A suicide in the family

Two gripping memoirs explore the guilt and confusion left behind when a relative kills himself.

By Laura Miller
Published October 7, 2008 10:30AM (EDT)

Suicide tends to run in families, which is another way of saying it runs through families, chalking up victims in one generation after another like a plague. Is it hereditary or communicable? Christopher Lukas, author of "Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival" and brother to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas (who killed himself in 1997), believes that his brother succumbed to a "legacy of self-destruction" composed of equal parts genetic propensity and formative trauma. The ur-tragedy of their shared childhood, however, was the suicide of their mother at the age of 33. She suffered from depressions so severe, and in an era so bereft of viable treatments, that her husband and mother considered having her lobotomized in the hope that it might save her life. Even Lukas' mother herself knew that she was "ill" rather than sad, that the cause of her despair was more organic than rational.

Joan Wickersham, the author of "The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order," can find plenty of reasons for her father's suicide in 1991. A series of business failures had put him in the humiliating position of passing on a sizable loss to an investor who also happened to be Joan's father-in-law. He knew he could expect little understanding from his ambitious wife, who was carrying on an absurd flirtation with a neighbor whose homosexuality was obvious to everyone but herself. He had never assimilated his own past, the bone-shattering beatings delivered by his father when he was a boy and the emotional inaccessibility of his mother, a dancer preoccupied with her work. Above all, he seemed unable to talk to anybody about any of this, stranding himself in an isolation that finally became unbearable. So, yes, he had his reasons. Yet Wickersham's father also told her that his grandfather had killed himself, and perhaps it was in the blood for him, too.

At her father's memorial service, Wickersham realized that "the question that would accompany my father from now on, asked by people who had known him and by people who hadn't, was going to be 'why'?" She had no satisfactory answer. She could tick off all those plausible explanations, "and add them all up, but I still wouldn't get the same answer my father had gotten when he'd done the same piece of math." When Tony Lukas' book "Big Trouble" was released after his death, some reviewers speculated that he'd been tormented by his inability to live up to his own impossibly high standards, and then marveled that a book so good -- and a career so celebrated -- had disappointed the man responsible for both. The recent news of David Foster Wallace's suicide similarly prompted Internet commenters to wonder how anyone that brilliant, talented and successful could find no reason to live. Might he have been driven to it, they speculated, by the bruising that the world inflicts on the exceptionally sensitive and creative? By the inanity of American culture? By the current presidential campaign?

Some of these explanations are sentimental, others are tendentious and all of them are nonsensical, but there, Wickersham finds as she gnaws her way down to the core of the matter, is the rub: Even the real reasons aren't really reasons, because they are simply unreasonable. The psychologist Richard A. Heckler, in his remarkable book "Waking Up Alive," writes of a "suicidal trance" that gradually takes over the mind of the sufferer. "Waking Up Alive" is based on intensive interviews with people who survived in-earnest suicide attempts, and who eventually recovered their desire to live. Even they have difficulty describing why they did it, though they were able to tell Heckler how they came to the point of no return. In a suicidal trance, the sufferer reaches "a state of mind and body that receives only the kind of input that reinforces the pain and corroborates the person's conviction that the only way out is through death. The trance marks the moment at which the world becomes devoid of all possibilities except one."

Wallace's suicide also brought out the ranters and the gauntlet flingers, hardly scarce in Web discussions to begin with, but even more bizarrely inappropriate than usual in proclaiming their anger and contempt for a dead stranger. Chances are, their venom is the overflow from lives that have been scarred by other suicides. It's surprisingly common; people who murder themselves outnumber those who murder other people by 2 to 1. Wickersham remembers confiding to a friend (whose father also shot himself) that she didn't want to tell her son how his grandfather died because she was afraid that he might "just take for granted that it's part of the normal range of human actions." "It is," her friend replies. And so is judging it. Wickersham's own father denounced suicide as wrong, explaining to her that "you can't throw away your life no matter how hard it gets."

The pervasive subtext, what could almost be called the aroma of these two very different memoirs, is rage. "Suicide," Wickersham writes, "isn't just a death, it's an accusation. It's a violent, public declaration of loneliness. It's a repudiation of connection. It says, 'You weren't enough to keep me here.' It sets up unresolvable dilemmas of culpability and fault: Were we to blame for being insufficient, or was he to blame for finding us so? Someone had been weighed and found wanting, but who?"

Wickersham, the top-drawer writer in the pair, expresses little anger toward her father; she feels that she's the only one left who's on his side. But she is terrible in her loyalty to him; as she recounts the various instances in which his fragile dignity was wounded during his life, you cringe, in turn, for her mother, her in-laws, her father's business partner, her father's parents, and so on, when she trains her pitiless eye on one after the other.

Where "The Suicide Index" is careful, honed and frequently harrowing, "Blue Genes" is scattered, its prose slapdash and awkward in a fashion suggesting that it was dictated rather than written. Lukas, a television producer, has published other books, mostly how-to manuals, so perhaps the searching, unresolved, self-questioning tone required in this sort of memoir doesn't come easily to him. His observations have the slightly canned quality of therapeutic "insights" ("I had always hidden my deep fears of Dad from Dad: my belief that he was powerful enough to deprive me of Mother") and there's much talk of psychoanalysis and fears of abandonment. Still, the flavor of the Lukas family seeps in through all the cracks, and it bears a certain resemblance to that of the Wickershams: resentment, disappointment, reproach and the nursing of ancient grudges.

All families produce some of these feelings, and perhaps it's only the catastrophe of suicide that makes any given family seem defined by them. Nevertheless, certain motifs persist in both books. Wickersham's paternal uncle, Kurt, a relative she barely knows, arrives at her father's funeral. At first she cherishes him because he looks and sounds like her father; yet, unlike her father, he is willing to talk about emotions and about the past. Too willing, maybe. He's an actor and the type of person who prides himself on confronting the painful truths that others sweep under the carpet. Kurt presents his honesty as an antidote to his brother's stoicism, and he has a point; after all, he is still alive. "He thought he could change deep feelings, erase old injuries, just by deciding: Enough already," he tells Joan of her father. Without Kurt, she wouldn't have known about the regular abuse that her father endured as a child, and she'd be shy one more piece of the puzzle she can never quite solve anyway. Yet her uncle's vaunted openness hasn't freed him from the family habit of collecting slights. Peeved that he wasn't telephoned immediately with the news, Kurt is overheard by Joan as he moves through the wake "talking to different people, asking them what time yesterday they had been notified of my father's death."

Christopher "Kit" Lukas seems cast in much the same role in his family: the theatrical, expressive one in a pair of brothers and the "perennial survivor." He can point to a good marriage, a good therapist and a stronger "disposition" as factors that saved him from the self-inflicted carnage that plagues his clan. And he has been lucky, as he freely admits. Yet "Blue Genes" often reads like a catalog of the harms and rebuffs he has suffered in the course of his life, all of which remain somehow fresher than the blessings. His mother "abandoned" him by killing herself; his father deserted the boys by sending them off to a boarding school while he was in a tuberculosis sanatorium; Tony, who was older, often refused to play with him; his grandmother, with whom the boys lived when their father couldn't afford to keep them himself, was too controlling; his own achievements were overshadowed by Tony's. And it's clear from his account that everyone in his immediate family felt this way about something. The father felt he was unrespected and unloved; the grandmother felt she was resented; Tony could never never win enough professional accolades and envied Kit his wife and children. Whatever went wrong, whatever was lacking, was perceived as a deliberate slap in the face by an ungenerous world.

If suicide is, as Wickersham puts it, an accusation, then in these two cases, at least, it is only the largest and most virulent blossom in a whole garden of accusations. The distinction is that the suicide blames, above everyone else, himself. If you had the chance to scold him about the havoc his actions will wreak on his loved ones, he'd only assure you that, after an initial sadness, they'll be much better off without them. He could not agree more with those who call him cowardly and selfish and worthless; he just doesn't regard the suicide itself as a manifestation of those flaws.

The brutal and ruinous clinical depression that brings a person to the brink of self-murder may well be the fundamental organic condition required by the act, the gunpowder that makes up the bulk of the bomb. But there is often a fuse, as well; not every depressed person kills himself. The fuse would be the delusion that human responsibility lies behind every misery, the conviction that each suffering must have an author, that somebody must be to blame. The best advice on how to smash this aspect in the cycle of suicide probably came from the Italian writer Cesare Pavese, who left behind a brief note on the first page of one of his books before killing himself at the age of 42: "I forgive all, and to you all I ask for me is forgiveness."

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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