Caswell on Meyers, 'All That Was Not Her'

Todd Meyers. All That Was Not Her. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. 232 pp. $26.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4780-2251-0; $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1789-9.

Reviewed by Glenys Caswell (University of Nottingham)
Published on H-Death (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Khyati Tripathi (Assistant Professor, School of Liberal Studies, UPES University)

Printable Version:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading All That Was Not Her, by Todd Meyers. The book is beautiful to look at, with artwork unusual in an academic publication. Meyers writes well as he shares with the reader what might most easily be described as a case study. Meyers is an anthropologist, and in this book he gives an account of the long-term ethnographic relationship he had with Beverly. Beverly was a middle-aged Black woman living in Baltimore who, along with her family, agreed to be part of an ongoing study of chronic illness and family caring when living with economic insecurity and in a situation of racial prejudice and precarity. Beverly’s family was one of thirty who agreed to take part in the study, and after Meyers and Beverly had met a few times she asked if they would continue to meet. Was it, Myers wondered, that Beverly wished to be heard, to be allowed her voice?

When Meyers first met Beverly he was a young academic, but he wrote the book at a time when he was no longer young and Beverly had already died. In doing so, he was looking back on a relationship that had lasted almost twenty years, but which had not always been easy or straightforward, and he was doing so with the assistance of his field notes and his memory. Meyers does not provide a chronological account of this relationship, beginning at the start and following through to the end. This would have been difficult to do, as Beverly had died yet the relationship continued, so how could he say when the end had been?

The book is, rather, a reflective account in which Meyers records and thinks about various encounters he had with Beverly and her family over a period of years. In doing so, he ponders concepts such as the power relations at work and the ethics of writing, after she died, about a woman who was so very much herself. The author also reflects upon the positioning of the researcher and the nature of his relationship with Beverly and her family. At the point when the book was being written, Beverly could have no say in how she was portrayed, nor offer any input into how she had perceived the research and the researcher.

Meyers describes a number of his encounters with Beverly. He visited her at home and when she was in the hospital. Sometimes he would give her a lift to hospital appointments, or bring her home from one. Sometimes he would go to spend time with Beverly and she would not be home, so Myers got into the habit of ringing her first to ensure that she was home and expecting his visit. The first encounter Meyers describes occurs after he has phoned her home only to learn from her son that Beverly was in the hospital in critical condition. On arriving to see her, Meyers discovers that she is ready to go home, and so he finds himself driving her home and is anxious, uncertain of the role into which he has been thrust. His feelings are erratic, “but mostly I am irritated because I sense that Beverly has taken advantage of me” (p. 2).

Inevitably, a lot of the time Meyers and Beverly spent together was experienced by him as mundane, and following her life, spending time with her, became a habit. As a Black woman with health problems and a lack of economic capital, Beverly was habituated to being the subject of scrutiny from those in positions of authority. She invited Meyers in as an observer of this on many occasions and he noted the precarity of her life, the threat posed by her chronic illness, and the harm that racism and other forms of prejudice were doing to her. These may seem extraordinary to the reader, but to Beverly they formed her everyday life. She appeared powerless within this social setting, but as a reader, I could not help but wonder if there were times when her absence from arranged meetings with Meyers and her apparent taking advantage of him and their relationship were not efforts to redress the balance a little.

Embedded in the action of power and ethics in the book is the figure of the anthropologist. At the time of writing, Beverly is dead; however, Myers writes, “Beverly is gone, but some things remain” (p. 63). There are two Beverlys left: one who lives and breathes through the writing of the book; the other who stayed on in Baltimore after Meyers left the city and who died there unnoticed by him. At this stage of the book Meyers writes of himself in the third person, although in other places he uses the first person. He does not address this in the book and gives no hint of his reasons for shifting between the first and third personal pronouns. It may be that the use of the third person pronoun is a way of distancing himself emotionally from the action, or it may be that working with notes and memories brings a temporal, as well as emotional, distance from the narrative.

Meyers learns of Beverly’s death on his return to Baltimore when he goes to her home and knocks on the door but receives no reply; this was not unusual even when Beverly had been in the house. A neighbor informs him of her death a few years prior, after which the author comes across Beverly’s grandson and spends hours talking with him. Beverly had died in 2008, yet after that, for Myers, “she remained a living, acting figure in his writing” (p. 70).

Reading a book is always a journey in interpretation and All That Was Not Her is no exception. It is a thought-provoking read and it gave me much to consider in relation to the ethical status of research relationships and the ways that social scientists report on them. There is more to taking an ethical stance than protecting participants’ confidentiality and anonymizing them; Beverly had wished her real name to be used when he wrote about her, but Meyers was not permitted to do this, so Beverly is a pseudonym and, once again, Beverly’s wishes were unmet. This book does what good social science accounts of research sometimes achieve, in that it raises questions and discusses solutions, but it does not pretend to have all the answers for issues to which there really are no definitive answers. This is an excellent text to prompt critical thought and debate around the important topics of ethics, power relations, and the positioning of the researcher within research that involves people as participants. Beverly is clearly seen as the human being that she is, in a genre that can sometimes verge on appearing to forget that research participants are really people.

Citation: Glenys Caswell. Review of Meyers, Todd, All That Was Not Her. H-Death, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.