Hunter S. Thompson lived his life on the verge, surrounded by guns, booze and drugs, and people who never made it. But the gonzo persona was just one layer of a man who put writing before anything else. Now his son, Juan F. Thompson, is peeling back the myth of an icon who once famously said: never turn your back on fear.

Hunter S. Thompson lived his life on the verge, surrounded by guns, booze and drugs, and people who never made it. But the gonzo persona was just one layer of a man who put writing before anything else. Now his son, Juan F. Thompson, is peeling back the myth of an icon who once famously said: never turn your back on fear.

In February 20, 2005, Hunter S. Thompson took his own life via a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Aspen, Colorado. He was found slumped over his IBM Selectric typewriter. Sitting behind that machine was a daily routine for Hunter in all the years he lived there.

He would rise late in the afternoon and position himself; a Dunhill cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth; a glass of Chivas Regal whiskey topped up with a mini mountain of ice; a loaded handgun in the nearby drawer, just in case; the daily papers always close to hand in stacked piles; the television on showing a football or basketball game.

Behind him, on the refrigerator, was a permanent note stuck to the door that read, ‘Do not call 911. This means you!’ in Hunter’s handwriting. On this particular day, his son Juan F. Thompson was in the next room with his family. His son, Will, was seven at the time. They heard a thud, initially thinking it was the sound of a falling book from the shelf. It’s a moment Juan has captured in Stories I Tell Myself, an account of his times and relationship with his father – a relationship that was unconventional, painful and convoluted but also loving and embracing in its own idiosyncratic way.

Juan F Thompson

Juan F Thompson

Hunter was a man that spoke at the same pace as his books: rabid, frenzied, wild and hurtling forward with an unrelenting bark. Juan deals in slow, thoughtful and unravelling sentences, carefully constructing them with poise and delicacy. It’s a characteristic emblematic of what extremely oppositional personalities the pair have; speaking with Juan feels like a session with a therapist whereas his father, based on his portrayal in the book, would have been more likely to drive you to require one.

Today, the fifty-one-year-old lives in Colorado with his wife and son and spends his days in the IT department of a health insurance company. Over two-and-half hours, Juan plunges into the depths of his relationship with his father and the mythology that surrounded them, and how he came to put it all together in a story that has taken him ten years to tell.

Firstly, why did you want to write this book?
At the time [when I started it], what really motivated me was the media coverage of Hunter after his death. It focused on that gonzo persona and that really bothered me – it still does – because that was the least interesting aspect to Hunter and there’s a lot more to him than that as a writer and as a person. I wanted people to know that. I figured the best way to tell the story was not to write a biography but to describe the person that I knew and had gradually come to know. From the very beginning, I was not setting out to write the authoritative book on Hunter.

How aware was Hunter of this gonzo persona creeping over and potentially overshadowing his role as a writer?
I think he was aware of it and it did bother him. He was very serious about writing and had been since a teenager and the most meaningful recognition to him was, oddly, the established recognition from places like the New York Public Library. That meant far more to him than some college kids thinking that it’s cool that he had done so many drugs. Somebody asked in one of the book readings, ‘Is that how he really was?’ And it’s a hard question to answer because yes, to some extent. I mean he wasn’t a sober Republican at home or anything but he did do a lot of drugs. I think if I were able to ask him straight out he would say that he really would have preferred that the gonzo persona was not the dominant image people had of him.

Did you read many other books that exist on or around Hunter in preparation for your book? Such as biographies or something like The Joke’s Over by Ralph Steadman [artist and long-time illustrator of Hunter’s work]?
I didn’t. I didn’t want to pollute or mix up my memories or recollections with those of others. However I realised pretty quickly that other people’s memories are just as suspect as mine. I think now the book is done, I’d be keen to read Ralph’s take on things because he and Hunter had such a strange and complex friendship.

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I actually have a paragraph here that I was going to ask you about from Ralph’s book, if I could read it to you?
Please do…

“For everything that Hunter was not, as a father, Juan made up for in forgiveness, understanding and a cherished respect for Hunter’s obvious wayward frontier spirit. He never, in my company anyway, bitched or baulked or raged at a father who would have sent lesser sons into a protean brew of trouble-making resentment, a hell-king swine with a chip as big as the Rockies’ Great Divide. Juan had the birthright to slam back at everything and everyone and jam respectability and crony admiration back up the ass from whence it came. Instead, he has shown a gentle regard for all who know and love him. He displays a quiet charm, a generosity and amiability that fly in the face of what may be expected of a noble demon’s issue. He appears to have none of that arrogance and treats me as Uncle Ralph. I am honoured.”
[Silence]Oh my god… [Silence] Oh my god… [Silence] Wow. I’d not heard or seen that… [Silence] It’s very moving and very generous. It’s a funny thing reading Hunter’s correspondence with Ralph, a lot of it is downright abusive. Thank God that was never part of my relationship with Hunter or Ralph. I’ve stayed in touch with Ralph over the years and been to visit him several times; I just have nothing but great admiration for him as an artist, not just Hunter’s illustrator. I’m sure it’s a great frustration for him in just being referred to as Hunter’s illustrator. He’s a brilliant artist. He has a big heart and I just adore him. It’s extremely flattering to hear those words from Ralph. I would like to be worthy of them. Thank you for reading that to me, it was really something.

I couldn’t help but think of William S. Burroughs Jr. when reading your book. Your childhoods are somewhat comparable in being born to famous and hedonistic writers. Burroughs Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps entirely: embraced the drugs, booze and writing and wound up dead at thirty-three. Were you aware of him or other similar instances of people wanting to emulate such lifestyle choices? And did this play into your decision to go the other way into a straighter life?
Not at the time. When I was a kid, I didn’t know any other way. I think that’s how it is with anyone: you can grow up in the weirdest of circumstances and you don’t know any different so you just accept it. As a teenager, I didn’t really think about my relationship as the son of a famous person. There was an internal conflict about wanting to emulate my dad and in other ways wanting to be completely different. The anger, the rage, the financial insecurity, the drugs and the drinking and the craziness – I really rejected it and realised I did not want to be like that at all. Thank God it didn’t ever appeal to me to try and emulate that gonzo persona. I think if I had done that, Hunter would have just been horrified and intervened.

Because he would have lost a degree of respect for you in not being an individual? Or because, as someone who had lived that life, he would not recommend it?
Both. I think one thing that some fans of Hunter miss is that while he was most certainly an individualist, a ‘reject convention and go your own way’ sort of guy, he wasn’t advocating booze and drugs. He would have advised me to make my own path. Secondly, he had seen enough in his lifetime to witness the wreckage of the people around him in the ’60s and ’70s. Hunter was a bizarre story in that he was successful despite all the drugs and booze, but there were a lot of people who did not make it and they died or their lives imploded.

Did the drugs and the booze help feed the work or just feed the man so he could work?
My opinion is that drinking and drugs did not make him a better writer. That’s a talent that he had early on and a talent he worked very hard to develop. His skill and talent as a writer did not come out of drugs. They may have played a role in helping him find his voice initially, to loosen him up, but I don’t think it was important to help him continue to do that. I think it was dependency, especially in the case of booze – he was an alcoholic, he had to drink.

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If he were to stop drinking, he would have been very uncomfortable. Why he never wanted to stop drinking, I don’t know. He didn’t drink to get drunk, though; I never saw him drunk in a conventional sense, like slurring or staggering or anything. He drank because his body needed the alcohol, same with cocaine – that was a maintenance thing. Other drugs, like LSD and stuff, I think that was for fun. Personally I think that over time the alcohol and the cocaine undermined his ability to write.

Not only did it not help him but I think that eventually it led to him not being able to write at all. He didn’t have the concentration and he had the effects of long-term alcohol abuse in that it affects the memory and the brain, even down to his ability to walk properly. The irony of it is that drugs and booze ended up undermining what was most important to him, which was writing.

As time went on and he got older, did that shift?
Did booze and drugs become the number one priority? In practical terms, I would say that booze and drugs became the priority, not that it was a conscious choice but just in terms of where the money went. If it was a question of paying the mortgage or the coke dealer, then the coke dealer got paid first. I think in terms of what was most important to him it was always writing. For Hunter, writing always came first. It came before family; it came before relationships, marriages. I don’t think it could have been any other way. He was just one of those guys who had an intense passion for writing – not just for writing but for wanting to be a great writer.

What was the hardest part about writing this book for you?
It was deciding to not protect Hunter. My initial inclination when I started the book was to focus on what was heroic about him – and I do think he had heroic qualities – but then as I continued to revise the book and get more distance from his death, it became less important to me to present him in a positive way to offset that gonzo persona and just to be honest about the person that I knew. One of the bits of detail that was a difficult decision was talking about the effects of alcoholism on his body in the last few years of his life and [how] one of the impacts was incontinence.

That was humiliating for him and I thought many times throughout the book, ‘Would Hunter want me to include this? How would he feel about it?’ And one thing that came to me was that he would say ‘Be honest’. So I went ahead and included it. The big caveat to this is that I could not have published this book while he was alive. It would have been impossible for me to make some of those decisions.

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You don’t express anger in the book over his suicide.
I was not angry. A lot of people have said over the years that that is something they couldn’t forgive him for: killing himself while we were there. I was sad but I didn’t feel angry because I feel I know why he did it and it made sense. There was no way he was going to die in a hospital or a nursing home. His recent marriage was in bad shape so she [Anita] wasn’t going to be around to take care of him. It kind of made sense. Why would he stay around and be so unhappy? Then on top of that, it made sense that he would go out on the terms he lived [being surrounded by guns]. When I asked Will, my son, recently how he felt about being in the house when Hunter killed himself, he said that it wasn’t something he was angry about.

You speak in the book about how one of the things you would do for Hunter is clean his guns and that you cleaned the gun he used to take his life the night before. Was that his way of including you in his sort of death plan, do you feel?
Thank God Hunter didn’t give any hint about what his intentions were because I would have been intolerable. At the time, I just felt like I was cleaning the gun and obviously he knew what he was planning to do with it. There’s so much I don’t know for certain but I think it was deliberate; he knew which gun he was going to use. In a strange kind of way, it was important to him that I clean the gun in like a ritual, even though I wasn’t aware of my role in it. I choose to believe that his decision to kill himself while we were there was deliberate as well. That he wanted me to be the person who found him and deal with the fallout and that the appropriate people were called and his body was dealt with respectfully. Again, there were no instructions or suicide note but he was so deliberate in everything he did, I really don’t think it was incidental.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of living under the huge shadow that is Hunter S. Thompson?
Certainly one of the things has been the curiosity of people about Hunter and the expectation that I will be a certain way or a certain kind of person by being his son. Another has been the role of writing in my life because it’s a very intimidating thing to consider practising the same craft as Hunter, who was so successful and well known for it. Writing this book has forced me to acknowledge that writing really is important to me and I need to stop denying that. I guess the final thing has been dealing with the legal fallout after he died. That’s not been a lot of fun

Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson is published by Knopf.

This article originally appeared in Huck 55 – The Freaked Out Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop now or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue. 

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