Who wants to talk about suicide? Our species, our families, our customs and cultures are perpetuated through our strongest instinct: to live. And yet, again and again, we are caught off guard by news of a sudden death—someone too young, someone healthy, someone who suffered from depression for years, someone loved, someone far, someone near. Family, friends, colleagues, left feeling helpless, alone, angry and hurt. In the wake of my father’s death by suicide seventeen years ago, I found few candid narratives addressing the experience. New books on suicide are beginning to find a wider audience (Nancy Rappaport, In Her Wake; Joan Wickersham, The Suicide Index; Jill Bialosky, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life; and David Vann, whose autobiographical collection of stories, Legend of a Suicide, was selected in April 2010 by Lorrie Moore for the New Yorker book club). Surviving family and friends still too often learn to hide from the word, but the experience, tangled and unruly, remains.
The last few years have brought fresh losses, literary and otherwise, to the public eye: David Foster Wallace; Nicholas Hughes (son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes); Callie Angell (daughter of New Yorker writer Roger Angell, step-granddaughter of E.B. White); well-known fashion designer, Alexander McQueen; lauded art-world designer, Tobias Wong; former NFL player and Super Bowl champion, Dave Duerson; and rising numbers in the wake of the global financial crisis, some prominent and others not afforded coverage in the pages of The New York Times. In the context of a recession it is easier to acknowledge the pressure-cooker of performance, and the stranglehold of depression. Hard times offer us an opportunity: to look at what ails us—as a nation, in our culture, in our own lives. So, let me tell you a story, we say, and perhaps we may come out appreciating anew what we have. Death writ as tragedy, and a revival.
EXIT WOUND, about a man, a family, a community (all fractured), chronicles my journey through my father’s suicide: growing up under the shadow of depression; his suicide when I was twenty-three; the flood of memory and painful questions that followed. While the manuscript tells my story—my father’s story—the mysteries of one man’s life, the relationships gone wrong, and his untimely death, following years of depression and erratic, sometimes violent moods, the story reverberates with the concerns and fears of many. How many know the grief of losing a parent, a friend, a lover or spouse? How many have seen the frustrating choke of depression or loneliness, or felt it ourselves?
Suicide and the mental illness that often precedes it, including depression, touch millions of people’s lives each year. More than thirty-three thousand people died by suicide in the United States alone in 2006, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And between twelve and twenty-five attempted suicides occur for each suicide death. The NIMH website notes that, “Suicide is a major, preventable public health problem.”
I began to write EXIT WOUND in response to my own need to better understand the precursors to my father’s suicide, and suicide more generally. How could such a violent death be self-inflicted? How could a man do this to his loved ones, and to himself? How might one disentangle the person from the disease and its symptoms? The book also concerns itself with the aftermath of suicide, what it was like to be left with the pieces—the violence, the stigma and anger, the intensity of grief—some of which are specific to the trauma of suicide, but many of which relate to grief from all manner of loss.
I continue to be amazed by how much of my father’s life was unknown to me while he lived. Lawrence Frye, a tenured Germanic Studies professor at a major university, specializing in fairy tales (masks, disguises, doubles), surprised many. My investigations uncovered relationships and remorses, guns and transgressions, far from my imaginings. The manuscript then is also an unraveling of the mysteries of one man’s life, a progression of discoveries and insights that refused to be more fully revealed until their most able source was gone.
EXIT WOUND candidly takes on the subject of suicide and the subsequent grief. Part tale of love, part tragedy, it is a detective story—at times philosophical, other times as straightforward and raw as a child’s lament. The manuscript relates one man’s anguish and premature death—and one daughter’s anger, terror and sorrow—illuminating the bonds of family that cause pain, and also bring meaning to hardship and depth of feeling to joy.
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~ To read material adapted from EXIT WOUND, see “My Father’s Guns” ~