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Letters from alumni about Lillian Pierce ’02, class valedictorian

September 16, 2002

Among your September 11 letters about Lillian Pierce '02, dire warnings about workaholism from alumni faced off against testimonials about her warmth from two classmates. Both camps seem to have overlooked the point that interested me most: How could a home-educated student become valedictorian of the nation's top university during an era of intense student focus on grades?

What does it say about our educational system that someone who was taught outside its formal structure can enter as a young adult and surpass the achievements of her public- and private-school-educated peers?

It is also noteworthy that Ms. Pierce didn't watch TV as a child. If students can excel after being deprived of staples like routine classes and frequent TV, then surely one alcohol-free dorm wouldn't be such a big deal.

Martin Schell '74
Klaten, Indonesia

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September 4, 2002

The letters regarding Princeton student Lillian Pierce '02 were stunning both in their defense and their criticism. I don't think anyone should expect a highly motivated, highly successful person not to have some quirks. Why should Ms. Pierce not have them as well? She has as much right as anyone
Many of our society's most famous inventors, politicians, celebrities, etc.... all had some traits that were less than flattering. That Ms. Pierce openly revealed some of hers is remarkably honest, although possibly not the best of judgment and discretion.

Princeton rewards academic success, and Ms. Pierce achieved that. Maybe she did not do it in the most conventional way or in a manner I would take, but then high achievers are often not conventional. Congratulations to her.

Robert Altman '82
Whitestone, N.Y.

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August 20, 2002

The story about Lillian Pierce in your June issue reminded me of the poem by Edna St. Vincent Milay: "My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night, But oh my foes and ah my friends, it makes a lovely light." (accuracy not guaranteed) I hope that does not turn out to be a prophecy.

David Higginbottom ’41
Frostproof, Fla.

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June 29, 2002

I was suprised and dismayed to read such harsh condemnations of Lillian, her family, and the university in the responses by alumni to the article in PAW.

Perhaps, it doesn't take much imagination to assume that because Lillian occasionally "lost motivation to eat" she is anorexic, or that because she racked up an unbelievable list of accolades she is fixated on pleasing others, or that because she sometimes feels "lonely" she doesn't have friends.

But I have known Lillian as a friend and fellow musician for the past three years, and I can assure everyone that Lillian is far more healthy, social, joyful, and thoughtful on a daily basis than anyone who doesn't know her can believe. There's no question that Lillian pushes herself to work hard and be efficient at the sacrifice of the pleasures more commonly enjoyed by Princeton students (like "knock(ing) back pints"), but this is not to say that she hates life. In fact, Lillian is almost always cheerful. As her stand-partner, we carried out whimsical conversations that would continue as email dialogue long after rehearsal ended. When I gathered the motivation to work-out at 7 in the morning, Lillian was often smiling on the treadmill. While virtually everyone I know at Princeton has either failed at making relationships or decided they aren't worth the time, Lillian has managed to date. When I fell seriously ill as a freshman, I received a book of inspirational quotes and artwork from Lillian's family. Before I walked on stage for an audition, Lillian was there whispering words of sincere encouragement when she was competing in the very same event. When the orchestra threw a postconcert bash, Lillian arrived in a swank fur coat, laughing, much to the enthusiasm of her many friends. Lillian's delightful charm and wholesome nature even brought one of my close friends away from the brink of anorexia. I really don't know where to end with this type of praise for Lillian's humanitarian side, which is less easily captured on paper and often overshadowed by her academic prowess, but let it suffice for me to say that she is a marvelously gentle girl and will be much missed next year by many of us on campus.

I know it's difficult to believe that someone who balances so much can actually be balanced; it took me a long time to believe it too. But until you have first-hand experience with Lillian, please stop insulting my friend.

Chris Greenman '03
Princeton University

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June 27, 2002

While a number of alumni have expressed horror at the PAW cover story, "The many facets of Lillian Pierce," it is their letters, not the article, that have shocked me. Although the article emphasized many of the sacrifices that Lillian made in order to achieve her accomplishments, many of the responses, claiming that Lillian needs "a good therapist," is "ill-fated," and "pathological," are completely unfounded.

Having experienced four years of college with Lillian, I know that she is a warm, dynamic, and enthusiastic person who is fun to be with. Even with her busy schedule, she takes time to listen to others and is a great friend. Her work ethic is what has helped her achieve so much, to take advantage of the many different opportunities at Princeton. If at times she did work too hard, she has learned from those experiences to take the time to relax.

While the work at Princeton is demanding, the high expectations from both students and professors help reveal the best in students. At the same time, the support of the deans and services of the health center, as well as the encouragement from other students, prevents one from becoming obsessed with work and perfection. There is a strong and growing support network that helps students manage pressure and stress.

Furthermore, I am thankful for Lillian's honesty in the article, for acknowledging that her accomplishments did not come easily. I do not know a single person at Princeton who did not work hard, who did not experience all-nighters, hand cramps from writing too much, or that dazed, disconnected feeling that comes from staring at a computer for too long. If at first students didn't know how to balance their lives, then hopefully they will learn from their own experiences and from others.

Lillian's honesty can teach us to take advantage of the opportunities around us, to work hard, but not too hard, and to enrich our lives with knowledge in the sciences and humanities and most importantly, strong relationships with family and friends.

Ewina Fung '02
San Diego, Calif.

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June 26, 2002

In the brief snapshot that readers got of Lillian Pierce's time at Princeton (cover story, June 5), it is perhaps understandable that some readers were concerned for her. Fortunately, having more knowledge of her situation, I can reassure you that Lilly Bee is just fine. Of course, she has worked "too hard" at various points in her Princeton career (the Caltech students I currently teach seem similarly sleep-deprived, a state necessitated by the quantity of work they must complete, if they wish to complete it well), but since she is alive and well today, we can rest assured that she slept, ate, and walked for much of her first three years, even though she was often sleep deprived, sometimes lacked an appetite, and occasionally became ill. Lilly Bee acknowledges that things are different now. All of us do too much of something at college, and most of us — including Lilly Bee — eventually figure out how to pace ourselves and proceed more carefully.

Perhaps the misunderstanding that will be most pervasive is that Lilly Bee was driven by wanting awards and fellowships. Yet her academic background was one in which a genuine love of learning provided all the motivation she needed — until shortly before her time at Princeton, she had never taken an exam, she had never competed against others, yet she has always worked hard. Rather than striving for awards, Lilly Bee simply won them in the process of doing what she loves: learning, and doing everything she does as well as she can--something few of us can honestly say we do. To me, her university experience was far superior to my own because she recognized the wonderful opportunities afforded to her, and she courageously and joyfully grasped them. During my time at Oxford, I realized too late what Lilly Bee realized immediately at Princeton: these opportunities are available for a short time--they should be celebrated and relished.

Lilly Bee tries her best at everything she does. In spite of this, she rarely excels at go-cart racing, and I have seen her beaten frequently at croquet, Balderdash, and Marco Polo. Lilly Bee may work hard, but she plays hard, too, when she gets the chance. And perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that a college student might not feel at one with her parents on every trip home (on my first vacation, I was plunged into tearful despair at the sight of the "Welcome to Hartlepool" sign because my life at Oxford seemed so rich in comparison).

The good news for readers, for family, for friends, and for the Oxonians who will meet her next year, is that Lilly Bee is perhaps the most enthusiastic, joyful, laughter-filled, well-balanced person I have ever met. Thank you to all who expressed kind concern: I hope that this second glimpse of Lillian will reassure you that while her life may not be "normal", it is nevertheless happy.

Gillian Pierce

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June 26, 2002

Reading responses to your June 5 story on Lillian Pierce, I winced. Not because she’s a desperate, approval grubbing, underfed casualty of oblivious academia, but because she isn’t. Kathryn Greenwood, who interviewed me too, seems calm, thorough, and conscientious, and I suspect she’s accurate to a word in quoting Lilly Bee. I also suspect that Lilly Bee said many other things that, if quoted, would have resolved a disturbing fragment such as “I couldn’t walk.” In addition to vivid descriptions of grim moments, she may very well have recounted for Greenwood how she changed. Certainly she made such explanations to me: At the end of a semester she spent time catching up on sleep; her friends were staying up too (they had the same problem sets and kept similar daunting hours) and it took until her junior year to figure out how to pace herself; eventually she learned to maintain a minimum regimen; she was lucky because her dean of studies, and later the department chair, were invariably helpful when she asked for advice; much of that time she felt more exhausted than she ever wants to feel again, but she insists she doesn’t regret any of the effort. In her words, “I was learning, and I loved it. I loved the material, and I loved the process. And how could I pass up that chance to learn from great mathematicians, who were also great teachers?” Lilly Bee’s experience was neither so unique nor so precarious as it appears.

The day before yesterday, she sent a hurried e-mail about life in Maryland: the project she’s been assigned at the NSA is absorbing; it’s thrilling to be working on the Stravinsky D Major concerto; she and her roommate make the circuit of a nearby lake that’s just the size for a perfect walk; with her boyfriend, she’s searching out ingredients for an approximately authentic Tuscan meal they’re concocting next weekend; there’s an art cinema that she and her similarly film-deprived friends are looking forward to frequenting. I think she’s doing fine.

I hope that these additional details clarify a few things for alumni genuinely concerned about the welfare of current undergraduates in general and Lilly Bee specifically. (For an ironic addendum see the valedictory address on the Princeton website.) Concern and disapprobation both are more likely in seasoned alumni than in current graduates with fresh memories of similar exertions. Surely college is a time of unsustainable temporary excess for thousands of Princetonians. At Commencement, that day of multiple poignant farewells, why is it that the graduates look so happy? Individually and collectively, I think they’re publicly rejoicing that an era of irreproducible private toil is complete.

I enjoyed watching the euphoria of the graduates, but of all that I saw in my few days at Princeton, it was the math department reception the day before Commencement that amazed me most. Persons of ferocious intellectual vigor populated the assembly, and it was impossible to wish that any of these students or professors be granted the comforts of more moderate minds. Mischaracterized or not, I know Lilly Bee is fortunate in her voraciousness and in her tutelage at Princeton. There on the top floor of Fine Hall I saw evidence of what I think is a fundamental achievement for a university: passionate and exclusive collaboration between those who are prodigiously stimulating and those who have been prodigiously stimulated.

Elizabeth Pierce

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June 26, 2002

As a friend of Lillian's, I feel I must respond to these discussions of anorexia and needing a therapist and such...If any of the respondents actually met her, they'd just find that she has the most enthusiastic and curious mind they'd ever encountered. That's what drives her and makes her special. I don't think she only wants to get awards — she wants to know things. And she wants to know things enough that she will work very hard.

Tangentially, most Princeton students work hard. Maybe not quite as hard, but hard. I certainly remember weeks where I slept two hours a night for days on end, eating a sandwich a day in order to cram, or finish a project, or whatever. When the going gets tough, students stop eating and sleeping — you know you did it too. What drives me and the average Princetonian to do that? Deadlines and the desire to do a good job. The drive behind Lillian is thirst for knowledge, and that is constant and certainly can't be faulted. And she has plenty of friends, and hangs out, and goes to formals, etc, just like everyone else. She isn't anorexic — we are in the same eating club, and she eats chicken and pizza and pasta just like everyone else. But she is also particularly driven and particularly brilliant, not quite like everyone else; I suppose that's why people only look at this aspect of her.

And I find myself wondering — most scientists and mathematicians are credited for living for their work. No one says Marie Curie is crazy for working so much despite the threats of radiation in her work — she is celebrated for her dedication and her contributions. I wonder — if Lillian had just had a major breakthrough that got her a Fields medal or something — then would she be criticized for working so hard? Because she certainly is on her way to getting there.

Lisa Hsu ’02
San Diego, Calif.

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June 25, 2002

Eighteen years gone, and finally something stirs me to write. PAW shows up on my doorstep with a cover photo Lillian Pierce ’02, who the article says is thoroughly engaged in "the pursuit of perfection." Near the bottom of the first column, I read about her sophomore year, when she stayed up "all night three nights a week" and "felt ill all the time." I read past some fluff on her brother’s 1993 Rhodes Scholarship and find out she is now up to about five hours of sleep a night. Key quote: "I’ve always felt like if professors are trying so hard to teach me, that if I scored less than perfect on exams, they might think they did something wrong." No, bubaleh. It’s your parents who did something wrong.

This talented young woman is not headed toward perfection. She’s headed toward a meltdown.

Rich Herschlag '84
Easton, Pa.

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June 10, 2002

What price, success? I was appalled to read the profile of valedictorian and Rhodes Scholar Lillian Pierce '02 and the toll her achievements took on her. Ultimately there seems as much to mourn over as there is to celebrate.

Victoria McElhaney Benedict '91
Atlanta, Ga.

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June 10, 2002

I am sure Lillian Pierce is an extraordinary student, scholar, musician, but she's still subject to human limitations. Even if she did get into Princeton. 

Jil Pollock '85
Houston, Tex.

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June 8, 2002

Reading your cover story on Lillian Beatrix Pierce, I found my admiration for this young woman's dazzling gifts increasingly mixed with deep alarm. She seems to have spent most of her Princeton career in acute pain and exhaustion. While I'm glad that she was so honest about the physical and emotional price of her accomplishments – and grateful to her parents for saying, "We wouldn't recommend her experience to anyone" – I also wish that PAW had done more to acknowledge the very real dangers of such a "pursuit of perfection."

Pierce is a self-described work addict, and work addiction is as dangerous as any other kind. I've known several people like her. Two of them, including one of my Princeton classmates, are now dead of suicide. They killed themselves because they believed they weren't meeting their own standards, standards to which no reasonable person – and certainly not their devastated families and friends – would ever have held them.

Campus suicide is on the rise across the country, and perfectionism is often a contributing factor. As a college professor myself, I tell my over-achieving students to learn to relax; very often, I've referred these individuals to our campus Counseling Center. If any of my students ever told me that they were trying to achieve perfect scores on my exams to keep ME from feeling inadequate, I'd be appalled. Lillian, I assure you: professors don't feel like failures if a student gets 97 on an exam, instead of 100. Boosting our egos isn't your job!

A truly perfect life includes perspective, and adequate sleep, and the ability to take time off. Happiness is every bit as important as brilliance.

I salute Lillian Pierce's impressive roster of awards, but I also fervently hope that other Princeton students won't believe that they have to be "about to disintegrate from exhaustion" to be considered successful.

Susan Palwick ‘82
Assistant Professor of English
University of Nevada, Reno

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June 7, 2002

To say that Lillian Pierce, the valedictorian of this year's graduating class (cover story, June 5), "strives for excellence" is perhaps the editorial understatement of the year. Let's review the facts. During her freshman year, Pierce was "too exhausted to have the motivation to eat" and "lived in the infirmary for quite a while." As a sophomore, she spent one semester "staying up all night three nights a week" (no wonder she couldn't get along with her freshman-year roommate) and "feeling ill all the time." So, after three "pretty awful" years of "feeling horrible, to the point where I couldn't walk any more," Pierce finally decided to take it easy during her senior year, surviving on a mere five hours of sleep a night.

While Pierce's mother expresses concern about all of this — "we wouldn't recommend her experience to anyone" — there is no mention in the article of anyone at Princeton, apart from the infirmary staff, attempting to help a young woman who was, by her own admission, "addicted to working," "disconnected from people," and even uncomfortable being around her own family members. Princeton has always had its share of multitalented overachievers, but I think it's an embarrassment that no one at the school seems to have attempted to save Pierce from the damage she was doing to herself, both mentally and physically, damage that could very well come back to haunt her later in life — Rhode's scholarship or not. What's even worse is that Pierce is being held up as the poster child for the Princeton experience.

I fear that at some point down the road, when Pierce comes out of her shell a little more, she will look back on her years at Princeton and come to the same conclusion she does when describing her life there in your article: "It wasn't really fun."

Derek Finkle '90
Toronto, Ont.

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June 7, 2002

In reading PAW's cover story about the valedictorian from the Class of '02, I was struck by how much the Princeton experience matched Lillian Pierce's extraordinary needs and talents in all but one area: providing her with a good therapist.

That a young woman could receive regular and ongoing accolades through her years on campus at the expense of developing an eating disorder ("I was too exhausted to have the motivation to eat") horrified me. For a student to have to live out of the infirmary for part of a semester because of chronic exhaustion, to be too work-addicted to tolerate roommates and to be driven  to receive perfect scores on tests so that her professors wouldn't think "they did something wrong" suggests that too many teachers, advisers, and administrators were seduced by her courage and brain with far too little regard for her body and spirit.

Yes, she is one of Princeton's remarkable success stories, but I worry that her accomplishments pinpoint the university's failure to give a wonderful young woman with limitless potential enough self-esteem to learn how to fail and not worry so much about pleasing others.

Jay Paris ’71
Marblehead, Mass.

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June 6, 2002

Having just returned from a wonderful 20th reunion with many healthy and happy classmates, I was horrified to read "The many facets of Lillian Pierce '02" (cover story, June 5). Clearly, "Lilly Bee" is not well. While mild anorexia and insomnia may affect any student, isolation from friends, disconnection from one's family, and catatonia before a performance are warning signs of an ill fate.

A beautiful mind indeed, Ms. Pierce may find that her life as a mathematician does not have a Hollywood ending. Princeton needs to help students, no matter how brilliant, develop healthy well-balanced work habits.

With all respect, 20th reunioners do not recall who was valedictorian. They remember the individuals with whom they broke bread, knocked down a pint, and shared a laugh.

Richard A. Bazarian '82
Falmouth Foreside, Maine

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June 3, 2002

And just what is wisdom? The article about Lillian Pierce was extraordinary perhaps not so much for its intended purpose as for its unintended revelations. Ms. Pierce is one of those brilliant people who, perhaps, will contribute mightily to our society. But I cannot help but think of St. Paul, who wrote that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. We celebrate the "wisdom" of Ms. Pierce by giving her all kinds of academic awards but so much foolishness.
I was gripped by sadness as I read of the costs she has paid and all that she has put herself through to achieve these accomplishments. What is so much more troubling is that we — whether knowingly or unwittingly — celebrate these accomplishments given what she has been through. Granted that Princeton did not "make" her work as she did. But Princeton celebrates the results. I suppose the ends (of the prizes) justifies the means (whatever it took out of her — whether she gives of herself voluntarily, joyfully or otherwise.) In this regard Princeton is an extension of our culture — no different from Glamour magazine and USA Today and the Rhodes committee.

I must relate that the revelations of the article touched many sensitive nerves for me. To this day — almost 25 years since graduation — I have occasional nightmares about needing to get up to study, to get ready for the next exam. The memories of the pressures — of my own choosing — remain.

And we reward such driven endeavors, unwittingly or perhaps worse, even knowing the costs. It is our culture. It is Princeton, as well as a host of other places.

As Princeton provides counseling services for those who drink too much, Princeton provides infirmary service for those, such as Ms. Pierce, who drive themselves to the point of being unable to walk because of their academic pursuits. What a tragic situation. Any decent human being can only feel the deepest compassion for someone in such a state of pain.

Are we so wedded to culture, competition, "excellence" at any cost? We need evaluate just what an "educated person is. Be not deceived by the cultural accolades. And just what is wisdom?

Jon Heydenreich ’78
Andover, Mass.

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June 3, 2002

What were you thinking by featuring the '02 valedictorian in your June 5 article?

Were you striving for irony in a profile of a young woman — described by the dean of college as clearly one of the most remarkable people to have come through Princeton — who stopped eating and sleeping during her freshman year, who fell ill all the time, who lived in the infirmary, who stayed awake three nights a week, who "felt so disconnected from people and weird being around [her] family"?

The "Pursuit of Perfection" was a distressing and painful portrait of someone so driven that she could never finish competing with herself. There is a pathological element to her brutal, self-punishing honesty when she recalls her college experience: "I spent the first three years here feeling horrible, to the point where I couldn't walk any more. It was pretty awful actually. And my hand hurt from writing because sometimes I had to write 40 pages of math in one night. It was painful even to keep using the pencil."

There is a biblical admonition to tell the truth with charity but to still tell the truth. Is this "intense 21-year-old" a role model or a casualty on a forced march from obsession to perfectionism? Is this really how we want our daughters and sons to turn out? How much compulsion, pain, and loneliness is a Marshall or Rhodes scholarship worth?
What were her parents really thinking? What role did student health services play in abetting this behavior? Where were her advisers, and instructors when she needed them the most. And what does this say about Princetonians if we stand by in silent witness?

Thomas F. Schiavoni ’72
Lynn, Mass.

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