Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father
“. . . Alysia Abbott gives us the gift of her father’s story, his poetry, his passion . . .”
The premise behind Alysia Abbott’s new memoir, Fairyland, looms large: a gay man and single parent, Ms. Abbott’s father, poet and essayist Steve Abbott, follows his dream and moves with his daughter to the San Francisco of the 1970s. And the reader’s imagination conjures Cockettes, the Castro, Mrs. Madrigal, beads, feathers, and lots and lots of tie-dye, Hippie Hill, Haight Ashbury, and the Grateful Dead. (It turns out that Steve Abbott and his daughter lived in the witch-hatted Victorian just to the right of the band in the famous photograph taken on that iconic intersection.)
The memoir itself it turns out is far more dour.
And as a result it is richer, deeper, and more moving.
Although Steve Abbott ultimately became a gay activist of sorts and especially championed gay voices in poetry and although his daughter, as the cover copy promises, was taken to “raucous parties,” was pushed “in front of the microphone at poetry readings,” and was privy to a world of “artists, thinker, and writers,” it turns out that neither was completely comfortable with the father’s sexuality, his skills as a parent, or the full spectrum of sexual situations that San Francisco had on offer.
As author Alysia Abbott puts it:
“I didn’t meet any children of gay parents until I was an adult. And among these ‘queerspawn,’ as some have chosen to call themselves, I’ve felt a powerful bond, especially around that peculiar feeling, something like loneliness but more akin to isolation. In those first decades after Stonewall, our families had no way to connect, to make sense of ourselves and where we belonged. We had no Provincetown family week, no openly gay celebrities like Ellen or Dan Savage, no Modern Family. We saw no versions of our parents in books or on screens. And so we considered ourselves outside the social fabric, cut off from ‘the normal.’ As kids, we often existed in a state of uneasiness, a little too gay for the straight world and a little too straight for the gay world.
“To grow up the child of a gay parent in the seventies and eighties was to live with secrets. For me, there was the secret of Dad’s boyfriends, whom I kept hidden from friends, teachers, and family, who maybe knew or suspected Dad was gay but didn’t want to know details. There were the pastels of naked strangers I found in the backs of Dad’s hardcore sketchbooks where I doodled my own landscapes. Who were these men? I wondered. What happened with them? And there was Dad’s poetry and prose, which so often depicted the struggles of openly gay men and what those men did together.
“My father never asked me to keep quiet about his sexual orientation. He himself was as proud to march in parades as he was to write and publicly read his gay-themed poems. But I couldn’t yet share that pride.”
In writing her memoir, Ms. Abbott is in a way completing her father’s own oeuvre. In working her way through the journals, letters, published, and unpublished works that served, along with her own memories, as source material for the book, she came across this shard of inspiration, which opens her book:
“Get idea for a novel called ‘The Gypsy Man’s Daughter’ about Alysia. Begins on my death bed—she remembers back how it was growing up with me, about my boyfriends—diaries, etc. come in. flash forwards & backwards.”
As Alysia Abbott concludes her prologue:
“My father wrote this entry in his daily journal in 1975, two years after my mother died leaving him the single father of a needy toddler. Seventeen years later, I would sit by his bedside as he died. Thirty-five years later, I am finally telling this story, a story he envisioned, but in my own way.”
Her “own way” turns out to be a full-bodied, down right Proustian recreation of a place and time, with full freight of memory intact—a conversation in which both viewpoints are fully and most satisfyingly represented.
That Ms. Abbott had her father’s own words to draw upon certainly adds traction to the work. But it is Alysia Abbott’s voice that is the more melodic of the two, the one that draws us in and bids us listen. And the fact that her gift for writing is equaled by her incredible candor raises this work far above the myriad memoirs that at any given moment seem to threaten to choke the marketplace.
Part of the reason for this is that the author so skillfully allows the complexities of her childhood—the mystery of her mother’s sudden death, the turmoil caused by her father’s dual motivations to live his life in an unfettered manner, fully exploring his sexuality, while still dedicating himself to the role of parent—to remain complicated, to acknowledge the messiness of their lives as well as the vividness of the colors that memory evokes.
Thus, the book is neither a paternal variation of Auntie Mame nor in any way Daddy Dearest.
It is instead as honest and loving as assessment of a father/daughter relationship as has ever made it onto a printed page. And the writing itself is glorious, evocative, at times hypnotic:
“When I was a girl, the sun was always shining in Golden Gate Park. Entering the park seemed otherworldly. I knew well the papery, banana-shaped eucalyptus leaves and tiny acorns that littered our path. We walked down a hill to a murky pond framed with fern trees and pointy bushes. I imagined it was inhabited by a lady of the lake who’d only reveal herself after the sun went down and we’d left the park. After the pond we’d descend into a tunnel designed to resemble a cave: brown painted walls toothed with sculpted stalactites. The home of a wayward dragon. Past the cave, the path spilled into an emerald field where towering eucalyptus and pine trees cast long shadows.
“To the right of the field was Hippie Hill. Music was always playing; there was a drum circle, maracas, and someone dancing, limbs flailing loose and free. Dad, Eddie, and I would lie on the grass among the clusters of wanderers. In the 1970s, to be aimless, even homeless, was still considered more a philosophical choice than a product of economic destitution.”
Potential readers would do well to remember that the 1970s yielded to the 1980s, and the hippies handed the Haight over to skinheads and punks. And as the author puts it AIDS took such a toll on the community that many threw away their phone books because so few numbers in them still rang on the other end.
Ms. Abbott paints as clear and vivid a portrait of the 1980s in San Francisco (and New York City, and Paris, to boot) as she does the earlier era. She recreates a time in which the President of the United States shamefully refused to acknowledge the crisis at hand, a time in which a particular medical diagnosis equaled a death sentence.
And this story, this reality, is sadly her father’s own. The author’s recreation of her father’s final days reads as deeply felt today as it was all those years ago:
“I took my father’s left hand in mine, and stared. I could only look at his hands, because the rest of him was unrecognizable. I knew those cigarette-stained fingertips, and pressed them to my lips. There was hair on his wrist, which seemed to have crept down from his arm. Little blue veins formed a road map leading to each of his fingers and thumb. These hands were soft as silk. I thought they might melt in the heat of my palm.”
In the pages of Fairyland, Alysia Abbott gives us the gift of her father’s story, his poetry, his passion—the story of their intertwined lives. It is for many reasons an important work (a history of the gay community, a consideration of the dreams that artists dream, an exploration of the “queerspawn” experience)—particularly for the skillful and loving manner in which Ms. Abbott brings her father to life once more through the merger of his words with her own, and for the truth the author is willing to reveal.