Folklorists’ research often takes them into communities about which outsiders know little, but Elaine Lawless, Professor of English at the University of Missouri and current Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professor at UNC and Duke, took an unusually imaginative and harrowing step when she decided to spend her sabbatical year volunteering at a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence.
Lawless was already the author of several celebrated books and a film on the role of women in American religion as well as multiple influential scholarly articles on collaborative methodology in ethnographic research and narrative analysis. Her work at the shelter led her to more than a decade of exploration and advocacy, building on what she had learned by listening without preconceptions to women struggling to escape from abusive relationships. She discovered that the stories women are expected to tell in order to receive support and legal protection are quite different from the stories they most need to tell in order to heal and move on confidently with their lives. Courts, psychologists, and curious sympathizers ask to hear all the hideous details of abuse, whereas, Lawless discovered, left to their own devices women also began to tell stories that omit the abuse and thus make the woman rather than the abuser the active agent in her life.
Out of this research Lawless first produced Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment through Narrative (University of Missouri Press, 2001) and then collaborated with University of Missouri Theater Professor M. Heather Carver to create the Troubling Violence Performance Project, in which actors present some of the true stories entrusted to Lawless. Carver and Lawless further collaborated on a book, Troubling Violence: A Performance Project (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), which traces the development of their collaboration and the troupe’s early experiences presenting the stories to audiences both sympathetic and hostile. Lawless’s ongoing research reveals how often our culture diminishes, conceals, or even condones intimate violence against women and children. And she now is moving in yet another new direction, embarking on a research project documenting the highly varied life stories of American veterans.
For the Fall semester 2011 Lawless holds the Nannerl Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professorship at UNC and Duke, which recognizes the remarkable contributions of Dr. Nan Keohane during her term as president of Duke and the unprecedented level of collaboration she and former UNC Chancellor James Moeser created between the two institutions.
Patricia Sawin, Coordinator of the Folklore Program in the Department of American Studies at UNC, and Tom Rankin, Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, collaborated to nominate her.
As Keohane Professor, Lawless will give a public lecture drawing on her domestic violence research:
• “Missed Representations: Visual Imagery of Intimate Partner Violence” on Tuesday, October 25, 7 p.m., University Room, Hyde Hall, UNC
• Directions: http://www.unc.edu/maps/index.htm?q=hyde%20hall
Lawless along with Carver and the Troubling Violence Performance Project will then present two performances:
• Thursday, November 3, 7 p.m.: Center for Documentary Studies, Duke
• Directions: http://documentarystudies.duke.edu/visit-us
• Friday, November 4, 7 p.m.: Center for Dramatic Arts, Room 101, UNC
• Directions: http://www.unc.edu/maps/index.htm?q=center%20for%20dramatic%20arts
Lawless, now Curators’ Teaching Professor and Alumni Distinguished Professor at the University of Missouri, is the author of six books on women in American religious life, including Handmaidens of the Lord: Women Preachers and Traditional Religion (University of Pennsylvania Press 1988) and Women Preaching Revolution: Calling for Connection in a Disconnected Time (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), and co-producer (with Elizabeth Peterson) of a documentary film on Pentecostalism, Joy Unspeakable (1981). She is former editor of the Journal of American Folklore (2000-2005) and past president of the American Folklore Society (2007-2010). She currently serves on the board of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and as humanities coordinator for the national Veterans Oral History Project in Missouri.
Lawless will be based at CDS in the Spring semester 2012, as the Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC at Chapel Hill.