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Jennifer Capriati: A cautionary tale

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Mug shot of Jennifer Capriati.

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, a parent’s goal is not just that his or her child go pro. It’s that the child’s accomplishment — whether it’s sports or something else that can draw a high profile (I’m looking at you, Sunderland family) — is done at the youngest possible age.

As we know from the tragedy’s of child sitcom stars, this early success often comes at a severe personal price. And Jennifer Capriati — whose  “accidental” overdose of prescription medication was first reported June 27 by TMZ — is still paying it.

Jennifer Capriati made waves in 1990 when she became a 13-year-old tennis pro, young even by the standards of women’s tennis, where then — as now — pushy-to-the-point-of-abusive parents are often key to a player’s development. (In Jennifer’s case, Stefano Capriati was the horror dad.)

Alas,  Capriati, after an initial wave of success that included an Olympic gold medal in 1992, by 17 had been busted for shoplifting and marijuana possession as she became the tragic early sports burnout to top all tragic early burnouts. Her mugshot (at left) was a cautionary tale all by itself. Was she rebelling against tennis? Her father? At that point, that Capriati would live was more of a concern than whether she played tennis. (The U.S. Tennis Association even passed a “Capriati rule” in 1994 so no more 13-year-olds could play and follow do Capriati’s dark path.)

But Capriati came back, cleaning herself up and winning two Grand Slams in 2001 — the Australian and the French. Was it a love of tennis that propelled her? Or was it that her identity didn’t allow her to do anything else? A few years later, a shoulder injury forced Capriati to retire — and face problems with depression and suicidal thoughts. This is from a 2007 New York Daily News profile of Capriati:

“When I stopped playing, that’s when all this came crumbling down,” Capriati says. “If I don’t have (tennis), who am I? What am I? I was just alive because of this. I’ve had to ask, ‘Well, who is Jennifer? What if this is gone now?’ I can’t live off of this the rest of my life.” …

“When someone that young has such an incredible level of talent and promise, and the whole world identifies them with it, it can short-circuit the natural process of identity formation,” says Dr. Fred Wertz, chairman of Fordham’s psychology department. The result is that you see yourself in one way, doing one thing. Other options don’t even compute.

Despite the Capriati family’s insistence that her prescription drug overdose was accidental, many were freely speculating, based on Capriati’s past, that maybe it wasn’t so accidental.

I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, so I don’t know how many of Capriati’s problems were due to her tennis-stunted upbringing, and how many are due to clinical depression that might have manifested itself even if she had a “normal” childhood and had grown up to become an accountant.

Every athlete, particularly an elite athlete, struggles with what to do after the fame and the games are gone. But it’s particularly sad to see someone who struggled so much to keep from burning out at 17, and now looks to be in serious crisis at the mere age of 34.

The lesson for parents is not necessarily in what happens if your child is an early pro achiever. Most of us will never know that. However, there is a lesson is what happens if your child specializes early, and mentally or physically burns out by, say, high school. How will you handle that? How will your child handle that? Do you and your child have enough perspective on sports to be prepared for the day a knee injury or mental struggles means a whole way of life has come to an end?

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Cyberbullying and the suicide of a high school athlete

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In all seriousness: teenagers, if you’ve ever had the romantic notion that after you kill yourself, everyone will love you and miss you, then you haven’t been following the postscript of the March 21 suicide of West Islip, N.Y., high school student and star soccer player Alexis Pilkington.

That sounds a little cruel, because certainly plenty of people do love and miss the 17-year-old senior, who was set to play small-college soccer on her home Long Island after graduating in June. However, plenty of people have decided to treat her in death like apparently she was treated the same way in the waning days of her life — hounded by cyberbullying.

Suffolk County (N.Y.) police are investigating whether any criminal charges can or should be brought in the cyberbullying that apparently plagued Alexis Pilkington before she killed herself at her home. While plenty of people are ready to blame cyberbullying — the act of online harassment that’s quickly replacing getting the shit beat out of you or having your lunch money taken as the most popular form of bullying — for the girl’s decision to end her life, her family said she was undergoing counseling for an unspecified problem. “She was sick,” the West Islip Tribune quoted an uncle as saying. “She was fighting an illness we’ll never understand.”

Almost one month before Pilkington’s suicide, a speaker came to her school to discuss his son’s 2003 suicide, and how after the fact he discovered his son fighting off classmates online, or what were to become known as cyberbullies. It’s not known whether Pilkington attended that session, although school officials were quoted in local newspaper as saying that as a popular girl and sports star, she probably wouldn’t have.

At this point, it’s unclear exactly the nature of cyberbullying against Pilkington — who was doing it, what it was about, and why it was happening. Some friends have pointed the finger at Formspring.me, a new social networking site that allows users to register so they can ask and answer questions from other users, and have those questions and answers streamed to their Facebook and Twitter pages. Only a few days before Pilkington’s suicide, the company got a round of venture capital funding and made its big move from Indianapolis to Silicon Valley. I presume this is not the kind of big publicity it wanted right about now.

[youtubevid id=”cT18SqS-RH8″]

A tribute video that takes a moment to lambaste Formspring.me.

Is cyberbullying responsible for Alexis Pilkington’s death? I’m not sure there’s a definite answer to that. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists “isolation” as a contributing factor to suicide, and no doubt being constantly harassed online, particularly from peers or people you thought were your friends, can be incredibly isolating.

Legally, cyberbullying is not treated as an accessory to murder or manslaughter in case of suicide. On March 29, nine teenagers were charged in the high-profile cyberbullying of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish immigrant to South Hadley, Mass., who killed herself Jan. 14. The charges were related to harassment and violation of civil rights (though two teens with statutory rape charges show that not all the alleged problems were online in nature.)

All we really know is: cyberbullying doesn’t help. And we know that for the most part parents, stuck in a generation gap where back in their day bullying required face-to-face contact, aren’t taking it seriously. I went to a talk at my son’s junior high school delivered by John Halligan, the same parent who appeared at West Islip High. More than 150 chairs were set up in the gym. Seven parents showed up.

As with old-time fist-in-the-face bullying, the problem is getting parents to believe their sweet little child is capable of something so nasty, but what makes cyberbullying especially problematic is that those parents are even less inclined to believe those words can hurt more than sticks and stones. (My wife and I just took texting off my 10-year-old daughter’s cell phone when two girls who have been friends started barraging her with disparaging remarks, rather than going through the dead end of confronting their parents about it.)

Also, as this scathing West Islip Tribune editorial points out, maybe growing seeing their parents flip out during youth sporting events, Tea Party rallies and long lines at the grocery checkout have given kids the idea that flipping out is an acceptable emotion to be used at any time.

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“I learned it by watching you!”

What’s even more unfortunate is that the cyberbullying of Alexis Pilkington isn’t resting after her death. Despite attempts to take down objectionable posts and photos as quickly as possible, an RIP site set up on Facebook is still rife with disparaging comments and obscene pictures. That’s resulted in another Facebook site ripping those who ripped her on the other site, which of course has attracted people to rip Alexis Pilkington on that site, too. A 15-year-old in West Islip has put up her own anti-cyberbullying Facebook site in response to all of this (the pre- and post-life activity), but who knows when that site will get blasted, too? (And, by the way, people have set up scores of malware sites for those who look at their pages to find out more regarding Alexis Pilkington’s death.)

Unlike the cyberbullying Pilkington apparently received before her suicide, it appears that much of the post-death traffic is coming from those who don’t know her, especially because I’ve seen references to the notorious message board denizens of 4chan.

Technically, that would not be cyberbullying, but trolling. No matter. Just remember, teens, that while you imagine yourself looking down from Heaven as the masses cry out your name, you’ll also be saying a lot of other people taking the opportunity to sully your name  without you around to defend it.

California softball star's suicide stuns her community

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Whenever I see stories of high-achieving people inexplicably killing themselves, I think of two people: Richard Cory, and Kathy Ormsby.

From the Orange County Register:

Nadia Brianne Matthews [known as “Bri”] had a glowing future.

The sophomore star softball pitcher at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana had verbally committed to play for the University of Arizona, and had a sense of confidence, grace and warmth that went beyond her 16 years, friends say.

Her suicide Thursday at her Anaheim home has shocked and devastated relatives, friends and teachers and coaches who saw in her amazing talent and promise – a nice girl who could put a smile on anyone’s face. …

The coroner Friday afternoon ruled the manner of death suicide, “by ligature hanging.” …

[Nadia] Martinez said her daughter had a 4.0 GPA and had dreams of becoming a neonatologist.

One of the most awful things about suicide is it often comes with no warning. Bri’s family will probably never be able to answer the question, why?

The reason I think of Richard Cory is because he is the title character of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1897 poem about a beautiful, tragic figure. I remember reading this poem in grade school, and it hit me pretty hard and has always stuck with me, maybe it’s because it’s the first work that opened my eyes to the idea that you never quite knew what was going on inside the heads and hearts of those who seemed to be well. The last line, which comes out of nowhere, symbolizes the shock anyone feels when a loved one commits suicide — even for me, when I had a friend kill himself at 15, a friend who gave ample warning (what I considered ample — others did not ) of what he was going to do.

The poem, in its entirety:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

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You might recall Simon & Garfunkel’s rewrite of Richard Cory.

The reason I think of Kathy Ormsby because I was in attendance at the 1986 NCAA track and field championships in Indianapolis — the event where the North Carolina State 10,000-meter runner split from the track mid-race to jump off a bridge over the nearby White River in an attempt to kill herself.

Instead, she was left paralyzed from just above the waist down. A lot of coverage at the time focused on how Ormsby, a high school valedictorian and premed student, was extremely driven and put a ton of pressure on herself to succeed, with the implication that might somehow have been behind her suicide attempt. From the New York Times, circa 1986:

Mitch Shoffner, the head of the social studies department at the high school, taught her world history and coached her in volleyball in the 10th grade.

”I know that she’s always driven herself very, very hard,” he said. ”She’s not the type of person who can accept second best for herself. If there’s any pressure, Kathy was putting it on herself. She’s always been very much of a perfectionist.”

Later, Ormsby did cite fear of failing her coaches and parents as to why she tried to kill herself.

”One time, I got on the volleyball team for not practicing hard enough, and she broke down and cried. Most of the girls just got mad. She was very, very serious about everything she did.”

Later, Ormsby indeed did cite fear of failing her coaches and parents as to why she tried to kill herself, and in later interviews said she had a panic attack and never intended to kill herself. (Ormsby is now an occupational therapist in Wilmington, N.C. — I believe her photo is the top one on the blog post here.)

Do Richard Cory or Kathy Ormsby give any indication as to why Bri Matthews, who seemingly had the world at her feet, decided she could no longer live? No. But they’re all unfortunate examples that suicide, and whatever is behind it, can affect seemingly the most successful among us.

Gun-toting soccer mom found shot dead (with update confirming husband killed her)

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Meleanie Hain became a gun-rights lightning rod when she sued the Lebanon County, Pa., sheriff for revoking her gun permit after other parents complained when she toted a holstered 9mm Glock 26 to her 5-year-old daughter’s soccer game.

Certainly Hain will become one again as news comes out that last night (Oct. 7) she and her husband were found shot to death in their home, which police entered after a two-hour standoff. Police are not yet calling it a murder-suicide, but neighbors told the Lebanon (Pa.) Daily News that they heard her children yell, “Daddy shot Mommy!” From the News:

Lebanon police Chief Daniel Wright was guarded with information as detectives began the preliminary stages of the investigation late Wednesday night. He acknowledged that the Hains were both found dead and had suffered gunshot wounds inside their 1 ½-story brick home in a quiet neighborhood in Lebanon’s southside. He would not provide any additional details, other than to say that police do not feel any other people were involved.

District Attorney David Arnold, who was at the scene, refused to comment.

Several neighbors said they heard or saw the couple’s children run from the house screaming, “Daddy shot Mommy!” shortly before the 911 Center was called at 6:20 p.m.

The children, 2- and 6-year-old girls and a 10-year-old boy, were in the care of a neighbor and were unhurt, said Wright.

The Philadephia Inquirer provides some background on Hain’s personality and lawsuit:

Meleanie Hain and her gun-toting ways came to national attention last year, when she filed a federal lawsuit against Lebanon County and Sheriff Mike DeLeo for revoking her gun permit.

He did so after parents complained about her wearing the Glock at her 5-year-old daughter’s Sept. 11, 2008, game.

The suit sought more than $1 million for violating her civil and constitutional rights. A hearing in the case was postponed in May.

Because of sheriff’s comments, “people think I’m still an idiot,” said Hain – a vegetarian and self-styled Krishna “pseudo-devotee” – about the suit last year.

DeLeo, an NRA member, said he revoked the permit out of concern for the safety of children.

Nevertheless, a judge reluctantly restored her permit last October.

Her husband, who works in law enforcement and taught her to shoot [note: Hain worked as a parole officer in Reading, Pa.], was avoiding the publicity last year, out of fear of losing his job, Meleanie Hain told the Inquirer in December.

Other reports say neighbors and friends noticed recently that the Hains were having marital problems.

If it’s true she was shot by her husband, Meleanie Hain’s death would be ironic if it weren’t so damn tragic, especially with small children involved — small children who appear to have witnessed her being shot.

It will be interesting to find out if Meleanie Hain, who was known to carry a gun everywhere, not just to the soccer field, tried to use it before she was shot.  Was the one time she was caught without a gun the one time when she really needed it?

I predict Hain’s death will be picked over by those who support gun control, and those who do not. And like with abortion, no one will change their opinion. Certainly not in Tennessee, where you’re allowed by law — except if overruled by local government — to bring your gun to any youth sports event held in any park.

OCT. 9 UPDATE: Lebanon police confirm that Scott Hain shot his wife — and why she never had a chance to pull a gun on him. From the Lebanon Daily News:

The man, who police only identified as a mutual friend of the Hains, was engaged in a webcam video call with Meleanie Hain while she was in the kitchen Wednesday evening about 6 p.m. The call had been going on for several minutes and the man had turned his head from the screen for a moment when he heard a gunshot and a scream, said police.

When the man turned to look at the camera, police said he observed Scott Hain walk into view and fire several times in the direction of where he last observed Meleanie. He saw nothing else and the connection eventually terminated, police said.

After making repeated attempts to contact anyone inside the Hain household [a police team] entered the South Second Ave. home shortly after 8 p.m. where they found Meleanie Hain, 31, in the kitchen and Scott Hain, 33, dead of a bullet wound to the head in the upstairs bedroom.

The Hains’ three children made it out of the house unharmed.

Also found in the house were several handguns, a shotgun, two rifles and several hundred rounds of ammunition, said police.

Written by rkcookjr

October 8, 2009 at 4:05 pm