Truth is on the table as Alison Wearing and her father, Joe, sit down in a downtown Toronto restaurant to discuss her latest book, Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter.
"When Alison told me she was working on this book, I thought to myself, 'She takes so long to write anything that by the time this book is finished, I'm going to be beyond caring. I might even be dead,' " her 77-year-old father says. "And then she said, 'Oh, this book is really coming together quickly,' and I thought, 'Oh, no, I'm not sure I'm ready for this.' "
But he is, and so is she. Truth – even when it was brutal when first disclosed more than 30 years ago – becomes an interesting story with time. It becomes art that engages people; that makes them laugh; that resonates with their own untold stories. It can heal.
Much of family life, good and bad, happens in the kitchen, and it was "the spongey beige linoleum with the brown squiggly patterns" of their home in Peterborough, Ont., that Wearing focused on when her mother told her, while unloading the dishwasher, that her father was gay. She was 12. A few weeks earlier, her mother had discovered a letter her husband had written to a male lover. At the time, in the early eighties, homosexuality was taboo. For years after that revelation, Wearing coped by spinning lies to her friends about her father.
But now, seated beside each other, they seem more like creative accomplices than father and daughter. In Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter, she deftly picks apart the complex knots of family – the love, the adventure, the myth, the hurt, the betrayal. She writes from her point of view as a child; from her father's (by publishing excerpts from his diaries and letters, which he kept); and from her mother's perspective.
Dressed in a casual suit and red shoes, her father often turns to her, laughing (and sometimes cringing) over his sexual exploits as a younger man. He has been in a stable relationship for 30 years, but his diaries document both his delight and his doubts when he first acknowledged his homosexuality. One diary entry begins, "Last night I made it with a Roman Catholic priest." But Wearing, a 46-year-old force of creative energy with wild hair and colourful clothing, looks at him with calm affection, occasionally uttering, "Poor Dad," as she unspools the family story.
The diaries held surprises for her – she used a lot of ellipses in the excerpts to avoid overtly sexual content – but she never felt anger even though they documented his infidelity to her mother. "No," she says gently, looking at her father and then at me. "First of all, because it was so long ago, and secondly, because there were no secrets. … When he came out, he threw the proverbial door off its hinges in that I never felt that there was anything he was trying to hide.
"It's different if I had found out those things and didn't have any idea of what was going on. I would have been angry. I think there's real toxicity in secrecy, and tremendous healing and grace in truth. So just the fact that I was reading them and didn't find them after he died. He gave them to me, and said, 'This may help you.' … I didn't feel I was reading anything illicit. I was just reading the truth."
On her website, Wearing describes herself as someone "who hopes to be a bougainvillea when she grows up." And if by that she means an ability to grow in any direction in order to pursue creative expression, it's clear that she has achieved her goal.
Her first book, a travel memoir, Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, was published to critical acclaim in 2000. For several years, she "struggled" with her second book, called Giving into Light, a story about raising her son in Mexico, interwoven with reminiscences about her own childhood, growing up with a gay father. "But when I submitted it, [my publisher] said, 'You can't just throw into it that you had a gay father as though this is what everyone experiences. That really needs to be its own book.' "
She didn't feel ready to write the book that became Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter, and instead, turned to theatre, something she had never done – not officially. Occasionally, she had given what she called "animated talks," including singing and dancing and readings, but then a theatrical director saw her perform and suggested that she stage her work. In a creative dry patch, she decided to see what might bloom.
It was while performing material about growing up with a gay father that she realized a book about it could have universal appeal. "It felt to me that the story was partly about how family forces us to become better people by asking us to love people, understand and accept people that we might not otherwise if we weren't in this family dynamic thing together; bonded from birth."
As she talks, her father, a retired political-science teacher, watches her, sometimes interrupting the conversation with little asides about his life and the struggle of coming out. For most men at the time, the admission of homosexuality spelled disaster, especially if they were married with children. "I wouldn't even have ventured into any gay activity, but I think because there was so much being reported [by gay activists] in the newspapers at the time, I thought, 'Maybe this is something I should entertain and find out if I'm gay.' "
He always wanted to have children and feels fortunate that he did in a heterosexual marriage. "To have children with the woman you love and admire is very different from having a child with a woman who donates an egg," he says.
Still, they both acknowledge that the truth was hard for Wearing's mother, who only recently read the book. (Wearing changed names in the book to protect the identity of some family members.) "I would say that you're friends now, right, Dad?" she says looking at him again. He nods.
I ask if he's comfortable with the revelations about his sex life in his daughter's book.
"Well, I offered to sue her," he deadpans.
Wearing howls with laughter.
He touches her on the elbow, and pats her forearm. "I figured it might help book sales."