When work and life collide: Reporting on an emotionally-charged story at an emotionally-charged time
One of the happiest moments of 2009 for me personally was when I found out I received a fellowship from the California Endowment to produce a video series on teen suicide. It was such an honor and professional achievement, one I knew would help give me the credibility I needed to produce something I hoped could be good, really good, perhaps even life-saving. But, it's been a challenge too, and I've learned to accept the uneasy tension that seems to live between that excitement I felt initially, and the reality of such a complicated and heartbreaking topic.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live and work, teen suicide has been in the headlines over the past year. Five teens in Palo Alto, CA have killed themselves, the latest suicide occurring Friday night. Just as distressing has been the manner of death: All of these bright, young lives ended at the same railroad crossing in town when they threw their bodies in front of passing commuter Amtrak trains.
What would drive these young people from this wealthy community, who seemed to have it all, to die so determinedly? And why so many of them all at once? These would be the questions I'd pick away at in my project.
I was drawn to the topic initially because I thought I knew part of the answer. I grew up in Saratoga, CA, a mere 20 minutes south of Palo Alto by car, in a similarly affluent and educated community. My brother, Richard, a straight-A student who studied computer science at Cal and was a track star, had a complete mental breakdown in 1988 on his 21st birthday. After wandering around Berkeley claiming to be Jesus Christ, he would end up locked in a dark, concrete isolation room at Herrick Hospital, completely insane and terrified. My brother would be diagnosed with bipolar, then bipolar and schizoaffective disorders, and eventually withschizoaffective disorder bipolar type. That year, and in the years that followed, I learned my brother had a treatable illness that carried with it a huge societal stigma. And I knew for him, most of the time, coping with the stigma was the hardest part of coping with the illness.
When, for my video project, I interviewed the mother of a Berkeley teenager who committed suicide in 2005, she talked at length about how her son, like all teenagers, just wanted to fit in, to be normal. And normal to her son Gulliver meant not having to take medication for a mental illness. At the end of our interview she concluded that Gulliver didn't die by suicide but that he died "by mental illness."
What this mother didn't know as I gently pressed her for details about her son's ordeal, was that my brother, now 42, was in the hospital suffering from severe depression and hallucinations. My brother had menacing, paranoid visions about me this time, which was a first. As my interview subject speculated about what life may have been like for Gulliver had he not killed himself, I felt fairly certain I knew.
Gulliver's mother seemed to know too.