Last November, at a tech conference in Silicon Valley, I met an entrepreneur named Austen Heinz. He was there to talk about his biotech company, Cambrian Genomics, and some products it was working on. One of them, a probiotic supplement called Sweet Peach that would change the smell of women's vaginas, sounded astonishingly sexist. It immediately put me in mind of the horror stories I've heard about what it's like to be a woman in Silicon Valley.
After watching Heinz's presentation and following up with him one-on-one, I wrote a breezy article poking fun at Heinz and his idea. It went moderately viral and caused some problems for Heinz, who, it emerged, was only a minor investor in Sweet Peach and had mischaracterized it significantly. In a follow-up interview, he expressed regret, but also told me the controversy would be "great for Sweet Peach" and concluded, "That's why you raise $10 million, because shit happens." That conversation deepened my impression of Heinz as someone who sought to be provocative and either didn't care or didn't realize how he came across.
In late April, I had my next, and last, contact with Heinz while reporting this magazine feature on biotech startups backed by Peter Thiel, a group that included Cambrian Genomics. I asked to interview him for the story. Understandably reluctant to speak to me again, he agreed to answer a few questions by email. His replies were curt.
On Thursday, I learned that Austen Heinz committed suicide in May, a few weeks after our email exchange. I found out about his death from an article in Business Insider, which said that he had a history of mental illness. Bipolar disorder was among the diagnoses he'd been given by psychiatrists, according to a semi-anonymous memoir he published. Business Insider quoted a friend of Heinz's, Mike Alfred, who said my articles and the critical coverage they attracted weighed heavily on Heinz's mind in his final months.
"He took it pretty hard," Alfred said. "No matter how tough you thought Austen was, getting beat up in the press is hard on anyone. In particular, someone who is prone to depression, you start to get sucked into that. He started to believe that meant the company wasn't going to work."
Any reporter would feel like garbage upon learning that someone to whom he'd been professionally unkind had taken his own life. I probably feel more garbagey than most.
Seven years ago, my younger sister died after a six-year struggle with severe bipolar disorder. No one witnessed her death, which was ultimately ruled an accident. But ever since, I've empathized with families afflicted by a suicide.
Bipolar disorder--or manic depression, as it used to be known--has the highest suicide rate of any psychiatric illness. (Yes, even higher than major depression.) If you've ever been close to someone with it, it's easy to understand why. For clinical purposes, bipolar is classified as a mood disorder rather than a personality disorder, but that's a technicality. A bipolar individual's personality undergoes vast changes in the course of a cycle from mania to depression and back again. After a few trips on the roller coaster, I learned that when my sweet, affectionate sister was becoming disagreeable--arrogant, quarrelsome, loud, selfish--it was a sign that her brain chemistry was becoming dangerously volatile.
In some ways, this transformation is bipolar disorder's most insidious symptom. Not being able to control your own personality extremes makes it exceedingly difficult to build a life. (For a sense of just how difficult, read Jaime Lowe's excellent personal essay from The New York Times Magazine.) I knew my sister as well as anyone, and even I sometimes had trouble separating the person from the disease. For friends, employers, romantic partners, it was harder. Understanding was sometimes too much to ask. She spent the too-brief periods that she was her best self digging out from the rubble her other selves had left behind.
I didn't know anything about Austen Heinz when I met him, except that his behavior seemed to confirm certain notions I had about the way young men in the tech industry too often behave. To wit: They're oblivious to the concerns of women, and blind to their own biases; they talk endlessly about changing the world with technology while building frivolous things; they're arrogant and lacking in tact. I had a mental box marked "Silicon Valley tech bro" and his chatter about making women's sex organs more aesthetically pleasing fit neatly into it.
Had I known that Heinz was bipolar, I would have interpreted much of what he said through a different lens. Impulsivity, grandiosity, and logorrhea are all hallmarks of a manic state. Whether or not Heinz was in one when I met him--whichever version of Austen was doing the talking--I would have erred on the side of protecting him from his self-damaging pronouncements. That would have been putting him into a different sort of box, of course. But better that than chuck stones on the rubble pile.
I wish I could say there's a simple lesson here. Sexism in tech is a real problem, and not something anyone made up. Extending the benefit of a doubt to everyone guilty of it would be its own form of unfairness. As I've grown up in journalism, I like to think I've followed a consistent trajectory of becoming less judgmental, more sympathetic. Recognizing that Austen Heinz was himself a victim of something beyond his control would have required a big imaginative leap, even for someone who knew enough to spot the signs. All the same, I'm sorry I didn't.
As common as mental illness is, people who suffer from it are often afraid to talk about it for fear of being shunned. The sad part is, their fears aren't entirely misplaced. Advertising that you are bipolar is not a smart way to go about finding a job, an investor, or a mate. Loneliness and shame are key ingredients in the despair that cause so many to end their lives. Those who have spoken about their experiences, people like Brad Feld and Jaime Lowe and Ben Huh, deserve great praise.
Silence kills, but saying that to a person with mental illness is a form of victim blaming or passing the buck. It's not their responsibility to talk about it until the rest of us understand.
In lieu of sympathy flowers, the Heinz family has asked that donations in Austen's name be made to the iGem Foundation for the advancement of synthetic biology. Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts can always contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online here or by calling 1-800-273-8255.