I loved my literature and writing classes in college. I was a literature student, so of course I did! But more than that, my teachers and professors introduced me to works I normally wouldn’t have discovered and read.
One memorable work is ‘night, Mother, a pulitzer winning play in the early eighties by Marsha Norman. I devoured this haunting play when I first read it, and, twenty five years later, it’s still on my mind.
Strange, right? Why would a short play with just two characters and whose central theme is suicide, still affect me today? It’s easy–I deeply resonated with it. It’s what I love to read and write about. Real people with real issues and complicated relationships. And stories that don’t always end with a happily ever after. Instead, you’re presented with uncomfortable conversations, mistakes, pain, but also a splash of understanding, forgiveness and hope.
I’m going to share part of the essay I wrote about ‘night Mother back in 1997 (I’m aging myself here!)
I remember an evening long ago when I was alone with my mother in our home. I wanted it to be just her and me. I was tired of living every day and always ending with disappointment, or worse, nothing. I wanted to end it all. I wanted my mother to know how I felt. I took a steak knife from the kitchen and began to play with it. My mother saw this and became angry. I continued to caress it, and then held it up to my neck and told her I was going to kill myself. I was taunting her because I knew I wouldn’t actually go through with it. No guts. But I held onto the knife for awhile and pressed it against my wrists. My mother was not amused, but she knew I wouldn’t do it. It was stupid and heartless. I acted like I wanted her to stop me.
Reading ‘night, Mother made me remember this long-ago incident and how childish and foolish I behaved. Unlike me, the character Jessie is strong and confident. She knows exactly what she wants, and she gets it. Right at the start, she tells her mother in a calm, blunt way, “I’m going to kill myself, Mama.” Jessie proceeds to do that in a couple of hours. It’s puzzling how Jessie can be so calm about her certain death. The simple answer lies in who she is and how she perceives herself and her world.
All her life, Jessie never truly made her own decisions. She didn’t really choose her husband, she never decided for herself where she wanted to live, and she didn’t even know she was epileptic since her childhood. But, despite her problems and misfortunes in life, Jessie is not bitter. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She just wants something for herself. She wants to do something that she decided on alone. She says, “It’s all I really have that belongs to me, and I’m going to say what happens to it. And it’s going to stop.”
Mama nags Jessie to tell her the reason for ending her life. In fact, this is what the major part of the play is based on, and every reader wants an explanation. This question begins a series of questions and leads to a real discussion, perhaps the only one, that Mama and Jessie ever had. At first, Jessie says, “It’s exactly what I want. It’s dark and quiet.” Mama won’t accept this and she throws her own reasons out to Jessie. She can’t understand the real reason because she doesn’t understand Jessie.
Jessie doesn’t place the blame on anybody, not her ex, her father, her epilepsy and not even Mama. Jessie is simply happy with the fact that she can just kill herself. It’s something she can do, her own choice. One of the best metaphors Jessie uses to describe how she feels is the bus. She explains, “Whenever I feel like it, I can get off.” And she adds, “I’m feeling as good as I ever felt in my life.”
“I need something that will work. This will work. That’s why I picked it.”
All Jessie wants is to go quietly and quickly. In the end, she orders Mama in a soft voice, “Let me go, Mama.”
Thinking about the night I held a knife to my throat and told my mother cruelly that I was going to kill myself makes me feel ashamed. I wasn’t strong and sure. I wasn’t okay. I was bitter, angry and hurt. Jessie killed herself to reclaim herself. Mama understands this in the end. I think she always did because she never called anyone for help when she had the chance.
The saying, “Let go, it’s harder holding on” is fitting for ‘night, Mother.
I’ve written about suicide on this site. I wrote about it in my first novel, Bring Me to Life. I’m a suicide loss survivor and that particular pain never fades away. So I write about it. I feel it every day and I don’t try to forget about it. Every loss becomes a part of who you are. And because I was depressed and obsessed with ending my own life a long time ago, I understand Jessie’s character in ‘night, Mother. I understand every person who chooses to leave this life when they want to because that’s the one power they have.
Life is hard. Unfair. Scary. Depressing. Tragic. It’s also amazing, entertaining, joyful, wonderful. But when you’re in that dark place and can’t see any light, you gather all the strength and courage you have left and you make a decision for you. I’m still here because I always saw a light. There was never one hundred percent darkness.
Read ‘night, Mother. No matter who you are and what you feel and believe on this issue, you will be moved by this story and these characters.