“Life After Death”
Those who agree with the notion, attributed to Socrates, that "the unexamined life is not worth living" will find a great deal to mine in the recently published memoir "Life After Death: Surviving Suicide" by Richard Brockman, M.D.
On a mid-December afternoon in 1954, the author, a boy of 7, returned home from school. After searching for his mother, Ruth, throughout the family house in the Manhattan Beach section of Brooklyn, the youngster went down to the basement. There he discovered his mother's body, a suicide by hanging.
By his own account, "When my mother killed herself on December 15, she ended the biology of her life. When my mother killed herself on December 15, she ended the narrative of mine. Her suicide ended the narrative of who I was. When my mother killed herself, she ended the narrative of her seven-year, seven-month, two-day-old boy."
What follows is a deeply personal account of how Richard, slowly and painfully, got free of the stultifying grasp of trauma in order to reclaim and recreate the narrative of his life.
Pairs figure prominently. Dr. Brockman speaks of having two birthdays — the day on which he came into the world and the day, seven-plus years later, when the life he had known was wiped out and replaced by another life, this one full of questions, insecurities, and acting out. (His rampant denial was abetted by his father's abject refusal even to mention his late wife, let alone acknowledge her absence.) This new life was numbing.
The author speaks of two mothers, one engaged and loving, the other distant and suffering. It would be many years before the little boy would come to know that his mother suffered from bipolar depression, which began months before his birth (stemming possibly from the multiple miscarriages she had before and after the births of his two older sisters), and to understand the many dimensions of that condition.
Finally, this can be considered two successive and very different stories, each narrated in stylistically sharply different ways.
This memoir — certainly the first 70 percent of it — requires close and careful reading. It is the detailed narration of the author's life from his birth through the event of his mother's suicide. This portion of his story is seen through the optic of trying to understand why Ruth Brockman ended her own life. In what feels almost like stream of consciousness, there is a seamless melding of story, dialogue (much of which must have been created in the author's imagination), and what Dr. Brockman has learned as a physician and psychotherapist. The science (medicine, biology, genetics, psychoanalysis) is brought in through carefully annotated quotations from myriad experts.
He recounts, for example, that not long after his mother's death, he entered the old Pennsylvania Station with his father and siblings, about to board a train for a vacation in Florida, when he was certain he heard his mother calling him.
And then I heard from far off, "Richard."
I looked around. . . .
"Richard," I heard a woman's voice.
"Richard," my father said. "You could get lost."
— and when I heard that, I realized why I was lost. She was my map. . . .
"She's here," I thought, looking to see where she might be.
And then he cites "Unclaimed Experience" by Cathy Caruth, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1996: "The crisis at the core of many traumatic narratives often emerges as an urgent question. Is the trauma the encounter with death or the ongoing experience of having survived?"
As impressive as his courage in sharing so personal and difficult a story is the literary skill with which he weaves these disparate elements into a cogent tale. A recurring motif is reference to his favorite childhood book, "The Story of Babar" by Jean de Brunhoff. ("In the great forest a little elephant is born. His mother loved him very much. She loved her baby Babar.") Babar's adventures begin, not coincidentally here, after his beloved mother is killed by a hunter.
Thus, more than half of the book consists of the author's search for an explanation of why and how this terrible and terrifying thing occurred in his life. In seeking to understand his loss and its effects upon him, he brings to bear all the science he can access.
But this is a memoir, after all, and once past the immediate aftermath of his traumatic loss, the voice shifts from that of the investigator to the straightforward narrator of the ensuing chapters of Dr. Brockman's life. We read of the troubled undergraduate at Williams College, a faculty adviser who recognizes the difficulties he is having and insists on his seeing a specialist at the Austen Riggs psychiatric center, and the rocky start to his therapy. As a psychiatrist himself, Dr. Brockman brings a knowing hand to the description of his own therapeutic journey.
Ultimately, there is a breakthrough, and for the first time since he was 7 the patient is able to assert, "I feel alive." Eventually, he will choose medicine, and psychiatry, as his life work. One can speculate about what gave rise to his choice — the need to learn more deeply about the genesis of his particular narrative, or a wish to emulate the therapist who contributed so significantly to his "rebirth."
As difficult as it may be to read about a mother's spiral of emotional unraveling that leads to the ending of her life by her own hand, or about the devastation her suicide wrought on her 7-year-old son, the pleasure of this book is being exposed to the first-rate intellect of its author. Not only is Dr. Brockman learned, but he is also wise. His descriptions, for example, of the essential connection between memory and story in each of us is clarifying.
He quotes his therapist at Austen Riggs: "Since your mother's suicide, you have been trying to make sense of what she did to herself, to you, what she did to your story. . . . Memory, like belief, like all psychological phenomena, is an action: essentially, it is the action of telling a story."
Dr. Brockman tells his own story masterfully. It is not surprising that, in addition to serving as clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a visiting professor at the University of Namibia, he has also written several plays that have been produced Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway, and on international stages.
My only quibble with "Life After Death," and it is really a quibble with the editor rather than with the author, is that when characters speak in foreign tongues — in this case, Italian and Yiddish — it would be a service to the reader to provide translations of what they are saying. Granted, one can look up the Italian. But Yiddish? Good luck with that.
Jim Lader, who owned a weekend home in East Hampton for many years, has reviewed books for The Star since 2009.
Richard Brockman lives in East Hampton.