In his new book, medical anthropologist Prof. Todd Meyers chronicles a decades-long relationship forged across profound differences with a participant in a study that began in his grad student days.

“I’m committed to understanding how people manage illness, how they form relationships of care with the people around them. If there’s a mission statement to my medical anthropology work, that’s it.”

Todd Meyers (Associate Professor and Marjorie Bronfman Chair in Social Studies of Medicine) is talking about his work and how it underpins his remarkable new book from Duke University Press, All That Was Not Her.

“Unlike a lot of social science research or ethnography or anthropological texts, the book is very aware of the action of writing, of the actual log of the encounters,” he said. “I tried to open up the form. There’s something different going on here.”

Indeed, there is. All That Is Not Her is a work of academic-level rigour that, in the quality of its observations, the sharpness and lyricism of its prose, and the non-chronological innovations of its structure, crosses over into the realm of literary non-fiction. The book is, among many other things, a record of a conscientious scientist bumping up against the limits of his science and charting the resulting personal crisis. Grappling with notions of failure and incompleteness, it turns those seeming weaknesses into strengths.

Raised in Indiana, Meyers grew up aspiring to be a visual artist, obtaining a B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Then he pivoted to anthropology and public health, where his path took in an M.A. (2006) and a Ph.D. (2009) from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; the Shanghai branch of New York University, where for four years he was director of the Center for Society, Health and Medicine; and since August 2020, McGill—after a hair-raising time getting his family out of China during lockdown.

“I love Montreal,” said the 48-year-old, who lives in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve with his wife and their two young children. “Everyone in the family is adjusting, learning, speaking French, becoming part of the fabric of the city. And the university has been very good to me. The first year it might have felt a bit slow and hard to meet people, because everything was remote. But things are waking up now, and that’s nice.”

All That Was Not Her had its seed in 2002, when, as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, Meyers joined a study focusing on the management of illness in low-income households. He soon found himself in the home of a Baltimore family led by a troubled but indomitable woman named Beverly, who emerges on the page as an indelible figure, part interlocutor, part adversary. From conception to completion the project had a twenty-year lifespan, during the last portion of which Beverly had died and Meyers continued having contact with her children and grandchildren.

The relationship at the centre of the book was a fitful but enduring one, forged across profound gaps—of race, education, wealth. Of his exchanges with Beverly in the early stages, Meyers writes, “I was overeager and took the absurdity of our connection for granted; I failed to acknowledge all the unevenness between us.”

Meyers’ engagement with Beverly, in all its complexity, infuses the book with a rare immediacy. It’s one thing to write about an interlocutor in the abstract; it’s quite another to present an image that catches you up short by encapsulating the human dimension of the subject, as when Meyer describes a beleaguered Beverly “dressing children for school while experiencing severe chest pains.”

If Meyers sounds confident of the book’s strengths and value, it’s a position that has been hard-won. All through the work he shows a flair for self-critical aphorisms. “I take things from the past and I abscond with them. I offer nothing in exchange,” is one rumination on what a researcher does. Later, going through boxes of Beverly’s personal effects after her death, he describes himself as “a misguided archeologist, a treasure hunter, desecrating one small tomb at a time.” Writing about someone who has died—bringing them back to life, in a sense—is described as “an act of necromancy.”

“I think a lot of writers and academics like to think they work on risky topics,” said Meyers. “But the risk in this case is the risk of losing your way in a project and being challenged about what you’re committed to. So, while as an anthropologist I’m committed to things that are empirical and produce evidence, I’m also recognizing that those things are not neutral.”

This journalist surely won’t be the only reader who finds All That Was Not Her at times reminiscent of another Baltimore story, The Wire. Indeed, Meyers is a big fan, praising David Simon’s show for its moral and ethical complexity, and its insistence that character is inextricable from milieu and atmosphere.

“I’m always surprised when I read an ethnography or a piece of research that involves contact with people yet is completely absent about what that contact is, with individuals becoming simply sources of data. That’s certainly not how I experienced doing field work in Baltimore. The book is not an objective look at the lives of people in an African American family—it’s a record of a relationship with one woman in one family, that is negotiated and transformed over time.”

Settling into Montreal life, Meyers still finds himself thinking often of China. The suddenness of his family’s exit from there meant leaving a lot behind.

“We’ll eventually have to go back and close out the rest of our affairs there, but that’s not going to happen any time soon,” he said.

Meanwhile, with All That Was Not Her making its way out into the world, it feels like an appropriate moment to ask Meyers what his abiding memory of Beverly might be.

“Laughter,” he said after some reflection. “Yes, she had serious neurological and physical problems. There were moments when she was delirious. But she was also funny and raunchy and irreverent.”

As for the readership All That Was Not Her may touch, Meyers is guardedly optimistic.

“I would hope it resonates with anthropologists and other social scientists, and will have a utility for clinicians, social workers, and other people in caregiving. But I’ve also noticed that when you write about things that have a medical connection, it weirdly has a way of becoming shared and universal. Honestly, though? I’m just thankful and appreciative that it’s being read.”

It’s a feeling he might have to get used to.

Ian McGillis writes about books and visual arts for the Montreal Gazette.