Celebrating the Zesty Merry
In 2003, Sally Merry was the chair of the Program Committee for the American Anthropological Association’s annual meetings in Chicago. This meant she was responsible for corralling thousands of anthropologists into a four or five day program that included panels and sessions from dawn til dusk—and even past dusk. Sally had just come off of a term as president of the Law and Society Association and the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology; she was in the thick of her work on human rights and gender rights indicators; her prior work on Hawai’i, colonialism and law had just received major awards.
We had both been mentored by Sally—a lot. Each of us having begun to settle into professorial positions and trying to figure out what our academic careers might look like, we just really needed to see Sally, our touchstone, at those meetings. To check in, but also to get some words of inspiration.
We remember going to her hotel room suite. It was dark, but she had a terrific view. We entered the room, feet dragging, souls sagging from days of conferencing and the feelings of inadequacy and just plain exhaustion that conferences often produce.
We entered the room. And there was Sally! Bounding about, full of energy and tireless inspiration. A frenetic giant (well, a giant to Bill. He’s short).
“Let’s get room service!” she shouted. And we did!
We marveled at her pure force (for Sally was indeed a force). One of us said, “Sally, what’s your secret? You do so much! We can barely keep up! We are just soooo tired!"
She turned to Bill and said, “Well, Bill, I am afraid you’re out of luck.” She turned to Diane and said, “Diane, let me tell you about post-menopausal zest!”
Sally has been the zest in our lives and careers from the time Diane was an undergraduate and Bill was a graduate student. She was a fiercely devoted mentor, even for students not her own—indeed, she exploded the whole idea that anyone owns “their” students. Sally was all about creating new relationships, building networks, sustaining conversations across generations and disciplinary divides, teaching us how to mentor in turn. She also taught us to pull no punches in foisting our anthropological conceits into others’ supposedly more serious and important conversations. From the UN to community justice forums to scientific societies and beyond, Sally was a brave exponent of the value of the anthropological point of view.
She also taught us how to be a person. When Bill was accepting his first job, he was also thrust into the co-editorship of PoLAR: The Political and Legal Anthropology Review, with Sally as co-editor. We started with our first issue in 1997, and would collaboratively author editors’ introductions to each volume while stressing out over the financing, the formatting… and the binding of the journal. Yes: Sally decided we needed to have a proper binding rather than the old stapled-together weirdness of PoLAR in its early days. And of course, through sheer force of will, she made it happen. We celebrated terrific issues; we suffered threats from disgruntled authors; we sent floppy disks through the mail back and forth across the country. Along the way, Bill absorbed some of Sally’s Quaker can-do-ism: Just roll up your sleeves, figure it out, and go. No one else is going to do it for you.
In 2014 Diane, just entering post menopause but without quite as much zest, had the great pleasure of participating on a panel honoring Sally. Her paper considered Sally’s groundbreaking work on gender and law in the context of the genocide trial of General Ephraim Ríos Mont in Guatemala and she called it “In the Worst of Times, Making Merry.” It seems like times are even worse now and there’s no making Merry now that she has passed on. But “Merry” was such a perfect name for this smiling woman who so consistently modeled stalwart grace, careful analysis, and lightheartedness in the face of the challenge of keeping on keeping on, even as she labored amidst some of the grimmest aspects of our shared world. And so was “Sally,” with its sense of going off on a jaunt, or an excursion off the beaten track. Diane had the great good fortune of having Sally as her undergraduate advisor way back when she was still at Wellesley, setting Diane off on a lifetime of jaunting. Sally even trusted her with her children, always remembering the excursions and misadventures we had when we’d meet up at the AAAs. I mourn with them the loss of their mother.
But then again, Sally has left us with so many ways of making Merry: using the sophisticated tools of analysis and ethnography that she developed over her deeply generative trajectory. This would take us from her work in the US, making “the familiar strange” of “urban danger”, and working class consciousness of the law, mediation, and popular justice, to the lovely and depressing work on the role of law in colonizing Hawaii, then extending over the Pacific to think through Fiji, then China, India, and back around to the UN, NGOs, treaty-making and monitoring. She helps us understand the utter abstraction of wordsmithing, legal wrangling, and corporate-infused indicator productions and the deeply human hopes vested in human rights’ “promise of freedom, recognition and social justice.” She paid compassionate attention to the dogged efforts across such vast scales—from individual households to neighborhoods and nations, and to the General Assembly and back—to make good on that promise. Always, always, making Merry means attending carefully to gender, to global power inequalities, to the vagaries of “culture.” It means careful explorations of the universal and vernacular and the way that’s a false binary, and of the labors of translating and transduction. Perhaps most important, making Merry means thinking dialectically about the ideas and materialities of law and hope. It means exploring the powerful possibilities embedded in the struggles for rights while also being exquisitely aware of their utterly problematic genealogy and heartbreaking limits. Sally made the profound point that the idea of human rights inspires ambitious expectations that cannot be discarded. But they do not target economic inequality or deal with systemic and structural violences. That’s the work we’ll have to keep on trying to do, without her embodied presence, true, but nevertheless with her ideas and her force still very much in our hearts and in our world.