The Suicide Index/Joan Wickersham: Reflections

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Every year we lose twice the number of parents, children, grandparents, friends, neighbors, colleagues to suicide than we lose to murder. "Murder attacks the future, suicide the past," a brilliant writer offered to me, just this week, in email. Yes.

When Joan Wickersham's father decided to end his own life early one morning—he had dressed, collected the paper, made a cup of coffee for his wife, sat down in a favorite chair, crossed his feet on the foot rest, and fired one shot. He left behind the unsolvable riddle, the countless mathematically imbalanced paradoxes that all suicides leave in their wake. For years the author tried to sort the facts and un-numb, tried to understand who her father really was and how to make the entirely unacceptable somehow acceptable, so that she could live not past it, but with it. Hadn't he loved her? How could he? Hadn't he himself been against suicide as a philosophical concept, a life choice? So then what happened? Didn't he know that taking his life in his house would make so much impossible for the wife, and was that the point, after all, and why, in the immediate aftermath, was there so much strange conversation among the family members, so many wrong things first noticed, a hint, even, of laughter?

Wickersham wrote her book in pieces. She wrote it as fiction, she wrote it as memoir hung on the hanger of chronology, and finally she wrote it as an index, The Suicide Index: Putting My father's Death in Order. The book was a National Book Award finalist in 2008. It wholly deserved the citation.

Chapter titles:

act of
attempt to imagine
bare-bones account
immediate aftermath

anger about

attitude toward

belief that change of scene might unlock emotion concerning

You understand. You can image that Wickersham moves across pronouns, point of views, facts, assertions, incompatible parallels. You can trust that this book is honest and also unsparing—because a book about one person's suicide is also necessarily a book about the people who either did not anticipate or somehow caused (does anyone cause? can anyone anticipate?) the terrifying, tragic act.

There are lessons for memoirists in this book about structure and form. About lacerating honesty, as in: If you are going to be laceratingly honest, you must also be lacerating about yourself. About not making life too orderly for the pages of a book. Here is Wickersham, for example, offering instruction by way of notes to herself:

Biography, in the case of someone who commits suicide, is particularly dangerous, misleading. It looks at a life through the lens of a death. Every time a bad thing happens, the temptation is to say, "Aha!"

I have to be careful not to make it too orderly.
Here is Wickersham offering instructions on life:

I am convinced that in real life suicide can't be the backdrop, dwarfed by something else. It is the foreground: itself inevitably the thing that changes people's lives. There is no other plot, and no resolution. And while some healing does happen, it isn't a healing of redemption or epiphany. It's more like the absorption of a bruise.

For more thoughts on memoirs, memoir making, and prompt exercises, please visit my dedicated Handling the Truth page.


patti.mallett_pp said...

Heading to buy this one..........Thanks, Beth!!
Love the snow on bricks photograph, too. You have the eye as well as the ear as well as the legs......... xo

Becca said...

I come to this post after reading these words on the blog of a 22 year old former student:

In the last couple months, I’ve had two friends in their 20′s decide that the world held nothing else for them. This is a tragedy I still can’t fathom."

I have a friend whose father AND son committed suicide. That is another tragedy I cannot fathom.

This book sounds powerful - painful, but powerful.

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