SPA Interview with Dr. Rebecca Lester

This week on the blog we are featuring a partial summary of an interview with Dr. Rebecca Lester, conducted by Ellen Kozelka, as part of the Society for Psychological Anthropology “Voices of Experience” series. In this audio conversation, available in full here, Dr. Lester discusses her newest book project, Famished: Eating Disorders in the Era of Managed Care, focusing on the conditions and experience of eating disorders treatment in the United States. Also discussed in the interview is Dr. Lester’s research interests, reflections on her personal experience experience with an eating disorder, and the linking of anthropology to advocacy. Dr. Lester’s book is not yet for sale.

The SPA “Voices of Experience” series is a venue to showcase the range of work that psychological anthropologists engage in, and to give listeners, virtually attending the live events, the opportunity to ask prominent scholars in the field about their work.


The interview begins with a reading of the book’s preface by Dr. Lester herself. The recitation narrates the experience of an insertion of a nasogastric (NG) tube and subsequent first “feeding” of an 11-year-old girl with anorexia. Capturing the anxiety and fear of being forcibly held down for the insertion of the NG tube, and yet still being terrified of eating, Dr. Lester describes the instructions given by the doctor before inserting the NG tube. “We are going to put it in. You can either cooperate with me here, or we can take you to a seclusion room and put you in restrains and do it there. It’s your choice,” the doctor says to the girl.

The process of having an NG tube placed is extremely uncomfortable. Feeling disconnected from the world around her, exhausted from the painful NG tube ordeal, and distraught from watching “so many calories” being pumped into her body while she is unable to do anything about it, the young girl is then further mentally assaulted by another patient nearby asking her questions about her new feeding tube.

“Is [anorexia] the thing where you’re scared of getting fat so you starve yourself and you get real skinny? Hell, I wish I could have anorexia for a day,” the older patient states while laughing and grabbing at her own stomach fat. The young girl is then left to make sense of her situation while listening to the woman and another patient chatting about how much they wish they had the willpower to starve themselves as the holiday season approached.

This preface sets the tone for what it is like to be a patient in an eating disorders clinic. This reading then transitions the conversation into the interview between Dr. Lester and Ellen Kozelka.

Ellen Kozelka: What is the managed care system as it relates to eating disorders treatment, and why is it so important to understand its moral dimensions?

Dr. Lester: Managed care operates as a moral system in our society. So in terms of eating disorders, we are in a situation where our healthcare system is really predicated on a certain kind of understanding of what health is and what a person is. This is foundationally oriented to the splitting off of behavioral health and medical care.

Managed care plans have a pot of money that goes to medical care, and another pot of money is set aside for mental health, behavioral, or psychiatric care, depending on how insurance companies classify it. What’s challenging in terms of eating disorders is that they are conditions that bridge both of those domains. Certainly there are medical complications to other things, such as addictions, but we find in eating disorders this bridging of the medical and of mental health in terms of the symptomatology.

Trying to get an integrated treatment approach for eating disorders is really difficult. Clinicians are left to try and piece together care, but getting that care reimbursed is extremely difficult. Often times managed care companies will pay for the acute medical issues, such as an inpatient hospitalization because of a cardiac incident, but you then cannot also get mental health care at the same time. Or you can go to an outpatient clinic for the psychiatric concerns, but you then are not able to also be treated for the physical complication that might be going on too. Thus it is very difficult to provide a full spectrum of care to someone in a way that is actually going to treat the problem.

Kozelka: The foundation of the system in the US is that physical medical care and mental health care are two separate things, which based on this idea of what health is and what the person is. So would that make managed care in the US a type of cultural system?

Dr. Lester: Absolutely. One of the things I’ve been interested in is what kind of philosophies of the person are embedded in our healthcare system and how is that structuring or impacting the way that clinicians are perceiving what’s going on with clients, what the problem is, or how to best intervene with them. It’s a whole epistemological and world view about humans and what motivates humans, and what the appropriate end goal of that behavior should be.

Kozelka: In your book you provide an overarching definition of care. Care “orchestrates cognitive and sensory attunement, practical agency, and affective imagination into a disposition to the ‘other’ which comes to organize attention, doing, and feeling in locally meaningful ways.” This definition of care combines two previously separate conceptual definitions of care as practical or political action, and care as affective concern. How do you see this combination linking to your understanding of care in relation to power?

Dr. Lester: Something that many of us as psychological anthropologists struggle to do in our work is try to illuminate the ways that these are not different domains. When we talk about political or practical action, and we talk about affective experience or subjective experience, they are not separate domains. We can separate them ideologically, but in terms of the way people live their lives, the domains are intertwined.

Part of what I’ve been interested in is how these structures of power operate across multiple levels of analysis at once. Care in all of the senses of the definition above, is a way of constituting not only an object of concern, but who the subject of care is, and how that person is constituted as a moral agent, or not, in a given circumstance. We have to look at how political and practical components of care are connecting and interacting with the affective dimensions and the subjective experience of care. That is where you see psychological anthropology coming in and trying to theorize about what these connections are in a way that’s rigorous and ethnographically grounded.

Kozelka: How do these moral dimensions of care, in terms of whether the or not the individual is considered to be a “good patient,” relate to the actions that these managed care systems either take or don’t take?

Dr. Lester: There are different ways of thinking about a patient, such as framing the patient as a moral actor, or discussing the patient in relation to her own quest for health, whatever that is. In the case of eating disorders, it can become a situation where it almost does not matter what the patient does. It does matter, but the same action can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on how you are thinking about that actor as a moral agent or not.

Compliance and non-compliance are big concerns in all of healthcare, certainly in behavioral health, but particularly in the field of eating disorders where patients are historically thought to be non-compliant, resistant, or really difficult to work with. Managed care companies have concerns about patient complying with the treatment recommendations. What I saw again and again is that it almost did not matter what the patient did. There would be times where they were complying, following the regulations and meal plans, and doing what they were supposed to do. But the insurance companies were skeptical of the motivations for this behavior, so that even when clients were complying with treatment, their compliance was sometimes read as manipulation. That’s just an example of how these moral dimensions, or how you constitute the recipient of care as a moral agent or not, affects the way that care is delivered, almost regardless of what the person is actually doing.

Kozelka: In this system were patients are constantly being scrutinized, how do you think these factors affect their experience of treatment?

Dr. Lester: It’s horrible. It would be miserable for any of us to be in that circumstance. This is particularly challenging for these patients because a lot of the dynamics experienced during the course of treatment itself are the exact same issues that they are already struggling with. These are questions like, “Are you worthy of care,” “Are you worthy of attention,” “Are you worthy of time,” and “Do you matter?” These questions are really at the core of eating disorders for a lot of people.

Dr. Rebecca Lester, via Washington University in St. Louis Dept of Anthropology website

Patients are being told they should not always be monitoring or surveying themselves, yet at the same time, because of the kinds of things that the insurance companies care about in order to make their decisions, patients are being constantly monitored and evaluated. There is a constant, pervasive insecurity that pervades that clinic where you do not know from one day to the next if someone is going to be deemed “sick enough” to still need care, “too sick” to remain there, “invested enough” in her recovery, or “invested too much in her recovery” and thus deemed as manipulative. It is this constant uncertainty and people trying to make themselves into appropriate patients just so that they can get care.

This does not address the underlying issues that are going on. So this scrutiny affects them a lot, especially when clients want treatment, doctors say they need treatment, but insurance companies say “No.” There are even discussions among the clinicians, expressing that “if only she were cutting, because then we could get her treatments.”

Further, the patients may not even be able to deal with some of the underlying things that possibly got them to the eating disorder because they are so busy dealing with the feelings around not being worthy of getting treatment. If the insurance companies deny them, they cannot get treatment. There is a case I discuss in the book of a 14 year-old teenager who was struggling with anorexia in the clinic. Her weight had gone up a bit during the two or three weeks she was admitted and making progress. But then her insurance ran out, and the family did not have the financial resources to afford the $1,200 a day price tag. Their only option was to get the teenager into a research study going on at a local university where a randomly assigned treatment group would get free therapy. The problem was that she had gained too much weight for the regulations of the study, forcing the clinic staff to put her on a diet at the treatment center in order to get her down in weight enough so that she could get free treatment. That was the only option besides merely discharging her with no support.

Kozelka: What do you think the study of self brings to anthropology as a whole?

Dr. Lester: It’s absolutely critical. The self as a general category is about why people do what they do. We cannot understand why, or effectively theorize about why, unless we are willing to engage with questions about parts of experience that we cannot directly observe. We have to be open and flexible enough to understand different ways that different groups of people comprehend the components of what makes up a person, how to understand motivation, or whatever we want to call why people do things. It is imperative if we, as a field, want to have something useful to say.


The interview with Dr. Lester continues, and concludes with a question and answer session with listeners who were virtually tuned in during the live recording of the interview. The full audio interview recording is available here.


Dr. Rebecca Lester is an Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and a practicing clinical social worker. Her interests include how individuals experience existential distress, and how this distress manifests as psychiatric symptoms, religious angst, somatic pain, and other culturally informed bodily conditions.  Specifically, she considers how bodily practices deemed “deviant,” “extreme,” or “pathological” – and local responses to such practices – make visible competing cultural logics of acceptable moral personhood. Along with her many publications and previous book, Jesus in our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent (2005) from the University of California Press, Dr. Lester is also the founder, Executive Director, and a psychotherapist of the non-profit Foundation for Applied Psychiatric Anthropology.

Ellen Kozelka is a graduate student at University of California, San Diego.

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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.

Book Release: Pearl’s “Face/ On”

FaceOn

Image via The University of Chicago Press website

Coming April 2017 from The University of Chicago Press is Sharrona Pearl’s Face/ On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other. This engaging exploration of face transplantation is the first comprehensive cultural study of the surgical procedure. Using bioethical and medical reports, media coverage, hospital records, personal interviews, and more, this interdisciplinary study discusses the significance we place on facial manipulation, facelessness, reconstruction, identity, and sense of self. Are our identities attached to our faces? If so, what happens when the face connected to the self is gone or replaced? This book will be of interest to medical and psychological anthropologists, bioethicists, medical professionals, those in the media and beauty industries, and cross-disciplinary scholars in the medical humanities.

To learn more about this upcoming release, click here.

About the author: Sharrona Pearl is an Assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a theorist of the face and body, gender and sexuality, disability and critical race theory, and cinema and media studies. She has explored the meaning of the face previously in About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain, released in 2010 by Harvard University Press (available here), and is the editor of Images, Ethics, Technology (Routledge, 2016), the latest volume in the Shaping Inquiry in Culture, Communication and Media Studies series.