Death Without Weeping Essay - Critical Essays

Death Without Weeping

Nancy Scheper-Hughes was a twenty-year-old Peace Corps volunteer when she went to northeast Brazil as a community health worker in a shantytown of five thousand rural workers. Her frequent encounters with political repression, violence, poverty, and death—especially in children from diarrhea and dehydration—made an indelible impression on her. The death of a baby in the shantytown did not appear to be a tragedy; mothers were almost casual and indifferent.

Scheper-Hughes returned to the community fifteen years later as an anthropologist. Between 1982 and 1989, she conducted four field expeditions, recording the lives of mothers and their children. This book chronicles the sufferings of almost one hundred women through family and reproductive histories, migration and employment histories, and anecdotal commentaries. It incorporates the study of documents, interviews, observations, and literature reviews. It also contains emotional, highly personal anecdotal narratives, spanning the twenty-five years of Scheper-Hughes’ contacts with the community.

The relationship between chronic child loss and poverty and a mother’s ability to express maternal love is the central theme of the book. Scheper-Hughes proposes that when conditions of high fertility and high infant mortality prevail, the death of a child is the norm for poor families; mothers do not grieve when a fragile child dies, and maternal acceptance (routinization) of child death may actually jeopardize the life of certain children. Mothers invest only in those infants likely to survive and distance themselves psychologically from vulnerable infants and withdraw love and care. This thesis rejects current research on mother-infant interaction and the belief (which Scheper-Hughes call a modern “bourgeois” notion) that mother love is a universal phenomenon).

DEATH WITHOUT WEEPING is a nontraditional ethnographic work—crusading, compassionate, controversial, and thoroughly engrossing.

Sources for Further Study

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XXXVIII, June 10, 1992, p. A7.

Commonweal. CXIX, September 25, 1992, p. 24.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, April 1, 1992, p. 451.

Library Journal. CXVII, April 15, 1992, p. 102.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, August 30, 1992, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, April 13, 1992, p. 50.

San Francisco Chronicle. August 23, 1992, p. REV1.

Women’s Review of Books. X, October, 1992, p. 6.