A mother’s heart-rending recollection of her daughter, who died of an accidental heroin overdose.
Schiller (Watermark, 2016) opens with an affecting chapter that contrasts the joyful first day of her daughter Giana’s life in January 1980 with the day in January 2014 when she received a phone call from The Rose House, a treatment program in Colorado, informing her that Giana had been found dead. The author, addressing Giana directly, wonders what might have changed the course of her life or if her lot was somehow predetermined: “I wonder now if there was a little nugget inside you, something that would burst into heartache later.” Perhaps childhood asthma and allergies eventually led Giana down a dark path: In a household of seven, she learned that she got attention for being ill and would later have inpatient stays for anorexia as well as substance abuse. The beginning of the memoir remembers Giana’s happier days, including private Quaker schooling, competitive swimming, and enrolling at the University of Vermont. Giana returned to school to study veterinary nursing when her beloved dog Abby had health challenges; Schiller speculates that Abby’s death from cancer may have tipped Giana into “pain-quelling drug use.” In melancholy, striking prose, the author outlines her regret—not being more assertive or asking her daughter difficult questions. The cycles of treatment, recovery, and relapse that follow (perhaps inevitably) become repetitive, but fragments of second-person narration develop a genuine intimacy that keeps readers engaged with Giana’s story. Excerpts from Giana’s journals and letters and black-and-white family photos add context and texture. A minute-by-minute account of Giana’s final day—an ordinary set of errands and conversations, documented by her sister, Louisa—is a sobering reminder that death can be shockingly abrupt. In the somewhat anticlimactic final chapters, Schiller records her experiences of Didion-esque magical thinking about her daughter’s continued presence, and she argues passionately for the decriminalization of drugs.
An affectionate, insightful inquiry into a troubled life and untimely death.