It Does Matter That You Care

Zoë Hayden
6 min readAug 24, 2017

I read the recently-released book by Kate Fagan, What Made Maddy Run, in just two days, diving into it with determination before bed two nights in a row, and accidentally staying up until 1AM on both occasions. I couldn’t put it down, even though I knew it was going to end with a suicide.

I’m a true crime and investigative journalism fiend; I am easily compelled by the restructuring of a traumatic or major event. But there is something very intimate and genuine in Fagan’s telling of Madison Holleran’s story that makes it especially intense. Even if I don’t agree with all of Fagan’s conclusions and impressions of Maddy’s world, this seems to be a true labor of love, and the messaging is genuine and thoughtful. The book feels like a close friend or an older sister; it’s conversational and kind.

I’m also a reader who has never been an athlete, so much of Maddy’s world is foreign to me. I was never a “cool kid” in high school and spent most of my life from the ages of 3 to 24 frequently paralyzed by debilitating anxiety, until a combination of therapy and medication radically changed my ability to cope with it. Still, Fagan’s portrait of Maddy is nuanced, and I think any teenager could see themselves in the small, private moments that are brought to life on the page. Maddy is quieter, more interior than her friends, and their parents pick up on that. She’s a perfectionist and has a rich interior life. Her choice to go to the University of Pennsylvania to run track (instead of going to a less prestigious school to pursue soccer) causes her to undergo a profound personal crisis that ends in her suicide. That’s the “plot” of this book, but the actual meat of the story is something else — it’s about perfectionism, being an athlete, modern life with technology, our social relationships, and of course, mental health and coping skills.

Much like many people I know in my own life who have struggled with depression, the concept of having choices seems totally foreign to Maddy. When choices are presented to her — such as the choice of her postsecondary school, the choice of quitting track, the choice of picking a club or sorority to join — it takes an overwhelming amount of emotional energy for her to acknowledge and make these choices. Quitting track would not have fixed Maddy’s depression, though it may have helped her cope— but she did not feel empowered to make that choice. Every voice around her told her to keep trying. Maddy’s interior voice echoed that, for reasons that Fagan makes very clear in the text — there’s a lot of deep diving here into the mental aspects of being an athlete, especially an athlete who has been competitive from a very young age, who goes on to NCAA Division I sports in college. Maddy’s interior voice was in the habit of telling her to toughen up and keep trying and do the right thing for the team and do the right thing for the prestige.

Madison Holleran was a “winner” in every sense of the word. Had she failed earlier in life, had to be more vulnerable more often, perhaps her depression symptoms would have been caught sooner? Perhaps not? Who’s to say? What Fagan makes clear is that colleges need better support systems for students, athletes and non-athletes, in terms of mental healthcare. The stigma has to end and these topics should be matters of open discussion. There should be psychologists on staff in DI competitive programs along with athletic trainers — but not formally attached to the team or the athletic department, perhaps, because they need to be a check and balance for the mental health of the students; not someone who is primarily concerned with winning. Winning, it seems, can end up being pretty meaningless if you aren’t taking care of yourself or tuned in to your own well-being.

The book bumped up a lot, though, on the idea that social media use somehow contributed to Maddy’s depression. It may have. I do think that the nuance that Fagan provided to depicting Maddy could have also been used to depict social media usage by young people. A lot of social media is by nature performative, but for many of us who have grown up online, it has also been a valuable lifeline, and provided interaction and support systems for those of us who may have otherwise been isolated. Madison’s instincts to project something different on her Instagram from what she was feeling inside seemed to be born of an attitude towards sharing and intimacy that was already deeply affected by depression and anxiety.

Maddy was reaching out; we know that from her texts, her documented conversations with her coaches and her parents, but she didn’t get the help she needed at the right time. Her environment, her isolation, her depression — all of these things are laid out as if on a backdrop of “modern life.” Maddy’s Instagram sets the scene, but I worry that Fagan gives too much implied credence to the idea that social media was somehow at fault for how she was feeling. We had depression and suicide long before the Internet, and we will have it long after it’s gone. Context changes, but the condition, in many ways, does not.

The message of the book shines most clearly when not framed by near-alarmism about how human beings function online. Fagan herself says in the book that she has people in her life that she texts regularly every day. Madison’s performance on social media showed not how social media is contributing negatively to our mental health but it did show, quite starkly, how depression hides. It wasn’t just on her Instagram. Depression was hiding elsewhere in her life. If anything, Maddy’s Instagram was a reflection, rather than an exacerbation, of how she was handling her own feelings of depression and suicidal ideation.

Mental health issues are often suffered in silence. If a young person reads What Made Maddy Run, I hope their takeaways are to ask for help and to take mental health seriously — and to also not take everything they see online at face value. To ask their friends how they’re doing, and to pursue direct contact with others. Whether it’s online or face-to-face, direct and genuine contact can help. Social media can be a conduit for that. If you’re struggling at school and at home and don’t have anyone to talk to, you might find someone on Tumblr or Instagram who is miles away but can still be your friend. Reach out wherever you feel safe. It’s no substitute for having an in-person support system, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have value. When kids are having problems with social media contributing to depression and anxiety, I’d be inclined to believe that the problem isn’t with the communication method itself, but whether or not it is genuine and intimate. Pursuing genuine and intimate connections where we can find them is one of the most important aspects to having a healthy social life, and where those connections exist may surprise us.

If anyone in higher ed reads this book, I hope their first move is to figure out how to make their school safer for anyone in the organization who may be dealing with a mental health issue. That is loud and clear and obvious in the text. If a student like Maddy is sitting in a coach’s office, trying to communicate how they’re feeling, I hope deeply that the first thing offered is contact with a mental health professional, and that the school has made an effort to provide a mental healthcare system that is safe and overseen by people who will put the safety of the student above the success of any team. Obviously, we have a long way to go to get to that point. The book makes a significant argument for that type of environment.

What Made Maddy Run is a compelling and intimate story that cares a lot about who Madison was. I’ve thought about her every day since I read it, even if just for a moment. I didn’t know her but I do care. If you have someone in your life that you want to know better and care about — try to get to know them better. Find out how they are doing, and mean it when you ask. They might not be ready to talk yet if they are having a tough time, and you can respect that, but it does matter if you care.