Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In Her Wake---A Memoir and A Mystery

“A fearless memoir of loss and grief….veering between ‘being a detective and... a realist.
Publishers Weekly Starred Review

HANK: A delivery announcement on elegant paper stamped with the date of a daughter's birth; a tarnished silver baby cup, dented at the rim; a lovingly hand-knitted sweater; a school committee flyer; hurried grocery lists. This is all Nancy Rappaport had left to remember her mother--a woman defined by her absence.

In 1963, Nancy Rappaport's mother took a fatal overdose after a bitter public divorce and custody battle. Nancy was just four years old and the youngest of six children. Growing up in a blended family of eleven children after her father remarried, Nancy was bewildered about why her mother took her own life and left her behind.

Years later, encouraged by her own children's curiosity about their grandmother, and fortified by her training as a child psychiatrist, Nancy began to investigate her mother's life and the mysteries surrounding her death.

Nancy Rappaport, a child psychiatrist, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of School Programs at Cambridge Health Alliance. Her new book is In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide. She says about her memoir, "Like any good mystery, this was a story that needed to be told. It was larger than me. It had a momentum to it . It's the most meticulous, painstaking, most important thing I've done."

Nancy and I met at a booksigning..and after I heard her story, I instantly wanted you all to hear it, too. Although its non-fiction, it's about as mysterious as life (and death) can get. Turns out: she had a haunting mystery in her own life--and as it turned out, it was one she was brave enough to try to solve. And where did the clues come from? That's what she'll reveal today.

NANCY: One morning during breakfast Phyllis, my father’s wife, phoned me. She told me that she was taking on a difficult initiative of her own making, which was to do the right thing, and she wanted to distribute some of my mother’s things to me and my siblings. She suggested that I might be too busy to come over on such short notice. But I had never even seen my mother’s handwriting before.

When I arrived, Phyllis had a blue trunk with brass hinges open and was meticulously organizing its contents into different boxes for each of my siblings—photographs, drawings, letters, all kinds of materials that my mother had saved. Seeing these objects stunned me.

“Where did the trunk come from?” I asked. Phyllis could see how momentous this was for me, but she focused on the task at hand. She explained that my mother’s friend Peggy Melgard had dropped it off at my father’s office several years ago when she moved from Boston to Florida.

I learned later from Peggy that for almost forty years Peggy herself had guarded the trunk. Alex, my mother’s new husband at the time of her death, had asked Peggy to keep some of their possessions. But Peggy never heard from Alex again, and she began to have the nagging feeling that my mother’s children would want the trunk. Peggy had known my parents before they were married and they saw each other socially as a couple for many years. After my father and mother divorced, she became an even closer friend of my mother.

Here was evidence of a life I did not know—small calendars with handscrawled appointments, a high-school yearbook, report cards, school awards, newspaper clippings, and chatty letters from her friends.

A photo of my mother cradling me as a baby in her arms. A photo of my mother and father, their eyes filled with laughter. Her handwriting—big and full. I sat down on the floor and picked up a letter that Phyllis had placed to the side of the trunk. It was from Peggy.

To the Rappaport Children:
Your mother cherished these photos, cards, notes, and drawings. I thought you would like to have them. Also, in the trunk, is a novel Nancy was in the process of writing at the time of her death.
The notes from those of you old enough to write at the time of her death show how much you loved her. I hope you still hold happy memories of her in your hearts as I certainly do.


I looked up at Phyllis. “Where is the novel?” I asked, worried. She burst into tears and confided that she was reading the novel. She wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it, but she thought she would give it to my sister Judy, whom she considered the family historian. Finally, she sighed heavily and trudged up the staircase. A few minutes later, Phyllis came down not only with the novel, which she explained was over 400 typewritten pages on legal paper with my mother’s handwritten corrections in the margins, but also with a few of my mother’s thin journals.

As she handed me four bulky black folders stuffed with legal-sized paper, I sensed that she was relieved. She told me that she had a deep and abiding relationship with my father, and she wanted me never to use the material in any way that would hurt Dad. Not knowing what I was promising, quietly resenting that I was being asked to be honorable, and worried that the novel might be destroyed, I quickly agreed. It was an irresistible chance to know my mother’s mind. At that moment, I would have agreed to almost anything.

(Nancy's website--with some of the photos--is )


  1. I've read this essay about five times, and it still brings tears to my eyes. Nancy, you're brave.

    I have to wonder what would be in my own mother's "trunk." Maybe I'll ask her.

  2. Your situation is remarkable, and your evocative writing completely drew me in, Nancy. I look forward to reading your memoir. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.


  3. Hi Nancy, so glad you're our guest this morning. Though I'm annoyed with Hank...I have your book on my nightstand and I was going to invite you for the week I have to schedule guests!

    Anyway, it is an amazing story. Better than fiction really. I have a psychologist character whose mother committed suicide when she was four. How weird is that?

    I'm wondering how your patients and your family are reacting to IN HER WAKE?

  4. Hi Nancy,

    I agree with you that the best stories are the ones that absolutely demand to be told. This one sounds extraordinary.

  5. Thank you so much for your wonderful comments.

    My patients are mostly teenagers and most not captivated by memoirs but they have been extremely humane! I gave my patients a signed personal copy. They deserve it, because they are my best teachers about being brave.

    My family is not uniform, as I have quite a large family (you will see! - a blended family of 11 after five years old) but in some ways suicide can be silent grief, and with some of my brothers and sisters it has been transformative - we grew closer as we stepped outside of the tragedy and valued who we are.

    Such a treat to have an opportunity to share my story with you!
    Warm regards, Nancy

  6. This is really an amazing book. I read sections of it to my class today and some of the students were moved to tears. I think you're doing a wonderful service to all that have been touched by suicide.

  7. Wow. What a powerful story. Makes me want to hug my kids and tell them how much I love them. You must be an incredibly strong person.

  8. In Her Wake is terrific - really loved it. Wish I still had my high school English class to read it with...The way Nancy weaves such a sad story into something so hopeful and appreciative of a lost life is amazing. It is really the story of the power of love and of a family to support each other through some of the hardest times imaginable -- and to allow themselves to remake themselves in service of each individual. Nancy's two voices - that of a searching daughter as well as a wise psychiatrist - are woven together beautifully. A real page turner that makes you feel more in touch with the world and people in it for having read In Her Wake.

  9. And what would we leave in a trunk for our daughters? Ah--is that another book in itself?

  10. Oh wow - I have to buy this book. The excerpt left me hanging and I have to know more!

    This sounds terrific - congratulations to Nancy on her publication and success.

  11. Thank you so much for such support !
    Why we write.. yesterday I got a note from a mother who had lost her daughter and was worried for her two grandchildren 4 and 5 years old.
    Whether a mystery or a psychological investigation the power to tell a story is healing and
    you all are making me feel so strong as
    I try to get my message out that no one is expendable and we are all loved.