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Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton & Company) by Alysia Abbott manages to pick up the nearly moribund genre of the AIDS memoir, give it a good dusting off, and then send it back out into the world with something like a fighting chance. She does this in part by bringing a fresh perspective: Abbott is not a gay man writing about a dying lover, as in Paul Monnett’s Borrowed Time or Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. Abbott is instead a straight woman writing about her father, the West Coast poet, novelist, essayist, and editor Steve Abbott. But to whatever extent one can strictly call Fairyland an AIDS memoir–it’s a lot more–the book has more in common with Borrowed Time and Heaven’s Coast than you might think. Here are some of the reasons.
When Alysia Abbott was only three, her mother died in a car accident. Alysia was then raised by her father who chose, with what seems like a great deal of love and only a few qualms, not to turn her over to his dead wife’s sister. He took Alysia everywhere–to readings, to parties, and to early post-Stonewall pride parades. Though she was too young to understand much of the proceedings, she sat next to Steve while he interviewed Robert Duncan. Steve Abbott also drew pictures of Alysia. She became a character in his comic strips. He wrote poems about her, and she even appears with Steve in the artful cover photograph of his excellent poetry collection, Stretching the Agape Bra. “I loved it,” Abbott writes.
And yet, completely reliant upon her young father, always longing for a mother, the child Alysia loved Steve with the love and possessiveness that a lover might feel for a beloved. “Since I was a precocious child and dad was a childish adult, in some ways we were equals.” Conflict naturally ensued. The more Steve Abbott gave himself over to writing and to pursuing gay-only relationships, the more challenges he and the growing Alysia faced. “I used to think that because my mom had died, Dad was obliged to make up for her absence,” she confesses. “I did want to be my dad’s poem.”
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.
Unfortunately, he was often fast and loose in authoring me, many times just improving on the page. He didn’t have the time. He was tired. He was lonely. He was too wrapped up in his own dramas, his own failed romances and career struggles, to manage this “already challenged” teenage girl.
Thus we wince to think how the poor woman must have felt after Steve died of AIDS and she came across this passage in his diary:
I fit in neither with the gay nor straight community because of Alysia and because of my attitudes, which are not click-ish nor faddish.
Our wince is all the more pronounced because we know from reading Fairyland that at the time Steve Abbot wrote this, Alysia was struggling to fit in with the more “normal” middle-class girls at the private French-American school Steve chose to send her to, all the while keeping her father’s boyfriends, his drug use and later his recovery from drug use, and his nonconformist ways secret.
In a world that might have been liberated in many ways, but that was still very homophobic, Alysia internalized a sense of persecution, a sense of guilt by association. And yet, thanks in many ways to her father and to the communities that surrounded her, Alysia didn’t do badly for herself. Reaching college age, she went off to New York City, where she attended NYU. She lived some of the time in Paris, where she worked and eventually wound up in her first live-in relationship with a boyfriend, “the life of une femme,” as she puts it. It is Alysia’s time to shine, Alysia’s time to live. But then back in San Francisco, Steve becomes more and more symptomatic and father and daughter fall into the vicious cycle of love, conflict and denial in all ways that only a child and a parent can.
Indeed, the best part of Fairyland, besides its beginning, is its end. In the former, Abbott often describes her love for her father in a rich, poetry-tinged language filled with vivid details and wonderful insights; in the latter half of the book, she is painstakingly spare and brutally honest about what she calls her sometimes “callow” behavior toward the dying Steve. She quotes more and more liberally from their father–daughter correspondence, as well as from Steve’s diaries, giving Fairyland a kind of rich, often epistolary memoir-within-a-memoir feeling.
Unfortunately, some of Fairyland can be more workmanlike, mainly telling us what happened and then what happened next. It’s a good thing, though, that Alysia Abbott is smart and responsible enough to provide us throughout this memoir with an abundance of well-researched American history. Her sources include titles like The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk and Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco, research she overlays with very real examples culled from her own very real life with Steve.
One more thing: the only crucial insight the longing-for-normal Abbott frustratingly never seems to make in Fairyland, or at least she doesn’t make clearly enough, is that straight people who live in the suburbs, people like her mother’s parents, whom she visited every summer, make child-rearing mistakes too. In fact, her own mother, while married to Steve, engaged in a lot of rather serious drug use herself. And as jealousy reared its ugly head in her marriage to an openly bisexual bohemian man trying to make his living on his drawing and cartoons, Alysia’s mother took up with a mental patient at a facility where she worked. (The patient was in fact with her when she died.) But maybe Abbott’s failure to connect all these dots fully has something to do with polarized times she’s been steeped in. Having grown up feeling different and gay by association because she and her father were bohemians, she seems at points in Fairlyland to want to swing, pendulum-like, the other way. Indeed, once, when Steve Abbot visited her in Paris and Alysia asked him what he thought of her French boyfriend, Steve replied, “Bourgeois. You’re both much more bourgeois than I was in my twenties. But I’m okay with that.”
Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father
By Alysia Abbott
W.W. Norton & Company
Hardcover, 9780393082524, 352 pp.