Telling the story of my mother’s death by suicide
There are a few projects in life that will bring you to your knees and take absolutely everything you have to offer.
I Am Dust was that kind of film. It was hard.
Like, crack you open, spill out your insides kinda hard.
But, it was a story I couldn’t not tell.
After my mother died of the depressive side of bipolar and we found piles of journals, I knew I had to bring her story to life. We’d always talked about it; she even tried, but she wasn’t able to finish telling her story.
So I knew I had to.
And so I took that first step.
Read the journals. Highlighted the strongest bits. Compiled a loose story.
I’d oscillate between analyzing the structure as a storyteller, and crying as her son as I read through journals and was taken back to the days and moments that were a part of my life.
Such as this passage:
August 25th, 2013
In the dark I could feel myself pulling into the pit.
I had to end it.
Wednesday I spent in my car searching for backroads where I could suffocate myself in a garbage bag and duct tape. I practiced how long I could breathe so I could bind my hands–but I was unable to get my hands right. 6 hours in my car then dusk was setting so I went home.
Whether that’s your mother, a friend, or a stranger — these words carry the weight of a freight truck.
Just take the next step, that’s what I kept telling myself.
Thirteen pages of compiled journal passages turned into a loose story structure. And then those small steps turned into a big one.
A long weekend was coming up, and I saw that as my chance to go visit these places, follow the journals, and do a location scout.
So I texted my sister and asked her to join me.
Riley, being the amazing sister she is, didn’t blink. She moved her work schedule around and the next week we were in the middle east. I found fixers through some online sleuthing, and we’d have a contact in each city to take us through a series of places we’d found in the journals.
I’d found a business card in her journals for Hotel Ahiram, the place I assumed she had stayed while there. It was about a 30-minute drive from Beirut.
But what happened next really goes to show just how magical this whole journey has been.
We arrived at Hotel Ahiram, and then come the awkward part of trying to explain that somebody I knew was here some 5–7 years ago, and are there perhaps any records of her stay, or people who knew her?
I always felt just a little crazy in asking.
Just take that next step, I’d tell myself.
So I asked the woman behind the counter if she might have remembered my mother. This odd look came over her face.
‘Kelly?’ she says.
“oh, you both look so much like her, you must be her family”
This woman, Elvire, not only remembered her, but there were also several passages in the journal about Elvire. They’d become friends while my mom had stayed there.
So we sat, heard many amazing stories, and got to see the actual room where she stayed.
Over the next couple of days we’d head to the Cedars of God, an ancient forest, and then hop a plane over to Jordan.
In Jordan, one of our first stops was the Dead Sea.
If you’re not familiar, it’s a place where the water is so dense and full of salt that it feels quite other-worldly.
It felt like we were following this treasure map that our mother had left for us. Each stop brought us closer to her, who she was, and what she experienced, and each stop let us experience the world and each other more fully.
And then, Petra.
One of the first known civilizations, my mom would study this place like crazy with books covering the entire dining room table and kitchen counters. When she was manic, she would fly to these places to learn and be with the people there.
What blew me away was the thought that there we were, my sister and I, with a fixer, in his 4x4 truck cruising through the desert while he sang to REM’s Losing My Religion, yet my mother would have flown there by herself, a mid-40’s female at the time, and then hitchhiked some five odd hours to Petra. At which point, she’d make friends with the Beaudoin people and sleep in the caves that many of them called home.
The scouting trip did exactly what I needed it to.
Not only did I get more visibility into the story, into her life, but I also pushed myself across that point where there was no turning back.
I came back and wrote another 9 script revisions.
Each revision being absolutely wonderful one evening, and then complete trash the next morning. It was as though it was the best story, and a mess, all at the same time.
It became pretty clear I was beyond my depths. By that I mean, I am a lifelong student of storytelling, but this was different. Not just because it was personal, but because it was a narrative story, and I’d lived in the world of real-people storytelling.
So I reached out and found a way to get help.
I brought on a script consultant who helped me dramatically cut down the voice-over to show, rather than tell. He’d send me more notes and I’d read them going ‘duh. of course, how could I be so silly’.
And then I brought on a doctor of semiology, somebody who studies symbols and meaning, to help me really develop the visual language.
He had the idea of using the ‘glass half full, half empty’ metaphor throughout the film as a way of looking at her mental states. In the opening scene, a glass sits on the counter of a diner and is filled up until it overflows onto the counter. The glass is then raised to reveal Kelly, in the opening shot, who is manic with her energy flowing over.
I just kept taking that next step.
Even though it felt too big, like too much, like it wasn’t good enough.
When we had an edit that we thought might be ‘it’, I’d send it to our University partner, and dear friend, and she’d test it for all the fancy variables like Narrative Transportation and Character Identification. We’d get a baseline of what people thought and how the story was landing.
Now, after what must be dozens of script revisions and at least 13 iterations on the edit, I have a final film to share with all of you.
It’s Kelly’s story.
It’s largely told through the words I found in her journals.
But it also carries a big piece of me.
My heart and soul are deeply infused into the frames and pixels that come together to make this film. I’ll be forever changed as a result of this journey.
And in the limited screenings thus far, this film has already had a real impact.
Somebody reconnected with his father, who had bipolar, after not seeing him for many years. Many people who have, or are, depressed reached out expressing gratitude that they felt seen.
So I invite you today to share in the online premiere of I Am Dust.
Though I didn’t plan it this way, today would have been Kelly’s 58th birthday.
All I ask is that if you choose to watch it, you do so in a space without distractions, where you can give 14 minutes to take it all in.