Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, by Alysia Abbott
“The truth is,” Alysia Abbott writes in her debut memoir, Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, “I did want to be my dad’s poem. I wanted to be his drawing, his novella, his most refined work of art. I wanted him to shape me with his love and intelligence. I wanted him to edit out my mistakes and many indulgences, with a sharp red pencil or a clean eraser.”
It’s a perspective that defines the author’s early view of the father she saw as magical, powerful, and invincible. Raised motherless by a young, talented, and emotionally vulnerable man—the artist, poet, editor, and activist Steven Abbott—the young Alysia eventually comes to see her father in a clearer light. What’s striking about this memoir is the accountability to which Alysia holds herself. Though always loved, she didn’t always receive sufficient care. At four years old, for example, she’s left alone one night when Steve goes to a writer’s group; at seven, she takes a bus to a strange part of town and is soon lost. Yet she never portrays herself as a victim of her father’s failures, and instead tends to shed light on her own transgressions. The clear-eyed account and equitable tone keeps the narrative both generous and engaging—and produces a memoir that reads both as a document of the time and a personal account of a daughter’s “mistakes,” ones for which she feels culpable—judging her father for his appearance and behavior and feeling ashamed because he is gay.
That emotional stance, together with the facts of the story, make the book impossible to put down. As a boy growing up in Nebraska, Steve Abbott never came out to his parents, and meeting Alysia’s mother in 1968 at an SDS event, the two shared an immediate attraction. Four months into the marriage, inspired by the Stonewall Riots, Steve spent the next two years actively working for Atlanta’s Gay Liberation Front, “all the while sharing a life and a bed with his wife.” Tragically, Barbara would die in car accident when Alysia was three years old.
By the time Alysia turned four, in 1975, she and her father had moved to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, and in this new setting, we see Alysia parented by her struggling father. It’s not exactly a child-centered environment:
Roommates (queer or otherwise) weren’t simply a way for my dad to save money on housing:they were a source of free child care. On any given night Dad would ask Johnny or Paulette to watch me so he and and Ed could go out dancing in one of many bars that were swelling with excitement in post-Stonewall San Francisco….
It’s impossible not to feel a sense of worry for the girl left at home with strangers, or sometimes alone, and this tension drives the account’s early years. A motherless girl, like a fatherless son, is vulnerable in a particular and tender way, and Abbott clearly shows their mix of difficulty and freedom.
Ours was a defiantly motherless world. Sometimes we were like Huck and Jim, beyond law, beyond rules, eating with our hands. We were unkempt but happy, with Dad affectionately calling me his “Wild Child.” Other times, we were like Tatum and Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon, a traveling father-daughter act pulling schemes, subsisting on our charm, and always sticking together.
There’s an appealing pluck in Abbott’s stance, but Fairyland has a weightier story to tell. The memoir moves beyond the father-daughter experience to the onset of the AIDS epidemic that overtook San Francisco in the late seventies and eighties. For children of gay parents, the epidemic added a tragic turn to an already-confusing identity:
…among these ‘queerspawn,’ as some have chosen to call themselves, I’ve felt a powerful bond….We had no Provincetown family week, no openly gay celebrities like Ellen or Dan savage, no Modern Family. As kids, we often existed in a state of uneasiness, a little too gay for the straight world and little too straight for the gay world.”
As a writer and an artist, Steve Abbott left a body of work that included journalistic and literary pieces, as well as drawings, many of which were made for Alysia. Throughout the book, Abbott relies on her father’s letters, notes and journals, and in recounting events that followed his first symptoms in 1989, Steve Abbott’s voice adds further shading to the portrait:
I don’t ‘have’ AIDS yet and am supposed to get on drugs that will fight the advance of the virus soon. Realistically I could stay fairly healthy for another five to ten years — or one or two…So please don’t get so upset you hyperventilate my dear. No need for that. But I want to be honest with you about how things are & not “in denial” ignoring reality and pretending things are always perfect if they’re not.
Between 1978 and 1993, Steve Abbott published eight books of poetry, essays, and fiction. He died of complications from AIDS in 1992. The Boston Globe noted that Fairyland is “a chronicle of American culture [and] Abbott’s story matters.” The period was both unique, and tragic, and is captured in Abbott’s candid observations and wistful tone—reminiscent of the finality and loss, and of era that is gone, but must be remembered.
I lived in San Francisco during the seventies and eighties, and Abbott’s portrayal brought that time back. The punk clothing stores, the head shops, the runaways who sat in front of boarded-up storefronts on Haight Street begging for change. The Summer of Love was gone by then and a darker current had taken its place. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted, Abbott, “beautifully remembers the innocence of the age between the disappearance of the Beats and the onset of AIDS.”
Together with the writer Whitney Joiner, Alysia Abbott has founded The Recollectors, an online community and storytelling forum dedicated to remembering parents lost to AIDS and the children they left behind. You can learn more here.