Companion to an Untold Story
by Marcia Aldrich
How unspeakably sad it must be to lose a close friend to suicide. How can we find the words or the understanding for their state of mind? Marcia Aldrich and her husband Richard lost their friend Joel in this way. Because it is not as though she can conduct an exit interview, she can only speculate about the moments that led to his death, how one point informed another. But rather than write a biography or a typical memoir, the examination is conducted as though it were a reference book on Joel's life. It's an indirect approach to processing her grief.
Aldrich, Marcia. I myself, friend, spouse, and secretary, reader, sorter, scrivener of my past, mortographer and augur, maker of lists, reciter of lines, inspector-reluctant of things the dead leave behind.
If I have been chosen, let me choose. If I have been called to speak, let me speak with unreluctance about an unknown man, as he appears before me, looking on with inhuman eyes, as he was in the last visit, and before and after, the pivot between friendship and the aftermath, now freed from his torn and tired life, and feel that the words are his by right, with the strength and order of letters' law.
The academic approach works, with its footnotes and references to other entries, since everyone's life overlaps and backtracks in this way. If I may make a reference to another endeavor, our lives are a ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff**, and so the "companion" model does not feel gimmicky. A straight-up memoir could have fallen into more saccharine, overwrought territory. Instead, Aldrich is matter-of-fact, yet still deeply feels the loss:
Of course we had reached the wrong conclusion about the package and the answering machine. I later asked myself, when my emotions had quieted: Where did we miscalculate? Had we misjudged Joel's wish to vanish without a trace? Did he believe his last words to me were too obscure to interpret? Only much later did I understand: The post office was too efficient, and Joel expected me to receive his last things when he was already dead.
There are letters, bits of other documents, conversations with family and friends — all of it comes together to form a more complete vision of Joel and his unrelenting depression, from Age at death. (46) to "Zen Suicide" (a poem by Richard from 1979, sixteen years before Joel's death). Though of course there's not a typical plot, I found myself rather invested in this peacemaking process, for it can apply, in some ways more tangential than others, to other deaths, both little and life-ending. Companion to an Untold Story is an excavation of trauma, and we do not have to know Joel, nor Aldrich and her husband, to know the gravity of their loss.
Plan. We did not see the subtext beneath Joel's extraordinary behavior, but I ask myself what we would have done if we had. What if we had confronted his impending suicide? If I see that the last fawn is dragging its legs, what am I going to do about it?
The somewhat disturbing part of reading Companion, and I'm not sure what percentage of readers will also feel this way, is that I recognize how Joel saw no other way to deal with the blackness he felt inside himself at all times. Though I've not been seriously suicidal, I know the monster that is depression, and in Joel's desolation, there is familiarity. Some readers might find themselves wondering, What separates him from me? How have I chosen to keep on living? Perhaps some will find this comparison tough to take.
Still, I also see the kindness in Joel's method. If suicide was going to remain inevitable, he carried it out in a way that would be the least damaging to those he left to hear the news. I won't spoil the details in this book of details, but again, I recognize the flickering urge to not make oneself a burden.
Not every writer would be able to pull off a book like this, and I don't know how much attention Aldrich has received for her effort — apart from winning the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction — but I suspect that it isn't what it deserves. Yet, Companion to an Untold Story is not a project that set out wishing for accolades. (Let's be honest, writers, we won't turn down praising-recognition of our work.) Though I can only infer her intentions, it seems to me that Aldrich wanted this book to be the best way she could memorialize her friend, and in that, find some acceptance. That others may identify and find value in it, I imagine, is but a wonderful gift.
Full Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy from University of Georgia Press. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.