cover image The Vulnerable Observer

The Vulnerable Observer

Ruth Behar, Behar. Beacon Press (MA), $22 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-8070-4630-2

Behar was filled with self-loathing and guilt when her grandfather died of cancer in Miami Beach in 1989 while she was away doing anthropological fieldwork on death customs in a Spanish village. That personal tragedy led this University of Michigan anthropology professor to jettison the notion of the anthropologist as semidetached participant-observer, and instead to champion the ""vulnerable observer,"" the ethnographic fieldworker who spells out, and works through, his or her emotional involvement with the subject under study. These six impassioned, intensely personal essays exemplify this subjective approach to varying degrees, though less successfully than Behar did in Translated Woman, the life story of a Mexican street peddler. A Cuban Jew whose grandparents emigrated from Russia, Poland and Turkey in the 1920s, Behar moved to New York City with her family, fleeing Castro's communism, in 1962 when she was nearly five. In one searing essay she discusses the family's 1966 car accident which left her with a broken leg; an invalid for a year, she later recognized ""the body is a homeland,"" a locus of stored memory and pain. Other pieces deal with her return trips to Cuba, her supportive friendship with a Mexican-American woman, her reconnecting with her Jewish heritage and her charged relationship with her husband and his white Methodist Texan family. Her luminous essays build cultural bridges and challenge conventional ways of doing anthropology. (Jan.)