When their son Bart Jr. asked if he could throw an overnight party after his junior prom last May, Rep. Bart Stupak and his wife, Laurie, negotiated a no-alcohol rule and insisted that his older brother Ken be home in case things got out of hand. Then, clearing out of their Menominee, Mich., home, they booked a room at a local hotel and settled in. But at 9 the next morning they received a horrifying call. "You have to come quick!" said a friend of Ken's. "Something's happened to B.J."

Long after Bart's guests had left, one of Ken's friends had awakened to discover Bart, 17—known to friends as B.J.—dead from a self-inflicted bullet wound to his head. Shattered and perplexed, the Stupaks searched their minds and spoke to B.J.'s friends, trying to find some reason why their popular son might have taken his own life. It was two weeks later that Laurie, 46, came up with a theory—that his suicide might have been prompted by Accutane, a drug he had been taking for acne for five months. She recalled a manufacturer's pamphlet saying patients should notify their doctors of a family history of depression, but the Stupaks say it did not occur to them that there could be a connection to suicide attempts. Now they want to make sure future patients and their parents know the potential risks. "There's no doubt in our mind," says Laurie, "that had he not been taking Accutane, he'd be alive today."

The drug's manufacturer, Roche, has strong doubts. Though more than 500,000 people annually take Accutane—the most effective treatment for severe cystic acne—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received fewer than 400 reports of serious depression since the drug's 1982 debut. The FDA says such adverse symptoms are underreported. Still, no scientific study has positively linked the psychological disorders to the drug. "You have to understand," says Roche spokeswoman Melissa Ziriakus, "the adolescent population, particularly the male adolescent population, has a high tendency toward depression."

Perhaps, but B.J. Stupak never did, insists his father, 49, a five-term congressman and a former police officer who in 1974 married Laurie, a onetime social worker and the current mayor of Menominee. Born in 1982, two years after his brother Ken, now 20, B.J. played football and headed the school spirit committee at Menominee High. "He was always the person who was in front of everybody," says business-law teacher and student council adviser Mike Cattani, "trying to motivate everyone to be energetic and enthusiastic."

And last spring everything seemed to be going great. In late April B.J. was elected president of the next student council, plus he had ordered his varsity football jacket and, with his 18th birthday just weeks away, he had given his parents a wish list from the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. Then came the prom. "He was probably the most excited of all of us," says friend Eric Nelson, 18, one of the eight at B.J.'s postprom party.

Though the Stupaks had forbidden alcohol, it wasn't long before some of the kids, including B.J., were drinking vodka and orange juice. B.J. became loud and rowdy, at one point reciting passages from the Bible. "He was just kind of goofing around," says his friend Brandon Lemery, 18. By about 7 a.m. the partygoers had all left and Ken and his friends were asleep. Sometime after that, B.J. apparently took the .38-cal. revolver his mother kept in her night table for protection during her husband's stays in Washington, D.C., made his way downstairs and shot himself.

Though the Stupaks say that they weren't aware of Accutane's possible link to suicide, the FDA had ordered Roche in 1998 to list symptoms including "suicide attempts" as possible side effects—in material that went only to doctors. Last fall the agency ordered Roche to revise a consent form Accutane patients now must sign, noting that some Accutane users had experienced sadness and even committed suicide. Now Democrat Bart Stupak and seven congressional colleagues have called for more studies of the drug. If she had known more, Laurie Stupak is sure of what she would have done. "We would have said, 'What else do you have that doesn't carry those risks?' "

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Lorna Grisby in Menominee

  • Contributors:
  • Lorna Grisby.