Dr. Ener challenges us ’til the end

Justin Runquist

A shiny, bronze plaque once stood on a wall in Falvey Library, proudly acknowledging the life and works of one of the best scholars Villanova has ever called its own.

Just 11 days after its erection, that same plaque found itself wrapped up in a trash bag, lying facedown somewhere on the floor of our history department office.

Certainly, this was no ordinary plaque. This was a plaque that launched our school into national controversy. This was a plaque that wrestled with our hearts and challenged the very mission of this Augustinian university.

This plaque commemorated Dr. Mine An Ener in a fitting way: “Scholar, Teacher, Mentor, Friend.” In so many ways, Ener, professor and pioneer for Middle Eastern Studies, has challenged our community well beyond her lifelong academic explorations and her tragic ending in October 2003.

Ener gave birth to baby Raya earlier that year. “Raya was the love of her life,” say colleagues. Where Ener lived extraordinarily – having traveled the world over, from Cairo to Istanbul to America – infant Raya would live extraordinarily in a different way. She was born with Down’s syndrome. For months, Ener struggled to comfort Raya – helping her survive through a feeding tube from her nose.

According to her family, Ener’s concern for Raya’s suffering plunged her into postpartum depression and psychosis. Where for 37 years of her life Ener was regarded as a compassionate and energetic soul, Ener quickly became isolated and overwhelmed. This was the reality of psychosis – a mental disorder characterized by lost or distorted reality. Her depression grew severe. Her illness left her in a pool of hopelessness.

In the words of her sister-in-law, “Apparently, Mine’s darkness was deeper than we ever could have imagined.”

On October 4, Ener slipped into the bathroom of her parents’ home and slit Raya’s throat twice, killing her. Still puzzled by her action and own condition, Ener was reduced to a desolate prison cell and placed on round-the-clock suicide watch. By October 30, Ener’s condition was no more. Officials found her with a trash bag over her head, lying alone and lifeless on a floor mat.

From our student body to our faculty to our wise priests, we have all struggled to make sense of Ener’s life and death. In weighing Ener’s case with the Christian values that define this institution, we have become confused and divided even further. Some have yearned for truth. Some have been quick to judge.

As critics like Bill O’Reilly began knocking our school on national television with sweeping assumptions, I decided I loved this university too much to sit back and watch. In meeting with many parties with diverse perspectives of the Ener memorial, it became refreshing to finally develop my very own perspective.

First off, it was refreshing to learn that the Mine Ener Memorial Committee only had the best intentions in erecting the plaque in Falvey. An unfortunate truth became clear: where Ener’s plaque was sincerely intended to celebrate her life and restore her legacy, Ener’s plaque instead became a symbol of ambiguity, an “inexcusable” memorial that sidestepped an “act of murder.”

It was refreshing to learn our student government is striving to work with administration to avoid such a controversy from happening again. They provided this formal statement: “The student government has faith in our administration’s intentions, but we are disappointed with their lack of communication to our students. Especially with a controversial issue such as the Ener memorial, students need to know the university’s official stance as soon as possible.”

It was refreshing to ask the university president firsthand about his decision to remove the plaque. Rev. Edmund Dobbin, OSA, acknowledged that the university kept the internal community’s best interest in mind; that the media blew the controversy out of control; that the university, as a whole, had much to learn from this; that, contrary to media spin, alumni and parents were not pressuring the administration to cave in.

Most of all, it was refreshing to speak to those who knew and loved Ener the most. The human side of Ener told a whole new story. I learned of the “power woman” who made a career of taking dusty archives and melding them into goldmines of exciting information. I learned of a woman who was a walking history book, full of fun stories such as Saturday morning jogs through Cairo to buy goat’s milk and rice pudding. I learned of a woman much like my own mother.

Cancer claimed my mother’s life in 2003, and in that time I witnessed a charismatic, principled woman – much like Ener – reach her breaking point. I once heard my own mother utter, “I want to die,” as she endured so much pain. I once supported my own mother as an unexpected chemical imbalance altered her mind, so much so that she was reduced to an isolated cell with just a floor mat. Granted, my mother ultimately never threatened the life of anyone or herself. But those dark days did help me appreciate the depths of the mind and the mystery of the human soul.

The plaque in Falvey Library never could enlighten this community about the beautiful, inspiring human mystery that was Mine Ener. In respecting the sinners and outcasts of the world, Jesus Christ taught us that life is a sacred mystery – a mystery that should be respected. Yet, this mystery has proved too weighty for Villanova’s community to handle.

Echoing John Grogan, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, none of us could begin to understand and sympathize with the complexities surrounding Ener’s life and memorial. And, most certainly, no one in the public arena could begin to understand our empathy towards Ener – guided by the Christian compassion that inspired faculty to memorialize her, the Christian compassion that guided our president to respectfully remove the plaque, the Christian compassion that makes Villanova great.