How one young violinist revamped the mindsets of all who knew him after his unexpected suicide
It was something they couldn’t have seen coming. But how could they have? How could they have known that behind his ever-glowing smile was the feeling of loneliness and sadness? How could they have ever known about his rare medical condition, or anything about his past struggles, if he never told them? Who were they to assume that Giles was not, in fact, okay, that his smile was not so authentic? There was a side to Giles that they didn’t know—that no one did. They wish they could have seen it, they wish they could have done something. But they can only wish.
Every morning at 9:15 a.m., Giles Joslyn raced down the wide campus sidewalk on his cadet blue Belleville Trek bicycle. With slick black shades to shield his eyes and his violin strewn across his back, Giles whisked along so hastily that he could have startled whomever he flew by. Fragile orange and reddish leaves sprang up behind him as his white tires ripped through the thick piles that lined the curb, and as he zoomed past you on his way to class, a subtle nod of the head or a friendly wave would suffice in swift passing.
The bike had a classic, early twentieth century French porteur-style look to it. The seat was brown leather, the handlebars curled inward, and the white tires had matching cadet blue fenders. The look fit Giles. It fit his properness and well-mannered demeanor, and it fit his fervent, adoring love for that violin—the greatest openly displayed human love for a non-human object any of us had ever seen. It fit everything about him.
Even Giles knew it: “Since I’m tired of driving a bucket of bolts and paying $30 a week in gas money I have decided to get the best bike I could ever get. Its the most effective commuter bike with 3 gears, generator powered lights, racks to put packages on, and its eco friendly since its all parts are recyclable. Plus it totally fits my personality. This bike is frickin’ sweet!!!!!” He posted that on Facebook the day he got it as a graduation present—May 4, 2011.
Everyone knew that his violin was his baby, but that bike quickly became his “second baby.”
One time, as Kelsey Beyer was entering Stalnaker, Drake University’s freshmen residence hall, Giles, a freshman music education major, was mounting the bicycle, and he called out to her.
“Hey, Kelsey! What do you think of my bike!?”
She told him it was great. He told her how fast he could go, and how he could “zoom around” on campus. His over-the-top excitement and enthusiasm puzzled Kelsey…. It’s just a bike, she thought.
But to Giles, nothing was ever “just” anything. His violin was not just an instrument, but a fragile, delicate extension of his inner self. A collection of Lord of the Rings books and movies not just a bunch of stuff on shelves, but prized keepsakes. And a “Hey, how are ya!?” not just a robotic question, but a sincere, outreaching gesture.
Sometimes it was hard for other students to grasp this constant happy-go-lucky attitude toward life. It baffled them how he never had a negative thing to say, never put others down, never pouted about anything at all.
But even more so, it baffled them when on January 5, 2012, Giles Joslyn, the seemingly happiest, most genuinely kind person they knew, took his life in his Muscatine, Iowa home.
Why did he want to do this? Is it something we did? Something we said? What could we have done? Why didn’t we see it coming?
On and on the questions rambled through their heads. They tried to understand, but was it even fathomable? Most found that it was not. Most found that there was a side to Giles Joslyn that they could not ever have known. A side no one had seen—not his parents, his instructors, or his peers.
They came to understand that, in fact, there was more to Giles than the optimism and buoyancy that he taught them. There was so, so much more…
Part I: Childhood
“Have you ever heard a song from so long ago with so many memories tied to it that it made you cry? And didn’t you wish that you could go back into time when everything seemed so much simpler and carefree? Those are songs that are the soundtrack of our lives… the ones that bring back childhood memories, best friends, first love, first heartbreak… the memories.” -Giles Joslyn, January 4, 2012
Giles Harper Joslyn was born Aug. 26, 1992 to Jim and Pam Joslyn, and he spent his first nine years in White Bear Lake, Minn., a large northeast suburb of the Twin Cities.
Giles was a happy child—a very smart child. He knew his alphabet earlier than most, and in second grade, he spent every Saturday morning writing out each president’s name in chronological order until he memorized all of them. He once worked up enough courage that year to write to President George W. Bush asking to one day perform with his violin at the White House. While other kids collected baseball cards, he collected prayer cards, and he carried them with him everywhere up until third or fourth grade.
And he was so polite—so proper. He’d approach strangers, extend his hand, and say, “Hello, how do you do? My name is Giles.” Ready for kindergarten in his white Oxford polo, navy blue sweater vest, his kakis, and shiny black shoes, Giles would look at himself in the mirror before school and turn to his mother, Pam Joslyn, saying, “Look at my outfit. Don’t I look nice today?” Occasionally he also wore a tie, which wasn’t required, but Giles knew it boosted his sophistication. “He was so vain when he was little,” said Pam.
His urge to meet new friends and his dressed-to-impress classiness was enough for an entourage of fifth grade girls to flock to him on the playground; they’d give him a few underdogs on the swing.
“It was kind of unusual—for a kid who’s not athletic but very outgoing—that somehow he stood out among everyone, and I think it was because he had such extraordinary communication skills,” his father, Jim Joslyn, said. “And his art. He was a very good artist at a young age.”
When the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button came out, Giles’ younger brother, Eli, saw parallels right away. “That’s my brother—he’s Benjamin Button,” Eli said. “He was born 40.”
At the age of 4, Giles had already begun pleading to learn the violin. “No, Giles. You aren’t focused enough yet,” his mother told him. But finally at 6, Giles’ persistence paid off, and Pam and Jim enrolled him in St. Joe’s Music School, where he took the pre-play classes for his age group.
“He wasn’t exceptional when he started,” Jim said. “But it’s one of those things he kept working at. A lot of it was practice, practice, practice, and then somehow it just came so automatic to him.”
When Giles was 9, he and his family moved to Muscatine. The old Iowa town is a product of post-industrial, small-town America. Just past the barren, golden fields along Route 38, past the farmhouses, and past the Heinz ketchup canning factory is the heart of Muscatine, where old Ford pickups and rusty four-door Chevys line the narrow uphill streets on both sides. It’s the town where everybody goes to the football game on Friday night and where the movie theatre is the hot spot on Saturday night. It’s right along the Mississippi River, and when Mark Twain lived there in 1854, he remembered Muscatine for its summer sunsets. “I have never seen any on either side of the ocean that equaled them,” he once wrote. The houses, each painted a different color, are close together, and the schools are close in town, too. And the historic downtown Muscatine, just off the river, boasts a wide variety of restaurants, pizzerias, and bar and grilles, vintage shops, flower shops, and antique shops. The downtown strip was tourist-attracting, despite the small-town, family-oriented feel that consumed Muscatine.
The Joslyns live in the middle of town atop a small hill in an all-white brick house. To reach the front door, one must ascend the 10 concrete steps from the sidewalk and follow a path through the front yard up onto the painted blue wooden front porch, where a white rocking chair remains still. And then there you are, at the foot of the door where Giles grew up.
When Giles came to Muscatine, there was no entourage of fifth grade girls, and his violin instructors didn’t compare to those at St. Joe’s. But despite the changes, he adjusted to the move well.
Giles was seemingly good at everything he worked toward. Though he never played a major role, he also enjoyed acting. In sixth grade, he played a fish in Seussical the Musical and also the dog in the Grinch’s Christmas Pageant. It was the first memory that Zac Pace, a junior at Drake who also grew up in Muscatine, had with Giles. Pace played Horton the Elephant in the Seussical play.
“You know that trope there’s no such thing as a small part, just a small actor? The last thing Giles ever was was a small actor,” Pace said. “He just really loved performing. It didn’t matter if he had his violin. It didn’t matter if he was dressed as a damn fish. It didn’t matter. He just liked to be on stage expressing himself for other people’s enjoyment.”
He could act, he could play violin, he was an artist, and he could sing—a true master of the fine arts. His instrumental talent was no secret, but his vocals were just as impressive. At his old church in White Bear Lake, Giles’ voice could easily be picked out in the children’s choir as he sang over everybody. When the Muscatine community heard his voice, some thought he should hang up the violin and stick to singing.
But he didn’t do that. When he entered middle school, his career as a violinist soared. After snagging third place in the talent show in sixth grade, he and the family celebrated at Salvatore’s local pizzeria in downtown Muscatine. The owner saw Giles dressed up in his tux and bow tie and asked, “How come you’re so dressed up?” Giles told him about his third place finish in the talent show with his violin, and so the owner asked, “Will you play for us?” Giles said no, but later, the owner came back and again asked Giles to play. “Well…maybe for a pizza,” Giles told him. It was a deal. Giles played, and the entire restaurant erupted. People applauded clamorously; they threw fives and ones into his violin case. Giles had found himself his first job.
The whole town came to know Giles through his gig at Salvatore’s. “That restaurant is a Muscatine staple,” Pace said. “Everyone goes there.” He’d take song requests from each table, and when it was slow, he’d play for the waitresses. In fact, Emily Lofgren, a senior at Drake who also hails from Muscatine, first met Giles at Salvatore’s. When she celebrated her thirteenth birthday at the restaurant, Giles played Happy Birthday to her. He performed there every weekend, eventually saving enough money to purchase his first violin for $1,000.
And that first violin, it became his “baby.”
“I swear to you, that kid could make his science fair project on the violin every single year. I don’t know how he did it,” said Pace. “I’m here in a lab growing E. Coli, and we’ve got Giles Joslyn performing some type of experiment on his violin. He ate, slept, and breathed his violin.”
Upon entering seventh grade, Giles enrolled at the Preucil School of Music, a world-renowned music school in Iowa City, where he found John Schultz, the man who would be his violin instructor for the next six years before college.
“I knew right away he was going to be a fantastic fit,” Schultz said. “I knew he was going to be a fine student and they were going to be a fine family to work with. He played with enough passion right away that I knew, this is going to be great.”
Giles progressed very well under John Schultz. He was one of Schultz’s favorite students, and since Giles’ lesson was often the last of the evening, Schultz could stay late to work with Giles on technique. There was something that distinguished Giles from Schultz’s other students, leading Schultz to invest more time in the young violinist.
“The difficult thing is to have students develop a fingerprint with their sound,” he said. “But Giles had that with little help from me. He also had an innate understanding that, if you fall down, you get up and do it again and again and again. He had incredible work ethic to get things right and hone his skills.”
However, as Giles delved further into his musical talents and abilities, he began to realize something about himself: He was different. It seemed as though no other students could relate to his love for classical music and the euphoria he experienced as he ran his bow over each string. No one else had this love—no one else understood it like he did, either.
In the summer of seventh grade, when Giles came back from camp at Belin-Blank, a governor’s institute for leadership also in Iowa City, he told his parents, “I didn’t know there were kids out there like me.”
It wasn’t that Giles didn’t have friends at Muscatine’s Central Middle School. He didn’t have close friends. He didn’t have best friends. But there at CMS, to Giles, everyone–anyone–could be his friend.