Hanna approvingly forwarded me this email from Nicholas Lera, a teacher in the Menlo Park City School District, which is adjacent to Palo Alto:
In the video attached to Hanna Rosin’s recent article on suicides in the PaloAlto area, she mentioned a lack of a counter-culture. I think a small group of teachers at my school, Hillview Middle, is truly making a shift away from the traditional model of teaching and toward a paradigm that focuses on learning, curiosity, and collaboration. We are prototyping classroom management systems, assessment practices, project design practices, curriculum mapping processes, and all kinds of other teacher-speak things. Some of the particular practices include:
abolishing “D”s and “F”s and replacing scores below 70% with “Not Yet.” Some of us are pushing to replace the entire scale with mastery language.
gamification of language studies through a “Belt system” (Here’s an example:
optional community circles on Fridays
flexible deadlines for all assignments
grades only received on summative assessment; homework is not graded, but tracked.
genius hour/20% time
The biggest thing is this: We’re always thinking about innovation; we’re always prototyping; and at the heart of it, we’re all deeply invested in making the change we think is needed.
Welp, I feel like I barfed out semi-topical information ... and, I’m hoping Hanna is invested enough to answer a couple of questions for me. How do we go about growing a counter-culture within such a staid system? What role can students play in shifting what “school” means?
Are you an educator who wants to tackle those questions for us based on some reform you’re working on? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, this note presents a good opportunity to check in with our Education series called “The Art of the Lesson Plan.” The pieces thus far:
Math in the Garden: “For schools that can afford it, a backyard garden provides community benefits and a new take on learning.”
A reader responds to the earlier one who invoked the role religion can play in helping people cope with suicidal thoughts:
Your reader’s certainty that there is something after death, and that it is apparently self-evidently better, strikes me as the same kind of sadness that he or she sees in those who don’t share such certainty. If this is all there is, can’t that be a motivation to make the most of whatever life on Earth we have?
I feel sorry for the reader, who can apparently only find joy in life through a belief in something after it. (If the reader feels a touch of condescension from my words, consider that their words may have provided the same.) If someone can’t find meaning in their work, their family and friends, or the life that surrounds us, I have to wonder if they simply lack the imagination necessary to revel in the wonder of the world.
Another reader asks of the religious one, “Would not the knowledge of an afterlife make this life utterly meaningless? For what would 60 or 80 years be against eternity?” Another reader offers alternative ways to cope with suicidal thoughts:
Religion can be inspiring, but it can also be self righteous navel gazing—and it’s no panacea for those who are trying to find meaning in this world and life. I speak from long experience; I’ve been a diagnosed depressive since I was a teenager and I’m nearly 50 now. Daily, I wrestle with the existential “Why am I here/why do I bother?” line of thinking that threatens to drag me down into the abyss.
Find something to GIVE AWAY that can give your life meaning. I give my time and energy to a laboratory investigating ways to make growing plants indoors easier, less resource intensive, and less expensive. I feel very strongly that my work will benefit those who come after me, and it’s that thought that propels me out of bed in the morning.
I don’t need a religion; any newspaper will do to remind me that millions go hungry every day who might benefit from what I’m doing. THAT thought gives urgency to the direction of my life—and now I have no time to be depressed.
I invite everyone who feels insignificant to try their hand at giving something. As long as the gift is beneficial to the recipient, it can be nearly anything ... and the more you do it, the less depressed you’ll feel!
This reader takes an even broader view of humanity and its place in the universe:
I don’t claim to have any esoteric, hidden knowledge, but I think your religious reader has forgotten a wellspring of human meaning which I frequently tap into. I was raised with no faith in an omniscient divine and feel none of its Grace to this day. But I am frequently overwhelmed with the sublime—not from God, but from our own species.
I currently live in Seoul, and whenever I cross the Hannam bridge, looking at the giant towers our species has constructed along the banks of the Han, the way the buildings both obfuscate and conform to the mountains of Seoul, I am overwhelmed with a mystic sense of humanity. So much of what makes our society today is the legacy of many generations that toiled and sacrificed for an imagined, hypothetical descendant.
What is our society except a glimpse into our ancestors and a deep faith in their visions, hopes, and laws? We live surrounded by things we have not done and could never do on our own, but they were done by humans, like ourselves, combined into a collective agent. I am reminded of Durkheim, who wrote off of Kant that we are shaped by a priori social categories of thought. That idea bewilders me—that so much of who we are is not made by a God, or simply springs from the Earth, but is shaped by humans, by people like us.
So I think there is still great meaning in the world, even without the blessings of some omnipotent being. And it makes death frightening, because in death, we may lose what makes human life so fascinating and mystic. It also makes immortality wondrous, because then we can perpetuate our vision further into the future and find even more time to bask in our humanity.
The luminaries of Silicon Valley are increasingly interested in bringing everlasting life to the human race. Chief among them is Google Ventures President Bill Maris, who, with the help of futurist Ray Kurzweil (seen in the video above), is leading a $425 million initiative to slow aging, reverse disease, and extend life to 500 years. In that context, a reader brings religion into the long and ongoing discussion of teen suicide sparked by Hanna’s cover story:
What I’m about to write comes from a place of love. I hurt for the families of the young people who have taken their own lives, and for the families of those who are suffering so much that they contemplate it. The dear 15-year-old girl whose brother took his life, the one who organized his memorial service, described the potential in her community by saying that people there “are working on inventions that will slow aging and probably one day stop death.”
Stopping death? This is the thinking of people who feel the emptiness of believing that death is the end. I am not condemning them, not at all. But if one has no faith in God, and no belief that He has a life for us after this one is over, then life seems pretty sad. What happens if you get everything you want in life? Popularity. Good grades. A well-paying job. Emptiness. If there is nothing greater, it’s impossible not to fast-forward to the end game.
We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick... Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?
[...] The narrow and insanely competitive path to college admissions, I believe, is all wrong. Firstly because there are easier routes to success. And secondly because I think taking the competitive road makes admissions to an elite college harder.
The most financially well-off peer that I know is Jeremy Lin, the basketball player and Linsanity-phenom, who lived in the same house that I did at Harvard. But the second wealthiest young person that I know is not a Harvard Business School banker or Stanford entrepreneur, but a San Jose State graduate who joined Facebook early enough to cash out during the IPO.
I know countless numbers of state-school and obscure-school graduates who had the foresight to study software engineering and are thus significantly out-earning many of my Harvard friends. While my Harvard network might pull ahead in time, it does seem perplexing for affluent parents and students to spend so much effort striving for the Ivy League when it seems so clear (especially in the Bay Area!) that other routes to success exist.
The other problem with this all-out sprint to the Ivy League is that it makes so many students look the same, which as any college admissions officer can tell you, is the death knell for an application.
Here’s some earlier advice from Atlantic readers who are also college consultants and educators in the Bay Area. This reader addresses one of them and echoes much of what Melissa Chen is saying:
I am respectfully responding to the individual with a grad degree from Harvard who taught high school in Palo Alto and is now a college counselor elsewhere. I don’t believe that the admission departments at elite colleges, especially those on the East Coast, practice a disingenuous game that automatically disqualifies outstanding students from, say, the Silicon Valley, and I don’t believe the idea that that high-performing students of immigrants are being routinely rejected based on a “coy game.”
The reality is—and one might consider it to be a staggering reality—is that academically hard-working and gifted students are a dime a dozen in today’s competitive world. To have a perfect GPA and perfect SAT and ACT scores coupled with greater than 5 AP courses and scores of 4 and 5 and not uncommon. Hours of weekly community service and/or school government roles are pursuits of the most ordinary of student seeking to attend a “good” college or university.
It is true that students and their parents are stressed beyond reasonable limits, but I would posit that something else, rather than a “coy game,” is at play in the admissions offices of elite colleges. So many of these young people are unable to convey who they are, and what they intend to bring to college, in a cohesive, well-defined essay.
I don’t think this exorbitant push for excellence is going to decline anytime in the near future, therefore it becomes incumbent upon parents, teachers, counselors, and friends to recognize the beginning signs of depression, those tell tale signs of hopelessness before we lose another precious life. Perhaps we could begin by not placing so much value on only gaining acceptance into elite institutions and programs?
Another reader adds a cautionary note along those lines:
I appreciate Hanna’s article on the Silicon Valley suicide problem. As someone who graduated from high school in the area (Lynbrook) in 2010, and who went to a top university, I can sympathize with a lot of students quoted in the story even if I was fortunate enough never to harbor those thoughts myself.
One issue I had with the article was the story about Taylor Chiu. It’s a moving anecdote, but I worry it will give high schoolers in the area ideas about how to cope with their schoolwork while still getting into Harvard. In particular, this sentence caught my eye: “She asked her teachers whether she could skip the work she’d missed while she was gone, and they all assured her that it wasn't important.”
I worry that some reading the article will see that sentence and get ideas about how they, too, can “get out” of doing their overwhelming schoolwork by also overdosing on pills. After all, Taylor did so and still ended up at Harvard, so how bad can it be?
Reading this story from the perspective of someone in the area, Taylor’s story isn’t so much a cautionary one as it is a success story. In a world where college admissions means so much, the fact that Taylor still got into Harvard will overshadow the battle over depression that she had to fight to get there.
Update from a reader:
Colleges can do quite a bit to prevent teen suicides, and quite easily, too. How? By having each university set a minimum standard for admission (let’s say a 3.50 GPA and 1800 SAT), and then use a lottery system to randomly select students from among all applicants who meet the qualifying standards.
There would be a lot less pressure on students to overachieve, since doing so would do nothing to improve their chances of admission. And since there are so many high-quality students these days, universities would probably end up with classes that are just as strong as those admitted under the current system.
Yes, according to a reader and educator who went to Harvard graduate school:
There’s obviously much wrong with how Americans educate their children. But when Hanna Rosin asks, “Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?”—as a former teacher there who’s now a college counselor elsewhere—I’d identify the chief culprit: the refusal of elite universities to make their actual admissions priorities and practices transparent.
The desperate frenzy to rack up AP credits, perfect grades, awards, volunteer experiences, and recommendations—calling to mind a hamster madly spinning on a wheel—has a very simple antecedent, which is that colleges such as Yale, Duke, and Stanford play a coy game to entice applicants who have virtually no chance of acceptance, urging them to believe that running ever harder, “accomplishing” more and more, might help. Is it any wonder that some kids opt off the wheel?
This futile, soul-crushing chase has especially severe consequences in places like Palo Alto, which unlike old-money enclaves in other parts of the country, have large numbers of educated immigrants from places whose school systems are based upon fixed criteria and meritocratic ranking, who are relatively unsophisticated about how the system in America—skewed to favor insiders—works.
What can those most responsible for this madness do to rectify the problem?
The most obvious first step would be to declare—much like the warning on a mutual fund—”our policy is to admit a talented and diverse group of students who serve our institutional goals. Being unusually accomplished as a student in no way guarantees admission.” More important, they could establish firm and reduced caps on how many total courses, advanced courses, awards and honors, and extracurricular activities students could declare—say, 22, 5, 3, and 3, respectively. While this would indeed make the job of distinguishing among elite students somewhat harder, it would make life dramatically easier—and more predictable—for countless others.
Another reader also takes aim at college admissions:
I teach at a high school down the road from Paly and Gunn. The only reason we aren’t part of the tragedy is sheer dumb luck, as too many of our students have attempted to take their lives only to be hospitalized in time.
I want to call out the elite universities like Stanford that like to crow about how competitive they are in admissions. I want the admissions directors of Stanford and UCs and Harvard to come tell my kids why their school is so great that they should be killing themselves to gain admission. Do you really think you are $30,000 better than our California State schools? Do you really think you are so great that the return on investment garnered from a Stanford warrants this level of competition and stress for 16 year old kids?
There is a lot of structural reform that is needed, and it won’t solve the problems of mental illness that too many of our kids deal with in silence and shame, but it may give space for those problems to be addressed. Among other things, I would like to see the college admissions process shifted out of high school entirely to the summer and fall after graduation. Let kids enjoy school. There is no reason any one has to go to college three months after they graduate from high school. Let them think through where they want their life to be after they have finished high school and have a moment to breathe.
Our kids deserve far better from all of us.
Do you work in college admissions at a top-tier school and want to push back against this criticism or comment in general? Drop me an email.
There are probably so many reasons for teen suicide, but one that I keep coming back to is sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is a form of TORTURE. Among everything else we should be trying to do to help kids, one biggie is to help them get enough sleep.
How is it that all these parents, many of whom are moms who know about sleep deprivation and post-partum depression, aren’t wising up to the sleep-depression connection? For example: “One study found that sleep disturbance alone — even after controlling for other risk factors — increased women’s likelihood of developing postpartum depression.” Look, I’m not trying to oversimplify, but it boggles my mind that no one’s really talking about the role of sleep in all this.
Hanna actually mentions the sleep factor many times in her cover story, but it’s worth highlighting more. From Hanna: “[T]he American Academy of Pediatrics had recommended in 2014 starting high school no earlier than 8:30, because studies show that a host of adolescent mental-health issues are related to insufficient sleep.” Here's more from The Atlantic on those AAP recommendations. And here are a few links to prominent studies on the sleep-suicide connection:
For more than a hundred years, experts have recognized interrelated connections between sleep, depression and suicide: At least three-quarters of clinically depressed people struggle with sleep, and insomnia is a well-proven risk factor for suicide across different cultures and age groups. Moreover, sleep disturbances increase the likelihood of non-depressed people becoming depressed. We don’t yet have any tidy divine theory to tie these pieces together, but researchers are working hard to get us there.
Another reader wonders if the Caltrain running through Palo Alto had an indirect effect on the teens who took their own lives:
Reading Rosin’s article, I kept coming back to the omnipresence of the train itself and the sound pollution from the train. Sound pollution is an environmental stressor that affects health in a variety of ways—disrupting sleep, increasing cortisol levels, etc. Sound pollution may have more profound impacts on those who are more sound sensitive or already stressed. It could be one of the factors that needs to be investigated and addressed. There is plenty of research on sound pollution and health, though it seems to be largely ignored in the U.S.
That reminds me of this haunting passage from Hanna’s piece:
As Kathleen [Blanchard] and I talked in her living room, I heard a train send out its alarm, and she caught my startled look. “My son died right there,” she said, pointing out the window. The tracks were a block from the house. He’d grown up to the sound of the train, while brushing his teeth, doing his homework, falling asleep—every 20 minutes or so. That morning, she’d dropped him off at school and he’d walked right to the tracks.
This generation of well-to-do kids has been raised by self-absorbed, surgically youthful, eternity-seeking narcissists who just can’t quit wanting to provide themselves ever-more-exciting experiences. These parents never wanted to grow up, so they refused to parent properly, and they certainly never sacrificed themselves enough to do what was necessary to provide their kids with proximate family nearby. These kids emotionally raised themselves.
To constantly applaud a kid like a trained seal, to throw money at him, and to pretend to be as young as he is, and his best pal, is NOT parenting. These kids were raised by cloth mothers and cloth fathers, and no true emotional security of any sort.
A Gunn student has a graceful response to that reader:
I respectfully disagree. I am a high schooler in Palo Alto, and Harry Lee was my best friend before he passed away. Growing up with him and his family, I can tell you that his parents are perhaps the most loving, caring pair of individuals I have ever met. Harry’s two sisters are both chasing their dreams as artists, with their parents’ full support. And while he was around, Harry had passions for cycling, dance, and music, none of which came were influenced or even relevant at all to his parents. Even while he was ailed with depression, his parents were there for him all the time.
While it may be easy to think that there is a catch-all “cause” or source of blame, you can’t just oversimplify an issue that has so many different factors leading into it, because at the end of they day, Palo Alto parents are people too and they’re not all the same.
Although there may very well be parents who are “self-absorbed, surgically youthful, eternity-seeking narcissists,” you are doing those caring parents a horrible injustice. While many kids may have in fact, like you said, “emotionally raised themselves,” are your parents directly responsible for your emotional development? Are you saying that children SHOULD be emotionally reliant on their parents, as they try to find their own independence through adolescence?
Another reader focuses on the class side of the debate:
Affluent kids can easily get over-scheduled because their families can afford to enroll them in any and every program out there. SAT tutoring, club sports, flute lessons, dance classes, fencing, Judo, math enrichment—you want it, Silicon Valley got it. I am in no way pointing the finger at this as the root cause of this tragic problem, but in an area where getting a competitive edge is desired, there is a constant temptation to throw money into enrichment activities, especially when everyone else is doing it too. Middle-class families don’t have the luxury of affording all these choices, so their kids usually choose sports OR music, dance OR space camp. Affluent kids check the “all of the above” box.
A Palo Alto parent:
That detail in Rosin’s piece about the suicide survivor going to Harvard drove me crazy. I’m a parent in this community, and we need to hear more stories about students who are surviving high school to thrive at schools outside the “Ivy+ elite.” Everything we read and hear reinforces the idea that our high school exists to feed kids into Harvard or Stanford. You never read about Gunn grads who survived to thrive at a regional liberal arts college, a community college, a “2nd-tier” school, or even a state university. The definition of success has shrunk to a pinpoint, and all other students are rendered invisible.
Another reader agrees:
It drove me crazy, too, as if the only path to success is Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley, or UCLA. I think a companion piece to Rosin’s article should be an expose of all the kids who did everything “right” and still did not gain a place at their dream school. The truth is, the Ivies could fill their classes 10x over with students as equally qualified as the ones who gained admission.
So the real question is, why are we allowing our kids to put themselves through this kind of self-flagellation when the cards are so stacked against them? They could all get far more sleep and be far happier if they came to the realization that the cost to their health and well being simply isn’t worth it.
Another reader provides a passage from the farewell report of the Chairman of Harvard’s Admissions Committee, Wilbur Bender:
The student who ranks first in his class may be genuinely brilliant or he may be a compulsive worker or the instrument of domineering parents’ ambitions or a conformist or a self-centered careerist who has shrewdly calculated his teachers’ prejudices and expectations and discovered how to regurgitate efficiently what they want. Or he may have focused narrowly on grade-getting as compensation for his inadequacies in other areas, because he lacks other interests or talents or lacks passion and warmth or normal healthy instincts or is afraid of life.
The top high school student is often, frankly, a pretty dull and bloodless, or peculiar fellow. The adolescent with wide-ranging curiosity, and stubborn independence, with a vivid imagination and desire to explore fascinating bypaths, to follow his own interests, to contemplate, to read the unrequired books, the boy filled with sheer love of life and exuberance, may well seem to his teachers troublesome, undisciplined, a rebel, may not conform to their stereotype, and may not get the top grades and the highest rank in class. He may not even score at the highest level in the standard multiple choice admissions tests, which may well reward the glib, facile mind at the expense of the questioning, independent, or slower but more powerful, more subtle, and more interesting and original mind.
This reader writes along similar lines:
Moderately successful adult here. What you achieve in high school / where you go to college / what you do in college / what you do in the first year or two of your career has very little to do with what you will achieve in life.
My high school’s valedictorian has never really done anything career-wise. She went on to an average college, landed an average job, and now lives in an average house in an average suburb. The kid who graduated ninth in our class and got into Harvard seems to have a fairly rewarding career, but in terms of net worth, he has nothing on the kid who became a welder and used his earnings at 25 to invest in real estate. Personally, I graduated towards the bottom of my high school class, went to a mediocre state college, married well, went onto a top tier law school … and then proceeded to live off of my in-laws’ money, because after a few years of the rat race, my ambition was completely gone.
What I’m trying to say is, don’t worry too much. There are many, many paths to a happy, successful life, and they don’t all involve Stanford. Achievement wise, some people will peak at 18, some will peak at 22, some will peak at 40, and some will never actually achieve anything on their own accord, but will still have very nice lives.
We’ve heard from a lot of angry and hurt students and parents from Palo Alto’s high schools in response to Hanna’s piece. Here’s another local parent:
Thank you for writing this, Ms. Rosin. I have two children who went to a public high school a few towns north of Palo Alto and the news of these suicides—which comes all too frequently—haunts me, as I’m sure it does most other local parents. While the pressure at my kids’ school wasn’t quite as intense as Gunn or Paly, our school, too, regularly sends graduates to Stanford, UC Berkley, UCLA, as well as any number of Ivies and selective schools.
I agree that affluence has a corrupting influence on parents’ expectations of their kids, but I also believe the blame lies very much at the feet of college admissions marketing, including the ranking system of U.S. News and World Report, test prep for the SAT, and, yes, the fact that a third or more slots at public colleges are reserved for out-of-state students, making the competition for spots akin to gaining admission to private selective colleges. And it’s no wonder competition is so fierce:
The cost of attending UCLA vs. attending the University of Michigan, for example, is HALF for a resident of California. That’s a very motivating factor to put the pressure on one’s kid when the total four-year bill is $100K vs. $200K for an out-of-state public school, or even $240K for a private college. It’s the difference between having debilitating debt upon graduation or not.
But all that said, the bottom line is that parents have to get real. Gunn HS is a toxic environment. Period. I don’t care how “good” the school is; it can’t be all that great if 42 kids are hospitalized each year for stress-related mental illness and any number of students are killing themselves each year.
What is the appeal? Put limits on your kids’ activities. Don’t allow them to take more than than one or two AP classes in a given year. And most of all, if your kid is up until 2 a.m. every night doing homework, something is amiss. Either they’ve got too much going on after school, or they’re taking too many honors/AP classes. High school kids should be in bed no later than 11 p.m. And you, Mom and Dad, can put the brakes on.
That post features a popular YouTube video from a Gunn student, Martha Cabot. She was also mentioned in Hanna’s piece:
Sitting in her bedroom in a T-shirt [the night after Cameron Lee’s suicide], with curls falling loose from her ponytail, she confirmed many parents’ worst fears about themselves. “The amount of stress on a student is ridiculous,” Martha said [in the video]. “Students feel the constant need at our school of having to keep up with all the achievements.” She was recording the video mostly for parents, she explained, because apparently it took a suicide to get adults to pay attention. “We’ll do just fine, even though we got a B‑minus on that chem test,” she said. “And no, I won’t join the debate team for you.”
Had parents really given their kids the idea that they had to perform? That their love had to be earned with A’s and Advanced Placement tests and trophies? They hadn’t meant to. Yet there, from one of their own kids, was the rebuke that in this community, no place or time or language existed that allowed kids to be vulnerable, much less broken, or even just to be: “We love our moms and we love our dads,” Martha said. “But calm down.”
While this article was better than most, it still suffers from the same
sensationalist problem as all the others:
- “The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools”—WRONG!
- “The Silicon Valley Suicides”—WRONG!
- “Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?”—Partially Wrong.
This is NOT a Silicon Valley Problem, since it is not happening at any of the other private or public schools elsewhere in Silicon Valley
(including the even wealthier areas of Atherton, Los Altos Hills, or
Hillsborough). This is not even a problem of Palo Alto high schools, since it’s not happening at Palo Alto High School (only one of the suicides in the various clusters happened at Paly).
The various headlines should have, properly, read:
- “The Suicide Clusters at Gunn High School (in Palo Alto)”
- “The Gunn High School Suicides”
- “Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves at Gunn High School in Palo Alto?”
It’s time for the articles to focus on Gunn so they have the motivation
to address the problem in a seriously introspective manner.
From a mother of two Gunn grads (’10 and ’14):
The article made me cry, several times. I felt so strongly that Hanna did not include the feelings of the parents and the community.
It is so painful to have to ask your children, “Did you hear about anything? Do you want to talk about what you heard? How do you feel about what happened?” over and over. It is so painful to realize that your child has to face their own mortality because they have known someone their own age who died. They cannot feel immortal, the way beautiful young people should feel, because they know that their friends die.
Overall, I feel Hanna did not get a handle on how hard this community has been trying. I feel a bit demonized, or at the very least that our community was depicted in a distinctly un-nuanced way.
I also resent that everyone talks about Palo Alto as if we are all wealthy. I know I am in the top one percent globally, but I am living on a salary, struggling to make college payments, and even with financial aid and loans, I’m solidly middle class. From the point of view of a long-time resident, and with due caution that I do not sound too much like a crotchety old lady, Palo Alto was an awesome place to grow up. We were one of the first in the nation to recycle, I rode horses, there were orchards, there were coffee houses with live music, seven movie theaters, and about the same number of book stores. It has changed a lot, but there are still many ordinary liberal, even hippy, middle-class, family-oriented people here.
I wish the article had mentioned the good work of the Challenge Success team, which has reached out and formed a team at Gunn to create a more balanced academic life. They do great, hopeful work.
I also want to share the short film that one of of my kid’s classmates made (Gunn class of 2012, between the clusters). It’s called Tracks. [CB note: A Vimeo commenter says of the film: “vulnerable, beautiful, and disturbing. Haunting images, heartrending acting, and a beautiful story.”]
Another critical email from the community:
I am an Asian Indian parent and my two children graduated from Gunn recently. As immigrant parents, we worked very very hard to give my children an education we did not have: an emphasis on the joy of learning (and less emphasis on grades and tests), creativity, balance between school and outside activities, and redefining what success means. We have been lifelong volunteers at PAUSD and I gave up a Silicon Valley career to be a full-time mom, to listen and support my children’s passion, to be there for them, and to help this community. I have lived in many communities, and I found this one in Palo Alto to be caring, honest, and open minded.
I knew some of the children who took their lives on the train track. I know some of the parents whose children suffered depression, acknowledged it and tried everything they could to find help. Every day I cross that train track and ask why. What could I have done? It is true of every parent here.
I agreed with some of the issues Hanna Rosin raised. But something she did not address: that one in seven kids between the ages of 13 and 18 in this country are depressed [CB note: Comparable stats here]. They don’t know how to get help and cannot afford help. There is a stigma about mental health, and our healthcare programs do not cover mental illness for the most part. The college admissions process and the high school structure is not conducive to the mental health needs of our young people. I am not convinced this is a Silicon Valley problem or a Palo Alto problem alone, or an Asian cultural problem or a problem with our medical establishment.
All I know is the factors for these suicides are complex and that this community is addressing it. We are not afraid to be judged and we are not stuck between fear and denial. We have not waited for Rosin’s article to spur discussions, soul searching, and to have so many conversations between so many different ethnic, economic groups here in Palo Alto. The city is not all rich, successful, Asian, white or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
I urge Rosin to write an article as a followup, after she do more investigating, more talking to more people from the various members of this community on what has been done and the honesty with which so many of us in Palo Alto are facing this issue, the programs that have been put in place, the love and support that this community has given to each other. The article failed miserably in this regard. And Rosin’s comment, “Our hope is that the story will spur a useful discussion, among educators, mental health experts, and teenagers,” was arrogant, ignorant, not well researched, offensive, an insult to this community, and clearly shows your knowledge of what this community is, as a judgmental outsider.
From a reader who isn’t as hard on Hanna:
I am a parent of two daughters, one who graduated from Gunn High School this year, the other a sophomore currently. I am also a member of the school’s schedule committee, which adopted its new block format to assure that student well-being is placed on a par with academics.
The Atlantic and Hanna Rosin deserve credit for taking on this topic with serious purpose, thorough research, and even a certain humility about definitive conclusions, as well as for making the effort to add some “hard truths” to our understanding of tragedies that defy understanding. Yet it is unfortunate that the author of this extensive piece devoted barely a sentence or two to the adverse effects on students and parents of the overweening college admission industry, especially as Rosin correctly focuses on this issue and comments pointedly in her video interview [seen above].
In my own piece concerning the suicides published last June in The Huffington Post, I attempted to sum the matter up as follows:
Why colleges don’t make their admission standards more transparent is beyond reckoning, except to enable the reprehensible "selectivity" game. Collectively, they are willfully fostering undue stress with children as pawns, and should be ashamed of themselves. Annual disclosure of college admissions scoring templates and algorithms (which would not preclude exceptions) should be a requirement of law for Federal aid flow to any college. Establishing such a system would not be "too hard" for the colleges with Silicon Valley's help, given its leadership and expertise in big data analytics - some Stanford students are doing it already!
One more reader, who praises Hanna (as have many other parents via email):
For 15 years I taught English at Gunn High. In the classroom, along with my wonderful teenagers, I made it through 2009-2010, when six of their schoolmates were deciding to end their lives, and it turned me into a different (and better) teacher and changed me as a person forever.
For good journalism, one must be grateful, and that certainly applies here. Ms. Rosin’s piece is balanced, warm, thoughtful, graceful, humane. In her discussion of over-parenting, and in particular the insight that it doesn’t necessarily equate with feelings of closeness, I find Ms. Rosin right on target.
I believe she’s rather shied away from some of the cruelties of this town, at least as I have witnessed them: parents wanting their injured children to go out on the athletic field, a mother wanting her mortally ill daughter to nevertheless go sit for the SAT, a girl ignored and weeping in her school’s Main Office, a coach telling his team that suicide is the act of a coward, students angry at a deceased classmate for “ruining my senior year.” But I’m not sure that the callousness here is any worse than in human life anywhere.
And in general, Ms. Rosin’s focus is much more on parenting than on the way we run our high schools—and I guess this is as it should be, since, when all’s said and done, our families are the most decisive influences in our lives.
Gunn High has a current rate of cheating of 87 percent. Palo Alto High was recently discovered to have had a three-year, 20-student cheating ring that ushered at least some kids through the gates of prestigious colleges. Such massive academic fraud causes pervasive distrust and anxiety; the problem is of longstanding; our administrators, School Board, and parents collude in it by looking the other way. [CB note: More details on the cheating here.]
Previously, our high schools reported grades four times a year; now it is twelve—leaving teenagers no time to heal, breathe, recover from the hurt and emotional setbacks of adolescence. And studies show that 65 percent of high-schoolers, even when it’s against school rules, are on their cellphones during class—distracted from their teachers, their classmates, their studies.
A Palo Alto grassroots campaign, called Save the 2,008 (named for the number of faculty and students remaining at Gunn High after last fall’s suicides) has marshaled 400 signed supporters—parents, students, teachers, Stanford professors, physicians, attorneys, engineers, scientists, LMFTs, psychologists, a chief health strategist from Google—in a plea to school officials to undo these toxic school conditions.
Journalists are some of my heroes. They’re fighting an uphill fight—against a decline in reading and decline of financial resources. And it’s hard to get into public schools to observe. So I repeat: Ms. Rosin’s work is welcome and well-done.
We have received a wave of email from readers in Palo Alto and the surrounding communities over Hanna’s new cover story, “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” Much of the response is positive, much of it is negative, and there’s a whole lot in between. Compiled here is a big batch of the most critical emails from current and recent students from Palo Alto’s two high schools, Gunn and Paly. First up, a Gunn graduate (‘14):
While I am sure there are tons more articulate people from my community with better, more thoughtful things to say, I thought I’d share my reaction to this article: I’m kind of disgusted. This is yet another in a long string of articles that boils the problem down to academic pressure and parents. This article seemed to put in especially little time on mental illness (that specific phrase was used once, and “depression” came up four times). This is a trend in virtually every discussion about this topic, and every time I see my peers trying to address this problem on Facebook and comments sections, articles keep getting published.
Cameron Lee and Harry Lee are both mentioned in Rosin’s article (as well as others), but Cameron is focused on much more heavily. Speaking to friends and peers on Facebook who knew Harry better than I did, they expressed disgust at this handling of events. It was no secret that Harry had been dealing with depression and was apparently withdrawn leading up to his death. Rather than mentioning this at all, the article focuses on the shocking suicide of the athletic, successful, popular boy. This was personally upsetting to several people I talked to, both because they knew Harry, and more relevantly, because they felt like it trivialized their own struggle with depression and mental illness, as well as the struggle of others.
The article’s last paragraph feels condescending, and sentences like “Kids are tracked into ‘lanes’ in math and science and English, which become a big part of their social identity” ring completely untrue to me. Is there academic pressure at Gunn? Of course there is, but acting like this is the root of every single problem oversimplifies and confuses the issue. It genuinely feels like this article did the bare minimum to actually understand the culture and the environment at Gunn (I can’t personally speak to Paly).
This reader can:
As a Paly graduate (class of 2013), I’m disappointed to find that an exposé of the struggles of my home community boils down to the last line of the article, “They’re kids, so they can still forget.” This line dramatically oversimplifies the impact of having peers take their lives, just as the entire article oversimplifies the cultures of Paly and Gunn, the unique and personal reasons for suicidal students, and mental health in general.
It goes without saying that a community with four to five times the national suicide average has issues that need to be addressed. But it’s wrong to make sweeping claims for crippling internal battles, and it’s unfair and entirely unproductive to portray a passionless student body.
In my experience at Paly, it’s true that many of us felt subjected to a singular path to success—getting into the “right college”—and it’s true that the difference between a grade of 89.9 and 90.0 was the source of much unnecessary angst.
But it’s also true that we laughed in between classes, dominated the senior deck with music during lunch, joked during production, and fountain-hopped during cross country practice. To create the perception that Paly is purely dark and competitive is to pave the way for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Better is to draw attention to the beautiful moments that we found—that we insisted on making it through the stress and pressure.
Another Gunn grad (‘13):
(trigger warning: suicide)
I feel silenced by what is said about my community in The Atlantic’s article. You know why?
Having someone come into my community, to where I lived all my life and through four years of them with the constant reminder of this situation at my high school, and telling the world through a very public article about what is wrong with my community IS silencing to me and my fellow Palo Altans. This is not only an article that does not give a truthful representation of the city I love, but it’s biased in the framing of the “cluster” of suicides in our community. And the article blames certain groups of people (people of color, parents) for something that we may never understand.
Palo Alto WILL NEVER FORGET, and the article does nothing to talk about how students on campus have been giving support to other students within our community. Using the words “abolished” and “won” [in the the debate over early-morning classes at Gunn] changes the frame of how we as readers think of the situation; it’s seen as a battle, and that one group is winning over another. Truthfully, the article has defined our pain as the author sees it, not voicing how the community views it.
So yes, I feel silenced, which is why it took so long to me to write this. The Atlantic is a huge media hub that is well-recognized across the nation, as well as the world. Smearing Palo Alto and explaining the “problems” with the community does nothing to help the community from the already open scars (truthfully, they will never heal) and only triggers them.
This article makes the Palo Alto community hurt. It does not give us a clear sense of mind, nor does it give us solutions to the “problems” that are laid out by the author. Now all that other people will think about my alma mater, Gunn High School, is that it is “‘the suicide school’” [as conveyed to Hanna from local middle-school kids who call it that].
Why am I so upset, you say? There are people close to me who are directly affected by what is written here. These are people’s feelings that the author has written and painted to fit her argument. Not only does that limit the validity of our feelings, but it silences us to have to believe that these factors that she’s written down are the reasons for these suicides. People are trying to cope, but all this does is expose the wound for people not in our community to make decisions about why we are feeling what we are feeling.
Even writing this comment is taking a toll on me. The author can never TRULY understand what is going on here, which is why it is so hard to read. She did not grow up in the community, she did not go to school here, she did not experience high school like Gunn students have, so how can she write about it like she knows what the problems are, and that our future generations will forget about this when they go to Gunn?
A current Paly student addresses Hanna:
I don’t think anyone will read this email, nor should they. I’m a teenager who believes she knows everything, when I know nothing. But I wanted to tell you my story. Maybe it’ll give me some solace, maybe it’ll help me sleep tonight.
I’m 17 and I go to Palo Alto High School. I’ve been in the district all my life. I have a fantastic rapport with people, and I have depression. For a long time, I wanted to kill myself. For a long time, my brother wanted to. And before that, my mother felt the urge. And before that, my great grandmother actually did. It’s in my genes to be depressed, to be anxious, to hate every cell in my body.
Maybe it was in the stars for me to be abused by friends and family. Maybe had I not been a kiss-ass wanting my parents attention, I would be dead. I want you to know what it’s like to fight a statistic. I think before you had gone ahead and judged people like me in that article, you should have at least heard me out. Because I am a survivor. Such a stupid phrase, but it’s true. I’m not a survivor of this town; it had nothing to do my depressive state. The atmosphere did not contribute in any way.
For some it could have been a factor. But I think I know that for those who have wanted to kill themselves, and have, Palo Alto is not what is making us cut ourselves, burn ourselves, starve ourselves, mutilate ourselves. It is those who do not get us, who demean us, who try to simplify our disorder in a sensationalized piece, writing as if they know everything.
Now I don’t want to put the blame on you. For you seem good at heart, you seem like you want to help. But have you ever starved yourself, hidden the marks on your skin, have had a panic attack everyday for years, have stood in the road trying to decide whether to move from the cars coming, held your brother’s gauged-out wrists, sent him to rehab, seen him in the psych ward on suicide watch, have your friends die on you, have your friend’s brother kill himself when you were ten? Have you taken a knife to your throat and want an earthquake to happen so that you are not the one responsible? Have you?
Please don’t defend your ignorance, I’m sure it’s bliss. But you’ve hurt me. No, I’m not suicidal or in a depressive state anymore. I have help, and I’m now going off medication because I am good. I am happy. I love myself and my family and my amazing best friend and dog. I am applying to college to become a teacher. I have passions, and although I don’t see my current self teaching and in college, I see a version of myself doing so and still being happy and true to herself. But I thought you should know me before you judged us kids who can’t help it.
I hope this doesn’t come off as hate. I hope that if you actually do read this, or emails like it, you don’t get sad or depressed and want to hurt yourself too. I hope that you are happy, and that you love yourself and what you are doing with your life. I wanted to be a writer. But I thought it’d be hard. I bet this is hard for you now, having an affluent community target you. So please be well. Do well for all us kids who aren’t well—across the whole nation, not just Palo Alto. And please—this is not sarcastic in any way—have a good day.
From a very recent graduate of Gunn (‘15):
I was the vice president of ROCK (Reach Out, Care, Know) on campus, a suicide prevention and Sources of Strength club. I helped my friends who were struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. In eighth grade, one of my best friends attempted suicide. I want to stress, unlike this article did, that she had, and still has, diagnosed bipolar disorder and depression.
The main “why” of suicide is mental illness. Stress can heighten mental illness, it can cause depression, but there is no evidence showing that this stress is what led to any of these suicides. Harry Lee was suicidal and depressed. His parents stressed that at his funeral. He had been fighting a mental illness for years, and the depression won.
I agree that we have a stress problem at Gunn. I would see my peers doing incredible internships and I even begged my mom to let me go to SAT camp. It didn’t matter in the end; I took the ACT and did more than fine on it, and I am at a university that makes me so happy. But I don’t think the choice to put the suicides on the cover and then say things that have been said in other pieces for pages on pages is just inconsiderate.
We should address mindfulness on campus. We should address the stigmatization of mental illness. We should be offered multiple paths of success from the very beginning of elementary school, as well as different views on what success is. I was interviewed for this article, and she completely disregarded everything we had to say that wasn’t “Gunn is known as the suicide school in the middle school communities.” She didn’t even mention my English teacher telling her that “if you want to know what Gunn students are really like, sit in my class for a day.”
There are kids who are pushed along by their parents and have their whole lives planned out for them. This happens everywhere across the country. But publicizing this issue using the suicides in my hometown, where there is no connection between this and the kids who committed suicide, is just painful and harmful to this group of people trying to heal.
I do not have “Stockholm syndrome” from this. It is not “embarrassing” that we have had so many suicides here. We are sensitive about being interviewed because our voices have not been heard, and apparently continue to not be heard.
I didn’t love high school. I am so glad to be out of Palo Alto and be with people who are passionate about what I’m passionate about. But, when she characterizes the people I spent four years with, crying on the quad with, holding so tight because we thought we were going to fall apart, as soulless zombies, I take issue with that. In the words of Kathleen Blanchard, we are not data.
I ran all these dissents by Hanna and she’s probably crafting a follow-up note soon. But here’s one more Gunn graduate for now, addressing Hanna:
First, thank you for your article. I’m very grateful to you for being able to articulate what I’ve been thinking about my former city for years. However, I seem to be one of the few from Palo Alto who thinks positively of what you’ve had to say. A lot of the comments seem to stem from something along the lines of, “She didn’t focus on mental illness,” and to a degree I think they are right, but I also appreciate more what you have to say.
A little about me so you may understand where I am coming from. I graduated from Henry M. Gunn High School in 2012 and knew some of the original people who committed suicide back in 2009. Since then, the experience of attending Gunn has sort of haunted me. I hated my time in Palo Alto and I’m frankly glad I never have to go back. Like many you interviewed for the article, I am wildly accomplished, but I won’t go into specifics.
All you need to know is that I was miserable despite this. I had all these incredible achievements wrapped up with my self worth and it was detrimental to my mental health. I only valued myself in terms of what I had accomplished, instead of who I was. I felt isolated from my parents, I was lost and timid, I didn’t question anything, and I was never intellectually curious. The only things that I ever focused on was accruing more achievements.
However, upon graduating, I moved to NYC to study Anthropology and Art History and experienced a completely different and diverse environment from the toxic and homogenous one I left. It’s taken many years but I can now confidently say I am happy with myself.
Upon moving to NYC, I’ve learned more about myself than I ever could have in Palo Alto. I have learned that I am more than just my resume, and that I am a human capable of holding pride in who I am as an individual. It took three years of extended leave from Palo Alto realize this. So I thank you for finally identifying to me the problems that the culture and myself are/were guilty of, problems that I’ve had to fix unknowingly.
I think those in my hometown choosing to ignore the larger implications of society are almost saying there’s nothing at all wrong with Palo Alto. They’re completely sidestepping the problem. Yes, I agree a lot of the problem is mental health issues, but to blame the mass suicides on that is to isolate the individuals and eliminate responsibility for the community and culture. Culture affects people and many Palo Altans don’t realize that.
They also don’t realize that given the city’s socioeconomic privilege, we live in a bubble where hard capitalism is the norm. Being purely capitalistic, which I think a lot of my peers are, is problematic.
I think that you’ve rightly turned the attention to the wider community. Obviously, like you said, no one wants to be criticized amidst tragedy, but isn’t it tragedy that brings upon change? I think your article will promote dialogue and hopefully positive change in my hometown. I think it’s time we stop looking at ourselves with rose-colored glasses and really evaluate the culture we come from, in order to find a solution.
Thank you again for writing this article. It was very difficult for me to read and it opened a lot of wounds and tears, but after reading it, I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I could finally breathe again.
My daughter went to Paly (where she was a student during that horrible 2009 season), finally dropped out after a suicide attempt, and was never able to fully recover. She killed herself last year.
I’m sure we inadvertently pushed her, though I spent most of my time telling her I just wanted to see her find something she cared about. But I think most of the pressure was just the environment. She had always gotten a lot of satisfaction from doing well in classes, but in Palo Alto you have to be Einstein to stand out. Everybody else is just average. And that’s really hard for a bright kid looking for a way to be special.
I remember her complaining all through 8th grade that the teachers were constantly telling them how hard high school was going to be. By the time she hit Paly, she was already panicked about what junior year was going to be like—AP classes, incredible amounts of homework, no free time whatsoever. Before she even got started, she was overwhelmed.
Extracurriculars were just more of the same—kids who had been doing the activity since kindergarten in after-school and summer camps and who were scathing to anyone who wasn’t proficient. From what I saw, the kids were as bad as anyone about upping the bar. It’s a culture that just seems to feed on itself. All that matters is achievement.
I’m sure there were many other factors in my daughter’s case, but I’m also sure that what started that headlong slide into depression was intense anxiety over a period of years. And the environment in Palo Alto was a big part of that.
One of the central characters in Hanna’s new cover story on the suicide clusters in Palo Alto is Taylor Chiu, who tried to take her own life as a high school freshman in 2002. From Hanna’s piece:
Her first semester, Chiu got an F on a geometry test, which “totally traumatized me.” Her relationship with her parents started to fray, “because it just took too much energy to speak in a polite tone of voice.” She began to dread swim practice and even Girl Scouts and band, “but I didn’t want to be a quitter.” She remembers wishing that someone had broken up with her, or that she was anorexic, or that she had some reason to explain to her parents why she felt so sad. “I also felt like I was already saying that I was too stressed, and nobody—neither my parents nor my teachers—seemed to care or take me seriously.” She didn’t want to ask for a break, she said, because people would think she was lazy.
“But having a mental disorder? That’s serious. People would listen to that.” It would be, she thought, like a man being held back from a fight: He would never have to admit he couldn’t win.
Taylor emails her thoughts on the cover story and her community’s reaction to it:
This article is pretty monumental for me, in that I’ve never been open about my suicide attempt before this, not even to my closest friends and family. I just hope that the significance of my “coming out” means that people will really begin to listen to what I have to say.
Overall, I am pleased with the article. My criticism is slight, and it is only that I wish it had emphasized the optimism and hope that still exists in Palo Alto. Hanna’s last sentence can read as optimistic, and I choose to see it that way, but it is vague and flippant enough that I expect it to be quite controversial. But that’s journalism, and I understand that.
When my close friend and mentor Julia Tachibana asked if I would be willing to contribute to Hanna’s piece, I was initially doubtful that anyone could bring a fresh perspective to the issue of suicide in Palo Alto. The scrutiny of Palo Alto’s suicides began for me long before the first “cluster” in 2009. I was a sophomore at Paly when Steven Wertheimer, also a student at Paly, died of suicide on the tracks in 2002. He was the first student suicide by train that I’d ever heard of. Julia’s brother Ben’s death came shortly after that, and I cried through his memorial. What could Hanna say that hasn’t already been said?
Indeed, Hanna covers the common themes—academic pressure, a culture of excellence, many attempts by city and school officials to control a complex situation, the ironic and controversial dysfunction of kids who “have it all,” race, parenting styles, academic course loads, school schedules, the physical omnipresence of the train. She covers all the angles, and yet the criticism has already begun to roll in, as loud and intrusive as the train itself. Her denigrators claim she “oversimplifies”, “sensationalizes”, “stereotypes”, “contradicts” and “invalidates”—and that she raises more questions than answers.
Let’s consider for a minute the environment that Hanna navigated for months while researching this piece.
Parents, teachers, city officials, health officials, and students seem to be always at odds with each other, pointing fingers in every direction. Even within those groups, factions have broken out arguing for all varieties of solution and change at home, at school, online, and near the tracks. Nothing has been said that hasn’t been refuted in five different ways. Scrolling through the comments section of any article on the topic, the negativity and criticism radiating from every opinion is as sickening and captivating as rubbernecking slowly past a traffic accident. Everyone has their opinion, and everyone feels justified in sharing it, because they too can relate.
It is abundantly clear: we can all relate.
And yet despite this shared experience, despite all of our empathy and opining, students continue to die for reasons we don’t understand and can’t fully control. It is easy enough to criticize, and to research, and to recommend expert opinion. But it is difficult to contribute meaningfully to the conversation when everyone around you is yelling.
It has taken me ten years to speak up about my experience. My closest friends and even some of my family will be shocked to first learn of my story in a national publication. Even when I decided that I wanted to share my experience in order to help others, I struggled to find a voice and a platform. Although I’m a certified teacher and have plenty of experience with students, when I offered to share my story in schools, I was met with at best ambivalence, and at worst, apathy and distrust. Volunteer groups initially welcomed my participation, only to have their projects stunted by bureaucracy and red tape.
In some ways, I understand: Nobody wants to add yet another soapbox to the circus. But the overarching message I’m hearing from Palo Alto’s community leaders, parents, and even students themselves is: “We’ve done all the research. We’re finding solutions. We’ve got it. Leave us alone.” Even the pre-emptive letter to the community by Dr. Durbin that you posted implies as much.
So, what new perspective does Hanna add to the mix? Humility. She writes:
What we’ve lost, perhaps, is a sense that there may be things about [our students] we can’t know or understand, and that that mysterious quality, separate from us, is what we should marvel at. It’s just a call for humility, a short pause to acknowledge that a sense of absolute certainty about what children should do or be or how they should operate is part of what landed us here.
We just don’t know the answers. You don’t know any better than I do, or than your daughter or son does, or your neighbor, doctor, or school principal does. There are many factors that cause suicide, and they all interact in myriad ways, both predictable and unpredictable.
Palo Alto is a unique, fascinating, troubling, marvelous place, both extraordinary and extraordinarily mundane; remarkable, and remarkably normal. Let that confuse you; sit with that contradiction; become comfortable with the inconvenience of not fully understanding. Accept that we may never understand, and move forward with the humility that you do not have all the answers. None of us do.
Your children will benefit to hear you admit you don’t know. Your students will learn as they watch you develop an opinion, and then re-evaluate it, and then acknowledge its potential flaws. They will grow comfortable with being wrong sometimes. They’ll learn to live, even happily, with not having all the answers.
Watching you, they will become adept at admitting hardship, and it won’t be as daunting each time they do. They will develop resilience. They will not flinch from hard questions. And they will move forward. Whether on a math test or in tragedy, your students might not want to forget, but you can show them that forgetting—as well as failing, hurting, and not knowing—are all acceptable responses. And they can develop the capacity to do each of them well, if they so choose.
Taylor’s email is from a big wave of response we’ve received this week from members of the Palo Alto community and we’re still sorting it all. In the coming days and weeks, Notes will air all kinds of reactions and criticisms of the cover story, as well as stories from people in Palo Alto and others affected by suicide. A huge thanks to everyone who’s written in so far. We can’t include everything, of course, but we’ll do our very best to show as many sides to this subject as possible.
Some of the plots to overturn the election happened in secret. But don’t forget the ones that unfolded in the open.
Last year, John Eastman, whom CNN describes as an attorney working with Donald Trump’s legal team, wrote a preposterous memo outlining how then–Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the 2020 election by fiat or, failing that, throw the election to the House of Representatives, where Republicans could install Trump in office despite his loss to Joe Biden. The document, which was first reported by the Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their new book, is a step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of the United States through a preposterous interpretation of legal procedure.
Pence apparently took the idea seriously—so seriously, in fact, that, according to Woodward and Costa, former Vice President Dan Quayle had to talk him out of it. Prior to November, the possibility of Trump attempting a coup was seen as the deranged fever dream of crazed liberals. But as it turns out, Trump and his advisers had devised explicit plans for reversing Trump’s loss. Republican leaders deliberately stoked election conspiracy theories they knew to be false, in order to lay a political pretext for invalidating the results. Now, more than 10 months after the election, the country knows of at least five ways in which Trump attempted to retain power despite his defeat.
This has become a common refrain among the cautious—and it’s wrong.
For many fully vaccinated Americans, the Delta surge spoiled what should’ve been a glorious summer. Those who had cast their masks aside months ago were asked to dust them off. Many are still taking no chances. Some have even returned to all the same precautions they took before getting their shots, including avoiding the company of other fully vaccinated people.
Among this last group, a common refrain I’ve heard to justify their renewed vigilance is that “vaccinated people are just as likely to spread the coronavirus.”
This misunderstanding, born out of confusing statements from public-health authorities and misleading media headlines, is a shame. It is resulting in unnecessary fear among vaccinated people, all the while undermining the public’s understanding of the importance—and effectiveness—of getting vaccinated.
Facebook is acting like a hostile foreign power; it’s time we treated it that way.
In 1947, Albert Einstein, writing in this magazine, proposed the creation of a single world government to protect humanity from the threat of the atomic bomb. His utopian idea did not take hold, quite obviously, but today, another visionary is building the simulacrum of a cosmocracy.
Mark Zuckerberg, unlike Einstein, did not dream up Facebook out of a sense of moral duty, or a zeal for world peace. This summer, the population of Zuckerberg’s supranational regime reached 2.9 billion monthly active users, more humans than live in the world’s two most populous nations—China and India—combined.
To Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, they are citizens of Facebookland. Long ago he conspicuously started calling them “people” instead of “users,” but they are still cogs in an immense social matrix, fleshy morsels of data to satisfy the advertisers that poured $54 billion into Facebook in the first half of 2021 alone—a sum that surpasses the gross domestic products of most nations on Earth.
While some Pfizer recipients can now get an extra shot, federal officials are still mum on what’s next for the at-risk individuals who got Moderna or J&J.
For some of us, booster shots have finally arrived. But they’ve charted quite a meandering course to get here. First, last month, President Joe Biden announced that most Americans would be able to nab third doses of mRNA vaccines eight months after their second shots. Then, last week the FDA narrowed the eligible population, before a CDC advisory committee suggested tightening the boundaries even further. Hours after that panel shared its recommendation, the agency’s director, Rochelle Walensky, reversed course and ballooned the guidance back out to more closely align with the FDA’s much broader guidelines—though she stopped short of urging the shots for everyone.
It is all, frankly, a bit confusing. Millions of Americans are now in a sort of immunological limbo, wondering which expert advice to heed, and how soon to reroll up their sleeve, as the guidance coming from up top shifts seemingly by the day. Boosters are, at this point, offering more whiplash than protection. I spoke with Walensky today at The Atlantic Festival to see if we could make sense of some of the current situation—her unconventional move to break from the advisory committee’s guidance, and the tough choices millions of Americans face as they navigate the months ahead.
One of the ocean’s top predators has met its match.
Filipa Samarra could hear the pilot whales before she could see them. In 2015, out on the choppy waters off of southern Iceland, Samarra and her research team were eavesdropping on a group of killer whales. She listened as they pipped, squealed, and clicked when suddenly her ears were filled with high-pitched whistling. “Then the killer whales just went silent,” says Samarra, a biologist and the lead investigator of the Icelandic Orca Project. As the whistling grew stronger, a group of pilot whales came into view, and the killer whales seemed to turn and swim away.
“It’s quite unusual because the killer whale is this top predator,” says Anna Selbmann, a doctoral candidate at the University of Iceland who is supervised by Samarra. “It’s very unusual that they’re afraid of anything—or seemingly afraid.”
A group called Counterweight assists people who feel that their bosses and co-workers are forcing them to endorse social-justice beliefs.
Helen Pluckrose is a former academic who became famous for pranking the academy. Three years ago Pluckrose, who previously researched medieval religious writing, joined with the scholars James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian to concoct some fake scientific studies on outlandish topics, such as rape culture among dogs. They loaded the papers with phrasing such as “because of my own situatedness as a human, rather than as a dog,” and submitted them to peer-reviewed journals. Seven of the papers were accepted for publication. The exercise had its critics, but to the hoaxers, the stunt suggested that journals in the humanities are so blinded by ideology that they’ll publish anything that confirms their worldview.
A conversation with the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt
For years now, artificial intelligence has been hailed as both a savior and a destroyer. The technology really can make our lives easier, letting us summon our phones with a “Hey, Siri” and (more importantly) assisting doctors on the operating table. But as any science-fiction reader knows, AI is not an unmitigated good: It can be prone to the same racial biases as humans are, and, as is the case with self-driving cars, it can be forced to make murky split-second decisions that determine who lives and who dies. Like it or not, AI is only going to become an even more omnipresent force: We’re in a “watershed moment” for the technology, says Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO.
Schmidt is a longtime fixture in a tech industry that seems to constantly be in a state of upheaval. He was the first software manager at Sun Microsystems, in the 1980s, and the CEO of the former software giant Novell in the ’90s. He joined Google as CEO in 2001, then was the company’s executive chairman from 2011 until 2017. Since leaving Google, Schmidt has made AI his focus: In 2018, he wrote in The Atlantic about the need to prepare for the AI boom, along with his co-authors Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, and the MIT dean Daniel Huttenlocher. The trio have followed up that story with The Age of AI, a book about how AI will transform how we experience the world, coming out in November.
A weather report can’t replace an umbrella, and a coronavirus test can’t replace a shot.
President Joe Biden’s new vaccine mandate for large businesses is a strange one, in that it does not actually make vaccines mandatory for the roughly 80 million Americans it’s aimed at. Tucked plainly into the rule is a singular and obvious opt-out: Unlike federal employees and contractors, those in the private sector can test for the coronavirus on an at-least-weekly basis, a no-jab alternative that makes the White House’s decision quite a bit gentler than it could have been. “It’s a stick, but it’s sort of a soft stick,” Julia Raifman, a health-policy researcher at Boston University, told me.
The two-pronged approach is certainly more flexible, and perhaps more politically palatable, than pushing shots alone. Recent polling suggests that a majority of Americans are on board with mandates, at least when they’re doled out as a double scoop. “People like choices,” Syra Madad, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard and for the New York City Health System, told me. That’s long been true for public-health carrots as well: In places such as Israel, the European Union, and parts of Canada, negative test results are among the “passport” options that can green-light residents for entry into restaurants, bars, gyms, clubs, and travel hubs; a smattering of similar policies have been in place at certain American businesses for months.
The controversial cult brand LuLaRoe sold a powerful idea: that mothers could succeed as entrepreneurs while spending meaningful time with their kids.
People who have heard of LuLaRoe have usually come across it for one of two reasons. Either someone they know has tried to sell them the company’s stretchy leggings and fit-and-flare dresses over Facebook, or they’ve seen some of the gleeful coverage of LuLaRoe’s very public disintegration as a brand: the lawsuits, the bankruptcies filed by its sellers, the boxes of apparently moldy clothing shipped to vendors that smelled, in one woman’s description, like a “dead fart.” (Leggings! Never not controversial!) Much of LuLaRich, a new four-part Amazon series exploring the company’s rise and fall, focuses on its alleged mismanagement and manipulative aspects, grouping it with some of the splashier docuseries of years past. No one at LuLaRoe seems to have found themselves getting the area above their groin branded, or poisoning an Oregon salad bar with salmonella. But in one scene, a former LuLaRoe vendor recalls a company meetup where everyone assembled was, like her, wearing brightly patterned leggings and a broad, be-lipsticked smile. “I remember looking around and being like, We all look the same,” she tells the camera. “I was like, Oh my God, I’m in a cult.”
Social codes are changing, in many ways for the better. But for those whose behavior doesn’t adapt fast enough to the new norms, judgment can be swift—and merciless.
“It was no great distance, in those days, from the prison-door to the market-place. Measured by the prisoner’s experience, however, it might be reckoned a journey of some length.”
So begins the tale of Hester Prynne, as recounted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. As readers of this classic American text know, the story begins after Hester gives birth to a child out of wedlock and refuses to name the father. As a result, she is sentenced to be mocked by a jeering crowd, undergoing “an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon.” After that, she must wear a scarlet A—for adulterer—pinned to her dress for the rest of her life. On the outskirts of Boston, she lives in exile. No one will socialize with her—not even those who have quietly committed similar sins, among them the father of her child, the saintly village preacher. The scarlet letter has “the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.”