Confessions from the Field
18 January 2021
What follows is an experimentation and play with the boundaries of literary genres. As both a writer and anthropologist, I am interested in what lies at the intersection between fiction, personal essay and ethnography. What can we learn by fictionalizing ethnographic experiences? What space is opened up when disciplinary boundaries are dismantled? My personal motivation for writing these essays, which are a selection from a broader collection of fictional accounts of fieldwork, was my own research experience. I undertook my master’s fieldwork in Northern Ireland, researching Evangelical Christianity, with a particular focus on evolution denying scientists and their work to spread creationist cosmogony to surrounding schools and churches. I found my time in N.I. much more challenging than I originally anticipated. I used some of this time to ask my own personal theological questions, which in hindsight, seems inappropriate. My main participants also openly admitted to there being a continuous attempt to convert me, as is the Evangelical Christian mission. At times during my fieldwork I found this overwhelming and emotionally demanding. Upon returning home and writing up, I struggled with how to incorporate my experience into the ethnography.
Writing this collection, a couple of years later, allowed me to confront my fieldwork experience, whilst also retaining some emotional distance, through fictionalization. Putting myself in the shoes of other, even if imagined, anthropologists, helped me to reconcile my fieldwork experience, practice anew the joys of anthropological writing and ultimately led me to my current PhD program. I hope it can be a fraction as useful to its readers.
Anthropologists are the scientific storytellers of “culture.” But their stories and experiences of research are often left untold. Ethnography is inter-subjective; the anthropologist’s presence is the occasion and the context. To disregard the researcher’s experience in the field is both impossible and undesirable. The following essays document two very different experiences of fieldwork, both equally emotionally displacing. They raise questions such as: How far are you willing to go to complete your research? Can you justify crossing boundaries in order to find Self in Other? Who is your research really about? These stories turn the critical gaze back in on itself, in order to explore the arduous, complicated and sometimes confounding world of life in the field.
Entwined Serpentine I am
I have never smoked a joint, nor anything really, beyond the odd cigarette. So, when Raoul, a well-respected and powerful shaman, invited me to partake in a tobacco and Ayahuasca ceremony in the depths of the Amazon I hesitated, but only just.
The invitation was compelling. I had read extensively about the fascinating properties of Ayahuasca, its hallucinogenic and healing qualities, the myths it inspires and its ontological and cosmological significance. One text on the subject really resonated with me. It was by Jeremy Narby, a trained cultural anthropologist, who wrote The Cosmic Serpent over the course of many years after completing multiple stages of research in the Peruvian Amazon.
Narby’s extremely rich ethnography concluded that Amazonian Indians understood that knowledge could be transmitted through DNA, and that this was known to them for eons, certainly centuries before Western science addressed the question. This knowledge – about life, the cosmos, medicine, survival, healing and spirituality – was gained through hallucinations that occurred during Ayahuasca ceremonies. In this way, the knowledge was communicated to the shaman through the plants.
My first of many Ayahuasca ceremonies was by far the most memorable. What I experienced changed the course of my research and my subsequent career as an anthropologist, but it also, as clichéd as it sounds, changed the way I looked at and lived my life. I am sure many researchers say the same of their experiences in the field, but I dare say not to the same degree. I was enthralled, enchanted and enlightened. In Narby’s words: ‘My encounter with the florescent snakes had modified my way of looking at reality.’
Ah, the snakes! The entwined serpentine! The reptilian repetitions that fuelled and filled my visions! Doubling and down and doubling down into a kaleidoscopic snake pit where binaries exploded into infinities. Where I slithered with them, scaling their scaly backs until they slithered and scaled me, coupling and coiling in Medusan multiplications, ultra and aquamarine.
Helter-skelter down dual halcyon helixes I went, stopping and slipping along cubic ruby tongues and auriferous eyes; two pairs staring back at me from an Obsidian jungle. At once terrifying and comforting, the Twin Mothers of the Universe, giving tough love to the two-legged who come seeking. Whole, lithe single-limbed bodied skins flaked and fluttered around me. Her head doublet won’t let me forget. I swung on the ladder of the galaxy, swam up and out, regaining dull reality.
It is hard to discuss these profoundly metaphysical experiences without the assistance of poetic and lyrical prose, and even then, language itself falls short. It is quite simply beyond representation.
I had originally come to the Amazon Basin to study indigenous linguistics across the region. But then Raoul told me that to truly understand the language of the jungle, I had to be initiated into its abstruse dimensions through the Ayahuasca ceremony. It was a sacred invitation to listen to an ancient indigenous alphabet sung in colour and form. The hope of understanding is reserved only for the most respected and powerful shamans, and the knowledge gained by them is then disseminated to the community. The fact that their epistemic system is built on a shared phenomenological experience is truly, well, phenomenal!
I spent the next month focusing solely on trying to understand Amazonian epistemology, speaking with Raoul and other community members at length. I realized I had barely scratched the surface and that if I really wanted to understand I had to alter the course of my research all together. This meant persuading my supervisor. This meant more money. This meant writing a new grant paper in the jungle. Was this wise? I had a strong research topic that was fully funded. I had arrived prepared, having extensively studied the accompanying theory. Many ethnographers do shift their research once in the field, but only slightly, not by entire schools and disciplines. Should I make this change purely because I wanted to? I? Me? How far should my desires guide the research? And if not my desires and passions, then what?
My slippery friends drove me forward. To start research afresh, I re-read The Cosmic Serpent, one of the few books I had brought to my field site. Insect repellent and hiking boots were far more important than Inoue, Geertz and Boas. I conducted interviews and participated in five more ceremonies. I forged ahead – participating, observing, listening and learning, not wanting to waste precious time. Just as I was reaching a basic comprehension, ready to delve into the infinite search of how we know what we know, my funding was cut and I had to leave behind my leafy, magical jungle for sober, confining concrete. Had I continued my original research, I could have stayed in my new home, the only place my eyes and ears were sincerely open. But the reality of tangible exploration and discovery was over, submerged beneath the weight of academic pretense and abstract study, of science’s glare, leaving no room for the spiritual. Yet in my mind, it would all remain, retained forever.
When writing this story, knowing it was to be a personal account, I came back to the ubiquitous, ever singular ‘I’. Who am I? Why am I? I am because of DNA. I am who I am because of genetic information carried in my DNA. Every living thing, including plants, consists of DNA and we are all who we are because of it. Animism – the ontological belief system of the indigenous Amazonians – teaches that all living things share the same interiority. Western science, and the discovery of DNA confirmed this, yet we still live in a paradigm ruled by naturalism and rationalism.
DNA creates individuality whilst also forging and retaining connections of relatedness and similarity. It is the ultimate source of information and, as Narby states, ‘the molecule of life.’ We are all familiar with its shape, the double helix, resembling two snakes entwined. It is also self-duplicating, like the serpents in my visions. Perhaps this helps explain the title I chose for this story: Entwined Serpentine I am. I am DNA and DNA is the entwined serpent. What is probably less well known is the name of the compounds that compose and comprise DNA: Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C) and Thymine (T). Is this what I had been seeing? Adenine eyes and cytosine slithers, glowing guanine and thyminite tongues? AT twins and GC couples!
Perhaps my account of my Ayahuasca experience should take another poetic form, in a different and more exact language:
AATCCGCTAGAAACCCTTAGtcacttattgggtttctttcaattgtaaacagAAACCACAGAAAGTCCA ATAGACCCGGTAAGTTTCATTGGTTTCATTGGTTTCATTGGAGGATTCAACTCCATTGACGtcaagtta aacatgattcattcacggatttaaaaaaattaggaaaaggtgtacatcacatcaagttaaacatgGTCC AATTTTCATTGGTTTCATTGGtaaacatgattcattcacggatttaaaaaaa.
What is displayed above is but the most minuscule, minute example of DNA sequencing of a human genome. Just like Ayahuasca, DNA has its own mesmerizing dialect and vocabulary. It is the fundamental language of the universe, the abstract poetry of life itself! Turns out, I was researching linguistics all along.
I have slowed down in recent years. Passionately championing the unorthodox epistemology of plant induced hallucinations becomes tiresome over the years, especially when it consistently falls on deaf (or rather selective hearing) ears.
Nowadays I co-habit with a snake. She lives under the decking in my yard. And that is where she will stay. Maybe her twin will join us someday.
God sent the IEDs
God sent the IEDs. I learnt this from an 8-year-old boy called Kyle. Kyle is from Topeka, Kansas, where I have been living for the past two months. He is a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. I asked Kyle what he thought this meant, while we sat together on the floor of his kitchen spray-painting a cardboard sign florescent green. He giggled and shyly said: “I dunno.” We continued to spray in silence.
I attended my first Westboro picket the week after. It was a hot summer day as we loaded George’s pick-up truck with colorful signs. Everyone was in good spirits. George, Kyle’s father, drove us down their dirt track drive and into town. We stopped at a crossroads, an empty field to our right and a cemetery to our left. We were here to picket the funeral of a recently deceased soldier who died stepping on an IED in Afghanistan the week before. His name was Shaun, but that hardly seemed to matter.
We were a group of about 30, ranging in age from 1 to 81. We positioned ourselves at the entrance of the cemetery, signs at the ready – ‘God sent the IEDs’ and ‘Thank God for Dead Soldiers’. There were more general messages, my personal favorite being: ‘Your Pastor is a Whore.’ If I didn’t try and see beyond the tragedy and into the comedy, I wouldn’t have lasted a month there yet alone a year.
I am sure some of my readers are acquainted with the Westboro Baptist Church. It is frequently in the news and has been the subject of quite a few documentaries on religious extremism. And extreme its followers most certainly are. Heralded as one of America’s leading hate groups, since the 1950s the Westboro Baptist Church has protested against LGBTQ+ people, Muslims, Jews, US soldiers and many other communities. The addition of military protests marks an expansion of Westboroian condemnation. They believe that the death of American soldiers is evidence of God’s anger and is a punishment for the moral failings of Americans today.
The church is most famous for their blunt and inflammatory signs, potent in both color and message. While often criticized for operating as a cult, the community retorts that it is aligned with conservative Baptist and Calvinist denominations, both of which adhere to the Augustinian doctrine that man is enslaved by sin and total depravity. They wrap this message in hate, xenophobia, homophobia and racism.
We waited for the funeral procession to arrive. I became anxious and nervous. Was this necessary? Was it worth it? Did I really need to be part of this? I was the outsider, needing to gain the trust of those who regarded me with suspicion and caution. If I didn’t engage and perform, that is where I would remain. But if I did, would I become one of Them? I settled for holding a sign but remaining silent. Shouting abuse at a bereaved family on the day of their son’s funeral was a line I was not willing to cross. George, on the other hand, strode across that line with ease and purpose. His words made me nauseous. He spat them. They were hot and vile and sticky.
After a couple of hours, we retired our signs and scorn. On the drive back, George asked me how I felt after my first Westboro picket. I took a long time to answer, before saying, “interesting.” This was truthful, it had indeed been an interesting experience, and one I believed I’d prepared well for. Before embarking on my research in Kansas, I’d spent five months at home; five months watching video clip after recording after news interview. I felt I’d desensitized myself enough without slipping into some kind of researcher-researched Stockholm syndrome. I thought I was ready to be with Them while also preserving Self. But I found that ‘preparing for’ and ‘living with’ are very different things. I remember one of my earliest methodology classes, in which the professor proclaimed that fieldwork cannot be taught. One must experience it for oneself. This was the most accurate statement from all my schooling and training, as I discovered in Topeka.
Three weeks after the funeral, I attended my second picket. This time we were going to rally against the Pride March in Kansas City, an hour drive away. It was time to use another sign that Kyle and I had worked on weeks earlier: ‘Fags eat poop’. The green clashed garishly with the orange sign informing us that ‘God hates Sluts.’ I mentioned this to Sharon, George’s wife and devoted Westboroian. She agreed and we re-organized the signs.
It’s always just bearable until the speeches start. When their voices rise and rally, my stomach turns and my head reels. But I wasn’t there to be offended. I was there to listen and to report. Unbiased. Objective. I think about objectivity as a 12-year-old girl screams ‘God hates fags’ over my head and into the crowd.
Sometimes it felt like my ears were bleeding. I would make phantom attempts to drain the viciousness and spite I heard on a daily basis. I’d get a tissue, clean up the damage, ready to listen anew. But nothing they said was new.
I am sure many will read this and ask what on earth was I thinking going in the first place. As stated earlier, I thought I could handle it, handle the research, handle Them. I didn’t anticipate having such a visceral and abject reaction. It affected me deeply. I found my fieldwork fascinating and I obtained great research, but at what cost to Self? Others will question the one-sided nature of my account, and I would have to agree. But this was my experience, negative and emotional, written openly and informally. The other side is also available, my book (shameless plug) Extreme Hate can be purchased in most mainstream bookstores. It is there that difference dissolves and alterity opens out to expose a sense of shared humanity. My book documents family life against the backdrop of hating a world that hates you back. How does everyday life function in the Westboro community? Quite well, in fact, for there is cake baking, summer water fights, laundry, tax returns, laughter and lawn mowing. There is love along with the hate, and that made my research compelling and confusing.
But what I have written here is different. For one, I could hardly call my seminal academic text God sent the IEDs! This can also scarcely be called ethnography, but maybe it should be. My book diffused the separate spheres of science and religion. Does this account work similarly to confront the spheres of subjectivity and objectivity? Of emotion and reason? Perhaps. Either way, it felt damn good to write. I feel refreshed. Ready again to enter the field anew.
 Narby, J., The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, Phoenix: London, 1998, p. 38
 Narby, op. cit., p. 55
Alice Riddell is a writer, poet, and current PhD candidate at UCL, studying cultural and digital anthropology. Her work has been published by The Long Now Foundation, Breadcrumbs Mag, Brooklyn Vol. 1, Anthropolitan, and FLAPPERHOUSE. Alice’s current research interests are peer-to-peer surveillance, urban neighbourhood relations, American vigilantism, and the digital Panopticon. She is hoping to start fieldwork in New York City this summer, investigating the live-stream crime and safety app, Citizen.