Writing into the World: Memoir, History and Private Life, Part Three

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Every writer who sits down with the intention to write a memoir is haunted by a single question that threatens her progress: Who cares? The great events of our lives are, of course, important to us. The characters that people those events are dear. But unless we are Katharine Graham, or Keith Richards, how can we reasonably expect people to engage with our personal dramas?

I always knew I wanted to write the story of my father and me. Even before he was diagnosed, I told him I was saving all the letters he wrote me at college because I thought they could be part of a larger work. Our life—gay poet dad raises daughter alone in San Francisco—just seemed like story material. And when he developed full-blown AIDS, grew sicker, and died, I also held tight to this idea that I could make something beautiful out of the mess of my grief.

But in the years after he died, in the aftermath of the dissolution of our family, I struggled to write our story. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t find words, but rather that the words didn’t come together. I was too close. I was too distant. I felt too sad. I circled around this memoir every five years, eking out essays here and there but failing to write a compelling proposal and failing to find any interested agents. I was still the girl the story had happened to. I didn’t know how to be the author of the story about the girl. I didn’t know how to see my story in a larger context.

So I let years go by, and in those years the culture around me changed. In 2009 and 2010 gay marriage bills were making headlines. In March 2010 gay men and women could marry in Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC. A world my father never could have imagined when he was a single gay man cruising the Stud in the bar, located in the neighborhood known as south of Market was coming into focus. You could be openly gay and still be “respectable.” You could get married and have a family.

In November 2010 a young man named Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from a bridge in New Jersey. His roommate had filmed him with another man in their dorm room without his knowledge. The “It Gets Better” campaign started soon after. The media began talking about the experience of gay youth in addition to gay parents. But where was gay history? The TV show Modern Family may have won high ratings and Emmy awards, but Modern Family looked nothing like my family. And I couldn’t find a version of my family in any books. I felt there was a larger story that still needed to be told.

As I returned to the project of my memoir, as a forty-year-old woman and mother, I started to see the contours of the story that I couldn’t grasp when I was younger. There was the narrative of my father and me, but also a story about San Francisco, a story about the gay rights movement, a story about alternative families, a story about AIDS.

I also realized that most of my favorite memoirs were those that taught me not just about a personal experience, but about a time, a place, a culture. Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart chronicles the life and death of the author’s brother Gary Gilmore, a murderer notoriously executed in Utah in 1977, but it also describes the history of Mormonism in Utah, and how violence can be passed down from generation to generation. As memoirists we can report on our lives, driven by memory, but we can also report on our worlds, driven by research.

In 2011, I started that research. Reading my father’s personal journals opened me up to the world of San Francisco’s Haight Street in the 1970s, a world I was too young to remember myself but that was nevertheless fascinating. I learned about the Cockettes, a cross-dressing psychedelic theater troupe that performed in local restaurants, and about their most famous member, the disco diva Sylvester, who sang in the gay pride parades. I read books and old magazines, and I watched documentaries. I learned about Harvey Milk and George Moscone, the liberal mayor who was shot to death in City Hall. I studied San Francisco in the 1970s, AIDS in the 1980s, and just how dangerous it was to be “out” anywhere in the 1960s. Researching also provided me a way to remain close to my father. I imagined conversations about what it was like for him growing up closeted and gay in 1950s Nebraska and then coming to San Francisco in the beginning of gay liberation, conversations that we could no longer have.

As I dug into the more emotional terrain of the book, the experience of the AIDS crisis in America, it hit me, almost for the first time: this loss didn’t just happen to me. Hundreds of thousands of couples and families were torn apart because of a stigmatized, incurable disease. I was always able to connect to my sadness, but I had never before connected to all the pain that was going around us: our neighbors, our communities. And I had never considered how AIDS altered the DNA of the city I loved. How does a neighborhood change when scores of gay storeowners and tenants and customers die within a span of years? How does that speed gentrification? What happens to a city when the cultural fabric becomes irreparably torn?

I spent hours reading the online obituaries for our friends and neighbors, and a fresh wave of grief engulfed me, but it was a grief I welcomed. I realized that in writing this story, I could illuminate other personal histories, report on people who would otherwise not make their way into books but whose lives were nevertheless worth remembering.

I tell you, this discovery was a relief, like the lifting of an enormous weight. This was a history that I hadn’t read before. This was a history I could learn about, write, and share with others. And that question of “who cares?” lost its power.


Here is an excerpt from chapter 5 of my book, Fairyland:

In 1976 everything was new. Dad dubbed it his “bisextennial year.” We lived on a new block, in a new apartment, and the walls of this apartment were painted with a fresh coat of white paint. The smell of these walls invigorated me. Even today, freshly painted walls smell to me like new beginnings.

When we moved into 1666 Page Street, with its smell of fresh paint, I decided it was magic. I was five years old, but would soon be six, and there were six letters in my name. The Page Street apartment was ours alone, a haven of unconditional love, a place I remember as safe. We kept a cage full of doves. Even when the newspapers in the cage smelled dirty, there was always the loud, rhythmic cooing of the birds, a sound full of deep satisfaction.

Sunshine poured through our front windows every afternoon. As the light passed through the crystals that hung in the windowpanes, rainbows shimmered around the room. On weekends and after school we walked to the Panhandle to play. On the way, we passed run-down Victorian houses with chiseled faces, jutting chins, and large glass eyes. Many of these buildings were crumbling at the edges, with cracked and peeling paint, but with their occasional pillars and names like Queen Anne they were romantic to me, like the ruins of a lost kingdom.

Every weekend, beneath the Panhandle’s grand acacia and cypress trees, Dad learned tai chi from a local teacher, who was later immortalized in the mural outside the Park Branch Library. For a while Dad had me learning, too. The movements were strangely slow. A strong arm reaches forward, then around. A leg stretches out, then down. We looked like people caught in a time warp, stuck on the edge of 1976, trying to swim in midair, trying to escape the trappings of our life on earth.

Months after the breakup with Ed, Dad was still trying to heal himself. In his writings he describes a persistent sense of isolation and disconnectedness. “I fit in neither with the gay nor straight community because of Alysia and because of my attitudes, which are not click-ish nor faddish.” In addition to practicing tai chi, Dad quit smoking, drinking, and doing drugs. While I was at my grandparents’, he attended a six-week alternative medicine seminar where he learned to meditate and cleanse auras.

In the move from Oak Street, Dad also sold and gave away all of his dresses and most of his jewelry. “I’m just not that into drag anymore,” he wrote to John Dale, “not even on Halloween.” But he saved the best—the heavy Egyptian necklace and the scarves of Spanish lace—for me. In its place he adopted a butch look: handlebar moustache, plaid shirts rolled at the sleeve revealing furry forearms, worn bluejeans, and a heavy, black leather jacket. Though Dad claimed not to be faddish, this look was so popular it came to be known as the Castro Clone. The uniform reflected a changing aesthetic among the city’s gay men, referencing working-class machismo instead of the more feminine style of generations past.

The prevalence of the Clone look coincided with a growing number of openly gay men moving to the city. Four thousand people marched in the first pride parade in 1972. In 1976, 120,000 took part, including Dad with me riding atop his shoulders. The face of San Francisco was being transformed by these new residents, who spent weekends in the Castro, enjoying lunch at the Patio Café, standing in clusters outside the Twin Peaks bar. I was especially fascinated by the well-built men with moustaches and tight jeans, hands in their neighbors’ back pockets, knocking back beers, staring and smiling, but rarely at me.