Guest post: "Researching my mother's suicide was one of the hardest things I've done"
In his new book, A Woman on the Edge of Time, Jeremy Gavron pieces together the events that led to his mother's suicide when he was four years old
Posted on: Mon 23-Nov-15 10:31:46
(14 comments )
This Christmas it will be fifty years since my mother committed suicide, at the age of twenty-nine. Researching and writing her story over the past six years, trying to understand who she was, why she killed herself, has been one of the hardest things I have ever done.
I was four when she died and I have no memory of her. After her death my father decided it would be best if we didn't talk about her. I grew up knowing her only from a handful of stories my grandmother told about her youthful adventures and mischiefs, and the copies of her posthumously published book, The Captive Wife. It was a study of the conflicts in the lives of young mothers, which I discovered on a high shelf in my teens.
The coroner at her inquest said that he had never come across a case in which the intent was so clear and the reason so mysterious. Suicide, especially the suicide of someone so young, her death so apparently inexplicable - leaves a legacy of shock, guilt, shame and bewilderment. "The suicide doesn't go alone," the novelist William Maxwell has written, "he takes everybody with him."
Investigating my mother's story, I had to battle against decades of silence and evasion. I did eventually have a few conversations with my father, though when I look at the notes I took I see that while he talked about his years with my mother, their friends, the holidays they took, their cars, the boat they bought, the old man who lived on a hut on the foreshore and looked after it for two and sixpence a week - he couldn't bring himself to say much actually about her.
Nor was it easy for me when I did get people to talk about my mother, at least at first. My grandmother's stories - about my mother locking the neighbour in the chicken shed until she promised to stop hitting her son, winning gymkhanas and poetry competitions, wanting to marry my father at seventeen - had made her seem to me like a character out of a fairy tale. The first time I spoke to one of my mother's friends, it was a shock to hear her described, even lovingly, as a real person: selfish, competitive, melodramatic.
Understanding her struggles as a woman in the early 1960s, when so much was being promised to women and so much less was actually attainable - helped me appreciate that it might not have been that she didn't care, but that perhaps at that moment she couldn't.
Another of my grandmother's stories was about my mother having an "affair" with her headmaster at fifteen. I had never questioned this word, had taken it as another example of her precociousness. But now I was told how she would walk down the corridor at night from her dormitory to his study. For a time I became obsessed with this part of her story, thinking it might hold the key to her death. I asked questions no son should ever have to ask about his mother and it was a relief in the end that I never did find out exactly what happened in that study.
But while my researches were painful they were also cathartic. The explanation I had been given for her death, that in her last months she had had an affair that went wrong, seemed so inadequate that it was hard not to believe that she had killed herself too easily, that she couldn't have cared enough about my brother and me. But constructing, piece by piece, an understanding of her struggles as a woman, a mother, a wife, an academic - the difficulties of being an intelligent, ambitious, sexual woman in the early 1960s, when so much was being promised to women and so much less was still actually attainable - helped me to appreciate that it might not have been that she didn't care, but that perhaps at that moment that she couldn't.
Meeting my mother's friends also stirred depths of feelings in me. Early on in my researches I went to Bristol to see one of my mother's closest friends and meeting me at the station she looked me up and down and said, "You look like her." I was forty-seven and it was the first time anyone had ever told me that I looked like my mother - the first time it had occurred to me to consider that this might be true. That evening at home I stood in front of the mirror and reached up to touch the line of my jaw, my mouth, my eyes.
Until I began my investigations I had never spoken to anyone outside the family who knew her and now I met or spoke on the phone with more than seventy of her friends, schoolmates and colleagues. Many were women of the age she would have been, in her late seventies, and I wondered sometimes, in how readily I felt affection for them, how eager I was for their affection, whether I was not searching for something maternal in them.
Though it was also, I came to see, that these were my mother's friends, the people she had chosen to spend time with. I didn't know her, but I was her son, had her blood in me, and I found it easy to like these people who had cared for her, for whom she had cared, to laugh and cry with them. In time I came to think of these meetings as my mother's gift to me.
A Woman on the Edge of Time is this month's Book Club non-fiction choice and we have 15 copies for review to give away.
Don't have time to read it? Try out the audio version for free by signing up to a free trial of audible.
By Jeremy Gavron
I would love to read this. I've just looked at your current photo and the photo of your mum holding you when you were a baby and can't believe nobody had told you how much you resembled her.
It sounds an incredibly moving journey through your mother's life and I hope it helped you come to terms with her death. I can't imagine how hard it is to be the child of a mother who committed suicide.
for you for having the strength to write the book.
I hope I get to read this.
My grandmother spent her life trying to kill herself, until she succeeded in her 60's. When I met her sister (they'd fallen out, and my great aunt disappeared for 40 years), she told me about my dads childhood, and about my grandmothers struggles. We'll never know the whole story, but I think she also cared, but there was too much inside that hurt too much.
Oh gosh. What a thing to deal with. I lost my mother v young and it wasn't really talked about and have a little of an idea of what your research would have felt like. I wish you all the best.
There is love between your mum and you in the photo.
Be careful of others impressions of your Mum. I once did this exercise for myself, years later I 're read their comments on me and their focus was often on important aspects of them, they highlighted in me, rather than about me as an overall person.
I'm so sorry for your loss
We've lost someone this way too - and so I would love to read your book to try to help me understand more. Because there are so many questions aren't there?
I hope writing it helped you a little to begin to find some of those answers
I hope you know you were loved.
I think one thing I've had to learn is it wasn't all about me - there was so much stuff going on for him in his life that I can only ever half know about or understand. It probably wasn't because I wasn't a good enough Auntie.
Everyone asks themselves such questions don't they?
I'm sure for your Mum there was so much else quite apart from her mothering experience
I'm sure she loved her boys x
I normally only lurk on MN, but your beautifully written post has spurred me to begin typing. I wanted to reach out to you and give you a hug and say I'm so sorry this happened to you too. I understand your pain. This also happened to me, although I was a little older than you when our Mum succeeded in her very definite suicide. Finally. The last of many attempts.
I truly understand the quote you included from William Maxwell, "The suicide doesn't go alone, he takes everybody with him." It was so unexpected at the time and it destroyed our family. We all retreated into ourselves and Mum was rarely talked about. We were too young to have developed any sort of emotional resilience by then and we all still struggle with that today.
I laughed about the conversations with your Dad. It's amazing how much nonsense trivia my Dad remembers when I push him (their first car/holiday etc), but how little personal information about my Mum I come away with.
Suicide carries such a stigma. Like you, there have been years of silence and evasion in our family. No-one seems to want to talk about her. (Although it has been years of intermittent counselling for me to actually 'open the box' about it myself). In the last two years, I have attempted to crack open the memories of those around me. I wanted to create a positive memory bank of her to hold on to and take comfort from. It has been dismal so far.
It appears you have been far more successful than I have! I hope piecing together the jigsaw has been healing and helped to fill some of the gaps in your own life. Well done for being brave enough to tackle this and thank you for sharing it with us. You have inspired me to keep going! I look forward to reading your book.
I'm so sorry this happened to you. I could begin to even imagine what it has been like for you and the rest of your family.
I would really like to read your book. Not because I can relate because I can't, I've never lost anyone in that way. I would like to understand the feelings that go with suicide because my job is to arrange funerals. To sit and listen to the grieving families. I'd like to do what I can to understand the depth of their heartbreak X
My mum had a copy of The Captive Wife, and I read it in my teens - it definitely contributed to my feminism. I now have a copy of your book, which I started reading at the weekend. It is a very moving and absorbing read. It must have taken great courage to write it.
What a lovely post. My mum dId not commit suicide but had a "colourful" past which resulted in being cut off from some of her family.Even after her death relatives and friends have been reluctant to be very honest with my brother and I . I would just like the truth as I loved her dearly whatever she did. Look forward to reading your book x
It sounds like your book was a real labour of love and I can only imagine the mixed feelings it must have brought up for you. It wasn't an easy journey to undertake never mind share with the world.
My dad committed suicide after killing my mum. I was six. That was 40 years ago. I and my younger sister have spent a long number of years researching and putting together the pieces of their lives. It's been hard and mind blowing at times. We found out about other siblings (one of which we traced and are in contact with), my dad's PTSD and ling term MH issues, my mum's inability to be happy after the forced adoption of her first two children. It's not a happy story but my parents were also 28 & 29 when they died and its so young.
I hope you've found peace.
Oh god, coffeeisnectar, what an awful experience for you and your sister. Thank god you had your sister. To lose both of them like that must have been terrible. It sounds as though your parents had very sad lives.
I'm so sorry coffeeisnectar
Of course those few words and a couple of emoticons are completely inadequate for your heartbreak, but I thought I'd offer them anyway x
Partly because having suffered a suicide in our family it's surprising how many people don't say anything to you about your loss. I guess it's too painful even for them.
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