Jill Bialosky's "History of a Suicide"

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

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HISTORY OF A SUICIDE

My Sister's Unfinished Life

By Jill Bialosky

Atria. 252 pp. $24

In the two decades since her half-sister Kim took her own life at age 21, Jill Bialosky has become a poet, novelist, book editor and mother. But Kim "was a phantom always near me," Bialosky writes in her memoir, "History of a Suicide." "I allowed her death to possess me." Her book is an effort to rid herself of this burden: "I had to understand why she would take her own life and whether I could have stopped her," Bialosky explains. "Maybe in doing so, I could forgive myself."

Searching for catharsis - even absolution - is a dangerous pursuit. (And one might question whether doing it so publicly, in a memoir, isn't a tad self-indulgent.) But Bialosky treads delicately, acknowledging throughout - sometimes distractingly so - the peril of her mission. "Am I doing justice and honor to her experience?" she asks. Perhaps only Kim could answer that question honestly. But with the help of her sister's personal writings, her own memories and a forensic psychologist, Bialosky makes a valiant and eloquent effort to capture her sister's inner life. The portrait of turmoil she creates is both chilling and familiar to anyone who has known a depressive.

The story of Kim's early life - and Bialosky's - is the stuff of a weepy novel (and in fact many of its details appeared in Bialosky's 2002 novel, "House Under Snow"). Bialosky's mother was a young widow with three children when she met Kim's father, a dashing drinker with a temper. Kim's birth, when Bialosky was a teenager, did little to solidify a faltering marriage that had turned violent. Kim's father doted on his daughter until she was 3, when he left. Bialosky's mother suffered bouts of depression, and her young daughters filled the void. One of the most enduring images in the book is of a teenage Bialosky caring for Kim at a park: "Imagine a newborn baby and an awkward and shy thirteen-year-old girl hungry for love. We bonded intensely." Another is of Kim's father, appearing at a school conference and telling Kim that she will "never amount to anything."

Bialosky's thoughtful book elucidates the complexity of suicide, yet the image of that elusive father and the yearning daughter hovers powerfully over the narrative. "Dear father, Why won't you be my dad?" Kim wrote in her journal, echoing the sentiment of Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy," which appears a few pages later. In the years before her death, Kim got involved in bad relationships with men and over-indulged in drugs and alcohol. The reader can sense Bialosky trying not to blame Kim's father. Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson of this book: the futility of post-mortem culpability. As the eminent suicidologist Edwin Shneidman tells Bialosky, "It's not about spinning the bottle of guilt and seeing where it lands."

- Nora Krug

HISTORY OF A SUICIDE

My Sister's Unfinished Life

By Jill Bialosky

Atria. 252 pp. $24


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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