I’d avoided reading this book because I thought it might feel voyeuristic or sensationalist. It didn’t. The writing was good, a mix between honest personal reflection, sociological research, and careful, respectful piecing together the last months of Madison Holleran’s life. The book is also a lot less specific to running (I’d even imagined it would be relevant to an even more niche audience of high school distance runners and adults who are enmeshed in the world of national-class high school track). It’s not. It’s about the hollow relationships on social media and loneliness and depression and pressure and the impossible contradictions inherent in these struggles.
There are several different ways in which Fagan’s book acknowledges nuanced, paradoxical aspects of mental health struggles. Quitting is a sign of weakness. Except when it’s the harder thing to do. Social media is isolating, except that social media lead many struggling athletes to Fagan after she published an article about Maddy in ESPNW. Pushing kids harder makes them stronger, except when it breaks them down.
If I were still teaching, I’d find a way to read this book with my students. I’d give it to all the girls on my track team. I’m thinking a lot about the times I made the call to tell someone to toughen up (academically or athletically, and in either case usually in more subtle terms), about when I tell my kids to toughen up.