Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Inside "History of a Suicide"
I’ve been reading History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life by poet and author Jill Bialosky (Atria Books, 2011). It’s a masterfully constructed memoir and psychological autopsy of the suicide of her 21-year-old sister, Kim, in 1990. Bialosky draws on her memories and poetry, as well as official documents, her sister’s writings, experts like Edwin Shneidman, and writers like Sylvia Plath and Herman Melville to make sense of Kim’s suicide and “restore her dignity.”
Kim was a happy, beautiful child, doted on by her much older sisters, but she became increasingly lost in her teens, hobbled by abandonment, dependency, and drug issues and unable to “build a wall of protection” around her pain. Rather than focus on mental illness, Bialosky’s investigation delves into family dynamics, personality traits, and a series of choices that led to despair. “The suicide leaves a map of her fate long before she dies,” she writes. “Love blinds us to this. We go to sleep. We wake. We pray. We hope. We wait for the leaves to turn a different color. But we rarely expect the worst. . . . We don’t want to think of those we love being in life-threatening pain.” Bialosky recovers a map and by the time she describes Kim’s state of mind on the night of her suicide, it is entirely believable.
The book makes me think I should be doing more to investigate Noah’s life and decline—that I owe it to him and myself and others who knew him. I’ve been hesitant to approach his friends and cousins to see what they remember beyond the muddled conversations we had in the immediate aftermath, beyond the loyal tributes. I haven’t wanted to upset them or myself with further queries, or to keep mining Noah’s writings for clues. Maybe I’ll do more searching later; the mind can only take in so much information at three and a half years. It took Bialosky 20 years to finally put together bits and pieces and publish her account, after she began attending a support group for suicide survivors.
If I ever hope to reconstruct Noah’s life, I need to at least keep adding to the notebook of memories that is still half empty. I re-read the entries there the other day, like one about Noah’s absorption in Monopoly as a child. He was always ready to play that game, no matter how many hours it took. His strategy was to buy top-dollar Park Place as soon as possible and load it up with houses and hotels, even if it depleted all his cash. He’d sit there with his mortgaged property cards, eyeing the game board until he could rake in the outrageous Park Place rent and everyone yelled at him. Sometimes his risky gambit paid off; sometimes he lost, too stubborn to try another tack.
From my memory collection I returned to my library copy of Bialosky’s book, when I felt something fall out of the back pages. It was—I kid you not—a pink $5 Monopoly bill. Some reader, maybe another survivor, had put it there as a bookmark, a token of childhood and lost innocence and simpler days. It felt like Noah was tapping me on the shoulder.
I sized things up and made a play. I was down to my last dollar. I gambled and lost. But I’m still in the game, he seemed to say. Like his eyes that follow me from picture frames, still full of light and locked on mine.
I held the pink $5 bill and cried for Noah’s child self, so intent on winning he was willing to risk everything, and for his 21-year-old self, who must have felt he had nothing left to lose.