Monday, January 24, 2011

Absent

Some of you have contacted me to see if everything is okay due to my long absence. I’m not sure where to begin but I shall start here….right now. I have recently returned to Quito after being with my friends and family in the States for three weeks over the holidays. I feel refreshed from the visit and plan to resume my fieldwork in the following days. Obviously, I haven’t updated my blog for a long time. There are many reasons, professional and personal as to why I disappeared, all of which make the perfect blog entry to signal my return…

Starting in October, I began teaching at a local university, FLACSO, as a professor in their visual anthropology program. My program at NYU also focuses on visual anthropology which is why I am also incorporating a documentary film as part of my fieldwork. I was lucky to have the opportunity to teach the course, “The History and Theory of Ethnographic Film” (ethnographic films are specifically the documentaries anthropologists make). My class lasted until mid-December and as an intensive course, and as my first time as a full professor, I dedicated all my time to it and no longer had the time to visit the streets (or so I convinced myself). I only went a few times during all of November and December. Just like some of my readers, the sex workers also wondered what had happened to Anita (a discussion worthy of another entry).

Everything happens for a reason, and although my class took me away from my research, I now realize that I desperately needed a break. I was close to emotional burnout, which might seem like an obvious reaction to my work, but it wasn’t obvious to me. In fact, I have always shrugged my shoulders, sighed, and half-rolled my eyes when people ask me, “Isn’t it so hard to work with prostitutes? How do you deal with the emotional burden, etc. etc.” I never took those questions seriously because I didn’t see how it was different from working with any other population—and because quite simply I thought it wasn’t affecting me. Ha. Ha. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m sure if I were to review my blog I would be able to see the emotional turmoil in my entries like flashing lights, but when you’re out there living it day-in, day-out, you become desensitized to your work, until suddenly it creeps up on you like an approaching train. I started having tough days in which I suddenly felt super “lazy.” So lazy that I couldn’t possibly drag myself out of bed to go down to the Centro. With a bit of hindsight I realized that this “laziness” was a symptom of deeply buried fear, anxiety, and an inexplicable “heaviness” weighing on my shoulders.

I realize that the days in which I couldn’t get to work were actually much needed mental health days. They were days that I needed to be alone, to rest and recover. I was hard on myself about it, wondering “what is wrong with me” when I’ve always loved my work and felt at home on the streets. It was strange to suddenly feel uncertain about going to the Centro. I would envision myself on the streets with dread and feel completely overwhelmed. That had never happened before--I was confused to why it was happening now. I was having trouble sleeping and felt stressed about everything in my life. I didn’t understand what was going on inside of me, but I knew I had to respect this emotional response and take action—the action I took was to distance myself from my fieldwork. I decided to focus on my class and to spend more time reading academic texts, rather than go to El Centro.
I had to be willing to let my project go for a moment so I could get some much needed breathing room. I felt confused as to why I was feeling everything now, after having been in the field for more than a year. Wasn’t I supposed to be a seasoned anthropologist by now? A least a hardened ethnographer who had been exposed to and “survived” countless emotionally charged moments on the streets—moments when I had accompanied a friend to the hospital after her pimp had broken her leg in three places, or when I listened with great sadness to these women’s lives filled with violence and destitution.

I often remember wiping tears away from my eyes at the horror of these women’s hardships. But I always told myself that once I got on that bus heading northward, I would leave the sadness of my day’s work behind. This strategy functioned for a time but as I became more and more immersed in the lives of these women—as they trusted me more and saw me as a kind ally, they began to confide in me their darkest secrets. I had never been exposed to such raw, heartbreaking tales. I’ve suffered plenty in my own life, we all have our own history of pain and suffering, but the things I heard were on a different scale. I am lucky enough to have a loving and supportive family. I come from a privileged background and compared to these women’s lives I’ve led an incredibly sheltered life.

Perhaps I bulldozed my way through thru the first part of my fieldwork, suppressing my emotions because I knew I had to if I wanted to conduct a “successful” ethnographic investigation. I knew I had to listen with an open, sympathetic heart and indeed I love that part of my work. I think my ability to listen to these women is the greatest gift I can give them as an anthropologist in the field. No, I’m not fighting for policy changes to improve these women’s lives on a grand scale. We don’t do that as anthropologists. But I’ve come to terms with that (with much guilt) and realize that sometimes the greatest help comes in the form of being a good listener (especially to members of a marginalized community who are ignored and dismissed by greater society). But as any therapist might recognize, listening to stories of tremendous trauma can affect one’s own emotional state. I finally realized it was affecting mine.

Even writing my blog entries felt like a painful experience because I didn’t want to revisit the things I witnessed/experienced on the streets. I yearned for wholesome worlds--perhaps I should work in a kindergarden with children who had yet to be scarred by life’s relentless pain. Obviously that’s not the answer nor would I be happy in such an environment. But this experience has made me question why I am attracted to such dark underworlds. My theory is that many anthropologists study themselves, in some way (often subconsciously). Without a doubt I struggle with my own demons. These people are my people. Although I am not a sex worker I identify with some of their struggles, especially those concerning addiction. I have not wanted to reveal too much about myself in my blog, but I’m now willing to take the risk to expose myself.

I too have experienced drug and alcohol abuse, like many of the women. We share a common bond. Although I am now clean, I relapsed when I first entered the field (something I’ll discuss in another entry). I’m testing the waters with this confession as discussing one’s own personal battles in the field is still taboo in anthropology. Anthropologists never share their behavior during fieldwork—we are supposed to be neutral observers who “do everything right,” when in fact everyone knows plenty of anthropologists have sex with their informants in the field, for example. But still, no one ever includes such “horrors” in their final academic products--it would be frowned upon in the academy. We are supposed to be “perfect” beings, perhaps a touch “superior” then our informants. .

My plan is to write a book charting my own relapse after 8 years of sobriety, which is directly related to my fieldwork. I have slowly realized that sharing my personal experiences is critical to the integrity of my doctoral thesis. The field did affect me. In my opinion, we become part of the world we study, for better or for worse, and any anthropologist who denies that has not experienced the intensity and intimacy of becoming fully immersed into a community. I know I’m not supposed to discuss my personal battles but again, for the integrity of anthropology as a discipline we must include ourselves as active participants in our work (and in our final products). We have been taught to silence and ignore ourselves when we conduct our investigations. But we can’t do this discipline justice if we refuse to reflect how fieldwork changes us as human beings. Although its taboo to say, I’ve learned more about myself during the past year and then I have about my informants. We must break this barrier of silence because I cannot believe any anthropologist returns from the field the same person as when he/she enters it.

Imagine how liberating this would be, in our discipline of self-righteousness. We claim to no longer work as colonial imperialists but without sharing our own vulnerabilities and seemingly “unethical” behavior in the field we remain infallible beings, apart and above our communities. We need to humanize own experiences to pave the way for future anthropologists’ reflections on their fieldwork. Without analyzing how our fieldwork affects us, we’re missing the point. Anthropologists don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed for whatever they experience in the field. Of course there are limits (and it’s up to every anthropologist to decide what those limits are) but many things happen that are a natural consequence of participating in the communities we study.

11 comments:

  1. This is such beautiful, honest writing that it transcends the label "anthropology"--although it's that, too, of course, and of the best kind. An undergraduate student of mine found your blog and told me about it so that I could share it with students in my mixed graduate and undergraduate field methods course. I am grateful to be able to do that. What a pleasure to read your work. I wish you peace and perseverance.

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  2. This is wonderful writing and I appreciate your passion and zeal in exploring this topic.

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  3. Dear Joseph and Dan:
    Thank you so much for your comments--I am so honored and flattered! I'm so glad people are getting something out of my blog. My intention is to share my fieldwork experience as honestly as possible--to give a "behind the scenes" account of what really happens out there. I see it as a way to preserve the integrity of our discipline...but more on that later :)
    I have written an entry about it.
    Thank you Thank you again!

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