on September 12, 2013
I moved to San Francisco right out of college in 1989, and was raised in the shadow of it, an hour down the peninsula in San Jose. The City (capital C, of course) was, by the time I was moving in, consumed by an AIDS crisis that was killing young men in the low hundreds every single month. I lived in the Haight-Ashbury, just blocks from where "FAIRYLAND"'s author Alysia Abbott grew up with her gay poet/writer father, Steve Abbott - and where she was caring for him as he died from AIDS as well. It was a weird time. San Francisco is such a gay city, and AIDS activists and organizations and marches and hospice care fundraisers were everywhere at that time. The documentary film "We Were Here", which is excellent, tells the story very well. As a non-gay male whose main and almost exclusive interests in the early 90s were rocknroll, record collecting and starting my work career, I found the AIDS crisis both easy to ignore and impossible to get away from. I wanted to read Abbott's book to get a better sense of her San Francisco, the one I lived in or near for much of the same time, and at the same age (early 20s) - but also because her memoir of growing up in a loose, ever-shifting sort of bohemia with her dad sounded like a terrific ride. It was.
"FAIRYLAND" is a memoir that I recommend to anyone unconditionally. Primarily, Abbott tells an excellent chronological tale of her girlhood, teenage years and young adulthood in a non-maudlin, often self-effacing and extremely loving manner toward her father, who raised her on a wing and a prayer all by himself. Her parents were educated and radical grad student activists and hippies in Atlanta who married young, lived fast and, in her mother's case, died very young. They married despite her knowledge that her husband-to-be was bisexual and, as it turned out, later to be exclusively gay. In fact, Steve Abbott was radicalized by Stonewall in 1969, so we're talking about someone who was "out and proud" very early, to his credit. Alysia Abbott writes very well, piecing together her father's recollections and journal entries, of her young mother's struggles with her new husband's boyfriends and about the almost monthly personal growth she was undergoing from 60s wild child to somewhat responsible mother.
That said, Alysia Abbott pulls no punches throughout this book on the shortcomings of her parents, and more importantly, those of herself. The pain she feels even writing about her teenage selfishness and her naive/fearful neglect of her lonely and eventually dying father, without her even having to say it, is obviously immense, and she reprints letters that she wrote him that must have been painful to re-read 20 years later, let alone share with the world. It's also clear that she was, on the whole, a wonderful and loving daughter, and the true light of her dad's too-short life. Steve Abbott is painted as a complex but exceptionally good-hearted man, one who was sure of his sexuality and creative calling as a poet/artist/bohemian, yet who struggled with feelings of self-worth and with loneliness. You wonder, as Alysia does, what their life might have been like had her mother Barbara lived. Would it have even been together? Not likely - but it is possible it would have made for a different, but equally good book.
The dissonance of being a gay man raising a daughter in free-swinging, liberated 70s and early 80s San Francisco must have been a minefield. Alysia Abbott writes of how jarring it was for her, simultaneously embracing her father's friends and lifestyle while often yearning for the quote-unquote normal childhoods she saw on TV and that she observed in her friends. Think, though, of Steve Abbott's uniqueness as a gay dad, back in a time when no one had a gay dad that they lived with. Marriages would instantly dissolve when one parent came out as gay in the 70s, and the children would almost always be placed with the straight parent. This was not an option in the Abbott household, nor would either of them ever wished for any alternative but the one they were given. Steve Abbott often found himself on the periphery of the gay community, wanting to be more active, to date more, to go out more - and yet wholly devoted to raising his daughter in the best ways he knew how.
The memoir also does a terrific job recounting young Alysia's humorous experiences with many San Francisco-centric touchstones: the poetry readings and internecine warfare amongst the literary set; "The Quake", the new wave/Rock of the 80s station that we both listened to in the Men Without Hats era; the gay scene in the Castro and at Café Flore; and the dawn of grunge in the Haight, with gutter punks, skinheads and street kids and late nights at the I-Beam and Nightbreak. That I myself was very much present for. I even drove past her old place at 545 Ashbury the other day while in the midst of reading the book, to get a better frame of reference for her San Francisco - wow. Regardless of her father's sexuality and their life circumstances, there's little doubt that her childhood would have had major and significant differences from mine in the safety and comfort of suburban Sacramento and San Jose.
It's touching and powerful when you realize toward the middle of the book that the "differently-parented" Alysia Abbott writing the book did not have to go through a crucible of drug use, depression and inner pain to write a memoir as powerful as she did. In fact, she seems to have turned out just great. She benefited from summers-long stints at her grandparents on her mother's side's house in Illinois, which provided her with a more conventional worldview to balance out her otherwise very unconventional youth. She was placed into a first-rate private French school, one that is still there now. Finally, Alysia Abbott had her father, who - cliché as it may be for me to write - helped shape her into the person and the writer that she is today. Her book ends with Steve Abbott's inevitable and exceptionally sad death, though she does not milk it any more than is necessary to cleanly wrap up this coda in her tale, and ends the book with a short epilogue that ties the story into an elegy for the many, many men that were dying in horrible ways across San Francisco in the 80s and 90s - when many of us were looking the other way. It's a powerful piece of writing, and a terrific memoir that succeeds on just about every level.
on June 3, 2013
"Fairyland" is a charming and compelling memoir that combines vivid portraits of a neglected aspect of the `70's San Francisco cultural scene and of a girl forging an identity from of loving chaos.
Alysia Abbott's father, Steve, was an influential poet, editor and organizer whose reputation today is overshadowed by better-known friends like Gregory Corso. Her daughter brings him to light amid kaleidoscopic descriptions of the Haight, the kindness of a host of relative strangers and the growing menace of the AIDS plague.
Literary offspring's memoirs can be mere interruptions in account s of the lives we're really interested in.
Not so here. The author's own story is fascinating. Unsparingly, Ms. Abbott details the myths she created (dad turned gay because mom was killed) and the detachment she needed (pursuing Paris amour as Steve's t-cell counts dropped) to survive in a lonely sea of Swanson's fried chicken dinners.
She writes beautifully. Here's a glimpse of her very young self with her father and one of his early lovers. "The three of us stayed in Golden Gate Park as long as the day would have us. When the light faded and the air cooled we began the long walk home together. The leaves of the eucalyptus trees shimmered in the early evening light, looking like rust-colored sequins."
Ms. Abbott's essays and selections from her father's poems and novels are available on [...]/ and [...]. "Fairyland" makes us eager to read more of those and of Steve Abbott's seminal, neglected work.
on May 30, 2013
I really enjoyed this well written memoir by the age 40-something daughter of an openly gay father growing up in the tumultuous 70s and 80s in san francisco. I was born in the same year as the author's father and I have 2 sons about the same age as the author. I also spent my university and graduate school years in california, near san francisco. But if I were to write a memoir of my life, there would be virtually no overlap with the father's life style, parenting or emotions. So this book opened my eyes to a slice of life so near and yet so far from what I know. Fascinating. Drugs, bisexuality, homosexuality, self-indulgence, openness with a child beyond anything I could imagine---all this described with poetry and not sensationalism or depression, through the eyes of a beautiful and lonely soul who continued to adore her father despite painful moments, many of them, culminating with her father's death after he summons his 22-year-old daughter back to san francisco to care for him in his final weeks dying of aids. I was left torn open emotionally but inspired by the book which must have been so cathartic to the author in its writing.
I must also say that the book's cover is wonderful both before and after you read the memoir--the father and his brave daughter dressed up for a night out in fairyland.
on April 12, 2015
In April 2015, the book discussion group at The LGBT Center in NYC discussed this memoir. The group was slightly mixed.
A few of the readers didn't care for this book. They thought that while it starts out well, it drags and turns into a "then we did this, then we did that" kind of story. (This was also a complaint with the Tim Dlugos poetry: too much of it was made up of "and then... and then... and then..." kinds of descriptions. Maybe there's something about this period....) Near the end of the memoir, however, something interesting happens as Alysia's father acknowledges his HIV+ status and they deal with AIDS diagnosis.
I somewhat liked the book. I liked the time period, the daily details, the craziness of Steve Abbott, the story of a young girl on her own in a gay world, and the feeling of San Francisco during multiple crises (Anita Bryant rears her ugly helmet-hair-sprayed head, Jim Jones and the People's Temple drink the Cool-Aid, Dan White kills Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, earthquakes threaten the city, hard drugs become prevalent, and then AIDS arrives).
Everyone agreed that the powerful final chapters are among the best in the book, largely because of Steve Abbott's writing, which is heavily quoted.
Alysia is never fully comfortable with her own feelings or her gay father, regularly denying his sexuality to others. But somehow she becomes an upstanding little girl. "Like a good trompe l'oeil, I could effectively mimic the manners and posture that were expected of me." Dad is also clueless at times how to raise a daughter in the gay environment in which he happily surrounds them both. But as he pursues low-income poetry and creative writing opportunities, he also struggles with office jobs and drugs before he eventually sobers up and studies Buddhism.
Alysia, in the meantime, leads a slightly charmed life as she attends the ritzy French American Bilingual School (with support from Mom's family), wanders around a pre-AIDS San Francisco, discovers New Wave music with new friends, moves to NYC with an established part-time child-sitting job with a friendly family, unhappily attends NYU, and studies in France.
Unfortunately Alysia focuses too heavily only on her father and so she largely remains a mystery. (Her mother, had she lived, may also have been a story -- using drugs, having an affair with one of her mental health patients, experimenting in bisexuality, and assuming only mixed responsibility for her daughter -- but this goes unexamined.) Alysia hints that she might be anorectic, but it's never explored. She seems to complain about her dad's constant outside interests, but because of his loose hands-off approach to parenting she develops internal resources and seems to turn out OK. She quotes too heavily from her dad's journals late in the book, revealing his thoughts about himself and his daughter, but without any serious analysis.
The book is enjoyable because it tells a story about a non-traditional family in a unique time and place. Alysia includes a bibliography of non-fiction books that can help illuminate the events around her life. "Fairyland" is a good way to learn about a slice of modern history without getting bogged down in details. It shines a light on a rather outrageous family and shows a little of how we got to be queer today.
on February 14, 2016
Sitting here, merely minutes after finishing Fairyland, I fail to find adequate words to describe the incredibly moving experience that is Alysia Abbot's memoir.
This is a story that can really be anything: a daugther growing up in a single parent home, what it is like to lose a parent, a brief exposé of San Francisco in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, or a tragic account of a time when AIDS was crippling America. Regardless of the reader may relate to the story, Alysia Abbot conquers difficult personal content with incredibly effective, beautiful, and often heartbreaking prose.
Although definitely gay non-fiction, the story will be easily engaging for almost all. Ms. Abbot shares the experience of a single parent childhood just as much as detailing her loss of her father to AIDS. Just as effectively captured are the beautiful, poignant memories of San Francisco in a time of such important cultural revolution.
I confess that I bought Fairyland on whim. Drawn by it's obvious tragic ending, I am left so confusingly and surprisingly heartbroken. Alysia Abott effectively delivers such an intimate account of her life and I'm left so content in the grace that every word, every quirk, and every passage has between these covers.