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Investigating My Mother's Suicide I Experienced What It's Like to Be a Woman

26/11/2015 17:43 GMT | Updated 26/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Suicide doesn't only end a life; it transforms how that life is remembered. This is particularly true with the suicide of someone young and in good health, like my mother, who killed herself a few days before Christmas in 1965. She was twenty-nine; my brother and I were seven and four respectively. In the shock, shame, anger and pain that are the legacies of suicide my father decided it was best if we tried to forget her. He gave or threw away almost all her possessions. Through my childhood I can remember him speaking to me about her only once, when I turned sixteen, to tell me that her death had been suicide. We were in his car, sitting side by side so he didn't have to look at me. He would have preferred not to have the conversation at all, but he was worried I would learn the truth from someone else.

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Hannah Gavron aged five or six

This was the father I knew: iron-willed, always looking forward rather than back. "Never apologise, never explain," was one of his favourite sayings. But how much was this his nature, and how much was he shaped by my mother's death, by the iron will, the forward gaze, he needed to survive it, to build a new family, make a new life for us? He was thirty-five when she died, still becoming himself. Did that moment fix him, too, in time, the way it fixed my mother, caught forever in amber?

I was taught to forget, to hold things in, to keep silences. For years I didn't talk to anyone about what my father had told me. But while I had long lost all memory of my mother, I never lost the sense of her absence, kept in a corner of myself the knowledge that she had existed. The one clue to her in our house, kept up on a high shelf, was her book: The Captive Wife, a study of the conflicts in the lives of young mothers, which had been published a few months after her death. When I knew I wouldn't be disturbed I would climb onto the sofa beneath and look at the acknowledgements in the front, the yellowing newspaper clippings tucked inside that spoke of her tragically early death.

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Hannah on a school skiing trip

I didn't actually read the book, and nor did I read it when a new edition was published in 1983, in my last year at university. It was partly the force of the taboo. It was partly that I was afraid I would find it dull: it was all I had of her and as long as I didn't read it, it could retain its power as an artifact, a magic icon. But it was also, I think, that I was wary of its pointed title. I had been rejected by her once; did I want to read her book and find myself, as a man, rejected by her again?

It wasn't until my late forties that I set out to learn who my mother was, to try to understand her death, and I finally read her book. Far from being anti-man, what surprised me was how mild it was, how tentative its arguments. It was written before the second wave of feminism, before the start of the women's groups that might have provided her with the support and faith to stay alive.

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Hannah with her oldest son, Simon

The understanding I had picked up over the decades was that she hadn't herself been a captive wife. Unlike the women she interviewed she had an au pair girl, went out to work as a teacher at Hornsey College of Art, had the time and space to write her book. The story of her death my father told me when I was sixteen was that she had had an affair and when it went wrong she killed herself.

The narrative that emerged from my investigations was more complex and sadder. Intelligent, charming, attractive, iconoclastic, she wasn't the type to willingly let herself be captive to anything or anyone. But speaking to more than seventy people who knew her, tracking down documents and letters, I learned how at fifteen at her boarding school she would be summoned from her dormitory room at night to her predatory headmaster's study for "extra German lessons." I learned about the difficulties she had in getting the subject of the thesis that became her book approved by her male supervisors. How they delayed awarding her doctorate, gave her lukewarm references. How when she applied for a job at the LSE she was turned down because she "wore too much eye make-up."

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Hannah with Jeremy Gavron

She had married at 18, was a mother at 21. She was still in her twenties when the 1960s came along, still young enough to embrace the excitements of the new age. She fell in love with a colleague, but when she revealed this, I learned of the pressures that society and her family put upon her to give up the affair. She was sent to see a psychiatrist, was told, as iconoclastic women have been told through the ages, that she had lost her senses.

Through the six years I spent researching and writing my book about my mother I was immersed in her story, seeing her life, seeing the world, through her eyes; through the eyes of a woman. I felt at times almost as if I had embarked on one of those experiments in which someone goes out into the world disguised as a person of another sex or race. I felt what it was like to be a woman. It was an education.

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Hannah in a North London garden in the last months of her life

Jeremy Gavron is the author of A Woman on the Edge of Time: a son's search for his mother, published by Scribe