This past weekend, two big (and ultimately tragic) stories came to my attention. Both of them hit way too close to home to me in entirely different ways.
First is the tragic story of UPenn student Madison Holleran who committed suicide apparently over the stress of her workload as a student-athlete. This story has been getting a lot of attention in my newsfeed and timelines because of its locality (I’m from the Philly suburbs and I live in the Philadelphia media market even in Kutztown) and also the fact that Holleran was a track athlete like so many of my friends are. The story is tragic, sad and worthy of reflection.
The second story is the tale of Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilit, the alleged physicist and person who claimed to have invented the putter to revolutionize the golf industry. A piece on Vanderbilt in Grantland (a subsection of ESPN.com) dominated the social media world this weekend as the author started to unravel the life of Vanderbilt and found out she wasn’t a physicist, didn’t have a degree from MIT, was never in the military, was trans and already had a suicide attempt previously. The story went from initial praise to deep disgust and even though Vanderbilt was a con; was there a need for the author to salaciously tell all of her colleagues that she was born male? The piece ends with the revelation that Vanderbilt committed suicide after the author’s investigation.
Both stories have the same end but in different ways, I could connect to both of them. Madison Holleran could’ve very well been someone I knew in a literal or figurative sense. We hail from the same state, did the same track events and there’s been times UPenn has been at meets we were at. But also; as a college student who participated in collegiate athletics, I could’ve known someone like her. I remember clearly a few times in which I was worried about the health of teammates and fellow students.
I remember even worrying about myself a few times my sophomore year; not because of suicidal thoughts necessarily but simply because I was struggling all over (athletically and academically) that it was affecting my social life as well as my emotions. Every college student has gone through this at various times but when things are so stressful that you feel that you are reaching a breaking point; all it takes is another tip of the iceberg it seems.
I have to say I have been frustrated with people saying things such as “life is too short” or giving Holleran posthumous advice on how to deal with things. I despise when people first immediately point out the selfishness of suicide instead of looking at themselves. Or ourselves. Mental health in this world is still seen as a “made-up” disease in some people’s eyes. Part of the reason why I assume people have breakdowns is because there’s such a stigma of depression, bipolar disorder and/or other mental diseases that the minute you find out you are diagnosed with one of them you are defined only by that. People with depression can be the happiest people on Earth, the life of the party and not necessarily that moody kid in the corner. On the flipside that quiet kid may perfectly well be fine and happy with their life, as well as being naturally introverted.
I always hear the phrase “this should start a debate” when something happens. Something this tragic isn’t worthy of debate. Its a time for mourning and also personal reflection. Maybe we are part of the problem. I can relate so much to Madison Holleran that I almost feel like I knew her someway. You did too. There’s no “debate” here. We know that mental illness is a real thing that deserves close examination. We should also be aware that mental illnesses, like physical ones, can be treated.
When someone overcomes a physical illness, they are celebrated and for damn good reason. When someone checks in for depression, horrific hearsay and conjecture is brought up. They are immediately treated with kid gloves or cast aside as someone who couldn’t handle pressure or some other ridiculous stereotype.
Which brings me to Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s story which should be required reading for all of you. The story is a well-written narrative over a fascinating individual who clearly was troubled. The story itself isn’t the problem necessarily but the fact that the person was transgendered seem to become the main part of the story. As a journalist, I guess you are required to report whatever is prudent and the fact that Dr. V was so conniving and misleading had to deal with the story. However, Dr. V clearly did not want to be outed. She kept that part of her life a secret from everyone else and the fact was, it didn’t change her schtick. Her thing was the fact that she was a physicist launching a product that was supposed to be scientifically sound. Her gender and sexual identity had nothing to do with her gimmick. So what did the author get by telling everyone that came into professional contact with her that she was born male?
What purpose did that benefit?
Again we have to look at ourselves here. The LGBT community has made large strides over the past decade and continue to do so. But people seem to neglect the “T” way too easily and “trans” still seems to equally either comedy or taboo. Also our society has way too much of an obsession with outing in general. A person’s coming out should be intrinsic and they have the right to forfeit that personal journey to being known to the public.
Why is it our business to look at mental health and outing in the same light? We should, as a society, offer our support; not our laughs or judgments. We may learn more about Madison Holleran but we will never know it all. We will never know what was going on through her head and for us to assume otherwise is ridiculous. She is a person that is gone way too soon. She is someone who will be missed.
Dr. V is a bit more complex but her suicide still resonates with me regardless of her scam. We should look at how we view the trans community, with open arms not with tut-tutting or “ew”.
Maybe we will get to a better place one day.
RIP Madison Holleran. RIP Dr. V.