Nancy Rappaport shares the same name as her mother, the same regal chin and hair. They could even be twins. Nancy, the mother, was a glamorous Boston socialite in 1963, a woman who thrived on the taxing juggle of family and career. On the book jacket of “In Her Wake,” a bright-eyed Nancy knits amid stacks of paper, a phone held to her ear by a carefully propped shoulder.
This is the portrait of a wife and mother who could manage plans for a complete house renovation while campaigning for the Boston School Committee. Or as Nancy, the author, reveals in her new memoir: the woman who left a detailed grocery list next to her suicide note.
Rappaport was 4 when her mother overdosed on sleeping pills.
She’s now a child psychiatrist, director of School Programs at Cambridge Health Alliance, and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. It’s a wonder Rappaport found time to pen a memoir on her family history.
“This was a story that needed to be told,” recalls Rappaport, who regularly read aloud chapters to her Harvard freshman seminar. “I wanted to do one good book in my life.”
Try great. The 15-year genesis of this extensive work that spans decades and includes a generous cast of characters was no easy feat. But, once the author (who can now add that to her list of professions) began writing, she realized “it was larger than me. It had a momentum to it. It’s the most meticulous, painstaking, most important thing I’ve done.”
Rappaport’s mother was no stranger to writing. In one of the book’s highlights, the author discovers her mother’s novel, a roman à clef, in fact, which provides harrowing details into a life cut short.
Agonizing over the hardships of the writer’s life, Rappaport’s mother wondered if what she was doing mattered at all. Rappaport relates.
“The focus [of the memoir] has to be on healing, not who you can blame,” she says.
Healing, after all, is Rappaport’s business. Infused in her book is research on suicide, mental health, patient accounts from her treatment of children and adolescents, and insight into her quest to help them. Rappaport employs psychiatry to understand her mother, to understand herself.
“I discovered my capacity to write by trying to describe my mother,” she says. “And it’s been such a gift. She gave me a gift from the grave.”