After struggling with mental illness for most of her life, New York artist Ruth Litoff committed suicide at age 42 in 2008 by overdosing on prescription pills. Six years later, her younger sister, Hope Litoff, decides to film herself while she empties a packed-to-the-brim storage unit filled with Ruth’s belongings, driven by the need to understand Ruth’s illness and desire to end her life – but as she pores through the items her sister left behind, she must exorcise the demons that threaten her sobriety.
Both a celebration of art and an unvarnished exploration of mental illness, Hope Litoff’s directorial debut tells the powerful story of one sister struggling to know and accept the other in a way she was never able to in life, even as she learns to live with the pain of loss. Featuring home movies and family photos, Ruth’s journal entries, interviews with Ruth’s and Hope’s friends—who remember Ruth’s struggles, as well as her magnetism— and Hope’s video confessionals, where she provides a window into her own unraveling as she examines her sister’s past, 32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide is a vivid portrait of a complex, brilliant artist, whose bursts of creative genius lived alongside dark depression.
Six years after Ruth’s suicide, Hope begins to unpack the storage unit that houses Ruth’s belongings. “If I can look at what was important to her, I could get some answers,” Hope says, as she combs through Ruth’s journals, datebooks and art pieces for clues.
She begins by laying out Ruth’s enormous collection of prescription pill bottles over a paper timeline and remembers finding her sister’s body in Ruth’s meticulously prepared apartment, which was filled with notes to loved ones. Though the letter to Hope was “loving, kind, even optimistic,” it ended with the phrase “I know you know,” something Hope admits she still doesn’t understand.
When they were children, Hope idolized her popular, high-achieving sister. From the outside, the Litoff family seemed perfect. However, Hope says, they were “rotting on the inside.” With her mother constantly tending to Ruth’s mood swings, depression and suicide attempts, Hope felt pressured to act happy and turned to drugs and alcohol at an early age.
Hope pages through Ruth’s journals, which reveal constant fears, anxieties and struggles. Though Ruth was diagnosed as bipolar, Hope now believes she had borderline personality disorder, an understudied condition in the '80s and '90s, and that likely led to her receiving less-effective treatment. Still, while Ruth could be difficult, those who knew her best also remember a charismatic, open and talented artist who drew people in and shot intimate portraits of friends, lovers and even herself; as Hope notes, these self-portraits, while beautiful, are filled with suggestions of insecurity.
Excavating her sister’s things proves so treacherous that Hope herself begins to spiral out of control. Faced with the police report of Ruth’s death, Hope breaks her 16-year sobriety. As her drinking worsens, Hope even pilfers pills from one of Ruth’s old prescription bottles, alarming her producer. After a timeline of Ruth’s datebooks fails to confirm a noticeable pattern of depression, Hope finally checks herself into rehab, overcome by guilt and an uncontrollable dependence on alcohol.
After 30 days of sobriety, she returns home with a new mission: to realize Ruth’s dream of an art show at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, where Ruth was a frequent patient. “I want to celebrate the good things about Ruth, and not dwell on the bad,” Hope explains, as she works tirelessly to make Ruth’s dream a reality.
There are no happy endings, just an acknowledgement of the ever-changing face of grief and the struggle to create a meaningful life in the face of loss. Featured in 32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide is original footage from “Ruth’s Dream,” the spring 2016 Bellevue exhibition of Ruth’s monumental photographs.
32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide is executive produced by Dan Cogan and Regina K. Scully; co-executive producers, Jenny Raskin, Steve Cohen and Paula Froehle; producer, Beth Levison; directed by Hope Litoff; director of photography, Daniel B. Gold; editor, Toby Shimin. For HBO: senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.
32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide is available on HBO beginning December 7.