All reporters have pieces that stay with them, stories whose characters and components linger long after the last revisions have been rendered and the paper put to bed. For Jennifer Mendelsohn, Sean Bryant was that character.
Mendelsohn first encountered Sean Bryant shortly after his death, nearly two decades ago. Transfixed by his short, vivid life and subsequent suicide, she eventually produced “Everything to Live For,” a gripping, deeply reported investigation into Bryant’s life and death. The story first appeared in the June 1998 issue of Washingtonian, and our thanks to Mendelsohn for allowing us to reprint it here. Mendelsohn also spoke with Longreads about how she first encountered Bryant, her reporting process, and the effect his life has had on hers.
How did you first come across the subject matter? At what point did you realize this was a story you’d be spending months on?
I’m pretty sure I first learned of Sean’s death from the Washington Post — the very same “UVa Student Leader Hangs Himself in Dormitory, School Says” story I reference in my own story. It was just a straightforward news story but it really took my breath away. I was only six years out of U.Va. myself at that point, and the idea that a student of Sean’s stature had committed suicide on the Lawn was astounding and horrifying.
I’m almost afraid to admit this for fear of seeming stalker-ish, but even though I didn’t know him at all, I went to Sean’s memorial service. I really wasn’t even thinking entirely as a reporter yet; I think I was there more as a fellow U.Va. alum to pay my respects. I was just so unnerved by what had happened and I was really compelled to know more about him. I came away from that service convinced that this was a story that needed to be told, but out of respect for his family, I waited several months to pitch the piece to Washingtonian and to approach his parents. Others may disagree, but this wasn’t a story I had any interest in telling without the family’s cooperation; it just felt intrusive to me. I recall getting to work in earnest in the fall/winter of 1997, almost a year after Sean died. Interestingly, I remember Sean’s mother telling me she welcomed the possibility that my reporting might be able to turn something up about his death that the family had been unable to find on their own.
The opening—a description of the night “Sean Bryant’s friends thought he might be dead,” and the way such a death would be covered—is incredibly powerful. It gives the reader such a strong feel for Sean’s character, and describing the coverage of his death in the hypothetical also subverts so many clichés. Can you tell me a little more about how you came up with this structure? Did you always know you would open the piece like this?
I know this is crazy, but that anecdote came out of the very first interview I did for the story, on my very first reporting trip to Charlottesville. One of the deans at U.Va. told it to me and as soon as I heard it, I knew immediately that that’s where the story had to start. It was very odd and almost providential — a one in a million lucky break that I don’t think I’ve ever repeated. I never wavered on that as the opening, even though I fiddled endlessly with the rest of the story.
There are so many exquisitely precise details in your description of Sean, small anecdotes that conjure a whole person. I presume you had a great deal of material on hand—how did you sift through it? Was it difficult to choose which elements to include?
I’d never done a story that involved piecing together so much reporting before and it was incredibly daunting. It’s also a particular challenge to tell a story where your main character is dead, because I was relying entirely on third parties to reconstruct him for me, and by extension, for the reader. I think that’s why it was so important to include so many specific details and anecdotes to make him come alive.
But I think it’s like childbirth — I’ve forgotten the pain. In all seriousness, it was a very long time ago, and I’m a little fuzzy on how exactly the sifting process worked. I suspect I relied on one of my favorite writing tricks, which is to remember that your memory is your best editor. Meaning, whatever you would recall to tell a friend about an interview is probably what you should include in the story.
Maybe this is also the place where I can give a shout out to my dear friend Amy Argetsinger of the Washington Post, a fellow U.Va. grad who was instrumental in talking me through the reporting and writing process. She read a zillion drafts and gave really crucial, insightful feedback that helped make the story what it is. And the piece was patiently and graciously edited by Sherri Dalphonse at Washingtonian, who is still there.
The University of Virginia seems to be central not just to Sean’s life, but also to your story. Your descriptions of the school’s culture felt really vital to the reader’s understanding of Sean. I know you are also an alumnus. How did your understanding of U. Va shape your interpretation of Sean and his story?
Because I had rotated in very similar student leader circles to Sean, I was intimately familiar with his world, the world of Jefferson scholars and Lawn rooms and Rhodes scholarships, and that was a huge advantage to me in reporting the story. But I had unfortunately also battled depression at U.Va., a depression that was inexorably connected for me to the pressures of trying to be a superstar there. I think I was drawn to Sean because I initially thought it was a “there but for the grace of God go I” situation — I mistakenly assumed that he had succumbed to that pressure cooker world where you were always trying to shine and be the best at everything. But the eventual process of reporting the story turned up something far more nuanced. Sean and I were actually not very similar at all. He didn’t kill himself because he was depressed. He didn’t kill himself because he couldn’t handle the pressure. I’m still not really sure I know with absolute certainty why Sean killed himself. I just know that it was a terrible, tragic mistake, and that he is still sorely missed.
Suicide is an extremely sensitive topic, especially as presented in the media. Did you have concerns about how to handle it?
Absolutely. At the time, I felt very confident that the mental health experts I consulted gave me the lowdown in terms of the latest research on why people kill themselves. And it didn’t square with the “one terrible impulsive decision” theory that a lot of people close to Sean seemed to embrace.
Ten years later, though, there was a fascinating story in the New York Times Magazine about new studies on suicide that actually lent a lot of credence to that impulsive theory. I remember sending it to Sean’s mother, to whom I remain connected. So now, I think I might report it slightly differently.
One of the things that interested me most about the story is the effect it has had on you as its author. I was particularly struck by a passage from your blog, where you talk about how, for a long time after writing the story, it was almost like you had developed a sixth sense—”the sense of living powerfully in the present.” And you wrote this blog post in 2009, more than a decade after reporting the story. Clearly, Sean’s story is haunting, but I’m sure as a journalist you’ve covered other difficult topics. Why this story?
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that this story fundamentally changed me as a person. I remember talking a lot about Sean and the reporting process with my own therapist at the time. And as a journalist, it’s still the story I’m proudest of from start to finish — the reporting and the writing just melded in a way I was very pleased with. I really don’t know that I’d change a thing, which is unusual. Although I will say that reading the story now, as a 40something mother of two sons rather than the single 20something who wrote it, is a very different experience. Ultimately, I think it was a very fair and substantial testament to Sean’s life, which was by far the most important thing to me. It was an extremely difficult but very satisfying experience to tell a story this complex and important.
As I look back, other than ghostwriting a book, I’ve never written anything even close to that length again. I think I was scared off. (!) It’s funny because there’s actually a story I’ve been pitching recently that is the first story in a very long time that I feel just as passionately about and that I feel needs to be told at substantial length. Oddly, it’s also the story of a suicide, but this one happened in 1971. Maybe I’ve unwittingly stumbled on my beat.
One fun postscript: I left DC for Baltimore in 2001 and never wrote for Washingtonian again. But in the fall of 2011, I randomly tweeted about a good story I had read in Washingtonian, a profile of Gene Weingarten. The tweet was seen by a Washingtonian editor with whom I’d had zero prior contact — she didn’t even work there when I wrote the Sean story. But based on my Twitter bio, she was curious enough to look at my website, where she read the Sean story and was so taken with it that she contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing for the magazine again. We met and started talking about story ideas. For various reasons, it took a while, but in January of this year, after a 16 year hiatus, I was back in the magazine’s pages again with this story. I also introduced that editor to my brother, who had an idea for a piece that went on to become the most-viewed story in the history of the magazine.
It might seem corny, but I liked the idea that Sean’s influence could still be present in my life after all these years. And I also have lorded this incident over my husband to try to prove that spending time on Twitter really does count as work.
Has any other piece stuck with you like this?
I was a special correspondent for People for several years, and I got to tell some extraordinary stories. I have a couple of favorites from those years, but the Sean story will always be very special to me, I think in part because it affected me so deeply as a person, not just as a journalist.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Mendelsohn