Remembering Sally Merry: Susan Hirsch

I have been so deeply sad since hearing of Sally Merry’s death. Over the past few days, thinking about Sally’s life has filled me with profound gratitude for the gift of having known her and learned from her. The clarity and precision of her interventions into legal anthropology through writing on legal pluralism, human rights, domestic violence, vernacularization, indicators, and many more key concepts, certainly shaped my writing and thinking throughout my career and moved the field in new directions. What I’m most grateful to Sally for, though, is much more personal. She was very kind to me, when I was in graduate school and then a new faculty member. Sally welcomed me, and her invitations, encouragement, wise advice, and friendship made me feel included as I was trying to find my way as a professional. I suspect that many dozens of you reading this now had experiences that resemble mine of Sally’s kind generosity and collaborative spirit. Sally’s influence on several generations of legal anthropologists is wide and deep, and it will endure. A few more personal memories of being with Sally are reminders of her wonderful qualities as an anthropologist and a person. I remember sitting in Sally’s kitchen in the early 1990s with Mindie Lazarus-Black and the three of us talking for most of an evening about the relative merits of the phrases “domestic violence,” “intimate partner violence,” and several alternatives, as we co-created the title of a symposium. The care and thought that Sally put into articulating concepts account for why so many of her contributions to the anthropology literature stuck their landing and continue to be used.  A couple years later, following a talk I delivered, Sally counseled me to rethink my use of the term “mechanics” to describe a particular court process. How right she was that mechanics conveyed a rigidity that contrasted with what was likely happening; how chagrined I was that I had used the term with so little thought; and finally how lucky I was that Sally was so gentle and thoughtful yet insistent in pointing out my misstep. Other memories make me laugh out loud. During the LSA meetings in Vail, when I was still a graduate student, Sally invited me to join a group to hike in the nearby foothills. It was a terrific outing; Rick Abel leading us along trails and the conversation bouncing everywhere. I found myself going slower than the others who fanned out below me as we descending a hill with lots of loose rock. Not a strong hiker, I slid abruptly and dislodged a large rock that shot down the hill—right  toward Sally. For a terrifying split second I could see the headline in the next Anthropology Newsletter that blamed me for hurting our beloved Sally. But the rock took a bump and skittered past Sally, who barely gave it a glance. When I told her later what had happened, her eyes widened and she laughed it away. One last memory: Never will I forget going with Sally and a few other anthropologists to tour Graceland, Elvis Presley’s lavish home, while attending the American Ethnological Society meetings in Memphis. Frustrated as we all were at the bland tour that depicted Elvis as just a “normal” person, Sally pulled out her best ethnographer skills to encourage the tour guide to offer up some insights into the seamier side of Elvis’s life—addiction, marital drama, relative hidden away—everything the guides had been ordered not to speak about. Sally was good at what she did, and to our delight we all learned a few tidbits about Elvis through whispers and knowing looks. Sally was so much fun in that kind of situation, where there was something new to learn, something to be curious about, something to laugh about. Sally’s smile, good humor, and brilliance are legendary, and we will all miss her.

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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