Marble-heavy, a bag full of God

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I was nineteen years old when I first read Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy. I was studying, my junior year abroad, sitting on my bed in a drafty chambre de bonne in the west end of Paris, when I hungrily opened a letter from my dad and discovered, on the back, the faint photocopied poem.

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo. 

I skimmed Dad’s weekly recording of his life in 1991 San Francisco until I found his notes on Daddy. “Certainly a different take on fatherhood than you have, or is it??” he asked cheekily, before offering his analysis of why the poem works. “Plath’s genius in this poem is to invest very simple language (nursery rhyme & fairytale) with intense power & anger.”

I didn’t know it then, but my father was teaching me how to read and to think like a writer. He was also dying of AIDS and would in fact be dead in two years’ time. These teachings, meted out over years of letter writing, were, along with his unpublished papers, his parting gifts to me.

A car accident took my mother when I was three, and my dad raised me alone, as a struggling poet and an openly gay man. It was always just the two of us. Ours was a loving and intimate relationship, not at all like that fascist/Jew dynamic Plath infamously describes with her father in Daddy. But in the twenty-one years since his death, and especially since my writing Fairyland, a memoir about our life together, Plath’s poem has continued to resonate, especially these lines:

Daddy I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, 

My father was like God to me. Since I had no mother or siblings, he was my everything, towering and all-encompassing in his influence. I couldn’t imagine me without him. And yet, like every child in the history of time, I had to.

In order to emerge an independent woman in a world ruled by men, I believe that every daughter must bury her father, metaphorically if not literally. She must learn to hold her own in conversations, to fiercely stick by her points, and to shake off the doubts and criticisms spoken in deep, authoritative voices. 

Because my father died before I reached adulthood, I never had the opportunity to break away from him organically. And for this reason he haunted me. He haunted my relationships—no one could love me as fully as he did. And he haunted my writing. Ours was the story that always had to be written, and I was always “the girl with the story.” It defined me for years—something that, in fact, I kind of liked. Having lost a father to AIDS complicated my biography, tied me to a larger social crisis, and gave me an interesting, almost a romantic edge.

But in carrying this story, and in letting it define me for so long, I continued to be tied to my father. I couldn’t move beyond my identity as someone’s “daughter,” nor could I bury the weight of his influence. And because this unformed narrative was so very important—indeed marble-heavy—I stumbled each time I sat down to write it. Was I up to the task? Could I give the story the beauty and sheen it clearly deserved?

I struggled especially with the idea of authority. Who was I to write the man who wrote me, a man who, as a semi-prominent gay writer and critic in his lifetime, also belonged to other men? Who was I to quote from my father’s journals and letters, without his permission, just to serve my narrative ends? Furthermore, I was aggressively indifferent to my father’s writing as a girl. Because my father never enjoyed any long-lasting relationships with men, his writing was the competitor for my father’s attention. As an aspiring author I had to learn everything about my father’s work that I’d tried so hard to ignore during his lifetime.

As I began the researching Fairyland, a colleague of my father’s even challenged me. I had just returned to my hometown of San Francisco after five years away, when I phoned B, hoping to set up an interview. “I don’t know,” B answered hesitatingly. “As a teenager you weren’t very nice to me. You’re . . . how old? Forty now? Maybe you’ve changed?”

“Yes,” I said, trying to convince him my intentions were indeed true and that I was a serious writer with a serious assignment. B finally relented and let me into his apartment for an interview, where he passed along some artifacts from a conference he’d planned with my father.

But when Fairyland came out a year and a half later, I discovered B had written a nasty review at a leading online bookseller. Buried deep, as a comment on another reader’s review, B argued that the “invidious” title of my memoir “demeaned gay men” and “skirted homophobia.” He added that I was “narcissistic” and lacked my father’s compassion. As I read these words, my pulse quickened, and my mouth went dry. Here my greatest fear was coming to life, and for everyone to read. After settling my nerves, I decided to write B directly. If I couldn’t defend myself against B, then no one else could do it for me. This was my fight to fight. A heated exchange followed, in which B accused me of not doing “my homework” regarding my dad’s literary legacy because I didn’t discuss the reception of his books. I told him that my book was a memoir, not a biography, adding that if he wanted to write his own book he was free to do so.

In the following months Fairyland was named an editor’s choice by several leading papers, featured on National Public Radio, even optioned by an Oscar-winning indie film director. But despite these victories, each criticism I read, like that of my dad’s friend, continued to echo in my head. I was especially bothered by a review I read on a reader community website: “I liked Alysia’s book. But I’d have liked it better if her father wrote it.”

This comment hurt because, in my heart, I wondered if it wasn’t actually true. The more I learned about my father’s life, the more I came to respect him as a writer and thinker. He was a rigorous intellectual, committed to championing writers on the fringe, despite making little money. He worked for years publishing poetry, columns, and criticisms in small journals and with independent presses. But his books were never reviewed in national papers, nor was he ever published by a big house. By the end of his life he had to apply for help to pay his rent and heating bills. Maybe my father was more deserving than I of the attention that I received with the publication of Fairyland. Maybe he would have written a better memoir, even. But he never wrote our story, and if I didn’t write and publish it, no one would.

Then one day, as was I sifting his papers on the history floor of the San Francisco Library, I found a piece of my father’s I’d never read before—a memoir he’d written in my voice titled, “My Life.” In this essay, which he’d been assigned for a fiction class at San Francisco State College, he liberally quoted from autobiographical freshman compositions I’d sent him when I was in college. I had to laugh. I’d been liberally quoting from his journals in my memoir and had been feeling guilty about these liberties I took without his permission. And here I discovered that my father had done the same with me. Rather than a girl trying to write about her father, I now saw us as two authors struggling to gain control over the same story: M. C. Escher’s famous illustration of the artist’s hand drawing the artist’s hand. Over the course of our life together, my father was grooming me for this role.

Authoring my father, though initially a fraught experience, has ultimately been liberating. I’m no longer “Steve’s daughter,” as I was during my dad’s life, nor “the girl with the story” that I’d been since his death. I am a published and award-winning author who could write about us with a narrative distance I couldn’t access during my father’s lifetime. With the aid of his letters, journals, and books, I have traveled to my father’s underworld, his dirty unconscious, armed with a paper and pen (his weapons of choice). I watched him mistreat my mother when they were together, and I watched him suffer guilt and depression after she died. I read about the sexual escapades he enjoyed in 1970s San Francisco, which he sometimes called “tricks,” deciding which ones to include in my story. I read about the times he wished he didn’t have me at all. But as I did so, I was shielded with the unwavering trust that he still loved me very much. I watched him obsess and worry over his status as a writer. And finally I watched him succumb to the terrible illness that took his life and the lives of so many others whom we knew. Just as I created my father on the page—by including details about his joyful laugh, the smoky smell of his fingers, and the way he wrote with his right leg slung over his left, his right foot twitching—I had to let him die. And in detail. Then, and only then, could I really bury him, and graduate from our story. In this way I took the gift of his teachings and returned them to him as the gift of story.