Lesser visits Chilean family that saved her life

Mishy Lesser (Ed.D. 1996) tells people that she first personally experienced terrorism on September 11. She pauses, and clarifies: September 11, 1973.

Then a 20-year-old college student turned community organizer and activist working in Chile during the government of Salvador Allende, Lesser was forced to go into hiding when the September 11, 1973 military coup d’état caused the country to descend into violence and terror. She was safely hidden by a doctor and his family while thousands disappeared, were tortured or murdered. The dead would include her Chilean boyfriend and two American colleagues who were inspired by the movement for social justice that flourished during the Allende government.

Now an education consultant working in the Boston area, Lesser still possesses the flimsy means by which she escaped Chile with her life: a forged letter claiming she was a university student studying history, a U.S. Embassy document certifying the fraudulent letter, and a calling card with a reluctantly scribbled note of support from a retired police general.

Early in 2008, Lesser returned to Chile to reunite with the family she credits for her survival. The reunion was the subject of a piece on “The World,” the international radio news program presented by Public Radio International, the British Broadcasting Company, and WGBH Boston.

The trip and its media coverage supported Lesser’s process of coming to terms with her Chilean experience. The College of Education also played a role, she said.

After her escape from Chile, Lesser worked with anti-Pinochet activists in her home town of New York City. In 1980 she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and travelled as close to Chile as she could get: Ecuador.

“In Ecuador I was able to use some of what I’d learned in Chile in my work with both urban underserved communities as well as indigenous populations in the highlands,” she said.

After a decade, Lesser came back to the U.S. and, searching for a doctoral program, learned about the College of Education’s Center for International Education and the Amherst-based Institute for Training and Development where she secured a consulting job. She was admitted to COE’s doctoral program in international education and took courses in the Family Therapy program. Her research focused on people from opposing sides of the civil war in El Salvador.

“It allowed me to look at what happens to people after they’ve been exposed to political violence, and to try to answer the question of whether an educational setting can further psychological as well as social healing among people who might otherwise be more inclined to rip each other to shreds than reconcile,” she said.

Her studies at the College of Education gave her a framework in which she could look at her experience in Chile with deeper understanding.

“Someone asked me how these different events - Chile and the coup, working for the Chile solidarity movement, and then the Fulbright and Ecuador, how they all fit together,” Lesser said. “It wasn’t until I got to Amherst and was able to sink into the program at CIE that I began to examine some of my experiences from that painful period. Those of us who got out of Chile when I did…did not have the language to describe how what we were doing in the political arena affected us psychologically. So the Family Therapy program and CIE gave me a context to look critically at all of that, and to begin my own healing.”