An endless loop of images, sounds, and events play in the theatre of my horrified mind. Specific details branded themselves red hot into memory. The hour, the day, the week, the month, the year, the decade before it happened replay backward and forward as my mind searches for clues to the mystery of my lover’s death two years ago.
As a reader, I rode a wave of grief memoirs that began with Joan Didion’s 2005 The Year of Magical Thinking. This trend in publishing remains current with Joyce Carol Oates new book, A Widow’s Story. Other examples include Megan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Heather Lende’s Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, and Kate Braestrup’s Here if You Need Me. Local Ithaca author, Diane Ackerman has recently published her memoir, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing; a memoir of anticipatory grief. The deaths of husbands, mothers, fathers, children, friends, even pets, today have been the subject of touching bestselling memoirs that affirm readers who suffer similar kinds of losses and create compassion in those who can’t even imagine. But none of these recent books tell the story of losing a loved one to suicide.
Jill Bialosky has written a new memoir History of a Suicide (2011 Atria Books). My name is Jill and when I picked up her new book I thought finally someone who might understand me. Even though our losses and circumstances of survival are quite different, her story resonated with my own journey toward acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the story of a woman who tries to understand why her step-sister, Kim, took her own life at the age of 21 in 1990. During the past 20 years Bialosky has been an editor at W.W. Norton as well as an acclaimed poet and novelist, nursing along her own brilliant memoir of grief.
It is a different kind of grief. An incomprehensible one: your mind can’t find its logic. This grief traumatizes survivors and then intensifies by social stigma. For me the stigma affected my writing and publishing career. My agent recognized that my own memoir manuscript about the love of my life now had an abrupt true to life unexpected ending to this off-the-grid love story. Suicide is a tough topic to pitch publishers.
In 1897, Durkheim, the father of sociology, published Suicide. He studied the death statistics of France over time and discovered patterns in the aggregated cases. Downturns in the economic market, health epidemics, prospects of war and other social factors correlated to rates of suicides. What predisposing conditions, what circumstantial events, what triggers in social relations lead to self-annihilation? After more than a century we seem to know less, not more about why.
Jill Bialosky doesn’t find the answers in social demographic factors or family dysfunction. The abandonment of Kim’s father at an early age and their mother’s depression are tragic elements, but not explanations. Bialosky offers a profoundly personal and poetic investigation of her step-sister’s death. Part psychological autopsy, part love letter to Kim’s unfinished life, Bialosky’s memoir mirrors the minds of loving survivors. While the details of her story are unique, the relentless search for meaning is not.
The unanswered questions left in the wake of such an unexpected end haunt survivors. The passionate pursuit of reason is the knee jerk reaction to something we don’t understand and don’t want to accept. But reason alone can’t give someone’s death meaning. For every individual there is a much deeper story that defies logic and embraces myths. A reconciliation with this kind of death requires you go over the facts again and again until you understand there is no reason. And then let go and accept you will never really know.
There is a double-edged sword of silence for survivors in our contemporary society. When people discover you have a personal loss they can’t help but want to know who, why and how. Most folks are too polite to ask directly; censuring themselves.
Initially loved ones don’t know what to say and so they say nothing. Survivors don’t have answers. So they look for them. Discovery of the specifics and details of how their loved one perpetrated this violence against themselves doesn’t always help answer the deeper question of why. The graphic depiction of how someone ends their life is not something easy to say outloud; at least not in the initial period of shock and grief. But the why questions linger long after the funeral and survivors continue to search their souls years later.
Death is surrounded by rituals and religion, yet matters of faith are outside the purview of Bialosky’s investigation. Bialosky simply accepts the mystery is the unknown. She will never really know what it was like for Kim in those final moments, or, if anyone had done anything differently, would it have changed the trajectory of her step-sister’s short life. There is no resolution to the mind racing around the “what if’s.” The mind will always wander and wonder. For all the forensic analysis applied to one young woman’s decision to end her life before it had really begun, the reader is left with an explanation of suicide as over-determined happenstance.
To say an action is over-determined means that no one factor caused it to happen because any singular instance is a combination of factors working together and against each other in forces much larger than the individual. It’s never just one thing, but it’s everything that comes together in a single moment that changes the world irreparably.
Happenstance is a mysterious coincidence—that confluence of factors, circumstances, time and chance that make an event appear to have been prearranged although it was really accidental. Le Battement d’ailes du papillon. The beating of the butterly’s wings brings a chain reaction of earthly dimensions in randomness. Happenstance.
Over-determined happenstance is a metaphysical mystery worth reading about in Bialosky’s History of A Suicide. Bialosky writes sensitively and beautifully. Twenty years of mourning Kim makes her an expert on what happened and how, not why. She weaves together literary references with her sister’s journal entries to tell more than her own story. Bialosky helps the reader understand Kim and the inevitability of her death. Without judgment and filled with compassion, she lets Kim tell her own story.