Going Public About a Very Personal Tragedy
“He’s just doing this for fame and fortune,” someone recently said about me after learning I’d been writing a book for the past year. But that just isn’t true. I’m speaking and writing now because I have something important to share. The truth. And what I’ve come to learn about my late wife, about depression, PTSD and mental health — including my own.
In the hours and days that followed the worst day I never could have imagined, understandably distraught, former colleagues, people I considered my friends, turned their backs on me. “Stop contacting University of Delaware employees or we’ll file a restraining order” the campus police threatened me. I’d been sending text messages to a handful of friends as the news started to break locally and soon nationally.
“Don’t believe what the news is saying,” I told them. “She [Meredith] deserves better than this.” In a 46-second press conference, less than 24 hours after the killings, the police presented to the media their open and shut case, full of inaccuracies, hypotheticals and best guesses. My wife, they contended, discovered that I was having a torrid affair and then took a train from Delaware to Meredith’s home, broke in, waited and then shot and killed her — a crime of passion. Not only is that not accurate, it just isn’t that simple.
For days, weeks even, I and members of my family were contacted by several media outlets, all wanting an interview. I wanted to tell my story. I wanted to undo the damage of “the news” and malicious comments about Jennair, Meredith and myself from readers from around the world. But I just couldn’t. Not yet.
After a month or so, it finally stopped. It was all over, it seemed. A welcome reprieve. But then eight months later, I received an email from a cable news show, planning to produce a documentary about my wife. I could be involved or not, they told me. Either way, they were still going to do it. Hesitantly I agreed. I wasn’t about to let them concoct yet another story based on the existing media accounts and police reports. I needed to share my truth.
Over the next few weeks, I spoke at length with the show’s producer. And I liked her. Trusted her. She assured me that they were going to handle this story with grace and dignity, shining a light on mental health and suicide, especially for women. The show, I later learned was about women who had committed violent crimes. After watching a couple of previous episodes, it just didn’t sit well with me. However, I felt I had little choice but to stay involved.
As the date for the interview drew closer, I felt less and less comfortable, partly because I had no prior experience of speaking publicly on television. So I reached out for help. I sent an email to Wendy Saltzman, a media consultant and a former investigative reporter for the ABC news affiliate in Philadelphia. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked.
“I don’t know that I have a choice,” I told her. “If I don’t tell my story now, I don’t think it will ever stop. It’s time.”
“Let me make a call,” she told me. Two weeks later, Wendy and I were sitting at lunch across the table from two producers from ABC 20/20. “The story got so twisted,” I told them. “I want to straighten it out. I want to come clean. Admit my faults.” But most importantly I wanted to share what I had learned over the past year. I wanted the public to understand the depths of my wife’s despair and her mental condition in her final hours. I wanted everyone to know our history, to understand the depths of my feelings and my relationship with Meredith Sullivan (formerly Chapman) and how it came to be. No one could have predicted the tragedy that ultimately happened. No one saw it coming. Not me. Not Jennair’s family, our family therapist, her psychologist nor her clinical psychiatrist.
“My wife was sick,” I told the ABC Producers. “People need to understand that. This could happen to anyone. I want your viewers and readers of the book I wrote to learn from the experience of my tragedy.”
When we left lunch that day, I felt confident that ABC was the right choice. I felt that they would tell the story truthfully, with integrity and without salacious undertones. I wasn’t asking for any favorable treatment, nor did I intend to withhold my own past transgressions. And let me be very clear. ABC doesn’t pay for interviews, and any profits from the book will be donated to a charitable caused we had always believed in.
I know that there will be many on both sides that will berate me and question, if not damn my motives. And I sincerely apologize if I offend or upset anyone. But the story, as it was told in the media months ago isn’t right. It doesn’t begin to explain the complexity of what unfolded. It doesn’t peel back the layers and ask how? Why? What can we learn?