VITA: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment
João Biehl's VITA: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (2005) is a study of the increasing prevalence of urban places in appallingly inhumane conditions that house the social outcasts of contemporary Brazil. Biehl refers to such [End Page 299] places as "zones of social abandonment" (2), that is, places that lack medical and governmental attention and are ultimately treated as "dump" sites for the ill, the impoverished, the mentally challenged, the jobless, and the homeless. Biehl focuses on Vita, one such place in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. Considering Vita "the end-station on the road of poverty; […] where living beings go when they are no longer considered people" (2), he examines life in Vita as a death catalyst for its occupants due to the ill-equipped staff, medical misdiagnoses, lack of funds and inadequate infrastructure. By choosing to pursue an ethnographical study of one of Vita's most lucid inhabitants, Catarina, Biehl exposes the consequences of the multiple and complex interactions of the social, medical, familial, and governmental negligence and malpractices. Working within an interdisciplinary framework of anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, psychiatry and cultural history, Biehl's study painstakingly traces Catarina's brutal and irreversible exclusion from society as well as her own struggles against this exclusion manifested through her incessant writing at the indigent asylum.
In addition to the introduction, conclusion, and postscript VITA: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment is divided into six lengthy parts. Each part is broken down into a number of entitled sections and accompanied by several photos of Vita and its occupants and of Catarina and her immediate family. Part I of this study, "Vita," gives a brief background on the "deinstitutionalization" of the mentally ill in the nineties in Porto Alegre, thus shifting "the burden of care from state institutions to the family and communities" (48). As Biehl demonstrates, this nationwide phenomenon intensified the emergence of socially marginalized and decaying areas such as Vita. In addition, Part I deals with both the background and mental conditions of the occupants and the staff at Vita, addressing the infrastructural and medical (AIDS and tuberculosis) difficulties they endure on a daily basis. In Part II, "Catarina and the Alphabet," Biehl relates his initial encounters with Catarina and his discovery of the lists of words and phrases she compiles in spite of her progressive paralysis and dependence on her wheelchair. Biehl then relates his conversations with Catarina about the writing of her "dictionary" in order to retrace her alleged mental illness and the rejection she experiences from her family, friends, medical institutions, and society as a whole. Parts III and IV reveal the findings of Biehl's ethnographic explorations outside Vita. The third part, "The Medical Archive," narrates Biehl's search for and examination of Catarina's medical files at different psychiatric institutions, revealing the inadequate and not careful mental health treatment (misdiagnoses and unnecessary medication) she received. The fourth part, "Family," details Beihl's encounters and conversations with Catarina's immediate and extended family in Novo Hamburgo. Through these encounters the reader learns about the attitudes and misconceptions Catarina's family held about her health. The contacts with Catarina's immediate family allow Biehl to conclude that she "had become a leftover in a domestic world, […] the negative value, the unnecessary component of a migrant and urban poor culture" (247). The book's penultimate part, "Biology and Ethics," offers an insightful discussion of Catarina's illness—Machado-Joseph disease—a hereditary degenerative ataxia that was the cause of her suffering and death, and was threatening her brothers as well. A series of Catarina's writing from 1999 to 2003 constitutes the last part of Biehl's study, "The Dictionary." Through an examination of Catarina's writing, Biehl exposes the structural violence that irrevocably led to her "social death," but also her rebellion against her fate. Quotes from Catarina's conversations with Biehl pervade this study as a whole, yet her voice is made most prevalent in the last portion of the study through the inclusion of excerpts of her dictionary.
One can quibble with what the book does less persuasively. The introduction announces Beihl's aspirations to write a book of a "texture [that would] stay as close as possible to Catarina's words, to her own thinking-through of her condition" (19). This could have been strengthened however with the inclusion of the quotes, [End Page 300] interviews and Catarina's writings in Portuguese. The insertion of Catarina's dictionary in her native language would have further authenticated her self-representation in this study in general and the last section in particular. Moreover, Biehl's criterion for including only certain portions of her dictionary in the last section remains unclear. It would be interesting to know if Catarina herself took any part in the selection of these portions. However, these criticisms aside, VITA: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment is a well-researched study with a fine balance between theoretical discussions and thorough fieldwork, offering a complex and original insight into the dynamics of social abandonment in contemporary Brazil. Biehl's thought provoking study not only renders visible the appalling experiences of the marginalized individual(s) at the asylum, but also shows the impact of social, political and cultural aspects of Brazil that further deepen the desolation of the poor as well as perpetuate the infringement of basic human rights.