Avery Wiseman has never eaten anyone. But he's written about it, in The Next Taboo: Curing Cancer Through Cannibalism. Wiseman's newest book has been receiving national attention, mostly from people who have mistaken the good doctor's first novel for nonfiction.
Wiseman doesn't seem all that concerned about the mix-up. The retired MD and former Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry is more interested in the flatbread menu at Kazimierz, a wine bar that's so carefully tucked away in Old Town Scottsdale that we both got lost on our way there. Over Merlot and pork-and-fig pizzas, we discuss cannibalism, prostitutes and matricide.
New Times: Novelists sometimes talk about the truths that inform their fiction. I shudder to think what yours might be.
Avery Wiseman: The story was really born of listening to people talk about death. I began to wonder: If it was discovered that there was a cure for cancer, and it was cannibalism, would people -- other than Jeffrey Dahmer -- take the cure? It would take a certain kind of person. Not everyone would do it.
NT: You think some people would choose death rather than eat human flesh?
Wiseman: Oh, certainly. I think more people wouldn't eat another person than would. Which is odd, because cannibalism is part of a lot of religious rituals, like transubstantiation, even communion. You know, "Eat my body; drink my blood."
NT: Would you eat someone?
Wiseman: Well, if I were in the middle of some significant project and wanted to stay alive long enough to finish it, I might become a cannibal. It's like getting an organ transplant, only a very extreme version of that. I mean, some women go to sperm banks. They choose the semen of intelligent, affluent men and have it put inside them. On one hand, that's a smart way to get a good baby: "I'd like the semen of Sir Isaac Newton, please." On the other hand, it's just getting impregnated by a dead white man.
NT: What kind of research did you do while you were writing your novel?
Wiseman: Well, I didn't eat anyone. I worked with a lot of sick people, and for the cannibalism part, I simply read books. I read a lot of Margaret Mead. I visited New Guinea, but never got up to where the cannibals are. I don't know much about cannibals, but then neither do most people. So I was safe there. I have known many sublimated cannibals. I saw one girl in the Arctic, a beautiful blond girl, who was eating raw seal meat. I was horrified, but the blood dripping down the face of a nice-looking blond girl brought up all sorts of fantasies.
NT: If cannibalism were a cure for cancer, where would we get flesh to eat?
Wiseman: There's no telling how far some people would go. Some people might be grave robbers or offer bribes to funeral directors, just to get a piece of meat. There are certain men who will kill prostitutes just to eat them. You don't read about it, but it's not uncommon. There are cannibals out there. I don't know them personally, because most of them are in insane asylums.
NT: The book has a subtitle, which novels usually don't. Which makes The Next Taboo look like nonfiction.
Wiseman: I wanted to grab people's attention. I wanted to novelize this because I don't want people to think that I'm recommending cannibalism as a cure for cancer. There are people just desperate enough who would go that way. It was mostly an attention-getting ploy.
NT: What kind of response has the book gotten?
Wiseman: Well, I've retired to Scottsdale, and no one talks about books out here. You go to a party on the East Coast, and people ask you how your book is doing. The other old guys in Scottsdale don't read. All they care about is golf.
NT: The hero, Simon, has a very special relationship with his Aunt Gina.
Wiseman: I've known lots of people who've slept with family members. And there are many, many men who prefer older women. I mean really older women. I don't mean 17-year-old boys who want a 35-year-old woman. I'm talking about crones. We could go outside right now and find a half-dozen men who feel this way. Aunt Ginas aren't that unusual. But they're harder to find. You can't usually just go to a bar and pick up an old woman. And prostitutes over 40 are practically unheard of.
NT: Simon was raised by a whore. Is that from your life?
Wiseman: I've been a psychiatrist for more than 50 years, and I have heard every possible story. Sometimes prostitutes become pregnant, and they decide to keep the baby. I knew one woman who kept her child in the room with her while she was screwing a customer. That's a little bit on the taboo side.
NT: I suppose. The cannibals in your book make a smelly stew out of people. Why a stew?
Wiseman: Well, why not? Meat loaf didn't seem like a good idea. It's like a blessed broth, like the witches' brew in Macbeth. To the natives, it doesn't smell bad.
NT: You made no attempt to describe the science behind how eating people might cure cancer.
Wiseman: Cancer is said to eat people up, so why shouldn't a sick person eat people up to replace what's been eaten inside them? How it would work, I have no idea. It's all metaphorical. Like where I had them eat the brain to give them character, and the heart to give them courage.
NT: Can you eat different body parts for different kinds of cancer?
Wiseman: I suppose if you had skin cancer, you could eat an ear. That's homeopathic; like cures like. I gave Simon cancer of the genitals because that's what he lived by; he was triumphantly sexual. He was admiring his genitals when he discovered the lump.
NT: Yes, he seems especially interested in eating genitals.
Wiseman: Well, that was a reference to Simon's experience with Chester, the homosexual in the book. He was remembering gagging while he, you know, was pleasing Chester. He fantasized about eating genitals because it's a great taboo. There are many rituals and beliefs that are just a few steps removed from eating genitals. Some homosexuals like to be made to "eat" another man's genitals. It's a great metaphor, but not very far removed from biting off a penis.
NT: Okay then! Later in the book, our hero hooks up with a brothel that offers to supply bodies.
Wiseman: If human flesh were a cancer cure, you'd want to eat people who were recently dead. There are people who have intercourse with dead bodies, and they seem to prefer those who are just dead, so that the body is still warm. If you didn't have a brothel connection, I guess you could become a grave robber.
NT: I wouldn't be robbing graves for a snack. Formaldehyde!
Wiseman: Oh, yes. That's true, isn't it? So you'd have to get someone who hadn't been embalmed, and someone who had been healthy when he died. Maybe you could find someone who had died in a car accident. Or, better yet, you could kill someone, like a prostitute that no one cares about, and devour her.
NT: Could this work for other illnesses besides cancer? I mean, if I have an upset stomach, could I just chew on someone's fingernails a little?
NT: Maybe if I had an earache, I could just taste someone? Sort of just lick their arm a little?
Wiseman: I suppose so. Maybe not.
NT: Have you ever eaten anybody?
Wiseman: Heavens, no.
NT: What do you suppose human flesh tastes like?
Wiseman: Well, I don't know what a great number of things taste like. I didn't know what this pizza would taste like when I ordered it. What are these little chewy lumps here?
NT: It's lamb. The other stuff is figs and cheese.
Wiseman: You know, there are some people who drink urine, because they feel it's been purified by another person's kidneys.
NT: People who aren't well, you mean.
Wiseman: Well, no. It's mostly the higher classes in India who drink urine. They drink it like orange juice.
NT: Huh. I didn't know that.
Wiseman: Well, why would you? There are many things that you might find repellent that others get turned on by.
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NT: Like Barbra Streisand.
Wiseman: Yes. Wait. Who?
NT: Are you concerned that people who read this book will think you're nuts?
Wiseman: No. Not at all. That never occurred to me. Now, Barbra who?