Grief memoirs are suddenly everywhere — something of which Jill Bialosky is all too aware. An editor at W. W. Norton for almost twenty years (Nicole Krauss, Akhil Sharma, Nick Flynn), she’s seen all the memoir trends, from the poor-me family saga to the recovery narrative, and now we’re firmly in the age of the journey of loss. It launched with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005 and crests this spring with books by Joyce Carol Oates (widow) and Meghan O’Rourke (whose mother died, and whose poetry Bialosky edits). All the while, Bialosky — also an acclaimed poet and novelist — had been nursing a story about her own grief, and this year she’s finally written it down.History of a Suicide, which just made the New York Times extended bestseller list, is a profound and lyrical investigation into why Bialosky’s half-sister Kim committed suicide in 1990, at the age of 21. The raw material could have been fodder for the usual deluge of blame and bathos: Bialosky’s father died when she was very young, leaving her mother a neglectful and needy mess. But Bialosky writes sensitively and beautifully, incorporates Kim’s own words, and avoids psychobabble and caricature. The result is impossible to pigeonhole, and so much the better for it.
It seems clear that your mother and Kim’s father bear some responsibility for her spiraling depression — but you don’t spell that out.
I don’t think my mom was responsible. I don’t think it was any one thing at all. I don’t want to discuss [her father] if that’s okay. I don’t feel there should be any kind of blame.
You also write about losing two babies; you were pregnant with one of them when Kim died. Why include those awful experiences as well?
Somehow the immediate loss of Kim was also tangled up with the loss of my babies. And in order to write about that experience honestly I could not not write about the experience of losing the babies. Virginia Woolf once asserted that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”
A lot of the book was about whether you felt Kim’s death was preventable. You explore psychology, genetics, even religion. What about medication?
Suicide is about inner pain, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about medications. I don’t feel necessarily that medication would have solved the problem. Suicide is not an illness, and a certain percentage of people who are clinically depressed will not necessarily end their lives.
You quote extensively from Kim’s diaries. Is that something you think she would have approved of?
A friend of mine said to me when I was wrestling with issues of permission, “How would she have felt if you didn’t write about her?,” knowing how much she respected me as a writer. I really felt like using her words helped to illuminate her inner world, that in certain places her words are more important than my words.
Did you feel you were writing the memoir that she couldn’t?
No, because her book would have been totally different. I’m sure there were a lot of things that I didn’t know about her experience. How much do we reveal to one another about who we really are in any given moment? Even the people that are closest to us?
As an editor, you must have known a book with “suicide” in the title would be a hard sell.
It was, actually. And at one point my editor said, “Hmm, do you think we should call it this?” And I said, “Yes, we should.” I hope my book is a love letter too. One of the things I thought about a lot is, how can I write about suicide and not have this book be depressing?
You once said the most important piece of advice you ever got from a teacher was “write about what hurts.” Is that what kept you working at this for twenty years?
Maybe now I would phrase it a little differently. There is something I’ve come to think of as the persistence of memory. What if we write about what we can’t forget? How wonderful is that? Everyone is shaped by their unique experiences, and they persist upon you.