Forum focuses on Mine Ener controversy

Vanessa Pralle

A community discussion entitled “Dr. Mine Ener: A Difficult Conversation; A Teachable Moment” took place Monday in the Connelly Cinema. Six panelists spoke, in addition to Rev. Edmund Dobbin, O.S.A., president of the University, and other faculty members. The goal was to reflect upon Dr. Mine Ener’s contribution to Villanova in light of the horrible tragedy surrounding her death as well as that of her baby, Raya Ener.

Panelists vocalized various opinions about how to deal with the repercussions of such a devastating loss, but also examined the University’s decision to remove the plaque in the library that commemorated Ener’s contributions. At the core of the discussion were the ethical and moral dilemmas over whether her illness was addressed appropriately in the wake of her death and the death of her baby. Furthermore, participants asked whether the decision to remove the plaque was justified and whether members of the community were appropriately informed.

Dobbin’s opening remarks focused on media coverage of the events. He said the media had been suggesting that the University was understating the tragic loss of life and questioned what the remembrance meant for other parents of disabled children. The coverage was beginning to “spiral out of control,” he said.

“Her memory would not have been well-served in the eye of the media frenzy,” he explained.

Dobbin insisted the University removed the commemorative plaque at the advice of a public relations firm whose job was to monitor news coverage, not to offer moral judgments.

The media spotlight had exposed great moral ambiguity as “two moral principals collided together,” Dobbin said. This was further exacerbated by the nationwide exposure and the inability to deal with issues privately.

Dr. Susan Mackey-Kallis of the Communications department talked about public collective memory of a person and posed the question of what would be the appropriate way to celebrate Mine Ener’s life without condoning her and her daughter’s death. Kallis emphasized the importance of staying committed to asking questions.

Dr. William Werpehowski of the Theology department and Peace and Justice Center acknowledged that attention to human actions is inescapable, but sometimes people are not held accountable in the event of severe illness.

He asked whether Mine Ener should be remembered through her contributions to the Villanova community, divorced from the murder of her child due to her mental illness, or as a collective whole, since humans are accountable for their actions.

Discussion also focused on an understanding of the mental state of Mine Ener following the birth of her child. Dr. Linda Copel, a clinical nurse and psychotherapist, gave an overview of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, from which Mine Ener suffered.

According to Copel, approximately 50-80 percent of women experience emotional transitions following birth, often dubbed the “baby blues,” and 15-20 percent experience an escalation of depression, characterized by extreme fatigue, feelings of inadequacy, tiredness and problems sleeping. This state is called postpartum depression.

Only about five percent of the female population experience postpartum psychosis, a mental illness with which few are familiar except through the highly publicized Andrea Yates trail.

Postpartum psychosis is characterized by hallucinations, confusion, paranoia, homicidal and suicidal impulses and delusions. Women in this condition will often put on a façade. They appear to be coping, but can hurt themselves or their babies.

Two sufferers of postpartum psychosis described the disease as “an out-of-body experience” and as “a roller-coaster ride of fear, stress and anger.” One woman also said she felt “ambivalent about myself and my baby,” and “angry and ashamed I was losing it.”

Often, Copel asserted, the disease goes unrecognized, primarily because the new mothers are ashamed and embarrassed.

Dr. Sally Schotz of the Philosophy and Women’s Studies departments spoke of collective responsibility and the need to ensure that women’s mental illnesses are not ignored. She also stressed the importance of seeking the truth and living by it.

“By silence, we are guilty,” she said.

Other speakers offered moving anecdotes of the Mine Ener they knew: her unwavering commitment to her students, her love for scholarship and Middle Eastern studies and her spirit of community and her pursuit of peace.

Dr. Jeffrey Johnson of the History department delivered a touching account of the professor he affectionately referred to as Mimi and closed with a plea for greater public awareness of her illness.

Dr. Barbara Wall of the Office of Mission Effectiveness and the philosophy department emphasized that Ener was “like a breath of fresh air” and how she “made sure everyone was recognized.”

Wall addressed both the University’s commitment to dialogue and the need for reconciliation and closure. After the memorial service for Dr. Ener in the fall of 2003, money was collected in her memory in hopes of creating a memorial.

When the original proposal of a “Peace Garden” was not accepted, the memorial in the library was suggested as a more “universal, communal healing memorial.” Wall stressed that no element of dissent was aired at the time. Instead the Villanova community reacted compassionately.

When the plaque was removed shortly after it had been installed, Wall described the loss of security and expressed deep remorse. “No one who disagreed ever came to any of us with concerns,” she said. “People went outside [to the media] to ‘stick it to Villanova.'” She contends that the committee was treated disrespectfully and that the media attention was used as a bullying tactic.

Wall noted that an Augustinian University should be about “needing to minister with love and compassion…with healing not condemnation.”

Junior Michael Nataro, president of Villanovans for Life, emphasized the fundamental Christian values of love and understanding without prejudice. He spoke of embracing mistakes and moving onwards, such as the case with women who have had abortions but experience a change of heart and become pro-life.

“According to the Bible, one is only accountable for actions if they are mentally able, and it’s time to stop dragging her memory through mud,” Nataro said of Ener.

Johnson asserted that the plaque was a way never to forget Ener’s “tremendous life and spirit she brought to all of us.”

However, there were dissenters as well. Jeanne Hoffman, a Villanova senior who was in favor of removing the plaque, emphasized that students were not well-informed of the plaque’s purpose. She said there was no mention of Ener’s role as a mother on the plaque, which Hoffman thought negated Raya’s existence.

Hoffman contended that many in the University ignored the fact that Raya had Down syndrome. This was especially sad because of Villanova’s connection to organizations as Special Olympics.

The final panelist was Frank Brogna, a senior and SGA leader. Brogna decried the lack of communication with students and said his efforts to initiate a wider discussion were ignored.

“I was concerned that students were getting information from the Philadelphia Inquirer and the O’Reilly Factor as opposed to senior members of the University,” Brogna said. “I wanted to provide students with a firm grounding contained in a formal statement and not speculation or hearsay from the press.”

Brogna contended that he made numerous requests to Villanova’s public relations office, asking that students be given the same information that was being given to those outside the University, but he was rebuffed.

Students, faculty and administrators reacted in various ways to the panel discussion. Some immediately rose to congratulate the speakers, while others voiced anger over why Villanova has not been morewhat they perceived to be a failure by the administration to be more honest and forthright concerning the entire situation.

After the discussion ended, Johnson shook his head and said, “It’s just such a shame, such a shame. Everyone needs to be more aware of the [postpartum depression] disease.”