A narrative nonfiction novel inspired by the famous photograph known as "The Most Beautiful Suicide."
- Biography, Health, History, Memoir, Nonfiction, Philosophy, Photography, Politics, Psychology, Romance, Self Help, Spirituality, Young Adult
- Page Length:
- 250 - 500 Pages
- Book Status:
- Working Draft
On May 12, 1947 LIFE Magazine published a photo that would haunt its viewers for decades. It had the caption: “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in grotesque bier, her falling body punched into the top of a car.” This photo would go down in history known as “The Most Beautiful Suicide.”
I was twenty-two and broken when I found her. She was immortalized as a twenty-three year old, and she was broken too.
She was lying on top of a Cadillac limousine with a halo made of blood. Her ankles were delicately crossed and she was clutching her pearls with a gloved hand. She looked like she was sleeping, lying on a bed of broken glass and metal. She was dead and I was alive. I was jealous and intrigued--I had to know more about this woman known as “The Most Beautiful Suicide.” She looked so peaceful; like she had attained everything I had wanted for as long as I could remember. She’d never have to open her eyes again.
Her name was Evelyn and she leapt to her death from the Empire State Building on May 1, 1947. Four minutes after she landed, a young photography student took a photo of her. Eleven days later, on May 12, 1947 her suicide photo was published as a full-page feature in LIFE Magazine. Forty-four years after the publication of her photo, on the very same day—May 12—I was born.
I found her photo in October of 2013. I had begun treatment for bipolar disorder only three months prior. The previous winter I had experienced my worst depressive episode and I was slowly piecing my life back together. I never imagined that by piecing together Evelyn’s story—by being completely engulfed and dedicated to something like this—I would begin the road to recovery for myself. I now feel a deep connection to Evelyn and her story. I feel like it saved me and allowed me to reflect on my own experiences with a mental illness, but in a different way. Researching and writing Evelyn’s story has cracked my world open. I continue to learn so much about her and myself, but most importantly, about the timelessness of mental illnesses and their effects.
Like countless others, once I saw this photo, it was all I could think about. I had to know what happened to this woman—what made her want to do this. I researched through the entire night. I found dozens of blogs and articles about Evelyn, but each just repeated the same set of facts. I studied the published portion of her suicide note over and over again. It was the last line that stuck with me: “Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.” I wanted to know what those tendencies were. I knew there had to be more information out there. After researching for hours, and as the sun began to rise, I found my first clue. It was a tiny newspaper article about her parent’s divorce. It was the inspiration I needed to keep going.
For nearly seven decades almost nothing was known about Evelyn. There were only two known photos of her—her suicide photo and a barely distinguishable grainy Xerox of her high school graduation portrait. There were several vague facts that spread through the media after her death, and those details continue to be published today as the only facts known about her life. The majority of these details I have found to be untrue.
It’s been over a year since I first found her photo, and I still haven’t stopped researching. I now have more information than I know what to do with. I’ve developed friendships with Evelyn’s remaining family members, especially one in particular, Evelyn’s niece. She has graciously helped me with my research from the beginning, trusted me with many of her family’s original artifacts and secrets, read some of my earliest drafts of Evelyn’s story, and become a dear friend. I have hundreds of different types of records for all members of the McHale family. This includes newspaper articles, photos, addresses, financial records, divorce records, interviews, personal letters, and more. I have even been able to visit some of the places Evelyn lived and spent her final moments.
Evelyn’s story is incredibly fascinating. It covers a time period and topics that I have been deeply passionate about for many years. She lived during the Great Depression and World War II and was one of the first women to join the military, in the Women’s Army Corps. She had a privileged, troubling and sometimes traumatic childhood, yet grew into an intelligent and uniquely independent young woman. She had also inherited a mental illness from her mother, one that had no name during her time, that plagued her twenty-three years alive, and her family for generations—up until this very day.
This is a story about what we know as depression, bipolar, and schizoaffective disorder. This is a story about women struggling to survive in a man’s world. This is a story for all of the world’s “sensitives”—those who feel “too much” and are shunned from society because of their emotions. It’s not just a story about Evelyn; it’s a story about everything she represented and continues to represent today.
It not only documents how these mental illnesses soak through to every nook and cranny of life, but it tells the story of two young women—Evelyn and I—and how we coped with our conditions. Our lives continue to be so similar, yet vastly separated by this funny thing called “time.” The thing is, mental illnesses do not know time. They seep into the lives and loves of those affected for years, for decades, rippling out into generations, spreading through families like fire, trickling down into every corner of their existence. We have been taught to be ashamed of these disorders, of our emotions, of ourselves. Seventy years has passed us by, yet my story echoes Evelyn’s. Our only chance for change comes with awareness.
NOTE: The publisher of this book will have the right to change the title. Also, the May 2015 delivery date is for the postcards, the book will most likely take longer to publish. Supporters will receive a first edition of this book immediately after publication.
Interview with Lauren Anne RiceRead Interview
Why did you write the book?
I really have two main goals for both this book and my career as a writer: to let people who are suffering from a mental illness know that they are not alone, or abnormal, in what they are feeling; and to increase awareness about mental illnesses among those who do not suffer from them, and to essentially, end the stigma against those with mental illnesses. I have even shaped my graduate education around the different aspects of this book, as I will be studying Creative Nonfiction Writing & Publishing, English Literature, Psychology, and Gender Studies. It started as an obsession, a hunch that I was onto something big--but it turned into something much bigger, something that encompasses topics I have been passionate about for years.
When I first discovered Evelyn's photograph, I, like many, was very intrigued. It became a bit of an obsession. I knew that there had to more information out there, besides what I found on the dozens of blogs about her. It was really the last line of her note that stuck with me the most: "Tell my father, I have too many of my mother's tendencies" so that's where I started my research--with her mother. I kept researching for a year. I still research every single day. Every moment of my spare time has been dedicated to Evelyn. I sometimes feel like I know Evelyn better than I know myself!
So it really began with the photograph, but as time went on and I learned more about Evelyn and her life, I consequently learned more about myself, my own experience with bipolar disorder, and my own family. It turned into a story that was about more than just Evelyn, but instead everything Evelyn represented. She was uniquely independent for her situation and time period. She also suffered from something that had no name during her time. It was simply known as "tendencies." Nearly seventy years after her suicide, I was suffering from an illness that my family treated as "tendencies."
I've done everything I can to look at things through her perspective-- I've studied and visited the places she lived, what society was like, what the weather was like, and the day to day behavior, language, and fashion. Currently, I am reading "The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life: Prohibition through World War II" which is perfect because she lived during 1923-1947. Something I have found especially interesting are all of the different advertisements and articles from her time geared at giving women love advice. It seems like the ultimate goal for a woman was to find a husband. The expectations of women in the 40's were much different than those today. Evelyn courageously rebelled these stereotypes and expectations when she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps at the height of WWII. The WACs were quite a controversy and there's plenty of documentation-- the most telling from male soldiers themselves. Women in uniform were believed to degrade the U.S. military.
Not only do I see the repression of women as a major theme in my novel, but also the repression of those with mental illnesses. This is probably the most important theme in the novel. I have over thirty articles that were published about Evelyn after she jumped, and each headline and article are focused on that fact that she was white, female, attractive, and engaged to be married-- "Oh, how could she commit suicide?!" They focus on the only lines that she crossed out on her suicide note, rather than the last most telling line, "Tell my father, I have too many of my mother's tendencies."
So those tendencies were what I sought out to discover. What I discovered was that tendencies were mental illnesses. Depression did not have a name. Even if one did know what the medical term meant, they would likely never admit they were suffering from it because of the stigma of "being crazy." At this point the story took a more personal turn for me. I am one of several people in my family who have suffered from a mood disorder; I am also the only one to ever seek out, and successfully maintain, treatment. I knew these tendencies far too well. I found suicide notes from the same era that perfectly describe the medical definition of depression, without ever saying the words. I truly believe that Evelyn was suffering and didn't know what it was. I don't think she ever voiced the pain she was in. And I think she was one of many-- she represented several generations. I couldn't imagine suffering through depression for years-- for most of my life-- and that's what I hope to change. I hope to let people know that they aren't alone in what they are experiencing and that there is a way to fix it.
Who are your favorite authors?
The most helpful nonfiction book I have read is Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." I plan to shape this book around narrative and research, much like Skloot's book.