There isn’t an easy way to synthesize this book. Sure, one can say that it’s a literary ethnography about relations—their volatile and fraught nature. One can also say that this is a book about the return—about why previous worlds return to us, or why “we” return to sift through their broken shards. Or about how seemingly impersonal forces impel us to return to the injurious scene. Or how the space of the negative, of absence, is an elliptical space that boomerangs apparitions, afterlives, and presencing forces that refuse to be done away with. Or, that this is a book about the modes of contact sustained and lost between the author, Todd Meyers, and his interlocutor, Beverly. Yet, it is so much more.
The fieldwork for this book, we are told, began in the early 2000s as an attempt to follow the life of Beverly—a middle-aged Black woman living in Baltimore—to understand how social crises and comorbidity are managed in contexts of racialized violence and insecurity through a person-centered approach. But in that process, what grew between the ethnographer and Beverly became something much more expansive and elusive. All That Was Not Her is, in part, the result of these contingencies: an account of the convoluted nature of ethnographic relations.
So much is compressed in these pages. So many offerings held tenuously on the page. So many scenes hosting multiple worlds within and beyond the frame. It is an ethnography of impossibility, of that which cannot be explained away (loss, violence, volatile relations) and thus summons the elliptical return.
Pausing, breathing with the text
Aphorisms irreducible to fixed moral lessons
The language of flowers
Prose as contagion
Indirect approximation to the object of inquiry
Digression and the adjacent as method
Visitations from intellectual kin
In All That Was Not there is no masterful authorial posture. No transcendental narrator to declare finality to the page and its conundrums. Only perpetual returns, cyclical relays in the form of “incurable” images that refute closure.[i] The reader is brought into its vortex where images work their way through the reader. The ellipses and gaps between each scene often dictate the tempo of engagement. You learn to breathe with the text, to synchronize to its rhythms. The form, the frame of the text, in other words, works through attention. Even the flora cover and the petals found in some of the pages aren’t merely aesthetic adornments but, for me, gesture to the imbrication of life and death that so much of the text tries to reckon with (see Bataille “The Language of Flowers”)[ii].
The prose is contagious. It demonstrates a serious commitment to writing through problems—of why we must continue to try thinking with and from within impossibility. During the summer of 2022, my nephew began reading excerpts from All That Was Not Her with me out loud. Like myself, they had been drawn to the prose, to the ways these short sentences traffic so much imagery. One morning, I found my nephew at the kitchen table returning to passages we had read out loud. They were copying down quotes into little torn pieces of paper. The dispersed aphorisms formed archipelagos. They kept reassembling the little pieces of paper as though these aphorisms opened new avenues for thought through their rearrangement.
I have taken cues from my nephew. I’m summoned to return to so many lines from the text, to reassess and reassemble what these scenes offer.
What grows out of absence
The spiraling of images that beget more images, reeling you in-too-deep
Forbidden psychogeographies of suicidality
The unshakable thereness of Beverly
The work of time
The life of the phantasm
Return as wounding and insulation from the event
Life-in-Death and vice versa
All That Was Not Her is about showing not telling the ethnographic scene. It is about the author returning to snippets of fieldwork almost two decades ago and looking back through a “distorted lens.” But the author’s returns, I should caution, are not about absolute retrieval, nostalgic wandering, or even quests for truth. That world, or that past as somehow untouched and pristine, is forever gone we are told. Instead, the returns derive from a franker and more beclouded place where memory, sparse fieldnotes, and phantasms, seem to mush together. These moments lingered after I put the book down. I found myself entering ethnographic scenes again and again––scenes of abduction, of potential truth-serum poisoning, of hospital escapes, of suicidality, of loss and grief in the aftermath of death, of days of fieldwork that seem insignificant in the moment, of the monotonous as indiscernible from the disastrous, and so on. As an ethnographer, this book resonates deeply.
Touch from afar
The act of writing
The charge of objects
The undoing of selfhood
All That Was Not Her makes you query the nature of contact. Can one even begin to discern contact from its traces?[i] When contact is made, why do some things remain with us and not others? What kind of forces and images spiral uncontrollably through the work of time? What does it mean, in other words, that the waxing and waning of contact is not necessarily reliant on physical proximity? In the book, contact becomes a happening—what contact does, how it operates, remains a question. Take for instance a scene of care and touch when Beverly loses consciousness as they wait for an ambulance to arrive. Contact remains present long after the fact. Within the lacuna of time stopped as the author and Beverly waited for the ambulance, he held her hand, wishing her back to life––a tactile-memory that is still here.It’s as though that lacuna of time then, that instant of suspension, that threshold where a life death is felt in its immediacy,[ii] lives on forever in the now.
All That Was Not Her demonstrates the force of affective contamination between ethnographer and interlocutor. It is a deeply personal account on the corrosive nature of fieldwork, yet, one that escapes the trap of liberal sentimentality. It is an unsentimental yet vulnerable reckoning of fieldwork. An ethnography of ethnography, in a way. So much of ethnography seems to take for granted the accident of contact, how certain relations are forged through instances that at the time seem insignificant. And then before we know it, the traces of previous encounters not only cling to us but also become part of us too.[iii] This is the work of mutual intrusion.[iv] And even as asymmetrical as ethnographic relations might be, they also imply a zone of affective contamination where the ethnographer becomes impacted by the shared and tenuous world brought into being by these very relations.
Re-tracing the loose contours of the self
The multiple selves of selfhood
The multiple layers of a scene
The multiple temporalities that intersect
The trap of narrative
The refusal to pin down the subject once and for good
The refusal to bridge the gap between life as lived and life as told
The trap of analytical closure
The trope of resilience and other titanic signifiers that obfuscate more than describe
The punctum that pierces us in-between images
The impossibility of images
There is serious commitment and justice for the many selves and afterlives that constitute Beverly. We are told how the author “helps with memory,” how he and Beverly, scourer her life over and over. How some returns to the past are welcomed, while others remain forever fenced off. What is also forbidden for the ethnographer is to reiterate what was said before. Beverly did not want to hear previous narratives she shared; she did not want those versions of her to be read back to her.
All That Was Not Her is told through multiple and often incommensurate layers of narrative that are left unresolved, mostly because what seems to fuel inquiry is not the ethnographic quest to pin down the subject once and for all; nor is it the usual paranoic skepticism in academic inquiry to put the house in order and resolve contradictions. Something else is at stake.
The author seems to take cues from Beverly; to learn the art of overwriting, of revisiting previously outlined sketches—faint traces where the subject is left open-ended, never fully defined, even at the end of life. But the many shades of Beverly, the many opaque qualities of Beverly are not hurdles to overcome, but the very grounds from which any type of bearing on her life can emerge. This is also about embracing the singularity of the subject, of refusing to flatten and hallow out the subject, of not cannibalizing the ethnographic subject into fixed portraitures and caricatures. Opacity, we learn, is vital to ethnography and its limits.
Andrés Romero is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rollins College where he teaches courses on cultural and medical anthropology, global and public health, visual culture, and ethnographic writing. He is currently working on a narrative-driven book manuscript centered on the lives of communities who move across the drug-markets and rehab centers in Bogotá, Colombia.
Bataille, Georges. 1985.Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 2023. Life Death. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Desjarlais, Robert. 2018. The Blind Man: A Phantasmography. Fordham, NY: Fordham University Press.
Desjarlais, Robert and Khalil Habrih. 2021. Traces of Violence: Writings on the Disaster in Paris, France. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Elhaik, Tarek. 2016. Incurable-Image: Curating Post-Mexican Film and Media Arts. Edinburgh University Press.
[i] See also Desjarlais and Habrih, Traces of Violence
[ii] Derrida, Life Death.
[iii] See Desjarlais, The Blind Man.
[iv] See, Elhaik, The Incurable Image.
[i] See Elhaik, The Incurable Image.
[ii] Bataille, Visions of Excess.