“Death twitches my ear. ‘Live,’ he says, ‘I am coming.’”—Virgil
The summer of 2013 started for the Campbell family as all summers should—worry free and with pleasure. In early June, Maysie Campbell joined her parents, Ellie and Greg, on a vacation to England. They visited Maysie’s brother, Spencer, who was living in London with his wife, Francesca, and their daughter, Penelope.
Cute and witty, blond and petite, Maysie brought the best of herself on the trip, the charm and intellect earned from a life complete with the best schools, jobs, and support obtainable. She personified the adoring aunt—cheerful, generous, and involved. This behavior came naturally to her. She possessed a magical ability to connect with children on their terms, which was especially notable since, at age forty-one, she had no kids of her own.
By the family’s account, the visit was a great success—a classic adventure, providing a rare opportunity to spend quality time together. They felt more connected than they had in years.
On Friday, June 14, Maysie left her family in London to return home to Kure Beach, a town located fifteen miles from Wilmington, North Carolina. Back from vacation, she was able to briefly reconnect with her fiancé, John Duvall. A few days later, John and his four children were scheduled to take a European vacation of their own. John and Maysie hadn’t coordinated traveling together partially due to scheduling—his kids were still in school when Maysie left on her trip.
The day of their departure, Maysie escorted the Duvall family to the airport. John recalls, “She looked good, wearing jeans and a loose-fitting white T-shirt, and she gave us all hugs and kisses.”
Casual and calm, Maysie then headed out on her own.
During the next several days, she communicated regularly with John through phone calls, emails, and text messages. She attempted to portray a business-as-usual tone, focusing on routine updates related to a home project she had recently undertaken. In one of these communications, she wrote:
“Hey, I made some decorating changes. It probably won’t look like much…. I took all of the encyclopedias down and other random books (left your bound Hemingway books though). I put photos in nicer frames and used Emily’s china animals (those little mice, bunnies, etc.) to add bits of color. It’s hard to explain, but hopefully you, and more importantly the girls, will like it.”
At the bottom of this same message, she made a few curious statements. These were benignly placed, perhaps intentionally, to avoid calling too much attention to them.
“Hope you’re not upset,” she continued, “but I may get out of town for a few days and come back this weekend…. It’s my usual routine, just get a bit overwhelmed when you all come back and it’s time to ramp up again.” She closed the message with a promise: “No shady shenanigans, just a few more days.”
These last few sentences caught John’s eye. They bothered him. He loved Maysie, but was not blind to the fact that her request for more space and time alone, on top of an already extensive separation from him and his family, was odd. Having dated her for several years, he had experienced this brand of strange behavior before. He was not afraid to call her out. On Sunday, June 25, he responded:
“Let me clear the air. For the life of me I can’t understand why, after recently commenting on how long we are going to be apart, and having two weeks to yourself, you feel the need to go away just as we are coming home. All that ends up happening is you drive to some random hotel room and sit, depressed, by yourself, while I try to talk you back, every time….
Do whatever makes you happy.”
On Monday, June 26, Maysie replied:
“Well, glad you’re telling me how you feel. I really do appreciate that you’re usually compassionate and understanding….
It would really suck, and after all we’ve been through, it would be incredibly sad, but I understand if you’re at the end of your rope with me and have run out of patience. I love you and the kids, I would hope you know that…. It’s just that I’m sensitive/a basket case, and when you first get back, it’s overwhelming. I don’t expect you to relate. You can handle anything. I have major separation anxiety from YOU when we are apart, but when you AND the circus get back to town, it’s intense.
Anyway, I would hope you would tell the kids that I’ve been gone (in Maine), not that I’ve been in Wilmo this whole time…. Is it so bad to say I’ll be back this weekend, three days after you get home? The only one who would care is Ethan, and if you tell him I’ll be there this weekend, I think it would be OK.
I love you. I hope you hang in there with me.”
On June 28, Maysie left her beachside condo in North Carolina and headed toward Harrisonburg, Virginia. There was no logical reason for her to make this five-hour trek. In fact, no one close to her knew she was doing it. Despite the strange circumstance, if people had known she was taking the trip, they might not have thought it was too out of the ordinary. Always a free spirit, Maysie often did this type of thing. She thought nothing of leaving on a whim, with limited advance planning and just as little communication, traveling across the state, and sometimes across the country, alone. If she was visiting family or friends, she would frequently arrive unannounced. Instead of asking questions or voicing concern, people would simply express gratitude for the opportunity to see her. A short visit with Maysie Campbell always transformed a regular day into an extraordinary one.
Reflecting on her last days, it’s striking to consider some of the details leading up to her ultimate decision. Sometime before her journey, she visited a Home Depot close to where she lived. While there, she purchased just one item: a plastic tarp.
Maysie was a lot of wonderful things, but she was not known to be handy. While it would not have been too surprising to learn she was preparing for a road trip, it would have been strange to bump into her in a hardware store.
What’s even more striking is how she avoided seeing John before her departure. In their email correspondence, Maysie described her plans to “get out of town for a few days… my usual routine.” As disappointed and perplexed as he was, John knew she wouldn’t be at the airport to pick him up, or even at home when he returned. He had accepted she was heading out for a few days alone—and lonely—to a hotel somewhere, destination undisclosed and insignificant. However, he assumed she’d departed Kure Beach well before he got back home from vacation.
John and his kids returned to North Carolina from Mykonos, Greece, around midnight on June 28. Later that same morning, at around 10:00 AM, he arrived at Maysie’s beachside condo, located a few miles from his family’s home. As he recalls, “I thought she had taken off a day or two before.” He continues, “I walked into the house, and could tell the air-conditioning had just been turned off.”
John now calculates she actually left her condo between 8:00 and 8:30 AM that day.
Lining up details in retrospect, it seems clear that Maysie was escaping. She didn’t want to be talked out of her decision. She couldn’t face John and his kids. She couldn’t look into the blue eyes of his youngest son, Ethan, and then head off to do what she was thinking about doing.
Maysie arrived at a hotel in Harrisonburg on June 28. John suspects she may have been to Harrisonburg, even to that particular hotel, before. Over the course of the next few days, she practiced the same ritual. In the morning, she checked out of the hotel….
Later that same day, she checked back in.
Attempting to piece together the mystery of her last few days, John guessed she was trying to come home. Having spent countless hours reflecting on every detail, he still questions his assumptions. Part of him suspects that it took her four days to build up the courage, or maybe she was just waiting until her parents returned from Europe.
This last idea is intriguing. Indeed, after Maysie departed England, Ellie and Greg stayed on a little longer in London, squeezing out a few extra days with their newest grandchild.
Why had Maysie waited until they returned?
Had she just been trying to protect the spirit of their vacation?
Had she timed her actions with precision, knowing her parents were traveling, so that she would not be tempted to or able to contact them?
Had she anticipated the anguish she would cause them when they landed back in New England—twelve hours’ drive from her location in Virginia?
Sometime during her fourth day in Harrisonburg, Maysie started to disconnect. She removed the SIM card from her phone and tossed it or destroyed it. She was intent on doing this alone, and with her secrets intact—no phone access, no call history, and no email trail.
As estimated by the authorities, between 10:30 AM and noon on July 2, Maysie returned to her hotel, entered her room, and placed her plastic tarp neatly on the floor, attempting to minimize the burden on the hotel staff.
She lay down on the tarp, and thought her last thoughts.
Then, she pointed a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.
Who does this?
Maysie Campbell was one of the most talented, spirited, and enjoyable people I have ever known. She came from a wonderful family—not just highly educated, but also worldly, progressive, and grounded. She had ample resources. As an alumna of an Ivy League university, a top-flight law school, and several white-glove Manhattan law firms, she was self-sufficient and in demand. Engaged to John, a retired Wall Street executive, she most certainly would never have had to worry about financial security. She lived in a dream location, and in a luxury condo located steps from the sea. She co-owned a vacation home with her older brother on Deer Isle, Maine, an almost unimaginably beautiful place.
So how is it possible, or even conceivable, that all this would not work for her?
Not only would it not work, this outwardly ideal existence masked Maysie’s deep inner turmoil. Over time, everything she had would become radically unacceptable to her.
Since Maysie’s passing, my thoughts have been flooded with memories of her and reflections of the future she could have or should have had. Through conversations with the people who were closest to her, I have attempted to piece together a picture of her life and the circumstances leading up to her death.
What business do I have exploring a topic of such extreme sensitivity?
So soon following her passing, how can I justify requesting access to stories and thoughts about something so intimate and damaging?
My answer to both of these questions is simple. Maysie was my friend—one of those rare and extraordinary individuals who pass through our lives with maximum positive impact. I feel an obligation to her. I can’t just let her disappear into the charcoal dust of aging memories. Her life was rich, and her end so extraordinarily abrupt. I need to know why.
This investigation into Maysie’s death opens windows to other memories I’ve allowed to become buried beneath decades of practical, everyday thinking. Maysie’s suicide is a reminder that death and tragedy have visited me before, and they will return again.
As an extension of this exploration, I have connected with the families of the few other people I know who died in similar, tragic ways. These include my cousin, Angela, who died by suicide when we were both young, and two other people. One of these, Kyle, is my college roommate’s brother. The other, Noah, is the brother of a new friend. He is someone I never met, but who somehow still has influenced my recent life.
These individuals and their stories are unique—more separates them than binds them. Their underlying conditions are not comparable. The maximum common denominator connecting them is that, during a moment of crisis and based on their available resources, they ended their lives with suicide.
While their life experiences are distinct, they are united by the profound impact their deaths have had on the people who knew them. Peering back as far as three decades and as recently as the last two years, I’ve attempted to commemorate these people who have passed while also aiming to uncover insights about who they were—both who their family and friends thought they were, and how they perceived themselves.
My approach is decisively nonclinical—this exploration is not a study of mental illness, and I’ve made no attempt to outline steps to prevent suicide (nor am I qualified to do so). Instead, this book is a reflection on the actions and rituals—some deliberate and others subconscious—that we pursue to promote healing, to honor our lost loved ones, and to make sensible that which is incomprehensible. Within these experiences lie powerful insights—many derived from the simplest and most familiar circumstances—demonstrating that life, in all its harshness, eccentricity, and magnificence, is worth living.
[End of Prologue]
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