Zibby is joined by debut memoirist Kyleigh Leddy to talk about her book, The Perfect Other, which captures the relationship Kyleigh had with her sister before her death. The two discuss Kyleigh’s grieving process, the discomfort she sometimes felt talking about her sister’s story in real life, and what life is like for her now. Kyleigh also shares she recently graduated with her Masters in Social Work from Columbia and what she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kyleigh. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Perfect Other: A Memoir of My Sister.

Kyleigh Leddy: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here. I’m a big fan of the podcast.

Zibby: Kyleigh, I really loved this book. You’re a beautiful writer. I can’t believe you wrote it when you were twenty-three, right?

Kyleigh: Yeah. I started writing it when I was twenty-two. I finished at twenty-three.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. This is a heartbreaking yet inspiring story. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about why you decided to make your personal story with your sister, Kait, and your family — I want to meet your mom after all this. I feel so attached. Talk a little about why you decided to make it into a book and what the crux of the story really is.

Kyleigh: Definitely. Everyone always says that about my mom. I think it’s so cute. She is the best. She’s my best friend. How this panned out, basically, was that in 2019, I was a senior at Boston College. I submitted to the Modern Love New York Times essay contest just kind of on a whim not thinking much of it. I ended up winning the contest. It was actually my senior week of college. I was graduating. It just launched me into this path where I had this opportunity to start drafting this book, agents reaching out to me. I realized I had some of it already written, honestly, over the course of my own personal writing. It came together pretty organically. Got the book deal that fall with Hachette originally. Then mergers, acquisitions, the whole lot. Ended up at HarperCollins. It’s been a journey. The book itself is about my sister, who was six years older than me, our relationship. It’s about sisterhood. It’s about grief, about mental illness, about love. It’s really about her struggle with her mental health and had it escalate over the years into head traumas and eventually schizophrenia. It’s really looking back and trying to take this perspective in the past and see all the signs we didn’t see at the time and how these behavioral issues start. They can spiral into something like this. It’s about her. Eventually, she committed suicide, so it’s also about grief. The second half is really about coming out of that experience.

Zibby: I’m so sorry for everything that you went through. She did sound like such an amazing older sister. Your relationship was so special. I was really interested in the head traumas that she went through. You described them in the book in detail and how once, she was sticking out of her bedroom and fell from the second floor and kind of brushed it off and went off to the party. Another time, she fell from a couple steps when maybe somebody was hugging her. You’re not sure what happened. That required literally opening up her scalp and the sub hematoma whatever. I don’t have the right language. Bleeding inside the brain. Your hypothesis — in the book, you’re clearly grappling with, what is it? Was this schizophrenia? Should we have seen it coming all along? Were these signs this? Were they something else? Were the head traumas what caused it? Can head traumas cause it? Even the PCOS that you mention, was that a contributor? I feel like you’re trying so hard to untangle how it could’ve happened. Did you miss something? What were the contributing forces? There obviously is no clear answer, but where do you land on all of that?

Kyleigh: Honesty, looking back and once I’ve tried to put it all together — originally when I was drafting it, I had a working title as Signs We See. It was thinking of it as the signs of mental health, but also in the grief section, signs that someone is still with you and covering that sense as well. I think honestly, we unfortunately had a perfect storm. There were probably a lot of factors contributing to it. You mentioned PCOS, which is a hormonal disorder. That was probably something. That couldn’t have helped anything. Then we had the head traumas. My mom and I, our theory basically is that if it weren’t for the head traumas, we probably could’ve managed it better. Maybe they just sent her over the edge. It could’ve been something that we had medication for, we had therapy for. Instead, it was just this last straw. I do think, especially on this podcast — you’re talking to moms. Everyone wants their kids to be happy and healthy. No one wants something like this to happen. For me, writing the book was trying to piece together these facts and look at, how could something like this be avoided in the future, whether that’s prevention or just better treatments or more empathy, less stigma? I have had a lot of people reach out to me in the process just telling me their own stories and seeing how prevalent it still is.

Zibby: The aftermath when you had to deal with — you were still young when this all happened and had to deal with the regular school and canceling a birthday party with your friends and having them be annoyed about it or being upset with your moodiness or just typical teenage hijinks. You were carrying so much. Then immediately having to write about a sibling at school and having to answer those questions and the guy at college who put you on the spot who was like, “You told some people you had a sister. You told other people that you didn’t. What’s up?” my heart broke for you in all of these moments. Also, there was some anger too. How are people so insensitive? I wish there had been more protection around you. I feel like you were so just out there and exposed. I guess that is the way it is all the time with grief, but even more so with you being young. That you had to go through all of this with this complete lack of sensitivity, particularly from your school, I don’t know how you feel about it now looking back, but reading it as a neutral third party, it was sort of horrifying to me.

Kyleigh: I think honestly, we just don’t know how to handle grief as a society still. I don’t know if we have a language around it. For suicide especially, it has so much stigma around it. People, they hear that word, and they just back away. It’s not a good opener. I understand. I don’t think it’s necessarily malicious intentions behind it, usually. I think it’s really just this lack of being able to help. It’s helplessness. How do I help my friend who’s going through this? How do I help a student going through this? There’s not a lot of answers there. It definitely was hard. Then you write a memoir at twenty-two about it. Make it weirder.

Zibby: You kept coming back to the fact that Kait disappeared. This is in the opening, so I’m not giving anything away. There had been visions of her on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge wearing the red coat, and then suddenly in the next room, she was not there. By the way, the Reddit part, I just could not believe that scene. I’ll leave that for readers. You come back to there not being an answer. Her body was not found. There is no final resolution. You kind of hinted a few times at hoping that, what if she were to just show up? What if that was her? Was that random neighbor — could it be her? I know you said I had just sent you Bookends. My best friend, Stacey, died in the 9/11 attacks. Not to compare at all, but just that there’s no body to bury. The rituals of grief at least — not at least, but when you go through that and you lay the body to rest and you have the funeral and you say goodbye, there’s some finality and closure to that. When you have a loss with someone just literally disappearing into thin air, it’s much harder. It’s all hard and terrible. It’s not harder, but there is a particular way of trying to wrap your mind around how that could possibly be. Then you just move forward from that.

Kyleigh: Exactly. It’s interesting too. Even when I was writing the book, I’d have these nightmares. Not nightmares. Just dreams. My sister would be alive. She’d come. She’d be like, why you’d write this book saying I was dead? I’m here. Even when you know something and you know you have that intellectual proof, you don’t have the physical proof, like you said. It just delays the healing process so much. I was talking to my mom about this recently, actually. I think that our society used to experience a lot of death, unfortunately, a lot more natural causes, a lot more illness, a lot more tragedies. We had better coping mechanisms around it, more language around it. We had widows’ walks and stuff. It was so common. Nowadays, which is really good, it’s so much less common that people just don’t know how to handle it, especially young people. I think just trying to normalize it and being like, this is a tragedy, and it happened. It doesn’t make you different or any more damaged. It’s just part of life, unfortunately.

Zibby: The scene when you were graduating and then somebody was like, “Oh, how is your sister? What’s she up to?” in the moment, you just made something up because, how do you handle a moment like that? Then you felt so guilty about it. You just kept getting into a deeper and deeper hole with the lie, essentially. Not a lie, but you know. How do you go into all that? Why are you required to drudge all that up at every interaction? I don’t know. It’s hard. You wrote about it so beautifully. Your story is compelling and so sad but also so hopeful. There’s so much love in this book. There’s so much love from you. There’s so much love from your mom. When she was getting beaten up and would hope for those moments of clarity when the real Kait would show up and all that she was willing to withstand, there’s just so much love amid the pain. Even your — I’m sorry, I just keep talking about all these different — even just your fear and the way you describe that in the book, I hope I dogeared that page. What it feels like to not have a secure environment for yourself in your own home, that’s also a unique thing that many victims of violence and trauma have gone through. How do you repair from that? Do you feel like you are repairing from that?

Kyleigh: I do. I’m not sure if you’re in this stage since your book just came out, but if you’re on Goodreads, get off it. I’m telling you that because I’m on it. I read reviews a lot, which is my worst habit. I check it all the time. My agent was like, “You have to stop reading this.” I had one little prickly review that said, this book didn’t do it for me, but it must have been so therapeutic for her. I was like, it’s so interesting. I got that comment a lot about how this was hopefully a therapeutic experience. It was so hard to write the book, going back to that head space. I had kind of recovered from a lot of it. Then I had to go right back and really dig things up. I say in the acknowledgment section, there’s a difference between living something and then trying to make meaning from it, so trying to look back and say, why’d this happen? What did I feel? All that logic and all the thinking, it was just so awful. It was so hard. Then now that it’s out in the world and it’s a closed book in that sense, it does feel kind of therapeutic. I do feel like a lot of it has been resolved for me. I feel like I’m at peace with a lot of stuff. I feel like my sister and I are on good terms. I did feel like she was helping me along this process. I’m very spiritual, so I felt her presence a lot. Even that was, in the end, a healing experience. It was one of those healing experiences that really sucks in the in-between.

Zibby: Yes, the process is not pretty. I had another friend who I lost, named Paige, who I wrote about in my book. 11:11 was so her thing that we had her memorial service at 11:11. That’s the time people were called to the service. I related to that as well. Not the book, just my life. Wait, I wanted to see if I could find quickly — I loved this section. Oh, I dogeared this because I wanted to watch the movie Uptown Girls, which I’ve never seen, with Brittany Murphy. I was like, that sounds good.

Kyleigh: I was comparing my sister and I to the characters in that. I was younger but more serious. She was more the fun, free-spirited, older sister.

Zibby: All of her injuries, oh, my gosh. I loved this thing about how you find tickling odd because I think that myself. This is not particularly relevant to the story. You’re like, “I’ve always found tickling kind of odd, how it’s both painful and pleasant at once. You’re laughing, and at first, the burn feels good. It aches like your limbs after a long day at the beach, jumping over waves, an exhausted high, but then your muscles contract. You have the distinct feeling of being out of control, a carnival ride that was supposed to be fun, but on a dime, has grown terrifying. Some theories claim that tickling may have evolved as an evolutionary defense mechanism. The most vulnerable parts of our bodies are ticklish, our feet, our armpits, our stomach, sides, and neck because we’re most sensitive in these spots. If true, this idea purports an innate sense of faith in the person tickling you, like how a dog will roll over and expose his belly if he trusts his owner. We only reveal our most unguarded selves when we believe them safe. For years, Kait’s aggressive behavior still felt like this to me, a game of pretend.” Beautiful and also interesting for anybody else who’s struggling with tickling. Then I wanted to read this passage, which was absolutely beautiful. “My sister’s sanity slipped slowly and quietly the way you lose a train of thought or slide into a dream at night, there and then not. She lost her edge little by little, an avalanche that picks up one rock and then another. A steady progression, and then in a flash, a tragedy. Uncontrollable. Too late.” That’s really beautiful.

Kyleigh: Thank you. I do think that’s also just very true of the experience. When you’re looking for answers, it is so hard to try to find one answer for these things because there were so many factors. It’s impossible to see the full picture when you’re in it and you’re experiencing it. I know that, unfortunately in our society too, the moms get blamed for everything. That’s one thing I was looking at too. For parents who are going through it right now, it’s so hard. It’s so impossible to see what’s going on. There are so few easy answers in this, and I think there’s a lot of hope.

Zibby: Not to mention that your mom was working so hard. You can’t just look at it in a vacuum. Everybody is trying to keep the whole boat afloat in addition to this. It’s not just navel-gazing and sitting there and being able to watch and analyze. Life goes on. You have to provide for the family and do all these other things at the same time. Hold on, I’m checking a few more pages. This was also beautiful. “There’s something about our body’s reaction to grief that’s almost too dramatic to be genuine. We slide down walls, crumpling on hard wood floors. The gravity of loss invents its own rule of physics. We collapse into ourselves, our chest meeting our knees, bringing our heads closer to the ground like that’ll somehow make us feel more solid, more safe, to lie on the warm pavement and press our bodies into the hard earth. Dread encircles your brain draining the blood from your temples and leaving a fuzziness in its wake like the static of a lost television signal. You want to cover your ears like you used to when your sister teased you as a child because the truth can’t touch you if you don’t allow yourself to hear it. It’s as if you’re a character in a movie watching the action unfold around you. Is my hand really covering my mouth? Why am I pressing my palms against my temple? Do people do that in real life? And if you’re anything like me, the nausea comes first, the wading in the depths of your stomach and the bile that almost rises but decides to fall inside. It’s the nausea that never truly fades. It returns now and again when you drive past a bridge or look at an old photo. You think, if only I could puke, if I only I could get it out once and for all, maybe I could dispose of the bad, this feeling, this new reality. It would be cathartic, a release, an escape.” That’s one of the best descriptions of grief that I’ve ever heard. Absolutely beautiful. I’m so sorry you’ve gone through this, but absolutely beautiful. By the way, I have also played the game that you played with your friends, the game you called, who would cry at my funeral? I play that in my head all the time. I cannot explain how many times I have played my funeral in my head, so much so that I’m like, maybe I should just have it early. Maybe we should all just get this over with. I’ll plan the whole thing. Everybody can do their speeches and be sad. Then I’ll be like, surprise, all good. Let’s keep going, but now you don’t have to have one later.

Kyleigh: It is interesting. I do think grief is so universal, but it’s one of those unfortunate clubs where you don’t get it until you experience it. Then once you experience it, everyone’s kind of on the same page of how awful it is and what it’s really like. It’s a very physical experience. That’s the thing I didn’t expect personally, was just how physical I would feel that heartbreak. , the nausea, all those things are — again, it affects you so much. For me when I was writing the book, how do I communicate this in a way that makes people feel not alone, that they can see themselves in it and it registers with them?

Zibby: I have a friend who’s sick right now. When we heard about it, I literally told my husband, I was like, “I feel like I just swallowed some sort of toxic chemical.” It goes all the way through your body. You just feel it. Then every time we talk about it, I feel that same kind of scooping out inside or something with needles. I don’t know.

Kyleigh: Scooping out is a good word for it. You feel very hollow sometimes with that.

Zibby: Well, this is uplifting. I’m sure this is really what you want to talk about on an early morning. This book and piece of your life aside, tell me about your life these days. What are you doing? Where are you living? What’s your life like? You’re marketing a book. What else? Where do you want to go from here? What’s the happy stuff in your life?

Kyleigh: There it goes. Good segue. I’m in New York City right now. I’m not sure if you can hear all the sirens outside my window.

Zibby: I cannot.

Kyleigh: I’m in New York. I live with a bunch of friends from college. I just graduated from Columbia with my MSW in May. I’m done with grad school. It’s in mental health care and public policy. I’m hoping that I can use the book as a launching-off point for that and try and do more policy work and do more of the public service in that sense. I’m also writing my second book right now, which has been really fun. It’s fiction. It’s totally different. It’s all the best parts of writing without the horrible personal tragedy element of it. It’s been really great to pivot that direction. I’m hoping that I can just keep writing books. It’s the dream. Fingers crossed that works out.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I don’t know if you have any interest — I’m on the board of an organization called the Child Mind Institute. It’s about children’s mental health and everything. They do a lot with destigmatization and prevention. They’re trying to find a biomarker for mental illness early so you can know what’s coming. If you’re interested in getting involved even on the policy side —

Kyleigh: — I love them. They do such good research. They’re so on top of it. They’re one of the best, I think, organizations that are trying to address this right now, especially in kids.

Zibby: I’m happy to put you in touch with the founder if you want to get involved or help.

Kyleigh: Definitely. Thank you.

Zibby: No problem. Do you play any sports? What do you do when you’re not cerebral?

Kyleigh: I actually love pickleball. My mom and I got super into it during the pandemic. We were tennis players growing up. We play a lot of pickle. That’s really fun. I’m big on SoulCycle these days. It’s something I did not do before. When the book was coming out, I think I was just so stressed out and anxious about it that I started going all the time. Now I love it. It’s such a good release. I’m the city. Things are getting better. I live with a bunch of my good friends. Lots of positive things going on.

Zibby: Good. Thank you. I needed to feel better knowing that you were having a nice life, so thank you for doing that for me. What’s your new book called? Can you say?

Kyleigh: I don’t have a title yet. It’s still very early on. I’m thinking about trying to maybe transition it even towards the YA space, making it more young adult because I am closer to that age than I’d like to be. I relate to a lot of things still. I grew up reading John Green and all these big young adult fiction writers. They kind of shaped me and how I approach writing and reading. I think that’s so exciting. That’s something that I’m exploring right now.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love it. Maybe one of these days, I’ll see you in New York. I’m not there now, but I will be in the fall. It’d be nice to cross paths and everything. I have so much respect for you. You’re a really, really great writer. I’m hitching my wagon — I don’t even know what the right expression is. I can’t wait to watch your progress because I will read everything you write. I think you’re great.

Kyleigh: Thank you. I appreciate that. I’m so excited for you. We can have a separate talk about the publication process.

Zibby: Yes, please.

Kyleigh: What it’s like to put it out there because it’s a strange experience, but it’s really exciting.

Zibby: Not to mention having to have people drudge up your most painful memories every time you talk about your book, which is also interesting. I’m like, okay, here we go. I’m going here again.

Kyleigh: .

Zibby: I’m the perpetrator in this case, but not always. Congratulations. Let’s stay in touch.

Kyleigh: Definitely. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

THE PERFECT OTHER by Kyleigh Leddy

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