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Esther Gwinnell ’75

February 22, 2019, in Portland.

Esther had been practicing psychiatry for years when, in about 1996, she began noticing the internet’s effect on her patients. More of them were talking about falling in love with total strangers and building romances through email, or becoming addicted to cybersex. Without the sensory input of a face-to-face relationship, everything is left to the imagination. She encouraged her readers to ask the most basic questions, such as “Do you keep a neat house?”

In 1998, her book about why online romances happen and how they differ from those formed in daily life was published. Online Seductions: Falling in Love with Strangers on the Internet gained her national attention, including appearances on Nightline and NPR’s Talk of the Nation. In her book, Esther compared the modern online relationship with historical cases of individuals who met as pen pals and fell in love. Offering guidelines for how to protect oneself online, she examined our obsession with online seduction.

“Intimacy is revealing things to others that make you anxious,” she explained. “Then you feel closer to them. You revealed something and they didn’t reject you.” Online intimacy leads to fantasizing about the person sitting at the other keyboard, which can generate romantic or sexy feelings.

Born in Germany, Esther grew up in Alaska and after visiting a friend at Reed decided, “This is the place for me.” She wrote her thesis on the immune system of the newt with Prof. Laurens Ruben [biology 1955–92]. As a reporter for the Quest, she covered protests against the war in Vietnam and the occupation of Eliot Hall by student protestors, and remembered when President Nixon was hung in effigy. She went on to medical school at the University of Washington and a psychiatry residency at what is now Oregon Health & Science University.

For 25 years, Esther had a private psychiatry practice in Portland. She then took three years to pursue research and treatment in traumatic brain injury as a psychiatrist for the U.S. Army in Schweinfurt, Germany. She worked for several years at Standard Insurance. She was also a glass artist, photographer, published author, and raconteur. 

She met her husband, Marc Goldberg, in 1983 after responding to a personal ad in Willamette Week. Meeting at a restaurant, they clicked. When he asked whether she planned to answer any other ads, she replied that there was just one other ad that had caught her eye. “I’m going to answer it,” she said, “and then we’ll just have to see what happens after that.” Marc asked her to read the ad.

“Girl of my dreams, would you send flowers to a man? Do you still clap for Tinkerbell? And do you know the real name of the Lone Ranger’s theme song? Send your answers to a 32 Y/O, quiche-eating DWM.”

Marc placed his hand on hers and said, “Save your stamp. It’s me.” The couple married in 1988 and divorced years later.

Esther was a steadfast supporter of Reed; she created the Dr. Esther Gwinnell Scholarship in 2015 and made a generous gift in her estate. She also supported the Oregon Food Bank, Janus Youth Programs, and the William Temple House.


Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2019

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