WINNER OF THE GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD FOR NON-FICTION
An eloquent and haunting exploration of suicide in which one of Canada's most gifted writers attempts to understand why his brother took his own life. Which leads him to another powerful question: Why are boomers killing themselves at a far greater rate than the Silent Generation before them or the generations that have followed?
In the spring of 2006, Don Gillmor travelled to Whitehorse to reconstruct the last days of his brother, David, whose truck and cowboy hat were found at the edge of the Yukon River just outside of town the previous December. David's family, his second wife, and his friends had different theories about his disappearance. Some thought David had run away; some thought he'd met with foul play; but most believed that David, a talented musician who at the age of 48 was about to give up the night life for a day job, had intentionally walked into the water. Just as Don was about to paddle the river looking for traces, David's body was found, six months after he'd gone into the river. And Don's canoe trip turned into an act of remembrance and mourning.
At least David could now be laid to rest. But there was no rest for his survivors. As his brother writes, "When people die of suicide, one of the things they leave behind is suicide itself. It becomes a country. At first I was a visitor, but eventually I became a citizen." In this tender, probing, surprising work, Don Gillmor brings back news from that country for all of us who wonder why people kill themselves. And why, for the first time, it's not the teenaged or the elderly who have the highest suicide rate, but the middle aged. Especially men.
About the author
Don Gillmor is the author of the Libris Award-winning Canada: A People's History as well as six books for children. He was a contributing editor to Saturday Night magazine and has won many awards for journalism. He is currently senior editor of Walrus magazine.
- Winner, Governor General's Literary Award - Nonfiction
Excerpt: To the River: Losing My Brother (by (author) Don Gillmor)
In late November, my brother didn’t show up for his first day as manager of the bookstore in Whitehorse. He’d done his training, had physically set the store up. The staff was hired, the systems debugged. All that was left to do was to open the doors. But he didn’t get there.
The next day, December 1, his truck was spotted at a rest stop on the Alaska Highway thirty kilometres south of town, beside the Marsh Lake Bridge that spans the Yukon River. A woman who used to work with him saw it and assumed it had broken down. But she noticed it was still there eight days later and reported it to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who drove out there and found the truck under a light dusting of snow, almost out of gas, unlocked, with the window rolled down. More ominously, they found David’s cowboy hat sitting on the ground near the river. They got in touch with his wife Katherine, who phoned my parents.
That’s when my mother called me in Toronto to say David was missing.
“He didn’t show up for work, and he hasn’t been home.”
“How long has he been missing?”
My first thought was that he’d fled his marriage and was off somewhere with a woman. The most likely spot was Vancouver. He’d just been there and perhaps he’d been seduced by its beauty. I was concerned, but I assumed he’d lit out, like in a country and western song. My mother and I tried to reassure one another that this was in character, that he’d be back. Though the timing was troubling. Why would he forfeit his new job at the bookstore? By the time I talked to my sister, later that day, I was worried. Wouldn’t he have taken his truck if he was going to Vancouver?
The RCMP searched with dogs and an airplane, and might have searched the river but it was already half covered in ice. Dragging a river is both expensive and environmentally intrusive, and it isn’t done much anymore. The North is filled with missing persons—people who have fled marriages, jobs, eastern complacency, the law, alimony payments and themselves. My brother was now officially one of them.
A week went by and no one in the family heard from him. In that grim lacuna between rumour and information, we waited. I phoned the Whitehorse RCMP, who had listed him as a missing person but hadn’t ruled out suicide or “foul play,” the quaint euphemism still used to cushion the blow.
I called Katherine and asked for the names and numbers of friends. She only gave me one, but with that I was able to find others. I didn’t know any of them. I called a dozen people and assembled a daisy chain of anecdote and disbelief. A few thought he had staged his death and was living in Vancouver, or possibly Mexico. I called his doctor several times, but she didn’t return my calls, probably because of privacy issues. David’s health had never been brilliant—he had a tubercular cough from his lifetime of cigarette and pot smoking, a dreadful diet, and he never exercised. Maybe there was a dire health issue he hadn’t told anyone about.
I tracked down the man who’d run the manager training session in Vancouver, who told me that David had done well, had enjoyed it. He was perplexed and said he hadn’t seen any signs of a problem.
I constructed a timeline for David’s last days. He checked into the River View Hotel on November 29 and was (allegedly) seen buying drugs that night. One friend noted he had a lot of cash on him; it turned out he had cashed his last two paycheques. Katherine told me she’d driven around town looking for him and saw his truck parked by the River View. She stopped and went in and found he was registered there and had prepaid with cash. She phoned his room from the lobby and a woman answered, then immediately hung up. Katherine didn’t go to his room. Instead, she wrote a note and left it on the windshield of David’s truck. She thought he’d be home in a day or so, contrite, seeking forgiveness.
I found a former bandmate named Ray who told me David didn’t start drinking until the mid-nineties. David had taken the counterculture to heart and thought pot was hip, while drinking was something that Dean Martin did. But he jumped on the alcohol bandwagon in middle age.
A few years later, it was cocaine as well. “We were in the Bitter Creek Band at first, then just a duo,” Ray said. “Played weddings. When his girlfriend left him, he was in a bad state and getting worse. His liver, I think. Went to the hospital in an ambulance. Doctor told him he had two to four years if he kept drinking. He was drinking on his lunch break at the radio station where he worked, beer and a shot. He also had a problem with girls. He cheated on Anna Mae, cheated on his wife, Katherine. It was the same as his drinking. Never enough.”
Ray said there was a nasty faction in Whitehorse that hadn’t always been there. “Seven, eight years ago, you knew everyone. There wasn’t any violence.” Ray didn’t know what had happened to David, but like the RCMP, he hadn’t ruled out foul play.
“He was very good at hiding his problem,” he said. “A very good actor. He kind of had another life. He wasn’t the guy I knew. He could sure play.”
The portrait that emerged of my brother was filled with contradictions: he had habits that had grown over the last decade; he had been clean for two years; he was finally happy; he was desperately unhappy and feeling trapped. He was faithful, he had affairs, he was in debt.
As the days went by with no word from David, my family contemplated three scenarios. The most optimistic was that he had decided to start a new life. This, alas, was already the least likely, though some of his friends held to it; he was variously reported to have gone to Alaska, Vancouver and Mexico, where he was living the good life. The second was foul play, something that came up repeatedly in my conversations with his friends. The third was that he had taken his own life.
My father went to Whitehorse to look for him, staying at his house with Katherine. At that time of year there were less than six hours of daylight and the temperatures were frigid. He talked to the RCMP, talked to a few of David’s friends and, after several dispiriting days, he returned.My family held an unstated, faint hope that Christmas would bring some news. If he had simply taken off, surely he’d get in touch at Christmas. He would call our mother. But Christmas passed.
By then, the Yukon River had frozen solid; if my brother was in the water, we wouldn’t know until spring. So we waited in our separate cities, my parents in Calgary, my sister in Winnipeg and I in Toronto.I now believed that he had taken his own life. It was the most logical option, given the evidence. If he’d taken off, he would have gone in his truck, and he would have taken some of his instruments with him. If he had been murdered over a drug deal, as several people suggested, why leave the truck out there? It seemed too elaborate a misdirection, and there was no sign of a struggle at the scene. My parents and sister had quietly come to the same conclusion.I went online, looking at suicide sites, reading the literature. I decided to go up to Whitehorse and search for him myself, but it made sense to wait until the ice came off the river.
In the meantime, I kept calling his friends, trying to piece his life together. I tracked down David’s last girlfriend, Anna Mae. They’d been together eight years. She was the girlfriend my mother thought was good for David, an enormously capable woman who could fix things, cook and was good with money. Anna Mae told me she had stood beside him for as long as she could, but she couldn’t bear his infidelities and addictions. She finally left him, then left Whitehorse, moving to a semi-abandoned mining town in northern British Columbia. She told me that while David was engaged to Katherine, he had phoned her, asking her to take him back. Anna Mae sent him a letter, holding her ground; she said she loved him but couldn’t go through all that again.
She sent me a copy of the letter, which was long and heartbreaking. “I know you don’t want to be the way you are and do the things you do,” she wrote to David. “But you have problems. They are your problems. I didn’t cause them and I can’t cure them. Only you can do that, if and when you are ready. It’s like you’re living two different lives. I hope one day you’ll get the help you need. I believe you are a wonderful, caring, loving person, with problems. But those problems are too much for me to handle.”
Anna Mae also told me that David had tried to commit suicide, a surprise. After she left him, he took sleeping pills and lay down on the couch in the basement. He left a note, saying he was leaving everything to his daughter, Ivy. He woke up, though, and crumpled up the note. When Anna Mae found out she called his doctor. He ended up in the hospital briefly.
I decided not to tell my parents this. I thought it would be better to wait until we had more definitive news about what had happened. My plan was to fly to Whitehorse in the spring, when the ice was off the river. I phoned the RCMP in April to find that the river was still frozen. May was no better. I finally flew to Whitehorse in the first week of June.
WINNER OF THE 2019 GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD IN NON-FICTION
“In clear, crisp prose, Gillmor has written a book that is searingly honest and heartbreakingly sad. From the story of his brother’s life and death to a larger exploration of white, middle-aged masculinity, Gillmor impresses us with his quiet insights. At one point, he asks, 'What are we anchored by?' His hard-earned wisdom holds us, here and beyond.” —Governor General's Literary Award jury citation (Ross King, Rachel Lebowitz, Marina Nemat)
“To The River: Losing My Brother is haunting, beautifully written and rightly hesitant about any certainties regarding an act as ultimately unknowable in social terms as it is in individual decisions.” —Brian Bethune, Maclean’s
“Gillmor took on the thankless, though compelling, existential task of understanding another man’s life, happiness and grief. And what makes it worth leaving.” —The Globe and Mail
“[T]he book frequently shifts, seamlessly, from the brothers’ stories to a wider perspective. As he explores the cultural, sociological and psychological questions surrounding suicide, Gillmor circles ever closer to an answer to the central question of those left behind: why? On the way, he draws back the curtain on a subject too little discussed. . . . To the River is a family story, focused on a brother's love and loss. It is a keen-edged, frank book, beautiful and unflinching, painful but important.” —The Peterborough Examiner
“As he explores the cultural, sociological and psychological questions surrounding suicide, Gillmor circles ever closer to an answer to the central question of those left behind: Why? On the way, he draws back the curtain on a subject too little discussed. . . . At its heart, though, To the River is a family story, focused on a brother’s love and loss. It is a keen-edged, frank book, beautiful and unflinching, painful and important.” —Robert J. Wiersema, author of Seven Crow Stories, Toronto Star
“Don Gillmor offers us far more than a portrait of his lost brother—he invites us to contemplate our own hidden interiors. To the River is a clear-eyed, unsentimental journey to the edge of an oblivion so many of us quietly skirt. Deeply personal, broadly researched and beautifully, beautifully written.” —Daemon Fairless, author of Mad Blood Stirring
“A beautiful, shattering book. Wise and honest, and exquisitely written. Insight for anyone who has known the gnawing sorrow or the endless accusation of a senseless loss. It will also make you laugh out loud. Go figure.” —Linden MacIntyre, Scotiabank Giller–prize winning author of The Bishop’s Man