Everybody has tales of family drama to tell. They come in variations of common themes: Two people from clashing backgrounds marry despite protests from their families. A parent abandons the family because of selfishness, loneliness, or trauma. Children pay for their parents’ mistakes by turning to drugs and alcohol to drown out their pain. Then they grow up and embark on a soul-cleansing journey to make peace with their painful past.
These are the themes that shape David Good’s memoir, The Way Around: Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami, written with Daniel Paisner. But Mr. Good’s family story is like no other.
His mother, Yarima, is part of a seminomadic indigenous group called Yanomami. Her community lives deep in the Amazonian jungle in Venezuela, mostly isolated from outsiders. Yarima was betrothed to David’s American father, Kenneth Good, when she was still a child in 1978. When she turned childbearing age, they married. Her age is unclear, because the Yanomami don’t keep track.
Kenneth first found his way to the jungle to study the tribe as a 32-year-old doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology. But he fell in love with the jungle way of life and stayed for 12 years.
Back home, Kenneth’s marriage to Yarima was controversial and sensational. The family’s story, which Kenneth first recounted in his 1991 memoir, "Into the Heart," became the focus of much public attention, including a 1992 National Geographic documentary. David recoiled from the attention.
Some years before that, in 1986, Yarima had returned to New Jersey with Kenneth, who was in debt and needed to complete his PhD. Between the jungle and New Jersey, they had three children and tried living for several years as a Western family, though Yarima spoke minimal English and couldn't do much outside of the house while Kenneth was working.
She became despondent and ultimately returned to the jungle; the children stayed with Kenneth to live a Western life. David was 5 years old at the time. The ensuing years for him were filled with angst and substance abuse, as he tried to grapple with the feelings of abandonment and near-estrangement from his father. In 2001, 24-year-old David returned to the deep jungle to see his mother for the first time in nearly two decades. He is in the jungle now to see Yarima and to do work on behalf of his new nonprofit, The Good Project, which is dedicated to the healthcare, education, and cultural preservation of the Yanomami and the Cabécar Indians in Costa Rica.
The Christian Science Monitor talked with David earlier this year.
In the book you describe how difficult it was for you growing up to deal with the spotlight on your family. What made you want to open yourself up again as an adult and write this book?
It started in my 20s when I was going through a healing process and the process of getting to know my heritage and my background and the events surrounding my mother’s leaving and my father’s and mother’s background. And as I got to understand more about my culture and my mother’s culture, it’s like the floodgates opened. It was like a complete 180. At one point in my life I completely shut that part of my background off from the world and now I am open and I love talking about it. After I reunited with mom and started giving talks at universities and sharing with my community and friends, they said ‘Hey, this is a great story and it resonates with people from all backgrounds and walks of life,’ and they felt like writing a book would be a great way to get the story out there.
How did it feel to get the story out there?
In the book I wrote about the struggles I had from the age of 5 to 24 when I found mom. That part of my story was never known to my followers or the world, and I thought it was a really important part of my background and of setting the stage for my reunion with mom. It shows how much it really meant to me, if readers had an understanding of how much I struggled growing up. So that part was the hardest for me; just remembering those dark days. If you would’ve met me five years ago, I was a completely different person than I am now. Just having to dig up those memories, that was the hardest part.
The style and tone of the book is casual and conversational — why did you pick that style?
The idea wasn’t to write an ethnography or an anthropological book; it was trying to tell a story. When we started [with Daniel Paisner], I said, ‘You know, I want this book to be written in a way that parallels the way I talk to my friends: just sitting down having a conversation.’
You were angry and distant with your father growing up. But you seem to forgive him quite easily in the book. How did you get to that point?
Going to the jungle was more than just finding my mom and myself among the Yanomami. My life changed when I returned home. More specifically, my life with my family. It is kind of a shame that I had to go through what I did growing up. My dad and I talked and he wished he could have had the right tools to connect with us on an emotional level. What is important, as a result of me going down there and finding my mom, is that I developed a friendship with my dad. In the book it does seem like I let him off the hook, but it’s very Yanomami: you have move forward, you have to live in the present, you have to appreciate and cherish what you have now.
You describe the Yanomami as completely remote with no idea about the outside world, but the tribe has been exposed to outsiders a lot over the years. How do the Yanomami keep their traditional lifestyle?
They’ve had contact since the Spaniards arrived, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that they had the first sustained Western contact. Since then, there has been a drastic increase of Western contact among the Yanomami, so the Yanomami that were described in the 1960s and 70s, they’re completely different today. They are on a wide spectrum of the acculturation scale. There are Yanomami today that live in the cities and have government jobs. There are Yanomami that are living among the mission compounds.
But then you have the Yanomami like my family that have just recently moved to the river, that very rarely see outsiders, and then you have Yanomami that are deep in the jungle that may have not seen outsiders for years, decades and maybe generations. You can’t really homogenize the people based on a single snapshot in time, or based on a single visit to a village, because they're experiencing various levels of Western contact and change. Right now, a lot of Yanomami villages that have moved to the river did so to get access to medicines, Western goods like pots and pans, and imported food. That’s a whole other subject. Now a lot of them are giving up their traditional diets for white rice and imported flour and refined sugar.