Dig

Roxanna Brown at an archaeological dig in Southeast Asia. In the mid-1990s, she moved to Los Angeles to revive her academic career and by 2004 had completed her PhD at UCLA. She was a leading authority on Southeast Asian ceramics and participated in digs across the region. (Photo provided by Fred Leo Brown)

Second of three parts



Roxanna Brown never saw the car that hit her.

The 36-year-old expert in Southeast Asian art was pulling her motorcycle out of a parking lot in Bangkok when the vehicle knocked her onto a busy road.

There she was repeatedly crushed under the wheels of a multi-ton rice truck. Then the truck driver backed up, apparently intending to roll over her again.

He was trying to avoid a lawsuit by finishing her off, she would later tell friends, but passersby pulled her out of the way.

The 1982 accident was the latest turn in an exotic life tinged by hardship. Brown had gone from Illinois farm girl to Vietnam War correspondent to leading authority on ancient ceramics. But her promising career had been sidetracked by an addiction to opium. While recovering in a Buddhist monastery, she'd fallen in love with a young Thai monk and settled in his poor village near Bangkok with their 1-year-old son.

Now she lay in the road with her legs, pelvis and internal organs crushed, her body burned from being dragged across asphalt.

With no insurance or savings, she was taken to a hospital with minimal sanitation. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, her mother, who had flown in from Illinois, ran daily to a pharmacy. The hospital had no medication.

Brown's right leg was partially amputated. Infections then forced doctors to cut farther and farther up the limb until all that was left was a stump.

Unable to speak, she wrote a note to her mother: "I am willing myself to die."

It would be six months until Brown was well enough to fly to Illinois, three years until she regained her health. For the rest of her life, she suffered terrible pain, migraines and buzzing in her ears, friends said.

"She came out of it literally flat," recalled Brown's longtime friend and fellow expatriate Patricia Cheeseman, who had met Brown in Laos in the 1970s. "She retained that flatness for years, and was covered in scars."

Brown returned to Thailand with her son, only to have her husband leave her.

"He wasn't able to tolerate looking at her with one leg," said Brown's cousin Karen Lindner, who visited several times. "It's a shameful thing there."

Brown moved to Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. As a disabled single mother, she found daily life a struggle.

A pioneer in her field, she earned less than $200 a month teaching about ancient ceramics at Chiang Mai University, friends said. In the evenings, she worked at a small bar she had bought for extra income. It was called the Hard Rock Cafe -- though it was not part of the famous franchise, as she had been told when buying it.

She had a poorly fitting prosthetic leg, friends say, and was in and out of the hospital with infections.

Brown spent much of the next decade in pain, depressed and directionless.