Every so often, if you’re really lucky, you’ll come across a book that grabs you as soon as you pick it up, leaves you wanting to recommend it to every fellow reader you know, and stays with you long after the story has ended. Victoria Loustalot’s memoir, This Is How You Say Goodbye, is one of those books. Recently, I had the chance to speak with her about her memoir, in part a chronicle of her father’s battle with AIDS, the impact his illness had on her family, and the trip she took years later — a trip she and her father originally meant to take together — to Cambodia, Stockholm and Paris. Read on to see what she had to say...
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): Your story is such an important, moving, compelling one, and it’s definitely a very intimate, very personal story as well. I was wondering, when and how did you decide to write about your experience?
Victoria Loustalot (VL): It’s interesting. The roots of the book really go back to my high school senior thesis project, if you can believe that. I did a collection of essays for my thesis project that were really just remembrances, memories of my dad when he was alive. They were the memories I kept coming back to, the things that stood out for me in particular. I really had this instinct, a kind of need to get it down on paper. So I did that, and then I went off to college and kind of forgot about it. I was excited to get out of my hometown and for new adventures and all of that. It wasn’t until several years later, after I graduated from college, when I was in my twenties, feeling aimless and at a loss — as I think a lot of twenty-somethings often do. I’m not sure what direction I was going in my life, and I was still sort of feeling haunted by my dad and by not having had the opportunity to know him when he was healthy and happy. I only knew him under the shadow and cloak of HIV, and later on full-blown AIDS, when he was sick and dying and on a great number of AIDS cocktails. He was depressed and miserable, and understandably all of those things — the drugs, the illness, the pain, the sorrow and disappointment — really colored his personality. Consequently, I didn’t feel like I knew who my dad really was. So I revisited those essays that I had written in high school, and thought I need to keep writing about this. There’s something more here. One of my essays from my high school thesis was about this trip that my dad and I were supposed to take around the world. I thought ‘What if I sought out these places that had been so meaningful to him — or at least that he thought were going to be meaningful to him — and along the way I’d try to find some other people who were close to him, and try to piece together who he was in his twenties, before he was married and had a kid?’ I think the goal at that point was maybe that in finding my dad and making peace with him, I could find some peace and resolution for myself, some direction for my own life.
AD: And it’s great you had these things — his letters that he sent home from Stockholm, for example — so that while you were there you were able to get a sense of what his life must have been like when he was there.
AD: It seems, from your description, that the relationship — between your parents and between the two of you — may have been a bit strained at times. So it’s good to have that new context, that different light in which to see him.
VL: Absolutely. I think one thing in particular that I was very conscious of and tried to be sensitive to was that I felt this need, as a writer, to tell my story, but inevitably — in the telling of my story — I am going to have to incorporate aspects of other people’s stories, like my parents’ story, and it’ll be told from my perspective. It’ll be told from my point of view, obviously. But that’s still a delicate line. Not only are you not sure, no matter whose story you touch on and end up having to share details of, but in particular with your parents — especially when one parent is dead and isn’t here and can’t speak for themselves. There’s that notion I felt, that I grappled with. Yes these are my parents, and I want to know more about them and feel close to them, but they were also private individuals with private lives that were entirely separate and unrelated to being a parent. How much of a right do I have to know? How much of this, just by virtue of being their child, is my business? I really wanted to respect that boundary. 30 or 40 years from now, if I were to have a child, would I want my 21 year old child snooping around in my history, interviewing people and looking into things that I did when I was 19 or 20? You know, probably not, or at least that’s certainly something that would make me a little nervous. So, I recognized that and wanted to be very careful with regards to my father and his legacy and memory, and also with regard to my mother. She’s still alive and has relationships and this is also her reputation and who she is that’s out in a more public sphere than she might have sought out on her own.
AD: I guess that sort of answers my other question of what the whole process or experience of writing about people who are so close to you — your family — is like. It seems there’s this really fine line you need to walk when writing about something so intensely personal and intimate.
VL: I do think it’s a fine line to walk, but I think that artists — and I would certainly characterize writers as being artists — you can’t be afraid to tell the truth or share your story, because it is in sharing our stories and being willing to be vulnerable that we connect with other human beings. That’s how we make other people feel less alone. Whatever sorrow someone is dealing with in private, knowing that there’s someone else who has dealt with something similar — or not at all similar, but just difficult and intimate — and know that’s out there is, I think, the first step in acceptance and tolerance and a better world. I mean that sort of sounds very high and mighty, and it can be difficult with families. Maybe not everyone in every family understands that, but you can’t let that stand in the way of doing what you believe is right.
AD: When I read this book, I remember thinking that when you’re in a relationship with someone — regardless of your age, gender or sexual orientation, and regardless of their age, gender or sexual orientation — I would hope that one is open and honest in that relationship. As an adult, from my standpoint, I know that I would always want to be open and honest with the person I’m with and, obviously, I think that everyone — myself included — hopes and assumes that the person they are with sees it the same way, and always seeks to be open and honest with them. It’s a two-way street. But, at the same time, it’s truly striking how different things are now. I guess you could say that a significant part of the reason the whole thing happened, and a significant part of the reason your father acted as he had, is back then — as you say in your book — there was a very different message being sent by society. He really could not be who he was because, to a certain extent, he was being told by society that who he was wasn’t acceptable, was wrong.
VL: Exactly. And I think too that for many years in the gay rights movement, one of the challenges that activists and supporters had to rally against was this notion of ‘Well, I don’t know any gay people,’ because so many gay people were ‘in the closet.’ They had to live in shame. They did live in secret, and my dad did for many years. So, it was easier for voters to be anti-gay and anti-gay marriage, because they could sort of naïvely convince themselves it wasn’t something that touched their lives. It’s only been as people have been willing to share their stories and step out and say ‘No, I am gay’ that more and more people have come to realize in the last 20 years that ‘Oh, my son is gay,’ ‘my brother is gay,’ ‘my uncle is gay’ — you know, whoever it is. This isn’t an isolated issue. When you realize this person you love who you’re close to, who you have known for decades, is telling you that they are gay, that changes your picture of what you think that means. I think that has been a huge part of changing societal attitudes, and it’s a huge part of why we have come as far as we have. I mean, this book is sort of riding those coattails. It certainly isn’t at the forefront of that, but it’s part of that conversation, and that dialogue is so crucial. That’s how we change the world. A friend of mine called me after she read the book. She spent a couple of years as a community organizer and she said — and I’m sort of paraphrasing here — the first thing that they taught her when she got her job as a community organizer — and it’s sort of Community Organizing 101 — is that when you share your story, it encourages someone else to share their story, and once you’ve both shared your story and made that connection, that’s how you start a movement. That’s how you make change.
AD: And how you have a more open, understanding society. Simply having a more open, understanding society could have, in essence, changed the outcome significantly.
AD: That way people don’t feel like they have to hide who they really are for fear of losing the people that mean something to them, or whatever the case may be.
VL: And the very real repercussions of that. In fact, I believe strongly that secrets are poison. They’re poisonous. It doesn’t even matter what the secret is. It’s poisonous because it has to be a secret, and there are consequences and ramifications for secrets. For my father, the consequences of that secret life and secrecy was ultimately his death, but also an extraordinary amount of pain for not only himself but for my mother and for me and for his parents, and just all of the repercussions of that decision. We don’t exist in isolation, so when you make a decision like that, it is going to hurt others, even the people you think you’re keeping the secret from because you’re trying to protect them. They’re going to feel that distance. They’re going to feel that something is wrong. It’s going to require lies. Once you start lying, once there’s that lack of trust, that’s going to erode the relationship and make it less than it could be.
AD: And, while I cannot say that I know what it was like or presume to know what it is like, I have known someone who is gay for quite a while — I’ve actually known them since we were both very little. They were going to these private schools and for years, because of a lack of understanding and acceptance at the schools they attended, they felt like they couldn’t really tell anyone outside of their own family that they were gay. Even within their own family, they were extremely selective in terms of who they told. Just that alone, putting myself in their shoes — at least in as much as that’s possible — from my perspective that would have to be a difficult situation to find yourself in. This feeling of needing to hide who you are or risk not being accepted, being shunned, ostracized. It seems that on the trip you really learn a lot about your father, and, it could be said, about yourself as well.
VL: Yeah. I did. You know, it’s interesting, because I think a lot of people have said to me — or have made the assumption — that ‘Oh, this must have been so healing for you. This must have brought you so much closure,’ and there’s some truth to that. I mean, there’s some sense of — in a very public way — having sort of declared, to the memory and the spirit of my father, acceptance of him just as he was, and also trying to promote that notion for other people. If there’s one person who happens to stumble across this book and reads it and feels a little better about what they’re dealing with, then I have achieved my goal. I think that in order to write a decent memoir, it can’t really be about finding healing or closure, because then it’s just therapy. There’s nothing wrong with that — it certainly serves it’s purpose — but then it’s diary entries, and a memoir is not a diary. I’d say it’s very carefully crafted. It’s a piece of work. I think that in order to be able to have enough distance from the story, to be able to craft it successfully and make it compelling — to make it of value and of interest to readers — you have to already have a sense of closure. I think that’s an important distinction. I am writing about a learning process an figuring things out in my own life in my twenties, but I don’t necessarily think that writing the book is what allowed me to do that. I think that it is just having that life experience and getting a little older, putting myself out there, taking risks and being willing to be vulnerable, as you sort of have to do. The book is the story of the journey, but it isn’t the journey itself, if that makes sense. I think that if anything, having some of that emotional distance — just by virtue of age, perhaps — and additional life experience allowed me to be more open on the page. Sometimes when you’re so deep in the middle of something, and it’s so raw, you can’t really make sense of it. You can’t see. You’re too close to it. Having some distance from it and being able to have a better view of it allowed me to share the story in a more open way, in which I could see the big picture and then hopefully translate that on the page.
AD: What really surprised me as well was your mom’s reaction to the whole thing. I think it was a very kind — and, in fact, very selfless — reaction, in that she helped take care of him despite the fact that he kept this other life from her, and in spite of his actions. As you point out in your book, he could have infected both of you as well.
VL: Yeah. I actually think that as much as when I started out I was writing out of a desire to get to know my father better, I think my mom was a huge inspiration for the book, because she is such a rare bird. She was put into incredibly difficult circumstances, and she had such an extraordinary reaction and response to that, and she more than rose to the occasion. I think on some level, as I started writing, it was ‘My God. This is an opportunity to pay tribute to a phenomenal woman.’ I think that what it comes down to for my mom is that she loved my dad. For years they had a loving but difficult marriage, and it’s just back to that notion of secrets and lies and a lack of trust. She knew that something was wrong, something was off, and when my dad finally came out to her and said ‘I’m gay and I’m HIV positive,’ — I mean, learning those things simultaneously puts them in perspective, especially in the late 80s, when AIDS was truly a death sentence. You focus on the health and the disease more than on the sexuality, I think, but I think that in terms of sexuality, it was finally an answer. It was ‘Oh. Okay. I get it. I see what’s been wrong all these years and it’s not personal. I don’t have a penis. There’s nothing I can do about this.’ So I think that in some ways she couldn’t take it personally, and so in a way that helped, that made it easier. It was easier to be told that than ‘I’m leaving you for another woman,’ for instance. My mom was raised in a very strong Catholic family, and she took her wedding vows very seriously. My parents never divorced. They were married when my dad died, and my mother had been his primary caregiver. I think he was the love of her life. It wasn’t the love — or the relationship — that she envisioned on her wedding day, but it was a love and it was a very important relationship for both of them nonetheless. That was one of the things that I really liked about this story and about writing this book. We’re so inundated with a very specific and narrow definition of romantic love and of marriage, and of partnership and support and what that means. We have all these romantic comedies, and even with growing acceptance and support of gay marriage, even that — what gay marriage means — it’s basically being turned into, you know, it’s like straight marriage only with two people of the same sex. Maybe for a lot of gay couples it is. Maybe for a lot of straight couples, that’s what it is. But there are so many gradations and so much gray area when two people love each other, and they’re in some sort of relationship or partnership for a long period of time, regardless of their sexuality and whether they’ve actually married in the eyes of the state. What that means and looks like can really vary, so I really like the opportunity to be able to showcase something different, and the different ways families can be made and can look. That was something that was really hard for me as a little kid, because of course you want your family to look and act like everybody else’s. As an adult, I think I’ve really benefitted from having grown up and observed a very special relationship between my parents. My mother deserves a lot of credit for that. He had no idea she would understand and be so accepting. I think it really meant a lot to him that he didn’t lose her.
AD: At least society and pop culture do seem to be catching up. It certainly took long enough, but you are starting to see families that look all sorts of ways. It seems like there’s less of this rigid idea of what a family is supposed to be and is supposed to look like. No longer is a family necessarily made up of a mom and dad and 2.5 children. Finally, society seems as though it may be catching up and coming to the realization that it is okay to have all sorts of arrangements or relationships, which is a fantastic thing.
VL: Absolutely. I think it’s amazing and I love it and am thrilled by it. I’m thrilled to be alive and witness it and know that whenever I have children myself, they can grow up in a more supportive world than the one that my father grew up in. That being said, I don’t want this opportunity to see that there are different ways of loving and living and being married to be lost in that we take gay marriage and say ‘Yeah, we accept that. That’s okay as long as it looks pretty much like straight marriage except with two people of the same sex.’ Maybe love and marriage can’t be pigeonholed. Maybe this is an opportunity for us to see what else is out there. What other ways of living are there? Hopefully gay marriage will push us into being more open and toward more freedom, rather than taking gay marriage and trying to make it fit the straight marriage mold, so to speak. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes. Every step is something, so it’s still valuable, it’s still worthwhile, but I always cringe a little bit when I feel like we take these baby steps in the right direction, but we still need this very rigid, familiar, comfortable structure around it. I hope we can keep moving away from that. That’s my personal opinion, anyway.
AD: This perhaps sounds a little cliché, but I’ve always operated under this sort of ‘live and let live’ kind of theory. You know what I mean?
VL: I do, and I think that’s perfectly put. I think that what breaks my heart are the people who don’t feel the way that you and I do. It comes from a place of fear. They’re scared of that unknown and the unfamiliar, and it says so much more about them and what they’re struggling with personally than what it does about the people they’re sort of battling against. Unfortunately, that fear has very real and very serious consequences for people they’ve never met.
AD: Finally, since this is your first book, I was just wondering who you’d consider to be your influences, where your writing is concerned.
VL: You know, I read a lot. I can’t really understand the notion of being a writer, of spending a good deal of time writing, without reading a tremendous amount. I also read so many different things, different genres and different types of work and writers. So, I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s one particular author or writer who I think has more heavily influenced my work than others. I think ideally it just becomes this whole hodgepodge of a lot of different influences and styles, and of people trying different things. When I think about memoir and personal non-fiction and opening yourself up on the page, in my opinion Philip Roth’s best book is Patrimony, which is his memoir of his relationship with his father and taking care of his father at the end of his father’s life. Obviously there are some parallels there with my own book and my own story. You know, memoir comes from memory, and that means that it’s not a biography. It’s not all encompassing. It’s not a life story. It’s just a book about one particular memory of time and I think that’s one of the things that Philip Roth does really, really well in Patrimony. There’s a lot that’s left out of that book. You’re not getting a comprehensive picture of who Philip Roth is or who his father is, or even what’s necessarily going on in their lives at that moment. You’re just getting part of that moment and part of that story, and I think that’s okay. To me, in reading that book, it gave me permission to leave things out. I don’t mean leave things out in terms of withholding. I just mean getting a better sense of what the story is about. I think sometimes what’s so difficult with non-fiction, with memoir, is you have all of these memories, and there’s a tendency to just put everything in and think if it happened then it needs to be in the book. That’s not true. You’re crafting scenarios and choosing how you tell that story, what memories best support that story. It’s a really difficult thing. When you’re writing fiction, if you don’t need it for the purposes of the book, you’re not going to make it up. With non-fiction, it already exists because it’s real and it happened. So, there’s that tendency to want to just kind of word vomit onto the page. I’ve read Patrimony a few times, and I think it was the second time I read it that I started to realize that there’s so much he’s leaving out, but there’s an art to what he left out. That was really valuable. That was certainly a turning point for me as a writer in figuring out this book. There’s also a writer named Eula Biss who has a collection of essays out and she has also just been a prolific essayist and writer and poet. What I like about her work is that it is sort of similar to Patrimony in that it is non-fiction and it is first-person, and yet it’s not so personal, it’s not so intimate. Obviously, my book is incredibly personal and intimate, but that was good practice for me in reading her book and seeing the value in the ‘I’ on the page versus ‘I’ me, the individual, and learning to make the distinction between the two, so you aren’t just reading a diary and there’s a specific piece of work that’s separate from the writer as an individual.
Victoria Loustalot is the author of This Is How You Say Goodbye (St. Martin’s Press, 2013). She lives in New York City. For additional information, visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter @VLoustalot.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Lorr; Victoria Loustalot; Elizabeth Loustalot; John Wilson Photography