Jeremy Hance (SFGI09), Environmental Journalist and Author
October 23, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis
Jeremy Hance (SFGI09) grew up on a farm and was always in love with animals. Not farm animals, though. He was obsessed with wild, exotic creatures—the stranger, the better. As a kid, he wanted to be a zookeeper. As a teenager, his focus expanded: he still loved animals, but he also grew concerned with the state of the environment and developed an interest in writing. He eventually landed at Macalaster College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature; ultimately, he would combine his many passions as an environmental journalist and writer.
At the time, though, Hance was unsure of his next steps following graduation. He and his now-wife took a trip to Peru, where they spent 10 days in the remote Amazon rainforest. It was a life-changing trip for Hance, which he describes in the first two chapters of his new book, Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac. An unusual travel narrative that follows Hance around the world as he encounters exotic animals in far-away places like Kenya, Guyana, and Borneo, much of Baggage is about the resilience needed to push through discomfort and challenges in order to do what matters to you.
The book also charts Hance’s experiences with mental illness. The trip to the Amazon “brought back all the love of nature and concern for the environment [from adolescence],” he explains, “but at the same time it was during that trip when I realized there was something else going on.” Upon his return home, he was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It was a difficult time during which many of his ideas about mental illness generally—and his own in particular—changed. It was also when he decided to continue his formal education.
Hance had loved his undergraduate studies, but he recognized that an enormous amount of English literature was “built on the back of the Bible, and the Greeks and Romans,” and felt he was missing an important foundation. He began looking around at master’s programs—particularly writing programs. “And then St. John’s came out like a beacon one day,” says Hance. He thought the emphasis on philosophy would help plug some of the gaps remaining from his undergraduate education.
He applied and was accepted to the graduate program, and moved with his new wife from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Santa Fe. At the time, “I was dealing with a lot of mental health issues,” Hance explains. Having been first diagnosed with a mental illness when he was 10, he’d lived with it for a long time by the time he was diagnosed with OCD. When he went to St. John’s, “it was like [being in a] sanctuary to spend two years with brilliant people discussing these incredible things, reading these amazing works…talking about what really matters to us as humans, and what these books really teach us.” He feels that, along with the foundations of Western thought and philosophy, St. John’s gave him the space to become a journalist.
Hance also believes his St. John’s education helped him stand out from other environmental writers—he could see things through a different lens, connecting science with the humanities and arts. It was during his two years in the Program that he first began writing opinion pieces on the environment and pitching them to news outlets. Hance was surprised and delighted when the conservation news site Mongabay agreed to publish one of his articles. Soon after that initial success, Mongabay hired him as an unpaid intern. “I didn’t have any journalism classes or formal training,” Hance says, “so I basically learned by lots of trial and error.” For a long time he wrote for free. Then, after graduating from St. John’s, Mongabay offered him a full-time writing job.
Hance worked for Mongabay for six years, starting as a staff writer, then adding editorial responsibilities. Eventually, he decided to go freelance instead. By that time Hance and his wife had a five-year-old daughter, and it became clear to him that he couldn’t keep up the same pace. “I couldn’t do the full-time gig anymore, I basically burned out,” he says. “You’re expected to write a certain number of articles a week; it’s intensive.” As a freelancer he kept writing for Mongabay, and he also began contributing to several other publications, including The Guardian.
In addition to easing the pressure caused by constantly churning out articles, the move to freelance gave Hance space and time to explore writing a book. The Baggage project in particular kept nagging at him, though he resisted it. Growing up in a small town in the 90s, he felt ashamed of his mental illness and believed he had to hide it. Exposing it to the world through an autobiographical book was the last thing he imagined doing. But eventually, Hance explains, “it became too loud and too clear that that was sort of a next step; to share the story of what it’s like to travel with OCD, and the silly situations and crazy things that I get myself into.” The more he thought about it, the more he saw the book as a means to write about mental health and mental illness in a way that felt positive, funny, and—hopefully—uplifting.
“I love traveling, I love to be in new places, I love to meet people from different cultures, I love the food, I love the landscapes,” Hance says. And he considers visiting places like the Amazon, the African savanna, and the islands of Indonesia to be a gift. “I freaking hate getting there,” he admits. “Everything about going there is terrifying to me. But you have to force yourself, and learn ways to mitigate the anxiety.”
With Baggage, Hance presents evidence that it’s possible to mitigate some of that anxiety; that one can live with mental illness while still enjoying life-changing experiences like travel. Most importantly, he hopes the book will help others who have struggled with mental illness feel less alone—and see the possibilities in their own lives.