martes, febrero 03, 2009

Rebhun (1994) Swallowing frogs: Anger and Illness in Northeast Brazil

Rebhun, LA. 1994. Swallowing Frogs: Anger and Illness in Northeast Brazil. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 8(4):360-382. Conceptual Development in Medical Anthropology: A Tribute to M. Margaret Clark. (Dec., 1994).

Women in Northeast Brazil employ the term "swallowing frogs" to explain from their own perspective what happened when hatred, frustration, anger and strong (negative) emotions are trapped or suppressed by social forces and cannot be exteriorized. These women are traversed by very distressful situations, and their anguish is allegedly “canalized” via folk illnesses that somatize distress such as evil-eye sickness, nerves, or susto. In this context we have a whole description of boiling machines under pressure, which are almost to explode. There is a tension between what these women feel (anger, anguish, anxiety, envy, etc.) and what others are expecting them to (properly) express at a social level (self-sacrifice, generosity, love). Because, if they don’t control their negative emotions not only they would be physically hurt but also socially devaluated. These are “embodiments of distress in which body symptom and psychological experience are one and the same” (361); so to say that someone is having susto is to imply that this person has both symptoms and a distressful psychosocial situation (something that usually is not so emphasized).

In a way, what we have seen before with susto is also happening here, the idea that people are catching up with, and there is a gap between, cultural expectation and personal experience. One thing that Rebhun remarks that I did not find in the other text is the “use” of these “folk illnesses,” some women may use them for their own propose, perhaps not even consciously; the author says, “Because of embedded moral discourses, emotional folk medical syndromes cab become powerful tactics in the struggle to control and manipulate friends, neighbors, and family members” (361).

One important question Rebhun makes, after showing that these illnesses can be considered in many different ways according to the region and socio-cultural contexts in which we locate the analysis, is “what do these diagnoses mean, how are they interrelated, and how do they fit into the micropolitics of power in families and local communities?” (364). For her, the question of whether, when and how get sick is very important, because naming someone as having “susto” or “evil-eye” is moral judgment (the same happen with biomedicine) about the situation and condition of the sufferer, especially in terms of gender, men and women would feel and express their emotion in very different ways according to each society. For instance, women and men would feel very different emotions and causes of their emotions, Rebhun says, “people encounter many reasons to feel these, from the anguish of frequent bereavement, to the frustrating humiliations of trying to get basic services from an uncaring government bureaucracy, to the injustices of poverty, to the many betrayals perpetrated by those who are supposed to love one another” (364).

Therefore, as we can see these emotions are not so easy to categorize, and the limits between “sickness”, “morality”, “emotion”, and “social condition” are blurry and difficult to separate, and so “Emotional life becomes a series of battles over interpretation and consequences of moral behavior” (365). What is clear here that there is a micro-politics of “swallowing frogs”, of silencing strong emotions for not causing familiar and social problems, but ultimately is producing physical and psycho-social instability, but there is always as a background a latent explosion of uncontrollable anger and fury. Rebhun concludes that through all theses “folk illnesses” in Northeast Brazilian women and men “discuss their traumas, weaknesses, and victimization, and negotiate social relations” (375). I can see Rebhun's main points and the contradictions she is trying to highlight between pure organicistic and scientific vision of "culture-bound" syndromes and her more complex approximation to social and emotional aspects of everyday experience that are self- and alter-categorized as illnesses. I prefer her approach, which is more sensible to the social fabrics of suffering, emotions and illness than others that are more centered in identifying etiologies, diagnoses and treatments but seems far of understanding what’s really going on people’s hearts and minds.

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