A Hard Silence: One Daughter Remaps Family, Grief, and Faith When HIV/AIDS Changes It All by Melanie Brooks

I was somewhat skeptical about how much Melanie Brooks’ memoir, A Hard Silence, would pull me in. From a professional perspective, I’m often interested in patient/family memoirs about disease – it’s really important to understand the patient’s perspective! – so I fully expected to find it interesting but wasn’t prepared for how completely enthralled I was. That’s not to say that A Hard Silence is entertaining in a fun sense, because it’s very much a grief story, and a very painful one to boot. But Brooks’ voice is so vulnerable, so raw, on the page, and despite this, still tells a thoughtful, coherent story. This memoir is the result of a lot of work, both personal (learning to live with grief and untangle the trauma) and professional (the actual writing of the memoir).

“Brooks’ voice is so vulnerable, so raw, on the page, and despite this, still tells a thoughtful, coherent story.”

In the early to mid-2010s, Melanie finds herself overwhelmed by panic attacks. Seeking help, she goes to a therapist’s office and dissolves into tears, coming face-to-face with the weight of grief sitting inside her brain, to which she’s never given much space. In 1985, Melanie’s beloved father, Orville Messenger, a respected surgeon, had a heart attack. During his surgery, he’s given what turns out to be a tainted blood product, infecting him with HIV. Over the next nine years, Melanie’s family keeps his HIV+ status secret, even as her father progresses to AIDS and dies. Due to the stigma of the time period and the family’s Christian faith, they never are able to talk about it, and finally, as Melanie begins to revisit that pain in her life, she starts to explore the effect her father’s illness had on the family, and the shame that all of them carried, and how it reverberates to the present day. What Brooks reveals is a complicated though loving family portrait of struggles with faith and values, and overwhelming trauma from living with HIV and AIDS during the time period when it was heavily stigmatized, despite her father having contracted it in a more “acceptable” way.

This is an HIV/AIDS memoir. It’s a family memoir, it’s a memoir about leaving behind harmful religion, and it’s a therapy memoir. For my Maritime soul, it’s a Maritimer memoir – Brooks is originally from Moncton and describes the same city I grew up in, with many delightful details. (There was one grating copyediting error in the book: Brooks’ sister-in-law is from Miramichi, and except for the first reference to Miramichi, the city’s name is spelled wrong every single time.) I was swept into Melanie’s happy childhood, her anxious adolescence, and her grief-stricken adulthood. The memoir moves between different time periods, from the present to the thick of her father’s years of illness, and the changes they made in their lives to accommodate his secret. As I got closer to her father’s death, I had to set the book down several times, because it was so painful to read. But being able to convey that anguish so clearly is Brooks’ greatest triumph here, and is her strongest section in the book.

A Hard Silence is careful to situate itself as one family’s story and to acknowledge that while they suffered from the stigma of HIV/AIDS, they did not suffer from additional bigotry. Brooks is thoughtful and extremely generous with her story, exploring her emotions and motivations. This was a very moving memoir, and a reminder of how far we’ve come in the treatment of HIV, fortunately.

Melanie Brooks is the author of ‘Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma’ (Beacon Press, 2017). Though her Canadian roots run deep, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children (when they are home from college), and two Labs.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Vine Leaves Press (Sept. 12 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 300 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 398832020X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-3988320209