32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide takes an unusually intense personal look at the impact of self-destruction on those left behind.
The title of 32 Pills, which premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, also inevitably conjures Netflix’s controversial 13 Reasons Why, which dramatized the aftermath of teen suicide.
Their similarity lies in perpetual sadness and in contemplating both sides of the pain: the demons that lead people to take their own lives, and the anguish in the questions survivors can never answer.
Those are universal wounds for anyone with any connection to a suicide. What’s not universal are the details, and therein 32 Pills stands poles apart from 13 Reasons Why.
Ruth Litoff was 42 when she committed suicide – or more accurately, finally succeeded in committing suicide.
Her sister Hope, who was her closest friend and who made this film, recalls that Ruth began trying to commit suicide when she was 16, and probably tried another 20 times over the years.
Ruth wasn’t a victim of the people in her life. She was a victim of her own wiring, a manic-depressive subject to severe mood swings and deep, prolonged periods of blackness.
One of the many frustrating things about her illness, which dominated and corroded her family from the time she was an infant, is that she was also smart and popular. She was a star athlete, she dated her pick of handsome boys and she was a highly skilled photographer who created riveting portraits as easily as she captured elegant wildflowers.
Hope, the younger sister who adored her, is presumably only one of many who were left thinking there had to have been something she could have done that would saved Ruth.
Six years passed from the time Ruth died, in 2008, beforel Hope could take a deep breath and begin going through her things, which included photography, clothes, hundreds of pill bottles and, perhaps most affectingly, her journals — an extensive multi-media chronicle of her unsettling path.
Hope begins by looking for answers, clues to why Ruth finally took enough pills to stop the ride. While Hope doesn’t really think there will be a Rosebud moment, she has to try, if only to reassure herself that she didn’t have a fatal blindspot.
As it moves forward, 32 Pills inevitably becomes more and more about Hope. While she has a husband, two children and a seemingly comfortable life, she’s also a recovering addict. In the course of her plunge into Ruth’s life, that recovery gets severely tested.
Hope also pokes into the rest of her family, including the detached father and the overwhelmed mother. For a long time, we’re led to infer, Ruth and Hope relied on each other, and that’s doubtless part of the reason Hope wants to find in the journals some reassurance that Ruth appreciated the devotion behind that bond.
It’s an elusive target. Appreciation for the feelings of others is often peripheral for those who spend so much time and energy trying to sort out and live with their own feelings.
By the end of 32 Pills, Hope seems to feel she’s gotten some of what she wanted. That said, the idea this wound can one day be healed seems absurd, the stuff of romance novels.
32 Pills is a love story of another sort, wherein memories of pleasure will always be infused with regret and pain.