I’m Ram Natarajan, and I’m one of Sally’s former PhD students. I was Sally’s first PhD student in the Anthropology Department at New York University. Her presence in my life was (as I think it was for all who knew her) a tremendous gift and protection.
Sally became my advisor after I took a class with her on The Anthropology of Violence, and I decided to start a project on violence. I wanted to work with her because I felt free in her classes to take risks and explore, in the rare way that learning was fun in my favorite classes because of the challenge of rising to the level of the quality of the professor who was teaching. Sally would begin her seminars by asking us a question, and that single question would spark and sustain two and a half hours of uninterrupted discussion. As shy a graduate student as I was, I would find myself speaking up and up in Sally’s seminar, and the days I preferred to sit back and listen, she would call on me to read my reading responses, encouraging my thoughts and validating their contributions.
Outside of class I had started to read her scholarship, and there were two passages from her work that inspired me to study with her. One passage was from her book Gender Violence on rehabilitation programs for male batterers, which controlled poor men, but not privileged men, allowing them to avoid punishment. The other passage was from her book Colonizing Hawaii. “One way,” she wrote, “to understand the complexities of the colonial project is to take a magnifying glass to one small place and at the same time to deploy a wide-angle lens to view the larger processes that envelop that place.” The passage that continues is a perfect passage, in a perfect book.
As much Sally’s intelligence and work spoke for themselves, I also wanted to work with her because of who she was. She was, and remains for me, utterly herself, humble and grounded, a full person. This was the Sally who would leave our meetings to go try on jewelry with her sister Patty, hiked mountains, loved the color yellow, read Agatha Christie mysteries for the puzzles in the plots, and was above all, Paul’s partner and Sarah and Josh’s mother. I liked to make her laugh, and she could make make my jaw drop with her wicked sense of humor—her name for the bus that I would take from Cambridge, Massachusetts the year I lived there to her home in Wellesley still cracks me up. She would always tell me how grateful she was for me take the leap as her first PhD student. Anytime she would say that, I would tilt my head and give her a look, full of raised eyebrows, and say, Sally, I am the one who is grateful.
When I started my first teaching job, Sally let me stay at her place in New York whenever I wanted. She had previously lent me her office to write my dissertation, on a project that had tested me and her support had championed me through. Now, at a different moment in my life, she lent me her numinous New York apartment, filled with paintings her mother had made and handicrafts from her travels, and a south wall of windows looking onto Lower Manhattan and its skyscrapers rising, it always seemed to me, like schoolchildren raising their arms brimming confidently with right answers. If my stays coincided with her travels I’d always leave Sally a note thanking her telling her that I didn’t want to be taking advantage of her generosity, and she would write back asking when was my next trip. The last time I stayed at her apartment, I was looking at her bookshelf, and I discovered one of my letters tucked in between the book covers.
The year we began working with each other we became quite close, and that closeness threaded together our friendship and our working relationship as mentor and student. We both knew things about each other’s life, we were both aware of and witnessing different matters of life and health, and we both gave each other space and intervened when necessary.
Her fifteen years at New York University brought Sally co-teaching with Rayna Rapp and Emily Martin, dinners with Bambi Schieffelin, office neighboring with Fred Myers, visits with her friends in the Anthropology Program at CUNY, and collaborations at the law school for her projects on indicators. New York University also brought her graduate students. Last month in September 2020, Sally’s students celebrated Dr. Jessica Lopez Espino and Dr. Nathan Madson as the newest members of the Sally Merry advisee club that includes Drs. Canfield, Craven, Estrella, Gu, Hayden, Raheja, Ramachandran, Romers, Sanchez, Trowbridge, and Wood, and will soon include Ikaika Ramones. We are among the many people Sally has mentored, who have benefitted from Sally postponing attending a lecture to extend office hours a little (or a lot) longer, or bestowing on us her own honors, like giving us her work to read, as if we were peers, equals.
She was for so many of her students, as many of us have commented, the difference between staying in graduate school and dropping out. When someone said they doubted whether to stay in graduate school, Sally was a PhD advisor who said doubt was healthy, and insisted if we didn’t question why we were doing what we were doing, only then would she have concerns. All her students’ projects, researching violence to animal care to food sovereignty to trafficking, are a testament to her range and the range of what we achieved with her supervision that gave us each space to find our way. Our projects show, I hope, that her decision to take those fifteen years of Amtrak commutes from Wellesley to New York was worth it.
Years after I took Sally’s class on the anthropology of violence, I decided it was time to ask her how she could launch a single discussion question that could get a class debating. She told me that the key to a good discussion was to present a puzzle—that was how you got people to parse out a thorny problem. You had to figure out how to clarify a problem by framing it as a puzzle, asking a question that allowed people to think it through, without offering the answer. She has shaped me so much that it's hard for me to pick some aspect of studying with her as more important than others—but her lesson on how to ask questions has always stood out to me. I always try to pose my own questions, and more, following the advice of Sally—mentor, confidante, friend.