I was initially paranoid about being "found out." I second-guessed everything: my appearance, my mannerisms, and even my handwriting on the application
form! It didn't take me long to realize, though, that this concern was a bit overblown. No one in the employment trailer of the slaughterhouse was on the
lookout for Ph.D. candidates, and my brown skin, upbringing in Thailand, and prior experience with manual labor mapped nicely onto the slaughterhouse
managers' conceptions of who should be working in their plant.
Once I was hired, what quickly became more worrying was how I would survive the grueling work. My first job was hanging thousands of livers each day in a
freezing cooler. Here, it was my fellow line workers who taught me the physical and psychological skills to get by. Then, after a few months on the kill
floor, I was promoted to a quality control position -- an unexpected occurrence that resurrected my fears of being exposed. At that point, I had access to
very sensitive information on food safety and on slaughterhouse-USDA relations, and felt anxiety every time I heard the front office or the kill floor
managers call my name over the radio.
Your book focuses on the minute details of the slaughterhouse, including sounds and smells as well as sight. Were certain sensory aspects that were easier to adjust to than others?
I do try to convey the entire sensual experience of massive, routinized killing, but the printed page simply cannot do
justice to the slaughterhouse sensorium. Contemporary Western cultures tend to equate knowing with seeing, and yet sight is also the most removed and
mediated of our senses. Sound, taste, touch, and, especially, smell, assault us and engage us on a much more basic -- and therefore, subversive --
There were days, after the killing ended, when I walked through the dirty side of the kill floor and found myself unexpectedly marveling at the visual
collage: the shades of red, purple, and green against silver gleaming metal. But smell, in particular, was impossible to mediate in this way. Even after months on the kill floor, I would inevitably gag -- and sometimes vomit -- whenever
walking the long hallway to the locker room each morning at 5 a.m. And the smell was not something that remained outside of me. It seeped into my clothing and skin.
Likewise with the sounds of the kill floor. I sometimes wish that I could recreate the smell- and sound-scapes of industrialized killing for my readers.
Widespread exposure to a sensorium of slaughterhouse smells and sounds might do more to bring an end to our current practices of gratuitous killing than
all the undercover videos and written exposés combined!
When you worked in the chute guiding cows to the knocker, you were in constant contact with the animals.
Can you describe what they were like during the last seconds of their lives?