Out of Africa
Author Roy Richard Grinker follows in the footsteps of anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull

Roy Richard Grinker

By Gerald Bartell

Author Roy Richard Grinker was eager to know how his editor liked In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull. Then Grinker�s manuscript came back bearing a Post-it note. It read: "He�s straight."

The point was well taken. Grinker is straight. The problem was that his subject, anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull, was gay. And St. Martin�s Press� editor Michael Denneny felt Grinker�s passages about Turnbull�s gay life, a vital part of the narrative, fell flat.

The block was the only one Grinker had faced in writing the book. In so many other ways, Grinker almost was Turnbull.

At George Washington University, Grinker is an associate professor of anthropology, the position Turnbull once held. And as a student at Grinnell College in Iowa in the early �80s, Grinker, like Turnbull, threw off what he calls "an overbearing childhood."

Grinker�s great-grandfather was one of the first practitioners of psychoanalysis in the United States, introducing phenobarbitol into this country from Europe. Grinker�s grandfather, also a psychiatrist, studied with Sigmund Freud. Grinker�s father, too, was a psychiatrist. So Grinker�s family expected him to be number four. He refused, remaining instead an indifferent student uncertain of his future.

Then Grinker read Turnbull�s groundbreaking study of African Pygmies, The Forest People. Grinker found the book "electrifying." It inspired his career. Grinker became an anthropologist like Turnbull, eventually traveling to Africa to study Pygmies, as Turnbull had done.

Later, he began to study Turnbull himself.

Turnbull had rebelled by coming out. The son of upper-class parents, a graduate of Oxford, he lived an openly gay life in England in the �40s and �50s, and later in the United States. In 1960, Turnbull, who had become curator of African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, became the partner of Joseph Towles, an actor and later an anthropologist. Their relationship lasted until 1988 when Towles died of AIDS. (Turnbull died of AIDS in 1994.)

"Being gay made Turnbull think of the world as defined by false categories," Grinker says. "He didn�t like the words �gay� or �homosexual,� not as words that defined someone totally. Being gay made him question the kind of limits we put on ourselves."

Grinker also observed that Turnbull�s gayness caused him to see science was not microscopic data, but a discipline to be deeply felt.

"He was dedicated to the idea that people doing scientific work bring their own past to it," Grinker says.

So as he faced his editor�s criticism, Grinker searched his own life to make Turnbull�s story more than data. Karen Wolny, another editor at St. Martin�s, suggested Grinker concentrate on a relationship Turnbull shared with an African man in the Ituri forest.

"How did it feel everyday to see that tight butt, that muscular body with almost no fat?" Wolny asked Grinker. "Close your eyes and imagine looking at Kenge�s body. How did it make him feel? How does it make you feel when you imagine it?"

Sitting at his keyboard, Grinker fantasized.

"I thought about how good it felt when men touch my hand, my back, my leg," Grinker says. "I realized I hadn�t wanted to recognize how having that physical affection felt good. Now I�ve become more open to showing physical affection."

Grinker found this new sensitivity warmed his entire book.

"At one point I wrote, �Colin had a jeweled soul,�" Grinker says. "I�d never written that way."

Grinker says he also developed keener insight into what it means to be gay.

"I learned I was distant from gays and gay relationships," he says. "I think it�s important to have people who are not gay write about gay issues. Why shouldn�t that be possible? There need to be bridges."

Richard Grinker reads at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at A Different Light, 151 W. 19th St. For information, call (212) 989-4850.

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This article appeared in the issue of:
September 22, 2000