“We give our children life; we think we know everything about them,” DC author Gail Griffith writes. “And why shouldn’t we? We tell them what to think and do from the moment they are born. So it comes as a shock to learn that our children have secret lives—and that their secrets may be deadly.”
In 2001, Griffith’s then-17-year-old son, Will, a student at the District’s Gonzaga High School, tried to kill himself by ingesting two bottles of the drug Remeron, prescribed for his depression. Her book tells of his close call, the response of his blended family (four parents and stepparents, a brother and two stepsiblings), his stay at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington—where the author had once been admitted for depression herself—and his subsequent enrollment in a ten-month residential treatment program for teens in Montana.
The book has the immediacy and rawness of a diary—though the prose is far more polished. “We hear a fire engine racing down the street in the direction of our children’s school and immediately our hearts leap,” she writes of a parent’s protective impulse, so sorely tested in a case like Will’s. “Our first instinct: our children are in harm’s way. We follow the siren’s scream until we are certain it isn’t aimed in their direction and we hold them close in our mind’s eye until the echo fades.”
Part of the book’s diary feeling comes from the fact that interspersed with Griffith’s narrative are actual letters and e-mails to and from Will; his journal entries after the suicide attempt; and written recollections by his girlfriend at the time, a young woman named Megan, whose own self-destructive depression was intertwined with Will’s. Although somewhat peripheral to the main story, Megan’s passages are among the most powerful (and painful to read), written with remarkable insight and maturity.
Griffith weighs in on the debate surrounding whether antidepressants may contribute to suicidal feelings in children and adolescents. While acknowledging a serious lack of guidance for parents from the Food and Drug Administration, doctors, and the media, in the end she comes down in favor of carefully prescribed and monitored antidepressants for both young people and adults.
Will is now in college and doing well. His story is a strong call for vigilance among parents, even those who may not think their children are like Will—Griffith never dreamed she had a suicidal son, either—as well as a comfort and resource for people of any age struggling out of that pitch-dark place of the soul.