To Bessie: Confronting Family Secrets with Historical Fiction

Editor's Note: Elizabeth Gaffney is the author of Metropolis, and most recently When the World Was YoungA former staff editor at The Paris Review, Gaffney teaches fiction at The New School and serves as the editor-at-large of the literary magazine A Public Space. Joining Signature, Elizabeth reflects on the closely-guarded family secret of her great-grandmother's suicide, and how that story both inspired her new novel, and gave her the courage to confront her family's struggles. 

I never knew her, but her life and death shaped the lives of the women in my family. I hardly even knew about her, 'til my thirties, when I first heard the story of what people in my family jocularly call the Baking Accident. I laughed along with them, about the death by suicide of my great-grandmother, laughed nervously and cringed inside and shook my head and wondered why people make jokes about such horrors. Because immediately I connected with Bessie Powell Dunlop, my great-grandmother, who died by putting her head in a gas oven.

All my life, as far back as I can remember, I have been touched by depression. I have had two major bouts of it, when I feel like I could have gone down a darker road. As a child, I didn't know there were others who felt this way. I didn't know how perilous a way it could be. I remember spending entire school days at the nurse's office, weeping for no known reason. If help beyond a box of tissues was offered, I don't remember it.

I know my information about her is partial, hearsay, but that is all that is left. What first triggered me to write When the World Was Young was her story -- and the way I learned about it.

The information about how she died was so closely held that my mother herself only learned it, from her parents’ housekeeper, thirty years after the fact, when everyone else involved was dead. And even then, no one discussed it. No one mentioned her troubles. I never knew there was a history of mental illness in my family. I sincerely believe I should have. It would have helped me to know I'd had company, to know I was not alone.

During the Second World War, Bessie became the lover of a man who rented a room at the family’s house (not a regular boarding house -- they let their guest room out "for the war effort"). Perhaps she had been planning to leave her (polio-stricken) husband and run away with the lover, but on V-J Day, the lover broke off the relationship and moved back to his hometown, where he had a family of his own. Though the world -- including my own mother -- was told she’d died of a heart attack, the housekeeper was privy to the fact that Bessie actually put her head in the unlit oven in her kitchen.

A number of years ago, when my aunt heard I was writing about this story, she took me to visit the house my great-grandmother had lived. She happened to know the current owner, and asked her to let us visit.  It turned out the small, white enameled  gas oven that my great-grandmother had used to kill herself was still there, though disconnected from the gas lines. It now serves as a telephone table, and the owner (who knew there was some story about the oven, but not the details) now keeps phone books inside the oven itself. It was an oddly pleasant visit. The current owner of the house was gracious and welcoming, but seeing the oven had a powerful effect on me. I was stunned and saddened and almost felt possessed by the great-grandmother whose undoing had been made permanent by that antique appliance.

And so, when I learned that mine was a family that covered up suicide, relabeled it heart disease, and didn't worry that the problem might be heritable, I decided that it was a burden I must take up, to tell the forgotten story, to make public the secret pain, to give validation to the life that was squandered for want of psychotherapy, or psychopharmaceuticals, or just plain sympathy. If I were a doctor, I probably would have been driven to try to treat people similarly afflicted, as a writer, I turned to my desk and began to tell a story, the story of Bessie, who I turned into a troubled young mother named Stella, the mother of the main character in When the World Was Young.