Queen of Hearts

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

| July-August 2010

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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.

Barbara Warner_3
7/19/2010 9:34:44 AM

This is such a lovely and heartfelt tribute. I cannot imagine a more wonderful testament to a live well lived. You have inspired me to live larger.

7/19/2010 9:24:08 AM

What tribute to an amazing survivor and yes, i say survivor. Life happens to all of us, it is what we learn and what we do with what we learn that leaves the legacy. The impact. You have my deepest thoughts and wishes.

7/19/2010 9:06:36 AM

Eric, I am truly moved and inspired by your story of Mary, and Bob's on the Caring Bridge page. I think I'll be saying "Mary Utne O' Brien WOW!" quite often.

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