Death Without Weeping

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Nancy Scheper-Hughes was among the first group of Peace Corps volunteers to work in northeastern Brazil following the military coup in that country in the spring of 1964. It is an area of great poverty, high infant mortality, short life expectancy (forty years), malnutrition, illiteracy, and joblessness. The introduction to the book is Scheper-Hughes’ story: how she came to Brazil, her life there, subsequent visits, and the profound effect Brazil has had on her life and career.

She begins by telling how—as a twenty-year-old community health and development volunteer—she served briefly in a large public hospital in the sugarcane plantation zone, then lived and worked for two years in a shantytown of five thousand rural workers in the state of Pernambuco. Her frequent encounters with political corruption and repression, violence, poverty, sickness, and death—especially in children, from diarrhea and dehydration—made an indelible impression on her. She developed a strong relationship with the community and, in addition to working in health promotion, became actively involved in raising the political consciousness of the peasants through Paulo Freire’s adult literacy programs, programs associated by many with leftist or communist agitation.

Fifteen years later, in 1982, when the military regime in Brazil had become more “open,” Scheper-Hughes, now an anthropologist, returned to the community where she had worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. Between 1982 and 1989, using a phenomenologically grounded anthropological approach, she conducted four field expeditions, for a total of fourteen months of fieldwork.

This book is a report of her research, a subjective, sometimes fragmented, record of the lives of mothers and their children, living (and dying) in the midst of abject poverty and violence. It incorporates the study of documents, interviews, and obser-vations, as well as scholarly literature reviews and citations from anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, philosophy, and literature. It also contains emotional, highly personal anecdotal narratives and observations, spanning the twenty-five years of Scheper-Hughes’ intermittent contact with the community.

The scope of the book is tremendous. Topics such as poverty, hunger, rural medicine, death and illness, body image, and maternal-infant bonding, are explored in depth. Scheper-Hughes’ research has been driven by the connection she perceived, as a young Peace Corps worker, between the high infant mortality rate in the community in 1965 (from dehydration, hunger, and neglect) and the military takeover in Brazil in 1964. The social conditions that prevailed and the mothers’ acceptance (routinization) of day-to-day suffering and violence had a profound impact on her. To her amazement, the death of a baby in the shantytown did not appear to be the great tragedy it would have been in the United States; mothers were calm, almost casual, and indifferent. This impression was to haunt her and shape her anthropological research.

Scheper-Hughes chronicles the sufferings of almost one hundred women through family and reproductive histories, migration and employment histories, domestic and conjugal liaisons, and anecdotal commentaries. The central theme of her work is the relationship between chronic psychological and material poverty, illness, and child-loss and a mother’s ability to practice moral judgment and to express maternal love. She hypothesizes that the expectation of child death actually jeopardizes the lives of certain children. In both the public and private sectors, the death of a child is not seen as a serious or urgent problem. It is the norm for poor families. Scheper-Hughes doubts that the modern “bourgeois” notion of mother love is a universal phenomenon. The basic research and current thinking about mother-infant interaction and “human nature” are called into question. In Death Without Weeping, she proposes that when conditions of high fertility and high infant mortality prevail, which is the case among the shantytown mothers, women distance themselves psychologically from their weak and vulnerable infants and withdraw love and care. They give birth to many children and invest only in those most likely to survive; they do not experience a deep sense of loss or grieving when a fragile child dies. This is the major thesis of the book.

The first six chapters present a broad perspective of the region in Brazil that is the context of Scheper-Hughes’ work. In chapter 1, she traces the colonial history and sugar economy of northeastern Brazil up to the present time, giving an ethnographic tour of the large sugarcane plantation and mill just outside of the principal market town of the region (called by the pseudonym of Bom Jesus da Mata in the book). The social and cultural institutions that were a part of the sugar plantation society romanticized by Brazil’s leading sociologist, Gilberto Freyre, have left their mark on present-day northeastern Brazil in modern-day versions of the landed...

(The entire section is 2072 words.)