By Linda Collins
Sat in the shower. Did the whole crying bit, my daughter, Victoria McLeod, wrote in her diary shortly before taking her own life six years ago at age 17. Sat in bed. Did the whole sad songs and crying bit. . . . PLEASE MAKE THIS SAD STOP. FUCKING MAKE IT STOP. God, something out there, please make it stop.
In the end, Victoria made ‘it’ stop, herself. She died the first day of a new school term. The ‘sad’ was passed on to me. But I have found a way to survive it—through writing about her and in sharing her writing.
I am doing the umpteenth rewrite of a poem I’ve been working on for a year, titled “The Grief-box,” when the first of what proves to be many emails comes in to add another layer of complexity to my still-evolving relationship with my late daughter and her writing.
Pat from the Child Bereavement Support Group I belong to messages to tell me that Victoria’s diary is being quoted by The New Yorker magazine. Other messages follow. This arrives from a science researcher I know: “WOW! Vic’s words in The New Yorker! This is just so powerful and wonderful—so great to see how her talent is so acknowledged.” A writing tutor from my MA course sends this email: “Vic in the lead paragraph of a New Yorker article,” and goes on to enthusiastically disseminate the news via her institution’s Twitter account. The mom of one of Victoria’s classmates whom my daughter had not even liked that much, posts: “Victoria’s insightful writings are a gift to the many others who are suffering.”
Some years after my daughter died by suicide, and deep into my grief journey—which has involved shock, heartbreak, anguish, trauma, reliving the trauma, disbelief, acceptance, and rejection of acceptance—Victoria has gained a new lease on life posthumously as a public persona. This is a persona with several dimensions in references made in media articles and in Instagram posts and comments: Suicidal Victoria, Tragic Teen, LGBT Statistic, Schoolgirl Jumper, Diary Girl, and Kid Creative Writer are some of them.
The reason for this most recent flood of messages is that Victoria features in a chapter of a book titled Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves, by research psychologist Dr. Jesse Bering. The chapter is based on a journal that I discovered in Victoria’s laptop computer after she died. It is a frank, moving diary of the last four months of her life. I shared it with researchers in the hope that it might help create a better understanding of the suicidal mind, and also to honor Vic’s strong wish to raise awareness about the debilitating impact of social anxiety, from which she suffered throughout her teens.
There have been reviews in publications all over the world mentioning Victoria’s name and re-quoting selective passages from her diary. The New Yorker’s review expanded beyond examining the book itself, to involving a sociological exploration, with the title “The Two Faces of Suicide: A new book stresses the biological causes of self-destruction. But what about the social ones?” This review, as well as one in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, starts by focusing squarely on Victoria and quoting her diary writing.
Seeing my dead daughter become a publicly recognized name was unexpected in my self-focused grief and my naïve eagerness to share what a writer and human being Victoria was, and I have mixed feelings about it. I hope that her story can help others. At the same time, Victoria was my daughter, and her loss is my loss, yet now I feel she is being stolen from me, appropriated by others. I am afraid of losing her all over again in a new way.
Complicating the issue, I recently wrote a book, Loss Adjustment, about Victoria’s suicide and my own deep grief. In the book, I weave excerpts from Vic’s journals with my own reflections. I’ve tried to keep the focus on Victoria and who she was as a person, to give a sense of what the world has lost with her death, rather than just on my own personal loss. I took this approach for many reasons, including wanting to honor Victoria with her own voice there on the page and provide a connection with young people and parents who might need to learn something from the tragedy to help their own lives.
For a book on the grim subject of suicide, it has done well, and I sometimes ask myself, how much of the book’s success is due to my writing, and how much is due to Victoria’s journaling? Whose story is it, to the readers? If the parts readers most respond to are those told in her own words, do I feel a professional jealousy toward my own dead daughter? Victoria is being quoted in The Guardian and The New Yorker, whereas I toil as a newcomer at my creative work. I only came to it after her death, and after years employed in the realm of the detail-obsessed copyeditor. Is writing a connection between us or a competition?
While Victoria at age 16 was studying English at school and learning about enjambment in poetry and other tools of the writing craft, in my youth money had been tight, so I had to start earning a living. My teachers said I had a skill with words, and I found a job as a reporter on a community newspaper in a rural area of New Zealand. The craft I learned was how to write engagingly about the biggest pumpkin at the county fair and how to get the publicity-shy farmer to smile for my shakily held camera. It was held shakily because I am useless with gadgets of any sort. And also because the farmer was not the only shy one. I was psychologically crippled by low self-esteem and social anxiety.
Eventually I found a haven as a copyeditor, where I could work with words behind the scenes. I no longer had to venture into the messy, unpredictable world of newsgathering and dealing with people. The downside was the putting aside of ego that is a necessary act when all you do is improve other people’s writing, and the feelings of inadequacy that can arise from that.
Victoria would see Mommy go off to work clutching her laptop, and I nursed the vague, ill-thought-out hope that this would show her that skill with words could provide gainful employment. Or, to be blunt, it could pay the bills. Another lesson I was trying to mirror for her was the reality of life, that it was about finding a job you could do well in, in order to function in the crappy capitalistic society we live in. I now realize that I did not show her enough hope and the possibilities for joy. Yes, Victoria saw that a skill with words could provide employment, but she also saw the daily drudgery and the sense of powerlessness it could lead to.
She probably gained a deeper than usual insight into what it was really like because she came to the newspaper’s staff canteen after school to do her homework. Once, I took her over to meet fellow copyeditor colleagues who were sitting at an outdoor table. Like me, they were affable misfits with a flair for words. Unlike me, this lot were smokers and were hunched in a gossipy huddle with their cigarette butts trailing red ash onto the ground. It was their last break of the evening before stories arrived for editing. Victoria followed me over reluctantly and I introduced her. She tilted her head, summing them up and asking without preamble, “Do you like your work? The office looks horrible to me . . . all the pressure, and those . . . bosses.” They looked up at this kindred spirit. One guy said with a wry smile, “No!” They all laughed. “We hate it,” he added, confirming her suspicions. After Victoria’s death, I found a short story in her laptop about an intern who makes a mistake that infuriates her boss, and which ends bleakly with, “Mrs. D.’s eyes were dark, malevolent slits . . . At the end of the corridor, the closed door was waiting.”
How could Vic be so insightful about the nature of being a cog in the capitalist system? The visit to my workplace came at the nadir of years of me juggling work and being a mother, a process she was clearly making judgments about. Those judgments would have been based on seeing the cruel impracticalities of trying to combine both worlds, such as burning dinner after scurrying to my laptop screen to make just one more change to edited copy at the demand of a supervisor, and seeing me come from the office in tears, having been overloaded with work and yet lacking the social skills to stand up for myself. Victoria was sympathetic and often tried to cheer me up with a joke or an amusing observation. But within her, something else was forming: a sense of the injustice that happens when a person can’t effectively speak up.
The negative, sabotaging side of myself also wonders if perhaps back then Victoria did not even regard what I did for a living as involving any special skill. In her diary, at one point Victoria was quite vicious about our relationship in that regard. She wrote about when I offered to help with schoolwork: “I don’t want [Mom] to become involved in my work. She changes every single miniscule part of an assessment so that it would be exactly the way it would if she herself had written it . . . I just want her to leave me alone. I don’t even want her to say she loves me, or anything like that. I want us to be strangers under one roof.”
It makes me sad and frustrated to read that. Yes, I did get too involved in her assignments. But I am an editor, that is what I do. And maybe it was how I thought that I could show my love. That’s the frustrating bit, her not seeing what I did as my loving effort to help her. The sad part is how she wanted to turn away from my love, as if it wasn’t enough for her, or giving her what she needed. We were both communicators of a kind, adept in the currency of words, and yet we did not read each other at all well. In a way, we were already strangers under one roof.
Victoria and I are closer now, though that may sound bizarre. I have been trying to grow as a writer, to learn more about the craft that my daughter herself was growing into before she cut her life short. I owe my development as a creative writer to her.
In November 2016, over two years after her death, I was at home one day, when I heard Victoria’s voice. Whether it really was her voice or just her voice in my imagination, I don’t want to know. She spoke in a matter of fact, slightly-annoyed-with-mother tone, giving me prosaic instructions: “Google creative writing New Zealand, Mom.” I did so, and up popped an MA course. It required that I send them 5,000 words of a current creative writing project. I went to my computer and the words flowed, as if I were a conduit for a story already fully-formed in my subconscious. With every sentence, Victoria was guiding me. I wrote about how I found out she was dead, what happened when I saw her body, dressing her with the embalmer, and sitting with her body in its open casket during the three-day wake.
It was as if my dead daughter existed powerfully in me and wanted her narrative to be told. I incorporated a short story by Victoria, “Dissociation,” about her imagining her own death. It is a raw, disturbing piece, and yet I felt Victoria wanted it included. She wanted people to know the reality of willing herself to die, and how she could not resist this dysfunctional thinking, how in a strange way it had its own lure and satisfaction. This was the first time that I used her writing in conjunction with mine. I began to understand Victoria’s writing and journaling in terms of wanting one’s story to be known. A few days later I was accepted for the creative writing MA course. In a way, both of us were accepted. I/We wrote my/our book, Loss Adjustment, as a result.
What of those fears of a mother–dead daughter writing duo, and professional jealousy? They were unfounded. We have become a team. Victoria, the more talented one, seems to want me to develop as a writer, too. I know that I never was, and never will be, “jealous” of Vic. I always thought that she was a gift to me, something precious that a mere bumbling mortal such as myself did not deserve. I wanted nothing but success for her, on her own terms, in whatever she did in life—and now, in death. So as the messages of congratulations arrive, saying that Victoria is mentioned in The New Yorker, I feel proud.
When Vic died, one of the many things I grieved about was the loss of significant milestones to come. Looming ahead seemed to be only dreaded anniversaries, reminders of my loss. First year of her death. First Christmas. But now, I am like any mother of a living child. I have a new achievement of hers to be proud of. “Look, that’s my daughter,” I can say, pointing at a printout of the magazine review and its clever illustration of a young woman whose profile and streaming hair comprise torn extracts from her diary. I avoid focusing on the grim reality embedded within the text, as do those who congratulate me.
In The New Yorker, reviewer Barrett Swanson writes, “Victoria McLeod was herself a writer and, even at her young age, displayed a gimlet-eyed approach to the world and a winsome narrative persona. In her diary, Vic was at work on a profoundly important story, one that was asking all the right questions. . . . It’s impossible to know, of course, whether a better story would have saved her. The onus falls upon us to examine the ones we’re telling.”
I think in her writing she was shaping her own life story, reflecting on it so far and what it could be, and in the process learning to make choices through her own lens. Victoria has shown all those who evaluate a young person purely in terms of passing or failing that their assessment is flawed. Plus, her own belief in her writing ability has been affirmed and cannot be taken away. That is its own story, one of redemption.
For me, examining that story as it appears in her journals is helping release me from a life locked at the moment of her death, to carry me forward in a more stable narrative. This is due partly to the insights I gain from Vic’s own perspective on her life and life in general, and also to the insights arising from the public analysis of Vic’s writing. As for the people who contacted me about Vic being in The New Yorker, it clearly meant something to them that she was recognized in the world as a writer. I realize I am grateful they want to be part of that story.