Poet and author Juliet Patterson was in her 40s when her father, James, died by suicide. James was a child when his father, Edward, died by suicide. And Patterson’s mother, Carolyn, was raising young children when her father, William, died by suicide.
Patterson spent more than a decade trying to make sense of this family history, repeatedly visiting Pittsburg, Kansas, the city her father, Edward and William all called home. It’s an old mining town with a surface pockmarked by sinkholes, scars of past industry that may have also left marks on the town’s residents. As Patterson researched the men in her family tree and suicide itself, she wondered about the effect this wounded history could have had on her family.
The result of this meticulous research and soul-searching is Sinkhole: A Natural History of Suicide. The memoir is at moments reminiscent of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Like Williams, Patterson surveys both the land around her and her inner emotional landscape. She searches for connections between the Industrial Revolution’s effects on society and her family’s repeated losses before ultimately recognizing that every tragedy stems from numerous influences.
Patterson’s poetic sensibility informs her prose as she weaves together ideas about family and research about land in a lyrical way. She’s looking for answers in Sinkhole, but the path that leads to a suicide isn’t linear. It’s more akin to a sinkhole, Patterson writes, spreading and consuming everything around it.