Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Scheper-Hughes, an anthropologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, narrates this summary of experiences she's accumulated in the northern regions of Brazil. This area is incredibly poor, and the focus of her studies is the complex relationship between mothers and their children, who often die. The account doesn't center around Scheper-Hughes's own journey; rather, it is an examination of a culture quite unlike contemporary American society. Instead of judging the society where mothers often leave their babies to die for reasons ranging from apparent seizures to fear of rabies to sorcery, Scheper-Hughes seeks to shed light on the culture that has created this survival instinct in mothers. She notes that her publications have not gone without criticism:
I have been criticized more than once for presenting an unflattering portrait of poor Brazilian women, many who are, after all, themselves the victims of severe societal and institutional neglect.
She insists that if her work is perceived that way, she has not adequately conveyed the true pathogens in the environment where these women are expected to survive: "poverty, deprivation, sexism, chronic hunger, and economic exploitation."
Nailza is a woman who appears early in the narrative and whom Scheper-Hughes first met in 1965. Nailza captures Scheper-Hughes's interest because she engages in ongoing conversations with her deceased daughter, Joana, who died when she was only two years old. These conversations range from meditations on mourning to moments of anger, and Scheper-Hughes is advised to simply ignore Nailza's "odd" behavior. Nailza comes to represent all those mothers who exist partly in the land of the living and partly in the land of the dead—with all the children they have lost.
Zezinho is a thirteen-month-old boy whom Scheper-Hughes discovered one day as she helped his mother deliver another child. Zezinho lay under her hammock, curled in a fetal position in the midst of his own urine and feces. His mother ignored him completely, and when Scheper-Hughes took him in an effort to nurse him back to health, the other women in the village laughed at her, telling her that "it makes no sense to fight with death." Scheper-Hughes was successful in bringing the malnourished boy back to health after a couple of months of forced feedings, and she returned the little boy to his mother.
Years later, Scheper-Hughes returns to find that Zezinho knows the entire story of how his mother had given up on him as an infant, and yet he holds no ill will toward her; in fact, he calls his mother his best friend. This relationship shows the resignation of the community to the seemingly impossible odds stacked against the survival of their children. Mothers make the best decisions they can in an effort to save themselves and the strongest of their children.
The Women of Brazil
Collectively, the economically disadvantaged women of Brazil are also characters in this story. They average 9.5 pregnancies, 3.5 child deaths, and 1.5 stillbirths in their lifetimes. Of the children they watch die, seventy percent will die before reaching six months of age, and eighty-two percent will die in the first year. Women frequently find themselves raising children without husbands, and they are frequently unable to find employment. Of those who do find wage-earning employment, many women earn less than a dollar a day and cannot afford childcare for their children. Thus, many mothers are forced to lock their children in a house while they earn money for themselves and their families, and some of those children die while unattended. This group of women reflects the results of living in an environment where "death is anticipated and bets are hedged."