Throughout October we are running interviews with artists taking part in the festival. Here, director Hope Litoff discusses the making of the painfully personal 32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide, a documentary about the death of her sister Ruth. The film is screening at the CCA in Glasgow on Sunday 15 October.
How would you describe Ruth?
Ruth can be best described as a contradiction. She was a high achiever, a sports superstar, and an incredible artist. Men loved her and wanted to marry her, she was beautiful and popular. But she was also fragile and often isolated and sad. She described herself as “empty” and no amount of trophies or accolades could fill her inner hole. She could be charming, charismatic and full of love as well as spiteful and monstrous. She seemed to be able to turn on a dime—one moment a a thorny bush and the next a glorious and vibrant flower.
Can you tell us about her struggles with mental health?
My earliest memory of Ruth struggling with her mental illness was in the wake of her first suicide attempt. She was only 16 years old and I was 13. Prior to that I only really knew her as my happy older sister that I deeply admired. She was the definition of cool and taught me about, music, art and friendship. I remember my mother trying to sugarcoat what had happened to Ruth, calling it an “accident” and constructing an unlikely story of Ruth forgetting how many pills she had taken before she consumed more. Even at that early age I knew the truth—both that Ruth was desperately ill and that my parents expectation was that I would remain silent on the topic.
Ruth was a fighter and for the next 26 years tried to heal herself. From thousands of hours of therapy, every kind of psychiatric medication, more than one round of Electro Convulsive Therapy she left no rock unturned in Western science. She also tried less conventional methods—Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, blood cleansings, rebirthings, and specialized diets. Sometimes she lost her hair, her wits, her strength but she soldiered on.
How has making this film impacted on you?
Making this film has impacted me on the deepest level. Through the process of combing through Ruth’s belongings and trying to understand her now in I way I wasn’t able to while she was alive I grieved her passing for the first time. I learned that there is no time limit for missing the one you have lost and no predictable timeline to heal. I wanted to “move on” or have “closure” and in working on this project I have needed to redefine my expectations. I am never going to “get over it” but I will learn to live with it.
I dealt with my bottomless grief by breaking 16 years of sobriety and turning to a crutch I had relied on as a teenager and through my 20s. I thought I could have just one drink, numb the pain and simply return to sobriety with ease. This couldn’t have been more wrong. My obsession to drink was reawakened and I put my family, loved ones, and coworkers through the wringer. I am sober again and live one day at a time in gratitude that I made it back. I don’t blame the film for my relapse and wonder if it was a place I was going to go in an effort to deal with my sister’s suicide—film project or not. It wasn’t the right or wrong way to deal with my pain it was and is just the truth of my way of dealing with my pain.
Ruth was clearly a very gifted artist - what is happening with all that work just now and in the future?
The motivation for making the film was based on my desire to empty the storage space I had used to lock away Ruth’s belongings. Everything from her beautiful artwork to her old gym socks. At the time of her death I was too emotional to part with anything of Ruth’s, unable to make any decisions. Everything was precious to me but at the same time too painful to look at. I had hoped that the act of filming would allow me to let some of it go and to free her art and to place it into the homes of her friends as she wished in one of her several suicide notes. If this were a fiction film I would have scripted this happy ending but I must confess that three years after unlocking the door to her treasures almost all of it remains pitifully collecting dust and not out in the world where it should be. I am still working on this!
I am happy to report that her show that was erected in Bellevue (a psychiatric hospital she had been a patient in) will now be part of their permanent collection. I am hopeful that her art will always be on display—bringing light to a place often associated with darkness. The show was inspired by plans I had found on her computer and was never able to realize in her life. I called it “Ruth’s Dream” and tried to stay as true to her original vision as I could.
What has the response been to the film so far? Has it lived up to your hopes?
I have had a wonderful response to the film. The audiences have been so kind and understanding. I am often hugged post screening and I hope that the film is helping others who have lost a love one to suicide to feel less alone. I am so grateful to be able to share my story and feel a community growing around me. My desire is to lift the stigma around mental illness and suicide and in my small way I think sharing my story is contributing to this effort. I unwittingly also brought issues of addiction into the conversation and I am happy that sharing my story, warts and all, seems to help break the silence around another seemingly taboo topic.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I feel like I am still working on this film but I have future films brewing in my mind. I can promise you I will not be in the next one!!
Book now for 32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide, which takes place at the CCA, Glasgow on Sun 15th October at 12pm.