Mamose Post Friday June 2-Thursday 8, 2000. “Warning follows mermaid attack.” By Wendy Katusele
A reported attack by what has been described as a “half human, half fish” creature has prompted police in Madang to issue warnings on people going out to sea to be extra cautious. Acting Provincial Police Commander, Senior Inspector James Kupi issued the warning after a man was attacked by what was claimed to be a mermaid while diving off Karkar Island last week. Senior Inspector Kupi said people should be careful when going out to sea. He said if mermaids can attack just the way a shark attacks then any creature in the sea is bound to attack human beings. …”People should be very, very careful because things that you least expect to happen can happen,” Mr. Kupi said.
Imdb.com plot synopsis The Little Mermaid, Disney 1989:
Ariel, a sixteen-year-old mermaid princess, is dissatisfied with life under the sea and curious about the human world… Ignoring the warnings of her father (King Triton) and court musician (Sebastian the crab) that contact between merpeople and humans is forbidden… Ariel still longs to be part of the human world...One night, Ariel, Flounder and an unwilling Sebastian travel to he ocean surface to watch a celebration for the birthday of Prince Eric, with whom Ariel falls in love… Ursula makes a deal with Ariel to transform her into a human for three days ("Poor, Unfortunate Souls"). Within these three days, Ariel must receive the 'kiss of true love' from Eric; otherwise, she will transform back into a mermaid on the third day and belong to Ursula. …Later, after seeing that Ariel really loves Eric and that Eric also saved him in the process, Triton willingly changes her from a mermaid into a human using his trident. She runs into Eric's arms, and the two finally kiss.
What conclusions can I make about parenting in PNG? I know enough to say I can never inoculate my children from damaging media messages. The girls will still be watching the Next Australian Top Model and reading newspaper lonely heart advice from the Philippines. They will want high heels and hair straighteners and boys in cars. But will all of this be dislocating, will it erode the sense of consocial identity that they have managed to sustain so far? I have no idea. If you raise an expatriate child in a realm of privilege, no matter how meager, they will feel entitled. If you take a village kid and raise her with a white Missus in town, she may become impossibly self-centered. Or maybe not.
An article on the feminist website Jezebel recently (4.6.12) by Cassie Murdoc reports on another study of American TV viewing. Confirming what everybody knew already, the study tells us “TV Makes Girls Feel Like Crap About Themselves, But Does Wonders for White Boys” (“Tweens, white and black,” Communications Research article by Nicole Martins and Kristen Harrison, communications professors in the Midwest). How much time kids watched TV and its impact on self-esteem. It’s pretty much what we already knew. White male self-esteem goes up because they see themselves in positions of power, with beautiful wives, nice cars, etc.
Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to. If we think about those kinds of messages, that's what's responsible for the impact…Children who are not doing other things besides watching television cannot help but compare themselves to what they see on the screen…The roles that they see are pretty simplistic; they're almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there. This sexualization of women presumably leads to this negative impact on girls.
All of this very important data, however redundant it seems to be, or obvious, becomes part of an argument that is itself a little strident. If we believe that our selves are to some extent biologically determined, and further shaped by the images of the world we live in (whether that be TV, billboards, the smell of sea air, or desert spaces, etc), we still have to decide what role the individual has as part of that molding environment. Much of the new more neurologically informed information we’re reading today suggests that we don’t have much control, in fact very little free will whatsoever (Sam Harris, Free Will, Free Press, 2012). Neurons and synapses give us the ability to compensate for what our somatic selves may lack, like strength or fearlessness or even aggression. But it is the biological self, again, not the cultural one, that points us in that compensatory direction. That’s the argument.
But I would argue that these positions are themselves trends, and the power of popular publishing has given us an overwhelming number of neuroscientific studies recently, they’re positively overpowering any more relativist or ethnographic position in the collective consciousness of a readership. No more qualitative examples please, just give me the statistics. None of those Birkenstock wearing hippies in the rainforest, please give me anthropologists in lab coats. Indeed, the latter role seems a lot more mature, like something we grow into. I would even go as far as to say that the recent trend in parenting back to a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child pre-Spock era is part of this backlash against all that is fuzzy and indeterminate. How do we know that all those heart to heart conversations with a child ever work anyway? Can it be measured?
But just wait. We can still play a role in the imagined community. It is, after all, our imagination in the first place.
I remember when Leonard was seven or eight. He’d been testing our boundaries so to speak, coming back from school late, hanging out with some street kids who were known to shoplift. Jacob was furious, and belted him once or twice. Fear can work, he seemed to say, and I had to agree. I don’t put my finger to the flame anymore, either. But I caught Leonard hanging out with this group once and pulled him away trying to think of a convincing way to scold him. All I could think to say was something so Victorian, something so non-relativist, that it surprised me even then. “You’re not nobody Leonard! You’re a Karawari! You don’t have to be hanging out with those kids, you come from an important line of important people and you need to make them proud, not trash!” There I was channeling my inner church lady. Tapping the social Darwinism of my deep psyche or something, maybe just in keeping with all the Dickens and Harry Potter that surrounded him at the time. But also very much in keeping with what was familiar to him, in fact, as part of the all-important consocial identity he still had and has, a responsibility to family and tribe. And not least, from the position of an adoptive parent trying to make him feel belonging, even in town.
To an extent, this worked. He got it. But he probably got it the same way he got Jacob’s back hand, or to the same degree. It was like a rat in the Skinner box, we gave him shame as a powerful deterrent, and culturally, he was responsive to it. But I am not at all sure this would work for an American or Australian child. I wonder if you can summon pride in a collective identity without invoking some kind of natural privilege or special class distinction. It smacks of entitlement. Like telling a pretty girl she can do 'better' than her ugly boyfriend, or an African American he should play basketball. There must be a way in modern PNG (and everywhere, for that matter) that we can tell kids you’re not nobody, that you were born special, and not give them a Creationist’s Tree of Life as proof. See? Here you are, just under the White Man. We are all special because we are sentient, capable animals, part of a community of peace-loving and resourceful Homo sapiens sapiens. It’s said that our conscious mind occupies exist to put our unconscious thoughts into a productive spin. That if we were fully unconscious we’d be deeply depressed people, and the small percentage of active consciousness we do entertain helps hold us back from the abyss.
That’s sort of what I want to tell my kids. You’re conscious. You’re capable. You’re filled with possibilities because you’re adaptive.
This past Christmas Nancy and her brother Pauly, ages 9 and 7, went back to Chris’ home village in Karawari with me. It had been maybe four years since they’d spent a lot of time there. Both were a little tentative at first, hovering around me more than they needed to, bouncing back for approval. We brought blow up donuts for them to swim with, which were considered necessary when we went to the beach in Madang. Suddenly all the cousins around them were jumping off tree limbs into the river, paddling their own canoes, diving off the embankment without supervision or a care. You could see how they were suddenly embarrassed to be the coddled city kids.
It took some time for them to recover the uninhibited freedom they had shared only a few years before. Slightly more self-conscious, but not uncomfortable, they sort of shifted laterally from town to village kids. It wasn’t like a metaphysical epiphany or transition of any kind, they just took cues from the kids around them to stop worrying about me, stop fussing about clean underwear, and start stripping off layers of clothes. When a pack of kids set off to the sago gardens to find sago grubs, they just went along. We’d hunker down together in one mosquito net to read a book at night. Nancy asked me: “Bubu, how come these kids don’t wear trousers?” It was a good question. “Maybe cuz they don’t have any.” End of story.
Sometimes I have greater concerns over the way their mother parents them than the hazing they’re getting from modernity. It’s one thing to be systematically demeaned by the images surrounding you, and quite another to be neglected by parents who are overwhelmed by town life. They have no parenting skills as we know them abd as a result meals sometimes happen. Toilets are stopped up. Dirty clothes mounded everywhere. Long hairs of dust grow off the walls. When the water’s cut off the kids go across the trucking yard to wash at the tank. It taxes them just to walk the kids to school in the morning, and remember two different pickup times in the afternoon. Am I cynical? A little. Because if I think they’re losing the best parts of a village childhood, they’re not being compensated by a better life in town. On one level, it is exactly the Pippi Longstocking life I dreamed of, with a big flat and bicycles and young siblings instead of rhesus monkeys. No bedtimes, no baths, Corn Flakes for dinner. The difference is that one parent has a gambling problem, the other is congenitally apathetic. (And this is my opinion on a good day.) What don't lack for, I should point out, is love.
You might think I’m being culturally insensitive. And you’d be right. In part because my husband is Bougainvillean and shares the same opinion of my grandchildren’s parents, and in part because these are my grandchildren. They are not research subjects, they are part of me and for the past twelve years I’ve paid their school fees, doctor’s bills, shoes, pencil sets, nappies and hair bands, as well as their rent, electric and most of their food bills. I resent that they’re being neglected, and that I’m here to take up the slack. Call me co-dependent, but I’m a grandmother. The best part of my childhood was knowing my parents were always there for me, never flinching on ballet shoes or art supplies, never balking about the basics. To me, this is an important substitute for the security of village life, that dense web of family relations and access to gardens, jungles, rivers and traditional society itself. Neglect is not an appropriate substitute. All that resourcefulness and confidence kids have in the village can only be recreated, I believe, with similarly dependable patterns in town. They need to be able to know there subsistence is never at risk. More than the fact that they are alswyas loved: that their welfare matters.
During the eighties in New York, the Lower East Side was a junk store. Before it got gentrified, before it became real estate again, Gambino family heroinwas being run from every other abandoned building between 14th Street and Avenue A to the projects down at Grand Street and Avenue D. The East Village was crawling with junkies, our lives were filled with them. They lined the streets, sat on the sidewalks, OD’d in the backyards, and with all their passivity and ennui (before crack cocaine radically changed the tempo of addiction) generally filled the landscape with a pall of bathos. That’s what my son and his wife remind of, in town. In the village it’s different, they have presence and authority. In town they suffer the opiate of modernity.
Like A Virgin
It’s been years since I played blame the victim the way we used to, during the Nebilyer war. At that time we’d all shake our heads that some or another woman even considered herself safe walking alone, driving that road, dancing that way---it was a state of emergency after all. Then, after my own Hagen episode, when a European volunteer felt compelled to say ‘I told you so’, I retired the expression myself.
Here in PNG men characterize themselves as passive victims of a woman’s predatory sexuality. Helpless in the face of desire, provoked unreasonably by a woman’s very existence. Granted, this is an extreme defense, and it utterly belies the choices men do have, but it is still pervasive amongst even the most educated Papua New Guineans, male and female. Log onto facebook discussion group pages for PNG and you’ll find university students, middle aged women, people from all provinces arguing that a woman should know her place, even if that’s an unfortunate reality. Empowered perhaps by the rise of Islam (which has cultivated a following in the highlands, no surprise) and the sense of anti-imperial anti-feminism that Islamic men like to invoke, quite a few PNG men have thrown off the shackles of gender equity as a national ideal. This is our custom, they argue, and who are you to tell us we can’t have it?
There is a tendency in PNG for people to view lust itself as supernatural. It is a spell you fall under, and can direct the most improbable unions. I remember a friend in the Southern Highlands years ago who used to collect aphrodisiacs with me form a local sanguma man. One particular powder, he said, was more powerful than any other because once, when he carried it in his shirt pocket, his wife’s sister developed an overwhelming attraction to him that it nearly destroyed his marriage. He did not say that he resisted her charms, only that the powder was the cause, and he had to wash it off his body several times before this woman could resist him.
But I believe lust can be supernatural. Everyone’s had that gasping moment in the presence of spectacular beauty, male of female, when your mind goes blank and you look like a stunned mullet. But it is a powerlessness that’s self-inflicted, of course, because you choose, and not always consciously, who is goin to be so gobsmackingly beautiful to you. Oftentimes that person isn’t even consciously projecting sex appeal.
Men in PNG very openly resent the power that female sexuality has over them, especially because they fear the danger posed by women’s bodies. Local biomedical ideas across the country distinguish between the physical substances of males and females, with the latter almost everywhere considered dangerous and ‘hot’ and inimical to masculine health. Menstrual blood in particular is taboo. Menstruating women refrain from cooking, sometimes even from cohabiting with the family for the time being. This is why sleeping with a man while menstruating can be considered, in village court, an attempted homicide. Hence, young men are likely to resent attractive females for their power to lure them into dangerous, if desirable, situations. When people say rape is an act of violence not sex, they might be talking about the PNG case, because the kind of aggression that incites three, four, fifteen men to rape a young girl goes beyond a personal anger, and it comes from a deeply cultural fear and loathing for the female body. While the highland men are peacocks in traditional as well as hand-me-down dress, is it any wonder their female counterparts largely favor the Seattle grunge look? For the entire time I lived in Hagen, it was rare to see a short skirt, a low cut blouse or a very high heel. Women knew the drill; it was the highlands version of Sharia Law. It’s one thing for a man to wear a gauzy peignoir, but god help the woman who puts it on. She’s asking for it, they’ll say. She has only herself to blame.
In reality, though, some of the very same highlands men who would claim powerlessness as a defense for rape can be found traveling to Port Moresby, and sometimes even to Australia, where short skirts, cleavage and even bathing suits were commonplace. In one context they show very convincing self-control, whereas in another they apparently cannot. Don't tell me women are irresistable: you make a choice. Free Will is the term for it. And it's free will shaped, of course, by cultural expectations. The kid who would have raped me and who kindly let me go wasn’t in the least bit aroused by or attracted to me; I knew that. He might have gotten angrily excited had his mates been around; but on his own, it took only my brief but friendly submission to make him chicken out.
The only relationship that’s especially fraught everywhere in PNG is the brother and sister one. Incest. It’s the ‘atom of kinship’ as anthropologist Gillian Gillison tells us (1987, “Incest and the Atom of Kinship: The Role of the Mother's Brother in a New Guinea Highlands Society,” Ethos, Vol 15, Issue 2, pp. 166-202). More rules apply to this relationship than any other, and that seems to be true in many places of the world. This is why anthropologists say that kinship is really all about who you let your sister marry. That marriage rule becomes the most important incest taboo, insofar as crossing it becomes the most antisocial act possible. Even more antisocial, as one might imagine---and despite the rare historical cases, as in ancient Egypt---is when the brother crosses that line to ‘marry’ his sister himself.
Those two people, so biologically close they’re predisposed to fall in love we might think, are like the negative ions of life: the whole purpose of culture is to keep these two units mutually repellant, not attractive. And so all kinds of kinship roles devolve from this principle. In-laws often have their own taboos, and a wife and her father-in-law are sometimes proscribed from ever eating together or sitting on the same mat. Boys are separated from sisters in order to become men---they are pulled away from mothers and sent to the men’s house. They do not walk with, giggle with, or fondly throw their arm around their sister after a certain age. “That is just wrong,” my husband Jacob would say (because this is a rigid taboo in Bougainville and he is no cultural relativist).
Incest is the most basic taboo. Incest taboos facilitate trade and other obligatory relations between groups of people, prompting not just feasts and celebrations but also states of indenture and the basic forms of hierarchy. In Melanesia, a man is most directly indebted to his wife’s family, and often this is expressed in gifts to the wife’s brother, as well as bonds between a child and his mother’s brother, so that even if this individual is brain dead and you are a genius, or he is a career criminal and you are the loyal mayor, you are somehow less than him and his line for certain public events and social occasions. This pertains as much to those fiercely democratic societies called ‘bigman’ societies, where individual prowess and ambition rather than inherited status leads to power, as it does to those complex chiefly states where a mother’s brother is sometimes compelled to work for his sister’s yam harvest, as in matrilineal island cultures in PNG, like the Trobriands. This only compounds the debt a man feels to his wife’s brother. The mother’s brother, the wau or kandare, holds a particular status and responsibility in every Melanesian culture. Children sometimes inherit their father’s obligations to their mother’s line, and even grandchildren pay respect to their grandmother’s brothers. Yes, it’s complicated. But suffice it to say that incest is a switch that turns on social organization in small scale societies. Nothing could incur greater wrath, more bad sorcery, or social disdain than the idea of a brother and sister having sex.
Nevertheless, let me be the first to say I've never had a rude dream about my brother.
Jacob came and found me yesterday and told me he had an idea. It occurred to him that this incest issue that has enveloped our family, wherein adopted siblings seems to have broken the incest taboo, could be the result of Endless Love. A video. Last year all the kids were addicted to this one Filipino soap opera that made its way around town in a set of DVDs. Jacob got his hands on 5 or 6 of them. I never saw it, but it was hugely popular and the kids would all gather at the boys’ flat to play the next couple of episodes every night: Jacob, Chris, Sandra, Rod, Leonard, soccer friends, stragglers, and Madona. Now he thinks it planted an idea in their brains. I’m cynical, but confused as to why Jacob thinks it’s such a powerful influence.
The plot synopsis from Wikipedia tells us:
Johnny and Jenny grew up together as siblings under the care of their parents Robert and Katherine. Johnny loves his sister very much and is very protective of her. Their lives were disrupted when they found out that there was a case of baby switching in the hospital on the day that Jenny was born. They discovered that the real daughter was Shirley, the poor, mean and resentful classmate of Jenny. The lives of Jenny and Shirley are dramatically reversed in an instant. Jenny wants to stay but Shirley keeps pressuring her to leave. The weak-willed Jenny decides to run away and stay with her hostile biological mother Suzy and her good-for-nothing brother Jojo. Meanwhile, Johnny and his family opt to live abroad… Johnny returns from abroad to look for his beloved sister and after many years of separation, the "siblings" reunite. As Johnny and Jenny get to know each other after so many years, they start to fall in love. Jenny feels conflicted, because she is dating Andrew. Johnny hides his emotions as he is preparing to be married to his long-time girlfriend. At this time, Jenny will have Leukemia. The family and the villains of Jenny are shocked because Jenny has leukemia and the anger of the villains Shirley and JoJo changed into love for Jenny. Days later, Johnny and Jenny finally get married and awhile after, Jenny dies. …Afterwards, Johnny is shown biking on the road where he and Jenny always went biking, but Johnny stops in the middle of the road and doesn't notice that there is truck coming and gets hit by the truck. After looking at the sky, Johnny says that he and Jenny will be together again. Johnny dies…
This is the story they believe?? Part of me wants to scream that if I’ve done anything as a parent it should be to raise the bar for realism. But I can hardly expect them to love Oliver and Mary Poppins, and then hold this kind of thing at arm’s length. Of course it’s real for them, they’re invested in it. It’s compelling, sentimental, and a lot more realistic to them than the snotty teenagers on The O.C. or Beverly Hills 90210.
We want our kids to see media as a mediating device, as a scrim over reality that can be tweaked and colored. We would hardly expect our kids to grow up believing everything. But what can they believe? Better they be Cindy Shermans in the world, forever playful with and doubting roles, than a humorless Asperger’s sufferer who cannot budge from one perspective. Please god, give them reflexivity. But when all the adults in the room have the same unalloyed culpability of film and TV, like Jacob!, it’s pretty hard to acquire a critical perspective. Who am I to force it upon them?
Been To Canaan
What are the fictions we live with? What are the stories that shape our moral and emotional landscape? Here's one of my stories:
I follow three teenage girls along a dirt path beyond the village clearing, toward a ridge top cluster of four or five bamboo and thatch houses. A light rain has started, and the hard clay is now slippery under our bare feet (already I regret not wearing my thongs). The girls are unconcerned and their wide feet slap across sharp stones and bound over the puddles as we all pull loose palm fronds from the ground to cover our heads. But I’m clutching my net bag with notebook and tape recorder to my chest, always the most awkward and over-equipped, as we duck under an arbor of bamboo and creep alongside one of the stilted homes to avoid the increasing downpour, and the oldest of the girls shoos away a bouncing dog with one swift kick when it splashes up mud on her sarong, or laplap.
This is the south end of Souelete, one of thirteen villages I’ve come with my students to study, in the foothills of the Torricelli range. Beautifully situated on a spur overlooking a bigger village below and a great breadth of rainforest beyond, this is a remote, gentle and friendly place, one of the reasons why Papua New Guineans consider village life a paradise. There is food, family, clement weather, and these fantastic views. Still, it’s so remote that the villagers rarely receive outsiders, and almost none so peculiar as myself, a white woman who speaks Pidgin, with her Papua New Guinean students from a University in Madang. We’re here to record stories, genealogies, hunting laws and taboos that might impinge on the conservation of a very shy and endangered tree kangaroo called the Tenkile, which, to its considerable misfortune, apparently tastes delicious (although smells awful when being cooked), and is always a welcome addition to ceremonies here.
“A long time ago our ancestors went to make sanguma [sorcery] to one man in Lingi village,” a thitysomething man named Paul began, not long after we arrive and just after we settled in to rest house. He begins just as scores of men and women had begun in our month-long trek through thirteen villages in the region, with a practiced but casual storytelling tone, hunkered down and confident than none of us will dare to interrupt. Because telling clan stories is one of life’s great amusements. Because everyone prides themselves in being able to tell a good story, in having all the details. And because outsiders—of which they’ve mainly seen missionaries and government officers—don’t normally ask them to ‘story.’.
They killed him and brought the blood of the person back with them. When returning with the blood they hunted pig and other game. But Nonwo did not go with them. He got two pitpit [reeds] with a banana shoot called yinbono and went to his garden. Up arriving, he lit the fire to burn the leaves in the garden. The fire grew very big, and he was afraid so he ran to the edge of it. He was standing there, holding these two keiwe, a yinbono shoot and a digging stick, when a spirit of the dead person, in the form of a strong wind, blew him off from where he was standing. And at the same time it put out his fire, blowing other rubbish about. This spirit wind flew him to a village near Waunulu. That was where the ancestor for the Tuwi clan of Souelete was living. Upon landing, Nonwo stayed in the bush until dark. He wasn’t sure whether there were people or not in the area, but when he saw a smoke fire he thought to himself, ‘Maybe people live here.’ So he decided to go and see the person who was making the fire. And that person was the Tuwi ancestor. At first, Nonwo was afraid of the man, for security reasons. Before, nobody in one village knew anyone from another village. They had lots of enemies. When the Tuwi man saw him, he asked, ‘Are you an enemy or a friend?’ Nonwo responded by putting his two hands up and telling him his name was Nonwo from Eritei. He also told him how he came to the village. The Tuwi man accepted Nonwo because he had no children himself. So he looked after him and they both settled in the village. After a long time, the Tuwi man looked for a wife for Nonwo, and when he found one, they were married. But Nonwo and his wife also did not have any children. Back at home, his little brother, Fumo, was looking for him, and he was heading towards the village where his brother now lived….
We sit for just under an hour for Paul to reach a pause.
The people of Souelete, like all the Wape people, observe special ‘tambu taboos.’ Tambu is the Pidgin word for in-law, and these taboos mainly concern a son or daughter-in-law and their spouse’s kin. Women, for example, cannot call the name of their father- or brother-in-law behind his back. Neither men or women can eat certain foods with their tambu line, including all eggs, sago, soft banana, and any sweet potato or taro mixed with coconut milk. Game is okay, however (unless you are pregnant, when neither you or your husband are allowed to eat meat). And as a young man, you may not call out your father-in-law’s name, as they cannot call out yours. This is true for all Wape people, and true from grandfathers-in-law downward. Direct brothers in law are fine, especially today, the men have told us. A daughter-in-law can serve her father in law food but she cannot eat the taboo foods with him, nor can she speak his name. You also cannot put a hand in your tambu’s net bag, which men and women both carry, to find something. And it is very important that you avoid all lewd jokes or gossip in your father-in-law’s presence. A man cannot touch the elder sister of his wife either, or eat taboo foods with her. When any of these laws is broken, a fine of kina money or shells is imposed.
And yet nutrition is an acknowledged problem in Souelete, especially for women. Among other things, the Wape are known for strict dietary taboos during pregnancy, which prohibit women from easting protein mainly, and result, not coincidentally, in the lowest birth rate babies in the country. Nowadays Souelete people are trying to relax the proscriptions, but it’s like trying to tell a European to be part macrobiotic.
The Aid Post Officer tells us he’s most worried about the fact that women still discard their first breast milk after a baby is born, because it’s thick and cheesy, despite his explanation that this makes it more nutritional. He says there is the general problem of cerebral malaria, like so many other places around the Sepik River here, and, not surprisingly, pervasive anemia. Then I ask him about the pinheads. The kid we met at the beginning of the village, about a mile north here in the first cluster of houses, who is somewhere between fourteen and fifty, with no forehead and a sad friendly smile, who shook all our hands and tried to explain that the piglets biting my feet had must have thought my white skin was food. One of our companions from a neighboring village quickly explained that he was the younger of two brothers born that way because their mother was sleeping with the father’s brother. They’re the curse, visible proof of this woman’s sins. The APO says pretty much the same thing. That’s bad blood, he tells us. “Asua bilong mama.” The mother’s fault.
I forget to ask him about incest, which another big problem out here in the Torricelli Mountains. We have met more than enough children born of brothers and sisters, and spent one evening in a very remote place listening to a jovial recitation of inbred couplings and their freaky kids and laughed ourselves to sleep about the self-loving family that refused to find husbands for their daughters. Women in this area had some poison and magic before—we say ‘taim bifo’, or before missions and other contact; but they didn’t have sorcery, only the men had that. This is ‘sanguma’ country—where every death has a social cause and breaching taboo can have physical consequences. Women who ignored pregnancy taboos would bear stillborn children, or maybe even die themselves. Paul says this is not so much the case anymore. But then Lucy, Paul’s sister, tells us that if you break pregnancy taboos, your kids will bear the Bob of the forbidden food you’ve tasted. If you eat flying fox, for example, she explains, your child will be born with tiny wings. If you eat tree possum, he or she may have claw like hands.
Our arrival has been the occasion for one of the big men to pound the slit gong, or carved log drum called garamut, in a certain tattoo that called his clansmen back from their gardens to meet us. When we explained that we’d like to talk to members of all the clans, he said, Don’t worry, they’ll all be curious enough to come anyway. But clearly no one took it as an emergency, because we spent a couple of hours in the haus win with only a handful of stragglers, including one very fairskinned and skinny old man who looked a misplaced Indian sadhu in a ratty baseball cap. He told us he was born after the war, though, which is probably true---everyone ages quickly here in PNG. It’s sort of the national characteristic, premature aging. The weathered lines and deep creases in their faces, their generally short lifespans, all give them a very different arc to their physical maturation. Kids half my age look older than me. And this explains why, after listening to one woman recount her marital woes in tedious detail, thinking I, as an outsider, might be able to provide some kind of jural recourse I suppose, it strikes me as an excellent idea when these girls suggest we visit this one very very old lady on the other side of the village. She may even be a hundred years old, one of them guesses. I ask the men whether this woman was an adult before the War came, and they all assure me, “Tru ya, emi lapun stret.” (Oh yes, she’s ancient.) So I follow. And I’m tired now; it’s been a hard half-day walk to get to Souelete from our last village, and we still don’t know how or where we’ll sleep tonight.
The girls stop before a medium sized house with a sago thatch roof and no windows or openings whatsoever. It’s raised four feet from the ground and created entirely of vertical bamboo palings, in an old style of construction hardly seen in the area any longer. The thatch roofing is blackened by years of greasy smoke from the fires inside, suggesting that no one’s bothered to re-thatch the place for roughly a decade.
The girls call out in Olo, which I don’t understand, and a small girlish voice responds from inside. We watch from below as one of the front walls slide open, rather like the turn of a bookcase in a game of Clue, and a tiny, ever so frail old woman steps out, squinting, as if to adjust her eyes from the darkest black inside to the relative gloom of a late afternoon shower. She’s no bigger than a twelve year old, in a well-worn t-shirt and a ratty lapap, presenting an almost girlish figure even as she stands with a slight bend. There’s a short rolled leaf smoke in the corner of her mouth, which she removes now, as if in deference to company. The girls are explaining that I’ve come to ask her questions about the past, and she nods to acknowledges me kindly, as if we were expected or something, and she waves me to come up to her wooden verandah and inside.
Behind the barricade of her sliding front door, all is dark inside. There are two fireplace pits on either side of the one large room, and a set of bamboo benches around three sides of the smoky fire on our left side, where we are invited to sit. Her name is Karline Yoki, and she doesn’t know how old she is, but we’re told she was married with one daughter before the War came to New Guinea. The young girls translate her quiet wobbly words, even though there is plenty of Pidgin blended throughout for me to follow along. I sit down and turn on my little tape recorder, explaining in Pidgin now that I just want to record some stories she might have, of her clan—her father’s clan, and her husband’s clan, as well as her own history. She understands me enough to smile and nod in consent.
We are all huddled now on the benches, which are just tall enough to prevent our feet from touching the ground beneath and suspend them over the warmth of the burning embers. When the smoke begins to blow in my face, one of the girls bounds up to completely shut the bamboo door. We’re left in near complete darkness, which is oily and sour with the smell of betelnut and creosote, sweat, vegetation and decay. It’s warm, homey, comforting inside. I almost know how it must feel to be comforted by these walls and the fire after the long walk back from the garden. There’s no mosquito netting, no bedroll, as are common in most all other village houses in PNG, just woven mats rolled into a corner. I’d like to spend the night here, I think, as the rain pounds the verandah outside and makes the buffered slapping sound on the thatch above. We would all keep a fire going, and curl around it, the last one awake turning down the kerosene lamp I see now across the room. At this point the back wall moves to the side, with some effort, and we see Karline’s grown daughter come inside to join us. There’s no alarm or suspicion or even the slightest elevation of formality to my being here, which only makes it more my grandmother’s house, the place you reach at the end of the forest in a storm, where the fire it lit.
Karline’s husband died last year. I think she must be eighty, though, not older, although she’s an eighty like eighty used to look: well over a hundred—not like the sixty-something eighty-year-olds you see in the US these days. Her birth name would have been Karline Yolu, as her father was named Yolu, from the Taplaite clan—a migrant line subsumed by the major Wonite clan in Souelete. So she was actually raised here, and married across clans in her home village. In fact, she may have been born with another name and taken ‘Karline’ when the missions arrived. These three ‘granddaughters’, her own daughter, and I, are all goading this tiny woman’s warbling voice on as the rain hammers on outside. You can still here the surge of background noise on the tape. We sit in a tight three-sides of a square with the fire at our feet, and I notice Karline’s long brown toenails, dense and crystallized; her tiny wrists, the ratty skirt, and the stub of brus now wedged in the corner of her mouth again. Born sometime around or before 1925, Karline never had a female initiation—that was not the Olo custom. The sister of her husband married the brother of Karline, in a classic ‘sister exchange,’ the usual practice at that time. All eight of her children were born in the bush camp, while Karline was on her own. For six of them, she cut their cords herself, with one woman helping for the other two.
She enjoys talking, too; all her granddaughters crowded around. Across the room in an old patrol box, she says, she has mole –shell money, now locked away: kina, mole and small tambu shells which they call makari. The makari come from Maprik, for which they would trade the poison rope (a derris vine) used for fishing. Nili is what they call the clay pots, which they would trade to the Sissano people at the coast; there are two of them in the darkness of her house, I see. But she tells us they have no special beliefs about the Tenkile tree kangaroo, which we have come to protect; mistakenly, she thinks there must be plenty of them still in the bush. Her own husband always caught plenty of Tenkile. This moment is suffused with intimacy and safety. I feel like an archeologist brushing dirt off a perfectly formed precious femur, and satisfied, the way you feel after remembering a long-forgotten name, knowing this, just sitting here, is why I’ve been in Papua New Guinea all this while. When you can take the story of someone who may otherwise never have it recorded, whose life is soon to be a memory, and you have a tape recorder and the plain good luck of arriving in time, and are able to sit down with their children or grandchildren and have this piece of history bequeathed to you as if to a descendant, and you know you can make it available to these children and perhaps their children, later--then you feel purposeful, I can assure you.
First she tells a Winote clan story.
Once upon a time an ancestor hit a tree to make a kapul fall, and when it fell down, he struck it, killed it, and brought it back to his brother, who made a meal of it with the family. But the brother who caught it was not served at the meal. He had done all the work to go find the kapul and chase it down and bring it back. So at night he became enraged. When his brother was fast asleep this older brother took a stone axe and chopped his younger brother’s head off.
The girls tell their own clan stories as well, competing with each other for time on the tape recorder. One of them, Josa, is an exper storyteller. She sidles up close to me, shoulder to shoulder, takes a deep breath as the others goad her, and talks strongly, although never directly at the tape recorder on my knee. Her voice acquires the exact register of speech everyone uses here to tell a story publicly:
A young sister and a brother were orphaned, their mother had just died. One day they went for a walk up a mountain. It grew dark, so they lay down to rest under a tree. The net morning before they set out the sister began to cry. So the brother said, “Don’t worry about mother, I’ll look after you.” They came to a cave, so they lay themselves down to rest. A devil woman (witch) saw them, and brought the back to her place. She tok care of them by feeding them and not allowing them to work, so they wouldn’t grow thin. They were going to be her own meal when they were good and fat. One day when the time of feasting came, she told the sister to boil a pot of water for her brother’s flesh; and she warned the little girl that she would be next. The devil women went out to get some vegetables. After she returned, the little girl called her into the kitchen to have a look at something in the hot water. As she came nearer, the girl, with all her strength, pushed the devil woman into the pot of boiling water. Happily, she took the knife, went and cut loose her brother’s hands and legs, and they both went back home together.
Now it’s Karline’s turn again and the kids all tell her to think of something, tell that one about the ghost, and speak louder. She smiles to begin and my heart swells:
A man dies in Wilbeitei, his name is Gouwo Sowambi, and his spirit gets dressed in bird of paradise bilas and takes a kundu and goes down to the river, and he goes following the river all the way upstream through the night to the morning and next day. During the night, as the villagers gather around the fire they hear the sound of the kundu drum coming from upstream, and they wondered who could be singing and dancing at this hour? So they couldn’t sleep. In Souelete a woman had a baby, but it was very tiny. Her husband wanted to go to Maiwetum for the sugarcane/pitpit harvest, and to see relatives and get some game. So he set his wife in the house with firewood and food and closed it all up, locked tight, and said he’d be back. When he’d gone, the spirit of the man from Wilbeitei could smell the fire she had lit and he came up to the house, and the woman heard him dancing outside and asked—Who’s that? He comes in and sees the woman and the baby, and she’s afraid he’ll eat the baby, but he doesn’t, he reassures her and convinces her to let him bilas the baby and teach it to dance with him. He stays a while and helps raise the child. Before the ghost left, he told the mother to prepare a breakfast for all of them. After eating, the ghost told her they would all go together, so she followed with the baby until they reached the river Basis. Then the ghost named the baby Kovo, and himself Soembi. Then he told them to close their eyes. When they did this, he disappeared, leaving them alone. The mother was very sorry to see him go. Eventually the father, hearing the sound of the kundu from the other village, returned to his house, wondering who could have been dancing and playing the drum in his absence. He asked his wife where their child was, and she simply told him to go check his room for a betelnut. But when the man went to the room he saw it wasn’t a betelnut at all, but his son, who was a grown boy now. The wife reminded him that if the ghost had been at all aggressive he would have come home to an empty house. He was just lucky they were still here.
We have found a nice big flat in Madang, in terrible shape, but close to town. Our first houseguests are an American friend and his young daughter who have bravely just taken a kayak trip around the islands in Manus Province. Henry is a Boy Scout, good to the core, and his ten year old daughter, Jenn, is savvy and shy and sometimes burdened by her father’s over-attentiveness. They unload all their extra dried and tinned foods on my kitchen counter, and we’re sorting through salt substitutes and granola bars when big gregarious Dolly arrives. She’s a big part-aboriginal Australian counselor for the local university, my current best friend.
“What tom’s dinner?”
“Oh yea, dinner” Henry says. “Bring Tom, of course.”
We’ve just finished that meal on our new verandah and we’re watching the flying foxes come in and out peacefully. The flying foxes all hang like leather pouches from the top branches of our trees. And at dusk the sky explodes with them coming to live and fanning out to feed. It’s been a stir fry meal, typically American, although Henry cringes that Jenn’s had her second Diet Coke today. Suddenly big Dolly marches in with a pint of ice cream and two 16-oz Cokes to make spider floats, and Henry rolls his eyes in suppressed exasperation.
“Those stairs. Whatta they say here? My battery’s flat!”
Dolly anchors her legs apart and appears to dissolve a little from the top down. “I’m so tired I been bloody up and down steps today more times than a gin’s knickers.” Henry sucks air.
I follow Dolly into the kitchen to set up the spiders; she’s already chuckling.
“I’m the real lubra now eh? Probably thought I brought the grog.”
Henry's at the kitchen door. “None for me thanks. Have any tea?”
“C’mon mate. Have a try. Just like home. Come welfare day, you know, me and my mates pool our money for gin’s handbag.”
“Tea, tea. Yes, over there by the coffee, Henry. Want some dinner Dolly?”
“Naw, thanks mate, I’m full as a tick. Just a spider for me.”
“Maybe some herbal tea?” Henry asks.
“Not likely,” says Dolly.
“No, I mean for me. Got any?” Henry asks.
“Oh yeah, right over there. There may be a chamomile teabag, just check.”
“Ugggh. I hate that stuff.”
Dolly turns her back on Henry to continue what she really came here for, a good chin wag. “You know, I thought I’d take down some Goroka coffee, but turns out you can get it in the supermarket in home real cheap, so’s no good taking coal to Newcastle, I say.”
"Better that than instant."
“Yer a bloody snob, ya drongo. Here, get stuck into this before it melts.”
The cicadas are getting loud. Flying foxes dart everywhere above our heads, from the tallest trees by the shoreline out to the bush behind our house and beyond town. They spend the day hanging as sacks upside down from the tallest branches all over the coastline, and at dusky, every day, they break out to search for food, transforming themselves from little terrier-like creatures wrapped in rubbery capes, into wonderfully creepy and wide-winged bats, kiting across the sky. It’s a streaky purple and pink horizon behind the banana trees and the neighborhood kids are still playing deflated soccer under the security lights up the road. In a minute all the buildings across the road will go deep black and the sky will be periwinkle.
Dolly sits into a kitchen chair and splays her legs to either side, her spider half-resting on her chest. A young boy from the settlement behind the University has his legs all swollen and bruised, she is telling us, and one of the Divine Word Sisters was all up in arms about it this afternoon.
“I tell ya, she was bloody ropable. For a Sister!”
Some kids had stolen a box of like 200 syringes from the government store, “thieving mongrels,” and they were going around shooting people up with papaya juice of all things. “I went and told Marianne over at the highway patrol and she went and she said she’d go out and inspect.”
“Papaya juice? Is that dangerous?” Henry asks.
“Gotta make you sore as a gin’s fanny.”
“Poor kid,” Jenn shakes her head.
The last of the darting flying foxes cross from the banana trees near the water’s edge, over the road and just overhead. As the sky darkens they are truly sinister deep purple creatures. Jenn is transfixed, unafraid, although she’s already seen them in Manus.
“Oh I’m driving by the Haus Tumbuna on the way over, eh? And out in the car park big as day is the Missus.”
“Bloody gutless wonder.”
Dolly’s boyfriend Taga has a village wife, mother of his kids, who is fighting to hold onto her meal ticket against the juggernaut of Dolly’s desire.
“So there she is, big as day, she spots the van and gives me one of these.” Dolly’s punches her palm with a fist, which makes her face bounce back in laughter. “Shit she’s uglier than a hat filled with holes,” she says. “Not a tooth in her bloody mouth. You gotta wonder. Don’t it make you wonder?” Her head shakes. “I know I’m no oil painting myself but shit man, it makes you wonder.”
I can see through the sitting room that two of my adopted kids, Christian and Frank, have just walked in. “Taga laik kam.”
“Taga what?” Dolly looks up.
The boys are just about at the verandah nodding hello now. They’re in long board shorts and dirty t-shirts, barefoot because they always take their thongs off at the door. Their feet are twice as wide as mine, though we all wear the same size clothes. Henry gets up to offer Frank a seat, but he finds the corner of an old bed frame instead.
“Have you eaten?” They shake their heads.
“Aww,” Dolly begins. “What’re waitin for? Food’s on the cooker lads! Standing around useless as pockets on a singlet."
Dolly’s about to ‘go finish.’ Two days ago she called, verging tears, fed up with everything, having a horrible day, feeling like she wanted to bolt because her replacement counselor at the University already had a handle on the job. But mainly because Taga hadn’t shown up as planned. I talk her down and she pledges to go to bed with her book and feel better in the morning. The next day she reveals that Taga had come by late, they went out til 2 AM, and now she’s as giggly as ever. So in love. But for some reason she’s the one always claiming about Taga that, “He’s got it baaaaad!”
“How is your friend, Ken is it?” Henry asks.
“He’s waiting at the Madang Inn I think, having a piss up with the governor no doubt.”
Taga is dear friends with a former Governor who was thrown in jail for dashing onto the runway to stop a plane here, six sheets to the wind and feeling no pain. Apparently he found his god in jail and much more temperate these days. Dolly's embarked on a story about Taga in a jealous rage searching all over town one night for her, only to find her at home where she ragged on him for putting a tail on her, and called him a cunt for being so possessive. He said (no doubt legs apart, struggling for balance), “Cunt? Am I a cunt?” And she said, “Naw, because a cunt’s a beautiful part of a woman’s anatomy and you’re not bloody beautiful to me right now!”
Last week when Taga had promised to drive a volunteer back up the coast after her weekend in Madang, he was hours late fetching the poor girl at Dolly’s house. She began to worry about dark falling and safety on the road and all. Dolly kept saying, “Naw, he’ll come, he’s just late, but it’s no use yelling at him cause he won’t care.”
So when Taga rocks up, Dolly says to the rest, “You watch this,” and then bolts out the door screaming, “Where the bloody hell were you all this time??!!”” And Taga just sighs, throwing his arms back.
“Aw, honey, don’t be mad, I just woke up.” Everyone fell to pieces laughing.
Christian smiles and turns toward the front door where Taga is bursting through, one arm sweeping, the other pinching a smoke. “Gudnait ologeta nau! Nancyooo, Dolly stap?”
“Dolly’s here.” Dolly is rising slowly, difficultly.
“Here he is, rough as guts. Ain’t he beeeeautiful? Ab-solutely fuckin legless, he is.”
“Awww Honeeey.” They hug, and it looks so much more natural than you think it might when medium sized Taga, barely a spare tyre round his middle, although his trousers always falling down, wobbles toward this circular neckless woman with her hair cornrolled so tight by students that there’s more scalp that color on her head, and wide flapping outstretched arms. They meet, she envelops him and what you momentarily consider threatening melts into something warmly maternal, even sexy. Then she lifts Taga in her embrace and twists the poor bugger side to side.
“Awww Honey, put me down eh?”
We introduce Henry, whose face registers a kind of wide-eyed bemusement halfway between wondering how he’ll write this in his diary and worrying we’ll all pierce the envelope of propriety in front of his ten year old daughter, who, herself, seems perfectly happy.
“So-so-sss-sorry, I was having a handlewiththegovernor-andIthoughtIdcome- findmyDollllllly!”
It's impossible for the uninitiated to understand his sloshy talk, which doesn’t impede him in the least. You have to wonder though, seeing that his job as boss of the Cultural Centre pretty much means meeting and greeting tourists all day.
“What’re you on about?” Taga is a wobbly top. His hands are like claws, nails stuck into his palms, sometimes with a cigarette pinched between his second and third knuckles. This one, which he holds like a pencil, is now flicked over the railing and we watch the ember sail down dusky light to the dirt road below.
“Aw, he’s a bewdy ain’t he? Couldn’t organize a pissup in a brewery. So we’ll be off, my sweet. Catcha.”
My sons, Chris, Jeffrey and Edward, three Karawari kids with hideous tattoos on their arms, sweet dispositions and the kind of ingenuity that rigs homemade speakers and repairs shoes, go and clean Dolly’s little house once a week for a pocket money. They bring the buckets and soap, and they turn on the radio and make a day of it, because it’s the only time they are legitimately allowed to hang out in the college campus where all the pretty girls are. So one morning I’m there dropping them off and I find Taga’s youngest son, Roger, a sweet 8 year old, waiting to go off to school. There was an argument at the house the night before and he came over to sleep on Dolly’s couch, so she’s sending him off with a lunch pail this morning.
“What’s he got?” I ask, pawing at the two-gallon paper bag he’s protecting between his knees. Roger gives it up. Inside, I find two ham sandwiches, a couple of sweet bananas, a bottle of Pepsi, and two bags of Twisties. Edward, Jeffrey and Christian lean over to look inside.
“Em bai runawe!” He’s gonna run away! Edward laughs.
“Bai go long ples!” Jeffrey agrees. Christian is still half-blind and just laughs to himself, which is what I notice Roger is doing too.
“Whaa? I’m not gonna send the lad off hungry am I?”
“No, he won’t be hungry.” I translate Edward saying, “He’s going to go to school and sell all this stuff to his school mates.”
“Poor lad was about hollow when he come here last night, he ate three plates of rice and tinned fish before you could shake a stick, says his Mum didn’t even cook for them last night. We were down south, I’d’ve called social services by now eh?”
"Yeah well, this is PNG, kids sort of fend for themselves, they don’t even bring lunch to school.”
“Oi. In act’ual fact, I would be reported if I sent one of my kids to school without a proper lunch.”
Roger is handing out the Twisties to Edward and Jeffrey now, as if to acknowledge the jig is up.
“This is like you crying on because Taga never had a birthday cake as a kid in the village.”
“Aw stop carrying on like a pork chop.”
Our lives are filled with Dolly, and our cup runneth over. Even my kids happily wrap their lives around hers, chirping hello to her picture every time the open the refrigerator, asking about her plans every time she rings. Dolly is at the house for coffee one morning. She says she got up very early and ran into Father Jon on campus while everything was still quiet. He said, ‘You’re up and about early,” and she said, ‘Aye. Wet the bed.’
I’m pondering this expression as we sit back in kitchen chairs on my verandah, overlooking a secondary road, some kit houses, a marine repair yard and the beautiful bay beyond. The mechanics down below have just driven off their heavy earthmoving equipment and the students and employees ambling to work by half-eight are now gone, so this is the first quiet moment before eleven AM, when the sun climbing overhead bears down on the house and, despite a swatch of shaded netting, absolutely bakes the verandah. It gets too hot for anything but a lazy cat until the late afternoon.
“Ain’t Taga beautiful? I like my coffee like my men, light brown, thank you. But in that case, what’m I doing with Taga?”
Dolly is so spilled out of the kitchen chair that it’s disappeared under her. Sweat’s beading on her upper lip, along her chin, and then along all the deep creases ringing her neck. “You know his skin changes for different times of day? One time you’ll catch him he’s black as the ace of spades, like a Buka, then in the noontime or something he looks real light skin you know? We were in the village that night and it were dark as the inside of a dog’s guts, it were, so’s I said ‘turn around so’s I can see it’ to Taga.” This makes her laugh. “You’d be out of luck if he were chewing buai and his teeth were red.” Dolly continues, “But me, to be truthful, I don’t see skin color, I see beneath. I see right through color, I see the person beneath. Kids say to me, Dolly, you don’t look at skin, you see the real person, you do.”
“You’re a hero, you.”
“I look at skin. I love the blue-black Buka skin, and I love the chocolate brown Sepik skin, and I mostly love clear skin of any color. I always see skin as a matter of fact.”
“Naw, I sees beneath.”
“People who say that, they’re denying someone’s self, their identity, their very beauty and all.”
“I know whatcha mean, I know. Shut up. What I’m saying, I don’t see skin color is, the meaning is--I’m not a racist.”
“Yeah, well I am then.”
“You are, yeah, that’d be right.”
“No but you are too--you’re the only always saying ‘That Jew,’ or those Filipinos--‘Isn’t it just like Filipinos,’ you said yesterday, ‘to have a party on the same day as Open Day.’”
“Aw shut up ya bloody idiot! Shut up and drink yer coffee!”
“Hey the cat’s throwing himself at the wall, look at that.”
“Looks like my son when I had him on epilepsy medication. He used to ram his head into the wall like that, I had to take him off.”
“Your son’s epileptic?”
“Naw, he’s not epileptic, he suffers from epilepsy. Different words. That wording ain’t right any more, you gotta say ‘Suffers from.’ Like, if you say diabetic, you say he ‘suffers from diabetes,’ or asthmatic-it’s ‘he suffers from asthma’ now, not ‘asthmatic.’"
“Just terms.” I have just been given the best lecture on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: we think according to the limits of our vocabulary.
“Aw shuddup! Bloody pinhead.”
“I’m not pinhead, I suffer from pinheadedness.”
“Get yer clothes on and wake up!”
“Look the orchids are dying now. Every day they die a little more.”
Then why’d you buy em? Put em outta the sun for god’s sake.” “
It’s the kids who tied em up here and now they’re cooking in the sun. Aw look, Taga left his billfold last night. Bloody black bastard, bet he’s running around like a chook with its head cut off.”
“I’ll slug ya!” I mime Mrs Silau’s fist. “Yarr! Come n get me!”
“You’re suffering from aboriginality, girl.”
Dolly and I stop by to visit Buddy the Chief and his entourage who are in from the island, staying at Smuggler’s Inn for the weekend. Buddy is sitting on the hotel bed eating lamb flaps with his retainers and watching rugby, wearing no more than a laplap around his waist, but he definitely wants to get more drunk now that the ladies have arrived. Someone goes out for a blackmarket beer and people are rung on the phone. Buddy bustles around a lot and I’m wondering if it’s just because he’s so small, like a kid who takes two steps for your every one, when Dolly says,
“Sit down, mate, you’re making me dizzy. Bloody panic merchant.”
He throws back his head and howls, in a gesture that’s pure Sammy Davis Jr. Dolly is worried because the entrance to the room faces Taga’s house across the road, where his village wife on the verandah could see us enter; she is convinced the woman will pitch a fit thinking Taga in the room with us when he is really down the coast on business. I am not interested in this mob, so I tell Buddy we’re off and make to exit. But he insists that we take his rental car and drive up the north coast road to drop one of his relatives home, now that he is too drunk to do so himself. Okay, but just that, I agree. Dolly’s warming to the group now.
“Ah, the gin’s handbag, knew you’d have one,” she says, making to fill a plastic cup with the last of the boxed wine on the table. Somehow Buddy, myself, Dolly and Buddy’s cousin Thomas all enter the near-dark car park to slink down into a burgundy coupe of some sort. I’m driving. Dolly is very fat, and she has a big wide Pacific Island face which is a real turn-on apparently for Buddy’s off-sider, who now backs up to her as she bends into the back seat.
“Oh please!” she barks, batting off his mits. “Fuck you!”
“Yeah, that’s just what I wanna do!” he brightens. This makes me scream with laughter.
We’re driving up the north coast road in darkness and Buddy’s playing with the radio volume while I drive, and when I tell him to stop, smacking his wrist like a kid’s, he starts flicking his hand at my face, a really sharp painful gesture, like a right asshole.
“Where are we going exactly? Where do you live Thomas?” We’re now almost at the teachers’ college with settlements on either side. This is not a good place to be after dark, with no one on the road.
“Here. Here!” Buddy says, “No, we’ll go up to Jais Aben for a drink eh?”
“Rack off, ya mongrel.” Dolly’s struggling with Thomas in back, who is giggling.
“Not me,” I say. “I’m going nowhere, and it’s like eleven o’clock anyway.”
Buddy tries to take the steering wheel, so I pull over and order him out.
“Not here!” Thomas yelps. “You can’t let him out here. What’s he doing walking out there---Hey, do you know who he is? What are you doing? This is unsafe!”
Buddy has jumped out of the car and is walking north in the middle of the tarmac wearing nothing but his laplap, which he opens in front, bends over, and wags at us like a cape to the bull. Dolly is laughing her head off.
"No no no! Get him in here!” Thomas is frantic.
“Well, whyntcha strike a blow and pull him in mate?” Dolly asks.
I drive up behind, headlights on, crawling. Then I pull to the shoulder under an inky dark stand of bamboo, behind which I know are settlements.
“Don’t stop! Not here!” Thomas is desperate.
I reverse the car and we begin to pull out. Buddy’s still walking down the road ahead of us.
“Hang on a tick--how is it you know it’s unsafe here?” Dolly asks.
“Cause I live here!”
Well get yer arse out then!”
“Not me--you go!”
Thomas and Dolly are pushing each other out the back door, and I see Buddy, momentarily neglected and underlit, whip off his laplap to walk stark naked up the road.
“Mad as a cut snake!” Dolly shrieks, and we turn the car to get a headlit view of his tiny bum waddling up the road.
“Suit yourself” I pull up beside Buddy.
“Arrwww, look at it, ain’t he bloody beeeewdiful!” roars Dolly.
Madona is a good fit for our family. All of us cobbled together by circumstance. She’s also, unbelievably, the second one of my kids with vision problems. Our family is built from many events and places, but it began with me and Chris in 1996, who became my son when he came to live with me In Goroka. I’d met him back when I was the Relief Manager of the Karawari Lodge, and he was a blind local kid. One eye had been pierced by a child’s arrow when he was tiny, and the second got scratched and infected and finally clouded over altogether. He could see some shadows, but barely. Skinny, maybe 14 , he didn’t really know his own age, but when I first him he liked to follow me around, or trick me by showing up somewhere unexpectedly. Like a blind man in his own house, he knew the bush and all the trails between the villages as if they were corridors between pieces of furniture, and I’d often see him in one village, then motor canoe around to the next only to find he’d beat me there by taking a bush shortcut.
I promised him I’d try to get him to an eye doctor in Goroka, or elsewhere. Later that year he stepped off a small charter plane onto the tarmac in Goroka as I approached and held his hand. ‘I’ve never been to town before,’ he explained. Later that day he told me he would stay with me as my assistant and security guard, as my son. And that’s what he’s done. Forced intimacy and his dependence on me made me love him straight away. We become almost inseparable. A friend of mine who ran a music studio taught him to play the keyboard during the day, just allowing Chris to hang out. He wanted to be a musician.
The first thing we did was see the eye doctor at the Goroka Base Hospital, waiting two hours in line at the clinic. I knew in my heart that as it wouldn't be a simple procedure. Chris was more than prepared. He sat behind the heavy mechanical rigging that ophthalmologists use, like a low-hanging 5x7 camera that swivels into his face and out again. The doctor was sixty-something, a kindly looking Australian in a clean smock and bifocals. He moved 90 degrees on his chair to face me, pushing the apparatus away from Chris face. Chris was slightly hunched forward, shoulders to ears, hands in his lap, expressionless.
"What’s your interest in this boy?"’ the doctor asked.
I believe he assumed Chris understood no English because he spoke Pidgin instead to me. ‘Well, I’m his guardian,” I said, or something to that effect. He explained that this was a village kid, you see, and what he needs is a cornea transplant if he’s ever going to see again. But these almost never happen in PNG, and when it does, the cornea usually has to come from India and, anyway, they’re distributed first come first serve on a long line of hopefuls in Port Moresby General Hospital. We could sign him up, but the prospects weren’t good; he didn’t want to lie to me. I looked at Chris, who had no expression whatsoever. I was only just beginning to realize that this lack of facial expression was a product of his sightless youth and not a lack of emotion. He missed all the facials cues around him.
“There’s not really much hope,” the doctor said (and I remember him saying exactly this), to which I must have scowled because he tried to mitigate by asking, “What exactly is your investment in this?”
It was such a strange question, I don’t even remember my response, but I know that we were barely ten yards from the clinic’s door, into the parking lot, Chris holding my hand with his head down, when he asked, finally, in Pidgin, ‘There’s still hope isn’t there?’
Thrust into one of those after-school-special moments when a mother suddenly gains courage, I sniffed with the false bravado of a Tiger Mom, ’Of course there’s hope!’ (That doctor’s an asshole).
We went to the Internet, a new tool to me at the time, and began sending queries around to eye charities, and aid organizations in PNG and elsewhere, for cornea transplant information. Fred Hollows is the main eye charity in Australia, and it travels the southern hemisphere performing eye surgeries for free, but they were neither scheduled to come to PNG, nor would they invite Chris to come to them in Australia until we could confirm that he was under 18. He had neither medical clinic book or birth record, so we could never be sure.
Eventually we were corresponding with doctors referred to us by these organizations. Virtually every doctor we communicated with offered to perform the surgery gratis, should we be able to get ourselves there and organize the cornea as well as the surgery center. Australia was a viable option, but we couldn’t fit all the pieces together. We faxed the eye clinic doctor’s diagnosis around, and a couple of doctors even suggested alternative treatments to surgery, like irradiation. Their concern was that a failed cornea transplant would remove what little shadow vision Christian now had, and maybe he shouldn’t take the risk.
I began to wonder whether our hope lay in some compromise treatment, not in fully recovered eyesight. Then we got an email from Randy Poynter of the Price-Whitson Vision Group in Indianapolis. They would be happy to perform the surgery, he wrote, as they perform high-risk transplants all the time; we only needed to schedule it. Most importantly, he informed us that we need only pay for the surgery center’s costs, not the doctor’s fee, and in the remote chance that they couldn’t find a free organ-bank cornea for us, for the cornea itself. In all our months of emailing, and all the concerned advice and referrals we sifted through, this was the first concrete offer.
We immediately started fundraising for a tentative surgery date of November, 1999. Initially I figured $5000 would cover us. I calculated Christian’s airfare, the surgery center fee, his domestic ticket from LA to Indianapolis, and a cheap hotel room while we were there. I would pay for my own fares, and take him back to a bungalow I’d rented in Venice, California, for several weeks’ post-op care. Of course I had no idea what an undertaking such a project it would ultimately be, which was a blessing. Christian, being what was assumed to be 19, didn’t qualify for any children’s charity funds. Most of the organizations working in PNG were tied up with their own projects anyway. So I sent emails around to friends and clients and Rotary and Lions’ Clubs, and almost immediately we had positive responses. People sent little bits of money, then bigger bits, and soon serious donations. It was amazing.
Air Niugini offered Christian free flights from PNG through to Manila, and a discount on my fares. The ball was rolling, and although we couldn’t meet the November date, or the December one, we figured we’d fly out in late January. Evenetually there we were, standing in a maze of purposeful activity outside the main terminal at Manila’s old International Airport (not the new efficient Ninoy Acquino Airport), where heavy boxes were wheeled about and long trains of luggage carts are pulled through snaking lines of taxi stand workers and exhausted travelers. I’d lost some faith in plans, but wasn't giving up. I’m holding Chris’ hand after his first terrifying night in an airconditioned hotel room, first night on an elevator (he’s pushed a button on one floor and arrived in the lobby for breakfast, amazingly) and we’re waiting for the gracious Customer Service rep from Philippines Airlines who has offered Chris a free flight to LAX. Crazy as it sounds, we are too poor to pull off two air tickets, and I’ve scheduled a flight leaving only minutes after his. We’ve been assured that Chris will be looked after and led through Customs on arrival, where I’ll come find him. Suddenly Gary pulls through and waves from the crowd. “Nancy! Christian!” Like an apparition. 'Is that him?' Christian asks in Pidgin. “Yeah, it’s Gary-- Christian--it’s Gary!” You’d think it was a family reunion. And in less than five minutes Gary’s taken Christian’s hand and walked him through security to the gate.
I am left feeling unbelievably lonely, and worried. Many hours and bitten nails later, we find each other at LAX, me pushing mounds of cargo, Christian wearing a label round his neck that says, “Christian Dominic, BLIND.” Suddenly he looks to me exceptionally young, short and skinny.
After months of anticipation, we have our initial exam at the Price-Whitson Vision Group. This is the first time we received confirmation that Christian’s eye was operable and that we could actually go ahead with the transplant tomorrow. One of the Nurse Technicians just needs to run through the liability waiver. Chris’s head is hunched as the man reads off what could happen: total blindness, scarring, paralysis, death. Yea, fine, I sign. We leave the office before Chris says, “Mums. Maski, mi no inap.” Forget it, I can't do this.
We talk about it. In truth, it isn’t my eye and it’s not my future, so I can’t force him to do anything. But I tell him that I really think it’ll work. Just the way the doctor had sounded, so confident and matter-of-fact. Forget the technician, he’s just doing his job. We’ve come so far, I tell him, with so many peoples’ support, how can we not do it? For an American kid, raised with a strong sense of personal volition, this might not be a convincing argument. But for a Papua New Guinean kid, who’s been raised to represent the collective and to subordinate personal to group ambitions, that was all I needed to say. It’s true, he said in Pidgin. “Ino samting bilong mi tasol. Bilong plenti manmeri nau.” It’s not just my decision, he said, it’s everyone’s. “Bai mi go.” Yeah, I’ll do it.
His courage was never more real to me than when they strapped him to a gurney, stuck an IV in one arm and an oxygen tube up his nose. I thought of the kids in Palimbe, lying face down on upended canoes, cradled by one uncle and cut by another for a long bloody hour of skincutting. They were courageous. But they also knew where they were, knew the arms that held them, knew their cousins were sharing the experience, and that their sons, like their fathers and uncles, would also share this experience. But here was a kid who’d never been to a hospital before, who’d only ever had one full check-up, and who was still suspicious of vitamins. He didn’t even speak English too well. Now here were all these cheerful nurses in kelly green scrubs patting his feet and tweaking the state-of-the-art machinery around his head and shoulders. That’s when the doctor came by to tell Christian he’d be getting painkiller, but he’d also have to be awake for the entire procedure, to keep his eye open. I repeat this to Christian in Pidgin, and he nods, clearly in a state of shock. When we’re alone again he says, “Mi fret nau.” Who wouldn't be?
He must have thought he was going to his death. Less than an hour later, they wheel him out surrounded by smiling nurses, plus a local TV newswoman and her cameraman, all in scrubs. Dazed, his eye patched, Christian definitely looks relieved. “Congratulations,” everyone says. “How do you feel?” the newswoman is asking. “Orait,” he murmurs, which must have been all he could think to say. I hug him and say “I am very proud of you,” tears in my eyes. Dr. Price arrives and tells us it’s all gone fine, no complications. The newswoman interviews him, tries to get more out of Christian, and then asks me a couple things which became clever bytes on the evening news. In all of this, I’ve forgotten to ask about the bill. Just before we leave, I remember and ask the Nurse Technician.
“Now whom do I pay?”
“Pay?” he looked at me.
“Oh no, it’s all taken care of. The Foundation here covered it.”
The Vision Group had established a foundation for charitable surgeries that we didn’t even know about. They’d gotten a cornea from a Florida eye bank and covered all the expenses. This they did without soliciting even a thank you, because we would never be able to thank them enough anyway. It was the biggest gift of Christian’s life, and so unexpected we were incapable of even giving enough verbal thanks.
That night I watched and Christian listened to the newscast with his right eye swathed in a big cotton wad. Teenager from then jungles of a remote South Pacific Island gets his sight restored by a local ophthalmologist. The next day the bandage came off. For some reason, we’d both thought this would mean instant vision. Sort of a film noir moment where we unwrap the face and set off on a new life. Mary, the Nurse, peeled away the cotton as our local pal, Patrick, other staffers, a reporter from the Indianapolis Star and his still cameraman all stood around the tiny office, watching. “Voila!” Christian said nothing. The bandage was off, Mary stood back, and Christian’s face fell. He looked about to cry. “What?” I asked. “Mi no inap luk luk,” he said. I can’t see. His heart was broken. Fortunately Mary quickly explained that it would take weeks, possibly months before he’d see, that the cornea was still swollen from surgery. A bit like the doctor forgetting to tell you chemo makes your hair fall out. So much for cinematic moments.
Back in Venice he’s begun to make out shadows, which is enough to gain a little independence. He walks the boardwalk on his own each day, looking like just another American kid. “Mi go troimwe huk nau,” he calls out as he leaves. I’m going fishing now—i.e. going to throw my hook out, for girls. “No ken troimwe huk nabuat.” Don’t go throwing your hook just anywhere. “Bai mi kisim bikpela surfer pis.” I’m going to catch a surfer. Christian’s eye is healing and he can now make out faces. I whisper to him at a friend’s party that David’s talking to the TV actress we know from a certain show replayed on TV in PNG. He can’t believe it. When I introduce him to her and explain that Christian is her number one fan, she’s a little overwhelmed at how far-fetched this is. Then a beautiful Nigerian woman sits down next to Christian on the sofa and starts to chat him up. I'm convinced he'll have a stroke.
American friends can’t wait to do everything possible for Christian, from taking him to the Long Beach Aquarium, to hosting a dinner party around him and his new-found favorite food, fried rice. Two of my girlfriends live in Venice and they and their husbands welcome Christian like a surrogate son. Leigh and Tom, who’s a familiar African-American film and TV actor, and their kids Rae and Eamon, wrap themselves around us and make Christian feel relaxed, less like a kid on a leash with me. Tom takes him out to get a ‘fade’ at the barbershop, and drives him around listening to George Clinton, cruising for chicks, stopping at the coffee shop to introduce his pal from the jungle. Christian is rapt, absolutely in awe of Tom. Tom drives up to the house saying, “Whaddaya say Christiiiiaaaan?” and Chris calls back, “Wha-sis-sup man!”
Our friend Muriel introduces us to her friend, Yolanda, an African-American lawyer, and one of the first black women to graduate from Yale Law School. A keyboard player herself, and she’s heard Christian’s looking for a new keyboard and wants to help. Through Yolanda, we get a huge discount on a state of the art Yamaha keyboard from Leeds Music in Santa Monica. It’s beautiful. Bring it home, and it sits like a bodybag on the table for a while, almost too intimidating to open. Christian starts to unzip it now and then, just to look. Soon enough he’s memorizing every piece of it, all its buttons and fades. More impressively, I find him reading the instruction manual inches from his face.
Yolanda also hooks us up with Gerda Govine, who has a National Public Radio talk show called Ebony 2000. She brings Christian on for a half hour and asks him all about his surgery and his impressions of America. Still shy, but having practiced English answers in anticipation of this, he gives her the fullest interview he’s had so far, which still means that I do most of the talking. It’s at least as exciting for him to meet the engineers and see the studio itself, to shake hands and have photos taken of him with everybody. ‘I must be the first Papua New Guinea on radio in California, don’t you think?’ he asks me later.
Even here in Venice, we’ve been so close with money it’s a matter of counting coins for our bus fares to Cedars Sinai, where his post-op care is kindly donated. Leigh brings us groceries, and Christian makes abominable dishes like Spanish rice with tinned mackerel and peanut butter. One evening as we return from dinner at a friend’s down the street, Chris’s hand on my shoulder for guidance, I stop to open our gate. Just then the most beautiful Spanish looking woman with long curly black hair, bike shorts, and bra top glides past us on rollerblades. Chris’ hand cinches my shoulder. “Pis,’ he says. Fish! My heart stops. He can see!
For me to question western media’s role in shaping childhood identity in Papua New Guinea, is no little ironic. I am a shiny product of that media, and of a particular time, place and spin to that media. I remember an Australain admirer years ago, when I was at an admirable age, said something like ‘You’re the most unique woman I know’ and I bristled, thinking he must be some kind of dolt not to know anyone like me: I come from a tribe of Middle Class white American girls with good educations, feminist perspectives, catholic tastes, and no problems erasing boundaries. Like the subheadings of this blog, my life has been punctuated by product references, memories of what I sang, smelled and saw growing up, from the Doublemint twins and the Breck Girls tossing glossy locks, to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen’s sadomasochism, and Wigstock Festivals in Tompkins Square Park. They are all pieces of an environment that shaped me. As such, they mean as much to me as do the smells of sago cooking, the big dances, evening cookfires and hoary carved images that surround a Sepik kid’s childhood.
As I write this I’m also reading a short New York Times article for May 31 2012 that tells me about seven new Kavli science award winners (“Seven Scientists Win Kavli Prizes,” by Dennis Overbye). Not surprisingly, we learn that Lamarck his had a hand in some of this:
Cornelia Isabella Bargmann of Rockefeller University, Winfried Denk of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, and Ann M. Graybiel of M.I.T. will split the neuroscience prize for work aimed at elucidating how the brain processes information from the environment…. Dr. Graybiel is an expert in the basal ganglia, structures in the forebrain that control movement and have been implicated in diseases like Parkinson’s and addiction. Her work, the academy said, shows how patterns of neural activity change and reorganize themselves as animals develop new skills or habits, both good and bad.
I am a very different brain at 50 than I was at 15. That makes sense to me. Some of the uglier experiences of my life have dented the mechanism I suppose, and I would acknowledge that I’m guilty of putting it in danger for craving adventure. Years ago I used to smart at the idea that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and my response would be ‘leave me weak, thanks.’ But in truth I never wanted anything more than to experience the unexpected, if that makes sense. My parents were perfectly nice people, indeed my very sweet mother was the definition of Donald Winnicott's "ordinary devoted mother" and "the good-enough environment" (1958, “Primary maternal preoccupation” in Collected papers, through paediatrics to psychoanalysis, Tavistock Publications.) Providing sufficient protection and physical warmth to allay those ‘primal agonies’ and ‘unthinkable anxieties’ that infants are said to have in bundles. Had she not been, I might be even more psychotic. Psychosis is pretty much what I’ve been looking to find in the personalities of four grandchildren who’ve been raised by my son’s wife, Sally. This is not her real name of course. But I doubt she’d care if it were.
It is as if the ‘ordinary devoted mother’ of the village, who is really several working together (which I will discuss later), gets undone when she moves to town and has only one husband and few others to help mold a child’s psyche. The devoted mother of village life is really our negligent mother of urban life, although in PNG there really are very few social services waiting to intervene. Unlike the US and Australia. Let’s just say I’d have a bail bondsman on speed dial if my son, his wife and all our kids lived elsewhere. No food for dinner? No clean clothes? We’ll manage. There’s always a neighbour in the village. Gamble away the food money? Not a problem for the village, when relatives live next door. Sort of a problem in town.
Older children raising siblings? Anyone who’s watched mothers sit immovably on the ground, frying sago in a clay pan, or chewing betelnut and doing little else, as her 18 month old negotiates the notched pole ladder to front door of the family house, or run with a sharpened scyth, would know what I’m talking about. It’s not Mum who’s fretting over the baby, it’s the sibling, usually the young girl who’s been tasked with looking after her younger brothers and sisters. In the village we say things like ‘first we make the babysitter, then we make the baby’ because mothers are rarely seen handling infants after 18 months or so, when they’re set free to be minded by the Lord of the Flies community of children. I suppose if I’d spent my childhood babysitting a small clan of siblings, I might get pretty laissez faire about it as a mother. Thus, my daughter in law often reminds me of a junkie slag, freebasing as the baby starves to death.
My own mother was an unhappily married suburban wife, like everyone we knew. But that didn’t prevent me from having a distinctly off-kilter young adulthood. At University I was a courtroom artist for New Jersey Nightly News, and spent so much time at the court house in Newark with people like Joe Bonano, Dr. X, and Sid Vicious, that I almost blew my junior year. I also lied to my off-campus housemate when I went up for the job, telling him that of course I knew how to drive, because I desperately needed his Volvo to drive Route 1 to Trenton for the interview. That was my first time behind the wheel. Then, of course, I married the German ex-porn star, for a lark.But that's another story.
I think searching for my vocation so wildly must have been a product of having the a classically good mother, the one who gifted you with an enormous sense of security, if perhaps slightly depressed levels of self-esteem. My own parenting skills, whatever they may be, have been molded by childhood, but alot of their polish was acquired during my twenties. Without diminishing my first two decades, it was definitely the next decade that defined myself as a person, and as a woman. Or at least those years following my Junior year abroad as a mod in London. While Madonna was making Desperately Seeking Susan with my boyfriend Rob, I was working part-time as a phone sex girl in an outfit called ‘Pandora’s Box.’ It was as inappropriate job, but let’s not dwell on that. I was an artist and storyboarder for film and TV, and always in need of an income stream. I had never been a highly sexualized child and so this was not by any means my chrysalis-to-butterfly moment. Nevertheless, I was recruited by the friends of Cherry Vanilla, the infamous plaster-caster groupie (who casted the members of every sixties rock icon, from David Bowie to Mick Jagger). I had no idea it would be so difficult.
It now seems to me that the best study group for nature/nurture research would have to be porn stars. The best of these really love their job. They are a collective of highly charged libidos who commit to their roles with more conviction than method actors. Phone sex is really just the radio version of visual porn. It’s lower budget, easier to produce, and yet mastered only by those men and women who have a special need to please. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them. My moniker was Desiree, because all the really good names had been taken: all the Lolas, Salomes, Scarletts, Destinys and Natashas were there before me.
Welcome to Pandora’s Box.
The operation was very primitive those days, and we all worked out of a two bedroom apartment in the twenties, where one wall was covered by a bank of three phones, with switches to the lines in each bedroom. This was well before the days of mobile telephony. And the main room had a sofa, some chairs, a coffee table with lots of porn magazines, and a TV and video deck with plenty of films to get us going. Most of the staff were big black girls from the Bronx, girls with names like Tonessa and Lataesha; single mothers who worked as cops or counter sales girls and seemed to all know each other from EST meetings, that early self-help program by Werner Earhardt which was largely about making money and learning mantras of self-affirmation.
Tonessa was our supervisor, a big drag queen of a girl with massive thighs and a short temper. She was the EST guru, and we’d all convene for weekly meetings in that front room, something like ten or twelve of us crowded together for a pep talk that consisted mainly of ‘I hear ya!’ interruptions of whatever you said. Once we were all asked what we were working for?! What was our goal?! We needed a goal! And Tonessa looked at each of us in turn, as we blurted out something we wanted so badly we would work our tails off to attain: a Ferrari! Jimmy Choos! A pink diamond! A penthouse! And so it went, on and on, everyone getting fired up in a call and response pep talk that never flagged, but for one woman who wanted to send her son to private school (I thought that was nice). But when it was my turn, my nerves overcame me. I couldn’t think of anything. My mind went blank. I didn’t have one thing I wanted after all. “I’d like to produce a book of short stories.” They hated me. Friggin twee white girl. What’s she doing here anyway? (I question I had begun to ask myself).
As a result, I was given the worst shifts. I would have the shift on Sunday morning from 6 AM to noon, or midnight to six AM. Dead times. They started me on the busy night but soon demoted me because I took too much time to get the guy off, and we were paid by call rather than minute. It worked like this: Someone (often myself) worked the incoming calls with a mellifluous introduction to all the pleasures we could satisfy at what cost, requiring only a credit card. We would take the card and a number at which we could call these people (not just men, sometimes women, sometimes groups), check the creditworthiness of the card, and call them back. Or, one of the girls would call them back. After my “Welcome to Pandora’s Box” introduction, they would have told me what sort of fantasy they were looking for, so while we checked their card, we’d select which girl would best be suited to verbally abusing, acting the nurse or the little girl, talking someone through a sex act of their own, and so forth. You might think this operation a hotbed of creativity, which I did at first.
There was a wonderful poster on the wall next to the phone bank that listed twentyfive things to do with a) stiletto, b) vibrator, c) q-tip d), showerhead, etc. I was committed to getting a photo of that poster at whatever cost, but never seemed to have the time along in the office to take it. My big regret.
So at first I was Desiree, and my schtick was as follows: I was 5’8” and had long strawberry blonde hair and a red teddy with red garters and red heels. Sometimes I would unlace the ribbons of my teddy in front, or roll down the stockings in a classic silent film gesture, or I’d bend over to take my shoes off, that sort of thing. But most of the time I liked to talk to these guys; they always assigned me to very young guys. Soldiers from Camp Pendleton, kids with their parents’ credit card, that sort of thing. Occasionally women wanting women. In general, though, whenever a call came in for something involving a pederast, for a man wanting to very young girl, or a nurse, I’d be sent to the bedroom phone. We had a full bar, and a lot of the girls smoked weed on duty, but at that time I was sort of alcohol-avoidant, so there was little available to get me going before I had to plunge into the chat.
Sometimes I spent thirty minutes asking some guy about his job, his family, his hopes for the future—giggling of course, coy, but hardly jerk—off material. Strangely enough, I found the fictions that these men created a lot less sexy than what I assumed to be their reality: they’d talk about six packs and the cars they drove, all that puerile sort of stuff that boys seem to think will make girls really wet.
Then one afternoon it was particularly crowded, and I was working the phone bank with the other girls taking calls, having already been declared useless, and a call came in from a guy who wanted a hot number to talk him through a special situation. He was a “wealthy businessman” and his wife was a “soap opera actress” whom we would recognize, so we couldn’t be told her name, and they were together in their bedroom with a video recorder rolling and his son from a first marriage waiting to be coaxed into popping his cherry with his beautiful stepmom; Dad would shoot the scene; we would chat up the boy as he got stiff for the job. Given that I believed none of this scenario anyway, despite its believability, while Tonessa and a couple of her favourites squealed with delight to get their acts on and ready to take the call jointly, I sort of rolled my eyes and winced to describe the fantasy.
“Yo--she’s a soap opera star!” Chantelle sighed.
“Maybe she’s Susan Lucci? Whatcha telling em?” Tonessa wondered.
“Wassup he drives a lamborghini--- What’s he do for a living y’think? I bet he’s a banker. I know he is. I love businessmen, they make me sooo horny.”
“How old’s the kid---they say sixteen? Move over, lemme talk to the kid!”
“OK the client doesn’t want da kid to come on his wife’s silk blouse.”
“Cause it’s silk.”
“Watch out for the silk.”
These women wanted desperately to believe in the caller, to buy his story and have some intimacy with a man who drives a lamborghini, and sets his wife up to sleep with her stepson. They were drag queens with vaginas.
More than the animal husbandry or whips and chains fantasies, which are clinical indulgences that require mutual trust in the role each other must play, a kind of shared Stanislavski method, this sort of role playing was just debased. Really. Everyone believed each other. They might say in the end they didn’t believe, but they didn’t want to be that cynical---they wanted this to be their moneyfucking moment.
Early morning sunshine
I moved to the quite early morning shifts. And that’s when I met Angie, or Ashley, I can’t remember her name. Let’s call her Angie; she was a friend of Cherry Vanilla’s an ex-rock-groupie who was easily as beautiful as Patty Hanson, pushing forty, and very much a junkie. Her arms were covered with track marks, and she’d settle into the couch with a smoke and pop on a video as soon as she arrived. I’m sure she never remembered my name from week to week, even though we were the only two on this shift, and I always threw the calls to her, forfeiting the better money for the sake of this extraordinary character. And because she was sometimes so high she couldn’t make the initial spiel if she tried. One morning, maybe 5 AM on a Sunday, she’s taken two calls already and is really settled into the mood, so she pops on American Gigolo with Richard Gere and starts rambling.
“You like Richard Gere, hon?"
“Yeah sure, he’s great.”
“I fucked Richard Gere.”
“Yeah, true,” she sucks the cigarette and blows smoke.
“We were on the Orient Express and we each had our own private car, and he just walked into mine, drew the curtains and without even introducing himself went at it like a fucking rabbit all the way from like Venice to Prague or something. Yeah we really fucked good.”
“Richard Gere eh?” I get up and walk to the kitchen to boil the kettle.
“Yeah, Richard Gere,” she says, and I’m already on the kitchen phone calling my boyfriend Rob and asking him to bring some wonton soup or something to me. He has got to be here for this, I’m thinking. It’s good. Rob was a connoisseur of the unexpected and the bizarre, and would have loved to listen to Angie the way he delighted in pointing out that the man buying sunglasses on 8th street was Thelonius Monk, or a member of Warhol's factory. Rob was my pop cultural archive.
“Yeah, I think you should get here,” I’m telling him, sotto voce, as Angie seems to be oblivious and just warming up for the next act.
“Hey you like Christopher Walken?”
“Yeah sure, who doesn’t?” Here we go. “We met on a set once, we did it. In his dressing room. He’s a cool guy.”
“I bet.” I’m trying to egg her on now and failing. Can’t think of a likely male idol for her, she’s all over the place. Jack La Lane? Bob Dylan?
There’s an ad on TV for a Frank Sinatra compilation. Uh-oh. Here we go. “You like Frank Sinatra?”
“Yeah of course.”
“I did him. In a phone booth. He was shooting a commercial in midtown somewhere and I was walking by and he just pulled me into this phone booth and we went at it, he fucked me up the ass with all my clothes on, I just bent over and pulled my skirt up I remember, and he loved that I wasn’t wearing any underwear…” And she was off.
It went on for the rest of the shift, Rob showing up twenty minutes later with some wonton soup and a fascinated expression. I don’t know if it was the junk or the woman herself, but the enormous need to be objectified, to be anonymously desired by important people, to be the bauble of a celebrity---it was heartbreaking, and very entertaining.
We couldn’t stop prompting her with names, Rob more than me. Sylvester Stallone? Magic Johnson? We loved and hated watching her, and I had to push Rob out the door with a sad face. “See ya honey!’ Angie called out.
It wasn’t long before I quit, mainly because I had enough other work as a storyboarder on films. I was still Desiree, though, when I worked as a storyboarder on Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, in 1986, with Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels and Ray Liotta. We were location scouting for the music video at the time, which would be that wonderful ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ song by the Fine Young Cannibals, and Jonathan, myself, and the cinematographer, a second string Israeli guy I’ll call Dave, were all in a van with a driver coming back from the Scarsdale Movie Theatre, a possible location. The cinematographer was in the front seat with the driver, Jonathan was lying down on the middle seat and I was in the third seat sketching from notes. Jonathan and Dave were going on about some of the extras they wanted in the video, including a wonderful obese woman named Betty who apparently danced great.
“But she’s busy Saturdays,” says Dave.
“She says she’s got a gig as a phone sex woman and makes more at that than the extras work.”
“Go figger.” Jonathan chuckles.
It’s time for me to speak up. “Well you know a lot of different people do that phone sex thing. I do it sometimes, believe it or not.” It would have been as hard to believe me, the scrawny storyboarder, as it was Betty, as a fantasy call girl.
“Actually, I go by the name Desiree.”
Demme’s up in a beat, stunned. “You’re Desiree!??”
Oh! You Pretty Things
There are surprising connections between my New York identity and the more outré aspects of PNG modernity. Town life here is not the same as the village, and increasingly, the expatriates who manage businesses, work for NGOs and teach at the International Schools are not just European, by which I mean British or Australian or American, but also Indian, Filipino, Chinese, Bangladeshi and African. This means that the television and print market is ever so gradually becoming international and multilingual (our cable pulls Indonesia, Chinese, German, Russian, Indian, Filipino and Australian programs), and shops are not just filling up with cheap but also ill-considered merchandise, like skin whitening soaps and hair straightening products, press on nails, toddler high heels, and plastic AK 47s. This is part of the urban mix everywhere, but it looms a little larger in PNG. And it requires some very conscientious firewalls from parents nowadays.
Secondhand clothes have always been the sartorial mainstay of the developing world, and most towns here now have three grades of secondhand goods to choose from: ranging from the faded t shirts and dated pant suits you used to like, to those poorly elasticized shorts from the bottom of the drawer. You gave these away to Goodwill and Goodwill, in turn, sorted, bundled and sold them to exporters who, in turn, sold to wholesalers in PNG. Amongst the A grade castaways you can sometimes find the most wonderful treats, from evening gowns to Doc Martin shoes. But even in the C grade bundles, a lot of goodies slip through, and as a result you might travel upriver by canoe to a remote village where the local councilor will come greet you wearing a handsome akubra or an oilskin outback raincoat. You have to congratulate him on his excellent taste.
During my first years in PNG I lived in the Highlands town of Mt. Hagen, a very rough and ready place: PNG’s equivalent of a war zone. When I arrived, the Western Highlands Province was caught in the tense grip of one of the country’s largest, longest and bloodiest tribal fights, the Nebilyer war, just out of town on the south side. This was the moment when highlanders began to replace their funky homemade shotguns (most likely to blow up in their own hands) with professionally smuggled AK47s and Kalashnikovs. A civil war had erupted in the Solomon Island province of the country and all manner of high tech armaments were coming through every border from Indonesia and Australia, thanks to the enterprise of that special class of South Pacific expat: the lawless mercenary entrepreneur, for whom there is always a market in drugs, guns and girls. As a result, the balletic thrust and parry of old tribal warfare was being blown away by young men with their first guns, lurching to the front lines and shooting someone’s face off. Which happened to one good friend of mine at the time, all of 24 years old.
But those non-participants living in Mt. Hagen town were subject to a siege mentality that kept us from driving down the main roads, venturing out after dark, and going anywhere without security. Evening were spent sharing blame the victim stories about the Uncle who walked to his garden and got blown away, or the white Missus who drove toward the fringe of the fight, hit a small child on the road, was roadblocked, and her own toddler pulled out and killed before her eyes. The bakery tried to make a run to clients just out of town and had their truck kidnapped. It was gutted and sent home the next day with a note from the combatants: ‘Thanks for the hot cross buns!’
Occasionally a skirmish would break out closer to town, on a ridge overlooking the small suburb called Newtown. Early on, before shotguns became ubiquitous, one couple I knew used to fill an esky with cold drinks and doing a brisk business with thirsty warriors. It was just about this time that some of the first bales of Grade A secondhand clothes arrived in town, and they were nothing less than a sensation. This stuff was all about ten years old then, arriving in the late eighties, and filled with marvelous disco castoffs, the platform shoes and glitter t’s that might have come from Elton John’s closet. In no time the entire town, still predominantly in tribal ass-grass and woven aprons, or Mother Hubbardy meri blouses, became the touring cast of Gospell, in wraparound sunglasses and deeply darted wide lapel jackets. Lots of crushed velour and peplum shirts.
An even more remote town in a neighboring province received a shipment around this time of fuzzy pink, blue and yellow toilet seat covers, despite the fact that flush toilets themselves were something of a novelty. This was the land of the Huli wigmen, who wear elaborate toreador shaped human hair wigs covered with daisies and hard clay. In no time Hulis all over town could been seen wearing fuzzy toilet seat covers over their wigs, like big pastel puffy hats.
But nothing beats the vision of Nebilyer warriors racing down the valley just beyond our place on Kuta Ridge, outside of Mt. Hagen town, covered in pig grease, faces blackened, in ass-grass and parrot feather headdresses, spears raised to strike, as their gauzy peignoirs floated behind them down the hill.
Now, twenty years later, secondhand clothes are both commonplace and, strangely, boring. In my seaside town of Madang, the favored items are cotton shifts, board shorts, Capri pants and here and there a pair of spandex shorts. Madang people are generally pretty subdued and laid back, they seem perfectly pre-adapted to the Billabong look. There’s a klunker now and again and I’m not afraid to say my own kids are especially fond of frillier dresses and loud flowered Bermuda shorts. In keeping with the universal secondhand convention, there are very few ensembles, and many more excellent clashes of prints, patterns and plaids in all of this, something that always delights me. My daughter Madona, for example, likes the most bubblegum shade of pink, which may be the absolute worst color for an albino. But who can resist a girl in a mauve skirt with a rose colored blouse and magenta hair band? Especially when it occurs so far from the centre of a global marketing stratgey to turn all young girls into Princesses of Pink?
But as I said, the expatriate crowd has changed a bit, and more Filipinos, Indians and Chinese have come to town. This seems to have had some influence on the fashion sense of Madang people in general. Two years ago, for example, the small private Filipino-owned Montessori primary school that Nancy and Pauly attended hosted a Christmas pageant. No shepard’s staffs or swaddled Baby Jesus for this school. The Principal had decided on an Abba Christmas this year. So, for weeks running up to the event, these two and three foot tall Mamma Mia-mites could be found practicing their hip swivels and booty bumps after school, at lunch and even during class, with wild encouragement from the school staff.
“Aren’t they cute?’
It all seemed permissible until the day of the actual performance, when all the kids appeared in costumes from the secondhand stores: backless polyester halters and mesh net tops, tiny skirts, gold lame midriffs, the whole shebang. Lights up, dancers fill the stage and heads turned—parents to parents---all across the audience. Some were aghast, others just giggled. These were Papua New Guinean middle class parents who had never in their life worn spangles; and true to form, every one of them was too polite to walk out.
Ch Ch Ch Changes
Gender studies is the bedrock of Melanesian anthropology, and continues to draw scholars from many fields to the country. There’s a lot to work with in a state of 800+ cultures--ranging from the gender antagonistic big-man democracies, to island matrilineal chieftainships. Gender in PNG is really nothing like gender elsewhere. One of the most important early works on this is Gregory Bateson’s 1936 book, Naven (1958 ). In long form it's Naven: A Survey of the Problems suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe drawn from Three Points of View. (1958 Stanford).
Before becoming Margaret Mead’s third husband, he was a brilliant young Cambridge student of A.C. Haddon studying the Iatmul tribe’s naven ceremonies. The most important of these is a male initiation ritual that involves gender role reversal and simulated copulation, among other exhibitionist things. From this, Bateson formulated his famous theory of ‘schismogenesis.’ It involves a constantly circulating system of opposites, of competitive roles played out in a dialectical relationship to each other, which, in some cases ratchet up to a ‘vicious circle.’ Bateson recognized two forms of schismogenesis, one being symmetrical and the other complementary. Symmetrical relations are equal competitors, like two same-gender adults. But complementary relations are those more common ones, where inequality fuels the competition---whether it be between father and son, mother and father, performer and audience, or so forth.
Needless to say, it involves a lot more than this, but some of the most crucial ideas have to do with ritual transvestitism and the way gender roles get hammered into young people’s psyche through the very act of role reversal. What Bateson saw was what the next generation of anthropologists would be left to explore more comprehensively, in scores of important studies of male initiation, female initiation, and what has become glossed as ‘ritual homosexuality’ in many of these practices. What it boils down to is the way PNG cultures conceptualize gender as a plastic or man-made phenomenon. In places like PNG, outside the tradition of western biomedical knowledge, different ideas adhere to how babies are born, how gender is formed, and so forth. How is the human being made into a functional member of a society--a man or a woman?
In the west, these two issues are separable, because we say that gender is formed in the womb, as a product of instantaneous conception. In PNG, this less certain, and the generalized androgyny of all children, whatever their genitals, is never left to simply evolve into adulthood on its own. Girls must learn women’s roles, of course, and because they are considered more feral, sort of the biologically default state of being, they have only to be molded by diet and influence into the right path. Biological determinism doesn’t end at birth, but continues throughout childhood---which means that children become the offspring of the woman who nurses them, the father who gives them food, and so forth. This largely explains the cavalier way in which my son Leonard’s birth mother signed him over to me: seven years on, she hadn’t fed him much at all, and could hardly lay claim to his development.
For young men, in these patrilineal initiation cultures, the transition from child to adult is a lot more problematic. In the Sepik, and to some extent all over Melanesia, gender is not necessarily assigned at conception, and the whole early childhood period is fraught with malleability, because what you eat and who nurses you can determine your physical identity. This is when adoptive mothers play close attention to giving their babies substances from their own bodies and cook pots, so they can claim that they have made this child their own, biologically. And this is when some Melanesian cultures where there appears to be an unusually high incidence of hermaphroditism—that phenomenon where children are born with both male and female genitalia—boys are aggressively separated from their mothers so as not to become overfeminized.
In those parts of the world outside the boundaries of western biomedical knowledge, conception is not even the predominant determinant of a child’s physical makeup. If you don’t believe that one instantaneous act of insemination can be the making of a baby, or that the explicit features of that baby are only shaped in the womb, then the process of procreation can go on for years. And boys are not men until the community finally makes them so. Whereas girls evolve rather unproblematic ally into women, the making of a male person is considered a collective responsibility.
What fascinates me is not so much the plasticity of identity, or the fact that the self can be made by others and not only your own hand. It is a constantly changing nature-nurture axis in the west, and some of the biological determinism that was thrown over in my youth during the sexual revolution, have begun to swing back more recently. Scientists stand on both sides of the divide these days to make more sophisticated cases about what makes boys boys and girls girls. Now we know more about how the environment can and does enable the expression of certain genetic characteristics.
In Peggy Orenstein’s book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter (Harper, 2011), she talks to Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist who wrote Pink Brain, Blue Brain (OneWorld, 2010), and learns that there is indeed a period sometime between ages two and three where children become aware of gender differences, even as they don’t necessarily see them as immutable---a time when kids seem to think they might have a choice. Just as they have a hard time understanding death being final, they also don’t read gender as permanent. Then comes what Eliot describes as an inflexible stage, around age four, when boys and girls get rigid, and, to Orenstein’s horror, the Disney and Matel products suddenly, miraculously, appear everywhere in an American child’s universe. And there are plenty of primate studies that replicate what we find in little kids, males reaching for trucks and females reaching for pink dolls and (“grrr”--- as Orenstein says) cook pots.
But the neuroplasticity of a child’s brain is what Eliot studies, and she says that period early on is important for shaping what these gendered roles actually consist of; she says this is when nurture becomes nature. In other words, before the rigidity of the late toddler stage, there is a time when culture shapes the wiring of our brains and makes it possible to encourage or discourage certain concepts about gender. Orenstein talks about studies that prove how easily this kind of thinking can be shaped by parents. She uses the example of a girl who might be mathematically inclined. This proclivity might be hard wired in her makeup, but if her father (or mother) happens to think math is unfeminine, she will be less likely to go down that path after all. Hormones, genes and chromosomes, Orenstein says, are not as powerful as we once thought. They build a road, but we put up the road signs.
We are reminded of the sad case of David/Brenda Reimer, one of two twin boys born in 1967 who was ‘converted’ to a girl after a bungled circumcision. He only learned the truth about himself as a teenager, and then tried by hormones and reconstructive surgery to reclaim his male identity. Alas, the whole experience defeated him and he eventually took his own life. Biology does trump culture, Orenstein says. But what happens to the hermaphrodites who are forced into one or another gender? In the western world, these boy-girls can take hormones and become more feminized over time; it is even said that, although they cannot bear children, they are not at all masculine in appearance, and often have very beautiful skin. But what happens in the nonwestern world when no surgery is available and a third gender child grows up to be a man/woman?
This brings us back to culture. Girls have cooties. Obviously, if a culture has no trucks or cook pots, these will not be part of the definitions of male and female. But you can understand the anxiety of parents who have a child with both male and female genitals, in a culture where surgical removal of the testes is not an option. The child is hard wired for both genders, and yet the family would likely assign a male role to him, and then work doubly hard to eradicate the feminine influences on his life. These are cultures in Papua New Guinea where male initiation ceremonies go on for fifteen years, in long ritual cycles that proscribe any contact between boys and girls and reinforce the phobias about females as being polluting, about them being made of substances that, if not properly controlled, can emasculate and even kill males; that their menstrual blood will undermine a man’s essence; that they are wild creatures, more feral than the male animal. A tourist once pointed out to me, after I’d explained all this to her in the highlands town of Tari, that women don’t need an arsenal of weapons for self-defense here, all they need to do is wave a used tampon.
Orenstein also talks to child development specialists who report that sex-segregation at an early age, say preschool, can have permanent repercussions on how people see themselves throughout life. Girls who only play with girls will have a very different idea of masculinity, for example, than those who play with their brothers. This is to say that the sex segregation imposed on New Guinea siblings, in some cultures from very early on, has cognitive implications and not just social ones. In Orensetin’s words. “This separation of cultures, as anyone who was ever a child will recall, also contributes to an us-versus-them mentality between males and females.” (p69).
It becomes much more difficult, so to speak, if you are a male raised away from your sisters, to see adult women with gradations of girliness, or to find a boyish woman as sexy as a highly feminized one. Each sex finds it more difficult to relate to the other, and depending upon how this gets reinforced culturally, may lead to serious gender antagonism. This goes some way to explaining the levels of domestic violence in areas of PNG where there is more sex-segregation in childhood. Along with all the biological dangers women are said to contain, not to mention their presumed witchcraft over men when it comes to sexual attraction, they remain so reified to men that virtually anything the young wife does may be seen as threatening. But it also explains why I find Australian culture so hard to deal with, filled as it is with hackneyed Henny Youngman jokes about the ball and chain, and women’s magazines that call the husband ‘His Nibs.’ Even in the twentyfirst century Aussie gathering, you expect to see men on one side of the room and women on the other.
It certainly makes the US look progressive, and the Nordic countries positively futuristic.
There’s a comment made by the child psychologists in Orenstein’s book that keeps ringing in my head. “When teachers comment on mixed-sex or cross-sex play, the likelihood it will happen increases. When they stop commenting, it stops happening.” (p70). Positive reinforcement; I get it. But I have to think about this in terms of the two models of parenting I know. The first is the PNG model, which relies more on punishment than reward. You see mothers, fathers, even aunties and uncles smacking their kids, shaking them, even taunting more often than soothing them. And when they get older, the slap becomes a stick. Spare the rod, spoil the child. My husband is decidedly in this camp, because he was raised this way himself. He chides me not to indulge them too much, to scold rather than praise when they’ve finished half the task. It’s true that I admire the blithe parenting in villages here, where everyone hugs and loves a child but almost no praise is ever heard for ordinary tasks.
Linguistic anthropologist Bambi Schieffelin wrote a book about the Kaluli, Southern Highlands, people she works with, and how mothers inculcate certain values in babies and toddlers with sometimes discrete vocalizations and verbal reinforcements (The give and take of everyday life: Language socialization of Kaluli children, Cambridge, 1990). Over time, it becomes not so much what is said as what is being understood by the subtlest vocalizations and gestures. When you see how powerful micro conversational tools can be, how important conversational analysis is to imparting cultural values and ideologies, its hard not to be impressed by the results. Kids in the villages, like the Kaluli kids, are very quickly socialized into obedience. I’d like to see Bambi take the star of Lie to Me back to the Papuan Plateau for a refresher course.
What I like best in Bambi’s book is the recognition of teasing. How Kaluli parents, like so many PNG parents, tend to disassociate themselves from their children’s behavior and feign shock sometimes, but more often just tease them relentlessly. They shove foreign objects in their faces just to make them cry, and point out their mispronunciations relentlessly. It’s almost as if fetal development continues for months after birth as the child grows the toughest possible skin. It can look cruel to the outsider, especially when accompanied by cuffs and rough handling, and it’s worrisome when it produces (as it does) toddlers who climb dangerous ladders and ford dangerous streams by themselves. Virtually every expatriate in PNG has a story about some two year old in the village wielding a frighteningly sharp bushknife.
It may be that pulling my grandson Pauly off his mother at age 3 really aborted the development of this hard self-protective shell. He has no lack of self-esteem, but he is definitely a cautious child. On the other hand, and this is what makes me so American, I look back at my childhood of faint praise and wish more people had offered positive reinforcement. Indeed, pop psychology tells us this is the better parenting model, and that some of the deeply insecure feelings teenage girls have, for example, can be the result of insufficient positive reinforcement. I suppose this is more critical in a culture that bombards children with potentially dangerous images. You need to step up the defensive and envelop that child with a stronger sense of self. Move to the offense. The result of somewhat mixed messages in my household is that our teenagers inevitably derail at some point, for which I am often considered to be the blame (permissive Bubu), and get pulled back in line by Jacob, sometimes forcibly, never to seriously err again. What is that message? It’s a wonder they behave at all. It’s a wonder they’ve also become so good at manipulating us. Madona went back to the village for Christmas because she was pregnant. For some reason, she wanted to deliver in seclusion. This act, this decision, threw down the gauntlet to me as a mother. It forced me to think about my role in her life, in all these lives. Hence this blog.
You might say to me that the nonwestern world has its representation in a few western media outlets, like the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic magazine and TV. These formats seem to be the appropriate means of popularizing the full range of anthropological wisdom. But you’d be wrong. I am not the first or the last anthropologist to say so, but I will repeat here as it has been said elsewhere: there is no anthropology in these media. Documentary films and ethnographic cinema in general captures a wealth of important information, but they’re not often available on basic cable. And they’re not the same thing as Discovery or NatGeo TV. There are about six good stories I could tell to exemplify this, but I will use one, because it seems most appropriate. During the visit to Kaningara village when I first met Madona, I was accompanying a small crew shooting the skin cutting initiation for the NatGeo show, Taboo ('Inspiring people to care about the planet'). Christmas holidays is when most male initiations occur in PNG, and we arrived to film fifteen or more young men confined in the men’s house awaiting their skin being cut with razors into a pattern of bloody sores that resemble the skin of a crocodile. Our motor canoe puttered up to the village embankment, and I could see a canoe some distance away, in amidst the tall pitpit grass. It looked like a white woman sitting there casting a line she held coiled round a bleach bottle in her left hand. I asked the man on shore who’d greeted us, ‘Is that a missionary or a tourist?’ and he had the most hilarious reply: ‘Nogut yu ting yupla tasol gat waitlain—mipla tu gat wait missus long Kaningara! ‘----‘Don’t think you’re the only people who have white folks, we have our own white Missus here in Kaningara!’
He told me her name was Madona, she came from nearby Mariama, and was staying with some relatives. I could see she was albino and that she wore no more protection than a woven pandanas hat, the kind men normally wear. She was sitting in the midday sun an old t shirt and no shade for miles around her. My heart flipped in despair. She was so pale against the backdrop of pitpit grass under the big blue sky, I wanted to ask what kind of crazy parent would let her out in the sun like this? Instead I went to find her later in the day, when the crew were settling in for a meal. She was called out from the darkness of a big family home, and squinted under her hand as she looked at me in the sun. People would have told her who I was already, and that I was the Missus who’d adopted kids from nearby Yimas (notoriety often helps in the Sepik). It couldn’t have escaped her imagination that I might want to adopt her, too, which is why she was almost emotionless when I asked if she was going to school (no…), and if she wanted to go to school in Madang, if we could organize it? ‘I guess,’ she sort of said.
It was agreed that I would wait and speak to her family in Mariama and whenever she was ready, sometime in the year, she could come to Yimas and people there would bring her to Madang. And that’s what she did.
Meanwhile I was undergoing my own lessons in Reality TV during the production of that film shoot. Kaningara skincutting is a form of male initiation that attracts quite a few Mondo Cane directors, and I’ve been a consultant now on three such films, all for television. Not on the first occasion, when I met Madona, but on the second film shoot in Kaningara, not long afterwards, was I really inducted myself into the world of anthropology for the masses. Anthropology as Reality TV. You might think as an anthropologist I was consulted in the scriptwriting or preproduction for the project, but really I was what documentary and news people call a ‘fixer’---which is like a location scout for a small crew. You find the contacts, book the flights, organize assistants, that sort of thing. In this case I was also a translator for villagers and the crew. The director was a perfectly nice man who was said to have had fieldwork experience in the Amazon (whatever that means), so it came as a shock when he grew impatient with one of the principals in the shoot, the mother of a young initiate, because she wasn’t giving him the right responses to his questions. He has presumed back in an office somewhere that the mother of an initiate would be terrified to let her son go through these bloody male rites, that she would fear for his life. It was undoubtedly something he’d read from a Sepik ethnography. Indeed, in the past, these mothers were terrified, largely because the secrets of the procedure were kept from them and they never really knew whether their sons would survive or not. Nevertheless, in this case, the mother was genuinely thrilled to have her son selected for this program, to be a part of the filming, and also, not least, to have her son graduate from what is really a form of traditional university training for Sepik young men.
I would ask her in Pidgin, off camera, how she felt about her son’s confinement, and invariably she would say he was very happy, very proud that he was undergoing initiation.
The director would look at me, take a breath, and explain that we need another sort of emotion from her, something maybe more trepid at the beginning of the film, so that this character could follow a story arc that found her relieved and grateful when he comes though alive after all.
I would try again. But no go, the woman was happy, unmitigatedly happy. I tried to explain in Pidgin to her what was needed, feeling like a complete turncoat to her, and a weasel of an anthropologist myself—not to mention an anthropologist who had studied ethnographic filmmaking at NYU and had written about indigenous media production in PNG. Now I’m putting words in a woman’s mouth?
During a break the Australian cameraman explained to me how these show formats are bought and sold to production companies, and as copywritten material, they require compliance to formula, heaven forbid reality intrude. There just wasn’t time or space enough to explain the complexities of a real Kaningara skincutting, so we were busily following a scripted version of what some producer imagined might happen in the field. Our formula went a little as follows: Young European male imagines himself modern day anthropologist. He takes an interest in a little-known, highly exotic ritual (first made known to him in the dog-eared plates of an old ethnography), and he travels with great difficulty and forbearance to the jungles of New Guinea to rediscover this untouched culture and in so doing 'collect' the ritual itself for his professional resume and the viewing audience. (Okay, that’s a snarky version, but it’s more or less true.) We continue: the parents worry about their sons during the arduous confinement of initiation, just as the boys think about their girlfriends, and as the elders express great pride in the continuity of their culture. Insights and lessons for us all.
You work on a few of these ‘documentaries’ for the avid American public and you find it easier to believe the stories of callous American diplomacy and military interventions that wind up burning the Koran or massacring civilians. The same stereotypes about other people, other places get recycled over and over again, and even as they feel creakier and less reliable to a literate public, they have yet to be replaced by something more realistic. Or humane.
You Made Me Love You
There is an anthropological concept called consociality, or consocial identity, which is intrinsic to Melanesian ideas of personhood. For westerners, we rely on a concept of the individual which has actually evolved over millennia into an idea of the autonomous being, someone unique from everyone else with a reigning free well. It is shaped by Mendelian biology, which tells us that conception is a singular event and determines everything physical and much of what is psychological about us. The nonwestern world generally has a more Lamarckian idea of ontogeny. Lamarckism posits the idea that an organism can pass on to its offspring attributes acquired during its lifetime. Also known as soft inheritance, we often learn this by the example Lamarck himself used, that of the giraffe. Lamarck stressed the principle of progressive complexity, which means that organisms tend to become more complex, rather than less so. The second principle was the adaptation of organisms to their environment, and for this he used the examples of mole blindness and mammals with teeth, and most famously giraffes having extraordinarily long necks, presumably to graze the canopy rather than the floor. In fact there’s a cartoon making the rounds of the internet that shows a high school science exam paper with three giraffes in one box, two of them nibbling the trees, and third, shorter one standing below; and in the second box the two tall giraffes remain, and the third is now a carcass on the ground. The exam question reads: What does this picture tell us? And the hand written answer is: Giraffes are heartless!
Anyway, what Lamarckian evolution says is that inheritance is not always hard-wired by biology, and some of our acquired characteristics might even be heritable. It sounds improbable on the macro le and even the level of organisms, because most of us don’t believe our baby will inherit a conversational competency in Russian or that amazing pitching arm we’ve developed. But there’s more to it on the micro level, and Lamarckian ideas are gaining footholds in the field of neuroscience, for example, with author-scientists like V.S. Ramachandran. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain (2011, W.W. Norton) teases the biological from the environmental in complex brain disorders, and surprises readers with stories about people who appear to know things only their ancestors could have taught them, and others who have lost the most basic human sensibilities through accident or illness. It’s an important distinction for anthropology, which is mandated to explore how much of our behavior is learned, and how we learn it.
The interesting thing about Lamarckian, consocial identity, is that it doesn’t see the individual as unique. Instead, a human being is more of ‘node in many relationships’ (which is Clifford Geertz’s famous description, p 390 of The Interpretation of Cultures), a location on some vast map of overlaying networks. Thus, in one context we are a sister, in another a dental technician, and elsewhere a daughter, and so forth. Nonwestern personhood is really more about community rather than individual identity, and where you fit within a larger whole. In addition, where there is no western biology there are many other ways to explain reproduction, some of which barely include the sex act. There are some places in PNG, for example, where fetuses were not long ago thought to be the spirits of ancestors returned, and a pregnant woman could very easily call herself a virgin. But to be fair, most PNG cultures have pretty causal understandings of sex and procreation, even if they don’t consider conception a single act but more often consider a baby is built from repeated inseminations. In these contexts, it is pretty easy for people to believe that they have inherited an ancestor’s bravery or special supernatural skills.
It’s such a massive difference that I still red-flag the implications of it every day for me in PNG, after all these years. Actually, I see more of it now than I did before. All that static I used to experience when I just didn’t ‘get’ why people acted like they did, however many articles and books I’d read, has slowly faded into the background. Some of it has quieted, some of it has clarified. I used to get derailed by misperceptions, like why someone might have lied to my face or failed to show up, or even favored the most unlikely candidate for a job. How is it that the man hired to be the ‘gender’ specialist on an aid project is the same guy who everybody knows beats his wife? Why are two women enemies when the man has been adulterous, and he gets no blame? So much of what happens is counter-intuitive to me, still. But a lot more has come to seem perfectly natural to me.
As a middle class American with a good education I am prepared to deconstruct popular media for the ways in which it insidiously shapes our worldview. That trick is almost as old as the Gutenberg Bible. Every member of the baby boom generation forward knows enough not to fall for dialectics like Madonna versus Whore, or stereotypes Disney used to dish out to us. Nevertheless, these flat types still pervade media of all kinds because they’ve become, admit it, almost ‘natural’ to us. This is the crucial point about representing diversity, allowing other cultures their voice, getting other faces, other views into the popular domain. Because no matter what we say or do, the Skinner box of our brain makes the familiar fictions seem the most realistic.
Fortunately today we are becoming better informed all the time about brain chemistry and the physical parameters of perception. The synapses and endocrines and what they contribute to our personalities, even our gender identities. As Kayt Sukel writes in the 26 May 2012 issue of New Scientist, there is increasing evidence of chemical sex differentiation playing a part in our personalities (“Pink Brains, Blue Brains, Purple People”---her title being a riff on the 2010 book by neuroscientist Lise Eliot, Pink Brain, Blue Brain [OneWorld]). It’s not exactly the same as saying biology is destiny, but it does make us think again about a lot of feminist theory. Recent studies of prairie voles (--that’s right, prairie voles---not chimps or lemurs or gorillas--) suggest that sexual dimorphism may also play a part in creating a balance of personalities between what is male and what is female. According to Sukel, prairie voles have developed gendered personality traits that seem to arise from the chemical differences between males and females and these actually work to compensate for, rather than exaggerate, these differences. This idea first came from a 2004 article for Endocrinology, by Geert de Vries (“Sex differences in adult and developing brains: compensation, compensation, compensation” Vol 145, p 1063). The male prairie voles apparently have more receptors in their brains for a molecule linked to parenting, whereas female voles have their nurturing qualities triggered by hormones. The result is that both male and female voles make excellent parents. And sex chromosomes or hormones are especially sensitive to creating this complementarity of behavior –not, for example, the hormones that make you tall, or fat, or hirsute.
This has led to other studies of human compensatory behaviors, especially regarding emotional cues. For example, as Sukel reports, men and women shown similarly horrific images express much the same emotional responses. And yet brain scans show that these images trigger very different parts of the brain for males and females. So it seems that different reactions mitigated by different behaviors converge into what we recognize to be similar responses. What stage in this process might be sensitive to cultural variability? Do Turkish men have slightly different modifications of their brain response than French men? If so, do different cultures cultivate greater or lesser dimorphism and pass this off as ‘natural’? That is, do all women jump on chairs at the sight of mice? Do all men think with their penis? Do men simply have biological compensations that prevent them from screaming at mice? Do women really have less sexual desire?
The crucial difference seems to be testosterone levels, the great bugbear of gender difference. Studies also show, Sukel says, that biochemical processes in women can produce much the same responses or behaviors as men to similar circumstances, compensating for the testosterone differential. The linchpin of this argument seems to be whether or not our brains direct the compensating processes, or our physiology does. If it is the former, it would seem more culturally malleable. But what if it is the latter---if it’s more structural than conceptual? Does this mean culture and environment will never have a hand in shaping compensatory behaviors? How does culture shape our physiology?
This goes well beyond the Venus-Mars simplifications we read about all the time. The fact is, anthropology has never really ‘bought’ that Venus-Mars stuff, and it more inclined to attribute the full range of behaviors, and the full range of gender dimorphisms, to a culture. Sometimes what we think and not what we inherit makes the difference. Women are more aggressive than men in some cultures, and more submissive in others. In some, female reproductive capacities give women status; in others, it undermines their social capital. It is not the body but what we think about the body that makes the difference—and exaggerates the difference.
During the first film shoot, when I met Madona in Kaningara, I must have been feeling especially clucky. We kept seeing this wee tiny baby clinging to an older woman, who could only have been her grandmother. Finally the woman approached me looking for some powdered milk for the baby, explaining that she was indeed the grandmother and her son’s girlfriend had abandoned the baby girl to return to a husband. Her son didn’t want her, and the grandmother couldn’t nurse her. We gave her milk, but the baby already looked too hungry to recover. Finally, the day we were to leave, as we moved our gear down to the motor canoe to set off for Yimas, where the crew would catch a charter plane, I stopped the woman and asked if I could have the child---would she mind if I brought her to Yimas? I knew I could find a good home for her there. Yimas was in the next tributary system, not far away, and again, because people knew me in both places, there was no reason to doubt I wouldn’t do exactly what I said. The woman was relieved, and she gladly handed the tiny bundle to me, which I cradled in the crook of one arm.
Just before we pushed off a young man came ambling up to the river’s edge and told me he was happy we were taking the child, that we had his blessing. Apparently he was the baby’s paternal Uncle, and her name was Joylene. I was impatient terse to him, which I shouldn’t have been. My reaction was to shame him (not a good thing) by saying he should never have starved the baby like this, it was inhumane, blah blah blah, the imperious white Missus bossing around this young man who was only there to bid us farewell. But he didn’t take offense, he just smiled and agreed, in keeping with the civility of such ridiculous spectacles. And for the next four hour we motored back to Yimas as I fed droplets of milk into Joylene’s mouth.
In the end, she found a home with one of our Yimas relatives who was already nursing a boy and was eager to also have a daughter. But there was some squabbling over her too—at least one other family wanted to take her in. I remember that when we carried her into a kitchen where her little mouth started to pop like a fish out of water, gulping the smells of cooked food. She’s seven or eight now, a happy, healthy and fully Karawari child now. She is fully Karawari because she has been nursed by a Karawari woman and fed by a Karawari father, and learned to process sago and crack jokes in the Karawari way. Her very self, her biology, was topped off by the infancy spent in our relatives’ arms, such that the real mother and father could no longer make a legitimate claim today. That’s Lamarckian identity for you. Nevertheless, barely six months after we rescued her someone stopped me in the town of Madang claiming to be a relative of the baby, and threatening to sue me for compensation. Indeed, it’s customary to exchange some form of compensation when you’ve adopted a child from someone. I looked this man over, he was wearing a suit and driving a four wheel drive. Once again that snarly American came over me and all I could say was, “Bai yu kotim mi? Bai yu kotim mi? Mi laik kotim yu lo yupla laik kilim displa baby!” You want to court me?? I want to court you for attempted murder of this baby! In a classic form of retreat, the man raised his hand and nodded, saying, Fine, fine, forget about it, no hard feelings.
Having dropped out of the popular culture loop years ago, I can hardly imagine the influences American parents now face, especially on TV. When I first came to PNG in 1988, I remember watching Hill Street Blues with a Highlands family who were gobsmacked that black people could be police captains in the US. Even an Australian I met said to me that he thought the prominence of black faces on American TV was just a smokescreen. A white manager of the PNG television station told me that Papua New Guineans had no interest in seeing domestic content on their screens, they wanted huger quality programming, by white people. “Just ask my secretary—she watches Neighbours.” When I first walked through the West Papuan villages across the border in Indonesia I found people who had the most amazed reactions to seeing the in-flight magazine of their more sophisticated PNG brothers: one old man cried to see the image of a Papua New Guinean civil servant in suit and tie. It took me back. The racism of isolation. It was as if the magazine image had floated back to the old man from the future.
There is an esteemed if small tradition of studying global processes as they intersect with local realities in Papua New Guinea, and the anthropologists who do it best, for my purposes, are Deborah Gewertz, Frederick Errington (Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010; Yali's Question: Sugar, Culture, and History, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004; Emerging Class in Papua New Guinea: The Telling of Difference, Cambridge, 1999); Robert J. Foster (Materializing the Nation: Commodities, consumption and media in Papua New Guinea, Indiana, 2002, and Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Don Kulick (Language shift and cultural reproduction: Socialization, self, and syncretism in a Papua New Guinean village, Cambridge, 1992); and Ira Bashkow (The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World, Chicago, 2006). It’s about representing the impossible differences of global branding and traditional identity in ways that no one ever expected, but anthropologists are there to observe.
Deborah Gewertz and Fred Errington had been coming and going from Chambri villages for more than two decades by the time they started writing about major power shifts occurring as a result of modernity. The entire country was experiencing an a jolt of new mediation following the introduction of TV, in 1987, and the emergence of a true PNG genre of music videos for the country’s own thriving field of pop music. By 1994, Gewertz and Errington were studying a bleed between these new media and the changes in the Chambri’s Catholicism. They had embraced an evangelical strain of Catholicism, and with it, an emphasis on youth groups. Young people all across the region (including my own son Chris) would attend these weekend jamborees sponsored by the Church, giving them unprecedented freedom from families and the rare chance to meet members of the opposite sex. These Antioch weekends were reminiscent of the peer-groupings people were beginning to see in Pepsi and other print ads across the country: those fabulous unfamiliar scenes of a PNG Pepsi generation on boats, in clubs, at work places---behaving as wholly nontraditional happy and beautiful young people. Gewertz and Errington describe how the Antioch organizers shrewdly rewrote the text for those images as new Up with People Christian communities, where kids sing You Are My Sunshine, and everyone eats together, beyond customary taboos, suffused with the joys of a life in Christ. The idea, they report, was to experience a form of personal transformation not unlike traditional male initiation ceremonies in the Sepik. Those ceremonies, much like initiations elsewhere in the world, are physically and psychically violent. They involve bloodletting, cruel and kind role playing, cross dressing, and all kinds of confusion. So it is only right that these Christian children, en route to being born again, endure some startling changes, especially as they are momentarily free of parental controls. The speaker explains this early on in the program, like the first shiv in their sides of what it means to be really modern (Gewertz and Errington, “On Pepsico and Piety in a Papua New Guinea ‘modernity’”, 1996, American Ethnologist 23(3) : 476-493.)
People say that youths are a problem but they aren’t; families and communities are the problem. During this weekend you will change your family for the Antioch family. During this weekend you will change your family for the Antioch family. Your real father and mother will be the first to stone you, but your Antioch family will provide you with strength. Your real mother and father won’t stop you from drinking, from smoking and stealing, but we are strong enough to break iron and stone. We are strong enough to change you. Christ was a serious man and we are serious too, I must tell you that Christ looks on all of his children equally. In his men’s house, men aren’t superior to women. This weekend all will become brothers and sisters in Christ’s family (p 484).
This sort of muscling in on parental territory could only happen in a place where no parenting handbook exist, no market in Baby Mozart cds or soccer Mom bumper stickers. The recent debate over ‘attachment’ parenting, as seen in Time Magazine (Kate Pickert’s “Are You Mom Enough?” 21 May 2012), like the dismay over KGOY (Kids Getting Older Younger), and the sexualization of childhood in general, all fascinate me because they come from a place where people make conscious choices about their parenting. Policing the web, blocking TV shows, reading your child’s facebook page---these are all deliberate strategies of containment for the modern parent in a highly mediated world. As modernity made more and more demands on the family, and as the cultural and sexual revolutions took my parent’s generation off-guard, people starting thinking about this ‘natural’ role of parenting more. They made choices. New rules. Dr. Spock helped, as did Margaret Mead of course.
Compare the Antioch ideology with what child psychologist Mary Pipher has described as the 'pathologizing of family life' in American society today. This gives you a pretty good idea of where Antioch originates and what it hopes to make of these PNG Catholic kids. You're folks are sick, come to us. Pipher says,
Much of the writing in our field views families as a primary source of pathology and pain. The language of psychology reflects this bias—words about distance are positive (independence, individuation and autonomy), whereas words about closeness are negative (dependency and enmeshment). Indeed psychologists are so prone to pathologize families that one definition of a normal family is ‘a family that has not yet been evaluation by a psychologist’ (Reviving Ophelia, 2005, Penguin, pp 250- 51).
Here is Pipher describing the case of one teenage girl (p 251-2):
Years ago Miranda and her parents came to my office. Three months earlier she had been diagnosed as bulimic and referred to a treatment center eight hours away from her hometown. While Miranda was in this program, her parents secured a second mortgage on their home to pay for her treatment. They called her daily and drove to the faraway center every weekend for family therapy. After three months and $120,000, Miranda still had her eating disorder and her parents had been diagnosed as co-dependent. My first question to Miranda was, ‘What did you learn in your stay at the hospital?’ She answered proudly, ‘That I come from a dysfunctional family.’ I thought of her parents---Dad was a physical therapies and Mom a librarian in a small community. They weren’t alcoholics or abusive. They took family vacations every simmer and put money into a college fund. They played board games, read Miranda bedtime stories and attended her school programs. And now, with Miranda in trouble, they had been labeled pathological. Miranda, like almost all teens, was quick to agree with this label. It’s easy to convince teenagers that their parents don’t understand them and that their families are dysfunctional. Since the beginning of time, teenagers have felt their parents were uniquely unreasonable. When a professional corroborates their opinions, they feel vindicated. My goal was to restore some balance to her concept of her family. When I suggested that her parents deserved some credit for the efforts they’d made to help her, Miranda seemed confused at first, then visibly relieved. (Pp 251-252)
What I like most of all about Pipher’s reflections is the fact that she begins this chapter saying how she’d been an anthropology major as an undergraduate, and that’s where she learned to ask questions like ‘What does the culture expect of this person?’ and ‘What is their script?’ If you cannot see the cultural dimension to these teenage problems like bulimia---and I don’t just mean the way media dictates beauty ideals for women---but also how we are meant to think about being a teenager, and being in a nuclear family, then you may never get outside these concepts enough to find a solution. All Pipher had to do here was suggest another way of looking at her parents, and it would appear that at least some of Miranda’s burden had been lifted.
When, on the other hand, you take happily well-adjusted village kids in Papua New Guinea who have had some exposure to modern concepts and media, and you tell them that their families are pathological, and are somehow hurting them as individuals, then you’re asking for trouble. That charming YMCA-YWCA fraternity feeling you want from them might work for inner city American kids, even restless suburban ones, by giving them an alternative community to bounce off of (even as you undermine the authority of their biological one)—it might bring them to the church, or provide some sense of self-worth perhaps. But in PNG? You’ve dropped a smoke bomb into a tight weave of family and community, and by disentangling one child you set a whole line of relations loose, unfortunately. Where does that child go now, after the Antioch weekend?
What’s interesting about the media onslaught facing parents in PNG is that with all the vampires, soft porn, and the endless line of snotty teenagers on TV who always seem to trump authority with the last line of a scene—"Well I don't need to be told life lessons from a soccer coach"--- there isn’t more alienation than there is. When you combine these messages with the structural problems facing parents in town, where mothers and fathers both often work jobs and leave their kids unattended in the afternoon, then you see how hard it might be for kids not to join gangs, leave home, become hard core antisocial types. Some do, of course. But in 2009, my company of fieldworkers spent the entire year studying working street children across Papua New Guinea, and one of the most salient things we learned, one of the things that heartened us even studying the hardest cases, was that most of these kids are out there selling stolen pens, collecting cans, parking cars and so forth for their entire family, which is often displaced from the village to a settlement somewhere. They’re not orphans, these kids, nor are they Dead End kids with some kind of hostility toward authority. Virtually everywhere we went, and we went to ten of the country’s nineteen provinces, we found young boys and girls working together, and separately, to bring income back to their families. They all wanted to go to school, and almost all of them wanted real jobs rather than ad-hoc work. They were resentful of rich people, of ungenerous people, of government and their local MPs. But not of their parents.
There is nothing in traditional culture that could help prepare you for being a young town parent in PNG today. And yet the western world has enjoyed a wild ride through libertarian parenting (kids setting the rules, expressing their needs, growing older younger), some would now say the pendulum is swinging back a bit, finally, to a kind of pre-Spock Victorian parenting. Spare the rod, spoil the child sort of thing. This seems to have always worked in the traditional PNG context, but it may or may not be appropriate to the new urban model of parenting.
My husband Jacob is perfectly willing to swing a leather belt, and lock someone in their room. But as a product of parents not unlike Miranda’s, I’m walking toward that from another direction. The greatest hurdle for young mothers who move to town is to learn what it is to be the only mother. In the village there are many hands to take, kiss, slap and scold a child, and always a spare lap to drop the tyke when you’re off to the garden. There’s no urgency for a young married woman to learn the rules of motherhood, because she’s surrounded by family and the role itself is subdivided between sisters and aunties. Fathers? That’s another thing altogether.
Plenty of adult Papua New Guineans will tell you that childhood changed dramatically, and not for the better, when communities gave up male initiation ceremonies, if only because that was the only time older men had to actually tutor young men in the facts of life. But discipline has diminished in villages and is now almost stripped away in major towns. Not only is the role of being a child becoming more complex, but the role of parenting one is by far more demanding today than it has ever been in PNG. You might have grown up shadowing your father as he fished and your mother as she gardened, and now you make sandwiches for your own kids’ school lunches before jumping a bus to your job. At Christmas you bring your children back to the village where they seem increasingly helpless and ignorant. But the real worry is that all kinds of messages and influences you don’t even know are now shaping your child’s psyche and by the time he or she comes back from school with a completely unfamiliar attitude, there’s no turning back. "We'' I don't have to take life lessons from a Sepik villager." There are teenagers on some afternoon soap operas my kids watch who wear more makeup than highlanders at the Hagen Festival. And they sneer at their parents with apparent perogative (or it would seem that way because the scene is cut before we hear a response).
In town, it’s possible to find a household of small children left in a flat while their mother sells ice blocks at the curbside. And that would my flat on a weekend. I may be out, my son is somewhere else, and his wife is chewing betelnut and selling ice blocks on the road. This is the sort of thing that might become the centrepiece of a neglected child after-school special, where friends and guidance counselors collude behind the parents' backs to find a better home for the kids, giving their parents time to sort out that junk habit or get back on the antipsychotic drugs.
Being a full-time mother is not easy, and there are far too many single mothers everywhere in PNG. When these woman pick up a Sunday newspaper to read an insert on family life that has been cut and pasted from an Australian media outlet, they’re often being asked to worry about entirely new things. How much do you know about your child’s friends? Can a toddler get swine flu at kindergarten? Will broccoli make a difference in grade point averages? How 'cool' is your little boy's backpack?
I remember a friend of mine, an Australian woman married to a PNG man, was raising two sons in a highlands town. She was not interested in the kind of feral-freedom being advertised for progressive parents in Australia, and resented that village parenting was being touted as the more natural mode of motherhood. I’m no hippie, she would say. “I couldn’t wait to get those biters off the breast.” And she said TV was a godsend to her because it demonstrated correct behavior in social settings her kids would never otherwise get to see. “Like, ‘excuse me’ and ‘yes please’---does anyone ever hear that in the village?”
Sometimes the concerns expressed by more conservative western parents more closely parallel those of village parents in PNG today. It’s the trend toward young people in power, usurping inherited roles or earned roles for adults. Money, education, mobility, all of these things create a new status scale for villagers today, such that even the most respected village elder will be trumped by the civil servant home for the holidays who wants to talk about development. She might be 21 years old. At the same time, some of the briefest exposure to global marketing can still be confusing to the untrained PNG eye. It’s hard to know what a villager would make of the new mobile phone billboards all over the capital city where clean pretty Caribbean looking youths seem to be having one endless beach party.
It’s an oppressive weight on prepubescent children, so many social commentators say. All kinds of pressures, But how does this square with the reported trends away from latchkey childrearing to more ‘attachment’ models? How do these long term breastfeeders who still sleep with Mom and Dad in primary school suddenly become the little vixens with potty mouths online? It’s a mystery to me.
Increasingly, the ‘experts’ on parenting have been turning to animal behaviorism and sociobiology to find what they consider the natural state of parenting. There seems to be a belief that forcing the nucleated family back into the garrulous large and loving ones of yore will be good for us. That kind of family seemed to beget more empathic and socially adjusted offspring. It’s a lovely idea, but like determinism of any kind, it can only explain so much. Big noisy egalitarian and generous families also engage in ruthless tribal fighting in Papua New Guinea, just as they did in Sicily not long ago.
Mistaking sociobiology for anthropology is the first problem. Like so many Jared Diamond arguments about ‘revenge’ and ‘aggression’, the trend seems to be to invoke isolated ethnographic data, preferably from Papua New Guinea, to shore up some quintessentially human state of being. Yes, but the big collective methods of child-rearing teach us about sharing and relatedness. They do. But beware the noble savage, he can turn on you. The utopian past which he seems always to inhabit (and unfortunately, in some cases, to have dragged into the present) is indeed a simpler, kinder place. Where we own very little and give freely. By virtue of our superior biology and physiology the Homo sapiens sapiens, that third chimpanzee, can rise above some of the brutal conduct we find in bands of great apes in the wild.But it would take alot, and I mean quite alot, of prozac. Very often that humble hunter-gatherer existence comes with wife bashing, group rape, sorcery and worse, random accusations of sorcery. Been there, done that.
Nevertheless, we remain rapt consumers of all kinds of sociobiology and primatology that claims to shed insight on our truly human selves. Unfortunately, essentialism will get us nowhere. Evolutionary biologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy speculates in her book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Belknap Press, 2009), that Homo erectus practiced a form of cooperative breeding, with groups of parents and non-kin (or what primatologists call ‘alloparents’) working together. Homo erectus was more dimorphic than the later Homo sapiens, meaning there was a slightly larger size difference between males and females, different food-gathering roles for each gender. And whether these are correlative or causal, dimorphism, along with cooperative parenting, Hrdy says, may have been the precondition to what makes us modern humans. Taller men hunting and shorter woman gathering, sharing with relatives the chores of childrearing, seems to have set us off in the direction we now face. Which is, what? Two spouses of either gender raising two children in a Brooklyn apartment? Hrdy is no doubt the last word on how Homo erectus became so dominant of all primate species, and of the entire planet. But I'm not so sure that if I were a lesbian parent of a teenage boy living in a one-bedroom walk-up her insights could help me solve real day to day issues.
Forgive me if I compare that kind of 'popularizing of science' success to the genius of Adam Smith. Thanks for the mao, but pointing me in the right direction didn’t stop me from crossing the line, jumping the gate and massacring the competition. It’s a little tautological to say evolution is progress in our direction. I’m happy to acknowledge, for example, that alloparenting is a better, more natural state of parenting for any primate. But how does this help me in modern PNG? Farther down the evolutionary path, another assumption seems to be made all the time. This one smacks of social Darwinism more than evolutionary biology. We look ‘back’ at the hunter gatherer as some sort of primordial state of mankind, where a purer version of social relations and reciprocity once existed. Once again, those few existing hunter-gatherers in the world are bathetic remnants trying to exercise autonomy in a global world. Pity them, honor them, feed and protect them. But don’t assume we can reconfigure Homo capitalist as Homo hunter-gatherer now. It ain’t gonna happen. The closest we see this happening is an episode of Survivor where it tales forty minutes for the marketing executive to make fire on a resort island in Fiji (while my household laughs to tears in Madang).
This would also be the cynic’s argument, and we hear it all the time in PNG, from economists, development theorists and resource extractors. “They gotta change sometime, eh?” And they’re not wrong.
But what is wrong is assuming that change is unilinear and one way trumps the others, like some great hegemony of Late Capital normalcy. We already know that Asia and Africa are creating entirely new forms of capitalism which will articulate with the European model of a global system, but not be defined by it. In other words, European dependence upon oil or copper or timber does not necessarily trump the needs of small scale societies living in the rainforest today as they have for generations. Both social models have been wildly successful because they have both survived.
Variety. What is a zoo without a reptile house or a a pair of elephants? We need every type, kind and example of life. Biodiversity is sustained by cultural diversity, and vice versa. Let us be very clear, though. The life of hunter-gatherers is very tough. I happen to be someone who knows this, having worked with hunter-gathers in an area of the Sepik called the Karawari (which I describe later). They pay a high price for autonomy and freedom. They work very hard just to feed themselves, and are quite prepared to die from a random infection. But we should not assume that hunting and gathering is the price for the values they hold dear, which include cooperation, respect for elders, and an absence of acquisitiveness. It would be so easy if anthropologists could tabulate which conditions promoted or maintained which values. But all evidence suggests that values are spread somewhat evenly across the globe and across social organizational types. I would have to say that my brother who lives in a high rise in Manhattan values loyalty as much as the Penale tribesmen I know on the Sepik. He’s more acquisitive, and may not value age so much, but he doesn’t have to hunt with a bow and arrow to put a strong emphasis on family ties or loyalty.
For that matter, cooperative parenting is a great idea for modern humans. Ask any of those baby boomers who were raised in communes, or the Israelis raised in kibbutz. That was a good thing for the most part. Granted, if you wound up with a Jim Jones or a Mormon extremist as a leader, it may not have been so good for you exactly. But alot of those kids have grown into wonderful adults. Still it's fair to say allo-parenting isn’t the only way to raise conscientious, socially responsible children.
In my halfhearted search for enlightened parenting models in PNG, I have a few models to choose from. There’s the village model, of course, which doesn’t help me make a living. Then there’s the expatriate model, which involves sending all your children to International school and hoping they forget their vernacular tongue as soon as possible. Along the continuum between these extremes are gazillions of options that have been tried, abandoned, or cobbled together by parents from different places. That’s where I am: afraid that little Nancy will become Cinderella, but equally afraid she will become the Church Lady who disapproves of Lady Gaga. She should climb mountains and catch lizards for lunch but also know her multiplication tables. She should value tradition but be an iconoclast if she wishes. Some of this may even be humanly possible.
The end state of monopoly capital seems to be a dystopia of individual alienation from everything. We read that a globalized communications have brought us together, and yet also driven us apart, like Schopenhauer’s porcupines of pessimism, huddling against the cold and shuffling away in pain. I do like to think I’m part of a cyber community of facebook members, sending chirpy greetings to old high school friends and occasionally semi-famous figures who happen to friend me. In return, okay, I seem to get an awful lot of homilies in text boxes, sort of the cyber equivalent of those lacquered pine wall plaques. I tend to agree that our social media closely reflects our social reality because 9/10 of my friends are Papua New Guinean and so I get quite a bit of Biblical wisdom every day, god love ‘em. But in Papua New Guinea, for example, where few people have access to the internet and where face to face interaction remains more popular than the written word, social media works slightly differently. Rather than just fluctuating between utopic and dystopic poles, facebook is actually shaping people’s sense of self, their identity—and shaping how people remake these identities.
A recent Atlantic article (1 May ,2012) by Stephen Marche asks, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” As our web of connections grows broader, he says, it also grows shallower. But where the number of our facebook friends does not and cannot reflect the number of real world friends we have, in PNG, these connections are both shallow, or cursory, and yet extremely influential. The very nature of text speech, of passive ‘liking’ and reposting images, of using homilies and media images to represent oneself to the world, is a new form of narcissism in the west. 'Presentation' is what we call this new form of all-about-me-isms. It’s a form of self-construction that precedes rather that postdates real consumerism here, because even in the capital city if Port Moresby there is very little retail consumerism to be had. Pierre Bourdieu's concept of self-differentiation according to market choices (sensu Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, tran. Richard Nice, Harvard 1984 ) is realized IN PNG primarily through social media and not, as would be the case in Europe or America, through the multiple transactions of an older consumer economy. I know you by your online smiley faces in the anti-government discussion page, and not your Prada handbag.
But there’s another point to be made, too, about the loss of face-to-face interaction. No one would argue that tapping a keyboard is the same as looking someone in the eye, not even on Skype. But does isolation change our mental gear somehow? Evolutionary psychologists will tell you that our brains evolved to interact, to argue, to be social and persuasive (e.g. Dan Jones, “The argumentative ape,” New Scientist Vol 214 issue 2866, 26 May 2012). And there’s a corollary argument that we are at our best, our most creative and brilliant, in the presence of creative and brilliant others. They raise the bar. You’re not nearly as fascinating on your own. Sort of the genius loves company argument (Zella King, “The Goldilocks Network” New Scientist Vol 214 issue 2866, 26 May 2012). Will we still be as wonderful when we all live as avatars? Does the learning curve flatten out when we’re all isolated in and by global social media?
I think we’re more social than that, and we will not let it happen. Indeed, I think we’re doing things with facebook that push the limits of digital literacy. We use it in some of the same ways we use speech registers, conversational styles, even postures of speaking.
All of this mad friending and liking on facebook is not so very different from village life and the chirpy sociality that people must maintain in small scale societies. Whereas we say that in the west, urban isolation has vitiated us of the friendliness that once pertained in the village (after all, you can hardly be snarly to someone you are going to see every day for the rest of you life---it just isn’t practical), in the nonwest, urban isolation has given us social media and a frenzy of conversation that pretty much simulates every day in the marketplace on PNG. People are just as friendly online, perhaps even friendlier, as they are in the village. But whereas in the village there are explicit contexts where disagreements can be heard, certain oratorial speech registers that allow you to say something harsh to a generalized crowd, on facebook it's all there on your flat Timeline. In PNG, facebook is filled with people deleting, apologizing and scolding each other for what they've just posted.
There are anonymity problems, of course, because plenty of PNG facebookers like to troll ghastly remarks under a pseudonym, as happens everywhere. But remarkably, I’ve notice an almost sanctimonious policing of this behavior on some facebook discussion pages, where administrators even remind others that this discussion might be read by people overseas, from other countries, and we should all just take it down a notch, stop calling each other barbarians, that sort of thing.
Anyone who’s spent a lot of time in a village in PNG would be familiar with this kind of matronly advice offered by even the most inconsequential associate. Never in New York or any other place in the world have I been subject to as much micromanagement as in the PNG village: Zip up your fly, there’s a mosquito on your back, walk this way, there’s mud on the track, don’t eat the fish from that pond, never listen to that woman across the way. My goodness, bossiness prevails in village PNG. In fact, there’s a wonderful letter home from the village when Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead’s third husband, was working in a Iatmul village, and he met up with Margaret and her second husband, Reo Fortune, working not far away. He writes to his mother in England something like, ‘Nice people, but they do boss the villagers around quite a bit.’ To me, this sounds a lot like cultural synchrony, the bossy girl bossing the very bossy villagers. It's certainly compounded on facebook.
The cyberspace route to western narcissism may be a faster track than hands-on consumerism here. As social media becomes social life, will the comments we inbox mean as much as those we hear from teachers, parents, respected authorities? It does worry me that an increasingly sexualized global media is talking to younger and younger people, and that it will become the most effective vector of individualism and self-objectification for kids in PNG. I understand how pitches for personal hygiene and hair straightening products are going to erode traditional identity. I get it. But I am beginning to suspect that this process can be skewed more horribly in cyber space than the real world. Will I soon find my granddaughter pole dancing at a disco in Second Life?
The media age has arrived in Papua New Guinea, and with it come new parenting challenges. I consider myself lucky because, as an American, and an anthropologist, I bring a special skill set to the challenge. Even then, the complications of raising adopted Papua New Guinean kids from different languages and culture groups, who have come to my care at different ages, and doing this in coordination with my Bougainvillean husband and our adult Sepik and Madang kids, is daunting. Individualism, hyper-sexualization, consumerism, self-objectification, materialism, and alienation---these are all concepts that have just yesterday arrived at the PNG border, and we’re already giving them the best seat in the front room. PNG is a country of 850 or more language-culture groups, and although the distinctions can be minute between neighbors, there are very different ideas about self and gender and childhood in different regions of the country. Bougainville, for example, where my husband Jacob originates, is culturally part of the Solomon Islands, and shares chiefly systems and matrilineality with a lot of the Melanesian islands. This makes is very different from the Sepik River region where my adopted son Chris comes from; his people have elaborate male initiation ceremonies and were, until recently, headhunters.
My family lives in the north coast town of Madang, which is another culture altogether and contrasts markedly with the Highlands, where I first lived in PNG. Madang people are laid back and forgiving, whereas highlanders are famously prickly, defensive and bellicose. You can see how a single national identity is a problem. Imagine this diversity overlaid with all the new values that arrive in modernity’s Trojan horse, and you begin to see the predicament. In towns across the country families much like my own are forging separate cultural backgrounds into single household routines, innovating family rituals that look and feel nothing like what came before. In most cases with an expatriate spouse the guiding template becomes Australia, England, China or some other country’s idea of a modern family. But mainly because I’m an anthropologist and professionally mandated to assimilate rather than colonize, I am trying to create something very different, something more plural for my household. None of that is made any easier by the media messages we receive from that cyber central place called the global village.
I’m not saying that parenting is any easier in another country. I have to assume by the sheer volume of what I receive in PNG, as a fraction of the whole, that it’s just as complicated. What we don’t have anymore, though, is what used to be there when I was a child, an authoritative sister speaking from the world of cultural relativism. Remember Margaret Mead’s Redbook column and the pithy on-point righteousness? ”It is an open question whether any behavior based on fear of eternal punishment can be regarded as ethical or should be regarded as merely cowardly.” Or the astute observation: “Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we've been put it in an impossible situation.”
What we have instead today, for ‘the woman juggling family, career and her own needs’ are Redbook articles like “Why Are Men Immature?” and “Why the Heck Do Men Laugh at That?”(“Men crack up at the grossest, stupidest, most immature stuff. ….A proud connoisseur of slapstick and other manly yuk yuks, explains.”) When did women dumb down to this? When did this sort of advice take the place of anthropology? It is anthropology’s fault for talking like a ponce with a pole up its backside, yes--but what happened to the readers of real social commentary?
Part of my problem is the very fact that I live outside the loop, where bandwidths are so narrow that surfing the web costs more than pumping petrol for your car. I just cannot be a part of more sophisticated discussions from this distance. But there is also a problem with the field of popularized scholarship---science for the masses. We used to have real polymaths writing for us, people who spoke with genuine intelligence and clarity about new ideas in science, especially social science. The Balkanization of scholarship has silenced a lot of that sweeping authority that we could rely on from Margaret Mead, Dr. Spock and their contemporaries, although some fields, like neuroscience, neuropsychology, physics and biology have been reclaiming ground in the world of popular science. We know quite a bit more about the brain, endocrinology, the science of sexuality and such (and by ‘we’ I mean anyone with access to English-language magazines, news programs, web sites and Amazon.com).
Ironically, the last few decades has seen the promise of social science interdisciplinary fall a little flat, if only because of logistical difficulties. It’s a lot harder today to be a geologist/biologist/environmental scientist and an anthropologist, or a physical anthropologist/psychologist/development theorist than it may have been in the past. There’s just not enough time to get multiple degrees and then have a think about how to integrate all the new data. More often one field gets subsumed by the expertise of another, so that an article on conversation theory by a behavioral psychologist does injustice to the linguistic anthropology being done elsewhere, or misrepresents the most advanced sociology of the day. The point is, anthropology is losing the battle of interdisciplinarity, and it needs to step forward in the popular imagination.
There’s been some borrowing of the term ‘ethnographic’ from anthropology to bolster the qualitative research reputations of other fields, like marketing and business management. In these contexts, the term doesn’t really refer to the ethnographic method, which is explicit in its aim to encourage participating in as well as observing a culture (in the sense that Bronislaw Malinowski intended). On loan to other fields, the term really refers to close-grained observations that would seek to capture a ‘thicker’ description of events, in the sense of Clifford Geertz’s thick description—which, along with Malinowski’s method, I discuss below). Thus we have the ethnography of an event, like the Cannes Film Festival, or an ethnographic case study of a small business.
But what really irks anthropologists today is when people with wholly unrelated expertise publish popular articles under a banner of anthropology, as if this were a concept, like existentialism, and not a real discipline. An existential view of subway advertising is something I’d like to read from either a marketing guru or a philosopher; but I don’t understand why physiologists and historians can pitch a concept as anthropological merely because it pertains to human experience. There’s a whole subfield of pop science out there that subsumes the term anthropology to everything from watered down sociobiology, zoology and, heaven help us, behavior modification theory. Am I mistaken, or isn’t Konrad Lorenz dead? Granted, the image of forensic anthropology has been burnished by television lately, which sort of raises our scientific respectability and makes us look cool again. But then there are screenwriting hiccups, which can only be the result of this vacuum in the popular science media. I’m told there is a recently cancelled American show called Lie to Me with Tim Roth playing a psychologist who has, for some reason, conducted anthropological fieldwork in New Guinea, and become a master of facial microexpressions. This sounds like a story writer who took Anthro 101 in college and read Geertz’s wonderful passages in The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973) that describe how a wink in one culture is not the same signal as it would be in another, or even in another context of the same culture. But forgive me---how does this mutate into a belief that anthropology is about mastering the ‘core’ human expressions—that is, the real truth behind everyone’s masks? Does Tim Roth’s character have some special understanding of basic facial expressions gleaned from studying ‘primitives’ in New Guinea? Are we to assume that all the ‘modern’ criminals being interrogated in the program are simply availing different variations of facial guile to cover up their really New Guinean feelings?
What also irks about this premise (and it’s just an example, I haven’t even seen the show) is that there used to be, indeed, a school of anthropology that posited a finite toolkit of expressive possibilities, not just for individuals but more for the culture as a whole. This was called Culture and Personality Studies, and it emerged from an early Franz Boasian strategy of typing different Native American societies as, for example, Apollonian, or Dionysian, and so forth. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (of whom I will talk more later) were roped into this for a moment, before it became seriously discredited. But this was---let’s not forget—roughly 80 years ago! Is it possible to draft a story concept today for a TV show that follows a school psychologist who is unaware of the controversies surrounding intelligence testing?
There has been for some time a subfield of anthropology that covers the subject of expression and emotion. It’s called ethnopsychology, and one of the best known books in its library is by Catherine A. Lutz, called Unnatural Emotions, Everyday sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and their challenge to western theory (University of Chicago, 1988). Lutz studied on a Micronesian atoll and described some important differences between how the islanders register emotions that we all assume to be universal, like hate, love, fear. Not only are they experienced differently in different cultures, it seems, but they’re expressed differently too. You know that moment when someone laughs at a sad story? We normally assume, as westerners, that this is but a callous expression of nerves or self-consciousness. When this happens all the time in a community entirely different from your own, it’s time to ask more questions.
The neurologist and author, Oliver Sachs, had just published his extremely popular The Man who Mistook his Wife for A Hat (Summit Books, 1985) when Lutz’s book came out. There was a moment when these scientists could have made beautiful music together on the fine lines that might be drawn between neurological and sociocultural constraints to behavior, something both general and specialized readers would enjoy (at least I would). I say this largely because we know from Sach’s 1996 book, The Island of the Colorblind (Knopf, 1996) that Sachs also worked on an island in Micronesia. They might have made an interesting TED talk, were that possible back then. But Sach’s books have always been rigorously uninformed by cultural anthropology, unfortunately. He certainly likes to consider his data a contribution to the field, especially in light of the 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars (Knopf, 1995). But his findings are rarely informed by the writings of anthropologists themselves, and tend to make pithy cultural observations that support the conclusions that neurology predetermines personality. Sadly, this is far from what Lutz’s work is about.
Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012, Free Press) like The Moral Landscape (2010, Free Press) before it, is another triumph of neurology over culture, and tells us that our brains really do delude us into believing we have free will, when in fact we don’t. We may think we make moral choices, but we flatter ourselves. And yet somehow Harris stops short of nihilism and explains that rather than give up, we need to reprise out understandings of retributive justice. If our decisions really do come from some prior biological determinant to free will, we should reconsider punishment as we know it. Consider that we have less control over our value judgments and are directed neurologically first, then we can hardly blame the individual who gets the wrong signals. Blame their brain. And yet what shapes these brains? Is there not a feedback loop from the environment? If so, is this not culture?
One more quick story, another oft-repeated case in point. Michelle and Renato Rosaldo worked amongst the Ilongot headhunters in the Philippines, where Michelle's work focused on the cultural construction of Ilongot emotions (Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life. Cambridge, 1980) and more succinctly, “Toward an anthropology of self and feeling” In Culture Theory: essays on mind, self, and emotion. (R. A. Shweder and R. A. LeVine, eds, Cambridge, 1984). Michelle’s book describes “gender differences related to the positive cultural value placed on adventure, travel, and knowledge of the external world.” Ilongot men, more than women, were able to travel widely and came back home to share their experiences. The provincialism of women, she said, was what gave them lower status, not their politico-economic inferiority. She also wrote about how headhunting violence did not produce the expected kind guilt and shame in Illongot men, and they justified their acts as a form of angry retribution. One death would inspire another. Her husband, Renato, studied the headhunting practices themselves (Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History, Stamford, 1980). It was on a return trip to the field with their sons, in 1981, while the family walked along a mountain ridge, that Michelle suddenly fell to her death. It was then, Renato writes, that he fully understood the way grief inspires rage. He raged against his wife for leaving him and his sons, and the experience later allowed him to produced his important article "Grief and a Headhunter's Rage", in the 2004 book, Violence in war and peace (edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe I. Bourgois, Wiley-Blackwell, 20-04).
The point here is that one anthropologist can write about the range of expressive behaviors elicited by certain emotions, and convey the distance between human societies in the process. Another finds himself feeling something much the way his informants do, and then realizes that there is something in common about the emotion despite differences in how it is expressed. Lie to Me? Everyone is lying to you. Only a program that reworks hackneyed essentialism about human nature is committing an unpardonable one.
It was Bronislaw Malinowksi (1884-1942) who laid the ground rules down for an ethnographic method. After being stranded in the Trobriand Islands of New Guinea from 1914-5, and then 1917-8, the Pole made long term fieldwork de rigueur for twentieth century anthropology. He actually laid out the method in the introduction of his first of (unbelievably) seven large volumes produced from that fieldwork, called Argonauts of the Western Pacific (…an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922). Get off the verandah, he more or less said, and live and observe a culture, try to capture a ‘participant observational’ point of view. A lot of anthropology students prefer to remember the diary his wife published posthumously, with its sometimes quotidian comments (“Went into the bush. For a moment I was frightened. Had to compose myself. Tried to look into my own heart, 'What is my inner life?’”), and often egotistical and boorish ones like: “As for ethnology: I see the life of the natives as utterly devoid of interest or importance, something as remote from me as the life of a dog.” My personal favorite reminds me not a little of myself on a very bad day, covered in mosquito bites and thirsty for a carbonated drink: “On the whole my feelings toward the natives are decidedly tending to 'Exterminate the brutes.'” (He might as well have stayed at my house.)
Today some of the best anthropology does not even have to include fieldwork per se. In the age of second lives and cyber sociality, excellent studies of these ‘cultures’ have been produced by anthropologists much more plugged in than anyone I know. Tom Boellstorff wrote Coming of Age in Second Life (Princeton, 2008) with deliberate winks at his older more embodied predecessors, like Mead and Malinowski).
Although there is a steady output of these behaviorist books, and a healthy market for them (to which my Amazon account will account)---books like Susan Greenfield’s Private Life of the Brain: Emotions, Consciousness, and the Secret of the Self (Wiley 2001), David J. Linden’s Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams and God (Belknap 2008)---this past year has been a watershed moment for popular neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, with article appearing in popular science journals everywhere, and big books by David Eagleman like Icognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Vintage 2012), and Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us About Ourselves (Alan Lane 2012) by (imagine this) a Physicist and writing partner of Stephen Hawkings. It almost seems, if you pardon my saying so, like the hard scientists are creating a lucrative publishing niche on their own, rather than fulfilling a public service. Don’t get me wrong, I love this stuff. But I also feel professionally threatened. It overwhelms all popularizations of anthropology, and it is our field, not the reams of Skinner box data, that makes for good stories. We have to pick up the slack.
Yes, there are biological parameters to cultural diversity. But we know enough to declare biology is not destiny for a gender, and that natal culture is not destiny for anyone these days. But this is why the excellent new work on neuroscience and neurophysiology and psychology are great companions for anthropology. That wafer thin barrier between what is learned and what is inherited, between culture and nature, or environment and inheritance, is exactly where both fields come together. The most finely tuned ethnographic data and the most advanced neuroscience should be in a room talking to each other all the time. Indeed, that is what good anthropology and good neuroscience always have done, just not face-to-face. A lot of the questions both fields might answer have been hijacked by those weird self-help/spirituality/self-actualization books. My field is in desperate need of a talk show guru.
But to me, I find anthropology has a lot to do with chaos theory and Indeterminacy. It sits in a position of metaphysical libertarianism, always eager to meet an exception to the rule, a counter-intuitive or non-positivist explanation. It’s a lot like good parenting.
But to me, I find anthropology has a lot to do with chaos theory and Indeterminacy. It sits in a position of metaphysical libertarianism, always eager to meet an exception to the rule, a counter-intuitive or non-positivist explanation. It’s a lot like good parenting.
I have just read a review in The Huffington Post (7 June 2012)of Sam Harris’s Free Will by the physicist Victor Stenger. Stenger applauds Harris’s conclusions and tries to make room for the new biological determinism in his own field of physics. Alas, he says:
[W]e now can say with considerable confidence that the universe is not a Newtonian world machine. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics showed that, deep down, nature is fundamentally indeterministic. But does quantum indeterminacy play an important role in the brain, and thus open a way for free will? Probably not, and here's why. The moving parts of the brain are heavy by microscopic standards and move around at relatively high speeds because the brain is hot. Furthermore, the distances involved are large by these same microscopic standards.
That is to say quantum indeterminancy does not effect the brain. But that is not my argument at all. And Stenger is actually making the same point by another means, saying that even if unconscious factors are determining our behavior it is still the combined conscious and unconscious organism that is our ‘self.’ The result is that the self cannot be determined by biology. On the micro level we may be Newtonian and deterministic, but on the macro level, on the level of individual and collective, we are always subject to a Heisenberg Principal.
I just want to reclaim, for a moment, what we talk about when we mean ‘self’, because although neuroscientists and physicists certainly have their definition of it, the field of anthropology can be said to specialized in the many definitions of ‘personhood’.
A whole generation of anthropologists followed Margaret Mead into the field. Whereas her focus had always been how children in New Guinean are socialised into a culture, the next wave asked questions about identity and personhood. It’s really a slippery subject, especially in an era of rapid social change. How do people become ‘modern’? How does unfamiliar but necessary information become internalized? You may think these are questions related primarily to capitalism and a cash economy, and they are. Indeed, what I do as an anthropologist in PNG is to ask them every day, as the director of a company that conducts social impact assessments and project evaluations for development. My company is made up of Papua New Guinean ethnographers who work all over the country at the interface of some new institution, technology or infrastructure. We conduct fieldwork on the social and cultural, which is to say the ideological and the economic, effects of one or another development project. But to be sure, the questions of sociocultural change that persistently interest me have to do with new communications technologies. What do all these new media mean to Papua New Guineans? My vested interest in this, of course, is my kids.
My granddaughter Nancy is ten years old and sits behind me in a small office room within my flat in Madang. I have rolled back my chair from the desk and switched on the TV that’s attached to a wall on my left, just to scroll the channels for a bit before getting back to work. Like a cigarette break without smoke. We have the national network, EMTV, which downlinks a lot of basic fare from Channel 9 Australia, and our cable gives us BBC news, Cinemax, some sports and few other bits and pieces (including Filipino, Indonesian, Indian and Chinese stations). The kids don’t get a lot of American TV, and they never see international music videos, only Papua New Guinean ones on the local Channel, which explains what happened next. Nancy’s sitting on a carved Sepik stool behind me resting her head on my armrest. I flip through an Asian entertainment news segment where the announcer stands before a projection of a woman in an enormous hat and sunglasses and begins “Lady Gaga…” just as I switch past. Nancy sits up saying, “Lady Gaga! Go back! Go Back!” but when we do, she’s gone, and Nancy is bereft. She tells me, swooning, hand on chest, “Mi laik dai long lukim Lady Gaga!” which translates as I was about to die if I’d seen lady Gaga!
Suddenly Nancy, a Sepik River child raised in town, who speaks Pidgin, some English, and some of both her parents’ local vernaculars, who shares a bicycle with her brother, has one Barbie doll but little other Mattel merchandise, has become a groupie. A Gaga groupie.
I’m immediately reminded of Peggy Orenstein’s book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter (Harper, 2011), which I’ve only just read. It led me to others of the concerned parent/child psychologist genre, like Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls (Riverhead, 1995) and Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities by Ken Corbett (Yale, 2009). Nancy’s drama queen moment isn’t really an example of what Orenstein talks about, the influence of a tsunami of pink merchandize on young girls’ lives today. In fact, Nancy’s exposure to girly merchandise, and the promotion of all-pink clothing from toddler onesies through to junior high jeans, is very limited; it pretty much aligns with the introduction of this stuff into Papua New Guinea itself, largely through the growth of Asian bulk stores and supermarkets. But very much like Orenstein’s daughter in the US, Nancy’s consumer options are overwhelmed by the ‘princessification’ of girlhood here. It’s not that Barbies and Toddlers in Tiaras have hit Papua New Guinea, but that their cheap replicas from Indonesia and China have dropped like a bomb into our midst.
Orenstein’s book is her way of asking, ‘What ever happened to those better choices feminism promised us?’ What happened to ‘girls can be anything, do anything’? Today’s consumer landscape seems to have transformed feminism into a democracy of the youth and beauty cult. It suggests that the only aspirations no longer apply---those days when we told girls they could be mathematicians, and fire fighters and astronauts---are over, and they’ve been replaced by a lowering of the bar for what is a princess or a diva or a celebrity child. Whereas I may have grown up with a proud refusal of the tiara in assertion of my other assets, as well as depressed recognition that I’d never make the grade anyway; now young girls are all allowed to be gorgeous beauty queens—they need only buy the bejeweled eyeglasses. They may want to have it all, as their mothers once did, but this really reduces itself to a high paying job, beautiful children, and a handsome prince.
My little Sepik tomboy? Here in PNG the ten years that Nancy has been alive also track a certain ‘modernization’ of childhood for kids in town. We have private schools in our little town, children carry cel phones, and they sing to pop music on the radio that does not come exclusively, as it used to, from the local PNG recording studios. What worries me is that she enters this realm of possibilities just when those possibilities are shutting down. For me, as an American growing up in the sixties and seventies, it seemed girls could do anything. For Nancy, it seems she can be a fashion model. She can be a fairy princess. She can be soap opera actress. She does not want to be Pippi Longstocking or Amelia Earheardt because they’re not out there to be selected anymore. Her mother and father grew up in remote villages where there were no TVs, phones, electric lights or spangled hair bands, and what they find appealing about the wealth of merchandise now available in town is that it offers their children more of a western lifestyle than anything they had. It’s development of sort. For children.
How could the promise of modernity collapse into this familiar drill? At 10? Could Nancy really be a ‘tween’ of the global marketing trends? It was just yesterday when she had her head shaved for lice and wanted to wear a scarf for weeks afterwards. It took one trip to her father’s village where a lot of the girls shave their heads routinely, to shake her of that kind of vanity. I was relieved, because one of my major concerns is that my grandchildren, by virtue of living with me and living in town, will become what Papua New Guineans call ‘giaman wait man’---fake white people. They’ll be too gaga for Gaga to want sago grubs and a fishing pole any longer. They’ll be disengaged from a place, a village, a setting of traditional culture.
But I would never suggest that Papua New Guinea childhood was ever so perfect before. It was free, resourceful, highly independent of parental controls in many cases, but also filled with dangers and corporeal punishment and pain. I don’t need to remind anyone of that. Growing Up in New Guinea (Blue Ribbon, 1930) was Mead’s examination of childhood in Manus Province, New Guinea, written for a general audience with deliberate comparisons to American models. For the most part, the Manusians come off pretty badly. Well, at least the men do.
They are fond of young children and enjoy teaching them, but refuse to take any responsibility for them. They are taught to control their bodies but not their appetites, to have steady hands but careless tongues. It is impossible to dose them with medicine for all their lives they have spat out anything which they disliked. They have never learned to submit to authority, to be influenced by any adult except their beloved but not too respected fathers. In their enforced servitude to their older brothers and uncles, they find neither satisfaction nor pride. They develop from overbearing, undisciplined children, into quarrelsome, overbearing adults who make the lagoon ring with their fits of rage. (2001 : 154)
But if I were to summarize the differences between New Guinea and western childhoods, I would say that PNG kids are not raised to be weaned by age 18. They’re not going anywhere; at least traditionally they weren’t. They are meant to learn sharing, reciprocity, dependence, giving and taking from their earliest days. The fact that they do nowadays go to University and take wage earning jobs away from the village is the source of some friction in every community. But PNG kids are also much more self-reliant that western ones, largely because that’s what it takes in a subsistence economy. They’re given much more responsibility from their early years, and they feel that obligation toward the family, clan and tribe throughout childhood. This is the eternal problem of expatriate employers in PNG who used to have their village-based employees pooling paychecks so that one or another might put a down-payment on a car. Now they’re more likely to be hit up for a loan because the pay packet was sent across the country to a natal village somewhere.
Really, a lot of the clichés about nonwestern society pertain. Children respect their elders, who, in turn, get better with age, not marginalized. Older children raise younger siblings, and everyone shares the daily chores (within respective gender roles). Women co-parent freely, relieving each other of burdens and sometimes gifting children to barren relatives, or special uncles. There are special relationships between married women and their brothers, to whom a husband is indebted; and the woman’s children have special affection and obligations toward their mother’s brothers. Men ‘buy’ wives with bridewealth, and so they feel entitled to bash them when they’re angry. But offspring still compete for favors, and men still love their wives. Marriages bring two families together in multiple sets of material and social obligations, so there’s very little divorce, even for the most battered of wives.
But I am also constantly impressed with the exceptions to these general patterns. Taute Wape fathers in the West Sepik cradle their infants all day long and take them to the garden when they need to be nursed, as Bill Mitchell first told us in 1978 (in a wonderful memoir, The Bamboo Fire: An anthropologist in New Guinea, Norton and Co); I can attest to the fact that it still happens today. Boys are valued, yes, but girls are also cherished. Even in the most gender antagonistic parts of the Highlands daughters are materially valuable because they attract bridewealth. Holly Wardlow’s 2006 Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society (California) does a terrific job of explaining how these women, when abused or neglected, sometimes take back the fertility for which they are so prized by selling sex. They’re no shrinking violets, either, the way they incorporate the market economy unto themselves because they’re so often restricted from its other freedoms. A highlands turning point came a few years ago when a young girl, obviously prized by her parents, studying to be a doctor in the capital, was selected to be a compensation bride to her father’s tribal elders. She took him to court and won, instantiating female autonomy in the courts for one of the first times. (It wasn’t long ago when women were added to loan applications in the highlands as collateral).
But I want the impossible. I want my children to have the best of traditional childhood, all the freedom and the resourcefulness it engenders, combined with those heavily scrutinized bits of modern media that I have vetted for their consumption. Call me a dreamer.
Reading today about a new documentary called Sexy Baby, which features the story of a 12 year old girl who has crafted a hypersexualized facebook personae, I learn that she idolizes Lady Gaga for her goodness. She’s been an important influence, standing for acceptance and against bulling, symbolizing inclusiveness in a sea of intolerance. But even this message, necessarily, is conveyed through sex. As the young girl’s mother explains, “Sex is the undercurrent of all aspects of pop culture, in terms of selling it and marketing it. You can have other messages, but ultimately, selling sexual imagery is still there. Does it minimize the good she’s doing? Not necessarily. But it’s important to understand and talk with your kids about how [Lady Gaga] is doing good things, but there’s this element of sexuality that you’re being impacted by.”