Posted by: drrozkaplan | September 16, 2010

Losing a Shining Star

Several days ago, a terribly tragic event occurred at Wesleyan University, the college my son attends. Nora Miller,  a junior girl, described as a ‘gifted film student and elite athlete’ was found early in the morning on the athletic field, with burns over 100% of her body.  She later died at a nearby burn center.  The death was reported by the University as a suicide.  Apparently, the young woman had been battling depression for some time.  Bloggers report that her last Facebook entry read ‘When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire’-  the first line of a song by the Stars, and possibly, according to my search, something said by the first Parson who burned himself to death.

Historically, self-immolation has been a political or spiritual act, an act of self-sacrifice to make a plea for the end of suffering.  It is also a modern  ‘epidemic’ among women in repressive nations when they are faced with untenable, shaming marital circumstances.  But suicide by burning in this country is extremely rare, accounting for about 1% of all suicides, and is mostly seen in those over the age of 30.

This episode haunts me.  I cannot get it out of my mind.  I did not know Nora or her family, who reside in Middletown, CT, home of Wesleyan University, and were minutes from their daughter when this happened.  In fact, people who loved her were all around her.  Wesleyan is a loving place.  The students, professors and administration clearly knew and cared for this young woman.  She had many gifts, according to all who have talked about her.  Student and Behavioral Health Services were available to her.  But it was not enough.  Because when someone is suffering that much, sometimes nothing is enough.  Sometimes depression and other mental illnesses are fatal.  And we forget that.

I am haunted because I can’t stop thinking about how much suffering she must have felt to go through with a suicide that painful and violent, and that despite best efforts, it seems that nothing and nobody had been able to stop her suffering.  Perhaps this was truly the historical self-immolation that was the plea for the end of suffering.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that intervention at the right moment might not have prevented this tragedy.  Of course we will never know- had she been hospitalized, medicated….it’s all conjecture…perhaps this event would have been prevented, but we don’t know what the long-term outcome would have been.  It really doesn’t matter now.

The other thing that plays on my mind is much more personal.  Just a day earlier, my husband and I made peace with our own son at Wesleyan after weeks of angry exchanges  during that difficult first summer home after Freshman year, and then two weeks of near silence since he’s been back at school.  We ended a phone conversation with “I love you no matter what.”  For some reason, I had said to him that despite the fact that we weren’t always happy with his choices, we would never force anything on him, as long as he didn’t hurt himself or others.  And then the next day came this suicide.

My heart breaks for Nora, her family, her friends, and the whole Wesleyan community.  A shining star has been lost, literally burned out way before her time.  Wesleyan’s President, Michael Roth, said in his letter to the community, that this should remind us to all care for each other even more.  It’s not the whole answer, but it is what we can humanly do.



  1. love you Roz

  2. Hugs. I’m so sorry.

  3. As the culture of industrial civilization continues to deteriorate and people are lighting themselves on fire, annihilating their families, and shooting their classmates, I hope that a few more people will have the sense to analyze the sociological implications rather than spouting the usual cliches about how tragic it is that we couldn’t save this or that psychologically stressed individual.

    These wretched souls are not random aberrations who must be ‘corrected’ so they can adjust to society. They are merely experiencing extreme cases of the psychological stress that all of us are subjected to in this society.

    This “suffering” is the result of the alienation of mass society, the oppressive faceless institutions that govern our every move, and a culture that has removed homo sapiens from its original ecological niche (i.e. our rightful place in the world) more than any culture ever.

    When are doctors and scientists going to get a clue and see the bigger picture? Can’t they see where this technological society is heading and that they are the chief architects of our demise?

    No offense– I just wanted to take the opportunity to provoke some thought because I too am haunted by Nora’s death and I think we do ourselves a grave disservice when we let these horrifying incidents pass by unnoticed.

    • This is very interesting and thought-provoking. I don’t disagree with all of it, either. Our culture is extremely stressful to live in technology can be as much a curse as a blessing. I would like to hear more about how doctors and scientists are the chief architects of our demise, however. The role of doctor is not always to promote technology- healing is an interpersonal art.

      • If you’re interested, I would recommend French sociologist Jacques Ellul’s book ‘The Technological Society.’ Ellul broadly defined technology as the “totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” It is obvious to see how machines fit into this definition, but maybe less apparent are the equally technical aspects that almost completely govern the (modern) development of the state, the economy, education, medicine and so forth.

        The frightening part is that individual humans and human values have very little to do with the overall trajectory of a society that is dominated by technical concerns. After all, in such a complex integrated system, there is very little room for arbitrary human decisions. I am heartened to hear that you believe in a more human approach to healing, but unfortunately it seems that the trend (at least in mental health) is to medicate for the symptoms and forget about the bigger picture. It is a matter of efficiently disposing of aberrant individuals who consume resources without yielding a positive contribution to the system. Whether the techniques are aligned with traditional values such as dignity and self-determination is not especially important.

        Since technicians (economists, scientists, engineers, doctors, etc.) have become the key figures in determining the course of this integrated system, it is fairly obvious who is most to blame for the downward spiral we are sinking into. You may think that further technological solutions will redeem the technicians as they attempt to tackle the monumental challenges of the 21st century, but I am fairly certain that they will only make matters much worse. Even if they were to succeed in preventing the collapse of civilization and the ecosphere, there would be a massive degradation of human life and life in general. If you think technology has reduced human dignity today, you should read some of the ideas that futurists like Ray Kurzweil are suggesting.

  4. I am also haunted and so saddened by what must have been the depth of this young womans pain.

  5. I am a parent of a current Wesleyan Student also. And, although I did not know Nora nor did my daughter, I can’t stop thinking about her. From what I have read, she was beautiful, bright and loved by so many people. I am also haunted and saddened by her pain and suffering. I hope she is finally at peace.


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