Companion to an Untold Story

Companion front coverThe Companion is about the suicide of my friend Joel, who carried out a methodical plan to take his own life—a shock of bright light in a room where my eyes had grown accustomed to the dim. In a moment, much of what I knew about myself and about him was shrunken, was transfigured, was gone.

Shortly before his death, Joel gave me many of his personal items, drawing me into his plan while hiding his intent. One thread through the Companion is my care for, and my resistance to, these items, how I hold onto them and how they hold onto me. His life and death was a terrible gift too, a part of our exchange.

In the Companion I try to forgive his deceptions and my own blindness, to lay him peacefully to rest. Suicide has a glare that washes out details, and I try to resist a story that overwrites all other stories of our past. I look ahead to a future, but do not turn away from the facts. I try to come back inside the fatal circle that Joel drew around himself.

Patti Smith recently explained her motivation in taking photographs of odd items belonging to the dead, such as Arthur Rimbaud's spoon and fork. "I think it's less about grief than remembrance," she said. "Grief starts to become indulgent . . . but if you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people, so they can experience something of that person."

I hope that the spoon of the Companion brings something of Joel to the reader's lips.

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Reactions and reviews

"A must-read, heartbreaking book." —Sweet

"Powerful, brilliant, painstaking . . . it's hypnotic." —Lev Raphael

"This is tragic territory, but the writing is beautiful, and the story itself grows more absorbing as each page turns. Anyone looking for ways to shake up the structure of nonfiction would do well to check this book out." —Dinty W. Moore

"It is a work worthy of the melancholy attendant in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (referenced well within the work) where 'attention must be paid' to suicide's broken and difficult humanity."Chuck O'Connor

"It's well worth a careful read." —Jen Hirt

"That the man who kills himself, and the rationale behind that decision, might be a text as complex as Pynchon or Joyce is a premise Aldrich takes as a given."—Brooke Wonders, American Book Review

"The absence of easy answers is both assured and made acutely poignant by its subject matter. . . . Marcia Aldrich grasps at enough of Joel's world to render its sadnesses and failures with compassion, and contemplates the part she played in his life--and the purpose of trying to make sense of his death--with lyricism and insight. That we're left with only parts of the story is no loss; that we have it at all is gift enough." —Tom Useted, The Pinch

"The alphabetical structure . . . presents a narrative that resists chronology and establishes an undertone of ceaseless mourning, with many of the sections referencing each other in a ceaseless loop. Each section presents a piece of the puzzle about why the friend, Joel, killed himself, yet many center on prosaic nouns that reflect the inadequacy of the author's answers to this question. The overall effect is haunting, and the list of images and entries creates a sense that, like most lasting grief, this story will never end for the narrator." —Sonya Huber, Fourth Genre

"Although her emotion is palpable, Aldrich almost becomes an observer or a detective, trying to piece together something she knows she can never fully understand. . . . The entries that Aldrich chooses to include are so varied and specific that we can tell she is trying to reach out for anything—trying to take any object, person, event or idea and see if it can help her better understand her friend’s decision. What is so fascinating about Companion to an Untold Story is that we can almost see Aldrich’s mind thinking." —Dan Berkowitz, Psych Central

"Companion to an Untold Story is an excavation of trauma, and we do not have to know Joel, nor Aldrich and her husband, to know the gravity of their loss." —Sarah Habein

"Creative non-fiction writer Marcia Aldrich (2012) recently appropriated a writing approach that addresses this interplay of presence and absence in an historical way…. Aldrich wrote the story of Joel's life in the form of a companion ... comprised of short entries organized alphabetically with cross-reference "see also" listings. In this way, it became rhetorically possible to include entries that existed in the context of, and also free of the suicidal overlay. The literary device of the companion addressed the analytical problem of comprehending simultaneous presence and absence, and avoided a teleological, predetermined historical narrative. Notably, it was a literary device (in this case, the companion)—not a methodological safeguard—that provided the analytical framework that accounted ethically for selection bias and teleology. The companion presented a history that honored the irreducible complexities of Joel’s life." —Lynn Fendler, "The Ethics of Materiality"

A description from the press catalog

When Marcia Aldrich's friend took his own life at the age of forty-six, they had known each other many years. As part of his preparations for death, he gave her many of his possessions, concealing his purposes in doing so, and when he committed his long-contemplated act, he was alone in a bare apartment.

In Companion to an Untold Story, Aldrich struggles with her own failure to act on her suspicions about her friend's intentions. She pieces together the rough outline of his plan to die and the details of its execution. Yet she acknowledges that she cannot provide a complete narrative of why he killed himself. The story remains private to her friend, and out of that difficulty is born another story— the aftershocks of his suicide and the author's responses to what it set in motion.

This book, modeled on the type of reference book called a "companion," attempts to find a form adequate to the way these two stories criss-cross, tangle, knot, and break. Organized alphabetically, the entries introduce, document, and reflect upon how suicide is so resistant to acceptance that it swallows up other aspects of a person's life. Aldrich finds an indirect approach to her friend's death, assembling letters, objects, and memories to archive an ungrievable loss and create a memorial to a life that does not easily make a claim on public attention. Intimate and austere, clear eyed and tender, this innovative work creates a new form in which to experience grief, remembrance, and reconciliation.

Typographic design

I am pleased to note that the beautiful and functional design created for Companion to an Untold Story by the University of Georgia Press has been recognized at the AAUP Book, Jacket, and Journal show. The Companion was honored in the Trade Typographic category.

A note to teachers

Companion to an Untold Story lends itself to writing courses that are interested in formal innovation, in portraits of people, in memoirs on grief, death, and illness, or in the enlivening use of research. I would be happy to participate in classes that adopt the Companion as a text.

For review copies and for information

Amanda E. Sharp
Publicity Manager
University of Georgia Press
Main Library, Third Floor
320 South Jackson Street
Athens GA 30602
Ph. 706.542.4145
Fax 706-542.2558

Recommendations (aka blurbs)