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Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father Hardcover – June 3, 2013
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*Starred Review* The child of quintessentially 1960s parents, Abbott lost her mother to a car accident when she was only two. Determined to raise her, Steve Abbott took her along to San Francisco. There, he sparely supported her through the many moves consequent upon his bohemian lifestyle as a newly out homosexual and a writer-editor determined to make his mark on S.F.’s poetry scene. At last they settled into a one-bedroom place (she got the real bedroom, while the living room doubled as his) in the Haight-Ashbury district that she would call home for 17 years, until Steve’s death from AIDS in 1992. She resumed the life she’d started in New York and never returned. But no repudiation of her father and the unconventional circumstances in which he raised her was involved in her decision to relocate. She never doubted his love because he never gave her cause; he was a devoted, even doting parent despite his very open gayness. She has maintained his reputation for two decades now (see steveabbott.org), and she writes up to a standard that would do any writer-parent proud. If there’s plenty of emotion in her recollections, they lack all sentimentality, sensationalism, and special pleading. Like Ira Wagler’s Growing Up Amish (2011), a tale of another radically different, unusual upbringing, Fairyland is written in shiningly clear, precise prose that gives it literary as well as testimonial distinction. --Ray Olson
“Fairyland is [a] daughter's compassionate, clear-eyed reckoning with [the] truths that defined her singular girlhood at the dawn of the gay liberation movement.”
- Alexandra Styron, New York Times Book Review
“In Alysia Abbott’s gorgeous account of her 1980s San Francisco childhood, a whimsical gay poet becomes an intelligent father, his motherless daughter a forceful and articulate young woman, and a rich, dizzy fairyland is shuttered by a plague. As a chronicle of the moment when the San Francisco of Armistad Maupin became the city of Harvey Milk, when gay and experimental poetry flourished in California, Fairyland is vivid and indelible. As the portrait of a conspiracy of love between a father and a daughter, it is heartrending, a brilliant addition to the literature of American memoir.”
- Honor Moore, Author of The Bishop’s Daughter
“The striking photo on the cover of Fairyland looks like it could have been taken one hundred years ago. It gives a sense of the otherworldly childhood that Abbott recounts in this memoir about growing up with her openly gay, single father in San Francisco in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. The memoir doubles as a portrait of a city and a community at a crucial point in history. Her memoir is funny, strange, and sweet― she remembers playing dress-up with her father's flamboyant friends, learning about sex and gender without a mother, being immersed in art and creativity and, finally, watching as the AIDS epidemic decimated the life she knew.”
- New Yorker
“A vivid, sensitively written account of a complex but always loving relationship. This is not only a painfully honest autobiography but also a tribute to old-fashioned bohemian values in a world that is increasingly conformist and materialistic. I couldn't put it down!”
- Edmund White, author of A Boy's Own Story
“Generous, precise, and deeply moving, Fairyland is a love story that not only brings a new generational perspective to a history we’re in danger of forgetting, but irrevocably shifts the way we think about family itself.”
- Alison Bechdel, author of Are You My Mother?
“At once a father-daughter love story, a testament to survival, a meditation on profound loss, and a searing chronicle of a complex coming of age, Fairyland is a beautiful, haunting book that instructs, even as it breaks our hearts.”
- Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion: A Memoir
“Clear-eyed and heartrending, Fairyland captures a singular time and place in American history. It also captures something much more important: what it means to be truly loved―and to love truly. A beautiful book.”
- Andrew McCarthy, author of The Longest Way Home
“Insightful and well-crafted, this book is useful both as a memoir and as a historical portrait of one of America's oldest gay communities.”
- Library Journal
“Alysia beautifully remembers the innocence of the age between the disappearance of the Beats and the onset of AIDS.”
- San Francisco Chronicle
“As a chronicle of American culture, Abbott's story matters.”
- Boston Globe
“Starred review. She writes up to a standard that would do any writer-parent proud. If there's plenty of emotion in her recollections, they lack all sentimentality, sensationalism, and special pleading. Like Ira Wagner's, Growing Up Amish (2011), a tale of another radically different, unusual upbringing, Fairyland is written in shiningly clear, precise prose that gives it literary as well as testimonial distinction.”
“What makes this story especially successful is the meticulous way the author uses letters and her father’s cartoons and journals to reconstruct the world she and her father inhabited. As she depicts the dynamics of a unique, occasionally fraught, gay parent–straight child relationship, Abbott offers unforgettable glimpses into a community that has since left an indelible mark on both the literary and social histories of one of America’s most colorful cities. A sympathetic and deeply moving story.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“Beautifully written… a powerful portrait of a love between a father and his daughter, but also of San Francisco in the 1970s and ‘80s and the power of community, art, and love in the face of discrimination and death.”
- Kasia Hopkins, News Gazette
- Jeff Calder, Chicago Tribune
“I love the book Fairyland; it's a sweet and unique love story.”
- Sofia Coppola
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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.
Alysia Abbott was two years old when her mother was killed in a car accident. Her parents had a rather unorthodox relationship (it was the early 1970s, after all)—her father was bisexual and dated men while he and her mother were together, while her mother also dated other men, including a suicidal patient she counseled as a psychologist.
After her mother's death, Alysia and her father, Steve, moved to San Francisco, where he fully immersed himself in the gay culture of the city. A poet, writer, and activist, Steve was determined to find his place in the literary world and, most importantly, find a man to share his life with. And while he was committed to ensuring Alysia had a good life and was cared for, as many parents can understand, sometimes his responsibilities as a father didn't necessarily dovetail with his own wants and desires.
"If he was sometimes a failure as a parent, he was always a noble failure. He tried to do what he thought was best even if he didn't always know what 'best' was or how to achieve it."
Fairyland is a complex and poignant tribute. Using her father's letters, journal entries, and other writings, combined with her own recollections, Alysia Abbott tells the story of an emotional, unshakeable bond, but one which was difficult at times to maintain. As she grew up, Alysia wanted a "normal" life more than anything—even in San Francisco, she knew no other children being raised by a single gay parent. She was forced to hide her father's sexuality from her maternal grandparents, but she chose to hide it from school friends and others, preferring to tell peers that her father was so consumed by grief over her mother's death that he couldn't handle another relationship.
More than anything, Alysia resented having to share her father with his literary pursuits and his search for a romantic relationship, and Steve resented Alysia's lack of respect for his needs and her treatment of his potential boyfriends. At times, the burden of fatherhood overwhelmed him.
"My father expressed resentment because I asked him to fix me breakfast when, at age four, I was 'perfectly capable of doing it alone.' Maybe Dad couldn't understand my needs because our life was populated by so many needy wanderers like himself, young people escaping bad homes and bad marriages, all searching for their true selves and open to anything that might further that quest."
Alysia didn't remember when her father told her he was HIV-positive, but she never truly accepted that diagnosis, which in the 1980s proved to be a death sentence for most people. She never dealt with the idea that one day her father would grow so ill that he'd need her to care for him, that one day he'd die. As Fairyland chronicled the decline of Steve's health and his growing dependency on Alysia, it was truly accurate in the range of emotions that family members go through when their loved one is dying.
The book doesn't paint an altogether rosy picture of Alysia and Steve's life together. Alysia is fairly honest in depicting her flaws and how they affected her relationship with her father—she was often selfish, demanding, and resentful of others who tried to become part of Steve's life. It's clear it's taken her many years to come to terms with some of her feelings about her father. At the same time, Steve's journal entries clearly delineate his own struggles with fatherhood and how he sometimes wished he didn't have to care for his daughter himself. I found myself sympathizing with both people at different times throughout the book.
I really enjoyed this. It was beautifully written and while it is emotionally moving, it isn't maudlin, which it certainly could have been. It's also evocative in its depiction of how the early days of the AIDS crisis affected the gay community in San Francisco. I feel grateful that Alysia Abbott was willing to share her father and their life with us.
"Dad could always make me feel better when the world outside made me feel strange. Dad was the one who loved me best of all."