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.
When you kill yourself, you kill every memory everyone has of you. You’re saying “I’m gone and you can’t even be sure who it is that’s gone, because you never knew me.”
Sixteen years ago, 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. Using an index—that most formal and orderly of structures—Wickersham explores this chaotic and incomprehensible reality. Every bit of family history—marriage, parents, business failures—and every encounter with friends, doctors, and other survivors exposes another facet of elusive truth. Dark, funny, sad, and gripping, at once a philosophical and deeply personal exploration, The Suicide Index is, finally, a daughter’s anguished, loving elegy to her father.
attempt to imagine
in 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 do that.
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 long has he 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 bunch, will know you’re in there, hidden in the woods, and they will know your dirt road’s ruts and bumps by heart.
Is there something in the newspaper? The front page is the only one in question, since he leaves the paper on the kitchen table folded and unread. More bombings. All this week he’s been sitting in front of the television in the evenings, staring at the news. Silent films of Baghdad buildings, fine white-lined crosses zigzagging dizzily over their facades, zooming in and centering. Then a long moment, just that white cross holding steady; and then the building falls down, no sound, no smoke or flash of light, just caves in. And that’s it. The screen goes blank; the camera doesn’t wait around to gloat. Then another building, another filmed implosion: we’re getting all these places, relentlessly. We’re hunting them down and getting them.
What has he been thinking about this week, watching these films over and over? The silent buildings that simply implode.
The front page of the paper is full of the war. But nothing else that’s major. No market crash. Nothing that would lead, directly or indirectly, to his losing more than he has already lost, which is virtually everything.
Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s what he is thinking, not just on this last morning but all the time: you’ve lost everything, not at a single blow but gradually, over years, a small hole in a sandbag. You see the hole clearly but you have no way to fix it. No one but you has been aware of that thin, sawdust-colored stream of sand escaping, but now enough sand has leaked that the shape of the bag is changing, it’s collapsing. It will be noticed. You will be caught. And then, and then—you don’t know what. You want not to be here when that happens.
He makes the pot of regular coffee for his wife, fills a cup, carries it upstairs to her bedside table. The fact that he doesn’t make his own usual pot of decaf might mean that he’s already decided—or it might mean that he generally makes that second pot when he comes downstairs again. And this morning, he doesn’t go downstairs again. He stands at his wife’s side of the bed and looks at her, sleeping. He looks at her for a long time.
Or maybe he doesn’t look. Maybe he puts down the saucer and goes for the gun and is out of the room before the coffee stops quivering in the cup.
Copyright © 2008 by Joan Wickersham
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PRAISE FOR THE SUICIDE INDEX
Written in the form of an index, an acknowledgment of Wickersham’s inability to frame her father’s act in any conventional linear form, this memoir is written in a cool, economical and ultimately piercing style utterly devoid of easy pathos or cliché. Anyone prone to facile dismissal of the memoir as literary high art should be silenced by the perfection of Wickersham's prose and her ability to hold the facts and her feelings up to the light, turning them again and again to reveal yet another facet of grief, anger, love, pity and guilt.-- Laura Miller, Salon.com [A] remarkable memoir. . . she exposes the whole messy territory of inheritance, of heritage, of what our families leave us, the treacherous trail of genetics and psychology and unhappiness, the legacy of all those generations as they play out in ways that we can see and ways that we will never see across the patterns of our lives. . . true in a way that transcends mere recollection . . . (S)he arrives at an almost perfect balance, producing a survivor's story, a portrait of suicide from the outside, one that finds clarity in its inability to be clarified. -- David Ulin, Los Angeles Times Honest, brave, incredibly moving, and completely unflinching in its honesty. It’s one of those rare books that will haunt you for a long time after you finish it. . . . Wickersham's writing is gorgeous, restrained and lyrical at the same time, and there's not an extraneous word or ounce of fat in the book. In trying to comprehend what happened, Wickersham uses the format of an index, in an attempt to impose an order and shape on what appears to be a chaotic, perhaps random, act of her father's. . . . [An] amazing memoir. -- Nancy Pearl, KUOW / National Public Radio Joan Wickersham’s deceptively simple organization of this volume packs a hard jab to the throat, and I found myself alternately holding my breath and looking away from the words on the page in stunned silence, Reading this book is a physical act – of beauty, of pain and of frankness. The sections on writing and truth are some of the finest I’ve seen. - Kelly McMasters, Newsday Joan Wickersham's deeply moving memoir seeks to comprehend the incomprehensible . . . What propels every intensely crafted page of this book is Wickersham's relentless drive to comprehend her father's suicide . . . Wickersham has journeyed into the dark underworld inside her father and herself, and has emerged with a powerful, gripping story. -- Chuck Leddy, Boston Globe [A] daughter's piercing and profoundly considered response to [her father’s] death. She constructs her book like a series of index cards, with chapter headings that mimic those on outlines. It becomes a brilliant choice, allowing Wickersham to flip and sort through 15 years of what William Maxwell observed when he wrote, ‘The suicide doesn't go alone, he takes everybody with him.’ . . . Against the violent transgression of suicide, Wickersham has crafted a consummately subtle book. . . . In its discipline and art, The Suicide Index has the feel of a classic. -- Karen Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer I read The Suicide Index with a rapacity bordering on need, with tears in my chest and in my eyes. Occasionally I had to put it down and leave the room. More often, I devoured it. The book is . . . the measured, elegant, gripping work of a professional writer who has set her powers of observation to work on her own family — her parents and grandparents, her uncle, her sister, her husband, her son — and on herself. -- Laura Collins-Hughes, New York Sun [A]n extraordinary, magical mystery tour of a book. -- Heller McAlpin, Los Angeles Times What makes the narrative so compelling is not only Wickersham’s gift for making her memories sing as though they were our own, but also how she presents herself as a willful seeker, open to any and all incarnations of truth, able to admit how much she doesn’t know and never did. . . . in this very moving memoir, Wickersham comes as close as she’s able to getting it right. -- Elle In spare prose, Wickersham has produced an artful and vivid memoir . . . capacious enough for both intimate detail and general information; cold data and lyric moments; for mystery and for consolation. The elementary facts – where, when, and how – are straightforward, even simple . . but her pursuit of "why" leads Wickersham and her reader into the "unanswerable questions and unresolvable paradoxes" that give her book classic qualities. -- Publishers Weekly This book is beautifully written and haunts the reader long after it’s closed. -- Library Journal [A] sensitive and thorough memoir built around her father's suicide and the mystery of why he did it. It is both haunting and comforting to see how she puts her father's death "in order." -- Knoxvillle News Sentinel She writes beautifully. . . about the amount of sheer space a suicide takes in the lives of surviving family members, from the moment of death through the weeks, months and years afterward. . . . Bleak, strong and fiercely honest. -- Reeve Lindbergh, Washington Post In this harrowing, beautifully written memoir, Joan Wickersham tries to understand the forces that drove her father to take his own life. Part detective story, part anguished examination of a family, The Suicide Index traces the myriad repercussions suicide has not only on the future but also on the past. A powerful, important book. -- Abigail Thomas, author of A Three Dog Life The Suicide Index is just astonishing. Having endured the suicide of a close family member, I opened this book with dread and longing: fearful of revisiting so much pain yet keenly wanting, as I always will, to understand why. No one can ever fully answer the question that suicide remains for those left behind, yet here, in Joan Wickersham’s exquisitely straightforward story, I found surprising consolation. It is a love story, a mystery, a quiet tragedy, a dark comedy, and a profoundly absorbing modern family saga. It will stay with me for a very long time. -- Julia Glass, author of Three Junes and I See You Everywhere
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