Occasionally - too rarely, alas - I encounter a work that makes me proud to be an anthropologist. Alisse Waterston's heartbreaking ethnography of destitute women in a Manhattan residence is one such study. Like Tally's Corner, by Elliott Liebow (1967), this minor classic exemplifies the anthropological injunction to bear witness to the humanity of those who are despised, mistreated, or ignored by the world around them..
—American Anthropologist, 2001, Joan Cassell
Love, Sorrow, and Rage gives powerful voice to women like Nora Gaines and Dixie Register, who tell us what it's like to live on the streets of New York, how it feels to lose your mind, about the taste of crack cocaine and the sweetness of friendship. In this novel-like narrative of homelessness and hope, poor women share a table, their meals, and their intimacies with author Alisse Waterston. On the pages of this impassioned ethnography, Waterston puts mythic, demonized bag ladies to rest, and in so doing, brings ordinary women to life.
Love, Sorrow, and Page will engage readers interested in urban studies, women's studies, social issues and policies, anthropology, sociology, political economy, and New York City life.
Harvard Medical School, Paul Farmer
New School for Social Research, Terry Williams
Columbia University, Ezra Susser
American Anthropologist, 2001, Joan Cassell
Waterston spent two years studying women stigmatized as "homeless" and "mentally ill." She testifies to the courage, humanity, humor, and intelligence of these women. The author uses the women's own words and stories to illuminate their moral and social worlds. She notes that they suffer from the intersection of multiple disabilities: "It's the totality of their various experiences with homelessness, mental illness, racism, and poverty that make for (in the words of Arthur Kleinman) 'the soft knife' of routine processes of ordinary oppression" (p. 171). In discussing the women's risk of contracting AIDS, Waterston notes how HIV risk is influenced by their attitudes and beliefs and that larger, more complex factors affect this risk: "poverty, the lack of affordable and adequate housing, limited access to preventive health and mental health care, the consequences of institutionalized care, and on an individual level, the deepest psychological effects of feeling" (p. 179).
Some of the interactions and stories are heartrending. When Waterston asks one woman, who has been diagnosed as HIV positive, what comes to mind when she hears the words AIDS and HIV, "Debra shrugs her shoulders. That I'll be dying soon,' she answers with a quiet smile" (p. 188).
The women's life histories are different, yet painfully similar. Loveless childhoods, scarred by parents' alcoholism, mental illness, and addiction; early sexual encounters involving seduction or rape; childbearing by teenagers unable to care for themselves, let alone another human being; an unending search for warmth, comfort, and love; and a lifetime of disappointments and rejections. The fact that they can guard a certain humor and even hope, in near hopeless conditions, is a kind of miracle. The women fantasize about being loved and having a "normal" everyday life: "'Oh,' Hattie sighs, 'I'd like a man who is normal, not like me. You know, someone who has never had a nervous breakdown. Someone who hasn't been on Haldol and hasn't gone off the deep end'" (p. 126).
Waterston sets most of her conversations with the women in the little kitchen attached to a library used by a group that gathers to cook meals. We see her in the book interacting with the women, hugging them, listening to them, cooking with and for them. One day she is delighted that three of the women most resistant to group activity are lured by her chicken livers sautéed in sweet butter with garlic and onions: "I relish their pleasure as they eat up the fatty, iron-rich appetizer I am certain these three scrawny women could use" (p. 190). Food is love; the women - residents and anthropologist - know this.
Early in her research, one resident questions her: "Do you have your own home?' 'Yes,'" responds the ethnographer, noting that "She seems to understand not only the material divide, but the ideological divide between us; if homelessness represents collapse, 'home' is its equally potent opposite. I have home, health, strength, goodness; she has homelessness, disease, collapse, evil" (p. 29).
Waterston is keenly aware of this divide. She notes how even the most disoriented residents seem to recover enough to inquire about her family, especially her daughter, who occasionally comes to the shelter with her. She anguishes over the contradictions in her role. As an ethnographer at a federally funded research institute, is she part of the problem, or contributing to the solution? What can she make of the fact that she is the one with power, exploiting friendship for privacy-invading information? If presenting the women's stories constitutes bearing moral witness, how does she tread the thin line between ghettoizing these women's experiences and appropriating these experiences by posing as an authority? She observes the contradictions in the role of the residence and the others like it: "…they are at once a system of healing and an instrument of surveillance. In a direct way, they 'serve' the people in their charge; indirectly, they serve 'the surplus' [of workers] at a minimal standard of living and take 'visible poverty' off the street" (pp. 141-142).
The book's title, Love, Sorrow and Rage, describes the ethnographer's sentiments as well as those of the women whose stories she recounts - in language so clear, moving, and jargon-free that some of the women she writes about will be able to read and appreciate her book. Waterston is enraged by the "worlds of suffering" endured by these women.
Agonizing over the contradictions in her role as ethnographer and wondering whether to proceed, Waterston discussed these dilemmas with four of the residents. They encouraged her to go on. Later that day, she went out for coffee with Nora, an intelligent, perceptive, spirited woman with whom she shared a strong emotional bond. "Nora took my hands in hers. 'The book, the book, the book, you'll write the book,' she admonished, 'but the really important thing is - you've come into my life and I've come into yours'" (p. 24).
My life, too, has been enriched by these women coming into it. One cannot ask more of an ethnography.
The American Prospect, 2000, Lisa Burrell
Waterston has a balanced view of the residence: it's a necessary place but also "emblematic of our social solutions, always fragmented and partial." She discusses, for example, the inevitably destructive power dynamic between residents and staff, which hinders the progress of women struggling to have as much control as possible over their lives. Yet "the women consider Woodhouse 'a blessing' and 'paradise.'" Funding for places like Woodhouse is often in danger of being cut because though they tend to symptoms, they are criticized for "not solving the greater social issues."
Rather than editorializing or presuming to read minds, Waterston often allows the residents and staff to speak for themselves. You get the sense that many of the women know their audience. Their speech is peppered with the language of psychoanalysis ("trauma," "antisocial"), academic words that sound oddly natural when mixed with street vernacular.
Though Waterston's analysis usually is illuminating and well-wrought, there are times when she would have done well to let the case studies make the point. Take Nora, who speaks frankly about her past and present, and even opens herself up to a friendship with the author. She shows a great deal of self-awareness when she relays her struggles with "drinkin' and druggin'" and with her "rage." Gender, race, and class are the stuff of her speech. Nora talks about her brief time in the army and about how being a black woman with much unresolved anger brought her quickly to the doorstep of an army therapist: "He told me that what I should do is go out every time I get angry and hit a tree. Take a stick and hit a tree. So I said, 'I'm not gonna hit no tree because a tree didn't do anything to me.'" Waterston doesn't need to tell us a paragraph later that "Nora knows the army psychiatrist is ridiculous when he suggests she hit a tree to vent her anger." Most of Waterston's academic writing (statistics about HIV and homelessness, for example), is relegated to the prologue; the women's stories carry the bulk of the book, putting a great deal of emphasis on the personal. So one thing that's conspicuously absent, or hidden, is Waterston herself. She buries in an endnote: "The lens through which I view the worlds has also, in part, been shaped by my having experienced enormous monetary downs and ups and a profound sense of loss and financial insecurity as a child growing up between New York, Cuba, and Puerto Rico." She mentions that social scientists are trained to keep the "I" out of their writing, and certainly, theoretical insight and social criticism are what separate Love, Sorrow and Rage from straight memoir. But at this point in her life, Waterston is socio-economically and academically pretty close to the readers she's likely to reach. Bringing her own voice at least into the book's introduction would have invited us to make personal connections too, combating what she calls the "exaggeration of otherness, [where] the other is born, objectified, and perceived as exotic, strange, frightening."