The first cruel paragraphs of Marina Keegan's obituary trickled onto my Facebook news feed at 2:30 Sunday morning. "Wayland Woman Dies in Dennis Car Crash," a link to the Boston Globe MetroDesk blog reported.
The story announced that Ms. Keegan on Saturday had died when the 1997 Lexus ES300 in which she was riding careened into a guardrail and rolled over twice on a stretch of highway on Cape Cod known as Suicide Alley. The driver of the vehicle survived. Route 6 eastbound was blocked for two hours, police said.
Two friends had shared the link before I went to sleep. Ms. Keegan had graduated from Yale University a week before her death. As someone who entered Yale with Ms. Keegan in 2008, I was stunned.
I knew Ms. Keegan only from her byline in the Yale Daily News. Memories of her personal essays, bare and honest, made my heart race, my stomach mourn. She was set to start a job with The New Yorker in June. As with others lost too early, I thought, the world would be deprived tragically of Ms. Keegan's wit and wisdom.
But on Sunday evening, a surprising post popped up on Facebook. A friend at Stanford University, Olivia Hu, had found Ms. Keegan's story and posted a link to the last essay she wrote for the commencement edition of the school newspaper. It was titled "The Opposite of Loneliness."
"We don't have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that's what I want in life," Ms. Keegan wrote. She said she'd found people at Yale who were on her team, but wanted her classmates to know that the best years of their lives were not behind them. "We're so young. We're so young. We're 22 years old. We have so much time.."
Friends from Harvard and George Washington University also posted links to Ms. Keegan's essay. The Huffington Post, New York Daily News and The New York Times quoted from her story. According to Daniel Serna, online editor for the Yale Daily News, "The Opposite of Loneliness" has received 426,208 page views since Sunday. Of 464,000 total visits to the YDN website since Sunday, where the top 10 most visited articles are all by or about Ms. Keegan, 237,000 visits have come from social referrals, including Facebook and Twitter. The site received only 605,089 visits in a full month between March and April.
Ms. Keegan, it seemed, had struck a chord. Observers clicked on Ms. Keegan's story to read about a life tragically cut short, but shared and shared again Ms. Keegan's own words because they resonated. "I was afraid of going outside the bubble, too," Ms. Hu said when I asked her why she posted the piece. "We all don't know what we're doing with our lives. It's really uplifting to hear her say that it's still possible."
At Yale, Ms. Keegan's voice tore through the clatter about achievement, and told those who couldn't find their way that they weren't alone. "I am not in a secret society," Ms. Keegan had written in the Yale Daily News about the exclusive senior social groups that attract much jealous attention. "I'm not in a society, and I don't think I'm a lame person -- all of you juniors who don't get tapped, please, please, please join the club." When I was not "tapped" for one of Yale's secret societies either, Ms. Keegan's words were on repeat in my mind. She was brave enough to bare herself publicly, and her words helped me tell my friends without shame that I, too, would not join a society.
Another article spoke to those at Yale struggling with the temptation of high-paying jobs in the financial services industry. Did people really want to give up their dreams of writing or acting because of a recruiter's pitch about luxurious living in Manhattan? "I'm JUST SCARED about this industry that's taking all my friends and telling them this is the best way for them to be spending their time," she wrote. "I just feel like that can't possibly be true ... I feel like we can do something really cool to this world."
As always, Ms. Keegan gave voice to those who didn't quite fit into the predominant streams of ambition and achievement, but weren't sure how to navigate the more dangerous terrain of self-doubt. Though she was popular and accomplished, she always seemed to write for those who couldn't quite find a home in the high-powered halls of Yale. Her words had reach. When The New York Times DealBook blog printed her essay on financial services jobs, Tom from New York, a commenter, said that he was "now preparing to leave the world of finance, in part thanks to her inspirational article."
"I worry sometimes that humans are afraid of helping humans," Ms. Keegan wrote poignantly in an essay called "Why We Care about Whales." Ms. Keegan was not afraid of helping humans. She searched her jealousies, her failures, the perverse pleasure she took in others' failures, and showed them to the world. The hard and uncomfortable truths that others would never dare speak were her domain. And in speaking those truths, she became a companion in print to people like me and Ms. Hu and Tom in New York -- uncomfortable, scared, grasping for the optimism that Ms. Keegan always seemed able to provide.
Ms. Keegan was a cruel victim of the dark underside of that hope she inspired, where there is no easy justice and nothing makes sense. In one article she spoke of her jealousy of those writers and artists "who might get a chance to speak from the dead." Through the tubes of Facebook and Twitter, Ms. Keegan now speaks from the dead. It is left to us to work daily toward the ideals she articulated -- transparency, community, full-hearted artistic expression -- while never forgetting what Ms. Keegan taught me best: that we're not alone when we're not sure we've made it.
Benjamin Mueller: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-4903 First Published May 30, 2012 4:00 AM