Remembering Sally Merry: Vibhuti Ramachandran

In Gratitude and Grief

I remember the day I first met Sally at the meet-and-greet for new graduate students at NYU. I was a first-year graduate student, pumped to enter the anthropological world, but equally lost in its realm of possibilities and my place in it. Sally had been on the graduate admissions committee. When I introduced myself, she remembered my application and mentioned what she had found interesting and worth exploring in the (undoubtedly over-ambitious) plan I had laid out. I was floored–not just by her memory, but by her validation of my very nascent and tentative ideas and her upbeat, encouraging words to the anthropological neophyte that I was. For a scholar of her intellectual caliber and publication record to take interest in my ideas and plans meant so much to me then, and throughout my graduate career and all the conversations I had with her thereafter. I know I am by no means the only wide-eyed graduate student whose research she shaped and whose life has been enriched both personally and intellectually from knowing her. Her own cohorts of colleagues apart, I have heard from so many junior scholars who have reached out since she passed, expressing how much her work and mentorship meant to them–across disciplines, institutions, and geographic locations. The breadth of scholars whose work she shaped is truly amazing.

As I continued to find my feet in anthropology, and figure out how to weave together my interests in law, human rights, gender and sexuality, and postcolonial studies, Sally became not only my PhD advisor, but a mentor and role model both within and beyond academia. I remember sitting in the Socio-Legal Seminar she taught at NYU, feeling inspired by the richness and innovation of her own stellar contributions to law and society, and her thoughtfully curated sampling of the field she had helped to build. I began to find the direction I needed and started to dream of poring over legal documents and observing court procedures and human rights activism and putting it all together with robust postcolonial feminist critiques–somehow. During and after my fieldwork on U.S.-driven, NGO-led anti-trafficking interventions in the postcolonial Indian legal system, I often struggled with that “somehow.” Sally was always brimming with ideas to help me work it out.

As a scholar, her long and wide-ranging body of work continues to inspire and impress me any time I start working on a new idea: from the intricacies of legal institutions and court procedures to the role of colonial law to gender violence and governmentality, to human rights and global governance. She showed me and multiple generations of socio-legal scholars how to be attentive to the micro-practices of law while also exploring human rights, legal developments, and gender justice in a global context. As difficult as her passing is for her colleagues, students, friends, and family to process, and as gaping a void as it leaves in academic fields spanning legal anthropology, law and society, human rights, feminist and postcolonial legal studies, and critiques of global governance, this is a moment to celebrate both her academic career and her outstanding mentorship. She was keen to connect scholars with each other and made great efforts to do so, not only to boost those individuals’ professional development, but to continue to build and enrich socio-legal studies across the globe.

Sally was the PhD adviser of graduate students’ dreams. She invested deeply in her students and gave of herself fully–almost too generously, as we would all concur. She read everything we sent her–from an article draft to the smallest of grant applications–and always had astute and substantive feedback, often accompanied by the important and helpful, but difficult question, “but what do you mean by X sentence?” She was a stickler for clarity and comprehensibility in the expression of ideas: something that she modeled in her own writing and talks. I still hear Sally’s voice in my head when I read over something I’m writing, and find myself asking the “what do you mean” question. Her careful and attentive mentorship was by no means reserved only for her own students. I remember attending conferences where she was asked to comment on junior scholars’ papers, and marveling at the time she took and the work she put in to engage with their ideas and help them develop their arguments.

I had the fortune and pleasure of working with Sally as her research assistant for her Indicators project, where she explored the politics of how efforts to quantify human rights performance work as a form of global governance. It offered me a ring-side view of Sally’s capacity to simultaneously conduct multi-sited research, make sense of (or rather, question the sense of) dense, bureaucratic policy reports, and support three of her graduate students, culminating in her book The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking (2016). I conducted research in India for the project, during which time Sally also visited and conducted some interviews with me. I have a wonderfully vivid memory of us walking through Kolkata’s red light district together, with Sally gamely donning one of my Indian outfits as we tried to make sense of our limited time in that space. I observed her approach to figuring out a new field site and was struck by her humility, ethnographic curiosity, and feminist persuasions and commitments.

I also had the good fortune of observing Sally’s writing process and the value she placed on feedback even from her then “ABD” student. As she worked on her book chapters based on the research we had done, she ran drafts by me, demonstrating her humility, openness to feedback, and commitment to doing justice to a multi-sited, multi-methods project. We also co-wrote a book chapter based on the research for Michael Barnett’s edited volume Paternalism Beyond Borders (2017). It was a joy to write with Sally and a valuable lesson for a graduate student in how to write collaboratively, generously, rigorously, critically, and powerfully. At points when we got stuck along the way, we laughed and tried again. Sally’s energy, sense of humor, and work ethic were almost contagious–almost, because you had to be Sally to get it all done with a smile on your face.

As every one of the tributes pouring in has mentioned and as all who knew her appreciated so deeply, she was not just a brilliant and prolific scholar, but also a truly wonderful, empathetic, and kind human being. She went above and beyond to provide every kind of support a student could ask for. She had the ability to know when students were struggling, and showed the most heartfelt understanding during difficult circumstances. I have so many memories of all the times she went out of her way to support me: phone calls to talk through difficult fieldwork situations, taking the time to come and hood me at the commencement ceremony, flying across the country to visit when my daughter was born, checking in to see how my spouse and I were dealing with the remote teaching/writing-from-home/ childcare circus Covid-19 lockdowns had brought about, just months before she passed and as her own health had begun to decline. There are innumerable more moments that I haven’t listed, but I remember and cherish each one of them.

I remember speaking to Sally right before I left for fieldwork in 2012, when she told me of her cancer diagnosis. Throughout my flight to India, I felt unsettled and unmoored at the very thought of what a void her loss would leave. I did not think it possible to be more heartbroken than I was in that moment. Sadly, her loss has shown me that it is. The last I heard from her, over this past summer, she was still hoping to teach in the Fall, despite finding it difficult to speak. She fought long and hard these past few years, teaching and writing through it all, with grace, grit, and resilience. I don’t know how she did it, but that is who she was. None of these words do justice to the grief with which I am processing her loss, or the profound gratitude with which I will always remember her. Her strength is what I want to hold on to, yet it is irreplaceable.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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