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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review: In Her Wake

In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide
Nancy Rappaport
Basic Books
293 pages
a copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

What relationship is more primal, more primary, than that between mother and child? To lose this relationship at a young age must be devastating, but to lose a mother to suicide would be shattering. Nancy Rappaport suffered such a loss, and her memoir In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide is her attempt to understand her mother's suicide. Rappaport acts almost as an investigative reporter, tracking down whatever information she can, to put together the puzzle of a mother, a desperate act, and the circumstances and motivations that prompted the act.

Nancy Rappaport was her mother's youngest child and her mother's namesake. Only four when her mother took her own life, Rappaport grew up in a turbulent time and a complicated family. Not until she was settled in her own family life, a graduate of prestigious universities, a medical doctor and practicing child psychiatrist, did Rappaport begin to seriously explore the mystery of her mother. Why did her mother kill herself? Was it because she had just had another set-back in the custody battle for her six children? Or was she simply so unstable that she could not cope with her life as a wife, a mother, and a daughter?

In Her Wake is a careful memoir, meticulously fair to everyone involved. Rappaport often keeps a clinical distance between herself and her subject. It doesn't take much imagination to speculate that Rappaport's profession might be, in part, a response to the early trauma she suffered. Her training as a psychiatrist, and her practice as a child psychiatrist, give her the professional background for understanding both her mother and her child self. And it was not only Rappaport who was affected, but also her siblings and step-siblings. In such a large family, the dynamics are complicated, and Rappaport does a good job of delineating the personalities of the individual children in the family.

Rappaports parents divorced when the author was quite young, and one of the puzzles she tries to solve is the cause of the divorce. This is tricky territory for the author, and it must have been difficult to conduct such a close examination of her parents' intimate lives. Clearly, the Rappaports had a volatile relationship, and their marriage might have been at risk no matter what. But an extramarital affair between Rappaport's mother and a younger man precipitated a separation and divorce. What most readers will probably find surprising and perhaps troubling is that Rappaport's father, Jerry, remarried, and his new wife was the ex-wife of his first wife's affair partner. When I reached this point in the narrative, I think I said "Whoa" out loud and put down the book. Rappaport grew up with her six siblings, plus her stepmother Barbara's three sons from her first marriage, plus the two daughters that Jerry Rappaport had with second wife Barbara.

That is a pretty complicated family dynamic, and Rappaport shows admirable fairness in her analysis of her own family. The narrative Rappaport constructs is absorbing and sometimes dark and sad. However, given the traumatic past this author is exploring, her overall tone is forgiving, and in the end life-affirming.

Nancy Rappaport explores her own mother's psyche through the use of interviews, newspaper articles, various documents, and her mother's own journals and unpublished novel. She is on a pyschological journey , and it is a journey that seems to have been necessary to the author; perhaps all children of suicides would feel this impulse to make sense of such a grave loss.

Rappaport's mother comes across as a vibrant woman, somewhat troubled, struggling with her own personal demons. It is also clear that there was a power struggle going on between Jerry and Nancy Rappaport that perhaps no one can entirely understand. The couple were wealthy, educated, and extremely privileged. The story of their lives takes place during turbulent times for our country; in Boston there were protests and violence over school desegregation, yet this family is curiously insulated, in a world of private schools and frequent travel to Europe. Money, privilege, and access to psychiatric treatment may have helped the survivors of suicide's aftermath, but none of it could save this troubled young mother.

Nancy Rappaport, the grown daughter of a suicide, now a mother of three, a wife and a psychiatrist herself, comes across as more interested in understanding than in being understood. She is more than fair to her father and siblings, and even goes to some pains to be conciliatory toward her husband's second wife (her stepmother). Jerry Rappaport's third wife, Phyllis, is also given her due and described in the most gracious terms. At times the narrative is somewhat clinical--Rappaport refers to several studies and reports--which adds to the sense of balance and fairness. Rappaport's writing is sophisticated and at times poetic, and the pace moves along at a steady clip. This memoir is everything a memoir should be: lacking in self-pity, fair, necessary to the author and others, and above all, interesting. Rappaport gives the reader a sense that she has answered some necessary questions for herself, and readers who have had similar experiences may find comfort in Rappaport's story. I would recommend this memoir to readers who have suffered any kind of traumatic loss in childhood, because Rappaport offers a guide for those who might be tempted to explore past wounds in a way that is healing, rather than destructive. This memoir is also worthy on its own merits: it tells a compelling story about interesting people, and anyone alive probably will find the dynamics of this particular family pretty fascinating.


bermudaonion said...

This does sound fascinating but also quite dark. It sounds like it's well worth reading.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one - it sounds amazing.

Thanks for being a part of the tour.

StephTheBookworm said...

I just reviewed this one and also really liked it.

Bybee said...

It sounds very dark. Must go find it. Thanks for the review!

Ben said...

Great review, you're selling me that book. I love this sort of stories. Now, my question. According to you, is Nancy Rappaport idealizing her mother?

Audra said...

I enjoyed this book despite the heavy topics; I really liked how careful Rappaport was in telling the story. I found it very compassionate (even though I wanted to shake her father, for example).

bibliophiliac said...

@bermudaonion-there were a few moments when I had to take a break. But this book is not as dark as it could have been.
@Steph-I'll check out your review-I always like to see what other people thought.
@Bybee-thanks, I hope you like it!

bibliophiliac said...

@Ben-thanks! I don't think Rappaport does idealize her mother-she is pretty clear on her mother's weaknesses, and at the end of the book, she shows some anger (don't want to reveal too much). If anything, I think Rappaport is too kind to her father-she clearly wants to retain the relationship. This memoir struck me as being especially fair to everyone depicted-a difficult task, since the adults involved didn't always behave well.

bibliophiliac said...

@Audra-I agree with you about Rappaport's carefulness and compassion. I'm also with you on wanting to shake the father. He came across as culpable, although Rappaport did not take that stance herself. The book made me interested enough to do a little internet research-a sure sign that I was really engaged by the book.

Nancy Rappaport said...

THANK YOU so much for such a thoughtful and careful analysis of my memoir. I was on vacation.. white water kayaking when this came out.
Ben, I do think at the start of my investigation I did idealize my mother and was hard on my father. Often with kids, the parent that stays gets the heat and the absent parent can be idealized. But I did NOT want to idealize her suicide and was careful to include details in the end that show how brutal this is.
Audra, my father had a very tough task, I was tenacious about wanting to tell this story. He is now 82 years old and rightfully proud of who he is and I was revisiting painful events forty years ago. So I was navigating charged terrain. With suicide it is so easy to look to blame in a family and this can be corrosive. It is a tragedy. And healing comes from compassion.
Thank you again for helping me share my memoir.
SIncerely, Nancy

bibliophiliac said...

@Nancy Rappaport-thanks so much for your comments!