“‘Honey, I’m gay,’ Dad said, jolting me back to the present. His voice disturbingly cheery. When I didn’t immediately respond, he repeated himself, this time with emphasis. ‘I’ve always been gay…’
Even in my state of shock, it was clear that the weight of his secret had shifted from his shoulders to mine.” Excerpt from the forthcoming book, Affliction: Growing Up With A Closed Gay Dad by Laura Hall.
Affliction: Growing Up With A Closeted Gay Dad is a coming out story told from a perspective that most of us have not considered, from the point of view of a child of a closeted gay father. It is a journey of secrets, not just her father’s sexuality but the secrets all families contend with. It is also a documentary of how parents’ actions influence the family and the children they raise. The book shares stories of Hall’s father growing up gay and closeted, from the 1920s to 2008.
Coming out is difficult for each of us. The struggles we go through with knowing we are different, learning the label that goes with it, and enduring the torture from others who may or may not understand how different we are. Sometimes it is a wonder we ever come out. There are many who hide what they are, from themselves and those around them. At times it is out of self-preservation and other times it is to try to have the “perfect life” that we think others have so freely. Being in the closet has always been looked at from how it affects the person who is copying to terms with their sexuality. We fail to realize that living a life in the closet can have effects on those around us.
Laura Hall’s book shows clearly how that secret can have profound impacts on the people who share it. Having to keep someone’s secret can weigh on us to the point where we often feel resentment for them having shared it. Laura speak in clear detail the stress it caused her and how it manifested in her mental health. We also see the toll it takes on the marriage and later find out how her mother also carried the same secret.
It was an Affliction
“I knew I was different,” he said. “I was also aware of the fact I should conceal it, that it was an affliction.”
This opening sentence of the prologue was one that stuck me to my very core. It was a feeling I had at a very young age, when I first knew I was different. It was this one sentence that sold me on this book. What kept me engaged is the fashion in which this writer shares her stories. It is arranged in flashbacks of moments in their history where small secrets are hinted at and the truths of the world’s hardships are exposed. It brought me back to my childhood listening to my grandfather recount his memories to us, in hopes to impart wisdom for us to navigate our lives.
It is an affliction that is felt by most of the people in this family history. We see how it affected Ralph, having to hide his nature to have some version of a normal life. The effects of the secret carried by his wife Irene. And how the secret became the affliction that Laura carried with her into adulthood. It is also the affliction of society. One that teaches us how homophobic rhetoric harms not only our culture, but all families and people.
Laura shows us how living in the closet and having a family becomes a burden passed down to all involved. How one little secret can change interactions to those around you. It is a journey that captures how Ralph shared his most secret of secrets with his daughter, Laura, and how she tried to deal with it. It wraps us in the bitterness she felt for her father and how his secret affected her life and family. We rise with her as she learns that we are all flawed humans just trying to do our best. And we connect with her when she learns the lesson of acceptance from the unlikeliest of places.
Hiding in plain sight
“And there they were, tiny, gray-shelled creatures burrowing into the sand as a wave retreated back to sea. From my father’s excitement, it seemed he felt that nature was putting on a show just for him, a most appreciative audience of one…Soon the soft shelled crabs scrambled from view. ‘But look, Laurie,’ he said, pointing with a stick. ‘See those indentations in the sand? They can’t completely hide.’ I didn’t understand how the crabs could survive underground, but Dad assured me they were safe where they were. They’d come out again when they felt safe where they were.”
Laura uses her memories to teach us valuable lessons about the struggles of hiding who you are. This one passage speaks volumes of how many queer people live a life in the closet, only coming out when its safe, when they know they can survive. It is a lesson so many of us have had to learn through endurance and pain. Using her fathers teaching about how certain plants adapt to grow in hard environments is the perfect allegory of how queer people learn to adapt, hide, and thrive in the harshest of situations.
We also see, by the end of the book, how her father tried to share and teach about his secrets through interactions he had with his children and the family as a whole. When Laura reads letters Ralph sent to Irene while he was in the military, we see how many times he alluded to the secret he carried.
Flood of history and emotions
Throughout the book, Laura captures key points in queer history, through the lens of someone, who at the time, didn’t fully understand the cultural impact of those events. With the sharing of her and her father’s life, we see what it was like for queer people living during those times. How being in the closet was more of an act of survival than anything else. It is watching history unfold before you.
Events such as Stonewall, the rise of Harvey Milk, the AIDS epidemic, and up to the beginnings of acceptance of LGBTQ people are all laid out to us as they happened in relation to the life of the Hall family. As a kid in the 80s, I fully remember the news covering the “gay cancer” and that it took a long time before Reagan mentioned either GRID or AIDS on national television. Each moment in history familiar to me and each one striking an emotional note.
Life through another’s eyes
When this book was recommended to me I have to admit I was hesitant to read it. A book that talks about how a closeted gay man affected the well being of his family seemed like using a backwards telescope to look at the moon. I was concerned how the author would handle the subject of her father’s secret. Would she paint her father as some evil deviant that ruined her childhood and family? Would it speak to a Christian morality that did not fit with being an out gay person? How could I know without taking the chance?
In reading her book, Laura appeared to me to be the Severus Snape of her story. In the Harry Potter series, we watch Snape be vilified for how he acts, talks, and his past. As the series comes to a conclusion we realize that his actions towards Harry were out of love. Love for Lilly, Harry’s mother, and protecting the most important thing to her, Harry.
In Affliction you get this initial feeling that Laura is being cruel and not understanding her father and his secret. As the story progresses, you see that turn to love and protection, of sorts. Once hearing and seeing her father’s history unfold, she realizes the pain and hardship her father endured. His struggles to be someone he wasn’t and in the end how his liberation released him and her. You also feel the sense of loss for her father’s happier time in life. It mirror’s how many queer people have put their happy times aside to live a “safer life.”
In laying my fears of what this book could be aside, I found a love for every character involved. I saw my own early struggles with life, being in the closet, and those close to me. This book gave me insight into those struggles and how they affect other people. Now realizing that my own secrets affected many close to me and created chasms of distance between many.
At times I found myself crying and laughing along with the author. It encapsulates what it was like living in a era that predated queer rights and shows how so many people were forced to live a “safe life.” Laura’s book shows how homophobic culture impacts not only queer people but our straight counterparts, alike.
I feel truly blessed to have been able to read and share my views of Affliciton: Growing Up With A closeted Gay Dad. It belongs on any shelf of LGBTQ literature and is an important showcase of the struggles we had and still do endure. It is also a valuable asset for how families should deal with the possibilities of their own members being queer.
About Laura Hall
Laura Hall was born and raised in a small city on the San Francisco Peninsula. After receiving her BA (summa cum laude) and MA in Landscape Architecture at University of California, Berkeley, she went on to teach for the school’s Extension program and build an urban design professional practice where her projects included community facilitation in northern California communities and rebuilding plans for Mississippi Gulf Coast towns after Hurricane Katrina.
Find Laura at:
Be sure to pick a copy of this amazing read for yourself. You can find Affliction: Growing Up With A Closeted Gay Dad on Amazon.