10/09/2011 07:11 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2011

Code of Silence

In the 1960s, a time of social restlessness and change, I was a teen growing up in a Boston suburb. Like many teenagers, I was part of a small clique -- mostly girls and a few boys. We went to the same classes, ate lunch together, and after school, we took turns going to each other's houses for afternoon snacks. On school nights, we talked on the phone, shared homework tips, and gossip.

One winter morning, as soon as I arrived at school, a boy in our group informed me that my girlfriend's mother had committed suicide. This news appeared in the newspaper and traveled in passionate whispers among my friends and throughout the community.

At the dinner table that night, my mother said she'd heard that my friend's mother was very smart, a Harvard grad. My parents agreed that it was a tragedy. Did I know my friend's mother?

I'd never met my friend's mother, but one thing I figured out that day: Harvard and intelligence offered no immunity against emotional despair.

My friend stayed out of school for a week and during that week and for the rest of the year, none of the teachers spoke to us about this tragedy. After an initial flush of whispers, talk about my friend's mother's instability went underground and turned into a deep pool of silence.

When my friend returned to school, she tried to resume old routines -- going to class, talking about boys and so on. But now there was a new edge around her, an invisible divider that I couldn't cross, and nor could she -- an edge of silence that everyone bought into -- teachers, students, parents. Many times during that year, I wanted to ask my friend how she felt? I wanted to tell her how sorry I was. I was desperate to say these things but didn't.

Thickening this silence was an underlying, dark moral judgment: how could a mother abandon her children? The horror of suicide and abandonment broke the limits of our collective, suburban imagination. It was unspeakable, and so it remained -- in silence -- as if silence could truly make it go away. How odd, given that the late sixties and early seventies were about speaking up and challenging old, social constructs. But, a mother's untimely death and her inability to nurture her children was an untouchable subject. I think it still is.

Today, schoolteachers might form discussion groups to talk about death and suicide; a school psychologist might talk about depression and grief to help peers "cope." But, not then. At that time in the late 1960s, a Code of Silence prevailed, a social pact not to speak. As a consequence, my friend suffered privately and pushed forward in her studies. She was an 'A' student and later went on to Ivy League schools.

In my novel, Night Swim, which takes place in 1970, my main character, Sarah, is fifteen when her pill-popping mother dies in a car accident under sketchy circumstances. Sarah also deals with this Code of Silence as she hurtles toward her own sexual awakening and consequences. The circumstances and particulars of my friend's story and Sarah's in Night Swim are vastly different, but one aspect is the same: I was haunted and it sparked off questions in my own life about the insidious mask of suburban normalcy. What happens to a family when a mother is emotionally distant, who seems to have everything, but has inexplicably checked out of her children's life?

My friend and I grew apart in high school. I think she needed to escape from that horrible silence and all those who participated in it. Thankfully, we became friends again in our twenties and have since talked about her mother and the isolation my friend endured because our community failed to reach out to her.

In that regard, Night Swim is also a kind of apology.

Jessica Keener's debut novel, Night Swim, is coming January 10, 2012 from Fiction Studio Books.