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After He Killed Himself

The author of The Upstairs Room tells the back-story of her adult life

Anyone who has lost a loved one through suicide undoubtedly knows the excruciating pain and bafflement of trying to understand “Why?” But when, in August 1969, Johanna Reiss, author of A Hidden Life (Melville House, $24.95), learned that her husband of 11 years had killed himself, her shock was exacerbated by the fact that she had believed, until then, that with her American husband and their two children she had succeeded in finding a happily-ever-after coda to her catastrophic childhood.

As a young Jewish girl in Nazioccupied Holland, Reiss and her older sister had spent nearly three years in hiding, concealed in a rural farmhouse attic and looked after by family friends. She described these and other terrors of her Holocaust experience in her now-classic memoir for young adults, The Upstairs Room, a Newberry Award winner when it was originally published in 1972.

What she did not reveal in that volume was that a cloud of adult loss had hung over her even as she had composed the memoir of her childhood. That is the subject of her new memoir. A Hidden Life is a meditative exploration of the ways in which, until now, she had kept the emotional wounds of her husband Jim’s death hidden in a personal attic of her own making.

Paradoxically, it had been Jim — a seemingly optimistic American, deftly described by Reiss as “a Jew, although barely, a box of matzos at Passover time, that was it” — who had urged her to write about being a child hidden during the Holocaust. It was he who had persuaded her to embark on a summer-long trip to Holland with their two daughters, then ages 7 and 9, to research and revisit her past in preparation for that project. And it was his suicide (he had returned to New York for work, while his wife and daughters remained in Holland) that cut the vacation abruptly short.

For years, Reiss confesses, she could not admit to anyone, including (perhaps especially) her children, that Jim’s death was self-inflicted. Refusing to say the word “suicide” out loud, however, may have been less a form of denial than a practical strategy for remaining focused on the daily tasks required to rebuild yet another life for herself and construct a future for her children. Nor did that mean that she could hide from herself the cosmic irony that she, who had clung to life despite constant threats of death, had married a man who threw his life away.

In concise, evocative prose, Reiss writes about that decisive summer of 1969 as a season of multiple dislocations in time and place. Watching her young daughters frolic playfully at a Dutch beach early that summer, Reiss becomes aware of the absence of any comparable memories from her own childhood, which had proven so constricted that a brief glimpse of blue sky from a frosted window would be cherished. Later, news of Jim’s death, awkwardly conveyed in a terse trans-Atlantic call, floods Reiss with more waves of intense yet chronologically disconnected remembrances, ranging from Jim’s courtship to the unexplained pieces of his mother’s psychiatric illness to bizarre incidents that, in retrospect, may have provided some clue to his behavior.

Or not; that is one of the infuriating legacies of suicide. Reiss’s life demonstrates all too well another, perhaps even more infuriating truth: that living through past horror does not exempt one from the possibility of future calamity. Her plainspoken tone — no self-dramatizing complaints or whining — speaks to this hard-won knowledge, and in that unflinching recognition reside the seeds of her resilience.

Diane Cole is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report and author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.