WHEN THOMAS Joiner was 25 years old, his father—whose name was also Thomas Joiner and who could do anything—disappeared from the family’s home. At the time, Joiner was a graduate student at the University of Texas, studying clinical psychology. His focus was depression, and it was obvious to him that his father was depressed. Six weeks earlier, on a family trip to the Georgia coast, the gregarious 56-year-old—the kind of guy who was forever talking and laughing and bending people his way—was sullen and withdrawn, spending days in bed, not sick or hungover, not really sleeping.
Joiner knew enough not to worry. He knew that the desire for death—the easy way out, the only relief—was a symptom of depression, and although at least 2 percent of those diagnosed make suicide their final chart line, his father didn’t match the suicidal types he had learned about in school. He wasn’t weak or impulsive. He wasn’t a brittle person with bad genes and big problems. Suicide was understood to be for losers, basically, the exact opposite of men like Thomas Joiner Sr.—a successful businessman, a former Marine, tough even by Southern standards.