Thursday, August 4, 2011

History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life, by Jill Bialosky

In April 1990, Jill Bialosky's younger sister Kim committed suicide. For the 20 years between that event and the publication of this book, Bialosky has tried to make sense of this tragedy, by reading, attending meetings of those affected by suicide, talking with experts, reflecting on her sister's life, and perhaps most importantly by writing. In History of a Suicide, she recounts this struggle.

One of the underlying questions for Bialosky is whether she could have helped her sister; if, had she known the degree of pain her sister was in, she could have reached out and made a difference. Even those who have not had this terrible experience can imagine the toll that thinking about that question for 20 years would take. Clearly, no matter how much she reads, thinks, and talks, Bialosky cannot escape a sense of responsibility--even when experts and loved ones tell her that she is not in any way culpable.

As Bialosky describes Kim's childhood and their shared family life, events that caused Kim pain and undercut her belief in her "lovability" are evident. But others have the same experiences and do not kill themselves--something that makes the decision to die even more unfathomable for the survivors.

Bialosky writes well and I feel sympathy for the ongoing pain she has experienced (although I do admit to a bit of impatience as well). One piece that I found unfathomable--and which may account for my overall cool reaction to the book--relates to two other losses she experienced shortly after Kim's death. When Kim committed suicide, Bialosky was four months pregnant. That baby was born prematurely and died shortly after birth. A year later, Bialosky got pregnant again; that baby lived only a few hours. She says that the "trauma of losing my firstborn and the loss of Kim to suicide have forever become tangled like threads in a rope." But she virtually never mentions the two babies again. I find this incomprehensible--and, for me, it also calls into question any psychological insights Bialosky offers. If she doesn't see that her sense of responsibility for her sister (for whom she claimed to be a second mother) might be linked to the devastation of not being able to carry a baby to term, then I have serious doubts about everything she writes.

Favorite passage:
I now lived in two realms: the realm of the ordinary world of getting up in the morning and making coffee, answering the phone, and going to work, the world of traffic and noise and obligations; and the realm of stopped time where my sister was dead and I was shrouded in the confusion of her loss.

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