Behind picture-perfect family lies a father's painful secret

March 13, 1994|By Loraine O'Connell | Loraine O'Connell,Orlando Sentinel

Anyone looking for insight into being gay in a virulently heterosexual society need look no further than poet Susan Bergman's "Anonymity: The Secret Life of an American Family."

The family secret was her father's homosexuality. It was a secret he struggled to keep right up to the time of his death in 1984 from AIDS.

Betrayal, rage, compassion and healing are the themes of Ms. Bergman's book. She describes Don Heche, the dad she, her brother, and two sisters adored, vs. the dad they came to know only in the waning months of his life.

Propelled by curiosity, anger and a need to come to terms with the truth, Ms. Bergman contacts the people who populated Heche's gay world -- the lovers, friends and others who took him in, took care of him in sickness and loved him.

Her mission: to know her father as a whole person, rather than the safe, illusory pieces he chose to show his family.

"And now I am a tourist of my father's secrets," she writes. "What unimagined appeal must his life away from us have offered, so compelling as to cost him all he had? What strain must he have felt, what edgy caution -- discretion, he would have called it -- kept just enough distance between one appearance and another? How alone he must have been."

Heche was a dreamer who drifted from one job to another, raising his family's hopes, then trashing them on one big-money scheme after another. He was a gifted musician and a doting father.

He was also an early victim of AIDS. He contracted it while partaking of the promiscuous gay life of the 1970s and early '80s that characterized big cities such as New York and San Francisco. Until then, Heche presented a different picture to the world -- and to his own family.

"If we peered through the filter of our father's lens, he was a family man, joined in glorious marriage, pride of my mother, who was his pride," Ms. Bergman writes. "We could see the envious scan us, up and down, from our blond hair and blue eyes to our cuffed socks and polished shoes. We watched them green around the gills.

"We could not sit on the beach or walk on the boardwalk without being interrupted by someone wanting to partake in the family perfectability they could see we shared, one man going so far as to approach with his camera. Could he take our picture? Would we mind terribly?"

Intensifying the sense of unreality and betrayal felt by Ms. Bergman and her siblings was her father's religiosity.

Until she turned 16, her parents belonged to a religious sect that forbade dancing, celebrating holidays (too pagan), drinking, wearing makeup and jewelry, and even males and females swimming together.

Heche threw himself into church life. He taught Sunday school classes and played piano at services. He pontificated to his kids about maintaining their purity.

As his double life became more intense, and his first illness hit -- a nasty bout of hepatitis -- he lightened up on the piety. The family joined a more moderate church and began celebrating the holidays, even as they watched Heche go downhill physically and distance himself from them emotionally.

Ms. Bergman tells her story through a constant interplay of flashbacks, mingling memories from her childhood, from the time of her father's first illness, from his hospitalization with AIDS, and from the more recent past.

Her style is at times confusing, and her tendency to indulge in poetical prolixity annoying. But when she tells her story straightforwardly, it is poignant, sometimes wrenching.

It's a story that reflects the complexity of each of us as individuals and gives voice to the enormous range of our emotions, not the least of which is empathy.

"Turning from a lie we can search for a true thing," she writes. "Saying that truth aloud in front of the mirage defeats the phantasms, but at what cost? Recover from the lie, and you must heal from the truth."

Title: "Anonymity: The Secret Life of an American Family"

Author: Susan Bergman

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Length, price: 198 pages, $20

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