Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father" by Alysia Abbott

Alysia Abbott was two years old when her mother was killed in a car accident. Her parents had a rather unorthodox relationship (it was the early 1970s, after all)—her father was bisexual and dated men while he and her mother were together, while her mother also dated other men, including a suicidal patient she counseled as a psychologist.

After her mother's death, Alysia and her father, Steve, moved to San Francisco, where he fully immersed himself in the gay culture of the city. A poet, writer, and activist, Steve was determined to find his place in the literary world and, most importantly, find a man to share his life with. And while he was committed to ensuring Alysia had a good life and was cared for, as many parents can understand, sometimes his responsibilities as a father didn't necessarily dovetail with his own wants and desires.

"If he was sometimes a failure as a parent, he was always a noble failure. He tried to do what he thought was best even if he didn't always know what 'best' was or how to achieve it."

Fairyland is a complex and poignant tribute. Using her father's letters, journal entries, and other writings, combined with her own recollections, Alysia Abbott tells the story of an emotional, unshakeable bond, but one which was difficult at times to maintain. As she grew up, Alysia wanted a "normal" life more than anything—even in San Francisco, she knew no other children being raised by a single gay parent. She was forced to hide her father's sexuality from her maternal grandparents, but she chose to hide it from school friends and others, preferring to tell peers that her father was so consumed by grief over her mother's death that he couldn't handle another relationship.

More than anything, Alysia resented having to share her father with his literary pursuits and his search for a romantic relationship, and Steve resented Alysia's lack of respect for his needs and her treatment of his potential boyfriends. At times, the burden of fatherhood overwhelmed him.

"My father expressed resentment because I asked him to fix me breakfast when, at age four, I was 'perfectly capable of doing it alone.' Maybe Dad couldn't understand my needs because our life was populated by so many needy wanderers like himself, young people escaping bad homes and bad marriages, all searching for their true selves and open to anything that might further that quest."

Alysia didn't remember when her father told her he was HIV-positive, but she never truly accepted that diagnosis, which in the 1980s proved to be a death sentence for most people. She never dealt with the idea that one day her father would grow so ill that he'd need her to care for him, that one day he'd die. As Fairyland chronicled the decline of Steve's health and his growing dependency on Alysia, it was truly accurate in the range of emotions that family members go through when their loved one is dying.

The book doesn't paint an altogether rosy picture of Alysia and Steve's life together. Alysia is fairly honest in depicting her flaws and how they affected her relationship with her father—she was often selfish, demanding, and resentful of others who tried to become part of Steve's life. It's clear it's taken her many years to come to terms with some of her feelings about her father. At the same time, Steve's journal entries clearly delineate his own struggles with fatherhood and how he sometimes wished he didn't have to care for his daughter himself. I found myself sympathizing with both people at different times throughout the book.

I really enjoyed this. It was beautifully written and while it is emotionally moving, it isn't maudlin, which it certainly could have been. It's also evocative in its depiction of how the early days of the AIDS crisis affected the gay community in San Francisco. I feel grateful that Alysia Abbott was willing to share her father and their life with us.

"Dad could always make me feel better when the world outside made me feel strange. Dad was the one who loved me best of all."

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