There are multiple journals packed away in a closet somewhere, written by a teenage girl to her father. That isn’t that surprising, except for the fact that the writer was me and I was writing to my deceased father years after his death.
After he committed suicide when I was nine, I was compelled daily to continue the last conversation we had by writing in my journals. The writing process itself took on a whole new level of catharsis as I shared my daily thoughts and observations mixed in with deep, probing questions about his choice to leave this life.
As I opened Dear Mallory: Letters to a Teenage Girl Who Killed Herself, I felt as if I was picking up one of those journals again.
This work is a disjointed compilation of letters to 18-year-old Mallory, a bright, ambitious, yet severely depressed and suicidal young woman. The larger portion of the book is a continuation of what the reader can immediately see as an intimate dialogue between Mallory and her mother, author Lisa Richards.
Richards, a clinical social worker, picked up a pen not long after her daughter’s untimely, self-inflicted death to work out the tumultuous emotions that accompanied the event and continued for the next year. The first portion of the book takes on a somber note as this devoted mother swings from moments of sheer grief and confusion over her daughter’s choices to discussions of latkes and birthday parties at tea rooms with aunts, uncles, and cousins.
The author’s pain is quite clear in the writing, and is a poignant representation of what a family member impacted by suicide would feel, characterized simultaneously as “shameless sobbing in the cocoon of my small new home” and “vacillating between patience and baited breath to make the trip” to join her daughter in eternity.
There is not a set length, flow, or even format to the letters; instead, they take on the same appearance and feel as the ebbs and flows of grief. Some are short, offering but a brief insight into Richard’s day and what she thought Mallory would think of it. Others are lengthy descriptions of both the grieving process and how it is presenting itself and the new strides Richards is making as she steps forward another day without her daughter. In some way, shape, or form, Richards references her daughter’s future or potential — and, now, lack thereof — in every letter.
The second portion of the book contains letters from former teachers, close friends, family friends, and even the mother of a half-sibling Mallory had never met. All of these were contributed at Richard’s request, and they continue the conversation with Mallory post-mortem by focusing more on good memories and cathartic releases of sorrow.
The common theme in these conversational letters, both the ones written by Richards and those written by others, is dual-sided: memorializing Mallory while pointing out the now untapped potential she had within her.
In this sense, the book reminded me a bit of a grief support group session, as each speaker airs both their fond recollections of Mallory and their confusion over how someone with such a bright future could make the choice she did.
Due to its straightforward and raw approach, this book could be read from multiple perspectives and for more than one purpose. As a family member affected by the suicide of a loved one, I read it from the lens of a compatriot in the grieving process and found solidarity and support.
For a parent with a troubled teenager, or even a wife or husband with a suicidal spouse, this is an honest guidebook of questions to ask and address that only come from hindsight. I can also see it as an intense wake-up call to the suicidal, and as such, a useful tool for mental health professionals in their treatment plans.
While memorials take on unique shapes and styles all their own, Dear Mallory lacked connection between the two portions of letters. The letters in the second section seemed disjointed, unrelated, and reminded me more of readings at a funeral. For the purposes of encouraging a troubled teen or individual to not take their own life, these letters would be beneficial reminders of the family they might leave behind, but they would have served that purpose better as a separate work, not in the same book as Richard’s letters.
Dear Mallory: Letters to a Teenage Girl Who Killed Herself
New Middle Press, 2012
Paperback, 120 pages