Death Without Weeping

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes
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Last Updated on September 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

A highly praised and hotly debated anthropological study, Death Without Weeping explores one of the most basic assumptions about human nature: maternal devotion to infant well-being. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor at the University of California–Berkeley, draws on several decades of experience in anthropological research and advocacy in formulating her arguments about the circumstances that influence mothers’ decision-making about caring for their babies.

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Probing the lives of poor people of African heritage in northeast Brazil, Scheper-Hughes aims to explain the high infant mortality rates. After learning that many mothers lose infants in their first few months of life, she investigates both the reasons for infant deaths and the mothers’ attitudes toward loss. The wide-ranging book offers a panoramic view of the development of impoverished neighborhoods in Brazilian cities, as well as close-ups of the lives of individuals who struggle to eke out a living there. Chronicling the stories of numerous mothers who have lost at least one baby, the author explains how they cope with such devastating losses, often with the help of religious beliefs in the spiritual salvation of their “little angels.” She also attends to the social framework that supports very limited medical services in the shantytowns.

In laying out her commitment to advocacy, the author includes her support for improved social services in Brazil, especially in regard to prenatal care, family planning, and maternal and child health. Critics of the book have often viewed her approach differently. Scheper-Hughes, who is white, has been accused of inaccurately portraying the subjects, who are primarily black, as neglectful or even abusive. These accusations center on the interpretation that she claims that poor women allow their babies to die rather than seek medical attention. Scheper-Hughes, however, notes that she has highlighted numerous instances of mothers’ unsuccessful attempts to obtain adequate medical care, and she emphasizes social reforms that would provide improved services.

Death Without Weeping

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2072

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 aristocracy, paternalism, and slavery. Greedy landlords have forced peasants and sharecroppers off the land, driving them to seek work in urban slums. “Racial democracy,” the apparent lack of social friction between the races in Brazil, has long been attributed to miscegenation between master and slave in the colonial period. It is only a myth, according to Scheper-Hughes. Agrarian reform proposals, protests, and any attempts by workers to organize are treated with contempt and violence by those in power.

In chapter 2, Scheper-Hughes discusses the significance of the chronic droughts (secas) in northeastern Brazil. Water is precious—the misery of hunger cannot be compared with the misery of thirst—and thirst becomes a metaphor of the “dry lives” of the people whose basic needs go unmet in the interior of northeastern Brazil.

In chapter 3, Scheper-Hughes describes the shantytown “Alto do Cruzeiro” that is the focus of the study and the larger market town “Bom Jesus de Mata” which, together, make up a complex social world. There are three social stratifications that coexist and interact in the social drama Scheper-Hughes describes. The old feudal world of the plantation (categorized by the casa or “big house”) is represented by the upper class; the new world of commerce and capitalism found in the streets, factories, and supermarkets (categorized as the rua or “street”) is represented by the middle class; and the world of poor, disenfranchised squatters (categorized as matutos or “backward country people”) is represented by the lower class or common people. The poor are subdivided into even more stratifications: the respectable working poor, the struggling seasonal workers, and the wretched poor who literally live from hand to mouth. Scheper-Hughes presents vignettes depicting people from all walks of life in this complex social realm, believable to anyone familiar with northeastern Brazil. Servants and workers are locked into personal relationships with their patrons and bosses that foster dependency and compromise their humanity.

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with the problem of constant hunger and malnutrition. Two-thirds of all children in the area show evidence of undernutrition and stunted growth. The hunger endemic to the sugarcane region, however, is not the same as the fabled, cyclical, acute hunger of the drought-plagued backlands, (o sertão). With chronic hunger, rage and passivity alternate as bipolar rhythms, described in the literature as a Brazilian type of “manic-depressive” personality. Hunger and deprivation are manifested as irritability and nervousness. In recent years, the folk idiom of nervous hunger or “madness of hunger” (delirio de fome) has been translated into the ethnomedical idiom of “nervous frenzy” (nervos), a condition treated with tranquilizers and sedatives in a blatant misuse of medicine.

Chapter 6 discusses the random and institutionalized violence that occurs every day in the shantytown. During the years of military rule, the sudden “disappearance” of the poor or dissidents was commonplace. More recently, death squad “disappearances” continue and evoke a sense of powerlessness and pervasive anxiety in the population.

Chapters 7 through 12 describe Scheper-Hughes’ research and the central thesis of her work. Chapter 7 explores the environment in which child death is accepted as ordinary and expected. When the author wondered why the church bells rang so often in Alto do Cruzeiro, she was told that it was “just another little angel gone to heaven.” She gradually came to the realization that babies presumed destined to die are neglected, a practice contributing, in part, to the high infant mortality rate. She explores in chapter 8 the many meanings of motherhood, maternal thinking, and morality, and concludes that mother love is not a universal, natural phenomenon, but is culturally conditioned. It is a mistake to impose one’s own cultural expectations on mothers of other cultures. Chapter 9 rejects classical bonding theory, likening the shantytown mothers’ relationships with their infants to their relationships with husbands and boyfriends; these are often temporary attachments that result in disappointment, and disappointment leads to a failure to mourn. There is “death without weeping” because the infant’s happiness is certain in heaven. It is only considered appropriate to express attachment and grief for older children.

Chapters 10 and 11 follow the life histories of three half-sisters, Antonieta, Lordes, and Biu, whom Scheper-Hughes knew for the entire twenty-five-year period covered by the book. The lives of these women demonstrate the resilience to adversity of many women of Alto do Cruzeiro who still find life worth living, despite the hardships they face on a daily basis. The three sisters were fathered by different men within six years of each other, and each was partly raised by their aunt. Antonieta, the oldest, was fortunate enough to marry into a “good” family and managed to leave the shantytown. Several of her children survived, and she even raised a number of foster children. She refused to be overwhelmed by life’s experiences, recasting problems in the past in a favorable light and actively working to overcome the obstacles to happiness in her life. Biu, the same age as Scheper-Hughes, is hard-working, independent, and spirited. She had ten pregnancies, three miscarriages and seven live births, and was able to raise four children. She is able to forget her numerous problems, for a while, by celebrating carnival. Lordes, the youngest sister, gets by in ways that are fairly typical of women in the Alto. She has had several bad lovers, infant deaths, and illnesses, but eventually was able to form two stable relationships with older men.

The conclusion, chapter 12, reflects on how shantytown residents are able to “get by,” “make do,” and endure by “relying on their wits, playing the odds, and engaging in the occasional malandragem of deceit and white lies, gossip and rumor, feigned loyalty, theft, and trickery.” Religious rituals and various personal dramas enrich their lives and provide hope for a better world. The author describes the history of attempts to politically organize the people of Alto do Cruzeiro (more recently by the Catholic church, enlightened by the theology of liberation). The most recent attempt to revive the shantytown association was aborted by fighting within the association, the radical rhetoric of a few of the leaders, and bureaucratic obstacles. The book ends on a somewhat ambivalent note, acknowledging the power of poverty and oppression but also celebrating the resilience of people able to survive under such conditions.

Death Without Weeping is a splendid book. The narrative moves from the scholarly exploration of one topic to another, provides wonderful descriptions of life in the shantytown, relentlessly drives home the thesis of the book, and punctuates the discussion with indignation and moral outrage. Scheper-Hughes, in a departure from conventional ethnography that refuses to “engage” with its subjects, challenges the basic assumptions of her subjects and offers assumptions of her own. For her, anthropology is an ethical and radical project that demands the compassionate and crusading involvement of the researcher in the lives of the people studied. She believes that traditional anthropological methodology has been an intrusion into the lives of peoples exploited by Western imperialism and argues that anthropology should try to free itself from Western cultural assumptions. She replaces those assumptions with another set of assumptions—those of a Marxist theoretical perspective. She is dogmatic in her convictions about human nature, the causes of human misery, and solutions to the problems. At times, her conclusions seem more informed by her biases than by her observations. Nevertheless, she makes a powerful case for another view of maternal-infant attachment and a significant contribution to an understanding of what it means to be a woman and a mother in an impoverished, violent society.

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.

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