I’m doing a throwback this week to a piece I wrote many moons ago but never posted. It’s about a work I read in my undergrad that has resonated with me again today because it discusses the relationship between a researcher and their informants. I’ve been reflecting recently on what my doctoral dissertation gives to the teachers who took time out of their busy schedules to work with me. Will they have time to read my dissertation? Is it of interest to them? How can I continue to support them and to let them know they matter? Not only that they matter, but that their participation was central to me being able to submit a PhD. I think so often we use people to get information but don’t really take time to reflect on what motivated them to help us and what we can continue to do to help them. It is a difficult balance – and there are many ethical considerations that come into play. Garcia understands this from a profoundly personal level when she carries out work in her own community. I am hoping to be able to make Chicago my own over time.
“The future. Life. It’s the same thing every fucking day…In my junior class, there were like thirty students. I think maybe half of them are dead now. Probably more. They’re dead from drugs. Boredom. In my opinion, pa’nada [for nothing]” – Alma (Garcia, 79)
Angela Garcia’s The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande examines the interconnectedness between the history and physicality of the land of New Mexico, and the region’s deeply entrenched heroin addiction problem. Through the use of defamiliarization, object analysis (the importance of which was emphasized by guest speaker Barbara Voss), and the establishment of intensely personal relationships with her informants (through the listening Laura Hubbard believes in), Garcia is able to produce an ethnographic work that tries to “give purpose and meaning to an aspect of American life that has become dangerously ordinary, even cliche” (Garcia, 6). However, the production of this ethnographic work is not without deep internal conflict and discomfort, feelings many of her informants felt in relation to their own heroin addictions. As such, the constant questioning of her methodology is similar to the endless questioning employed by her informants: heroin addicts who seek understanding in an environment that has left them void of purpose and meaning. The search for significance and intention by both Garcia and her informants is tied to the land of New Mexico, a history shared by both parties. Garcia grew up in New Mexico and although she initially “kept memories of New Mexico separate in [her] mind” and tried to maintain “a firm boundary between what could be rendered and what could not,” she was again drawn to a history and a culture she still loved and had called home.
As a researcher of the home, Garcia struggles to maintain closure in her ethnographic work. Garcia was able to develop intensely close relationships with her informants because of her “insider” position. At the same time, the conscious decision to never try heroin, and therefore never know its true effects, rendered Garcia an “outsider.” Caught between an “insider” and “outsider” identity, Garcia, to an extent, was able to identify with the qualms of trying maintain seemingly contrasting identities; many of the female addicts she worked with grappled with their identities as mothers and care-providers and tecatos (noun for junkie which has no female equivalent).
As both an “insider” and “outsider” researcher, Garcia questions her actions, always considering how she is affecting others (i.e. “do no harm”- Code of Ethics), whether her work is ethnographically valid (Sanjek) and, at times, if her decisions are ethical. She begins the ethnography with the story of John’s relapse, an addict who was in her care at the Neuvo Dia detoxification clinic when she suggested a walk along the Rio Grande (as a way to distract from the throes of withdrawal). The physical contamination of the river with heroin syringes and other garbage served as a physical reminder of heroin’s constant presence; it compelled Garcia to ask “if John’s so-called self discharge was precipitated by our encounter at the river” and how she would be able “to begin to understand the motivations, force, and meaning of his “self-discharge” (Garcia 4). Garcia’s decision to share this experience, which denotes the beginning of her constant questioning, marks her delicate position on an ethical boundary. Garcia wavers between regret for not having taken enough action (in the case of the children of her drug-dealing, abusive neighbor), and regret for perhaps trying to do too much (suggesting the walk along the Rio). Her informants, similarly, are constantly informed by regret. A regret born out of a longing for what once was, a shame for what has become reality, and one rooted in an endless cycle of despair– a melancholy subjectivity that permeates throughout the landscape of New Mexico.
The internal conflict and subsequent melancholy felt by Garcia and the similar inner conflict experienced by her informants was maintained and even strengthened by love. It was a love for New Mexico and its peoples that drew Garcia back to the topic of heroin addiction (her aunt was a heroin addict). Likewise, it was love that allowed the addicts Garcia studied to share their addiction with each other while at the same time hiding the severity of their dependance on each other and on drugs. Take, for example, the story of Sarah, an addict who also suffers from multiple sclerosis. Sarah argues that she hides her heroin addiction from her mother on the premise of love (Garcia, 160). At the same time, however, Sarah hides her MS from the boyfriend who feeds her heroin addiction. On the one hand Sarah’s love for her boyfriend led her to partake in the abuse of heroin, such a history is additionally seen in the mother-daughter addict relationships Garcia examines. On the other hand, love can influence one to downplay their addiction as Sarah does with her family and with Garcia, or even to briefly “kick the habit” as another informant Lisa does for a short period of time following the death of her daughter Michelle from a heroin overdose/suicide (Garcia, 137).
The love for a history and a land, now lost, leads to the stream of questions asked by Garcia and her informants. Time and time again her informants question their purpose in life, asking “What’s the point.. It’s not ours no more” (Garcia, 109), and “I worked hard, but for what?.. What did I have?” (Garcia, 142), or even “What about the reason’s I’m fucked up?” (Garcia, 78). Garcia herself questions her own purpose as a witness to addiction, asking “might things have turned out differently if we were to remain watchful with one another?” and “how many suicides might have been prevented, suicides interrupted?” (Garcia, 181). There is a prevalent sense of uncertainty, uncertainty not only for the future, but the past, and if “it had ever been alive” (Garcia, 5). This uncertainty results in a communal hopelessness for the future of New Mexico and its peoples. Perhaps the reason Garcia is unable to fully find closure in her work is because, as an insider, she acutely understands the hopelessness of the situation. Garcia left New Mexico at a young age to escape what she saw as an unsolvable situation; it was a love for herself and her own future that compelled her to leave. Yet, she returned out of love and was reawakened to a history of land loss and familial splintering which continue to wreak havoc on those unable to leave. Although many of her informants realize that in order to save themselves from heroin’s death kiss they must leave, it is a land they love, indeed, it is the only land they have ever known.
“What did I have? All I had was need. I needed heroin, and it was there. It made me feel like things were possible. Being high was the only time I felt like things were possible. You think about your future when you’re high, and it doesn’t look so bad…When you’re high you think, I can do this. I can do anything” – Lisa (Garcia, 142).
Liisa Malki describes fieldwork “as a practice matter of craft and of politics,” (Malkki, 1992). Garcia seeks to “demonstrate the significance, and sometimes penetrability, of certain limits: the limits of experience, understanding, and ethnography, especially as they form the basis from which we constitute others and ourselves” (Garcia, 11). Fieldwork, as we have learned from this class, is primarily conducted based on the interpretations of the researcher: ethical standards and anthropological theory provide the framework for fieldwork, but the researcher retains a significant amount of freedom. In her work, Garcia grapples with the lack of defined constraints. She wanted her ethnography to “do justice” to the lives of her informants (Garcia, 205). Granted, this is, or at least should be, the fundamental goal of every ethnography, however, for Garcia it was difficult to “do justice” to the lives of those who had trouble giving their own lives significance and meaning.
Garcia and the heroin addicts of New Mexico’s Española Valley were filled with doubt, uncertainty, and remorse throughout The Pastoral Clinic. They shared a deep love for New Mexico and a remorse for what it had become. In this case love was the great equalizer; it compelled Garcia to act in ways that blurred the lines between researcher and informant (for example in stopping by unannounced at one informant’s trailer, or buying groceries for another). Truly, the blurring of lines was the cause of Garcia’s greatest torment, and it was a similar blurring of lines that left the heroin addicts of Española valley in a perpetual liminal state. For her informants, the meshing of past and present, of what was, and what is the unfortunate current reality, forced them to question their reasons for living in an apparently unfinished (and never to be finished) chapter of history. For Garcia, the blend of her past history with New Mexico and the objective of her ethnographic work (to give purpose to “the dangerously ordinary”) forced her to question her actions and intentions. In kindred states of betwixt and between (Turner), Garcia and her informants shared an emotional bond: a love for a disappearing land.