How a well-written obituary and a police chief’s criticism have sparked a national conversation about opioid addiction.
UPDATE: On Nov. 26, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit on behalf of Madelyn Linsenmeir’s family, calling upon the city and police department of Springfield, Massachusetts to release all public records about Linsenmeir’s death, which occurred following five days in police custody.
Linsenmeir had been arrested on charges of outstanding warrants and providing a false name. But even as she was arrested, the family says, she was having a health crisis, and had been texting her mother to ask her to take her to the hospital. After the arrest, the lawsuit alleges, Linsenmeir was denied medical care. By the time she was taken to the hospital, it was too late, and she couldn’t be saved. Read on for the rest of her tragic story from earlier this year.
An obituary published in the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press this week has been shared over and over, finding its way to many thousands of Facebook feeds. It’s been covered by the Washington Post and CNN and ABC and other top news outlets. It’s guided a new national conversation about an issue that has reached a crisis point in our country.
Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir was 30 when she died. The photo that accompanies her obituary shows her smiling in the sun, her baby in a backpack carrier, smiling too. Madelyn’s cause of death, stated early and often in her long and eloquent obituary, was opioid addiction. Coming across it in the first paragraph offers a gut punch to the reader: How did this pretty, sunny young woman fall through the cracks to die an addict?
It’s that gut punch, and the heartfelt words that follow it, that made thousands share the obituary. That jarring disconnect between the photo and the facts made people need to talk about it. Madelyn could have been their college roommate, their coworker, the mom who set up playdates for their kids.
But the obit and the national conversation it kickstarted rubbed one police officer — Burlington’s chief of police, Brandon del Pozo — the wrong way. Del Pozo posted about it on his personal Facebook page, and his words soon went as viral as the obituary. “I have a problem with this obituary,” he began.
“Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew?” del Pozo continued. “Did readers think this was the first time a beautiful, young, beloved mother from a pastoral state got addicted to Oxy and died from the descent it wrought? And what about the rest of the victims, who weren’t as beautiful and lived in downtrodden cities or the rust belt? They too had mothers who cried for them and blamed themselves.”
Maybe it’s not what you’d expect a cop to say about an addict. You also might not expect a cop to argue that government response to the opioid epidemic should include protocols like “Stop arresting and prosecuting for simple misdemeanor-level possession of non-prescribed addiction treatment meds” and “Equip users with the tools to test their drugs for fentanyl.” But del Pozo laid out a smart and compassionate plan for addressing opioid addiction, and got the country’s attention.
He scolded us too, reminding us that “[O]thers are next. Some aren’t beautiful. Others look nothing like you. Some are like Maddie’s twin, and have little children too. They are all human beings and they need our help. Go. Get to work. We still need to earn the feelings her obituary inspired in us. We should have felt them years ago.”
Del Pozo is right. Addiction claims the lives of all kinds of people, and only a small fraction of those people are young, pretty white women like Madelyn Linsenmeir. We don’t share and reshare the obituaries of the socioeconomically disadvantaged addicts, the non-white addicts, the non-beautiful addicts. We don’t talk about all the opioid-fueled desperate acts and deaths that happen every day. It should make us feel bad to confront the fact that we feel so much more compelled to talk about a problem when it affects a pretty white lady than when it is killing black and brown people (less beautiful white ones, too) as this epidemic has been all along.
But this conversation starter wasn’t all about the photo, and I’d say it’s actually okay to feel that little bit of guilt while also continuing to appreciate the eye-opening power of Linsenmeir’s obituary. Most addicts don’t get remembered so eloquently, and most don’t have someone who had their back and also had the ability to articulate powerful thoughts like these from Linsenmeir’s obit:
“If you are reading this with judgment, educate yourself about this disease, because that is what it is. It is not a choice or a weakness. And chances are very good that someone you know is struggling with it, and that person needs and deserves your empathy and support.
“If you work in one of the many institutions through which addicts often pass—rehabs, hospitals, jails, courts—and treat them with the compassion and respect they deserve, thank you. If instead you see a junkie or thief or liar in front of you rather than a human being in need of help, consider a new profession.”
Sure, those paragraphs were written by the family of a young, pretty white woman. But they also apply to every single person who’s ever judged an addict, regardless of that addict’s race, address, appearance, or background. Linsenmeir’s family could have simply lamented the addiction that took their loved one from them, but instead they turned the camera on the audience and asked us to examine our prejudices about all addicts — not just the pretty ones.
The conversation started by Linsenmeir’s family was amplified and focused by del Pozo’s viral comments. Your gut reaction to Linsenmeir’s obituary might have been sadness that a woman with such potential (that is, an economically privileged white woman) was lost to addiction, but if you also read del Pozo’s post and moved on to thinking about how we can help end the opioid crisis across the board, then you’re doing it right. You can thank the power of a well-written obituary for helping you get there.
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