I've just spent much of the past ten weeks sitting with my kid sister Mary Utne O'Brien at her home in La Grange, IL as she battled late stage breast cancer. When I said "Goodbye" to her for the last time, Mary pulled herself out of a near coma to give me a big kiss. It was a kind of blessing, letting me know it was all right for me to go. That's when my floodgates opened. Mary died soon after, as the full moon rose above Lake Michigan, surrounded by her daughter Ingrid, son Conor, and husband Bob, who reported that Mary crossed over with a smile on her face. She was 57.
Mary was a social psychologist who pioneered the study and dissemination of social and emotional learning (SEL). She was until recently the Executive Director of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization whose formation was inspired by Daniel Goleman's 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence.
With CASEL colleague Roger Weissberg and others, Mary proved that emotional skills like self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy are critically important to student success in school and in life. They documented that school SEL programs promote student engagement and raise academic test scores, while reducing problems such as violence, bullying, and drug use.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mary was my parents' youngest child and only daughter. Her three older brothers were Robert Jr., Tom, (deceased), and me.
Our parents were alcoholics and Mary experienced childhood trauma. Seeking understanding and escape, she became a book reader and a rebel. When she was just 16 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 had to pay full tuition. She got her PhD in social psychology, creating for her thesis "an equity theory of intimate relationships."
During the 1980s and 90s Mary underwent psychoanalysis with unrelenting 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, equipping them with emotional survival and coping skills.
A daring researcher who took on many sacred cows, Mary's most controversial research came with the publication of her study of the effectiveness of needle exchange programs for drug users. Mary found that such programs increased drug usage and the spread of HIV/AIDS, which was contrary to the conventional wisdom at the time and not what funders of needle exchange programs wanted to hear.
While directing CASEL Mary wrote numerous scholarly articles and reports of her own and others' work. In an article called "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, (H.R. 4223), sponsored by Congressman Dale E. Kildee (D-MI), Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL), and Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH).
After Mary's diagnosis of breast cancer, I thought she'd want to travel or do some of those other things people never seem get around to. But she wanted to work--advancing SEL was her life mission--and to simply hang out with her husband, kids, and friends. Drinking pinot grigio on her front porch with friends from her book group, or watching American Idol in bed with her husband, was Mary's idea of bliss.
Mary didn't consider herself an artist, yet she was a wonderful singer and pianist, with long, graceful, piano-player's fingers. She filled her home and clothed herself in beautiful colors, especially soft pinks and baby blues.
Her proudest accomplishments were her two beautiful children. Ingrid, 25, graduated from Brown with honors and has been working for Teach for America for the last three years preparing Spanish-speaking 2nd graders for English-only instruction in Oakland, CA. Conor, 23, is a 6'5" endorphin-rich sweetheart/athlete training to be an Olympic rower.
Wanting a real man with whom to mate, Mary picked an Irish restaurateur named Bob O'Brien. Turned out that he was not only the "real Mensch" family man she had in mind, he was just as brilliant as she was--her perfect match. They were utterly devoted to each other to the end.
Mary was my closest friend and confidant. She was the wisest and most generous person I know. And the most fun. She cut me enormous slack and made me feel as if I could do no wrong, (dangerous!). She told me that until she turned 19 she always thought we were going to marry. In recent years my family could always tell when I was talking with Mary by my conspiratorial tone of voice and hysterical laughter.
Last week, 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, becoming in the process a Queen of Hearts. Mission accomplished--the rest of us can take it from here.
The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.
P.S. If you don't know about the Caring Bridge website, you should. It's a free service that allows family and friends to report and track how their ailing loved one is doing. It was a blessing during Mary's final months. See Mary's Caring Bridge website.
Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader (see www.Utne.com). For a more personal remembrance of his sister, see Utne's back page column, called Forward, in the July/August Utne Reader, on newsstands mid-June.