Learning Of Personal Tragedy From The Media: Dan Abrams’ View From The Other Side

In my office I keep a picture from Newsweek dated June 18, 2001 of Bill McVeigh, father of Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh, learning that his son’s appeals were finally exhausted. He is seen with head in hand, MSNBC on in the background. I am the reporter on the screen informing him that, in effect, his son would be executed. I keep it as a reminder that the words we in the media use can mean everything.

This week I felt what it’s like to be on the other side. I learned of a personal horror not from an emotional, personal phone call or visit but via the impervious and anonymous media. I learned about a heartbreaking event occurring to a loved one through the eyes of someone who did not know or care about her — and felt the helpless frustration of wanting “the media” to say more and less.

Headline: “Woman found dead off RPV Cliff – Father says daughter was devastated by mom’s death but says it’s not a suicide.”

That is how I first heard that one of my few and truest loves, Julia Rolle, died this weekend by falling or jumping off a cliff in Palos Verdes California. I had not spoken to Julia in years and since we don’t really share any of the same friends, I probably never would have seen the article in the if not for a friend who just happened on it (subsequently the Huffington Post picked up the story).

I don’t blame the reporter, Sandy Mazza at all. In fact his or her report was the sort of nuts and bolts report that reporters are trained to do. Stick to the facts, but don’t ignore the obvious possibilities.

“Investigators believe Julianne Rolle, 39, might have committed suicide, but her father believes she likely accidentally fell off the approximately 100-foot cliff.”

So Sandy Mazza, a reporter for the Daily Breeze in California, informed me that the person — who used to be a love of my life — may have ended her own life two months after her mother Terry died.

I met Julia thirteen years ago while covering the OJ Simpson civil trial together. Julia spoke about her mom constantly, and with the sort of fondness, love, and pride that you generally hear when someone is talking about his or her child. I knew that to win over Julia, I had to win over mom. Terry Rolle knew that too, and so she decided to stack the deck in my favor. I recall clearly the first time we met, as she tried to make sure I did not feel nervous meeting the “rents” for the first time. She acted as if we had known each other for years, as if she was going to say “it’s so good to see you again.” Then there was: “So Dan, Julia has told us so much about you, and we hear you are doing so well.” Ha. Thanks Terry.

Julia and I dated for a year and a half in the late 90’s and then again for about four months a few years later after we bumped into one another at another news event. She broke my heart, and then, maybe, I hers.

Terry Rolle must have battled cancer for at least 20 years. In fact, she was just overcoming a bout with it when I met Julia. In many ways her mom’s illness came to direct, even define, Julia’s life — where she would live and how she would be feeling. Consequently, Terry was often more concerned about how Julia would respond to any bad news than about her own fate. Terry once confided in me about how worried she was about Julia throughout her cancer treatment. She wanted to make sure that I would help support Julia if things went south again.

But, of course, I should understand as well as anyone that all of that “color” would not really make it into a short story about Julia’s death. So it was difficult — no, maddening — to see a story that depicted her as little more than a troubled soul who may have taken her own life.

“A hiker discovered the woman’s body on the rocky shore at the bottom of the cliff about 1 p.m. Sunday near the 6500 block of Sea Cove Drive, just east of the Terranea resort. Her body was recovered by a lifeguard vessel later that day, authorities said.“

Ugh. Every time I read that paragraph tears welled up at the antiseptic nature of the description. I can’t help but picture her lifeless body being put into a “vessel” by people who did not know her. I felt like screaming. “She is not just a BODY!” She may have been the kindest, sweetest, most caring person I had ever met. But alas, for the purposes of media coverage she is just that, a body.

“Her father, Eugene Rolle, believes she may have died Saturday shortly after she left his nearby house, where she sometimes stayed.

“I think she fell,” Rolle said. “I knew she was feeling really emotional. She took off and didn’t come home. It cuts so deep. It’s such a tragedy at her young age.”

Gene was always the type to try to see the positive side of life. Gene and Terry were probably hippies back in the day, but the type of hippies who took that free spirit and translated that into an appreciation of life in their later years. Working hard, appreciating great wines, traveling, Gene surfing at their small beach house, always smiling and obsessing over their Julia. That lifestyle and joie de vivre was their new Woodstock. I still have a set of stones that Gene bought Julia and me that were supposed to bring us luck.

“Julianne Rolle was devastated over the death of her mother, Theresa, about two months ago, Rolle said. She moved back to the area – renting a nearby apartment in Rancho Palos Verdes – to be closer to her family several years ago when her mother became sick, he said. Julianne Rolle was a network news producer who worked in New York and overseas before returning to California to take a job at TV Guide Entertainment. An only child, Julianne Rolle was raised in San Pedro, where she went to elementary and high schools. After graduating from UCLA, she became a producer for Fox News in New York. She traveled through Europe and worked as a bureau chief in Iraq, covering the war, her father said.”

Thank you Sandy Mazza for including the part about her giving up so much to be near her mother. For a moment the story felt personal and real. Terry repeatedly beat cancer with grit, determination, a smile, draconian chemo treatments and the love of Julia and Gene. Every time Terry became ill, Gene was her anchor, sometimes just sitting with her through her chemo-related suffering, talking about their future, their past and the beauty of the world around them. Julia? Well she gave up everything to be with her ailing mom – her job, certain relationships, and friends.

“She’s been through war zones and everything, but nothing like losing her mom,” Rolle said. “I think she was (standing on the cliff) because she was very emotional. She went there often for peace, for calming and centering.”

I am sure she did. Like her parents, Julia had a little bit of that hippy spirit that I could never totally relate to. Despite having one of the most stressful jobs around, Julia always managed to appear totally calm and at peace, with a small grin in some of the most stressful situations. Professionally, she was a paradox — a seemingly laid back, sweet California girl battling with tens of other hard-nosed bookers for the “get.” She thrived in that arena based on a quiet and classy charm that allowed her to shine, without turning a light on herself.

While she was great at it, and surprisingly competitive, Julia never seemed to really love the booking part of the job. She did, however, love breaking news and following world events. I remember talking to her about her decision to ask to cover the war. She was not an adrenaline addict looking for excitement. No, I think she just wanted to see it for herself so she would know where it all belonged in her world, and in her head. She was never content to accept others accounts, she always wanted to see things, cities and events for herself.

“A week before her death, Julianne Rolle was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor drunken driving by Los Angeles police. The June 28 arrest occurred at 5:30 p.m. in the LAPD’s Harbor Division. She was due in court July 20.”

Huh? Julia? My reactive side thought, how dare they report that? Let her die in peace! But of course they had to report that. It raised the chances that either she was drunk and fell or that she jumped. It showed me how much she must have been suffering.

Julia had seen a disproportionate number of close friends die in accidents so I could not imagine she would have driven drunk, but then again, I had not seen her in years and certainly did not know the Julia Rolle after Terry passed away.

“Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide Detective Chris Bergner said he is still seeking answers to some questions in the death, including when she died and whether she was under the influence of alcohol.

“It’s still under investigation,” Bergner said. “Nobody witnessed it. We don’t have any information that she was (with anyone). We’re working with the coroner on the investigation.”

Since then, the authorities announced that they believe it was a suicide. After talking to Gene, I am not convinced that is the case. She was suffering, she visited a spot on the cliff far too close to the edge where she had been many times before, and maybe even had a drink in her, but Julia was a fighter and wouldn’t have just thrown in the towel. But I also understand why those who did not know her might think otherwise. We will never know for sure but either way her pain is now my anguish.

The irony is rich. A TV producer whose life is cut short and a loved one/member of the media feels the media coverage didn’t do her justice. I get that it’s not a particularly sympathetic position. But that is the point. I have reported on tragedy for years and never felt the pain of learning of one in this manner.

Everyone in the media could experience this at least once. We all should feel the emotions, frustration, rage and powerlessness of hearing frightening words about a loved one for the first time, written or uttered by people to whom we have no emotional connection. That doesn’t change the fact that we have to do it – and can do so responsibly, as Mazza did here. But it’s a heck of a way to get some important perspective.

Apart from her parents and friends, journalism was Julia’s great love, so she would have understood the media’s inherent limitations. In fact, knowing how humble she was, she might have said she deserved little more than the Daily Breeze article.

I disagree.

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