Arts & Culture

Death in the family

Making literary sense of suicide.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Writer Joan Wickersham ’78 has been grappling with her father's suicide for 17 years. View full image

On a winter's morning in 1991, Joan Wickersham's father committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Wickersham ’78 and the rest of her family were shocked, in the fullest meaning of the word: there had been no warning, and there was no note. Her new book, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order (Harcourt), starts with the terrible day, then goes backward and forward in time, charting the act's effect on herself and the other survivors, and trying to chart the road that led her father to such an act. ("When you kill yourself, you kill every memory everyone has of you," she writes. "You're saying 'I'm gone and you can't even be sure who it is that's gone, because you never knew me.'") Wickersham lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, Jay Wickersham ’78, and their two sons; she is also the author of the novel The Paper Anniversary. She talked with writer and University of Delaware journalism professor Ben Yagoda ’75 about making literary sense of suicide.

Y: When did you first decide that you were going to write about your father's death?

W: I knew it pretty fast. At first I thought I would write a novel. But the result was flat, neat, "lyrical," dull. I kept putting it aside and trying to write something else. But this experience was like a tree blocking the road. When I tried to work on something else, a character in that book would commit suicide. It became an obsession, like a puzzle that I couldn't stop trying to figure out. I had to find a way that was true to the chaos of the experience, but didn't end up being a chaotic book.

Y: A device that seemed to help you deal with the problem was structuring the book according to an index, where "Suicide" is the only heading and all the chapters are subheadings -- for example, "Suicide, psychiatry as an indirect means of addressing."

W: Right. At one point, many of the individual pieces were right, but there didn't seem to be enough trajectory to pull readers through. An index is so formal that it gives you almost a numb feeling. And numbness was a big part of the whole experience.

Y: Memoir seems to be the genre of the moment. What do you think explains its appeal?

W: Our culture is generally more subjective and candid than it used to be, and we like hearing personal voices. Even in disciplines like history or documentary film, personal accounts that used to be regarded as source materials -- oral narratives, diaries, and letters -- are now presented directly as a way to tell a story.

Y: There have been many controversies lately about falsehoods or outright fabrications in memoirs. How do you view the issues of truth, memory, and subjectivity?

W: The events I've described here are true, but my version is admittedly subjective, and in some cases even speculative. All of this is acknowledged in the book. With suicide there is no definitive version. The one person who might have had the answers is gone. Not knowing, accepting that you never will know, and yet needing to figure it out anyway, is the story.

Y: You've been grappling with this action for 17 years. Can you sum up the conclusions you've reached?

W: With suicide, you can't separate the loss from the act that caused the loss. It's a violent action, but the perpetrator is also the victim. So you're left with a tangle of emotions -- grief, anger, pity, protectiveness, and guilt -- all of which keep canceling one another out. People have asked me, do you get to the point where you accept it? What I now can accept is that I will never understand it completely. That's the basic truth of the experience and hardest to come to terms with.

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