Chris Forhan grew up in a Catholic Seattle family with an accountant father, stay-at-home mom and seven siblings. Their orderly lives were shattered when Ed Forhan took his own life — driving Chris to fill in the portrait of a father he knew little about.

Share story

Lit Life

Chris Forhan grew up in a Seattle where the Seafirst Building, which now anchors Safeco Plaza, was the tallest building in town. Locals called it “the box the Space Needle came in.” His family — accountant father Ed, homemaker mother Ange and eight kids — lived an orderly life from the “Mad Men” era. They were churchgoing Catholics. The children did regular chores. They mounted expeditions into the woods that still flanked the edge of his Wedgwood-Lake City neighborhood.

Then in 1973, when Forhan was a young teenager, his father killed himself.

Suicide has been around at least since the days of Socrates. If you’re left among the living, there’s never a good answer to “why?” It’s on the increase — in 2005, about 11 people per 100,000 people in America killed themselves. Today, the rate is almost 13 per 100,000.

Author appearance

Chris Forhan

The author of “My Father Before Me” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 6, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbabook.com).

Once a loved one ends his or her life, another story begins — how to deal with the inconsolable loss, grief and anger that suicide leaves in its wake.

Forhan became a nationally acclaimed poet, and his father’s life and death worked itself into his poetry. But he needed to dig deeper. He has just published a memoir, “My Father Before Me,”(Scribner, $26). A professor at Butler University in Indiana, he will return to Seattle this week to read from his book Wednesday, July 6, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

“My Father Before Me” is a beautifully written forensic foray into the life of Ed Forhan. His son attempted to fill in the portrait of a father he knew little about, a quiet, accomplished husband and father who suffered from diabetes and whose air of calm masked a family history of abandonment.

Forhan answered some questions about how he came to write the book:

Q: Where did you grow up in Seattle, and how much of your family remains here?

A: In Maple Leaf and Wedgwood/Lake City. I went to Jane Addams Middle School and graduated from Nathan Hale High School. Everybody in my family still lives in Seattle but me.

Q: What kind of research did you pursue in re-creating your dad’s life?

A: I felt slightly guilty about doing research at all. There’s a purist philosophy about memoirs, that they should rely solely on memory. But the research was fun; it was detective work. Writing can be laborious and excruciating. Thank God for the internet — The Seattle Times archive was invaluable, and Ancestry.com. I wrote to every Forhan in the phone book, and a couple of them wrote back. My mother was an invaluable resource; she knew my father much better than I.

The book began with my great desire to have facts. I had my feelings, my memories, my impressions, but who were his parents? His grandparents? What did it feel like for him to have been a child?

Q: What was the role of diabetes in your dad’s life?

A:There was so much going on in my father’s life. He had a pretty traumatic childhood — his father abandoning him, his mother dying, being raised by grandparents who loved him but who were emotionally distant. He was the sort of guy who was trained to repress. To detach.

He worked hard, he was very deliberate, he was very conscientious. Attending to his emotional life, that was much more difficult. He was really behind the eight ball from the start. Plus the diabetes, plus he wasn’t treating himself very well. It’s a very interesting question, the relationship between the mind and the body. As he became physically weaker, he spiraled downward.

Plus, he was probably bipolar. A cousin has told me of all the people in the Forhan family who were bipolar, working maniacally for days at a time and having those mood swings.

Q: And he was responsible for eight kids! That seems like unimaginable pressure. And yet, many people did it.

A: It was a time when men and women had clearly defined roles. My father was the breadwinner, my mother was the housekeeper. When he came home he wasn’t responsible for taking care of us. As the years go by, I am more and more amazed at what my mother did for us. (Forhan’s mother, Ange Scott, would go back to school, get an education degree and become an elementary-school principal.)

This is a typical day I remember in the late ’60s — my father gets up, eats a quick breakfast, heads downtown by 9 o’clock. I think it was a mentally strenuous job. Then we were waiting for him to come home for dinner.

This didn’t happen every night, but around ’67, ’68, ’69, there’s his plate, empty, and we’re waiting for him, and here’s my mother saying, well, we’re going to eat without him. What I found out later was that he was probably at the office or playing poker. He didn’t tell my mother where he had been, and she didn’t ask. That is something I can’t fathom.

Q: I have read that one key reason people commit suicide is that they feel that they have become a burden to other people.

A: I think my father probably felt that; he had lost his job six months before. He wasn’t supporting his family. That’s how he defined himself. He was a week ahead from getting his last severance check. It’s worth noting that just when the severance checks stopped, the insurance check started.

Q: What do you think is the most helpful response to someone who has lost someone to suicide?

A: No one has ever asked me that. There’s not a real earth-shattering answer …. (just) say, “I’m sorry for the loss of your father,” because what else can you say? That he’s in a better place, that he shouldn’t have done it? The thing has happened, it’s inexplicable, the wound has occurred.

The difference between experiencing a death by natural causes and a suicide is that with the suicide comes potentially the shame. How could he have done this? How could he make that choice, knowing that he’s doing this to me? Was he even in his right mind?

Q: How did you approach interviewing your mom?

A: How did I approach it? Gingerly. When you write a memoir about your family, and your family is still alive, there’s a risk of making them feel bad. It’s kind of a weird thing to do, to send the story of your family out in the world where strangers can read it.

I just felt so strongly that I needed to do this. I told my whole family … and I asked them for help. My mother agreed … I think this was an act of love on her part. I was her son, and she was going to help me. I think she was absolutely candid. I said, I’m going to write a book, and the book might get published; she said, I know, I know … Those feelings were trumped by her trust in me and her love for me and her knowledge that I needed to be helped.