University Honors Popular Teacher Who Killed Her Baby

Kathleen Rhodes | July 7, 2008 | 8:22pm EDT
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( - Villanova University on Thursday will dedicate a new section of its library to a star professor and student favorite who committed suicide in August 2003 while in jail. Mine Ener was behind bars after admitting she had killed her 6-month old, Down Syndrome-afflicted daughter by slashing the baby's throat.

Ener's friends say she suffered from post-partum depression as a result of her child's intensive health care needs and the feeling that the little girl would face a lifetime of misery. But Villanova's decision to honor Ener has outraged child advocates, one of whom told the Cybercast News Service Wednesday that "a lot of women have varying degrees of post-partum depression and they don't kill their child."

According to the Villanova University website, the school will dedicate a "Mine Ener Memorial Study Space" in the school's Falvey Library in memory of the professor, who taught in the school's history department and was director of the Center for Arab American Studies at Villanova.

The study space will "commemorate Ener's life and work," according to the history department, which organized a memorial fund to raise money for the project.

Ener, then 38 years old, was found dead in her Ramsey County jail cell in Minnesota on Aug. 30, 2003, reportedly after smothering herself with a plastic bag. She had been charged with second-degree murder for the Aug. 4 slashing death of her child Raya Donagi at the St. Paul, Minn., home of Ener's mother.

Ener reportedly told police that she did not want her disabled daughter, who required a special nasal feeding tube, to "go through life suffering." According to news reports, Ener had been battling post-partum depression, and although medicated, had expressed thoughts of suicide and harming her baby.

The day after the baby was killed, Dr. Shari Lusskin, a reproductive psychiatrist at New York University Medical Center, told the Associated Press that in her depressed state, Ener may have believed her act was merciful. Lusskin said "a tremendous amount of shame and guilt" frequently prevents women in Ener's condition from getting the help they need.

Joseph Friedberg, Ener's attorney, also told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that his client was not responsible for her actions, was "clearly mentally ill, and any idiot would have known so."

Worthy of sympathy, not honor, says child advocate

Child advocate and parenting education expert Dom Giordano said that while it's reasonable to sympathize over the depression Ener was experiencing, it is not acceptable for Villanova University to honor her.

"A lot of women have varying degrees of postpartum depression and they don't kill their child," Giordano told the Cybercast News Service. "What they ought to do is honor her by putting this money toward a research endowment at Villanova, toward post-partum depression ... that helps get the word out about how to avoid consequences like this."

Villanova's current plan, Giordano said, "is inappropriate." The university was adopting a posture, he said, of "blowing past something that you can just blow past, only focusing on the fact that [Ener] was a popular teacher."

Giordano suggested that the school was giving special consideration to Ener because she was a scholar in the field of Islamic studies. "We feel there is a lean toward that for Villanova because [diversity] was a prominent thing with them," he said.

Giordano also accused Villanova University officials of being inconsistent. When John DuPont, a member of the wealthy family, was convicted of murder, he said, the school promptly stripped the DuPont name from its basketball court and all-purpose gymnasium. "They took the name off, even though [DuPont] had given them a lot of money," Giordano said.

A number of students are "very upset" over the university's decision, Giordano added, but are "going to pray" rather than protest.

Deserving of recognition, say Ener's students and colleagues

Ener's colleagues and students believe her work is deserving of recognition. Ener was reportedly well respected for her expertise on Arab-American relations and her ability to speak Turkish, French and Arabic. Students also gave her favorable ratings in the classroom.

Professor Juan Cole, who chaired Ener's doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Ener was the kind of person who "took other students under her wing and mentored them."

Ryan Shafik, a 2001 Villanova graduate who took a class with Ener, told the Inquirer she was "the best I had at that school." Ener was unlike other professors who "are very introverted and not very talkative," Shafik told the newspaper. "She was the exact opposite, very friendly and very sociable."

Barbara Clement, head of the office of communications and public affairs at Villanova, told the Cybercast News Service Wednesday that Ener's condition was a "psychosis, not just a depression.

"I think that's the most important part to remember," she added, and "under the circumstances, people are not being very fair about this."

Many people don't understand mental illness, Clement said, "because if they did, they certainly wouldn't condemn [Ener]." At Villanova, a Catholic university, "one of the things that we try to do is be compassionate and understanding," Clement added.

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