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By Alex Carrigan
CW: This review discusses suicide and suicide-related matters. Please read with caution.
You never forget your first brush with death. Whether it's the loss of a childhood pet or a member of your family, the entire process remains with you for life. You think about every interaction, any detail about the person that comes to mind, and even though time passes, its easy to dig up those emotions. It's especially more complicated if the loss was from someone who took their own life, as there is more to contemplate and moving on becomes more difficult and harder to accept.
In Candace Jane Opper's forthcoming memoir, Certain and Impossible Things, Opper recounts a lifechanging incident from her teen years. A boy Opper had a crush on, who she refers to as "Brett" in the text, committed suicide when she was in her last year of junior high. There were no warning signs, no suicide note, and numerous theories about why he took his life at the age of fourteen. In the twenty-plus years following this event, Opper writes about her study of suicidology, including the statistics and theories behind the subject, as well as numerous influences and causes for suicide.
Opper's memoir combines information about suicide over the last few centuries and her own recollections of Brett and how those in the small Connecticut town she was raised in reacted and responded to his sudden death. Brett died months after Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain famously committed suicide, so Opper writes about the effects Cobain's suicide had in regards to similar copycat suicides or suicide clusters that emerge when notable public figures take their lives, while also discussing how the notoriety of Cobain's death impacted how people viewed Brett and his possible motives for ending his life.
While the sections discussing suicide are fascinating and well-researched, it's the pieces where Opper ruminates on Brett that are the main selling point of the book. In between discussions on The Sorrows of Young Werther and statistics of suicide in the early 90's, Opper's personal narrative is compelling in how she approaches the event. While she wasn't too close to Brett, she had enough interactions with him to find commonalities with the boy and to make it understandable why she would be so affected by his death. Most of these sections are addressed to Brett, the real person and the fantasy version she created in her mind. The boy who played trumpet in the school band with her who died with no forewarning and no signs of an internal struggle. Could she or anyone else have prevented his demise? Was there something greater going on? Or were the answers much simpler than they appeared.
Opper never settles on a true answer about Brett because she can't get one. She can read the police report about his death twenty years later and talk to his family, but that doesn't give her or anyone else closure. She writes her fascination with Brett and his death as a possible addiction, a response to untreated grief that hit her in a vulnerable time in her developmental years. While this could make Opper seem a bit obsessive, her prose does give her enough awareness and complexity to balance out any unease that comes from her recount of events. This was a significant moment in her life, even if she wasn't too close to Brett, and it's similar to how suicide can effect others even without the deceased person realizing the ripple effect. All Opper can do is rationalize her understanding of Brett and his death and apply what she learns from it to her life, and the hope there is that others can do the same.
Certain and Impossible Things is a heart wrenching tale of suicide and obsession, of adolescent fantasies and adult grief. The memoir offers a vivid and resonating portrait of a small town affected by an unexplained suicide, but also has a strong emotional core. Opper may never truly understand Brett or why he took his life, but it's easy to understand who she is as a person and the book as a resource on suicidology, and that may be one of the few certainties that can be found from all of this.
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