The Ethnographies of Berko and Skloot: Reliable or Not?

Smacholdt's picture

 Ethnography: the branch of anthropology that provides scientific description of individual human societies (Wordnet). Greek ἔθνος ethnos = folk/people and γραφία graphia = writing ( This is a simple enough definition of a word that has endless possibilities and problems behind it. How do you tell someone else’s story as fairly and objectively as you can while still reminding the reader that you too can make mistakes? Both Rebecca Skloot and Anat Berko, authors of The Immortal Life if Henrietta Lacks and The Path to Paradise: the Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers, respectively approach the issue of the anthropologic exploration of their subjects differently. While both authors insert themselves into their books, but they do so in different ways. Skloot inserts herself in her book to politely comment or correct her interviewees. Berko also intervenes in her interviews, though with a judgmental attitude. However, being an Israeli woman talking to Palestinian suicide bombers, her audience knows exactly where her biases lie. I began to reflect upon these two books thinking that since I found Skloot’s narrative more entertaining that Berko’s that Skloot was more trustworthy. However, seeing how forwardly Berko admits her biases, I began to wonder if Skloot’s silence on this issue made her less reliable.

            In Path to Paradise, Anat Berko makes no bones about being biased. An Israeli woman interviewing Palestinian suicide bombers, would be almost inhuman if she did not harbor at least a little resentment. Berko, while willing to listen to her interviewee’s testimony has more than a little resentment about what they tell her. On page 148 Berko says that Palestinian children are “brainwashed” in formal and alternative school settings into believing in the shaheed’s almost godlike status. Her opinion is obviously influenced by the ethnic area of the country that she is from, and she doesn’t try to deny this. On the book’s final page Berko tells the reader something that Skloot never does- her exact motives for her interest in her ethnographical work. Berko says,

My intention was to open a window for the reader into the world of the men and women who blow themselves up and of the Palestinians who dispatch them on their missions, and to shed light, if possible on the similarities between them and suicide bombers in other parts of the world…Whether I succeeded or not is for the reader to decide (Berko 175).

This honest explanation that she, like any human, is fallible when it comas to portraying an issue that is this important to her in an unbiased way shows her commitment to doing a fair and honest assessment of the situations of each of her interviewees.

            Another way in which Berko shows her commitment to writing an unbiased and fair work is through her willingness to participate in the conversation with her subjects. When a woman wonders aloud in her interview whether Israeli mothers feel the pain that Palestinian mothers do when loosing a child, Berko is quick to jump in and assent that Israeli mothers do indeed feel the same way. Berko tells the woman that, “Mothers are mothers everywhere, and that it really didn’t make any difference where they lived or whether they were Muslim, Christina, Jewish, or Buddhist” (Berko 144). In addition to adding her thoughts to the conversation Berko also asks (sometimes inflammatory) questions about the nature of the lives of suicide bombers and dispatchers and why they commit the actions they do. On page 61 Berko outright contradicts Hamas Leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin’s belief that every person who has been wronged will chose to resolve the problem with killing himself and others. These probing questions and outright contradictions are effective strategies, and prove Berko’s intent to learn more about the driving forces and fundamental beliefs behind Yassin’s actions. Her paraphrasing and outright contraction of Yassin’s point only forces him to delve deeper into his own ideas and explain himself with more depth and clarity. In any case, even if Berko’s outright contradiction did anger Yassin, the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians’ is at such intensity already, it would probably not make much of a difference. Berko also asks very pointed questions of her interviewees as on page 98 when she asks someone, “You yourself were ready to die so that you could murder Jews, right?” By asking these pointed questions she gets to the heart of the issue and forces the people she is interviewing to think about what she is asking them. Skloot makes minor corrections during her interviews. She tells Zakariyya in an interview that, “It’s George Gey, not Grey” (Skloot 246). Other than that Skloot mainly listens to what her interviewees have to say.

Berko’s approach to the narrative form of her books also differs from Skloot’s in that, while both authors admit that what their interviewee has says might not be completely accurate, Berko goes so far as to scorn these incorrect bits of information. For instance, when Yassin cites inaccurate information about Japanese kamikaze she says, “the sheik was apparently unaware of historical facts” (Berko 155). Skloot says a similar thing is a less brash way at the beginning of her book. When mentioning that she has kept interview dialogue the in its original form, she points out that the Lacks family routinely called Johns Hopkins, “John Hopkin” that she left the incorrect phrase for complete historical accuracy.

This is another point that makes me question the complete validity of Rebecca Skloot’s ethnography. Skloot includes details of dialogue and actions of characters that she could not have possibly known. She admits that Henrietta Lacks died decades before she was even born. How could Skloot have known exactly what the characters were saying to each other decades previously? For instance, on page 46 when Henrietta tells Sadie that she getting cancer treatments at Johns Hopkins, Skloot describes in great detail Sadie’s reaction to and feelings about this distressing news. Diary entries can only tell a researcher so much about what actually happened. However, Skloot opens the very first page of her book’s introduction with the sentence, “This is a work on non-fiction” (Skloot ix). Although as she goes on to say, “No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated,” the statement that the book is non-fiction makes me even more uncertain about whether Skloot is completely trustworthy. Since no one can be absolutely sure that all of their facts are accurate, I would have felt more comfortable if she has said something like, to the best of my knowledge, everything in the book is accurate. Skloot must have fictionalized many of the historical portions of the book. Maybe she just fluffed them up a little to be more like a narrative and to be something that she readers would enjoy more. However, since she did not tell the reader that this is what she did, this makes me again question the “truthfulness” of her entire book.

One of the major challenges in writing an ethnography is that no one can have as Friedrich Nietzsche puts it, “immaculate perception.” It is impossible to present any narrative in a completely unbiased from, let alone the narrative of a person so radically different from yourself, as Berko and Skloot endeavor to do. While I started my investigations into this topic thinking that Rebecca Skloot’s book was more trustworthy, I found myself coming to the conclusion that Berko was the more trustworthy narrator both because of the way that she shows her commitment to her interviewees even though her own views differ greatly from theirs and because she, unlike Skloot admits her biases right away, and is clear about her motives for writing the book.

Works Cited

Berko, Anat. The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their

     Dispatchers. Washington: Potomac Books, Inc., 2009. . 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2010.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown

     Publishers, 2010.

Wordnet: A lexical Database for English. Princeton University, 27 Oct. 2010. Web.

     1 Dec. 2010.




Anne Dalke's picture

on the unreliability of silence

what i like about this piece, Smacholdt, is the way it moves--from your initial observation that Skloot was more trustworthy than Berko to your final ones that --given the inevitability of construction and bias--Berko was actually the more trustworthy narrator "both because of the way that she shows her commitment to her interviewees ... and because she ... admits her biases right away, and is clear about her motives for writing the book." So interesting how changing the presumption re the inescapability of bias changes the conclusion: that the explicitly more biased writer might be the one we trust more, while the one who is more silence becomes less reliable...

Those observations lead, in fairly predictable turtling-all-the-way-down mode, to further questions, which I'll ask when you come to conference: what happens now, to your initial use of the terms "fair" and "objective"--are such things possible? desirable? Ditto re: other key terms further down in the body of your essay: "honesty," "fallibility," "validity," "accuracy," and of course, "truthfulness."

You might also want to take a look @ another essay, by FatCatRex, about narrative ethnography.

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