In Search of the Key to Death

He got up one morning, dressed, made coffee, went into his study - and shot himself in the head. The American writer Joan Wickersham, trying to fathom why her father killed himself, talks to Haaretz about her book, 'The Suicide Index'

By Gitit Ginat

Twenty years ago this week, Paul got up, showered, shaved, dressed, went out to get the newspaper and made a cup of coffee for his still-sleeping wife. He then went into his study and shot himself in the head. With no explanation, leaving no apparent clues, he committed an act which could have been spontaneous or planned - but no one will ever know.

"It's the last week of his life. Does he know that? At some point, yes," his daughter, Joan Wickersham, writes at the beginning of her book "The Suicide Index" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ). "At the moment when his index finger closes on the trigger of the gun, he knows it with certainty. But before that? Even a moment before, when he sat down in the chair holding the gun - was he sure?"

Published in the United States in 2008, "The Suicide Index" was a National Book Award finalist and appeared on the best book lists of The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and New York Magazine. It has just been published in Hebrew, fluently translated by Dana Elazar-Halevi. Wickersham is intrigued and excited about the Hebrew edition. The more the book is translated and disseminated among larger audiences, the more the chaos triggered by the pistol that was fired 20 years ago is diminished, to her mind. It also illuminates the power of the very act of writing, which Wickersham considers one of the most cogent defenses against the arbitrariness and mystery of the act of suicide.

The Hebrew title of the book - "Mafteah L'Abba" - has a dual meaning: the word mafteah means both a key and an index. Indeed, Wickersham searched for a key to the two overwhelming questions her father left by taking his life: Why did he do it? And after he did it, and left a smoke screen rather than a farewell letter, she also asked: Then who was he, actually? As for the element of the index, that is the form that Wickersham chose for the book: an alphabetical lexicon which tries to map the reasons for her father's suicide; the effect the act had on her, her mother, her sister and her eldest son; and the history of her father's family, both in terms of marital ties and business, which held clues to depression and failure, but also contradictory indications revealing happiness and success.

Wickersham's father, Paul (she does not provide, either in the book or in interviews, the full names of the family members ), was born in Germany in the late 1920s. His mother was a German ballet dancer from a wealthy family; his father a poor Russian Jewish dancer who wandered about Eastern Europe, occasionally making a living as a gigolo. The two decided to pursue a dancing career in the United States and left Paul and his brother with two aunts on a farm in Germany for a few years.

The two children later joined their parents in New York, but became the victims of abuse and neglect. Later, as an adult, Paul tried to make it as a businessman but failed. He also suffered from a variety of illnesses and was frequently hospitalized. His relations with his wife were poor.

However - and it is here that the power of "The Suicide Index" lies - none of this emerges as an unequivocal answer to the question of why Paul decided to go into his study and shoot himself on February 8, 1991. The absence of an answer is amplified by counter-indications, which are scattered throughout his daughter's book.

"My father was a person who was capable of experiencing tremendous happiness and pleasure," Joan Wickersham says in a telephone interview from her home in Massachusetts. "He loved being with the family, loved going on holiday and on trips, loved good food. He was fascinated by history and literature; he adored Shakespeare. Yet still, toward the end of his life - I don't know when this experience started to take hold of him - he felt relentless grief and was seized by a sense of hopelessness."

All the signs and counter-signs are listed in strict alphabetical order, yet still constitute a "confession" of disorder.

"I worked on the book for 10 years, starting with a failed attempt to tell the story of the suicide in the form of a conventional novel," Wickersham relates. "For eight years I simply struggled. I tried to write a novel about a family in which the father commits suicide, and to describe its life before and after that event. Of course, it was about my family, but I wrote about it in the third person and gave the characters other names. But the story did not succeed in coming alive and developing in that form. The attempt to write at a remove from an event which happened to me personally was not right.

"Then I received a writing fellowship which gave me the opportunity to shut myself in a cabin in an artists' colony. I threw out the draft and started over, without looking again at the discarded novel. From that moment I started to let a multitude of voices be heard. Things emerged in different lengths and in varying heft. Some parts were short, some were long, some came from my point of view, some from others' points of view. I started to accept the fact that I had to allow different forms and different voices to be expressed in the writing, to understand that this was not just one story but a variety of stories. That's how the index form came to be chosen."

Thus, the book's subtitle became "Putting my father's death in order." Wickersham sought a key that might create order from a death which had spawned chaos. Her conscious, resounding failure in finding a key, makes the final result - the index - more than an alphabetically organized description of a tragic story: It's a tale about human existence, about the search for keys in a life which offers none, and about the human ability to understand that dispensing with keys can lead to a partial coming-to-terms with chaos.

"In the first stage, in an almost immediate way, I thought that I could reduce the chaos by trying to understand why this private person had taken his life, by trying to organize the suicide within a logical framework," Wickersham says. "Today, after the book was written and published, tranquillity comes from knowing that my father's suicide will never be logical. The only way to make this story logical is to understand that it will never be logical. Writing the book led to a deeper understanding of reality, of what happened; a deeper understanding of the fact that I will never really understand why my father committed suicide. I will never have only one possible answer to his suicide."

Born in New York, Wickersham lived there and in Connecticut as a girl and a teenager, and enjoyed a loving relationship with her father. "In the book I try to show what a charming man my father was. He was a loving father, he had a marvelous sense of humor, he was a very elegant person, he knew how to listen."

She was in her early thirties when he took his life. In the following years, as she tried to piece together a clear and all-encompassing answer about his death, she wrote short stories and a novel, "The Paper Anniversary." Now 53, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and their two children; in addition to writing fiction, she writes essays and articles for a number of newspapers, among them The International Herald Tribune and The Boston Globe.

The book's publication had the effect of reducing Wickersham's sense of chaos while also alleviating the isolation felt by people who had undergone a similar experience.

"There is a terrible loneliness in an experience of this kind," she says, "and writing the book extricated me from that. Many readers thanked me for the sincerity with which the book was written - for creating a picture that reflected the complex reality. Many writers have a tendency to simplify things, but I consciously fought that tendency. I wanted the book to reflect the ways in which the situation was so chaotic, complex and lacking in answers.

"From the reactions of readers who had had a suicide in their family I learned that there is a tremendous level of denial. Collective denial. One person wrote me a letter about a parent who committed suicide and about the fact that today no one in the family is ready to admit that it was suicide. As a group, they simply invented a more convenient version of reality. There were other recurrent traits among readers who had a suicide in the family. The first was a great love for the family member who committed suicide. People on the outside assume that the relatives will feel rage toward that person, but the reality is not necessarily like that. As a daughter, you want to protect the suicide, because he already endured so much suffering in his life.

"And there was something else, too: There is a powerful sense of differing, contradictory accounts - a sense that the family members' versions of the suicide can coexist in constant conflict."

That comes through very clearly in the book. The reactions of your mother and your sister are very different from yours.

"Yes. And that poses a large question in writing a memoir: how to incorporate the viewpoint of another person together with your personal version of what happened, but still ensure that the book remains your private statement. One of the things that characterizes a family after a tragedy is the multiplicity of versions. I saw things differently from my mother and my sister. In contrast to my mother, with whom I was able to talk a great deal about the suicide, my sister preferred to talk less. I think her version was more pessimistic. She thought the suicide was unavoidable, whereas I thought that maybe it might have been possible to do something to prevent it."

Is the feeling of guilt, the division of guilt, also different?

"In my case there was no unbearable feeling of guilt. The wife of a suicide will feel guilty. The parent of a child who kills himself will feel guilty. But the child of a suicide will not necessarily feel that he had a responsible role or the role of a therapist. If I did feel any guilt, it was over the fact that I did not notice how depressed and despairing my father was.

"It was my mother who felt guiltiest of all, for having missed many signs of my father's unhappiness. They were both very ambitious about his business future, but he failed and relations at home became tense. Over time, my mother felt guilty for having been angry at my father for his lack of business success."

Your mother died last year. Did you talk to her about your father's death in recent years?

"Not much. She too arrived at something of a solution for herself. The event came up again when the book was published, but my mother referred mainly to the book and did not necessarily 'reopen' the event."

There are moments in the book when you describe her with great anger. You write about your son's depression as an adolescent, his use of antidepressants and your fear that he would take his life. How did your mother and your son react to the exposure?

"They were supportive and understanding. My mother acknowledged that writing the book was important for me. My son was an infant when my father committed suicide and never knew him. Still, I was always afraid that 'that thing' was in him. One of the direct results of the suicide of a family member is the constant fear of the possibility that others in the family will do the same. This fear is common in many families. I wrote about my son's depression because I wanted to make this point clear. It is one of the most salient consequences of the suicide of a family member: I will always be worried about the possibility of suicide. Maybe I will not be worried with the acute intensity of the past, but the fear will always be with me."

You write extensively about your own depression, which in a certain sense was no less mysterious and incomprehensible than the suicide.

"It came in the form of a dulling of the senses. That was my reaction to my father's suicide. When my mother died recently, I had a direct response of mourning. I miss her, I know who she was, I am sad. Those are direct reactions. In contrast, when someone close commits suicide, you not only lose him, you also lose the understanding of the relations you had with him. Not only did I lose my father, I also lost my understanding of who my father was. The confusion and mystery dominated me for a long time and was one channel from which the depression sprang. A second channel had to do with the fact that I wanted to understand what happened but couldn't, yet at the very same time I could not break away from the attempt to understand. That was the second force that created the depression.

"Nine years went by after my father's suicide before I entered therapy. Talking in therapy allowed the story to be formulated and become more comprehensible, which made it possible for me to move away from the depression and start to write. I had written before that, but only after I started to arrive at a place in which I could talk about what happened, could I truly write.

"As I mentioned in a somewhat different way, one of the things that readers who underwent a similar experience relate to is the attempt to protect the suicide after his death. People expect family members to be angry at the person who took his life, but I was not angry. I felt that he had been angry at himself and had punished himself, so I could not allow myself to be angry at him. For a long time I could not shake off that feeling and start to report to myself authentically about my emotions. I was preoccupied with protecting my father and his memory, to the point where I could not allow myself to feel what had happened to me in the wake of what he did. All that became possible only after I started therapy."

Why did it take you so long to start therapy?

"For a long time I did not realize I was depressed. I just felt dulled. In fact, it was not a question of what I felt but of what I did not feel. I lived my life and did not feel. Because my husband supported me very much over the years, I didn't think I needed additional help. I knew there was sadness but I didn't think I had to draw on anyone's help."

Were you afraid that suicide was possible for you, too? Did you tell yourself: I am my father's daughter - it's in me?

"Not really. One of the things I learned after my father's suicide is about the permanent and irreversible damage suicide does to a family. I am so aware of that damage, in all its detail, that it would never occur to me to do what he did. Of course, a thought of that kind insinuates itself occasionally, but I do not feel that some mysterious force will suddenly take control of me and engulf me. I am a lot more conscious of the dangers of depression, I know what to do in order to seek help. On this matter, I have a far deeper understanding than my father had."

Is that what it was for your father - did a mysterious force seize him?

"I don't know. That's one of the central dilemmas I write about in the book, and which is typical of someone who lost someone in the family to suicide. You will never know whether it was a rational choice or whether he was simply seized by a mysterious force. I don't know and I assume that I will never know."

Now that you have come to the realization that you will never understand, what's left?

"The suicide still makes me very sad. I still wonder whether it was possible to avert it, if things could have played out differently. I will never be able to stop asking myself those questions. I don't like to talk about reasons, but in the book I write about possible factors that weighed on him: his failed business, the awful childhood he underwent, the tension in relations with my mother. Those pressures weighed him down for years and in the end they also robbed him of his ability to be happy. He was a charming, attentive, pleasure-loving man, but at the same time he harbored a deep and hidden despair, and we did not understand how great that despair was and how deeply he buried it within himself until his death."

Wickersham hopes her book will help readers who have undergone a similar experience and also benefit those who seek to understand their life and the world through literature.

"Regrettably," she notes, "suicides occur with far greater frequency than we are willing to admit. There is a powerful sense of shame associated with them, and in their wake an unwillingness to talk about the event or admit to it. The shame further isolates people who are already in a state of great loneliness. But it's important to talk. The more we understand the phenomenon, the more compassionately we will be able to respond to it."

Did the thought ever cross your mind that suicide might have been a good solution for your father?

"The best way to answer that question is to compare my point of view before and after my father's suicide. Beforehand, I thought that it was up to each person to decide whether he wants to live or die. His life belongs to him and he can do with it whatever he wants. Now, after going through this experience, I find it hard to say that.

"If I were in a philosophy class and the question arose, I would not object to the proposition that we can do anything with our life, even put an end to it. But as the daughter of a man who took his life, I find it difficult to accept that thesis. All I can say is that it was a terrible legacy for all those who loved him. So, I can't really answer the question."

Let me put it another way: 20 years after your father's death, have you been able to feel any acceptance or coming to terms?

"No, but I was able to accept the fact that I will never feel acceptance and coming to terms, and to a certain degree that was the acceptance and the coming-to-terms. When my father committed suicide the shock was so overwhelming that for a long time I tried to construct other scenarios. Sometimes I would tell myself that someone had broken into my parents' home and murdered my father, or that he had been involved in some dark and secret business scheme that led to his murder. It took me a very long time, and thanks in large measure to the writing, to understand that it was him. He made the choice, he did it. Only when that truth is accepted is there a chance of arriving at some sort of peace."

What have you learned about life in the wake of your father's suicide?

"In a certain sense, the suicide enlarged the range of possible life scenarios, and in a strange way made me more optimistic about life. I am no longer so isolated from the pain that life brings, and therefore I am capable of appreciating its multiple layers."

One of Wickersham's greatest concerns is that her father will be remembered not for who he was, but through the prism of the way he took his life.

"In English, a person who takes his life is called 'a suicide.' Your death defines who you are," she explains. "But my father was a complex, wonderful man. I cannot bear or agree with the notion that his death erased his life."

Did you dream about him after his death?

"I had dreams in which he was alive, but at the same time I knew in the dream that he had committed suicide. The unspoken element in the dream was whether to raise the issue of the suicide with him or not. My father was a very private man and his act was to a certain extent so private that even in dreams I wasn't capable of raising the subject with him ...

"Recently I had a dream in which I asked him why he committed suicide, and he simply did not answer me. That is actually also how my book ends: with the knowledge that I will never get an answer from him."

Still, that's a very different dream from the earlier ones; this time you dared to ask.

"True."

What did he do in the dream?

"He just looked away. He did not want to answer. That was characteristic of the person he was in life. A very private man. It was only after his death that I understood that there was more than privacy there. There was also a secrecy which did not allow him to talk about himself and his distress. Only after his death did I grasp how dangerous that privacy, that secrecy, was." W

About a million people commit suicide every year around the world; between 20 and 50 million attempt suicide. In Israel there have been between 350 and 400 suicides a year in the recent past, according to Bishvil Hahayim (For Life), an association which aims to prevent suicides and to support families in which someone has taken his life. About the same number of people kill themselves in Israel every year as are killed in road accidents. But in contrast to campaigns to reduce traffic fatalities, the public discourse about suicide is muted.

Bishvil Hahayim's chairman is Eitan Goldberg, who established the support network in 2000 together with professionals and members of families who lost a loved one to suicide. Goldberg's daughter Galia took her life 16 years ago, at the age of 17. He entered group therapy and decided to institutionalize such activity.

"During the association's 10 years of activity, a significant change has occurred in the public awareness of suicide," Goldberg says. "We started with a few people and an environment in which families did not talk about suicide and the media did not address the subject. And then, for the first time, a group of people was formed that was ready to explain and to be interviewed.

"We had to overcome serious obstacles," he continues, citing "social stigmas, families that silence their members, fear of exposure and a sense of shame. Even today I am not immune to such feelings. One question Israelis typically ask is how many children you have and what they do. A week ago, someone at work asked me what my eldest daughter does. Not wishing to expose what happened, I told him she was a student. Afterward I castigated myself for that."

By 2010, 10 new support groups were operating as part of the association. "That's a record number," Goldberg says. "We have to compare it with the beginning, when there was barely any response, because it is difficult to cope with the grief and because people did not know where to turn."

Each group consists of up to 15 members who meet in the homes of the participants or in a building that the Herzliya Municipality has made available. Concurrently, in the wake of the activity, government ministries have begun to allocate budgets for a national suicide prevention program.

Galia, Goldberg's daughter, was suffering from anorexia when she took her life. "She had just started therapy at Schneider [a children's hospital]; we hadn't yet managed to do anything. Possibly she felt that the illness was taking control of her," he relates. "I was in utter shock. At first I felt like an archaeologist picking up small shards. Even today the questions and the oppressive guilt can drive you mad - every day you have to decide not to go off the deep end. At the heart of the matter the feelings are as intense as ever, but you learn, as with a serious injury, how to cope with a wound which will be with you forever."

Bishvil Hahayim's hotline is (03 ) 964-0222.