About 22 years after his father’s death, Hermosa Beach resident John Montandon was ready to tell his family’s story.
John, 65, remembers his father, "Doc" Montandon, as a spiritual, kindhearted, strong and patient man—the type of man John admired while growing up in West Texas in the 1950s and '60s.
That patience in Doc and the rest of the family would be tested when Doc was transfused HIV-positive blood during surgery, and later died in 1989 from AIDS.
Now John recounts his father’s death, legacy, and the subsequent stigma faced by his family in his debut novel, By His Own Blood.
The story, which received an honorable mention in the Los Angeles Book Festival this year, "simply had to be told," John said as hints of his Texas upbringing emerged in his slight, southern drawl.
John, who moved to California with his wife in 1978, talked to Hermosa Beach Patch on Tuesday about his father, and lessons learned:
Hermosa Beach Patch: I know By His Own Blood is a true story, about your father. Why did you feel a need to tell his story?
John Montandon: I felt other people needed to hear about what could happen to anybody and to be aware of what could happen to them or their family. I also wrote the book because I wanted to explain how the entire ordeal took me from someone who had old prejudices when I was raised in West Texas in the '50s and '60s to overcoming those prejudices.
We were in a very rural area of West Texas. Most people there in the 1980s were either misinformed or totally uninformed about HIV and AIDS, and to some degree those who were familiar with it, did not have the facts. They were terrified of getting infected themselves.
My father, who was infected through this transfusion of blood during routine surgery at 78, had been around a number of people during his illness. When it was learned that he was dying of AIDS, no one would speak to my mother or others in the family. The stigma of AIDS was particularly devastating to my mother ... The fear of AIDS in that small community was so great that she was shunned by most everyone she came in contact with, even her best friends.
Our family was made aware that Doc had AIDS only six weeks before he passed away at age 81. He would be 105 years old this year if he were still alive. We could not find anyone who would take care of him in 1989 in West Texas ... even medical facilities shunned him. We had known for some time that he was ill but didn't know what his problem was because the blood transfusion and HIV diagnosis was covered up.
In that time period and in that part of Texas, people were just not wiling to even address the issue, and if they were, they were fearful. Then we finally found somebody who had experience treating AIDS patients. It was a Godsend that we found someone to take care of my father.
Patch: Was writing about all of that difficult due to the personal nature or therapeutic?
Montandon: It was very emotional, as you might imagine. But it was mostly fulfilling. I had thought so intensely about this ordeal and had it in my mind for over 20 years before I started writing the story. I’ll be 66 this year. So I’ve grown into an older man with all this background of my father dying the way he did.
And what this tragedy really did for me was open up a much greater understanding of how I was raised, where I was raised, the prejudices that I grew up with, which I address in the book, and how I have grown personally in accepting much more in life than I had at the time my father became ill. But mostly, I realized more than ever how much I truly respected and admired my father. He was the best man I've ever known.
I’ve also come to understand that I still have things to overcome. It was really an interesting journey for me reaching back to recall all of the things my family and I had been through, and to research much of it with my brother and some of our relatives who had an understanding of our family history.
Patch: What was your father like? What do you remember?
Montandon: My father was a very kind man. He was a religious man. He believed in his faith, and a lot of what I talk about [in the book] is how that brought him to understand himself better.
He was very well-versed in the Bible and lived the way he believed was right. He taught his family the way he believed was the best way to live. He believed in the Golden Rule and was always for the underdog.
A week or so before he went into a coma, I asked him, 'Dad are you going to make it OK?' And he looked at me, just smiled and said 'I will make it with God’s help.' So even on his deathbed he was content that he had positioned himself in the right way during his lifetime.
He was never prejudicial, never nasty to anyone and he always gave people the benefit of the doubt. That’s what I really wanted to get across in the book as well.
Patch: What’s your favorite part of the book?
Montandon: In 1986 I gave my father and mother a tape recorder and some blank tapes and I asked them to sit down whenever they had a moment and make recordings about their life, their families and backgrounds.
They spent a considerable amount of time doing this. Mostly it was my father who loved to tell his stories. Over the next three years before he passed away, he and my mother recorded over 27 hours of conversation. Some of those conversations are verbatim in the book in my father’s words, just as he said them. He had the Texas drawl and slang of a man born in 1907, and I put those in the book exactly as he recorded them. For me, those are the favorite parts of the book because they reflect exactly the way he was and the way he thought.
Patch: When you sat down to begin writing, how did you start? What was the writing process like since this was your first book?
Montandon: I own a trade magazine publishing company, so I’ve done some writing but it was always business or technical writing. I knew that I could write, so I sat down and just started making as many notes as possible about everything I could remember. I really started with notes about first learning that my father had AIDS, and then I covered all the time after that until the time that he died.
When I decided I really wanted to create a book, I felt it was important not to just talk about that grim incident but to talk about my father and his character and what I felt about him and how he impacted me personally. I went back as far as I could possibly remember and began to make notes from when I was a little boy, what I remembered about my father, myself, my mother, and how my father taught all of us about life and about his perspective on life and dealing with other people and situations.
So it was really just a collection of notes to begin with, and I ended up with about three or four books-worth of material. I took all that copy and started filtering it down into what I determined was the most logical first manuscript. I then turned the manuscript over to a developmental editor who gave me some valuable direction and advice.
Patch: What did you learn about writing during this process?
Montandon: I learned that I could write pretty well, and that I could actually complete a book. It confirmed for me that I have a great deal of patience and the will to finish a project. That was something taught to me by my mother. She was very much that way: 'Never start something you don’t plan to finish.'
I think the biggest thing that I learned is how important people were in my life along the way, not just my parents, but other people who influenced my life in many interesting and valuable ways, both in my career and in personal choices. I never want to lose track of the fact that good people can be so influential in your life.
I also learned how much I didn’t know, and how much I’d learned during this process. I had not realized how the environment in which I grew up in Texas, was biased toward minorities and others who were not like us. It was just the era, the location, and the old stereotypes and prejudices that children grew up with. Despite the positive influence of my parents who didn't want my brother or me to adopt any of those prejudicial ways that we were exposed to, it was, nonetheless quite pervasive.
I was in high school when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and we integrated our small school, which was a huge deal for everybody. At that time, when those few black students came into our school, I realized that the world was about to change forever. It really hit me hard, what was happening, and I started learning that you can’t stick to old ways; that you have to change and grow beyond what you are.
Patch: What do you wish for the audience to take away from this book?
Montandon: I want them to know the story of how people can grow and overcome prejudice, and it’s not just about ethnic bias or sexual bias or whatever it might be, it’s also about many other unstated prejudices that people have that, often, they don’t even know they have.
I would also encourage people whose parents are living to love them as much as they possibly can, to involve them in their lives as much as they possibly can, and if they can, get their parents to provide some video and audio for their children and survivors. I would also encourage anyone who feels compelled to write a memoir to not be afraid to get started, and to be honest and open about your story.
Patch: Were you afraid to tell this story about your father?
Montandon: I wasn’t afraid. I thought about it a lot before I started, and the more I thought about it I realized this is what it is, and if I’m going to be truthful about it, I need to tell it the way I believe it happened and the way I perceived it. I am finding it very interesting that most people who have read the book, even those people I grew up with, say, 'I don’t know if I could have told this story the way you did because you’ve been so honest and open about it.'
Book-lovers can learn more about "By His Own Blood" on the novel's website.