Suicide in the Family

In the literary magazine Post Road, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson writes about how her grandmother ─ a smart, talented woman born in repressive times ─ committed suicide for unclear reasons, and how silence and that gap in the family narrative shapes the way we view ourselves. As a historian and author, Dickinson’s father made a living telling stories that reflected how, in his words, “Life is messy.” The same applies to the end of life, too, and Dickinson explores the benefits of talking openly about tragedy and personal history. Her essay appeared in Fall 2015.

Silence, though, is not an uninhabitable vacuum. It is no black hole. The place where stories stop and silence starts becomes its own fertile ground; other notions take root. A story grew in my childhood, one of my own devising. I believed, from a young age, that I was Wilmeth reincarnate. This idea was reinforced by the way my father sometimes looked at me, or in the rare breaches when he would say, “You remind me of your grandmother today.” I believed that I had to make amends for Wilmeth’s truncated life. I would be healthy and normal. I would be smart and successful.

Unlike my grandmother, I had the power of choice and I made hard ones. I chose not to marry that man in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and to risk waiting for a different kind of love. I chose to be a writer, to work for myself, to buy a very old house and to tear it to the studs in order to bring it back to life. In a letter written to me a few years before his death, my father recounted these choices and he told me that I was brave. I had to be, you understand. Here, I had no choice. I had to prove what my grandmother might have become if given the chance. I had to show that it was merely thwarted opportunity, and not biology, that pulled that trigger.

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