A few days ago, my husband’s great aunt died; she was the only of my in-laws who I called by a familial name (Aunt Jean instead of Jean) – as did the rest of *my* family. Ciro says she was difficult to get along with, but I guess I met her late enough in her life that it was less true (and I didn’t need to depend on her, so I could enjoy her company for what it was). She was incredibly kind to me, and I was in awe of her. The day we met, a large rare flower in her garden bloomed. I’ll miss her very much.
Two days ago, one of the pioneers of refugee and cross-cultural psychiatry, Dr. Jean Carlin, MD, PhD, died in her sleep at her home in Seal Beach, CA. She was 86 years old. She took with her a lifetime of experience and wisdom that inform our understanding of the human cost of war to this day, and during Vietnam in particular informed U.S. refugee policy. More than anything she felt called to her work because she saw clearly into the abyss and cared very deeply about people. She spent her life trying to help them.
I said she was 86 years old. She was born in 1930. That means she moved into her teen years during World War II, and that when she was entering medical school, it was in 1950s America. She was one of three women in her class. It was routine for students who weren’t making the cut to be informed via a terse postcard in their mailbox, with no explanation. She was a woman from a poor single-parent household, surrounded by privileged men, aware that she could be dismissed at any time for any reason, in an era when female doctors in America were so rare that people frequently thought she was joking.
She spent two tours in Vietnam at a village children’s hospital, treating victims of war and its attendant horror with inadequate supplies and no electricity (candles at the foot of the bed). Children burned, children maimed, children with cholera. Viet Cong attacks in the area were frequent. She recalled one night-time alert that came while she was trying to save the life of a dying baby girl. The attack forced her to carry the girl through a field of knee-deep mud and weeds in total darkness, compressing the tiny body rhythmically against her own chest to respirate her, until she could reach an emergency ward. The baby did survive, as did many others in her care.
She returned later to work in the refugee camps, and her time there lead to a senior consultancy on the relocation efforts of the U.S. government. I haven’t been able to find a complete count of citations of her work in research literature, but it’s over 100. I think about it a lot when I read about Syria, about profound trauma combining with dislocation and total loss of culture and identity, about it following the survivors through generations. It haunts me to see it so completely, as it must have haunted her.
After the war she moved into forensic psychiatry, working for courts and mental hospitals and social services, with survivors and casualties of a different kind. Budget cuts and political resistance meant this work was frequently unpaid, underpaid, or paid very late, but she continued to do it, for the same reason she went willingly into war zones.
She was also my great aunt, and she loved me like her own child, of which she had none, nor did she ever marry. The truth is she wasn’t easy to be around, and that made her perpetually lonely.
Which isn’t fair. It’s not fair that with a human compassion so fierce, with courage so great, with such a complete willingness to sacrifice, that she should ever have wanted for love of her own. I can’t get past how sad it makes me. I hope I was a comfort to her. I will miss her very much.