Religion ghosts in the Silicon Valley suicides? It would have helped to ask that question

If you have been following mainstream religion-news coverage in recent decades, like quite a few GetReligion readers (and all of our writers), then you know the byline of Hanna Rosin, who once covered the beat for The Washington Post. If you have followed her work since then, both in her books and in The Atlantic, you know that her interest in topics linked to religion, culture and family life remains strong and her skills as a reporter and word stylist are unquestioned.

In recent days, several GetReligion readers have sent me URLs to her new Atlantic cover story on "The Silicon Valley Suicides."

One of the messages perfectly captured the message in the others: "See any ghosts in this one?"

This is a stunning story and it was worth reading to the very end. That said, I found it amazingly haunted and free of the moral and religious depth usually found in Rosin's work.

Ghosts? Totally haunted.

The story opens with the story of the suicide of at popular athlete and super-achieving student named Cameron Lee, the kind of normal young man who went out of his way to join friends for morning donuts and make people feel at home.

You need to read this one long passage to grasp the tone of Rosin's piece:

That morning the school district’s superintendent, Glenn “Max” McGee, called Kim Diorio, the principal of the system’s other public high school, Palo Alto High, to warn her, “This is going to hit everyone really hard.” McGee was new to the district that year, but he’d known the history when he took the job. The 10-year suicide rate for the two high schools is between four and five times the national average. Starting in the spring of 2009 and stretching over nine months, three Gunn students, one incoming freshman, and one recent graduate had put themselves in front of an oncoming Caltrain. Another recent graduate had hung himself. While the intervening years had been quieter, they had not been comforting. School counselors remained “overwhelmed and overloaded” with an influx of kids considered high risk, says Roni Gillenson, who has helped oversee Gunn’s mental-health program since 2006. Twelve percent of Palo Alto high-school students surveyed in the 2013–14 school year reported having seriously contemplated suicide in the past 12 months.
In McGee’s third month on the job, about three weeks before Cameron’s death, a girl from a local private school had jumped off an overpass. Then, a day later, a kid who’d graduated from Gunn the year before, Quinn Gens, had killed himself on the tracks. Now it was not even Thanksgiving, and two students affiliated with Gunn were already dead.
Suicide clusters -- defined as multiple deaths in close succession and proximity -- feed on viral news, which feeds on social connections. McGee and the other administrators worried about vulnerable students reading too many details and overidentifying with Cameron. He had played basketball for years, so he knew people at both public high schools in town; his sister was in middle school; he seemed to have friends everywhere, and the grief was gathering momentum.

The sound of the passing Caltrains is a haunting refrain throughout the story, a symbol of the memories of all of these suicides that simply will not go away. As in this passage:

That day, one student later told me, the warning whistle seemed like the cannon that goes off in The Hunger Games every time a kid dies.

This is a story about big questions. At the heart of the story is an obvious one:

Why? How could it be that they all lived in a place that inspired jealousy from out-of-towners, where the coolest gadgets and ideas come from, where the optimism is boundless, and where ... “people are working on inventions that will slow aging and probably one day stop death” -- and yet also a place where a junior in high school is closely familiar with the funerals of other teens?

For super-achieving parents, this question leads to another: "What are we doing to our kids?"

As you would expect from a Rosin story, all kinds of options are explored and explored quite well. Clearly these young people feel pressured to succeed. Some people worry about "tiger mothers." Some young people report that they know their parents are highly involved in their lives, but that they feel cut off from them. This homes lack warmth. The parents are concerned, but strangely distant.

As one expert puts it, these young people are suffering from a “mass delusion” that there is only "one path to a successful life, and that it is very narrow."

However, the experts -- local and national -- are trying to pull secrets out of young people, not robots. It's impossible to crack them open and read the data. Rosin writes:

In these days of assumed meritocracy, where children can be turned into anything, we admire them as displays of remarkable engineering, to be tweaked and fine-tuned into bilingual perfection. What we’ve lost, perhaps, is a sense that there may be things about them we can’t know or understand, and that that mysterious quality, separate from us, is what we should marvel at.
Admitting we don’t entirely know why teenagers kill themselves isn’t an invitation to do nothing to prevent it from happening. It’s just a call for humility, a short pause to acknowledge that a sense of absolute certainty about what children should do or be or how they should operate is part of what landed us here.

Once again, we are dealing with big questions, with ultimate questions about life and death and the meaning of human lives. Dare I say "eternal" questions?

But unless I missed something, this piece is totally religion free and other big questions about culture and morality are missing, as well. Search the text for words such as "God," "prayer," "worship," "church" and "faith" and what did you get? How about "religious"? That yields a reference about young people facing the pressure to memorize religious texts. Like what?

Now, it is possible that this story focuses ona very secular and religion-free piece of our country, or that this slice of highly successful families tends to lean toward a secular way of life. Might that -- in a reverse way -- be relevant?

Unlike other reports I have read on teen suicide, the story also has little or nothing to say about issues of sexuality and the impact of broken romantic relationships. And how many of these children are from broken homes? If there is no pattern there, then it would be good to know that.

As I was reading the story, I remembered an event in my own journalism career, one that I have shared before here at GetReligion.

Back in the early '80s, the editors of The Charlotte News -- it was a small, afternoon paper in the old Knight-Ridder chain -- set out to find out why some young people are happy and successful and others are not. The goal was to create a survey that probed the key factors that influenced whether teens would thrive socially, academically, financially, etc. When I heard about the project, long after the planning had started ...

I asked for a meeting with an editor and pleaded to be added to the project team. He asked, "Why? What does religion have to do with this?" or words to that effect. I predicted that, when the results came in, he would find the following factors near the top of the results:
* Whether the young people were from broken homes or homes in which a marriage had never formed. ...
* Were these young people involved in churches or other institutions offering guidance on moral issues in their lives?

In other words, the editors had assumed in advance that religion had nothing to do with this topic -- in a town with a major street named for Billy Graham. They newsroom's leaders didn't anticipate that moral and religious factors would show up.

They did. Issues linked to divorce and broken homes, if I recall correctly, ranked No. 1 in the survey and involvement in religious and cultural groups outside the home was No. 3. The week-long series ran as planned -- with no stories focusing on these moral and religious issues.

So did I see religion ghosts in this haunting Rosin piece? What do you think, readers? Read the whole story. It will be worth your time, ghosts and all.

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