Sixteen years ago, Joan Wickersham’s father shot himself in the head. The father she loved would never have killed himself—and yet, he had. His death made a mystery of his entire life. Using an index—the most formal and orderly of structures—Wickersham explores this chaotic and incomprehensible reality. Every bit of family history—marriage, parents, business failures—and every encounter with friends, doctors, and other survivors exposes another facet of elusive truth.
1. Joan Wickersham has chosen a unique structure for her book, eschewing chapters in favor of index headings and subheadings. How does this choice of organization contribute to or detract from your reading experience? How else does the author use structure and format in the book in an attempt to convey the experience of sorting through the fallout of her father’s suicide?
2. When Joan and her husband drop their son off to Neil in the opening pages of the book, they tell him that they aren’t sure, but think her father has died of a heart attack. Why does she say this, even though she knows it is untrue? Discuss other moments where Joan tells or avoids telling someone about the cause of her father’s death. Compare and contrast the varying reactions people have to the news.
3. Joan and her sister have very different reactions to Paul’s death. They also have very different interpretations of their father’s next-to-final act: that he brings his sleeping wife a cup of coffee in bed before shooting himself. What do they each make of this gesture, and what does it tell you about them, and about their family dynamics?
4. On page 70, the author writes of her father’s suicide, “If you take it year by year—chronologically—not much happens. It’s when you begin to look at it thing by thing that the story starts to emerge.” What do you think she means by this? Give examples of the “things” she examines and how they change the story of Paul’s life and death.
5. While Joan strips the sheets and tidies up her parents’ bedroom in preparation for her mother’s return, she looks at the contents of her parents’ closets, side by side. On page 79 she writes, “And then I thought, without pity, in fact with a momentary coldness that was almost pleasurable, of how my mother would have to see all this every time she walked past on her way to the bathroom, because there weren’t any doors to shut it all out.” Do you get a sense by the end of the memoir where this anger and coldness for her mother comes from? How else does her mother shut out or avoid unpleasant things? Who else shuts things out in this memoir: is this the same impulse as shielding someone from pain, or do you think they are different?
6. One of the many reasons the author imagines as the reason for her father’s suicide is the bank’s calling in of the loan he’d taken out for his new door business. She speculates that the shame of not being able to pay his debt, of having dragged his in-law, Neil, into the business, pushed him over the edge. Identify the ways in which money—the having or lack thereof—affects the families in this memoir. How does money change people and their relationships? How do you feel about the way money makes the people in this memoir behave?
7. Joan’s mother, Lee, is a challenging character, both for Joan and for the reader. She describes the moment that she and Ted stop being friends during a conversation at King Neptune’s Palace (page 85). Why do you think Ted calls her a cunt? Does it seem plausible that her relationship with Ted contributed to Paul’s unhappiness, as Joan suspects? Why or why not? Do you feel sympathy for Lee or something else?
8. The author makes self-described attempts at being an objective biographer of her parents, and especially of her father, as she seeks to understand how his life led him to such a tragic end. How is the author objective and subjective, despite her best intentions? Do you think you can ever be truly objective about people you love, or the lives that intimately touch your own intimately? Why or why not?
9. How does the manner of Paul’s death alter Joan’s memory of him? How does it influence her feelings towards other people? Map out the lingering effect his suicide has on the people around him and discuss how you might react similarly or differently if someone close to you committed suicide.
10. On page 216, the author relays the stories of other people she has met who have lost someone to suicide. Compare and contrast these stories. How are they similar? How are they different? Do you think there are common threads to all suicides, or are there different motives as there are with other violent acts, such as murder?
11. How does the process of “moving on” begin for the author’s mother? How does it begin for Joan? Despite signs of being “imperfectly glued” back together, how does Paul’s suicide continue to affect Joan? Does she think she will ever fully heal? Why or why not? What do you think?
12. The author writes as the very last line of her memoir, “And knowing that wherever I am, I am always moving, and I will never be in one place for long.” What do you make of this ending? What do you think the author means?