Reviewed by Brandt Wong
I first came across Madison Holleran’s story when it ran as an extended piece on ESPN. I wasn’t alone in sharing Maddy’s story with family and friends. So many readers identified with the story that it became the most-read feature in the history of ESPN’s website, which prompted staff columnist Kate Fagan to write What Made Maddy Run (Hachette Book Group, 2017).
Madison Holleran, who grew up in Allendale, NJ, was talented, beautiful, athletic, and intelligent. She was a model student supported by a large and loving family and many friends. After years of hard work, she had just been accepted into UPenn, her dream school. To outsiders, it looked like a charmed life. Her social media accounts said as much: hundreds of pictures with friends and family, always smiling, always having a good time.
Tragically, January 17, 2018, marked the fifth anniversary of her death by suicide. When faced with only the bare details, the final outcome seems more than tragic; it is inexplicable. This book helps us understand what happened.
Fagan focuses on Maddy’s first semester at Penn and her secret struggles with depression as she faced difficulties in the classroom and on the track, both places where she had thrived her entire life. She had become accustomed to only seeing positive results and legible road markers of progress: How was she to cope with these newly-perceived failures? Her concerns became doubts which, in turn, became lies that she believed.
As a former student athlete, the author writes with great empathy about Maddy’s struggles and navigating the early years of adulthood, particularly the new challenges presented in this new social media age. When teenagers are constantly considering how their self-presentation on Facebook and Instagram is being received, it makes it increasingly difficult to share their lives honestly. Even to those closest to her, Madison struggled to express the depths of her feelings. Fagan concludes that one can’t assume that a person’s social media profile tells us anything about their inner life.
This book should be of great interest to high school students and their parents, especially in such a performance-driven culture as Princeton’s. What Makes Maddy Run does what I think is the most important thing for any person learning about mental wellness: confront them with a real person.
I can relate strongly to Madison, both in the pressure she felt to perform and in her inability to communicate any weakness: I graduated from Penn the year before Maddy was admitted.
When the book came out, I bought and read it within hours the same day. The story was alive and close to me; I could visualize the streets she walked, the dorm she lived in, the bookstore where she bought the final gifts for her family, the building where she jumped. The book mentions that Maddy started going to church to look for answers and I can even guess which churches she visited. A month before she jumped, Madison changed her Instagram bio to include Matthew 17:20. It reads: “He said to them, “…For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” This verse is now featured prominently on the Madison Holleran Foundation website as a call for hope among the hopeless.
As I turned the final page, I felt numb, grieved that the story of Madison’s life had nothing left to be written and surprised I could feel so strongly. I read this story at a time when I was in a vulnerable position; recently graduated, frustrated with my inability to interview well or land a job. Often, I felt discouraged and meaningless. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but I was showing anxiety and symptoms of depression. Thankfully, it never became anything worse. I was showered with extravagant love from my family, especially my (then) two-year-old nephew who couldn’t wait to see me every day.
Madison’s story sticks with me even now. In the months since, I’ve donated to foundations supporting suicide prevention and I’ve discussed art projects with other creative individuals regarding mental wellness. I believe that storytelling helps eradicate the worst lies that depression can spread; that we suffer alone and that no one cares.
Even though our paths never crossed, I sometimes wonder what I could have said or done for Maddy to prevent her fate. Since she died, 16 more suicides have happened at Penn—and that’s just one college campus. Our awareness needs to change. Equipped with Maddy’s story, this book should remind how valuable life is, how much people can hurt, and how relationships and honest conversation are the beginning of hope.
Learn more about the book