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”.