Heidi Stevens: The search for answers--and belonging--in the wake of family tragedy

Heidi Stevens, Tribune News Service on

Published in Lifestyles

Journalist Meg Kissinger spent more than two decades reporting on America’s labyrinth, broken mental health system and its human casualties.

Her careful and dogged reporting led to public policy changes in Milwaukee, where she’s based, as well as numerous awards; she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, the winner of two George Polk Awards, a Robert F. Kennedy Award and more.

For her most recent story, she turned her investigative lens inward. The result is “While You Were Out,” a beautiful and searing memoir about her own family’s experiences with mental illness. She grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, with seven siblings in a boisterous, loving Irish-Catholic home beset by tragedy and bereft of the tools to fully cope. Two of her siblings died by suicide. Both parents struggled with alcoholism.

The book is illuminating, courageous and generous. In her Catholic elementary school, Kissinger was assigned to pick a saint to study and emulate. She chose Saint Therese of Lisieux, revered in part for her ability to suffer in silence and keep secrets.

Kissinger decided, ultimately, to do neither.

She first wrote about her sister Nancy’s death close to a decade after it happened—in an essay for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Sunday magazine. Kissinger had been visiting her parents and stumbled across her high school yearbook, which was filled with devil horns and blacked-out teeth and goofy comments, all courtesy of Nancy. She was overwhelmed with a tender longing.


“I had not let myself remember Nancy like that because I was too ashamed of the way she died,” Kissinger wrote. “Trauma does that to you. It steals your memory.”

That moment turned into an essay. Years later, when her brother Danny also died by suicide, Kissinger’s editor asked if she would write another essay. At first she recoiled. Eventually, she decided she must. The outpouring of phone calls, letters and emails after each essay proved why.

“The names and many of the details were different, but I quickly picked up on a universal theme,” she wrote. “People are frantic to get care for their family members suffering from mental illness. They didn’t know whom to call. They were either too embarrassed to talk to anyone about it or they couldn’t find anyone who would listen. So, they watched, day after day, while a little bit more of the person they loved disappeared before their eyes. They were confused, angry and frustrated. But, mostly, they were terrified.”

Mental health became her “beat,” so to speak.


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