“You do not merely stretch rhino leather over your own fair skin, for that would deflect pleasure as well as pain, and you do not permit your being to turn stinking inside a shell, but what you do it swirl yourself in the toughness of dreams.” (Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues)
Traci Foust’s memoir provides an extremely honest insight into life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Foust’s ability to clearly convey the intensity of the distress involved in this illness is startling. There are times in the reading of this book hat I had to walk away, pause to remind myself that I was not a part of her obsessions, but that I was an outsider, looking in – this is how real this book seems for readers. When Foust hid in the bathroom to brush her teeth repeatedly with bleach, I felt as though I was there with her, burying the shame of the need to eradicate any possibility of germs existing in her world. When she traipsed through the house at all hours of the morning while the world was asleep, unplugging appliances because she had convinced herself that if she didn’t, bad things would undoubtedly happen to her, her family, everyone she loved, I too traipsed after her, worrying for her, with her. And I think that this is part of what Foust is trying to convey in this account: ”Later still would come the gratitude toward all the secret hardships a parent must endure and the steadfast patience required to raise a difficult child.”
The bulk of this book is about Foust’s inability to see beyond her own obsessive behaviour, the difficulty she has in being honest with people she cares for and the challenges involved in trying to make something of her life when she is so immersed in and gripped by obscure compulsions. Fortunately for her, she is surrounded by a relatively supportive family, although at times she cannot see this.
Beneath all the trauma of the OCD is the sadness that envelopes Traci as she is immobilised and lost in the mire of her obsessions. Her inability to escape leaves her bereft of hope and stuck in an endless, disabling cycle. How can she possibly define herself when she is so consumed by these obsessions?
Needless to say, I found this book extremely disturbing. Foust has since been diagnosed with Aspergers which clearly sheds further light on the workings of her mind.
“Before Kim ended her life, I thought, like most people, that someone who would take his or her own life was somehow different from the rest of us. I was wrong.”
This is how Bialosky begins her account of her “voyage to come to grips” with her sister’s suicide.
On one level, there is almost nothing more to say about this book. Its subject matter is so fraught, so intense, so complex, that trying to encapsulate it in the confines of a review like this cannot possibly do it even an iota of justice. Bialosky’s narrative is guilt ridden and twisted, the challenges of her sister’s suicide enmeshed with those challenges that confront her own life. She cannot separate one tragedy from the other and there is no point trying.
But, despite the sorrow and despair that lines the edges of these pages, Bialosky’s memoir is magnificently told. It is littered with references that expose the author as a fine literary afficionado. There are allusions to Styron, to Eliot and to Plath’s The Bell Jar. In trying to understand her sister’s action, Bialosky (I want to call her Jill!) journeys into the very heart of what makes people suicidal, she visits psychologists, reads everything written on the subject, crawls into the skin of her sister, pouring over her journal, retracing steps over and over and over again, seeking some sense, or perhaps just seeking absolution.
What makes this such a particularly beautiful book is that Bialosky knows that her sister’s “life and death have shaped us in profound ways”, she knows that her sister’s loss is a shadow over her life, “wrapped inside the tree that shades our yard” and that the dialogue she will have with her sister’s death “is never ending”. Ironically she writes: “In her death I was closer to her than I had been the few years before she died when she had kept a wedge between us so I would not catch sight of the troubled person she had become.”
So, while Bialosky spends almost the entire book exploring the reasons for her sister’s suicide and evaluating her own reactions to the event, what she has actually written is a love story, for “no one is truly dead when we go on loving them.” The compassion and grace with which she positions herself and her family in this book is testimony to her realisation that “the tragedy of suicide is that only in its aftermath does everything that came before suddenly seem important and dear.”
Quite simply one of the most beautiful, breath-taking books I think I have ever had the pleasure to read.
Posted in American Literature
Tagged Bailosky, Balsky, Bialsky, Biolsky, death, Disorders, Health, History of a Suicide, Jill Bialosky, Kim, Mental Health, Suicide