From the Archive: “On the Social Constructionist Approach to Traumatized Selves in Post-disaster Settings: State-Induced Violence in Nandigram, India”

This week we are highlighting an article from September 2015 (Vol. 39, Issue 3) entitled On the Social Constructionist Approach to Traumatized Selves in Post-disaster Settings: State-Induced Violence in Nandigram, India by Kumar Ravi Priya. The article discusses how a social-constructionist analysis into exploring how the continuity of self-hood is threatened or altered within socio-political and cultural contexts generates the experiences of suffering and healing. Through an ethnographic study conducted among the survivors of political violence in Nandigram, India, Dr. Priya aims to study the experiences of suffering and healing among the traumatized selves.

Priya states that the distressing experiences of survivors are understood in psychology and psychiatry principally as the behavioral symptoms resulting from an “incomplete emotional and cognitive processing of traumatic events.” With such an exclusive focus on the intra-psychic processes, trauma-related distress associated with the cultural interpretation of loss is largely ignored. Through an ethnographic study among the poor farmers of Nandigram, India, subjected to violence from the state government as it tried to forcibly acquire their land, Priya discusses the utility of the social constructionist paradigm in understanding the survivors’ experiences of suffering and healing within the cultural and sociopolitical context of violence.

Multidisciplinary approaches to subjective experiences of trauma state that a complete focus on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be ontologically irrelevant in cultures that do not value the notions of an individualistic self. Priya states that unlike the positivist tradition of research within mainstream psychology and psychiatry, the social-constructionist paradigm opens up the scope for psychological understanding of human experiences in their sociocultural and historical contexts. Alternative conceptualizations of the psychological impact of trauma must incorporate the cultural notions of self and how its coherence is threatened and re-negotiated amidst the traumatic events and their sociopolitical consequences.

For Priya, people can suffer from what they have lost of themselves in relation to the world of objects, events, and relationships. Such suffering occurs because an intactness of person, a coherence and integrity, comes not only from intactness of the body, but also from the wholeness of the web of relationships with self and others. The wholeness that a person experiences may be threatened if they not able to uphold the culturally valued aspects of self-definition. Yet it is the social world, even when mutilated in war or violent events, that holds the key to recovery or healing. Healing can be described as the process of restoring the experience of wholeness by reformulating aspects of person in a new way.

Priya uses themes of suffering and healing to highlight how the traumatized selves experience intense distress resulting from disruptions to a sense of wholeness. Yet this wholeness may also be reformulated through culturally valued beliefs. Themes include “experience of PTSD symptoms,” “betrayed self,” “overwhelmed by loss,” “biographical disruption,” “moral reaffirmation,” “sense of togetherness,” and “sense of security due to change in political environment.”

Aman, a 36-year-old man who worked as a daily-wage laborer, lost his teenage son in an attack on a political demonstration he was participating in. Aman’s account often reflected his distress due to sorrow and grief, as well as his inability to comfort his inconsolable wife. “At 12 midnight or 1 a.m., I am reminded of my [deceased] child, I start crying. I do not know when I fall asleep while crying.”

In the case of Aman, such an experience of loss of relationship may have an overpowering or overwhelming impact. This impact may render the past and immediate future difficult to be comprehended by the survivors. In Priya’s analysis, despite being overwhelmed, Aman also shared a sense of fulfilment over the martyrdom of his son. He also shared a new enabling meaning in life through culturally valued beliefs of taking care of one’s family.

For Priya, a social-constructionist analysis into exploring how trauma in post-disaster settings affects the continuity of selfhood goes beyond the traditional psychological PTSD diagnosis and generates the experiences of suffering and healing.

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 2, “The Tipping of the Big Stone—And Life itself. Obesity, Moral Work and Responsive Selves Over Time”

This week we explore Lone Grøn’s The Tipping of the Big Stone—And Life itself. Obesity, Moral Work and Responsive Selves Over Time. Grøn explores moral work and moral selves in the context of the obesity epidemic and weight loss processes. Cheryl Mattingly’s notions of “moral laboratories” (Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014, available here) explore moral cultivation over time that cannot be disconnected from notions of biographical and narrative self. Building off Mattingly’s concepts, as well as philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels’ phenomenology, Grøn proposes the notion of a responsive self.


Grøn begins by introducing Rita, a participant in the obesity program at The Lifestyle Center, a Danish patient school which teaches self-care, diet, and exercise practices to people suffering from or at risk of what is termed “lifestyle-related diseases.” Grøn explores Rita’s reflections on obesity and weight loss, with specific attention to the transformation in notions of self, agency, and morality from fieldwork between 2001-2003 and 2014-2015.

Rita asks herself questions about her weight loss struggles, such as, “Why don’t I grow-up enough to take responsibility for my own well-being? Why is what I know to be the right thing to do a million miles removed from what I do in reality?” References to fighting the evil will or desire of your body, to sinning and backsliding, are plentiful and situate weight loss in the domain of morality. This places the concerns and reflections on weight-loss within broader historical and cultural ideas on self, agency, and morality, asking what kind of self one is able to be in the face of conflicting wills and moral demands.

Grøn takes up an argument that Mattingly put forward and developed, namely that moral cultivation over time cannot be disconnected from a notion of self.  Up until the last decade of the second millennium, attention to the relationships between body weight, food, and health were scarce in a Danish setting marked by cultural practices and values of “hygge,” that is, socializing by sharing food and alcohol, often to excess. Over the past two decades, this relationship has changed dramatically, and the consumption of food and drink have become morally charged in all corners of Danish society, from family spaces to the widespread network of institutions constituting the Danish welfare system. Further, a politically announced “paradigm shift” in the beginning of the second millennium in Danish health care services shifts attention from the treatment of acute diseases to the prevention of chronic diseases.

Grøn states that in many ways being obese has become an uninhabitable position. What used to be big and cozy (“hyggelig”) has become obese and alien. In the face of overwhelming personal and family histories of unsuccessful attempts at weight loss, temporary success is usually followed by increasing weight gain in a pattern widely documented in the scientific literature on weight loss processes over time. Both personal and family experience and scientific evidence define success as improbable, yet families struggling with obesity continue to experiment against the odds all the same. Thus, for Grøn, life itself becomes a laboratory.

Taking the experienced and biographical self seriously has allowed acknowledgement of the immense work of moral experimentation that Rita has engaged in over a lifetime. Furthermore, many other events and projects make up her life, including the cultivation of healing powers, of a garden of flowers, as well as of a home, family, and work life. This picture of Rita’s moral self could easily be lost if we were only concerned with the “obese” self, which can be constituted through workings of the bio-power and governmentality techniques of the Danish welfare state.

Grøn concludes by detailing the characteristics of the responsive self, emerging within the demand response dynamic. The responsive self displays both an event form that persists over the years (“I respond, therefore I am”), but also changes in terms of the content of the response. Thus, the notion of the responsive self stresses equally the suffering and the agentive dimensions of action—”an active passivity and passive activity.”


Lone Grøn is a Senior Researcher at VIVE The Danish Centre of Applied Social Science in Denmark, as well as a Senior Project Manager at KORA. She has done extensive anthropological research and ethnographic fieldwork on patient perspectives on chronic diseases, obesity, and behavioral change, highlighting the complexities of health work in the contexts of everyday lives. Her recent areas of research concern include social contagion in epidemics of non-communicable diseases and conditions, specifically in relation to kinship, relatedness and obesity; vulnerability and inequality in old age and the search for the good old life; and theoretical developments within philosophical and moral anthropology as well as phenomenological approaches in anthropology, which serve as the epistemological ground for experience-near and close-up studies of patients, citizens and families.

Books for Review: Vol 41, Issue 2

In our June 2017 issue, we received these two books for review at Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. These previews provide a snapshot of recent publications in medical anthropology, global health, and the history of medicine that we’re excited to discuss in our journal and with our followers on social media.


Living Faithfully in an Unjust World: Compassionate Care in Russia (2016)

Melissa L. Caldwell

In this book, Caldwell asks, “What does it mean to be a compassionate, caring person in Russia, which has become a country of stark income inequalities and political restrictions? How might ethics and practices of kindness constitute a mode of civic participation in which “doing good”—helping, caring for, and loving one another in a world marked by many problems and few easy solutions—is a necessary part of being an active citizen?”

Living Faithfully in an Unjust World explores how, following the retreat of the Russian state from social welfare services, Russians’ efforts to “do the right thing” for their communities have forged new modes of social justice and civic engagement. Through vivid ethnography based on twenty years of research within a thriving Moscow-based network of religious and secular charitable service providers, Caldwell examines how community members care for a broad range of Russia’s population, in Moscow and beyond, through programs that range from basic health services to human rights advocacy.

As the experiences of assistance workers, government officials, recipients, and supporters reveal, their work and beliefs are shaped by a practical philosophy of goodness and kindness. Despite the hardships these individuals witness on a regular basis, there is a pervasive sense of optimism that human kindness will prevail over poverty, injury, and injustice. Ultimately, what connects members of this diverse group is a shared belief that caring for others is not simply a practical matter or an idealistic vision but a project of faith and hope. Together care-seekers and care-givers destabilize and remake the meaning of “faith” and “faith-based” by putting into practice a vision of humanitarianism that transcends the boundaries between state and private, religious and secular.

For more information, visit the University of California Press website, available here.


PTSD and the Politics of Trauma in Israel: A Nation on the Couch (2017)

Keren Friedman-Peleg

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, has long been defined as a mental trauma that solely affects the individual. However, against the backdrop of contemporary Israel, what role do families, health experts, donors, and the national community at large play in interpreting and responding to this individualized trauma?

In PTSD and the Politics of Trauma in Israel, Friedman-Peleg sheds light on a new way of speaking about mental vulnerability and national belonging in contemporary Israel. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at The Israel Center for Victims of Terror and War and The Israel Trauma Coalition between 2004 and 2009, Friedman-Peleg’s rich ethnographic study challenges the traditional and limited definitions of trauma. In doing so, she exposes how these clinical definitions have been transformed into new categories of identity, thereby raising new dynamics of power, as well as new forms of dialogue.

Chapters include:

  1. Birth of Agencies, Birth of an Interpretative Framework
  2. Trauma and Capital: Bearers of Knowledge, Keepers of Cashboxes
  3. Trauma and the Camera: Labeling Stress, Marketing the Fear
  4. They Shoot, Cry and Are Treated: The “Clinical Nucleus” of Trauma among IDF Soldiers
  5. Woman, Man and Disorder: Trauma in the Intimate Sphere of the Family
  6. Wandering PTSD: Ethnic Diversity and At-Risk Groups across the Country
  7. Taking Hold: Resilience Program in the Southern Town of Sderot
  8. Treading Cautiously around Sensitive Clinical and Political Domains

For more information, visit the University of Toronto Press website, available here.

University of Washington Today: Q and A with Janelle Taylor

Yesterday we highlighted Janelle S. Taylor’s article from the latest edition of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry entitled Engaging with Dementia: Moral Experiments in Art and Friendship, available here. In this post, we follow up with a link to a recent Question & Answer session with Taylor by Kim Eckart, posted on the University of Washington Today website. Included with the Q & A interview is a video with Taylor entitled “How friendships evolve when one person has dementia.” In the video, Taylor discusses her research and the implications of the moral challenges taken on by people who have friends with dementia. Visit the UW Today post here.

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 2, “Engaging with Dementia: Moral Experiments in Art and Friendship”

This week, we are featuring an Article Highlight written by Monica Windholtz, an Integrated Graduate Studies student in the Anthropology and Bioethics departments at Case Western Reserve University. Monica highlights Janelle S. Taylor’s article from the latest edition of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry (Vol. 41, Iss. 2), entitled Engaging with Dementia: Moral Experiments in Art and Friendship. The article examines activities and social circumstances used to involve people with dementia in the world. Taylor depicts the steps involved in creating ‘moral experiments’ that plant patients with dementia in life. Through interviews with caregivers of people with dementia, Taylor explores the role of art and community in engaging those with dementia.


In this article, Taylor analyzes the experiences of individuals with dementia as relayed through the narratives of their caregivers. The article begins with the concept of media portrayals of dementia. Dementia is typically not represented well in the media, with stories devoid of “either subtlety or compassion” (285). In 2014, Julianne Moore received critical acclaim and an Academy Award for her role as the titular character in the film Still Alice, based on a book. The book and movie both chronicle the decline of Alice Howland, a brilliant scientist, as she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. While her husband and two oldest children are unable to confront the changes in Alice and focus only on treatment, her daughter Lydia attempts to understand her mother and engage with Alice’s new world. The article highlights Lydia’s artistic interactions with her mother to introduce the concept of the positive impacts of art and relationships to those with dementia.

While there is currently no effective cure for dementia, caregivers attempt to guide those with dementia to live full lives. The arts have especially served as a way to engage people with dementia, using programs in “storytelling, poetry, painting, dance, theater, [and songwriting]” (287). These programs engage and enrich the lives of individuals suffering with dementia. Artistic forms of expression help to imbue the lives of dementia patients with meaning. In Seattle, such programs to connect with dementia patients have been increasing.

Taylor labels these programs as “moral experiments,” following the work of Cheryl Mattingly where experiments are created by people trying to do the right thing (289). By attempting to enrich the lives of those with dementia, artistic programs are exploring new ways to bring meaning to their daily experiences.

Through an analysis of her interviews, Taylor recounts the experiences of those who have served as caregivers for family members or friends with dementia. In one case, a woman named Janet offered to help engage her friend’s husband, who was suffering with dementia. Their interactions formed a strong friendship between Janet and the husband, enabling him to still feel a sense of community, even as a patient with dementia.

Taylor found that caregivers and friends of those with dementia often see themselves as modeling or teaching proper behaviors to the rest of society, which may exhibit apprehension or discomfort when engaging with dementia patients. Since these anxious attitudes are common, caregivers may have interventions with their social groups or instruct others in how to interact with the individual with dementia. According to Taylor, people should attempt to interact with dementia patients, as they still understand the social environment, even if the context is not clear. Thus it is important for communities and social groups to still recognize the person with dementia in social settings.

Another striking example of people coming together was with the caregivers of Jacqueline, an immigrant woman in Seattle. Jacqueline had relied on the care and help of her mother in the home for many years, but soon after her mother’s death Jacqueline developed dementia. Those that knew Jacqueline were drawn into greater involvement in her life because of her dementia, and helped with the tasks her mother had otherwise taken care of. The group even created a calendar to organize their efforts to aid her.

The Still Alice novel uses the motif of a butterfly to reflect the theme of transformation while still being the same being. As discussed by Taylor, one caregiver of a dementia patient referred to the group that sought to improve the patient’s life as their ‘cocoon.’ The article reflects on the prominent transformations that patients with dementia undergo, and how cocoons and butterflies can both serve as symbols for the moral communities that protect and engage the patients.

In conclusion, Taylor reflects how Still Alice shows that it is not only science and medicine that can improve the lives of those with dementia. Engaging dementia patients through art and the community can help to improve their lives. Finally, there is further room for anthropologists and other researchers to understand and document these other forms of support and improvement.

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 2, “The Moral Lives of Laboratory Monkeys: Television and the Ethics of Care”

This week we explore Lesley Sharp’s The Moral Lives of Laboratory Monkeys: Television and the Ethics of Care. Sharp asks, “Why do lab monkeys watch TV?” This paper examines the prevalence of televisions in primate housing units based in academic research laboratories. Within such labs, television and related visual media are marked as part of welfare and species-specific enrichment practices intended for research monkeys. In many research centers, television figures prominently in the two inseparable domains of a lab monkey’s life: as a research tool employed during experiments, and in housing units where captive monkeys are said to enjoy watching TV during “down time.”

Sharp engages visual media as a means to uncover and decipher the moral logic of an ethics of care directed specifically at highly sentient creatures who serve as human proxies in a range of experimental contexts. Sharp suggests this specialized ethics of animal care materializes Cheryl Mattingly’s notion of “moral laboratories” (Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014, available here), where television mediates the complicated boundary of species difference among the simian and human subjects who share laboratory worlds.


Sharp starts by discussing that scientific interest in primate theory of mind in a range of disciplines, especially within the fields of primate behavior, cognitive psychology, and experimental neuroscience. In the United States, chimpanzees are widely accepted as exemplifying “sentience” in non-human species. Television figures prominently within a larger arc of primate welfare in facilitating interspecies encounters within modern laboratory science.

In this paper, Sharp is most concerned with the moral sentiments of human workers who interact with lab-based primates, specifically research macaques. Because of their affective power, animals offer a powerful means by which to access “everyday” or “ordinary” ethics. Monkeys inspire specialized responses among lab personnel, including researchers, lab-based technicians, and animal technicians or “caretakers,” who together consistently underscore these creatures’ evolutionary proximity to us, alongside their being highly “sentient” beings. These understandings have a significant bearing on how personnel introduce, interpret, and modify notions of welfare and care in the laboratory.

As early as the 1930s, animal behaviorists and psychologists showed silent clips from films and cartoons to a variety of primate species to measure their perceptions of and “responsiveness” to “moving pictures.” Yet the choices appear to have been based on various assumptions: that a non-human species might find moving pictures interesting; that at least some primate species were capable of reading these images for what they were; and that visual media might evoke strong emotional responses in a viewer. Conducting various experiments with both still and moving color images that were in or out of focus, researchers showed to a dozen restrained juvenile and adult rhesus macaques 16mm films, such as a caged, female and male pair of rhesus macaques eating, climbing, and threatening a photographer, and a clip from a Woody Woodpecker “Indian Whoopee” cartoon episode.

By the 1950s, these experiments were decisively entrenched in a scientific logic that presumed film might evoke emotional responses in primates, and that they might also offer clues for deciphering human psychology. As such, apes and monkeys could stand in as proxies for human subjects, where visual technologies employed as compelling research tools could effectively reconcile species difference. Over the course of less than a century, television’s value as a research tool in laboratory settings became related to ideas about how best to distract or amuse lab-based primates in nonexperimental contexts, referred to as “down time.”

Sharp states that during laboratory experiments, visual technologies are used as interactive devices where, for example, a monkey works alone at a monitor and solves a sequence of problems where responses are digitally recorded by a researcher and transformed into data. In contrast, within a housing room, visual technology is marked by comparatively passive engagement, where a monitor is mounted nearby to allow monkeys to see and watch TV. Sharp explains that television is a literal manifestation of the moral laboratory when lab personnel must work to establish best practices, set against the unavoidable paradox that they are working with lab-based macaques who are viewed as “neither pets nor wild animals.”

In Moral Laboratories, Cheryl Mattingly argues for the addition of a “first person virtue ethics” in her analyses of the everyday struggles of disempowered people in contexts of unending suffering. As Mattingly explains, even seemingly dull decisions regarding the “care of the intimate other” may bring about ethical dilemmas and an associated complex reasoning. Mattingly uses the concept of “moral laboratory” metaphorically for defining an “imaginative space” of ethical experimentation, impacting possibilities for transforming the self.

Sharp proposes a slight variation, involving the literal understanding of the “moral laboratory” as a way to describe primate research labs in academic neuroscience programs. The presence of lab animals is effective in uncovering the logics of scientific morality. The widespread use of primates in neuroscience comes largely from the deep-seated understanding that they are humans’ closest evolutionary “cousins” and, therefore ideal proxies for humans.

Television’s presence figures importantly in a “first person ethics” among lab personnel, standing out as a specialized welfare practice that demonstrates what Mattingly describes as the “care of the intimate other,” in this instance, across the species divide. With these statements in mind, Sharp probes this moral logic of care, where television demonstrates efforts to provide “a good [laboratory] life” to captive, highly sentient creatures. Television is generally understood as a suitable enrichment strategy for highly sentient creatures who can easily suffer from boredom and succumb to pathological, repetitive behaviors known as stereotypy, withdrawal, forms of self harm, or failure to thrive.

As intelligent creatures, macaques are understood as being “interested” in TV, and staff may spend significant consideration and imagination in trying to determine what makes for effective “monkey TV.” Yet the influence of visual technology in aiding animals to “flourish and thrive” may extend beyond the restrictions of a housing room and include experimental contexts, where television-as-research tool may similarly be described as a form of healthy “engagement” for animals, despite such engagement is also regarded as “work.” As one lab director explained, “lab work [itself is] a form of enrichment” because his macaques so clearly “enjoy” computers, regardless of context.

For Sharp, attention may truly signal interest or curiosity, but it may not necessarily specify pleasure or enjoyment. Furthermore, labs where staff regards television as “enrichment” have monitors engaged with a nonspecific monkey in mind, with the same video loop playing repeatedly throughout the day, week, month, or year. In response, Sharp does not ask what television viewing tells us about monkeys’ preferences, but instead questions what pervasive beliefs and assumptions about television say about lab-based humans’ understandings of subjectivity. Or, what might the supposed primate desire for television say about the morality of interspecies encounters in lab areas?

In conclusion, Sharp states that through an under-theorized theory of mind, television provides a powerful medium for fostering human-monkey relatedness. Television draws monkeys in close with humans while simultaneously ratifying the morality of lab animal “care” and “welfare.” Essentially, television brings them closer to us. Just as television transforms the macaque as “intimate other” into a humanized creature, animal caretakers through a specialized “first person ethics,” are transformed into moral beings as well.

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “‘I Don’t Have Time for an Emotional Life’: Marginalization, Dependency and Melancholic Suspension in Disability”

This week on the blog we are highlighting Brian Watermeyer’s article “I Don’t Have Time for an Emotional Life”: Marginalization, Dependency and Melancholic Suspension in Disability. Watermeyer provides an introduction to key aspects of the social and economic marginalization of the disability minority experienced globally. He then explores and compares the complex debates surrounding materialist and psychological approaches and accounts of racism and disablism, particularly with reference to the place of grief and loss in disability discourse. Finally, Watermeyer considers how Cheng’s engagement with racial melancholia may help illuminate how disability inequality, like that of race, may remain a stubborn reality.

Watermeyer begins by discussing some theoretical orientations of social inequality. In the discipline of disability studies, it is a historical materialist (Marxian) approach which has dominated, with particular attention to psychological aspects of disability oppression. Disablism can be defined as discrimination based on physical, sensory, cognitive, or psychiatric impairment. Combined with critical and liberatory theory of racial inequalities, Watermeyer states it is reasonable to assume that living in the face of discrimination and marginalization will create feelings of grief, withdrawal, and suffering, as harms are sustained at both the physical and psychological levels.

In her book, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, Ann Cheng (2000) presents a psychological model of racial inequality with loss at its center. For Cheng, racial inequality persists within the United States because it forbids grief. The larger, societal demand for every individual to strive for an ideal cultural whiteness continually pulls individuals away from an emotional center, creating ambivalence, a lack of self-empathy, and distortions of ideology.

Building off of Cheng’s argument, Watermeyer discusses the shared characteristics of racism and disablism. Prejudice and stigma are the ever-present companions of structural inequalities for both forms of disparity. Disabled people, especially those in low income countries, are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, as most societies are designed with only the needs of the non-disabled majority in mind. There are formidable barriers to housing, transportation, and freedom of movement, as well as exclusion or segregation in education and other public accommodations.

Additionally, Watermeyer states the cultural embeddedness of making sense of disability via a “medical model” has reinforced the marginal position of disabled people. In this institutional view, social disadvantage is understood as a simple consequence of bodily difference or dysfunction, portraying disabled people as “damaged invalids” who are unable to contribute in community life. This view negates any consideration of discrimination’s role in inequality.

While the historical materialist view recognizes the role of biomedicine in justifying the marginalization of disabled people, it is the quantifiable, visible reality of exclusion from the workplace, and other “barriers to participation,” as its primary focus. Yet Watermeyer recognizes the analysis of oppression should not just be in the public, institutional spheres, but should also include private domains. Social exhaustion and scarcity have a psychological component, and it is important to understand the ways in which ongoing assaults on identity limit the imaging of different social organization.

For Watermeyer, there are several problems with describing feelings of damage and tragedy as arising from both congenital and adventitious impairment, with little or no attention to structural or contextual factors. This viewpoint positions impairment of the body as the central disadvantage faced by disabled people, ignoring injustices such as discrimination and rejection. Further, attaching narratives of tragedy to disabled people has been loudly rejected by the international disability movement. According to Kleinman, Das, and Lock (1997), if there is loss or grief in the lives of disabled people, it has to do with social suffering, not bodily “flaws.”

While discussing oppression and melancholia, Watermeyer describes an encounter with “J,” a male psychotherapy client living with tetraplegia (paralysis of the lower limbs and partial paralysis of the upper). A South African man in his mid-twenties, J lived a life of profound structural exclusion, unemployment, physical dependency, a poor social network, and imprisonment in his mother’s residence by poverty and poor public transportation. In his limited engagements with the world, indications that he was “broken” were commonplace.

When questioned about his emotional experience of these circumstances, J’s reply was, “I don’t have time for an emotional life.” At the subjective level, being trapped in an immovable system of structural exclusion meant being equally controlled by an “emotional economy,” with its own rules on what could be felt, loved, hated, or hoped for. In J’s life, these constraints appeared to limit emotional freedom as definitively as unreachable buses limited his movement. Emotional care, guilt, and limited space were the constant followers of his physical dependency, transferring feelings of sadness, frustration, or rage to unconsciousness. Simply, “not having time for an emotional life” meant not having the resources to overcome prohibitions on feelings and expressions of grief.

Melancholic systems deal with difference by maintaining existing racialized and discriminatory structures. This disjuncture produces a detrimental position involving both alienation from one’s emotional self, and experiences in the social world which repeatedly point to one’s failure to assume the ideals which secure real belonging. Watermeyer states that dominant culture presents disabled people with a paradox: while reaffirming the message that the disabled figure is dismal and broken, the world demands that he or she not grieve, as this would be a submission to the passivity, pessimism, and invalid status that pervade the disabled stereotype. As in the case of race, the ruling is “prove to me that you are not what I know you to be.”

Watermeyer’s perspective reframes lives of disabled people as basic to the universal human condition. The stereotype which attaches loss simplistically to impairment is rejected, and replaced by a more nuanced picture of struggle relating to discrimination, structural exclusion, pain, fatigue, and the host of everyday miseries that punctuate any human life.


References Cited:

Cheng, Ann A. (2000) The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Berkley: Oxford University Press.

Kleinman, A., V. Das, and M. Lock. (1997) Social Suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press.