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Invisibilia: A Man Finds An Explosive Emotion Locked In A Word

Marina Muun for NPR

Welcome toInvisibilia Season 3! The NPR program and podcast explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior, and we here at Shots are joining in to probe the often tenuous line between perception and reality. Here's an excerpt from Episode 1.

In 1967, anthropologists Renato Rosaldo and his wife, Shelly, went to live with the llongot, an isolated tribe that lived in the rain forest in the Philippines. It wasn't exactly an accident that this tribe was unstudied — it was known for beheading people.

Renato took lots of photos while living in the rain forest, including one of Shelly with two Ilongot teenage girls. At right, Renato with Tukbaw, a close friend.
/ Courtesy of Renato Rosaldo
Courtesy of Renato Rosaldo
Renato took lots of photos while living in the rain forest, including one of Shelly with two Ilongot teenage girls. At right, Renato with Tukbaw, a close friend.

But Renato and Shelly were undeterred. As they immersed themselves in llongot culture, they began to learn the language. Simple words at first, then more nuanced ones that encompassed such things as love and anger. To Renato, all of the words were familiar except one.


At first, he thought this word meant "energetic" or "productive." But then liget exploded out of that definition into an emotional landscape he had never before encountered.

One evening, members of the tribe asked Renato if they could hear tape recordings of his conversations with the people he studied. The voice of a deeply loved and respected man who had recently died began to play.

The room fell silent. The men's eyes narrowed and their lips curled, their faces turned into masks of rage.

They told Renato that hearing the tape made their hearts feel liget. It makes us want to take a head, they told him, over and over. It makes us want to take a man's head and throw it.

Renato didn't understand the world of chaos and violence that the llongot people connected to this word. Why did it drive men to kill? He tried to gain a deeper understanding, but defining liget was like trying to describe the color blue without ever seeing it.

Ilongot men rest in the shade after building a house. Renato and Shelly lived in the home of the man on the left for a year.
/ Courtesy of Renato Rosaldo
Courtesy of Renato Rosaldo
Ilongot men rest in the shade after building a house. Renato and Shelly lived in the home of the man on the left for a year.

Until later.

Fourteen years later, Renato and Shelly, along with their two young sons, went to live with the Ifugao, another tribe of the Philippine rain forest. While on a hike to a different village, Shelly fell off a 65-foot cliff to her death. That day, crouching next to Shelly's body on the riverbank, Renato felt the seed of an alien emotion he had never experienced begin to grow inside him.

Back in America, after the funeral and the resettling into daily life, this feeling continued to grow. But Renato did not know how to express it, how to define it. And then one afternoon, as he was driving down a sunny street in Palo Alto, Calif., he couldn't bear it any longer. He pulled to the side of the road, and a howl came roaring out of him.

And then he knew: This was liget.

The English words that best describe liget might be "high voltage": a powerful energy running through and out of the body. Renato had no control over when this feeling would come or how long it would stay. There was nothing within the American palette of emotions or in mainstream books about death that helped him. He just knew he had to howl. And because Renato could now grasp the force and meaning of the word liget, he was able to make some sense out of the chaos. He was able to give his emotions form, and let them pass through his body.

He could begin to heal.

Renato documented his journeys, both physical and emotional, through photographs and poetry. These poems are excerpted from his book The Day of Shelly's Death (copyright Duke University Press, 2013).

The Omen of Mungayang

The morning after the full moon our baby burps
And clear liquid splats into the wall.
Shelly and Conchita hike toward a village upstream.
I nap with our sons, one and five years old.
A flock of songbirds abruptly silent.
Minutes later, Conchita steps into the hut and rasps,
She fell into the river.
I run, reach Shelly's body, drop to her side.
A fly buzzes in, then out of her mouth.
Back on the trail, Shelly's voice, not the wind,
Her voice echoes from death.
I rush to our sons.
Conchita's cousin lifts Manny on her back,
Then crumples into sobs.
I put Sam on my shoulders, tell him his mom is dead.
He wants to know when he will get a new one.

An excerpt from How Do I, Renato, Know That Manny Knows?

The next day a priest drives Manny, Sam and me
Down to the Magat Valley.
Hot. Hotter.
Then up a winding mountain road.
Cooling. Cooler.
Manny grows giddy, giggling incessantly.
In Baguio City I carry him into our apartment.
He searches. Swivels. Nobody here.
He bellows and shatters the enormous thick silence.

An excerpt from In A White Cubicle

A nurse pulls the gray sheet from Shelly's face.
Blood and bruises.
The doctor tells me to take the body to Solano to be embalmed.
It is up to me, she says.
I say, no. No, I will not leave my sons alone here.
The Mayor of Lagawe shouts, How could you allow your wife to walk the trail alone? Why don't you embalm the body here in Lagawe?
Father George says, Never mind the Mayor, he's drunk, then drives me and the boys to the convent in a VW bug.

An excerpt from Static

How could the American know
The reach of shock
And sympathy in this land
Where grief lives in public?
He's pale, shaking,
Like a boxer he keeps
His guard up, his feet heavy.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 31, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of the tribe Ifugao as Ifugal. It also misspelled Renato Rosald's first name as Renaldo in one instance.
Alix Spiegel has worked on NPR's Science Desk for 10 years covering psychology and human behavior, and has reported on everything from what it's like to kill another person, to the psychology behind our use of function words like "and", "I", and "so." She began her career in 1995 as one of the founding producers of the public radio program This American Life.While there, Spiegel produced her first psychology story, which ultimately led to her focus on human behavior. It was a piece called 81 Words, and it examined the history behind the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
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