The Washington Post
History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Lifeby Jill Bialosky
“It is so nice to be happy. It always gives me a good feeling to see other people/i>/i>
From acclaimed poet and novelist Jill Bialosky, the New York Times bestselling exploration of her sister’s suicide and the lifelong impact it had on those left behind—“a beautifully composed, deeply reflective work” (Publishers Weekly).
“It is so nice to be happy. It always gives me a good feeling to see other people happy…It is so easy to achieve.” —Kim’s journal entry, May 3, 1988
On the night of April 15, 1990, Jill Bialosky’s twenty-one-year-old sister Kim came home from a bar in downtown Cleveland. She argued with her boyfriend on the phone. Then she took her mother’s car keys, went into the garage, closed the garage door. She climbed into the car, turned on the ignition, and fell asleep. Her body was found the next morning by the neighborhood boy her mother hired to cut the grass.
Those are the simple facts, but the act of suicide is anything but simple. For twenty years, Bialosky has lived with the grief, guilt, questions, and confusion unleashed by Kim’s suicide. Now, in a remarkable work of literary nonfiction, she re-creates with unsparing honesty her sister’s inner life, the events and emotions that led her to take her life on this particular night. In doing so, she opens a window on the nature of suicide itself, our own reactions and responses to it—especially the impact a suicide has on those who remain behind.
Combining Kim’s diaries with family history and memoir, drawing on the works of doctors and psychologists as well as writers from Melville and Dickinson to Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens, Bialosky gives us a stunning exploration of human fragility and strength. She juxtaposes the story of Kim’s death with the challenges of becoming a mother and her own exuberant experience of raising a son. This is a book that explores all aspects of our familial relationships—between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters—but particularly the tender and enduring bonds between sisters.
History of a Suicide brings a crucial and all too rarely discussed subject out of the shadows, and in doing so gives readers the courage to face their own losses, no matter what those may be. This searing and compassionate work reminds us of the preciousness of life and of the ways in which those we love are inextricably bound to us.
The Washington Post
—Washington Post Book World
“A searing elegy…this memoir reads like butter and cuts like a knife.”
—People (4 star review)
"A tender, absorbing, and deeply moving memoir...[Bialosky] writes so gracefully and bravely that what you're left with in the end is an overwhelming sense of love."
“Extraordinarily useful...a source of solace and understanding…. [Bialosky’s] hand is always skillful, as attentive to the rhythms of storytelling as to conveying emotion.”
“A profound and lyrical investigation…Bialosky writes sensitively and beautifully.”
—New York Magazine
“Brave and beautifully crafted.”
—The Daily Beast
"An extraordinarily valiant and resonant testimony to the healing powers of truth and empathy.”
“A beautifully composed, deeply reflective work.”
“In quietly piercing language, [Bialosky] delivers a sure sense of a 'beautiful girl' who took her own life at age 21 and of what it means to grieve such a death, burdened with an awful sense of responsibility that can’t easily be shared with others.”
“This is the kind of book that can teach us—all of us—about what it means to be a thinking, feeling human being. A book, in other words, that will teach you how to live.”
—Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life
“The plain language of Bialosky’s title reflects this book’s quiet, intimate and profoundly understated art: a clear medium penetrating into the wounded and wounding mystery of her subject.”
—Robert Pinsky, former United States Poet Laureate
“That rare book that is so articulate and stunningly close to the bone that one holds one’s breath while reading it. . . . Written with a poet’s eye and a novelist’s gift, History of a Suicide is remarkable for its author’s bravery, candor and ability to tolerate the intolerable.”
—A.M. Homes, author of This Book Will Save Your Life
“Jill Bialosky has written an extraordinary book, which brings her sister Kim to life and also serves as a practical road map to understanding why life can become unbearable for someone who seems extravagantly gifted. Readers will find solace and clarity in this wonderful book.”
—Susan Cheever, author of Home Before Dark
“Beautiful and incredibly brave. . . . Jill Bialosky has stared straight into the white hot heart of something very-nearly unspeakable and in doing so, has illuminated it—both for herself, and for ourselves. I can’t tell you how many times I caught my breath, how many times I cried.”
—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
“Jill Bialosky is such a fearless and clear-eyed and compassionate writer that although we know from the start how the story she tells will turn out, we cannot stop reading. By bringing her sister so vividly to life on these pages, she performs a great service. As much as anything else I've read, this book dispels the comforting and pernicious myth by which we keep the subject at a distance: that suicide happens only in other people’s families.”
—George Howe Colt, author of November of the Soul
“Like a match in the darkness, Jill Bialosky’s stirring memoir sheds light on a fathomless mystery. This intimate, brave book is a testament to the redeeming power of love, memory, and art.”
—Melanie Thernstrom, author of The Pain Chronicles
“Could things have been different? That is the inevitable, haunting question after a suicide. It can never be answered, only explored; and Jill Bialosky explores it with intelligence, integrity, a poet’s sensitivity, and a sister’s enduring love.”
—Joan Wickersham, author of The Suicide Index
“Better than anything on the shelf on the subject today, this powerful, honest, deeply personal testimony opens a conversation that is long overdue and restores the loving remembrance of those dead by their own hand to the place it deserves among the living. It honors a darling sister’s struggle and her memory at the same time it bears witness to the odyssey of grief Bialosky and her family endured. This willingness to play in the deep end of the existential pool is so rare a gift: that Bialosky juxtaposes the chronicle of Kim’s death with the challenges of becoming a mother is the stuff of metaphor and narrative we more often find in poetry. It is brave, ambitious and entirely accomplished.”
—Thomas Lynch, National Book Award finalist and author of The Undertaking
“By turns a mystery story, a psychological profile, a memoir, a literary and social critique, Bialosky writes about despair with such elegance and perspicacity that the reader, paradoxically, is returned to hope, page after gleaming page.”
—Lauren Slater, author of Prozac Diary
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Read an Excerpt
WHEN I GO TO SLEEP
These are the bare facts. On the night of April 15, into the early morning hours of April 16, 1990, Kim went out to a bar in downtown Cleveland with a few girlfriends. She was fighting with the boyfriend she had been with since she was seventeen. In her mind, he had taken on vast importance. She came home—it must have been after midnight. She parked her car, a blue Hyundai she had bought with her own money, in the driveway behind the garage. She was attached to her car. It was the first car she owned and she was proud that she managed to keep up the payments from the tips she made waitressing at a delicatessen called Jack’s. My mother was upstairs in her bedroom. I imagine she was watching television. A chronic insomniac, she used to watch television until the early hours of the morning.
Kim called her boyfriend shortly after she got home. Her best friend told me that Kim had learned he was seeing another girl. Perhaps they fought some more. (Once he’d punched her lights out and she’d ended up in the hospital. Kim broke up and got back together with him many times.) She called and told him she was going to a place far away. He told us he thought she was trying to threaten him. He thought, by “far away,” that she meant she was leaving Cleveland. Dumb fuck, I wanted to say, after he told us this, when he came to my mother’s house dressed uncomfortably in a white-collared shirt and suede blazer to pay his respects. Dark hair pushed back, face white and shattered. I wanted to kick him, but instead, because he was suffering, I opened my arms and hugged him. He took his own life five years later.
Kim must have written the note she left on the kitchen counter, taken my mother’s keys from the counter of the built-in bookcases in the living room, left the house, opened the garage door where my mother’s white Saab was parked, closed the garage door, and opened the car door. She turned on the ignition and fell asleep inside.
Here is a poem she wrote that was published in the February 1977 issue of the Sussex Scoop, her grade-school publication. She was eight years old.
When I go to sleep
I kiss my mother
I take my sheep
And tell my brother.
The cause of death was asphyxiation. The next morning, the young neighborhood boy who mowed my mother’s lawn heard the car running, exhaust fumes coming out from beneath the bottom of the garage door. I didn’t even know what Kim was wearing. I asked my mother, but no one could remember. My mother was awakened around noon that day by two police officers who broke into the house, came upstairs, and stood in front of her bed. She had taken tranquilizers that night in order to sleep.
Not long before she died, Kim worried about her black and white cat, Gretel, whom she had owned for twelve years and who was very sick. Kim had named her cat after the girl in the fairy tale, the story of the lost girl and boy whose parents abandoned them in the forest and who, afraid they would not find their way back, left a trail of bread crumbs in their wake. Here is a poem Kim wrote about Gretel when she was a child.
My Cat Gretel
Gretel was walking down the walk when
I shouted duck Gretel!. AND HE DID.
The reason I told him to duck was
a mean old man named Mr. Simms was trying
to shoot Gretel. Mr. Simms is 82 years old.
AFTER that I took Gretel to the soda shop
and got him a double catnip soda.
While we were there I told gretel the reason
Mr. Simms tried to shoot him was that Gretel
killed his mouse by mistake. But I do not
blame gretel either. After the soda shop
we went and played going to a dance.
THEN we saw Mr. Simms and he said I am very
sorry Kids Gretel had all ready ran and hid.
I said Gretel you can come out now.
Gretel stayed very close to me he did not trust
Mr. Simms. Just to make sure I said I would
call the police. He walked away.
We went home and ate dinner. I had a bowl of
chicken soap and gretel had some cat nip stew.
Then we went to bed.
The next morning Gretel and me went to school.
On the way home a boy pulled Gretels tail
I siad thats not nice. He siad yes it is.
We ignored him, and went home.
Then we went to bed.
She had read that when cats die they go off to a secret hiding place and die alone. She thought this was so sad that every time she got home she looked for Gretel, believing that if the cat was in her sight, then she wouldn’t die. A month after Kim killed herself, my mother found Gretel curled up dead in the closet in Kim’s room.
© 2011 Jill Bialosky
Meet the Author
Jill Bialosky has published three collections of poetry, including Intruder, and two novels, most recently The Life Room. She is an executive editor at Norton and lives in New York City with her husband and son.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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History of a Suicide: my sister's unfinished life by Jill Bialosky is a compassionate yet discomforting memoir. Bialosky seeks to solve the mystery of her sister's suicide so that she can move through the endless grief. But there is no solution, other than to consider that Jill's sister, Kim, found her life unbearable. The result for the reader is a sad but satisfying examination for those who mourn a friend or family member's self-annihilation. Bialosky says that, "Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know. That is the reason I am writing this book." Within the family unit, there is death (of Jill's biological father); depression (Jill and Kim's mother) and abandonment (by Kim's biological father). Kim unwittingly recreates this destructive foundation in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend (who killed himself five years after Kim's suicide). Jill deals with unbearable losses related to having children. This is only a brief summary of a discomforting family history. The scope of Bialosky's work on this memoir is extensive. The author even consults with Dr. Edwin Shneidman, who wrote The Suicidal Mind, for a psychological autopsy on Kim. Bialosky also summarizes studies so the readers don't have to, and there's information we might not otherwise learn: "...the rate of suicide was twice as high in families of suicide victims as in comparison families." Throughout the book, Bialosky weaves research with literature, inserting poetry and prose to compliment the narrative. For example, Bialosky uses the metaphorical concepts of Melville's Moby Dick in the midst of her memoir. The style worked to help her understand the act of suicide, and that is of utmost importance. The variety of writing methods serves to reach a multitude of readers: What does not communicate well with one reader may be the catalyst for insight for another reader. As the author of a book about suicide in the family, and my own suicide attempts, I found History of a Suicide compelling and courageous. It is a labor of love to dig so deep to try to come to grips with the finality of suicide.
I have never known someone who committed suicide, but I was drawn to it by the idea of learning more about how to deal with sudden death and the unresolved issues of that death. This book truly helped me. It did. For anybody challenged by that hurt, guilt or anger, I'd also recommend "When God Stopped Keeping Score," look it up here on BN and you'll understand why that is my favorite book of all time.
I related to so many parts of this book on so many different levels. From struggling with my own depression over the years, to the struggles of many I have loved, I learned so much. The author does a wonderful job of telling her sister's story, as well as her own. It is respectful and written with taste. I highly recommend it for anyone suffering from depression, or for anyone who loves someone suffering. It will open your eyes and heart.
This was a phenomenal book. The writing superb. I loved that the story didn't just focus on her sister's death. The depth of grief at the loss of her sister, even after 20 years, is one I can relate too, having lost a sibling to cancer. Loved this book.
This is an amazing interpretation of the meaning of life and value in it. Her writing is very fluid and interesting, keeps you captivated and makes you think about your own life and its ups and downs.
Good read although the story skips around a lot. Useful information for anyone who is faced with suicide of a loved one.
if you have ever lost someone to suicide, you will relate to this book. brought me back to my own past snd how i dealt. good read!
I too, have suffered the loss of a sibling to suicide. Much of this book I could relate to. Although mine was a brother, the age difference, family circumstances, means of death, etc. were very similiar. I lost my father at the age of 5 and my mother remarried and had my brother. My step-dad was a no-show and pretty much out of the picture. Although it has been 27 years, this book gave me comfort and answered some very important questions, one of them being "could I have changed anything?" Everyday I still think of him, but I have to believe his pain was just too much to bear. As the book states, he didn't want to die, he just didn't want the pain any longer. I've gotten so much comfort from this book and I highly recommend it to everyone. It is a very sad situation, but suicide impacts almost everyone's life at some point whether it be with their own family or friends.
This is a true story and based on the research and diary journals the author, Jill Bialosky, has compiled together. In doing this, she hopes to have a better understanding to the events that led to the suicide of her younger sister, Kim. Most of all, it is an opportunity to bring closure from her sister's death that was not only untimely, but unexpected. This story weaves diary entries, along with police records, interviews of family and friends, and Jill's personal recollections of her sister's life. This book is by no means a "how to" book, rather it sheds light into the impact suicide has to survivor's. The series of losses both sisters experience is tragic and shows how differently they both coped. Not minimizing Kim's life story, Jill Bialosky shares her own struggles and bouts of depression. This also is a way for Jill to not only honor her sister through telling her story, but it also shows that despite the finality of death, the soul and spirit live. It is a book I would recommend to those working with suicidal clients and families, as well as those affected by suicide. This is also a great book for those who love memoirs. While this book does deal with serious subject mater, there are moments where both sisters experienced some great memories.
For anyone who has experienced someone's death (by suicide or natural); contemplating or knows someone who has committed suicide this book is for you. Jill's book does not just touch the surface of suicide; it explores deeply the subject and also makes one think of the aftermath of death in general for the people who are left. Couldn't put it down.