Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, by Alysia Abbott
Unconventional upbringing: Alysia Abbott with her father, Steve
Fairyland is many things. It is a document of social history, a record of perhaps the last true wave of bohemianism in the United States and of the Aids epidemic that hastened its end. It’s a modern drama of child turned caregiver. It’s a moving personal tale of an unusual father-daughter relationship: “Sometimes we were like Huck and Jim, beyond law, beyond rules, eating with our hands. We were unkempt but happy . . . a travelling father-daughter act pulling schemes, subsisting on our charms, and always sticking together.”
And it is the record of a childhood that reads now like some kind of experiment in child-rearing, an upbringing that might be set against a control of conventionality – of, say, two heterosexual parents; of consistent bedtimes and stable incomes; of organised play dates and firm boundaries. (No discussing the nature of testicles with your father’s lover while he bathes.)
Steve Abbott met Barbara, his future wife, when they were graduate students at Emory University, in Atlanta, in 1968. He was a conscientious objector pursuing a master’s in English literature; she was a self-declared Marxist, studying psychology. He told her he was bisexual. Barbara was intrigued. They married the following year, and in 1970 Barbara gave birth to Alysia. But between the drug use and the lovers on both sides, the marriage was in a bad state by the time Barbara was killed, with her lover, in a car crash when Alysia was two.
Within a year Steve had moved with his daughter to Haight-Ashbury, in San Francisco, arriving just as the Castro and the Haight were emerging as social, political and commercial centres of gay life. There Steve would create himself as a poet, essayist, editor, novelist, cartoonist and activist, while raising Alysia on his own.
His parenting style wasn’t completely accidental. Like many of his generation, he believed that “the rules of family needed to be shattered and rewritten”. Alysia’s childhood revolved around art and the imagination, around poetry readings and fluid identities. “When Eddie Body and Dad were tripping on drugs and dressed in drag I came up and said, ‘You can be a boy or you can be a girl, you can be whatever you want to be.’ ” (Steve eventually quit drinking and drugs and became a devout Buddhist, thereby driving his teenage daughter crazy in other ways – with Narcotics Anonymous slogans and failed attempts to get her to meditate with him.) The striking photograph of the two of them on the memoir’s cover is from one of Steve’s books, and gives an indication of the kind of strange magic in which their lives were steeped.
But life was also a struggle. Money was always short, and love, though not sex, was hard to find. Though Steve had friends and a circle of fellow artists – which included Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs and Sam D’Allesandro – he never managed to find long-term companionship, and the loneliness hung heavy.
Alysia felt isolated too. In the days before Modern Family and listservs and gay celebrity parents, kids in her situation “existed in a state of uneasiness, a little too gay for the straight world and little too straight for the gay world”.
But it was less her father’s orientation or lifestyle that troubled her – “As a small child I had no problem accepting Dad, in all his beautiful queerness” – and more the inevitable pressure to conform. As she reached school age she craved acceptance as much as any child, and her father’s sexuality came to represent something that would expose her to ridicule and rejection.
Onset of Aids
In her teens Alysia found her world. She had her favourite cafes in the Haight, her own circle of friends. Meanwhile, she kept the knowledge of her father’s HIV at bay. Though he had twice tested positive for the Aids virus before she left for college, and though San Francisco was in the midst of an epidemic – by 1985 nearly half the gay men in the city were infected – she has no recollection of the moment she actually learned that he was HIV-positive.
It was only after she left home, first to attend New York University, then to Paris for a study-abroad year, that she and her father began to discuss his health. They wrote almost daily. No longer looking to each other as the cause of or solution to their respective problems, they now simply bore “loving witness” to each other’s lives. The letters read like the flowering of a love affair, all the more heart-rending because we know, and she knows, that Steve is sick.
That summer he came to Paris, bearing the grim message of his own imminent death: he now had full-blown Aids. He told his daughter that she should graduate early from NYU and move home to care for him. She did – with a mix of resentment, love and a sense of the inevitable.
Steve died in 1992, and as the years passed Alysia began to feel as if the life they had shared existed only in her mind, a disconnect that intensified when, in the mid-1990s, protease inhibitors changed Aids from a death sentence into a manageable disease, and “a cultural amnesia” about the epidemic set in.
The memoir is an act of reconstruction and tribute, drawing on Steve’s journals and letters, and providing a moving account of a singular if tumultuous affection, and a profound loyalty. Alysia sees much to question in her father’s manner of raising her, and she doesn’t gloss over the misjudgments. But, more importantly, “I see everywhere evidence of love . . . If he was sometimes a failure as a parent, he was always a noble failure. He tried to do what he thought was best even if he didn’t always know what ‘best’ was or how to achieve it.”
Molly McCloskey is the author of the memoir “Circles Around the Sun: In Search of Lost Brother”, published by Penguin