Why the fictional death of an imaginary girl is a better story than the actual death of a real young woman

Lizzy Seeberg: all too real

Next week, I’ll start teaching a Senior Seminar called Life and Death in Early America.  In reality, it’s mostly about death.  I’ve thrown in some stuff about disease, dirt, starvation, cannibalism, abortion, and contraception, just to keep things lively (so to speak), but the fact is that there is a fascinating new literature on death in my field.  Its common themes are:  how the afterlife was imagined in different places, times, and cultures; how death was experienced and interpreted; and how the living cared for the dying and the dead.

Another of the key features of this emerging subfield is a focus on commemoration:  how different cultures commemorate the dead, and why we remember some deaths and some of our dead and forget others.  Thanks to Manti T’eo, his imaginary girlfriend’s imaginary death, a real St. Mary’s College student’s death, and to Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post, I’ve got a terrific contemporary hook for when we talk about the politics of commemoration.  Henneberger explains:

So many tears for a fake dead girl, but none for a real one. The death of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s beautiful, brave girlfriend Lennay Kekau – widely reported by Sports Illustrated, CBS and many other media outlets — was all an elaborate hoax. So in response, my alma mater held the kind of emotional press conference for the fake dead girl that they never granted for the real one. As I’ve reported before, evidence that the University of Notre Dame covers up for sexual predators on the football team in hopes of winning some games has been mostly ignored. “Who can know?” my fellow alums asked, on their way to snap up some more “Play Like a Champion Today” tee-shirts ahead of the big game. But evidence that the school kept mum after learning that that the story of Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, who as she lay dying urged him to fight on to victory anyway – gosh, just like the Gipper — was concocted from start to finish? Now that’s a national story, and a real gut-punch to fans, involving important matters like the pursuit of the Heisman Trophy.

.       .       .       .       .

But even if [it] turns out that ND officials were in some respects the victims in this weird story, their casual airbrushing of the truth will hurt them more than their quite deliberate disinformation campaign about Lizzy Seeberg, the Saint Mary’s freshman who committed suicide in 2010 after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault. No, we won’t tolerate having our feelings manipulated, even if outlets like S.I. were so eager for a piece of the mythmaking that their hokum-detectors either never sounded, or were disabled. Seeberg was ignored and threatened in life and purposefully lied about in death, but a story implicating those who run ND was for many of my fellow alums – and fellow journalists, too – just too uncomfortable to want to know about. But the one about auto accident victim and leukemia patient Lennay Kekua was too good to check, even as it just kept getting better.

(Aside:  Sports “journalism” sure is having a bad week, what with Lance Armstrong’s “confession” and now this.  It only confirms my suspicion that Sports Illustrated and most sports “journalism” is essentially an only slightly more adult version of Tiger Beat–a fanzine, or even fan fiction, not work to be taken seriously.)

Who was Lizzy Seeberg?  Henneberger’s second link above explains:

I’ve spent months researching these cases and written thousands of words in the National Catholic Reporter about the whole shameful situation, some of which you’ve likely heard about: Two years ago, Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary’s College, across the street from Notre Dame, committed suicide after accusing an ND football player of sexually assaulting her. The friend Lizzy told immediately afterward said she was crying so hard she was having trouble breathing.

Yet after Lizzy went to the police, a friend of the player’s sent her a series of texts that frightened her as much as anything that had happened in the player’s dorm room. “Don’t do anything you would regret,” one of them said. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”

At the time of her death, 10 days after reporting the attack to campus police, who have jurisdiction for even the most serious crimes on school property, investigators still had not interviewed the accused. It took them five more days after she died to get around to that, though they investigated Lizzy herself quite thoroughly, even debriefing a former roommate at another school with whom she’d clashed.

Henneberger says that not only did Notre Dame help give life to Lennay Kekua story, it perpetrated a hoax on Charlie Rose and CBS news even after it learned that Lennay Kekua never existed.  She concludes yesterday’s blog post thus:

I will leave it to others to sort through the particulars of a culture in which it’s easier to have a nonexistent girlfriend than a real one, easier to go along with a heartwarming lie than come to terms with an unpleasant truth. . . . I’m sincerely sorry for all my Notre Dame friends who told me they were looking past the way our school treated Lizzy Seeberg and other women in no small measure because Manti was “the real deal,” and represented “what Notre Dame is really all about.” Turns out, they were right.

Yowza!  Well, that’s where I come in–as one of those people who can “sort through the particulars of a culture in which it’s easier to have a nonexistent girlfriend than a real one.” In other words, why do we commemorate some of our dead, and ignore others?  I think in this case it’s because Lennay Kekua conformed to a script that Notre Dame (and its fans, and many Americans) approve of for young women:  she was chaste and silent.  Not only was Lizzy Seeberg not necessarily chaste, she wouldn’t shut up when she was told to shut up.

The problem with real girlfriends and Notre Dame trying to live up to its own reputation is that real girlfriends–even those who attend Catholic universities like Notre Dame and St. Mary’s–might be sexually active and even use contraception.  Real women might sometimes speak up when they’re groped or raped at a party.  Real women have real ladyparts, ladyparts that are no part of what Notre Dame football or its servant-administrators want to talk about.  And we all know that the most terrifying ladypart of all is a mouth that tells a truth that Notre Dame football doesn’t want to hear or deal with.

In sum:  real girlfriends and real women complicate the story of virtuous manhood on the gridiron and integrity in and out of the classroom that Notre Dame wants sports writers to write about.  Real women expose the stories about false masculinity that football  and Notre Dame want to perpetrate.

Now, dead girlfriends, especially dead imaginary girlfriends with whom football players must necessarily have had only entirely chaste relationships (because they’re imaginary!)–now that’s the ticket!  Lannay Kekua was literally too good to be true–a girl who could never consent to sex, who also could never complain about rape, and who offers NDU a death as theatrically corny as Little Eva’s in Uncle Tom’s Cabin?  Sports “journalism” and NDU publicity gold, babies!

Pardon me if it seems like I’m enjoying this fake death a little too much.  It’s so convenient for my own professional timing too, as I explained above.  Americans love sentimental stories about uncomplicated virtue and devotion, and people who run Catholic universities can’t get enough stories about chaste virtue and devotion.  Americans do not love stories that interfere with their hero worship of certain sports teams, and they don’t love to hear the more complicated and sometimes disturbing stories of real women’s lives.  And we especially don’t want to hear about it when these stories intersect, as they did in Lizzy Seeberg’s life and death.

I wish Lizzy Seeberg were still alive–for her sake and for her family’s sake, of course–but also for the sake of being a burr under the saddle of the Notre Dame football team and the administrators who enable it.  Unfortunately, by ending her life, she ended up conforming to that old and very much approved-of script for young women:  in taking her life, she silenced herself.

Like most victims of sexual assault, she probably wouldn’t have found justice in the courts, but she might have attained some measure of justice in the court of public opinion.  She might have finished college to become a beat reporter or a writer who tries to write about the truth of college football’s power to corrode everything and everyone it touches.  She might have become a compassionate paramedic or ER physician who helped other rape victims, or perhaps an Assistant District Attorney who helped prosecute rapists.  She might have become a therapist, or a teacher, or a high school guidance counselor.  Or, she might have chosen not to let her attacker define her for the rest of her life, and just gotten on with her life.  You might have liked her.  You would have respected her, regardless of whether or not you knew about something that happened to her in her freshman year.

Lizzy Seeberg’s all-too young and very real death diminishes us all.

*               *               *               *               *

For those of you interested in my syllabus on death, here are the books and articles we’ll be reading:

  • Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies:  Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 2009)
  • Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden:  Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2008)
  • Philip R.P. Coelho and Robert A. McGuire, “African and European Bound Labor in the British New World:  The Biological Consequences of Economic Choices,” Journal of Economic History 57:1 (March 1997), 83-115.
  • Alfred W. Crosby, “Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation of America,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser., 33: 2 (April 1976), 289-99.
  • Cornelia Hughes Dayton, “Taking the Trade:  Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser., 48:1 (January 1991), 19-49.
  • Matthew Dennis, “Death and Memory in Early America,” History Compass 4:2 (2006), 384-401
  • Drew Faust, This Republic of Suffering:  Death and the American Civil War (2008)
  • Katherine A. Grandjean, “New World Tempests:  Environment, Scarcity, and the Coming of the Pequot War,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser., 68:1 (2011), 75-100.
  • Rachel B. Herrmann, “The ‘tragicall historie’:  Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestowne,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser., 68:1 (2011), 47-74.
  • David S. Jones, “Virgin Soils Revisited,” William and Mary Quarterly  3rd. ser., 60:4 (October 2003), 703-39.
  • Susan Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2009)
  • Eric Seeman, Death in the New World:  Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800 (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)
  • Terri L. Snyder, “Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in North America,” Journal of American History 97:1 (2010), 39-62.

26 thoughts on “Why the fictional death of an imaginary girl is a better story than the actual death of a real young woman

  1. I’ve been following Henneberger’s courageous reporting on this story for some time. I agree with her about the irony of Notre Dame’s response to the two situations. An interesting twist….Some of my gay colleagues believe that Manti Te’o might be gay, which might explain his “girlfriend” as a cover-up. Te’o was raised as a Mormon and plays for a Catholic college. IF he were gay, playing football for Notre Dame must have presented some real challenges for him.


  2. I would call this juxtapositioning of the real dead “bad” girl and the fake dead “good” girl ironic if it weren’t also f-ed up. However we name it, you’ve really laid it out in sparkling, discomforting fashion here.


  3. There’s huge resistance to acknowledging that the toxic stew of patriarchy-rape-virtue-misogyny even exists. Things seen can’t be unseen.

    I have no idea how we’re ever going to filter through that wall. A drop at a time, I guess.


  4. Thank you for outlining the work that the fictional girlfriend did – for NDU, possibly for Manti Te’o. I notice everyone is falling all over themselves to protect Te’o and swallow his story that he was duped. But he and his family talked about meeting her, so . . .


  5. P.S. It occurs to me that not only are historians well suited to “sort[ing] through the particulars of a culture in which it’s easier to have a nonexistent girlfriend than a real one.” We’re also trained to critically evaluate sometimes conflicting evidence. And there, chronology does matter…


  6. I remember reading an article in the New Yorker years ago about the history of cycling, in which the author stated that there was no way doping couldn’t be going on, given the number of world records that were being broken in a very short period of time. Lance Armstrong was part of that, so implicitly he was accusing Armstrong of doping as well. All of this was out in plain view for a long time for anyone with eyes to look and a will to see. Somehow a strange blindness comes over people where sports are concerned.


  7. Yeah, and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped us get over that nasty baseball strike of ’94 with the homerun slugfest. Anyone with eyes and the most rudimentary grasp of human development knows that post-adolescent men (in their 30s, even) don’t develop huge Popeye arms without the juice.

    This just makes it all so much clearer that most of us believe what we want to believe, notwithstanding the evidence in front of our (lyin’) eyes.


  8. The commentary the post provides is solid and strong. Yet, other alternative narratives exist.

    ND football stands, in the post, as ultra macho, ultra male and blind body. ND football also makes a lot of money, it represents rich coaches, strong connections to the NFL and it is a self preserving rich organization. This facet of ND can also explain ignoring Lizzy Seeberg and elevating a fake reality way less toxic.


  9. For those of us on the literature side, there’s probably a course to be taught on the genre of sports hagiography. Unfortunately, no one would want to take it (because it would shatter their illusions).

    Sports play an extremely powerful, and very odd, place in our culture. To cite one example, youth sports seem to be one of the major contributing reasons to a decline in Sunday School/general Sunday morning attendance at my (suburban, mainline Protestant) church (there aren’t enough sports fields to meet demand, so games have to be played on Sunday mornings, and it’s generally the travel teams — the “serious,” prestigious ones, to which one apparently doesn’t say no, whatever they demand — that end up in those slots). I’ve several times told the (female) pastors of my church, both of whom tend toward occasional sports analogies (because they work; I understand), that it’s a good thing I’m not in their place, since I’d be tempted to preach a jeremiad (or at least ask some gentle but persistent questions) about the place that sports play in our lives. But neither pastor seems willing to ask even the gentle questions. In contrast, one of them (the more socially conservative of the two) mentions pornography as a threat to family and faith life at least once a year. Admittedly, I’m not sitting in her office hearing the problems that people bring to her, but as far as I can tell far fewer members of the church are sitting at home on Sunday morning viewing pornography than are sitting on the sidelines of youth sports games, and I very much doubt that any of our children or youth are viewing pornography rather than coming to church (some of them might be up late on Saturday night watching it, I suppose, but teenagers tend to be night owls whatever they’re doing, and yes, the traditional timing of church activities might be part of the problem; we’re thinking about that one).

    On another somewhat-related note: in catching up on some reading about Harvard’s cheating scandal, I noted that several varsity athletes are rumored to have withdrawn in order to avoid investigation, and to preserve a year of playing eligibility. This puzzles me. Since when does one give up a Harvard education (which seems unlikely to be lost in this case, given Harvard’s weak honor code and the breadth of the scandal) in order to preserve athletic eligibility (especially given the caliber of athletes to which Harvard is generally limited — because they also have to be able to more or less keep up in the classroom)?

    The world has decidedly gone topsy-turvy, the apocalypse is nigh, and the sports tail wagging the academic dog (and some other metaphorical canines as well) is presumably only one symptom, but it’s a significant one.

    Also, I want to take your class, or at least read some of the books. I’ve taught one of the articles on which Faust’s book is built, to good effect (it works well for teaching advanced writing students how to identify primary and secondary sources, and how to take an idea from a secondary source and apply ideas from it to other primary materials from the same or another era). I hadn’t heard of several others, however, especially Vincent Brown’s (and the other things on slavery and death). The reading pile by my bed will soon grow larger.


  10. I liked this article until I got to this sentence:

    “Or, she might have chosen not to let her attacker define her for the rest of her life, and just gotten on with her life.”

    Woah. Come on, now. Do I really have to spell out why this is just so incredibly offensive? Yuck yuck yuck.


  11. Sabrina, I can understand your reading of that sentence. I was trying to imagine how someone who was sexually assaulted might think about these issues. I was trying on the one hand to imagine that her experience might have shaped her personal and professional choices on the one hand, or, that she might (legitimately) have decided NOT to let it shape the rest of her life.

    If you can suggest a better way to say that, then I’m certainly open to changing my phrasing.


  12. Undine, honestly, it’s all Melinda Henneberger. I remember hearing about the Seeberg case shortly after her suicide in September of 2010, but Henneberger is the only national press person I know of who’s still following the case. (As you probably can see, she’s an NDU grad, although not an uncritical one.)

    Cassandra: thanks for your compliments on the course! I am not surprised to hear your thoughts on the secular religion of Youth Sports. I don’t know how some people do it–if you’ve got more than one kid, then you’re there all day. The whole darn weekend for the entire family is just soccer/football/whatever–forget going on a hike, taking a trip, or even just going to the movies or ice skating together.

    I think youth sports culture in particular has a lot to do with the strange pedestal middle-class children are put on–or at least, this is the ideal of family life, we’re told. They’re worshipped by their parents almost, but their lives are also terribly constrained or controlled by their parents.


  13. Wow. Janice, you are so right–I hadn’t thought about all of those sermons eulogizing dead women of matchless virtue! And they can never talk back or contradict anyone anymore.

    Tony’s point about virtuous administrators is a good one. My guess is that they’ve retired, and they’ve been replaced by a new generation who respond to the incentives of the neoliberal university: it’s all a potential profit center, so whomever sells the most “product” while keeping their production (i.e. labor) costs low will be rewarded. We hear very rarely about the public interest, or about what’s good for the university as a whole. I also think that administrators are rewarded more for implementing new programs that sound good, but they rarely stick around to see if they actually improve retention, or time-to-degree, or student learning, or whatever they’re trying to improve. In fact, sticking around would only mean being accountable for your decisions, so that’s another reason to flee.

    I was thinking about this the other day after getting the fiftieth e-mail this year asking me to nominate someone for Whatever-of-the-Year, which I guarantee you were each the brainchildren of administrators. These awards schemes, which just make more work for faculty who have to write these nominations and then have to sit on committees and judge them, are our substitutes now for merit increases or actual funding for our research. Because a few of us get rewarded occasionally (and a lunch, and maybe a sticker!) they don’t have to pay us, provide decent benefits, or think about the long-term.


  14. she might have chosen not to let her attacker define her

    In my experience, even if you choose not to let it define you, it defines you (in the way I take Historiann to mean this, to become an activist about the particular injustice). I think I would in any case be exactly who I am and have supported younger women in exactly the ways I have but I also see how my own college experiences are a part of reacting the way I do, saying what I say, and so on. This may be a sort of choosing too, though, a kind that lets you lift the burden.


  15. Thanks for this post, Historiann! I was just thinking about how reprehensible it is that the fake dead girlfriend story is what has caused fans to realize that ND football is morally bankrupt..


  16. Back in the day, when a student got in real trouble, I would contact one of the college deans. They had seen everything, tirelessly worked all the hours there are and were there for the students–ready to take a risk when it was merited, though also to decide that someone absolutely needed to take time off or leave entirely, and always, always willing to take responsibility for their decisions.

    Happily, none of my students has been in serious trouble for a surprisingly long time. I hope when trouble comes again, one of those wonderful deans is still around . . .


  17. Fridging is not just in comic books. Think how many sitcoms and movies there are in which mom is dead and the brave single dad is raising the kids. So brave, and he gets to date!

    Maybe this will be enough to get the fawning article about the ND football program off the top of the Chronicle blogs page. My stomach turns every time I see the ND president’s big smirky smile. Ew.


  18. If any school maintained academic performance of athletes as a priority, there’d be games scheduled around tests, and athletes excused to take them; athletes housed across campus, instead of in segregated housing (with the specialist tutoring and coddling implied, whether provided directly by the university or by the fraternal system); and, of course, students recruited primarily for their academic talents, with any participation in sports treated as a true extracurricular pursuit — with no time taken away from studying to participate.

    Of course, that’s a dream world, especially when there’s so much at stake involving prestige and income. And don’t be deceived about the Ivy League cachet — its administrators and athletics directors will take steps, including recruiting athletes with the same proportionate subpar academic qualifications as any Big X school, to not be mocked as competitively effeminate.


  19. Pingback: Life, death, and early America : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  20. Pingback: Life, death, and early America | Historiann

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.