I wrote an email recently to a friend about a sad event in her family. She had told me that this sorrow was bringing up memories and emotions about a past sorrow. I wrote, “All sadness reverberates in future sadness.” She wrote back, “Truer words were never spoken.”
Joan Wickersham knows the truth of that statement. In her memoir, “The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order,” she tries to make logical what can never be ordered: the sudden, shocking death of her father at his own hand. And she tries, valiantly, to understand both what drove him to this awful act and what impact it has had on her life and the lives of her loved ones.
Of course, in the final analysis, we can never really know what drives a man to end his life. Much like we can never truly know what is in another’s heart. But our job, as humans, is to make order out of chaos, and so we try to find sense, to find meaning, to help us live with what seems unendurable.
Wickersham does that with what, at first, seems like an odd format: The book is structured as an index, each chapter headed by titles like, “Suicide: Readings in the Literature of,” and, “Suicide: Glimpses of His Character Relevant To.” Before I began the book I worried that this would be a distancing gimmick. But it’s not. It’s the perfect structure for an attempt to make comprehensible what is incomprehensible. You cannot frame a suicide in conventional linear form, because it is not a conventional act. You can’t make sense of it because it doesn’t make sense.
The structure also reflects the way in which one lives through something like a suicide—there is a constant, unending attempt to understand, to take all the little threads and hints and tie them up into something intelligible. An attempt, unfortunately, that never succeeds, and never stops.
I gravitated towards Wickersham’s memoir for two reasons: One, I met her recently at a reading and was struck by her warmth and intelligence. She has what my birth mother used to call, “A good face,” by which she meant a face that shows a combination of wisdom and compassion. I was impressed by everything Wickersham said and every word she read. But I was also drawn to “The Suicide Index,” because my brother committed suicide many years ago, when he was 22. I am still recognizing the ways in which it has affected my life.
Wickersham writes, “I was beginning to see that there was never going to be a straightforward sentence: He did it because… It was all going to be fragments, a snarl. All these bits would keep coming, and that’s all they would ever be, bits. Nobody knew the whole of it. It was as if one person was saying, ‘Well, I know he had matches, but I didn’t think he’d ever light them,’ and someone else was saying, ‘I knew he lived in a house made of paper, but I didn’t know he had matches.’”
Everything is different after a suicide. The whole picture changes, like the click of a kaleidoscope. “My father’s death made a permanent shift in how we saw the world, in what we were certain of and what we were aware of not knowing,” she writes. “Suicide destroys memory…When you kill yourself, you’re killing every memory everyone has of you. You’re taking yourself away permanently and removing all traces that you were ever here in the first place, wiping away every fingerprint you ever left on anything.”
There is humor in the book too, like when the author and her mother have lunch together about a week after her father dies and the waitress asks if she had a good Valentine’s Day. “Didn’t he give you what you wanted?” the waitress asks, and her mother shrugs and says, “Not exactly.”
And suicide, most painfully, is, as Wickersham writes, “an accusation. It’s a violent, public declaration of loneliness. It’s a repudiation of connection. It says, ‘You weren’t enough to keep me here.’ It sets up unresolvable dilemmas of culpability and fault: were we to blame for being insufficient, or was he to blame for finding us so? Someone had been weighed and found wanting, but who?”
“The Suicide Index” is dark, gripping, and profoundly sad. It is a love letter to her father and a howl of heartache and rage. Wickersham has “a good face.” She also has a very good book.