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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Reading responses to your June 5 story on Lillian Pierce, I winced. Not
because shes a desperate, approval grubbing, underfed casualty of
oblivious academia, but because she isnt. Kathryn Greenwood, who
interviewed me too, seems calm, thorough, and conscientious, and I suspect
shes 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 couldnt 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 doesnt 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 Bees 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 shes been assigned at the NSA is absorbing; its
thrilling to be working on the Stravinsky D Major concerto; she and her
roommate make the circuit of a nearby lake thats just the size for
a perfect walk; with her boyfriend, shes searching out ingredients
for an approximately authentic Tuscan meal theyre concocting next
weekend; theres an art cinema that she and her similarly film-deprived
friends are looking forward to frequenting. I think shes 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 theyre 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.
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
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.
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 brothers 1993
Rhodes Scholarship and find out she is now up to about five hours of sleep
a night. Key quote: "Ive 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. Its
your parents who did something wrong.
This talented young woman is not headed toward perfection. Shes
headed toward a meltdown.
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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?