Madison Holleran’s Notes Dispel the Myth of the Selfish Suicide

The Penn track star's generosity extended beyond the gifts she left.


Family, friends and scenes from Madison Holleran’s Instagram feed.

The family of Madison Holleran — the 19-year-old Penn student who jumped to her death a year ago — provided her suicide note to People magazine, for publication in its February 2, 2015 issue. It might seem a painful reminder of their beloved daughter’s death, but it was done as part of what has become a beautifully altruistic impulse on their part: to raise awareness of the struggles college freshmen face and to propel dialogue between family members. Her father was quoted by People’s Nicole Egan as saying, “Parents, if you see a huge change in your child and you haven’t discussed suicide with them, open that discussion up.” (See the Madison Holleran Foundation for more information on the mission.)

Her family found two suicide notes, actually. The one in her dorm room read:

“I don’t know who I am anymore. trying. trying. trying,” the note said. “I’m sorry. I love you … sorry again … sorry again … sorry again … How did this happen?”

The second, accompanied by gifts for family members, read:

“I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in. For you mom … the necklaces … For you, Nana & Papa … Gingersnaps (always reminds me of you) … For you Ingrid … The Happiness Project. And Dad … the Godiva chocolate truffles. I love you all … I’m sorry. I love you.”

Aside from how heartbreakingly sad those notes both are, for obvious reasons, they remind me, once again, how stupid that “suicides are selfish” trope is, which I just heard again last night. It’s an idea that gets trotted out whenever a celebrity kills himself, as happened with Robin Williams. “He was so selfish to put himself above his kids,” etc.

Oh, please. If Madison’s notes show anything, it’s that living with depression is an act of generosity. And I’m not just talking about the gifts she left either. I see more than that.

Madison’s father ascribes the presence of the two notes to Madison’s vaunted perfectionism. He imagines she wrote a first draft of the suicide note in her dorm room, then left what she imagined to be the better version with the gifts. But I wonder if they were actually two different notes from different times. She had been dealing with suicidal ideation for a while. It seems she was struggling not to kill herself for a long time. Why? Surely because she didn’t want to hurt the people who loved her.

Ask any person who’s struggled with suicidal impulses for a significant period of time, as Madison had, and you’ll find they’ve written many, many notes — all of which address the family members they’re keeping themselves alive for. I have a whole library of them myself, and they all start with, “Dear Mom and Dad, I’m so sorry …” The implication being, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t keep myself alive any longer for you — because god knows, it ain’t for me.”

Suicidal people are actually some of the most generous people you’ll ever meet because they’re keeping themselves in pain only for the sake of others.

David Foster Wallace put it so well — before he took his own life:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.”

In other words, suicidal people endure the terror of being trapped in a burning room rather than hurt their loved ones. When the flames start to lick your limbs, though, you’re going to feel you have no choice but to jump.

Madison writes about the difference between being locked out and locked in, showing once again how it’s so often about choosing the lesser of two evils. Do I stay locked inside? Do I get locked out? Do I burn? Do I jump?

I look at these notes from Madison Holleran, at the gifts she left her family, and I see a young woman who was brave and strong and tried really, really hard in the face of feelings that were utterly foreign to her and who fought like hell against an insidious illness. I see a young woman who was as generous and loving the day she took her life as she had always been before then. There was nothing selfish in the way she lived her life — or ended it.

For those who are privy in any way to a person’s lost battle with depression or mental anguish, just remember: No one who fights this battle is selfish. What we are is burn-covered warriors, and not all of us win the war.

Follow @lspikol on Twitter.

For confidential support if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Learn about the warning signs of suicide at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Previously: The Tragedy of Madison Holleran and Suicides at Penn