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Francesca Serritella’s “Ghost of Harvard” Discusses Grief, Mental Health, and Harvard’s History of Enslavement


I think that’s why the story is relatable to readers who have gone through any kind of trauma or loss. Ultimately the medical or circumstantial specifics don’t really matter to a broken heart.

T.V.: In your acknowledgments, you thank the people who shared their stories of suicide with you — can you talk a little bit more about this, how did this come about and how did it inform your writing?

F.S.: I made a decision early in this process never to interview anyone who had lost someone to suicide for the purpose of this book. I don’t think I’m entitled to that deeply personal pain to serve a novel. Out of respect and compassion, I researched that loss from a distance, reading articles, memoirs, even grief-counseling books. Otherwise, I relied only on my imagination and empathy.

But what I didn’t anticipate was the many people who generously shared their experiences with me, unsolicited. During the years I was working on this novel, I concurrently wrote and published a series of humorous essay collections with my mother, author Lisa Scottoline, and we would go on tour with a new book of essays every summer. At tour stops, someone would ask me if I was working on anything else, and I used to hesitate—the tone of this novel is completely different than a comedic memoir with titles like I See Life Through Rosé-Colored Glasses—and I would worry about bringing the room down. My fears were unfounded. Every time I would begin to describe the novel’s premise, I could feel the mood shift, not down, but closer. I could feel us all pull together for a moment, it always made my heart beat faster, it still does. And nearly every time, in the signing line after our talk, someone people would take me aside privately and say “I’m glad you’re writing that book because my son…” or “my sister,” “my father,” “my best friend…” And they would share with me the way suicide had touched their lives.

T.V.: Can you talk a bit more about your idea of creating characters whose stories “exemplify lost potential”? Why was this a major touchstone for your novel? 

F.S.: Maybe because I started writing this novel at the beginning of my adult life, potential, and its many facets, were on my mind.

Potential has many faces. There’s the hopeful, bright potential: the potential for greatness, for success, for a happy ending. As Cady experiences, there is also the potential for tragedy, danger, perhaps a genetic predisposition to a latent mental illness like schizophrenia.

And even positive potential brings with it the burden of expectation, pressure. There is a vertiginous quality to being chosen by a place like Harvard, as Cady senses when she first steps on campus, “this is the launch pad for your extraordinary future, if only you don’t blow it.” I think, sadly, that’s true for many teenagers under pressure. So much of the messaging to young people leads you to believe that every choice you make as a student is so consequential, what grade you get, what score, what college, what grad school, is somehow the key to your future success or failure. Of course, that isn’t so, but I remember that feeling. And suddenly, what is supposed to be a springboard feels like standing atop a frightening precipice.

I knew from the start I wanted the three ghosts to be different examples of potential denied or destroyed, like a kaleidoscope trained on the same subject, but refracted [in] different ways. Without spoiling too much, I felt compelled to explore the way war and racism have stolen and thwarted potential, and how even genius and the potential for advancement can be perverted.

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