Suicide and the Paradox of the Memoir

Margo Jefferson in 2015
Image: Getty
Shelf LifeShelf LifeA monthly books column that considers works of fiction and nonfiction that speak past their publication dates—because good books don’t go bad.

A paradox lies at the center of any memoir about suicide, the fact that one can’t write about the desire to kill oneself while that desire overwhelms. The buried tenet of the memoir is made explicit in such work: the past has been filtered through the necessarily changed circumstances of the present. “Our memories tell more about now than then,” Yiyun Li writes in the opening pages of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. “Doubtless the past is real. There is no shortage of evidence… But we choose and discard from an abundance of evidence what suits us at the moment.”

Li foregrounds her own selectivity: she is open about her indirect approach, honest about the skirted truths to come. “All people lie,” she says, “in their writing as much as in their life.” Dear Friend is a memoir-in-essays composed of equal parts writing and life. Li considers the works and biographies of authors she admires—Katherine Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen—alongside scenes from her own biography: her childhood and adolescence in Beijing, her scientific studies in Iowa, her travels as a writer, and two periods of time spent hospitalized as a stay against suicide.

Advertisement

The problem of memoir and suicide bothers Li less as a writer than as a reader: she turns to the words of others for conversation and guidance. “I wish that they would teach one how to die,” she writes. “But their deaths can only be read in edited versions. Their letters and journals come to an end, artfully and artificially maneuvered by the editors.” Even without that maneuvering, no discovery is guaranteed: letters and journals might be less artfully arranged without containing any more truth. Li knows this; she admits to her own omissions. “I had been keeping a journal,” she writes of the time shortly before one hospitalization. “If my mind was losing control, I wanted it to be a process that could be understood by words, but I did not record this moment in Amsterdam.” The moment was one in which she envisioned herself unconscious on the airport floor, and was comforted by the sight—though she elides it from her journal, the memory persists.

Questions of what we secret away—both from others and ourselves—run through Dear Friend; its title (taken from Mansfield’s notebooks) gestures at the vast gap that conversation attempts to span. “What a long way it is from one life to another,” Li says, “yet why write if not for that distance, if things can be let go, every before replaced by an after.” As memory after memory makes clear, there is much that cannot be let go. The past is no longer present, its emissaries inevitably edited by time and need, and yet it remains, irreplaceable. “One writes about what haunts one,” says Li.

Advertisement
Image: Penguin Random House

The ghosts that haunt Li are slippery and often obscured. “These essays were started with mixed feelings and contradictory motives,” she writes. “I wanted to argue against suicide as much as for it, which is to say I wanted to keep the option of suicide and I wanted it to be forever taken away from me.” To say of a memoir that it is about suicide lends itself to certain expectations for the book’s content: the grisly preoccupation, the tortured reasoning, the methodical walk-through of preparations for the act. But none of this appears in Dear Friend; Li is not interested in revealing those particular moments. “[I]n writing and in life,” she says, “one is often sustained by memories unshared.”

Advertisement

Instead, suicide serves as a black hole at the book’s core, bending the light around it. Li’s writing is oblique without sacrificing clarity, philosophical without sacrificing elegance. She doesn’t duck the question but renders, in impeccable prose, the impossibility of answering. In excavating a brilliant mind, Dear Friend gestures to the mind’s very vastness, to how much more can not—or will not—be contained by words. The tendency, in so many blurbs and reviews, is to praise memoirs as brutally honest, searing, unflinching—but Li flinches, beautifully. She admits contradiction; she admits to picking and choosing, to unknowing, to withholding. “Everything I say is scrutinized by myself, not only the words and their logic but also my motives,” she writes. “As a body suffers from an autoimmune disease, my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.” In the book’s afterword, she mentions the addenda that dot Michel de Montaigne’s 16th-century essays—each paragraph accompanied by an A, B, or C—in order to clarify that passages were written at different times. Montaigne’s editor tells the reader that the essays “are intended to be a record of change.”

The essays in Dear Friend were also written across long months and different moods, though they appear seamless and suddenly made, like objects forged or hewn. Li’s lines tend toward aphorism: “Is writing not my way of rehearsing death?” she asks; she says: “To say we know a person is to write that person off.” In an essay about McGahern’s memoir, Li writes of how the work reopened wounds, “laying them bare (yet not raw).” Bare (yet not raw) is a succinct glossing of Li’s own style: direct in its indirectness, a neat circumscription of pain. The tendency is to call this kind of writing unemotional as if that were a compliment, but I think Li would reject it: emotions are exactly her concern. Her work reminds me that the popular adulations of memoir—honest, brave—are merely guesses: only the writer knows how much courage or truth a work has required. And they are, at any rate, beside the point. I would take precision over porousness any day.

Advertisement

“But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?” asks Margo Jefferson in Negroland, her chronicle of growing up among Chicago’s black elite in the 1950s and ’60s. Jefferson’s father was a doctor, her mother a socialite; Jefferson belonged to the social clubs appropriate for her age and gender, played piano, followed fashion trends. Raised in this precarious privilege, she was taught not to show off, and Negroland is an adroit exercise in pinning down a past self inclined to take flight. She turns outward as a way of turning inward; as Li draws on the books and ephemera of her literary forebears, Jefferson looks to history for her touchstones. In sections rich with research, she combs through selected biographies of black Americans from the 19th century onward, tracing the path that has led to her. Like Li, Jefferson seeks models for living and dying—from writers like Ida B. Wells and Anna Julia Cooper to the “depressed gentlewoman” Charlotte Forten—though she remains deeply attuned to the way such models can constrain as much as they allow, forming yet another system fraught with the pressure to succeed and a thousand ways to fail.

“Children always find ways to subvert while they’re busy complying,” Jefferson writes of the system in which she grew up. “This child’s method of subversion? She would achieve success, but she would treat it like a concession she’d been forced to make. For unto whomsoever much is given, of her shall be much required. She came to feel that too much had been required of her. She would have her revenge. She would insist on an inner life regulated by despair.” This is the first (but not the last) time Jefferson brings the possibility of choice—she would insist—into the conversation about depression and suicide that runs through her book, under and along and finally overwhelming the story of her upbringing.

Advertisement

But it is imprecise to speak of depression and upbringing as if they are distinct narratives and not folded into each other, inseparable. The very notion that a memoir (or a life) can be about one thing—about race or about gender—is belied by Jefferson’s laser-sharp accounting, which teases out the thousand complicating factors that go into constructing a self. “How many kinds of deprivation are there?” she asks. “What is the compass of privilege? What has made and maimed me?” As in Dear Friend, one gets the sense that the answer to the last is a single thorny object, knotted and tied. In the process of untangling the unique particulars of her individuality and broader context, Jefferson makes of her memoir a double-edged blade, cutting both ways at once.

“I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself,” Jefferson writes in Negroland’s opening pages. “You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.” These four sentences are repeated, around the book’s midpoint, with the word yourself replaced by race; in a final repetition near the memoir’s end, yourself is restored to its place. The problem isn’t one of scarcity, when it comes to the simple narratives we long to tell about ourselves and our sorrows: those stories are legion and their temptations evident. Jefferson’s work is to complicate such narratives, to find the least becoming of angles. She does, curiously and ruthlessly scrutinizing artifacts of history, sociology, and her own intimate field of study, the depression that threatens her, a woman who has every reason in the world to be happy. A woman who has every reason in the world to lament.

Advertisement

As a young woman, Jefferson seeks a home for her melancholic temperament in the raised consciousness of the 1970s, embracing feminism alongside her white peers. “But one white female privilege had always been withheld from the girls of Negroland,” she writes. “Aside from the privilege of actually being white, they had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance.” Jefferson’s childhood injunction against showing off is extended, here, to traits like anguish, misery, and the habitude of suffering, qualities we might consider less desirable than the poise, sophistication, and wit she learned as a girl.

Yet she desires them. Jefferson pulls no punches in her diction—flaunting, glorified—as if mental illness were as fashionable as certain clothes, worn only by those who breathe rarified air. It isn’t—Jefferson knows this. But she also knows that a fascination with mental disorder is all too common, that misery has a certain appeal: particularly for young women, perhaps, or particularly for a young woman drawn to the arts, to the writing life, that wretched profession of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. They are only two models among many given to the depressed white girl, and all those famous dead women offer a desperate promise: her sadness might not be merely sadness; her sadness might signify genius. The literature of black women’s suffering provided a smaller canon when Jefferson was young, and her thrill of recognition upon discovering Nella Larsen or, as an adult, Adrienne Kennedy and Ntozake Shange, is viscerally rendered.

Advertisement

These writers, Jefferson says, “dared to locate a sanctioned, forbidden space between white vulnerability and black invincibility.” In the plays of Kennedy and Shange, suicide is framed by the mirror of high art: wrenching, devastating, tragic but also—flaunted, glorified. The childish notion of showing off is left behind; these artists are showing their agonies, their wounds. “We had a legacy. We were too strong for that,” Jefferson writes, of the lessons against despair long drilled into her. And yet she longed to show her wounds, too. “I craved the right to turn my face to the wall,” she continues, “to create a death commensurate with bourgeois achievement, political awareness, and aesthetically compelling feminine despair.”

Image: Penguin Random House
Advertisement

Again, Jefferson allows the vocabulary of choice and longing into her account of depression: craved, to create. “In the late 1970s,” she writes, “I began to actively cultivate a desire to kill myself.” The words are almost shocking, so strong is our contemporary understanding of depression as an incurable disease. Death is an occasional result of this disease, just as it is a result of cancer or heart failure, but suicide (unlike most other methods of death) wears ceremonial robes of statement and symbolism; it can never shed them.

Jefferson—raised to be a credit to her race, an example for her community—is highly conscious of the imagistic potential of suicide. She quotes from the notebook kept during her period of suicidal ideation—“I say individuals have life sentences, and I refuse to be a model prisoner”—and delineates the many facets of her motivation. “You must set an example for other Negroland girls who suffer the same way,” she recalls telling herself. “You must give them a death they can live up to.” The diligence and perfectionism instilled in her find a new outlet during this time: she studies the suicide notes of others and drafts her own; she researches methods and tests out the angle required to put her head in the oven. “Practice, practice, practice,” she writes. “Like playing scales, taking a barre. Do your daily suicide warm-ups.”

Advertisement

While Li describes suicide as “disappearing from the world,” the act is, for Jefferson, a final and indelible pose. “I practiced,” she says, of putting her head in the oven, “because I did not want to be found in an ugly sprawl or a fetal position.” Her death must be aesthetically compelling—aesthetic concerns are never far from the mind of this socialite’s daughter, this professional critic of theater and art. Jefferson often foregoes depression for words like despair and melancholy; the latter “is prettier than ‘depression,’” she says, as “it connotes a kind of nocturnal grace. Makes one feel more innocently beleaguered.” The appeal she once found in the disease itself lingers in its language; though the lure no longer dominates, it hasn’t disappeared. As an adult in middle age, Jefferson confesses to a friend that she has “a tendency to cherish my neuroses as a sign of my specialness.”

Neither Jefferson nor Li apologize for their attraction or surrender to self-harm, a part of life as much as the books read, the plays seen, the people loved. Jefferson quotes the scolding notebook entries of her younger self—“Your despair is self-indulgent”—but foregoes the reflexive self-deprecation of so many essays and memoirs about depression, which deny the lure of suicide along with the act itself. That lure is a fact for both writers, as real as any other. They know, as we do, that it is not good, but it is—so what do we make of it?

Advertisement

“I have to live in my own cautionary tale,” writes Li. “Some people seek victory in that tale, others escape, yet others peace. I still do not know what I want from mine, but one hopes that to accept not knowing, for the time being, is better than to accept nothing.” Li may have set out to argue for and against suicide in equal measure, but the presence of the pages in my hand tips the scales. The memoir about suicide can’t help but offer testimony, evidence for the defense. Perhaps such writing is less a paradox, after all, than a proof of life. “There are days when I still want to dismantle this constructed self of mine,” writes Jefferson, but that want doesn’t have the last word.

Share This Story

About the author

Mairead Small Staid

Mairead Small Staid is a poet, critic, and essayist living in Minnesota. More of her work can be found at https://maireadsmallstaid.com/.