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This reading group guide forHistory of a Suicideincludes 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 thebook.
“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.
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.
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.
Jill Bialosky is the author of four acclaimed collections of poetry. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Kenyon Review, and The Atlantic, among others. She is the author of three novels, most recently, The Prize, and a New York Times bestselling memoir History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life. Jill was honored by the Poetry Society of America for her distinguished contribution to the field of poetry in 2015. She is an editor at W. W. Norton & Company and lives in New York City.