Review: Sinkhole: A Legacy of Suicide

Shortly after her 77-year-old father hanged himself from a bridge near his home in St. Paul, Minn., Juliet Patterson embarked on a quest to unearth the source and meaning of that event, as well as the deaths of both of her grandfathers, also by their own hand. The result is Sinkhole: A Legacy of Suicide, a spare, sensitive evocation of Patterson's experience of grief, paired with an insightful work of family and regional history.

As if the death of her father on December 17, 2008, weren't a sufficient blow, a mere week later, Patterson suffered painful soft tissue injuries in an automobile accident. Though her father left behind three binders that demonstrated he "methodically prepared for his death," Patterson struggled to discover any motive for the act by a man who seems to have been an enigma to her throughout his life. A progressive heart condition and the disastrous results of some risky investments that collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis provided plausible, but ultimately unsatisfying, explanations.

Following her father's death, Patterson made numerous trips to the small southeast Kansas town of Pittsburg, where her parents grew up and met. It was there that her paternal grandfather, Edward White Patterson, who served two terms in Congress as a New Deal Democrat in the late 1930s, shot himself in 1940, and her maternal grandfather, William McCluskey, only recently retired in 1967, drowned himself in a lake after slashing his wrists.

Patterson's attempts to explain their acts are no more definitive than the ones she offers for her father's death. Not content to limit herself to these tragic family stories, Patterson also explores the social and economic history of Pittsburg and its environs. The area once was home to an extensive coal mining industry whose environmental legacy includes the phenomenon that provides the book's title.

More than 47,500 Americans die by suicide each year, and the rate of suicide increased by 33% between 1999 and 2019, so the problem of suicide has become an urgent one for psychologists and others in the field of mental health. Patterson dips into some of this scientific research, especially the work of Edwin Shneidman, a psychologist she credits as one of the co-founders of contemporary suicidology, who wrote an influential book based upon his study of hundreds of suicide notes like the one her father composed.

Patterson previously published two collections of poetry, but this is her first prose work. 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. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: A daughter brings a poet's sensibility in her attempt to solve the mystery of suicide that has darkened two generations of her family.

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