Feature writing


The day I met my mother

The Times

April 22, 2013


She is in Yanomami tribal attire: a small woman in her mid-40s with black, bowl-shaped hair, topless, wearing bamboo sticks through her septum and lips. He is a handsome American college student: white T-shirt, khaki shorts, trimmed goatee. In the Venezuelan jungle clearing both are nervous, tearful, gingerly placing their hands on each other’s shoulders. The moment captured on film is David Good meeting his mother Yarima in 2011, 20 years after she walked out on him and her family, returning to the Amazonian tribe into which she was born.

We watch the video in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, where David is a biology graduate, though he wants to return to the jungle and act “as a bridge” between the tribe and the outside world. “Everything in me wanted to hug her so badly,” he says . “But in their culture you don’t hug. She touched me to see if I was real. Then we broke down crying.”

The family’s story is controversial. In his 1991 book Into The Heart, Kenneth Good, David’s father, related how as an anthropologist he immersed himself in Yanomami culture from 1975 to 1987. He met Yarima when she was “eight or nine” and was betrothed to her — as girls are in Yanomami culture — when she “couldn’t have been more than 12”, he 36. They first had sex in 1982 when she was 16 or 17, he 40, he tells me.

While Yanomami women are married in their early teens within the tribe, Good was a white anthropologist and debate raged over whether he had behaved wrongly and exploited her. In 1986, Yarima then 19, they were finally married in the US, after an epic story of fighting authorities, controversy and death-defying canoe rides down jungle rapids. Having never worn clothes or seen her reflection in a mirror, let alone set eyes on a car or a shop, Yarima left the jungle for a new life in the US.

“I find it almost prurient that people ask me when I first had sex with Yarima,” Ken says today. “These ages were nothing more than a guess, as the tribe only count to two, and their physiognomy of a very different race makes it hard to estimate ages.”

The book ends with David, aged 3, and the family settled in New Jersey. A year and a half later, in 1992, Yarima returned to the Yanomami. David’s last memory of her was being on a carnival ride and “sticking my head under her shirt because I was scared”. He and his father shared a rueful joke that “while my friends’ mothers were driving them to soccer practice, mine was naked in the jungle eating bugs”.

The family — David has two siblings, Vanessa, 25, and Daniel, 21 — thought she’d had enough of American life. “It was too much of a shock for her to cope with,” David says. She hadn’t seemed unhappy. “We’d wrestle in the living room, listen to Michael Jackson and Gloria Estefan, she loved Pee-wee Herman.” But reporters who met her at the time said she listened to Ken’s recordings of her tribe on loop and cried. Once she’d gone, Ken sent tapes via missionaries, saying: “I love you. I understand if you want to stay in the jungle, that’s fine, but if you ever want to return let me know and I’ll get you.”

Later, David realised his mother missed her blood family. “When she disappeared I thought she didn’t like us,” David says. “I felt ashamed of my Yanomami side. I came to hate Yanomami culture and my mother, then I hated myself for feeling that.” Ken tried to talk to him about his heritage, “but I did not want to hear about it”. If anyone asked about his heritage, “I said I was Italian or Hispanic. I created an American life for myself.”

Ken never talked about Yarima’s leaving, raising three children alone. He never fell in love again or remarried. Ken’s fame meant David “felt like a specimen under a microscope”. One academic asked him what he wanted for Christmas. When he said a Super Nintendo, she said: “You’re just like an American kid. I expected something different.”

He dropped out of high school and from 16 to 21 developed “a real problem with alcohol”. A turning point came when the mother of his then-girlfriend told him she was worried for her daughter’s life. At 22, another girlfriend helped him “overcome my sensitivity about showing upset”. Internally, he forgave his mother. “It was immediate.”

David read his father’s book. He is not outraged by the age-gap sexual relationship. “I can understand from a Western point of view why it freaks some people out. But Yanomami girls grow up differently. It was a consensual marriage based on love. He was criticised for snatching an Amazonian girl and parading her here as a trophy wife but it wasn’t like that at all.”

Finally face to face with his mother in 2011 (no small feat; the Venezuelan authorities had outlawed foreigners visiting Amazon tribes), David “was flooded with memories of being with her when I was young. It was such a beautiful moment. I didn’t care why she left. I was with her finally.”

Yarima’s English isn’t good but she acknowledged the word “mom”. She asked after Ken, Vanessa and Daniel. “But she didn’t offer any information about why she left us. I didn’t push it. I’ll ask her when I can speak fluent Yanomami.” David discovered his mother, who he spent a month with, had remarried though was now single. He had a half-brother and soon felt “inherently part of a kinship network” of cousins and uncles. He went on a jungle trek with the tribe, walking barefoot like them, getting an infected foot. He tried to wear wads of tobacco in his lips as they do. He lost 22lb in three months on a diet including boa constrictor and piranha.

Yarima was offended when he turned down the two wives, aged around 19 and 16, she assigned him. His girlfriend Kelly said: “You better not be making any Yanomami babies down there.” David wasn’t but his wives were persistent. “I realised we couldn’t spend any time in my hammock. I had to persuade them that me not having sex with them was nothing against them.” It was emotional to say goodbye to Yarima, “but I knew I was coming back”.

The tribe is “going through ethnocide slowly but surely”, David says. It is split between modern Yanomama who know Spanish and how to trade and the primitive tribe that does not. David wants to be “an ambassador”. “Some people say, ‘Leave it to be isolated,’ but that’s not realistic. The outside world is encroaching. I hope I can be a trustworthy bridge between doctors and agencies and the tribe.”

The Yanomami his father knew are not the same today, David says. “It must be somewhat of a despondent realisation for him. He loves my mother. He loves the Yanomami. He did more to help them than most ever had or could. He knew them, respected them and communicated with them at their level. Though my parents’ marriage hindered his career, I know that my father didn’t care about that. He simply wanted to raise the family he so loved, but it all fell apart.”

I speak to Ken, now 70 and a lecturer in New Jersey City University. He rarely gives interviews, fed up of “being misrepresented”. He recalls Yarima’s last words before disappearing into the jungle: “Take the kids and raise them. They’re only part-Yanomami. When they’re grown bring them back. I want to see them.” Ken denies his marriage to Yarima was suspect: “Fifteen in Yanomami culture is different to ours.

When people say, ‘But you’re Western, you knew it was wrong,’ I say, ‘I was living there, part of their culture.’” He has “never” harboured any anger towards Yarima for abandoning the family. “She couldn’t stand life here, she once said to me if there had been one Yanomami person in New Jersey, she would have felt better.”

He too saw Yarima for the first time in 20 years in 2011: David linked his father and mother via Skype from the jungle. Ken was with Vanessa who “didn’t have anything to say” to Yarima. “Neither she nor Daniel really knew their mother.” Skype brought Yarima face to face with Vanessa’s children, her grandchildren. Between Ken and Yarima, there was no post mortem on their marriage. He told her she looked pretty; she told him, now bald, he looked old. Does Ken want to reunite with Yarima? “Yes, I do. But it would have to be back in the jungle. She said she’d never come back here.” Would he go back to the jungle? “Yes of course, though I have a bad back. I still love her. She’s the love of my life.”

David doesn’t want to “disappear for 12 years” like his father. “I want to live an American life,” he says. He hopes to spend “extended periods” in the jungle. “I have this yearning to live the Yanomami life of simplicity.” Ken once told David he had experienced “the essence of humanity” with the tribe. Similarly, David felt he “had never been so happy or human” than with them. Father and son’s wistful tones echo one another: the Good family’s adventures in the jungle may not be over.