Every Day I Write the Book

10.29.2013

By Alysia Abbott

Earlier this year, a writer published a memoir about her gay father’s life. Now she has enough material to write another.

I’d just completed a reading from my memoir, Fairyland, at the San Francisco Public Library when a petite, middle-aged blonde approached me at the podium. It was my second event in San Francisco, the city in which my gay single father raised me in the 1970s and ’80s, following the death of my mother. I was used to meeting up with old classmates and former boyfriends, but I’d never seen this woman before. She’d sat in the front row, studying me inscrutably as I spoke. Now she was introducing herself in a soft lilt, explaining that she had worked with my mother in Atlanta. I nodded. My uncle and his friends came over asking where we should eat.

“I’d like to talk more with you,” the blonde interrupted, grabbing my arm.

“I’m with family,” I answered.

“Maybe you can give me your email?”

She looked at me with intense, blue eyes. “What I have to tell you, you’ll want to hear in person.”
Bonnie joined us at a cheap Turkish diner across from City Hall. As my uncle and his friends engaged in conversation, I breezily chatted with her, ripping greasy pita over lentil soup. Then she told me, “Your mother and I were lovers.”

I sat in stunned silence. Here I was on tour with my memoir about being raised by my gay father after the death of my straight mother. Was I now to believe that my mother might also be gay? Had I met Bonnie before publishing my book, I might have told a different story. But had I not published my book, I might never have found her.

When you finish a memoir and admire its solidity, the fresh smell of its pages, the smooth feel of its cover in your hands, it’s easy to believe that your story is finished and your work is done. I could handle hard edits and rewrites. The occasional bad review following publication, this I expected. But I was completely unprepared for the stream of strangers that reentered my life following publication of Fairyland.

Anyone who tries to write a memoir knows that creating an accurate, yet compelling, portrait of a time requires a degree of narrative foreshortening. People and events must be emphasized over others to build suspense and story. To keep the reader interested, you build a structure and story arc that can hold together the varied elements. As you move through drafts to that fact-checked finished product, the author is lulled into an idea that the story being told is The Truth, when it’s in fact just one truth.

When my parents met, my father described himself as bisexual, to which my mother answered, “You can love all of humanity, not just half of it.” It was 1968; they were self-styled revolutionaries. Believing they could, and should, remake the family, they married, continuing to pursue other relationships. But when my father fell deeply in love with another man, my mother got involved with a patient at the hospital where she worked, an unsuitable match that eventually led to her death.

Writing my book, I saw my mother as something of a victim of my father’s sexual awakening. He told her that, though he loved her, he could only experience “cosmic love” with men. I believed that because she couldn’t get from him the love she craved, she started looking outside of the relationship. But after meeting Bonnie, I now have to consider the possibility that my mother encouraged his interest in men because she wanted the same freedoms he enjoyed.

The story of Bonnie is just one of many that have emerged since I published Fairyland. Men and women whom I knew only as first names in my father’s journals stepped forward at my readings and appeared in my inbox, revealing the parts they played in his life.

There’s Bill, the photographer who lived with my parents in a small commune they set up in a dilapidated Atlanta mansion in 1971. After hearing me on the radio, he sent me a disc of 20 never-before-seen pictures of my parents and recently drove six hours to see me read at a Southern literary festival. He had damp eyes when he said goodbye: “Your parents were very important in my life.”

There’s Mark, a former boyfriend of my dad’s from the late ’70s in San Francisco. Mark was fresh out of school when they met; my father was one of his first relationships. After breaking up they fell out of touch. Mark married a woman and had two children. He didn’t know what had happened to my dad, let alone that he had died of AIDS, until he heard me on public radio two months ago. He’s since sent me half a dozen emails about his life, including scans of letters he wrote about my father. I found the corresponding entries in my father’s journals. He’s even “come out” to his adult son about his gay past.

And there’s Barbara, the ex-wife of my father’s ex-lover, John. The last time I saw her they were married, living in a beautiful Victorian home with a teenage son and daughter. I was introduced as a “friend of the family,” quietly wondering what, if anything, of their father’s queer past they’d ever learn. On the last night of my visit, John pulled from the closet a beat-up paper bag of love letters my father had sent him, which he gave to me and which I used to write my book. But it wasn’t until recently meeting Barbara on the occasion of my tour that I learned of their divorce and how that teenage daughter I met is now transitioning, on her way to becoming a man. Barbara is on the board of the local chapter of PFLAG. It turns out we’re both proud members of queer families. After meeting Barbara for brunch, we went dress shopping together. As I turned before the mirror, seeking her opinion on a gingham sundress, she said how nice it was for her, since she can now only take her children to boys’ departments. It was nice for me, too; Barbara is also my mother’s name.

Reuniting with characters from my parents’ past has been thrilling and confusing. I’d have loved to interview these people before finishing my book, but now that they’ve reentered my life following publication, I’m not sure what, if anything, is my responsibility. Am I to write more, or just listen? How do I properly respect the range of memories and stories that my memoir has provoked? Or should I just see these people as part of my expanding family, joined through my queer history?

A line from my father’s poem that closes Fairyland keeps coming to mind. It may be the only truth I can count on: “What seems most outlandish in our autobiography is what really happened.”

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