Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham

'This is what my father did,' writes Joan Wickersham early in her memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order. 'He got up, showered, shaved and dressed for work. He went downstairs and made a pot of coffee, and while it was brewing he went outside and walked down the long driveway to pick up the newspaper. He left the paper folded on the kitchen table, poured a cup of coffee, carried it upstairs, and put it on my mother’s bedside table. She was still in bed, sleeping. Then he went into his study, closed his door, and shot himself.'

For the next 300-plus pages, Wickersham unflinchingly chronicles her fractious struggle to come to grips with the events of that morning 17 years ago, and how this single act forces her to reexamine not only her father’s entire life but her own relationships with her parents, her husband, her children and even total strangers. She quickly abandons the traditional linear narrative and instead arranges her chapters as a series of indexed entries, a nice conceit that works quite well. Wickersham uses this orderly structure to highlight the chaos of the complicated e
motions, elusive truth, ultimately irresolvable questions her father’s suicide has left her with.

But it also gives her a chance to demonstrate how constructing any sort of narrative out of true events is chaotic as well. Saying that lives are apples and stories are oranges, often she points out the seeming oddity that perhaps as biographers, we can explain a subject’s life more accurately than the subject can. While not the focus of her book by any means, this adds a level of complexity onto Wickersham’s account and turns the narrative into a memoir about her rather than a book about her father.

She manages to touch upon family dynamics, the American immigrant experience, literature, psychiatry, the human capacity for self-delusion and the fragmented nature of memory. In the end, this haunting book is less your typical journey through the healing process than an exploration of how we construct the stories we need to survive, and how sometimes acceptance is reached only after all other possibilities have been exhausted.

The Suicide Index is a shockingly frank and compelling read that I finished in two extended sessions, only broken up by the need for sleep while sick. Though my own experiences with suicide have often been distant or deflected, Wickersham’s narrative helped me begin to make sense of only modestly similar scenarios in my life, truly the work of a great artist. Deservedly nominated for the National Book Award, the book is highly recommended.

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