Companion to an Untold Story

The Companion is about the suicide of my friend Joel, who carried out a methodical plan to take his own life—a shock of bright light in a room where my eyes had grown accustomed to the dim. In a moment, much of what I knew about myself and about him was shrunken, was transfigured, was gone.

Shortly before his death, Joel gave me many of his personal items, drawing me into his plan while hiding his intent. One thread through the Companion is my care for, and my resistance to, these items, how I hold onto them and how they hold onto me. His life and death was a terrible gift too, a part of our exchange.

In the Companion I try to forgive his deceptions and my own blindness, to lay him peacefully to rest. Suicide has a glare that washes out details, and I try to resist a story that overwrites all other stories of our past. I look ahead to a future, but do not turn away from the facts. I try to come back inside the fatal circle that Joel drew around himself.

Patti Smith explained her motivation in taking photographs of odd items belonging to the dead, such as Arthur Rimbaud’s spoon and fork. “I think it’s less about grief than remembrance,” she said. “Grief starts to become indulgent . . . but if you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people, so they can experience something of that person.”

I hope that the spoon of the Companion brings something of Joel to the reader’s lips.


  • “Exquisitely sad but painstaking in its clarity, Companion to an Untold Story is an effort to understand a friend’s decision to commit suicide. The author lays out the facts and emotions using the structure of an abecedary, as if the simplicity of a child’s alphabet book could bring logic to the terrible puzzle of loss.  There is no suspense in the outcome, but reading the book draws you in so intimately that you, too, feel an urgent need to understand why an intelligent, likeable man would choose, with great deliberateness, to kill himself. This is a difficult subject, written extraordinarily well: a winner.” —Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin
  • “Marcia Aldrich takes on a project that seems impossible—restoring the life of a friend who gave away all his possessions and killed himself in an empty apartment—and succeeds brilliantly. She pieces together a portrait of the man and her friendship with him from multiple small definitions, each of them precise, lyrical, and daring. The resulting book is an ultimate companion—a friend, a guide, a moral compass—to the man’s memory and to us all.” —Kyoko Mori, author of Yarn: Remembering the Way Home
  • “A wise reflection, both sympathetic and unflinching, on the life and death by suicide of the author’s friend. The book poses questions about suicide and the processes leading up to it and provides answers too . . . when they exist. Perhaps just as importantly, the book leaves unanswerable questions as such, accurately and creatively distilling the experiences of those bereaved by suicide.” —Thomas Joiner, author of Why People Die by Suicide “[The Companion] derives its power not just from the author’s unflinching honesty but from the unique form she has chosen to shape this tale. A fascinating, absorbing story.” —Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire

Reactions and reviews

  • “Gorgeously written, geniusly structured.” —Cheryl Strayed
  • “Compulsively readable and surprisingly moving.” —Richard Gilbert
  • “By turns haunting, fascinating, funny, and intensely mournful, Aldrich’s Companion is a stellar work that goes . . . into the very nature of grief and loss.” —Elizabeth Millard, ForeWord Reviews
  • “A must-read, heartbreaking book.” —Sweet
  • “Powerful, brilliant, painstaking . . . it’s hypnotic.” —Lev Raphael
  • “This is tragic territory, but the writing is beautiful, and the story itself grows more absorbing as each page turns. Anyone looking for ways to shake up the structure of nonfiction would do well to check this book out.” —Dinty W. Moore
  • “It is a work worthy of the melancholy attendant in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (referenced well within the work) where ‘attention must be paid’ to suicide’s broken and difficult humanity.” —Chuck O’Connor
  • “It’s well worth a careful read.” —Jen Hirt
  • “That the man who kills himself, and the rationale behind that decision, might be a text as complex as Pynchon or Joyce is a premise Aldrich takes as a given.”—Brooke Wonders, American Book Review
  • “The absence of easy answers is both assured and made acutely poignant by its subject matter. . . . Marcia Aldrich grasps at enough of Joel’s world to render its sadnesses and failures with compassion, and contemplates the part she played in his life–and the purpose of trying to make sense of his death–with lyricism and insight. That we’re left with only parts of the story is no loss; that we have it at all is gift enough.” —Tom Useted, The Pinch
  • “The alphabetical structure . . . presents a narrative that resists chronology and establishes an undertone of ceaseless mourning, with many of the sections referencing each other in a ceaseless loop. Each section presents a piece of the puzzle about why the friend, Joel, killed himself, yet many center on prosaic nouns that reflect the inadequacy of the author’s answers to this question. The overall effect is haunting, and the list of images and entries creates a sense that, like most lasting grief, this story will never end for the narrator.” —Sonya Huber, Fourth Genre
  • “Although her emotion is palpable, Aldrich almost becomes an observer or a detective, trying to piece together something she knows she can never fully understand. . . . The entries that Aldrich chooses to include are so varied and specific that we can tell she is trying to reach out for anything—trying to take any object, person, event or idea and see if it can help her better understand her friend’s decision. What is so fascinating about Companion to an Untold Story is that we can almost see Aldrich’s mind thinking.” —Dan Berkowitz, Psych Central
  • “Companion to an Untold Story is an excavation of trauma, and we do not have to know Joel, nor Aldrich and her husband, to know the gravity of their loss.” —Sarah Habein

A note to teachers

Companion to an Untold Story lends itself to writing courses that are interested in formal innovation, in portraits of people, in memoirs on grief, death, and illness, or in the enlivening use of research. I would be happy to participate in classes that adopt the Companion as a text.