The response to the first issue of the Floridian magazine on Dec. 2 was so uniformly and enthusiastically positive, I briefly contemplated the idea of a celebratory lap. Very briefly.
I abandoned that idea about 5 p.m. on the Monday after we published when reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton beckoned me aside. Gretchen Molannen, she said, had killed herself.
Self-congratulation suddenly seemed almost shameful.
Gretchen was the subject of Leonora's lead story in the issue ("The Agony of Gretchen M."). For decades Gretchen had battled a little-known disorder that left her in a state of near-constant sexual arousal. For reasons doctors don't fully understand, a normally pleasurable sensation had become a chronic torment for Gretchen, and hundreds of other women like her. Her despair over the disorder had pushed her to attempt suicide three times in the previous year. Despite that, publication of the story was something Gretchen said she looked forward to. She said so in an email to Leonora on Nov. 28, two days before the story first appeared online.
Something happened shortly after she sent that email to make her attempt suicide again. But we didn't know what that something was. So Leonora kept investigating. We published what we knew the next morning.
That's when we truly learned the value of the story.
More than 584,000 people read the story of her suicide online, making it the most read online story of the year. Four hundred and sixty-nine thousand more viewed a video interview of Gretchen that we had produced as well, and another 219,000 went back and read the original magazine piece online.
Almost without exception the reaction that I saw in hundreds of tweets and retweets, Facebook messages and blog posts was one of sympathy for Gretchen and dismay that such a disease exists.
Knowing the scrupulous way that Leonora had reported the story, the care she had taken with Gretchen in fact-checking, I never believed that we had caused her death. Mental health counselors confirmed this for us.
But I think it's impossible not to feel a heaviness of heart for the loss of a person who had become a part of your life for a brief time. Impossible not to feel some combination of regret and frustration for the lost opportunity to provide some help to someone who needed it so badly. And those offers of help — from doctors and lawyers — did come. They were sitting in the same queue of emails in which Leonora found the one from Gretchen's boyfriend saying that the story couldn't help her now.
In the end, the story did not help Gretchen. We'll never know if that was how she had envisioned it all along — that the ultimate beneficiary would not be her but us.
Bill Duryea can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8770.