This assignment was written for a Feature Writing class to specifically focus on an important story within an interesting person’s life.
“You’ve had eight abortions? Are you sure?”
Dr. Debra Curtis cringes when remembering this response, which has since been immortalized on a tape recorder. Anthropology field work require neutrality in order to establish rapport between the researcher and the subject. If somebody feels judged, he or she is less likely to provide honest answers.
She was interviewing Aniela, a woman from Guyana who moved to Nevis and lived there with her husband for most of her life. Aniela talked about her lack of educational opportunities and poverty, residing in a house without running water and cared for her dying father in the black of night.
Dr. Curtis was first tested for her impartiality when interviewing a fifteen year old girl about her sexual experiences. Tanya claims that she’s only had a boyfriend here and there. When taking a taxi later that week, the driver recognizes Tanya based on a description of her butt tattoo.
“That girl? She likes to be had by more than one man at once…”
Dr. Curtis kept a strong face, but now had to contemplate about which one of them was telling her the truth.
When teaching her introduction course to Pell Honors students at Salve Regina University, Dr. Curtis often tells these stories. Her class in the semester of Fall 2019 has thirty students, mostly freshman girls who are excited to be in the college setting, not shying away from answering any of her inquires.
Dr. Curtis teaches barefoot, exhibiting the energy of Shakespearean theater but with the quirky nature of a stand-up comedy sketch. She frequently blames her behavior of having too many cups of tea, but it’s truly a smart way of preventing her students from falling asleep in class.
Aside from this course, Dr. Curtis teaches a Gender and Sex class, a Global Capitalism course that looks at modern globalization as the end product of tribal society, a Human Rights class about the contemporary struggles involving women in the Middle East, and a research preparation for sophomore for developing their thesis in senior year.
Her interesting anecdotes originate from her field work in Nevis where she stayed from January to August of 2003. These eighth months were chosen out of the year to purposely avoiding hurricane season.
“I am drawn to aspects of the human condition that for too long have been regarded as taboo among academics,” Dr. Curtis’s mission explains on Salve Regina University’s website. “Subjects such as love, death, madness, and sexuality, while taken seriously by some, continue to remain on the margins of the academy.”
Dr. Curtis’s aspiration to explore these intellectual ideas can be traced back to her upbringing. She was raised in Portsmouth, Rhode Island to a family with long-lasting ties to Aquidneck Island. Her father’s side only moved to Jamestown by boat in the 1740s after originally settling in the 1630s. John Coggeshall, one of the founders of the Rhode Island colony and its first President, was her ninth great grandfather. Her mother’s ancestors only came from Ireland in the early twentieth-century.
She considered herself to be part of a middle class family, maybe even part of the lower middle class. Dr. Curtis’s father had a GED and her mother worked as a teacher for forty years in the Newport school system.
“They didn’t keep a lot of books in the house. My mother read romance novels otherwise.” Dr. Curtis later compensated for this fact by filling the bookshelves in her living room to the brim with almost any title. “My sister and I thought we were going to follow in her footsteps as teachers or nurses. I was very active in high school, but I had a learning disability that had gone undiagnosed. My grades were so low that I barely got into university.”
She studied for her undergraduate degree at Keene State College, majoring in political science because anthropology wasn’t available to study as a major yet. The “light bulb went on” only after taking an anthropology course.
Dr. Curtis describes the questions as being intellectual and very attractive. “The professor was a young guy of Cornell. When I first met Frederick Errinton in 1982, I didn’t even know what anthropology was, but whatever this was, I wanted to do it.”
She met her future husband, Stephen Butler, in the spring semester before graduating in 1985. Butler had not attended college yet and was studying to become a doctor in Northern California. Before receiving her master’s degree in public health at San Jose State University in 1988, she went on a tour of medical systems in Kenya. Dr. Curtis knew that these studies were definitely important, but she wanted to ask larger academic questions about how culture shapes people’s understanding.
She called Dr. Errinton to talk about her ambitions and he provided her with a list of books.
She pursued her doctorate at Rutgers University, living in New Jersey from 1994 to 1998. Her husband finished medical school at the same time and applied for residency in the same area. Dr. Curtis completed her degree in 2006 because she didn’t feel comfortable taking her twin daughters, Zoe and Emma, into the field until they had adequate immune systems.
When completing research in Nevis, she looked specifically at twelve to twenty year old girls.
That timeframe marks the age of passing into puberty when sexuality becomes more formative. Dr. Curtis also wanted to choose a place that other anthropologists had neglected. The only books about sexuality in the Carribbean focused on gay men and sex tourism.
She chose to study in the Carribbean, rather than any other part of the world, out of convenience. After moving into her late thirties and having children, she needed to do long periods of field work, but didn’t feel brave enough to take Zoe and Emma into Africa. Dr. Curtis visited the Carribbean in 2002 to see which island she would study, eventually choosing Nevis because of its small size. Less drugs were also being transported through Nevis from South America as well.
Dr. Curtis took much of her interest in the contrasting influences that affected the Nevisian girls. Different religious sections visited the islands and left behind their conservative ideologies. The Methodists arrived in Nevis during the 1600s and the Catholics implemented their missionary work in the next century. Evangelical Christians didn’t try to spread their influence until the 1920s. At the same time, American media basked in widespread sexual expression. Lil Kim was frequently rapping about her passion about oral sex while Hollywood movies reinforced the idea of treating copulation as a casual act. The United Nations were also trying to educate people about HIV through billboards and pamphlets.
“Women were getting conflicting messages about what it means to be female.” She clarifies. “They thought of sexual incourse as a trade for consumer goods.”
In comparison to other anthropologists and their unique experiences, Dr. Curtis dealt with a minimal language barrier. Most anthropologists spend two years in their assigned place to learn the vernacular but The United Kingdom only left Nevis by the 1970s so their language remained as the dominant lexicon.
Anthropologists don’t usually give out surveys as part of their research, since that tends to be the methods of sociologists, but she needed to understand their slang to fully grasp their answers. Those one hundred and fifty girls clarified, for example, that “pulling tongue” translates to “making out” while “backdrop” meant anal sex.
In one of her questions, Dr. Curtis used the phrase “If a man breaks instead of you” (in reference to ejaculation) to ask about what time of the month that a woman is most likely to get pregnant. Only one of those girls answered correctly with ovulation.
“As an antropologist and feminist, and even as a Catholic, I’m very sex-positive.” She explains. “But I believe that kids should be protected.”
Dr. Curtis learned that many of the girls who were fifteen to seventeen years old didn’t use condoms because of their boyfriends supposedly had latex allergies. Only 1 in 10,000 men are truly affected by these reactions.
She initially gained the trust of these Nevisian girls through a “snowball effect” where “one really cool girl, who had a lot of social capital” accepted her inquiries and almost bragged about the answers. She never faced any violence when trying to interview, only passive aggressive resistance from the others.
“Sienna stared at me, stone-faced.” Dr. Curtis remembers that this teenager wore her school uniform, a white blouse and plaid skirt, messy and unzipped unlike the tidy manner of her classmates. “She wouldn’t speak to me until that really cool girl came by the window and called me ‘Debby.’”
The other locals thought she was frumpy. Dr. Curtis considered herself to be lazy at this time, since her husband was back in the United States, but her neighbors thought she wasn’t taking care of herself.
“They even said ‘Have you seen her? How could she possibly know anything about sex?’”
They eventually looked past her demeanor. A thirty-five year old woman, Darcy, later told Dr. Curtis about how the first time that she recieved oral sex was only last year and that she’s “been looking for him ever since.”
Dr. Curtis assumed at first that Darcy was homophobic based on some derogatory comments made about gays and lesbians, but she started another interview by saying “Let me tell you about the first time that I had slept with a woman.”
Darcy’s friend chimed in at the same time. “I’ve always wanted to do that!”
When living in Nevis, Dr. Curtis and her twin daughters lived in a little concrete pink house with running water and electricity that wasn’t grounded. She slept in the same room as her children, keeping a knife under her pillow to fend off any intruders. Her husband bought slates of food from the local hardware store, holding them at the bottom of the sliding glass door to keep from opening. She remembers waking up one day and finding a stack of cinder blocks in her garden that was a feeble attempt of trying to break into her home.
Zoe and Emma came to the island when they were only four years old, celebrating their fifth birthday there. They attended a private kindergarten with twenty other kids where the teachers didn’t believe in corporal punishment, since the public schools still allowed for that practice.
The most difficult part for Dr. Curtis and her field work involved “balancing the role of being a mother and professional.” She never wanted her children to have a babysitter if she could take care of them. Her husband visited Nevis every ten days from Logan Airport, islanding hopping from San Juan.
After finishing her lectures at Salve Regina University, Dr. Curtis drives her Lexus Sedan, with a license plate reading NEVIS, back to her home in Portsmouth.
Dr. Curtis’s home was built in the 1860s but has been owned by the monks at Portsmouth Abbey for fifty years. That boarding school is just through the woods of her backyard. Her family moved into the house after her husband agreed to treat the students on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. His main practice is located in Fall River, Massachusetts.
It’s no surprise that Dr. Curtis has become a collector of items from every culture imaginable. A baby basket from Borneo sits alongside Indonesian fishing baskets. Gourds and headpieces made by the Maasai people in Kenya hangs from the other side of her living room. The Venus of Willendorf stands underneath a decorative medical prescription made by a Peruvian shaman. It looks like a sewn placemat to the untrained eye.
In 2019, when identity politics and fair representation has become more relevant than ever, Dr. Curtis is fully aware of her privileged position and has become deeply informed about Nevis’s history. (The original natives of Nevis were slaughtered by the European explorers. Nevisian locals are people of African descent who were previously displaced by slavery.)
She has contemplated endless times about the everlasting dilemma of being a white woman who is trying to understand black culture. “I’m not truly sure that I ever rectified with this fact.”