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Brief Reviews - Memoir
by Jennifer Duncan

When Moira Farr first met Daniel Jones, she thought he was a jerk. Jones had a reputation in Toronto as an angry young poet and alcoholic. But, after staying sober for eight years, Jones was shedding that notorious persona. One summer night in 1993, he washed Farr's feet, gently. They fell in love. On February 13, 1994, Jones wrote a long note in which he left instructions for his work. He then killed himself using a method outlined in the "self-help" manual, Final Exit.

In trying to understand this death, journalist and writer Farr spent five years investigating suicide. She read articles and memoirs. She visited the American Association of Suicidology Conference, the Suicide Information and Education Centre in Calgary, and the inmate-directed suicide prevention program at the Drumheller Institute in Alberta. She interviewed a reserve crisis intervention worker; the Samaritans in England, who invented telephone distress counselling; and the parents of three Calgary boys who killed themselves while in police custody. She attended a funeral arranged by the daughter of a man who had committed suicide. She became a volunteer counsellor at the Survivor Support Programme of Metropolitan Toronto. She toured the media and the Net.

She also grieved. Remembered. Survived. "The day he died, it was as though the tectonic plates of my entire existence shifted... I've spent the five years since shaking off the initial daze of that cataclysm, learning how to negotiate the strange, new coordinates of my altered world."

And she wrote After Daniel: A Suicide Survivor's Tale (HarperFlamingo Canada, 217 pages, $25 cloth), a courageous memoir that chews its way from the rawly personal to digested social analysis.

Farr's intent is to support other survivors and increase cultural awareness of suicide, and she succeeds honourably. In telling her own story, Farr reiterates the requirements of the grieving process: talking, seeking answers, experiencing denial, pain, and rage. In telling the stories of others, Farr makes a convincing case for more training in suicide prevention and funding for educational facilities and mental health clinics.

There is an unconscious text at work here as well: certain assertions expose more complex workings in the mourning process and raise crucial questions about how we deal with suicide. Looking at movies like Hard Core Logo, The Devil's Advocate, and Snake Eyes, Farr asserts that "[r]eferences to suicide have become pervasive, casual, even required." But they are merely part of the widespread invasion of violent images in society. Farr also notes that survivors' pain is often triggered by any reference to suicide (such as "suicidal" hot sauce in the supermarket). How, then, do we reconcile the understandably heightened sensitivity of survivors with the freedom to represent violence-especially since survivors often look for reflections of their experience?

Finding celebrity mirrors in the suicides of Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, and Harvey Southam allows Farr to identify implicitly with and defend their respective surviving partners, all of whom have been blamed by the media. Farr herself is on the defensive: she states that people were blaming her for Jones's suicide, erasing her from his history or denigrating their relationship. Almost self-righteously, she declares that "quality and kind of relationship determine the nature of grief felt after a death. I wasn't interested in questioning other people's grief over the loss of Daniel..." Yet earlier, upset at old acquaintances portraying Jones as his former self, Farr dismisses them: "I marvelled at the blindness that allows someone to imagine that nothing of importance happened in another person's life once they, the eulogizer, were no longer a substantial part of it. While these people mourned the past, I was mourning the present, real time, and a future that was never going to be."

After Daniel is a poignant portrait of how the bereaved can hurt each other, how many mourners in our society feel the need to justify their grief, and how we can know each other in different ways. Farr's account of the gifted and loving man that Daniel Jones was, of her own strength in surviving, and of other suicides and survivors is the kind of testimony that could save a life. 

Jennifer Duncan's first book, Sanctuary & Other Stories, will be published by DC Books in the fall.


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