Todd Meyers is the Marjorie Bronfman Chair in Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University. His new book, All That Was Not Her, is a highly personal exploration of the end of the anthropologist’s relationship with a woman he followed for years. It is a book about how stories of health and illness spill over and exceed their borders, saturating other parts of life. Meyers gives an inward-looking account of how the ethnographic record takes shape, and in doing so raises knotty questions about difference, representation, and political urgency in the present moment.
You announce from the start that the focus is you and Beverly, not a general concern with health or illness. Can you talk about the kind of distinction you are making?
For years the attention of my work with Beverly was on illness, specifically on the interaction of multiple medical conditions. I wanted to know how a person living in a situation of serious insecurity—economic, social, political—managed multiple health related problems, and still cared for those around her. I was asking simple questions even if the answers were unimaginably complex. At a certain point I began to rethink the whole enterprise—was my aim just to document the steady unraveling of Beverly’s life? Whatever I thought was important wasn’t, at least in the way I thought. I needed to examine my relationship to her, to let her seep into my questioning. As the concern with health and illness began to blur, other demands came into focus. How was I accounting for the years I knew her? And critically, how was I to speak of her—to her—after her death, in the aftermath of her. The problem of how this mutual record comes into being, for her and me, is central to the book.
What do you expect readers to make of the story you tell, or your relationship with Beverly?
It is less of an expectation and more of a hope. I hope readers recognize the problems I am trying to parse in my time with Beverly. I hope they share my uneasiness with forgone conclusions that give little attention to the lived messiness of human relations. I started this project at a very different political moment, but not so different that a concern with the erasure of black lives wasn’t there from the start. Erasure is still a concern, especially after Beverly’s death. But alongside erasure I have serious worries about representation. As I say in the book, I am the wrong person for the job, but after nearly twenty years I felt an impossible commitment to getting it right. It is now a matter of fulfilling a promise, of seeing the writing through to the end, of risking speech while acknowledging its limits. But I am also attuned to how all the untamable things of living can be so casually domesticated on the page, or can turn the person into a caricature of either virtue or prejudice. I return again and again to Beverly in order to avoid reducing her to some sort of lesson.
Beverly is always “her” in the book, but you refer to yourself with both the first person “I” and the third person “he.” How are you using personal pronouns?
There are many Beverlys in the book, all of them “her” even when they appear to contradict each other. She changes over time and that “her” alongside her. But for me, it’s harder to say. Some of these moments I returned to after years and years felt equal parts foreign and crushing. At times “he” insulates me from their impact on return. By the same token, “I” is a way to give myself over to their force. But it’s also about the shaky point of view that ethnography assumes, the origin of the voice in writing, who speaks and who is spoken about. It was only afterwards that a friend pointed out that Roland Barthes does the same thing in his autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. I’m not trying to draw a parallel, only to say I felt relief that I wasn’t alone in this problem of authorship.
Can you talk a little about the importance of design and typesetting in All That Was Not Her?
I have to thank Courtney Leigh Richardson who did incredible design work. It was clear from the start that she recognized the tone of the book. But what’s amazing is the way she transformed that sensibility into something visual. Her aesthetic intuition is stunning. The cover art is a painting by Alma Woodsey Thomas entitled Double Cherry Blossoms (1973). Thomas was an extraordinary artist—she was the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art—and although she made art throughout her life, it wasn’t until she retired from teaching at a junior high school in Washington D.C. that she began to make art full time. She was 82 years old when she painted Double Cherry Blossoms. The cover feels like an echo of Beverly’s story: the glow of petals falling and a carpet of perfumed decay left behind. There’s something devastating and ephemeral about the image. The painted flowers that separate sections give me that same sense of splendor and fleetingness. All of the backgrounds and flowers were hand-painted by Allyson Joy Marshall for the book. There was so much care by others that went into making this book.
The typesetting is essential to the structure of thinking in the book as well. The sections are short and uneven, but they follow a pattern: the respiration of text rising and falling. Often the text will end near the top of the page, suspended precariously above a pool of empty page below. Like I said, there was a lot of care by others to get it right.
It’s interesting how you describe the importance of design because drawing itself is such a powerful motif in the writing. Where does this way of thinking about your approach come from as an anthropologist?
I suppose I have been thinking with lines for some time. I went to art school and continue to make art, mostly drawings, and often write about other people’s art. In the book I don’t distinguish one form of line-making from another: contact, the lightness or heaviness of a mark, erasing and trying again, attempting to find the contours of the person in a line repeated over and over, creating an image that plays at permanence still knowing it can be smudged out of existence so easily—my method as an ethnographer, such as it is, shares these elements with drawing.
Your background in studio art informs a lot of your practice as an anthropologist, but your other books also travel widely across disciplines—from the history of medicine and science, art, film studies, and of course, anthropology. How do you imagine interdisciplinarity for yourself?
I have a strong suspicion that these projects, as disparate as they may seem from a disciplinary perspective, are in fact the same project. At the risk of oversimplifying, they are all concerned with how evidence is secured or made visible, they are about cases, they are about the ways disorder and distress pull other things into their orbit, and finally, I would say they are all about the unstable places from where judgments (medical, moral, or otherwise) are made. All That Was Not Her is no different. All That Was Not Her joins several new titles in the “Critical Global Health: Evidence, Efficacy, Ethnography” series, edited by Vincanne Adams and João Biehl.