Sunday, May 27, 2018
Human Interest

Closer to the truth about Gretchen M.

One of the problems of growing older is that each year increases the number of know-it-all iterations of myself that I'm obligated to reassess. In January, in this space, I tried to make sense of the shocking suicide of Gretchen Molannen, the subject of the cover story in the first issue of Floridian last December.

Gretchen, you'll recall, had suffered from a rare and debilitating disorder that left her in a state of near-constant sexual arousal. For 16 years she had lived a mostly hermetic life in Spring Hill, unable to work and dependent on a boyfriend to pay her bills.

In my column I expressed confidence that the original story by Leonora LaPeter Anton had not caused Gretchen to commit suicide. I defended Leonora's scrupulous reporting practices, including her decision to share the entire story with Gretchen in advance of publication.

I knew that we hadn't forced Gretchen to reveal her story. We acted in concert with her and paid heed to anxieties she expressed during the reporting. We took pains to help readers empathize with a condition most of them had never heard of. I was certain that our good intentions and our sensitivity were sufficient defenses against any criticism.

Yet it is clear to me now just how much we didn't know about what was going on inside Gretchen's head during the months we worked with her on the story and especially in the days before publication.

I know what I didn't know because of the new reporting that Leonora did to produce this month's cover story. With no small amount of bravery, Leonora agreed to revisit this painful subject, to look inside our newsroom, to look deeper into the nature of suicide and how the media report on it, to look more closely at Gretchen's troubled life and what we might have missed.

More reporting usually brings us closer to the truth. Though it doesn't always bring more certainty, it can bring more clarity. I don't want to rob you of the pleasure of Leonora's insight, but there's a lesson in this story for all of us: We can not talk too much, or too openly about suicide.

In January, I wrote that Gretchen's suicide helped us understand the value of the original story, as if her tragic end justified the need for the public to know more about the private hell she had endured.

That wasn't quite right.

Read on and you'll see what I mean.

Bill Duryea is the editor of Floridian.

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