History of a suicide: My sister’s unfinished life by Jill Bialosky (Granta, 2015).
History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky is a moving and deeply personal account of her younger sister’s suicide and the author’s own struggle to come to terms with what happened – or, perhaps, may have happened. For History of a Suicide does not try to establish a definitive account of why Bialosky’s sister, Kim, died aged 21 by locking herself in her mother’s garage, leaving the car engine running. Rather, History of a Suicide is as much – indeed more – about the author’s own difficult search for answers. This brings Bialosky into contact with the world of suicidology – the medical, psychological, and sociological literature on suicide – as well as artistic and literary representations, and autobiographical works exploring personal battles with depression and suicidal feelings.
Yet none of these offers Bialosky the answers she was looking for. Bialosky’s motivation for writing History of a Suicide ‘was to reclaim the person from the act’ (p. viii). Suicide, writes Bialosky, ‘silences and aggrandizes a life’ (p. viii, x). Bialosky argues the act of suicide overtakes all else that a person was, or could have been; the manner of death creates a cascade of shame, guilt, and questions unanswerable that threaten to overwhelm memories of the deceased:
In writing History of a Suicide I have sought comfort and knowledge through attempting to find meaning and understanding of Kim’s act. I have tried to bring her alive again – to restore her from the legend of suicide. (P. x)
What Bialosky finds is that none of the obvious tools for doing this – consulting experts, reading poetry, meeting her rabbi – helps:
When I was desperate for answers, reading whatever I could get my hands on about suicide…I found myself longing for the story of the individual soul […] I could catch glimpses of her in the language of despair written by poets or in works of fiction. But it wasn’t enough. I could find no full portrait of a living, breathing human being, no different from any one of us, who had lost the will to live. (P. 76)
Bialosky’s conclusion that our store of knowledge on suicide is wanting has been noted before, including by Alvarez in The Savage God (1971), a work that clearly influences Bialosky’s own. In recent years, a ‘cultural turn’ in suicide studies has produced a number of critical engagements that seek to give fuller voice to ‘individual souls’ (see, for example, White et al. 2015). What these contributions note is the gulf between the sanitised accounts of suicide that populate the academic literature, and the deep subjectivities that surround the act in real life. Set within this tradition, History of a Suicide offers a vital contribution to current efforts to unpick both the dominance and the errors of mainstream suicidology, and to ‘restore from legend’ those who have died from suicide.
This accomplishment of the book has been amply celebrated in other reviews, and so here I offer a different perspective. I read History of a Suicide as a case study in how the very idea of suicide is created within a specific social and cultural context. I have previously argued that the only people who kill themselves in the ways imagined by suicidologists, are suicidologists themselves (Widger 2015a). Otherwise we all commit suicide and imagine the suicides of others, in and through terms of our own making.
Bialosky’s natural medium to make sense of Kim’s death, ‘to bring her alive again,’ was of course the written word. I take Bialosky’s efforts here to be illustrative of a very general process that all suicides undergo in all cultures – a process whereby the idea of suicide exists less as something external to, and prior to, the act, but instead as something that comes into being when we try to reach consensus about what kind of act took place. This process is captured beautifully in History of a Suicide by the very fact the book materialises – literally chapter by chapter – an approach to suicide story-telling that normally exists as an ad hoc discourse between survivors, experts, therapists, religious guides, and the other tools and trappings of a suicide death (memories, diaries, notes, official reports, death certificates…).
Crucially, this is not a story that Bialosky undertakes to write by herself. Like all suicides, Kim’s death comes into view only because of the involvement of several authors. History of a Suicide was primarily written by two: Kim, the author her own life and death, and Bialosky, Kim’s biographer and author of her own struggle after Kim’s death. For the latter the role was cathartic:
Three years have passed since I finished History of a Suicide. I am a different person. During the years in which I was writing, reading, and contemplating […] I was still actively in a state of disbelief, living behind a wall of shame and guilt that kept me from fully accepting my sister’s death. Now the grief is distant. It is no longer stained by shame and guilt. (P. vii)
Bialosky’s release was itself achieved by granting Kim the agency of author: an agency transferred by the frequent inclusion of Kim’s own journal entries and poems throughout the book. Thus the sisters come to narrate a story together that gives Kim the opportunity for expression she lacked in life. As Kim expressed in her own journal:
It’s been a long time since I’ve written. I really shouldn’t wait that long. But I just don’t know how to write half of the stuff that I want to say. I wish I could write down the way I feel and could express it to other people. I have just so much trouble doing it. (P. 190)
Throughout History of a Suicide, it is this problem of expression – of finding ways of communicating the hurt, pain, isolation, and other malaise of the ‘troubled mind’ – to which the authors return again and again. It is also here, beyond giving Bialosky ‘closure’ and Kim ‘voice,’ that Kim’s suicide could be told in a way that both authors found acceptable. Whatever might have been the reason Kim died, the narrative architecture created by History of a Suicide produces an idea of suicide that is meaningful and true for both authors.
By this I do not mean there is nothing about Kim’s death that exists outside the text of History of a Suicide. Rather, I suggest the ways in which people make sense of suicide after the fact always becomes integral to the act itself. This process of retrospective meaning-making is essential to what I have called the ‘suicide process,’ through which suicide is rendered legible via the creation of suicide stories that adhere to locally-relevant scripts of suicidality (Widger 2015b, 2015c). How we make meaning of suicide depends on how we read the act at the level of the individual event, its place in the life-course, and its place in wider social history:
[This] encompasses three timeframes: long-term timeframes at societal level, medium-term timeframes at the life-course level, and short-term timeframes at the event level…[S]ocietal timeframes incorporate the processes through which suicide causal theories come into being….; lifespan timeframes encompass the learning process in families, peer groups and communities through which individuals come to develop their own understandings and repertoires of suicidal practice…; event timeframes are the manifestation of societal and lifespan timeframes in quotidian spaces. Obviously, this is a looping process: event level shapes the life-course level shapes the societal level. (Widger 2015b: 174)
History of a Suicide is precisely this process unfolding. The authors move back and forth between the grand scientific and literary traditions of life and death available to American readers; these help them to navigate experiences of growing up in a Jewish American household; which in turn help them to frame the years, months, days, and moments leading up to and following Kim’s death. Through this process, the meaning and hence truth of Kim’s suicide appears for both authors – for Kim, during her life past; for Bialosky, for her life present and future.
History of a Suicide is an excellent book on many levels, and will be of interest to academic researchers as well as professionals involved in suicide prevention and the survivors of suicide. It would work well as a classroom text on social medicine and medical humanities courses, including those exploring death, loss, mental illness, and representations of modern American family life.
Reviewed by Dr Tom Widger, a lecturer in social anthropology at Durham University. His research has explored the social and cultural processes that produce representations of suicidal practice and how these shape social, political, and clinical responses to self-harm and self-inflicted death. His monograph, Suicide in Sri Lanka: The anthropology of an epidemic’ was published by Routledge in 2015.
You can visit Tom’s personal webpage here.
Correspondence to Dr Tom Widger.
Alvarez, A. 1971. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. London: Bloomsbury Press.
White, J., I. Marsh, M.J. Kral, and J. Morris. 2015. Critical Suicidology: Transforming Suicide Research and Prevention for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: University of Washington Press.
Widger, T. 2015a. ‘Suicidology as a Social Practice’: A Reply. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 4(3), 1–4.
Widger, T. 2015b. Suicide in Sri Lanka: The anthropology of an epidemic. Abingdon: Routledge.
Widger, T. 2015c. Learning Suicide and the Limits of Agency: Children’s ‘Suicide Play’ in Sri Lanka. In: L. Broz and D. Münster, eds. Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Self-Destruction, Personhood, and Power. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 165–82.