A review of Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford
by REBECCA, February 3, 2014
Fifteen-year-old Jeff wakes up in a psych ward on New Year’s Day, committed for 45 days of therapy. But it’s a total mistake, because Jeff wasn’t actually trying to kill himself; not really. And, obviously, it’s the other kids in the ward with him who are crazy. Right?
Michael Thomas Ford’s Suicide Notes takes place over the course of Jeff’s 45 days in the psych ward, and the backstory of how he ended up there is revealed slowly, as he gets to know the other kids in the ward with him, talks to his therapist, Dr. Katzrupus, whom he calls Cat Poop, and eventually confronts his parents. Like the circumscribed ward in which Jeff finds himself, Suicide Notes is a book that knows its limits. It tells a very particular story and does it well, but it’s a bounded story; one that doesn’t attempt to break those boundaries, but instead takes advantage of them to explore its small scope.
One of the things Suicide Notes does best is show how Jeff moves, psychologically, from being in denial about his suicide attempt at the beginning, to finally accepting not only what he did but why he felt the need to do it. When we first meet Jeff, he’s cloaked any vulnerability in aggressively smart-ass banter. He listens to the other kids in his therapy group with pity, thinking how messed-up they are. There’s Alice, who set her molester on fire, Juliet, who’s delusional, Bone, who doesn’t say anything, and Sadie, who was saved from a suicide attempt by a stranger. Jeff insists he doesn’t belong there, but little by little, he realizes that they don’t seem crazy, either.
Jeff makes friends with Sadie, since they both are up late at night, and, as they get closer, he finds himself thinking about his best friend, Allie. When Jeff’s sister tells him that Allie hasn’t asked about his absence from school, Jeff is forced to consider what role Allie and her boyfriend, Burke, had to play in his feelings the night he tried to kill himself.
After Jeff has been in the psych ward for two weeks, two new kids come: Martha, a twelve-year-old who has been through horrific trauma, but seems to take a shine to Jeff, and Rankin, a jock-y football player. It’s Rankin’s confusing behavior that finally shakes loose the fears and feelings that Jeff hasn’t been able to acknowledge. When Jeff finds himself in over his head with Rankin, he is forced to confront his suicide attempt and everything that led up to it.
Suicide Notes follows in the footsteps of novels like I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1964) and Girl, Interrupted (1993). As I said, it’s a small, short, focused novel, and Jeff’s voice is the star. He is hard to like at first, since he keeps people—himself included—at such a distance. As he warms to himself, though, I did too. The other characters are a bit sketchy, whether because they’re not particularly developed or because Jeff only encounters them in an artificial way, during group therapy. Similarly, Jeff’s life outside the psych ward is sketchy, and we only get the briefest of descriptions of who he was in that context. All of this, combined with the book’s short length, makes for a slice-of-life feel. We learn a lot about some things and virtually nothing about anything else. This approach seems to match Jeff’s experience of being in an unfamiliar place where he feels out of sync with his real life, but it also left me wanting to know more about Jeff—more particularities about who he was, instead of just what he felt.
Suicide Notes kind of set the standard of the new generation of teen psych ward fiction that would follow. And, as such, it’s a solid, enjoyable, and touching read. But, while it’s a solid starting point, it just doesn’t have the wow-factor of a novel like Last Night I Sang to the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, which has a similar narrative structure of using the group therapy setting to reconstruct memories, or the staying power of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. That doesn’t make it a bad book at all—it’s a basic book, and it does what it does very well.
Last Night I Sang to the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2009). This is one of the most beautiful and sad books out there. Sáenz is also a poet, and it absolutely shows in his command of prose. The combination of such gorgeous prose and a difficult story, narrated by a character who is dealing with the aftereffects of some horrible events adds up to a book that changed the way I thought about first-person narratives. My full review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster is HERE.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story, by Ned Vizzini (2006). Inspired by the author’s own brief stay in a psych hospital, It’s Kind of a Funny Story tells the story of Craig, whose anxiety and depression as he attempts to get into prep school make him want to kill himself, and lead to him checking himself into a psych hospital instead. See Tessa’s complete review HERE.
OCD Love Story, by Corey Ann Haydu (2013). Bea knows she’s a bit messed up—ever since “the incident” last year, she’s been seeing a therapist—but she thinks she’s got things pretty much under control. Heck, she even met a boy at a school dance recently! But now Dr. Pat wants her to join a therapy group for teens with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. As Bea starts a relationship with Beck her own OCD begins to spiral out of control. My full review of the wonderful OCD Love Story is HERE.
procured from: the library