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Published Monday, December 8, 2014, 2:21 pm

A Journey Through My 40-Year-Old Field Notes

By Ofra Greenberg

Forty-two years ago, as a 27 year-old married woman with a freshly minted Ph.D. in social anthropology, I embarked on a research project to learn about the only women’s prison in Israel, Neve Tirza. Specifically, I wondered if it would conform to Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman’s characteristics of total institutions: places where a large number of similarly situated people reside.

I used the participant observation method, spending days and nights with the prisoners and wardens, working alongside them and interacting over a period of one year. I took copious notes, filling more than 1,000 pages. I got to know them well, learning a bit about their private struggles.

One of the prisoners was Sonia, sentenced to life for the murder of her husband. She left her three-year-old daughter with her mother and found it nearly impossible to maintain a good relationship with the child. She told the child the prison was a hospital, but the lie ultimately made their relationship worse.

Though I learned so much about the personal stories of these women, I don’t know how their lives unfolded after I left. I drew my conclusions about total institutions, not entirely agreeing with Goffman. I published my research in a book, Women in Jail in Israel.

I have since engaged in what is now a 40-year academic career, today at Western Galilee College, specializing in medical anthropology. I am not sure if it is a function of my age or stage of life, but my mind frequently wanders back to my days at Neve Tirza. What happened to Sonia, to her relationship with her daughter, to the others? I have recently felt a need to return to the field notes because I know that they contain a great deal of information I didn’t use.

Even so many years ago, after I completed my dissertation, I toyed with the idea of writing about motherhood but never did as I became engrossed in a new research field, the use of traditional medicine. Other times since then, I considered using the diaries to write about my personal experiences and feelings during that time and perhaps I may still get there.

Through my teaching, I have recently delved into gender literature, and this has once more led me toward the issue of motherhood. Now that I am a mother, a grandmother and a senior scholar, I wonder how I would view this topic in my field notes through the lens of my life’s perspective? Would I find something else there?

Recently I was asked whether the young women whom I met in the prison had been sexually abused as children. I could not answer this question because I never asked. I was a young woman from a good family. What did I know about sexual abuse? Forty years ago, we talked less about this issue.

A summer scholar-in-residency at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute gave me the opportunity to revisit my notes. I scanned all my notebooks and took them with me to Brandeis University, where I began the process of re-entering that time of my life, of the lives of the women I studied so long ago.

As I read through the notes, there are so many directions I might have taken. I could have studied power relations, but the subject that rises to the surface for me today is motherhood and the social status conferred by it in prison. Not being a mother at the time, perhaps I did not pay as much attention or perhaps I simply stayed close to my original goals, to study the theory of a total institution.

Now the issue of motherhood takes center stage as I revisit my field notes and form new conclusions. I see that being a mother in prison entails an extra measure of pain. It brings with it a special concern, pity and a desire to help on the part of warders and other inmates. It leads the mothers to manipulate their status to win concessions and benefits. I am just at the beginning of the process, through 200 of the 1000 pages. Will I discover something unforeseen, about myself perhaps? The diaries bring to the surface memories of events that I did not record. I can hear the sound of clanging doors, of the main gate opening, the voices of certain women whom I now miss. What happened to them? I am sad that I will probably never know.

None of this emotion will appear in the present analysis. It belongs to an analysis that places the researcher at the center. The present research evokes my memories, but that is personal. I believe the research should be based solely on my notes. Yet, I wonder if my memories or a story about my own growth and relationship to this project remains an option for the future.

Dr. Ofra Greenberg was a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence at HBI during the summer of 2014. She is a senior lecturer at the Western Galilee College in Israel specializing in medical anthropology.

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