David Herkt talks to bereaved mother Linda Collins ahead of the New Zealand release of her book about her daughter's death. WARNING: Graphic content
Suicide, contrary to the lyrics of a once-popular song, is seldom painless – especially for those left behind.
Linda Collin's memoir, Loss Adjustment, about the death of her teenage daughter, Victoria McLeod – Vic - in Singapore, is the first truly revealing book about the subject ever published in New Zealand.
Until 2016, all mention of suicide in the media was rigorously constrained by law. Even now it is still subject to legislation out of consideration for families and for fear of copy-cat acts. Despite this, there were 685 suicides in 2019, the highest number since records began.
"Because her death happened outside New Zealand's jurisdiction, I could write about it," Collins says, "and yet she was a New Zealander. This presented an opportunity to me to make some sort of good out of her death and I felt it was important to open up these conversations on the unspeakable.
"I hate hypocrisy and I felt there was something there that needed to be addressed – that needed to be done in order to save lives.
"To honour Vic," she adds, "I wanted it to be the best book it could be and I went into it with that quote of Kafka's in mind, 'A book must be an axe for the frozen sea beneath.' That is what I wanted, so no half-measures there."
It was the first day of the second school term for Victoria. She was 17 years, three months and 18 days old. It was her final year at school. At 7am, Collins began to wonder why Victoria hadn't woken yet.
On checking, she discovered that Victoria was not in her bedroom, nor anywhere else in the condominium apartment. Collins went downstairs and started towards the small hill leading over to another of the complex's blocks.
"Something stops me," Collins writes. "It is more than not wanting to go further from home. It is a feeling I mustn't go there."
She texted her daughter, "Please, Vic, where are you?" and returned home, bewildered.
Then the building's security guard, Mohan, arrived. The burly man with a moustache had known Victoria since she was a child. He was sobbing.
On the other side of the hill, a small crowd made up of Singaporeans and their Filipina domestic helpers were holding each other and crying. Police officers straddled motorcycles or stood about, talking into phones or taking notes. Victoria lay on her back on the buff-coloured tiles of the path.
Collins' book, Loss Adjustment, was first published five years later in Singapore. it was shortlisted at the 2019 Singapore Book Awards and received a special mention for "bravely breaking the silence on suicide". The book is now being republished in a revised and updated version by Awa Press in New Zealand.
"The thing is after you have suffered trauma or devasting loss, studies have shown that you can suffer cognitive disfunction, which means I have an unreliable memory," Collins explains. "Most people's memories are - but, in particular after some things happen that you never want to think about again, your brain protects you by not allowing you to remember it."
Despite this, the memoir is a detailed account of Victoria's death and its aftermath.
"Where I had trouble remembering what happened at some point, I interviewed people, and that's where journalism came in. I interviewed them at length and then I cross-referenced their versions to work out what probably happened."
Loss Adjustment continues with an unflinching account of the hours after the police had searched Victoria's room and she and her partner
were left in the apartment. There were strangely ordinary tasks like dealing with a trail of ants in the kitchen, making cups of tea, and Collins "bizarrely" looking over the architect plans and costings for the rebuild of the family home that had been destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake.
Eventually, Collins was taken to the police morgue to formally identify the body of her daughter. "The hands are clenched rigidly, as if protesting in anger. I see blue-grey eyes, now open and fixed. I see freckles. Tiny pale-brown dots across porcelain."
In Singapore, a wake is held for three entire days before the funeral. Collins' account of the events is fragmentary but potent. Emotion has its own logic.
In the Sapphire Room of the Singapore Casket Company located on Lavender St, there was plentiful food, flowers and Victoria's open white coffin. Mourners sat on chairs around circular tables. Occasionally someone arrived and sung – Amazing Grace or It Is Well with My Soul. Memories were shared. Sometimes speeches were made.
"I sit, hair dishevelled, face bare of makeup but streaked with tears. I don't care what I've got on," Collins writes. "One media colleague even sends a message, which is relayed to me. 'Tell Linda to at least do her hair for the funeral.'
"So that is who I am now, I think, a middle-aged woman made mad, frumpy and unfashionably middle-aged by trauma and grief."
However, there are things that are still concealed.
"The police investigation wound its way through seven or eight months and then we were called to get her effects back and that's when we found her journal," Collins says. "The police said there was nothing of interest in there - but there was."
"I used to see her writing on her laptop and I'd ask, 'Are you doing your homework?' and she'd say 'Yes' or she'd say, 'Mum, I'm doing some writing.' She knew I loved the thought of her writing. I didn't question it any further. It turned out that she was writing her extended suicide note – also known as her journal.
"It is not just the writing but the process of her writing that helps me appreciate what a very profound, thinking person she was, insightful and wise."
Victoria's diary has already been the subject of a section in a book by Lucy Clark, Beautiful Failures, which focuses on teenagers and examination stress. Dr Jesse Behring also includes a chapter about Victoria in A Very Human Ending: The Truth About Suicide.
More than 50,000 people viewed a selection of Victoria's writing in the Singapore's online Sunday Times in one week. They revealed her anxieties and worries about her exams and being "one of those chicks that look like they have it all. Blonde. Lithe. Top grades. Popular."
"I don't know how I'm going to cope when I get back to school," she wrote on the Christmas break. "Will it really help if I ask for it? Would I just be wasting my parents' money? But the whole point is that I can't ask for it anyway. How do you explain that you might have social anxiety … I just don't know. And it scares me."
As Collins attempts to track down the information that would help her make sense of events, she comes up against Victoria's private school, which is focused on the children of expatriates. A meeting is arranged.
The school counsellor arrives late, slamming her bag on the table.
"I know you're looking for someone to blame," she snaps before she even sits down, "and it isn't going to be me."
The school is "one of the biggest education providers in the world", which follows the "most thorough" protocols for the welfare of its "clients". Its income depends upon its image in the minds of paying parents. Facts about Victoria's counselling sessions, their number, their documentation and much else are initially withheld.
"When Victoria died," Collins comments, "the principal was called before the board and, basically, he was instructed to sweep it - to sweep my daughter - under the carpet, because it was bad publicity for the school.
"We had a lot of trouble getting Victoria's counselling notes. The school kept putting us off and then sent them to us in a redacted form and when I showed them to a psychologist, she pointed out there were huge gaps that didn't make any sense … When I asked for the entire notes, I was told by the school that I would have to put this in the context of the good of the school and the good of the school in the community ... We eventually got more notes but still stuff wasn't there.
"We just wanted to know in the end. It was heartbreaking not to be able to stop this happening for other kids."
Victoria had a mild case of ADHD and her parents had always known this. She was frequently dreamy and unfocused. She was good at English but had great problems with maths.
The journal had also revealed that Victoria's relationships with other students had become more complicated as she considered the idea that she might be attracted to other girls. Additionally, she begun to self-harm in unobtrusive ways.
"I don't like cutting myself," Victoria wrote. "It hurts, but it is becoming addictive, I feel like I am temporarily destroying something inside of myself with the pain and when I get sad or frustrated, I turn to self-harm."
Collins also discovered that Victoria had nearly taken her life the day before her death but had failed. She had texted a friend to say so.
"Ultimately I learned that Victoria's death was a waste. She could have been saved," Collins reflects. "One of the aspects that could have saved her was my being a better parent – I think I was a just-good-enough parent … but you have to take yourself out of that day-to-day existence. You have to stand back and look hard at your child and who they really are.
"Don't let them fob you off or push you away because that is what teens do … When my daughter said, 'There's nothing to worry about,' do you know, there was … You have to be able to respond but not in an aggressive way that puts them off. You have to keep at it to let the child know you really want to how they are.
"You are asking because you are worried about them. You know how difficult life is. You want to help. It is better to speak about problems than keep them within. Be that difficult parent."
Loss Adjustment by Linda Collins (Awa Press, $40) is out on October 20.
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