Finding words to talk about the hush-hush topic of suicide

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Reporting from New York —

For a long time, Jill Bialosky admits, she didn't know if she would ever finish, let alone publish, "History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life" (Atria: 252 pp., $24). "I worked on it for about 10 years, on and off," she says of the book, which revolves around her youngest sister, Kim, who killed herself in 1990 at the age of 21. "At times, I found that it was very freeing to write about what happened. Then I would go through periods when I questioned the morality of writing about another person's life."

This is the memoirist's dilemma: how and what to reveal when revelation crosses into self-indulgence or exposure, the ethics of examining intimate events. For Bialosky, that was only heightened by the circumstances of her sister's death.

"One of the things that was really difficult for me when my sister died was the shame around suicide," she explains, her voice quiet. "It silences everyone, until you begin to feel almost as if the person never existed. We're able to discuss so many things now, but suicide still seems to be a topic that we don't have the language to talk about. So it was a journey for me to decide whether I could first of all write the book. As for the question of publishing, once I went that far down the rabbit hole, I began to feel more confident that other people would be able to see their stories within mine."

Bialosky is discussing "History of a Suicide" on a frigid winter morning, although the Upper West Side apartment where she lives with her husband and their teenage son is bright and warm. Books are everywhere, but that's to be expected; she is someone who defines herself by words. The author of three collections of poetry and two novels, Bialosky has — in both her verse and her fiction, particularly the 2002 novel "House Under Snow" — used literature to explore matters of loss and family. She is also executive editor at publisher W.W. Norton, where over the last two decades she has worked with, among others, Mary Roach and Nicole Krauss.

This explains the invocation of so many writers in "History of a Suicide," as if their reflections on life and loss and mourning offer an essential set of reference points. Throughout the book, she cites works by T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, William Styron and Euripides. She uses Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" as a frame of sorts, calling it "a treatise on the abyss and the inchoate and terrible power of inner demons," and eventually finds solace with Edwin Shneidman, the late suicide prevention pioneer and founder of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, who likened a suicidal mental state to Melville's "damp, drizzly November of the soul."

The issue of darkness is a key concern in a memoir such as this one: Given the subject, how does an author make room for some necessary light? The literature helps, even the bleakest literature, such as Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy," which Bialosky quotes in its entirety. But equally important are her memories of Kim, whom she brings to life in three dimensions, portraying her as less tragic than conflicted and confused. Ten years younger than Bialosky, blond and outgoing, Kim was the last of four girls, the baby of the family. "She had been my baby," Bialosky writes. "I diapered her, took her on long walks in her stroller, sometimes got up in the middle of the night to feed her. I was her second mother. All three of us older sisters were."

Such a bond can only linger, perhaps even more in the wake of Kim's death.

"I didn't want my sister's legacy to be about being a screwed-up kid," Bialosky says, "because that wasn't the experience. There was also this exuberant young girl who played in the playground, had tons of friends, was very well liked, did well in school, and came from a loving family. This idea that suddenly she has to be erased because of her act, because of her suicide, was something I struggled with wanting to restore."

As a consequence, Bialosky evokes Kim's voice in the book also, quoting from her diaries and college essays, allowing us access to her inner life. Of her disappointments — with friends, with school, with an at-times-abusive boyfriend — she writes: "My plan now is to turn mean. Blow-off my friends and family and make everyone hate me. If nobody cared then it would be so easy to leave." Of her father (Bialosky's mother's second husband), who moved out when his daughter was 3, she wonders, "Dear Father — Why won't you be my dad? I'm not perfect. I know that. I'm not even close. But still, I can't be that bad."

These are heartbreaking passages, made more so by their vulnerability. "She was the kind of person," Bialosky recalls, "who didn't talk a lot about how she was feeling. It's interesting that you forget what it's like to be an adolescent or a teenager, when you don't have the words yet to understand your internal life and how you're feeling. In many ways, I think, Kim was trying to overcome these internal struggles as you do when you are a young person in the world."

All of this makes for an uncomfortable conundrum, which has to do with how premeditated Kim's death was. That's a difficult question, but in a very real sense, it occupies the center of the book. The night she died, Kim came home — she was still living with her mother — after going out with friends. She'd been fighting with her boyfriend, who was seeing someone else. Circumstance seemed stacked against her; she went to the garage, turned on her car and fell asleep. "I have to be very careful," Bialosky acknowledges, "because I only know my own experience and what I think I know of Kim's. But I really came to feel that it didn't have to happen." In the book, she frames this as a simple conjecture: "How would she make it through the night?"

Twenty-one years later, the question resonates. "When you hear about a young person who takes their life," Bialosky says, "people come to these quick generalizations. Oh, the schoolwork was too intense, or they broke up with a boyfriend. There is always one experience that's the catalyst. Is it about shame? Is it about loneliness? Is it about self-esteem? These are questions my sister really struggled with. But I've come to feel it can't just be that one experience. I think with young people impulsivity is a part of it."

Bialosky pauses, takes a sip of coffee. The morning sunlight leaves no shadows, but such clarity can only go so far. "It sounds odd to say," she continues, "but in a way I find that reassuring. Kim had a difficult road ahead of her. But I saw the ways she would at times feel very much in control, getting herself on track, going to school, working. To me, those were signs that she was trying to move forward, so it was really … I felt that there was just this … it's so internal, suicide is a drama within the mind."

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