Teens Under Pressure: The Dark Side of College and Competition

Book review: What Made Maddy Runby Kate Fagan

espnW columnist Kate Fagan wrote a highly-praised and publicized article, “Split Image” about the 2014 suicide of Madison Holleran, a brilliantly promising, Ivy League student athlete.

The article explored how and why this talented, successful, ambitious, and vivacious teenager attending the University of Pennsylvania as a track star student-athlete would want to take her life. In January 2014, shortly after the beginning of her second semester at Penn, Maddy leapt from the ninth story of a parking garage in downtown Philadelphia. Her friends, family, and coaches were stunned.

The deep, underlying problem seemed to be the massive pressure experienced by college students, in particular athletes, to always perform better, to beat their own bests, to be exemplary in every quantifiable way.

Maddy had always been competitive by nature, and soccer was her favorite. But drawn by the name appeal of an Ivy, she turned down an offer to play soccer at Lehigh in favor of Penn’s track team. As the semester wore on, she was exhausted by the rigorous training and feelings of never being good enough in a sport she’d always dominated easily and loved in high school, coupled with the stress and strain of an equally rigorous academic course load.

And always the feeling that everyone else was managing, only she was struggling and “failing” so badly, while letting those who believed in her down in the process.

Maddy appeared fragile visiting her family, a way her father never thought he’d describe her. She’d changed so drastically from the lighthearted teen who’d been excited for college, thrilled to have been accepted at an Ivy League. She was crippled under the weight of “the anxiety that accompanied ambition.”

Fagan was given open access to what Maddy left behind, especially digitally, and she combed through looking for clues and insights into Madison’s thinking. This was brave of her parents. Fagan describes their reasoning for transparency: “they didn’t want Maddy’s death to be an isolated tragedy, but rather a catalyst for change.”

Her parents knew she’d begun seeking help, but didn’t click with a Penn counselor, was frustrated with long wait times for appointments when she couldn’t alleviate her anxiety, and when she managed to talk to someone who could help or who knew her, she was unable to express exactly what felt so wrong, or how big it all had become.

Mental health is often seen as a lesser priority, and Fagan argues that’s especially so in college athletics:

If a football player pulls a hamstring, nearly half a dozen licensed professionals hover over him, discussing the most innovative ways to rehabilitate his strained muscle. Yet if most athletic departments’ commitment to mental and emotional health were visualized as a weight room, it would more closely resemble this: a few rusted dumbbells, a cracked mirror, cobwebs, and plenty of open space waiting to be filled.

Penn has improved its counseling system, partially in response to Maddy’s death and unfortunately that of too many others: Fagan reports “six students, including Madison, died by suicide during a thirteen-month period, from 2013 to 2014.” 

There’s something touched on casually here that bothered me. Maddy died at 19, and although there are numerous mentions of her cutting back on partying once at Penn, she still does, plus drinks wine among friends. The author blows over this aspect of her life, and her parents chalked it up to her “work hard, party hard” mentality, and didn’t seem bothered by it. “Seem” being key, as I think despite the wealth of information available to Fagan, this book feels like it’s missing a lot.

Her drinking comes up several times. Once she’s referenced as only eating pizza when drunk. It gave me pause every time. Alcohol and depression are linked, and whether or not she was partying as hard in college as before, drinking to the point of drunkenness at 19 seems likely to carry some mental or emotional side effects, especially if it’s happened repeatedly.

To use my own experiences as a reference point, I wasn’t a huge drinker in college, had never even been drunk by 19, but the days after I’d had any drinks usually felt pretty bad, mentally. Depression certainly feels compounded by alcohol. I knew that even a couple of drinks would leave me in an especially stormy place with lots of anxious thoughts. It’s barely touched on here.

I’m not saying she felt the same or had the same experiences, but it seemed worth exploring. We obviously know alcohol is a huge issue for college students, but the thesis of this book is focused on academic and athletic pressures and ambitions – weighty, worthy issues for sure, but since depression and anxiety resulted from those pressures, I felt there’s no way alcohol use didn’t play some bigger role for a 19-year-old who was suffering so much.

I hope it’s not completely out of line for me to say that. But it astounded me that it was barely addressed. I can’t imagine how much worse my problems would’ve been, and I would’ve felt, if I’d been drinking to intoxication at that age.

Apologies for inserting my experience for reference, because the author inserted herself heavily in this story to its detriment. She interviewed sufferers of mental health issues for insight, but waffles around herself. Sometimes she identifies with Madison, sometimes can’t understand (or can?) because she’s only had one day of crippling anxiety in her life, so she sort of knows, but also felt pressure and quit college basketball because of it, so she gets the unique demands on student-athletes, one awful chapter that shouldn’t have been included is a dream she had about Maddy…this back and forth and personal storyline ruined the book for me.

Sometimes a journalist’s presence in a story works, sometimes not. For me this didn’t, although she did offer some thoughtful insights and analysis about mental health issues in these sections.

In one, she beautifully uses Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem “Questions of Travel” to make a point about the human tendency to “tell ourselves that the current moment will not last forever, that the next moment will deliver us somewhere better. Of course, if that promise is repeatedly broken, if those next moments are never better, a kind of melancholy can set in: both our present and our future seem tarnished.”

She quotes the lines:
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theaters? 

What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?

It’s also tied to arguments about anticipation fueling optimism, and the connection of anticipation to social media – its escape, distraction, and the anticipation of dopamine-providing “likes” and shows of approval.

One of the trickiest parts of social media is recognizing that everyone is doing the same thing you’re doing: presenting their best self…While it’s easy to understand intrinsically that your presence on social media is only one small sliver of your full story, it’s more difficult to apply that logic to everyone else.

Fagan points out that Madison was of the generation that always used a form of social media and for whom there didn’t exist a time before the digital age. Her worry about perception, appearance, and how much everyone else was thriving seem to have been contributing factors in her desire to end her life. That’s heartbreaking.

An interesting and important read about the pressures faced by American college students, especially student athletes, even if some parts felt lacking. Every discussion on this topic is necessary.

What Made Maddy Run:
The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen

by Kate Fagan
published August 1, 2017 by Little, Brown

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It means I get a small commission if you buy via these links. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

2 thoughts on “Teens Under Pressure: The Dark Side of College and Competition

  1. I’m glad you pointed out the issues with alcohol as that definitely could have been a larger factor. The self-insertion of the journalist reminds me of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which had similar passages to the detriment of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The alcohol issue bothered me, it was all but ignored as a contributing factor. It’s been a few years since I read the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but what I remember is Henrietta’s story and not the journalist’s, so I guess it didn’t bother me there as much. I feel like it’s usually one of two extremes when journalists make themselves part of the story, either it makes a great story itself or I hate it beyond all reason like I did here. Glad to read your thoughts on this!

      Liked by 1 person

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