In History of a Suicide, Norton editor Jill Bialosky reflects on her sister's suicide.
Your sister, Kim, took her own life in 1990, when she was 21. You begin your memoir in 1998, when you visited her grave in Cleveland and resolved to try and understand why she killed herself. What were the steps to your decision?
I came to the realization that there was nothing I could do to change what had happened. There was that feeling—early on, after Kim first died—that I was not able to take it in. Over time I could slowly grasp what had happened, but I could never change it. What I could do was write about it, and show to my readers that suicide doesn't happen in a vacuum. I felt a strong desire to redeem my sister, a young, beautiful girl, and reveal that this could happen to anyone.
But also, as a reader and editor, I have always looked to books to help explain what happens, and there were scores of books about suicide—by psychologists and case studies—but they didn't feel real to me. They didn't make me feel like I knew my sister. I needed to reconstruct this young girl.
You write that to understand suicide is to try to comprehend what Melville calls in Moby-Dick "the ungraspable phantom of life."
I visited the suicide expert in Los Angeles, Dr. Edwin Shneidman, who was obsessed with Moby-Dick. He opened the door to a new way of thinking about suicide. During the course of writing the book, I often thought of Ahab and his diabolical quest for the white whale. Trying to understand Kim's suicide became an ethereal quest for me, and it would constantly dart away from me.
In delving into Kim's suicide, you've had to confront, courageously, the nearly unbearable details of her brief life and terrible death.
It didn't occur to me that I was being brave. I think of it as a necessity. We need writers to write these stories. I needed to peel back layers. There were moments when I was devastated recalling these experiences, then moments I was exhilarated to bring her back. People who've read the book say that I have brought Kim to life. I hope the book is ultimately uplifting—my son is a bright light in the book—and not a push to put suicide into its box of shame. It touches more lives than one might know. As soon as I started this book, I heard stories from all kinds of people about friends and relatives who had killed themselves: it's one of the last taboos.
What has the reaction been to your work by your family?
My family gave it their blessing. My sister was very dear to all of us. I couldn't have done it without their blessings.