Finalist for the 2023 Minnesota Book Award
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
“Mixing autobiography, academic psychology, and an ecological history of Kansas, Patterson, a poet, examines the suicides in her family, beginning with her father’s.”
“A soulful odyssey . . . [Patterson’s] bewilderment and edge-of-the-sinkhole grief is palpable . . . Though the memoir doesn’t solve the riddle of suicide or offer a neat narrative arc, it does show the value of remembering and the importance of paying attention to, for example, a ‘rack of suits and ties,’ . . . or a Lite Brite message left glowing in the dark after her father left for a business trip that said: ‘Be good. I love you. See you soon.’”
“Patterson marvels at the pervasiveness of some of her family members’, on both her paternal and maternal sides, dying by suicide . . . Tying together environmental, political, and historical facts in her family tree, the author imagines what it means to take one’s life and shares what it’s like to be the one left behind. As fascinating as it is upsetting, Patterson has intersected the past and future, imagining the silent crisis happening among the men in her family, as well as the persistent fear of her own potential demise through self-harm, all while considering genetics, societal pressures, and prescribed antidepressants. The end result is an elegantly tragic work of research, history, and creative nonfiction that seeks answers, closure, and ultimate peace.”
“A spare, sensitive evocation of Patterson’s experience of grief, paired with an insightful work of family and regional history . . . The poet’s sensibility is evident in these pages, as she excavates her own raw emotions alongside passages of clear-eyed journalism and creative nonfiction. Sinkhole is a painfully honest and sobering work that may provide insight and comfort to those facing a similar tragedy.’”
“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.”
"A pensive memoir about mental illness, suicide, and the quest to uncover often hidden family secrets . . . Apart from the personal, [Patterson] weaves in results from her research in thanatology and suicide, including the provocative thought from psychologist Edwin Shneidman that 'the person who commits suicide puts his psychological skeleton in the survivor's emotional closet.' A searching, often elegant meditation on loneliness, pain, and redemption."
“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?’”
“With deft fingers, Juliet Patterson digs below the surface of inherited illness, generational trauma, and societal notions of grief. Like its namesake, Sinkhole explores what lurks beneath seemingly stable ground. After the suicide of Patterson’s father, she is driven to investigate his death. What’s uncovered are multiple lifetimes of repressed emotion and internalized perceptions of failure. With two successive generations of patriarchs committing suicide Patterson reckons with what’s a coincidence, and what’s a pattern. In thoughtfully rendered passages she delves into creative nonfiction, imagining what those final hours were for her father and grandfather— what thoughts were on their minds, or weren’t. Sinkholes can be exacerbated by reckless natural resource mining, and Patterson ties a delicate net lulling the reader into a conversation between the two. If toxic lead levels can be discovered as a hidden byproduct of rampant capitalist practices— what other concealed ailments can be tied to a lack of respect for nature? What feelings of failure can epigenetically alter seemingly placid inner worlds generations later? Gracefully and languidly, Patterson illuminates what typically is seen as a void, and asks the reader to ponder: how do our outer landscapes reflect our inner worlds?”
“When I started this lyrical exploration of suicide, inheritance, and place by lesbian poet Juliet Patterson, I had no idea that my home state would play such a central role. As it turns out, both of Patterson’s parents grew up in the former mining town of Pittsburg, KS, now ravaged by sinkholes. In an obsessive unearthing of family history spurred by grief for her father, Patterson investigates the lives and suicides of three family members: her father, and each of her parents’ fathers. As Patterson delicately processes her own experiences as a suicide survivor, she opens up a dialogue for readers—we can talk about suicide, and we should talk about suicide. Sinkhole is a beautiful, fascinating read.”
“The author takes us on her journey to learn the unknowable, to understand what is not understandable, in an effort to break the patterns of the past - escape a metaphorical sinkhole. Along the way you'll learn about the history of a region and the violence wreaked against its people and environment that persists today - literal sinkholes.”
“Great storytelling; Patterson has a soothing and inviting voice even while discussing the hardest parts of her father's suicide. A lovely blend of family history and grief.”
“I had to wait to read to read this book, because in the last two years there has been so much loss both personally and collectively. I love Juliet's straight forward writing and research; I think it's something that we all want to be able to do. We're all on a journey and Juliet's book has helped me breath once more.”
“Patterson’s poetic sensibility informs her prose as she weaves together ideas about family and research about land in a lyrical way.”
"Along with the environmental history braided throughout, Sinkhole offers a master class in how extensive research can add depth and breadth to personal writing."