I read All That Was Not Her through the night on a non-stop flight from Chicago to Abu Dhabi, riveted under the beam of my single light in the darkened airplane cabin. I was on my way back to Kathmandu for the first time in three years, absorbed in a book about anthropological imperfection.
It is refreshing to read a book that dares to acknowledge the anthropologists’ failure, but also, terrifying. All That Was Not Her revolves around Meyers’s splintered, decade-long relationship with a black woman named Beverly who we learn was once a participant in his ethnographic study of chronic illness in Baltimore. But this is not primarily a book about Beverly’s illness, or chronic illness; it is a book about the ethnographer’s pain as he comes face to face with his own inadequacies. The story of an ethnographic relationship unfolds across a series of fragmentary thoughts and unsettling scenes: Meyers sitting in the purgatory of Beverly’s downstairs room; Meyers holding Beverly’s hand while her mother calls an ambulance; Meyers in the basement going through Beverly’s belongings after she’s died; Meyers carrying Beverly’s disabled grandson up and down the stairs; Meyers in the car with suicidal thoughts, driving to see Beverly. There are many uncomfortable things that readers will confront in this book, but the moral posturing of anthropology is not one of them.
All That Was Not Her is in the genre of the confessional. It’s short poetic ruminations supply a slow drip of ethnographic disquiet that never lets up. In its dive into the discomfort of the anthropological project, we are offered a critique of the discipline’s performance of virtue. I sensed failure was my object long before I found the nerve to name it. This book is an ode to the discarded draft, the abandoned project, the unfinished work that operates outside the logics of finality and truth. Inexactitude becomes an ethic that extends both to the writing of the text and the writing of Beverly’s life, never to be reduced to available tropes, categories, theoretical functions, or final conclusions. In the end there was no wholeness, no repair. Beverly’s life is not deformed into an anthropology of suffering, nor is it warped into optimistic narratives of hope, endurance, or moral becoming. It is precisely the refusal to locate Beverly’s life within the bounds of the available anthropological frames of suffering and endurance that Meyers creates an opening for something else to emerge. There is nothing heroic about this text; but that is, I think, exactly the point.
Aidan Seale-Feldman is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Grounded in ethnographic explorations of disaster, mental health, and mass hysteria, her research asks how to approach forms of affliction that are not bound within the individual but instead move across bodies, environments, and generations. Based on two years of fieldwork in Nepal, her first book project is an ethnography of the psychic life of disaster. Dr. Seale-Feldman’s research has been published in Cultural Anthropology, Ethos, HIMALAYA: The Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, and South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies.