August 1, 2019
Grief and the Ethnographic Encounter
dragged down into earth,
river storming to sea.
heart ground to a hollow fury,
But the battle-hardened heart
Is not yet vanquished,
the wild sacred-
I met Gina for our interview at a park, two weeks after she had been permanently kicked out of Inanna House, a shelter for commercially sexually exploited youth. The morning of our interview, she had just returned to her mother’s house after a week doing sex work and meth at a motel. We sat in the park for more than an hour, talking and playing with my dogs, who I had brought because I knew she loved animals. At the end of the interview, I walked her back to her mother’s house and she asked to give me a hug. “I love you,” she said, as she turned to go. I was struck. Then, breaking my freeze, I replied, “I love you too.”
The time I spent working and then conducting research at Inanna House, a voluntary emergency and long term residential shelter for commercially sexually exploited youth between the ages of 14 to 21 in the Pacific Northwest, was transformative for how I myself grappled and processed my own trauma, and how I have come to understand the glimpses of what I saw as good in the often devastating messiness of that place. I think that it is imperative that I am upfront and candid about how the encounter with these youth changed me. Even across all of our differences, across all of our uneven distribution of difficulty, pain, and economic access, our encounter changed me, and I glimpsed that our encounter changed the youth as well.
Being changed does not mean that much in a lot of ways. I would not say that the changes, the effects we had on each other, are connected to justice per se; they are not affecting the structures of race, class, or gendered oppression. Perhaps, though, registering and attending to moments of deep relatability we shared at Inanna House points to what is wrong with and missing from oppressive paradigms. Perhaps attending to deep relatability offers the new foundation needed from which to build other worlds.
When we numb ourselves to the pain of others, we also lose the ability to grieve their pain. The ability to grieve unveils our embodied interconnection, for it actualizes our recognition of the Other through the welling of our tears. Without grieving, we lose our human bearings. Without fostering my relationship with grief while working, doing research, and then writing about Inanna House, I would have been overwhelmed beyond my capacity to engage with the complex realities of our world. Without grief I became stuck, frozen, shut down, unable to relate to myself or to other people. Making contact with the things that touched me deeply, and paying attention rather than ignoring the corresponding grief, made a difficult world more bearable. Violence can be hard to comprehend mentally, but feeling heartbroken that people experience violence can make sense straight to the gut. I understand myself through this wrestling with grief, and in so doing understand Inanna House and its residents and staff through the lens of this relationship with grief. What I learned from my time working at and researching Inanna House is that we need to foster our relationship with grief and cultivate our sense of deep relatability. To support our anthropological encounters and visions of applied projects of care, we may be bolstered by understanding others’ suffering throughour own pain and vulnerability, and through the tender disorientation of our own grief.
Inanna House raised vital questions about human connection and the many realms of relationship. From pain, caused by the people and systems that commercially sexually exploit youth, comes the implication of the collective, including the people and systems that come to label and rescue them. Considering the ways in which people who are traumatized make a way back toward the whole that was consigned to the fragmented part during traumatic dissociation, how people who have experienced terror make their way back to relationship, I found experiences of violence very closely threaded with a deep sense of belonging. This belonging to one’s own body, to a network of relationships, also includes life’s belonging to death, death’s belonging to life. Judith Butler writes, “It might be that the constituting relations have a certain pattern of breakage in them, that they actually constitute and break us at the same time” Through the space of Inanna House, a novel frame of relationship formed. Each of us became an “I," a “You," and Inanna House a place marker for a tentative “We." Youth and staff shared an immediacy there, a presence, a “Here we are.”
We are all dealing with the same crimson, carnelian,
burgundy, brick, blood, cinnamon, rose, fire-
Or is it we all dance in brass, dance in amber-
We are all swimming in jade, in jungle, swimming in mint,
sinking in hunter, olive, moss, myrtle, fern -
Or is it we all sweat in violet, in lava, sweat in smoke-
We are all thinking opal, dreaming lavender, lemon,
forgetting and forgetting baby blue-
Or is it we all hope in royal purple, hope in gold-
We are all down to our last russet, saddle, roast, root, pearl,
down to our last, to our last, our last pig, pine, silver, salmon-
Or is it we all worry satin, scarlet, sangria, saffron, sage-
Coral, cobalt, carmine, corn, copper,
ghost white, granite, gunmetal, glacier, coal.
Butler, Judith (2015) Senses of the Subject. Fordham University Press, p. 9.
Liat Mayer has recently graduated with a Master’s Degree from Portland State University. Her interests include integrating anthropology with critical trauma studies, cultural somatics, and working with youth. She loves collaboration and correspondence. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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