Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book Review: In Her Wake

I just finished reading a wonderful book called In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide, by Nancy Rappaport.

I get sent a lot of books to review, several per week, but who has the time to read them all, much less review them? And I have to say when I read the rather depressing title, I was not highly motivated, especially since my own mother committed suicide when I was 20. I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of reliving that painful time in my life. But once I cracked the book open I realized that this was not a depressing memoir, but a fine work of literature with the flair and suspense of a mystery novel.

Here is the book's opening sentence: "The day my mother killed herself, she had just finished her house on Marlborough Street for the anticipated return of her children after a fierce custody battle with my father." That hooked me and kept me reading for the next 282 pages.

We learn much about families and how they are torn asunder by divorce, and how divorce, in this case, led to tragedy. The author did a huge amount of research, finding journals and letters and even an unpublished novel written by her mother, and we read excerpts that give us an astonishing sense of being in the mind of a woman spiraling toward suicide. This was a remarkably intelligent and accomplished person who lived in a heady social circle including the top political and economic figures in Boston in the 1950s. Her husband, Jerome Rappaport, was the real estate developer who razed Boston's storied West End and built high rise condos in its place. Having done my residency at Mass General, which is adjacent to the old West End (now the Charles River Park development), I had heard many stories about the controversial urban renewal project and was therefore particularly fascinated to meet the so-called "villain" behind the project. Suffice it to say that the reality of the project was much more nuanced than the popular legend.

Equally fascinating are Rappaport's colorful descriptions of marital and family life in the 50s and 60s. We read about spouse-swapping (visions of Updike), about a gigantic blended family of 11 children piling into a station wagon for a cross-country trip (visions of Nabokov, minus the pedophilia), and vicious fights between an estranged husband and wife, with small children watching, cringingly, from the sidelines.

There's really so much more to this book than I would have predicted. I highly recommend it.

The specs:
In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide, Nancy Rappaport, New York: Basic Books, 2009, web site


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, Danny. I will pick up a copy.

Anonymous said...

Dr. C:
I sometimes don't agree with your bent. But this is a very courageous post. I imagine it must have been quite difficult to read this book in light of what you shared with us about your mother. I applaud you and hope that you have found some measure of peace with it all.

Doug Bremner said...

I am sorry to hear about your mother, Danny. My mother died suddenly when I was four and half years old, and I wrote about it here.

wetnurse said...

Dr. Dan,

Thank you so much for this. I already ordered a copy.

Thank you also for sharing your own personal experience. I know that the process of healing can never be complete.

News of this book is particularly timely for me, as I am involved with helping our small community come to grips with a recent tragedy. You may have heard about it. A farmer in our town killed his 51 milking cows before turning the gun on himself.

Thank you again.

Unknown said...

Altho I don't personally know you, I know the pain of loss to suicide (my 22 yr. old nephew died "out of the blue") and a close friend lost her father (a cardiovascular surgeon) and 2 brothers to suicide, and another long time friend lost his mother. I don't know if you, or any others who read this, have ever gotten involved with the AFSP sponsored walks, to raise funds and awareness, lower stigma, and provide a level of support that only those who have been there can provide. This summer, it is being held in Boston. I urge people to get involved as walkers, volunteers, or donors. Susan Fredriksen

Manz said...

Thank you... for this. i wonder how difficult it must 've been to objectively pen down such memories.. it isnt easy ...