Pieces of six emails Leonora LaPeter Anton got after her story on the legacy of Gretchen Molannen
1. Thank you for printing that article and I empathize with you on your own psychological reaction to hearing of Gretchen's suicide but feel that when someone truly wants to end their own life they will do so regardless of who or what interventions are taken.
2. You are an official member of SOS (survivors of suicide). I know you did not want to join, none of us did. But now that you are a member, understand that you are a Survivor. Do good work with the inside knowledge you have; not what psychiatrists say you should or should not feel. You feel what you feel and that is real.
3. Sometimes things are out of our hands. Sometimes "cracked" Humpty Dumptys are glued together. Sometimes this repair makes them stronger. Sometimes there is no help.
4. I found the focus of the article fascinating, a reporter's obligations, journalism ethics, the relationship between reporter and subject, etc. You did a fine job on all points. Also, I felt moved by Gretchen again in this portrayal. Now, here's what I came away with. She was intending to truly succeed in taking her life but she wanted to tell her story first, either so that she would be seen as credible and/or to help others. You were that vehicle ... she trusted you and approved the story when you read it to her. Then, her task completed, it was time to end the suffering. You did not cause/contribute to the suicide. It was in her plan from the beginning and you brought her the peace to do it.
5. I’m a licensed clinical psychologist in Tampa. I read your original article about Gretchen with interest, as well as the one in yesterday’s Times. I’m no expert on the condition she had, never having treated it or read about it prior to your article, and never having treated her specifically. I’ve had sufficient experience and training regarding suicide to share some educated guesses and/or hunches with you. I agree that we’ll never know for sure what ultimately led to her final decision. But here’s my best guess: ultimately it was the accumulation of years of pain she experienced as the result of her condition, her sense of hopelessness that the pain would be resolved, and her decision to stop the pain. She had apparently made several prior attempts that appeared to be serious, and which easily could have been “successful,” before you ever met her. If this final attempt had not “worked”, she would have made others in the future if she were unsuccessful in diminishing her pain in the future. She very well may have made several other past serious attempts that we don’t know about. It seems obvious that she frequently and seriously thought about suicide. You obviously didn’t cause, or contribute to, her attempts and innumerable thoughts of suicide before you ever met her – not in this cause-and-effect, one-way time-line universe as I understand it to be.
Regarding her last and “successful” attempt (a “positive” lab test for a fatal disease comes to mind)): I believe Gretchen set out to tell you her story with a purpose. Apparently it was difficult, laborious, and emotionally painful for her to do so. But she stuck it out to the bitter end, just as some clients do in completing their narrative, perhaps with equal or greater pain, most typically without making the decision to kill themselves. And in one of her final acts before her final act, she gave her blessing to your excellent efforts to convey her story to us. I suspect that in some ways she saw it as her life purpose, her ultimate purpose, her final purpose and the only purpose she saw left to her, a mission she chose to complete prior to her self-inflicted demise, in spite of the pain she felt in the process. But it seems highly unlikely that the pain she felt in telling the story exceeded the cumulative chronic pain of the disorder itself. I believe you chose to pursue, and tell, the story in a caring and compassionate manner. If you had not, I believe she would have chosen not to tell her story to you. While your self-reflection in the wake of her completed suicide is appropriate to a point, the usefulness of the guilt experienced has a limited shelf-life, and I believe the expiration date is past due. I believe that she (not you nor anyone else) bears the responsibility for having chosen to kill herself. To whatever extent she was consciously (or unconsciously) aware of her intent to kill herself after having completed the telling of her story, I also believe that she successfully hid her intent from you and everyone else (as seriously suicidal clients often do with their therapists, friends, and family members prior to the act), an individual with a layman’s understanding of the phenomenon of suicide. If she had come to me as a mental health professional, I likely would have been unable predict the timing of her suicide, only the significant likelihood that it would happen at some point in the future (one’s past patterns are the best, but imperfect, predictor of future behavior) if her disorder were not successfully treated psychologically or medically. And it would not have been my fault, or the fault of caring friends and family, if she had killed herself after having shared her story with me. I also believe that she was so wrapped up in the immensity accumulation of her own pain at the time of her final act that she put comparatively little thought into the potential pain that she unloaded on you and other compassionate souls who cared about her in the wake of her demise.
Thank you for your contribution to our understanding of psychological issues. Keep up the good work.
6. She was brave. You are brave.