“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.
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About the Author
Jill Bialosky is Executive Editor at W.W. Norton. She has published three collections of poetry, including Intruder (Knopf 10/08) and two novels, most recently The Life Room (Harcourt 2007, Mariner 2008). She lives in New York City with her husband and son.
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
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for History of a Suicide includes an introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading and resources, and a Q&A with author Jill Bialosky. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
“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 went into the garage, climbed into her mother's car, turned on the ignition, and fell asleep.
Those are the simple facts, but the act of suicide is anything but simple. In a remarkable work of literary nonfiction, Bialosky re-creates with unsparing honesty her sister's inner life, and in so doing, opens a window on the nature of suicide itself—especially the impact 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 to Plath, History of a Suicide is a stunning and compassionate exploration of human frailty and strength that brings a crucial and all too rarely discussed subject out of the shadows.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. It took Jill Bialosky over ten years of thinking, researching and writing her memoir about her sister’s suicide before she published it. She cites feelings of shame, guilt and worries about exposing her personal life and her family’s as stumbling blocks in telling her story. How do shame and guilt prevent us from understanding suicide? Why do you think the experience of suicide is so difficult to talk about? What are the risks of keeping it in the closet?
2. A review in the Chronicle of Higher Education said about History of a Suicide: “This book, among the many fine books written about depression and suicide, feels fresh and fundamental. It makes essential reading, and not just for those struggling intimately with suicidal thoughts of their own or of an intimate, but also for bereavement groups, college students, health-care professionals, educators, guidance counselors, authors, parents, friends, and siblings. It has tremendous potential to reach—with its questions, its intertextuality, its personal urgency, its generosity—a wide spectrum of readers, perhaps most especially high-school and college students, readers who are the age that Kim was when she took her own life. It is also a book I'd like to put into everyone's hands.” How has reading History of a Suicide changed or altered your view of suicide? Do you think this book is useful for readers who haven’t experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide, and if so, why?
3. Often, there's a stigma associated with suicide. Why do you think we feel shame for actions taken by another person? How do you think that the author prevents the lingering sense of shame from coloring her memory of her sister? What other ways can you suggest?
4. Throughout History of a Suicide, Bialosky cites various works of literature. Why do you think she does so? What effect does it have on your understanding of her experience?
5. One of the writers Bialosky leans on heavily is Herman Melville, a man whose life was also touched by suicide. Bialosky writes, “Perhaps in writing the prophetic, meticulous novel of Ahab’s obsessive, diabolical quest for the white whale, Melville had hoped to crack open something of the mystery of his son’s or his own despair.” Do you agree that Ahab’s monomania is an apt metaphor for a suicide’s despair, or a survivor’s? Do you see that level of obsession in Kim’s life, or the author’s?
6. Library Journal wrote, “[Bialosky] delivers a sure sense of a 'beautiful girl' who took her own life at age 21. “Bialosky's depiction of her sister, Kim, is that of a vibrant young woman. How does she accomplish this? What's the effect of including Kim's own journal entries throughout History of a Suicide? Does Bialosky succeed in making Kim’s experience understandable? Writers of personal memoir hope that their story will illuminate for readers their own personal experiences. Has Bialosky succeeded in making her story universal? Are you able to see aspects of yourself or others in Bialosky’s rendering of Kim and Kim’s family?
7. Darin Strauss said, "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." What lessons did you learn from reading History of a Suicide? How can a book about suicide also be a book that teaches us how to live?
8. Bialosky's mantra is “The more I know, the more I can bear.” What do you think she means by this? Do you agree? Why or why not?
9. Several of Bialosky’s poems are incorporated in her memoir. How does her poetry help you better understand her subject? Why do you think Bialosky was driven to write about her sister in poetry as well as in memoir? Have you ever written about your own life?
10. Faith plays an important role in Bialosky’s life. She writes that she often finds herself going to synagogue to think about Kim. How does Bialosky’s faith help her cope with Kim’s death? Unlike the author, Kim was unsure of her faith. How do you think this affected her experience?
11. Near the end of the book, Dr. Shneidman identifies Kim’s father as the “villain” in Kim’s life. Did you agree when you read this statement? Do you think there are villains (and heroes) in your own life? Why do you think Bialosky included Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” in her discussion? Do you see parallels between the depictions of the speaker’s father in Plath’s poem and the way in which Kim’s father is portrayed?
12. In addition to her father, Kim’s boyfriend is an important man in Kim’s life. Are there parallels in her relationships with the two? How do you think growing up in a house full of women affected Kim’s relationships with men?
13. Of the group of suicide survivors, Bialosky writes, “Each time I leave group I tell myself I won’t be coming back, but then it’s the beginning of the month, the first Friday, and I find myself sitting in the stiff black chair, Kleenex bunched in my hand, comforted by being with strangers who share the same hollow ache.” What do you think it is about this experience that gives Bialosky relief? Have you been in a similar situation? What might be the value of attending a suicide survivor’s group, or any other kind of support group?
14. Motherhood is clearly an important part of Bialosky’s identity. Bialosky writes about the loss of her two babies, one of which occurred three months after Kim died and the subsequent birth of her son. Why do you think being a mother prompted her to write her memoir about Kim’s suicide? How has her sister’s suicide affected her role as a mother to her own son? Compare and contrast the roles of motherhood for the women in History of a Suicide. If you are a parent, has having a child made you reexamine your past?
15. Bialosky describes the search for a genetic link to suicide, and indeed Kim’s suicide may have had a genetic component, since the author’s mother also suffered from depression and there were other suicides in Kim’s family history. Would confirmation of a genetic link to suicide affect the way you think about those who commit or attempt to commit suicide? How? Do you think the roots of depression and suicidal tendencies are biological, environmental, psychological, sociological?
16. People struggling with depression, Bialosky writes, “do not have more problems with others, but they are less equipped to deal with them.” A friend of Bialosky’s, who also lost a sibling to suicide, compares the normal response to pain or depression to the automatic movement of your hand away from a hot kettle on the stove, and says that “for my brother the inner pain was so bad that instinctively he couldn’t protect himself.” Why do you think it is that one sibling can possess this instinctive sense of protection while another does not? Do you think Bialosky’s realization that some young people do not have the “equipment” to deal with pain led to her decision to write this book?
17. Entertainment Weekly said of History of a Suicide, “rarely has such a loss been rendered so poetically.” How do you think being a poet has contributed to Bialosky’s inquiry into her sister’s suicide?
18. In recent months there have been many “grief” memoirs published including Joyce Carol Oates’ Widow’s Story and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. What do you think it is about grief as a subject that draws so many different writers to it? Can you compare and contrast these works with History of a Suicide? What are the risks and rewards involved in writing about grief?
19. Bialosky writes, “I have struggled to make [Kim’s] lapse into darkness and the devastation of suicide understandable. Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know.” After reading History of a Suicide, do you feel you have a better understanding of suicide?
Suggestions for Further Reading
The Savage God by A. L. Alvarez
Suicide: A Study in Sociology by Emile Durkheim
Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath
The Suicidal Mind by Edwin S. Shneidman
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
A 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
A leading national not-for-profit organization dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy, and to reaching out to people with mental disorders and those impacted by suicide.
National Institute for Mental Health
A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services dedicated to the understanding and treatment of mental illness.
American Association of Suicidology
Founded by Dr. Edwin Schneidman, the goal of American Association of Suicidology is to understand and prevent suicide. Their website includes information for survivors of suicide.
A Conversation with Jill Bialosky
What is memoir?
The word derives from the French, mémoire and from the Latin, memoria meaning memory, or a reminiscence.
Why did you write a memoir?
I did not think of my book as a memoir when I was writing it. It defied categorization. I thought of it as giving life to the experience of my investigation. In that sense it was driven solely by the need to discover.
Do you believe in muses?
Yes. My sister, Kim was my muse for this book. The persistence of her memory guided me.
Were there other guides?
Yes, Melville was a guide. In Moby Dick Melville refers to “the ungraspable phantom of life,” which for me is a perfect metaphor for suicide.
Is all art driven by investigation? By the need to discover?
If it is going to maintain a sense of urgency, it must.
Will you write another memoir?
As I said, my book is not solely a memoir. I don’t mean to be coy. It is more than that. I write about my experience living with my sister’s suicide, and I also attempt to recreate her inner world. The book is also partially research driven. It is not only an account of what I have remembered. I am interested in writing another nonfiction work.
Why did you choose to write the book as nonfiction, rather than as a novel for instance?
I wanted to take down the veil that keeps suicide in a closet. If I wrote the book as fiction, I would still be hiding behind a veil. In a novel a reader might believe the “felt” emotion, but not necessarily the experience.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of publishing History of a Suicide?
I have taken satisfaction in hearing from readers who have been moved by it. I receive emails daily. The book is hitting a nerve. It doesn’t surprise me since suicide takes the lives of 30,000 people every year, if not more since many suicides are not disclosed. If 30,000 people commit suicide each year imagine all the lives that have been affected. I have heard from parents, siblings, friends and lovers who have lost people they care about to suicide. I have heard from readers who have been suicidal themselves or struggle with depression. I have heard from readers who are simply interested in reading about a subject that in one way or another impinges upon all of us. One of my favorite letters was from a twenty-year old college student. She wrote that after reading my book she realized that we are all more similar than we assume and that we share thoughts and struggles. That touched me.
Do you have any advice for readers who are grappling with the suicide of a loved one, or with thoughts of suicide themselves?
I posed the same question to Dr. Edwin Shneidman. My conversations with him about suicide and depression meant a lot to me. He said that if you think someone is suicidal, “dare to ask.” If someone is grappling with thoughts of suicide I would ask him or her to reach out to someone they trust and to seek professional help immediately. Help is available and people should not be ashamed about feeling the need for it. We live in a society where vulnerability and mental illness and emotional pain are frowned upon or not adequately understood. This needs to change. I also learned in writing this book that many people who thought they wanted to die discovered, once they received help, that they didn’t. This revelation should not be overlooked.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.