She radiated talent, energy, beauty. She took her own life at the age of 25
THE E-MAIL came from a previously unknown contributor. The address said it was from a Grace Ringwood. But it was signed “Anonymous”. So just who was this anonymous Grace?
Her e-mail was sent at 10.24pm on Friday, August 19th. It contained an article on suicide, and Grace was insisting on anonymity should The Irish Timesdecide to publish it. From the content of the piece, it was clear why.
It detailed Grace’s struggle with depression. How she had tried to take her own life. How, encouraged by friends, she checked herself into hospital. “I signed a form with an unknown level of alcohol and pills in my system,” she wrote. “For all intents and purposes, my admission was voluntary. In reality I was too mortified not to follow the wishes of my seemingly put-upon friends, not to survive for the sake of my job, and far too blinded by the smoke and mirrors of depression and self-inflicted harm to realise what I was doing.”
It was well composed: layered, complex and very lucid. Grace described herself as a “professional, a consultant” and said she loved her work. The substance of the article was quite narrow. It explored the pressures that can affect a person when they return to work after trying to harm themselves. And how, when colleagues know what has happened, relationships can change and make it much more difficult for the person to resume a normal life.
“I write in the hope that this grabs someone, anyone, and makes them think twice about what they may lose by not asking the question. Seek guidance. Seek insight. For when you ask a question – a true question – only then can you receive an answer. And answers.”
The covering message with the e-mail said: “If you need information to confirm the validity of the story and my existence, please respond and I will get in touch.”
I read the piece on Monday, August 22nd, and replied around noon.
“Many thanks for sending me this piece,” I wrote. “I would be grateful if you would get in touch with me as, while we are extremely reluctant to publish unsigned pieces, clearly this is an exception.”
I included my mobile-phone number, and I got a call that afternoon. The person at the other end said she was Grace Ringwood and then told me her real name. “Actually, I think you know me,” she said, adding that she had sent me material for publication in her professional capacity and that, on at least one occasion, The Irish Timeshad published an article under her own name.
The “Grace” with whom I was chatting sounded clear, calm and comfortable with what she was saying. Not unstable, just normal. She had well-thought-out views on a difficult subject about which she wrote well, with the authority of personal experience.
The conversation lasted no more than a few minutes. I said that I would discuss the piece with the Editor, to whom I would have to disclose her true identity but would be suggesting we publish it anonymously. I would let her know.
Later that evening, a few minutes before 7pm, Grace e-mailed me again.
“Dear Peter,” she wrote. “Thank you for your call earlier. It was very comforting to hear your interest in the area, even if my piece in particular may not be deemed suitable. Nevertheless, if you do decide to publish it, do please let me know.
“And again, if there is anything else I can contribute or another area of the issue you would like me to write about, please do not hesitate to ask. I enjoy writing, and I think a great deal can be gained from writings on this issue in a paper like The Irish Times.”
We did publish – anonymously, as she requested – on Friday, September 9th, which was the day before World Suicide Prevention Day. The link, Grace’s suggestion, was apposite.
But, unknown to us, by the time readers were digesting Grace’s thoughts, she was already dead.
On Monday, August 22nd, within an hour or two of e-mailing how much she enjoyed writing and looked forward to contributing more to The Irish Times, Grace Ringwood took her own life.
GRACE RINGWOOD’Sreal name is Kate Fitzgerald. She was 25 when she died.
She radiated talent, energy, beauty and determination. Her long-term ambition was to write. She was someone whose life amounted to much more than the manner of its ending, and the immeasurable grief that that has caused her parents and brother, her wider family and friends – everyone who knew her and loved her for the person she was.
The day after Kate’s article was published, her father, Tom Fitzgerald, rang the newspaper to say he thought – was fairly certain, in fact – that the author of the anonymous piece was his daughter and that she had taken her own life between its having been submitted and published.
Some days later I met Tom and his wife, Kate’s mother, Sally. Sally explained immediately why her daughter chose the name. “Ringwood is my mother’s maiden name,” she said, “and I always told Kate that if I’d had another daughter, I was going to call her Grace. Kate loved that name.”
A cascade of raw emotion, love, memories, loss and some anger followed. But with all of those, there was also a feeling that Kate’s life story, and her many achievements, should not be swamped by bewilderment at her death, the manner of it, and that her plea for greater understanding of depression should be heard.
KATE WAS BORNon June 26th, 1986, in San Jose, California. Tom was from small-farming stock in Dingle, Co Kerry, but in 1971, aged 18, he headed for the US. Over the next seven years, he had a variety of jobs; he was a military policeman in the US air force and he worked on the Alaska oil pipeline.
One day, in 1978, he was sitting in a romantic-poetry class at the University of San Francisco. Sally, who as a teenager had spent a year at boarding school in Athlone, was sitting in front of Tom. Hearing his accent, she turned around. “That was it: lightning bolt!” she says.
Marriage followed, then Kate and, in 1989, her brother, William. In between, Tom studied computers and became a writer of technical manuals for PC users. His work brought the family to Europe; first to London and then to Ireland.
They settled eventually in Bantry, in west Co Cork, where he and William run a technical writing and translation company.
Sally, originally from La Jolla in California, was trained in classical voice in San Francisco, and established a school of voice in Bantry.
From an early age, Kate stood out. Her twin loves of politics and communication emerged in childhood, a legacy in part perhaps from her maternal grandfather, a cartoonist with the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper.
Before she was 10, she drew a picture of herself making a speech standing at the podium of the US president.
As a child in Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare, she started her own newspaper, which she sold in local shops. By the time she was at secondary school in Cork, she was reviving the school’s moribund debating society, with Tom’s help.
When Kate was in her teens, strong, high-achieving women became her heroes and role models. On her bedroom wall was a picture of Diane Sawyer, the US television anchorwoman. She admired the actor Katharine Hepburn as well as Katharine Graham, the matriarch of the Washington Post. All strong women, as Sally notes.
But the very qualities that made Kate special might also have marked her out in a manner not to her advantage. The bright kid with the American accent was bullied. “She was tough,” says Sally, “but not as tough as we thought. She had her own style. She stood out. She was single-minded, knew what she was about, what she wanted.”
Kate studied journalism at Dublin City University but switched to the international-relations course. She was 18 when the US Democrat senator John Kerry was demolished by Republican George W Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Kate sat up all night as the Democrats’ disaster unfolded.
She threw herself into the Irish branch of Democrats Abroad and emerged, in late 2007, as its chairwoman. She was just 21 years old but flung herself at the challenge of turning around an organisation that was, in effect, defunct. Within two years, membership had grown from about 200 to 1,400, and funds in the bank were up from €600 to €11,000.
By the time of the Barack Obama-John McCain presidential election, in November 2008, she was a regular radio and television commentator on the campaign. A trip to Washington for the inauguration followed, and when President Obama came to Ireland in May, Kate featured on RTÉ and on TV3.
“She loved the adrenalin of being head of Democrats Abroad,” says Sally. “She was so stylish; she was in PR, she knew how to present herself,” says Tom.
But beneath the surface, all was not well.
Tom says: “I think she felt in over her head. I think she was unable to cope with the value system that often exists in journalism and PR. She was hooked on the adrenalin of power, the pressure, the deadlines – but, you know, it was all too much for her.”
“She was not comfortable with failure,” says Sally. “She always wanted to be on top. She was constantly critical of herself; she never thought she could be good enough. She was a perfectionist.” Behind all the success, all the achievement, was there insecurity? “Yes,” replies Sally. A lack of confidence, despite apparent self-confidence? “Yes.”
Drink began to assume a destructive role in her life. A broken relationship didn’t help. On July 18th, she checked herself into St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin, which specialises in mental-health issues. She did so through a fog of drink and antidepressants.
“In St Pat’s, she behaved like a normal person; friends visited, and so on,” says Tom. “But underneath all that was the problem she was hiding from everyone,” says Sally.
Sally’s theory is that a depressed person can sometimes try to “manage” their condition by stepping outside themselves but, far from controlling their condition, “they get farther and farther from reality”.
“I think that’s where Katie was that night. The person who commits suicide is not the person you know,” she says.
And maybe there was something in Kate’s mind from her family history. A half-aunt and an uncle, Sally’s brother, had taken their own lives in 1985 and 2002. The thought of a connection in Kate’s mind, however tenuous, upsets Sally, but she dwells on it. “That really distresses me a lot.”
ON THAT NIGHT, after e-mailing The Irish Timesher prim, matter-of-fact but friendly note, Kate descended rapidly. Within a couple of hours, drink and pills had taken over. Tom and Sally believe I may have been the last person she spoke to. After that conversation, Kate left an incoherent voice message on another phone, but there was no last note, no message of explanation. Her yet-to-be-published article was the nearest thing to that.
Quite simply, and on her own, Kate went to a dark place from which she did not return.
The next day, two gardaí called to the family home in Bantry to deliver the worst news imaginable.
Amid the grief, a torrent of tributes was posted on Kate’s Facebook page. “Such a loss of a beautiful, smart and inspirational girl. In even a short time, she made a huge impact,” wrote Laura.
“Kate was a truly radiant personality. The world is a lesser place without her,” wrote Pat Lewis.
“I feel so incredibly privileged to have known Kate, to have tried to be as knowledgeable and as passionate and as damn good a dancer as she was,” wrote Alan.
At Kate’s funeral, in Glengarriff, Sally asked her students at West Cork School of Voice to sing Aaron Copland’s working of Simple Gifts, the Shaker hymn:
’Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.
Tom spoke. So did William. Sally read Kate’s entry to Plan Ireland’s blog, Because I am a Girl – “although it was extremely difficult to do, I wanted Kates words to be heard” – and there were words too from the American writer Mary Kay Simmons, a friend of Kate.
She mentioned the dark corner of Kate’s bouts of depression and how “she lacked that extra skin that helps the rest of us fight one’s corner without depression” but still lit up the lives of others.
Kate’s ashes were scattered at Sea Ranch, a holiday resort in Sonoma County, in northern California, a place she knew and loved. “She’s there now with the whales and California sea lions,” says Tom.
Tom, Sally and William nurse their grief and want Kate’s legacy to be a better understanding of depression and suicide. They, no more than anyone else, do not have instant solutions.
“What I’ve learned from it?” Sally responds to my question. “Trust your instincts. Choose your friends and associates carefully. We also wish to help erase the stigma attached to suicide. Depression is a medical illness, not merely a mental condition. As Kate implied in her article, the answer is there, if you ask the right question.”
Sally and Tom Fitzgerald and West Cork School of Voice have organised concerts in Kate’s honour at the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff on December 9th and 10th. All proceeds will go to Plan Ireland, Kate’s favourite charity