it made because we had just completed
the autopsy on the Siamese twins in 1874. And that really was a great moment
in the history of the college. These were internationally known men. And the
question had always persisted from the first time they started going on public
exhibit in 1829: Could they have been safely separated? And they would
challenge the medical profession with that question. And it was a way of
And finally when the College of Physicians heard that they'd died, they
realized this is an opportunity to answer that question. And they actually
were able to get the families to agree to have the bodies brought to
Philadelphia, and the autopsy was done in the Mutter Museum at its original
location at 13th and Locust Streets. And after it was completed, that was
when we had the cast made. We were allowed to keep their actual livers as
well, because those were the only organs that were connected through that
GROSS: Are their livers still on exhibit?
Ms. WORDEN: Absolutely, right below the cast.
GROSS: And how are they preserved?
Ms. WORDEN: They're preserved right now in a 75 percent alcohol solution.
GROSS: Huh. So Chang and Eng were joined by the abdomen.
Ms. WORDEN: It was actually--at the end of the breastbone, there's a
cartilage, and they were connected by that cartilage. So the band mostly
consisted of skin and cartilage with superficial circulatory connections
going along the very thin strip of liver tissue that actually passed through
GROSS: How did they die, and what the Mutter Museum autopsy discover about
whether they could have lived independent of each other?
Ms. WORDEN: They died because a few years before 1874, Chang had suffered a
stroke, and he was not in as good health as Eng, who was the larger, taller
twin. And so it came to one night in January of 1874 when he was having
trouble breathing and was obviously ill. But they had this routine. They had
married sisters in North Carolina and had families of 21 children, but they
set up separate households in adjacent farms. And every three days, like
clockwork, they would travel from one man's farm to the other so that each man
could be with his family, be the master of his estate, and then they would go.
So it was a dark a stormy night, and they probably should not have gone
because Chang was not well. But he insisted that they go to Eng's house, and
during the night, he died. And Eng woke up and found that his brother was
dead and roused the household, and they sent for the doctor, who had always
said, `If one dies, I will cut close to the body of the dead twin, and the
other one should be able to survive.' The doctor didn't come in time, and
over the space of a few hours, Eng lapsed into a coma and died.
GROSS: So did the autopsy find that they perhaps could have survived had they
been separated earlier?
Ms. WORDEN: There is always that speculation that, had it been done when they
were children, when you have greater recuperative powers, it might have been
successful. But they also discovered that in that band, unsuspected, there
GROSS: The band of muscle that joined them?
Ms. WORDEN: The band of skin and cartilage, yeah. There were slight
outpouchings from each man's peritoneal cavity that contains your abdominal
organs. So the band would have had to be very carefully dissected because if
you get into the peritoneum, then you can get massive abdominal infection. So
the risk of infection was always there. And of course, you're talking 1874,
just beginning to use antiseptic surgical procedures. It's 20 years before
X-rays, so you really couldn't get an idea ahead of time what you'd find. It
would have been just operating blind, so to speak.
So the conclusion was that in the best of cases they might have been
surgically separated, but it probably would not have been advisable at any
point because of the risk of shock and infection and certainly more so when
they were adult men.
GROSS: Gretchen Worden is my guest, and she directs the Mutter Museum in
Philadelphia. It's a museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and
it was created in the 19th century as a museum of medical anomalies to teach
medical students about the practice of medicine. And now it's open to the
public and it's just very, very popular place to see all kinds of medical
One of the things on exhibit at the Mutter Museum is a giant colon, a colon
that grew to approximately five times the size of an average colon. What is
the story behind this colon?
Ms. WORDEN: It belonged to a man who died in 1892 at age 29. And it's a
congenital condition where you have a problem with the nerve supply to the
muscular wall of the colon, so feces don't pass through normally. And you get
backup of feces, and that's what caused the enlargement of the colon. Today
we'd probably solve it by a colostomy or resection of the bowel, and they'd
pick it up soon after, but we're talking the late 19th century. So it just
got progressively larger as he grew because at first he was able to function.
He had various jobs as a messenger. And at one time, he was actually on
display at the famous Dime Museum at Ninth and Arch Street as the windbag or
balloon man. But as he got older, he was getting increasingly uncomfortable.
So in 1892, he went to Hahnemann Medical College and complained to the
doctors, and they correctly diagnosed it as an enlarged colon. But 1892, you
weren't doing abdominal surgery that could have helped him in any way. So
they took photographs, which we have on display at the museum with the colon,
and then had to just send him away. And he died a few months later.
GROSS: What did he look like?
Ms. WORDEN: He looked like a perfectly ordinary guy, about 5'7", a spare
body, but with this enormously distended abdomen. And when they did the
autopsy, they found that his abdominal organs were practically, you know,
pushed up into his chest up to his clavicle. So it must have been horribly
GROSS: So this colon is now preserved in what?
Ms. WORDEN: It was cleaned out, dried and stuffed with a lot of excelsior,
which is just wood shavings. We found old newspapers in it. I mean, it was a
big thing to stuff, so they put in a lot of material. And it's important now
because it's a spectacular example. Megacolons are fairly rare, and they just
rarely get to that size. So it is still impressive even to
gastroenterologists today, and it makes it very clear how far medicine has
progressed since 1892.
GROSS: My guest is Gretchen Worden, director of the Mutter Museum in
Philadelphia. Her new book is called "Mutter Museum." More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Gretchen Worden, director of the Mutter Museum, which is
part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The museum was started in
the mid-19th century to teach medical students about deformities,
disfigurements and the effects of destructive diseases.
Now the Mutter Museum was in its planning stages during the Civil War, and it
actually opened at just about the time that the Civil War ended. And there
are several very interesting displays within the exhibit that are documented
in your new book of Civil War injuries, of medical instruments that were used
to treat soldiers during the Civil war. Let's talk about some of that a
little bit. First of all, there were a lot of amputations during the war.
How is that documented? Amputations of soldiers who needed--you know, had
gangrened limbs or other wounds that required the limb be removed. What kind
of documentation do you have of that in the museum?
Ms. WORDEN: The photographs you mentioned actually came from the surgeon
general's office. It's part of what they called The Photographic Series, and
that was documenting Civil War wounds from about 1865 until about 1881. It's
a magnificent document of--photo document of the Civil War. And what they
were able to do is, in some cases, document the initial operation, what the
men look like. And then as some of these soldiers would return to Washington
to discuss pension disputes, for instance, they would be asked to go back to
the Army Medical Museum where the photos had been taken and you could do
follow-ups. So you can actually see what procedures were successful and how
well the men did as a result of amputations and some of the other operations.
There's an idea that an awful lot or that too many operations, amputations,
were done during the Civil War. But in some cases, the doctors have said that
there weren't enough because when you have a really severely damaged limb that
is infected by the dirt, the clothing and whatnot, infection could kill the
man. So the best thing to do is to remove the limb, create a clean surgical
wound that will then heal naturally. And some doctors didn't want to
amputate, would defer the decision from the field hospital to the general
hospital. So by the time the guy had his amputation, it was sometimes too
late; an infection had set in and they would die. So it was was done, for the
most part, appropriately.
GROSS: And needless to say, this was before antibiotics, so...
Ms. WORDEN: Exactly. Long time.
GROSS: ...you couldn't--you can kill an infection with antibiotics then.
Ms. WORDEN: Yeah.
GROSS: Well, you also have on display a Civil War medical kit. Talk about
some of the instruments in that kid that we wouldn't see today.
Ms. WORDEN: Yeah, actually, you'd see most of them today. The only thing you
wouldn't see is instruments with ebony handles, because now we know about
sterilization, and to do either heat or chemical sterilization, you need an
all-steel instrument. But the shape of the knives, the trephines, are almost
exactly what you'll find in a modern amputating kit. And I've been told by
some surgical departments that they still keep a case like this handy for use
GROSS: There's a little saw in there?
Ms. WORDEN: Yep. There's a saw. There's a saw for the skull. There's a saw
for taking off big limbs and a metacarpal saw for taking off fingers and toes.
GROSS: Is that how it would be done today, with a saw like that?
Ms. WORDEN: They would probably use an electric saw, not the old
Ms. WORDEN: But otherwise, yeah, sawing is the way you get through bone.
GROSS: Was there any equivalent of anesthesia besides, you know, a good shot
of alcohol that was used then?
Ms. WORDEN: Oh, absolutely. No, see, this is the other point that people
forget about the Civil War. Anesthesia--ether and chloroform had both been in
use since the 1840s. By the time the Civil War came along, doctors were
well-experienced in using it and they, for the most part, had good supplies
all through the war. And so anesthesia was not a problem. They did have
GROSS: What are some of the things that were learned about medicine as a
result of treating all the war injuries?
Ms. WORDEN: A lot of the doctors did become more proficient in dealing with
trauma wounds, because a lot of these doctors were coming from private
practice where you did not see as many gunshot wounds and fractures. So they
would improve their skills that way. There were advances made in plastic
surgery, particularly because of a New York doctor, Dr. Gurdon Buck, who had a
lot to work with in terms of some pretty awful face wounds and made
The problem with the Civil War is it came just before the great breakthrough
of Pasteur with the germ theory and Lister with the antisepsis. And so
whereas in a lot of wars, you can look at all the great leaps forward that
have been made that then become part of the systematic practice of medicine,
with the Civil War it's not so much that case. The great advance there was in
the organizing of the Army Medical Corps and in evacuating wounded men from
the field very quickly and getting them to field hospitals, because wars
always catch the Army Medical Corps by surprise, and so they have to staff up
very quickly by getting a lot of contract surgeons and enlisting them, and
also having to set up a system of the hospitals and the ambulances. So that
was the great advance, really, medically in the Civil War.
GROSS: Gretchen Worden is my guest. She is the longtime director of the
Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. It's a museum of medical anomalies that was
created in the mid-1800s. It's part of the Philadelphia College of
Physicians. And now there's a new book called "Mutter Museum" in which
there's a lot of photographs of the exhibits there and a lot of interesting
explanations of them. It was put together by Gretchen Worden.
You say in the book that one of the most popular exhibits in the museum is a
collection of more than 2,000 objects removed from the throats and airways of
patients, such as--what are some of the things that have been removed from
Ms. WORDEN: Well, the collection came to us in 1924, so there's stuff in
there that you're not going to see around today. Collar buttons, for example,
very popular with kids. We also have a lot of hairpins and safety pins, and I
speculate that, you know, maybe it was a mother holding the pin as she's
diapering the baby. Today you'd have diaper tabs; that's a current choking
hazard. You also get a lot of toys you don't see: jacks--I don't know kids
play with jacks anymore, but they certainly aren't using skate keys, and those
are some of the items. Plus, there's a lot of dental appliances. I think
dentists are more careful now about removing loose prosthetics from the mouth
before they go in. But there's a lot of that that slipped down people's
GROSS: There's a really eerie image in there--I think it must be, like, an
X-ray or something--of a throat with a little toy battleship stuck in it.
Ms. WORDEN: Yeah, it's an X-ray of a child, and we have the little metal
battleship, and it was successfully removed. Dr. Chevalier Jackson was the
physician who assembled the collection, and it was to be used as a teaching
collection, because for each item, he has the complete case history: how old
the patient was, where the object was, what it was, how long it had been in
there and what instrument was used to successfully remove it.
GROSS: Gretchen Worden is the director of the Mutter Museum of the College of
Physicians of Philadelphia. Her new book is called "Mutter Museum." She'll
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Gretchen Worden,
director of the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
The museum was created in the 1860s as a teaching museum for doctors studying
deformed and disfigured bodies and the impact of destructive diseases and
trauma. Its collection includes wax models, photographs and actual specimens.
Worden has a new book that features photos of the Mutter Museum's collection.
The Mutter Museum has a whole collection of fetuses stored in jars. What are
some of the medical reasons for this collection?
Ms. WORDEN: Well, it's interesting, we just have redone that exhibit. It's
called our teratology collection, and it's congenital abnormalities or birth
defects. And it's important in the study of embryology and in the study of
how the body develops normally. Oftentimes, it's only when something goes
wrong that you're aware of how it should go right and at what point in the
development. So it's a document of all of the different things that can
affect the development of the child, and it can be the internal environment,
it can be things that the mother has ingested or is exposed to, it can be
genetic, it can simply be a mutation on the gene. It can be caused by any
number of environmental teratogens, and I think there are more of those today
that can cause deformities. So it really gives us insight into the way human
beings develop when you look at the anomalies.
GROSS: And are most of these fetuses--were they mostly delivered or taken
surgically from the mother's womb?
Ms. WORDEN: The older specimens would probably be either natural miscarriages
or have been delivered normally. The more recent ones that we have with the
severe anomalies are sometimes from pregnancies that have been terminated
deliberately because the defect has been picked up on ultrasound or
amniocentesis, and the decision was made not to carry the pregnancy further.
GROSS: Is this one of the exhibits that gets, like, the most emotional
reaction from people? Or I'm wondering if it's even controversial among some
Ms. WORDEN: It really surprisingly hasn't engendered any controversy, because
we have it within the context of the whole Mutter Museum--we're an educational
museum about medicine and human development. It's in a section where it
segues smoothly into normal fetal development, conjoined twins. So because of
that, people look at it as part of the whole display, which is why I don't
sometimes like to have photographs of the fetuses taken and set apart from the
rest of the environment. But people--of course, they are amazed sometimes to
see some of these defects and then they start reading the labels.
Ms. WORDEN: And it's the same with all of the museum. Now I get--sometimes
people react more strongly to the megacolon or to the swallowed objects. You
never know what someone's going to identify with. They either have had a
similar problem or they know someone with it. Some people can't get over that
GROSS: Right. You know, one of the things that knocks me out--there's a
collection--there's a couple of photographs that you've included in your
Mutter Museum book of two women with lordosis, which is a severe curvature of
Ms. WORDEN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: And, you know, like, the trunk of their body is about three inches in
front of the rear of their body, and the waist is just kind of like flat and
Ms. WORDEN: Yeah.
GROSS: So, like, the behind is on one end of the waist and then several
inches in front of it is the torso. It's like there's a flat thing connecting
them. I'm not sure if I'm describing this very clearly, but it's the kind of
the thing where you can look at it and you could say, `That's how I feel some
days,' you know.
Ms. WORDEN: Well, that's the way I feel about the megacolon.
Ms. WORDEN: Yeah. Yeah. I'm feeling bloaty.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Is that a typical reaction that people like personally relate to, some
of these anomalies, because even though these anomalies are just very extreme
disfigurements that you kind of feel that way on a smaller level sometimes?
Ms. WORDEN: Oh, absolutely. As I say, it's--you are struck by the fact that
you're looking at human beings. `And there but for the grace of God go I,'
you say oftentimes and `Thank God for modern medicine.'
Ms. WORDEN: But yeah, it's--and, of course, the fact is a lot of what we'd
look at in the museum and think, `Oh, my God. Nobody has that today.' All
you'd have to do is go into a Third World country or go into rural America and
you will find these, you know, incredibly disfiguring disorders. We are
spoiled by the fact that we're living in a city that has been a center of
medicine since the 18th century and we've got the best here. But that's not
the way the rest of the world lives.
GROSS: What's one of the exhibits that we haven't yet mentioned that gets a
very strong response from viewers?
Ms. WORDEN: I think that would be the wall of skulls. That is visually one
of the most striking images in the museum, which is why chose we chose to put
it on the jacket cover of the book. And that image is the same one that we
used in the first Mutter Museum calendar in 1993. It's a collection of 139
skulls from the peoples of eastern and central Europe that we bought from a
Viennese anatomist in 1874. And this type of collection was typical of 19th
century medical museums. They would collect skulls of people from all over
the world--and thousand of them--and have them on display, because the whole
idea is compare and contrast, be able to look at all of the differences
between the skulls which you can only see when you see a large number
And what's fascinating is that Professor Hyrtl, from whom we bought it, was
able to record, in most cases, the name, the age, the occupation, in some
cases the religion and the cause of death of each of these individuals. So
you're not just looking at a skull for the shape, as an anthropologist would;
you're looking in a life and you're seeing just a little glimpse of what
people were living like in mid-19th century Europe. You've got your
guerrillas, you've got your deserters, your soldiers, you konw, from one hand,
they're, you know, bad people. on the other hand, they're freedom fighters.
It all depends on which side you were of the politics.
There is a mother who killed her child; there's a ropewalker who died of a
broken neck. It is wonderful from a sociological and cultural point of view.
So you have this wall of skulls with this very cursory information, and you
can look at it and just kind of imagine, `If you had to summarize my life in
four lines and write it on the side of my skull, what would they write?' And
we that kind of reaction from people, too.
GROSS: Now the Mutter Museum's collection of medical anomalies and
deformities dates back to a time that precedes good photography and precedes
Ms. WORDEN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Now that we have photography and we have imaging, are there new
specimens that you're getting, or is that not done anymore?
Ms. WORDEN: Oh, no, we're still getting new specimens. We haven't gotten a
recent congenital abnormality that has been born recently, but I just did get
a collection from an individual who had been collecting them over the years
and who wanted to donate the collection to a museum. So we get new specimens.
Mostly what we get now, though, are instruments.
GROSS: There's so many different ways to relate to the Mutter Museum. One
way is that, you know, it's fascinating medical history. It's a good teaching
tool for doctors. Another is that it's just a kind of oddly beautiful
representation of the human condition, all the things that could go astray
with the physical part of the human condition. But another way of looking at
it is it's just good gross-out fun, right? And I'm sure a lot of people come
to the Mutter Museum for that reason, that it's good, gross-out kind of fun.
How do you react when people come to the museum for that reason, to point and
to laugh and giggle and...
Ms. WORDEN: Well, I tell you they may be drawn there out of curiosity.
Ms. WORDEN: Curiosity is a wonderful motivator, and possibly the curiosity
is a little morbid. But once they walk into that space, they see the
beautiful wooden cabinets and the rich colors in the carpet and the lighting,
and then they start reading the labels and they're immediately sucked into the
whole life of that individual and how it reflects back on your life. So you
don't get a lot of poking and laughing. You'll get some comments, like, `Hey,
come over here. Look at this. You won't believe it.' But that's great. I
mean, because it's wonderful to hear the interactions of people between
themselves looking at these things and just quietly interacting with a
specimen itself. So whatever gets people in the door is fine, and curiosity
brought me in that door...
Ms. WORDEN: ...27 years ago.
GROSS: What was it that brought you in?
Ms. WORDEN: Well, actually, I happened to go to church next door from the
time I was eight years old. I had no idea what was in that building until I
was going to Temple University studying anthropology and still singing in the
church choir. And the guy who sang bass happened to be an assistant to
curator at the museum, and he told me about it. He took me over to see the
museum. And I said, `If you ever leave this job, I want it.' He left, I got
it. So it was fascinating because when I was growing up in the Philadelphia
area, you always heard about the museum that had babies in bottles. And you
had to be a medical student to be able to see them, which, of course, was not
true. And to then find out I'd been going to church next door to that museum,
it was fabulous.
GROSS: Now I understand you keep up with the tabloids to see what kind of
medical anomalies, real and imagined, they are documenting. Is that right?
Ms. WORDEN: Oh, yeah. That's where you find most of the stories about
Siamese twins, the real ones and the fake ones, and they have stringers all
over the world. So sometimes you see something reported in the tabloid before
it even hits the medical literature. And it also is a way of seeing how the
public looks at these anomalies. And the stuff that they will believe because
they don't know any better. You know, Siamese triplets--I'm sorry. We will
explain to you very carefully in our exhibits how Siamese triplets just don't
GROSS: Why not?
Ms. WORDEN: Well, it's because it's a single egg that splits in two and it
can't split again in three. Now maybe you have some fusion going on, but, no,
you have to read the tabs with a little discretion. But see, that, again,
points out an area where we can help inform the public.
GROSS: Well, Gretchen Worden, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. WORDEN: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Gretchen Worden is the director of the Mutter Museum of the College of
Physicians of Philadelphia. Her new book is called "Mutter Museum."
Coming up, actress Mary Louise Parker. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actress Mary Louise Parker talks about her role on
"The West Wing," posing nude for Esquire magazine and the article
she wrote for that magazine
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Mary Louise Parker is now starring opposite Edward Norton in the
movie "Red Dragon." And she plays feminist political consultant Amy
Gardner on the TV show "The West Wing." She joined the cast last season
and was nominated for an Emmy. She's earned many awards for her stage work,
including a Tony for her performance in "Proof," and an Obie for her
performance in "How I Learned To Drive." Her movies include "Fried Green
Tomatoes," "Naked In New York," "Bullets Over Broadway," and "The Five Senses."
Let's start with her first scene on "The West Wing" where Josh Lyman, deputy
White House chief of staff, came to see her in her office. At the time, her
character was the head of a feminist lobby group. One of the people she was
trying to influence was the first lady.
(Soundbite from "The West Wing")
Mr. JOSH LYMAN: Yeah, every time you write a letter to the first lady, she
gets into gear because she feels guilty that she's not doing enough for women.
Ms. MARY LOUISE PARKER ("The West Wing"): She's not doing enough for women.
Mr. LYMAN: What would you like?
Ms. PARKER: I'm glad you asked.
Mr. LYMAN: Not half as glad as I am.
Ms. PARKER: The current draft of the document says only forced prostitution
and not other types of prostitution is sexual exploitation.
Mr. LYMAN: Yes.
Ms. PARKER: What about someone who answers an ad for an au pair and ends up
working a 15-hour shift in a whorehouse where they're held hostage and can
never pay off their debt?
Mr. LYMAN: Yeah.
Ms. PARKER: That's not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario was
five days ago when four 13-year-old Thai girls were found having hanged
themselves in an abandoned house on Stony Crest Lane in Bethesda.
Mr. LYMAN: Yeah.
Ms. PARKER: Now how far around the world is Bethesda? There were sheets over
the windows, triple locks on the doors, no phones, handcuffs hanging off the
bedposts. For the price of a four-slice toaster, their parents had sold them
to work as baby-sitters.
Mr. LYMAN: How is that not forced prostitution?
Ms. PARKER: I've got a whole floor full of lawyers who--in the last two
years, 100,000 women--and by women, I'm including girls who should be playing
with Easy Bake Ovens--100,000 in the last few years were brought here and
forced to work as prostitutes. You know how many of these cases we
Mr. LYMAN: Not enough.
Ms. PARKER: Two hundred and fifty. You guys are about to go to Vienna and
make it harder, so, yeah, I dropped the first lady a note.
GROSS: Mary Louise Parker, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I'm thinking
about your part on "The West Wing," don't we all wish we could talk with such
well-written sentences like everyone's dialogue on "The West Wing"?
Ms. PARKER: I do. I do. It's not going to happen for me in this life
GROSS: Why don't you describe that first scene that he wrote for you?
Ms. PARKER: Well, the first scene introduces the character and it brings Josh
into her world, which is the world she's a feminist lobbyist. And he comes to
visit her at her office. And he pretty much steps right into her world. He
makes reference to there's a lot of art on the walls. It's feminist art
that's, like, terrifying to him. And it's just this world that's--he's not a
part of, that also wasn't really on the show so much that is kind of welcomed
on the show. I think it's a really good thing to have represented, this
feminist perspective. And so Josh comes into that world and we sort of meet
there and, you know, I guess, it's so corny, but it's some kind of chemistry
thing. They are so different, and she is so strong. She's so direct. And I
think he really responds to that. And she's so passionate about what she
believes in, in the same way that he is. And I think that people are
attracted to that in someone else when they are very passionate.
GROSS: Now you said that you're very shy off stage and you're most at ease
when you're acting. What is the liberty of being on stage or--or being in
Ms. PARKER: I don't know. I don't even know if shy is the right word for it.
I'm not the most revealing person necessarily. I just don't feel that on
stage. I just don't feel that at all. I feel free to communicate, and I feel
like I can communicate. And it's just not something I feel in life. It's a
struggle for me and I feel uncomfortable. I second guess myself, what I'm
saying, what somebody's understanding, what they think I mean, what I think I
mean. And I just don't feel that on stage. I mean, and I have moments on
stage that are, you know, really unpleasant or when I feel like it's not going
well. But generally, in my life, the moments when I felt most understood and
like I could truly communicate something, I was completely present on the
planet, on the Earth, were when I was in a play.
GROSS: You said that you don't like to be revealing. I should say that
moments before you walked into the studio, I found out that there are a few
very revealing photos of you in this month's edition of Esquire in which you
pose nude. And I'll confess I haven't seen the magazine yet or read the
article that you wrote that accompanies the photos. But could you maybe talk
about why you were comfortable, willing to do nude shots for Esquire magazine?
Whatever possessed you?
Ms. PARKER: Well, they asked me--I'd written something for Esquire last year,
and they asked me if I wanted to write something again. I had all these
things, and then the last one I said was, you know, `Or I could write about
being naked in Esquire.' And the guy said, `Oh, that's a good idea. Would
you consider posing naked again?' Like all in one sentence without a breath.
And he's a really great guy, actually, and very intelligent, and, you know,
but he works for a magazine. And I just thought, `Huh, yeah. OK. Well, are
you going to get naked, too?' It just, you know, it was my...
GROSS: Did he get naked, too?
Ms. PARKER: Yeah.
GROSS: What's the difference between being naked on stage and being naked as
Mary Louise Parker in a magazine?
Ms. PARKER: Well, for me as a person, if I weren't an actress, I have no
discomfort posing naked. I just don't have any. I love photography. I
love--my problem comes with what it means for an actress to be naked or what
it means for a woman to be naked, which is something that I talk about in the
article. And I--in the end, the way I kind of reconcile that within myself
was I thought, `OK, well, anyone who can sort of suggest my nudity with any
sense or largess or comfort or whatever, maybe he'd like to know what it feels
like himself, you know, because it's really easy for someone at a magazine to
sit back and say, `Yeah, let's get a picture of that actress naked.' You
know, I mean, they do it all the time. Let's get her in a bikini. Let's
airbrush her whatever. But you never see that person. You never see the
person who comes up with that idea. That person is protected completely. And
I just thought, well, you know, what does that person look like? And what
does that person look like who's maybe judging my photo, who's saying, `Oh,
well, I don't know. This isn't a very good picture of her thigh or'--you
know, what does that person actually look like? It's like, you know, when you
read something nasty about yourself or someone else in the newspaper, in a
magazine, and they say, `Oh, what was she thinking when she put this skirt
with this top?' You know, you just--some part of me wants to see what that
person had on when they wrote that statement.
GROSS: So I guess I just find it interesting that for you being naked is not
revealing, but talking about your life is revealing in a way that makes you
uncomfortable. 'Cause for so many people, it's the other way around. They're
happy to talk about themselves, more than happy, but would be very
Ms. PARKER: I find that really weird.
GROSS: Do you?
Ms. PARKER: I do. I find that really weird. I mean, this is just my body.
This doesn't mean anything. This is going to be the first thing to go when I
die. The rest of me, you know, my thoughts or my relationships or anything
like that, I've never been someone who reveals things like that. I don't
reveal a lot of those things to a lot of my friends. I'm just not like that.
And I don't know. It always surprises me when people are really comfortable
with that, when people just are able to do that. And there've been a few
instances in my life--I have a friend who--I met her, and I met her once. And
then the second time I met her, I was on the set of a movie and we stood on
the sidewalk and in about 20 minutes told each other, you know our deepest
secret, like the most important thing in our lives. And, you know, just--and
we're still friends. But that's so, so rare for me. It just is so rare. And
when I do reveal, I always regret it. I always feel, I don't know. I always
GROSS: My guest is Mary Louise Parker. She's currently starring in "Red
Dragon" and she plays a feminist political consultant on "The West Wing."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actress Mary Louise Parker. She's currently starring in
"Red Dragon" and she plays a feminist political consultant on "The West Wing."
When we left off, she was describing how uncomfortable she is revealing
personal things about herself.
I'm wondering if you've ever been in psychotherapy where you're really
reaching deep into your personal experiences but you're telling them to a paid
professional who is obliged to not reveal this stuff to anybody. So, you
know, your secrets, your personal feelings should all be very safe with them.
Ms. PARKER: It's not about safety really. It's--I mean, in this business,
partly, it's a rebellion thing as well. I don't understand why people reveal
so much about themselves. And I feel like I don't have to and I shouldn't
have to. And it has nothing to do with my work. And in a way, I feel like it
impedes my work because, you know, sometimes I look at actresses and I think,
Why? Why do I know what perfume that girl uses? Or, how come I know the
last five guys that she dated or what hotel she stays at? You know, I don't
want people to think those things when they look at me acting. I don't want
that for them. I think it gets in the way.
GROSS: Gets in the way of seeing you in character?
Ms. PARKER: Yeah. It gets in the way of telling the story, you know. Aside
from which I just don't think it's anybody's business.
GROSS: When you show up for an interview, whether it's for a stage or for a
movie, do you show up as yourself, as Mary Louise Parker, or do you show up as
Ms. PARKER: I don't really know how to show up as anything except myself and
I feel like sometimes it behooves--I know I--this friend of mine was
auditioning for the Calamity Jane. And she said, `Oh, you know, I went in
and I wore chaps and I had a holster and cowboy'--and I thought, God, that's
just, you know, that's great. I would never be able to do that, though. I
thought did she go down and get in a cab in her chaps and her ho--wasn't she
embarrassed or, you know, walking in. I just would feel like an idiot.
People want to see--when you walk in a room, they generally want to see the
character. They don't necessarily want to see an actress who can play the
character. They want to see that character, not for stage, but for film it's
like that, so. And I don't generally come in the room like that, you know.
And I'm not a type necessarily, so. But people get work that way, and I
admire them for being able to do it without feeling like a moron 'cause I
GROSS: Now you're in the forthcoming HBO production of the play "Angels In
Ms. PARKER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And also in this is Al Pacino, I think Meryl Streep.
Ms. PARKER: Mm-hmm. Emma Thompson.
Ms. PARKER: Yeah.
GROSS: You said this was a role you really wanted to do. Why did you want to
do it so much?
Ms. PARKER: Oh, it's just so beautifully written. It's one of the greatest
pieces of writing of our century, I think. It's poetic, it's hilarious, it's
surprising. It's just genius. And it's the kind of writing where you don't
want to ruin a syllable. You don't want to--you want to adhere to every
comma, every semicolon. You don't want to screw up a single preposition.
It's like verse. It's like poetry. And the character herself is just, you
know, I've loved that character ever since I read the play, you know, 12 years
ago, or however many years ago it was that I read it. I can't believe I got
that part. I really still can't believe it.
GROSS: Mary Louise Parker. She's now starring in "Red Dragon" and she plays
the feminist political consultant on "The West Wing."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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