Suicide and Storytelling: That Happened

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ColumnWhen I was a junior in high school, two girls took their own lives. Twenty years later, I realize how writing about a friend’s suicide has shaped my outlook on storytelling.

Twenty years ago this week, my mom was standing in the kitchen and asked me a simple question: Do you know Mari Mannion and Liz Gallagher?

There was something about the way she said it, or maybe the look on her face, that sent a shockwave through my body. I did know them.

On April 30th, 1994, when we were juniors in high school, Mari and Liz took their own lives and everything changed. It seemed like the whole world was focused on our school. The adults did what they could to protect us from the media (two young, popular girls committing suicide in a nice Chicago suburb is news, whether it should be or not, and our school was bombarded).

The sense that outsiders saw our collective loss as “a story” was troubling and set the stage for how I think about writing today.

I worry a lot about whether some of the stories I share are mine to tell.

I hadn’t planned to write about Mari and Liz, or suicide, but today, I can’t think about anything else. I woke up and was instantly transported back to 1994 via Facebook. Old photos. Names popping up that I hadn’t thought about in years. I dug out a photo from camp and a cartoon Mari gave me when I was sad after a breakup in high school.

Liz had been an acquaintance of mine. I didn’t know her well and don’t mean to diminish the impact of her loss by focusing more on Mari. Hundreds of other people have Liz stories.

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Mari and I met in grade school at a girl scout camp and I instantly decided she was the coolest person ever. We went to different schools, and so didn’t really reconnect until a year or so later when we were in a production of “Little Guys and Little Dolls.” Mari was thrown into the chorus as a Hot Box girl and I was cast as General Cartwright. A role I got because it involved not singing and not dancing. Basically, I marched.

Our parts left us with lots of downtime. My biggest memory of that show was during one rehearsal, the director saying, “Libby and Mari, if you can’t stop talking you might as well just leave.” So we left.

While we hung out with different crowds in high school, we chose to be dance partners in a gym class called Dance of the Decades — which shockingly few boys signed up for — and worked on the school newspaper together.

I write all of this for context, but also, I recognize, as a self-conscious way to legitimize my relationship with Mari. To give myself permission to write this story. Which is exactly what I felt I needed to do in high school when I wrote a profile of her for the school newspaper.

Because I was a junior, the profile should have been written by one of the senior editors. But, as my friend and I remember it, I basically freaked out at a staff meeting and said that I would be writing the profile. I don’t know if I cried or just looked so intense and scary that someone said yes, but I was the one who went to Mari’s house and talked to her mom about Mari’s life.

As I walked into her living room, I felt for the first time a very specific sense of anxiety that has resurfaced over and over again in my career: Fear that others might think I am using their pain for my own self-interest.

I felt an intense need for her mom to know that Mari was my friend, even though I wasn’t in her close circle and she probably hadn’t heard my name in years. I wanted to be recognized as someone who loved her, not seen as another asshole reporter chasing the Oak Park Suicide Story.

My only goal was to to write something her mom, family members and her closest friends would like.

I was intensely conscious of the fact that her best friends might be like, “Who the hell are YOU to write about Mari?” It was high school; she was popular, I was a grunge kid. While the social divides weren’t pulled from a John Hughes movie, people did tend to have school friends and friend friends. We were school friends.

I was consumed with the idea that people would think I was trying to act like I was closer to Mari than I was. It’s highly possible that no one gave a shit and that, as a 16-year-old, I was only at the center of my own mind, not anyone else’s. But try telling a 16-year-old that.

It’s a fact that nothing that happens to me and me alone is worth writing about. So, even when I’m writing a personal essay, I’m almost always telling someone else’s story — whether they agreed to let me or not.

Years later, I read David Sedaris’ story, “Repeat After Me,” and thought: “Oh god, yes. That.” In the story, Sedaris writes about how no one is safe around him. All of his family’s stories become his. There’s a parrot involved. It’s a wonderful story.

At the time I read it, it resonated because I was writing about my grandmother’s suicide attempt and wondering what she would think if she could have read the story.

The answer, for some, is not to do this — to leave these stories unwritten. But I can’t.

So, I have decided that if what I am writing is true, and if I am writing a story because, like today, I cannot imagine not writing it, I have to trust that my intention will be felt by readers.

In all of the back and forth on Facebook, a close friend of Mari and Liz’s posted a comment: “Libby, I just re-read the profile that you did on Mari. I’m not sure how you were able to do that back then, but I’m so glad that you did.”

How much that comment means to me is impossible to explain. All I know is that 20 years ago, I felt consumed by the need to write something true, which is exactly how I feel now.

That Happened is Libby Lowe’s weekly column for EcoSalon. Here, she shares personal stories, and analyzes news and pop culture through a feminist lens. Keep in touch with Libby @LibbyLowe.

Images: Libby Lowe

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