Obituaries

Robert B. Oxnam

Longtime North Fork resident Robert Oxnam died on April 18, 2024 at Peconic Landing, where he lived with his wife of 30 years, Vishakha Desai. He was 81 years old. The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer’s Disease.

As a distinguished China scholar, he was a resource for business leaders and policy-makers in the 1980s and 1990s as the U.S. developed its relationship with China. He briefed and accompanied Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush on their trips to China. He joined Asia Society in 1975 as the head of the newly formed China Council to promote public education about China before the normalization of relations with the U.S. As president of the Asia Society from 1981-92, he was instrumental in expanding the organization’s focus from acquainting Americans with Asian history, culture, arts, business, and policy to its current mission of promoting mutual understanding in collaboration with 30 Asian nations.

As president, he dramatically increased the number of Asians on Asia Society’s board and staff. In the last years of his presidency local community leaders in Hong Kong conceived what has since become Asia Society Hong Kong Center, the first of what has since grown into 14 global Asia Society centers.

As a professor he taught at Trinity College, Columbia University, Williams College, and, in Chinese, at Beijing University in China.

As an author, his books ranged from novels and an autobiography to several non-fiction exploration of Chinese history and U.S.-China relations. He hosted a nine-part series on China for the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour.

As an artist, in the last decades of his life, he took as inspiration the thousand-year tradition of transforming ancient, weathered stones into Chinese Scholar’s rocks for a contemporary take on the roots and tree trunks which he found on North Fork beaches. He emphasized the infinite variety of these sea-tossed shapes from around the world with sandpaper and milk paint, reshuffling place and time to release what he called their “inner dynamism,” an approach he took from the Chinese concept of Qi. His photographs are close-up macro lens meditations on the glacial rocks at Rocky Point.

He called the process of creativity “cohesive multiplicity,” since it called on all aspects of an artist’s intellect, experiences, talents, knowledge, intuition and history.

He had learned the lessons of cohesive multiplicity the hard way, as he wrote in his 2005 autobiography A Fractured Mind: My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder. The book received the kind of public attention the China scholar had never sought, with reports in publications and media such as CBS’s “Sixty Minutes,” ”The New York Times,” and the BBC.

It is written in the words of several of his 11 personalities, as a kind of multiple autobiography. Multiple Personality Disorder — now called dissociative identity disorder (DID) is caused by the mind’s protective response to early childhood abuse – physical, sexual and psychological – by compartmentalizing unacceptable memories of trauma. Oxnam’s abuse took place in the first five years of his life. But it was not until 1990 that it was diagnosed as what is now called DID. The high-functioning 48-year-old president of Asia Society had sought out the psychiatrist Jeffery Smith, M.D. to help him with what he saw as burn-out and alcoholism. Suddenly in one session, a second angry personality emerged. Dr. Smith, who had some experience with DID, was able to diagnose Robert Oxnam’s disorder and together they worked towards a collaborative cohesion of his many selves.

Robert Oxnam’s talents and passionate interests were multiple as well. He won a national prize in competitive archery in his teenage years. He sailed solo in international waters in his prime. To celebrate his 70th birthday, he rode his bicycle up the famously arduous Alpe d’Huez in the wake of the Tour De France.

Dr. Oxnam graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College and earned his MA and PhD in Chinese History at Yale.

He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Vishakha Desai, a specialist in Asian Art who was herself president of Asia Society until 2012; by his children from a previous marriage, Geoff Oxnam of Easton, Md. and Deborah Betsch of Fort Worth, Texas; by four grandchildren; and by a large Desai family.

This is a paid notice.