This memoir breaks you again and again, and yet I found myself reconnected to a shared human experience that is tender, raw, and brave. Everyone needs to read this book.
Not surprisingly, History of a Suicide has been widely praised and embraced by not only the literary community but also by mental health professionals. I have read at least ten reviews by far more impressive people, but I still feel compelled to write about this book, especially for my beloved So to Speak feminists. Here’s a link to Bialosky’s Op Ed in the Chicago Tribune.
Bialosky’s opening words: “Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know. That is the reason I am writing this book.” Nominated for a Books for a Better Life Award, reviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Ed as essential reading for high school and college students, History of a Suicide transcends the boundaries of a typical memoir with a touching combination of Bialosky’s own prose and poetry, excerpts from her sister’s journals, writings from the “greats:” Eliot, Melville, Dickinson, Plath, Stevens, Shakespeare, to name a few, as well as a range of medical theories (she consults with Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a leading figure in the study of suicidology), and even Greek mythology. All of these sources work to piece together a process of healing, understanding, and survival. She uses writing and writers as a way to map pain and as a guide to understanding.
Her writing is layered and lyrical, yet clear and accessible. She takes us through her own writing process, quoting Lowell in a letter to Bishop: “I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) hidden inside of me like a dead child.” She talks about the issues of subjectivity, of consent, and of the personal. This writing is also quite brilliant in its act of storytelling, her incorporation of nursery rhymes, and the music of childhood.
In my brief correspondences with Bialosky, she has been very kind and humble (she is a well-known editor at W. W. Norton & Company). I had the pleasure of meeting her last year at AWP, where she spoke on a panel about crossing genres. I was struck by her honesty when speaking about the difficulties of making the decision to write about something so private. There is even a chapter called “The Body Can Tolerate Only So Much Knowledge.”
I often forget that other people are involved when I write–other lives, my family. We affect people as writers, and we especially impact those we write about. Can I even write about myself without betraying another? I, too, grew up in Beachwood, Ohio. I often eat at the local deli where Bialosky was a server. I intimately know the cultural norms of that small, Jewish community, and I am no stranger to the scars and secrecy–the veils of these kinds of suburban places.
Many of us (including myself) have lost someone close to us to suicide and have spent ceaseless time and energy trying to relive those last few days. We carefully examine the signs. We desperately question what went wrong. Bialosky writes, “If I forgave myself, I’d be relinquishing my responsibility.” And this is the trouble with the act of surviving someone else’s death. This book is a mission in unlocking memory, understanding, grieving, healing, and letting go. Bialosky covers every angle of processing loss; she explores our fear of the unknown and the damage of living in an unsafe world.
Perhaps what this book highlights best is how our emotional lives are not linear. This book speaks to so many people because it recognizes that sometimes our lives are constructed around loss and the guilt we feel we must carry. I left this book feeling both fragile and hopeful. I am still questioning our insistence that there must be something gained through death, the duality of our public and private selves, and the consequences of co-dependence. In part four, Bialosky writes: “Sisters are mirrors. We see parts of ourselves in each other.” In another instance she describes her sister as “two girls in one.”
I love this book. It is worth all of the heartbreak, tears, and reopening of old wounds. Bialosky so aptly captures youth’s dangerous loves, secretly lost pregnancies, and the aloneness of adolescence. At some point aren’t we all “Persephone,” carried off into the darkest corners?