Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Q&A with Rachel Zimmerman



Rachel Zimmerman is the author of the new memoir Us, After: A Memoir of Love and Suicide. Her other books include The Healing Power of Storytelling. A longtime journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.


Q: Why did you decide to write Us, After?


A: I’ve been a journalist for more than 25 years and have a tendency to view life’s events as stories to be told. Very soon after my husband’s suicide, even while I was in utter shock and devastated by pain —my own and my young children’s —I thought: someday this will become a story.


Q: The writer Deesha Philyaw said of the book, “Page after page, I kept thinking, ‘How did she do this?’ This being mothering, surviving, chronicling, and asking hard questions of everyone, including herself.” What do you think of that description, and how would you answer her question?


A: I love Deesha’s description (and her gorgeous writing in general) and I think it gets to the heart of the book.


I honestly thought my daughters and I were doomed following Seth’s death. I imagined I’d be lonely and miserable forever and my children would be scarred for life.


But because of them, I woke up every morning and slogged through the demands of parenting: I made their lunches and drove them to school and organized playdates and doctor’s appointments. Over time, these mundane daily acts became less arduous and, slowly, I began to experience bits of joy here and there.


As a reporter, I spent so much time digging into the “whys” of his suicide, interviewing researchers and psychiatrists and attempting to get into his head. But ultimately, I had to pivot, and just leave the unanswerable questions about his death unanswered.


When, over years, I saw that my kids were happy and thriving, that lifted me up even more; it created a self-perpetuating cycle of momentum toward rebuilding our lives, or, as my mother says, “finding crumbs of pleasure.”

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title has a bit of a backstory. As I was writing, and even after I sold the book, its title was “The Good Suicide.” For me, the significance was clear: nothing about my husband’s suicide was “good,” rather the “good’ came from the fact that my daughters and I survived the experience, and, more, found ways to live happily, and with hope for the future.


When he died, I couldn’t imagine that kind of hope. In fact, just a day or so after her father’s death, my older daughter asked if we’d ever be happy again. I said “yes,” but didn’t believe it, so I thought the original title captured our trajectory.


I changed it for two main reasons: first, some family members hated it and thought it meant I’d believed there was something good about Seth’s death. Second, a few early readers got confused and thought it referred to assisted suicide.


For those reasons, we decided to switch to Us, After, which really does convey to readers what the story is about.


Q: What impact did writing the book have on you, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: Writing is often how I figure out my world, so getting this story written and out there has given me a deeper understanding of the lows, as well as the highs, of life. 


I just hope the book resonates for readers. Not everyone has been up close to suicide, but pretty much anyone who has lived has experienced deep, painful loss. I believe speaking openly about these losses is important, and makes us more human.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a novel about mothers and daughters and intergenerational trauma. I’ll just leave it at that.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Despite its heavy themes, Us, After ends on a hopeful note! And parts of it are actually funny, the way the absurdity of existence often is. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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