INTERVIEW: Susannah Kennedy, Author of Reading Jane: A Daughter’s Memoir

Interview by Leslie Lindsay

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Book Cover: Reading Jane: A Daughter's Memoir by Susannah Kennedy. Title is superimposed on an illustration of a beach.Susannah Kennedy’s mother, Jane, said several times, in several different ways that she wouldn’t want to live past 75. And then one day, she does the unthinkable. Susannah is summoned to the police station to identify her mother’s body.

Reading Jane (Sibylline Press; September 5, 2023) is a raw and authentic read about a complicated, often charismatic, but likely narcissistic woman, Jane. Susannah is struggling with the grief and heartache of losing her mother to suicide, while simultaneously being a mother to her own three children, returning from living overseas in Germany, and reading her mother’s journals, ones she kept daily notes for the last 45 years. Susannah takes this dichotomy of writing and reading, life and death, and weaves it into a coherent, narrative inviting readers into her grief experience.

What’s more is the family history surrounding addiction, domestic abuse, possible eating disorders, and illness. Susannah takes that script and braids it, along with her own feelings and experiences into the narrative. What comes through is the intriguing and very real concept of intergenerational trauma, “[…] for my mother, memories unprocessed did not vanish. They were just hidden in the body and in the recesses of the mind. We know that unconscious matter left unaccompanied comes bubbling up unexpectedly, often showing itself in anger, obsessive control, or agitation,” Kennedy writes.

I found the writing brilliant and tender, the ‘right to die’ argument fascinating, but most of all—I wondered, what really happened?

Reading Jane is a clear-eyed, reflective work which took strong emotional chops to write, while revealing more than a few universal truths about mothers and daughters, family secrets, and so much more.

It’s early January as I sit down to read and I am struck by the gray gloom that hangs in our Midwestern sky. On the television, I hear a segment about mental health, how this time of year, following the holiday can be a particularly challenging time for those who might suffer from depression and suicidal ideation. I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with Susannah Kennedy about such a delicate subject.

Leslie Lindsay: Susannah, I find your story so important and so honest and I thank you for sharing it with us. Like you, I had a tumultuous relationship with my mother. Like you, I lost her to suicide a little over eight years ago. I don’t have to ask you what was haunting you when you set out to write READING JANE; I know. But I am curious about what kept you going with the writing? What sustained you while digging through such challenging material?

Susannah Kennedy: First, thank you so much, Leslie, for your insights into the book and for inviting me into a conversation about it. I am so sorry to hear about your mother. It constantly surprises me, the women I meet now who had mothers who took their own lives. How can there be so many? A suicide leaves a particular kind of grief behind, no matter when or how it happens. Anyway, you ask about what kept me going with the writing.

There were times when I felt I should stop, that it was pulling me down with too much force into a dark past. After all, I had a real-life family of my own that needed my attention more than my relationship to my dead mother. I found myself thinking I had given her enough of my energy in trying to navigate our relationship while she was alive, and here I was and she was dead and I was again focusing on her! Ugh. What kept me going in the first months of reading was curiosity. I was reading about a time in my life that I didn’t remember. It was grim and also fascinating.

By the time I got to the years when I was older and did remember, I was finding out things that explained what it had really been like growing up with her, this person who had so completely shaped me. It allowed me to see how I was different from her, how my choices as an adult had led to a very different life. That was amazingly satisfying and healing.

LL: I want to talk about the title, READING JANE, for a moment. Of course, I see the interplay between reading and writing. Typically speaking, writing is active, reading is passive. In the case of reading of your mother’s journals, it was very active, traumatic, even. We often say ‘get a good read,’ or ‘I can’t read her/him well…’ and there’s truth in that. My sense is, you were attempting to gauge your mother, and while doing so, a mirror sort of reflected back to you. Can you talk about that a bit, please?

SK: I came to realize through the process of handling the diaries that the dominant theme between my mother and me had always in fact been that of reading. We loved to read books aloud together for one thing. And then, as a child, I was required to ‘read’ her moods in order to navigate daily life, to automatically withdraw when she couldn’t handle my company, to be quiet when she was preoccupied. As an older child, I learned to intervene when she became anxious and overwrought about things that seemed to me kind of normal, such as making travel arrangements, or finding a parking spot.

When I began to study social anthropology, I discovered that ‘reading’ our own and other cultures was part of a scientific toolkit. It was a natural fit for me. So, when it came time to find a title, ‘reading’ seemed to be a unique phrase to play with, that of reading the diaries, of reading my mother herself when she was still alive, and of ‘reading’ my own life in relation to hers.

LL: In memoir, we are often fraught with how much to tell, what to tell, and ‘whose truth is it, anyway?’ Generally, if it happened to you, you have the right to share, as long as it comes through the author’s lens. In this case, it does. But there’s a deeper layer to this ‘truth,’ and that comes down to what your mother, Jane, often said, ‘don’t tell and it won’t be true.’ I’d like you to speak into that a little more, please.

SK: That’s a deep insight, Leslie. I found it profoundly empowering to discover the truth in the diaries through her words. Here was evidence that the glamorous independent narrative my mother had projected to the world was not an accurate reflection of her inner life, and therefore my own intuition about the woman who had shaped me was confirmed. The diaries might have shown me another kind of tale. But it turned out my intuition about her was right. So many emotions I had felt in her body, as I watched her, as I created comfort in her presence. She denied them and because she was the source of my identity, I shut myself down and denied the emotions, too. I even forgot my whole childhood in service to the “don’t tell and it won’t be true” philosophy.

My years of therapy gradually nudged me to trust something else. To discover that indeed “not telling” does not erase what has happened. What happens is what makes us and needs to be cared for and given words and sometimes grieved, not denied. The truth will eventually come out in twisted ways. In her it came out in her decision to take her life.

LL: Shifting gears a bit to the medical side of READING JANE…your mother believed she had the right to die and was part of a somewhat secret group with members who called themselves BOD ‘better off dead. In fact, Jane often was quite crass with other people’s suffering, ‘pull the plug, let her die, that dog should be put down.’  Can you let us in this elusive world of assisted suicide?

SK: Oh no, the people themselves didn’t call themselves ‘better off dead’s – BODs. That was her term for friends, family and acquaintances at the end of life. She liked to stir things up, and was capable of a mean sense of humor. She always hated the medical establishment’s enthusiasm for delaying death with machines and chemicals. There were many people she witnessed in her life, most startlingly her mother, who she interpreted as suffering under medical care intended to prolong life at all costs. It is those people she called the BODs.

In writing the book, I pieced together that this particular phrase stemmed from the isolating experience she had as a child with a severely handicapped younger sister. There seems to have been very little comfort or explanation of what was happening in a house with unexplained behaviors and a changed mother. From that formative childhood, it seems that Jane built herself a panicked fantasy around illness and weakness. She feared an old age that would leave her dependent and without control. And as with many trauma-based attitudes, she reacted inexplicably. She could have gravitated towards a gentler, more spiritual approach to death, become a hospice worker or a death doula. Instead, she got involved with a more radical group, Final Exit, and she entered into a kind of secret double life, showing to the world a love of symphonies and grand-mothering and then sneaking off to help people die. It was creepy the way she did it. And, of course, in the end, she transformed her fear into a political tagline – die at 75.

LL: And yet, and yet…at times your mother seemed to suffer from some kind of mental illness. As I read, several diagnoses came to mind: borderline personality disorder, bipolar, narcissism, not that either of us are qualified to make that distinction…what do you think was really going on? I love this statement, “What people hide is more interesting that what they show.”

Headshot of author Suzanne Kennedy, a white woman with curly reddish-brown hair.

SK: That is a complex question. The simple answer is that no, she didn’t have any illnesses that would have been diagnosable. My husband (who happens to be a clinical psychiatrist) and I thought a lot about this over the years, every time she turned against me or shut me down in an inexplicable manner. Was she hiding something? Was there something we weren’t seeing?

But underlying that easy ‘no’ is now also an awareness of a family culture she grew up in that groomed self-reliance and maximum independence and was uncomfortable with empathy and emotions. Add to that a strictly Catholic childhood and a violent abusive marriage for ten years. She had narcissistic tendencies, and such expressions of narcissism often comes from trauma. There was definitely a non-relating element to her that cut her off from paths that might have allowed her to understand her psychology better, given her peace and an ability to live more happily.

It is still sad to me that she always turned away from that option. In the 1960s and 70s, San Francisco buzzed with the idea of authenticity replacing false masks and fake stories about ourselves. People moved to the city so they could live in such a culture. Perhaps because of Jane, I was always drawn to authenticity. That’s why I think what people hide is so interesting. What is the hiding act really saying about their inner life?

LL: READING JANE teeters between time periods and is told, in part, by Jane’s own words from her diaries. There are a million ways you could have structured this narrative (this is one of the things I really struggle with). How is that you decided on this structure?

SK: I played with the arc of the story when I was working on my first draft. Should I present the suicide at the end, a ‘will she, won’t she’ mystery? I tried to rewrite some chapters with that in mind. But that made the story more about her, and my writing group urged me to make its focus more about my journey as her daughter. I put the shock of the suicide at the beginning, then the discovery of the diaries, and then the decision to read them. Mirroring how it happened. And my journey to understand.

LL: Plenty of memoirs about mental illness and suicide line shelves; mothers and daughters are everywhere. READING JANE is illuminating and uplifting in some regards; redeeming in others. What do you think sets READING JANE apart? What do you hope readers take away? And did it transform you in writing it?

SK: Yes, I’ve read many excellent memoirs about mothers and daughters, and suicide and mental illness. Linda Gray Sexton’s books come to mind, or Gayle Brandeis’ The Art of Misdiagnosis more recently. With almost all suicides, there is a residual ‘why’ floating forever after. Even in Jane’s case, in which she clearly stated her intention, her choice to kill herself in the way she did at the time she did left that WHY for all of the rest of us.

One of the reasons I’m so drawn to memoir is I learn so much by reading the journeys of others. I want to know what it feels like to go through something, even if the details are different from my own life. I think what sets Reading Jane apart is the reflective voice of the narrator that carries the reader through a whole life’s complex psychological arc. The story reveals not only the character of the mother, and a complicated mother-daughter relationship but also describes the daughter’s journey to becoming another kind of mother to her children. The reader goes through something very difficult and is led into hope.


“One of the reasons I’m so drawn to memoir is I learn so much by reading the journeys of others. I want to know what it feels like to go through something, even if the details are different from my own life.”—Susannah Kennedy

LL: Finally, I’m curious about the fate of the journals. At one point you wish you had burned them, never opened them. Are you willing to share what became of them in the end? Are they ever truly gone, or will they continue to haunt you?

SK: Ah, the lurking question. Oh my gosh. I still have them! They are in plastic weathertight boxes in an outside closet behind our house. I kept them as ‘research material’, thinking maybe I would need to go back and check on some fact or other. I never have. The good thing is they no longer feel toxic to me. What a relief. But every time I find myself at that closet, I wonder why I still have them. Keeping them is also a way of holding onto her, of course. The final paper goodbye is needed. It will come.

leslie lindsay

Leslie Lindsay

Staff Interviewer

Leslie Lindsay is a writer/creative based outside Chicago. Her essays, interviews, and photography have been published in many literary journals, including Hippocampus, Ruminate, The Millions, and The Rumpus. Her book, Speaking of Apraxia: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech was released in audio by Penguin Random House in 2021. She is a book ambassador, influencer, and active on Instagram.

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