Suzanne Eaton’s beautiful logic

Suzanne Eaton’s beautiful logic

Suzanne Eaton’s murder on Crete has been on my mind and in my heart from the moment we learned that the missing American scientist with the lovely smile and penetrating gaze was the victim of a brutal, random crime. The perpetrator, a local 27-year-old man who came upon her as she was jogging on a country road near the conference that she was attending. If she had seen him coming in his shabby white sedan, she might have waved and smiled. I think of her smile, so as not to think of what followed.

The story has affected many people at many levels. Perhaps because of who Suzanne Eaton was: a renowned scientist, an American biologist living and working in Germany. She was known, respected and loved by many, as the outpouring of sorrow, incomprehension and anger across the world has shown. She was not one of the anonymous women who fall victim to violent men so often, whose deaths do not draw the same interest.

Her murder, though, as it shakes us, draws attention to those victims, too. It proves, once again, as if this were needed, that any woman can be the victim of such a crime. Anywhere. No woman or girl is safe. Not even on a summer’s midafternoon on sunny Crete, the holiday island, seat of an ancient civilization, with its endless myths and heroic history. A venue where Suzanne Eaton had attended conferences in the past.

Seeing the photograph of the confessed killer next to Suzanne Eaton’s portrait, I kept thinking of Lear as he looks upon the lifeless body of his beloved daughter Cordelia. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?” he asks. Where is justice, or the sense of this? What makes a person cross the line and take another’s life simply because he (and it is almost always a he) has the power to do so? This is a question we ask after any act of violence, as we seek to understand the dark despair in relationships, the tides of political and religious fanaticism, the mental illness and personality disorders that we usually see only when it is too late.

We can understand that men can kill in order to satisfy a surge of sadistic lust, leaving us to tease out the deeper reasons, but we still struggle to come to terms with the simplicity of the fact that it is impossible to be prepared adequately. No one can live as if everyone else is a potential killer, as if every passing car is a murder weapon, as if every other passenger on the subway is a suicide bomber.

I searched under Suzanne Eaton’s name on Twitter, to read what her family, friends and colleagues had to say about her life. I wanted the comfort of communion, to learn more about her and her work, to remember her this way. Among the many messages of love, sorrow and anger, along with learning of her love of music (a joy she shared with her husband and two sons), I chanced upon a link to an interview that Suzanne had granted the Journal of Cell Biology in 2013.

It is titled “Suzanne Eaton: The beautiful logic of development” and here she explained her research into tissue patterning but also spoke a little about her life. Asked about role models as she was growing up, she replied that her father, an electrical engineer, was “always a real inspiration” to her. “He was interested in everything and he was a great scientist,” she said. Then, unexpectedly, she added: “My other role model… it’s embarrassing, but I would say that was Mr. Spock from Star Trek. I think my favorite thing that Spock ever said was in response to another officer, who said he ‘felt’ something was wrong. The officer said, ‘It was just an emotional feeling, Mr. Spock. I don’t expect you to understand it.’ And Spock said, ‘I note it, without understanding it.’ The lesson I drew from that is that one can take a rational approach to incomprehensible things. If you accept them, then you can think about what they might mean.”

Even at this moment, in the flood of thoughts and feelings unleashed by a horrific act of irrationality, Suzanne Eaton shines through as a unique human being who defines herself, her position in the world and her relationship with it. She is a witness, an active and rational observer. If we accept the incomprehensible, we can think about what it might mean, she says. We have to accept the incomprehensible of her death; we need to think about what it means. How and why did this happen? What can be done to prevent such acts?

The people of Crete are devastated, but there needs to be a serious reckoning. The obsession with a great past, with a legacy of rebels’ disregard for authority, has encouraged a culture of individual lawlessness in dissonance with the limits necessary to a modern society. Instead of being reinforced through debate and imposition of the law, limits on behavior are stretched to accommodate all kinds of narcissistic extravagance: only when society has clear limits can we see the threats to it. Random, terrible crimes are committed everywhere and they cannot always be prevented. As rational beings we can recognize this. Crete, though, with its specific traditions needs to acknowledge its problems and fix itself.

To honor Suzanne Eaton’s life, to keep her memory alive, to celebrate her beautiful logic, to save ourselves from the labyrinth, we need to pick up the thread where she left it.

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