Remembering Emma Deboncoeur
by Nancy Scheper-Hughes
March 22, 2018
Emma Deboncoeur lived up to her name: she was a dedicated follower of Emma Goldman, and a strong and good-hearted person. I first met Emma Deboncoeur as a student in my Spring 2015 medical anthropology class. It was a joy having Emma sitting as she did in the front row, center seat of 155 Kroeber, serving as a constant friendly discussant and critic. She was my # 1 interlocutor. And if, God forbid, if there was ever a moment of silence during lectures that begged for cross fire, Emma would be there, ready to share her sound critiques and reflections on the topics at hand – whether on mindful bodies, embodied knowledge, suffering, medical human rights, madness/delirium, or the disastrous failures of ‘humanitarian reason’. Emma was so present as voice of reason, compassion, joy and delight in the vagaries and the spectrum of ways of being in the world and living truthfully in ones body,
Emma traveled far and wide and brought her experiences into her keen observations, tender caring, and wise counseling. Emma was dedicated to community, collectivity, the commons and the common good. She was a wonderful ethnographic scholar and a unique organic intellectual. Her senior honors thesis was an advocate for a new and radically transformed practice of social medicine and public psychiatry. Her senior honors thesis—“The Gravity of the Situation: Health Access for Transgender Women In Montréal and the Epistemology of Transgender Health Care” was awarded the 2015 Ronald Frankenberg Prize for the best senior thesis in critical thinking about medicine, technologies, and the body. It was the last time we could present ‘Ronnie’, one of the most widely acknowledged figures in British social anthropology, with the announcement of Emma’s award and sending him a copy of her thesis. He was moved to respond from the UK saying that he was the one who was honored by being associated with Emma’s thesis. Post thesis, Emma was a key player of our collective, “Envisioning Radical Experiments in Social Science and Medicine” that soon became known as “Rad Med. She brought to the table her epistemological openness, her deep understanding of transgender persons and the obstacles they face in dealing with medical practitioners who might be well meaning but who were so often ill informed. Emma’s empathy included all ‘marginalized’ populations: prisoners, minority youth living in intolerable social and community situations, the mentally ill living on our streets, and our Berkeley students who have faced police brutality and incarceration. Emma embodies the brave-hearted scholar-activist. I remember Emma most as a very funny, smart-ass, kind and compassionate human being, and as a moral compass. Deboncoeur was an embodiment of Jung’s archetype of the wounded healer, those counselors who spend their lives caring for the wounds of the other.
Last night Michael and I lit a large votive candle for Emma at the Basilica of Saint Frances in Santa Fe, Mexico.
Tonight I will gaze the majestic New Mexico sky looking for her light….