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Trying to understand a father's suicide

Joan Wickersham has written a well-crafted memoir. Joan Wickersham has written a well-crafted memoir.
By Chuck Leddy
September 15, 2008
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The Suicide Index: Putting
My Father's Death in Order
By Joan Wickersham
Harcourt, 368 pp., $25

Novelist and Cambridge resident Joan Wickersham's deeply moving memoir seeks to comprehend the incomprehensible: One morning her father, Paul, "went into his study, closed the door, and shot himself." The superficial facts of her father's suicide cloak an endless number of confused, bewildered questions about why he did it. Wickersham and her family are forced to sort out the painful puzzle pieces, to grapple with a ghost: "You have to become a posthumous mind reader. You have to look at the things you know, those small, possibly unreliable and often contradictory scraps of memory, and come up with your own version of the truth."

Wickersham refuses to settle for sentimental, simplistic answers. Her absorbing narrative is suffused with a profound longing to understand what went wrong in her father's life. She discovers a number of problems he worked mightily to conceal: large debts from a business failure, a complicated relationship with his in-laws (who had invested money in his failed business), a potential affair between his wife and a family friend, and a personal history of physical and verbal abuse by his own father. She learns tantalizing scraps of information, but can't integrate them: "It was all going to be fragments, a snarl. All these bits would keep coming . . . Nobody knew the whole of it."

She learns, for example, that a year before his suicide her father had started a business importing doors, and that the author's father-in-law, Neil, had invested too. The business failed and the bank called in the loan, which her father couldn't pay off. "It looked like the bank was going to turn its sights on Neil," writes Wickersham. She and her dad had spoken about these financial problems at a Cambridge café. After much prodding, he told her, "Sometimes I feel like everything I touch turns to [expletive]." Shocked by this admission from her stubbornly reticent father, Wickersham said nothing: "The silence went on and on."

In addition to tirelessly investigating the facts of her father's life, Wickersham looks inward, trying to understand how the suicide has impacted her life and family. She admits to feeling fiercely protective of her father's memory, even as others criticized what he'd done. "I was angry at a lot of people," writes Wickersham, "but not at him . . . I accepted everything about him, except that he was the author of his own absence."

What propels every intensely crafted page of this book is Wickersham's relentless drive to comprehend her father's suicide: "I'm writing because I need to understand the story of my family. But I'm also appropriating it, trying to transform it into something I can understand." Even years after the event, she finds herself searching everywhere for a suicide note. She sees visions of her father, imagining him alive again. And she agonizes over what to say about the suicide to her young son.

Yet Wickersham's search for answers is hopeless from the start. The one person who can answer her questions is gone forever, and she's left behind with her love and her agonized questions. Joan Wickersham has journeyed into the dark underworld inside her father and herself, and has emerged with a powerful, gripping story. She ends "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."

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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