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Safe Suicide

DeWitt Henry

Publication Year: 2008

Against a background of suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s, and the family secret of his father's alcoholism, Henry comes of age as the youngest of four children. He rejects his father's course in managing the family chocolate factory, and goes on to college, becoming a writer and teacher. When Henry marries, and becomes a father himself, he is impacted by the social revolutions of the 1970s, and struggles to avoid his father's flaws. He leads a literary life in Boston, founds the literary magazine Ploughshares, and befriends novelist Richard Yates. During the 1980s, Henry suffers the deaths of his parents, infertility, rejections of his work, and setbacks in his teaching career. In the 1990s, while his daughter and adopted son are swept up into trials of adolescence and young adulthood, and as his wife grieves the deaths of friends and family, Henry confronts a spiritual abyss similar to his father's, and learns to surrender to life, to love, to aging and mortality. By turns lyrical, quirky, confessional, and experimental in form, Henry's essays build into an affirming and generous vision. While addiction, the uses of imagination, a passion for literature, and issues of heart and soul are key motifs, a bungee jump becomes Henry's central metaphor: "isn't this life? isn't this art? We live and trust in our safe suicides."

Published by: Red Hen Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Memoir Of My Father

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pp. 1-6

My father came home each night from the factory at six or six-thirty (seven was late and we’d be starving, dinner held). He carried a briefcase, full of mail; used the upstairs bathroom; then settled down in his living room easy chair, both before and after dinner, to open and read all the mail and toss the envelopes and unwanted letters on the floor around him, ...

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pp. 7-11

The oddest adult in my suburban Philadelphia childhood was a retired prizefighter, a man blinded in the ring, but someone who had had a serious career and earned a fortune, so that he lived with his sister and his German wolfhounds in a forty- or fifty-room mansion that we, my friends and I and other schoolchildren, passed each day walking to and from school. ...

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pp. 12-30

My nephew, John Friedericy, a painter and sculptor, attempted a correspondence with me as his uncle, the writer, in the late 1970’s. “I have just realized that you and I are in the same business,” he wrote, “making art.” Among the color slides he sent of his paintings was a self-portrait with my father, John Henry, his “grampa,” for whom he was named. ...

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pp. 31-65

My ambivalence about having children was instructed in some way by my mother, who had sacrificed worldly talent and what she referred to as “self” for her children’s sakes—and whose frustration we children felt as deeply as we felt her love. My father’s instruction had to do with providing. ...

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pp. 66-73

Here I am. I’ve decided. Actually I decided before the ascent, before the free ticket, before the swaying, crowded cable car, before the tundra and alpine wind, the high camp resort, the skating rink, the open swimming pool, the bar and bloody mary, when, down below, I had only heard about the crazy bungee attraction on the edge of a cliff, ...

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pp. 74-81

I think of little deaths, a sneeze, an orgasm; how close such seizures are at once to vacancy and to the utter concentration of black holes, pure gravity. At once experience past will, past memory or thought; and an absence too, a non-experience. Comatose, the epileptic fit; no chance to dream. And yet like dreams, I hear reports of near-death experiences. ...

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Forces Of Nature: A Dream Retold

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pp. 82-83

I was on a trip away from my family in Boston—my wife, my daughter, my son—to serve as a staff member for the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in the summer of 1993 in the California Sierras, near Lake Tahoe. Though I had been on trips before, trips of body and of mind, I had never been so distant from my family and my teaching job before. ...

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Beautiful Flower

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pp. 84-88

I have watched snuff films, the ultimate pornography; the idea of which is a verifiable, undeniable extremity, the viewer guilty of witness, if not of being an accessory after the fact. Increasingly graphic special effects have heightened our appetites for the literal. There is no faking a knife in the chest, not a real knife, a real chest. ...

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pp. 89-101

I love her, and I fear for her well-being and pray for her future, but I have had to struggle with deep-seated instincts from my background in my regard for her. I was as a WASP manchild in the 1950’s, a sexist bachelor in the 1970’s, and a husband confronted with a wife’s awakening during the women’s movement in the 1980’s, a time when divorce seemed epidemic in my generation. ...

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My Dog Story

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pp. 102-122

His best friend, Gabe Farren, had been diagnosed with liver cancer. David never doubted that the powers of the adult world would cure Gabe. The sickness was curable, a passing ordeal. No one told Dave, or told Gabe, for that matter, differently. A liver transplant. Then remission, then more cancer. Then chemo, hair loss. ...

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Visiting Bill Knott

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pp. 123-126

Bill Knott has been my colleague for over fifteen years. We have shared students. We have moved from one office building to another, and most recently to the Ansin Building, a downtown Boston high-rise, where our offices are side by side, and often I hear Bill through the wall, cursing to himself, rearranging his stacks of books, or sometimes shouting at a student. ...

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pp. 127-128

She had been at that Internal Revenue Service desk, in the lobby of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Building, Boston, Massachusetts, early in the afternoon of April 14, dutifully attempting, as a good citizen, good mother, good single parent, good employee, and loyal, practicing Catholic that she was and always had been, to have her long form 1040 completed with the help of the IRS itself. ...

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pp. 129-132

My wife is singing an aria of love, Puccini at the least, top of her soul’s lungs, all night, all morning. She is singing for our daughter, just turned twenty-two, whose birthday we celebrated at dinner out last night and who is visiting from her apartment across Boston at 1 pm today, Sunday, to exhibit her paintings for sale to friends at our home in Watertown. ...

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pp. 133-137

Along came inkjet printers, standard fare now, and I bought a new Lexmark Z22 for my seventeen-year-old son, David, to go with his computer, so he wouldn’t need to use the old, even cheaper Canon BJC-250 that went with my computer in the basement study. The reason that inkjet printers are cheap (under $100) is that their ink cartridges are exorbitant (over $38) and quickly run dry. ...

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Gym Jerks

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pp. 138-144

A jerk is that hirsute, slouchy, 175 pound, thirty-five-something man, black, scraggly beard, black hair and bald spot, hairy back, neck, arms, undershirt, baggy shorts, tennis sneakers, who lets us all know how furiously he is working out, gasping loudly with effort on the exercise bike, then whistling to himself, as if he were alone, the way he must sing in the shower. ...

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pp. 145-152

Most of the fifty treadmills in my suburban gym face mirrors or TV consoles or both, but my two favorites face floor-to-ceiling windows. As I pound away my four miles on schedule each day, I can watch clouds drift or birds on the phone wires or sometimes an airplane or—predictably enough that they no longer surprise me ...

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pp. 153-155

My wife and grown daughter had decided we should have a family outing to the beach. I agreed, reluctantly, having teaching work to catch up with that weekend. Our son, Dave at fifteen, was all the more reluctant. Ruth, twenty-two, had her apartment with friends across Boston. She was visiting us at home in Watertown before leaving for one of her trips. ...

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Innocents Abroad

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pp. 156-172

We are tourists, the summer of 1991, my wife Connie and I, on our first (and so far our only) trip outside America. We have come to Holland for the second annual Ploughshares International Fiction Writing Seminar, held at a fifty-five room, double-moated medieval castle in Castle Well, near Venlo, on Holland’s border with Germany, ...

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Dress Rehearsal

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pp. 173-177

I felt a stabbing chest pain on my left side as I worked out at the gym, doing sit-ups. I continued my usual regimen, more work on another machine, bending forward, and then the treadmill for thirty minutes, when the pain grew worse and I had to gasp in open mouth and slowly blow out, as I would to ease a runner’s stitch. ...

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On Aging

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pp. 178-189

The ninety-four-year-old Johnny Kelley is the patron saint of the Boston Marathon. Richard Wilbur once mentioned him in a poem called “Running.” Every year for the decade of the 1990s, at least, he has appeared on the local news coverage at the start of the race in Hopkinton, beaming and in apparent good health, singing “here is the best part; you have a head start, if you are among the very young at heart.” ...

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About the Author

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DeWitt Henry is the author of The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel) and editor of Breaking into Print, Sorrow’s Company: Writers on Loss and Grief, Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (with James Alan McPherson), Other Sides of Silence: New Fiction from Ploughshares,

E-ISBN-13: 9781597091992
E-ISBN-10: 1597091995
Print-ISBN-13: 9781597091008
Print-ISBN-10: 1597091006

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: First