Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father
W.W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by Sally Hessney
Alysia Abbott’s memoir, Fairyland, is a loving tribute to her poet-activist father, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1992. Steve Abbott was a poet, novelist, essayist, editor, columnist, cartoonist, and teacher. He worked tirelessly to enrich the literary scene in the Bay Area, showing unflagging dedication when it came to building and nurturing a community of writers in San Francisco. He served as co-editor of Poetry Flash, a West Coast periodical that encouraged intellectual discourse on literary movements. Later, he launched SOUP, a literary magazine that showcased the works of gay and lesbian writers, minority writers, and transgressive writers. In 1981, he helped organize the historic Left/Write conference to foster dialogue among warring camps of writers. Acclaimed writers and artists gathered around his wooden spool table for dinner and drinks. He met the leading literary lights of the day including Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. In addition to his published works, Steve Abbott left behind a cache of journals, letters, and cartoons, all of which his daughter drew upon to write Fairyland.
Alysia Abbott grew up in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the 1970s and ’80s, raised by an openly gay single father. She chronicles a childhood filled with poetry readings, potluck dinners, Gay Pride parades, and games of hide-and-go-seek in Golden Gate Park. However, Fairyland is not a panegyric to a romanticized version of the author’s childhood. Instead, it is a heartrendingly honest portrayal of a deeply loving yet complex father-daughter relationship. As Abbott entered adolescence, she was increasingly at loggerheads with her father over his sexual orientation. She was embarrassed by his homosexuality and hid it from everyone she knew. She writes, “To grow up the child of a gay parent in the seventies and eighties was to live with secrets.” As a single parent, Steve Abbott was frustrated in his attempts to find someone to love. He longed for a committed, long-term relationship with a gay partner but resigned himself to one-night stands with feckless young men who pinched their things. Alysia Abbott fantasized about having a mother and craved the stability she associated with the two-parent households she saw on television’s Eight Is Enough or The Brady Bunch. He cultivated a bohemian lifestyle and wore his poverty as a badge of honor. She wanted nothing more than to fit in at school, writing “…our ratty apartment and car, and my shabby, ill-fitting clothing, became a liability, another way I stood apart.” In spite of the inherent hardships, Steve Abbott was determined to raise his child on his own after the death of his wife albeit in an unconventional way. Fairyland makes the national debate on gay families seem academic.
In the 1980s, San Francisco suffered a body blow from an unnamed disease that claimed the lives of a disproportionately large number of its citizens. While the number of Americans with AIDS skyrocketed during the eighties, San Francisco was the first city to experience epidemic levels of the disease. Steve Abbott tested positive for HIV in 1986, but his daughter admits she cannot remember the moment when she learned he was sick. With unflinching honesty, she confesses her first instinct was to shrink from the responsibility of taking care of him in the final stages of his illness. Fairyland is a eulogy to all of the friends, neighbors, and acquaintances who dropped out of sight and then died as the result of a disease President Ronald Reagan refused to publicly acknowledge until 1987. The book is a paean to an extraordinary city at the forefront of far-reaching cultural and political changes combined with an intimate portrait of an iconic neighborhood that has changed since the seventies and eighties due to the calamitous effects of AIDS as well as the inexorable march of time. Fairyland provides a deeply personal and painful perspective on the history of AIDS in America. Above all, though, Alysia Abbott’s eminently readable memoir celebrates the life of Steve Abbott—father and trailblazing poet—with both affection and unblinking candor.
Sally Hessney is a program assistant at a nonprofit organization, where one of the educational missions is to educate teenagers about the dangers of binge drinking, prescription drug abuse, distracted driving, STDs, and other consequential issues.