In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide

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In 1963, Nancy Rappaports mother committed suicide after a bitter divorce and custody battle. Nancy was four years old. As one of eleven children in a prominent Boston family, Nancy struggled to come to terms with the reasons why her mother took her own life. After years spent interviewing family and friends, Rappaport uncovers the story of a conflicted and troubled activist, socialite, and community leader. Drawing on court depositions, her mothers unpublished novel, newspapers, and her own experiences, she highlights heartbreaking stories of a complicated life that played out in the public eye. Inspiring, honest, and engaging, Rappaports story sheds light on the agonizing nature of loss and healing, and reveals the permeable boundaries between therapists and the patients they treat.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a fearless memoir of loss and grief, this Harvard Medical School assistant prof, veering between “being a detective and... a realist,” delves into a complex family history haunted by the 1963 death of her mother, a Boston socialite, from an overdose when the author was only four. Using her mother's words from newspaper clippings, notes and a novel she was writing at the time of her death, Rappaport, the youngest of six children, reconstructs a vivacious and deeply troubled wife and mother. “Didn't she know that she would leave all these shattered children wondering if it was their fault?” son Jerry laments 44 years later. Yet in pushing through her parents' turbulent marriage and troubled family history, Rappaport weaves a stunning narrative of perspective, profound sadness and unrelenting hope: “I keep trying to follow in her wake, moving in and out of my grief buoyed by the voyage of exploring her dark reality as a way of helping myself to understand her....” She has also mapped an inspiring course for anyone to dissect family dynamics and mental illness, hoping to understand and, finally, accept. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
A heartfelt but disorganized attempt to understand the untimely death of a parent. Rappaport (Psychiatry/Harvard Medical School) was just four years old when her mother-caught in a protracted child-custody battle-committed suicide. As a psychiatry professor, the author has spent her career piecing together other people's stories. But it was not until her father's new wife revealed a previously hidden trunk full of her mother's papers that Rappaport finally began to make sense of her own. At the time of her death, her mother was the daughter of a prominent Massachusetts family, newly in love, wealthy and politically ascendant. It therefore remained largely a mystery why the 34-year-old deliberately overdosed on sleeping pills. Using her notes, photographs, letters and drawings, as well as the draft of an unfinished novel her mother left behind, Rappaport attempts to not only understand the mother she barely knew, but also bring some peace to her still-grieving family. "I was the youngest in the family," she writes. "I'm the doctor. I wanted to help make it all better. Here, I would say, tell me where it hurts." Unfortunately, in her comprehensive approach to reconstructing her mother's life, the author floods the reader with details which-while likely invaluable to a child who never knew her mother-make for a scattered, tedious book. Rappaport's preoccupation with wringing a meaningful narrative out of each recorded interaction-including long exchanges with the judge in the custody case-results in a story that is far less interesting than the details would suggest. A dry, clinical examination of a family's profound loss. Agent: Elaine Markson/Elaine Markson Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465014507
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 9/1/2009
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy Rappaport is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and practices in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 25 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 26, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Brave Undertaking

    I've just finished reading In Her Wake. It was a hard topic matter to resist given the circumstances for this subject matter and it to be so close to home for the author. I am not old enough to remember these high profile couple. The subject was intriguing. Some people might find it too uncomfortable a subject.
    I am so glad I read it! I wasn't like I thought it would be,in fact I found this book to have multifaceted view points surrounding this unfortunate event. I was very absorbed as the author thinks, researches, questioned her mother's old friends,siblings,E.R. Dr., X-lover and mostly her own father about the details surrounding her mother's suicide. Someone might think by reading the title and the author being a psychiatrist her reason, not at all. I think it helped her in someway to get through the research and to learn something from it.

    A great book for a book club to discuss. I think someone would find it insightful and helpful. Anyone who suffers from depression and have had thoughts it (suicide) would certainly gain a different perspective on being on the other end of loss. High profile parents or not. It seemed irrelevant. The message of loss rings loud and clear!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 4, 2009

    A Book about Life, not Death

    In many ways, as much as the title of this memoir suggests tragedy and death, this book is about life. Life not only remains after such a tragedy, but it springs forth, more determined than ever. Dr. Rappaport, with a graceful and humble wit, tells us in an unabridged way about her experience with the loss of her mother. No stone is left unturned, no awkward moment or detail removed for polish. Its all there--the anger, the pain, the shame, the dissociation, and, finally, a profound understanding, where there initially seemed to be none. It is because of this honest approach that we really learn about the impact that suicide has on a family and the different ways of coping with it. While the reader may feel at times as if they have embraced a small part of the author's tragedy, they also get to take away with them a wonderful gift of resilience, offered up by a woman with remarkable courage. I salute you, Dr. Rappaport, for you have created such hope, such eternal optimism, and a respect for life, even after death.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2009

    Some thoughts on In Her Wake

    Rappaport's tale of self-discovery and reconciliation is both haunting and poetic. Her prose is gentle yet starkly honest, and her perseverance and spirit shines through. This book is not just for those in the psychology field - anyone can read and appreciate the message of strength and beauty in her writing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 13, 2009

    Inspirational - Powerfully Written - Fast Read

    Brilliantly written insightful account of the author's desire and determination to know and understand her mother. It was fascinating how she approached each family member and than wove them into her search for the truth. She eloquently nurtured the pain of her loss and found healing in the love that surrounds her through her many family members and her work as a psychiatrist. This is an inspiring book that reads very quickly and shows that with love one can persevere through life's trials and tribulations.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 9, 2009

    Outstanding piece of work!

    I am so inspired by the courage, determination and passion of the author to tell in her own words probably one of the most difficult "stories" of her lifetime: the suicide of her mother. But, most importantly, I am amazed to see how love, family unity and perseverance triumphs over tragedy, depression and unanswered questions. This is why this book is so amazing because Ms. Rappaport brilliantly takes us through a journey of emotions and lifelong lessons. If anyone, young or old has ever asked how to cope and overcome the feelings that come with loosing a loved one, this book is a must read. It is certainly a tough subject to digest, but, somehow through the countless clinical, psychological and everyday explanations written in this book, one will come to the realization that where there is love, there is hope, and that means a second chance to life. This is my "take away" from this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 4, 2009

    Great book - an excellent read, profound, thought-provoking

    In Her Wake is a terrific book - I highly recommend it.

    I had a hard time putting it down - and that says a lot! (Though I am a former high school English teacher, I often start books and if they don't grab me within 30 pages I have a hard time completing them.)

    In Her Wake grabbed me on multiple levels - the drama of the large and complex family, the author/narrator's search for all she could learn about her mother who committed suicide when the author was 4, the impact of divorce and custody battles on individuals and a family and a psychiatric look at suicide. It was a great mix of a personal narrative coupled with psychiatric facts and anecdotes from the child psychiatrist/author's experiences with kids and families.

    Though you might worry that a book that centers on a mother's suicide would be depressing, quite the opposite is true. In Her Wake is actually uplifting - demonstrating the power of family (in all of its forms) to recreate itself in support of its members, and the power of people to persevere and thrive through tough experiences. Rappaport does a great job of bringing you with her on her search for her mother, and the growth that that search allows for her and for others. It is a profoundly personal view into a family - and it leaves us all wiser and more understanding for having read it.


    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 1, 2009

    Historical, intellectual and Compassionate!

    On all three fronts: a family's tragic and heroic story, a history of a Boston era, a psychological primer on family dynamics- this book is a winner!
    Follow Nancy's journey through her childhood, adulthood, prfessional career and present family life to learn about what a mother's suicide does to a child, a family and what supports people need in times of personal challenges, traumas or mental health issues to sustain them.
    History, family lore and psychiatric theory is interwoven to both educate and inspire the reader to understand his/her own family and self in a deeper more cogent way.
    I recommend this book to everyone who has to journey through life's passages in any family!
    Helen Jacobson

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2009

    A Rich and Compelling Story, full of Lessons about the Complexity of Life.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book, initially purchased as a voyeur into the life of a woman who unexpectedly loses her mother, but as the story unfolds I found myself reflecting over and over again about my own life and comparisons into the myriad of my own relationships. As a man, I was initially drawn to the bond of mother and child, but also found the descriptions of spousal and sibling relationships enriching and in the end how the author's father manages during the challenging years and responds after her death raising their five children to be empowering. A wonderful story of the resilience of a woman and her family, and a memorable lesson that no matters what life deals you, there is verdant life filled with joy and possibility beyond. Jamie C.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 27, 2009


    Sadly I can relate. five stars thanks couldn't put it down .

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 27, 2009

    you have to get this right now

    If you want a book that is a wake up and take a look at your family and ask profound questions with no easy answers, this is a great read. You will not be able to put this down. Riveting.
    You will treasure this book

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2009

    A must read book for anyone with any family issues

    This is a riveting book that may help all of us confront our own family issues. It is a difficult process the author has taken but one that is very therapeutic for her and can be very eye opening for others out there who are afraid to confront their own issues.
    Could not put it down!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2009


    This book is truly a tour do force, drawing the reader in from the very first page - I had tremendous difficulty putting it down!! Dr. Rappaport has written a stunning narrative which deeply touched my heart. It is her journey to understand and make sense of her mother's suicide when she was 4 years old and it is one of the most moving and evocative memoirs that I have ever read. It deserves 10 stars!!

    I am struck by Dr. Rappaport's bravery and courage to unflinchingly articulate her story. She masterfully segues between chapters and sections in a way that makes the book and the narration so much more than a sum of its parts. I recommend this book with the highest enthusiasm.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2012

    Omg best book ever

    Its full of cliff hangers u should totally get it no joke dudes

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Must Read for Memoir readers

    I've read this book. I really liked this book. Why? Well, I found my thoughts and feelings changing chapter after chapter. I think it's an important topic and found multifaceted views one could learn or understand or relate to.One thing I found important (not discounting the author's experience) is how useful it can be for Mother's that are contemplating or have had thoughts of suicide. As a Mother myself I wouldn't want to leave my children motherless at any age. I know how I feel about my Mother.The chapter where she describes what the mixture might be was very interesting. Maybe a mother who suffers from depression and bouts of life's uncertainty's could use those thoughts in that chapter cognitively. I felt the author gained good insight. I don't think her Mother thought she'd actually die. I think that's part of that mixture. If she'd done it before and had been rescued. From her Mother's letter's it sounded like a mother who cared a great deal about her children. I also felt she fought for her children. It's hard for people who are always criticized by the public eye...I will just end to say it read like the author accomplished more that she probably intended.

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  • Posted August 9, 2011

    Beautifully written memoir

    Rappaport does a great job blending her own discovery of dealing with her mother's suicide and educating the reader on depression. I would have loved to have learned more about her mother as I am fascinated with the time period and high-society. This book provides a great understanding of depression, which is a very real and very common disease. It also walks through the different stages of grief for those suffering a loss of a loved one. I found this book to be very insightful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 4, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Her Mother's Suicide

    Review of In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide by Nancy Rappaport Nancy Rappaport was four years old when her mother committed suicide in 1963. The question anyone asks of someone who has taken his/her own life is "why?" Why would a mother of six take her own life? After years of not speaking about their mother's death, Nancy takes on the task of talking to her siblings to determine the answer to the question "why?" Nancy's children want to know about their deceased grandmother. A saga of generations of complexities evolves that reads like an unsolved mystery. What would make a mother who seemed to "have it all" kill herself? Nancy relies on interviews, articles, and photographs to discover the woman behind the self-destruction. Nancy reads between the lines of court documents and personal diaries to reveal decades of secrets, and she narrates the unfolding story like an emotionally charged archeology expedition. Nancy carefully constructs the story of a life, death, and the aftermath with continuity, clarity, and originality. This is a book well-written within the confines of tough subject matter, and without the full approval of her family members. Nancy unearths the conflicts within a prominent family, as well as the details of custody battles and financial settlements. She faces the differing perspectives and memories of her family members regarding the same events. These are challenges for anyone seeking the truth. It seems fitting that Nancy chose to be a child psychiatrist. She includes relevant cases in the book, weaving her past with their present, their personal with her profession. There is no cover of denial, and no evidence of self-pity. Her purpose must be to help others who have lost someone to face reality. In Her Wake is recommended to anyone trying to understand a variety of aspects of suicide. It's also recommended as an example of the work it takes to develop a sense of self in the wake of suicide.

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  • Posted January 11, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    This extraordinary book allows the human heart to heal by lifting a taboo of the centuries.

    With exquisite depth and courage, Nancy Rappaport opens the book on maternal suicide, enabling the next generation of readers to have vocabulary, sentences, yes... a whole new language to speak about what was once unspeakable. A brilliantly insightful tale told with heart-breaking honesty and warmth that reads like a detective novel.

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  • Posted December 29, 2009

    Excellent Read

    I could not put this book down. A true story that reads like a novel. I applaud Ms. Rappaport for her honesty and hard work in writing this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2009

    An Intelligent Memoir

    Rappaport made herself very vulnerable to the reader as she delved into the discovery of her lost mother's life. Her page-turning novel kept me intrigued as she put pieces of the puzzle together, and spoke about how her mother's public past and decisions affected Rappaport and her family's life today. I enjoyed the investigative aspect of In Her Wake, learned about a rarely discussed issue, and would recommend it to anyone.

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  • Posted December 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Work of Love

    A great, honest, insightful, book by Nancy Rappaport, a Child Psychiatrist in the Boston area.
    She lost her mother to suicide at age four, and searched to know who her mother was, and why this tragedy happened.
    She shares her insights about suicide and her discoveries along the way.
    From the tremendous labor and exactness of the book, the reader can feel the love she has for her mother, even though she barely remembers her.

    Anyone who has lost a loved one will identify with the longing to keep that person in our hearts.
    Nancy Rappaport is like a highly intelligent friend whose seeking helps us understand, whose love we relate to when we think and remember and discover new things about our own loved ones.

    Highly recommended.

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