Reflections on a tough week

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.


Some serious regret

The more I think about it, the more nauseous I feel that I saw the Sex and the City film. There are a lot of reasons to feel this way, but there is a small storyline in which one of the characters refuses to eat anything in Mexico except pudding cups. Even though they are staying at the poshest resort. She accidentally opens her mouth in the shower, gets water in her mouth, and then develops a horrible case of diarrhea. And this prompts the other three women to laugh hysterically. No one seems at all disturbed that she thinks only the pudding cups are "safe," though they do roll their eyes at her.

Clearly, there are a slew of other problems with this film, and I went because it was important to a friend of mine to have someone to do such 'girly' things with. But now I feel dirty. And shameful.

Jezebel has a good rant about the horror of the film, as well. Perhaps, though, we ought not give it so much media time and just turn our backs. At least I didn't pay to see it! That's a small consolation, I guess.

Owning up to Racism and Sexism

I obviously really enjoy reading Bitch, PhD. There's a posting up from yesterday that asks the readers to seriously recognize their own racism and sexism. What's so wonderful about the way the author (who is not always the same on the site) addresses it is that she points out how subtle and tacit our own racism can be -- even when we think we're quite thoughtful and conscientious. The naivete of escaping forms of these prejudices fully gets addressed without being antagonistic, and I think this is something that needs to be better integrated into American conversations. In lieu of self-flagellation, this more reflective approach might actually change things quite radically.

I do think, however, that she ought to have included class as part of the triad of prejudices. She comments that she is surprised when she interviews a black woman in her 30s who doesn't have children, but she doesn't feel surprise at a white woman of the same age. (This made me think that my reactions to such a circumstance would be highly mediated by my knowledge of the woman's educational level -- so if I were to meet a black female professor, I wouldn't find it odd that she didn't have children, and I might actually find it stranger if she did -- depending on age, of course.) I have a friend with whom I've lost touch who has worked extensively on race in the States, and I know that because she and her family are immigrants, she identifies with a working class culture. Yet, her mother was a professor in their home country -- and this friend attended the same prestigious college and is now pursuing her PhD in one of the most rarified academic tracks in this country. It's hard for me to feel sympathy for her when I think that in spite of our economic differences as children we share a lot of the same class beliefs and experiences. Though we may seem to have different class backgrounds (my father was a successful white collar worker and his parents had money, though their parents were immigrants, and her parents were struggling to make a good life for their kids when they immigrated in the late 80s), I do think education equalizes quite a lot, even if I don't want to dismiss the difference of knowing that my parent could afford to support my education, and my friend's parents couldn't. They clearly valued higher learning and both their daughters have advanced degrees.

We need to integrate class more explicitly in American debates (and that is one thing I have found deeply disturbing in Clinton's bragging about her "owning" the blue collar workers -- the lady is as pedigreed as Obama, neither can fully claim shared experiences with such people). I remember looking at houses in Baltimore, and I felt far more uncomfortable in the white working class neighborhoods of Baltimore than in the poorer black neighborhoods. It was a shock to recognize that I was actually far more classist (and in a way racist -- that I was understanding of poverty among blacks but far less sympathetic to poverty among whites) than I had ever acknowledged. I guess part of why I found the freak-out about a half-black male presidential candidate and a white woman candidate so strange was that it seemed irrelevant to me that we could have a (self-identified?) black man in office or a white woman in office. I mean, I understand why this caused a hub-bub, but I don't understand these as important distinctions -- they are different people with very different cultural experiences. But I certainly feel confident that they're both adequately educated and capable of becoming president, and it would be far stranger if we were to have a working-class white man running for office.

I'm not explaining this as well as I'd like (this is becoming a running theme in my posts, incoherence), but ultimately, I think we can't just reduce debates to race-gender. Americans need to stop pretending that anyone can advance in society regardless of where they come from; the Horatio Alger myth is kind of dated, don't you think?


The perversity of insurance in the United States

A while ago, a friend told me that she was denied life insurance because she'd had an abnormal Pap. For the record, almost every woman in the U.S. will probably have an abnormal Pap at least once in their life -- or at least, the odds are very good that she will. (Purportedly, 80% of Americans have HPV at some point in their lives, though data on this are inconsistent because HPV is a bitch to track for a variety of reasons, some structural (limitations of tests, tracking, etc) and some due to the etiology of the infection.) To add insult to injury, her husband and her insurance broker received the letter declining Mrs. X her coverage, though Mrs. X herself did not get notified. [She would go by Ms. X, but her marital status seems important for the argument here! Apologies, Ms. X.] She could receive coverage after she received a normal Pap. Leaving aside the inanity that Mrs. X was not treated as her own individual, adult person worthy of receiving the information directly, equally disturbing is that she could be denied coverage because of a fairly routine abnormality. True, an abnormal Pap may slightly increase the chance of her developing cervical cancer, but on the other hand, her diligence in getting her Pap and the fact that it was identified by her doctor probably will more likely increase her chance of catching precancerous cells, and being able to get treatment before developing cancer (thereby, saving everyone a lot of time and money -- if we're going to look at this in such a grim way). Basically, penalizing my lovely friend Mrs. X for being careful about her health seems a very ass-backward way to actually increase her longevity. Dumb-asses.

Now, the Sunday The New York Times has an article about how women who've had caesarean sections to deliver their children are being denied insurance coverage when they seek individual health insurance plans. For those who don't follow such things as religiously as I do, caesarean sections have been on the rise -- part of the obsessive medicalization of women's bodies and pregnancy, in general. A number of my friends have had home births lately, and their decisions are not just personal preference, but they are in fact, a form of resistance. I'm a bit agnostic about the home birth vs. the hospital birth (as I've never been pregnant, and prefer not to worry about this issue right now, though I think it's great that my friends have been so determined) -- but the caesarean practice has gotten out of control. And now, to read that women are therefore penalized for the decision, which I suspect is not always "theirs" -- but rather obstetricians, who don't want to be disrupted from their weekend plans, schedule these in order to make life easier. And to be fair to the women who agree to these unnecessary caesareans (there is an important difference between the elective caesarean and the necessary one), child birth is a scary scary unknown, so it's hard to blame these women for choosing a more controlled way of delivery.

I am tempted to write a letter to Obama telling him that health insurance reform and health care reform better damn well be a big part of his platform. I find the constant double standard of insurance in this country so deeply frightening. You really are damned if you do and damned if you don't. I've been thinking a lot about the privatization of health in the United States, and I read an interesting article that made the point that the concept of "confidentiality" is a very American idea when you compare the UK and French socialized health systems -- the consequences of this "confidentiality" is much more far-reaching than simply a notion of the autonomous individual. The ways in which confidentiality taps into capitalist discourses and corporate interests is pretty fascinating. I know I'm not articulating this very well, yet, but I hope to eventually. Anyway, I see this NYT article as really tapping into this morass of conflicting interests -- as I've said before, ultimately, health ought not be on the marketplace.