By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Sr. Contributor
In the spring of 1994, a boy in Candace Jane Opper’s class died by suicide. She was just 13 years old and she barely knew him, but she had a huge crush on him. Whether tacit or explicit, reciprocated or unrequited, that swell of first love lands hard and leaves a mark–even if it is confidential and from afar.
Opper has written a beautiful memoir about that time and the decades that followed as she remained preoccupied with his death. It is about the boy she loved and about suicide; it is about being a 13-year old girl caught up in being in love and about how hard it is to simply be at that age; and it is about the study of suicide, suicide prevention efforts and grief support groups. It’s also about Kurt Cobain.
Her manuscript won the 2nd Annual Kore Press Memoir award, judged by Cheryl Strayed (of ‘Dear Sugar,’ and ‘Wild’ fame.) A non-profit publishing house dedicated to centering voices from the margins, particularly women’s and transgender voices, Kore will release Opper’s book, ‘Certain and Impossible Events’ in mid-January of this year. It is a unique blend of grief writing, coming of age confessional, and sociological research.
“For this particular project, the act of researching was part of my grieving process — I’m using air quotes again, which you can’t see–I have an issue calling this a grief memoir, because that is a genre in and of itself, but I read anything that I came across about suicide,” Opper told the Current by telephone.
“I wanted to reflect the weird mourning process I’ve gone through and the act of researching and deep-diving into the subject was part of that process for me. I wanted that to be present in the book — in a way that’s not just, here’s all this research — but here’s me doing this research and how that process is changing the way I think about this as I go.”
Though Opper now lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the book is mostly set in Connecticut where she grew into adulthood and her school-girl crush died. Most people are happy to put their adolescence in the rearview mirror and move on, but Opper’s book gets inside that 13 year old heart and head with authenticity and grace.
“I often feel like I’ve sort of partially been in this headspace this whole time because of the relationship I have with this experience, which is so close and I’ve thought about it so much for so much of my life,” she explained.
She was just 13 when Kurt Cobain killed himself and the whole music-loving world seemed to stop in time. The music of Nirvana, Hole, and Pearl Jam is the music that defines the early to mid-1990’s, although Opper herself came to appreciate that music after Cobain’s death. She was, she admits, a dorky kid. But the boy she loved died just a short time after Cobain and was a fan of him and his band. Opper spends part of the book parsing through every bit of academic and medical writing and research around copycat suicides and what the hard data around them reveals.
Adolescence is a scary time, uniquely awkward and ungainly. Every day feels like a minefield and everything — every song, every smile, every interaction, every bit of eye contact in the hallway — burns white hot. That crucible age can shape much of who we become later in life and while we may not be nostalgic for the feeling of being an adolescent, nostalgia for the era in which we came of age is a gravitational pull hard to shake free from.
“Everything is just horrible. There is definitely a part of me that romanticizes it a little bit, to my detriment. The romanticizing to me is more about that era than it is about the age and experience. Because I consider that my coming of age, I really value the music from that time and I really value the fashion and things like that,” she explained.
“Oftentimes, when I put myself in that moment, it’s like my adult self moving around in that world, looking through my 13 year old self’s eyes. That’s the first step, then you go a bit deeper down and try to actually get into the headspace of the fear and horror and embarrassment of every day and how it felt like everything you said could be used against you in the social court of law that is junior high school.”
Her love for the boy (renamed Brett in the text to protect his anonymity and his family) was so delicate that she kept it hidden from everybody, even being circumspect and vague in her diaries from the time, but it’s easy to see how she could get snagged and caught by those feelings.
Opper brings an unflinching candor and compassion to a childhood welled up with longing and isolation and melancholy, of feeling like an outsider skating on thin ice. Her determined writing makes it easy to see how one might get snagged and caught on the suicide of a beautiful boy.
“The question that drives a lot of the book is just this constant question — why? Why are you still so hung up on this?” Opper explained. “It’s really complicated because I don’t have an answer. The way I talk about suicide being an equation of many different factors is sort of the way I feel about my own fixation as well — obviously I was young, and I was impressionable, and I was in love, and suicide leaves you — it creates a different type of grieving process because of all the unanswered questions which will have an impact on you.”
Candace Jane Opper will do a virtual reading and book conversation with White Whale Books on January 22nd.