Teenager enlivened others' lives, but she couldn't save her own
By Kimberly Matas
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 06.08.2008
A list of things to do before I die
1. Be unique.
2. Stop copying Macaulay Culkin.
3. Take a shower for myself, not the world.
4. Shave my head.
5. Learn Spanish, really.
6. Change my mind, a thousand times more.
7. Make dinner for my husband.
8. Increase my children's self-esteem, allowing them to be weird.
9. Go scuba diving.
10. Be able to finish this list.
Jennifer Miller was a sensitive teen in a world that often is neither kind nor nurturing.
A creative and spontaneous 17-year-old, Jen was a talented dancer, musician, poet and photographer. The Ironwood Ridge High School student was an accomplished equestrian and enjoyed making her friends happy, surprising them with gifts, sharing insights via her online journal, remembering their birthdays and engaging them in impromptu dance parties in parking lots.
She gave all she had and saved nothing for herself. Jen desperately wanted someone to care for her, nourish her soul in the same way she provided sustenance to those closest to her.
Jen never asked for equal consideration. She kept her burdens, fears and sorrows tamped deep inside. Bereft, Jen made an entry in her online journal at 11:19 p.m. May 10:
i do not want
to try any longer
you can no longer punch my feelings you've pushed so far
It was her last entry.
Soon after, the quirky and fun-loving teen searched online for instructions on tying a noose, went into her backyard, and hanged herself from a desert pine.
She would never have children, never have the chance to let them be weird.
Jen had challenges throughout her life. In first grade, she was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and prescribed Ritalin. When that didn't work, mother Cherie Miller-Gray and stepfather George Gray took Jen off the medication and got her involved in equestrian activities. She thrived.
"She was academically gifted, but because of the ADD, she was scattered. The Ritalin was holding her back," her mother said. "We credited the horses with really helping her ADD."
Jen excelled in Western and English riding. It was a hard blow, when, at 13, she was forced to quit. She'd had a growth spurt and developed scoliosis. The curvature of her spine threw her balance off. She tumbled off a horse, and the equine fell on top of her.
"For her safety, I pulled her out of it," Miller-Gray said. "She cried and cried."
Physical therapy and yoga strengthened Jen's spine, and last year she began riding again, but didn't approach it with the same ardor.
As Jen was preparing to enter high school, her family moved to Oro Valley. Four days before the start of school, she cut her hair short a modern style inspired by characters in the anime movies she enjoyed and bought new clothes, which she altered and redesigned to suit her eclectic taste.
"She aspired to be different all the time," said friend Jenna Couch, 18.
"Everyone wanted to be her friend because she was so different," said another friend, Amanda Finkelstein, 17.
Sara Collins, 17, remembers, in vivid detail, making Jen's acquaintance three years ago.
"It was freshman orientation and I saw her walking in the crowd and thought that she looked like a really interesting person. I walked up to her and introduced myself and we hit it off right away. We talked as if we have known each other for years.
"She looked really artistic. She shows that through her clothing. When you see her, she doesn't look like anyone else. She looked like a masterpiece.
"She was goofy, but down-to-earth at was the same time. We could do anything together and no matter what, it would be fun," Collins said.
Finkelstein was surprised on her birthday in February when she arrived home to find Jen had flooded her bedroom with red balloons and was playing German singer Nena's "99 Red Balloons."
"Every time you hung out with Jen, it was a memory," she said.
Scott Raby, 17, met Jen during their sophomore year. In her, he found a kindred spirit.
"She and I were kind of like tree huggers, so we wrote poems about sophomores driving and driving in general. I bike to school, and she does sometime, too. We go at night and post them (the poems) at the school so the next day people can see them.
"She was lighthearted, kind of carefree. She was loyal to her friends and funny, and she read a lot," Raby said. "She's someone you can just sit with."
Jen joined in school activities and enjoyed going to concerts, swimming and doing yoga. Most days, her friends could find her in the library after school. She carried a book with her wherever she went.
Jen enjoyed classic and contemporary poets and authors, including beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as Kurt Vonnegut, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.E. Cummings, Joseph Heller, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King. Most recently she'd become enamored of former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.
Why would such a well-rounded, creative, introspective teen commit suicide?
Family, friends and teachers say they don't understand, though in quiet moments they engage in speculation.
"I think she started to feel insignificant," said friend Leslie Hay, 17. "More than anything, she wanted to make an impact and she felt like she didn't."
Jen valued honesty, but the fun-loving, outgoing persona she presented to the world belied the sorrow and uncertainty she held inside.
She doubted her talents as a writer and photographer.
She didn't trust that anyone could understand the depth of her feelings.
She believed herself to be unexceptional.
A self-portrait with her online journal shows Jen hiding her face behind slender fingers. On the back of her hand, written in French: "je donne et je donne."
I give and I give.
Last autumn, Jen was diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication.
"She was worn down over time by her habit of trying to fix people," said Ron Durback, a family friend and Jen's piano teacher. "She was really questioning her own value.
"The last month, there had to be a lot of signs for a lot of people," Durback said. "Her friends said she'd been withdrawing. I really feel she was going around for the last month and unplugging … she was just disconnecting from everything one by one suddenly a void coming from Jen's way. You don't even notice it's there until it's gone."
In a January post to her online journal, Jen wrote:
this is my relationship to the world
i am here for a bit
then i leave
i am there
but only for a moment.
To suggest someone for Life Stories, contact reporter Kimberly Matas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4191. Read more from Matas at: go.azstarnet.com/lastwrites.