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Photo © Thomas Wickersham.
Joan Wickersham
The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order


In its compact and ingeniously structured narrative, Joan Wickersham's memoir merges genres to offer up an eloquent exploration of the effects of traumatic loss on survivors. Any reader who has mourned a parent's death will learn and take comfort from this book, which is more companion than guide; the peculiar sorrows and frightening revelations attendant on suicide have rarely been so deftly rendered. Wickersham is not afraid of the unknown—or at least not afraid to write about it in a book that is as illuminating about the meaning of life as the meanings of one particular, sudden, sad death, her beloved father's.


In addition to The Suicide Index, Joan Wickersham is the author of the novel The Paper Anniversary. Her fiction has appeared in magazines including AGNI, Glimmer Train, the Hudson Review, Ploughshares, and Story, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories. She has published essays in Glamour, Yankee, and the Boston Globe, and she has contributed and read on-air essays for National Public Radio’s On Point and Morning Edition.

Wickersham has won the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story, and she has received several fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, where much of The Suicide Index was written. She graduated from Yale with a degree in art history, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.

ABOUT THE BOOK (from the publisher)

When you kill yourself, you kill every memory everyone has of you. You’re saying “I’m gone and you can’t even be sure who it is that’s gone, because you never knew me.”

Sixteen years ago, Joan Wickersham’s father shot himself in the head. The father she loved would never have killed himself, and yet he had. His death made a mystery of his entire life. Using an index—that most formal and orderly of structures—Wickersham explores this chaotic and incomprehensible reality. Every bit of family history—marriage, parents, business failures—and every encounter with friends, doctors, and other survivors exposes another facet of elusive truth. Dark, funny, sad, and gripping, at once a philosophical and deeply personal exploration, The Suicide Index is, finally, a daughter’s anguished, loving elegy to her father.


Joan Wickersham's website


Excerpted from The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order by Joan Wickersham, copyright © 2008. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


act of

attempt to imagine

It's the last week of his life. Does he know that? At some point, yes. At the moment when his index finger closes on the trigger of the gun, he knows it with certainty. But before that? Even a moment before, when he sat down in the chair holding the gun – was he sure? Perhaps he's done this much before, once or many times: held the gun, loaded the gun. But then stopped himself: no. When does he know that this time he will not stop?

What about the gun?

Has it been an itch, a temptation, the chocolate Santa in the bureau drawer? Did he think about it daily, did it draw him, did he have to resist it?

Perhaps the thought of it has been comforting: Well, remember, I can always do that.

Or maybe he didn't think about the gun and how it might be used. There was just that long deep misery. An occasional flicker (I want to stop everything), always instantly snuffed out (Too difficult, how would I do it, even the question exhausts me). And then one day the flicker caught fire, burned brightly for a moment, just long enough to see by (Oh, yes, the gun. The old gun on the closet shelf with the sweaters). He didn't do it that day. He put away the thought. He didn't even take the gun down, look at it, hold it in his hands. That would imply he was thinking of actually doing it, and he would never actually do such a thing.

We have to watch him from the outside. He leaves no clues, his whole life is a clue. What is he thinking when he gets up that last morning, showers, and dresses for work? He puts on a blue-and-white striped cotton shirt, a pair of brown corduroys, heavy brown shoes. Tan cashmere sweater. He has joked to his older daughter that all the clothes he buys these days are the color of sawdust. Might as well, he said, they end up covered in the stuff anyhow, in the machinery business. So he has shaved, patted on aftershave, and climbed into his dun-colored clothes. He's gone to his dresser and loaded his pockets: change, wallet, keys, handkerchief. Maybe he thinks he's going to work. Or maybe he knows, hopes, that in forty-five minutes he'll be dead. It's Friday morning. He's just doing what he does every morning, getting ready.

The front page of the paper is full of the war. But nothing else that's major. No market crash. Nothing that would lead, directly or indirectly, to his losing more than he has already lost, which is virtually everything.

Maybe that's it, maybe that's what he is thinking, not just on this last morning but all the time: You've lost everything, not at a single blow but gradually, over years, a small hole in a sandbag. You see the hole clearly but you have no way to fix it. No one but you has been aware of that thin, sawdust-colored stream of sand escaping, but now enough sand has leaked that the shape of the bag is changing, it's collapsing. It will be noticed. You will be caught. And then, and then – you don't know what. You want not to be here when that happens.

He makes the pot of regular coffee for his wife, fills a cup, carries it upstairs to her bedside table. The fact that he doesn't make his own usual pot of decaf might mean that he's already decided – or it might mean that he generally makes that second pot when he comes downstairs again. And this morning, he doesn't go downstairs again. He stands at his wife's side of the bed, and looks at her, sleeping. He looks at her for a long time.

Or maybe he doesn't look. Maybe he puts down the saucer and goes for the gun and is out of the room before the coffee stops quivering in the cup.


life summarized in an attempt to illuminate

Start with a thesis, or a statement of purpose: I am going to try to reconstruct who he was, because I’m not sure anymore.

Suicide destroys memory.

It undercuts one of our most romantic, and most comforting, notions: that we don’t really die when we die, because we live on in the memories of those who love us.

When you kill yourself, you’re killing every memory everyone has of you. You’re taking yourself away permanently and removing all traces that you were ever here in the first place, wiping away every fingerprint you ever left on anything.

You’re saying, “I’m gone, and you can’t even be sure who it is that’s gone, because you never knew me.”

Copyright © 2008 by Joan Wickersham
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Excerpted from The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order by Joan Wickersham, copyright © 2008. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


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