Thursday, August 11, 2011

In Her Wake

I'm kind of on a memoir roll right now but that's OK because I enjoy memoirs.

In 1963, Nancy Rappaport’s mother died by suicide after a bitter public divorce and custody battle. Nancy was just four years old and the youngest of six children. Growing up in a blended family of eleven children after her father remarried, Nancy was bewildered about why her mother took her own life and left her behind.

Years later, encouraged by her own childrens’ curiosity about their grandmother, and fortified by her training as a child psychiatrist, Nancy began investigating her mother’s life and the mysteries surrounding her death.

Pursuing clues and following leads, Rappaport pieces together a complex mosaic of her mother. Drawing on court depositions, newspaper coverage, her mother’s unpublished novel, and interviews with family and friends, she uncovers the story of a conflicted and troubled activist, socialite, and community leader. She scrutinizes deep family secrets about a woman she only remembers in snapshots.

Rappaport intensely explores the impact of her mothers suicide from the perspective of a daughter, psychiatrist, wife, and mother of three – illuminating in the process the complicated nature of loss, reconciliation, and healing.

So I have to say once I started reading this book I was really worried it was going to be a story of "oh, my life is so awful because my mom isn't here and how will I ever cope" and it wasn't that... so I'm glad. It is a really well written account of the loss of a mother and a life long grief during poignant moments in your life when all you really want is your mom. As a son I don't know that losing a mom at such a young age would be life altering but for a daughter it would be. Certainly growing up the value of having a mother to answer your questions or to explain what your period is and what exactly to do with a tampon is pretty important. So what do you do if you don't have that? I often think women without mothers, or mothers who weren't really mothers anyways, are probably the best in womanhood because they have to do it on their own. They have to learn how to be a lady, run a household, be a partner and raise children on her own. She has no help or guidance, no role model. I know for myself it would be difficult- I lean on my own mother a lot when I encounter something I don't know.

The interesting twist to this book is that Nancy is a child psychiatrist so in writing her story and that of her mothers, she offers insightful information about suicide in general. One of the lines that stuck with me is on page 216:

"But I wonder if surviving my mother's suicide brings with it a certain knowledge that there are limits to keeping people alive if they are determined to kill themselves."

The only part of books that discuss this side of suicide that bother me is that I often feel the survivors are kind of selfish. It's not selfish to mourn the loss of a person who may or may not have had a lot more life to live, that we'd never know. But it is selfish to look only at what you've now loss and compare it to being worse than how the person was feeling before they decided suicide was their only option. And sometimes I think that when you're ready to go you should be able to go. A person only has so much fight in them for life and when you exhaust that, you have nothing to keep you going. It's like a car- once you run out of gas, you're going nowhere. It doesn't matter how big the crowd around you is cheering you on, that car isn't moving without more gas. All the love and cheering in the world doesn't put gas into that car, the driver has to actually make an effort to get the gas. And some people just can't do it anymore. And I respect that. When someone commits suicide I don't grieve their death, I grieve for the loss the survivors feel. That person clearly was at ease with their death and was ready to go, but that doesn't mean others are ready for it.

So over all, I really enjoyed this book. It was an interesting insight to a family, Nancy expertly weaves her thoughts and reflections as an adult to childhood memories into a touching story of her mother's suicide. Also interesting is she included a "Further Reading" section that sounds like it's similar stories or good resources if you've survived a suicide or just the general loss of a significant person in your life.

I highly encourage you to look at the other tour stops (here) to see what other readers are saying, as well as Nancy's website (here).


Anonymous said...

It sounds like an interesting book. Heavy topic though. Probably something I would read :)

Helena said...

Interesting, interesting thoughts on suicide. I've had similar ones when thinking about Dr. Kavorkian-like situations (sp?), with assisted-suicides for terminal patients and the elderly. But never for other forms of suicide. It's given me a lot to think about.

Echo said...

I just presented you with the versatile blogger award :)

Nancy Rappaport said...

Dear Sara,
I know what you mean about the memoir fatigue where you worry that it will be navel gazing. Glad to hear that I passed the test and thank you for your thoughtful review.
Your last part about reflecting if suicide survivors should just understand that the person they loved may have found some relief I respectfully disagree. If you believe as I do that treatment can help, I would want to buy more time. If you read about those who have survived jumping the Golden Gate Bridge, they rarely try to kill themselves again. Many times suicidal ideation is transient and it is the access to guns or drugs that is the final push. And the lament of families is that they wish they could have helped someone understand that they were loved. In Tom Joiner's book Why People DIe by Suicide he documents how many suicidal people see themselves as "PERCEIVED" Burden.
I am glad that you saw me as more multidimensional then defined only by my mother's suicide.
Again, Thank you for your careful reading.
Nancy Rappaport
as "perceived burdens

trish said...

Fortunately, I've only known one person who committed suicide. I can't imagine being so depressed that suicide seems like the best way out.

Thanks for being on the tour!