Raise your hand if you think that growing up as the only child of the writer Hunter S. Thompson would be a stable, nourishing experience.
Really, no one? Okay. Well, I’ll continue…
Stories I Tell Myself is a memoir by Juan Thompson about what it was like having a father who was as famous for his wild behavior as he was for authoring counterculture classics like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
Hunter S. Thompson was a celebrated writer and one of the more charismatic figures of the 1960s and 1970s. Along with others like Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, he crafted a style of reporting that blended journalism with literary techniques and a considerable amount of egotism. He called his creation “Gonzo Journalism.” Thompson was a powerful figure whose friends included Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, “60 Minutes” stalwart Ed Bradley, and at least two U.S. presidents—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Thompson was also an alcoholic and drug addict who was prone to late-night hours, womanizing, and violent outbursts. At Owl Farm near Aspen, where he spent most of his time, Thompson held wild parties that were often punctuated with firearms and the detonation of outdoor explosives. Throughout the 1970s, Thompson held court in the bars of Aspen, always surrounded by a throng of friends who adored and very likely feared him.
Juan Thompson, who is in his early 50s now, does not hold back in portraying his father as a brilliant artist as well as a distant, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous man. Early on, Juan Thompson writes that his father never hit him, though the threat of “a beating” was often present. The elder Thompson did direct a lot of screaming and verbal abuse toward his son and wife, Sandy. By the late 70s, when Juan was in his early teens, Sandy Thompson was fed up with Hunter’s tantrums, boozing and nocturnal routine. She and Juan moved out of Owl Farm, and Juan confesses that he hated his famous father at that point in his life.
Much of the book is about what happened after that moment, and the many years it took Juan and Hunter S. Thompson to find common ground and forge a relationship as son and father. Given Hunter’s self-absorption, the son apparently had to do most of the work in building that connection. At times, it is heartbreaking to read about Juan’s efforts. It is clear how much he craves his father’s love, but there are long emotional deserts to travel between halting moments of fatherly praise or affection.
Stories I Tell Myself is an engaging memoir for Hunter S. Thompson fans, as well as anyone who is fascinated by the bond between a child and a very flawed parent. By the way, not all is grim with the Thompson family. There are some fun moments in the book, such as when a teen-aged Juan gets to spend a month sailing the Caribbean with Hunter’s laid-back buddy, Jimmy Buffett. Fame has its privileges, I guess, even if you’re sometimes trapped inside the strange, paranoid world of Hunter S. Thompson.