"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 the Abbotts' 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 -- Alysia spent two decades after his death trying to understand who her parents were. Along the way, she attempted to restore her father's literary reputation and battle the "cultural amnesia" that followed the first devastating waves of AIDS-related deaths.

In her memoir, "Fairyland," Abbott doesn't excuse her dad's early inadequacies as a single parent: At 3, Alysia nearly drowned at a pool party while Steve talked to a friend; on her own, she had to learn how to negotiate the city's maze of streetcars. "It's a bad kind of life you're giving Alysia," warned one of Steve's boyfriends. "She needs a mother."

And yet, to the end, father and daughter 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," writes Alysia. "It wasn't easy being a gay father in the 1970s. There were no books on gay parenting ..., no models."


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Steve Abbott, who grew up in the Midwest, attended Emory University in Atlanta. He was the "gay lib" editor at the Great Speckled Bird, one of America's pre-eminent radical weekly newspapers. A talented illustrator in the underground Zap Comix style, he produced a comic strip detailing the events of the Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village that became a Bird cover in 1971. (Abbott wrote an unpublished novel about Atlanta called "Lost Causes.")

Barbara Binder, also from the Midwest, was an Emory grad student in psychology. The two met at a Students for a Democratic Society meeting and eventually got married. Alysia arrived in their wild household in 1971.

According to the author'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 like the Cove, and there were plenty of controlled substances and craziness at their home on Peachtree Street. Then, in 1973, Barbara was killed in a car crash. Traumatized, Alysia and Steve headed to San Francisco the following year.

The Castro district was a fun, creative place for a kid. Alysia delighted in the first Gay Pride celebrations. She recalls playing "hide-and-seek (with her father) among the thick conifers of Golden Gate Park." The light-hearted aspect of those years is captured in the dramatic book jacket cover shot of father and daughter in mock tribute to Grant Wood's "American Gothic" on the porch of a ruined mansion.

Though he was struggling financially, Steve Abbott's star was rising among the West Coast intelligentsia. He became friends with Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Robert Duncan. Over the years, he became a leading figure in several poetry movements influenced by the Beat tradition.

But in 1978, a pall began to fall over San Francisco with the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first publicly gay person elected to office in California, and Mayor George Moscone. Former beauty queen and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant's Save the Children campaign thwarted gay rights legislation in several American cities.

Alysia began to hear about a "gay cancer" around the neighborhood in 1984. It was the era when the Moral Majority was active, and the cruelty toward people with AIDS, shocking then, seems pathological today. Said Republican leader Pat Buchanan: "The poor homosexuals -- they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution."

Steve became a devout Buddhist and helped with Alysia's expenses at New York University and in France, but when he told her he had AIDS in 1990, she returned to San Francisco to care for him in his final year. The shell-shocked 20-year-old was unprepared for the inevitable, yet forced to witness dark events.

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 '70s has made strides over the past 40 years. Numerous American cities now have vibrant gay and lesbian communities where families are no longer forced to live in the shadows, isolated from society.

W. W. Norton & Company
$25.95, 352 pages