Long before Heather had two mommies, Alysia had one daddy, and his name was Steve. A poet, widowed, openly gay, he raised her in San Francisco, where they made their home in the Haight district, on Ashbury Street. After the hippie heyday, before gentrification arrived, it was possible to do that even if you were broke, which they perennially were.
“In the picture of the Grateful Dead posing with the Haight-Ashbury street sign, ours is the balconied building to the right of the band, the one that looks like it’s wearing a witch’s hat,” Alysia Abbott writes in “Fairyland,” her memoir of their life inside San Francisco’s gay bohemia. Steve died of AIDS in 1992, four days before Alysia turned 22, at a time when the epidemic was ravaging their city and his social circle.
“To grow up the child of a gay parent in the seventies and eighties was to live with secrets,” Abbott writes, and in her the habit was ingrained. It lasted even into her college years, when she was living in Paris with a young Frenchman named Théophile. “I become more in love with him each day,” she gushes in a letter to her father, who is back in the Haight, beginning to go blind, edging toward death faster than she knows or wanted to know. “I just don’t feel like going into the details of your maladie. And of course, your sexual preference.”
“Secretiveness = loneliness,” Steve replies, and in his words is an echo of the era’s AIDS-activism slogans: “silence = death,” “action = life.” Counseling at least partial honesty, he nods to a recent movie to land his point: “The girl in Femme Nikita doesn’t tell her boyfriend anything about her past, esp. that she’s an assassin — but he finds out anyway. And still loves her.”
Abbott, who lives in Cambridge, has a husband now, and children of her own. For her father, parenthood — let alone single parenthood — wasn’t necessarily part of the plan. As a graduate student in Atlanta in the late 1960s, he found a fellow student named Barbara who shared his political bent and seemed not to mind his involvements with men. They married, and when she got pregnant, he unenthusiastically went along with her decision to have the child. The night Barbara gave birth to Alysia, Steve’s young lover, John, was with him at the hospital.
The marriage frayed; Barbara took up with a drug addict named Wolf, who moved in with them. When Barbara died in a car crash, Alysia was only a toddler.
A skewed, romantic notion took root in the little girl’s heart: Her dad had been so in love with her mom that, having lost her, he turned to men.
Steve proved a somewhat bumbling parent, especially obtuse about age-appropriate expectations. Annoyed that your child can’t seem to make her own breakfast? You might note that she’s only 4. Wondering how your daughter could have wandered into harm’s way while taking two buses and a streetcar home by herself, as instructed? Seven-year-olds are like that.
But parenthood had not yet become a cult, and he was raising his child when single parents had nothing like the social support they have now. It was so long before the gayby boom that Abbott didn’t know any other children of gay parents until she was an adult. Growing up, she felt like an oddball: Her father dated men, she didn’t have a mother, and they were forever short of money. Steve was not always sober, but he loved his daughter steadily and did the best he could, splitting his devotion between her and his poetry. “If he was sometimes a failure as a parent,” Abbott writes, “he was always a noble failure.”
And as she got older, she was sometimes a failure as a daughter, though not so nobly. “Fairyland,” her first book, occasionally feels like an act of atonement for the callous, myopic narcissism of young adulthood — for not wanting to be bummed out by her father’s decline (“You complain so much about your bad health and ill luck!” she scolds him from college the year before he dies), and for only grudgingly accepting the responsibility to take care of him toward the end.
“Fairyland” is also, in part, an effort to tend her father’s legacy. The memoir’s cover photograph, which shows father and daughter when she was 10, is the cover image he used for his book of poetry, “Stretching the Agape Bra.”
If only Abbott’s storytelling had more heat. For much of the memoir, she is stiff, seemingly unable to relax into her own voice or find a consistent tone. She leans far too hard on her father’s journals and other writing, trying in vain to make secondhand memories come alive. We are deep, deep into the book by the time it finally ignites.
But as a chronicle of American culture, Abbott’s story matters. “This queer history is our queer history,” she argues. It’s time we claim it.