Tag Archives: Jill Bialosky

Tears in Heaven

History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria Books, $24.00, 252 pages)

“The tragedy of suicide is that only in its aftermath does everything that came before suddenly seem important and clear.”

This is a memoir that expresses the author’s unimaginable grief over the loss of a sister and a daughter within three and one-half months, and it is primarily a tribute to her late sister Kim.   Kim was just 21 when, after being dumped by her boyfriend, she killed herself by leaving her mother’s car running in the garage of the family home.   The work is an attempt by Bialosky to understand the depths of her sister’s long-time depression, and any hereditary factors that may have entered into it (this is a family that experienced three suicides in three generations).

In her personal research, Bialosky found that Kim had been depressed at  least since high school.   At that time she wrote:  “I wish I would get (a major illness) or something so I could just die.   I don’t want to live anymore this way.   It’s too unsatisfying…  I need a way out.   Please help!”

Bialosky also came to realize that her mother’s detachment from the realities of lie may have been a factor:  “Perhaps my mother was able to sustain herself through her dark times by creating a hazy world of dreams and fantasies for a future in which everything would eventually work out.”

“I have private conversations with Kim on the beach.   I am thinking about you, I say to her.   Can you hear me?”

Despite her careful and caring research, Bialosky winds up being unable to pinpoint the exact nature of her sister’s inherent struggle with life and living.   She comes to see that persons who have been affected by suicide are often twice victimized – first, by the unexpected (and often violent) death; second, by the stigma attached to the act.   She cites as an example a young male in her neighborhood who was ostracized at school after his sister killed herself…  Punishing one of the victims of the act thus turns into a type of psychological piling on; it’s no wonder that those who were closest to the person who committed suicide often feel lost – literally without direction – for long periods of time.

Bialosky  comes to find a measure of recovery and balance in her life by attending a monthly suicide survivors support group:  “…in the white room… sealed off from the cacophony of traffic on the avenue below us – …the litany of what ifs and why didn’t I and if only rings like a chorus of voices in a Greek tragedy…  It seems to me that it isn’t as if they wanted to die but more that they wished to feel better and didn’t know how.”

The author’s sister Kim left a suicide note:  “I know everyone loved me very much.   Please don’t feel you could have helped.   I am very happy now.   All my love, K”

This all-too-sad memoir reminds us that the world holds “mystery and terror far beyond our grasp,” but also contains a great measure of forgiveness, acceptance and eternal love.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note: The reviewer worked as a  volunteer suicide prevention counselor, and was taught that (as a counselor):  “You never lose someone and you never save someone.”   Mystery and terror, indeed.

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A review of History of a Suicide: my sister’s unfinished life by Jill Bialosky.

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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