As she lay in her driveway watching dragonflies eat gnats and swallows eat dragonflies, she realized that her grieving process would include writing about not only the tragedy of his death, but the uncertainty of his life and how undiagnosed mental illness and religion had played a role in both.

black and white headshot of Sarah Beth Childers

In “Prodigals: A Sister’s Memoir of Appalachia and Loss,” Childers tells a story of love, loss, grief and reckoning with catalysts both internal and external that compelled her beloved brother to live a life outside their family’s norms – and then take that life as an escape from the world where he was sometimes a full-blown participant and at other times a reluctant player.

As children, Childers and her brother, Joshua, had been faithful churchgoers and watched several televangelists, including Jimmy Swaggart; later, their parents led Bible study at home. Childers was familiar with the Brontë sisters’ not-so-well-known brother Branwell, and a sermon about the prodigal son one Sunday, brought all her worlds together— Joshua, Swaggart, Branwell Brontë— all of them embodied a prodigal made of his own time and his own history.

“The prodigal son metaphor fit perfectly into the book. It just felt natural, and I remember taking (the sermon) so personally as if he was talking about my brother”

— Sarah Beth Childers

In fact, Childers’ family had often referred to Joshua in just that way. She said he began running away from home when he was about 13, disappearing into the hills around their rural home or into the city of Huntington.

“He would just go away for days and we would not know where he was and would be afraid he was dead,” she recalled. “And then he’d come back.” Once their father found him in the Marshall University student center and instead of anger, handed Joshua some juice and a candy bar and gave him hug. Their mother related him to the father in the prodigal son parable.

His family feared that Joshua would end up in jail because he would have violent episodes, losing the part of him that Childers describes as a sweet and peaceful person. Those episodes caused bouts of guilt and the fear of harming others when he couldn’t control his actions. She relates his suicide to him going to the safety of heaven where he could be happy, which comforted her family, even as they grieved their loss of him.

“I ended up relating it to the prodigals mostly because I couldn’t help it, and there are other prodigals I talk about,” she continued.

Swaggart, Childers said, preached against treatment of mental health, but clearly was a prodigal as revealed in his “I have sinned” speech in front of his church after being accused of engaging a prostitute. He returned to the pulpit with a “What’s past is past”-themed sermon.

As a self-described “bookish teenager,” Childers loved the Brontë sisters’ books and thinks she particularly responded to them because the family, like hers, was three daughters and a son. (Two Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died as children.) “We all wrote together as children and they all wrote together as children,” Childers said. “I try to shoehorn myself into Charlotte, but we are not the same person on any level; but my brother was absolutely like Branwell.”

Like Branwell Brontë, Joshua was the troubled brother; Brontë dealt with substance misuse (alcohol and laudanum) and an undiagnosed mental health condition.

“(Branwell) was obsessed with London like my brother was obsessed with New York and both of them were artists with this very firm belief in themselves, if only they could be given a chance,” Childers said. “Essentially, my brother was a filmmaker and Branwell was a portrait artist and poet; his real belief in his genius was his poetry.”

But Joshua had an extra burden, that of the Appalachian code, and although Childers feels protective of her brother’s memory, she is also protective of her home and her roots. Her research showed what she had hoped wasn’t true: more families in Appalachia have members who suffer with mental health issues and do not seek help.

“If I take a step back to look at my brother, but as a mentally ill young man in West Virginia whose ancestors have lived in Appalachia for 200 years, I find it difficult to blame him, myself or even the horrible preachers we all watched on TV,” Childers said. She cites a Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis report that finds suicide rates have long been higher for people ages 18-to-65 in Appalachia than that same group in the rest of the U.S. The report blames widespread poverty, some of the lowest education rates in the country and high rates of uninsured people, as well as lack of healthcare in rural areas, all of which breed untreated mental illness and despair, she said.

In dealing with those underlying potential causes or intensifiers for Joshua’s mental health and addiction issues, she knew she would have to deal with Appalachian stereotypes, but not reinforce them.

The writing process was cathartic for Childers, and she recalls talking with a man who had lost a brother to suicide. He, too, wrote a book about the experience.

“I remember him saying how after he wrote his book, he could hold his grief in his hand, in this tangible way and set it apart from himself,” she said. “And here is this book, the grief outside my body. It’s not like I won’t always carry it, but it’s taken me 10 years to feel ‘recovered.’ Just having the space to really, really think and to get some art made from the pain, I think is always healing.”