What Would Sally Do?
I am grateful to the leadership of APLA for inviting me to offer more personal reflections on the passing of Sally Engle Merry. There will be many ways to remember and memorialize Sally in the months and years to come, but I thought I would say something about the lessons I learned from her over the years, lessons both professional and personal.
Sally was a legendary mentor to students and colleagues. It’s important to remember that she spent the first thirty years of her career teaching at her alma mater, Wellesley College, where she didn’t supervise her own doctoral students. Nevertheless, she mentored hundreds of graduate students over these decades in a more informal capacity, as well as serving on doctoral committees at different universities around the world. Indeed, this was how I first met Sally; like many, I suppose, I reached out to her as a doctoral student with a passion for the anthropology of law. This would have been around 1996 or 1997. From that moment on, she played the most important role in my career, first as a mentor, then as a colleague, and finally as a friend.
There are many professional lessons to be learned from Sally’s career, but the one that has shaped my own sensibilities more than any other has been the importance of a kind of scholarly steadiness. Leaving aside her much-appreciated introduction to the cultural dynamics of gender violence, her five other sole-authored books appeared like clockwork roughly every ten years: based on funded ethnographic research; complemented by corresponding journal articles; and developed conceptually through invited lectures, collaboration with colleagues, and a willingness to revise, reinterpret data, and view the project from different perspectives.
In this, Sally embodied more than any scholar I’ve ever known the wisdom of the apparent paradox festina lente, “hurry up slowly.” Of course, this kind of quotidian scholarly regularity over many decades is only possible if there is real love for the process itself, even more than for the results. (Here, I can’t help but think of Rilke, who said we should learn to love the questions themselves.) Sally loved her work, the long-term commitment to writing, the anthropological life—despite, or, perhaps because of, its mysteries, its contradictions, its unresolvable questions.
Personally, the ever-present lessons I learned from Sally are the importance of discretion, tolerance, and respect for colleagues, even—or especially—those with whom we disagree. Every time I have felt like blasting off an indignant email, I have thought of Sally and have almost always desisted, or have reframed the righteous missive to be understanding, understated, even ambiguously brief.
During the multi-year project that led to The Practice of Human Rights (2007), I had the occasion to witness Sally’s tact in action many times, something that was absolutely necessary among that group of alpha anthropologists. Sally’s spirit of grace was something she applied to every situation: letters of recommendation, grant reviews, interactions with students. Any time I’m faced with similar choices, because our lives are filled with choices, I ask myself: What Would Sally Do? Although it is difficult in many cases, I try and do what I know Sally would do: let her love light shine.