Tag Archives: suicide

Josh Marks: In Memoriam

For those of you who don’t know, Josh Marks, runner up from MasterChef season 3, died last week at his own hands.  This tragedy is too awful to process, even for those of us who didn’t know Josh.  I cannot imagine what his family is experiencing.

I haven’t addressed this issue earlier for several reasons.  Since I didn’t personally know Josh, it wasn’t my place to comment on it.  And since Josh’s personal struggles since leaving the show have been hyped and scrutinized by the gossip media, I did not want to contribute to the rumor mill flying around.  Josh was laid to rest yesterday in Chicago, and his family wants to create a legacy in his memory to help others struggling with mental illness, so I feel it’s now appropriate for me to touch on Josh’s story and let people know how they can help.

Josh’s MasterChef journey was not a smooth one.  While we, the audience, recognized his talent and likeability from the beginning, Josh was eliminated in an egg-cooking pressure test 8th from the top, shocking us all.  In my blog recap, I wrote more extensively about Josh’s elimination than probably anyone else that season:

“I have really enjoyed watching Josh this season.  I think that, technically, he is one of the best cooks in the competition.  He continually surprised me with the sophistication of his dishes, and his mature instincts.  Josh is the kind of person who I expect to actually become a chef, unlike most of the popular contestants on all 3 seasons.

“And this is evidenced by the fact that Gordon offers him a job.  (I’m absolutely certain Joe will do the same.)  Ultimately, MasterChef is NOT a cooking competition.  The cook with the best overall skills does not win.  Were that the case, we’d stop watching because it would be insufferably boring.  MasterChef is a TV show with dramatic turns and twists, and we end up rooting for characters who may not necessarily have the most talent or skill, but who have integrity and character, with whom we connect and identify.  We want THOSE people to win, even if other contestants are more talented.  So there is a lot more that must be taken into consideration in the judging process.

“That said, I think Josh might have taken it all, were MasterChef an entirely merit-based contest.  He is most definitely a force to be reckoned with.  And I can’t wait to see what’s next for him!”

Dark words when I read them now.  Of course, a few episodes later, Josh landed BACK in the MasterChef competition after several previously-eliminated contestants were seemingly-randomly selected to compete in a pressure test to win back their apron.  Despite obviously not performing the best in the pressure test, Josh was engineered back on the show (at the expense of others who performed much better), which left a bad taste in my mouth.  You can read the blog about this episode and the 80+ comments left by fans to understand why the producers made this choice…it caused lots of stir.  And it was no secret that Josh was a fan favorite that the audience felt was eliminated too early.  But, as he didn’t perform to his normal standards during the challenge, it certainly appeared very artificially engineered that he was back.  And according to his friends on the show, he was also fairly puzzled as to why he won out over better dishes in that challenge.  This may have planted the first seeds of his discontent with the show.

Josh then advanced all the way to the finals on the show, but it’s a different Josh that we were shown.  Whether through editing or reality, after his comeback Josh was more competitive, more solitary, more aggressive.  When David Martinez forgot the rice for his rice pudding, Josh boasted, “If I had any rice, I wouldn’t give it to him.”  Then an interview clip of him saying, “I think I’m way more competitive than most people in this contest.”  If you’re a regular blog reader of mine, you know how much I caution people against making ANY kind of correlation between a real person and what you see of them on reality TV.  Editing is highly selective, and sometimes sound bytes are even pieced together from separate things a contestant says on completely different days.  But one thing is for certain…Josh watched how he was represented on the show when it aired, and the pre-elimination Josh character was a very different character than the Josh character who won his apron back and went all the way to the finals.

Josh was not at peace with his runner-up position.  There was a lot of angst and heartache among the core MasterChef family that season over it.  But they all recognized that it wasn’t simply the jealous actions of a “sore loser.”  Josh wasn’t well.  He suffered from bipolar disorder. While his fellow season contestants may postulate otherwise, the MasterChef legal team has made it V-E-R-Y clear to me that the show’s producers and psychologists did not know about Josh’s condition before or during the filming of the show. (Contestants undergo exhaustive psychological evaluation before being cast, not only to uncover issues like mental disorders, but also to understand how contestants respond in stressful situations, so the show can be crafted to be gripping for each character’s story arc.)

Not much is publicly known about Josh during the period post-MasterChef until July of this year, though he was working professionally in restaurants.  He had been selected to compete in the highly respected Culinary Night Fight in New York.  And he had become a national spokesman for the Make A Sound Project, an organization that helps prevent suicide…revealing to the public that he has struggled with suicidal tendencies in the past.  Then, in July, Josh was arrested under strange circumstances that clearly indicated his mind was not well.  Rather than be sent for psychiatric evaluation, Josh was placed in jail and received no mental health treatment.

MasterChef scrambled to contact other season 3 contestants, warning them not to talk to the media.  We don’t know if they reached out to Josh or his family to see if any support could be offered, though I imagine we’d have heard about it. (They have now reached out to the family.)

After being released from jail, Josh’s mother struggled to get him help.  There were not enough spaces available in an in-patient facility where he could me monitored constantly.  Faced with astronomically prohibitive costs far beyond the family’s means, Josh entered an out-patient treatment program at Mercy Hospital that insurance would help to cover, though his mother expressed skepticism over the quality of the program.  At the end of this treatment program, Josh was informed that he was likely schizophrenic.  (At the end, just before discharge.)  Josh’s mother picked him up from the hospital and could tell how distraught he was over receiving this diagnosis.  The next day, Josh left his apartment, acquired a handgun, and, at age 26, ended his struggle in an alley nearby.  At least some family members were present, and his mother arrived moments after.

I’ve never written anything as horrible as this…my fingers aren’t wanting to keep typing.  I’ve lost two dear friends and several acquaintances to suicide, and I know all the emotions and doubts and regrets and guilt.  Even when I write about horrific issues, like children being discarded by their parents over issues of sexuality or gender identity, there is always something to celebrate at the end.  A triumph.  A life saved.  And while I have no doubt that Josh’s loved ones will use this struggle and the power of Josh’s story to save others from a similar fate, we’re just not there yet.  We’re in the middle of the despair.  In the thick of the questions…so many of which are questions we, as Americans, are struggling with right now.  Do we offer enough care to those wrestling with mental disorders?  Why can’t prisons rehabilitate, rather than perpetuate?  Why do we allow mental disease to be stigmatized to a much greater extent than physical disease?  How can those suffering from mental disorders so easily acquire weapons that can be deadly to them and others?

There are other questions that I will never be in a position to entertain.  Josh’s family considers reality TV to be the impetus for Josh’s mental disorders.  His mother states: “I hadn’t noticed any signs of anything wrong or any mental illness until after Josh completed filming MasterChef.  The time he was away filming was extremely stressful on him.”  I’m no psychologist, and will never be privy to the inside information regarding the production of Josh’s season and how the producers and their psychologists crafted Josh’s journey.  I caution anyone against hurriedly passing this off as being the exclusive fault of MasterChef’s producers or the network.

What I do hope is that this tragedy prompts the industry to look at how they treat their contestants, both during and after the filming.  Reality TV is produced not because the American public loves it, but because it’s cheap.  Hired actors are protected by unions that provide health and mental care, and have strict rules to protect them from the rigors of film and television production.  It’s far easier and cheaper to use “real” people who don’t have to be paid ANYTHING to be on TV, and who willingly sign contracts allowing them to be exploited in numerous ways.  And while most production companies have at least one psychologist on set, after meeting said psychologist for my season, it’s not entirely obvious to me that the doctor is there exclusively to ensure the mental health of the contestants, rather than assist in the crafting of the show’s story.

Many reality TV contestants experience mental and emotional hardship in the aftermath of the filming and airing.  At least one top contestant from my season struggled with suicidal tendencies and abject depression, and is only now starting to recover, 2 years after.  Multiple contestants from this past season have been suicidal, as well.  Actual suicides by reality TV contestants are certainly not unknown.  So it’s time for the industry to look at the mental health of its contestants, not only during filming, but after, as well.  And it’s time for us, as a culture, to banish the stigma around suicide, so our friends and family members aren’t scare to confess if they’re struggling with such thoughts.  I doubt there’s a single one of us out there who hasn’t contemplated it in our darkest moments.  I certainly have.

Josh Marks was a breathtakingly talented young man.  We, the world, were lucky to have shared in his light during MasterChef season 3.  Josh was loved by so many fans.  The tragedy is that mental illness prevented him from FEELING that love, and the love from those closest to him.  No one of sound mind who feels truly loved takes their life.  The issue here is illness.  And so many people struggle with it.

Until his death, Josh was actively involved with the Make A Sound project, to raise awareness about suicide and help those struggling with suicidal thoughts.  Josh’s family is encouraging those who wish to help to make a donation to Make A Sound in Josh’s name.  A donation link can be found midway down their homepage.  Josh’s mother is working toward establishing a foundation in Josh’s name that will fight for increased mental healthcare in this country, and when that is up and running, I’ll let you all know.

In the meantime, I ask that comments on this post be celebrations of what you remember of Josh…sharing of personal struggles with mental disease, either your own or those of loved ones…words of encouragement for anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide…and support for Josh’s family, his memory, and legacy.  Let’s not devolve into political arguments or outlashings against anyone, out of respect for Josh and his family.

**IF you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, reach out to someone who loves you.  If you would feel better talking to someone who doesn’t know you, there are lots of resources to connect with someone who will help you feel better:

1-800-784-2433 1-800-273-TALK
TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889)



Also for the VA (they counsel anyone and have vast experience)
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Kids Help Phone (Cyberbullying):
If you need someone to vent too or just someone to listen. phone this number. They are amazing.

Mulligan’s Manor

This is not Sean. This photo is of a boy like Sean, who wasn't as lucky.

I want to tell you a story.  It’s about a boy.  I don’t know his real name.  That information is confidential.  So we’re just going to call him Sean.  He grew up in a conservative family in California.  Like all kids do, he loved his family, even if they were not perfect.  And for many years, he kept a secret from them.  A secret fundamental to his existence and identity.  Sean was a boy who was only attracted to other boys.  He couldn’t help it.  And he couldn’t explain it.  That’s just how he was naturally.

One day he couldn’t keep this a secret from his family any longer.  So he told them.  Expecting only what every kid expects from his family.  Their love and support.

Sean’s family didn’t understand.  And they did not like what Sean had to say.  They figured the problem could be solved by a good old fashioned spanking.  And when that didn’t seem to negate his sexual orientation, a stronger beating seemed in order.

When Sean woke up in the hospital with 100 staples in his back, he discovered that he didn’t have a family any more.  It wasn’t his decision.  The government had taken him away from his family for his own protection.  (And if ever there was a situation where a kid should be torn from his home for his own protection, this was it.)

Sean was relocated to live with extended family in Phoenix, but was physically abused by them, as well.  So he entered the group home system, living with other “troubled” kids whose parents “couldn’t handle them.”  In typical fashion, he was relocated from group home to group home.  He had 6 different “families” in 18 months.  He was picked on by the kids he lived with.  He was even picked on by some of the house parents in the homes.  Because he was different.  Gay, lesbian, and transgendered kids in the foster care system are at the bottom of the pack.  Sean had showed an interest in makeup at an early age, and this made him an easy target.

A home without judgement.

But Sean is a smart kid.  He wanted a place to truly call home, where he wouldn’t have to worry about hiding himself from his “siblings” and house parents.  He did his research…and he discovered Mulligan’s Manor…a group home of a very different sort.  It was started in November of 2011 by a woman named Jenny Diaz.  Jenny had a background in social work and cases of sexual abuse, and wanted to provide a safe place for some of the many children in her community who needed loving homes.  (There are over 7,000 children without families in the county where Phoenix is located.)  But within that unthinkable number are underdogs.  The kids that the rest of the kids pick on.  The kids that foster parents don’t want.  Gay and lesbian kids.  And kids who were born into bodies with a gender that they don’t feel belongs to them.  Jenny discovered through a bit of research that these kids, more than any others, have the most difficulty adjusting in group homes.  So she decided to take her own house…the house where she had raised her daughter Shannon…and turn it into a safe haven for THOSE kids.

Sean went to live at Mulligan’s Manor.  He found himself surrounded by kids who were like him.  Kids he could talk to without worrying about being beaten up.  Kids who would HELP him put on his makeup, if he felt like wearing it.  Perhaps most importantly, he was welcomed by house parents who showered love and acceptance on him.  Who assured him that he could tell them ANYTHING at all, and he would always be loved.  And who would give him lessons on applying makeup, if that’s what he wanted to do.

Also, Sean discovered that all his house brothers weren’t necessarily gay or transgendered.  Some of them were heterosexual.  Because Mulligan’s Manor is a place where kids learn from each other about acceptance.  To learn to be each others’ allies, rather than perpetuating separatism and discrimination.

Sean’s story is not unusual.  In the past 2 years, Mulligan’s Manor has been called “home” by 13 kids with similar stories.  Kids who might not have made it otherwise.  Like Evan.  (That’s also not his real name.)  Evan was in the foster care system as a toddler, and was eventually adopted in elementary school by a very conservative, devout family.  When he became a teenager, he confided in his parents that he was gay.  It did not go over well.  No longer welcome in his home, feeling persecuted and rejected by the only family he ever knew, Evan was found on the verge of suicide and was placed in a behavioral health clinic until the danger of suicide passed.  While he was there, a social worker told him about Mulligan’s Manor, which is now his home.  He has only been there for about a month, but he’s already teaching his house brothers how to play piano and sing.  And, ironically, the fact that he grew up with a steady adopted family (a rarity for kids in the system) has allowed him to share a level of stability and connection with his house brothers that they are not accustomed to.

Volunteers fixing up Mulligan's Manor before the arrival of their first kid

Because many of them have never experienced long-term love before landing at Mulligan’s.  Take Alex, for instance.  That IS his real name, because Alex just turned 18 and is no longer a ward of the state, so he can give authorization to use his real name.  Alex entered the state ward system at age 4, and before he landed at Mulligan’s at age 16, he had lived in 29 group homes.  That’s a new family every 6 months.  Can you imagine that lack of stability in your own childhood?  Alex has now graduated from high school and is interviewing for jobs.  He’s saving up to buy a car, and he’s applying to universities.  Shannon (the daughter of the founder, a former house parent at Mulligan’s, and their fundraising coordinator) had a chat with him recently about his experience at Mulligan’s, and he said something remarkable.  He had been in therapy continuously for much of his life.  But he said that it never seemed to work, because he couldn’t understand what the therapists were telling him.  Words like “love” and “trust” and “compassion” and “empathy” made no sense to him.  He had no frame of reference with which to understand them.  They were just words with memorized definitions.  But after a year at Mulligan’s, therapy started working for him.  Because, he said, for the first time in his life, he was experiencing love.  Love for others.  Others loving him.  And, most importantly, discovering how to love himself.

Alex, on his 18th birthday. (This is his real photo.)

I first encountered Mulligan’s Manor last summer at a fundraiser organized by my friend Donna Donahue.  Donna is one of those one-of-a-kind people that you never forget.  I had interacted with her, as a MasterChef fan, on Facebook and Twitter, and on one of my trips out west to LA, she said that if I was coming through Phoenix, I should stop for a drink and meet her.  Phoenix isn’t directly on the way to LA, it’s about a 100 mile detour.  But something told me I should meet Donna.  So I did.  And I became great friends with her and her husband Chuck.  Donna works at a nonprofit that supports at-risk youth in Phoenix, and she invited me to come help with a bake sale her kids were doing to raise money for the “No Kid Hungry” organization.  While we were setting up, a group of young gay kids came up and offered their assistance.  I assumed it was a youth support group, like the kind I was involved in after moving to the big city for the first time.  But I learned from their house-parent, Marcus, about Mulligan’s Manor.  The boys worked very hard at the bake sale.  They ran up and down the street, telling people about the delicious yummies for sale, and how 100% of the proceeds went to ending child hunger.

Volunteers at Mulligan's Manor, including the founder, Jenny Diaz

And at one point in the evening, I just sat down and cried.  Here were all these kids, disadvantaged to a supreme extent, working up a sweat to raise money for OTHER kids.  It was overwhelming.  I bought them all pizza from a famous Phoenix food truck and sat down at the table to listen to their stories.  And I tried to be a big boy and not cry.  But when you are looking at a beautiful, creative, hopeful, talented, articulate, extraordinary 13 year old boy with his whole life ahead of him, you wonder what kind of person would toss him out onto the street.  Don’t they see what I see?  Someone who deserves to be loved unconditionally?  Someone who can change the world if he wants to?

Donna was as surprised to see them show up at the fundraiser as I was.  The youth organization she works for isn’t related to Mulligan’s Manor.  But, in typical Donna fashion, she adopted the Mulligan’s boys as her pet project.  This past Christmas she took donations and was able to fill virtually every gift on every boy’s Christmas list.  She goes to the Manor to teach them cooking classes and just be a friend.  And they love her.

Green breakfast for the kids on St. Patty's

Mulligan’s isn’t your typical group home.  While licensed group homes can have up to 10 kids at a time, Mulligan’s tries to stay closer to 5, so the kids can build meaningful family connections with each other, have individualized attention and care, and be able to enjoy activities that kids in larger group homes don’t always get to, like personalized tutoring, field trips and weekend retreats.  While they definitely target gay, lesbian, transgendered, and questioning youth, those kids can be difficult to “find” in the system…because you learn early on to hide your sexuality to avoid rejection and violence.  But, at the same time, they also want to foster kids who identify as heterosexual because it’s important for these young gay kids to see supportive straight people as allies and friends.  No kid leaves Mulligan’s Manor until they turn 18, unless they need a higher level of medical or psychological care than the Manor staff can give them.  Mulligan’s Manor is their home.  Unless their natural home becomes a welcoming place for them again.

The ultimate goal at Mulligan’s is to reunite kids with their natural families.  Because people can change.  If parents prove eager to have their child back, and can prove to the state that they will provide a loving, nurturing, healthy environment…and if the kids come to learn that their families have had a change of heart and want to prove their love and acceptance…a kid can be reunited back home.  Unfortunately, this type of happy ending is far less likely than the kids “aging” out of the system at 18.  Which is why Mulligan’s is often the last group home a child ever has to be placed in…because they are there to stay, in an environment of love and acceptance.

This does not come without cost.  Mulligan’s Manor is supported primarily by donations.  And, as you can imagine, raising money for a charity that the public might view as a “gay charity” can be challenging.  They’ve had trouble making payroll for the already under-paid angels who devote their lives to helping these kids have a life of pride and success.

So this Saturday, July 13, they are hosting their first annual “Bowling for the Manor,” a fundraiser to bring awareness to the community and raise money so they can keep doing what they’re doing.  If you live in the Phoenix area, you can join the bowl-a-rama (either as a team or an individual), or win some great prizes from local businesses in their raffle.  Or place a bid at the silent auction for some really big prizes, like 2 tickets to anywhere Southwest Airlines flies, or a weekend getaway at the legendary Clarendon Hotel.

If you don’t live in Phoenix but your heart reaches out to these kids, who’ve endured so much, yet only want to be loved and to find their own special place in this big world, you can make a donation on their website.  Whether it’s $5 or $20 or $100 or more, it will do far more good for the world than that caramel macchiato you were gonna get tomorrow, or that new pair of shoes you’ve been thinking about.  And you’ll feel WAY better about yourself, knowing you’ve actually done something that helped change a kid’s life.

As I was finishing up this post, I texted Shannon because I realized I had completely forgotten to ask about the origins of the name “Mulligan’s Manor.”  I was imagining that the founder Jenny, Shannon’s mom, must have had a very special gay uncle named Mulligan, or something of the sort.  But Shannon set me straight.

It turns out I know very little about sports.  In golf, a “mulligan” is a second chance…the ability to do something over again without being penalized.  So many kids get penalized simply for being who they are, and absolutely nothing else.  Mulligan’s Manor is giving these kids that second chance…to become the extraordinary person they truly are, rather than be penalized for who they are not.

A mural at Mulligan's Manor. Each kid who lives there gets a flower with their name beside it. (Names removed because they are wards of the state.) In this way, each kid becomes forever part of the home that saved them.

Follow Mulligan’s Manor on Facebook to find out what their kids are up to.  Even if you’re broke as a joke, like I am at the moment, send them a few bucks at the very least.  Doing good for others feels WAY better than a midnight taco run.  And if you know of similar organizations or programs in your town, tell us about them in the comments below.  It’s heartening to hear about amazing people doing good for those who need it.  And for those of you doing the good work at Mulligan’s, I thank you from the very bottom of my heart.  You are truly changing the world for the better.

(I was unable to show you photos of any of the kids at Mulligan’s Manor other than Alex, because they are still minors and are considered wards of the state, and their identity is confidential.  Phoenix-area folks are welcomed to volunteer at the house and meet the kids.)

ADDENDUM:  After such an amazing response in the comments here and on Facebook, I’m gripped with the need to say that, as much time as I spend criticizing MasterChef for stooping to the lowest common denominator these days, none of you would have a clue who I am without MasterChef, and I’d have never inherited this AMAZING family of fans all over the world who care so deeply about the important things in life.  So they must be doing SOMETHING right, and as upset as I am over the directions they’ve taken, the fact is that they are still introducing genuine people to a larger audience who can, with YOUR help, make a difference in this world.  Thank you, all of you, for being amazing.