Book review: Fairyland, by Alysia Abbott

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 5:47pm

Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father
by Alysia Abbott
4 stars

Jeff Calder

Fairyland was the name Alysia Abbott and her father gave to San Francisco, where she grew up in that city's gay community of the 1970s and '80s. Steve Abbott, a writer and cartoonist who died of Aids in 1991, struggled to bring up his daughter in a stable household. But Alysia's childhood wasn't much of a fairyland, given their bohemian poverty and the pressure she felt to conceal her father's gay life from her friends, extended family and the world beyond.

Drawing on extraordinary resources - Steve's journals, poems, cartoons, novels, essays and letters - Abbott spent two decades after his death trying to understand who her parents were. Along the way, she strives to restore her father's literary reputation and battle the "cultural amnesia" that followed the first waves of Aids-related deaths.

Abbott doesn't excuse her dad's early inadequacies as a single parent: at three, she nearly drowned at a pool party while Steve talked to a friend; on her own, she had to learn how to negotiate San Francisco's maze of streetcars. And yet, to the end, father and child cared for each other deeply, bound by an early tragic loss. "If he was sometimes a failure as a parent, he was always a noble failure," she writes. "It wasn't easy being a gay father in the 1970s. There were no books on gay parenting … no models."

This story begins in Atlanta. Steve came from the Midwest to attend Emory; Barbara Binder, also from the Midwest, was an Emory grad student. They met at a student meeting and eventually married; their daughter arrived in 1971.

In Abbott's account, her mother didn't have a problem with Steve's same-sex relationships. The couple hung out at Atlanta's Midtown gay bars, and there was plenty of craziness and dope at their home on Peachtree Street. Then, in 1973, Barbara was killed in a car crash. Traumatised, father and child headed to San Francisco the following year.

When Steve told Abbott he had Aids in 1990, the then 20-year-old returned to San Francisco to care for him in his final year. Yet for all its sadness, Fairyland is a tough piece of work, its message plain: no one should be made to live in shame for who he or she is.

The gay liberation movement for which Steve Abbott began to fight in the early 1970s has made strides over the past 40 years. Cities such as Atlanta have vibrant gay and lesbian communities with families no longer forced to live in the shadows, isolated from society.

These historical turns may not have been imaginable to Alysia's father when he left the South for San Francisco in 1974.