In January 2014 my mom sent me a link to a story in a Pennsylvania newspaper. I can’t remember the headline or the exact day or even the paper. But I can remember the subject: Madison Holleran, a gorgeous 19-year-old UPenn track star. On Jan. 17, 2014 Holleran jumped off of a nine story parking garage in downtown Philadelphia. Her suicide, so many miles away, shook me to my core. I didn’t know her at all, but part of me felt like I did.
I’m not the only one who was drawn to Maddy’s story. ESPN writer Kate Fagan found herself attached to Madison Holleran — to her life, and to her death. In 2015 she wrote the espnW story, “Split Image,” about Madison’s suicide and the disconnect between how people portray themselves on social media and in real life. Madison’s story struck a nerve.
“I got hundreds of emails from students, high school and college. Some just wanted to let me know that it allowed them to talk to their parents and friends,” says Fagan. “But more often than not those students had questions. They wanted to know what I thought as a journalist about the social media aspect.”
In “Split Image,” Fagan details some of Madison’s beautifully filtered Instagram photos, including the last one she ever posted. Fagan writes, “No image captures the paradoxes of Madison’s Instagram account more than the one she posted just an hour before jumping off the parking garage. Holiday lights are twinkling in the trees of Rittenhouse Square, and Madison put a filter on the image that produced an ethereal quality, almost as if the night is underwater.”
You can still see Madison’s Instagram profile. People can still comment on her photos, can tell her they miss her, can tag her in memories. Fagan points me to a 2014 Atlantic article, “She’s Still Dying on Facebook,” that discusses this phenomenon — this ability to connect with those you love once they’re gone. “When people in our lives have died we call their voicemail to hear their voice,” says Fagan. “So that behavior’s not new. The accessibility is.”
Fagan’s book, What Made Maddy Run, is an extension of “Split Image,” with additional personal essays from Fagan, and conversations with mental health experts, talking about everything from the pressures of college to how people should talk about suicide. For “Split Image,” its companion video feature, and later, What Made Maddy Run, the Holleran family talked extensively to Fagan, and shared everything they could of Maddy’s — her computer, her contacts, her photos, her memories. Fagan pieced together Maddy’s life through both her real life — what her friends and family saw in person — and her social media life, the one that was filtered and cropped, exuding perfection.
Is social media the crux of the problems Madison Holleran, a young athlete, struggled with? “I can say anecdotally that I received a lot of messages from athletes in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s who either read ‘Split Image’ or the book and felt that a lot of the emotions I described, they dealt with,” says Fagan. “I think we’re still learning how social media is impacting all students and kids. But I think that core transition to college for students and athletes is underdiscussed.”
In What Made Maddy Run, Fagan talks about Maddy’s time at home during winter break. She gathered with high school friends; they all, in person, said that they were struggling with the college transition. There was a difference, though, in how Maddy’s friends were handling these struggles. “Maddy’s family was just in the process of, ‘Is this depression? Is there something we can do chemically?'” says Fagan. “I think that’s the separating factor between Madison and a lot of her friends. There was that added element of what her parents would likely say was a brain chemical imbalance.”
When Madison left for UPenn she was, by all accounts, a bubbly, intelligent, driven teenager. When she returned over winter break she was a shell of her former self. Fagan writes about Maddy getting ready for New Year’s Eve: “On New Year’s Eve everyone went over to Emma’s to get ready: Maddy, Justine, Jackie, Erin … Madison had brought with her the dress from Forever 21. She put on the outfit and suddenly realized it didn’t fit at all. Her friends looked at her. ‘Maddy, how are you so skinny?’ they asked. ‘I don’t know,’ she said finally.”
As heartbreaking as it is to read about Madison Holleran’s decline — one that happened quickly, and affected her more deeply than anyone could know — it is just as gut-wrenching to imagine her family living their lives without her. “It’s simply this determination to do good despite the pain it causes them to talk about certain moments over and over again,” says Fagan of the family’s commitment to Maddy’s memory.
In 2014 the Hollerans started the Madison Holleran Foundation, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicides and help those in crisis situations. In 2016 the Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act was signed into law in New Jersey, Maddy’s home state; the law requires that all New Jersey colleges provide students with round-the-clock access to health care professionals with mental health training.
What Made Maddy Run is both a deep-dive into a young woman’s life, and her death, and a look at the lives she left behind. Fagan takes Madison’s singular experience and does what she can to educate readers about mental health and mental illness as a whole.
Fagan says that she’s visited the parking garage from which Madison leapt. “You can’t help but feel like you’re gonna be the one to find the clue, that helps it make sense,” says Fagan. But, she continues, “You’re not gonna find the one ‘why,’ and you have to come to terms with that. You realize, ‘This isn’t something I can solve.’ I just have to make sure I’m educated and be present for the people in my life — and see the clues and help.”