Marina Keegan was many things — political organizer, actress, camp counselor, debate champion, Yale honors graduate — but she was above all a writer.
At ease in fiction and nonfiction, she had an ear for dialogue and an understanding of the anxieties and dreams of people her age. By 22, she had won a raft of awards and written the book for a coming-of-age folk-rock musical selected for the New York International Fringe Festival — a realist-absurdist tale of reenactors using a historic tall ship to smuggle drugs.
Keegan was supposed to be on Cape Cod this week, revising the musical in advance of its August production, then move to Brooklyn to work as an assistant in The New Yorker’s legal department, a job that would have afforded opportunities to cultivate her writing. On what should have been move-in day in Brooklyn, Keegan will instead be mourned this Saturday at a service in her hometown, Wayland.
She was killed this past weekend while heading to Wellfleet, when the car her boyfriend was driving struck a guardrail on Route 6 in Dennis, veered across the highway, struck another guardrail, and flipped twice. Both were reportedly wearing seat belts; Keegan was pronounced dead at the scene and her boyfriend sustained minor physical injuries. The accident is still under investigation.
In the aftermath, Keegan’s final published words — an essay in last week’s Yale Daily News commencement issue — have been forwarded and forwarded again, tweeted and retweeted, posted on Facebook, and viewed an astonishing 700,000 times by Tuesday night.
In a piece titled “The Opposite of Loneliness,” Keegan expressed gratitude for the supportive web of college — love and community, and something more — and poked playfully at those who have it all figured out, with medical school or fast-track jobs ahead.
For the rest feeling uncertain or lost, she urged them not to panic. “We can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over.
“The notion that it’s too late . . . is comical,” she continued. “It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”
Keegan was proud of her work and had written and spoken already about trying to produce pieces that resonated with peers. But she was especially excited about her potential to grow as a writer, said friend Mark Sonnenblick, who wrote the lyrics to Keegan’s musical “Independents” and was to join her on the Cape. Instead, he organized a gathering in her honor in New Haven Tuesday night.
“She wanted her art to outlive her,” he said. “It really would have made her happy — very happy — to see that people have been touched by the things that she has written.”
That had already happened. Last fall, Keegan wrote a piece for the student paper exploring the pull of investment banking and consulting, drawing one in four Yale graduates, many of whom entered college with more idealistic or artistic ambitions, catching the attention of The New York Times. Her follow-up essay for the Times’s DealBook generated national conversation.
As good as she was as a journalist and essayist, Keegan was even more talented as a playwright, said Anne Fadiman, a Yale adjunct professor and author who taught Keegan.
“Marina was extremely funny, one of the wittiest writers I’ve taught, but she could also turn on a dime and break your heart,” Fadiman said.
She was tenacious, but she was also funny and a devoted friend and sister to brothers Trevor and Pierce. She was also a frequent texter, someone who visited high school teachers whenever she was home, a playful young woman ready to balance a watermelon on her head for a photo, figure out how to make sushi, or talk about relationships at 4 a.m.
At 15, she persisted in entering a sailing race in Wellfleet even as gale-force winds caused all other teens and women to drop out; she was too light to hold the boat down and capsized repeatedly but eventually finished to a standing ovation, soaked and hands bloodied from the lines, recalled her father, Kevin Keegan, who called her “a real piece of work in a good way.”
As a senior at Buckingham Browne & Nichols school in Cambridge, she took a different route for a profile writing contest; when others played connections to interview Keith Lockhart or follow heads of hospitals, she accompanied the family’s exterminator, and her vivid portrait, “I Kill for Money,” not only won the contest but remains an example for current students.
Beth McNamara, who coached Keegan in JV soccer and taught her in sophomore and senior English, described her as “wise beyond her time.”
“She was effortlessly cool,” said McNamara, who spoke this week with younger students at BB&N who knew Keegan instead from her days as a camper and counselor at Cape Cod Sea Camps. “I want to be Marina Keegan,” they told her.
At Yale, she rose to the presidency of the College Democrats — while working phone banks, she also peppered her father with calls when it appeared he would vote for Scott Brown over Martha Coakley — and coordinated the Occupy movement on campus.
Keegan handled challenges with grace. Passed over for Yale’s secret societies, she channeled the time into her writing and joked that she was creating Book & Book, a play on names such as Skull & Bones and Scroll & Key.
She was also magnanimous in victory. Michael Gocksch lost to her in the College Democrats election but wound up her friend, vice president, and, eventually, boyfriend.
Keegan’s mother said her “heart is broken and it will never heal.” But her parents have sustained themselves by focusing on her vibrancy, and they have reached out to Gocksch.
“I told him that he needs to embrace life, and live life to the fullest, because that’s what Marina would want,” Kevin Keegan said. “She loved him, and that’s what’s getting us through, even after she’s gone. She’s helping us; that’s how strong she was.”