What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan, is a book about the importance of doing what you love, of really listening to the people close to you. It is a case study of both the valedictorians from Lives of Promise and the dead from Why People Die by Suicide. It could have been a book about Overtraining Syndrome.
It is the factual account of the suicide of Madison Holleran, reconstructed from digital media (email, text, Instagram, etc) with help from her family.
In our safe and well-fed developed world the single biggest killer of teens and adults is suicide. Case studies matter.
Always sensitive, much of the book is often also routine, even plodding. Madison’s life was that of a successful high-school student and athlete (running) struggling with the transition to an Ivy League college. Within that context it was unremarkable, which makes her death all the more puzzling. I’m writing up here some of my notes and key quotes from the book.
The short version is that it seems like Madison was doing too much, being pushed too hard both academically and athletically, didn’t have anyone close she could fully open up to, and couldn’t see a way out of the pressure.
She knew what used to make her happy: a finely tuned balance of sports, school, and friends. In high school she was a champ at all three, and each fueled the other. [..] In high school she even had time for herself, to draw and read, to write down quotes, to be inside her own head without an agenda.
..it felt like everything was unraveling. She would get up early to practice only to arrive at classes feeling zapped of energy, which caused her anxiety about how she would make it through afternoon practice. At afternoon practice, she would stress about what she might have missed in class because she was tired, and by the time the day’s obligations were over, she had little energy left to go out and develop the kind of natural, easy friendships she’d had in high school.
Madison really, really wanted to quit running track and field. In high school she had played soccer very successfully, and loved being part of a team. The University of Pennsylvania said they would accept her only if she ran track and field, she’d have to give up soccer. She did. She hated it. This is why I see this book as a reminder to do what you love.
She met the UPenn running coach, and tried to quit. She was so nervous she asked her mother to be there, and prepared a letter which she read to the coach. This is her account of the meeting from a text message to a friend:
I legit wrote a two page letter about it. 2 pages!! Okk so pretty much told him my feelings about everything and was 100 percent honest about how I was feeling and he basically like felt guilty but also felt like I should have told him how I was feeling earlier. But he said that he would love to be my main coach so he just wants me to give it a shot for the rest of the semester instead of taking the semester off as like a break. So I’m meeting with him on Thursday again. But I went to practice yesterday and really just didn’t enjoy it. Like I don’t think things are gonna change. I just don’t know how to express that to him without feeling guilty or like a disappointment to him.
She didn’t get to quit. Nothing changed. She was trapped.
Lack of support network
Opening up was not, in general, a comfortable state for her – or, really, for any teenager. Those years are often spend pretending you’ve developed a tough exterior, because you think you’re expected to have one and because you haven’t yet realized that a tough exterior isn’t actually an asset. Maddy thought being a college student was synonymous with being an adult, which somehow was supposed to be synonymous with individual problem solving – a mistake we all make and most of us recover from.
She was by no means isolated:
Maddy was in constant contact with dozens of friends and family, a skimming of the surface covering miles and miles of ground but very little depth. And through all those messages to all those people, thousands and thousands of communications, almost nobody noticed anything significantly amiss.
Her parents noticed something was wrong but they were busy with their other four children, and they couldn’t see how badly wrong it was. They encouraged her to return to her Ivy League school, to not give up:
Because the truth is, when you don’t know the stakes, when you don’t know how high the wire actually is, dancing along the edge doesn’t seem reckless; it seems like the only place to walk
The people she was closest to, her high school friends, were going through the same difficult transition.
They all knew she was struggling; but so were they, and when you’re stuck in the valley it’s difficult to see that perhaps some peaks are sharper, higher, and more dangerous than others. In fact, when you’re in the valley, it’s difficult to look up at all.
Author Kate Fagan shares her struggles to quit college basketball, as a parallel to Madison’s struggles to quit college track:
I didn’t quite understand at the time that very few people (save for a parent, maybe a best friend) spend much time thinking about someone else’s problems.
If you social support network fails, there’s always professional help. She met with a University of Pennsylvania therapist, after waiting two weeks to get an appointment:
The meeting was nothing like what she’d hoped. She felt the therapist had standard questions she asked of every student who walked into the office, and none of them seems to get at the gravity, the depth, of Madison’s situation. .. how she felt did not feel common at all.
She started going to church.
There’s an aspect to the story which contrasts her perfect Instagram feed with the reality of her struggles:
Where she may have exerted the most control was in her social accounts – her favorite being Instagram. [..] Even if Madison was not having the college experience everyone told her she should be having, she could certainly make it seem like she was.
..especially if overcompensation distorts the image we’re presented. This is also true for Instagram: the more polished and put-together someone seems – everything lovely and beautiful and just as it should be – perhaps the more likely something vital is falling apart just offscreen.
Personally I felt that was over-played (more in the book marketing than in the book itself). I can’t see the story being any different in the complete absence of social media.
What to conclude?
In the author’s own words:
We can do this, learn everything we can, how to talk to others about their pain or our own, in the hope that fewer people get caught in this same, fierce swirl.
What Made Maddy Run is an important book. I’m glad I got a chance to read it.