Companion to an Untold Story

Marcia Aldrich
Selected by Susan Orlean

A man's premeditated suicide and a friend's struggle to come to terms with his act


"Exquisitely sad but painstaking in its clarity, Companion to an Untold Story is an effort to understand a friend's decision to commit suicide. The author lays out the facts and emotions using the structure of an abecedary, as if the simplicity of a child's alphabet book could bring logic to the terrible puzzle of loss. There is no suspense in the outcome, but reading the book draws you in so intimately that you, too, feel an urgent need to understand why an intelligent, likeable man would choose, with great deliberateness, to kill himself. This is a difficult subject, written extraordinarily well: a winner."
—Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

"By turns haunting, fascinating, funny, and intensely mournful, Aldrich's Companion [to an Untold Story] is a stellar work that goes beyond Joel's story and into the very nature of grief and loss. How do people put the fragments of another's life together when they're gone? Many times, it's an impossible task, but Aldrich shows the worthiness of the attempt."
—Elizabeth Millard, ForeWord Reviews

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When Marcia Aldrich's friend took his own life at the age of forty-six, they had known each other many years. As part of his preparations for death, he gave her many of his possessions, concealing his purposes in doing so, and when he committed his long-contemplated act, he was alone in a bare apartment.

In Companion to an Untold Story, Aldrich struggles with her own failure to act on her suspicions about her friend's intentions. She pieces together the rough outline of his plan to die and the details of its execution. Yet she acknowledges that she cannot provide a complete narrative of why he killed himself. The story remains private to her friend, and out of that difficulty is born another story— the aftershocks of his suicide and the author's responses to what it set in motion.

This book, modeled on the type of reference book called a "companion," attempts to find a form adequate to the way these two stories criss-cross, tangle, knot, and break. Organized alphabetically, the entries introduce, document, and reflect upon how suicide is so resistant to acceptance that it swallows up other aspects of a person's life. Aldrich finds an indirect approach to her friend's death, assembling letters, objects, and memories to archive an ungrievable loss and create a memorial to a life that does not easily make a claim on public attention. Intimate and austere, clear eyed and tender, this innovative work creates a new form in which to experience grief, remembrance, and reconciliation.

Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction

Page count: 280 pp.
15 b&w photos
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5


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Marcia Aldrich is a professor of English at Michigan State University and the former editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. She is the author of the memoir Girl Rearing: A Memoir of a Girlhood Gone Astray. Her nonfiction essays have been published in a wide variety of literary reviews and anthologies, including The Best American Essays.