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Colleen Meier 1946–1972
by Britta Fischer
Colleen Meier, a founder of Science for the People, part of the Helen Keller Collective, veteran of many actions for peace and against the misuse of science, physiologist and graduate student took her life on August 3rd at the age of 26. The following text was part of a memorial service organized by friends in her department.
Colleen Meier was a beautiful, sensitive, generous and gifted person. Those of us who knew her well miss her love, her warmth and her sense of humor.
The word tragedy is much overused, yet Colleen’s death is a tragedy. It was her way out of a set of oppressive and irresolvable contradictions. All of us have been brought up to seek success and to dread failure. However, what is success worth if its pursuit involves dehumanizing pressures and humiliations? What is the success worth if its achievement means merely that one has earned the right to oppress others?
Colleen was well aware of this problem. She responded to doubts by working harder, not by dropping out. This is a dilemma that all graduate students face to a greater or lesser degree. The five people, of whom I know, who have taken their lives in Boston research departments in the last two years represent merely the tip of the iceberg of the pain and suffering with which degrees are earned there and elsewhere.
There is no point in laying the blame on any particular individual, for no individual is to be blamed. Rather, I feel very angry at a system which requires that its best minds be developed in a dog-eat-dog atmosphere of jealously guarded professional secrets rather than in cooperation with one another; a system in which being at the top means oppressing others rather than helping them; a system in which women are lured into the success ethic and yet systematically denied the rewards for their efforts. Much as we may not like the rewards, this system itself is full of contradictions.
A compassionate human being like Colleen was all the more likely to have been crushed by such conditions.
We have failed on at least three counts.
One, in our immediate environment the extreme outcries of men and women in an unbearable situation, i.e., the previous suicides, have mostly been hushed up and not been talked about. That may be an understandable defensive reaction, but it brings us no closer to preventing such acts from happening again.
Two, we have failed to discuss and take actions against the oppressive conditions in the institutions where we work. How many times have we regretted that we were not capable of a quick and effective response to events for lack of organization. The time has come for the sake of our survival and that of our brothers and sisters to organize in the face of our oppressors and to work at it and stick with it even when there is no entertainment.
Colleen was, in fact, one of the finest examples of a dedicated, hard-working, politically aware person, our comrade in Science for the People for all the years of its existence.
Three, we have failed among ourselves to find new forms of relationships based on love and trust and capable of giving real emotional support. We did not recognize the signs of a person in anguish and desperation. For one, because we are taught to hide and be ashamed of our distress which is another manifestation of a system which glorifies destructive strength and teaches us to despise weakness. For another, because we can always find a rationalization for why someone won’t commit suicide so that we don’t have to seek out and deal with the problems.
The time has come for us to relate to one another as trusting human beings at work, at home, in a collective or organization. Only when we don’t allow ourselves to be too busy to stop and talk in depth with our fellow workers, friends, roommates, can we hope to help each other. It takes time and effort, and if it slows down our experiments and papers—so be it. This is not a call for organized sensitivity training which is merely a trick on the part of administrators to create false togetherness so that will produce more. Rather this call for more genuine personal relationships recognizes that some differences cannot be ironed out and that some people cannot get along together and should not be forced to either.
We have to get to know each other as whole human beings, not merely as the fragments or roles into which we are divided in our daily lives.
Colleen was a woman of action and not of many words. She was exemplary in working with and helping others. She was less capable of opening herself up to others and that may have cost her her life. We should think in what ways we can be more encouraging, more g!Vlng, more loving to overcome another’s reticence about expressing herself or himself.
Let us stop being afraid of one another and let us in Colleen’s name, build a world worth living in.
We would like to collect material on the general subject of the oppression and exploitation of graduate students. Please send us descriptions (and analysis if possible) of experiences you and people you know have had. We are planning an article on this subject for a future issue.