Even after a few days of marinating in the sad saga of former Mizzou swimmer Sasha Menu Courey, a lot of it still seems complex, vague and thorny.
So it’s too easily over-simplified in the search for answers and perhaps scapegoats.
Despite the ESPN “Outside The Lines” insinuations that MU was negligent in factors that may have led to her death, and despite my wish Missouri had extended itself more consistently and personally to her family all along, I also believe Mizzou personnel generally were trying as best they could to handle a complicated and delicate matter while being largely constrained by factors (i.e. privacy laws) outside their control.
Even Menu Courey’s grieving parents, though left to wonder about a lot and still angry about some matters, suggested that in a phone interview from Toronto on Saturday that was reflected in our Monday story and more in these expanded sentiments:
We “give the benefit of the doubt and say, ‘You’ve done the best you can.’ … And maybe those were the best decisions in terms of all the information that they had at the time and what they knew to do,” her father, Mike Menu, said. “So now it is the opportunity to say, ‘We did the best we can; now we can do better.’ ”
And MU surely can, starting with what it learns from the announced impending outside investigation about her case, including a statement made in Menu Courey’s diary and repeated by former Tiger receiver Rolandis Woodland that she had been sexually assaulted in 2010.
Columbia police opened an investigation on Monday, though with this caveat:
“It’s always challenging when the victim’s not there to give their account, kind of like in a homicide investigation, and it’s four years afterward, so I would imagine physical evidence and things like that will be hard to track down, too,” Columbia police Sgt. Joe Bernhard told The Star’s Tod Palmer.
Who knows what that will yield, but it’s a step forward.
As for other elements of this, I am rather certain that swimming coach Greg Rhodenbaugh and former MU academic counselor Meghan Anderson are less than the heartless villains they seem to be portrayed as by ESPN.
While each could have been more accessible to her parents, who feel they withdrew from them and weren’t properly supportive of their vulnerable daughter, seems to me there is much yet to be understood about those lines of communication.
And I also think Rhodenbaugh truly was trying to find a way to compel her to go to therapy for her back and counseling he had been told she was missing by holding her out of competitions and practices as he came to learn about the physical and emotional challenges she was dealing with during his first year on the job.
It seems that reassuring her as well would have worked better, but I’d also venture that there remains plenty to be filled in about what their understanding of each other and the situation was.
Meanwhile, by all logic, Anderson was, in fact, looking out for Menu Courey when she presented the academic withdrawal form to her in the hospital in April 2011 with a deadline for failing classes looming.
The timing seemed cold, yes. But consider, too, the apparent need for immediacy with the semester soon coming to an end and with Menu Courey’s status in flux.
She signed on the form as reason for withdrawal “hospitalization for inpatient direct care in Canada,” and ESPN reported she was moved to a hospital in Kansas City that night before ultimately being moved a psychiatric hospital in Boston.
(That was where on June 17, 2011, she inexplicably was able to get ahold of a bottle of Tylenol and commit suicide by swallowing 100 of them, a matter that would seem to merit an investigation of its own.)
As for the conflict over what Menu Courey did or didn’t tell Anderson over the telephone in May 2011 from Boston, it’s important to consider that Menu Courey may have asked that anything she said be in confidence … or at least that Anderson took it that way.
That was implied to a degree by Menu Courey’s journal entry cited as evidence she told Anderson, an entry that also expressed relief Anderson hadn’t discussed it further.
“My voice was firm and direct when I told her I’d been raped and then I moved on to telling her how I’m doing well now … I was pleased that she didn’t mention the rape again and simply told me she was happy I was at McLean [Hospital] getting better.”
There’s many ways to read all this, of course, but the point is very little is absolutely clear.
Another element clouded in the rush to judgment:
Menu Courey wasn’t diagnosed with borderline personality disorder until April 2011, weeks before she committed suicide at age 20, her parents said.
But it’s evident that at some point before then she was afflicted what the National Institute of Mental Health calls a “serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships.”
Those who suffer from it, writes the institute, typically have “problems with regulating emotions and thoughts … impulsive and reckless behavior … (and) unstable relationships with other people.”
She had demonstrated at least some illness and vulnerability as far back as age 16, when she attempted suicide.
Indicative of the convoluted web surrounding mental illnesses, though, Mizzou wasn’t told about that episode when it was recruiting Menu Courey from Toronto.
“Because of the stigma of mental health for everybody, including us,” Sasha’s father, Mike Menu, said.
The stance is perfectly understandable, but it’s also further representative of the quandary of trying to navigate the best interests for all concerned in this case and many others.
For all that, though, MU until Sunday had been so convulsively concerned about technically covering itself as an institution instead of conveying compassion and a desire to work to assure its system is the best possible that it did itself a disservice in perception.
And one way or another, for one reason or another, the school and/or its representatives withdrew rather than extend, the family said, when the family sought more contact and humanity and information in 2012.
But being defensive and guarded instead of transparent and proactive, though unbecoming in many ways, isn’t the same as being complicit in a tragedy.
And much more remains to be sorted out about all this before any conclusions can really be drawn. Maybe some things never really will be answered.
So let’s just hope this investigation answers more questions than it creates.