About one year ago, on June 13th, 2016, I was in a village down the Flores coast, south of my primary field site, where I had been invited to attend a wedding. I expected I would be in that village all day, bopping around the various rituals, feasts, and celebrations, taking notes, asking questions, drinking the local palm liquor, and generally enjoying myself.
I started the day by attending the church service, where I crammed myself into a pew in the back row, and wrote, for a while, about the ceremony. “Physical discipline of church: men all hold arms in front of bodies, arms crossed or hands clasped at groin. Nobody stands arms akimbo, or puts hands in pockets. (Of course, sarongs don’t have any pockets)”.
Then, everything began to unravel.
“Oh, I want to weep for America!” I wrote, sitting in that back pew, deep in Indonesia and far from anything American. “So much danger and death! The good things can’t be protected! It’s a dangerous, unstable world, unpredictable, as full of the bad as the good. I wish I could leave, but I’m also flushing the grief from my system.”
What happened that day? I had made a mistake. That morning, when I woke in a sweaty hut by that tropical shore, I had not gone straight to the celebrations. Instead, first thing, I checked my phone. A faint Internet signal carried the news from America: 49 dead, 58 wounded, all assaulted by a madman in the Pulse Nightclub, in Orlando, Florida.
My field notes from that day charted my mental decline. I veered away from the moment at hand, transforming the wedding from an ethnographic encounter to a psychological one. Everywhere I looked, I saw myself. “Every heart here has its turmoil,” I wrote, projecting my pain. “Never forget. Everyone has a heart. And a heart can churn with feeling. No one’s experience is deficient. [The] suffering and joys that westerners make movies and write novels about [are all] here.” I looked around at the congregation: poor farmers, palm tappers, fishermen. “What,” I wondered, “would the[ir] memoirs look like?”
After the church service, instead of going straight back to the groom’s house for the celebration, I went off to sit alone on the beach. I sat there so long, watching waves crash on the smooth black stones, that I missed my ride back to the village. “I can walk back,” I wrote. “Desperate for distraction and comfort. I always enjoy working, but I’m afraid of it. Especially now, when I’m so agitated.”
All around me, people appeared joyful. Their merriment felt unendurable. “Have to eat a little more,” I wrote. “Can’t choke down any more pig fat and blood. Disgusting now. The music is a palpable fog—we’re swimming through it. It’s thick. It shakes our pant cuffs and lung cavities.” I sat with the drunken elders, who told me useful stories, made jokes about their dicks, and passed the bottle back and forth. All I could write was how rude they were. They did not know I was upset, or what I could be upset about. That ignorance offended me. Their pleasure was repulsive.
Finally I told the gathering what had happened in America, and excused myself, saying I needed to make sure my family was safe. (No one in my family was anywhere near Orlando that day.)
For the whole drive home, I berated myself. I should never have checked the news. A real anthropologist, I thought, would never take their mind away from their field site like that. I should never have let my emotions overwhelm me, and ruin a rare, possibly unique field opportunity. I would never get another shot at some of those people. I had blown it, and why? Because of events thousands of miles away.
By the time I got home, however, a new plan had formed. Maybe I could turn this tragedy to my advantage. In the past, I had found that interlocutors often responded to displays of vulnerability with stories of their own emotions, failings, and doubts. If I played this right—this tragedy, this terrible crime—maybe I could turn it into data after all.
When my neighbors stopped by to say hello, I carefully broke the news: something terrible had happened in America. I was upset about it. I didn’t want to go out, or see anyone. Except, I intimated, for maybe just a few friends.
Within an hour, a key informant stopped by. He said he heard I was upset about something. To make me feel better, to offer me support, he agreed to a new round of interviews.
At this point, pain and disgust were joined by another emotion.
[Images by Ian Pollock]