Over the past two decades, my love for National Public Radio has introduced me to some terrific authors. Now I can add another name to that list: Alysia Abbott.
A few months ago, I tuned in to my daily lunchtime treat, “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” and became riveted by the story of a single father raising his daughter. It’s not an uncommon situation, but Alysia was a rare creature: She was raised by an openly gay father in San Francisco in the ‘70s and ‘80s, decades that saw tremendous advances but also great tragedies for the gay and lesbian community.
Years later, when AIDS claimed Steve Abbott’s life, he left behind a sizeable body of work – poetry, novels, essays and, perhaps most important, letters and journals. Those letters and journals, deeply personal glimpses into his daily life, would provide the basis for Alysia Abbott’s “Fairyland: a Memoir of My Father.”
Her moving account of their life together is not simply a story of growing up with a gay father. It’s one of “otherness,” born of the absence of a maternal presence after her mother’s untimely death, of moving almost exclusively in the adult world of writers and activists as a child, of living an itinerant, poor, bohemian existence.
“Dad and I weren’t just odd, we were set apart,” she confesses. “As ridiculous and pretentious as this might sound, I sincerely believed and needed to believe that our position in bohemia was born of our separation and that the pain of our separation could be redeemed by our brand of bohemia.”
Like many parent-child relationships, theirs was a complex one. Alysia loved her father fiercely, but she alternately pushed him away and pulled him closer. Even during her father’s final days in hospice, she profoundly resented his neediness and dependence on her, yet, understandably, his death devastated her.
Through Alysia and Steve’s navigation of life and their relationship, the reader witnesses history being made. Early in “Fairyland,” Steve Abbott is compelled to become a gay-rights activist in the wake of the Stonewall Riots. The city the pair chooses as home, San Francisco, becomes the epicenter for events that would shock a nation and change our world: the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the mass suicides at Jonestown, the appearance of AIDS and its explosion from a few mysterious illnesses to an epidemic that would decimate a community and a generation.
The Abbotts have front-row seats to the devastation AIDS would bring. “Soon the young men … would age before our eyes, shrinking beneath thick layers of scarves and sweaters and wool caps. They walked with canes or were pushed in wheelchairs, their vitality snuffed out, feathers plucked clean,” Alysia remembers.
Through it all, there is tremendous love between father and daughter, as well as tremendous loss. When Alysia describes the moment she realizes the severity of her father’s illness – he has sent her a letter detailing his plummeting T-cell count – I couldn’t breath for a moment as I felt a small portion of her grief. When she writes of his final hours, I wept, not just for her, but for so many, including myself, who have lost people to AIDS.
While I read “Fairyland,” it struck me how very lucky Alysia is to have her father’s journals and letters, a strange sentiment, I suppose, considering their challenging life together and her ambivalence about his obsession with writing. However, she does recognize the preciousness of her inheritance, acknowledging, “Until this chapter, I’ve relied on my father’s journals and published work to understand the nature of his creative passions, addictions, and relationships, but rereading these letters I feel him right here with me, like a beloved whispering in my ear.”
Like her father, Alysia Abbott has a gift for language. Sometimes her writing is painfully blunt. Other times, she crafts sentences containing such lovely imagery that I often stopped to ponder what I’d just read. In describing a discussion she overhears between her father, the daughter of Jack Kerouac and the writer Richard Brautigan, she writes, “I’ve held on to the memory of this conversation like a stone in my pocket, rubbing it between my thumb and forefinger until it’s become flat and smooth.”
I prize books like Alysia Abbott’s. They’re well-written and honest, and they move me. If that experience appeals to you, look for “Fairyland” at the Joplin Public Library. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.