From humble origins, the late psychologist became one of Turkey’s most influential personalities.
Dogan Cuceloglu’s extraordinary life ended yesterday at home in Istanbul two hours after he shared his last interview, a podcast, on Twitter.
Cuceloglu, 83, was born in Silifke, a district in Turkey’s southern province of Mersin. He was the youngest of 11 siblings. He lost his mother when he was young, but she left an indelible mark on him given her dedication to all of her brood - five of them were her step-sons from her husband’s previous marriage.
“They [Cuceloglu’s step-brothers] have always praised her on the grounds that she has never treated them separately,” the psychologist said, during a long interview on his life and views last year.
While Cuceloglu had a rich education, which allowed him to become an academic at California State University for nearly two decades, his early years were rough.
“On the very first day of the primary school, my teacher called my name during a regular roll call. But I did not know I had two first names and also did not know that our last name was Cuceloglu. Everybody in our Mukaddime neighbourhood [in Silifke] called us Cuceler not Cuceloglu,” he recounted.
When no one else spoke up, he felt that he most probably was the person in question: Mehmet Dogan Cuceloglu. But he was late in his realisation and got reprimanded for not recognising himself in class.
After that experience, he felt he couldn’t handle school and fell ill. The family called the neighbourhood’s uncertified nurse to administer an injection, but it went wrong, partly due to the fact the nurse was drunk. It led to a lifelong handicap in one of his legs.
At first, he could not walk, but his mother’s old-fashioned cures worked to heal his leg, enabling him to get back up on his feet.
“That was a miracle,” he remembered.
A year later, he restarted primary school. This time he was lucky. Unlike the first teacher, his second, Muazzez Aktolga, was a cheerful person. He called his students to sing together on the first day of the school, a stark difference from his first educational experience.
“I came back home singing ‘I love school and I want to learn more’,” Cuceloglu said, in recollection of his school days.
He continued his high school education in Ankara with the help of one of his elder brothers.
In Ankara’s Ataturk High School, he met a nationalist literature teacher, Cahit Okurer, who had a strong impact on Cuceloglu.
“He was living with his mother in Ankara’s Maltepe district. He was not married and he was gathering some of his students at his home for certain times. In one of those times, he asked me what kind of occupation I like to get,” Cuceloglu remembered.
“I said to him that I wanted to be an engineer. He asked me whether I want to be an academic. Under his influence, I enrolled in the psychology department at Istanbul University.”
After his graduation, Cuceloglu went to the US for a doctorate, enrolling in the Illinois University’s psychology graduate program. He specialised in communication psychology, a subject he has written several books about.
During his first year of the doctorate, he contemplated suicide after realising that his English was not good enough to complete the reading lists for his classes.
On a Wednesday, the day he chose to end it all, he went to the bathroom in the morning to wash his face and looked at himself in the mirror.
“‘Do not kill yourself’ said a voice, which was my mother’s. I cried, cried and cried. When I looked at the mirror, I began crying again. I asked myself: Why would I kill myself?” he recounts in an interview.
“‘You were able to come here from the Mukaddem neighbourhood and you are here as a Phd student. Stay here until they kick you out from the school. Learn English as much as possible,’ I said to myself.”
He got two Bs and one A, finishing the first semester successfully. He also graduated from the doctorate program, receiving his Phd.
“To hear my mother’s voice was another miracle. I don’t know how to explain it. But I heard her voice,” he said.
During the program, he met with Emily, an American feminist from California, whom he married and with whom he had three children: Aysen, Elif and Timur. They divorced after 11 years of marriage.
“The result [of our marriage]: both I suffered and I made Emily suffer,” he says. The couple had been in Turkey for over a decade while Cuceloglu was an academic in both Hacettepe University and Bosphorus University. In 1975, the family moved back to the US after Cuceloglu won a Fulbright scholarship to attend Berkeley.
But a year later, Cuceloglu abruptly decided to come back to Turkey, leaving his three children behind. Later, he regretted his decision. “But that period also helped my character mature,” he added.
“One of the most intense pains I feel in my heart is right now suffering I brought to my kids. I had lived separate from them for four years,” he said.
“I was not a bad person. But at the same time, I made my partner and children suffer unconsciously. There are many people like me in Turkey,” he said.
He returned to the US in 1980 and taught in Fullerton, at the California State University until 1996, when he once again decided to move back to Turkey “to try to serve his people.”
From that moment, Cuceloglu wrote several books in Turkish on relationships, love, marriage and personal psychology. He wrote until his death. He considered his main contribution to Turkish psychology to be in the field of developmental psychology. He did his second marriage with Yildiz Hacievliyagil Cuceloglu, a family therapist.
He said he found the American culture cold and he valued the warmth of Turkish cultural codes. But he also said that he had learned a lot from focus groups in the US, as well as his formal education, which helped him to identify his own psychological issues.
“I grew up in an ordinary Turkish family, which represents my people very well. As a result, when I recount my story, they know what I am talking about. I speak as one of them beyond any academic jargon,” he said.
“Thank God I have been blessed with their prayers, which make me feel that it’s worth living through [all things I have been].”