The Tampa Bay Times recently profiled Gretchen Molannen, a 39-year-old suffering from a condition called persistent genital arousal disorder.
According to the Times, it is “a debilitating condition marked by continuous sexual arousal. Women who have the disorder are physically but not psychologically aroused.”
For Molannen, having the disorder meant she couldn’t work. She said she had attempted suicide at least three times in the past year.
To explain the circumstances behind the story, Tampa Bay Times Managing Editor Mike Wilson agreed to talk with WUSF and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute.
McBride: Is there a direct connection between the story and Gretchen’s suicide?
Wilson: It's impossible to tell. The reasons people commit suicide are complex and many faceted. Experts warn journalists against oversimplifying the causes for suicide…
So ultimately, I think the question is beyond my understanding. I only know that I'm sorry that she made the choice and that I'm proud that our journalists treated her in a humane and sensitive way throughout.
McBride: Gretchen had a history of suicide attempts. Did you or your reporters have any concerns as they were reporting the story about her emotional stability?
Wilson: We had concerns about Gretchen as a person because we knew that she had attempted to take her life before, and as we got to know her, of course we asked a lot of questions about her state of mind and sought to find out if she felt strong enough and well enough to talk about this issue with us.
She repeatedly assured us that she did, that it was important to her to talk about how ostracized, how misunderstood she felt because of this unusual condition she had.
McBride: Whenever a private person opens up to journalists, they become even more vulnerable because they lose the ability to tell their story. What kinds of things did you do to gain Gretchen's trust and to make her feel more comfortable with the process?
Wilson: One of the most important things Leonora (reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton) did was meet with Gretchen in person. She sat with her for 3 1/2 hours in their first interview and listened to her story in great detail. Leonora took the unusual step of reading the story word for word to Gretchen so she would not be surprised by anything we're saying, and to check for accuracy and make sure that Gretchen was comfortable with what the story would actually say.
McBride: Obviously, you didn't anticipate that she would commit suicide or that she would commit suicide so close to the publication of the story. In hindsight, are you comfortable with the journalistic purpose of the story, still?
Wilson: Very much so. Gretchen had an important story to tell. She suffered from a real medical condition other people have dealt with. And we know from our reporting that these people get very little sympathy or understanding from their communities and sometimes from medical professionals.
There is great value to her story, so we thought, as she did, that we could do a service by letting people know what she was going through and informing them about this.
I think that while we're upset and heartbroken about the awful decision she made, I think her legacy is that she stepped forward to tell a story that needed to be told and so I hope that in spite of the tragedy, some good comes of this.