There’s an origin story: Carolyn Sufrin ’97 started off happily, almost unconsciously pre-med at Amherst. After all, her father was a doctor, as were her maternal grandparents and various aunts and uncles. And then she took Deborah Gewertz’s “Anthropology of Gender” class.
“You should write more than prescriptions,” Gewertz noted on a paper, a comment Sufrin describes as her “mantra of support for the past 20 years.” That advice may have come to its full fruition with the publication of Sufrin’s new book, Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars (2017, University of California Press), about the intersections among poverty, racial injustice, incarceration and reproductive health.
Back to the beginning of Sufrin’s career-defining slide between anthropology and medicine: She was accepted to Johns Hopkins medical school, but instead of heading straight there after Amherst, she deferred. She’d been awarded a Watson Fellowship to study political activism and health care among Australian Aborigines.
“I was deeply questioning whether I wanted to go to medical school,” she says, then adds, laughing, “My form of teenage rebellion was contemplating getting a Ph.D. instead of an M.D.” Her parents—otherwise hands-off—persuaded her to go to medical school first. Anthropology would still be there later, they argued.
And it was. Between her final two years of medical school, Sufrin squeezed in an M.A. in cultural anthropology from Harvard, where she wrote up the Watson project. Then, during her intern year in obstetrics and gynecology at Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, she had an
experience that shaped the rest of her career.
“One night, when I was on call, I delivered the baby of a woman who was shackled to the bed. It was so troubling—I was so flummoxed and shocked by the experience that it opened up this whole Pandora’s box for me.” And it rekindled the commitment to social justice that had brought her into medicine in the first place.
So, to meet the research requirement of her residency, Sufrin studied family planning for incarcerated women. And afterward, when she applied to a fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco, the director there described this as her niche (“I mean, I barely had time to do my laundry, let alone have a niche!”)—which it became.
As it turned out, running a women’s health clinic in the San Francisco jail raised many complex issues. For example, prisoners are the only segment of the U.S. population with a constitutional right to health care—one of many lived ironies of her patients. “I felt this pull back to anthropology,” she says. “I needed the tools of anthropology to help me figure out what was going on.”
Back to school she went, to get a Ph.D. in medical anthropology from UCSF. She started her ethnographic research in the same jail where she maintained her clinical practice, and the uncomfortable thesis of Jailcare was born from this work: Given the ever-diminishing public services for the poor, combined with the unprecedented escalation of incarceration, jail has become something like a safety net for many women. “Jailcare suggests the disturbing entanglement of carcerality and care,” she writes. Acknowledging the potential danger of this paradox, she later adds, “I would be devastated if my work were taken as an endorsement of mass incarceration.”
Now at Johns Hopkins, she holds a joint appointment in family planning in the schools of medicine and public health. She does a mix of clinical work, teaching and research. She also runs an abortion clinic, which she describes as the most meaningful part of her professional life. And she uses anthropology skills in her daily work: asking why, questioning assumptions, listening to her patients. When I asked if she had a formal connection to the anthropology department there, she sighed and said no, then added, “It’s just hard to do everything at once sometimes!”
“Oh, is it?” I teased this tireless powerhouse of a person, and Sufrin, as generous as they come, laughed.
Newman is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, as well as a new middle-grade novel, One Mixed-Up Night.