History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life by Jill Bialosky, book review

Bialosky's acclaimed exploration of her sister's death by carbon monoxide asphyxiation in 1990 is respectful of "the terrible mystery of suicide"

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The Independent Culture

There are usually two suicides – the real one, and the one people think they know about. Claims are often made by family survivors and friends that the victim was brought to self-destruction, not by an act of will, but by a misdose of anti-depressant medication or by a sudden, unpremeditated folly.

However, suicide is almost always an irrational act. Depression in most cases probably impairs the capacity for rational thought. Very few suicidal people (perhaps one in four, according to a recent American study) leave any sort of note. To sit down and write a note – at that moment – would seem as futile as adjusting one's alarm clock.

The real causes for suicide remain fugitive, because the suffering of those who kill themselves is private and inaccessible. History of a Suicide, Jill Bialosky's acclaimed exploration of her sister's death by carbon monoxide asphyxiation in 1990, is respectful of "the terrible mystery of suicide".

The comfort offered by the philosopher Socrates – that death brings an end to pain – was perhaps what Kim sought that terrible spring day in Ohio. Certainly to those already sick of the toils of life, waking up to a new day is often more than they can bear.

By her suicide, she had exposed her loved ones to intense guilt, writes Bialosky, as well as feelings of failure that they could not read "the signs" of her suffering.

Of course, suicidal depression does not tend to be a state of mind that is considerate of others. Bialosky, a New York editor and writer of (she tells us) Jewish descent, struggles to understand what led her sister to take her life at the age of 21. She consults police reports, autopsy inquiries, counter-inquiries, family records and family photo albums. She attends bereavement groups and reads all she can on the "act of self-annihilation" in novels, plays and poems.

Some readers may flinch at the Oprah-like asides on family life and death ("Suicides remind us of our vulnerability"), but Bialosky is a skilled writer. Quotations from Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare and T S Eliot bolsters the argument throughout that suicide is indeed often impulsive. While Kim's undoubted low mood was a precursor of suicidal behaviour, not everyone afflicted by hopelessness commits suicide.

Perhaps, Bialosky speculates, Kim had reached that phase of the disease of depression where all sense of hope had vanished, and with it any idea of a future. In Judaism, as in Islam, suicide is often anathema. Jews who commit suicide may be denied the solemn seven days of mourning and – in the equally categoric interpretation – may be interred in a section of the cemetery reserved for the profane. In the rabbi's eyes, writes Bialosky, Kim had "committed a sin": suicide is not only an affront to God but an "assault" on the very structure of the family.

A quarter of a century on, Kim's death seems to "possess" Bialosky still. History of a Suicide, first published in America in 2011, unflinchingly confronts the terrible aftermath for the survivors.