June 2010

Micah McCrary

nonfiction

Talk Softly: A Memoir by Cynthia O'Neal

AIDS has always been a tough subject to cover with art. Ron Nyswaner managed to pull it off with Philadelphia. Tony Kushner did the same with Angels in America. Even Robert Kuhn fleshed a heart-wrenching tale with The Cure. Cynthia O'Neal's memoir Talk Softly attempts to do just the same, albeit in book form, and offers an almost microscopic look at a group of people suffering from the virus as well as those around them.

“We look at how easy it is to destroy any possibility of serenity or joy in this day by living in negative predictions regarding a day that isn't even here yet,” she writes early on, “and in truth we never really know what will happen until it happens.” This could be the book's all-encompassing mantra. The story told here by O'Neal is all about preemptive worry -- about the anxiety that haunts as a result of not knowing what any of our futures hold, diagnosed with fatal illness or not.

O'Neal's language shows she knows exactly what she's doing. She describes one friend as “a bird of brilliant plumage” and talks about her reaction to one of her husband Patrick's performances as being “both safe and exciting -- that perfect combination,” giving us both an eloquent and precise choice of words that gets her message across jauntily. Only the message is jaunty, however. O'Neal's voice itself is full of longing.

In Talk Softly, it becomes clear that O'Neal longs for her life and her work to be easier. She longs for a break, perhaps from the heavens, because everything that gives her life purpose comes with an incredible weight that she's unsure at times she can handle. The many deaths of her clients at Friends In Deed (the HIV/AIDS support group she herself founded), the death of her husband Patrick, the reflections and memories of her own parents in constant contrast to those of her FID clients are all hurdles she could certainly do without, possibly to be replaced by a day at the beach on a tropical island with her once-living husband.

The book does, just as well, become self-righteous at times. The overarching attitude that “what we are is spirit and spirit cannot die” is ever-present, but she seems to wish to apply it to her own life more so than to the lives of the survivors of HIV/AIDS. Mid-book, she turns the camera away from her clients and writes her story rather than theirs, and it's emotionally detracting to read about her friends, her husband's friends, her family, and her husband's family while attempting to remain connected to characters in the story we know we're about to lose. We're stripped from the sense of passing we develop so early on in the story when FID is finding its own shape.

Talk Softly is and will remain a captivating story of both forfeiture and triumph, but only at parts. If one can drift easily from the hospital bed to dinner parties to renovated New York apartments, they'll find no sense of disorientation here.

Otherwise, they may need a map.

Talk Softly: A Memoir by Cynthia O'Neal
Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 158322906X
240 Pages