What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen, by Kate Fagan
Little, Brown, 420 pp.
By Charlie Gofen
ESPN journalist Kate Fagan first shared the story of the death of 19-year-old runner Madison Holleran in a stirring magazine essay titled "Split Image." The freshman track star at the University of Pennsylvania, described by Fagan as “beautiful, talented, successful,” had sunk into a deep depression at college, and shortly after returning to school in 2014 for the start of her second semester, she jumped to her death from a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia.
Fagan has now expanded her essay into a book, What Made Maddy Run, adding details from Madison’s texts and e-mails, and insight from experts on depression and suicide. The additional material provides valuable context, giving a fuller picture of Madison and her struggles, and portraying depression, anxiety, and suicide among college students as a significant public health issue. The book goes beyond telling a heartbreaking story; it encourages compassion toward young adults struggling with mental health issues and will ultimately help us think about ways to prevent similar tragedies.
Maddy Holleran grew up in the upper-middle-class town of Allendale, New Jersey, where she was a star athlete and diligent student, popular among both girls and boys. There are shades of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” in Fagan’s description: “And when she would walk the halls, the younger girls craved her attention, commenting on her outfit or offering congratulations about the latest game or race, anything to stay in her presence just an extra beat, to absorb whatever flicker of attention she might offer.”
Maddy led the Northern Highlands High School soccer team to two state championships, scoring 30 goals in a single season, and, even though she didn’t start running track until her sophomore year, won the New Jersey state title in the 800-meter run in her senior year. She was heavily recruited for soccer, but when an Ivy League school showed interest in her for her running, she took the offer.
The reasons Maddy struggled at Penn are complex, and Fagan doesn’t attempt to oversimplify. Athletic and academic pressures ramped up, and Maddy, who had succeeded at everything in her life, began to doubt her own abilities. Fagan describes Maddy’s struggles:
She would get up early for morning 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.
Maddy became increasingly despondent. She met with a therapist while home from school on holiday. By the time her father drove her back to Penn for the start of the new semester, she was thin, pale, and drained. “Energy seemed to be leaking from her as if there was a pinprick nobody could find,” Fagan writes. Maddy spoke with her coach about quitting track but ended up agreeing to stay on the team. She continued to sink.
In mid-January, she left a bag of gifts for family and friends, a note of apology, and a picture of herself as a young girl, and took her own life. I cried when I read Fagan’s original essay, and I cried again when I read her book.
Two thought-provoking themes that Fagan discusses are the negative impact of social media and the unique pressures that high-level athletes face.
Part of the problem with social media is that we see only the highlight reels of our friends’ lives and contrast how much fun they seem to be having all the time with the unfiltered reality of our own lives. In addition, we feel obligated in our own posts to be upbeat, even when we’re down. “College is supposedly about being cool and having fun, and admitting feelings of anxiety, sadness, and helplessness seems like the opposite," Fagan observes. “Even if [Maddy] was not having the college experience everyone told her she should be having, she could certainly make it seem like she was.”
The particular pressures facing student-athletes, especially in Division 1 programs, include the extraordinary time commitment and a level of competition that’s usually much higher than students faced in high school, although one could make the case that other pursuits in college come with similar burdens. What’s unique about athletics is an ethos of pushing through pain, and Fagan is at her best as she discusses how sports are “built on the pillars of toughness and perseverance.”
At the University of Colorado, where Fagan herself played basketball, she recalls a sign above a doorway that read, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
“Imagine,” Fagan writes, “with that sign hanging over you, telling a coach you can’t run that day. Not because your body hurts (and what kind of hurt is bad enough?), but because your brain does. Many coaches believe these moments are forks in the road, and that choosing to push through pain – in whatever form that pain comes – is what creates champions. Athletes often believe this, too. And it’s not entirely wrong. Pushing through pain, clearing hurdles others have crashed into, is how an athlete improves. Knowing the difference between a hurdle and a brick wall is also crucial – yet recognizing that difference is almost impossible when you’re eighteen years old.”
Fagan’s experience as a college athlete gives her deeper insight into why Maddy was reluctant to quit track, even though it was her largest stressor at Penn. For a competitive athlete, Fagan writes, quitting is “a referendum on character, on its deficiencies.”
“I was terrified of the word `quit,’” Fagan writes of her own collegiate athletic career. “Within sports, that word is dirty and barely distinguishable from `I can’t.’” I had come to view quitting as synonymous with laziness, weakness, and selfishness. If you quit during a drill, you were lazy and weak. If you quit in the middle of a season, maybe you were not only lazy and weak, but selfish, too, willing to let down your teammates.”
Fagan offers additional reasons that Maddy found it so difficult to leave the track team. First, Maddy “had never before quit anything.” Next, like many other exceptional athletes, Maddy had come to define her self-worth largely by her athletic status and achievements. In a text message three weeks before her death, Maddy told a friend she was thinking about quitting the track team. Her friend wrote, “You would be a NARP [non-athletic regular person],” and Maddy replied, “I know which would fucking blow.” She also felt guilty about disappointing her track coach, who had recruited her to Penn and then had responded with care and a willingness to be flexible with her running program when she revealed her struggles.
I may be overemphasizing the importance of her decision about whether to quit track – there’s no knowing whether anything would have changed. Perhaps, though, there are lessons to be learned here. Parents are often faced with the difficult question of whether to allow (or even encourage) their kids to quit a team or other activity when they are unmistakably miserable. If they’re homesick at sleep-away camp, do you tell them to ride it out or do you bring them home? If they joined a travel soccer team but are hating the experience, do you require them to finish the season to teach them about keeping their commitments?
And what about the importance of building grit? Aren’t we aiming to teach our kids perseverance?
“Of course,” Fagan writes, “sometimes (perhaps even often) inner strength is exactly what’s needed and quitting is absolutely the wrong move, and if you push through the low points, you may find a reserve within yourself you never knew you had. But at other times, a commitment or decision can be accurately identified as the cause of unhappiness, and continuing to walk in that direction isn’t necessarily going to lead you through the wilderness to a bright, blue clearing with birds chirping and a flowing river at your feet. Continuing that path can bury you deeper and deeper in the woods until you’re lost, with no memory of how to get out.”
One lesson that seems clear is that schools need to devote greater resources to mental health services to address the prevalence of depression and anxiety among college students today. Many schools around the country have done so, and in 2016, New Jersey created the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act, requiring that all New Jersey colleges provide students with around-the-clock access to mental health professionals.
Maddy’s death may help prevent the next tragedy.
The U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), provides 24/7 free and confidential support, information, and local resources for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
Charlie Gofen is an investment counselor in Chicago who has taught high school and been a newspaper reporter.