Cannonball Read V: Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott
Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father caught my eye because I thought it was about fairy tale faeries. Then I learned it was about THE GAYS!!! and read the blurb and decided it sounded interesting. I didn’t know anything about Alysia Abbott or her father Steve and was interested to learn more about growing up in the heart of the gay scene in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s. I like memoirs because it’s interesting to see what you have in common with a person and how you relate to them even if their story is completely different than yours.
Alysia Abbott’s story is extra completely different than mine, but of course I still found lots to relate to. After her father died, she read through his massive collection of journals and created a beautiful work. This is her story, but she has her father’s words to fill in parts she doesn’t remember, as well as being able to get his side of the story for what she does remember. It feels like the two of them are writing the book together, and it’s beautiful.
Alysia’s parents (Steve and Barbara) met in 1968 at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Steve told Barbara he was bisexual, and she thought it was great. The two of them moved in together and later decided to get married so they could furnish the apartment with wedding gifts and get cash from her parents. They continued their open relationship, and Steve found that he was empowered by having a wife. He could be openly gay and people were sort of OK with it because clearly he liked women enough to marry and have sex with one. And Barbara wasn’t bothered by the boyfriends, even if friends thought she was crazy.
Barbara gets pregnant with Alysia and wants the baby while Steve is panicked and doesn’t think it’s a good idea. By this time in their relationship Barbara was jealous of Steve’s younger boyfriend and was going to have the baby with or without him around. She does, and by the time Alysia is three, Barbara is in a relationship with a drug addict named Wolf. She begins using heavily, and Steve slowly finds himself as the only safe caretaker for his daughter. Wolf is arrested out of state, Barbara goes to bail him out, and on the way home she is killed in a car accident.
Steve is suddenly completely alone with a toddler. He doesn’t fit in with his in-laws, and his boyfriend has left him, unable to deal with the seriousness of the situation. Less than a year after Barbara’s death, Steve packs the car and drives to San Francisco to build a life for himself and his daughter.
Once he gets to San Francisco, he is fully out as a gay man. He already did come out while in Atlanta, but now he felt fully free to be who he was and to be able to work creatively in his own world. He was part of the gay art scene and in places created it. He was a writer and an artist and he surrounded himself with creative people. The Castro was coming into power, and Harvey Milk was starting his campaigns. It was where Steve needed to be.
But he also needed to be a father, and he struggled with this constantly. He wanted to be a better person, to be healthy and clean and calm so he could be the best father for Alysia, but he was also lonely and wanted someone to love him. It’s heartbreaking to read the longing in his own words, wanting desperately for someone to share his life with him and Alysia. He seems to be constantly falling in love, but over and over he picks young men who aren’t interested in relationships and especially aren’t interested in becoming a father. He sees himself as a mentor to these young men and surrounds himself with other artists, hoping to guide them and help them find their own voices. As an editor and creator of his own magazine, he does help them. He goes on to run workshops and weekend retreats and poetry readings and much more with other artists, many of them gay, but the whole time he’s searching and longing for a partner. I wanted him to find someone his own age who maybe had similar experiences, but that wasn’t the scene in the Castro District. He was surrounded by young men, even referring to them as boys sometimes. These were the men who he was falling in love with, and it wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard he tried.
Alysia also struggles with this. She isn’t like anyone her age. She doesn’t have a mother, which is challenging enough, but she also has to keep her dad’s sexuality a secret. She’s already tormented at school and knows if her classmates find out about her dad, the results will be cruel and immediate. There aren’t parenting groups at this time, and she feels completely isolated. She doesn’t know any kids with gay parents. She doesn’t know other kids who are brought to poetry readings or left home alone while their father goes out clubbing, hoping to bring a man home with him.
She knows from her peers that being gay is being gross. She internalizes this and when bad things happen, it’s because she’s gross. If something breaks, it’s her fault. She doesn’t deserve nice things because she isn’t nice inside because even though she’s not gay, her father is. She is lonely and confused.
Again, Steve’s journals have moments that feel like a kick in the stomach. He wants so much to be a good father, but he also wants to be fulfilled as a person. Like any parent, there are times he wants to walk away from being Dad so he can just be him and have his own needs met. He’s completely honest in his journals and having Alysia share her memories partnered with her father’s words and drawings, it’s at times brutal. Their life would have been a challenge under the best of circumstances after Barbara died, and they did not have the best of circumstances.
I related a lot to teenage Alysia. She is embarrassed by her dad, as all teenagers are, while still worrying that people are going to know he’s gay. She goes through her own rebellion, and the two of them fight constantly. He’s never approached their relationship as an authoritarian. To him, it’s always been a partnership, and he realizes he can’t tell her to come home early when there are some nights when he doesn’t come home at all. At this point he is sober and practicing daily meditation to keep himself healthy and has to trust that while Alysia experiments, she won’t let it get out of control.
While this normal teenage girl stuff is happening, Alysia is also watching the morality movement try and destroy what little rights the gay community has. She sees people on TV telling the country that her father and friends are sinners and deserve to be targets of violence and discrimination. Men are being attacked in their own neighborhoods by teenagers coming in to look for fags.
It’s interesting to read someone’s story knowing where and when they lived it.
Their house in Ashbury can be seen in this picture of the Grateful Dead. It’s the pointy one to the right of the sign. For most of us, this a place where people go to have their picture taken, not a place where people grew up, especially not straight girls. I was really caught by this. I connected to Alysia’s story and struggles, but at the same time it was like reading a political history. These streets are where much of the gay rights movement started, and it’s jarring to also remember that parents were raising their kids in the same place. There are certain areas that I think of in terms of importance, and it’s easy to forget that while great things happen, people are there living their lives. I’m sure other readers would think I’m weird for not connecting humans to iconic places.
As Alysia gets older she falls into the familiar pattern of not wanting to be defined as a daughter while at the same time refusing to let her parent be anything but a father. While she leaves home as a young adult, she wants to be her own person, but she struggles with the idea that her dad isn’t always a dad.
And then he gets sick.
Alysia leaves San Francisco for a few years to go to school, at one point leaving the country to live in France. When she returns, things are different. The beautiful young men who filled the coffee shops and bookstores are now bundled up in sweaters and knit caps, their faces gaunt and bruised. There’s also a lot less of them. Places that used to be filled with fun and laughter are quiet, and when she asks around to try and find familiar faces she learns again and again that these vibrant young men have wasted away until they’ve died, their bodies shutting down from complications due to full-blown AIDS.
She watches her community, her father’s people, struggling to care for each other. The country again turns on them, and politicians call for laws to brand infected men with tattoos to keep the rest of the country safe. All the while Alysia prays and prays that her father won’t get AIDS. Somehow it will skip him.
When he does get sick, she is in denial of what is happening. She honestly doesn’t even remember him telling her or the first time she said it out loud to someone else. He’s sick, then he’s really sick, then he’s dying. It happens fast.
I connected to this strongly, because I could understand the different levels of horrible. Alysia is a young woman and wants her own life. She wants to be able to completely leave home and be her own person. She also wants a dad who doesn’t need a daughter to help him die. She resents being the caretaker. She finds herself yelling at him to shut up when he’s in an uncontrollable coughing fit. Where once her father resented having to care for her, she now resents having to care for him. I haven’t experienced this, but I could see each side so clearly. The guilt and the resentment. Having to be both the daughter and the adult. She’s not even twenty two years old.
Her home isn’t home anymore. The streets are different. The faces of people she knows are different. There are far too many empty places. Soon she will be without a father. This part of the book hit hard, and it moved fast. Alysia did a masterful job of matching the pace of the AIDS epidemic in her book, although I don’t know if it was intentional. The language felt like it was creeping in. There are a few hints here and there that something is happening. Then suddenly it’s obvious, and it’s too late to do anything. And then it’s in Alysia’s life and becomes her reality. She is twenty two and both her parents are gone. Again, I think of the pictures of young men sick in bed with lesions, surrounded by their male friends. I’ve never thought about daughters. Parents and siblings, yes, but not about children.
Her father wanted a complete and full life and didn’t ever quite find it. Even parts of his creative community turned on him when AIDS was first happening. People he wrote and published with were now publishing works of their own about the gay cancer and how it was their own fault that they were dying. Alysia couldn’t read about the epidemic in an unattached, curious way. These were her people as well, even if she didn’t feel like she was part of the story.
Like I said at the start of this review, Alysia Abbott’s story is extra completely different than mine, but I was able to relate and connect with her. I’m not sure why this book caught my eye. I’m guessing I saw a review somewhere, and the title pulled me in. I’m glad it did because this is an important story. It can be read simply as a story, but it represents much more than that. It’s the universal story of growing up, but like Alysia says in the Epilogue, “This queer history is my queer history. This queer history is our queer history.”
My two major complaints for this book are simple. One, I kept losing track of how old Alysia was. Every once in awhile she’d refer to her age, but not often. There were years listed at times, but for me it wasn’t enough to keep track in my head. I didn’t know if she was in first grade or fifth. I couldn’t remember how long they had been in the Castro. I wasn’t sure how old her friends were.
The second complaint is unforgivable. Steve Abbot was an artist and some of his drawings are included in the book. Many are printed so small that they are almost completely unreadable. I imagine Alysia Abbot chose the illustrations to include and many of them are referenced in her writing, but the way they are printed in the book, it’s a waste of ink. It really pissed me off. I cringe to think what it will be like in the smaller paperback version. There is no reason they weren’t enlarged or broken up over two pages. I found it insulting that they tried to cram his work into a smaller space.
Overlooking these two things, I’m really glad I picked this up. It wasn’t a quick read at all, but it was worth every page.
This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read 5. Read all about it, and watch for info about Cannonball Read SIX on the group blog, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter. For more of pyrajane’s reviews, check out her blog, pyrajane.
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)