This week of fieldwork was incredibly intense, even though I only had one interview and a mothers' meeting.
On Monday, I had an interview with a mom whom I'd met a couple of times before, and who had stood me up a few weeks ago (at the last minute) when we were supposed to meet. There was lots of evidence that she has some serious socialization issues, but I had tried not to judge her behavior too much. The first time we met one-on-one was at a park where a home-schooling group she's part of usually meets. Her son is still too young to be part of the home-schooling group, so I'm not entirely sure how she was affiliated with them, except perhaps aspirationally.
The details of the interview/meeting are kind of complex and lengthy, so it's hard to fully articulate why this was such a draining experience. But it set off an intense emotional reaction in me. She was initially 45 minutes late to our meeting, called me multiple times for directions to the park, at which she had suggested we meet and where I'd only been once before, so I was already feeling a bit angry at her. We ended up going back to her house (another 15 minutes away), and as I followed her car to her house, I reminded myself that I needed to be compassionate toward the people with whom I'm working. By the time we got to her house, I felt more calm about the frustrations, and throughout my many hours at her house, I felt that I had let go of my anger at her being so inconsiderate earlier on. However, the "interview" ultimately ended up being an intense processing session for her. A friend wisely pointed out to me, after I called her distressed, that it wasn't really an interview, since I didn't ask most of my questions.
What the experience raises for me, more importantly, is what do you do when someone decides to make the interview into a therapy session. I try to be open to my informants having a certain amount of control over the interview, in order to avoid behaving as though I were the one with all the power in the situation. I realize that the people to whom I'm speaking have been very generous to share their time and their knowledge with me. But I wonder if this openness has also meant that I'm susceptible to people like this woman, who decide to transform the interview into something totally different. In addition, I feel incredibly sad about this woman. She seems very dissociated from reality (in the ways she described her life, her expectations, her relationship with her husband) and seeing her life, close up, implicated me in these things. I know that I can over-identify with subjects, sometimes, but I haven't learned yet how to remain stoic in the context of very unsettling things about people's lives. It makes me feel both hollow and disturbed.
This mom was at the group meeting last night, and I watched her replicate some of the same over-sharing behaviors. It was almost worse last night, because it was so clearly inappropriate in this context. It also was a relief, because it showed to me how eager she was for having a willing ear for her problems, which it seems she does not get very often. When she had given me her guided tour through every room in the house, it felt like it was something she wanted her husband to appreciate, but since he proved indifferent, she desperately wanted someone to acknowledge all the work and thought she'd put into its feng shui colors and objects. The public performance of her problems and the attempts to center attention on her last night felt like more of the same.
The group activity involved an energy healer who allowed people to come up and explain a brief synopsis of their health problems that they thought she might work on. This mom's description was deeply intimate and strange in the context of a room of 20+ people, many of whom she didn't know. She also managed to interject multiple times even when she wasn't seated at the front of the room during the healer's explanations. In contrast, everyone else who got "worked on" tended to be modest about describing their health concerns, and they rarely sat in the seat for more than a couple of minutes, appreciative of the time spent on them, but not loitering, since everyone was supposed to get a turn.
It's now been three days since the interview, and I'm still trying to reconcile the experience. I finally sat down and fieldnoted it, and as I wrote, all sorts of details that contribute to her strangeness came back.