When at last I had completed my read of Affliction: Growing Up with a Closeted Gay Dad (She Writes Press, 2021) by Laura Hall, I paused to remember some of what I have learned about the art of memoir over the years. One of the gifts of memoir is the bridge of empathy it can create between the reader and the writer. That link of humanity can remind us we have more in common with one another than we sometimes believe.
I admit that empathy was a long time coming when reading Affliction. The beginning was charming, a story of a young girl infatuated with her father. Hall’s writing is quick and engaging, with a tone that invites confidences and kindnesses. After a review of her childhood in the 1950s and her transition to adulthood in the 1960s, her journey with her father arrives in the memoir in the 1970s.
There were moments that presaged that critical moment. Even as a child, Hall suffers from anxieties that she implies are rooted in a fear of abandonment. We arrive at an afternoon in the early 1970s, and she goes for a walk with her father—he comes out to her as gay. An odd twist occurred within me. My connection, my feelings for the protagonist withered. My empathy instead flowed in the direction of her father.
Hall often describes her confusion and discomfort with her father, and I needed to catch myself, to remember that the point of the book is her story, and not the ways in which her father must deal with her self-centered responses.
To a certain extent, having lived a part of my life in closets of different sizes and shapes, I understood her father much more easily than she did. I hadn’t picked up the book to read and know the father’s story (although I am certain the author intended for me, in part, to do so); I picked it up to read the author’s story.
The protagonist defines herself as a reflection of her father. She keeps the same secrets (she does not share the fact of his sexuality with her siblings) and makes the same mistakes in relationships he did, giving up on love for safety, for much of her life. Such a life would afford her more sympathy for her father, I thought as I read through her recriminations.
Another thing I have learned about memoir is that the author presents a journey, an arc of transformation. The protagonist of a memoir is meant to end as a different, changed person. And that’s the most challenging aspect of this book: The protagonist does not change for nearly the entire duration of the memoir. Hall remains angry at her father almost throughout. Even after she forgives herself and moves on from her own mistakes, she finds fault with the gay man who loved his family and sacrificed true love to do so.
As I approached the book’s end, I kept hoping that a change was coming, that the protagonist would accept and celebrate her father for the man he wanted to be. I kept hoping that the protagonist would say goodbye to her anger.
She did not. After committing her father to care near the end of his life, her hurts continue to haunt her. She writes, “Like a nervous, small child, I scurried into my father’s bedroom and placed [his wedding photo with my recently deceased mother] on his chest of drawers. I shouldn’t have.”
The author comes closest to the hoped-for transformation when she shares her eagerness to understand who her father truly loved in his youth. Her efforts to draw her father out, to return him to the happiness he once knew before his arrest by a corrupt vice cop in the late 1930s, are touching in their sincerity.
And yet those moments read like small roses amid a vast copse of thorns. Halfway through the book, I drew back, unsure what to make of the author’s categorization of those of us living life on the rainbow as a “cultural minority.” Having made it to the beautiful age of 56, I have encountered many efforts to minimize my queer existence, but “cultural minority” was a new one.
Hall also consistently paints her father as different from other men. But she points to stereotypes of masculinity that were laughable even in her 1950s childhood. That she gave credence to the stereotypes because they confirmed her retrospective understanding of her father as a stereotypical gay man is unfortunate. Yes, there are gay florists, hairdressers, and decorators among us. There are also gay attorneys, truckers, and mechanics, and although stereotypes benefit us by helping us to understand our world, they hurt the author and her father because she used them to set her father apart from her.
I had two warring chains of thought. I saw Affliction as yet another attempt to filter lives lived outside of heteronormative lines through the voice of someone claiming victimhood at our expense. But I was also open to the pain the protagonist felt. The closet is a horrible thing. When we require people to dim their authenticity for the sake of someone else’s comfort, the primary, most tragic impact is on the person living within that closet. That self-negation, having lived through it, is horrific and society can only benefit when we welcome all into the light of their lived truths.
Affliction reminds us that the closet has collateral victims as well. The unsuspecting spouses. The confused children. Perhaps the author wanted to end that collateral suffering for others as well. Perhaps that is her objective behind the oddly stiff interview/conversation in one of the memoir’s final chapters. Hall sits down with her granddaughter for what reads as a fabricated dialogue on the changed perceptions of queer identities we now can see. The author is the one posing the questions in the following exchange:
“Is there anything you’d like to say to those who believe homosexuality is evil or sinful?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’d like them to be more open-minded, to not have tunnel vision about it. And to acknowledge what I have to say. To take the time to listen to me like I listen to them.”
“Anything else you’d like to tell them?”
“Yeah. I’d ask them, ‘what makes your happiness more valuable than theirs?’”
Is this the lesson that Hall wishes that she herself had learned? The choice of a closet does not imply a rejection of all future happiness. The author’s anxiety was so overwhelming that she found ways, time after time, to block her father’s happiness.
Her remorse makes a welcome appearance in the epilogue: a reimagining of her childhood with a father who remained with his first and truest love. The fiction is sweet and infused with the love that this reader waited for so long. The realities of the protagonist’s life with her father afforded her few moments of unfettered connection with him, but here in this short, ultimate outburst we catch sight of what might have been. We catch sight of what love and joy are meant to be, and I could at last put the book down with a smile.