Barbara Myerhoff (1935-1985)
written by Devorah Shubowitz
Throughout her career, Barbara Myerhoff contributed to major methodological and epistemological trends, which have become social cultural anthropological standards. These methods include reflexivity, narrative story telling, and social activism. In this essay, I discuss these contributions, along with, Myerhoff’s major influences and legacy.
Influential People, Concepts, and Works
Myerhoff was born on February 16, 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her maternal “storytelling grandmother” Sofie Mann, a transformational childhood and adolescent figure for Myerhoff, helped raise her (1982: 32). She attributed Mann’s influence to her early appreciation of people, because Mann taught her that if she looked carefully, she would find that every person had an interesting story. Mann also helped prepare her for working with the elderly people at the Aliyah Center in Venice, California, the subjects of Number Our Days. When working with the elderly, Myerhoff discovered that they, like her grandmother, relied on stories as their bodies failed them. Through storytelling, they asserted their love of life, involvement with people, and created an alternative world where they had presence and visibility.
Her grandmother also inspired her to think reflexively. Myerhoff wrote that each day she and her grandmother would sit by a window in her home and tell stories about the people who lived in the adjoining houses, as she described, “We imaginatively entered in turn, making their stories into a commentary on our own lives” (Ibid: 32). One particularly memorable day of watching out the widow began when frost blocked their view. Assuaging Myerhoff’s distress, her grandmother made a viewing hole by warming a penny in her palm and pressing it against the window. Seeing the world through a framed narrow perspective deeply moved her to begin to think about the significance of isolating, attending to, and framing a piece of life. Framing the world outside with her grandmother led her to attend to the frames of habitual perceptions and actions, the aim of reflexive method.
As a teenager, she moved with her mother and stepfather from Cleveland to Los Angeles, and eventually began her career as a social scientist. In 1958, she received a BA in Sociology from the University of California and an MA in Human Development from the University of Chicago in 1963 (Timeline: JWA). She then entered UCLA’s Anthropology PhD program. At UCLA, Hilda Kuper, a student of Malinowski, became a beloved teacher of Myerhoff (Frank: 1995: 231). As many anthropologists in the 1960s and 1970s, Myerhoff was influenced by Victor Turner, Claude Levi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, Mircea Eliade, Max Gluckman, Arnold Van Gennep, Alan Watts, and C.G. Jung. All viewed culture through symbolic systems of ritual, myth, and religious cosmology (1974: 21).
In 1968, Myerhoff received her PhD in Anthropology from UCLA for her dissertation on Huichol ritual form (Timeline: JWA). Her fieldwork with the Huichol Indians of Northern Mexico began in 1965 in graduate school. She and her colleague Peter Furst became the first non-Huichol people to embark on the peyote hunt, an annual ritual pilgrimage to the sacred land of Wirikuta in search of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus plant (1974: 15). She interpreted this rite as a recovery of the Huichol people’s original condition of oneness, and one example among many of communal quests for utopia.
Myerhoff primarily sought to understand “how the deer-maize-peyote symbols and the peyote hunt rituals gave meaning to Huichol life” (Ibid: 16). Choosing to work with Ramon, however, a religious leader who served as intermediary between Huichol people and Gods, or outsiders, precluded her from spending comparable time with other Huichol people. She noted, therefore, that her account of the peyote hunt and the deer and maize rituals did not describe Huchiol culture, religious cosmology, or the peyote ritual exhaustively, but rather, was her interpretation of Ramon’s interpretation (Ibid).
By positioning herself as an interpreter of an interpreter, she maintained a subjective ethic. Simultaneously, she asserted that her main purpose was to document the “native model” and to salvage the rituals of an endangered people (Ibid, 25). Through engaged participant observation, constant verification, and correction she tried to stay close to Ramon’s meaning. Simultaneously, through narrative style, she placed herself as an observable character in dialogue with Ramon and his wife Lupe throughout the book. In her desire to understand the peyote hunt, she, along with her informants took peyote. Her visions and personal revelations while on peyote seamlessly flowed into her analysis of the rite, further embedding her experiences as participant observer into the ethnography. The final book, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, published in 1974, was nominated for a National Book Award (Timeline, JWA).
Through Peyote Hunt, Myerhoff met Victor Turner, because the book was included in a series he edited on symbolic anthropology and ritual for Cornell University Press (Prell: personal email: 12 February 2007). Turner’s work on ritual inspired Myerhoff and she attributed to him the book’s theoretical frames. In the book’s preface, she wrote, “Though I have never studied with him formally, I consider myself his student “(1974: 23). In time, she became a part of the Edith and Victor Tuner’s dynamic scholarly and social circle.
Myerhoff continued to work on ritual and religious life in her studies on the aged. Her fieldwork began in 1972 with elderly Jews at the Israel Levin Center in Venice, California, supported by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation given to the Andrus Gerontology Center at the USC. Myerhoff took part in the project’s anthropological component. Her project was one of six with themes of “aging as a career, the concern with continuity, and significant sex differences in aging” (1978, 7). She addressed all of these themes in her writings.
Myerhoff’s commitment to reflexivity propelled her to study her own identity group, the Jews. In Number Our Days, she explained that she intended to study elderly Chicanos in LA, but readily changed direction when they asked her why she did not study her own people, and subsequently took part in inventing the method of ethnography at home. Later Jewish ethnographic anthologies including, Judaism Viewed from within and from without, were inspired by Myerhoff’s work. She inspired Jews to apply anthropological methods to the study of Judaism, as well as, anthropologists to view Jews as legitimate ethnographic subjects.
For Myerhoff, the aged creatively practiced rituals to ensure continuity and assert their voices and visibility. In her essay, “A Symbol Perfected in Death: Continuity and Ritual in the Life and Death of an Elderly Jew,” she described what repeatedly proved for her a fascinating occurrence, when a structuring ritual goes awry. Her essay centered on Jacob, one of the oldest most-beloved center member’s annual birthday party. At his well-attended party, Jacob, a writer, would always present a speech about the meaning he found in life and aging. In his last speech, Jacob asked the community to continue to celebrate his birthday five years after his death. After speaking, he died. Myerhoff wrote that because Jacob framed his own death, and the community had the symbolic tools by which to make meaning of his death, the surprise of dying at a birthday party did not undermine his continuity or the birthday ritual, but rather, strengthened it. Center members continued to celebrate Jacob’s birthday, remembering the magical experience of his perfect death. In her detailed and empathic writing of Jacob’s story, Myerhoff also took part in continuing his life and vision.
In 1976, Myerhoff became a full professor at USC and chair of the Anthropology Department; she headed the department until 1980 (Timeline: JWA). In 1977, she completed the film version of Number Our Days with director Lynne Littman. The film did not deal with the complexities of the Center’s conflicts, but rather showed the elders at their most thoughtful. Portraying them at their best allowed her to give back what they had so generously given her, and to gain for them some of the positive visibility they sought. That year, Number Our Days won an Oscar for best short documentary, exponentially increasing the center’s interest and support and ushered Myerhoff into celebrity.
The book, Number Our Days, came out in 1979 to rave reviews. As in Peyote Hunt, Myerhoff chose one main male informant, Shmuel, who, for her, possessed worldly intelligence and insightful self-reflection. Notably, while Myerhoff celebrated the uneducated female elders’ zest for life and skilled survival, she seemed to identify with highly educated males, and chose them for primary informants. Throughout her work, she maintained that women and men had their respective cultures born from their gendered social roles, she, however, seemed to have escaped the full reigns of feminine culture she espoused.
In all of her works, but perhaps most obviously in Number Our Days, Myerhoff revealed what she saw as mistreatment or misunderstanding of the people she studied. She continually told of the elders’ isolation, poverty, and invisibility resulting from societal neglect. In addition to critique, as a social activist, she rectified, in part, the imposed isolation by mediating between the elders and those who could serve their well-being such as, housing authorities, funding sources, and other artists and researchers.
In constructing her argument of the elders’ gross neglect by general society, however, she omitted all outside contact with them in her work, aside from her own. She, therefore, did not explore the relationships the elders had with heir children or younger involved relatives and friends. Additionally, while many, or even most, of these elders may not have had children who concerned themselves with their well-being, she did not explore whether or not the elders were, in large part, responsible. Myerhoff’s isolation of these elders in her writing, however, had the affect of underscoring societies’ neglect of the aged. By showing how people, squeezed the elders out of their affordable homes, harassed them in the streets, felt apathetic to their needs, and refused contact, Myerhoff brought their invisibility into sharp relief.
Myerhoff continued her work with the elders of the center until 1981. In 1980, she organized “Life not Death in Venice,” an art exhibit at USC featuring the work of elderly Jewish artists. The elders created this title as a pun, taken from the novella Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, for their protest march for safer streets after a reckless biker killed one of the center’s members. In addition to the film, book, and art exhibit, in 1981, Myerhoff helped adapt Number Our Days for the stage, performed at the Mark Taper Forum. In her essay, “Surviving Stories: Reflections on Number Our Days” she described that the elders responded to their newfound publicity with constant negotiations for control over their representation.
She told of the inconsolable senior, Manya, who could not forgive her for leaving her out of the film, and of Rebekkah, who initially, would not sign the play’s release form unless they used her and her husband’s real names. To win them over, Myerhoff gave gifts and companionship, argued and cajoled, and told them that the increased publicity would bring more opportunity for the Center and other seniors. Reflecting upon these negotiations, Myerhoff concluded that the seniors preferred to be represented in ways they did not completely agree with, than not represented at all. Myerhoff’s full-bodied discussions revealed that decisions of subject representation required continual negotiation. By explicating the power relations in her collaboration with the seniors, after publishing her book, she further revealed the book’s constructions and shed light upon the politics of representation in the anthropologist/subject encounter.
During this time, Myerhoff harnessed departmental support to start the first master degree program in visual anthropology. In this program, she collaborated with the USC film school and offered courses in film production along with anthropological theory. She also recruited the noted ethnographic filmmaker Timothy Asch to teach at USC (Frank: 1995: 210).
Myerhoff’s next and last project of studying and filming Jewish communities in Fairfax, California, began in 1982. Two years into her research, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and as a result, changed the direction of the project. Although Myerhoff had consistently integrated her image, voice, and experiences in her work, this time, she and collaborator Lynn Littman turned the camera completely on her quest for healing from the Fairfax Lubavitch Hasidim. Her illness compelled her to use her work to speak directly to her life.
The resulting film, In Her Own Time, showed Myerhoff’s search for “miracles” by taking on some Orthodox Jewish practices. Guided by the Lubavitcher’s, she plunged into themikvah (ritual bath) to purify, wrote to the Rebbe (leader) for a blessing, changed her name to ‘trick’ the angel of death, and received a Jewish divorce from a stand-in husband wearing a tuxedo to regain her soul from her ex-husband. Throughout the film, however, Myerhoff resisted full immersion in Orthodox practice and questioned the newly Orthodox about their choices. Most significantly, this film movingly followed her resistance of death as expressed through her charged curiosity of social life. Before she completed the film, In Her Own Time, Myerhoff died in Los Angeles of lung cancer on January 7, 1985, at age 49.
Those who worked with, learned from, and loved Myerhoff are current leaders in widely situated academic, artistic, and professional disciplines such as, American Studies, Anthropology, Filmmaking, Film Studies, Folklore, Gender Studies, Health Sciences, Jewish Studies, Media Studies, and Performance studies. This wide range of influence reflected Myerhoff’s own multidisciplinary approach to anthropology, in that she incorporated ideas from Einstein to Proust.
Myerhoff’s colleagues, each located in more than one of these fields include, Tim Asch, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Harvey Goldberg, Gayla Frank, Faye Ginsberg, Vikram Jayani, Mark Kaminsky, Jack Kugelmass, Deena Metzger, Sally Folk Moore, Riv-Ellen Prell, and Jay Ruby. Riv-Ellen Prell, anthropologist, and professor and chair of the American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, relayed about Myerhoff, “I have never written anything without thinking about the importance of her vision” (Prell: personal email: 12 Feb 2007). While Myerhoff died before postmodern and post-structuralist critiques took hold in social science, her work, as Riv-Ellen Prell explained, “anticipated the whole crisis on the nature of authority in ethnography about which James Clifford wrote (Ibid).
A newly released book edited by Mark Kaminsky and Mark Weiss in collaboration with Deena Metzger, Stories as Equipment for Living: Last Talks and Tales of Barbara Myerhoff, demonstrates that despite her early death, which cut short her critical engagement, Myerhoff’s charisma and innovative works compel contemporary scholars and readers.
Bibliography and Email Interviews
Frank, Gelya. (1995) “The Ethnographic Films of Barbara G. Myerhoff: Anthropology, Feminism, and the Politics of Jewish Identity.” Women Writing Culture. Eds. Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 207-232.
Ginsburg, Faye. Personal Email. 18 April 2007.
Jewish Women’s Archive. “JWA Barbara Myerhoff Timeline.” <http://www.jwa.org/exhibits/wov/myerhoff/tmline.html> Accessed 2 March 2007.
————-Peyote Hunt: the Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians (1974). Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press.
Kaminsky, Marc, Mark Weiss, Deena Metzger (2007). Stories as Equipment for Living, University of Michigan Press.
Myerhoff, Barbara G. and Sally Falk Moore, eds. (1975) Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology: Cases and Questions. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press.
Myerhoff, Barbara G. (1975) “Organization and Ecstasy: Deliberate and Accidental Communities among Huichol Indians and American Youth” in Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology: Cases and Questions. Myerhoff, Barbara G. and Sally Falk Moore, eds. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 33-67.
—————- (1978) Number Our Days. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo, Singapore, Simon and Schuster.
Myerhoff, Barbara and Andrei Simic, eds (1978) Life’s Career-Aging: Cultural Variations on Growing Old. Beverly Hills, California, Sage Publications.
——————– “”Life Not Death in Venice”: Its Second Life”, in Judaism Viewed from Within and From Without, Harvey Goldberg ed. New York, State University of New York Press (1989), 143-169.
Myerhoff, Barbara and Jay Ruby. Forward (1982) A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Ed. Jay Ruby. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Myerhoff, Barbara and Elinor Lenz (1985). The Feminization of America: How Women’s Values Are Changing Our Public and Private Lives. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.
Myerhoff, Barbara (1988) “Surviving Stories: Reflections on Number Our Days” in Between Two Worlds: Ethnographic Essays on American Jewry, Jack Kugelmass ed, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 265-294.
Prell, Riv-Ellen. (1989) “The Double Frame of Life History in the Work of Barbara Myerhoff.” Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives. Eds. The Personal Narratives Group, Joy Webster Barbre, et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 241-258.
Prell, Riv-Ellen. Personal email. 12 February 2007.
Prell, Riv-Ellen. Personal email. 1 March 2007.
Number Our Days. (1977) Lynne Littman and Barbara Myerhoff. Videocassette. Direct Cinema Limited.
In Her Own Time. (1986) Lynne Littman and Barbara Myerhoff. Videocassette. Direct Cinema Limited.
This photo was used with permission from Claude B. Zachary University Archivist and Manuscript Librarian at the University of Southern California.
“Barbara Myerhoff”, date unknown University Archives, University of Southern California East Library Building <http://www.jwa.org/archive/myerhoff/bmcl.html> Accessed 2 March 2007.