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Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

João Biehl
Photographs by Torben Eskerod
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Zones of social abandonment are emerging everywhere in Brazil's big cities-places like Vita, where the unwanted, the mentally ill, the sick, and the homeless are left to die. This haunting, unforgettable story centers on a young woman named Catarina, increasingly paralyzed and said to be mad, living out her time at Vita. Anthropologist João Biehl leads a detective-like journey to know Catarina; to unravel the cryptic, poetic words that are part of the "dictionary" she is compiling; and to trace the complex network of family, medicine, state, and economy in which her abandonment and pathology took form. As Biehl painstakingly relates Catarina's words to a vanished world and elucidates her condition, we learn of subjectivities unmade and remade under economic pressures, pharmaceuticals as moral technologies, a public common sense that lets the unsound and unproductive die, and anthropology's unique power to work through these juxtaposed fields. Reissued nearly ten years after its initial publication with a new afterword and more compelling photos, Vita is an essential read for anyone who is grappling with how to understand the conditions of life, thought and ethics in the contemporary world.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95146-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[ix])
  3. [Illustration]
    (pp. x-x)
  4. Introduction: “Dead alive, dead outside, alive inside”
    (pp. 1-32)

    “In my thinking, I see that people forgot me.”

    Catarina said this to me as she sat pedaling an old exercise bicycle and holding a doll. This woman of kind manners, with a piercing gaze, was in her early thirties; her speech was lightly slurred. I first met Catarina in March 1997, in southern Brazil at a place called Vita. I remember asking myself: where on earth does she think she is going on this bicycle? Vita is the endpoint. Like many others, Catarina had been left there to die.

    Vita, which means “life” in Latin, is an asylum in...


    • A Zone of Social Abandonment
      (pp. 35-45)

      Vita sat on a hill of absolute misery. Gerson Winkler, a human rights activist, took me there in March 1995, along with Danish photographer Torben Eskerod. We were greeted by Zé das Drogas, Vita’s founder. “Vita is a work of love,” he told us. “Nobody wants these people, but it is our mission to care.”

      The place was overcrowded and covered with tents. The few permanent buildings included a wooden chapel and a makeshift kitchen with no hot water. Some two hundred men lived in the recovery area, and two hundred additional people stayed in the infirmary. Each of these...

    • Brazil
      (pp. 46-55)

      Consider the old man whose eyes were cast downward, his hands shaking, his body skeletal. Family members had left him at Vita’s gate. I asked him his name even though the volunteers told me that he did not know it. He muttered, “Pedro,” and smiled. He also knew where he had once lived: “Charqueadas.” He then grabbed his throat. “Grrrahaaa . . . hhhrhrraaahhgrrrrss . . . ahhrgaaahgrqqaa . . .” I could not understand. It was not the absence of words but the speaking of nonwords.

      Oscar and other volunteers told me that Pedro probably had throat cancer, although...

    • Citizenship
      (pp. 56-68)

      I returned to Vita in March 1997, two years after my first visit with Gerson Winkler, the human rights activist, and Torben Eskerod, the photographer. This time, I could see an incipient citizenship being generated along with social death. Some of Vita’s residents were now being effectively rehabilitated and given the possibility of a future. In the recovery area, men were developing discipline, becoming drug-free, and being retrained as potential workers; a few of them even had access to state-funded AIDS disability pensions, specialized medical care, and free antiretroviral therapies. People in the infirmary, however, continued to live in utter...


    • Life of the Mind
      (pp. 71-74)

      As we passed through the gate of the infirmary, my eyes immediately turned to a woman seated in a wheelchair in the shade. She was writing. “It’s Catarina,” I told my wife, Adriana. This time, Catarina was no longer riding her bicycle. Death was coming upon her, I thought.

      With her head down, Catarina held a pen and scribbled with much effort. We greeted her by name, and she looked up, recognizing us. “João and Adriana,” she said.

      Catarina seemed dazed; she spoke slowly and with great difficulty, as if she had suffered a stroke. We asked how she was...

    • Society of Bodies
      (pp. 75-81)

      I returned to Vita a week later, this time alone. With neighborly care, Catarina immediately asked, “Where is Adriana?” She remarked that she had enjoyed talking to both of us the other day. I sensed in her words an integrity that neither forgot bonds nor envied the bonds of others, the character of a time when one earned respect, if not from governmental institutions and employers, then at least from family members and neighbors. As simplistic as it may sound, this sociality was a life-giving force.

      The left side of Catarina’s face was bruised. “I fell from the chair when...

    • Inequality
      (pp. 82-84)

      “A maimed statue.” Estátua entrevada. That is how Catarina described her condition in her dictionary. Entrevada means to be paralyzed; it also means to become dark or obscure, to grow clouded. The associations that follow this description are striking—in the eyes of the maimed statue, there is Catarina, along with her son, confronting officers and looking into the eyes of a machine:

      Birth certificate

      Catarina and Anderson

      To be present in person


      Electoral officer

      Eye to eye


      To make meaning

      On the next page of the dictionary, Catarina repeats the word “statue” and, writing in the imperative,...

    • Ex-Human
      (pp. 85-91)

      “I finished writing the book you gave me,” Catarina reported when we met again in early August 2000. “I left the book in the pharmacy with Clóvis, the nurse, but he threw it away. I was sad. I kept thinking that one day João and Adriana will come back, and they will want to read the book, and I don’t have it anymore.” I told Catarina I trusted that her writing would resume. She then confided: “Clóvis and I are dating.”

      She quickly changed the subject: “My little suitcase was also thrown away. The volunteers said that it was getting...

    • The House and the Animal
      (pp. 92-98)

      “Even if it is a tragedy? A tragedy generated in life?”

      Those were Catarina’s words when I asked her for the details of her story the next day.

      “I remember it all. My ex-husband and I lived together, and we had the children. We lived as a man and a woman. Everything was as it should be; we got along with the neighbors. I worked in the shoe factory, but he said that I didn’t need to work. He worked in the city hall. He used to drink a bit after work when he played billiards in a bar. I...

    • “Love is the illusion of the abandoned”
      (pp. 99-101)

      Crawling on the cement ground, a man was shouting: “O devil, eat shit! O devil, stick this bread in your ass!”

      Most of the people in the infirmary sat quietly against a wall, absorbing the weak warmth of the winter sun on that late morning, August 5, 2000. Some moved around the body of the cursing man and, holding their sole possessions, wandered through the courtyard undisturbed. Inside of me, the man’s voice named the place: Inferno. He kept shouting the same thing.

      Does he shout all day?

      “It’s the spirit of the sufferers,” replied Catarina.

      Do you believe in...

    • Social Psychosis
      (pp. 102-107)

      “Shut up. I am ordering you to shut up.” A volunteer wearing a white coat approached the cursing man and threatened to lock him up.

      The man on the ground was undeterred: “O devil, eat shit! O devil, stick this bread in your ass!”

      As the volunteer turned, he saw me talking to Catarina and walked toward us. It was Clóvis, the nurse. He said he had heard a lot about me, and he apologized for all the noise. “Only medication makes this poor thing shut up. We have to sedate him. But he spits it out. What to do?”...

    • An Illness of Time
      (pp. 108-110)

      Later, when Clóvis returned, I pulled him aside and asked him how he thought Catarina was doing.

      “I am treating her for toothache, but her real problem is the nervous system,” he said. “I have already asked her a few times, but she has never told me her full life history. She is very confused. . . . She suffers, thinking about her children. She says they took the children from her and then left her at the Caridade Hospital. . . . They probably told the children, ‘We cannot have your mom at home because she is mad.’ ”...

    • God, Sex, and Agency
      (pp. 111-120)

      I returned that afternoon. Catarina had written a few more pages. As she indicted the laws of her destiny, she also wrote of her powers under a new name, sex in abandonment, and a certain sightlessness that comes with the body of the Other:

      I am the driver

      I speak magic and I conquer man

      Clóvis Gama

      We do what is in our reach

      Pleasure in the bones

      Desire in the nerves

      Rheumatic woman

      Acute spasm, secret spasm

      Acute pang, pang in the chest

      The servant of the Lord


      I served a man not a toy

      Catieki Ikeni Gama...


    • Public Psychiatry
      (pp. 123-125)

      What caused Catarina?

      After many frustrating calls to the Caridade Psychiatric Hospital, I got in touch with a social worker, who was kind enough to search the medical files thoroughly. When I anxiously called back, she told me, “Catarina had several admissions here and at the São Paulo Psychiatric Hospital. She has a history of mental illness in the family. A maternal uncle committed suicide.” That was supposed to explain Catarina’s condition: a madness that ran in her blood.

      “More, I cannot tell you,” she added. The rules could not be broken. The hospital would release the records only if...

    • Her Life as a Typical Patient
      (pp. 126-129)

      Catarina was twenty-one years old when she entered the Caridade Hospital on April 27, 1988. Since she had a valid worker’s ID, she was entitled to state-sponsored treatment. She was brought in by José Aníbio Lima, who identified himself as “self-employed” and her compadre. The term compadre, which literally means “co-father,” usually refers to a close family friend; most likely, this man was the godfather of one of her two children, a two-year-old son and a four-month-old daughter. Even though Catarina was still married and living with her husband in a city district of Novo Hamburgo, the admission records do...

    • Democratization and the Right to Health
      (pp. 130-137)

      Brazil’s progressive constitution of 1988 proclaimed health the right of all and asserted that it was the duty of the state to provide it. During the following years, the country debated and struggled over the issue of how that right could be guaranteed amid the restructuring of the country’s economy and state institutions. In the early 1990s, health assistance was municipalized through the universal health care system, Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS). New primary health care policies were designed to empower families and communities, and new partnerships were established among the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. But the everyday reality...

    • Economic Change and Mental Suffering
      (pp. 138-145)

      In many ways, the demands and strategies of the mental health reform movement became entangled in and gave occasion to the neoliberal government’s moves in public health: the mad were literally expelled from the overcrowded and inefficient psychiatric institutions, little new money was allocated for alternative services, and the responsibility of caring for patients was left to communities that did not in fact exist. As Ribeiro recalled: “The process we called ‘deinstitutionalization,’ the government turned into dehospitalization. For them, it was easy—they said, ‘Hey, there’s a movement that wants us to take people out of the psychiatric hospitals, so...

    • Medical Science
      (pp. 146-150)

      Seven months after her first psychiatric hospitalization, Catarina was back at the Caridade. On March 2, 1989, her husband, Nilson Moraes, at the time working as a security guard at the Novo Hamburgo city hall, brought her in and asked that she be readmitted. She presented a document that used her maiden name and was duly corrected by the officer on duty: “According to the marriage certificate, her correct name is Catarina Inês Gomes Moraes.” Based on information provided by her husband, the psychiatrist on call wrote: “Patient was hospitalized here in April 1988 because of agitation and hallucinations. Ten...

    • End of a Life
      (pp. 151-158)

      To my surprise, the São Paulo Psychiatric Hospital had lengthy records of conversations between Catarina and Dr. Ada Ortiz, a resident psychiatrist. The names, incidents, and dates I had heard repeatedly from Catarina were also recorded there.

      Catarina was brought in by her husband on March 6, 1992. This time, she had a referral from the Novo Hamburgo mental health service. The referral stated that she was suffering from “postpartum psychosis and depression” and that “ambulatory treatment was not possible.” Catarina was first screened by Dr. Carlos Garcia Viato, who identified an “acute psychotic episode: patient does not sleep, does...

    • Voices
      (pp. 159-162)

      On August 12, 2000, the day after I found the São Paulo records, I went back to Vita. I told Catarina that I had retrieved some very interesting notes on her conversations with Dr. Ada Ortiz.

      As you were admitted, the doctor wrote, among other things, that you were hearing voices. . . .

      “That’s true,” said Catarina.

      Which voices?

      “I heard cries, voices weeping. And I was always sad.”

      Where did these voices come from?

      “I think that they came from the cemetery. All those dead bodies. They nicknamed me ‘Catacumba.’ ”

      No longer addressed as Catarina, she understood...

    • Care and Exclusion
      (pp. 163-170)

      In December 1992, eight months after her discharge from the São Paulo Psychiatric Hospital, Catarina was sent back to the Caridade Psychiatric Hospital. She stayed for a month and then returned once again, in August 1993. This time, she was hospitalized with a referral signed by a Dr. Gilson Kunz, from Novo Hamburgo.

      Catarina had repeatedly brought up Dr. Kunz’s name in our conversations. She said that he and the other doctors to whom her ex-husband had taken her had always been “on his side” and did not listen to her: “They said that they wanted to cure me, but...

    • Migration and Model Policies
      (pp. 171-178)

      I went to the Novo Hamburgo city hall, searching for information on the history of migrant workers, their settlement in Novo Hamburgo in the 1970s and 1980s, and how they transformed the city’s social and economic landscape. “You will not find anything about those people or the history of those times. There are no registers,” explained Rose Lima, the city’s cultural liaison and herself a historian.

      This statement evoked what I had heard at Vita after first meeting Catarina and inquiring about her: “She speaks nonsense. We don’t know where she comes from or what her illness is. She was...

    • Women, Poverty, and Social Death
      (pp. 179-186)

      “We have at least five hundred Catarinas in the House right now,” said psychologist Simone Laux, the coordinator of the Novo Hamburgo service, after I told her about Catarina and my work with her. Laux affirmed the ordinariness of the story I was reassembling. In the discussion that followed with her and the team at the House of Mental Health, I got a clearer sense of the epidemic quality of the human destiny I was charting as well as the relational and technical dynamics that make it seem inevitable. As Laux aptly put it, the exclusion “always passes through the...

    • “I am like this because of life”
      (pp. 187-191)

      As I finished reading Catarina’s medical records and contextualizing them, I perused the five volumes of the dictionary she had written in 1999 and 2000. I wanted to juxtapose what people wrote of her in the records with the way she wrote against that same language. “I made peace with the letter characters,” she claimed. Scattered throughout her writings is the desire to render the world as it is.

      The dictionary is filled with references to deficient movement, to pain in the arms and legs, to muscular contractions. In writing, as in speech, Catarina refers to her condition, by and...

    • The Sense of Symptoms
      (pp. 192-198)

      As we already know, Catarina was hospitalized at the São Paulo Psychiatric Hospital early in 1992, following the premature birth of her daughter Ana, the treatment at the House of Mental Health, and the failed foster care of Seu Urbano and Dona Tamara. By the end of that year, Catarina was back at the Caridade. Over the next two years, she was hospitalized there three more times. Her last psychiatric confinement was at the São Paulo early in 1995. The records of these hospitalizations also contain references to Catarina passing again through the House of Mental Health and the general...

    • Pharmaceutical Being
      (pp. 199-206)

      In the remaining hospital records, we see the inexorable process of Catarina becoming a pharmaceutical being.

      On August 16, 1993, Catarina was again hospitalized at the Caridade. Dr. Gilson Kunz wrote the referral requesting her hospitalization. I found the document, written on the letterhead of the Novo Hamburgo Health Division, in Catarina’s Caridade chart, but there is no trace of it in the archives of the House of Mental Health or in Dr. Kunz’s memory. It seemed to me that shady transactions had made it possible to confine Catarina one more time. In his referral, Dr. Kunz wrote that Catarina...


    • Ties
      (pp. 209-217)

      No matter how much I thought I had already learned about Catarina’s life from our long conversations or from detailed readings of the medical records, every time we met and talked I encountered something that kept eluding my understanding. This unknown was not related to novel or contradictory information Catarina brought up, but to the ways in which she repeatedly moved figures from one register to the other: her past life, abandonment in Vita, and what she desired. She seemed to make this movement itself the life of her mind, understanding what was happening to her being in her own...

    • Ataxia
      (pp. 218-228)

      I asked Dr. Luis Guilherme Streb, a long-time friend, to examine Catarina and possibly treat her. Two days later, he accompanied me to Vita.

      Catarina was waiting for us in the pharmacy, where Clóvis was sorting medication—the surplus of donations to which Catarina had referred. The highly specialized medication made freely available by the federal government also finds its way into Vita. Clóvis told us: “I get lots of psychotropics and antiretrovirals. I separate the ones I can use here, and the others I send down to the pharmacy we created for people from the surrounding areas.”

      These antiretroviral...

    • Her House
      (pp. 229-234)

      The next Sunday, I followed Catarina’s clues into Novo Hamburgo’s poorest districts. I drove around the dusty, narrow, and overcrowded alleys of the Santo Afonso district but could not find 999 Constituição Street.

      I stopped at local businesses and at Pentecostal churches to ask people where the street was, with no success. At a gas station, I got a more recent city map. Although this map pointed me to Constituição Street, the street seemed to end with house number 747. I remember a turn and a bridge and more dark alleys, with people at the gates and windows wondering who...

    • Brothers
      (pp. 235-239)

      That same night, Alemão and Anderson took me to see Altamir, Catarina’s oldest brother. I would have had no hope of finding his place by myself. This was one of the roughest districts of Novo Hamburgo, chaotic in its squatting patterns.

      Alemão was impressed with Altamir’s gated property: a bike repair shop downstairs and a reasonably comfortable two-bedroom apartment upstairs. Altamir and his wife, Vania, had a three-year-old son, Eugenio. Her parents and several brothers had also migrated from the northwestern region of the province in the 1980s and lived nearby. Vania’s brother, who owned a small store, had officially...

    • Children, In-Laws, and the Ex-Husband
      (pp. 240-247)

      The next day, I went to 999 Constituição Street. Anderson took me to meet his grandparents and his sister Alessandra. Ondina, the sixty-year-old matriarch, had her hair neatly tucked away in a bun, typical of women who belong to Pentecostal churches. She and her husband, Nestor, sixty-one years old, are professed “crentes, reborn Christians, baptized by the Holy Spirit in the waters.”

      Ondina told me that she had raised Anderson since he was two years old, Alessandra since she was six months old, and “the one that Urbano has” for three years. “Then they took her from me. When Anderson...

    • Adoptive Parents
      (pp. 248-256)

      The following week, I stopped at the Restaurante Tamara, next to the Novo Hamburgo city hall. The restaurant was run by Urbano and Tamara, the couple who adopted Catarina’s youngest daughter, Ana. Once again, my fears of being turned away were unfounded. Like the other characters in Catarina’s life, Tamara and Urbano were welcoming and talkative.

      The couple belonged to an earlier generation of migrants who had arrived in the city in the 1960s. They were well-off economically. Urbano was still the chief of the municipal guard service (in charge of security for public buildings); he had been Nilson’s boss...

    • “To want my body as a medication, my body”
      (pp. 257-264)

      At a distance, there was sympathy for “the wounded stray dog” Catarina had become. “I think her situation is very sad,” continued Urbano, “to have brothers, in-laws, children, and to be left abandoned like an animal. Being kicked from one side to the other, like a dog without an owner, asking for some food. That was her life; it was always like that.”

      What happened to the family ties?

      “It is over. They have no love for anyone. Nilson’s whole family is like that. They have a ruindade [evil]. They are very ignorant people.”

      And the brothers?

      “They never looked...

    • Everyday Violence
      (pp. 265-268)

      Adriana and I went to bid Catarina farewell. She was weeping. “For I have to be here the whole time.”

      She continued to write profusely. It was a way of keeping her mind open, she said, a way of seeing a little past the situation. “It’s a work. . . . It has a beginning and an end.”

      If you were to write a story, Catarina, what would it be?

      “The story of the three little pigs.”

      Again, the animal appeared in her imagination. I asked why.

      “A cousin told us this story when we were kids.”

      And if you...


    • Pain
      (pp. 271-273)

      Catarina’s magnetic resonance image (MRI) revealed the atrophy of her cerebellum. Her blood exam indicated no infectious diseases. The Waaler-Rose test indicated an autoimmune disorder, validating, in some ways, her claim of rheumatism (the most common clinical manifestation of autoimmune disorders). The specificity of Catarina’s ataxia was not yet known.

      Most of my work with Catarina and her brothers over the course of 2001 and 2002 involved attempts to diagnose their condition and to see what, if anything, could be done to improve the quality of their lives. As biology became the subject of inquiry, my attention turned to the...

    • Human Rights
      (pp. 274-277)

      Catarina’s body was withering away, and her neighbors in Vita were dying. During these last visits in 2001 and 2002, I made further contact with Porto Alegre’s public health administration and the province’s Human Rights Commission to report on this work and to see what could be done about such relentless neglect.

      In 1998, the city administration discovered that thirty-four people had died in the Santa Luisa geriatric house, a clandestine business that charged for the care of elderly, disabled, and mentally ill people. This prompted the city to increase its inspection efforts. In the following years, city officials raided...

    • Value Systems
      (pp. 278-281)

      I returned to Vita the next day, August 5, 2001. Catarina was trying hard to write. Words were interspersed with references to Brazilian reais and American dollars. The currency of her writing and of our work together, I thought, was always related to her wish “to go to Novo Hamburgo,” as she again asked me that morning. “To see the little ones.” She also wanted to get her documents back, she said: “I would like to go myself and get the documents from the judge, to get my certificate of birth, worker’s ID, my bank card. Take me in your...

    • Gene Expression and Social Abandonment
      (pp. 282-291)

      In all my meetings with Altamir (born in 1967) and the other two brothers, Ademar (born in 1969) and Armando (born in 1975), they never inquired about how Catarina was doing. Even my descriptions of how often and how dearly she spoke of them did not seem to evoke a response in kind.

      They were very preoccupied with their own physical states. Following my last visit, the oldest brother, Altamir, who had more education and was economically better-off than his siblings, decided to seek a medical diagnosis of his ailment. He went to a well-known private neurologist in Novo Hamburgo,...

    • Family Tree
      (pp. 292-296)

      I was fortunate enough to be in the south of Brazil when the brothers had two visitors: Seu Núncio, an elderly and distant relative who had been a friend of their grandfather; and Neusa, Catarina’s youngest maternal aunt. I was called to meet with them to gather further information on the family tree of these large and poor households.

      The brothers had not been able to specify their ethnicity—they referred to themselves as brasileiros. Seu Núncio described the family as very light-skinned, commenting that “they looked like gringos”—that is, not black or Indian but of European descent. Most...

    • A Genetic Population
      (pp. 297-306)

      At first glance, Catarina was just one more lost life in Vita, part of an indigent population with whom the country and its people had become accustomed to coexisting, a population that was so often placed out of sight and thought. But as this inquiry progressed, I began to see Catarina and her family as embodying a specific genetic population that had been made medically and socially invisible, just as her neighbors in Vita most likely embodied other kinds of biological and social processes that made them into human leftovers. Technologies of genetic testing are making certain people newly visible,...

    • A Lost Chance
      (pp. 307-310)

      After my August 2002 visit to Vita, I told Dr. Jardim about Catarina’s current state: that her speech was now seriously impaired; that she complained of intense pain in her legs and arms; that she was no longer able to sit in the wheelchair, because she was too likely to fall out and hurt herself; that she had problems swallowing food and was losing weight—all common signs of deterioration associated with Machado-Joseph. Given Vita’s strong push to let the abandonados in the infirmary die out, I was afraid that the few years she still had left would be cut...


    • “Underneath was this, which I do not attempt to name”
      (pp. 313-320)

      One of Czeslaw Milosz’s last books opens with a poem called “This” (2001:663). The praise of being has been a protective device, says the poet as he looks back at his life on paper. Underneath his writing has always been that ordinary experience of abandonment and people’s lack of response to it. The thought, day and night, that the body’s needs, desire, and voice make no difference, which signifies Milosz’s work, is literally the material of Catarina’s writing.

      If I could at last tell you what is in me,

      if I could shout: people! I have lied by pretending it...

    • Book I
      (pp. 321-322)
    • Book II
      (pp. 322-326)
    • Book III
      (pp. 327-327)
    • Book IV
      (pp. 327-330)
    • Book V
      (pp. 330-331)
    • Book VI
      (pp. 331-332)
    • Book VII
      (pp. 333-334)
    • Book VIII
      (pp. 334-334)
    • Book IX
      (pp. 335-335)
    • Book X
      (pp. 335-336)
    • Book XI
      (pp. 336-337)
    • Book XII
      (pp. 337-339)
    • Book XIII
      (pp. 339-340)
    • Book XIV
      (pp. 340-341)
    • Book XV
      (pp. 341-342)
    • Book XVI
      (pp. 342-343)
    • Book XVII
      (pp. 343-346)
    • Book XVIII
      (pp. 346-348)
    • Book XIX
      (pp. 348-352)
  11. Conclusion: “A way to the words”
    (pp. 353-358)

    I received a phone call from a euphoric Oscar, asking whether I was the one who had arranged the surprise visit to Vita by Catarina’s daughter Ana and her adoptive parents. No, I had not done this; I was also surprised. Oscar reported that Catarina was very happy—“they even brought her fruit.”

    Before leaving Brazil in early September 2002, I contacted Tamara and Urbano and asked them about the visit. “It’s sad to see a person in that kind of misery,” they said. “There are so many people who could take care of her, her in-laws and brothers. I...

  12. Postscript: “I am part of the origins, not just of language, but of people”
    (pp. 359-360)

    I returned to Vita at the end of August 2003 and saw Catarina one last time. For the first time in so long, her physical condition seemed to be improving. She had gained weight, and it was possible to understand her speech again. Oscar kept his promise and made sure that Catarina was regularly taken to the genetics service for medical check-ups and for speech therapy—she had had twelve sessions over the past three months.

    “I did exercises with my mouth,” explained Catarina. “I can swallow better now, I eat two plates of food. . . . Doctor Tatiane...


    • Return to Vita
      (pp. 365-398)

      “Why does he not let Catarina finally rest?” a leading anthropologist recently asked at a conference. I had just presented a brief essay in which I returned to my dialogues with Catarina to make a case for allowing our engagement with Others to determine the course of our thinking about them. As anthropologists, I suggested, we are challenged to listen to people—their self-understandings, their storytelling, their own concept work—more as readers and writers than diagnosticians or theorists, with deliberate openness to life in all its refractions.¹

      I was taken off guard and felt my colleague’s question as an...

  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 399-402)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 403-412)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 413-430)
  17. Index
    (pp. 431-440)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 441-446)