Marco Roth / Zoe Panagopoulos & Natassja Schiel
Marco Roth spilled all in the February Riggio Forum for his book, The Scientists: A Family Romance. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) He spoke candidly about inspirations, hesitations, and the family drama surrounding his debut memoir.
During the mid-80s, when Roth was about 13 years old, his father confessed that he was diagnosed as HIV- positive. Roth’s father ran a clinic at Mount Sinai for sickle-cell anemia, and as the story went, he was accidentally infected with a needle while at work.
In the early 90s Roth’s aunt, Anne Roiphe, made allegations in her own memoir, 1185: Park Avenue (Touchstone, 2000), that Roth’s father’s HIV was contracted through homosexual activity. The suggestion ultimately led to the Roiphes disowning Roth’s immediate family; the name change from “Roiphe” to “Roth” reflects that familial break as well as a disassociation from religious orthodoxy.
According to Roth, he began the first draft of Scientists, “version 1A” when he was 26 years old and in graduate school. This initial counter-memoir was intended as a vengeful response to 1185 Park. It took a little over a decade for the book to find its current form, which has evolved into something much more than the vengeful response that Roth initially set out to write. In addition to homosexuality, the memoir discusses Roiphe and Roth’s father’s cushioned upbringing in their isolated world of the old posh Upper East Side of Manhattan—home to the now dead class of “culturally privileged” New Yorkers—not to be confused with the financially privileged, as he explained: “There are New Yorkers who are culturally privileged and New Yorkers who are extremely wealthy.” Although now a Philadelphia resident, Roth claims membership to the former group.
Naming the memoir was a feat, and the title changed often and drastically—roughly 150 times, Roth says. He initially titled the book Reverse Transcription in reference to the method used for mapping HIV in DNA. Roth explained further, Tthis book is the rewriting and insertion of something new.” Unfortunately Roth’s publisher thought this reference would be too obscure for readers to pick up on.
The motivation that really morphed Scientists into a well thought-out response rather than just an emotionally charged reaction was Roth’s desire to get to the “father [he] never had, not the AIDS patient [he] already knew. . . . It was carefully constructed rather than just blurted out.” When asked how he feels about having written such a personal book, he says he is “ashamed, but not guilty.”
Natassja Schiel is a singer/songwriter and storyteller.
Zoe Rivka Panagopoulos is a yoga instructor who writes lots of stuff. She is published in the most recent edition of 12th Street.