Following a body of work that uses ethnography to examine the relationship of the self to the other, sociologist and writer Susan Krieger in her latest book took a more intimate approach. Are you two sisters? The story of a lesbian couple uses her own long-term partner relationship to consider the boundaries between self and partner as well as between a couple and the outside world.
A research scholar for the Clayman Institute, Krieger appeared in a recent event in conversation with Shelley Correll, a former Institute director. Krieger said, “This is an unusual ethnography in that I use the techniques of a novelist combined with those of a sociologist, and I also speak in a very intimate, personal voice.” In the book, Krieger describes her experiences as part of a lesbian couple over a span of 40 years, beginning in the 1980s. She said her goals for this project were to focus particularly on self and other dilemmas, as well as bringing the reader along in a manner that made them feel present in the story, as the narrator experienced the events.
Correll read three excerpts from the book, including one from which Krieger took the title. Traveling in New Mexico, Krieger and Hannah (the pseudonym given to Krieger’s partner) stopped at a bar for lunch. As she left, a man called out to her in a challenging tone: “Are you two sisters?” As she silently continues to the car, he follows and calls out again. She quickly gets in the car and shuts the door, relieved that he did not continue. When Hannah joins her in the car, Krieger recounts the incident, and Hannah asks what she said. “I felt immediately ashamed and like a coward, because this was 2017,” she writes.
In excerpts that concern earlier stages in the relationship, Krieger recalls significant moments for herself and Hannah—discussions of moving in together and preparations for their wedding day. Sharing the back and forth of her interior thoughts, Krieger grapples with the sacrifice, selfishness, and place in society that she and her partner navigated to sustain the relationship. She also recalls the day of her earlier marriage to a man, when she had both celebrated the moment and felt weighed down by concerns of inequity. “I suddenly thought, ‘This should not be. I should not be getting extra privileges because I got married. All the same advantages should be given to individuals.'”
“This is an unusual ethnography in that I use the techniques of a novelist combined with those of a sociologist, and I also speak in a very intimate, personal voice.”
Such moments show Krieger’s gift for storytelling as well as her abiding interest in sociology and ethnography. In her introduction, Correll said, “I’ve been familiar with and influenced by Susan Krieger’s work for a long time,” first encountering her book Mirror Dance, about a rural lesbian community, when writing a paper in 1993. “Susan Krieger is a sociologist who has conducted pathbreaking work on the sociology of the self using auto-ethnographic methods,” she said, and Krieger illuminates how people develop a sense of self. With the current book, Correll notes, Krieger probes deeply into the tension of maintaining a sense of self while being deeply connected to another human.
The book includes an extensive bibliography, and Krieger acknowledged her debt to existing literature, particularly in lesbian studies, gay and queer literature, trans literature, disability studies, and ethnography, as well as works by fiction writers on craft. “Even though I write personally, it’s also deeply intellectual,” she said.
As a blind person, Krieger believes her writing process impacts her work. Of necessity, most of her revising takes place through listening, which she credits with creating a focus on flow and on the emotional truth of the writing.
Asked what she would like readers to take away from the book, Krieger said, “There’s a significant focus in the book on this need for protectiveness from the outside,” like in the title story of the man at the bar. Living as a lesbian in a long-term relationship “is a very inner experience for many, and it’s hard in the outside world when others try to step into that experience.”