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A Documentarian Shares Her Story So That Others Can Too

Kathy Leichter says filmmaking allowed her to process her pain and open up dialogue about suicide

As Kathy Leichter crooked her head to look at the sonogram, she felt a wave of heat travel from her toes to her head. Stunned, she left the obstetrician’s office feeling as though she’d been hit by a truck. She was having a boy, and it didn’t make sense. Leichter had been sure her second child would be a girl, allowing her to press continue on a mother-daughter relationship that broke when she was 28 years old. “I was immensely grateful that he was healthy, but it wasn’t what I had in my head. My second child was supposed to repair, revisit, and reconstruct the relationship I had with my mother.” Leichter pauses a moment and then chuckles. “My therapist at the time said, ‘Well, thank goodness you’re not having a daughter.”

Ironically, Leichter’s son did play a role in her healing, just not the one she’d expected. His arrival made clear that while she thought she’d dealt with the loss of her mother, this tsunami of grief indicated that was not the case. She says healing was not linear; it ebbed and flowed, and, with a retrospective lens, she can now see the course it took. A documentarian, at first, Leichter started to examine her own mother loss and that of her father, Franz Sigmund Josef Leichter, a former New York State Senator whose mother was killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. “It was about mothers and mothering children when you’ve lost a mother, but it was not yet distilled into the narrative of my mom. I kind of backed into it like a horse in a stall. It took me time to realize that this was the story I had to tell.”

Making the film ‘Here One Day was what Leichter needed at the time, nine years after her mother’s death. She had to plumb the depths of who Nina Leichter was and navigate the wake of loss that remained in her absence. After Nina’s death, Leichter tucked away photos of her mother, and she and her family didn’t talk about what happened. Instead, they tipped-toed around the empty space that had once been filled so fully by Nina. Filmmaking gave Leichter a medium to sift, thoughtfully and objectively, through her mother’s past. Among her findings were boxes of audiotapes: they contained calls people had made to Nina that she’d saved but also hours and hours of tape where she’d press record and simply talk. On one tape, Nina said, “am I going to become manic this morning?” and, on another, she spoke about the side effects of her medication.

The tapes sat unused and unlistened to for nearly a decade; in fact, Leichter had an entire cut of the film before telling her editor about them. She says this is how the filmmaking process pushed her as a director and a daughter, inviting Leichter to step further into her mother’s world. Unsure how she’d react at hearing Nina’s voice, she asked her assistant to listen to the tapes. “I looked over at this 22-year-old woman, and she was bawling.” Leichter lifted the headset, and instead of feeling terrible grief, she felt happy at hearing her mother’s voice. “As a director, I knew this creative element would make a better film. As a daughter, I need to listen to the tapes. On them, my mother is everything that she was: funny, witty, funky, sarcastic, creative, reflective, thoughtful, caring, emotional, vulnerable, and moody.”

Early in the film, Leichter’s father asks her what she hopes to find while making the film. She says, “More freedom.” For nearly a decade, she’d been gripped by the loss of her mother, but the filmmaking process and open conversations with audiences around the world have helped to release it. “I still miss and grieve my mother and want her back every second. I’d be one of those people in the Greek myths who are given a choice to go to Hades to see their loved one, but then they’d be turned to stone. I’d have to think about it,” she laughs. “I might go. I’d give almost anything to be with her.” 

Leichter’s story isn’t dissimilar to the millions of other people who’ve lost loved ones to suicide, but the very vehicle for her healing process has also become one for others, sparking open dialogue after screenings of the film. “The movie is so personal that it gives people permission to tell their stories, breaking through walls of discrimination, stigma, fear, and isolation.” Many viewers share their stories for the first time at her screenings, often alongside colleagues and friends who had no idea. Leichter says these conversations are a fuse for social change. “Storytelling begets storytelling. Talking about suicide creates a collective sigh of relief among people who’ve silently carried stories of loss and suicide attempt.” The idea, she says, is to break through societal expectations of what people should and should not share. 

It’s the characters of the film—Leichter, her father, her brother, Josh, Nina, Nina’s friend, Billy, and Nina’s sister, Sally—who draw in the viewer. On the tapes, Nina is self-aware, processing changes in herself. At one point, she utters into the recorder, “I have long believed a little demon occupies me.” Some of the dialogue on the tapes is reminiscent of conversations Leichter had with her mother during her childhood and early adulthood. When Leichter was 10, Nina talked about mental illness, sharing with her daughter that she had to take medication to stabilize her mood. Leichter and her mother were interconnected, and Nina’s fragility prevented Leichter from separating the way many girls do with their mothers during the teen years. “I didn’t dare to be rebellious.” When Nina died, Leichter faced an internal battle—she wanted to separate from her mother, but inside she felt as though she was crumbling. “She was so much the center of my life.” Leichter also felt betrayed. They’d had a deal after all, or so she thought. In the film, Leichter says:

The agreement was if I take care of you, and if I don’t rock your boat, then you will stay, and you will love me. So when she died, I felt like wait a minute, I’ve been trying to make you okay and you left? That wasn’t part of our agreement.

Leichter says many people make agreements, even if they’re unspoken. Nina enlisted Leichter in the act of taking care of her. She needed her daughter’s attention in a way that felt inappropriate, but it’s all, Leichter points out, that her mother could do or figure out at the time. “There were many moments when my mom was so loving and giving, but she also needed comfort, support, and a filling up of a void that was inside of her. In some ways, we likely had the agreement I believed we had—until we didn’t.”

Through the tapes and the making of the film, Leichter has been able to examine and re-get to know her mother. The filmmaking process also became a vehicle for her family to explore their relationships with each other and with Nina. While Leichter doubled down on her efforts to be part of her mother’s life, her brother Josh, pulled away. In the Adirondacks, Leichter, Josh, and their father unearth not only photographs and letters but also family conflict. “Josh and I had polar responses: he drew firm boundaries while I became a caretaker. It’s two sides of the same coin, and neither is entirely healthy.” When the movie premiered at the IDFA film festival in Amsterdam, a woman stood up and said to Leichter, “I am your brother.” Taken aback, Leichter wasn’t sure what she meant but quickly realized the woman was sharing that she’d played the role of Josh in her own family. “This has happened over and over again since then. I meet people from all over the world who were ‘the Josh’ of their family as well as the ones who played my role: the people who threw themselves into the middle of it, giving up their lives to make sure that person was okay. Neither approach is the best for anyone. It’s a hard landscape to navigate, particularly because no one is talking about it.” 

Before debuting the film, only a handful of those close to Leichter knew that her mother died of suicide. She didn’t realize how universal her story was, not only around mental health and suicide, but also around family and loss, changing dynamics, and estrangement. Leichter thinks when these conversations are normalized, people will finally realize how common their experiences are, and improved policy will follow suit. “Our experiences need to be validated not only in our community support systems but also in healthcare policies. Knowing we aren’t alone makes us powerful. We can ask for more as a public who’ve had these losses or are experiencing mental health challenges in general.”

At the end of the film, Sally, Nina’s sister, says to hug someone you love. After screenings, Leichter says people do just that, and then they talk. 

Photo credit: Elana Goodridge

Here One Day is a documentary film on the life and suicide of Nina Leichter, the wife of politician Franz S. Leichter. It was directed by their daughter, Kathy Leichter, a documentary filmmaker. Kathy presents the film and her family’s story at in-person screenings across the United States and internationally to medical, social work, and nursing schools, colleges and universities, communities of faith, mental health facilities, for mental health organizations and local support groups such as those run by NAMI and AFSP, hospitals, county mental health services and providers, and the general public. To learn more, go to www.hereoneday.com

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