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Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s long awaited memoir The End of San Francisco (City Lights) will rip you open; crack your rib-cage and pour glitter into your heart. It’s hard and captivating, a book that truly pulls you in and won’t let you go. Brutal and brilliant, the memoir weaves in and out of time, bringing readers into the intimate details of Sycamore’s adolescence and early activist days. Never defaulting to tidy recounts, cleaned with the passage of time, Sycamore invites readers to share in the complexities of growing up and finding yourself. Sycamore doesn’t shy away from pain, terror, or disappointment of young queer adulthood.
As the book unfolds Sycamore introduces a host of people: lovers, and friends–the sorts of people who become a “created” family. We watch as Sycamore tries to find herself in college, her rise to activism, and and ultimately finding her home in San Francisco. Sycamore eloquently presents the love, trust, and sometimes disappointment that comes from community. With precision storytelling, Sycamore shows what it takes to build community amongst broken queers, the ways in which lives can fit together, and how an activist’s life can veer from what they imagined. “We’d grown into this relationship that we thought meant always, but always was hard to manage when we hadn’t quite grown away from what we’d fled, childhood and everything we were supposed to be.” Sycamore writes with exacting detail on her struggles with her sexuality, non-normative relationships, and her place in the world.
Throughout the memoir are the graphic details of Sycamore’s father’s last days, the experience of visiting him, surrounded by manipulative and abusive family, and her confrontation with him about the years when he sexually molested her as a child. I have read many accounts of childhood sexual abuse, but nothing comes close to the way that Sycamore recounts her experiences—traveling in and out of time, at once a traumatized child and adult, forcing this man to face what he did to her.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Sycamore’s ability to capture queer adolescence and immortalize that reality onto the page without sanitizing the struggles. Sycamore manages to make sense of her past and create a place in a world that was often eager to constrain, limit, and define her.
The End of San Francisco is a time capsule into activist communities and in particular San Francisco queer activists in the 1990s. It is a world not so long ago, and yet lifetimes away from today’s gay and lesbian rights movement. We follow Sycamore’s journey to San Francisco to live a life of activism and liberation. We watch as she struggles to find a place amongst a queer community that rallied against normative gender binaries and traditional ideas of sexuality, but was unfortunately as restrictive in other ways as the ones they organized against. We witness the cost of sticking to ideals, the way we hurt one another trying to survive, and the magic that we can create amidst the pain. Most importantly, we learn how to survive the fallout when your expectations aren’t met, when the activists who were your comrades assimilate, and when the city you believed could save you is just as broken—different, but still every bit as broken—as the city you escaped from. There is no rose-colored revisionist memory here. Expertly, Sycamore tells not only the story of her past, but also gives a glimpse into the world of anyone who was ever young, idealistic, and too queer.
The End of San Francisco
By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
City Lights Publishers
Paperback, 9780872865723, 192 pp.