Hunter S. Thompson’s Son: 'Alcohol Just Started To Break His Body Down'

By Victoria Kim 01/08/16

Juan Thompson describes his father's softer side in new memoir.

Hunter S. Thompson
Wiki Commons

There was a different side to Hunter S. Thompson other than the hard-drinking drug enthusiast who was unknown to the world until now. His only son, Juan Thompson, a 51-year-old IT healthcare worker, knew him as a loving father who shared his love of guns and took him on motorcycle rides. Juan describes growing up with Hunter in a new memoir, 10 years after his father committed suicide.

Over the years, his father made a “caricature” of himself through his partying and drug use, but Juan emphasized that there was a lot more to the counterculture icon. “The biggest misconception is that Hunter was a party animal, that what he was about was getting fucked up on whatever and just having a good time and flouting societal rules, not for any real purpose beyond breaking the rules,” Juan told the Daily Mail. There are those who have read his books and have a proper appreciation for his work, he said, but are also "a lot of people who don’t know that much about him and they see this caricature which he helped to create. This image of him as a clown—an interesting clown—but a clown.”

Hunter shot himself to death in 2005, while Juan, his wife Jennifer and their son Will were in the other room. He was 67. Juan describes his father as “an alcoholic and drug fiend, a wild, angry, passionate, sometimes dangerous, charismatic, unpredictable, irresponsible, idealistic, sensitive man with a powerful and deeply rooted sense of justice.” He recalls his father’s process, which “seemed to be, at least what I remember, always at the last-minute and incredibly stressful. He put off major deadlines, he passed the deadlines.”

Hunter and Juan’s mother Sandy led a life of unconventional parenting, which involved bringing him while he was still an infant to a party thrown by Ken Kesey and attended by the Hells Angels, a situation that Juan says “violates all my notions of safe and responsible parenting.” Hunter had an explosive temper at times, especially leading up to his divorce with Sandy. But he was a good father anyway, Juan recalls. He sent Juan, who was 13 at the time, to go sailing in the Bahamas with his friend Jimmy Buffett (who wasn’t a big name yet) to get away from the drama.

He also wasn’t keen on the thought of his son getting into drug experimentation. In the memoir, Juan recalls “hearing that someone once asked Hunter at a lecture how he would react if he found out his son had taken acid. He responded, ‘I’d beat the shit out of him.’ I did not talk to Hunter about my drug use then or in fact ever. And he never asked. He didn’t want to know.”

As a college student, Juan confronted his father about his drinking problem. He had found Adult Children of Alcoholics to better understand his father. He then wrote a letter to Hunter, telling him he was an alcoholic and that he would no longer be a part of his addiction. His father seemed annoyed by the letter, but stopped asking Juan to get him beer or ice for his whiskey from then on.

Juan was hesitant to go into detail about how alcohol affected his father’s health as he aged, but decided it was the right thing to do. “What really struck me about the alcohol was it wasn’t that he would drink and lose control and get violent or be the stereotype of a drunk,” he said. “He didn’t seem to ever get drunk. But the long-term effects over years and years of all that alcohol just started to break his body down. 

“Part of that was the incontinence and that was hard to write about because that was deeply embarrassing for him. Were he alive, I would never talk about that because it would be humiliating. But I decided that it was important for people to know how alcohol had really affected him in the long run. I think it really was one of the factors in his decision to kill himself. His body was breaking down and it was irreversible. It was really affecting his ability to be independent.” 

His biggest regret is losing his son’s grandfather. “I’m not angry at Hunter very often about his suicide,” said Juan. “I am angry, though, that he did not stay around for Will.”

Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson was released last Tuesday, Jan. 5.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr