Book Review: 'The Suicide Index' by Joan Wickersham

“This is what my father did,” writes Joan Wickersham early in her memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order. “He got up, showered, shaved and dressed for work. He went downstairs and made a pot of coffee, and while it was brewing he went outside and walked down the long driveway to pick up the newspaper. He left the paper folded on the kitchen table, poured a cup of coffee, carried it upstairs, and put it on my mother’s bedside table. She was still in bed, sleeping. Then he went into his study, closed his door, and shot himself.”

For the next 330-plus pages, Wickersham unflinchingly chronicles her fractious struggle to come to grips with the events of that morning 17 years ago, and how this single act forces her to re-examine not only her father’s entire life but her own relationships with her parents, her husband, her children and even total strangers. Abandoning linear storytelling and arranging her chapters as a series of indexed entries (Suicide: act of, barebones account for example, or Suicide: finding some humor in) Wickersham uses this most orderly of structures to highlight the chaos of the inherently complicated emotions, contradictory truths, and ultimately irresolvable questions her father’s death occasions.

At times less a memoir than a detective story, in her incisive, utterly unsentimental and sporadically humorous search for the truth behind her father’s violent death, she touches upon family dynamics, the American immigrant experience, literature, psychiatry, the human capacity for self-delusion and the fragmented nature of memory. In the end, this haunting book is less your typical journey through the healing process than an exploration of how we construct the stories we need to survive, and how sometimes acceptance is reached only after all other possibilities have been exhausted.

The Suicide Index is a 2008 National Book Award nominee. Buy The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order.

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