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Stories and Silence

As someone who has just spent ten years writing about a tough subject (my father's suicide), I'm a little reluctant to spend my allotted 400 words here writing any more about it. Wouldn't it be more fun to write about gardening (I love it but am a lightweight, enjoy buying plants, hate weeding, and have never figured out how to fertilize)? Or the books on my bedside table right now (Villette; Peter Cameron's Andorra; and At a Loss for Words, a brisk and deliciously vengeful book by Canadian writer Diane Schoemperlen, which is presented as a novel but which I suspect may be a memoir — ah, now there's a subject for a blog)?

But, no. I am still thinking about suicide.But, no. I am still thinking about suicide. Not any longer about how to tell my father's story — I've done that, finally. But about suicide as a subject, and about how uncomfortable it makes us to talk about it.

My book just came out, and I've been giving radio interviews. I keep saying, "Suicide happens a lot, but there's a silence around it. We need to talk about it." But really, I don't know how to talk about it either. What is there to say?

Sometimes the radio host opens the phone lines, and people call to share stories of suicide in their families. The stories are factual and heartbreaking. It's clear from people's voices, and from what they say, that telling the story is important, and painful, and a relief. Afterward there is often a silence.

I know that silence. Someone asks what your father died of, and you say he killed himself.Someone asks what your father died of, and you say he killed himself. Maybe the person asks why, and you stumble around trying to offer up a few reasons, none of which really answers the question (which is the crucial question, and is also unanswerable). But eventually you hit that silence.

It's always made me feel bad, that silence. It feels like disapproval of my father (not just for doing it, but for having been the kind of person who could have done it). And it feels like disapproval of me, for talking about it.

But listening to other people tell their stories, and finding them so moving that any comment other than "I'm sorry" could only trivialize and detract, I'm beginning to view some of the silences differently.

Yes, we need to talk. And to listen. Yes, we need to talk. And to listen.

But maybe the silence after the story is told, which I've always perceived as shameful, or embarrassed, or stigmatizing, is sometimes respectful. Maybe it's an acknowledgment of how big the mystery is; and of how, in the end, the story itself says all that really needs to be said.

÷ ÷ ÷

Joan Wickersham was born in New York City. She is the author of two previous books, most recently The Suicide Index, a National Book Award finalist. Her fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe; she has published essays and reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune; and she has contributed on-air essays to National Public Radio. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Suicide Index: Putting My... Used Trade Paper $7.50

  2. Villette (Modern Library Classics) Used Trade Paper $6.50
  3. Andorra Used Trade Paper $6.50
  4. The Paper Anniversary: A Novel New Trade Paper $23.95
  5. The News from Spain: Seven...
    Used Hardcover $9.95

Joan Wickersham is the author of The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story

One Response to "Stories and Silence"

    carol stanley August 17th, 2008 at 7:08 am

    I know what a difficult subject this is...I have known at least five people who have taken their lives. It is difficult to imagine someone wanting to just end it all.We have all had dark moments and sometimes really feel stuck, and that there is no solution. However life is an ever ending changing situation...I also know when someone is hell bent on doing this...they are going to...carol stanley author of FOr Kids 59.99 and Over

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