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YVONNE ABRAHAM

Mission to help the world ends tragically

Erin Willinger wasn’t going to be held back by her illness, not by anything. With much to fear, she was fearless. And then she was gone.

Erin Willinger left Newton to search the world for  purpose. Last July, she settled in Agra, India, marrying a local taxi driver. In February, he killed her and committed suicide.

Erin Willinger left Newton to search the world for purpose. Last July, she settled in Agra, India, marrying a local taxi driver. In February, he killed her and committed suicide.

NEWTON — She had those qualities that fill parents with pride, and terror. Erin Michal Willinger was fearless. And she wanted to fix the world.

As a little kid, Andrew Willinger’s younger child was always the one who clambered up into trees, the one who could be relied upon to wander off in search of something, anything, more interesting than what adults had in mind.

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At Newton North High School, teachers imbued her with a healthy outrage at the world’s shortcomings. She leapt at a chance to travel to Cuba in her senior year, and was desperate to see more of this aching planet.

“I hope you realize, I’m never going to live here again,” she told her father just before she left for Vassar College.

“Are you going to put that in writing?” joked Andrew, who had been raising Erin on his own after he and her mother separated a few years before.

Despite her vow, Erin did come back for a time, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her junior year at Vassar. She worried that her illness would define her, often telling her father she didn’t want to be known as “bipolar girl.” After her treatment, she went back to college — this time to Columbia — then on a journey that her father said was occasionally interrupted by her condition, rather than defined by it.

“I think she was doing what she was meant to do,” Andrew said.

Fluent in Spanish and French, Erin did an internship in Helsinki, working on human rights. After college, she visited the Czech Republic, Russia, Bolivia, Peru, Vietnam, Thailand, and other places. She traveled to rural Mali with an African dance class she’d joined in Cambridge. In e-mails, she said felt most comfortable in less developed countries, where there was little structure and no stigma about someone like her, where she felt no pressure to conform in order to do meaningful work.

She searched for purpose — in yoga, in Catholicism, and, on an extended stay in Israel, in Judaism. Eventually, she found her faith not in religion, but in connecting with people who needed help.

She found legions of them in India. Last July, just after her 30th birthday, she settled in Agra. Red-haired, with alabaster skin, she stood out there despite her jewel-toned saris. After her traveling companions moved on, she settled in with a local family, eventually beginning a relationship with their taxi driver son, Bunty Sharma. Sharma had a son of 6 or 7 and Erin felt sweetly and irrationally responsible for the child, and desperate for the kind of acceptance her illness had denied her elsewhere. So she married Sharma, over her father’s objections.

Erin Willinger was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while in college and she worried her condition would define her.

“I just thought it was crazy,” Andrew said. “And soon enough she thought it was crazy, too.” Shortly after they were married, Sharma revealed to Erin that he had served time in prison for killing someone. She left him, and began working on a divorce.

“I told her, ‘Don’t go a little way, leave town,’ ” Andrew said. “And she just didn’t want to leave the work she had started. She was kind of stubborn.”

Erin saw the masses of tourists passing through Agra to see the Taj Mahal each day, and lamented the fact that the city’s poorest residents never benefited from them. If the city was more inviting, visitors would want to stroll around and spend their money beyond the monument’s walls, she figured. And so she began a movement to clean up the streets, modeled on a program she’d started in Israel. Andrew worried about Sharma, but Erin convinced him her husband was no threat. Eventually, her father came to understand what compelled her to stay in Agra.

On Feb. 20, she led a press conference in a local hotel, touting her cleanup efforts.

“I’m really enjoying myself,” she wrote in an e-mail to her father and stepmother. “I’m doing great work.” If she failed, she joked, she would walk to Nepal. And if she succeeded, she might . . . walk to Nepal.

Her cheerful certainty did not assuage her father’s fears.

“In the back of my mind I was always worried I was going to get a call in the middle of the night from the embassy,” he said. “I told her all the time she should come home and get a real job and get a normal life and she would repeatedly tell me, ‘That’s not very helpful, dad; I’m not going to do that.’ ”

It is the loving burden of all parents — to raise kids and send them off into the world, hoping for the best, and dreading the worst. Most of the time, the dread is unfounded, merely an instrument of torture on sleepless nights. But for Andrew, those calls did come over the years, usually from somebody letting him know that Erin had had an episode, and needed treatment.

When the US embassy called at 6 a.m. on Feb. 21, the day after Erin’s triumphant press conference, he assumed she’d been hospitalized again.

No. Erin was dead. Sharma had stabbed her in his taxi and dumped her body by the side of a road. Then he went back to his apartment and blew up a gas canister, killing himself.

Andrew felt numb, and vacant. “The worst thing is, when I go back and look at her e-mails from the night before, and remember the conversations I had with her on the phone, and the last time I Skyped with her, and how abruptly everything just stopped,” he said.

He didn’t go to India, seeing only more pain in being there, though he has searched maps for glimpses of Erin’s world. Friends organized a cremation, and her remains and belongings are on their way back to Newton. Andrew didn’t tell many people at first. An IT consultant, he continued to see his clients, not wanting to dwell on the horror. Slowly, people are finding out.

“Everybody says pretty much the same thing,” he said. “ ‘I don’t know what to say,’ ‘It must be horrible,’ ‘I can only imagine,’ ‘If there’s anything I can do . . . ’ ”

They can’t imagine. There is nothing.

The Indian papers cast the murder as the story of a Bollywood-style romance gone wrong: A beautiful, educated American woman falls in love with an illiterate Indian taxi driver and their marriage goes sour, their two lives extinguished in a crime of passion.

That simplistic story line eats at Andrew. His daughter’s death was uglier than that, her life more beautiful. He wants people to know Erin stayed in India for a love far bigger than some treacly romance.

She stayed because she was fearless. And because she wanted to fix the world.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham
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