The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order

The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order

by Joan Wickersham

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156033800
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/23/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 381,641
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Joan Wickersham is the author of four books, including The Suicide Index, a National Book Award finalist. Her fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has published essays and reviews in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune, and she has contributed on-air essays to National Public Radio. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo.

Read an Excerpt


act of

attempt to imagine

in the airport, coming home from vacation, he stops at a kiosk and buys grapefruits, which he arranges to have sent to his daughters. They will stumble over the crates waiting on their porches, when they get home from his funeral.

It’s the last week of his life. Does he know that? At some point, yes. 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? Perhaps he’s done this much before, once or many times: held the gun, loaded the gun. But then stopped himself: no. When does he know that this time he will not stop?

What about the gun?

Has it been an itch, a temptation, the hidden chocolates in the bureau drawer? Did he think about it daily, did it draw him, did he have to resist it?

Perhaps the thought of it has been comforting: Well, remember, I can always do that.

Or maybe he didn’t think about the gun and how it might be used. There was just that long deep misery. An occasional flicker (I want to stop everything), always instantly snuffed out (Too difficult, how would I do it, even the question exhausts me). And then one day the flicker caught fire, burned brightly for a moment, just long enough to see by (Oh, yes, the gun. The old gun on the closet shelf with the sweaters). He didn’t do it that day. He put away the thought. He didn’t even take the gun down, look at it, hold it in his hands. That would imply he was thinking of actually doing it, and he would never actually do such a thing.

Some days the gun sings to him. Other days, more often, he doesn’t hear it. Maybe, on those stronger days, he has considered getting rid of it. Take it to a gun shop, turn it in to the police. But then someone else would know he has a gun, and it’s no one else’s business. He hasn’t wanted to deal with their questions: Where did you get it? How long have you had it? Besides, how long has he had it? Twenty years? Twenty-five? And never fired it in all that time? So where’s the danger? What’s the harm in keeping it around, letting it sleep there among the sweaters? He doesn’t even know where the bullets are, for God’s sake. (But immediately, involuntarily, he does know: he knows exactly which corner of which drawer.)

We have to watch him from the outside. He leaves no clues, his whole life is a clue. What is he thinking when he gets up that last morning, showers, and dresses for work? He puts on a blue-and-white striped cotton shirt, a pair of brown corduroys, heavy brown shoes. A tan cashmere sweater. He has joked to his older daughter that all the clothes he buys these days are the color of sawdust. Might as well be, he said, they end up covered in the stuff anyhow, in the machinery business. So he has shaved, patted on aftershave, and climbed into his dun-colored clothes. He’s gone to his dresser and loaded his pockets: change, wallet, keys, handkerchief. Maybe he thinks he’s going to work. Or maybe he knows, hopes, that in forty-five minutes he’ll be dead. It’s Friday morning. He’s just doing what he does every morning, getting ready.

He may be thinking about it on the walk down the long driveway to get the newspaper. The cold dry air gripping the sides of his head, the ice cracking under his feet as he tramps along this driveway he can no longer quite afford. It is a dirt road, unpaved; in this town, as his wife is always pointing out, dirt roads have more cachet than fancy landscaped driveways. A dirt road means you are private and acting to protect your privacy. Your house cannot be seen from the road. Your real friends, that delightful, sparkling, select bunch, will know you’re in there, hidden in the woods, and they will know your dirt road’s ruts and bumps by heart.

Is there something in the newspaper? The front page is the only one in question, since he leaves the paper on the kitchen table folded and unread. More bombings. All this week he’s been sitting in front of the television in the evenings, staring at the news. Silent films of Baghdad buildings, fine white-lined crosses zigzagging dizzily over their facades, zooming in and centering. Then a long moment, just that white cross holding steady; and then the building falls down, no sound, no smoke or flash of light, just caves in. And that’s it. The screen goes blank; the camera doesn’t wait around to gloat. Then another building, another filmed implosion: we’re getting all these places, relentlessly. We’re hunting them down and getting them.

What has he been thinking about this week, watching these films over and over? The silent buildings that simply implode.

The front page of the paper is full of the war. But nothing else that’s major. No market crash. Nothing that would lead, directly or indirectly, to his losing more than he has already lost, which is virtually everything.

Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s what he is thinking, not just on this last morning but all the time: you’ve lost everything, not at a single blow but gradually, over years, a small hole in a sandbag. You see the hole clearly but you have no way to fix it. No one but you has been aware of that thin, sawdust-colored stream of sand escaping, but now enough sand has leaked that the shape of the bag is changing, it’s collapsing. It will be noticed. You will be caught. And then, and then—you don’t know what. You want not to be here when that happens.

He makes the pot of regular coffee for his wife, fills a cup, carries it upstairs to her bedside table. The fact that he doesn’t make his own usual pot of decaf might mean that he’s already decided—or it might mean that he generally makes that second pot when he comes downstairs again. And this morning, he doesn’t go downstairs again. He stands at his wife’s side of the bed and looks at her, sleeping. He looks at her for a long time.

Or maybe he doesn’t look. Maybe he puts down the saucer and goes for the gun and is out of the room before the coffee stops quivering in the cup.

Copyright © 2008 by Joan Wickersham

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Table of Contents



act of

attempt to imagine, 1–4

bare-bones account, 5–6

immediate aftermath, 7–34

anger about, 35

attitude toward

his, 36–42

mine, 43

belief that change of scene might unlock emotion concerning, 44–47

day after

brother’s appearance, 48–53

concern that he will be viewed differently now, 54–55

"little room" discussion with his business partner, 56–58

search warrant, 59–60

speculation relating to bulge, 61–66

deviation from chronological narrative of, 67–71

factors that may have had direct or indirect bearing on

expensive good time, 72–87


factors that may have had direct or indirect bearing on (cont.)

pots of money, 88–102

uneasy problem of blame, 103–104

finding some humor in

ashes, 105

Valentine’s Day, 106

glimpses of his character relevant to, 107–115

information from his brother sparked by, 116–123

intrafamilial relationships reexamined in light of

Munich, 124–138

my grandmother, 139–151

items found in my husband’s closet and, 152–156

life summarized in an attempt to illuminate, 157–195

numbness and

Bullwinkle, 196–198

chicken pox, 199–200

duration, 201

food, 202–203

husband, 204–206

psychiatric response, 207–211

various reprieves, 212–213

opposing versions of, 214–215

other people’s stories concerning, 216–223

other shoe and, 224–228

Suicide: (cont.)

philosophical conundrums stemming from

first, 229

second, 230

possible ways to talk to a child about

family tree, 231–233

full disclosure, 234–235

not yet, 236–237

rational approach, 238–242

weapons god, 243–246

psychiatry as an indirect means of addressing, 247–255

psychological impact of, 256–273

readings in the literature of, 274–277

romances of mother in years following, 278–296

"things" folder and, 297–301

thoughts on method of, 302–304

where I am now, 305–316

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Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Memoirist Joan Wickersham gives us a gift by including us in her effort to sort out the heartbreaking tangle left by her father's suicide. I loved the index format of the book, and found myself frozen at times by situations similar to some in my life 'which, I think will happen for everyone who reads the book'. Her seemingly fearless honesty about her thoughts and feelings around her father's death and how it changed her perspective on everything is infused with humor that perfectly hit my funny bone time and time again. Joan Wickersham has somehow managed to make a book about suicide a joy to read. A joy because she doesn't simply focus on the horror and pain of it, but also on the love, acceptance, and endurance of her spirit. I could not put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
By reading this book I found comfort in knowing that I was not alone in some of my crazy thoughts. After my father committed suicide in the same way, I desperately wanted to find a book that just didn't say "its not your fault". This book was more helpful than any "self help" book I could find. I encouraged my husband to read it as well, and he found it insightful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Joan's way of trying to come to gripes with her father's suicide and the way she tells her story is engaging, sincere and and heart-griping. She helps those of us who have gone through her same experience feel less alone and still helps those who have not lost a love one through suicide understand the utter feeling of despair families feel. Her story is all too familiar to all of us who have dealt with a family member taking their own life. This is a must read for anyone who has lost a family member or friend through suicide!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's an amazing book with bold and sincere feelings, which came out unrealisticaly beautiful. I love this book.
TimBazzett on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I'm not sure I have ever read a book so nearly unrelievedly grim as The Suicide Index. While there are flashes of humor here and there - of the gallows variety - the tone of this memoir is, for the most part, pretty sobering, sad and, most of all, I think, angry. The anger is directed at, in nearly equal parts, the author's father, who did the ghastly deed, and her mother, who may well have been at least partly responsible for her husband's poor career decisions, most certainly for their hopeless financial plight, and probably for his obvious feelings of inadequacy and despair. In any case, I can understand why the book was a finalist for the National Book Award. The writing is beautiful and conveys in both heartbreakingly personal and coldly objective terms the ever-widening ripples and repercussions of this oh-so desperate and final act. In that respect, it is an admirably professional piece of work. Even so, this book-long meditaion of self-murder could hardly be called a pleasant read, and not a book I could heartily recommend. It was, in my experience, one excruciatingly long wince. I can't even begin to imagine how painful it must have been for Wickersham to write it. Cathartic, I'm sure, but it also had to hurt like hell.
tara35 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
In 1991 Joan Wickersham's father committed suicide. In 2008 her memoir, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order, was published. Wickersham uses The Sucide Index as a way to try to make sense of her father's death. For this reason, she chooses to write this book in an unique way, in that of an index. I was a bit skeptical but found that this 'index' really works because it represents the struggle that Wickersham went through to make sense of these events in her life. All of these stories and observations make up Wickersham's realizations, but not necessarily in a sequential way.What I enjoyed most about The Suicide Index is Wickersham's honesty. This could not have been an easy story to tell for her or for her family. Wickersham's mother, while often charming and funny, receives the most harsh treatment, as we learn how she treated her husband, before and after his death. Wickersham cannot help wondering if her mother's desire for a more extravagant life, her self-absorbed nature, her friendship with another man, helped lead to her husband's final act. What about his business dealings, the money he owed, how did this contribute? And why now? Her father had seen hard times in the past, grew up with an abusive parent, was it one event or a series of life's disappointments that pushed him over the edge? And how does this bode for Wickersham - is she or her children at risk of suicidal tendencies, too? Wickersham considers all these facts, as she attempts to find answers, and figure out who was this man she thought she knew. Her father is not only gone and unable to provide any answers, but is also considered and classified as 'a suicide'.I probably wouldn't have read this book had it not been offered to me for review, but I'm glad I did as it is quite moving and Wickersham is a gifted writer. I haven't experienced suicide in my own family, but as Wickersham finds, many people have who seem to find some healing in sharing their stories. While those affected by suicide will especially find much to identify with in this book, this is also a story of a father and daughter, a mother and daughter, and we can all identify with that.
doxtator on LibraryThing 5 months ago
It is the style of the narrative that makes this book so powerful, especially given the topic that it centers around--the author's father's suicide. The book stretches forwards and backwards in time, developing topics and letting others drift away. In many ways, it is an uncomfortable book to read--you wish you could see the individuals to better take a gauge of them, and yet, the book conveys them deeply, through brief, graceful strokes. It is not a book with answers. It has more dead-ends than anything else when it turns to coming to terms with the father's action, and the reader is given a sense of the long journey that all survivors must harrow through afterwards. The index format works well for this topic, allowing different aspects of what happened to be dealt with, even if no concrete resolution is ever reached for the author.
maritimer on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Can a narrative thread be imposed on someone else's life? Does the narrative that we inhabit bear much resemblance to any plausible reality? Are we ultimately limited in our attempts to understand others to discrete, disconnected, and opaque 'entries'? While the central point of reference in this book is Joan Wickersham's father's suicide, these are the questions that surface and resurface throughout. "Aren't lives apples and stories oranges?", asks the author. The literary conceit of the title, the 'index', is all that Wickersham is left with after many years of trying other ways to salvage some kind of narrative meaning from her father's life. Fictionalizing it does not work - the one chapter where she imagines her father's thoughts as he is reunited with his father after many years, is unconvincing. After so much insistence on how little she ultimately understands about her father, the artifice and inauthenticity of the fictionalized encounter cannot help but jump out at the reader. And yet we readers 'fall' for fiction and memoir all the time, we embrace the literary narratives that match the way we frame our own lives. We 'read' our own lives linearly from page one. We assume that we can 'read' other lives in the same way, but a suicide calls this into question. As Joan Wickersham does, we find ourselves working backwards from the index, trying to imagine others' intentions and creating an understandable story from it. One of the admirable aspects of this book is also one of the most off-putting: Wickersham's writerly, critical detachment is on full display as she works her way through the aftermath of the suicide. We do not usually see a novelist wrestling with options for how to best create or recreate action, character, or dialogue - we just see the result. In this book though, we see inside the writing. We see her bravely but unsuccessfully struggling to somehow reach a literary resolution. When that diligence is brought to such an intimate arena, it can seem cold at times, and the reader feels like an uncomfortable intruder. Try as she might Wickersham cannot transform this apple into an orange. The book did remind me of William Stafford's poem: "the signals we give ¿ yes or no, or maybe ¿ should be clear: the darkness around us is deep". The poet does assume though, that we can decode those signals. Joan Wickersham would beg to differ.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Many things rang true for me, also a daughter of a suicide. Specifics are always a little different for different people, but the heart of it is the same.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't finish it.. it was too boring. She didn't really reflect and let the reader know how she was feeling at important moments during the book. It was more like this happened then this and then this.. I lost my father to suicide and I thought maybe I would be able to relate, but she doesn't let the reader into her emotions enough.
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