The Suicide of LeAnn Leutner

She left behind a baby boy, an estranged lover, and a custody case that would challenge progressive New York

The Suicide of LeAnn Leutner

Lincoln Edward Amory Leutner-Sporn crawls across the multicolored carpet, ignoring a pile of blocks and a stuffed animal and heading straight for a thick psychiatry text. Chubby, with a round face and sandy blond hair that's parted and neatly combed to the side, he paws through the pages of the book, clumsily opening and closing it with dimpled hands.

His father, Dr. Jonathan Sporn, a director of clinical research for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, chuckles as the baby abandons academic pretense and shoves the book in his mouth. At 55, Sporn has white hair. He has kind eyes and a crooked smile. "If he eats it, that's a good sign," he jokes. "That's the biggest tribute Lincoln gives." Sporn fancies the baby's antics an early sign of intelligence. The kid is bound to be brilliant, he tells anyone who will listen—just like his mother.

Sporn, however, may not have the opportunity to see how Lincoln turns out.

LeAnn Leutner
LeAnn Leutner
Jonathan Sporn, LeAnn Leutner, 
and baby Lincoln
Jonathan Sporn, LeAnn Leutner, and baby Lincoln

The doctor and his girlfriend, LeAnn Leutner, a high-powered corporate lawyer and Democratic Party leader, celebrated the long-awaited birth of baby Lincoln in July 2012. Six months later, Leutner committed suicide. Because the couple was not married and the baby was conceived with the help of a sperm donor, the state declared Lincoln an orphan and placed him in foster care. After a bitter custody battle that stretched to June, a judge sent Lincoln to Illinois to live with Leutner's sister. Sporn didn't even get to say goodbye.

The case illustrates a gap between the law and the increasingly dynamic definition of family. Today, the majority of babies are born out of wedlock. As technology improves, and prices for assisted reproductive technology come down, more and more children are welcomed into complex parental situations.

Beyond the custody battle, though, the crumbling of Sporn's family is a cautionary tale. In a way, Leutner's determination to have a baby—no matter the cost—sent her down a path that would ultimately lead to her death. Infertility treatment is a grueling emotional ordeal for any woman. For a woman like Leutner, who had a history of mental illness, it was a dangerous proposition.

"Looking back, there are so many things I wish I would have done differently to prevent this," Sporn says. "Every day I'm in pain about LeAnn. I wake up with it, and I go to sleep with it."

Leutner was a wisp of a woman, with ivory skin, ebony hair, and apple cheeks that dimpled when she smiled. Her voice was small, to match her frame, and high like a child's. She was 40 years old when she died, but she still had a girlish air—"like a princess," friends say. When others dressed in baseball caps and T-shirts, Leutner wore red lipstick and pearls. She loved glittery shoes, dangling earrings, and dresses covered in sequins and lace. Friends remember her first for her smile, which came fast and easy, and her tinkling laugh. It "lit up the room," wrote high school classmate Stacey Hoelscher, a kindergarten teacher in Illinois, in a memorial newsletter. "She was always kind."

But behind her warm exterior, Leutner was frail as a bird. She struggled with mood problems, an eating disorder, dissociative states, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, according to a custody petition Sporn filed in Manhattan Supreme Court. On her teeth, friends noticed staining and erosion—telltale signs of bulimic purging. People wondered when she refused to eat at parties: Does her collarbone protrude too much? Is her skin a bit too pale? To close friends, Leutner confided, "I never expected to live past 25." She treated her struggles with a daily 80mg dose of Prozac.

Since her youth in southern Illinois, those around her described Leutner as "self-assured" and "confident in her path." She breezed through a finance degree at the University of Illinois with highest honors, and, at 19, was accepted into Yale Law School. Among the youngest in the class of 1995, Leutner was less traveled and worldly than her peers, says classmate Jesselyn Radack.

But Leutner was also among the brightest. Her memory was near photographic. She knew politics inside out. "She could win a game of Trivial Pursuit with one roll of the dice," one friend jokes. Though law school could be a pressure-cooker, where ambition is cunning and looking down one's nose comes easy, Leutner's acumen wasn't something she flaunted. "Hers was a quiet brand of brilliance," Radack says.

In between homework and editing Yale Law & Policy Review, Leutner attended meetings for the school's feminist club and volunteered at a legal clinic, helping battered women get temporary restraining orders against their abusers. When Radack and her group of friends poked fun at a stuck-up classmate, Leutner didn't join in. "She had a youthful innocence and trust in people," Radack says. "She was always looking for the good side in everybody."

She was harder on herself. At Yale Law, instead of letter grades, teachers gave students a fail, pass, or honors. In one class, Radack remembers, there was only a pass/fail option. Leutner worried: Would potential employers understand why she hadn't gotten honors?

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