On August 3, 2009, something unimaginable happened to Amy Bickers that altered the course of her life. Her ex-husband took his own. Right in front of her.
Bickers, then an editor at Southern Living magazine in Birmingham, was at home when it happened. Her ex-husband, Charles Mercer, a man who had struggled with substance abuse, was in her garage when he took out a gun and shot himself.
Bickers, shocked, traumatized, with two children now deprived of their father by violence from his own hand, was faced with how to move forward. She was shaken to her core, but at that core, Bickers nevertheless remained a journalist. In time, she decided to write about her experience, for her own benefit and for others like her. The result, the book, The Geography of You and Me: A Memoir will be published in August.
This is a story about how Bickers’ book came to be, and about how she moved on from the kind of tragedy that many find literally unspeakable.
A hard subject
A year and a half passed before Bickers began to write. “When I left Southern Living that was the goal. Sit down, write this book,” she said, sitting in a coffee shop on Birmingham’s Southside. “I wrote the book proposal first because I was told I could pitch it and maybe sell it before it was finished. That’s when I started getting lots of lovely rejections from agents, who just said, ‘We think this is a book that wouldn’t sell.’ That the subject matter was still taboo, in a lot of ways.”
Even while she pitched the book unsuccessfully, she kept writing. “I finished the book and then at some point I just put it away – like, I’m going to take a break and not even think about it,” she said.
Time passed. She changed jobs. But the book, Bickers said, “was always there. Like, ‘You haven’t finished this yet. This is something that has to be done.” Rejected by agents – who often wrote complimentary letters about her writing – Bickers started researching crowdfunding, particularly, raising the money to self-publish through Kickstarter. She did her homework.
“I spent months looking at Kickstarters, reading about Kickstarters, what works, what doesn’t work, watching the videos,” she said. “I just wanted to make sure I did it right if I was going to do it. Because if you look at Kickstarter, you can tell there are a lot of projects that people just threw up there hoping that someone would throw some money at them,” she said, with a laugh. She didn’t want haphazard preparation to get in the way of her project.
“I worked on that for probably a couple of months. I wrote what I wanted to say, figured out the rewards I would offer, and then I procrastinated on making the video for three weeks, probably. And then, the morning of the launch, [April 14], I said, “I’m just going to make the video.”
In that video, Bickers calls herself out for waiting till the morning of the launch to make the video, and notes, with typical self-deprecation, that “I’m a better writer than I am an on-air personality.” But she also introduces in a clear, short statement, the tough topic and reason for her book:
“Hi, I’m Amy Bickers. I’m a writer in Birmingham, Alabama. And this Kickstarter is to fund the publication of a memoir I’ve written titled The Geography of You and Me. The book is about a topic that affects millions of people around the world and that topic is suicide. In particular, the book is about my experience after witnessing the suicide of my ex-husband.
“It’s understandably a hard subject to talk about, but I think it’s really important to share this story, because too many people are told every day that this topic is taboo, that they should keep it to themselves. And all the while people aren’t really talking about how complicated the grieving process is after you lose somebody to suicide.”
In the text below the video, Bickers draws attention to the reasons, aside from her personal need to write it, that The Geography of You and Me needed to be written. “Almost six years ago,” she writes, “I witnessed the suicide of my ex-husband, Charles. He stood in front of me with a gun, and he said, ‘You don’t know how bad this hurts.’ Since then, I think I have known, even when I didn’t want to.
“The same year that I watched my ex-husband die, 36,909 suicides were reported in the United States. Since 2009, that number has increased. In 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 41,149 suicides reported in the U.S. Around the world, more than 800,000 people will die by suicide this year.”
As the video continues, Bickers notes that literary agents and publishers consider the topic a hard sell, and “That no one wants to read about it. That no one will buy it. That the reason I couldn’t find the book I was looking for when I needed it was because that book won’t sell. But I am not asking you to read a book about suicide. I am asking you to read a book about love. I am asking you to read a book about seeking light when all around you is darkness. … I am asking you to read a book about hope.”
She made her video appeal in a little more than 60 seconds.
“I had read enough that I knew it had to be really short,” she said. “Most people don’t watch them all the way through. If you go much more than a minute, people are gone. And you can see on Kickstarter how many views you’ve had and how many people watched it all the way through and maybe 70 percent will watch it all the way through.”
The response to Bickers’ campaign has more than exceeded her hopes. She aimed to raise $5,500 to self-publish her book. As of April 28, 14 days since she launched, backers have pledged $11,867. As of this writing, there are still 15 days before the campaign closes on May 13.
“It’s been amazing!” Bickers said. “I launched on the 14th at 10:12[a.m.], and it was fully funded (at $5,500) at 12:39 [a.m.] on the 15th, so less than 24 hours.”
First, she just wanted to pay the cover artist (her friend, and fellow Southern Living alum Chris Davis), hire an editor to give the book a final proofreading, and print a few copies. Now, the unexpected response to her Kickstarter campaign is making her reevaluate her plans. Bickers hopes to use the extra money to get the book into local bookstores, to schedule publicity events including book signings and talks.
The reason her Kickstarter succeeded so quickly, she believes, has something to do with the fact that she laid the groundwork for it for years, particularly through her blog, Vodka, Cranberry, Clooney. The blog, at turns funny, then sad, then strident, then funny again, is filled among other things with powerfully felt prose about Bickers’ life, her loves, her obsessions, and with pictures of and lovingly-remembered stories about Charles Mercer and their family. And his suicide, its aftermath and her efforts to get a book published about it.
“Whether intentionally or not I had managed to build a small platform and I had people reading my blog and keeping up with the progress of the book and reading my work and they knew that a book was coming,” Bickers said. “And I posted just before this, to let everybody know it was coming. … So I sort of prepared my close followers to say ‘When this goes up, go give some money.’”
For Bickers the next step is finding the right company to handle the printing of The Geography of You and Me.
Blame and Guilt
After Mercer’s suicide, Bickers sought out a book to help her deal with it.
“When I looked for a book, there are a lot of self-help type books, but I’ve always been drawn more to memoirs anyway. And I just couldn’t find one that spoke to me – that went into depth about what I needed to know. And there’s a limited number that are by the spouse of the person. I think that there is much more stigma attached if you’re the spouse, or ex-spouse in my case. There’s more blame.”
When her ex-husband died, Bickers said that people didn’t blame her – to her face – but the blame was an undercurrent of more than one conversation. “I had a lot of support and I was really lucky in that,” she said. “But I’ve had a few people who made comments along the way… not blaming me fully, but just little digs.”
For example, Bickers had driven her husband to rehab more than once, and was very well aware of the toll of his drug addiction. She had even, after the divorce, allowed him to move into her home when he had nowhere else to go. Still, she said, “Someone said to me, the night of the funeral, ‘Talk about denial’ – like I had been in denial. Like I hadn’t done all I could do…
“I think a lot of people can sort of crumble under the weight of that because you do — you feel ashamed. And I had to fight that a lot. And I did have a lot of feelings of what if I had done this? And my mother said, very early on, ‘You could what if yourself back to 1973.’ Where do you stop in that? There’s no good place where you say, ‘If only I had veered left instead of right’.”
Her mother was a great support, Bickers noted. “I don’t like to imagine what I would have done without her. She flew here the next day, from Louisiana. She was here immediately. And she only flew over here so she could get in a car with me and drive back to Louisiana. She’s been a rock.”
She needed the help of family and friends as she cycled through a storm of conflicting emotions. “I’m very honest in the book about the feelings and how complicated it can be,” Bickers said. “And I think it will help other people to know that those feelings are natural. That you can be angry and you can love the person and you can, if you’ve dealt with someone who’s an addict – you can also feel relieved. It’s the hardest part of all. It’s that feeling of relief because you don’t have the daily chaos anymore, but you have an entirely new thing that you have to deal with.”
People who knew Bickers before her husband’s suicide have seen how her personality today remains basically intact. “Her personality, I think, is very much the same, even though she’s had moments where she was affected very much by it,” said Bickers’ friend, artist Chris Davis, whose work illustrates the cover of The Geography of You and Me. “She’s had moments where the situation was very real and she was affected very much by it,” Davis said.
But Bickers kept her friends close, he said. “She has allowed everybody to remain part of her life. I she hasn’t avoided the stress of it and the sadness of it and she’s shared that with her friends and that’s helped her to cope with it.” The fact of Mercer’s suicide “doesn’t hold her back like you would think it would.”
One aspect of her personality – a propensity toward keenly observant wit – emerges when she talks and especially in social media. Some might find the very idea objectionable – but it’s how Bickers copes.
“I think I had it the whole time,” she said of her sense of humor. “This sounds ridiculous, but I remember, not long after the funeral, I was on Facebook and I posted a joke about Brittney Spears. She had a perfume out, I think it was called Circus. And I was like, ‘Yes, because what smells better than elephant dung and cotton candy?’ And [friend and former Southern Living coworker] Jennifer Frazier said, ‘You still got it.’
“I had found some way to make a joke. Humor is my coping mechanism and when something like that happens, you don’t know what to do because that’s not acceptable. It’s not an acceptable response to society if you are cracking jokes.”
As Bickers coped with her ex-husband’s suicide, so did their two children, Kate, who was 9, and Jacob, who was 13 when it happened. Still sorting things out for herself, Bickers had to find the right approach to help her kids get through it.
“The book basically goes from the night it happened and through the next year or so with some looking at how did we get here? But with the kids what I always wanted to focus on was, I wasn’t going to hide it from them. I never wanted them to feel like a secret had been kept from them. I told them that he had committed suicide and then I told them he hadn’t been well, he wasn’t in his right mind or he wouldn’t have done that,” she said.
“And then from there I let them come to me with questions, as they were ready. Kate was younger, she was the one who would ask the questions and Jacob would sit quietly and listen to the answers. … It might have been within six months that Kate asked me where I was. ‘She said, ‘Where were you when Daddy died?’ And I told her that I was there.
“We were in the car. The car is the best place for kids to ask you questions because they don’t have to look at you, and it makes it easier. They’ll tell you all sorts of things in the car, too. It’s amazing.
“I, just from the beginning, wanted to be as honest as possible while telling the truth with love. I never wanted them to see anger from me or bitterness at all because I loved their father very much, and he loved them and I just knew how damaging it could be if I tried to turn it into some kind of war. Plus they’re part of him. They have a lot of things that are from him that I see. And they’re good things and I wanted them to be proud of those good things.”
Kate is turning 15 in May, and Jacob is turning 19. The kids, “are wonderful – other than some typical teenage things,” Bickers said with a laugh. “I feel like we somehow have come through it together.”
She maintained as stable a life as she could for her family. She didn’t move from the house, because she wanted to prevent more upheaval for the kids. The memories? She just determined to deal with them.
She did however, take her children to counseling, which helped them both – although their initial reactions were as different as their personalities. “Kate was excited. Anything where she’s getting the attention and is making a craft, which is what they did, she’s all about it. Jacob was 13 at the time. He said he was going to use the Magic 8-Ball method of answering questions – Yes, No, Ask again later.
“And I said, and again — here’s the sense of humor – I said, ‘Well, listen, we’ve got to deal with it now, because when you’re 19, I don’t want you to rob a liquor store and say, “I miss my Dad.” We got to handle these things as they are coming up’,” she said, laughing at the thought. “I really just wanted them to know that there was a place that they could talk to someone who wasn’t me. They didn’t have to think, ‘I don’t want to tell Mom this. What am I going to do?’ That, you can talk to somebody else. It doesn’t have to be me.”
Since beginning to share her story through the blog, Bickers has heard from people who have been touched both by the same kind of loss, and by her effort to share her experience. “I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people who have experienced suicide in their family and have said either that no one will talk about it — ‘This happened in our family and now no one will talk about my brother, son,’ whatever it is. And that was my driving purpose,” she said.
“I’m very gratified by the number of people that reach out to me. It happens all the time just from people reading the blog, just from friends of friends telling someone. Even if it’s just a quick email where someone reaches out to me and they say ‘I’m so glad to know someone else understands this.’
“Sometimes I think that’s all that they need. Because I spent a lot of time right after feeling like I was an alien wearing a human costume. Like nobody could tell that inside I was way different. And I think once the shock wore off I started to feel like, more like, a normal person again. But at first it felt so strange and out of the norm and I write about how I felt like I needed to have a sign… that would say, ‘Please be kind. I’m right on the edge’.”
It’s for people who know what it feels like to have their lives upended by a loved one’s final violent leaving, that Bickers is publishing her memoir. That’s why when the agents said no, she just kept pushing.
“When I decided to self-publish, I really had spent some time asking myself, ‘What is it that I wanted?” Bickers said. “And it really came down to, ‘I just want to put it in the hands of whoever needs it. That’s it.’ Once it got to that, it was like this lovely clarity.”
For more information about The Geography of You and Me and the Kickstarter campaign behind it, visit its Kickstarter page.