Queen of Hearts

A sister turns pain into compassion and leaves the world a better place

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2009 © Chris Lyons / lindgrensmith.com

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Medieval alchemists  held that “the wound is the gift.” That the handicaps and hardships life deals us have the potential to be transmuted into something precious, like lead into gold. The architect and philosopher Bucky Fuller transformed his horrible eyesight into a vision for the geodesic dome. Viktor Frankl transformed his internment in Nazi concentration camps into meaning and existential therapy. Nelson Mandela transformed 27 years in prison into forgiveness and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

My sister, Mary Utne O’Brien, who died on April 28 after battling breast cancer for nearly three years, transformed a childhood of emotional trauma into a compassionate protectiveness for children and spent a lifetime equipping them with the sorts of survival and coping skills she had to learn on her own.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 26, 1952, Mary was the youngest of four and the only daughter. Mary suffered childhood abuse at the hands of our absent, alcoholic father and our insecure, alcoholic mother, who constantly told her daughter that she’d never amount to anything.

Seeking understanding and escape, Mary became a book reader and a rebel. When she was just 16 she was already dreaming in Russian. That same year she and a friend spent the night with Frank Zappa, who soon thereafter recorded “The Nancy & Mary Music.” Mary skipped her senior year in high school, passing up full scholarships to Radcliffe and Wellesley to follow her English teacher to the University of Wisconsin, where she paid full tuition. She got a PhD in social psychology, creating for her thesis “an economic model of marital relationships,” asserting that people weigh inputs against outcomes in their intimate interactions—and if they’re out of balance, marriages fail. (Years later, after creating a happy marriage, Mary called her PhD thesis “utter baloney.”)

During the 1980s and 1990s Mary underwent psychoanalysis with Woody Allen–like determination, seeing her therapist four days a week for most of 17 years. Developing extraordinary compassion and insight, she devoted her professional life to helping society’s least fortunate, including the urban poor and the homeless, and especially children.

Mary was until recently executive director of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization founded by Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 best-seller Emotional Intelligence.

With CASEL colleague Roger Weissberg and others, Mary proved that traits such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy are critically important to success in school and in life, raising students’ engagement and academic test scores while reducing violence, bullying, drug use, and other problems.

While directing CASEL Mary wrote numerous scholarly articles and reports on her own and others’ work. In “Reimagining Education” she envisioned a world in which “children feel safe, valued, confident, and challenged, where they have the social, emotional, and academic skills to succeed, where the environment is safe and supportive, and where parents are fully engaged.”

In recent months Mary was gratified to see her efforts on behalf of children bear fruit: Education Secretary Arne Duncan embraced SEL as a top priority, and Congress is now considering the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act, which is sponsored by a bipartisan coalition of legislators.

Mary was my closest friend and confidant. In her eyes I could do no wrong (dangerous!). She was the deepest and shallowest person I know. I valued her counsel above all others’, yet she was fascinated with celebrity gossip and had strong opinions about Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, and Angelina Jolie. Creating a fulfilling marriage and family life was her highest priority. Drinking pinot grigio on her front porch with friends from her book group, or watching American Idol in bed with her husband, Bob, daughter, Ingrid, and son, Conor, was Mary’s idea of bliss.

A few days before her passing, barely able to speak, Mary lamented that “I haven’t completed my assignment.” I think she did. She transformed her childhood wounds into a gift for all children. Mission accomplished—the rest of us can take it from here.

Mary died in the evening, just before the full moon rose above her home in La Grange, Illinois. She had a smile on her face. She was 57.

The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.

P.S.  If you don’t know about Caring Bridge, you should. It’s a free online service that allows family and friends to create a website where they can report on and track how their ailing loved one is doing. See Mary’s Caring Bridge website: www.caringbridge.org/visit/maryutneobrien.