Parents of teen track star who took her own life: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’

Kate Fagan, who wrote the recent ESPN article about UPenn track star Madison Holleran’s suicide, says we have to talk about what social media doesn’t show.

Madison Holleran and her mother Stacy. Madison killed herself at age 19.
Madison Holleran and her mother Stacy. Madison killed herself at age 19. –Instagram

Madison Holleran was a track star at the University of Pennsylvania. She was smart. She was beautiful. She was loved. Her posts on Instagram depicted the kind of life that you looked at and wondered why yours wasn’t nearly as perfect.

But it wasn’t perfect. On January 17, 2014, Madison Holleran lept off the ninth floor of a parking garage and died. She was 19 years old.

“There are moments when the Hollerans are chasing the ‘why,’ still,’’ said Kate Fagan, who wrote the in-depth article about Holleran’s life and death for ESPN magazine’s May issue.

“Every time I talked to them, it came back to, ‘The reason we’re talking about it is because we wanted to let people know it’s okay to not be okay.’’’

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Fagan worked on the story for about a year, and said it got pushed from its initial September 2014 publication date because of the large scope of the project. The magazine was going to run the story to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Holleran’s death, but given the theme of the May issue—’’The Fight for Perfection’’—held it until then. May also happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month.

“[More time] was really helpful, because whatever ideas I had in September, they got sharper and sharper as I talked to more people and had more time,’’ Fagan said. She felt an enormous responsibility to do the piece justice. She knew telling Holleran’s story honored her legacy and could help bring awareness to issues as important as depression and suicide prevention.

“We’re not an organization that works in that space,’’ Fagan said of writing a story about mental health for ESPN. “We’re an organization that tells good stories and covers sports. So we were like, ‘We can reach more people—that opens the doors to deliberately changing the way people think about and are talking about mental health.’ The story resonates beyond sports.’’

Many outside the realm of sports can relate to staring at others’ Instagram feeds and feeling inadequate. “The ‘unfiltered’ nature felt like maybe it would be an easier door to open for people to talk about this,’’ Fagan said.

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Social media masks all sorts of truths. Our feeds are the facades we present to the world, our way of neatly ordering the highlights of our lives into scrollable grids. They are controlled, they are curated, and they are not real.

“I have some friends who are big on Instagram,’’ Fagan said. “And they have large followings and travel a lot. We have kind of a joke now—when we see each other, we’ll say, ‘Your life is amazing!’ And what we mean is, ‘All I’ve seen about your life is amazing.’’

Scrolling through Holleran’s photos of her and her friends at parties, or of her and family at Christmas, it’s almost impossible to wrap your head around the fact that someone who appeared so happy could commit suicide.

While Fagan worked on the story, she talked to her own friends, her girlfriend, and her family about the piece. They all developed a deeper awareness of how important it is to talk about what Fagan called “the spaces in between’’ the photos they post.

“We’ll get together and be like, ‘See this picture? Here’s how it really was: I was completely broke at the time.’ Or, “That flight got canceled and I was miserable.’’’

Conversation is exactly what the Holleran’s foundation encourages.

“They’d all circle back to, ‘The only reason we wanted to talk about this is because we felt that this was, in a way, avoidable,’’’ Fagan said.

“They’re like, ‘What if we’d done this, or that. What if she’d felt she could talk about it?’’’ she continued. “They feel we need to get to a place where other young girls, boys, older people, can talk about it. And they’d say, ‘If we can help by telling Madison’s story, and that can be the end result, that’s all we care about.’’’

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But it’s not the Holleran’s work to do alone.

“Maybe we’re not in a space yet where people will share their authentic lives [online],’’ Fagan said. “But maybe we can get to a small shift that says, ‘Although I’m not showing you the grey areas, you can know they exist. There are dark spaces and grey areas.’’’

The last post Madison Holleran ever put up on Instagram is a photo of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. The trees are lit up with Christmas lights, each bulb shining against a dark sky.

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