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“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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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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
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