Two years ago, I began writing a memoir about a hard family story. In 1985, my father, a physician, was infected with HIV as a result of a blood transfusion. He kept his illness secret from everyone outside our family until only months before his death ten years later. Writing about this part of my life left me with some painful questions: What does it take to write an honest memoir? And what happens to us when we embark on that journey? Would I survive it? To find the answers I needed, I approached some of the writers whose memoirs moved me and asked them how they’d found the courage to put words to their difficult stories. Fiction writer and memoirist, Joan Wickersham, was at the top of my list. Her compellingly honest memoir, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, lingered with me, threading through my thoughts, long after its final page.
I meet Joan Wickersham at Dado Tea in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a modish space with clean lines and walls adorned with Asian decor. Bright light streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the shop. On this chilly Monday morning in March 2014, the place is quiet. It’s not hard to identify as Wickersham the elegant woman sipping tea in front of a laptop at a small wooden table in the back corner. The only other patron in the shop is obviously a student whose computer, books, and papers clutter her table. This is the sort of place where I’d choose to camp out with my work, too.
Wickersham stands as I approach and greets me with a smile. She’s in her late fifties, her dark hair cut in a smart bob. A pretty, rose-colored scarf wraps in loose folds around her neck. I’m drawn to her warmth, and, after getting a steaming cup of tea for myself, I settle in for our conversation and feel quite like I’m about to have a chat with an old friend.
As strange as this sounds, when I read Wickersham’s memoir, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, the ache that often resides in my chest simultaneously intensified and diminished. The intensity came from a place of understanding. I don’t claim to understand her unique experience. My father did not kill himself, as Wickersham’s father did. But I do understand aspects of her grief. Her confusion. Her obsessive need to make sense of something so nonsensical. To tell his story and hers in some way. There’s a thread of universal experience that binds her story to mine. And that poignant communion that happens when someone else’s pain mirrors my own, when someone else’s words could be my words, made my chest ache.
At the same time, the ache diminished because of Wickersham’s approach to her story: its unconventional, nonlinear frame that takes the form of an index with headings like act of, anger about, finding some humor in, other people’s stories concerning, psychological impact of. Her book holds promise that there are unique ways to tell complicated stories and do them the justice they deserve. As I peel back the seemingly endless layers of my own story, feeling the burden of its complexity and questioning how I’m ever going to really tell it, I need that kind of reassurance.
The path to her memoir’s creation was, in some ways for Wickersham, just as complex and chaotic as living in the wake of her father’s suicide. Writing the book was an eleven-year process. Wickersham was thirty-three when her father killed himself in 1991. She wrote the first piece connected to his death in 1995. She completed “The Suicide Index” in 2006.
“What made you decide to start writing?” I ask, warming my hands on my teacup.
“I think I just knew,” Wickersham tells me. “I was a writer, and then this big thing happened in my family. And the way that I tend to try to understand things is through stories – both things that I write and things that I read. That’s the deepest way I know of expressing something inexpressible. I knew that this was a big thing and I didn’t understand it, and I wanted to understand it […] It felt like there was a story there, and I felt like I wanted to get at it.”
A fiction writer first, Wickersham’s natural instinct was to try to tell this story in novel form. “I worked on it as a novel for about eight years,” she says. “I used all the writer’s tricks. I did it as a third person chronological novel. I did it as a third person chronological novel with flashbacks. I did it as a first person novel. I just thought, if I could only find the right way to tell this story in this novel, then it would somehow unlock the whole thing. And I just couldn’t get it.”
In the spring of 2003, she had a completed draft of the novel, but it fell flat. Her agent couldn’t sell it. “I was devastated,” Wickersham recalls. “I felt like this was the ‘big story.’ Here I am a writer, this is the big story, and I can’t seem to write it in a way that makes anyone else really care about it. That was very hard.”
She eventually put it all away. “In hindsight, I think that not selling it was the best thing that could have happened. If I had sold it, it would have been a so-so novel. Very numb.” Her face breaks into a knowing smile. “I was trying to make the experience be lyrical and it was not a lyrical experience.”
She’s candid about the fact that she was working very hard to keep a safe distance from the true impact her father’s suicide had on her. “I wasn’t being very honest with myself,” she admits.
About a year and a half after she’d set aside the novel, she was awarded a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, so she decided to take the novel manuscript with her and try revising it there. For the first time, she opened herself up to looking at the experience authentically. “I think I’d gotten the stamp of approval to work on this,” she explains. “It felt safe. It felt private. I felt supported. But at the same time I was left alone.”
I understand exactly what she means. This is not unlike what it feels like to be writing within the structure of a low-residency MFA program. The real work of writing has to be done alone, but there’s ongoing support there, too.
At MacDowell, Wickersham tore apart the draft of her novel manuscript. Of the close to 400 pages she’d had, she only kept about 70. “It was amazing to start over with only those pieces that felt true. And then just to keep thinking about how to write it,” she tells me.
The pieces she uncovered were not linear. And, she realized, neither was her father’s suicide. When she stopped thinking about his death in a chronological way, Wickersham felt like she unlocked the story. In a section of the book appropriately titled: Suicide: deviation from chronological narrative of, Wickersham writes: “The story of my father’s death – what I think led up to it, and the impact it had on my family – is a messy one […] If you take it year by year – chronologically – not much happens. It’s when you begin to look at it thing by thing that the story starts to emerge.”
“It was paralyzing for me to think in terms of a book,” Wickersham is quick to explain. “One of the other things that happened at MacDowell is that I decided to just do it in pieces and not worry about how the pieces were going to fit together for then. Just let it be the pieces.”
These are exactly the words I need to hear. I keep trying to puzzle together a structure for my memoir, and, so far, it’s not working. And it’s often paralyzing for me, too. Just let it be the pieces. My new mantra.
Despite the painful nature of the material, this revelation of how to look at her story made Wickersham finally feel connected to the writing in a way she hadn’t been before. “Even though it was incredibly painful, I was feeling this utter excitement. I had been flailing and then I was in there,” she explains.
Being “in there,” was a raw and frightening experience for Wickersham. “You can’t write a family memoir without writing about people in your family. Your experience is all tangled up with theirs. You have to think about honor, in a way.” She confesses to moments in the process when she struggled with the tension between wanting to tell the story authentically and not wanting to betray her father – this gentle man she’d known and loved who listened to classical music, had a passion for sailing, and made her pancakes on the Saturday mornings of her childhood. This reserved man who perfected the art of hiding important emotions: his turmoil and despair over failed business ventures and financial troubles and his deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and shame from a painful childhood. This unrecognizable man who woke up one morning when he was sixty-one years old, dressed for work, left a cup of hot coffee on the bedside table next to his sleeping wife, went into his study, shut the doors, and shot himself in the head.
“My father was an intensely private man,” Wickersham tells me. “I think if he could come back he would absolutely be appalled that I wrote this book.”
I ask her how she’d managed to convince herself to keep going even though she understood this reality.
“I came to a point where I said, ‘I’m damned if I’m going to let him dictate the terms of this,’” Wickersham says. “He did this thing, whether it was a choice or out of illness, I don’t know.” Her voice holds a touch of defiance. “I’m not going to abide by a contract of silence. He broke his contract, so I’m going to break my contract.” She pauses, a thoughtful look crossing her features. “I’ve never said that before.”
Family rules. They aren’t easy to break. I’m still working on the courage to follow through with my own mutiny. “How did you deal with those moments of fear and risk?” I ask.
“Sometimes it just felt shitty,” she confesses. “And it felt shitty for a long time. And it was depressing and it was hard.” There were ways she managed to cope, though. She credits her husband Jay’s unwavering support as her primary source of strength. “He always felt that this was a book that needed to be written and was going to be written.” She also found it helpful to face the self-doubt head on in her writing. At the top of the page, she’d write things like: “What am I trying to do here?” or “What am I so scared of?” and then she’d list her litany of fears: “I’m afraid people will think that this isn’t interesting. I’m afraid people will think my father was weak. I’m afraid people will think I’m whiny.” Wickersham thinks that these deliberate looks at her doubts often led her to deeper levels of meaning.
“So you weren’t thinking about the index structure at that point?” I ask.
“The structure was the last thing,” she says. “I wanted a structure for comfort, but I couldn’t find that structure. I didn’t want to impose something gimmicky, so I’m glad I waited and let the index emerge. If I’d started with the index, the book wouldn’t have the organic structure that I hope it does.”
The index format of the book emerged from a chapter called numbness: an index, one of two chapters she’d written specifically about the psychological impact her father’s suicide had on her. She’d written it in little alphabetized sections in second person. Having found this way to express that numbness without making the writing numb felt like a breakthrough. What if she took the whole book and made it an index? She wondered. There was something about that index form that fittingly captured the nature of the experience. “Suicide is messy and chaotic,” Wickersham explains. “The index came out of that struggle that there is no way to put it in an order. So let’s just plop this numb thing on top of it. The numbness contained the emotion and the structure contained the chaos. It was an armature, and that was incredibly comforting.”
The distinctive structure of Wickersham’s memoir and the earnestness of her search to understand what happened to her father and, ultimately, what happened to her, earned her book critical praise. “The Suicide Index” received numerous accolades and awards, most notably its selection as a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.
“There’s been a really lovely response from other writers,” Wickersham tells me. “They understood the structure and the writing and really responded to that.”
Wickersham has encountered some difficulties in gaining widespread readership, though. “Partly because of the title, which I felt very strongly about, and partly because of the subject matter, a lot of people recoil.” She thinks people see the title and say, ‘Ew, a book about suicide, I don’t want to read that.’
“I don’t really think it is a book about suicide, though,” she quickly adds. “I think it’s a book about memory and a book about storytelling and a book about families. But, it’s called ‘The Suicide Index’ so I think that’s what people hear. I think there are people who are just afraid of it or repelled by the idea of it, which is sad because I don’t think it is a grim book. It’s about a grim thing, but it’s not a grim book.” I agree wholeheartedly. There’s love and beauty and power and understanding woven through the pages of this book.
Wickersham’s courage to tell this story as frankly as she has, though, has given words to what is for so many an inarticulate experience. “I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people who have had suicide in their family,” she tells me. “I actually find it very moving. There’s something so lonely and isolating about being in a family where there’s been a suicide. People feel like the way that they are experiencing grief is not the way that they are ‘supposed’ to feel.” Many of her readers have found camaraderie and a sense of sharing something in common. “They read this book and they recognize that I’m recognizing the weirdness of the experience in the same way they recognize the weirdness of the experience, and they haven’t really had words for it. There’s something really comforting in acknowledging that this is so weird. You never figure it out. You never really get over it.”
“Was the response and impact of your story overall different than what you’d anticipated?”
Wickersham weighs her response. “In some ways it was a bigger response than I expected. Certainly that National Book Award thing made a lot of people read it who would not have known about it otherwise.” She stops and grows thoughtful. “If you’ve been a writer for years and years and years, which I had, and I’d been stuck on this book for years and years and years, and I had also felt such self-doubt while I was working on it and real doubt that it would ever be published, and real doubt that I would ever do it justice. So, to have that kind of affirmation was utterly wonderful. That was bigger than I had dared to hope for.”
Returning to her earlier discussion of people’s fear of the topic of suicide, Wickersham says, “I wasn’t prepared for how frightened people would be of the subject matter, and in a way, that kind of made me mad. And I think the reason it made me mad is it felt to me like my father was becoming a pariah all over again. People would come up to me and say, ‘What have you written?’ and I’d say, “I’ve written this book about my father’s suicide,’ and they would back away from me as if I’d thrown up on their shoes. I felt angry on my father’s behalf. This is part of the complexity of humanity, and this person’s sort of saying, ‘Sorry, too much.’”
Stigma. Another subject that resonates with me at a very close level. I understand how it feels when people back away.
These moments of disappointment in the midst of the positive response to the memoir nurtured some healthy defiance for Wickersham. “I felt very protective of the book, of the subject, and, still, of my father in a way.”
“Did telling this story change the way you felt about it?”
“For me, it didn’t haunt me in the same way. That desperate need to write about it got quenched.” If she hadn’t written the book, Wickersham thinks she’d be in the same place she’d been. Writing the book helped to move her to a different place. “I didn’t have to dwell on the gory details in the same way. I wasn’t responsible for remembering them any more in the same way.” She felt like she’d written the book she’d wanted to write and there was a peace that accompanied that feeling. “Books tend to grow out of obsessions and there’s a way that you work through those obsessions. It’s not that it leaves you, but you are not obsessed with it in the same way. The obsession burns itself out.”
I often wonder if I will ever stop feeling the urge to share my story, even after it’s written. And then I wonder how I possibly ever could because it has so definitively shaped the person I am, and I can’t imagine that it won’t continue to do so. But maybe by writing it, I can be shaped in a different way that moves me to a different place, too. There’s more reassurance found in that possibility.
Wickersham has written beyond her hard story and entered new stories. Her latest book, The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story, published in 2012, is a collection of stories linked by the imperfect and indefinable nature of love. NPR named it a Best Book of 2012.
“This book, though,” Wickersham says pointing to my dog-eared copy of The Suicide Index resting between us on the table, “is where I really learned to be a writer. I finally understood the difference between writing a story that was alive under me and writing a story that was fake and dead.”
I sit across from her and continue talking about her memoir, and I sense in the occasional pauses in conversation and the far-away gaze in her deep brown eyes, that the story of her father’s suicide is still something Wickersham carries. I recognize that stories like hers and stories like mine aren’t ever fully resolvable. She ends The Suicide Index saying as much: “I could end this book in a lot of different places, just as I began by circling, over and over, back to the day of my father’s death […] Knowing that I’ll never know the whole story. Knowing that I’ll never feel his death as fully and directly as I might wish to; and that perhaps as a result I’ll never be done feeling it.”
Maybe this is how stories like Wickersham’s and stories like mine and the stories of so many others need to be told – with their edges blurry and their endings unfixed – leaving us with just enough room to keep on telling them.
Thank you for your very kind words, Suzanne and Elizabeth!
What a wise and insightful interview, on both sides! Cheers to both Melanie and Joan for delving into this charged material with such helpful and bracing honesty.
How great to see this interview here. What important work you’re doing, Melanie, both for yourself and for the rest of us. Thank you, and thank you, Joan.