An Unquiet Memorial
When remembering a beloved professor means honoring a killer
By ROBIN WILSON
Mine Ener would have liked the Oriental rug and the two copper end tables. They have the kind of international flair the late professor admired. That's why her Villanova University colleagues, still saddened by her death in 2003, chose them when they furnished a student lounge in her honor. They placed them in a corner of the lounge, along with a few chairs and wrought-iron lamps. The gesture, they thought, might help the campus remember the well-liked professor of Middle Eastern history.
On a cold morning this January, 50 people gathered to dedicate the memorial and a large bronze plaque. "This Study Area Is Dedicated to the Memory of Dr. Mine Ener," it said. "Scholar, Teacher, Mentor, Friend."
But outside the study lounge, in the foyer of the campus library, a handful of people silently protested. They were upset because of what the plaque didn't say: A year and a half ago, Mine Ener (pronounced Minn-uh Eh-nuhr) suffocated herself. But even more horrifying, three weeks before that, she killed her baby.
As soon as the plaque went up, alumni of this Roman Catholic university began flooding administrators with complaints. Honoring Ms. Ener, they said, mocked the church's stance on the sanctity of life. Parents of children who -- like Ms. Ener's baby -- were born with Down syndrome were angry too.
After two local talk-radio hosts and Fox News's Bill O'Reilly entered the fray, Villanova received nearly 1,000 calls, e-mail messages, and letters.
Troy S. Memis, who co-owns an auto-restoration shop in nearby Philadelphia, heard about the memorial on the radio. He waited in the library foyer that January morning with his 2-year-old son, J.T., who has Down syndrome. A psychiatrist had determined that Ms. Ener had been suffering from postpartum psychosis when she killed her baby. Mr. Memis knows that, and he doesn't want to demonize her, he says, but "someone needs to stick up for the child."
The torrent of criticism immediately put Villanova on the defensive. University officials, some of whom agreed that Ms. Ener deserved a memorial, agonized over what to do. Should they take down the plaque and appease the critics? Or wait, hoping that the controversy would blow over?
Underlying the dilemma are fundamental questions: Should a college ever memorialize a killer? And can unspeakable actions at the end of someone's life undo the accomplishments that came before?
Ms. Ener's former colleagues, who planned the memorial and raised $4,500 for it, are not only shocked by the negative reaction, they are bitter. They say people outside the university have been incredulous about the memorial because they didn't know her. "This was not about her being honored," says Seth Koven, a history professor. "This was commemorating gifts she gave to the university. These gifts do not get erased."
By all accounts, Ms. Ener's gifts as a scholar and teacher were many. Even before she came to Villanova, as a 31-year-old assistant professor in 1996, Mine Ener had carved out a unique area of research that had been largely ignored.
She studied charity in 19th- and 20th-century Egypt, and for her dissertation at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor she spent countless hours poring over police records and other government documents in Cairo's National Archives. Her aim was to find out about the poor -- orphaned children, homeless women, the elderly -- whom she believed had "fallen through the cracks" of Egyptian history. Who were these people, she wanted to know, and what kinds of relief organizations did the Egyptian government establish to help them?
"She opened new doors about what you could ask of archives," says Amy Singer, an associate professor of Ottoman history at the University of Tel Aviv. "Can you recover the underclass, the nonwriting mass of the population, and put them into history in some meaningful way?"
Ms. Ener's interest in the Middle East had been shaped by her father, who emigrated to the United States from Turkey when he was 25 years old. He often took Ms. Ener and her three older brothers back for long visits with his relatives. By the time she was an undergraduate at Macalester College, Ms. Ener -- who grew up in St. Paul -- had learned to speak Turkish. During her graduate studies at the American University in Cairo she became fluent in Arabic as well.
After Ms. Ener snagged her first academic job, at Villanova, she began the chore of turning her dissertation into a book. Along the way she deeply impressed her colleagues at Villanova and, more broadly, in the field of Middle Eastern studies.
"Mine was one of the pioneers in this field of poverty and charity in the Middle East," says Beth Baron, a professor of history at City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "She was an advocate for the most downtrodden, the weakest members of society."
Among her wide circle of scholarly friends, Ms. Ener acted as a mentor and caregiver, too, dispensing advice and support. "She was an incredibly sensitive person," says Ms. Singer. "She had radar for other people's hurts and discomfort." Ms. Ener counseled both Ms. Singer's sister and the sister's husband when the couple was divorcing, helping to make the breakup amicable.
She took extra care with undergraduates -- insisting that they visit with her personally so that she could learn their names. "Students were at her door all the time," says James M. Bergquist, a professor emeritus of history whose office was next door.
While Ms. Ener was dedicated to her work, she did have a life outside Villanova. She ran religiously, liked to hike, and played Ultimate Frisbee. "She was the kind of person you just said, 'That's a dynamo,'" recalls Mr. Koven, the history professor. Her favorite expressions were "Rock on" and "Power on." Somehow she managed not to sound silly.
Joseph Underhill-Cady, an associate professor of political science at Augsburg College, met Ms. Ener during graduate school at Michigan. "She was," he says, "an amazingly happy person: bright, sunny, smiling, cheerful."
'A Very Hopeful Person'
Perhaps because of her bright disposition, friends were confident that she could cope when, in February 2003, Ms. Ener gave birth to her first child: a girl with Down syndrome.
"Mine was a very hopeful person," says Vickie Langohr, an associate professor of political science at Holy Cross College who met Ms. Ener when they were both studying in Cairo. "After the baby was born, all of our friends said, of anyone we knew who could make the best of it and be a fantastic mom, it would be her."
Ms. Ener and her husband, Ron Y. Donagi, a mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, had been ecstatic when they had learned that she was pregnant. Everything, it seemed, was working out perfectly: Ms. Ener had just earned tenure, and her book, Managing Egypt's Poor and the Politics of Benevolence, 1800-1952, was due to come out soon after the baby was born. She had also just been named director of Villanova's Center for Arab and Islamic Studies.
The couple did have some concerns. Ms. Ener, who was nearly 38 when she became pregnant, had undergone routine blood tests that would flag whether her baby might have a genetic problem. But the blood tests indicated nothing unusual, and Ms. Ener canceled a scheduled amniocentesis out of concern that it could cause a miscarriage.
When Raya Rakefet Donagi was born, no one sensed that anything was wrong. But the next day, when the baby had trouble breastfeeding, doctors quickly determined that she had Down syndrome. Babies born with the chromosomal abnormality frequently have poor muscle tone, which makes nursing difficult.
Doctors inserted a nasal-gastric feeding tube, a thin sheath taped to the baby's cheek that wound through her nose and down into her stomach. Feeding Raya became nearly a full-time job. First Ms. Ener would weigh the baby, then encourage her to breastfeed or drink from a bottle on her own, then weigh her again to see how much she had taken. After making sure the nasal tube's contents would flow into Raya's stomach and not her lungs, Ms. Ener then connected a syringe to the tube, injecting previously pumped breast milk. Afterward Ms. Ener pumped her breasts and stored the milk in a refrigerator for the next feeding. The entire process took about two hours, leaving only a short time before she had to begin it all over again.
"I wondered when I was visiting how anyone would be able to do it all," says Ruth Ener, who went to Philadelphia to be with her sister-in-law when Raya was just a week old. "But Mine seemed to be doing fine."
Despite the feeding schedule and the uncertainty about the baby's future, Ms. Ener's relatives and friends say she seemed upbeat during the first four months of Raya's life. She frequently sent e-mail messages about the baby's progress. Mr. Koven, a Villanova colleague who has three children of his own, says he and Ms. Ener discussed her dedication to helping her daughter live the best life she could.
After Raya was born, Ms. Ener took a six-month leave from teaching. But she still had her hands full, spending hours completing the index for her forthcoming book, which was scheduled to be published by Princeton University Press in the fall of 2003. Ms. Ener also kept up her job as director of the Villanova Arab-studies center.
When she came to the campus she brought Raya along, recalls Adele Lindenmeyr, chairwoman of the history department: "She was devoted to her daughter."
'I just Killed My Baby'
Like many couples who have just had a baby, Ms. Ener and Mr. Donagi had a lot on their plates. They moved to a house just a few miles from the campus when Raya was five months old. On the evening of July 4, the couple had a housewarming party, where friends and colleagues danced to Arab music, ate desserts, and watched fireworks overhead. Two days later the family left for a monthlong stay in California, where Mr. Donagi would attend a conference at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Mr. Donagi says both he and his wife were looking forward to the California sun, to running, and to shopping at organic-food markets. But after they arrived, he says in an e-mail message, Ms. Ener couldn't relax and barely slept. The couple had learned that Raya might have trouble hearing.
Ms. Ener focused on that and a litany of other concerns: Was Raya eating enough? Was the tape attaching the feeding tube to her cheek irritating her? When she spit up, was that normal baby behavior, or did it mean she could not keep down enough food?
Halfway through the couple's time in California, Ms. Langohr, the professor at Holy Cross, came for a visit. Right away she noticed something was wrong. "Mine was convinced Raya was wasting away and in a lot of pain," says Ms. Langohr, who could see for herself that Raya was healthy and giggled when she played.
Ms. Langohr tried to persuade Ms. Ener to return to Philadelphia for psychological help, but Ms. Ener said she preferred to go to Minnesota to be with her family. Mr. Donagi drove his wife and baby to the airport on July 27.
In St. Paul, Ms. Ener's family insisted that she see a doctor, who gave her antidepressants and told her family not to leave her alone.
"She would say things that were really off the wall," Ruth Ener recalls. At one point Ms. Ener told the doctor that she had considered jumping into the Mississippi River. But later she reassured her family that she could never commit suicide.
It was then that Ms. Ener's brother, Oran, asked her if she had thoughts of hurting her baby. She answered emphatically: No.
Even while Ms. Ener seemed ill, there were times during her St. Paul visit that she appeared almost normal.
"She would say, 'Boy, I really sounded wacko when I said that, didn't I?'" recalls Ruth Ener. "She wasn't constantly that desperate, pitiful person. She went in and out of it."
Perhaps that is why, although her family never left her alone at her parents' home, they didn't feel compelled to follow her every move. When Oran Ener stopped by his parents' house to visit his sister and their mother early one August morning in 2003, nothing seemed to have changed from the day before. While he was there, Ms. Ener fed Raya and collected toys for her to play with.
At about 9 a.m., after Oran had left for work, his sister took the baby into the bathroom for a few minutes, then walked empty-handed toward her mother, Marita Ener, who was cleaning the breakfast dishes.
In an expressionless voice, Ms. Ener announced: "I just killed my baby."
Marita Ener didn't say a word. "Mine looked so completely out of it, I couldn't do anything but jump up and go into the bathroom," she recalls. She found the baby lying on the floor, blood seeping onto the bathmat. Ms. Ener had slit her daughter's throat with a kitchen knife.
A Second Death
People who hear Ms. Ener's story seem sympathetic until they learn about the knife. They might feel differently had she, say, smothered her daughter with a pillow. But visions of the bloody death helped fuel the outrage over the Villanova memorial.
And it was the knife that may have persuaded a Minnesota prosecutor to treat Ms. Ener like a criminal rather than someone who was suffering from the mental illness called postpartum psychosis. When the police arrived at her parents' home, they put Ms. Ener in the back of a squad car and took her to the Ramsey County jail.
Even though a psychiatrist who visited Ms. Ener there determined that she was psychotic and suicidal, St. Paul authorities refused her family's requests that she be moved from jail to a hospital, where she might be watched more closely. When they did visit, Ms. Ener's parents, brothers, and sisters-in-law never asked her why she had killed her daughter. But the police officers who went to the house to arrest her said she had told them that she didn't want her baby to continue suffering.
Three weeks after her arrest, Ms. Ener lay down under a blanket on a mattress in the jail's dayroom. Hidden from the guards, she asphyxiated herself with a plastic trash bag.
Back in Pennsylvania, Karen R. Kleiman, executive director of the Postpartum Stress Center, read about Ms. Ener's death in the newspaper. Just after his wife had left for Minnesota, Mr. Donagi had called Ms. Kleiman to make an appointment for after the couple's return. The center is a mile from Ms. Ener's Villanova office.
While she never did meet Mine Ener, Ms. Kleiman says it is obvious that the professor had postpartum psychosis. "You can't kill your baby and not be psychotic," she says.
Ms. Ener fits a personality profile common among women who suffer distress after giving birth: high-achieving perfectionists who are successful and keep their lives under control. "Women like Mine, who are so good at taking care of things, can function without anyone ever knowing they are sick," says Ms. Kleiman. New mothers frequently hide their condition, she adds, because they are so ashamed of their violent thoughts, and because they don't want their babies to be taken away.
Indeed, because Ms. Ener was typically such a grounded person, and because her daughter did have an array of serious problems, people around her didn't realize that her obsession over her daughter's condition was so dangerous.
"Everyone was concerned for Raya," Mr. Donagi says in his e-mail message. "Whatever symptoms Mine may have shown, we interpreted as a natural anxiety given the stress of dealing with Raya."
No one can say whether Ms. Ener would have suffered from postpartum psychosis if Raya had not been born with Down syndrome. But it is clear that the situation compounded the professor's stress. Caring for her baby left her exhausted. She had also just moved into a new home, was trying to put the finishing touches on her book, and had to find a nanny capable of dealing with Raya's feeding tube so she could get back to teaching by September.
Ms. Ener had recently earned tenure and could have cut herself some slack. But she clearly felt that she had to keep up with the academic pace she had already set. Ms. Lindenmeyr, the department chairwoman, says she would have been willing to extend Ms. Ener's leave past August, but the subject never came up.
"She was incredibly independent," says Ms. Baron, of CUNY. "Even though she gave a lot of people a lot of help, at the critical moment when she needed help, she couldn't ask."
Why did Ms. Ener, a brilliant, engaging, can-do woman, descend into such despair without seeking out a therapist or a support group? That is another question that critics of the Villanova memorial have asked. Ms. Ener's education and professional stature make them more inclined to view her as culpable for her baby's death.
"This was not a teenager in a ditch somewhere who couldn't avail herself of a lot of resources," says Dom Giordano, who blasted Villanova on his evening radio show on WPHT for its decision to install the memorial.
Mr. Giordano says he believes that some things, including murder, are simply unforgivable, no matter what kind of illness the killer suffers. "There are certain actions you take in your life that do overwhelm all the good you may have done," he says.
Michael Smerconish, who has a morning show on the same station and went on Bill O'Reilly's television show to bash Villanova, agrees. "John Hinckley may have been a hell of a guy before he shot Ronald Reagan," he says. Mr. Smerconish says that although he believes Ms. Ener suffered from psychosis, "it doesn't negate what she did."
Some of Ms. Ener's friends and colleagues, however, believe that she, too, was a victim. "This was not just a failure of Mine Ener," says Ms. Baron. "Ultimately she was alone, and she's been blamed for a failure that must be attributed to people around her -- both close and far, personal and professional, medical and legal -- that need to share in it."
Ms. Ener's family in St. Paul agrees. Since she died, her brothers and sisters-in-law have been on a crusade to make amends for what she did and to ensure that what happened to her doesn't happen to anyone else. They have donated money to Down-syndrome organizations and lobbied for legislation in Minnesota to require hospitals to provide all new mothers with information on postpartum illnesses.
'Weighing a Person's Life'
No one at Villanova relished being at the center of a debate over whether a university should memorialize a killer. At first, when the complaints began pouring in, Villanova tried to distance itself. Barbara K. Clement, assistant vice president for public affairs, said at the time that the effort to establish a memorial had been led by Ms. Ener's husband, who had raised the money before approaching a small group of history professors. The group, claimed Ms. Clement, had failed to "follow protocol" in deciding to install the study lounge and the plaque.
It turns out that Mr. Donagi had nothing to do with the memorial, although he attended the dedication. Mr. Koven and Ms. Lindenmeyr, the history professors at Villanova, raised the money and planned the memorial, along with the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a philosophy professor who also acts as a special assistant to the president. At every step of the way, the group consulted the proper Villanova officials, none of whom ever questioned aloud whether the university should memorialize a professor who had killed her baby.
Ms. Lindenmeyr now acknowledges that the group may have been a bit na´ve. "Nobody would condone what she did," says the history chairwoman. "But this has to do with weighing a person's life versus their death. We believed she was other things, and that those deserved to be memorialized."
She and other history professors, who are conducting a search for Ms. Ener's replacement, also saw the memorial as a way of putting a close to painful memories. The controversy has now reopened those wounds. "This made her die all over again," Ms. Lindenmeyr said one morning last month as she sat in the student lounge of Falvey Library and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief.
In the end, Villanova decided that it just could not remember a killer in that way. The place on the brick wall where the bronze plaque hung is now bare.
The university will hold a symposium on postpartum depression, but there will be no lasting memorial. "I understand that what they wanted to do is honor her," the Rev. Edmund J. Dobbin, the university's president, said of Ms. Ener's former colleagues. "But a little baby died here. A life was taken."
Back in Villanova's library, the Oriental rug, the copper end tables, and the chairs and lamps are still there. But now it's just furniture, stripped of its intended meaning. The bronze tablet -- the one that reads "Scholar, Teacher, Mentor, Friend" -- has been sent back to the history department. It still doesn't have a permanent home. A few weeks ago, it sat on the floor.