by Pete Mazzaccaro
On Feb. 27, Local columnist and author Hugh Gilmore will hold a book release event for his most personal work to date: a memoir titled “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” The release party will take place from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Bombay Room of the Chestnut Hill Hotel, 8229 Germantown Ave.
Last week, I sat down with Hugh to talk about his new book.
Local: First, let’s start with the unusual title. “My Three Suicides.” What does that mean?
HG: I thought the title was catchy, but only if you add the second part of it – “a success story.”
Everybody deserves to have their story told and everybody’s life is worth telling if you can find a perspective on it. I think a difference between a writer and someone who doesn’t get around to it is, number one, a writer writes and, two, a writer can reach in and find the story arc.
If you weren’t in the Civil War, you weren’t in the Vietnam war, you weren’t a captive of ISIS, you don’t have anything big and dramatic to tell – that’s OK. Everyone’s life is interesting if you can find where the story is.
Looking at the stream of my life, I was looking for some way I could divide it into stages, and the only time I seriously thought about doing myself in was after my son Colin died (he was 18 at the time). I thought I had a commitment. As his father, I felt I should do something. It was a crime to continue to love and eat and enjoy the sunshine.
That was one time.
When I was thinking back over my life there were other times. Once was in religious ecstasy when I had religion crammed into me. I was 13 and I wanted to go to heaven, and that seemed like a good way to get there.
The second time was then at the end of my college career, when I had screwed up and disappointed a lot of people that had put faith in me. I felt like stepping in front of the Broad Street Subway.
I didn’t come close, but the fact that I’m such a positive person and the thought even occurred to me was something.
That third time was in 1988. I was on a boat, on a bird-watching tour, and I got the feeling I should just slip between the rails and into the water. It was six weeks after Colin had died. I felt I had a duty to go in and help him.
When a child dies, you don’t feel like the child has died. You feel like the child has gone somewhere and is in trouble, and you feel like you need to get there and help. It’s a common – I’ll call it a delusion – it’s a powerful one.
I’ve become a different person each time, and my temptation is different each time, When I don’t accept the temptation, it’s for a different reason each time. It’s an indication of how a life changes.
Local: Is that what the book is about? Change?
HG: If I were to say one thing about the book, I’d say it was about the gaining of wisdom.
I’ve been through experiences, none of them unique. I’ve been married twice and had to go through falling in love and getting a divorce from a marriage in which I had a child. There’s a lot of heartbreak in that.
If you’re lucky, it’s a learning experience. You don’t make the same mistakes twice.
Local: What did you learn?
HG: I did genuinely get an ‘aha’ moment that is a pivotal part of the book.
I was very proud of myself at the age of 30. I had decided I hadn’t had all the intellectual challenges I wanted. I was going back to school for an advanced degree – was going to study apes and monkeys. I had made a lot of commitments.
One afternoon, I was driving back from Ann Arbor to Rhode Island. As I entered Ohio, there were these fields with tall grass that went on forever. They were dry and brown and golden shade. I recognized that they were sort of calling to me. Taunting me. Pulling me. I had a very strong urge to stop the car and go walking into the field. It was not the first time.
As an intellectual exercise, I backed up and tried to remember when this urge had come to me before. I traced it back to when I was 9 years old.
My father was an alcoholic. He was a good father in the early years, but he started to drop out as his alcoholism became stronger. Around that time when I was missing a father figure, my next-door neighbor, who was a Fairmount Park guard, was a real hunting and fishing enthusiast, and he encouraged me to come onto his enclosed porch and read his hunting and fishing magazines.
If that man, I realized, if that man had been an engineer my bookshelf would be filled with books about bridges, highway construction and tunnels. It was an incredible case of how older people can influence younger people and put a love for something into their heart.
My aha moment is to realize that all these big important intellectual decisions I had made stemmed back from praise and patting on the head. It was for emotional gratification. I had never wanted to do what it takes to be an anthropologist. It was not a fit for me. My upward graph and what I was shooting for was based on – not a bogus reason – it was an emotional reason. In making that discovery it freed me and I moved back to Philadelphia.
Local: Who do you think will read this book?
HG: It will be inspiring to divorced dads who have had their lives deconstructed. For a while I was quite devastated and quite lonely. I didn’t like being alone, despite the freedom I enjoyed. They will sympathize with what it takes to reconstruct a life.
Another audience would be children of alcoholics. When you’re a child growing up in unusual circumstances, you don’t know what normal is. When you get out of the household, all of a sudden you start to recognize how crazy things were for you.
Third is people who like memoirs and good writing. Good writers, I think, notice things. So others can have aha moments.
Local: Why a memoir?
HG: I think the personal essay is my bag. When I’m writing fiction, I think nonfiction is so much easier.
I began the book in 2005. Picked it up again it 2007 and couldn’t get it anywhere.
It was hard to decide what to include and not include. You know you’re writing with your punch line in mind. I want all things to feed into the who I am and the aha moment when I learned what I thought had been choice was not a choice.
Picked it back up last April and rewrote everything. The thought that I had a book launch night kept me going. I knew I had to be done by the end of August. I picked the date Feb. 27 for my book launch. Everything has been about meeting those deadlines.
Local: Any idea what you’ll work on next?
HG: It’s been an adventure. As soon as Feb. 27 arrives, I feel like I’m never going to write again.