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  • Mary Leighton

Coping with Conflictual Reactions to the Comaroff Story

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

Anthropologists have been left confused and angry, this week, after details broke of a sexual harassment case against John Comaroff, a senior professor of anthropology at Harvard University.

If you are not already familiar with the shocking details in the legal case, there is a breakdown on this Twitter account. I am in awe of the women's bravery in coming forward, and hope to goodness that they are getting the support they need and deserve.

In this post, however, I want to address the fallout for the wider anthropological community, particularly individuals who are not directly involved in this specific case, but are nevertheless feeling disorientated and upset by what is happening.

I'm writing this from my odd perspective as both a mental health therapist and an anthropologist who studied the structure and culture of US Anthropology.

I'm not going to talk about my own experience as UChicago grad student, but rather offer up some suggestions (beyond generic 'self-care' advice) for people in the anthropology community who are struggling to figure out how they should be feeling about all this.

The Comaroffs and US Anthropology

John and his wife Jean – collectively known as ‘The Comaroffs’ – are probably the most important living anthropologists in the US today.

Their influence extends beyond the University of Chicago, where they began teaching in the late 1970s, or Harvard, where they moved in 2012. And their professional and conceptual influence is felt not only in their subject areas or the regions of Africa where they work, but across the whole discipline.

Indeed, it is hard to think of anyone who has had a greater role in shaping the professional structure of the discipline over the last half century. The Comaroffs mentored many, many generations of graduate students, who have gone on to get jobs around the US and the rest of the world.

What this means is that there are huge numbers of current and former anthropologists who took classes with them, owe careers (and more) to their mentorship and encouragement, and were deeply influenced by their theoretical arguments. Or who – like me – just ‘came of age’ in a disciplinary culture dominated by their particular epistemic and interpersonal style.

It's natural, therefore, that a lot of anthropologists who might be considered 'outside' the specific situation unfolding at Harvard, are having some complicated and confusing emotions. After all, this is not just about one 'bad apple' - it's about our whole discipline.

This is a time when people are feeling confused and unsettled

In following the discussions on Twitter and Facebook, and talking with friends and former colleagues from UChicago over the last few days, I’ve noticed several reactions.

There are former students of John or Jean, who knew him only as a deeply committed and supportive teacher and mentor and are struggling to reconcile this with the picture of him as a predator or abuser.

Maybe he was the faculty-member who made sure you got the write-up grant that allowed you to finish, or gave you the pep-talk you needed at just the right time. If so, you’re probably feeling a whole lot of confusion and disorientation right now, realizing that the experience you had with him, was so diametrically opposed to his behavior towards others.

Then there are woman who, long ago, experienced a deeply unsettling and uncomfortable encounter with a male professor that bears similarities to what is described in the legal documents. In many cases, these women were encouraged – or warned – to dismiss what they experienced as a 'misunderstanding.'

Maybe over the years you’ve questioned your own reaction or memories of those incidents, but are now wondering if you were, actually, right all along. It’s likely you are feeling some anger, perhaps even vindication. But there might also be frustration and alarm, in realizing yours was not an isolated incident. Or a sense of loss for what you might have achieved, if you had only been believed at the time.

Then there are people like me and many other UChicago grads, for whom this whole conversation has brought up feelings that are not specifically about our relationships with the Comaroffs; but rather the broader culture and structure of anthropology as a discipline.

The unsettling sense that, within a system that relies on patronage and personal connections , you'll never truly know whether your successes and failures were due to your work, or your relative 'likability'.

If you are feeling any of these things, know that your response is normal, and that you shouldn't feel guilty for having mixed emotions. Moreover, you are justified in taking time over the next few days to look after yourself.

What can you do to take care of yourself?

What follows are some examples of things you can do now, over the next few days, and into the net couple of months as this particular crisis evolves.

Today: Deliberately find time to talk to people you trust, and try to avoid the endless loops of gossip online or on campus.

Instead of getting caught up in every last whisper-fest on Twitter or your departmental corridors, reach out to a few close friends you trust to talk about how you're feeling. Perhaps this is a time to connect with old grad school friends, or field-site colleagues who will have a similar perspective.

Let it all out, hear what they have to say in return, and take comfort from each other. Then make a deliberate decision to give yourself a break from talking about it for a while.

The goal is to avoid letting anxiety-building conversation-loops seep into every professional interaction, until you are completely exhausted by the whole thing. Instead, address it when you are able to think, feel, and talk about it seriously and safely with trusted friends.

If other people try to draw you into a conversation about it when you are not ready, or when you’re trying to focus on something else (teaching a class, getting through a meeting, walking down the corridor…) have a script ready to deflect.

“I know this is an important topic, so I want to make sure I can concentrate fully on hearing your concerns. But right now my attention is going to be split because we are doing X. Would you like to arrange a time to talk later?”

Tomorrow: Own your feelings, especially if they feel ugly or messy.

These kinds of situations can bring up a lot of contradictory feelings. You might feel conflicted or guilty about your response, especially if you had a close relationship with people involved but had no knowledge or even the idea that abuse was taking place.

Take thirty minutes by yourself to write down everything that’s coming up for you, and see if you can figure out what memories or experiences are surfacing for you in relation to this story.

What emotions are you feeling? What memories do you keep turning over and over in your head. Follow the thread of association and see where it takes you. Then make the decision to accept that these emotions are valid, and not something to be ashamed of. You can chose to change your behavior in the future, or to interact with other people differently; but your emotional response is what it is.

A person who abuses others is never terrible to everyone, only to select victims. In fact, abusers often appear charming or dazzling to others. If they were awful all the time, they'd get called out right away. Being popular, helpful, and generally a 'great guy' to most people allows someone to get away with abusing a specific, often isolated person, because no one suspects them of acting differently to others in private.

Next week: Get your crisis-response plan ready.

It can be reassuring to know that you'll be prepared, if something like this happens to you, a colleague, or a student in the future. So make a plan now: find out what resources are available to you, think through what you'd do in a range of situations, and assemble a folder or a document with a list of phone numbers or offices to contact. How to go about this? Start by setting aside an hour or so, sometime in the next few weeks, to research your institution’s policies on reporting harassment.

Some things you can aim to find out:

  • Are there different procedures for reporting harassment, depending on whether the victim OR the perpetrator is an employee (faculty and staff) or a student (grad or undergrad)?

  • Does your institution have an independent and anonymous whistle blower reporting system?

  • Can a bystander report something, or just a victim?

  • What exactly happens after a report has been made?

  • What does your institution do to protect against retaliation?

  • If an experience doesn’t reach the threshold of ‘sexual harassment’, what other formal or informal protections can be put in place?

  • If possible, talk with someone in your Title IX office in person and/or your HR department. But you can also just search through your institution’s website, making sure to check information that might be listed in different places.

Be aware that info for faculty and staff might be in your employee handbook or HR site, but undergrads may be covered by several different ‘student support’ offices. Graduate students are often a gray area, as they are sometimes tacked onto services designed for undergrads, but may also be considered employees. You might have to search in a bunch of different places, which is why it can be helpful to reach out directly to someone in your Title IX office who can walk you through it.

Next month: what change do you want to see in your community?

Sometimes in the heat of a scandal, everyone seems to be talking about change... but after a few weeks the conversation has moved on and nothing ever happens.

So if you are feeling emotionally overloaded right now, give yourself permission to skip the highly charged big-change-talk that might be going on around you. But promise yourself you will return to it soon, and then stick with that promise. Write it in your calendar if you want!

Some things to consider:

  • What can you change in your own department?

  • If you can’t take on extra work yourself, can you lend support to people within your institution, or within the AAA, who are trying to make change?

  • Faculty are not trained in providing mental health support to students, particularly when they may be feeling emotionally overwhelmed themselves. Consider reaching out to student counseling services on campus, and organizing an event where they come and talk to your students about the fallout and implications of a crisis like this.


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