Something About Maddie

The obituary for Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir went viral. It was beautifully written and evoked the sadness for the needless loss of a human life. But the Police Chief of Burlington, Vermont, Brandon del Pozo, raises the question that few want to think about, likely because he and his officers fetch the dead bodies of junkies for whom no eloquent obit is written.

Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew?

Did readers think this was the first time a beautiful, young, beloved mother from a pastoral state got addicted to Oxy and died from the descent it wrought? And what about the rest of the victims, who weren’t as beautiful and lived in downtrodden cities or the rust belt? They too had mothers who cried for them and blamed themselves.

We have become a nation of sops, crying over sad stories of empathetic tragedies while remaining blissfully ignorant of the ugly side of the street, where people for whom we have no tears die alone.

A genre of journalism has been built around appeals to emotion, and we suck that crap up. For every story that evokes our empathy, there is a story that repulses us, a victim for whom we feel nothing but disgust. This is true for addicts. For prisoners. For sex offenders. For victims of crime. For us. We adore the stories that bring tears to our eyes and refuse to put in an iota of thought about the rest of the tragedy, the parts that don’t confirm our bias or make us feel warmly sad.

This was the ignorance that fed our War on Crime, our War on Drugs, and now our war on anything that makes us sad. If you read the story of the addict, whose “disease would not let her go until she was gone,” do you think about the junkie who murdered some other mother’s child to get enough cash for his fix? Do you shut out anything that makes you feel guilty about being selectively empathetic based on the last sad story you read?

This isn’t about picking teams, but about being as simplistic about intransigent societal problems as your heartstrings will allow.

She died just like my wife’s cousin Meredith died in Bethesda, herself a young mother, but if Maddie was a black guy from the Bronx found dead in his bathroom of an overdose, it wouldn’t matter if the guy’s obituary writer had won the Booker Prize, there wouldn’t be a weepy article in People about it.

Why not?

But if there had been, early enough on, and we acted swiftly, humanely, and accordingly, maybe Maddie would still be here. Make no mistake, no matter who you are or what you look like: Maddie’s bell tolls for someone close to you, and maybe someone you love. Ask the cops and they will tell you: Maddie’s death was nothing special at all. It happens all the time, to people no less loved and needed and human.

Whenever you read a sad story that breaks your heart, remember that it was chosen for that reason, not because it answers any questions or solves any problems. It’s clickbait. It’s evocative and heartrending. And it makes you less capable of grasping the nature of problems and their solutions. It feeds your desire to feel at the expense of your need to think.

Now that so many of you have cried for poor Maddie, and as the “opioid epidemic” is the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, will we fight the war on drugs with renewed vigor to save the next Maddie?

This is what I’m tired of: Arguing with sheriffs about their deputies carrying Naloxone at national conferences. Arguing with corrections officials at home about getting all inmates who need it on medication-assisted treatment early on in their sentence and keeping them on it even after they leave. Getting mocked by reactionaries because I won’t arrest desperate people for using non-prescribed addiction treatment meds.

You read about Maddie. I knew that dead guy in the Bronx bathroom from 30 years ago. You were all demanding harsher sentences because something must be done. And you’re still fighting the wrong fights, finding the wrong, invariably simplistic, solutions because you only see the sad stories and not the ugly ones.

There are real problems out there affecting real people. A lot of their stories are pretty awful; they’re not sympathetic. They’re not heroes. But they’re still human beings, and they’re on both sides of all equations, even if you never read about them. They are just as worthy of survival as Maddie, even if you never hear their stories or their stories won’t make you love them.

10 thoughts on “Something About Maddie

  1. Chris Van Wagner

    If the attention given to this issue due to the Linsenmeir obit spurs more across-the-board awareness of and funding for the opiate epidemic, then clickbait reactions aside, the obit – which was not per se journalism but rather a family member’s honest story of an opiate addict’s death, all too often shamed to the shadows as you note – may help the fight. And so may the chief’s logical and sound response. Sure, many viral readers will simply turn the digital page. But others very well may use this story to take another and a constructive step in the war on opiate deaths. As an aside, why hasn’t any leader declared THAT war, since the war on drugs was long ago lost? If a leader r three are so spurred by this obit and rejoinder, maybe the declaration of THAT war will help today’s bronx bathroom user.

    1. SHG Post author

      Because this obit ends with tears for Maddie, not thinking through the problems. And even if it did, there would be the next sad story and all teary-eyed readers will move on to the next tearjerker. Chief del Pozo is right, but his views will never get the play that Maddie’s obit got.

      There is a leap from the sad story to the hard thinking that eludes most people.

      may help the fight.

      In a different, better world, it would help to illuminate problems and real solutions. But this never seems to happen, even though it could, because we’re so consumed by sad stories that we can’t focus on a problem long enough to deal with it and can’t see beyond the anecdote so as to find real answers to ugly problems. We rationalize the good that might have been and forget that nothing good is actually accomplished.

      1. Chris Van Wagner

        Wel, we have done something similar to the Linsenmeir obit here (in Madison WI) this past week in an effort to add that layer, that is, we are trying to help illuminate this problem in a noticeable local way and at teh same time help fund real solutions. My own daugher’s similarly honest opiate overdose obit, posted two weeks ago in our area – and containing our request for community support for a brand new police-initiated recovery program – has spurred donations sufficient to fund one, two or maybe even three new aspects of an on-the-street opiate-save-and-treat MPD initiative that does in fact help the gas station bathroom overdose patient. So while viral national press makes one’s cell phone buzz and likely little more, in contrast maybe a focused, localized and emotional candor, when conjoined with a specific request for awareness and financial support for creative new hands-on solutions, might make a small difference, perhaps. That is our hope. We are trying to tell the sad story and then make people focus on the solution. Early indications are encouraging.

        1. SHG Post author

          Do I understand this correctly? If so, I’m so sorry, and hope that your tragedy serves to accomplish something real. Perhaps you can include a link for donations so others here can offer their support.

          Edit: For everyone, here’s the link to Chris’ daughter’s, Mollie’s, obit. If you can, here’s how you can help:

          In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to help pay for NARCAN for all Madison Police officers (checks to “City of Madison” with “Mollie Van Wagner/NARCAN” in the memo, mailed to “Off. Bernie Albright, SIU, MARI Coordinator, City of Madison Police Dept, 211 S. Carroll St, Madison WI 53703”) or the Brew City Bully Club, 6669 So. 76th Street, Greendale WI 53129.

          1. Chris Van Wagner

            I have only the link to our chief’s blog, here: But I will add more below re donations. In her obit, we initially set up a channel for people to support the purchase of more Officer NARCAN doses, as our daughter was twice revived with Madison PD’s growing opiate response program armed with nasal NARCAN. Indeed, in 2014 she was the first person they saved, only one week after the pilot program launched.

            The response to her obit’s “in lieu of flowers” request has been humbling. The funds, which continue to come in, are now likely to be used to add three layers to that on-street NARCAN availability:

            1. Hoping to give each of our 200 cops 2 nasal doses, rather than one – rarely does one do anything more than buy time, and it took two doses for our daughter’s first save;

            2. Creating a QRT – Quick Response Team – to follow up ASAP with OD patients/families with treatment resources and more NARCAN for home use; and

            3. Strategically placing doses in public places such as stores and libraries for faster availability in high-OD areas.

            Mind you, this is NOT a politician’s program, but one conceived, funded and carried out solely by our PD and its clear-thinking Chief Mike Koval. Readers should urge their own PD’s to look at the program and see if it can be their model too. If folks want to give to it, they can do so by sending a check payable to the City of Madison, c/o Officer Bernie Albright, MARI Coordinator, Madison Police Dept., 211 S. Carroll Street, Madison WI 53703. MARI is the new initiative, aka Madison Area Recovery Initiative. We had 37 deaths and 366 saves last year in this idyllic little hovel of progressive thinking. The first core item in MARI’s response is an immediate offer of cost-free entry into treatment right at the time of release from the ER, and with follow-through by the patient, a promise of no arrest and no charges if they stay in the entire 6 months of intensive treatment. Jail raises terrible fears of withdrawal while jailed for opiate addicts, so most take the first two steps – a call for and participation in an assessment; the initiative is so new that longer-term success is still under scrutiny. (Thanks for allowing/inviting me to share.)

        2. Skink

          Chris–I’m very sorry to hear about your daughter, but that’s tempered by your response to it. Like everyone else, drugs messed with people I cared about. And, once upon a long time ago, I had something of a cottage industry representing dentists who prescribed Oxy. Insanity.

          Let people like me know how we can help you. Even cranky old lawyers have moments.

      2. Guitardave

        When your addicted to feelz, thinking is like cold turkey.
        In the real solutions dept. , Kratom might have changed things, but its BAAAAD!….says our FDA overlords…

        1. SHG Post author

          The unduly passionate aren’t in it for fixing things, but for feeling sad about things until they move on to the next thing to feel sad about, even if it’s in direct conflict with the thing they felt sad about the day before. It’s an addiction to sad stories, not to solving anything.

      3. B. McLeod

        I had missed the whole thing with this obit, but it seems to me a lot of people are trying to read a lot too much into it. I think the point of an obit is to try to sum up the subject’s life, the good and bad, and how and to whom they had meaning (if they did). I wouldn’t look to obits to solve any problems. That isn’t what they’re for.

        1. Chris Van Wagner

          B. McLeod, that is quite true. Too often lately, though, obits read much like every giddy, happy social media post, and fail to convey, as you put it, “the good and the bad” – Joe’s favorite dog whistle, Susie’s ability to sing the cows home, and the like. SHG is correct when he decries the equally more common tear-jerker item – be it obit, news item, or social media piece – which does nothing more than play with one’s emotions and then move on, like a high school flirtation of no substance. Certainly, as SHG wrote, the emotions stirred by the obit for Maddie Linsenmeir likely tend to value one life over another, and unwittingly avoid the cold, hard, full reality of the murderous opiate epidemic we face as a society. Nothing in her obit will much help SHG’s Bronx OD.

          Would that obits could generally return to what you describe, which is how J-School taught back in the day. As noted here by me yesterday, if that old-school model is on the scrap heap, then we tried to at least tell the good AND the bad – but we also tried to offer a way for the reader to understand and to take action so as to (maybe) help reduce the similar “bad” that others later endure. We’ll see if that works in any measurable way.

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