In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport – exploring the mystery of a mother’s suicide #memoir

In 1963, Nancy Rappaport was 4 years old and the youngest of six children when her mother, an ambitious woman who balanced raising a large family, organising regular society events and political campaigning, committed suicide in the wake of a heart-wrenching custody battle.

Nancy now has three grown children of her own and has written this book both as a daughter needing to find answers and as a professional child psychiatrist, bringing together her education, experience, the wisdom of years and a compassionate perspective to narrate this compelling memoir of an extraordinary life whose end was sad and tragic.

From a childhood in which the nurturing love of a mother was ruptured so abruptly, through adolescence and early adulthood where the subject of her mother appears to have been taboo, it is extraordinary and something of a blessed gift that Nancy comes across a trunk of belongings that has virtually been in hiding or at best forgotten all these years. It is a credit to her father and stepmother that it wasn’t destroyed and so Nancy in her quest to know her mother better, gains access to lists, notes, notebooks, a journal and astonishingly, the manuscript of a complete novel. At last, she begins to gain a first-hand insight into who her mother really was, aside from all that had been written publicly and most importantly she begins to piece together how her mother was thinking in the time leading up to her death.

Rappaport follows leads like a master sleuth hesitating to question herself only briefly in pursuing her mother’s former lover, an estranged best friend and a former confidante of her grandmother, to unearth as much information surrounding the events of that period during her parents’ marriage and subsequent divorce. Little by little, she draws back the carefully drawn veil of secrecy, though not entirely without getting her fingers burnt.

It’s tempting to search for the villain and it could be said that each of the main characters in this true story are tried out and tested in that role, but none endure. Such is the faculty of being human, perhaps we all have the potential if pushed sufficiently but here we find few heroes or villains, just victims, bystanders and those trying to do their best under the circumstances.

It is a bold move to publish a family story when so many are touched by past events and family ties remain tenuous. Nancy suffers the expected consequences to a certain extent though she tries to navigate her way with compassion and empathy as much as she can. It’s a difficult and interesting topic, to write a version of the truth that recalls the faded memories of real life characters, while respecting those who wish to remain silent.

In my reading of this courageous memoir, some of the lessons come not from digging in the past or even from the professional perspective, but from Nancy’s own children, who are a constant reminder of the present that we live in and the role and responsibility of a mother to her children, doing her best, learning as she goes, loving them above all so that they have the best chance to be loving, caring and successful people themselves and that no matter what anyone says or does or whatever the circumstances, a mother will maintain that role whether she is fulltime, part time, at a distance or just a faded memory.

11 thoughts on “In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport – exploring the mystery of a mother’s suicide #memoir

  1. I love memoir. Isn’t it Incredible that she found a completed manuscript among her mother’s belongings? I just added it to my Kindle in the hope I have the chance to read for pleasure again after grad school is finished 🙂 I love the images you’re using also Claire.


    • I am so glad that you may take the time during grad school to read my memoir!
      And thank you Claire, you captured at the end the driving force for why I started this journey, to exorcise the “ghosts in the nursery” and to be more present with my own children. Of course many would say that suicide is a silent presence in a family and my children grew up with me tenaciously trying to understand my mother.
      I just came back from a yoga retreat with my daughter who is the one that used to announce from her crib “I’m waking up” and it so so fun to now see my relationship change to being a mother to an adult daughter.
      Julie I am glad that you are reading it right now.. I sometimes share about the adult attachment interview which is a fascinating study. It shows that if you ask questions of mothers and fathers to be about their children to be (ie they are pregnant) it often is about how they talk about their own childhood. It is a very robust finding that it can predict the attachment of the parents to their children in the future) It is not what has happened to us growing up but the coherency of our story.
      Sometimes people say they may connect to my story ,not because they had a suicide but that they see how you may revisit “truths” that you may have been told as a child and then revisit as an adult. And then there is the longing. I have felt in a way that I have put my mother to rest and I don’t have the same insatiable curiosity and longing. That may have been the power of writing this for me.
      Thank you again for your interest. I was away and that is why I didn’t get back to you ! Sincerely
      Nancy Rappaport
      (author of In Her Wake)


    • That’s great you are reading it too; yes, I love the insights that come from her own experiences and from the connection she has with her children.

      Searching is often a journey that takes us far only to lead us back to ourselves, with a new, perhaps wiser perspective.


  2. That is such a thoughtful and thought-provoking review, Claire.

    This is on my to-be-read pile – I’m looking forward to it more than ever now. I think we can all learn from an experience like that, even if we haven’t experienced like that directly. I know it will bring up a lot of questions.

    Thank you!



  3. Pingback: A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for His Mother by Jeremy Gavron – Word by Word

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