For all the trauma they’ve absorbed and haunting questions unanswered about the suicide of their daughter, former Missouri swimmer Sasha Menu Courey, her parents’ quest now is simple:
To ensure that the disturbing, complicated circumstances that preceded her death, as outlined Sunday on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines,” don’t mean she died in vain.
In one sense, that wish drew life the day she died, June 17, 2011, when her heart was donated to Pat Healy, who had been waiting months for a transplant.
As Healy, then 26, felt “trapped in my own body,” he had the grim realization that the appropriate heart probably would be delivered only out of tragedy: someone dying too early.
“If I somehow had the power if I somehow could have prevented what happened to her, I would have done it in a second,” Healy said by phone from Boston, adding, “I don’t want to say I’m living for two people, living for somebody else, but there is a piece of that.”
Somehow, that’s been the least complicated element of breathing broader meaning into Sasha Menu Courey’s life, which ended at age 20 after a series of institutional disconnects and decisions at MU that her parents believe contributed to her death — decisions that might have been averted.
Menu Courey’s parents aren’t blaming Mizzou, necessarily, but they’re puzzled by the events that transpired after Sasha’s arrival in Columbia from her native Canada in fall 2009. More than anything, they want to make sure that what appears to have happened to their daughter doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Although Sasha had suffered from mental health issues before coming to Missouri, she seemed happy enough as a freshman at MU. But she harbored deeper issues that would be exacerbated by an alleged rape in 2010. Being let go by the swim team only deepened her despair.
To Menu Courey’s parents, their daughter’s suicide speaks to a failure of “the system,” a universal tag under which MU’s procedures fall: a system girded and guided by legalese and privacy laws that are intended to protect, but that also can clog the sharing of vital information.
This system accounts for why the parents say they had no knowledge of the alleged sexual assault on their daughter until after her death even though a handful of MU health care workers came to learn of it.
That’s how confidentiality is supposed to work, of course, but it’s also part of the depressing haze that lingers over Sasha’s death.
The system, too, accounts for why it’s unclear what was shared and when among coaches and administrators at Mizzou.
Mike Menu and Lynn Courey believe voids and gridlock in the system ultimately led to their daughter’s feeling isolated and even discarded from the swim team, a particularly jarring development as she struggled to cope with the alleged assault.
News of that assault allegation became public in February 2012 in an article in the Columbia Daily Tribune, but it had yet to be investigated by Columbia or university police as of Sunday while MU fought vigorously through its website to defend itself.
That allegation was left unaddressed because the system, evidently, didn’t have an obvious answer for whose jurisdiction or responsibility a posthumous mention of an alleged rape taken from the diary of a suicide victim was or an answer for who should extend themselves beyond protocol to say it couldn’t just be left there.
All of this leaves Sasha’s parents off-balance but no less committed to the real mission: never again.
If all the boxes can seemingly be checked in the system, and this happens, then something is wrong with the system, isn’t it?
“It would be too easy to say, ‘Oh, we’re just going to sue the university.’ That is not our intention,” Mike Menu said. “What we really would like would be to work with them to make sure that this change is done, so that these things don’t happen.”
It would be nice, too, Lynn Courey said, if MU were to say that working to make things better “is Sasha’s legacy.’ ”
At least symbolically, that wish was paid heed on Sunday, when MU announced it had turned “new information which was previously unavailable” over to Columbia Police because the alleged assault occurred off campus.
MU later released a letter from system president Tim Wolfe to its chancellors, announcing Wolfe is asking the Board of Curators to hire independent counsel to investigate MU’s handling of “matters related to Ms. Courey.”
“Such an independent review will be beneficial to all our campuses so that we can determine if there were any shortcomings with respect to MU’s handling of this matter and, if so, ways in which to improve the handling of such matters in the future,” Wolfe wrote.
Maybe it’s a shame that it apparently took fallout from ESPN’s work to prompt this. But Lynn Courey said, “We’re quite pleased with that.”
Done right, any inquiry should address some of the excruciating questions the parents still are grappling with. Among the many:
• Will there be a thorough investigation of the alleged assault? Despite the fact it’s been four years next month since the alleged incident, despite the obstacles to obtaining a conviction after all this time, a starting point for authorities would be interviewing Rolandis Woodland, a former receiver on the MU football team.
Woodland told ESPN that Menu Courey told him of an assault and later sent him a video of what he said was three of his teammates sexually assaulting her, a video he said she received from a former girlfriend of one of the players.
Woodland told ESPN the video had been inadvertently misplaced, but he said he confronted the three after her death.
“People have to be told what they did was wrong and there’s consequences,” Lynn Courey said, adding, “We lost our child, right?”
• Why did Missouri wait until a year after the published report alluding to the allegation of rape (passed on by her parents from her journal) to send a letter asking them if they wanted it investigated?
MU’s online stance is that it “makes no sense to fault the University” based on “two vague sentences in a news article about Sasha’s journal when Sasha’s parents did not choose to bring that information to the attention of the University or law enforcement and request an investigation. This further shows the flawed and skewed reporting by ESPN.”
But Menu and Courey say they were stunned by the letter and bewildered that permission was needed to investigate, especially so long afterward and especially after they had come to believe Missouri was distancing itself from them by not responding to phone calls and texts.
• What happened in the May 2011 phone call their daughter made from McLean Hospital, a Boston institution specializing in disorders like Sasha’s, to Meghan Anderson, then the MU academic adviser to swimming?
Anderson, now at Tennessee, told ESPN that Menu Courey said nothing to her about an assault.
That clashed with an excerpt of Menu Courey’s diary ESPN said was dated the same day, May 12, 2011, and entered about the time of the phone call:
“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, talking to therapists and figure out the next steps. 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.”
The excerpt itself speaks to the complications of Anderson’s position: Since Menu Courey was pleased she didn’t mention the alleged rape again, it might be inferred that she wished the point to remain in confidence.
Yet that’s still hard for the parents to reconcile. As a university official instead of medical personnel, they contend, Anderson had an obligation to report that to superiors if she were told. They don’t claim to know whether she did or didn’t pass it on.
They also were troubled that Anderson had secured a signature of withdrawal from the university from their daughter when she was hospitalized after an apparent suicide attempt in April 2011. Though that almost certainly was done to prevent her from failing classes, it came off to them as an inconsiderate move by MU.
Most of all, though, they don’t understand why her daughter’s journal would be dismissed.
“Lying to herself in her own journal?” Lynn Courey said. “I don’t know how many people actually do this.”
• Wasn’t there a better way for swimming coach Greg Rhodenbaugh to handle their daughter’s back injury and distress in the winter of 2010-11 than to disconnect her from the team altogether?
While Rhodenbaugh evidently was attempting to leverage her to attend therapy sessions he had been told she wasn’t attending, and MU says she was never officially released from the team, the parents argue that swimming truly was “her lifeline” and that isolating her was part of a descent into darkness.
“It needs to be more sensitive,” Mike Menu said, and his wife noted that stopping her “cold turkey” made her feel “really alone and weak, then all those negative feelings and thoughts are just invading (her).”
In a letter to parents and alumni of MU swimmers dated Friday, Rhodenbaugh said ESPN’s work was marked by “many inaccuracies” and added, “There is no doubt in our minds that every action taken by Mizzou with regard to Sasha focused on what was best for her health and well-being.”
But here, too, conflicting intricacies arise.
Rhodenbaugh was in his first year at MU and inherited Menu Courey as a member of the swim team. She had written on a health form that fall that she was dealing with a “major depressive disorder,” but that information was not shared with Rhodenbaugh.
So he had little apparent reason to know of any existing mental health issues.
Encouraged as they might be by MU’s announced actions on Sunday, Menu and Courey are taking their own initiatives. Their website,sashbear.org
, seeks to raise mental health awareness.
And they are thrilled by developments with Healy, the recipient of Sasha’s heart, with whom they’ve met several times.
“It’s wonderful, wonderful,” Lynn Courey said through tears by telephone from Toronto, adding with a laugh that when Healy has children, “We will be grandparents, you know?”
But as they wait for reconciliation with MU, they also know that even Healy’s healing wasn’t immediate. Complications from the surgery, he said, left him in a coma for several days before he came to new life.
Then, for the first time in years, he felt blood pressure in his toes. When he looked in the mirror, he saw color in his pale face.
Most of all, he could feel his pulse.
And Sasha’s heart.
“You can feel it beating,” he said. “It’s tangible.”
And just one way her life wasn’t in vain.