Reviewed by Anastasia Selby
Juliet Patterson and I have something in common. We are members of a club that the poet Mary Jo Bang once told me “no one wants to belong.” Bang had been responding to a Facebook message I sent all the way back in 2010, shortly after my mother died by suicide. I had messaged Bang because it felt that no one in my life, not even those who were also close to my mother, could fully understand the complexity of my desolation, terror, and anger after her death.
Much of what Patterson explores in her memoir, Sinkhole: A Legacy of Suicide (Milkweed Editions; 2022), is the weight of what is left behind when those who are closest to us decide to end their lives — specifically, our parents. The book, published by Milkweed Press, calls itself “a natural history of a suicide,” but it is less of a history of one suicide than an effort to understand the legacy of suicides in Patterson’s family.
The story begins with her father’s last day, which is imagined by Patterson. (This is why she calls the book creative nonfiction; she imagines the last days of not only her father, but her grandfathers, who also died by suicide). Unflinchingly, Patterson narrates her father’s trek through the December snow, from her parent’s house in St. Paul to the bridge where he has decided to hang himself. The same morning, Patterson’s mother finds a note and frantically phones her daughter, who arrives at the bridge after the body of her father has been discovered. A week earlier, Patterson had been in a car accident, and she is woozy with painkillers as she and her mother navigate the police, the suicide note her father left, and the morgue.
Suicide is deeply stigmatized in many societies, including ours, although it is increasingly prevalent. Patterson’s choice to begin here, in the last moments of her father’s life and the first moments of her life after his suicide, is essential, and it grounds the reader in the present. In the morgue, Patterson narrates:
He was gone. He did not exist. A feeling of immense sadness that I could not control welled up and caused me to emit a strange sound, something like a sob.
As she looks down at her father, she recognizes his facial expression, then pulls down the blanket covering him, so she can see what was left behind; the imprints left along his neck from his hanging. From here, Patterson transitions to a childhood memory, recounting the time her father “brought home a nest of robin fledglings he found on the side of the road,” which she and her mother fed hourly until they were able to fly. One of the birds, Robbie, appeared for several springs after being released. These poetic juxtapositions work together like a finely tuned watch, deftly inching the narrative forward.
The first third of the book is heavily weighted towards the aftermath of her father’s suicide, day by day. To me, this was the most emotionally potent arc, but one that, for many reasons, would be difficult to sustain. Neither a reader nor a suicide victim can stare forever at the grief and confusion left behind. What strikes me is the succession of strange and sad events: an injured woman found in the middle of the road near Christmas, her partner’s miscarriage, the discovery of an instructional notebook left by her father as well as a calculated life insurance plan that guaranteed both Patterson and her mother financial security. One gets the sense that there is never just one thing.
It is perhaps her father’s insurance settlement that grants Patterson the freedom and time to explore her family’s lineage, which she accomplishes in the book by carrying the reader with her to the library for research. She sets out to decode the death of her father’s father, whose suicide was suspected by her father to be foul play. But her research leads her farther into her family’s history, into the stories of her mother’s father, whose brutal suicide by drowning had occurred on a childhood birthday.
Patterson knew nothing of these suicides growing up. She only finds out about her mother’s father when she is in her twenties. She writes, “My quest for information had become a private task of mourning— and with time, my mother’s father also became part of the story.”
Initially, she had set out to know her father, whose enigmatic personality had rendered him a near-stranger, but then sought to know her grandfathers. She asks herself: “Who were these men, these fathers. They were hard to see clearly. Their lives had, for the most part, gone the way of secrecy. They had left so little behind to their children, except to make us angry, disappointed, coolly detached. My parents had done exactly what their fathers had wanted— consigned them to the shadows— but I was going to drag them into the light, as best I could.”
While Patterson does indeed unearth the stories of these men, she also does the harder work of examining her own stories, as well as the stigma surrounding suicide and suicidality, a subject that is often either relegated to the shadows or sensationalized as a plot point.
She writes: “Soon friends began avoiding me or altogether disappeared. The few who remained either avoided the subject altogether or offered unhelpful advice: You’ve got to move on with your life. Haven’t you grieved enough already? It seemed as though they wanted me to preserve the silence around the issue of suicide that I’d unintentionally kept my whole life.”
Sinkhole is composed of many storylines. Not all of them cohere, and some are more resonant than others, but this felt right to me, as a reader, for a book about surviving a parent’s suicide. Nothing about suicide is coherent or fully graspable, and Patterson’s willingness to explore the complexity of her family’s histories, her own grief and isolation, as well as cultural and medical interpretations of both those who die by suicide and those who are left behind in the aftermath, is what makes this book unique. I’d even argue that it’s essential.