Book by award-winning U-M scholar highlights journeys of an agoraphobic anthropologist

January 15, 1997

EDITORS: A black-and-white photo of Prof. Behar is available on request. See also the list of symptoms of panic disorder at the end of this release.

ANN ARBOR—In “The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart,” just published by Beacon Press, University of Michigan Prof. Ruth Behar explores the personal experiences that drive her professional interest in subjects ranging from witchcraft and death to contemporary Cuba and the life of a young Mexican immigrant to the United States.

In the process, Behar, a Cuban-Jewish immigrant who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988, reveals the panic attacks that plagued her after winning the award and receiving tenure at Michigan’s Anthropology Department, ranked first in the nation. For several months, the 35-year-old Behar became a living oxymoron: an agoraphobic anthropologist who could go nowhere.

In the book, Behar dissects the emotional roots of her affliction, which came on suddenly one evening in the middle of an aerobics class, just before she was scheduled to leave for an anthropology conference and a trip to Cuba. A car accident at the age of 9 left her immobilized in a body cast for more than a year soon after her family’s arrival in the United States. When the cast was finally removed, she was afraid to stand up and walk.

“I would tell friends about the accident … and found that I’d get irritated if they showed too much sympathy for the girl in the cast,” Behar writes. “I certainly had no sympathy for her. She had been a crybaby and a coward and I was ashamed of her. Not until my unconscious restaged, so many years later, the memory of my confinement to my bed and the dread of having to stand on my own two feet did I begin to feel empathy for the young girl that I had been.”

Behar is certain to be praised by some for her emotional honesty and ability to redefine the boundaries of anthropology by spotlighting the validity of lived experience and the importance of revealing “the self who observes.”

She is also certain to be criticized by others who believe that anthropology should remain, first and foremost, an objective science.

“Autobiography has emerged, for better or worse, as the key form of storytelling in our time,” Behar observes. “Isn’t it a pity that scholars, out of some sense of false superiority, should try to rise above it all?”

The Signs and Symptoms of Panic Disorder

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the clinical diagnosis of panic disorder requires that a person have at least four panic attacks in four weeks, or have a single attack and be consumed with worry for at least a month about when the next one is going to occur. For diagnostic purposes, a panic attack must include at least four of the following symptoms:

–Shortness of breath or a sensation that you’re smothering –Dizziness or feeling faint –Heart palpitations, accelerated heart rate –Hyperventilation –Sweating –Choking –Nausea, abdominal distress –Depersonalization (the feeling of being outside your own body) –Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet –Hot flashes or chills –Chest pain or discomfort –Fear of dying from any of the above symptoms –Fear of going crazy or being out of control

Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition Revised

Beacon PressMacArthur FellowshipAnthropology DepartmentAmerican Psychiatric Association