Last week I finally read--and really enjoyed--Ned Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story.
There have been some struggles with suicidal ideation within my family, and I really appreciated the twin messages of "this is real, and it's a lifetime struggle" and "this is also treatable, and it doesn't have to define and control you." There was such well-earned hope at the end.
Then I found out that Vizinni has since killed himself. And that kind of ruined the book for me.
I know I'm not really being rational about this. There are stories in which people with mental illness get the help they need, and stories in which they don't. This is a direct reflection of real life. Not everyone makes it. Not everyone doesn't. I've read books in which things DON'T work out, and while I've been sad about them, I've been okay with that being the direction the book went.
There have also been depressed artists for centuries. Back when I had to give a little talk about the piece or composer before performing in the monthly piano recital my teacher hosted, I was startled at how many of the classical composers had ended their own lives. The list of authors who have killed themselves is both long and distinguished. So why am I feeling so betrayed?
There seemed to be so much of Vizinni in his book. The end note pointed out that after spending five days in the adult psychiatric ward as a teenager (just like the book's protagonist/narrator), he drafted the book within two months. I know it wasn't a memoir by any means, but it was clearly directly informed by his life experience. I wanted that life experience to extend to Craig's "Shift" at the end, when he embraces life again.
So if Vizinni became a respected author, grew up, got married, had a child, and then killed himself, what does that say about Craig? The two are intertwined in my head, and I feel, rightly or wrongly, that by ending his own life, Vizinni let us know that Craig wouldn't have made it either.
I know that Challenger Deep is informed by Neal Shusterman's son's struggle with schizophrenia. Yet if the younger Shusterman succumbs to his illness someday, it won't rob Caden of his future. That one degree of separation lets the story be its own creation, with truths of its own.
I wanted to write a post about the interaction between an author's life and their books, and ask whether or not it was acceptable to let their life influence your understanding of their books. But I'm still too hung up on this particular incident. (I had vivid dreams the night I found out about Vizinni, in which I was crying inconsolably because someone I barely knew had committed suicide, but it was making me fearful for my children's lives.) So talk to me about this. Can a writer's message of hope outlive their own despair?