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A Conversation With Nancy Rappaport

In Her Wake, the story of your mother’s suicide, is a deeply personal one. What motivated you to share it with people outside of your immediate family?

I started to write In Her Wake in the middle of the night after I became a mother to my first daughter, Lila. When you have your own children, the shadow of your relationship with your own parents is evoked. With the loss of my mother when I was four years old, I thought I had a unique vantage point as a daughter, mother, wife and child psychiatrist, to ask tough questions and be a tour guide in the darkness. At times I was afraid to find out the answers to the questions that came up as I tried to understand who my mother was, particularly to the most haunting question I had: "Why did my mother kill herself?" I wanted my reader to care about my mother and come to appreciate my enduring love, and my evolving understanding of my mother and father. I wrote to come to some resolution and acceptance. All of us have things that happen in our life that we may choose to examine closely as a way of illuminating who we want to become, and I hope this is a balance of unrelenting curiosity, sadness and ultimately hope.

You and your mother share the same name and were both writers. What else do you share when it comes to your mother?

My mother and I have a striking physical resemblance: high cheekbones, a piercing gaze, a broad smile. In fact, sometimes people mistakenly think that the photograph on the front of the book is me on the set of a play staged in the 1950s but it is my mother in a newspaper shot. When I’ve spoken with people who knew my mother they’ve told me that she took enormous pride in being a parent, and described her as a highly energetic woman who was bright, and was compelled to make a difference in her life. I like to think that I share these traits.

How has writing In Her Wake changed how you think about your mother?

I grew up thinking my mother had abandoned her six children, that she left my father to run off with another man. I thought she killed herself when she could not regain custody of her children. I had only a few memories of my mother and no photographs of her when I was growing up. My only vivid memory is standing on an airplane step holding her hand in the hot sun. Writing In Her Wake I have come to appreciate as a mother and as a child psychiatrist that there are many nonverbal impressions that may not be in conscious recall that occur in early ages that can shape our connection to our parents. After reading my mother's diaries and her novel, and interviewing people who knew her, I have a much more intimate sense of who she was and a newfound confidence that she loved her children.

How did you approach your mother's story as both a daughter and as a psychiatrist?

As a daughter, I wanted to understand how she could be a good mother (if she was) and still choose to kill herself. I wanted to know what she felt about taking care of her children, how she felt about my father not only during the divorce but during the ten years she was married to him—and what her relationship was like with her own mother. As a parent, I also wanted to find a way to explain in a developmentally appropriate way to my own children the longing, loss and love I felt for my own mother.

As a child psychiatrist I wanted to explore what may have happened to my mother as she was growing up that could have made her vulnerable to depression. I wanted to see if there were any clues about how my mother came to see suicide as the only viable option, and how she came to believe that she was expendable. I also became increasingly curious about what the experience was like for my father and for my five older brothers and sisters. I wanted to know more about how they made sense of my mother’s life and death.

How should a reader experiencing symptoms of depression or other types of mental illness approach your book?

When people are depressed they can often feel frozen in time. They may find it difficult to remember a time when they felt positive about life. They can feel worthless and humiliated that they are not functioning at their best. My deep conviction is that all of us are loved by somebody and ultimately I want to help a suicidal patient see that suicide is not a viable option. I hope a reader who is depressed or has bipolar disorder or has suffered a loss can be patient and recognize that the process of healing takes time. If someone who is suicidal is not getting professional help, I hope that my book will make it easier to ask for help and demystify the process of therapy and taking medication. This is not a "How to" manual but it invites the reader to be courageous on their own journey of asking tough questions. I also hope to encourage readers to allow others to help them so they can find the necessary strength to find their way.

Has the process of writing In Her Wake changed your approach to counseling?

We all have stories in our family that may be so powerful that there are tacit rules of silence. I am more curious now about valuing how different family members see the same incident, whether it is a divorce, death, an affair or any number of other common family heartaches. I have come to appreciate the toxic combination of hopelessness, depression and impulsivity that lead to suicide and how urgent it is to intervene. I feel more confident now that confronting our darkest moments of loss and confusion can shift our understanding of life. One of the greatest comforts I provide to my patients is to let them know that they are not alone.

To schedule an interview with Nancy Rappaport, contact Angela Hayes, Goldberg McDuffie Communications,