Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival by Christopher Lukas

Stephen King once wrote that suicide “slithers like a snake off the tongue.” Say the word aloud and hear its venomous hiss.

In his 1938 masterwork on the subject of suicide, Man Against Himself, Karl Menninger spoke of suicide’s stigma in polite society as being "so great ... that some people will not say the word ... a taboo related to strongly repressed emotions. People do not like to think seriously and factually about suicide”.

Should Menninger’s comments describe your own feelings and perspective on this difficult topic, then Christopher Lukas’ beautifully written, heartbreaking memoir, Blue Genes, is not for you. Easy reading it isn't. I didn’t think Blue Genes was for me at first, but to my surprise, discovered as the pages sped past, and I began relating to so much of Lukas' intertwined, complexly enmeshed relationships with his parents and siblings, and their complicated baggage of skeletons, how much it truly was for me.

Christopher Lukas, in Blue Genes has somehow, with his poignant pen, transformed the raw carbon-like emotions of pain from the most unbelievably devastating, reoccurring circumstances in the hellish history of his seemingly doomed-from-the-start family, into diamonds multifaceted not just with grief, loss and abandonment, but with hope, cautious optimism, and determination, despite all he’s suffered and tragically lost in his life.

And Christopher Lukas lost a lot early in life. At the age of six, circa 1941, his mother, Elizabeth, long-time battler against major depression and a then undiagnosed Bipolar disorder to top it off, after a couple of hospitalizations involving risky coma-inducing insulin therapy (en vogue treatment at the time), succumbed to her mental illnesses and committed suicide. She was thirty-three, attractive, talented, an aspiring actress, though admittedly, not able to provide the consistent emotional support her sons, Lukas and Anthony, needed.

Her death (and how could it not?) would reverberate forever in the lives she left behind, even if no one in the family talked about her death for the first decade following it. Not one word about her suicide between brothers or between father and sons. Nothing. Like it never happened. Lukas and Anthony, in fact, did not even learn that their mother had taken her own life until turning sixteen and eighteen, respectively. The silence of their mother's death, motivated by the taboo of suicide and their father's deep longing to put it all behind them, nevertheless steamed on through their lives, eating away at the family like a cancer.

Only Lukas, through psychotherapy, creative enterprises in television, theater, literature (he authored Silent Grief for suicide survivors), and the amazing love of his beyond understanding and compassionate wife, combined too with the unconditional acceptance of his adoring daughters, would ultimately resolve (mostly resolve) his life long battle with grief.

Life long, because the others in his family of origin, one by one –- his alcoholic father, meddling grandmother, steady uncle, eccentric aunts, and perhaps the worst and final blow of all, his older brother, J. Anthony Lukas, acclaimed NY Times journalist, two-time Pulitzer prize winning author of Common Ground and Big Trouble –- would all, every single one of them, commit suicide, leaving Lukas alone again and abandoned again and again, with grief that wouldn't end.

Will Christopher Lukas one day die of natural causes, or obey the cruel and merciless dictates of the “blue genes” inherited from his family and die by his own hand? Not really my question, but one Lukas has asked himself over and over again, even now, in his seventies, near the end of the book. I'll let Christopher Lukas have the last words:

"There are days – too many of them – when I ponder,” Lukas concludes, “whether I would prefer to be dead and famous rather than alive and ‘just another striver’ in the world of arts and crafts. Had my brother shown me a way out of the pain of never quite achieving a grander status, or had he shown me what happens when you do achieve that status and it’s not enough?

“Still, with full confidence, I know that I will never go into a room at the end of a day and kill myself.

“Too many deaths in my family, too many suicides.

“I will not follow suit”.