Interview by Leslie Lindsay
Donald Antrim is the author of three novels, including Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and two memoirs, The Afterlife and One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival. He has received awards from the MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
In October, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. released One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival, which is a ‘a profound, courageous, compassionate masterpiece that will, I think, and hope, change the way we think about suicide forever,’ (George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo). What’s more, this book is an act of generosity, ‘a lifting of a burden,’ as Antrim puts it, establishing that the story sort of haunted him for the better part of a decade, but the work was ‘fearful and dangerous.’
In April 2006, Donald Antrim, who identifies himself as ‘just a writer,’ went to the roof of his four-story apartment building, climbed down the fire escape, and hung by his hands from the railing. “I was afraid for my life,” Antrim writes in his harrowing new memoir. “I didn’t know why I had to fall from the roof, why that was mine to do.”
As a former Mayo Clinic psychiatric R.N., as well as a grieving daughter of my mother’s own mental illness, and suicide, I felt compelled to speak with Donald Antrim. I discovered that his first memoir, The Afterlife, in which he wrote about his seamstress mother’s life and death as an alcoholic and his role of her son, savior, and abandoner, catapulted his severe anxiety leading to his suicide attempt.
The sky is bone gray when I speak with Antrim on the phone. From my window, honey locust trees drop their leaves, scattering in the air like golden confetti. Just days ago, the high school my daughters attend announced the death of a senior football player. The day I speak with Donald Antrim, is one in which the student body is requested to wear yellow in honor of this young life—and awareness—of suicide.
Before interviewing Donald Antrim, I emailed him some preliminary topics and questions to ponder before we spoke, but it seemed our conversation diverged, and we became like to two acquaintances chatting about writing, mothers, and mental health.
Both books we discuss are available where books are sold and I highly recommend reading them both, though they stand alone. Our conversation, which I transcribed, has been edited for length and clarity. Antrim was warm and gracious, and generously spoke with me at length on this bitter day.
Leslie Lindsay: Donald, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
Donald Antrim: This is a privilege and treat to talk with you about such a vulnerable time in my life.
LL: I have to say, this is a tough day for the student body where my children attend high school. We were recently notified of a senior football player who went missing, was found, in a nearby park, and…it was determined he took his own life.
DA: Oh dear.
LL: Yeah. It’s tough, heavy. We didn’t know the boy, but it’s shaken the community and we’re grieving this young, precious life. In One Friday in April, you mention the idea that ‘suicide is trying to live, it doesn’t want to die.’ Can you expand on that, please?
DA: I didn’t want to die, but I was sure I would. It’s been my experience, in talking with people, and I haven’t done anything more formal than that, no polls, or anything, that most people who attempt suicide simply want the pain to end and they don’t know what else to do. Here’s the thing: I lived a long time with suicidality.
LL: That’s something you mention in your book; you believe suicide isn’t exactly an act, but a disease process, something that has sort of been ‘brewing’ for years. You write that most people, who end up attempting or dying by suicide, think about not killing themselves on a daily basis. It may be a two-second, passing thought, “Not today,” but it’s there, every day.
DA: Well, I would say it’s way more than 2-seconds a day. It’s more like all day, a constant plague.
LL: One piece from the book, which I so related because I lived through it with my mother, is your definition of suicide:
[…] a long illness, an illness with origins in trauma and isolation, in deprivation of touch, in violence and neglect, in the loss of home and belonging […] it’s etiology, it’s beginning, whether early in life, or later in life, in the family or beyond, is social in nature.
I read this piece to my husband and said, “This is my mother!” He didn’t disagree, but he doesn’t have a background in mental health and tends to believe suicide is a result of deep, clinical depression, which yes, is also true. But you’ve added more to the equation here and I completely agree.
DA: First, I have to say, I am so sorry about your mother. I’ve not known anyone close to me to die of suicide. Did your mother have a traumatic past?
LL: Thank you. And absolutely, she had a traumatic childhood. I don’t know all of the details of course, but there are stories of physical altercations in her family of origin, children locked in closets for hours on end, sexual abuse, as a teenager—drugs and alcohol. She married young—I was born when she was half-way between her eighteenth year.
DA: That’s tragic. She hadn’t processed all of that and here she was, just a kid, having a baby.
LL: Exactly. It speaks to the isolation piece of your definition of suicide. My mother was very isolated. Her family of origin often shunned her—or so she perceived—but she could be very manipulative, narcissistic. She drove everyone away. It goes without saying that we were estranged, after her psychotic break. And more to your earlier point, that thinking about suicide is a chronic illness. In 1989, when my mother had her first psychotic break, she said several times, “Just so you know, I’m not thinking about suicide.”
DA: Which means, of course, she was.
LL: Without a doubt. But she didn’t actually die until 2015. Which means she had been thinking about it for about thirty years.
DA: I didn’t want to die. And she probably didn’t, either.
LL: She was wrung-out. I think she felt she had no choice.
DA:I didn’t want to die that day on the fire escape. I didn’t want to live feeling the way I did, either.
LL: You also didn’t want to write the book, correct? I read a quote from Deborah Levy recently, and I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of, “We can die of the trauma of the past, or we can become or make art from it.”
DA: Oh, that’s good. Yes. With One Friday in April, it took me a decade to put pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard. I kept thinking about it. It was a burden. I had other books in me. Novels, and such. I wanted to write them, but couldn’t. This story, this experience of trying to jump from the fire escape, going to the hospital, getting ECT, it was dangerous; I feared it. But time passed. I felt obligated, as a patient, as a writer, to get these thoughts into the world.
LL: Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker helped you with that. Am I wrong to say that she is sort of a mentor?
DA: She helped tremendously. She’s my editor at The New Yorker and much of this book existed, at first, as emails back and forth with her. I started writing about Frankenstein, about character’s earlier life of trauma and isolation. I sort of folded that into my narrative about my experience on the fire escape. She said to send her some pages. I did. She came back and said, “Well, this is good, but no. No Frankenstein. It doesn’t work for this.” After she said that, I was a little relieved. What she did was extract an excerpt that was more concise, more concrete, more about suicide.
LL: That’s funny, because in my (not-yet published) memoir about my mother, I did something similar. I wrote about my mother’s childhood. I framed it as ‘sort of fiction,’ and it was good…entertaining, though tragic. It wasn’t working though, as a whole. I hired a developmental editor to hone in on why or what to do about it and she said, “This stuff is good, but kind of ridiculous. It needs to be a more intimate memoir about your relationship with your mother, not her supposed childhood.”
Would you say you used Frankenstein as a way to sort of ‘dance around’ the issue at hand?
DA: That was exactly it. Once I got beyond the fact that Frankenstein had to go, it became much more of a mission. I felt like writing One Friday in April gave me a sense of purpose, I couldn’t move on until I got this out.
LL: And that’s how I feel, too, that I can’t write anything else until this book gets picked up. It’s strange. You’d think that it would be something I’d just want to drop, because it’s traumatic and awful. But it’s not.
DA: I understand. What was the process of writing like for you? Was it similar as my experience? Did it feel dangerous?
LL: Like you, this story has haunted me for the better part of my life. I have always known I’d write this story. I’d start and stop. I’d dwell on it. I wrote from different POVs, different styles. But when I first started, she was still living. It felt like a betrayal. I didn’t know how the story would end. Now I do.
DA: Well, you know…the catalyst for my illness was when [the book about my mother came out]. I completed [Afterlife] in the summer of 2005. I was hyped up having finished that manuscript…the exhilaration, excitement…but then all I wanted to do was stay in bed. I worried about the sense of exposure, of vulnerability of having written stuff about her. I guess I felt I betrayed her. I became very anxious.
Afterlife came out in the spring of 2006, when I was hospitalized. That’s no way to bring a book into the world. But I got ECT and treatment, and you know, it worked. I’m okay.
LL: I think that’s why One Friday in April is so important.
Before we go, I just have to ask a challenging question. I’m a former psych R.N. and I left the profession for myriad reasons, but one of them was psychiatry, at least to me, at the time, felt like ‘medicate-and-evacuate.’ I didn’t feel like I was making any difference or that the medical/mental health world was going to change much.
So my question to you is, how do you think One Friday in April will shift the thinking of medical and mental health professionals?
DA: The honest answer is: I don’t know. What I hope is that it will allow people to see themselves in these pages, to recognize that they need help. Maybe it will get them to the hospital. Maybe caregivers and family members will see their loved one in these pages and implore them to get help. Maybe it will destigmatize suicide and mental illness. I don’t know. I can’t possibly know. Who will pick up the book? Who will read it? I hope a lot of the right people do.
LL: Donald, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I so appreciate your candor and vulnerability.
DA: It was a pleasure. Good for me, too. Thank you for all you’re doing, Leslie.
One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival: is out now with W.W. Norton & Company.