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Volume 10, No. 8 - November 2000  
Table of contents for this issue  

The Anthropologist as Lover

ROY RICHARD GRINKER WAS A COLLEGE FRESHMAN when he first read Colin Turnbull's anthropological blockbuster The Forest People, a romantic portrait of the African Pygmies. "I loved it!" he recalls. "It transported me to another part of the world." But by the time Grinker was studying the Pygmies himself, he, like many of his peers, had come to view Turnbull as an outdated embarrassment—a simplistic popularizer who relied on poetic moral judgments instead of reasoned analysis. "The work seemed so barren of hypotheses I could test, barren of theories," recalls Grinker. "I wanted to throw The Forest People across the room!" He laughs ruefully. "I was mad at him."

Grinker was angry enough to ignore a generous letter Turnbull wrote, offering to aid him with his research. And when Grinker published his own ethnography, Houses in the Rainforest: Ethnicity and Inequality Between Farmers and Foragers in Central Africa (1994), the book energetically debunked Turnbull's central thesis: that the forest-dwelling Pygmies were a separate culture from the villagers with whom they traded. Turnbull, wrote Grinker, didn't understand the community because he didn't have the tools to do so—right down to the Pygmy language itself.

It was a classic case of an academic Oedipal conflict. So how did Grinker come to write In the Arms of Africa (St. Martin's), a sympathetic and deeply moving biography of the precursor whose work he had once reviled? Repentance, for one thing. "I had failed to meet a remarkable person because I was consumed by youthful narcissism," he writes in his acknowledgments. There were other motives as well. While occupying Turnbull's position at George Washington University, Grinker found himself surrounded by Turnbull's former colleagues. One of them, Bob Humphrey, was the anthropologist's executor. And as boxes of papers and journals poured into the anthropology department following Turnbull's death in 1994, Humphrey encouraged Grinker to look at them. Grinker discovered a man of courage and originality, as well as a spiritual seeker who had maintained a passionate and committed interracial gay relationship despite overwhelming social pressures.

The resulting memoir is a love letter, but a nuanced one. Turnbull comes across as brilliant, sensitive, and charismatic, yet often cruel and distant; a scholar passionately devoted to social justice yet blind to his own power. He loved the Pygmies and painted them as the essence of goodness, but he hated the Ugandan Ik (the subject of his controversial second book, The Mountain People) and depicted them as purely evil. Ultimately, writes Grinker, Turnbull changed anthropology in crucial ways, largely through the force of his writing: "The truth of the Zairean rainforest or the tragedy of the Ugandan mountains could not be conveyed in an academic publication to be read by a few hundred scholars. It had to reach millions of people and to come from the heart."

Though Turnbull was born into a gruff Scottish-Irish family, he rejected much of his heritage, starting with his traditional British boys school. "I do not think I learned anything useful in that school," he wrote acidly, "except how to lie with only moderate success, how to cheat, and how to have zero confidence in adults and peers alike." Enamored of Eastern spirituality, after a stint in the navy Turnbull spent several years in an ashram. And he had a long and intimate love affair with an Indian woman, braving the snubs of his community when he brought her to a local dance.

But it was when he turned to anthropology that Turnbull found the perfect outlet for his desire to spotlight the ignored and underestimated. He presented the Pygmies as loving, peaceful, and close to nature. They raised children with love, not discipline. Their sexuality found its place on a continuum of pleasure that encompassed the glimmer of the moon and the rhythms of their native instrument, the molimo trumpet. Their seeming submission to the Bira villagers in fact concealed a clever subversion: They pretended to go along with their oppressors' religious taboos but privately maintained a cheerful independence and benefited from the exchange of goods. This analysis may have been too simple, Grinker argues, but it was a powerful expression of Turnbull's lifelong message: that Western imperialism brought about a deep spiritual sickness, and that Indian and Asian cultures offer a better vision for humanity.

According to Grinker, the central experience of Turnbull's life was his thirty-year love affair with the younger African-American man whom Turnbull called "my wife, Josephine." Grinker argues that Turnbull viewed his relationship with Joseph Towles as a metaphor for his relationship with Africa: Turnbull saw his young protégé as a neglected genius, and he was determined to reverse their positions in the eyes of the world. Indeed, the final years of Turnbull's life were spent in a desperate attempt to cement Towles's reputation as the superior anthropologist.

Towles and Turnbull had a tempestuous union, and Turnbull could be controlling and cruel. Nonetheless, the couple's bond withstood remarkable pressure, including harassment from Turnbull's scholarly peers. When Turnbull worked at New York's Museum of Natural History during the early 1960s, he brought Towles to department parties. In response, an openly xenophobic colleague, Jim Ford, sought to hoax Turnbull by sending him a series of fictional letters purporting to offer valuable tribal artifacts. Finally, Ford wrote a public letter to the anthropology department that denounced Turnbull's homosexuality and referred to Towles as his "private specimen." Turnbull's dignified reaction when the screed was passed around at a faculty meeting so impressed his colleagues that Ford was fired shortly thereafter.

Turnbull eventually retired and began focusing much of his attention on Towles's troubled academic career at Virginia Commonwealth University and elsewhere. He also turned toward social justice issues, including research and advocacy work on death row. The wrenching ending of Grinker's book recounts Towles's descent into mental illness and AIDS-induced dementia as Turnbull patiently nursed him at their home in rural Virginia. After his lover's funeral, Turnbull retreated from the world entirely, refusing medical treatment. In his final days, he became a Buddhist monk, retiring to an ashram in Bloomington, Indiana—only to be ejected when, Grinker suspects, his hosts discovered he had AIDS.

Unlike Grinker's earlier work, In the Arms of Africa is no scholarly treatise. Passionate and often erotic, it is a page-turner, much like The Forest People itself. Grinker is not blind to the irony. "Hey, I was jealous!" he acknowledges with endearing candor. "I saw syllabi using Turnbull's book—and I wondered, 'Why can't they have my book on the Pygmies?'" But making the emotional leap into Turnbull's life story helped Grinker reevaluate what it meant for a writer to have a cause rather than a thesis. "I understood then the motivation to think of who your audience was, who could share what you felt rather than just what you learned," he muses. "I recognized that Turnbull wasn't trying to do what I was trying to do. He was trying to convince people that truth and beauty existed—that those values were there, and that they existed where people thought they didn't."

Emily Nussbaum

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