Thursday, August 23, 2007

Waifs, stray, orphans

The final (for now) installment, at Nextbook, of Marco Roth's memoir about his father. There's some desperately good writing here:
Given what I knew, his decision to keep his disease a secret from all but his two most trusted colleagues and his immediate family seemed strange. It was 1988, a time when the growing AIDS-awareness movement needed "innocent victims," that false category, to show that the disease was more than "God's punishment on drug addicts and homosexuals"—in the infamous phrase my father attributed to televangelist Pat Robertson. My father had not been quiet about humanitarian politics or his belief that biology was beyond good and evil. Only a few years earlier, he'd joined a group of doctors and musicians protesting the use of torture by US-supported regimes worldwide in their "dirty wars" against the Left. He'd visited torture victims in Danish hospitals and signed petitions. But now, facing a near-certain slow death, he suddenly developed a terror of softer forms of persecution: being forced to abandon his laboratory research, being hounded by rumors that would destroy his peace of mind; he feared, too, for how I would be treated at school and what my mother would have to hear from supposedly well-meaning friends. While still alive, he would donate his body to science, participating in a host of clinical trials for the antiretroviral drugs that, eventually, with reduced side effects, would make AIDS a treatable, albeit chronic, disease among those who could afford them. He would not, however, become a spectacle or a spokesperson. Privacy mattered more to him than the cause of "enlightenment" he'd spent much of his intellectual and public life defending.

So great was the power of this secret that I still feel a twinge of betrayal whenever I mention my father's illness in conversation. Also a great relief, followed quickly by something worse. For many years I'd only told a handful of people, mainly psychiatrists. It was my talisman, the sign of trust, as though by telling someone I gave them a special power over me, to wound or heal. I never knew how they would react. My nervousness would grow as the moment of truth approached, especially around women I've loved. Would I become, in that moment of revelation, a figure to be pitied rather than admired, an object for compassion instead of passion? Waifs, strays, and orphans are Dickensian tastes that mostly went out with my grandmother's generation. My father was right in a way to want me to stay dumb. What chances did I have in my girls-just-want-to-have-fun generation if I didn't keep things to myself? And what adolescent enjoys compacts of mutual pity? My first girlfriend sent me off to college health services for an AIDS test. Maybe she'd have asked anyone the same—testing your "partner" was practically part of the liberal arts curriculum in the early 90s—but I took it personally. "I haven't slept with my father," I told her, "or anyone else." "Do it for me," she said, and I did.

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