Editor’s note: This article contains discussions about suicide
Last year at Narratively, Candace Opper wrote about an obsession with her middle school crush who died by suicide. Opper was fixated on his death and wasn’t quite sure why. But her Narratively story was just the beginning. In her new book Certain and Impossible Events, Opper dives deep to to find out why she was obsessed, and how media coverage and conversations about suicide impact the way people react to news of it. Opper talked to Narratively about confronting her unhealthy obsession, writing about mental health and what’s next for her.
What drove you to want to write Certain and Impossible Events about your obsession with “Brett” (a pseudonym)?
Writing has been really entwined in my experience of Brett’s suicide from the beginning. As a 13-year-old I didn’t have the language or emotional self-awareness to talk about his death, nor did my community encourage that kind of dialogue. I started writing as a way to vent my grievances — but also as an attempt to document the details around an event I believed was significant.
By the time I enrolled in an MFA program, almost two decades later, I was basically like, okay, I’ve got a briefcase (literally) full of writing about this boy’s death, what do I do with all of this? My advisor encouraged me to research the social and cultural history of suicide, which helped me contextualize Brett’s death into a larger cultural narrative. At first I thought I was just writing a book about suicide, but over time, the story of my relentless fixation with Brett’s death became sort of the epicenter of the whole book.
Brett died by suicide a week after Kurt Cobain death’s made international news. How do you think Cobain’s suicide affected your reaction to Brett’s death, and do you think that is a reflection on how news coverage of suicides influences people’s responses to them?
Brett didn’t leave a suicide note but had some Nirvana CDs and magazine articles with him when he died, so Kurt naturally became part of the collective narrative around his death. At the time, there was a general sense this was happening everywhere; we’d heard rumors about kids who had, say, swallowed half a bottle of Tylenol in effigy to Kurt. In a time before the internet, there was no easy way to investigate the integrity of this phenomenon.
It was weirdly reassuring, in a way, to think that Brett’s death was part of something bigger. At the same time, leaning on Kurt as a cause allows us to ignore the other factors that contribute to a person taking their own life. It’s tempting to assign a singular catalyst, but suicide is the result of a complicated equation of social, psychological, economic, and circumstantial factors. Though researchers have been able to connect excessive or sensational media coverage of celebrity suicides to “copycat” cases, it’s socially irresponsible to place all of the blame on a single cause.
That said, I will always wonder: if Kurt hadn’t killed himself, would Brett ever have? It’s easy to get caught up in those what-ifs.
In a way, would you say that your book Certain and Impossible Events was closure for this obsession you had?
Yes and no. The whole time I worked on this project, I kept thinking: once I get this story out into the world, I can be done. And in a way, I do feel done. I have exhausted every conceivable resource capable of providing wisdom or answers about Brett’s suicide; the rest are either not mine to know or truly nowhere to be found on earth.
But I’d be lying if I said: “I’m over it.” I find the idea of closure — at least, the widely accepted meaning of that concept — to be pretty bogus. As a writer, I’m constantly foraging around my past for inspiration and truth and insight, so I value being able to tap into the raw emotions around my experiences. I understand the emotional practicality of “moving on,” but I think I find more value in being sort of a living, evolving sum of those experiences.
What was the process like reaching out to your middle school classmates when doing research for this book?
To contact someone you haven’t seen in twenty years with an email that says something like, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m writing a book about my obsession with this boy we both knew,” is a truly humbling and cathartic experience. Honestly, everyone was really receptive to talking to me, and it was incredibly heartwarming to find that many of them also still thought about Brett and the impact his death had on our community. The whole process made the work feel that much more important.
What advice would you give people who want to write about mental health, especially when writing about someone else’s suicide or other mental health issues?
Do your research. There are many people doing inclusive and intersectional work in the mental health and suicidology industries who can provide resources for how to navigate the language. For example, the phrase “commit suicide” used to be the acceptable terminology, and now it’s widely considered a damaging term for its association with suicide’s history of having once been a criminal act. Also: read! The more you read about the topic—especially over a variety of genres and media—the better sense you’ll get about where the line falls between respectful and sensational. And honestly, that line moves all the time, so having people in the field read your work is valuable, too.
The subject matter of this book is definitely unique, and so was its road to publication. What was it like having your book picked up after winning a manuscript contest, the Kore Press Memoir Award?
Very surreal! I had been trying for a long time to go the route that had been sold to me in grad school, which was basically to write a book proposal and find an agent. That strategy arrived at a lot of dead ends, so I submitted the manuscript to a few contests as kind of a wildcard — and here we are. Sometimes I feel like I cheated the system, but then again I think the system is broken, so I’m grateful to have found an alternative.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been writing more about film lately, which feels like getting back to my roots. I grew up in a family of sort of lowbrow cinephiles and went to college for film history, so movies play a huge role in how I think about and move through the world. I’m really interested in the ways cinema can influence our understanding of reality, and how the boundaries between movies and life can become really fluid. I anticipate that whatever comes next will be inspired by those ideas.
You can order Certain and Impossible Events on Kore Press’s website.
If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 or the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. You can also text HOME to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line, for 24/7, anonymous, free counseling. International helplines can be found at the International Association for Suicide Prevention.