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For the Media

Problematic Coverage -- Scapegoating


New York Times Magazine, Nov. 28, 1998

Lethal Chemistry at Harvard
Jason Altom was the second suicide in two years at E. J. Corey's lab.
In Cambridge, as elsewhere, graduate school has become a hazardous workplace.
by Keith B. Richburg

In death as in life, Jason Altom managed to be both extremely methodical and extraordinarily good-hearted. On the warm, humid day in mid-August when he ended his life, he walked up to the third-floor bedroom of the Somerville, Mass., house he shared with two fellow graduate students at Harvard University, drank a liquid laced with cyanide procured from the very chemistry laboratory where he was considered an unusually gifted student and lay down on his bed...

"Lethal Chemistry at Harvard" was a long article aiming to analyze Jason Altom's suicide amidst the larger backdrop of the intense graduate school environments operating in elite research universities around the country.

The reporter begins by mentioning the three suicide notes Jason Altom left behind, one to his parents, one to his graduate advisor, Nobel laureate chemist Elias J. Corey and one to the chemistry department chair. The Altom family shared the contents of the suicide note addressed to the chair with The Harvard Crimson, which published excerpts, including the victim's assertion that "This event could have been avoided. Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students." The note suggested that universities need to set up committees to protect graduate students from "abusive research advisors. If I had such a committee now I know things would be different."

The reporter acknowledges that his interviews with the victim's friends and colleagues revealed that the "situation was more complicated than the notes had implied." The reporter writes, "If Jason's death may not have had much to do with the incendiary accusations contained in his letters ... it was nonetheless inextricably linked to the pressures of graduate-school life. "He continues, "And if it were indeed an avoidable death, the reasons may have ... more to do with chemistry of a different sort ... the [chemistry of] two extremely bright human beings locked in a typically intense graduate-school relationship."


Problems with this Article

In its analysis, the article repeatedly reiterates two themes: the extent to which Altom's suicide is the result of the stressed and power-laden relationship between advisor and graduate student and the extent to which the nature of such relationships prevented Altom from revealing his emotional state even to his closest friends, who repeatedly claimed he exhibited no warning signs to suggest he intended to take his own life.

These two themes are deeply problematic. First, the reporter takes Altom's friends and family's claims that the victim presented no warning signs as fact. Yet, as the article itself reveals, there were a host of warning signs of Altom's precarious state. The reporter notes that Altom had become "morbidly interested" in the suicide of another student in the lab. Further, the article mentions that Altom's roommate reported being concerned about Altom and recalled that Altom had bought a book on depression. The reporter then outlines Altom's difficulties with his research, and certain instances of "bizarre" behavior noted by his friends, such as creating and posting a large sign reading, "Characterize Everything" above his desk after a remark by Corey suggesting that compounds in a sample needed to be analyzed. The article notes as well the "impossibly high standards" Altom set for himself. All of this is offered only in connection with the stress of Altom's graduate school experience, making it appear that any graduate student might suddenly take his or her own life.

Further, in tracing Altom's behavior in the months before his death, the reporter neglects the role of depression in Altom's suicide. By ignoring the likely role of such a psychiatric illness, the reporter runs the risk of normalizing suicide by repeatedly suggesting that it is a near-inevitable part of the stressful graduate school environment in the sciences: the competition, the arduous work, the pressure to produce original work. Rather than point out Altom's uniquely personal problems and work difficulties, the reporter describes Altom as "exactly the kind of student Harvard and every other top-notch science department looks for: bright, outgoing, likably confident, intellectually mature, and with an inner reserve of self-reliance that is indispensable to any researcher working on the cutting edge." Although Jason Altom undoubtedly had many assets, if this picture were really accurate, he would probably not have taken his own life, or else many of Harvard's graduate science students would have done so as well.

In addition, the reporter notes Altom's perfectionism, his attention to detail and the "methodical" way he approached all tasks, as well as his "taste for setting the highest goals and challenges for himself and the unrelenting drive to achieve them." Although this brutal perfectionism is mentioned several times in the article, its relation to its role Altom's psychiatric state or his suicide is never pursued. The reporter seems unaware that such ruthlessly high standards are a frequent manifestation of depression. The reporter also cites Altom's repeated frustrations with his research, including a significant error that he believed threatened his entire research project. Altom's parents, according to the article, received a call from their "distraught" son after he realized his error. He was so upset that his parents considered flying from Tennessee to Cambridge to see him, but decided against it after, the next time they spoke, he seemed improved. For the reporter to continue to assert the shock and suddenness of the suicide perpetuates the notion that all of these serious warning signs are merely residual effects of graduate school rather than red flags for suicide risk.

In releasing the suicide note in which Corey is singled out to the Harvard Crimson, the family evidently wished to blame the university and Corey. In printing the excerpts, the Crimson harmed Corey and made the suicide a national story, The New York Times Magazine followed in the Crimson's footsteps. Unlike a newspaper, however, a magazine has the luxury of time to reflect and to investigate. But instead of pursuing the personal difficulties that led to Altom's suicide to present a fuller picture than the Crimson's coverage offered, the Times reporter shifts between blaming the competitive graduate school atmosphere for Altom's suicide to blaming the effect of Corey's demands on such a promising student. Although the reporter states the story may be more complicated than Altom's note suggests, this disclaimer does not stop him from conveying the impression that the chemistry professor is, in large part, to blame.

This impression begins with the story's dramatic subheadline referring to the "second suicide in two years at E. J. Corey's lab." Since the other suicide is mentioned only once in the article, with little explanation of its circumstances, the reader is left with the impression, which may be totally erroneous, that the other student also attributed his suicide to the pressure of working in Corey's lab. Further, the reporter recounts Corey's expression of sorrow about the suicide of the other chemistry student, as quoted in the Harvard Crimson. The reporter adds however, that he found another remark Corey made in the same interview to be "emotionally oblique." Specifically, that Corey, upon reviewing that other student's lecture notes after his suicide, felt it necessary to say that the notes were "beautifully done." Although this remark could mean many things, the reporter frames the anecdote to highlight, hauntingly, Corey's demands for perfection, further scapegoating the chemist.

The reporter quotes Corey himself as saying he cannot understand why Altom would not have come to him with his troubles, but the reporter posits, in his closing paragraphs, a reason. He suggests that the "widespread atmosphere of fear" in the chemistry department might have been the reason Altom concealed his desperation. He reports asking a series of graduate students why they refused to be mentioned by name in the article and the answer was, without exception, that they were afraid of the way their advisors might take their comments and the effect it might have on their careers. Yet none of the anonymous remarks the reporter cites, however, is particularly damning of the department or Corey. And in fact, none of the victim's friends had "the slightest inkling" that Altom felt "unfairly treated by his advisor," as the suicide note suggest.

Readers are left with the feeling that the advisor's personal characteristics and the atmosphere he created are in fact responsible for Altom's suicide. Yet it seems more likely that Altom's own depression-driven perfectionism was most contributory to his suicide. And the protection Altom's suicide note indicated he needed was probably from inner demons, not from the professor on whom he projected them.

Jason Altom gave many indications that he was troubled and in need of help. The Times story does not indicate that anyone tried to persuade him to seek it. The reporter does not tell us whether in interviewing Jason Altom's family he inquired if their son had ever received psychiatric treatment. That aspect of the tragedy is neglected by an account that focused on an aspect of the story that gave it instant notoriety -- placing blame for the young man's death on the graduate school of a world-famous university and on one of its Nobel laureates. -- H.H. & M.A.

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