Gay history has a kind of epic tradition, which is to say that many of its stories have been passed down as oral narratives, as tales told from one person to another. By and large, the history is not taught in public schools, and gay children tend not to have gay parents to teach them the traditions of their tribe. It is a story that must be sought. As such, a book like Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, with its mix of journal entries, poetry and illustrations, is more than just a deeply moving record of one father and daughter’s life together - it’s also an important eyewitness account of gay history from the time immediately following Stonewall, through the heady days of 1970s liberation and the sorrow of the AIDS epidemic.
“We are just one version of a story that hasn’t been told of a moment in history,” Abbott says. “I wanted to illuminate stories like ours. I wanted to be an ambassador to this world.”
The story itself is told with heartrending honesty. From her father Steve Abbott's early days in a free-spirited marriage to the author’s mother (Barbara Binder Abbott) on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, to the new life he forges in San Francisco after Barbara’s tragic death in a car accident, the work serves as a compelling case study in the experience of gay family life – and in the changing focus of the gay movement over time. With so much recent national attention focused on issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, a personal accounting of this evolution is incredibly timely.
“There’s a vogue of political involvement that there hasn’t been in a while,” she says.
But it’s Steve Abbott’s life as a single gay man, with his never-quite-fulfilled romantic longings and inventive career as a poet, that make this such an engaging read. Society may be coming to terms with the possibilities of gay marriage well into this century, but seeing a gay father navigate the less-understanding world of the 1970s and 80s is both educational and inspiring. For instance, he follows what we would now consider lapses in his parenting with stunning gestures of sensitivity and caring. After a very young Alysia is left alone and makes a mess of the bathtub, angering her father, he later writes a touching poem about the event titled Alysia’s Hair on Being Washed: “…Clinging there, growing there, aching there/Like poems in America/Like love/Like life, threatened in your mermaid sea…”
The poems, the sketches, the emotional rawness – they are constantly present between them. There is the cartoon he draws to explain to young Alysia that it is “pretty silly” to be sad on Valentine’s Day. There are the letters he writes her years later as she finds her way in Paris and he struggles with the terrible effects of AIDS: “…one might as well complain about birth because birth is where the suffering begins.” With such an unconventional personal history, and with the push for the more traditional institution of marriage in full swing, Abbott does wonder how her father’s life story will be received.
“My dad makes mistakes,” she says. “I’m not perfect. I think that gay men who are single for life should have as much respect (as those who marry). We need to be more tolerant of difference, not just have acclimation.”
With the memoir, one gets the sense that Abbott is forging the letters and poems her father wrote into a sort of love letter directed back at him – and by extension, to the gay community at large. The long nascence of this “love letter” began shortly after Steve Abbott’s death in 1992. Months after his passing, Alysia found years worth of journals while clearing out his apartment. The journals, which Steve imagined as the beginnings of a novel, filled in many of the details of her father’s life that she was unaware of, and in some cases, it corrected the facts of some of her earliest memories. However, it wasn’t until many years later that the serious work of writing the memoir began.
“Now there is a lot more openness and curiosity (about gay families and history),” Abbott says about the timing of her work. “Now this is seen as being in a long line of struggle for freedom.”
That Abbott is so concerned about the preservation and understanding of gay history is a natural result of her upbringing. It also creates a somewhat conflicted dynamic for her as a straight woman. As she mentions, she feels a stronger connection with gay issues than with feminism.
“Why do I have such an interest in gay culture if I’m not gay?” she asks. “I come from that culture, but I’m not in it. But the only reason I’m not is because my father died. I miss him and I miss that world. By mining that cultural history, I feel connected. It’s important, exciting, inspiring.”
David Garza lives in New York City.