The psychological devastation branded forever on family members when a loved one commits suicide became increasing evident as I read In Her Wake. What I heard from its compelling pages were two words: “What if?”
What if I understood Mama Nancy differently? What if papa treated her in a different way? What if Grandma Edith supported Nancy’s wishes instead of her husband’s? What if Nancy never divorced? What if mama won the custody battle for her children instead of papa?
The author’s tale is an emotional revelation of a child psychiatrist whose mother took her own life by deliberately ingesting an overdose of barbiturates in the form of sleeping pills. Her mother, Nancy, seemed to be outgoing, popular, in control and relatively happy with an extremely busy social calendar. Yet, the one issue which deeply troubled her was this: Nancy was deeply saddened that in spite of all attempts to gain custody of her children, she could not wrest them from her divorced husband.
Throughout the book, Rappaport examines a variety of influences which may have led to her mother’s death. Early on, she wonders what damage the drowning death of Nancy’s sister had on her psychic makeup. As a therapist, Rappaport adds, “I believe that when my mother lost her sister she was forced to grieve … and never learned how to cope with overwhelming sadness.”
In fact, Rappaport’s grandmother Edith blamed her daughter, Nancy, for her sister’s death: “Why couldn’t it have been you?” Nancy was allegedly in town drinking at the time. As painful as these words seem, as a therapist, Rappaport explains that the agony brought on by an offspring’s death often causes depression in a parent, who then tries to punish herself and those around her.
In Her Wake portrays a household where the author grew up in a task-oriented, wealthy, socially active, atmosphere. If love was present, it was busily hidden. Affectionate emotions were superficial or lacking. Her parents appeared argumentative and quick to anger.
Rappaport reports that her father came home with the 1953 Jaycees’ award as Outstanding Young Man of the Year. Yet when he proudly presented it to his socialite wife, she said, “What the heck am I going to do with this? Hang it in the bathroom?”
Once again, analyst Rappaport defends her mother for not attending the awards ceremony and her demeaning attitude toward it. She claims that both parents were only in their twenties and did not yet know how to be kind and forgiving.
Eventually, the author’s mother had an affair. Divorce followed. Papa was granted custody of the children. Regardless of the scandal, Mama was convinced that if she could show a definite stability in her life, she could prove it before a judge and win back her offspring. That never happened. Nancy remarried, possibly in an attempt to show how her life had stabilized. Still, her children were the possession of her Bostonian philanthropist husband who had remarried. Just months later, his divorced wife committed suicide.
As a whole, In Her Wake is somewhat clinical, but I'm sure that's what the author intended. She cannot help put her analyst’s interpretation on events leading up to her mother’s death. She attempts to answer over and over again, the “What if?” question she can never escape because her mother is not here to explain.
She argues that if a person is in a delicate, threatening, emotional state, that person should be seen by a psychiatrist who can administer medications to chemically alter the destructive thought patterns of the brain until the dangerous mental state can be analyzed, understood, and effectively dealt with. Often, this is accomplished through cognitive therapy where clients are taught to write out deeply troubling thoughts, name them, and then rebut them.