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Cut Short

In a memoir about her sister’s 1990 suicide, Jill Bialosky reckons with Judaism’s complicated—and still evolving—position on the taking of one’s own life

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Jill Bialosky. (Joanne Chan)

As an editor at W.W. Norton & Company, Jill Bialosky has earned a reputation as a kind, gracious, and thoughtful reader. She is also a well-regarded poet and novelist, and now, with the publication of her latest book, she can be considered a memoirist as well. History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life (Atria Books), a New York Times best-seller, revisits the night of April 15, 1990, when the author’s 21-year-old sister Kim came home late one night, argued with her boyfriend on the phone, and decided to end her life. Supplementing family history with material from Kim’s diaries, Bialosky traces the events that led her sister to suicide—without allowing Kim’s identity to be defined solely by her death. This Saturday, Bialosky—together with authors Dani Shapiro and Darin Strauss—will be part of panel discussing memoir writing at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel. As she prepared for the engagement, I caught up with Bialosky to discuss her family, Jewish attitudes toward suicide, and the persistence of grief.

You were forced to deal with loss at an early age: Your father, who came from a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, died of a heart attack when you were only 2 years old. Your mother, also Jewish, remarried a Catholic man (Kim’s father), but they divorced a few years later. What role did religion play in your household?

I feel identified as Jewish, even though my family was not particularly religious. It is a way of being that is hard to articulate, but has to do with certain fundamental moral constructs that are passed down through the generations. I had a biblical upbringing, so to speak. I took the interpretations of the Torah and the Ten Commandments very seriously as a child. They instilled a certain honor code of what is wrong and right and provided a context. When my mother married an Irish Catholic man, I was more aware of the differences between us, and I think some of it had to do with how we were raised.

Did Jewish ritual help you to process the loss of your sister?

I like the ritual of sitting shivah. It solves a few logistical problems in the sense that mourners are supported and cared for by a community of loved ones bringing over meals, organizing prayers, and by the simple fact of their company. The truth is that when you are grieving it feels good to see people you care about and to express affection for the loved one who has died. It reminds us that we are not alone, that all of us must eventually face death. It gives us permission to grieve in a culture that is uncomfortable with grief. I like the idea of seven days given over only to honor and mourn. There are other rituals that were a comfort to me. I love the reciting of the 23rd Psalm at graveside. It is one of the most beautiful poems in our language, and I found myself repeating lines from it over and over in the initial weeks of my grieving.

You belong to a synagogue, and in the book you mention feeling uncertainty about whether it was faith that drew you there or a desire to feel a connection with Kim.

My mother once told me that she cannot go into a synagogue without feeling the need to cry, and I feel the same way. I wonder if the impulse is connected to an ancient, tribunal, and communal experience. I feel and hear sorrow and joy in the singing, chanting, and reading of Hebrew. It is an ancient calling, a pull, and I am drawn to it and am comforted by it in inexplicable ways. It makes me feel as if I am in the presence of something larger than myself.

In the book there’s a difficult scene, the day before Kim’s funeral, in which your family seeks the rabbi’s counsel. Could you talk about that?

Judaism has a complicated relationship with suicide. It is considered a form of “self-murder,” and traditionally a Jew who commits suicide is denied privileges: no eulogies should be given, and burial in the main section of the Jewish cemetery is normally not allowed. However, as far as I understand it, the thinking is changing, and because suicide is often an act committed by victims of depression or mental illness, the act is not seen as really voluntary. Judaism also recognizes that mourning rituals exist as much for the living survivors as for the dead, and that these elements ought to be carried out even in the case of suicide. There is also the idea that a person undertaking self-murder may have changed his or her mind and repented at the last moment, so the benefit of the doubt is given and regular burial and mourning rituals can take place.

When we met with our rabbi after Kim’s suicide, he was speechless. He did not know how to comfort us, and I wondered if it had to do with Judaism’s relationship to suicide. But what I love about Judaism is that it is a religion that questions and ponders and interprets. Even though I was disappointed that the rabbi could offer us no comfort, I also felt that he truly felt our loss, and that he too was stricken by it, and maybe there was no comfort to offer. Later I would learn that he lost a stepson to suicide.

You have written about your sister’s suicide in your fiction and poetry, but only metaphorically and obliquely. How did you realize you were ready to face the issue directly?

I quote in the book from a letter Robert Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in explaining his need to write a particular work: “I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait hidden inside me like a dead child.” I suppose I felt the same about my need to give voice to my sister’s experience in a direct way and to shed light on the mystery and danger of suicide. Memoir writing is to a certain extent about the persistence of memory. The persistence of my sister’s memory was this book’s muse. I told myself that if I could create her inner world and give some order to the chaos that suicide inflicts, perhaps I might begin to fathom a piece of what Melville refers to as the “ungraspable phantom of life,” which for me is a perfect metaphor for suicide.

How has your relationship to grief changed over time?

I have a passage in my book I have called “The Eternal Life of Grief.” I write that the mysterious part of grief is that you think you can will it away. You can refuse to think about it. In one part of your mind you can hold it, but sometimes you must let it go. Sometimes grief disappears for months at a time and you tell yourself: “I’m past this now.” And then grief comes to visit again like a long-lost friend. It is mysterious, but never take it for granted. Get to know it as well as you know your best friend. To answer your question more directly, I have accepted grief as a part of my life.

Carmela Ciuraru has edited several poetry anthologies and is the author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, to be published by HarperCollins in June.

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Harriet Levin says:

I really enjoyed reading this interview! It reinforces community, (and I didn’t now Jewish Law had reconsidered its harsh attitude toward suicides, so it was good to learn that) so important when there’s a loss.

JCarpenter says:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. . . .”
The suicide apparently can’t respond in belief to the presence and aid of God; but does the act of suicide, the lack of faith and endurance, trump the grace and goodness of God? Does God not rescue, regardless of one’s faith or doubt?
“. . . and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Not because of who I am, but of who God is.

Yaakov Hillel says:

The Talmud does not go very much in to the matter; however, brings a story of a student who kills himself after a prostitute steals his tefilin and brings them to his Rabbi in order to shame him. Even though the student was innocent of what the prostitute charged he commited suicide,and the Rabbis did not come down against the students actions.

Berta Calechman says:

Thank you to Jill Bialosky for her eloquent passage “The Eternal Life of Grief.” It mirrors my feelings on the death of my mother, even after 14 years, but I didn’t have the right words to elucidate why grief never leaves your side. Ms. Bialosky does.

Thank you for this profound article. As someone who has struggled with sever depression for many, many years, I live in a world where suicide is always at my door. I have often wondered if Judaism’s view would change.

I disregard the practices and “habits” of the very orthodox because they believe that the Torah was written by GOD and can’t be touched. I know that the Torah was written by the priests of the Temple, whose heredity goes back to Aaron who was very “meshugah”. Conservative and reform Rabbis attribute suicide to come from mental illness, which an individual can’t control or cure. Would you fault someone who dies from a brain tumor or a stroke? Of course not.
No one is immortal in this life, only in the thoughts of their descendants. I would treat suicide as a mental aberration, which can be caused by a brain malfunction or disease, have the same grieving as for a person who died from cancer or a stroke or blood clot.

JCarpenter says:

God bless you Berta and TM—He is also at your side and at the door.

Pennywhistler says:

At the risk of going slightly off-topic, I cannot let Berel Nissan’s post go without comment.

1) “I disregard the practices and “habits” of the very orthodox because they believe that the Torah was written by GOD and can’t be touched.”

Fifteen minutes after my class in aggadah and midrash, I would say that we Jews KNOW that Torah can be touched. Indeed, MUST be touched. What you don’t want to do is change the text to leave out the “inconvenient” parts.

< R. Yirmiyah said: The Torah has already been give at Sinai. We pay no heed to heavenly voices, since it has already been written in the Torah at Sinai, 'follow the majority' (Shemot 23: 2)." R. Natan came upon Eliyahu. He said to him: "What is God doing at this time?" Eliyahu said: "He is laughing and saying, 'My children have defeated me; My children have defeated me'." (Bava Metzia 59)

The Gemara suggests that we are to interpret the Torah without explicit Divine assistance in this process, but it does not call for the currently popular standpoint of personal freedom from religious authority structures.

2) "I know that the Torah was written by the priests of the Temple, whose heredity goes back to Aaron who was very “meshugah”.

There's a big difference between knowing something and surmising something.

I surmise that our Prophets and our Judges had a larger hand in the Torah than the Temple priests … who were rather busy
with cultic activities.

3) "Conservative and reform Rabbis attribute suicide to come from mental illness, which an individual can’t control or cure."

First I've heard of it. If you have any sources ……

Till then, here is the Reform responsa on suicide – http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/05-Worship/section-66.html

The Conservative responsa: "Those who commit suicide and those who aid others in doing so act out of a plethora of motives. … In this age of individualism and broken and scattered families, the mitzvah of visiting the sick becomes all the more crucial."

Pennywhistler says:

“the priests of the Temple, whose heredity goes back to Aaron who was very “meshugah”.”

First I heard of it.

And a Google search of came up blank.

And it probably wasn’t a great idea to post that in a discussion of a woman’s suicide, Berel.

Jennifer says:

To Pennywhistler,

Great comments! But I think you misunderstood Berel’s point. I think what this person is trying to say is that suicide is a result of mental illness. As with other illnesses the sick person shouldn’t be punished for being sick.

I understand the Responsa from the Conservative movement that you quote to be saying that the community has a responsibility to be aware of both the mental and physical health of it’s members.

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Cut Short

In a memoir about her sister’s 1990 suicide, Jill Bialosky reckons with Judaism’s complicated—and still evolving—position on the taking of one’s own life

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