December 16, 2019

Dear Hanya Yanagihara,

I had always known my sister would attempt suicide. The night she tried, after the police were gone and we were sure she was getting medical attention, I got out my journal and started to write. My first words were this: It wasn't a question of if so much as when.

It is this sense of inevitability that returns me to your novel, A Little Life. Like Jude, my sister has, since childhood, been afflicted with mental instability. Their circumstances differ in many other ways, but the essentials remain the same: two people, broken, surrounded by those who love them, yet so distant from it all— consistently spiraling towards disaster.

And like Willem, I knew too much and did nothing for it. Since childhood, I've been her closest confidant, the one most privy to her darkest thoughts and moods. Like Willem, I walked the line, not wanting to be shut out, yet always fearing I was doing too little.

It was her leave to college that finally allowed me to be free of this feeling— that and her new relationship with a boyfriend for whom I had a faint, unplaceable distaste.

Two nights before she attempted we watched movies together late into the night. As I turned on a favorite of mine, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", she remarked that it was perfect for her, having just broken up with her boyfriend. I was shocked; this was the first time I'd heard the news. But she seemed fine, and this was one of her rare visits home, and what was the use of pushing the issue and ruining our night anyway? So I simply hummed agreeably and flicked the movie on.

With the next morning came the news of celebrity suicide, and a text from a friend warning that she had brought up worrying thoughts on social media. I checked immediately, of course, but the tweet ended with her saying she was grateful to be alive, and we had just had that wonderful movie night, and by the time I woke up she was already out the door. So I simply went about my day, happy as a lark.

All this until a rude awakening in the night, my father shaking my shoulders and asking me to please, please call her, no one could get a hold of her, no one knew where she was, and sure enough, on second ring, she picked up. I was the only one who spoke to her that night. Almost numb to the news, I asked her calmly where she was; I convinced her quietly to call the hospital. It’s possible that call saved her life.

It was a good thing, what I did that night. But was it enough to make up for the fact that before that moment, I had done nothing at all?
These are the feelings that Willem has helped me confront. Always nervous, always scared, it was his final hold on determination to confront Jude's most horrible wounds that has inspired me to meet my sister's own. This relatability extends to Harold, too, especially with his admission of relief at Jude's death. It's terrible, but I felt it too. The perverse sense of comfort that she would be forced into institutional care, the overwhelming feeling that I had failed as a sister and a friend— in such moments, these characters have huddled with me in the dark, telling me that it's not okay, but I'm not alone. That making mistakes doesn't make me a bad person. That I can recover along with her. That unlike Willem, as long as I'm still breathing, I still have a shot at helping her.

You see, it's not often I come across books with messages like yours; ones in which love doesn't win. The work foundational to my childhood, Harry Potter, shows it best: the boy lives through his mother's love alone. Such stories are well-suited to the innocence of childhood, but
they don’t quite hold up to the passage of time. The hard truth is, love's no panacea; it doesn't conquer all. Sometimes love—brilliant, passionate, everlasting love—sometimes it fails. And sometimes there are people out there who need to hear that too.

Thank you,

Gabrielle Avena

Page last modified: March 11, 2020