The University Record, January 28, 1997

MacArthur Fellowship recipient Behar disusses panic attacks

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services


Faculty member Ruth Behar's professional interests range from witchcraft and death to contemporary Cuba and the life of a young Mexican immigrant to the United States.

But these varied interests are driven by some unusual personal experiences.

A Cuban-Jewish immigrant, Behar was plagued by panic attacks after winning a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988 and receiving tenure in the Department of Anthropology.

For several months, the 35-year-old Behar became a living oxymoron: an agoraphobic anthropologist who could go nowhere.

The affliction, whose emotional roots are described in a recently published book, came on suddenly in the middle of an aerobics class---just before she was scheduled to leave for an anthropology conference and a trip to Cuba.

A car accident at age nine left her immobilized in a body cast for more than a year after her family's arrival in the United States. When the cast was finally removed, she was afraid to stand up and walk.

"I would tell friends about the accident and found that I'd get irritated if they showed too much sympathy for the girl in the cast," she says. "I certainly had no sympathy for her. She had been a crybaby and a coward and I was ashamed of her.

"Not until my unconscious restaged---so many years later---the memory of my confinement to my bed and the dread of having to stand on my own two feet, did I begin to feel empathy for the young girl that I had been."

It took Behar months to get over her panic attacks, finish the book she was working on at the time, Translated Woman, and go to Cuba. "During the weeks before I came to an understanding of what I was experiencing, I lived in a space of terror," she writes.

In the process of coming to terms with her condition, she learned how common it is for women to experience panic attacks and agoraphobia. She also learned how important it is for women to remember the girls they harbor inside themselves. "The girl in the cast lives within the women who won't move, can't move; the woman who has been stopped in her tracks, the woman who will not make up her mind as to how to place herself in relation to the lost homeland, the Cuba that is part memory, part forgetting, part longing."

It's likely some will praise Behar for The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (Beacon Press), for her emotional honesty and her ability to redefine the boundaries of anthropology by spotlighting the validity of lived experience and the importance of revealing the self who observes.

She also may be criticized by those who believe that anthropology should remain, first and foremost, an objective science.

"Autobiography has emerged, for better or worse, as the key form of storytelling in our time," Behar observes. "Isn't it a pity that scholars, out of some sense of false superiority, should try to rise above it all?"

Symptoms of panic disorder

About one out of every 75 people in America suffer from panic disorder, with about one of every three women suffering from panic attacks and other kinds of anxiety disorder, including various kinds of phobias. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the clinical diagnosis of panic disorder requires that a person have at least four panic attacks in four weeks, or have a single attack and be consumed with worry for at least a month about when the next one is going to occur. For diagnostic purposes, a panic attack must include at least four of the following symptoms:


Shortness of breath or a sensation of smothering


Dizziness or feeling faint


Heart palpitations, accelerated heart rate








Nausea, abdominal distress


Depersonalization (the feeling of being outside your own body)


Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet


Hot flashes or chills


Chest pain or discomfort


Fear of dying from any of the above symptoms


Fear of going crazy or being out of control


Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition Revised