We met with Chancellor’s Professor of Medical Anthropology Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, to talk about the wide ranging field of medical anthropology, and so much more. Enjoy!
"People were telling me stories that people were disappearing, and it sounded like totally made-up stories, fairy tales, or ghost stories that they didn't wanna go to hospitals for fear that their organs would be taken."” – Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes discusses her developmental contributions to the field of medical anthropolgy—addressing infant mortality, the impact of mental illness, the scourge of worldwide human organ trafficking, and the real, intimate, comforting work that anthropologists offer the world’s people. Chancellor’s Professor of Medical Anthropology Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Scheper-Hughes talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
See additional leaders in anthropology in our article
Top Influential Anthropologists Today
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. And today we have another wonderful guest coming to us this time from Berkeley, California.
This is Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and she’s gonna tell us a little bit about how she got into her career starting in the very beginning, like at the very, very beginning when she was still in high school, or however far back she wants to go. So take it away, Professor Scheper-Hughes.
Nancy: Well, long story, I suppose, because I think it began very, very early in Brooklyn, New York, where I was born. And the Museum of Natural History, which absolutely was my favorite of all the institutions in the city, and I was most drawn to a room that had a large boat I think of the Northwest Native Americans. And at that point, I kept trying to get inside the canoe, [chuckle] and my dad and my brother would be pulling me back.
And then in high school, I was, at that point, quite a Roman Catholic and went to a little poor French academy. And the nuns asked me, they said, “Nancy, you seem to be so interested in other people and other places. Do you think you’d like to be a missionary?” I said, “A missionary? I don’t think so.”
So they said, “Close your eyes, and what do you see 10, 15 years from now?” And I said, “I see myself sitting in a circle with people on the ground and we’re talking to each other, but it had nothing about God, it was really just about how they lived and what their life was about.” And I think it was at that moment that I realized that this was anthropology. It took me a little bit later to know that this was anthropology, and that I wanted it, yeah.
Jed: Wow, that is so fascinating.
When you went off to college, did you take Anthropology courses and major in Anthropology?
Nancy: I went and dropped out twice from undergraduate school. And I was taking every kind of class because at that point, my parents thought only my brother, they were working class people, immigrants, should be able to go to college. And so I just begged them, “Give me a year or two.”
And so I went to Queens College, and there I walked into a class on peoples and cultures of Africa, and I wasn’t even supposed to be able to, it was an upper division class, I was not an Anthropology major, I was just looking around.
And it was there that I met a very important mentor, that was Hortense Powdermaker, who was an anthropologist at the same level and time as Margaret Mead. Margaret Mead was very, very well-known, Hortense wasn’t, but she was a wonderful ethnographer and wrote three or four very, very different books.
And she tapped me on the shoulder one day and she said, “I know who you are. You are the freshman that dared to get into my classroom. How the heck did you get in my classroom?” ’Cause it was very, very strict. And I said, “I cannot tell a lie, I signed your name and gave it to the registrar.” [laughter]
Nancy: And she said, “You should be kicked out of here.” And she said, “The only reason I’m not going to do it is because you got the highest rating of the class.” [laughter]
Jed: That’s a funny story.
Nancy: So then I thought, “Okay, maybe anthropology is it.” And the one thing I learned from Hortense is that you don’t have to just do one thing with anthropology, which normally you had a field and your field might be Melanesia, or your field might have been in Latin America.
And she had gone to four different communities in different countries, including the United States. And I thought, “Yeah, this is a social science, but it’s a social science you make up as you go along, and whatever really engages you or the problems that are most important rather than the place that… ” And it was kind of a free wheeling science. [chuckle]
Jed: Yeah. It seems like it… We’ve interviewed several of your colleagues and it definitely seems kinda like you make it up as you go along, and it’s a lot of fun.
Nancy: Yeah, it is, it is.
Jed: So after undergraduate, you did get a degree in Anthropology when you finally finished or…
Nancy: No, I dropped out and joined Peace Corps, and that became very important. It was very, very early. I think I was the second group that ever went to Brazil. And I spent two and a half years almost on this little mountain, the Alto do Cruzeiro in Northeast Brazil, where I lived in a mud hut with an indigenous woman and her husband.
And I was called a visitadora, that I was trained in public health to go up and down into the houses to actually help midwives and try to save babies. Because that’s how I became very interested in infant mortality, was the normalcy of women, like Nailza, the woman I was with, had eight pregnancies, and they either died at birth or they died before they were a year old. And yet she… She was just giving up. She said, “I’ll never have a baby.” But anyway, she did. [chuckle]
She managed to have a baby and then she took off and went back to her indigenous community in Mato Grosso, and after many, many losses, she was only in her 20s at that time, I got a letter from her 10 years later saying, “Here’s my family, and she was in this indigenous community, and she had 12 or 13 children that had lived.
So I became interested in why babies die, how they die, what’s the role of mothering, what does care for infants entail, and how decisions were made. And as I found out and when I went back many years later to study this, that they... The women never knew which of their babies were going to make it.
I went back to the Alto do Cruzeiro. I lived again in a mud hut and watched what was going. And their view was that they had to be prepared for the fact that they might have to wait many times until there’s a baby that comes with a desire, with the wish to live.
And so they, a little bit, put it into the baby’s hands and said, “They have to really be tough.” If you had an infant in the city of Timbaúba, which was the larger town, and you had resources and you had food and there was no scarcity, then those babies will all live. But for us, only the ones that really show the vontade, the will, the gusto, the taste for life.
And so they kind of left it in their hands. And the ones that were kind of... Because often, the babies were born premature because the women were very... They were not very nourished themselves. And so then they would wait for one that had... They liked babies that were bravo, that were strong, that would fight, that would cry, that would do anything. But the babies that were soft, no, it’s not gonna work. No tengetu, they would say. It’s not possible. And sometimes they would help them die. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it was quite something.
Jed: So you went on Peace Corp for two and a half years, and then you found yourself back in the United States.
Did you finish your undergraduate degree at the same school, or did you go somewhere else?
Nancy: I went back to Queens College, and I took a writing class and wrote all about what happened in Brazil. So I lasted one semester, and then I made another decision to leave the undergraduate and I went to Selma, Alabama at the end of the civil rights period.
Because I was interested in not only the normative work of... I joined SNCC, basically, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. I arrived there in 1967 in a car with three or four other people, we said we’re gonna go there, I was the only White person in the group...
When I got there, it was Black Power time, and they said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I wanted to be a civil rights worker.” And they said, “Well, we’re really not taking whites. Now, why don’t you go back to New York City or go to Boston or go somewhere where you can try to work with the racist that... The people that you live with,” or whatever.
And then I said, “But I have no money to go back.” And so they said, “Well, maybe we could find something to do with you,” and so what I did was they were interested at that point in the health and the survival of people in the rural areas of these five counties where people were not getting...
Not only not paid working in the fields, but also were suffering from hunger because the money that was given by the federal government to these counties ended up with the plantation owners, and so people were in very bad shape.
And so I said, “I know something about hunger.” I said, “So I can maybe do a survey,” and they put me in charge of that. They said, “Okay, there’ll be you and there will be one of our own people will... Going with you, get that survey.” And so we did 500 households, and we ended up in Federal Court saying that we had enough evidence and that we brought about 30 tenant farmers to talk about what it was like to be doing rural work and being hungry.
And it actually ended that this court that we had, I think it was a secondary court, and there was three judges and the... Two of them said, “You’re absolutely right, but this is not something for us to do,” and I forgot what the problem was, but please get this published. And so it went into all the newspapers and whatever, and it did contribute to a kind of a more of a force of getting food stamps and food commodities to people who were hungry.
So it was a very powerful experience for me to really see that the hunger in Northeast Brazil was also the hunger, I saw the same problems, I saw very, very... I saw marasmus babies that were starved and I said, this is in the United States. So it kind of... They kind of melded together.
Jed: Wow. And definitely worth leaving Queens University for another leave of absence wow.
Did you go back there to get your undergraduate?
Nancy: Well, I went and... No, from Selma and SNCC, I went to Berkeley and finished my BA there, and then from there went to get the PhD.
Jed: Also at Berkeley?
Nancy: Also at Berkeley.
Jed: Okay, and there you are today is it...
Nancy: And there I am today, although I taught elsewhere, I taught in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for years and loved it. Absolutely. You know a lot about... Your university is great too.
And before that, my first job was at Southern Methodist University in Dallas Texas, which was pretty terrifying for me, I had never been anywhere in that part of the country. And it was mainly a department of archaeologists, and so I learned a lot about archaeology, and I think it was one of only two people that was faculty that was cultural and medical anthropology, but it was really quite a wonderful school with a very, very good administration, but then you know, there was a knock on the door and it came from North Carolina for me to help them develop medical anthropology. And then from there, Berkeley came back and said, “We need you.”
Jed: Come on back.
"I'm not always critical of medicine, but I think that we really have to always look into it and see how well it's working for this group or that group, or so forth."” – Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Nancy: Come on back. And then... So, I worked in really opening medical anthropology. There was a wonderful elderly Professor, George Foster, but he had a very... Not a terribly activist approach to what medical anthropology should be, and he certainly didn’t want to critique doctors, and because I had worked a lot with doctors and for example, both in Selma and in Brazil, that only worked to help certain people and other people let them go, let them die.
And so I came in with a kind of a critical approach to medical anthropology. And I’m not always critical of medicine, but I think that we really have to always look into it and see how well it’s working for this group or that group, or so forth.
Jed: Wonderful. Well, so many questions are circulating through my mind.
Your PhD advisor at Berkeley, who was that? I remember, I think Louise Lamphere said that it was somebody she knew... Or somebody who has done a lot.
Nancy: Well, my main advisor was probably Jerry Berman, and there were three other... But you know, I didn’t stay very long through the PhD, I really... Rather than taking all the time that I had done to get to the BA, after two and a half years, I was in the field, and I was doing my dissertation work...
Jed: Unbelievable. So you didn’t stay in Berkeley very long? Just two and a half years and then you...
Nancy: Well, about and two and a half years, and then I went to the field and I had thought that I would go to Brazil. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I had worked with radical people politically in Northeast Brazil during the dictatorship, and I wasn’t allowed to come back at that time, I was told, “Not wanted.”
I had formed with a group of very poor people in the Alto of a resistance movement, and it was called UPAC, the Union of the People of Alto do Cruzeiro, and it was seen as... I didn’t realize how dangerous it was, at that point, the dictatorship was still rather new.
And yet one day a guy came up the hill and he was dressed in military and he said, “You are wanted to go to The Fifth Army and you will be... You will have to testify about what you’re doing here in this place.” And, you know, I got through it, I joked a lot. I didn’t realize that within the next two years, I would have been tortured, but at that time, I just... I tried to hide what I was doing in a mass, I’d say, “Oh yes, yes. Well, I’m very, very Catholic.
I go to mass every morning. You could talk to Padre Orlando, he knows me, what we’re doing, we’re just to... Not trying go against your government, but they actually don’t have access to water. And without clean water they die, and so I’m doing that and I’m trying to build a creche, which was for babies that were in very bad shape, and that we all worked together, and it was done by voluntary, there was no money, I was not taking any money, I was not bringing any money.”
Anyway, so I got out just in time and I wanted to come back almost immediately. And I had to wait until the opening, the apertura, as they called it, which was some years later, about 15 years later. And then people wrote to me and they said, “Nancy you can come back now.”
Jed: I bet that was so nice to get to see your friends.
Nancy: It was wonderful.
Jed: So where did you do your field work when you were a Berkeley PhD.
Nancy: Well, I did it in Brazil.
Jed: Not in the same region.
Nancy: It was very same... The very same place. Oh no, excuse me, I’m sorry...
Jed: I thought you said you were persona non grata in Brazil.
Nancy: I was, I could not go... That’s right, I’m sorry. I didn’t sleep very well. What I had to do since I couldn’t get in was to come up with another topic...
And that’s how Ireland came in, because the only language that I had, and I feel you can’t do field work, although I learned later you can... When I was doing the organs watch, I felt you really had to be able to speak well.
And in Ireland, my interest was... There was very, very little anthropology done in Ireland. There was a couple of old guys that were there, and I was interested in the... What they’d call beyond the beyond, I wanted to go to the very, very West of Ireland and to work with the people that would... I don’t wanna use the word peasants, but that were... That were basically sustaining themselves on very small farms, and I was interested in the fact that in looking...
Since I didn’t know anything about Ireland, but one of the other reasons I went is that I thought, “Okay, English would be right, but I’d have to learn a little bit of Celtic language.”
But what I could read was that there was a very, very, very high rate of mental illness in Ireland. And I thought, “This bucolic place had been very poor, went through the great famine and all of that but seemed to be doing quite well.
Why were there so many people, in fact, in Western Europe, they had the most people that were put in mental hospitals?” And so I thought, “Well, let me try to find out what’s going on there.” I always did have an interest in psychological anthropology, I knew something about psychiatric anthropology and such, and so my husband, at that time I was... My same husband, I wasn’t married and had three children, tiny children. They came very close together, two little girls, and then my son, Nathaniel.
I went hoping that I could give birth in Ireland because I didn’t have any medical insurance at that time. And so I took my orals exam that would allow me to be a candidate and to go, and I was very, very pregnant, and the people around the table were really rather nervous about the fact that I was going to be going to Ireland eight months pregnant.
But what happened is that I gave birth just before and managed to have a very... Actually, I was a welfare person at that point, and so I had a wonderful doctor, Dr. Dreher and I had welfare because I wasn’t yet married.
Anyway, so we got to Ireland and we had no idea where to go. Basically, we just got in a car from the airport and we landed on Shannonside, I knew I wanted to go to the West, and we had a couple of little notes from people that we met, and they said, “You might go to Cork, so we went to Cork and met the head of a Psychiatric Unit in Cork, who was a wonderful guy, David Dunn, sort of an existential psychiatrist, Wow. In Ireland, that was really great.
And he wanted me very much to stay in the hospital with him, and I said, “I would love to, but I really want to be in a little village or community, and to see what goes on there, because most of the people that were brought to these hospitals in urban areas were from these little small farms.
So what’s going on?” And so he agreed, and we kept in... Together and getting... Through phones, there were no cell phones or whatever. And I ended up in this little community of what I call Ballybran, and it was right on the Dingle Peninsula and was absolutely beautiful.
About 500 people or a little bit less, living in these little townships, they called ’em. A township could have three farms, or and going up to Mount Brandon, there might be, just two households and then many, many small little neighborhoods and... Well, they took us in.
We had some not wanting us there, they didn’t understand what anthropology was. But in the beginning, I worked with... Mainly with bachelors because for one thing, they were rather lonely. [chuckle] And they were quite willing to talk to me.
And in terms of what I picked up was the fact that there was... Most of the community was made up of consanguineal, that is people who were related to each other brothers, sisters, brother, two sisters, six sisters, but where were the marriages? Very, very few during the whole year that I was there there wasn’t a single marriage in the community.
And so I began to try to understand why the bachelors and why the... Well, here’s what happened, basically, the men inherited the land, the lands were very tiny, but somebody had to keep up the farm and someone had to take care of the really old people, because most of them were very, very active with the...
They were also shepherds, they were fishermen, but they also had small farms. And they would often work and be maintaining the family until they were in their 80s, and so that they had to have someone who would then be taking care of them and only one person among their children, and almost all were men could be the farmer.
"And so they were caught in this double bind is what Bateson would call it, that they're both loved and not loved, they're both considered to be somewhat exploited and so forth."” – Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes
And it would be one, not necessarily the eldest, because the eldest would get out as quickly as they could, try to get jobs, try to get different careers in their life, different crafts that they wanted to do. So it would be... Not necessarily the last one either, it would be... There was a term called the, “un-assured” and the “un-assured” in the family was the softest guy who probably didn’t have great expectations for themselves, but they would be a good farmer, and it was kind of a double...
It was not a very fair situation for them because they were told that they weren’t smart enough to go beyond high school, or even maybe not high school, and yet... Then the parents would say, “But we need you, you have to stay here, because someone has to run the farm.” And so they were caught in this double bind is what Bateson would call it, that they’re both loved and not loved, they’re both considered to be somewhat exploited and so forth.
And so I spent most of my time trying to explain, I guess, that since so many of these young men would often end up in a hospital, a mental hospital as being mad, that in the end, although I didn’t make it as clear as I can now, ’cause I’ve gone back many times to Ireland, since.
That they were actually looking at the mental hospital as a way to get away from the farm. So they were willing to go. They actually said... And I would say that the... No mental hospital is a great place to be, but I think there was a lot of compassion within the doctors that I met, and I began interviewing the people that were in the hospital, and that’s why the title is Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics. But anyway, that was...
Jed: Fascinating, fascinating. Well, it reminds me, we just had a wonderful conversation with Arthur Kleinman of Harvard and just reminds me that when he went to China, it was the opposite, people who did have mental health problems, especially depression didn’t want to talk about it in those terms, were unwilling to share that they had those problems because it was a shame in their community.
So they would talk about how they had pain in their back or their neck or they were dizzy, and it was a lot to do with the cultural revolution, and things like that. So wow, fascinating.
Nancy: It was very, very different, yes. And in fact, I did question the hospital that why everyone had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and they said, I don’t know, it was the first one on the sheet that they would be given when a new... When a new patient came in and they basically said that everybody was schizophrenic.
I said, “It can’t be possible.” In fact, since I went back and... Those hospitals are all closed as they are in many parts of the world there but when I went back some years after when they were still open, and they said, “You know, Nancy, you really did understand. Because in your second chapter of the book, you were saying that what you were really seeing was anomie was depression,” and yet you go...
And so I did contest that these people that were there were not schizophrenic, and they said, “But you weren’t a psychiatrist and we weren’t willing to really listen to you,” but then when they began to read my book, they said, yeah, that it was really wrong to put that very heavy. It’s not that you can be... There’s plenty of recovery from schizophrenia itself, but the point was that at that point, that it was a very scary diagnosis, and so it was quite not fair for them.
Jed: Now, can you tell us what that word really would mean and translate into, anomie the...
Nancy: Oh, anomie...
Jed: Is that a Celtic word?
What is anomie?
Nancy: No, no, actually, it’s a Durkheimian, Emile Durkheim... It’s basically a situation where the society or the community or the state or whatever, is in a kind of a transition in which the old values that made life worth living were in question and a new way, a new set of values, a new set of goods hadn’t yet come in, and so people were very unhappy at that time. Whereas Ireland today, totally different place. Totally different place. Yeah, so no anomie there. [chuckle] Just lots of energy.
Jed: Wonderful. Wow. Well, one of the things I wanted to ask you about before we finish our time, is the Organ Watch, and you mentioned briefly in passing that you didn’t need language when you went over to India to look at the kidney donation situation there.
Tell us a little bit about that, because you’re probably most influential for your work on Organ Watch, wouldn’t you say?
"Two things were happening. One is that people were telling me stories that people were disappearing, and it sounded like totally made up stories, fairy tales or ghost stories... They didn't wanna go to hospitals for fear that their organs would be taken."” – Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Nancy: Well, I think in terms of public anthropology, and it was the most... I also had spent time, and I’ve only written articles, but in South Africa during the transition, and that was a wonderful and a different set of questions and things that I was involved in there in terms of the truth and reconciliation and stuff and how it was going on and wonderful.
But it was both in Berkeley... Not in Berkeley excuse me in Brazil, and then in South Africa where I was picking up very early, like 1995, 1995, that there something was going on with how hospitals and clinics were trying to get organs from people.
And in both of these places... Two things were happening. One is that people were telling me stories that people were disappearing, and it sounded like totally made up stories, fairy tales or ghost stories that they wanted to... They didn’t wanna go to hospitals for fear that their organs would be taken. And when I heard it in two places, and children, and especially they said they want children because they want those really good organs.
So I began to look into it and... Well, it took me to many parts of the world, nine, 10 different countries to understand that, yes, on the one hand, in some places, there were cases where during, let’s say, an autopsy, that these were like maybe disappeared people, poor people, children, whatever, who ended up... That they would take organs from them without permission, but not for transplant, it was really to sell for research and other things that people wanted, so that was happening.
And then when I was in South Africa, one of the transplant doctors who was swearing that nothing like this was happening in South Africa, he said, “The things that are happening in China, we know something about that. We know that in some parts of Latin America, there’s stealing of organs, but not here.”
And then the doctor brought me in and he said, “I think I was wrong. I think that there are brokers that are coming into hospitals and making deals to... Both for getting organs that could be taken and then quickly brought by plane to where they were needed.” But that was very expensive, very difficult to do, and the idea was, “Maybe we can get from living people.”
And so once I was on the understanding of this, it was very dangerous because I was going everywhere and had to run away from some places. I went from South Africa to Brazil, from Brazil to Turkey, to Egypt, to Moldova, Romania, Israel, and then the United States.
And I began to see that there were actually international syndicates, it’s the only... I was chasing kidneys, basically, that was the organ that’s the organ is easier... You take it, the person has one, they live, maybe not as healthy. So there was a kidney trafficking, it was...
Actually, in the end, I felt that it was not only exploitative, but in many cases, it was a kind of torture because the people who were often not even knowing when they went to the hospital what was going to happen to them.
And so my studies brought about five or six prosecutions, and none of the people were very happy that I had been a witness in these, because people didn’t wanna believe it was possible.
And then the last one that I was involved in was in the United States, and it was a man who was a rabbi... Well, he was actually... People called him a rabbi, he was an orthodox Jewish person in New York, Isaac Rosenbaum. And people in Israel said, “When we can’t get organs... ” Actually throughout the Middle East, it’s very difficult to ask relatives to either allow that a person who’s dying, would give organs so that wasn’t happening, that kind of normative sort.
"It wasn't against the law because nobody could ever have imagined it."” – Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes
And then when they saw that many of the Palestinians and Syrians were giving up their organs for money, that they wanted something like that. And so this Mr. Rosenbaum was the broker between Israel and the United States, and also bringing in people from Moldova and from other countries, and even Americans to be involved in this.
And I also found that there was a link of a syndicate from Israel to Brazil to South Africa, and I was there, watching this... I actually went to some of the illegal transplant under a kind of disguise, it was pretty scary, but actually it worked, and now there are laws.
It wasn’t against the law because nobody could ever have imagined it. So nobody was really breaking laws, but I was able to have enough data from people and some who died in Romania and in Moldova.
And the one sort of kind of funny story, I guess, was that back in Brazil, but in the city of Recife, which is a port city and close to a nice airport, then there were some brokers that came, some Brazilian and Israeli together, decided that they could get poor men... Oh, by the way organ trafficking is, except in India, which I didn’t go... My colleague, Lawrence Cohen took care of that. He said, “I’ll do... You do the rest of the world.” [chuckle]
Jed: So I was totally wrong about that.
Nancy: Yes, it’s okay. So they decided that it would be easy to get Brazilian men, very poor men to travel in exchange, they’d have to give a kidney. And it was actually true.
There were these guys that didn’t have any money, they were working on the beaches of Recife selling water or whatever. And they were always in trouble because they couldn’t help the households that they had six kids or five kids or whatever, and when the two guys were cops, military cops, the one from Israel and the one from Brazil, and they were kind of both afraid of them a little bit, but they said, “No, there’s no problem. We’re just telling you, we will give you a trip to South Africa and you will get $5000 or $6000 if all you have to do is give a kidney,” and the Brazilian... I call them The Boys from Brazil, ’cause that’s how they became known after they had gone and come back and it became a big issue to Brazilians.
They were so upset that their men were being taken and given this little bit of money, but when the men went to court only to explain what had happened to them, they defended the whole system. [chuckle] And said... I’m not telling you the other countries where everybody...
It was terrible what it did to the Filipinos, what it did to the Moldovans, what it did in almost all the countries where I had gone. Here was a case where they were defending it and said that, “Well, we were in these beautiful hospitals, two or three hospitals, and we were given cappuccino after we had our organ taken.
And it was scary. Yeah, it hurt a lot. They put us back on a plane very quickly before we had really recovered,” but they said, “We have stories to tell the rest of our lives to our children and to our wives.” And they even defended, as I said, they said, “Yeah, well, Gaddy Tauber yeah, he was exploiting us... ” But you know what, when the Brazilians were brought and some of the people that sold also became agents for Gaddy and for... I forget the other guy who’s the Brazilian broker, and they didn’t like him, they thought he was nasty, but they really liked Gaddy.
And said that, “When we got caught for having sold a kidney, which we didn’t know was against the law... ” And at that point, it had just become that a new law in Brazil, you can neither buy nor sell...
So they were at the end of this thing, and they said that, “That Gaddy because he was a military person, they put him in a very special prison where he was treated very, very well and he refused, he said, “I want to be with the boys, with the men.” And so there was solidarity actually among them, and then I got to get to know this Gaddy Tauber three summers in a row, I went to that prison and talked to him and learned everything I could possibly wanna know about how the system worked, and we became real friends.
"And the one thing about anthropology is you never know where it's going to end... the other thing, is that the old-fashioned anthropologist was always like a fly on the wall or something, you know, that you just always nodded your head, you said yes, you took everything for granted that people told you, even if you know they might have been lying."” – Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes
And the one thing about anthropology is you never know where it’s going to end. And it’s not that I... We disagreed, we fought. I mean, that’s the other thing, is that the old-fashioned anthropologist was always like a fly on the wall or something, you know, that you just always nodded your head, you said yes, you took everything for granted that people told you, even if you know they might have been lying.
You never would say that. And I took another, both in South Africa because it was about apartheid, my work and the end of apartheid and working with these brokers is I would argue with them, absolutely argue with them. And they would argue back, and then I began to understand so much better, rather than just sort of sitting there and asking this question that question, it became a real engagement.
And I think it’s what I love about anthropology is that, you know about xenophobia, but I tried to write... I don’t think I impressed anyone with xenophilia, and I said, “It doesn’t mean that you love... ” If you look up xenophilia, I think it’s been changed now, it was not about humans, it was about plants, it was a biological concept that there would be plants that cuddled up and became part of another a tree or a bush or whatever.
And I said, “But if you actually look at the term, it has to do with the curiosity of, let’s say the plants that want to get together,” and I thought that was a very good sense because is our work about love, is it about curiosity, but a curiosity of intimacy and a certain care to be very, very close.
"And I think that that's what anthropology allows, is a very intimate experience with people who are very, very different and who just knock you out of your normal way of thinking so that you can understand people that would be considered just criminals."” – Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes
And I think that that’s what anthropology allows, is a very intimate experience with people who are very, very different and who just knock you out of your normal way of thinking so that you can understand people that would be considered just criminals.
And my last talk about Gaddy Tauber was after he was 10 years in jail, and then he was allowed to be as Brazilian jails are better than... And prisons are better than ours I think for the most part. They gave him a chance to be like on parole, but on parole outside in the same prison, but they had a special houses for them.
And so he wrote to me and he said, “You know, I’ll be going back to Israel, Nancy, and I want you to come and here’s my neighbor’s name... ” Sulia I think his name was or Shuli, whatever. “Take that down, and then you can come and see me.” And so I was in Israel doing a film with some video documentary on what was happening there and what was happening in Turkey and what was happening in Moldova and so forth, and I said, “Give me a day off, ’cause I want to find Gaddy Tauber,” and sure enough, I find him, he’s living in a lovely place, it looked a little bit like Recife, it was water all around and we sat, and we laughed. And we had such a great time.
And then a year later, I look on TV and they go, “The biggest organ trafficker in the world has just been captured in the airport in Rome,” and I looked at it and I immediately called... By this time, I knew people in policing around the world pretty much. And so I called and I said, “No, no, you shouldn’t... You’re taking Gaddy Tauber. No, he had his 10 years, he’s right to be home, this is just terrible.” And these Euro police or whatever, they said, “Nancy, we really respect you, but believe me, he belongs in jail and it turned out that he’d actually escaped from Brazil.” So here I was talking to him, and didn’t even know he was an escape artist.
Jed: Oh my gosh.
Nancy: So anyway, organ trafficking was quite... And now I’m sort of not doing it anymore but trying to write all about it and bring it all together in a memoir.
Jed: Wonderful. Oh, hilarious. Well, thank you, Nancy, for your time it’s just been so wonderful. Thank you for telling all these amazing stories, really appreciate it.
Nancy: Thank you so much, I enjoyed this, and I hope I’ll be talking to some of the people that have heard this. [chuckle] Okay.
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