Deaths in the Family

Reviewed by Reeve Lindbergh
Sunday, September 21, 2008


A Memoir of Loss and Survival

By Christopher Lukas | Doubleday. 248 pp. $24.95


Putting My Father's Death in Order

By Joan Wickersham | Harcourt. 316 pp. $25

Christopher Lukas lost his mother to suicide when he was 6 years old and his brother, Tony, was 8. The brothers struggled to adulthood in what remained of their family: a devastated father and a domineering maternal grandmother. Christopher became a successful television director and producer; Tony grew up to be the award-winning writer and journalist J. Anthony Lukas, who, despite decades of remarkable accomplishment, was subject to deep depression and took his own life in 1997 at the age of 64. The grandmother had taken a fatal overdose of sleeping pills in a nursing home in 1971, and a maternal uncle slit his own throat a few years afterward.

Christopher Lukas has worked hard to confront and understand the demons that have stalked his loved ones. In 1987, with psychoanalyst friend Henry Seiden, he published Silent Grief, a pioneering study of the effects of suicide on survivors. His new book, Blue Genes, is a compassionate but clear-eyed view of his family history.

Suicide is trickier to pin down than most inherited tendencies. In some families it occurs so rarely as to seem an anomaly. In others, it runs like an almost invisible crack in fine porcelain, not pronounced enough to diminish the overall value of the object, yet a threat to its very existence. Christopher Lukas ponders two thoughts throughout the book: 1) Why did this happen to them? and 2) Why did this not happen to me?

With candor and courage Lukas writes that even now -- 10 years after his brother's death and more than 60 years after his mother's -- he still has more questions than answers. Did his mother suffer from bi-polar disorder? Did her depression while pregnant infect the not-yet-born Tony? (Tony, in his brother's opinion, lived "always under a cloud.")

To revisit a life is not to explain it, but perhaps spending time with our beloved dead can help survivors remember, at least, that a person can never be represented solely by his or her death, even if it is suicide.

"The problem with suicide is that it is a senseless event," writes Lukas. "There is no why." But he speaks powerfully to survivors anyway, with insights such as this: "Some people come face-to-face with disaster, then, letting go of the debris, turn their backs on the past and survive."

Instead of turning her back, novelist and short story writer Joan Wickersham chose to impose a kind of formal order on her father's suicide. He shot himself at the age of 61, and she writes beautifully, in her slightly scattered Suicide Index, about the amount of sheer space a suicide takes in the lives of surviving family members, from the moment of death through the weeks, months and years afterward. Rather than using chapters, the book is organized as index entries under the heading of "Suicide," with subheadings such as "attempt to imagine," "items found in my husband's closet," and "romances of mother in years following." The format seems intentionally arbitrary and idiosyncratic, perhaps reflecting the quality of Wickersham's experience.

Suicide leaves one unanswerable question -- why? -- and a perpetually tempting array of possible explanations: Depression? Debts? Brain chemistry? Childhood horrors remembered? Genes? Wickersham remembers her father once telling her that his grandfather had committed suicide; his own father was abusive and his mother elusive. "In the months after his death," writes Wickersham, "you are still hoping that a single culprit might be apprehended and brought to justice."

Wickersham's father left no suicide note, but for a time she was obsessed with the notion that he must have written one and hidden it for his family to find later. She went through her parents' house from attic to basement, looking in the backs of closets, searching her father's pockets and his bureau drawers, peering inside every one of his shoes. She found nothing.

She describes days of frantic grasping for answers, and years of what she calls "numbness." There was a marked impact upon her personal relationships: with her mother, her sister, her husband and her children. There were responses, sometimes helpful, from psychiatrists, and there were other peoples' stories, more of them than she ever would have suspected: the woman whose sister cut her throat, the woman whose brother jumped from the roof of his apartment building. In an entry titled "readings in the literature of," she cites studies in suicide and quotations from literature about suicide, including this from Flaubert: "We want to die because we cannot cause others to die, and every suicide is perhaps a repressed assassination."

Ultimately, the author concludes: "Suicide isn't just a death, it's an accusation. It's a violent, public declaration of loneliness. It's a repudiation of connection." And it leaves survivors with no way to respond. Over time the burden of a family suicide becomes easier to bear, but it does not go away. "While some healing does happen," Wickersham writes, "it isn't a healing of redemption or epiphany. It's more like the slow absorption of a bruise." Bleak, strong and fiercely honest, this book will help anyone going through that process. ยท

Reeve Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, most recently, "Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures."

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