Updated: Sunday, October 8, 2017, 3:01 AM
What Made Maddy Run
The Secret Struggles
and Tragic Death of
an All-American Teen
By Kate Fagan
Little, Brown, 299 pp. $27
by Erin McCarthy
The climax of What Made Maddy Run is not Penn runner Madison Holleran's suicide. And, as former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kate Fagan makes clear, that is by design.
There isn't much, after all, to learn from Maddy's death itself, or from her final moments atop the parking garage on the corner of Spruce and 15th Streets.
In a chapter near the end, Fagan spends fewer than five pages with Maddy on the top floor of that parking garage. The focus of her book is not on Maddy's death and the moments just before it. The scope is wider than that - which is why, appropriately, after those five pages, we're whisked away, immersed in the pain of her friends and family in the days, months, and years that followed.
Repeatedly, Fagan returns to the question that is the crux of this book: How did this happen?
Much has already been written about Madison Holleran, the college freshman whose Instagram-perfect life belied the mental-health struggles beneath the surface. Countless news stories followed her death in January 2014. Then there was commentary about the pressure and expectations at Penn and about the way many college athletic departments all but ignore mental health. In 2015, Fagan wrote perhaps the most in-depth piece on Maddy, focusing on how social media made her feel isolated in her struggles.
As a recent college graduate, I had always been drawn to Maddy's story. In fact, I had consumed so much information about her that before I opened this book, I wondered how much more I could learn.
But What Made Maddy Run dives deep: Readers at times will feel they're right there, sitting with Maddy as she types an email to her coach, or rides in the car with her dad, or sits with friends at a Penn basketball game just days before her death and pretends to be happy. Fagan's ability to take us inside those intimate and painful moments makes this narrative compelling.
Fagan gains the family's trust to such a degree (in part, she has said, because of her Philly connections) that at one point, she drives to their Allendale, N.J., home to pick up Maddy's MacBook, still holding the teenager's emails, texts, and documents. Fagan writes that on the night she got Maddy's laptop, she pored over its contents, saving Maddy's texts for last. At one point, Fagan comes across an unsent message, which said, "hey, what are you doing." It made Fagan's heart race. "I thought, Wow, this is like having Madison right here in front of me," Fagan writes. "But is it really?"
The book alternates between Maddy's story and Fagan's own experiences. The scene above comes from one of the Fagan chapters. Some of these speak of Fagan's own struggles as a college athlete at the University of Colorado. Others discuss her experience working on this book and learning about mental illness.
At times, such chapters seem like unnecessary breaks from Maddy's story. I flew through the pages about Maddy, only to hit a speed bump on the next Fagan chapter. There were times when the break was needed, a recess from the raw pain of Maddy's real life.
This book hurts - and hurts more because Maddy's feelings are, on some level, universally relatable. If you don't see a piece of yourself in Maddy, you'll see a piece of your daughter or sister or best friend.
Fagan does an exceptional job laying out that pain in a narrative style that is both persuasive and honest. She is aided by Maddy's own words, which seemed so full of hope and excitement before she left for Penn. "Even though I'll be in Philly and away at college, I'll always be here for you," Madison writes in a letter to her younger sister. "I cannot wait to visit each other in college, where we will hopefully meet our future husbands," she writes a high school friend.
"I'M TRYNA BE FRIENDS FOR LIFE OK!!!!!" she tells another friend. "That is, if we both survive college. I have confidence that we will . . . well, you will."
For Maddy's words alone, read this book. It is a comprehensive, essential, and well-written piece about mental health, as well as a small step toward reducing the stigma around anxiety and depression.
Erin McCarthy (emcCarthy@phillynews.com) is a reporter for the Inquirer.