I enjoyed Alysia Abbott’s memoir of growing up with an openly gay father in 1970s and 80s San Francisco, racing through it in a couple of evenings. But I didn’t like it as much as some people I know. Can’t say for sure how it will stay with me, but I’m guessing most of it will vanish as thoroughly as the sometimes gritty, sometimes gossamer world it depicts.
Steve Abbott met Barbara Binder when both were graduate students in Atlanta in the late 60s. His declaration of his bisexuality didn’t get in the way of their relationship, at least not at first. They married and soon had a daughter, Alysia. In a complicated story of which the young Abbott knew almost nothing, Barbara, perhaps pushed by Steve’s regular relationships with other men, entered into a relationship of her own. Her lover, Wolf, is a suicidal, drug-addicted patient she had treated in her job as a social worker. He is arrested in Michigan trying to run drugs across the border; when the charges are dropped, Barbara hurries to get him. On the way back to Atlanta they are in a terrible car accident. Barbara dies instantly. Alysia is three.
Father and daughter move to San Francisco, where they eke out a precarious, semi-nomadic existence as Steve struggles to succeed as a writer. Alysia’s grandparents help out, taking the girl for summers to their home in the mid-west and paying tuition for a private school. (Hers is a story of only partial, yet still real deprivation.) Steve begins to publish and makes his name as an editor and activist in the burgeoning gay community.
As the 70s become the 80s more and more of his friends become sick. Abbott’s ordinary story of teenage rebellion is complicated by the advent of AIDS, especially when her father is diagnosed as HIV positive. By the time she goes to college in New York he has full blown AIDS; eventually he asks Abbott to return home to nurse him. Abbott’s ambivalence about this request—which means putting the life she has painstakingly carved out for herself on hold—make up the central dilemma of the last part of the book. Most interesting is the way Abbott delays the moment of reckoning, how for years she ignores the severity of her father’s situation, even complaining, in a letter she reproduces in the book, about how his recitation of illnesses is getting her down.
Abbott makes good use of her father’s journals and the many letters they wrote to each other. (Side note: I’m old enough to experience today’s instant, omnipresent communication as a loss. I remember when long-distance phone calls were expensive and rationed, and letter writing was common. Those letters were exciting. You could revisit them in different lights and moods. I guess future memoirists will consult their emails or texts or something, but it’s hard for me to see how that ephemera will persist. I’m also jealous of Abbott: I’ve only ever received a handful of letters from my father.) Abbott is also willing to show herself in an unflattering light. Her college-age narcissism isn’t unusual, but it’s made more vexing, more compelling because it masks her fears for her father’s heath.
Yet Abbott’s self-presentation is disappointingly detached, almost affectless. That could be a function of the denial that characterized her response to the illness. But the effect is to keep readers from fully engaging with her story. This flatness infects Abbott’s prose, too. Her sentences tend to be baldly declarative, syntactically and conceptually simple even when Abbott is engaging in self-reflection. Through a combination of inability or preoccupation or refusal of bourgeois norms, Steve Abott was sometimes a neglectful father, failing, for example, to instruct her in certain ways of social being. Her school friend Niki took up the burden, advising her to start wearing deodorant, reprimanding her when she blithely finishes someone else’s leftovers in a restaurant. Abbott writes: “Though I didn’t exactly see what the big deal was, I suspected Niki was right, and I felt overcome with that familiar feeling of confused shame.” She adds, in the only sentences that reflect on that complicated emotion (“confused shame”),“Why was it still so difficult to contain my weirdness, to hide my dirt and mask my scent? These are painful memories to revisit, even now.” So painful, it seems, that the equivalence between weirdness, on the one hand, and dirt and scent, on the other, that is, the desire of someone who has led a non-normative life to efface not just her distinctiveness but her very self is simply posed as a question and then dropped. Here pain precludes analysis.
Similarly underdeveloped is the opening anecdote, in which the five-year-old Abbott, the only child at a party her father has taken her to (she is often the only child), is left alone in the pool. She is entranced y the water (“I’ve uncovered a secret pathway to a magic pace, a mermaid sea”) but doesn’t know how to swim. Before long she is splashing frantically in the water. Someone notices and alerts her father, who pulls her out. Abbott’s commentary reads, in full:
My father notes this day in his journal with the headline “Alysia’s Swimming Accident,’ and beneath it a small scribbled drawing showing my arm flailing above wavy water. When I later find the journal entry, I smile with delight.
It’s unclear how much later this later is, but at least the final sentence has the virtue of being surprising. That’s not how I expected Abbott to respond—I expected her to say something like, “I can’t believe what a narrow escape that was, and how causally my father turned it into anecdote.” Is she so happy simply to be noticed by her father that she doesn’t care? Or was the moment not really that traumatic? (It’s certainly set up that way.) Why even begin with this story? Is it that, for Abbott and her father, at least, experience had to be recorded to become real? Perhaps the strangest thing about this moment is how idyllically it’s figured—disaster is averted, recrimination avoided. But then Abbott adds that she didn’t learn how to swim until she was in college, “a source of secret shame.” And there’s that shame again, running through the book like a livid thread, always unexplored.
Like her father’s poems, liberally included in the text, which are of primarily historical interest regarding both the gay scene in pre- and early-AIDS era San Francisco, and the Abbotts’ father-daughter relationship, Abbott’s book has more historical than intrinsic interest. Fascinating, for example, to see how much more casually people understood parenting in the 70s. That’s true even when we set aside Abbott’s father’s Bohemianism. For example, from the age of three onwards Abbott travels alone to spend summers with her grandparents. Her father coaches her to say she is four, since that’s the minimum age to fly as an unaccompanied minor. What amazed me was not her father’s little subterfuge but the airlines’ policy. I can’t imagine sending my daughter on a plane by herself next year. Yes, I realize this doesn’t necessarily reflect well either on me or on today’s culture of extreme, immersive parenting.
Where the book did hit home for me was in prompting these sorts of considerations of my own parenting. What kept me reading was its portrait of an intense father-daughter relationship to which I brought all my own complicated and overflowing feelings about being a father to a daughter. I was moved almost to tears by Steve Abbott’s evident love for his daughter, even though or perhaps because that love was sometimes so clumsily expressed. It says something about me (beyond the mere fact of me being a man, I mean) that I identified more strongly with him that with his daughter, the narrator of the story. Yet at the same time, I was surprised that the book didn’t distance my identification by presenting her father’s parenting as in any way distinctively queer. (In fact, I don’t think the book ever uses the word “queer” until the last line of the epilogue.) For all the ways Abbott records the strangely simultaneously loving and dismissive upbringing she received from the gay community she grew up in, she seldom considers what this has meant to her. She tells us what it was like to learn that she needed to dissemble about her father’s sexuality, before later embracing it, then reacting against it, then simply taking it as a given. But she doesn’t think about what queerness could bring to our understanding of family; indeed at the end of the book she casually announces that she realizes she never gave her father’s boyfriends a chance because they could never replace her mother, a surprising avowal of what I can only awkwardly call heteronormativity.
But maybe what I’m reacting to in Abbott’s writing is in fact a success not a weakness. Maybe what I’ve read as flat is in fact dispassionate, a sign of her ability to present a turbulent and unusual past evenhandedly. That’s a genuine accomplishment of the book. But I’m still disappointed in the lack of reflection on the part of the adult Abbot in relation to her childhood and adolescent sense. She rarely reflects on the past from the position of the present: I can understand wanting to keep her present life private, and I realize that the Fairyland of the title is a vanished world, such that part of the point of the book is to portray it as sealed off. Not everything needs to be Proust (though even as I write that I don’t think I really believe it), but this absence of a change in register between child and adult voices, or of a switch in temporal position makes the book less analytical, thinner somehow. Evenhandedness too easily shades into monotony.
It’s probably not fair, they’re not the same kind of book, and it’s not as though we have so many stories about gay parents that I should be pitting one against the other, but I couldn’t help comparing Fairyland to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, her remarkable comic about coming to terms with the untimely death of her closeted bisexual father. Fairyland comes off badly in this comparison, Bechdel’s prose (to say nothing of her drawings) so smart and funny and poignant, her book so much richer than Abbott’s. Fun Home is a book I’ve read and re-read, and taught, and pressed into other people’s hands. I don’t think I’ll do any of those things with Fairyland even as I have affection for the father who imperfectly did what he could with a child he always loved and admiration for the child who chronicles that love so even-temperedly.