"What's been the toughest part about being a senior?" This is a question I really enjoy gleaning answers from my seniors. It usually propels honesty, and even opens them up to a certain level of vulnerability. Most tell me about challenging math classes, one may mention aggravation towards a teacher, and of course a few admit to being bothered by cattiness and other brushes with typical high school drama. Alexa concluded her answer to my question, and after a thirty minute drive home from downtown Phoenix, I have never shook my head in disgust so vehemently as I did that evening. Alexa has now finished her first year in college --she's leaving Tucson with a 4.0. She loves to perform, and has danced for years. She has a horse named Jazz, whom she treats with such delicacy. She is obsessed with kids and ultimately wants to purse pediatric oncology. She is beautiful, in a effortless sort of way. Her voice calms nerves, and her sweetness instills a desire to reciprocate such kindness. She still laughs easy, something I'm sure she had to discover again.
This isn't the platform to tell her story completely -- I got midway through the pre-production process for a documentary on the subject, before unfortunately deciding to axe the project -- it deserves a much larger stage to deliver the justice she deserves, but I will share a sliver of her struggle.
While in her sophomore year, Alexa's best friend -- who we'll call Melissa -- started getting sick. Melissa's health was a constant concern. She told Alexa about hospital visits relating to heart rhythm problems, even having to undergo procedures, and being prescribed drugs regarding this condition, even sharing with Alexa that she had traveled to Colorado for a scary procedure in attempt to solve her heart issues. Melissa had even gone into full cardiac arrest and was on life support for a period of time. Many months later through texting her family, she was told that doctors had discovered a bump inside her head. It was cancerous. And it was inside her brain. Alexa's best friend had cancer and was handed an expiration date. Melissa had seizures at school, balance problems, and would even experience short term memory loss. This went on for months. Alexa was devastated and was not coping well. Her mom enrolled her in grief counseling. After attempting to initiate a Make A Wish project for Melissa, the friendship between Melissa and Alexa started to deteriorate. Melissa's mom claimed they were overstepping their boundaries. This was the turning point. Melissa basically campaigned to have Alexa friendless. Suddenly, Alexa was an outcast, though her heart still ached for her dying friend.
Many months later, Melissa informed Alexa that an MRI showed that the tumor was turning to scar tissue, and that the recent lumbar punctures showed no abnormal scars. It was a miracle.
At the beginning of the following school year, Alexa was informed that Melissa had been lying about being sick. She told Alexa that Melissa never had cancer and she had lied from the beginning of it all. The group of girls that had abandoned Alexa months before, apologized.
Melissa put on a show. Her theatrics were elaborate and believable. She weaved a web of masterful deception, and Alexa was her most affected victim.
I've practically shared a single corner piece to a thousand piece puzzle. There were death threats directed towards Alexa, multiple misuses of leadership at high positions -- Melissa's mom was involved in the deceit and she is a principal at a nearby high school -- and a total and absolute disregard for the innocent.
Apparently Sandra Day O'Connor has adopted TNT's "We Know Drama" slogan. But through listening to multiple accounts of this story through Alexa and even the friends that blackballed her, my heart ached for Alexa. She never wronged anyone. Her wrong decision was picking Melissa as a friend. Imagine trying to find trust in people again after spending a year under the impression that your best friend will die of brain cancer and then discovering it was a complete hoax. It's a terrifying thought.
I of course wanted to interview Melissa -- who happened to be her school's student body president -- and learn more about this extremely troubled, but yet charismatic girl, who was able to manipulate hundreds of individuals and escape without any punishment. She certainly showed signs of Munchausen Syndrome. She declined my offer to share her version of what happened, and with her disinterest came the decision to cut the doc short. It's a terrible shame considering the amount of wrongdoing that took place and the endless array of questions that deserve to be answered by many suspect individuals. The actions of so many deserved explanation, and through a documentary that could have gone viral, those explanations may have become audible...
I hope Alexa has moved on from this, and if she has I would be even more impressed. I'm still seething over it all. She is one of the most sincere seniors I've ever had the pleasure of photographing, and she deserves more. This story won't define her, and it will certainly be one of the many challenges that Alexa triumphantly overcomes in her life. Her courage certainly left an imprint on me. I can only hope that my daughter would address such adversity and distress with such grace as Alexa did. This is the stunning and resilient Alexa Friedrich, and she's been liberated.