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The Suicide Index : Putting My Father's Death in Order
One winter morning in 1991, Joan Wickersham's father shot himself in the head.The father she loved would never have killed himself, and yet he had.His death made a mystery of his entire life. Who was he? Why did he do it? And what was the impact of his death on the people who loved him? Using an index--that most formal and orderly of structures--Wickersham explores this chaotic and incomprehensible reality. Every bit of family history, every encounter with friends, doctors, and other survivors, exposes another facet of elusive truth. Dark, funny, sad, and gripping, at once a philosophical and a deeply personal exploration, The Suicide Index is, finally, a daughter's anguished, loving elegy to her father.
In spare prose, Wickersham (The Paper Anniversary) has produced an artful and vivid memoir. Within the index of suicide, she has found a form capacious enough for both intimate detail and general information; cold data and lyric moments; for mystery and for consolation. As she follows her father's suicide chronologically from his death through a passage of 15 years, she doubles back through family history (her mother's, her father's, her husband's), telling the story under such subheads as anger about, other people's stories about, possible ways to talk to a child about, romances of mother in years following. Her search takes in matters as mundane as the police investigation, as academic as the nature of biography and as disquieting as the issue of suicide. The elementary facts--when, where, and how--are straightforward, even simple: My father got up early one morning, went into his study, and shot himself, but her pursuit of why leads Wickersham and her reader into the unanswerable questions [and] unresolvable paradoxes that give her book classic qualities. (Aug.)
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
June 22, 2009
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Excerpt from The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham
Suicide:act ofattempt to imaginein the airport, coming home from vacation, he stops at a kiosk and buys grapefruits, which he arranges to have sent to his daughters. They will stumble over the crates waiting on their porches, when they get home from his funeral.It’s the last week of his life. Does he know that? At some point, yes. At the moment when his index finger closes on the trigger of the gun, he knows it with certainty. But before that? Even a moment before, when he sat down in the chair holding the gun—was he sure? Perhaps he’s done this much before, once or many times: held the gun, loaded the gun. But then stopped himself: no. When does he know that this time he will not stop?What about the gun?Has it been an itch, a temptation, the hidden chocolates in the bureau drawer? Did he think about it daily, did it draw him, did he have to resist it?Perhaps the thought of it has been comforting: Well, remember, I can always dothat.Or maybe he didn’t think about the gun and how it might be used. There was just that long deep misery. An occasional flicker (I want to stop everything), always instantly snuffed out (Too difficult, how would I do it, even the question exhausts me). And then one day the flicker caught fire, burned brightly for a moment, just long enough to see by (Oh, yes, the gun. The old gun on the closet shelf with the sweaters). He didn’t do it that day. He put away the thought. He didn’t even take the gun down, look at it, hold it in his hands. That would imply he was thinking of actually doing it, and he would never actually do such a thing.Some days the gun sings to him. Other days, more often, he doesn’t hear it. Maybe, on those stronger days, he has considered getting rid of it. Take it to a gun shop, turn it in to the police. But then someone else would know he has a gun, and it’s no one else’s business. He hasn’t wanted to deal with their questions: Where did you get it? How long have you had it? Besides, how longhashe had it? Twenty years? Twenty-five? And never fired it in all that time? So where’s the danger? What’s the harm in keeping it around, letting it sleep there among the sweaters? He doesn’t even know where the bullets are, for God’s sake. (But immediately, involuntarily, he does know: he knows exactly which corner of which drawer.)We have to watch him from the outside. He leaves no clues, his whole life is a clue. What is he thinking when he gets up that last morning, showers, and dresses for work? He puts on a blue-and-white striped cotton shirt, a pair of brown corduroys, heavy brown shoes. A tan cashmere sweater. He has joked to his older daughter that all the clothes he buys these days are the color of sawdust. Might as well be, he said, they end up covered in the stuff anyhow, in the machinery business. So he has shaved, patted on aftershave, and climbed into his dun-colored clothes. He’s gone to his dresser and loaded his pockets: change, wallet, keys, handkerchief. Maybe he thinks he’s going to work. Or maybe he knows, hopes, that in forty-five minutes he’ll be dead. It’s Friday morning. He’s just doing what he does every morning, getting ready.He may be thinking about it on the walk down the long driveway to get the newspaper. The cold dry air gripping the sides of his head, the ice cracking under his feet as he tramps along this driveway he can no longer quite afford. It is a dirt road, unpaved; in this town, as his wife is always pointing out, dirt roads have more cachet than fancy landscaped driveways. A dirt road means you are private and acting to protect your privacy. Your house cannot be seen from the road. Your real friends, that delightful, sparkling, select bu