This reading group guide for The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Heather B. Armstrong might be best known as the mommy blogger behind the incredibly popular website dooce, but she’s also been struggling with depression all her life. A few years after her ex-husband moves across the country Armstrong is drowning in her depression, barely able to cope with working full time and raising her two daughters as a single mom.
Desperate to clear the fog of depression, she agrees to a study that will take her close to brain death over and over again. It was possible the procedure could do nothing, but it was also possible it could reproduce the benefits of electroshock therapy without the side effects. Over the course of her treatment, Armstrong reevaluates her relationships with family members, her kids, herself, and most importantly of all, her depression.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The title The Valedictorian of Being Dead comes from the book’s prologue, in which author Heather B. Armstrong takes pride in how well she approximates being dead. In other parts of the memoir, she clearly relishes being the best at whatever she does. What do you think this says about Armstrong’s personality? How might it play into her depression?
2. To those looking in from the outside, Armstrong was successfully managing being a single parent to two daughters while working full-time. However, she was barely getting by on the inside. Have there been times when it seemed like you had it all together, but were actually falling apart?
3. Heather B. Armstrong is well known as a “mommy blogger.” If you’re a parent, do you have any favorite mommy blogs? Take turns recommending the blogs and websites you have found useful on your parenting journey.
4. Armstrong makes it clear over and over again that suicide is not a selfish act — depressed people think that living is selfish because those around them would be better off if they are gone. Can you think about a time a person’s suicide (or attempted suicide) affected you, and you felt that it was a selfish act? Have you re-evaluated that feeling since reading Armstrong’s book?
5. The relationship between Heather Armstrong and her mother is a focal point of The Valedictorian of Being Dead. Does this mother-daughter relationship seem familiar, or is your relationship with your mother more contentious than Armstrong’s is? Take some time to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of having such a close relationship with your mother.
6. When she’s at her worst, Armstrong turns to her mother and is able to be completely honest with her about her feelings without fear of judgment. Do you have anyone who plays that role in your life?
7. Have you had friends or family members who suffered from depression? If so, take turns discussing your personal experience with this disease and how we can be more empathetic to those with this illness.
8. Armstrong resorts to drastic measures to deal with her depression in this book, and the responses from the people in her life vary greatly. Why do you think her siblings’ reaction is so wildly different than her father’s and stepmother’s?
9. As Armstrong continues with her sessions, she begins to feel joy again as the depression lifts. She describes days of just feeling happy. Have you ever been aware of your own happiness like that? If so, take turns describing when it happened and how it felt.
10. One thing that struck Armstrong deeply was that everyone involved in the study was donating their time; they weren’t paid to be there. Have you ever been moved in the same way by people volunteering because they believe something can make a difference? Have you ever volunteered your time over the long term?
11. Armstrong blows up myths around platitudes non-depressed people tell people who suffer from depression: for example, just get up and exercise and you’ll feel better. Armstrong turns this on its head by volunteering to assist someone running the Boston Marathon because of her depression, and it makes things even worse. What are some of the other myths about depression that Armstrong busts over the course of her memoir?
12. Anxiety is a constant companion throughout this book, and it will probably feel familiar to many readers, even if they don’t suffer from depression. Can you remember a time when anxiety got the better of you and how you were able to cope?
13. While Armstrong’s treatment did wonders for her, it may not work forever. If you were in her shoes and began feeling the depression returning, would you subject yourself to the treatment again, knowing how difficult it was the first time around?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pair The Valedictorian of Being Dead with another memoir on depression, such as Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half. Compare and contrast the way depression is portrayed in the two books.
2. Read some of Heather B. Armstrong’s sponsored brand posts on her mommy blog, dooce. Discuss her choice to stop accepting this type of income, and whether you would have made the same decision.
3. Heather B. Armstrong has a previous memoir called It Sucked and then I Cried, which is about the birth of her first child. Pair these two books together and discuss how the threads of depression from the first book tie into her second.
4. Episode 102 of Heather B. Armstrong’s podcast is called “Destigmatize,” and it confronts the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Listen to the episode, and then have a discussion about how we can all help to destigmatize mental health issues.
001 Valedictorian of Being Dead OpenDuration: 35s
002 Valedictorian of Being Dead DedicationDuration: 06s
003 Valedictorian of Being Dead PrologueDuration: 05min
004 Valedictorian of Being Dead OneDuration: 29min
005 Valedictorian of Being Dead TwoDuration: 20min
006 Valedictorian of Being Dead ThreeDuration: 05min
007 Valedictorian of Being Dead FourDuration: 16min
008 Valedictorian of Being Dead FiveDuration: 11min
009 Valedictorian of Being Dead SixDuration: 17min
010 Valedictorian of Being Dead SevenDuration: 09min
011 Valedictorian of Being Dead EightDuration: 17min
012 Valedictorian of Being Dead NineDuration: 23min
013 Valedictorian of Being Dead TenDuration: 39min
014 Valedictorian of Being Dead ElevenDuration: 30min
015 Valedictorian of Being Dead TwelveDuration: 09min
016 Valedictorian of Being Dead ThirteenDuration: 25min
017 Valedictorian of Being Dead FourteenDuration: 07min
018 Valedictorian of Being Dead FifteenDuration: 26min
019 Valedictorian of Being Dead SixteenDuration: 37min
020 Valedictorian of Being Dead SeventeenDuration: 31min