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Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers August 2006

vol. 2, no. 8

In May, an American anthropology student named Tim finished his dissertation. Like many doctoral candidates, Tim had often wondered if he was smart enough to write a whole book. Unlike many doctoral candidates, Tim came back from the dead to find out.

In 1992, Tim had moved to Bolivia to do research for a master's degree in public health. Living in Quechua-speaking villages, he analyzed the training of rural community health workers to better understand the relationship between culture and public health policy. The experience was eye-opening.

Tim had come of age as a gay man in 1970s San Francisco and, based on the ideology of that era, believed in the “universality” of gay culture. In South America, the men that he met who had sex with other men were not “out” and many of them were married to women. The men knew each other and met at particular places, but they did not believe, as Tim did, that a shared sexual orientation constituted membership in a united tribe . The longer Tim was in Bolivia, the more fascinated he became with trying to understand these men and their sense of sexual identity. He found himself taking field notes for a project that had nothing to do with his master's.

Then, one of the men approached Tim and asked in a roundabout way what a person should do if he thought he was HIV-positive. In Bolivia at the time, there was no securely confidential way to get tested. A registered nurse, Tim counseled the man, but realized that he represented just one of many in dire need of health information and resources.

Meanwhile, a U.S. agency had recently started up Bolivia's very first AIDS prevention project, which was focused on female sex workers. Tim told the agency that they were overlooking an important population: gay men. The experts responded that Bolivia had no gay men. Because of his “unofficial” research, Tim was able to counter that “they may not be gay, but men here are having sex with other men and are at risk of HIV.” Not long after, Tim was hired to reach this largely invisible population.

Tim soon became a public figure who, on numerous occasions, was covered in the newspaper. His life was divided between meetings with Bolivian health officials (many of whom deeply distrusted this “queer gringo, here with his colonial agenda to create a population that didn't exist”), American NGOS (who were often oriented toward U.S.-based goals that had little to do with the local culture), and men who were sleeping with other men. Tim's life became increasingly complicated as he crossed back and forth between very different worlds.

Four years into his stay, in 1995, a terrible thing happened. Tim was found almost dead on the roof of his apartment building. His head had been repeatedly pounded into the cement and he had lost huge amounts of blood. His friends called a doctor, but the doctor said that there was no point taking Tim to the hospital, they were better off buying a casket. Fortunately, he was hospitalized, but remained unconscious in a Bolivian hospital for many weeks before he was medevaced to the United States (thanks to the efforts of his mother and a brother who flew to Bolivia the day they got word of what had happened).

Tim did not regain consciousness for three whole months. For another three months he floated in and out of consciousness. One of his earliest post-trauma memories is of a woman he didn't recognize imploring him to speak in English (not Spanish). The woman was his mother. He spent the next six months in a hospital rehabilitation unit for those with severe brain injuries. Throughout this period, his prognosis was poor. The neurologists told his family that Tim might one day be able to carry out the basic activities of daily living (such as getting dressed on his own), but that he was unlikely to ever be the high-achieving person they had once known.

One of the first things Tim said when he fully regained consciousness, however, was that he wanted to go back to school and get a PhD. Specifically, he wanted to write a dissertation about the relationship between sexual identity among Bolivian men with same-sex desires and the public health projects interested in them because of the country's burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic. Given the extent of his injuries, few people took Tim seriously, believing that he was “in denial” and “living in the past.”

One of his former university professors learned about Tim's trauma and came to see him. Carole did not treat his wish to pursue a Ph.D. as silly. “She didn't say, ‘you used to be smart,'” Tim recalls. “She said, ‘what can I do to help?' I will never be done thanking her for what she did for me.” Through encouragement and letters of support, she helped him return to the university to complete a master's degree in Latin American studies that he had started in the early 1990s.

Back in school against all odds, for two years Tim struggled terribly. Formally registered as a disabled person, he couldn't drive because he was having trouble controlling his seizures. Daily chores were a real challenge and he needed to sleep about fourteen hours a night just to get through the day. Still, he was able to keep up with his school work and complete the degree. As time went by, people could no longer tell that he had suffered such a terrible injury.

In 1998, Tim approached Carole about applying to the doctoral program in anthropology . She said, “I'm happy to help you, but you have to really want this and you have to deliver.” Tim assured her that he had never been more serious about anything.

He got in. He spent two years in classes, another year teaching, and then he returned to Bolivia for a year. While there, he started to write his dissertation, but most of it he later had to discard: “It was too self-reflective, about my own experiences, not the research. Those five-hundred pages of writing got distilled down to three pages in my filed dissertation.” Then he returned to the United States, hoping to file in one year, but it took him two.

Tim worked steadily, writing from 8:00 am to noon, then going to the gym. After “recaffeinating myself,” he would write again from 3:00 to 6:00 pm. He worked slowly, writing and rewriting each sentence, but regularly turning in chapter drafts to his committee. In February 2006, he had a full draft and started to weave the sections together and tie up loose ends. The last three months he spent long hours writing every day in a state of mixed euphoria and bad headaches, grateful to see the piece becoming a cohesive whole.

Tim now says, “ I began to realize that I was going to achieve my goal. But right up until the very day I filed, I wondered if I was smart enough.” As it turned out, he was. His advisor Carole told Flourish that Tim's dissertation is “brilliant.” It is “among the top five most outstanding dissertations I have supervised in thirty years as a professor: beautifully written, compellingly argued, and ethnographically sound.”

In May, possessed of a complete draft and all his signatures but not yet having filed, Tim held a ceremony at his church that he called “The Blessing of the Dissertation.” He invited all those who had helped him along the way.

“I consider it a scandal,” he told those gathered, “that I am listed as the sole author.” He thanked his mother, who had saved his field notes when no one believed that he would live, and who wrote a book about his recovery. He thanked his brothers and father, who had supported him every step of the way. He thanked his friend Jude, another dissertating graduate student who met with him regularly to share drafts and commiserate. And, of course, he thanked Carole, along with a host of others.

As Tim told them in conclusion, “I am standing here today with this book because every one of you believed in miracles.” Fortunately, so did he.