Deborah J. "Misty" Gerner
Misty Gerner, an editor of this magazine and an inspiration to so many of us, died in the tranquility of her home in Vinland, Kansas on June 19, 2006 after a lengthy struggle with cancer. Misty was a scholar, activist and peacemaker, exemplifying always both reason and passion. She “let her life speak,” to paraphrase a fellow Quaker, living her values each day in what can only be described as a coherent, internally consistent life.
Misty was a political scientist by training. Her research focused on Palestinian nationalism, conflict resolution, mediation, human rights, gender and democratization. Her books include One Land, Two Peoples: The Conflict Over Palestine (1994) and Understanding the Contemporary Middle East (2000), and she was part of the Quaker Working Party that produced When the Rain Returns: Justice and Reconciliation in Palestine and Israel (2004).
Always seeking cross-fertilization, Misty was well-versed in international relations and comparative politics, qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Together with her husband Phil Schrodt, she developed the Kansas Event Data Set project, in which they coded years of event data concerning the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. She was active in both disciplinary and regional networks. Thomas Volgy calls Misty “the bright, beautiful jewel in the crown” of the International Studies Association, which he directs. She was also committed to the work of the Middle East Studies Association, the Palestinian American Research Center and several human rights foundations. At the time of her death, Misty was involved in a collaborative project funded by the National Science Foundation about the nexus of dissent and repression.
Misty earned her doctorate at Northwestern University, taught at the University of Iowa and Hamilton College, the American University in Cairo and, since 1988, at the University of Kansas. She was the recipient of many awards for teaching and research. The chancellor of the University of Kansas remembers her as “an extraordinary scholar and teacher who embodied a deep passion for her field of study and equally strong ability to engage and inspire her students. [She had an] ability to present complex topics objectively and with distinctive clarity.” Her real love, though, was her time in Ramallah at Birzeit University. She and Phil returned for the last time this past winter. Misty’s face would light up when she spoke of Ramallah, reflecting the depth of friendships forged there.
Misty was always crystal-clear about her cancer. She did not want friends and colleagues to dance around it or deny its existence. Nor did she tolerate doomsday scenarios and hand-wringing sadness. She chose to deal with cancer in the same way she lived her life: head on. Says her former student and friend Julia Pitner: “Misty truly loved life and lived it to the fullest until the very end.” Misty’s long-time signature on all her correspondence was simply: “Carpe diem.” That is what she would want us all to remember and embrace.
Misty had an uncanny ability to step outside her own world. “She strove always to be scrupulously fair and to understand the point of view of people with whose actions she disagreed,” recalls journalist Helena Cobban. No matter how traumatic and painful her treatment, she focused her energies on the problems of other people -- Palestinians, Israelis, friends, human rights activists, colleagues. She had a seemingly endless reservoir of kindness and generosity.
In addition, she had a capacity to forge creative networks, to see old problems in new ways, to distill political rhetoric to its essence, and to talk about social and political struggles in a way that resonated with intellectuals and broad community groups alike. She could challenge deeply held stereotypes in a fruitful and non-threatening way, project peace during war, calmness during struggle and enlightenment during pain.
Misty shared an amazing relationship with Phil, also a political scientist at the University of Kansas. They collaborated on many research projects. Their marriage was intellectually vibrant, spiritually grounded and genuinely happy. I have never seen a love so deep, a commitment so unquestioned. I thank Phil for his devotion and love, for the way he took care of Misty during hard times. Phil was her partner and the center of her life.
Misty and I met at conferences many times over the years, always searching for new avenues to make a difference. We also spoke often about the challenges of being part of a dual academic couple, about the nature of marriage and about our deeply personal struggles. She gave me and Pat advice very early in our marriage and careers. We have held it dear, for, as usual, she was right. In 2004, when her medical tests were not very encouraging, Misty surprised me at a conference panel -- quietly walking into the room just as I began to speak. I am grateful for that gift of love.
Memorials for Misty will be held at the University of Kansas in Lawrence on September 17, at MESA in November and at the ISA in March. She was especially fond of the Ad Mundum Fund, which enables students to study abroad and broaden their horizons. It is located at Earlham College (www.earlham.com), where she earned undergraduate degrees in peace and conflict studies and religion.
Misty quoted her mentor, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, as telling her often, “It is essential that Palestinians not remain victims; we must become doers.” Misty remains a doer through the legacy of her influential work and a dear friend to many people from different walks of life. In this deeply distressing time, her work is more important than ever. Let us all honor Misty by seizing the day.
University of Texas-Austin/Naval Postgraduate School
Misty Gerner, for six years an editor of Middle East Report and then a member of MERIP’s board of directors, made a point of attending our Washington meetings even when she was quite ill from the side effects of her chemotherapy. Patient, probing and unfailingly cheerful, she was a crucial contributor to our deliberations on matters large and small, and a reliable moral compass during turbulent times. Despite all this, she felt badly that she was not contributing more. That was so like Misty.
In her years working with MERIP, things went from bad to worse in Palestine-Israel, Iraq and elsewhere in the region. But Misty never despaired. She was realistic and felt the pain of others deeply, but she would mention how seemingly intractable conflicts like the one in apartheid South Africa were transformed quickly for the better, despite all expectations. That is what we remember most about her: an optimism suffused with real understanding of conflict and human suffering, buttressed by her belief that our role in teaching and speaking out was truly and deeply meaningful, even if (at times) it seemed entirely useless to us.
Misty brought to our work her doughty spirit, her sharp insight, her wise counsel, her personal kindness and much, much more -- all acts of tremendous generosity that we can only aspire to repay.
Jillian Schwedler and Chris Toensing
Misty was the bright, beautiful jewel in the crown of the International Studies Association. She exemplified all that the association is about, and gave selflessly of herself, often without being asked. She ran the annual program over ten years ago in the midst of her first battle with cancer, stopping and sitting on the stairs of the Chicago Hilton and Towers when she ran out of strength -- only to get up again and go on her way toward the next crisis. From then on, she was engaged in every battle, in every glory, in every success of the association, committing her all when the rest of us mere mortals were running out of steam. She would plunge forward, her words and dedication sharp as ever, undiminished even near the end in San Diego, even when the pain would rage over her body in the middle of our sessions, she would go on, as this sentence goes on...because we are all afraid that if we stop, so will she. But she will be with us, forever.
International Studies Association
I was with Misty and Phil at a conference in Ramallah in late April 2002. She had just learned that her cancer had come back in a very virulent form. At that time, we had both been asked to join the American Friends Service Committee working group to look at the then worsening Palestinian-Israeli dispute. We knew the schedule would be grueling. Misty mulled the prospect for about two minutes, and decided to join. She was quite clear that she did not want disease to slow her down. Just the reverse: She soon acquired a burning sense of urgency -- to get done as much as she was capable of doing before the disease should finally overwhelm her.
What she accomplished over the four years that followed was prodigious. I know she was always keen to get into the classroom, and she taught almost until the end of the 2006 spring semester, even as her medical situation deteriorated rapidly. And she was also always writing, serving on committees and mentoring students.
One of the main sources of her vitality, I am sure, was the groundedness of her faith and commitment as a Quaker. Our work with the AFSC was long and sometimes not very easy. We were 14 people in the working group, from all around the world, and with many different ideas on how to proceed. Misty was the bedrock of our group. I recall two or three occasions when her calm, low-key interventions during crucial meetings, backed up by the sheer luminosity of her presence, put the group and our work on a new, much firmer and more loving footing. She came up with the main title of the book we ended up writing: When the Rain Returns.
Misty had the most amazing gift for offering loving support and commitment to the many she counted as her friends. I told her once I’d never been able to get into reading Margaret Atwood -- and two days later found a box containing five of her own favorite Atwood books on my doorstep. She kept in regular contact with friends and colleagues in tough situations in Palestine and elsewhere. She strove always to be scrupulously fair and to understand the point of view of people with whose actions she disagreed.
Writing about Misty in the past tense feels inaccurate, since I still have a strong sense of her presence with us all as we live through this present, very painful summer from hell. I guess at least now she won’t be feeling physical pain. But, for my part, I feel intensely the pain of her gentle and intensely wise life cut short.
Misty was a unique gem. There are so many stories I can tell; I will start with the last thing Misty did for my family. In April, I called her to wish her a happy Easter. She asked if my husband and I were coming to our son Basil’s graduation from Earlham College the next month. I told her that we were trying our best. Misty knew well the travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians; she knew there was a chance we would not be able to exit through Jordan in time for Basil’s commencement exercise. Despite how gravely ill she was, she called Earlham and made plans to attend Basil’s graduation in case we could not. Misty never mentioned these plans to us or to Basil. We found out only later, close to the time she passed away. That was Misty -- silently caring, doing and giving to others without wanting recognition or anything else in return.
Misty visited us at Birzeit any number of times, and she had many friends, comrades and students both at the university and in the wider area. As we built our international studies program, now an institute named after Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, she and Phil worked tirelessly to improve and enlarge it. She practically founded its specialized library with her marvelous donations. Misty and Phil both taught our students, imposing needed rigor from the start. She participated in several of our conferences, at the university, in Ramallah and in Gaza. She was part of our nuclear and extended family. We sorely miss her, but she is engraved forever in our personal and institutional memory.
What a remarkably productive life Misty Gerner had, even though it was shortened for reasons we cannot, in the bigger sense of the term, know. In the last several weeks of her life, I held her in the Light on a daily basis, believing as we Quakers do that the Light is transmitted between us and through us and speaks a universal language that crosses the miles in less than a blink of an eye. Her Light continues to shine in every one of us who she touched with her passion, compassion and dedicated drive to understand the sad and difficult state of so many parts of our world.
Over a period of a couple of years, Misty and I spoke very frequently. Helena Cobban would send us draft chapters or parts of chapters from When the Rain Returns; then Misty and I would read them intently and confer; then Misty would convey the results of our conversation to Helena. This collaboration was one of the best working relationships I have ever experienced.
I recall with great fondness something that happened at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2003. A large gathering of Quakers was taking place there, and so our working group decided to hold an editorial meeting concurrently. I had been asked to be a keynote speaker to the main gathering, but I was not sure how I was going to end the talk, perhaps even until I got onto the stage. Misty helped. It was clear, in our working group meetings, that she was experiencing significant discomfort. While sitting near her, I became aware of her spiritual presence, part of which had to do with the knowledge that the end of her life was coming upon her. It was not a sad presence. Perhaps there was a touch of appropriate anger, but beneath even that I sensed a compassion that touched us all. In the end, when I gave my talk, I shaped my words to speak in and with that spiritual presence. I spoke about how peace work is ultimately sustained through well-placed whispers; as we approach death, those soft sounds carry on beyond us, joining in a beautiful chorus of whispers that continue to guide the living.
“You really take this Quaker spirituality seriously, don’t you?” asked Misty afterward, when she had given me a hug. We had a little laugh and then went out for a drink. The television behind us was broadcasting news from Israel-Palestine, but the noise in the lounge made it difficult to hear. Misty heard it and immediately jumped up. The rest of us wondered if something was wrong, or if her pain was escalating, but she was merely trying to get closer to the television to hear the news! When my essay called “A Well-Placed Whisper,” based on that talk, came out as a chapter in a book, I dedicated it to Misty. I secretly hoped that she noticed.
Misty had a rare and remarkable ability to do the most rigorous and vigorous intellectual work while maintaining a deep and abiding compassion for the people who were the subjects of her study. Edward Sapir once said that, however beautiful our theories, we must never make the mistake of pointing arrow of inquiry at them, rather than the men, women and children who are the true focus of our efforts to understand the world we live in. Misty’s gentle whispers, as well as those of several dear friends who have also gone to the Light, will continue to nudge me when I feel tired. This evening, as I expressed regret for not writing in response to reactionary comments in the Canadian press on the subject of Lebanon, my wife reminded me that the people of Iraq still need my attention, even after more than 15 years. Peace work takes a long time. Misty would have concurred, I suspect.
In 2000, Leo and I were living in Saint-Louis in northern Senegal, not far from the Mauritanian border. Misty and Phil came to visit. Misty wanted to go to Mauritania, and the idea appealed to us as well, so we set off -- two cars, two kids (6 and 3 years old), a Mauritanian driver and his brother, a Senegalese mechanic and a Senegalese cook. We went up the West African coast headed for Nouakchott, and eventually crossed to Chinguetti in the Sahara. The trip was intense and amazing, but the highlight was one night when we were camped in the desert outside Chinguetti and our driver and guide, Hassan, who had grown up in the Sahara, told us his story.
When he was a boy, his father -- in order to increase the number of camels he had in his herd and to educate his son -- set off across the Sahara with Hassan. The father made Hassan go ahead to lead the way, and of course Hassan made many mistakes, ending up in the evening where he had started that morning. Over the course of many months, his father patiently pointed out to him how to read the ever changing desert landscape so that he could find his way anywhere. By the time they got to Chad -- yes, they actually got that far before turning back! -- Hassan could read the desert as well as anyone, and because there had been no demands on the herd as food, the number of animals had greatly increased.
We had many occasions to discuss this story with Misty. What impressed us all so much about the story as educators was just how many ways of learning there are, and how they can be found in the most unexpected of places. I think that is what Misty was about: going to some of the most remote places in the world to listen to what others had to say about learning and teaching, and passing it on to her friends and students.
University of Florida
Misty was the person I had dreamed of replacing me as director of the Peace and Global Studies Program at Earlham College. Working with her on When the Rain Returns was an inspiration for me, as I watched her combat her illness while remaining passionately committed to what we were trying to say about her beloved Middle East. Where she found the energy I’ll never know, but I was thankful that she lived to see the book in print. Her recent desire to have our book updated and reprinted was typical of her ability to look to the future when she knew her own life was ending. She joins Edward Said in this and in my memory.
There are so many stories and memories it is hard to know where to begin. Misty was first my professor and adviser; she became my mentor and friend. She nurtured my interests in the Middle East and human rights, as she did for so many. My passion was Lebanon; hers was Palestine. We had a deal to share with each other what we knew about each other’s passion, to the point that we cursed each other often for our shared love of people and place. Misty “quit” the Middle East several times over the many years that we knew each other. Of course, it never lasted long and we laughed a lot about it, because she always said, “No, this time I really mean it.” She was addicted and, indeed, took much energy from the friends that she made there and often, it seemed, from the land itself, especially Palestine. In fact, after much deliberation and discussion, she went to Palestine for one last visit the winter before she died. Her doctors advised against it, but she responded, “Well, it’s my life and I want to be there, to see my friends one last time.” She called me from there, so full of joy that she had made the decision to go. Misty truly loved life and lived it to the fullest until the very end; she gulped up life and exuded its energy, which was contagious for all who came into contact with her. She has affected my life profoundly and will always be with me because of it. Although it will be okay, it will never again be all right.
Some years ago, I was the “other mother” to the wonderful 4-year old son, Brook, of a man with whom I was involved. Brook had behaved badly, so I sent him to his room; later, I went up to tell him he could come back downstairs, and his response -- after looking very thoughtful for several seconds -- was: “No, I’m not finished being angry yet.” That’s pretty much how I am feeling.
Misty’s ethical fiber, her sheer stubbornness about right and wrong, and her physical courage in face of a horrendous enemy describe a colleague who did not know the meaning of surrender or even acquiescence. We shared a common foe, so perhaps I had some inkling of what she was facing. When we spoke occasionally we did not talk about disease. Frankly, while friends and family mean well, all too often the patient wishes for a recording device that would play the latest medical bulletin. Instead, we talked about the Middle East, about politics and scholarship. Misty told me a couple of times that she was grateful that I addressed her as a serious scholar, not as a pitiable patient.
Once though, in a garden in Istanbul, we spoke about death, about curtailed dreams, about all that will remain incomplete when we leave. Misty was angry that her time was short. I told her then, as I repeat here now, that she had marked the path for others to follow and that that was a job well done. She paused for a moment and then she told me about plans to return to the West Bank. There is nothing incomplete about the life model that is Misty’s legacy, nothing at all.
Augustus Richard Norton