A sublimely elegant, fractured reckoning with the legacy and inheritance of suicide in one American family.
In 2009, Juliet Patterson was recovering from a serious car accident when she learned her father had died by suicide. His death was part of a disturbing pattern in her family. Her father’s father had taken his own life; so had her mother’s. Over the weeks and months that followed, grieving and in physical pain, Patterson kept returning to one question: Why? Why had her family lost so many men, so many fathers, and what lay beneath the silence that had taken hold?
In three graceful movements, Patterson explores these questions. In the winter of her father’s death, she struggles to make sense of the loss—sifting through the few belongings he left behind, looking to signs and symbols for meaning. As the spring thaw comes, she and her mother depart Minnesota for her father’s burial in her parents’ hometown of Pittsburg, Kansas. A once-prosperous town of promise and of violence, against people and the land, Pittsburg is now literally undermined by abandoned claims and sinkholes. There, Patterson carefully gathers evidence and radically imagines the final days of the grandfathers—one a fiery pro-labor politician, the other a melancholy businessman—she never knew. And finally, she returns to her father: to the haunting subjects of goodbyes, of loss, and of how to break the cycle.
A stunning elegy that vividly enacts Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell it slant,” Sinkhole richly layers personal, familial, political, and environmental histories to provide not answers but essential, heartbreaking truth.
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Praise and Prizes
“After her father took his own life in 2009 at age 77, Patterson delved into her family’s legacy of suicide—the result is a stirring look at how history, environment, and cultural pressures all played a role . . . Patterson’s lyrical and discerning treatment of a global ‘psychological crisis’ will keep readers transfixed.”
“Sinkhole is a literary triumph. Juliet Patterson brings us to a brave, smart, and compassionate understanding of suicide. Anyone who has lost someone to suicide knows the haunting that follows. You are buried beneath an avalanche of questions that can never be answered. But in Patterson’s adept hands, we not only enter ‘the natural history of suicide,’ offering insights to an erosional state of mind, we are taken into societal patterns that foster an atmosphere where suicide becomes the end point of isolation and despair. The somber connections Patterson makes between her father’s death by suicide and the family legacy that precedes his death, tied to a history of coal mining, exposes the fact that our health and the health of the planet cannot be separated. The violence we inflict on ourselves is a mirror of the violence we inflict on land. Juliet Patterson is a soaring writer who has chosen to not look away. We are the beneficiaries of her gaze. There is poetry in this elegiac book, with an uncommon beauty and stillness radiating between each sentence. Sinkhole resurrects our dead from the sorrow and silences surrounding suicide and gives voice to the whys of their voiceless acts.”
“In confronting her family’s dark legacy of suicide, Juliet Patterson does far more than plumb the depths of human despair. Sinkhole is a master class in the way truth can pry open the deepest cellar, how language can calm a raw, ragged soul. To read this unflinching look at darkness is to find a way toward the light. After so much darkness, so much light!”
“Juliet Patterson writes with a poet’s precision and a poet’s heart too about that most devastating moment, the loss of a parent. Devastating twice over by the terms and manner in which he died. Survivors are left to ask ‘Why?’ and normally one says there is no answer to this question. But Patterson keeps asking. In this text that has the feel of a police procedural but the emotional weight of a desperation to know, Patterson delves into familial and social history and brings us, the readers, along on a perilous journey. By the end we realize we each too might be—physically, socially, psychologically, spiritually, medically, environmentally—in the midst of life but on the lip of death. As a parent, a wife, a poet, a daughter, a human, Juliet Patterson makes the most courageous foray yet into answering that last unanswerable question: ‘Why?’”