The Recollectors - Whitney Joiner and Alysia Abbott

Whitney Joiner and Alysia Abbott

(An expanded version of my Mombian newspaper column.)

October marks LGBT History Month, and a new project by two daughters of gay dads aims to reveal a part of history that has rarely been told before: the stories of people like themselves who lost parents to AIDS.

The Recollectors, “a storytelling site and community,” was founded by writers Alysia Abbott and Whitney Joiner, “to share stories about parents lost to AIDS and to bring together a community that’s never before come together: their children,” Abbott said in an e-mail interview.

Abbott explained, “Because of the stigma still associated with AIDS, the experience of losing parents to the disease is largely underreported and unknown. Many parents who died of AIDS died in an atmosphere of secrecy.”

One Recollector, she relates, “was told her father died of cancer 20 years ago and only recently found out he died of AIDS. With The Recollectors, we will not only memorialize these men and women and give voice to their children’s experiences, we will expand the narrative of AIDS history.“

Abbott is the author of Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, which was a New York Times Editors’ Pick and won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Award in 2014. A San Francisco native, she is a graduate of The New School Writing Program in New York, and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Boston Globe, Vogue, and OUT, among others. She now lives in Cambridge, Mass., and teaches writing at Grub Street, a non-profit creative writing center in Boston.

Joiner is a senior features editor at Marie Claire magazine and lives in New York City. She grew up in Kentucky, graduated from Smith College and has written and edited for many national publications, including ELLE, Glamour, the New York Times, and Salon.

I was the first person she’d ever met who lost a parent to AIDS…. [We] often marveled at the sense of isolation we each felt at the time our dads died.

The two first met when Joiner worked with Abbott’s boyfriend, now husband, and they discovered that both Joiner and Abbott’s fathers had died of AIDS. The two women soon got together for coffee. “I was the first person she’d ever met who lost a parent to AIDS,” said Abbott. “We’ve had many late night talks since then and often marveled at the sense of isolation we each felt at the time our dads died.”

Both their fathers died in 1992, but their circumstances were very different. Abbott’s father was a poet and editor, fully out in the vibrant gay literary scene of San Francisco. Joiner’s father was a closeted business law professor in suburban Kentucky. “If only we’d known each other at the time!” Abbott reflected.

In 2012, the 20th anniversary of her father’s death, Abbott realized that many others must be facing similar anniversaries, since in 1992, AIDS was among the leading causes of death for men. After Fairyland came out in June 2013, Abbott said, she started receiving notes from people who also lost parents to AIDS. She and Joiner wondered how to bring these “incredible” stories together.

They decided to begin with a website, and created a successful online Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to raise money. They launched the site at the end of September, at therecollectors.com.

“We plan to post new content every few weeks including interviews, oral histories, original essays, and book excerpts,” Abbott said.

She added, “The Recollectors will be a place where people who lost parents to AIDS can share their singular experiences and break the cycle of stigma. It will also serve as an online memorial to the parents who died too soon, a repository of unique narratives, and a missing piece in the cultural history of AIDS.”

Abbott said, “Right now we have about fifty Recollectors residing across the world including Canada, Switzerland, California, New York, Colorado, Nebraska, Georgia, and Alabama. Some of our Recollectors are members of ACT UP or work at theBody.org [an online AIDS resource] or Housing Works [a nonprofit working to end both homelessness and AIDS].

Their vision for the project goes further, though, and they are reaching out to other AIDS-related organizations “to support members who lost parents and would be open to sharing their stories and meeting other Recollectors.”

They are also considering working with an event planner and Recollector in Washington, D.C. and partnering with AIDS organizations there to hold an in-person event.

A print anthology of essays, oral histories, and interviews is on the distant horizon, but “We’re still finding members and collecting and editing these stories,” Abbott said.

No two experiences are alike but each contains moments of fear and confusion and secrecy.

Both Abbott and Joiner’s fathers were gay, but Abbott said they are looking to share stories about parents of any sexual orientation or gender. “Some of our Recollectors lost mothers. Some lost fathers. Some lost both,” she explained. “Some of these parents contracted HIV through blood transfusions, IV drugs, or sexual contact. Some Recollectors have become AIDS activists others are still ‘in the closet’ with their stories. No two experiences are alike but each contains moments of fear and confusion and secrecy.”

Anyone who wishes to contribute their story should visit the website for contact information. “We’re looking at 500 to 1500 word essays,” Abbott said, but noted that they can help edit the essays or even conduct an interview of someone who isn’t comfortable or confident writing.

Additionally, she said, “We want to be sensitive to outside family members but we don’t want the stories to be anonymous because we’re using this site as a means for people to go ‘public.'”

Although the site has just launched, Abbott is firm in her vision: “There’s one thing that is clear: the Recollectors needed to happen and it needed to happen now. I think the time is ripe to talk about this history and to shake off the stigma that still afflicts the community today.”

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