A witness to suicide, one reporter pieces together the troubled backstory
When Chicago Sun-Times reporter Frank Main showed the first draft to his wife after weeks worth of work, she gave him some advice: "You need to put yourself into the story."
He had plenty of his own experience to share. On May 6, Main watched as a young woman jumped to her death from a four-story building. His paper doesn't usually cover suicides and didn't report this one either — until Main began fleshing out the intimate details of her troubled life.
The resulting story, "Life on a Ledge," was published in September and helps readers understand the causes of suicide, which claimed 445 lives in Chicago's Cook County last year.
Main needed to learn about suicide to fully understand the story. The statistics didn't explain why a young woman would wait two hours before finally deciding to jump.
"As a reporter, you want an answer," Main said. "I thought that people who commit suicide would want to say why they do what they do — the truth is most of the time they don’t. It is a mystery that you can’t totally solve."
That morning, Main was making coffee when a neighbor called to say that, less than 500 feet away, a young woman was sitting on the ledge of a building with her legs dangling over the side.
A few people snapped pictures on their phones. Another was capturing it all on video. Main could see her from his balcony. He saw the fire trucks arrive. He watched as the fire department inflated a "jumpbag" — a big pillow that might cushion a fall. But before they could get the bag positioned, before the police had any useful conversation with the woman, she made up her mind — and became the seventh person in Cook County to die by jumping to their deaths this year.
For weeks, Main thought about what he had witnessed. Who was she? What was so wrong in her life that she resorted to this?
He began collecting a paper trail. He pulled all the records he could find, starting with the police report that provided her name, Kendra Smith. The police report provided her height, weight, age, the color of her eyes and her employer. The employer told cops that Smith had access to the rooftop because she was in charge of building a garden there. The garden was almost finished.
Main found courthouse records that filled out a picture of a woman who alternated between triumph, tenacity and deeply troubled bouts of drug abuse and crime. A 30-page pre-sentencing report in one criminal case provided details of her drug use and a diagnosis of mental illness.
Divorce records told the tale of a woman who had been married three times with two children but lost custody of the kids after she was arrested for a break-in. A look through newspaper records told the tale of a small-time thief who used a hot credit card to rent a movie. The court files painted a picture of a woman whose life unraveled.
But there was another story, too. After serving a jail term, Smith enrolled in school and, thanks to a support group, took up running. In January 2015, she appeared on Chicago TV to praise a program called "Back on my Feet" which she said turned her life around.
"You know, we may have made a mistake, but we aren't a mistake," she said. The program "treats us with the respect that we deserve, and the dignity and hope and with faith that we can do it." The smiling Smith on TV that morning talked openly about her criminal past and recovery was the picture of self-confidence.
So what went wrong?
To find out, Main turned to social media. Smith's friends proved hard to find but eventually agreed to talk after initial conversations on Facebook Messenger. They told her mother that Main was working on a story.
"So by the time I contacted her, she was ready to talk," Main said.
She told Main her daughter suffered from mental problems since she was young. Years ago, Smith had stolen thousands of dollars in jewelry from her mother. Her mother knew Smith had overcome a lot but was not aware she had a very serious health problem, Main said.
Smith's boyfriend told Main that she may have been suffering from a serious kidney condition. The boyfriend said Smith believed she had cancer and didn't have long to live. But after she jumped, the Medical Examiner's report didn't provide any insight into her illness, and no toxicology report, just that she died after jumping. Smith's physician refused to share any medical records with Smith's mother, citing HIPAA privacy laws.
When the Sun-Times published the story across eight printed pages and an extensive multimedia presentation, staffers didn't know what to expect.
"We were aware that research shows that writing about suicide can create copycat incidents," Main said. "We thought some people would say we were not sensitive. We tried to be. And I didn't want to show what she did as a heroic act. We told the story honestly and bluntly."
While Smith's death is unusual in that women seldom die by jumping, she did have things in common with other people that kill themselves. She attempted to take her own life before. Her history of mental illness and drug use are common factors among suicide victims.
Main also showed that, far from saving others from pain, suicide inflicts anguish. The Sun-Times story explores how Smith's decision to take her own life affected those who watched her fall, what experts call a "ripple effect." Firefighters who tried to save her were shaken. One witness said she was almost angry because she has to carry the pain of experiencing a graphic death after being pulled into Smith's "karmic web."
The Sun-Times story uses tiny, telling details to connect readers with Smith. Once police took down the crime scene tape, one pink flip-flop lay on the sidewalk. Main checked the medical examiner's report. Smith's body arrived wearing one flip-flop.
Police captured that lone flip-flop in evidence photos and turned the image over to the paper. Why was she wearing flip-flops, Main wondered? Smith's boyfriend said she told him she had to go to work to take care of an emergency.
But she didn't put on her usual size-six Timberland work shoes. She wore flip-flops. "She was wearing her pajamas and a sweatshirt. She went straight from home to the rooftop," Main said. She left a message typed out on her mobile phone telling police to contact her mother. She also said she had recently paid her electric and gas bills so nobody else would have to.
A troubling problem
The suicide rate in America is at a 30-year peak, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The biggest increase is among women. The study shows since 1999, the U.S. has seen a 63 percent increase in suicide involving women ages 45 to 64.
Smith would have been 45 next month. Main still doesn't know why Smith killed herself, but he does know she is part of a growing problem that most newsrooms don't cover.
The Sun-Times and Main did not glorify suicide. Rather than relying solely on friends who might paint too rosy a picture of a troubled woman — and rather than relying on neighbors or co-workers who had no idea how deeply rooted deep Smith's troubles were anchored — Main used a trail of public records to undergird his story with facts.
And he had the good sense to listen to his wife when she gave him this second piece of advice: "You need to guide people through this story like they were the ones who were trying to find the answers."