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Backstory: Most Personal Project


Published December 25, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 30, 2019 at 12:18 p.m.

  • File: James Buck
  • Kate O'Neill

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of  articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2019.

Dozens of talented people have cycled through Seven Days in the 24 years we've been covering Vermont news and culture. One of them was Kate O'Neill, a Burlington native who came to work for us as a proofreader in 2008. For four years, she led the team that pores over every word in the paper and on its website.

It was a bummer when she left — to move to Philadelphia — but we kept in touch, and I tried repeatedly to lure her back. During one of her return visits home, we met at Muddy Waters to talk about future employment. I was somewhat desperate at the time. The year before, my father and sister had died within six weeks of each other. Through both family crises, I kept working. We needed more editors.

I told Kate about Pam's horrific death. From the time she was 16, my older sister struggled with anorexia nervosa, trying to control self-destructive impulses that none of us could understand. She fooled my parents into believing she was eating, exercised compulsively, destroyed her digestive system with laxatives, and weighed between 45 and 70 pounds for most of her life.

I told Kate I planned to write a book about growing up with a sibling whose mental illness possessed her like an addiction.

Kate didn't flinch. She told me her sister had opioid-use disorder, although she didn't employ that term at the time; Maddie was addicted to heroin. Speaking frankly, as I had, she shared some of the horrors her family had endured over the past decade.

And she said no to an editing job.

Three years later, I was in a car heading south to Boston when I saw an obituary submission come in over the Seven Days email. I noticed Kate's name on the form and, after a moment of panic, knew exactly whom she had written it for. I started reading her tribute — first to myself, then aloud to my boyfriend, who was driving. The words were hard and true and specific. I got such a vivid picture of Maddie, I cried for her as if she had been my best friend.

As if she had been my sister.

At Maddie's memorial service, Kate read a different piece of writing that was no less moving. Just a few days later, I sent her an email proposing that she spend the next year writing full time for Seven Days, investigating and humanizing Vermont's opioid epidemic in these pages.

While I worried it might be too soon to ask, I had a hunch that Kate would jump at the chance to channel her grief into something meaningful and productive that would help other people.

It was not the job either of us imagined would bring her back to Vermont, but this time, she said yes.