By: millie.rooney | August 16, 2015

I greedily reach for more both hands outstretch stuffing my face and gorging. Other people’s tears dribbling down my chin. Their lumps of sadness choking my throat and sitting heavily in my belly and yet still I reach for more. My hunger is not stopped by the bloating and the sleepless nights that will follow as I toss and turn in bed attempting to digest this glut of sadness (reflection journal, 2015).

I’m a sadness eater. A title I’ve only just come to own although it is a profession I’ve been practicing for years. I’ve invented the job title recently but my role and position description have always been quite clear.

In the world of universities and polite small talk prefaced by “and what do you do?” type questions, I’m Dr Millie Rooney, Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania. Accordingly I to talk to people about their lives and, using the tools in my qualitative research tool kit, I try to make sense of these stories as part of the larger societal narrative about who we are and how we live. 

I’ve interviewed people about why they walk or drive their children to school, I’ve talked to people about their neighbours and practices of sharing, I’ve exchanged letters with people about their domestic lives and community groups and families. And currently I interview people about their domestic energy practices, how they keep their homes thermally comfortable and what helps or hinders them in achieving this.

At the end of every interview, I conclude by saying “that’s all the questions I have, is there anything else you would like me to know?” And there it begins. The platters of sadness paraded before me for my consumption.

Sometimes the sadness comes in snack form, vague stories of discontent and regret for the way life is, or has been, lived. Other times the sadness is a hearty meal that is immediate and deeply personal.

Most recently a man I was surveying told me about the death of his dog and the depths of his grief. He explained in detail the cremation and ceremony. He was now faced not only with the loss of his dog and companion but also the financial strain thanks to the bills from the vet and the crematorium. I wolfed his sadness down before moving on to the next appointment.

I shared another meal of sadness with a woman as she wrote out the confusion she felt at finding herself in an unfamiliar city surrounded by people whom she found cold and shallow. Her loneliness and disbelief at how hard it was to build satisfactory relationships spilled out, letter after letter, her depression clearly blooming.

Sometimes, when I visit a house I am given a banquet of sadness. In some cases the people I speak with are saturated in grief, warping my view of them and their capacity to interact with me. It is only after I’ve started to chew and swallow that our interactions can become less stilted and the people I’m talking with more relaxed.

The example that stands out most in my mind is a man I interviewed at his home. Walking up the driveway I was scared. I didn’t like his haircut and he couldn’t look me in the eye. Until this man I had never really felt unsafe at an interview, but I was thrown by his manner and hard eyes. He was as suspicious of me as I was of him. He answered my questions with slippery responses and made me work hard for his engagement. It wasn’t until we began talking about his disabled granddaughter (hence the large collection of plastic cars) and his knee injury (hence the long term unemployment) that I began to notice the sadness he carried. And as he noticed that I was truly listening to what he said and truly tasting his grief, our conversation wandered further and further from the topic of energy efficiency.

Heavily he told me about the couple next door who had lived in a house swamped by mould. They’d been good mates but when the husband died the wife had moved, leaving a hole in the social life of the street. When I asked this tough guy whether he had met the new tenants he said he didn’t dare. Last year this man had lost four people who were very close to him, including the neighbour, he said “I don’t dare make any more friends. Everyone I love dies”.

I could feel myself choking on the thick syrupiness of this sadness but I forced myself to eat on. I listened and listened as hard as I could, trying my hardest to season our meal of melancholy with appropriate sprinklings of kindness and care.

I rolled out the door of that house clutching my belly and falling into the car, holding my tears back as the sadness threatened to overwhelm me. But grief like that cannot be simply purged with a quick finger down the throat.

And they kept coming as I went from house to house, the tales of misery and woe: my husband left me; I wasn’t living here in June because they thought I had murdered my daughter; I’m bi-polar; I’m not sure my daughter is ready for uni she has delayed learning; I slept at my friend’s house last night ‘cause my boyfriend was getting violent; it’s not the same since my husband has gone into a nursing home. On and on and on and on and on and on and on a progressive feast of sorrow


My concept of sadness eating is drawn from what little we know of the 17th century sin eaters. Sin eaters were people on the fringes of society: the poorest of the poor, eking a living as eaters of other people’s sin.

Sin eaters were paid by the relatives of the dead to dispose of the sins of their loved ones. Bread, salt, and sometimes beer, would be passed across the bodies of the deceased and then given, with a small payment, to a sin eater. The sin eater would eat the food and in doing so take on the sins leaving the sinners free to pass to the heavenly kingdom above. In return the sin eaters had access to food and an income that allowed them some sort of basic existence.

The price of sin eating however, was huge. Not only were sin eaters shunned during their earthly existence as ‘dirty’, they were also expected to pay for these sins for all eternity.

I can find very little written about the role of sin eaters in these societies. Shunned by the church and thus a somewhat clandestine activity, it seems that sin eating was some kind of theological loophole, a kind of religious insurance. I imagine that perhaps sin eating was one more ritual to ease the pain and grief for families of the dying. I imagine that perhaps it was a clever way of feeding the poor, an elaborate welfare scheme dreamt up by some enterprising and hungry human of the lower classes.

But sadness doesn’t work the same way. In telling me, I don’t believe people are suddenly free from pain. Clearly I am unable to promise them a free pass to some kind of happy heaven on earth. When they exhale their sadness for me to consume it is not the end of grief for them.

So where does this sadness come from? And what should I do with it?

I wonder if much of this sadness, or at least its appearance in my life, is because many people have no other place to put this grief. In all my research, regardless of the content matter of the study, a common thread is a sense of disconnection expressed by nearly all participants. People are lonely.

But why would they talk to me? Why unburden oneself of sadness to a complete and utter stranger? Surely that is what professional counsellors, psychiatrists and doctors are for? Yet I’d hazard a guess that many of the people I speak with either don’t want to be labelled as someone who needs to see a counsellor, or the thought has not even crossed their mind. And I am not a counsellor, let me make that clear. I am different partly because when I am offered a platter of sadness, it is by someone who knows that I need them more than they need me. Unlike a counsellor where the person who is ‘sad’ has a ‘problem’, Dr Millie Rooney visits homes not to give but to receive.

In a society that values giving over receiving to be one who receives sadness as if it was a gift is a unique position indeed. Most people who participate in my research tend to tell me that they are doing so because they want to ‘help out’, because ‘young people at university need help’ or because they want to ‘contribute to something big’.

When people offer up their grief, perhaps I need to understand this not as a burden, a poisoned feast of woe, but rather as a gift and an unconscious attempt to nourish. And perhaps it is here that sadness eating and sin eating are similar. Historically the sin eater acted as a receptacle for sins, a place to put past misdemeanours and file them safely away. As a sadness eater perhaps I do the same thing. I provide an opportunity for people to air their sadness and in doing so to start to move on.

Sure, I’m often sick with tears after these meals, but I’m also warmed and satisfied by the trust that strangers place in me when they ask me to taste their personal recipes of sorrow. Rather than resenting the inconvenience of a melancholy meal, perhaps these meals can be seen as incredible gifts of human connection. It is important to recognise that research is about far more than pure data collection and analysis, research itself can play an unexpected role in the knitting together the fabric of our society.

Category: General 

Tags: research, disconnection, loneliness 



Posted on : September 23, 2015

I've really loved reading your thoughts on here Millie, and I just
wanted to share something I read recently. It's in a book called
Heat by Bill Buford, and an anecdote about the "New American
Cuisine" that came out of the 1970s (opposing fast food, tv dinner
culture by celebrating fresh, local and seasonal ingredients and all
that they symbolise).<br />
<br />
He writes:<br />
&quot;I was living in Berkeley as a student until 1979 and now
appreciate that the revolution had begun only a few blocks away at Chez
Panisse, the famous restaurant run by Alice Waters. I had two meals
there and two recollections: a vague one of a dish distinguished by
it&#39;s outlandish deliberateness (homegrown snails, perhaps, in a kiwi
Jell-O adorned with edible flowers - something, in any case, that was
saying &quot;Admire me&quot; very loudly); and a specific one of Leonard
Michaels, a fiction writer and English professor, eating at the next
table. Michaels had grown up on New York&#39;s Lower East Side, had an
urban, jaded manner, and was refreshingly suspicious of whacky
California enthusiasms. But on this occasion, Michaels, surrounded by
three rapt disciples, was holding forth with with uncharacteristic
animation on a piece of food - an asparagus spear. He was holding it
between his fingers and addressing it as if it were no mere green
vegetable but a matter of great urgency - a manuscript by Milton, say,
or Susan Sontag. Dinner had become an intellectual issue. In America,
food had never been intellectual. In this asparagus was a revolution.&quot;<br />
<br />
More heft and history - not that you needed it - behind your worthy
asparagus/revolution connection.


Posted on : August 24, 2015

I believe that our capacity to grieve is equal to our capacity to love.
Fear of grief prevents us from loving. It&#39;s a wonderful gift to hold
people in their grief. I feel Australian society is pretty hopeless at
it so I see your work as a kind of emotional activism. Thank you.


Posted on : August 17, 2015

Natalie, I&#39;ve been surprised by how many people have responded to
say &quot;oh that is sad&quot;. I feel so immersed in it all that while
I know it is sad, I really see it as incredibly normal and something to
work to change.<br />
<br />
Car, thanks for the lovely comment. I think that we can create
&#39;community&#39; in a variety of different functional forms
(Putnam&#39;s use of the terms bonding and bridging social capital are
relevant here), be that increasing our visibility in place or actually
asking for a cup of sugar or a sympathetic shoulder. I don&#39;t know if
the act of research can knit together those within the research itself,
but as stories get told and re-told the threads do help to create norms
of understanding around the importance and difficulty of connection.<br />
<br />
Lil - yeah, the intimacy that occurs between the researcher and the
researched is often astounding and precious!<br />

Lilian Pearce

Posted on : August 17, 2015

Millie, you have captured this experience so beautifully. Like many good
researchers, and good listeners, I too have been at the receiving end of
such sadness. I think it is this kind of intimacy that makes the brief
encounters and the research so meaningful, and the authentic portrayal
of other peoples&#39; experiences so important (and emotionally
overwhelming at times!). Sadness, like joy, is precious when shared and
you are so precious for the work you do in bringing people together. <br />


Posted on : August 16, 2015

Lost for words on this thought provoking reflection on the role of the
researcher. So many different ways to describe what we do in that very
intimate exchange otherwise known as the interview. The question that
I&#39;m left wondering is whether this &#39;knitting together&#39; goes
beyond your exchanges with these people to take the relationships to
another level where you&#39;re a convener, bringing people together to
share with each other? Or is that naive optimism to assume that we can
create &#39;community&#39; to overcome the loneliness?


Posted on : August 16, 2015

Gorgeous Millie, and terribly sad.

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