TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's not unusual now to see children with gay parents, but it was uncommon when my guest was raised in the '70s and '80s by her gay father. Alysia Abbott has written a new memoir about growing up in the early years of the gay rights movement in the capital of gay America, San Francisco.
It's called "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father." Her father, Steve Abbott, was a poet, essayist and editor. He described himself as bisexual when in 1969 he married the woman who became Alysia's mother. They were both graduate students at Emory University in Atlanta. Alysia writes that while her parents shared a bed and a life, her father helped organize Atlanta's Gay Liberation Front and was the gay lib editor at Atlanta's alternative weekly, The Great Speckled Bird.
Two years after Alysia was born, her mother was killed in a car accident. Soon after, her father decided they would move to San Francisco, and the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood became their home. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. Alysia's new memoir is based in part on her father's journals.
Alysia Abbott, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so glad you wrote this book because I feel like we, or at least I, have read a lot more about what it's like to be a gay parent than what it's like to be a child of a gay parent. And I haven't read anything about a child of a gay parent at the dawn of the age of the gay liberation era. Do you feel like this gives you a kind of unique perspective on that era?
ALYSIA ABBOTT: Yes. I mean I think that the experience of being a child of a gay parent in my generation or the child of a gay parent coming of age today is very different. Most of the children born of gay parents in the first two decades after Stonewall, those children were the products of heterosexual unions, usually straight marriages.
And so in those situations typically the parent was closeted, and it would come out after the child was born, and either the parents would divorce or maybe the parent wouldn't come out. But usually in those situations the child would live with one of the parents, and because of the way the courts were set up, they were often living with the straight parent or sometimes with the mother.
My situation was unique because my mother died, and so there really wasn't anyone clearly who I was going to live with other than my father. So he was - I was living in an exclusively gay-headed household from as early as I can remember. Children today, they are usually the product of a gay couple who would either adopt a child or go through a process of artificial insemination to have a child. But it's very much they are as a couple wanting to have a child together.
So I had a very different situation when I was young. There was very few gay parents, especially few gay-headed households, so that I knew very few kids like myself growing up.
GROSS: There's a section from your memoir, from early in your memoir, that I want you to read. And this is really like your pre-history. It's about how your parents met. And so you're not even born yet in the passage I'm going to ask you to read, but I think it kind of sets the context for your birth and for the situation that you and your father found yourself in.
ABBOTT: Yes. When my parents first met at an SDS party, and my father told my mother he was bisexual, she answered: That means you can love all of humanity instead of just half of it. It was 1968, and everyone was talking about revolution. My father had just returned from a summer in Paris. The city was still roiling from the May riots when students had shouted: Be reasonable, demand the impossible.
Now in the halls of American academia, anti-war students were shutting down campuses from U.C. Berkeley to Columbia. My mother was intrigued by my father's open approach to sexuality. She never got hung up on his boy crushes like his other girlfriends had. She was only jealous of his relationships with women and, according to dad, even liked the guys he was attracted to.
On weekends they went to the Cove and to the other gay and mixed bars that dotted the outskirts of downtown Atlanta. There my mother picked out the young men my father could never attract on his own, men who'd never consider a gay encounter but who'd be up for a drunken three-way. In those early years of the sexual revolution, it was hip for young people to try new combinations.
Sometimes my mom would dress in men's clothing when they went out. Dad said she made a cute boy. Other weekends my parents hosted dinner parties, entertaining the anti-war and grad-student friends with spaghetti, cheap red wine and charades. Dad wrote about feeling satisfied at the close of these evenings, seeing himself and my mom as leaders of a salon of intellectually engaged students.
As they cleaned up after one such party, my mom suggested they marry. Landlords won't hassle us so much, she reasoned. We'll be able to stock the kitchen and house with wedding presents. My parents will give us more money. Other than that, our life won't really change.
GROSS: But of course everything changed. You know, four months after your parents married, Stonewall happened, and your father came out in Emory University's school newspaper, and then you were born soon after your parents married - was it, what, about nine months after?
ABBOTT: Yes, my parents were married in February 1969, and I was born in December 1970.
GROSS: And what you later learned was that your mother insisted on having you, insisted on having the baby when she found out she was pregnant, but your father had serious reservations. He had thought she was using birth control, and she didn't tell him that she'd stopped. What was it like for you to read that in his journals?
ABBOTT: Well, I think I was aware that I was an accident, but I wasn't aware that my mother had told my father that she had stopped using birth control and that she hadn't and had me. So that came as a surprise. I think I was also surprised by my father's reaction. The fact that he didn't want to have a child didn't jive with my experience of him as a father, which - he was always a very attentive and loving father. And so that was a surprise.
GROSS: He was seeing men, and your mother had gotten involved with a man who was a drug addict and a dealer, and he was arrested for running guns and drugs across the Canadian border. She went to bail him out. The charges were dropped. On the way to taking him back home they were in a car accident and she was killed. And suddenly your father, who wasn't really ready to be a father, was your only parent.
Your aunt had offered to adopt you, but your father insisted on keeping you. Considering his reservations about being a parent, do you feel like you understand why he kept you?
ABBOTT: Absolutely. For one thing, my father wrote about in his journals feeling this connection with me after I was born. So before I was born he wasn't necessarily very enthusiastic about having a child, but after I was born he really enjoyed spending time with me. And actually for a short period he was a sort of house husband, before even John Lennon was a house husband, working from home, trying to sell his work while my mother was working a nine-to-five job.
And so after my mother's death, I think my father felt like he didn't have very much. His relationship with a young man that he had while he was with my mother had dissolved, and he in a sense felt that I was all that he had in the world, and he was all that I had in the world.
So I don't think he could have imagined letting my aunt or anyone else take over raising me.
GROSS: When you were a young child, after your mother died, your father decided to move to San Francisco. So you and he moved there. And early on he had other roommates living with you, including one or two men who were drag queens. And I'm wondering what your reaction was - at a very young age, when you hadn't been exposed to much at all. So nothing - in some ways nothing's unusual when you're very young because everything's new.
GROSS: So what was your reaction to seeing, you know, men who you were living with in dresses and lipstick?
ABBOTT: Well, my father had already been sometimes wearing dresses in Atlanta. I think for my father wearing a dress was a political statement. When we were in San Francisco and we were living with two men, one of whom was a drag queen fulltime, another one who would sort of dress up to go out, I really saw it as play.
At the time I would have been about four years old, and I liked to dress up. I liked to put on fancy scarves and the makeup, and it was all something that we could do together. I never sensed that what my father or any one of his friends were doing was weird until I became older and became more aware of what normal families look like and what normal men and normal women did.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alysia Abbott, and she's the authro of a memoir about her father and her life with him, which is called "Fairyland," and it's about growing up with a single father who was gay in the 1970s and '80s in Haight-Ashbury and in the Castro in San Francisco. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alysia Abbott, and her new memoir about her father is called "Fairyland." It's about how she was raised in the '70s and '80s by a single gay father in San Francisco. And I should say your father was a writer and editor. He founded a small literary magazine called Soup. He had very little money, but your grandparents, your mother's parents, were helping to pay for the private school that you went to.
And I want to say, again, you know, that this is an era, we're talking about, you know, the '70s here. This is the era before the gay marriage movement. It was the era before so many gay people were actively, you know, trying to become parents or had already become parents. And your father was part of this, you know, gay men's community in San Francisco in the Castro and Haight-Ashbury that was - it wasn't about marriage. It wasn't about having children. But your father had a child, he had you.
And so you were like a real anomaly within that community that your father was part of. How old were you when you started realizing that you were something really different in this community?
ABBOTT: Well, I think from a young age I realized I was something different in this community because it was a community of, you know, young men, and here I was a little girl. So I didn't see other little girls around. So I was always - felt different. But from an early age I sort of liked this difference. That meant I could get all the attention. There was no one like me, and I felt sort of special in a way.
But I think on one level as a straight child of a gay parent I always felt like a little too straight for the gay community but also a little too gay for the straight community. So I think I felt a little bit ill at ease in either world.
GROSS: Talk a little bit more about feeling too straight for the gay community. Do you think anybody was hoping that you'd be - anybody in your father's circle or your father himself had hoped in any way that you'd be gay, that you'd be a lesbian?
ABBOTT: Oh no, absolutely not. I mean I think because there were so few gay parents that we knew that just my presence in certain situations, you know, I was a little too straight for the gay community, meaning not that my sexuality was too straight, I was a little girl, but that my presence was reminding people of the world of sort of traditional family structure and responsibility that some people were trying to escape from.
You know, I think in my dad's journals he wrote that, you know, children were sort of the ultimate freak-out for gay men that he knew.
GROSS: I have the quote right here. Let me read it. You father wrote in his journal about you: Faggots find her cute but are afraid of her. Child equals responsibility, the ultimate freak-out for the selfish and the escapist. And that makes me think your father felt between two worlds, like he was part of and wanted to be part of the gay community, but at the same time he was a father, and he had responsibilities that kind of removed him from the community as it was at that time in the '70s.
ABBOTT: Absolutely, he in some of his writing wrote about how growing up he felt like, you know, the only gay boy in Nebraska, and now he felt like the only gay father in San Francisco. And so that, you know, it made him feel a little isolated. It didn't give him as much freedom to go out.
For a while I think he would have us living with roommates because it was a way for him to get free access to babysitting so he could sometimes go out. I mean if he lived by himself with me, he'd never be able to go out at all. And I also think you can't overestimate just how exciting it was to be openly gay in San Francisco in the 1970s.
I mean Stonewall was just in 19 - had happened in 1969. Gay civil rights legislation was passing in different states. And, you know, for the first time, you could love openly and not be considered sick, not be arrested. It was a very exciting, heady time, and naturally, you know, my father would want to take part in that.
GROSS: How did he deal with the responsibility of taking care of you when he wanted to, say, go out at night? Because he was a single parent?
ABBOTT: Well, like I said, he had roommates, we had roommates that would be stand-ins as babysitters. And so sometimes he would leave me with roommates so he could go out. Sometimes he would take me out. I mean if it was a poetry reading he would take me out with him, and if it was on a school night he would just let me fall asleep on a pillow in the corner and then take me home afterwards.
So I guess the benefit of the situation was I was, in the end, ended up being very integrated into his creative life because I had to tag along to so many of his creative outings. He would eventually push me onstage to recite a poem, or if I was bored and making drawings while he was engaged in publishing work, he would take some of my drawings and illustrate his poems with them.
GROSS: Did you ever find yourself, say, at a transgressive literary event being utterly bored?
ABBOTT: Yeah, I mean I think for me, and especially as I got older, I just was like, oh, these people are so weird and I - you know, I had sort of a distaste for it. Like I - you know, it's so funny because people who are afraid of, you know, gay marriage or gay-headed households are worried somehow that children will be perverted by what they're exposed to, but if anything, everything that I was exposed to just made me more puritanical.
Like I just sort of had a, on some level, like a desire for normalcy. I was like OK, I've seen that transgressive, you know, weird thing. It's just a little too weird for me. I'm not interested in that.
GROSS: What did you see?
ABBOTT: Oh, well, I mean I think back and I think of some of the - you know, I guess some of the exciting things that I got to see, going with my father to Europe for the first time, I went to a poetry festival in Amsterdam and I got to, you know, see Nina Hagen perform onstage; she was a punk rocker at the time, and that was extremely exciting to me at 12 years old.
Or I met the poet Richard Brautigan and spent and inordinate amount of time with him, to the point where he was sort of telling me stories about how to watch out for herpes. And you know, that's not exactly appropriate, and I think at the time I was like 12 years old, but it was interesting, and I stuck around.
GROSS: What was your childhood understanding of what it meant to be gay?
ABBOTT: Well, it meant to be attracted to someone of the same sex. I mean when I was - I think it's funny because my father would write about - I think he was really amused by my perception as a child. So he would often write down conversations we had and things. And I think I was with my father in Nebraska and visiting my grandparents, his parents in Nebraska, and I turned to my grandfather and asked him: What does it mean to be gay?
And my grandfather said: Oh, that means to be happy. And I said: That's not what my dad says. And, you know, of course my dad thought that was very funny. So I was very curious about it, but you know, I do recall also my father writing in his journal that at one point, as he was getting ready for a date, I said to him: I don't understand why you have to like boys. You know, why can't you like girls? When I grow up, I'm going to like boys.
And I think in that - you know, at that point I was watching a lot of television, like "Happy Days" and stuff, and you know, I wanted to take part in this, you know, ritualization of romance that was boy-girl. It wasn't boy-boy, it wasn't girl-girl, it was boy-girl. And I, you know, I also had a very strong longing for a mother.
And so I think I had a fantasy that if my father had a girlfriend, that I might get a mother, and then if I got a mother, I might get brothers and sisters.
GROSS: Your father was out. I mean, he came out after Stonewall. And so he was out. He had no problem with that. But as you got a little bit older, your father's gayness became kind of an embarrassment to you. And one of the moments that really broke my heart reading your book, you know, your father's going out, and you know, out at night, and he says to you: How do I look?
And you say, because you're kind of embarrassed at this point by his, you know, open homosexuality, and you say to him: You look so queer. And he's of course really hurt by that. And I understand you wanting to fit in with your friends and be, quote, you know, normal, fitting in with your friends and their families. But I also figured, oh, your father must have been so hurt, and especially this is like post-Stonewall and in the gay liberation era, and his own daughter is embarrassed by him.
When you were reading your father's journals and seeing his life from his point of view, as opposed to seeing it from your point of view, what kind of like shift in perspective did that give you about your childhood?
ABBOTT: Well a pretty powerful shift in perspective. As I was a child, like any child, I saw everything through sort of the lens of myself and whether I was getting my needs met or not and whether my dad was being fair or unfair or exposing me to, you know, ridicule or not. And unfortunately he died just as I was becoming an adult. He just, he died four days before my 22nd birthday.
And, you know, I think to be revisiting the journals now, 20 years later, as a parent of two children, I have so much more sympathy for his struggles, and respect. The fact that he was a single father living among roommates, trying to find love as an openly gay man and also trying to make a name for himself as a writer, and that he was able to do that, you know, just gives me tremendous amount of respect for the struggle he went through that I couldn't have appreciated at that age, you know, nor should I.
I mean I think that kids should be protected from all of their parent - you know, they don't need to hear all of their parents' trials. They want to be able to enjoy their childhood. But I was able to revisit his journals with a lot more of a sense of forgiveness and sympathy, really.
GROSS: Alysia Abbott will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Alysia Abbott. Her new memoir, "Fairyland," is about being raised by a single gay father in San Francisco's Haight Asbury in the '70s and '80s. It was a formative time in the gay liberation movement, but there were few openly gay single fathers. Her father identified as bisexual back in 1969, when he married the woman who became Alysia's mother. When Alysia was two, her mother was killed in a car accident and Alysia and her father moved from Atlanta to San Francisco.
GROSS: For several years, you spent some of your summers with your mother's parents in, was it Illinois?
GROSS: And my impression is that they were, you know, middle-class suburban family - which was a very different life than the life you were leading with your father. Because he was, you know, he was like you were struggling artist type, who didn't have much money and it was a kind of a very bohemian life. What were the some of the things that you liked and didn't like about the more conventional lives your grandparents had and the more conventional life you led when you were with them?
ABBOTT: Well, I would get very excited as summer approached and I knew I was going to my grandparents. I loved the sense of comfort and space that their world offered me. It was a completely different world than what I knew with my father. So my father and I would be living in an urban center in San Francisco, in an apartment we shared with roommates or later, you know, an apartment we shared alone. But, you know, he wasn't the cleanest - he wasn't the best housekeeper. There wasn't always a well-stocked fridge. Things didn't always work. Our car was eventually towed when he stopped paying parking tickets on it. And here I would come to my grandparents every summer and they would pick me up in this beautiful Lincoln Town Car with windows that would go up and down with the push of a button; and the house was very clean, and smelled clean, and there was TV in every room, and delicious food, and I can go to the swimming pool whenever I wanted, to the country club that my grandparents belonged to, or we could go out to dinner. It was a very comfortable world.
But at the same time, when I was at my grandparents, I sometimes dearly missed my father. I felt there was something unique in our family and that it was just the two of us. And so I felt that I had sort of the unadulterated, you know, love - that I was his sole focus and he was my sole focus and I loved that. And at my grandparents I had an aunt and uncle who would come with their kids and we had to kind of negotiate are plans or, you know, I wasn't the single target of attention and affection. And furthermore, when I did go to my grandparents, my father was not present. And it wasn't just a matter of him not attending those visits with me and, you know, frankly, to go from San Francisco to rural Illinois, you know, maybe he would have preferred to stay in San Francisco; but he also, he wasn't pictured anywhere and he wasn't asked after, and my mother, as well, because she died in a tragic car accident when she was only 27, she wasn't pictured and we didn't talk about her. It seemed there was something in the story of my parents that was a little unpalatable. And I, in terms of learning about my mother, I would sort of do that on my own, digging through drawers and finding pictures. But I felt like there was something from my world in San Francisco that we just - wasn't talked about and so that I, that made me a little self-conscious, I guess.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how AIDS affected your life and the world that you lived in. You write how when the AIDS epidemic hit San Francisco - and you were still living with your father then, people started disappearing, the neighborhood started changing. You were living, then, in Haight Asbury or the Castro?
ABBOTT: Living in Haight Ashbury.
GROSS: And your father tested positive for HIV in 1986. So, can you describe a little bit how you are world started to change when the AIDS epidemic hit?
ABBOTT: Well, I don't recall when my father tested HIV-positive. Actually, I learned that date 1986, in reading his journals. I think at the time I was aware, as anyone reading newspapers and watching television was of the AIDS epidemic and I was scared. I was scared because I knew my father was gay and that that made him more vulnerable. And that made me scared to talk, you know, to be open about my father's sexuality because being gay in that era was so closely aligned with this fatal, disturbing disease. And so I think I had a lot of fear around it generally. But before I left for college, my senior year in high school, a close friend of ours died of AIDS and he had been - I had gotten to know a lot of people in our neighborhood in the Haight and I got to know a lot of my dad's friends, but this particular friend I became very close with and had a crush on and he went to my birthday party and he even bought liquor for my friends and I once when I was a teenager. It hit me when he died. I never got to say goodbye to him. Like a lot of men, young men - he was only 31 - like a lot of young men in the city, he didn't want to share his decline with very many people. He basically went into hiding and didn't tell anyone about it other than his lover and his roommate. And so my father had heard he was sick and I had suggested we go visit him, but we never did. And time passed and I really didn't know what was going on until my father got a call that he had died.
And my freshman year at college I wrote an essay about him and as well about the homophobia that I had seen at the time in San Francisco when the AIDS epidemic was hitting very hard. Some men would be targeted, in the city, for violence and there would be anti-gay graffiti scrawled on walls or on the back of bus seats. And this affected me and so I wrote about all of this in this essay about how, because of Sam, I was now going to stand up against homophobia and I would, you know, defend gay men. But in this essay I never even write that my father is gay and I never even wrote, you know, that he might be HIV-positive which, at the time, he was. So I was aware of what was going on, but I think that I probably had a lot of denial or fear about how the AIDS epidemic was going to hit me at home.
GROSS: When you're in your early 20s, and living and working in Paris and you became aware that your father was getting very sick with AIDS, you got a letter in which he described the progression of his illness, and then you wrote back to him. And I have to tell you, I just, I found your letter back to your father just, kind of, upsetting.
ABBOTT: Oh no.
GROSS: Yeah. I'll read you the excerpt and we'll talk. You wrote: Dear Dad, I received your letter yesterday. Sometimes reading a letter from you can be depressing. You complain so much about your bad health and ill luck. I'm not asking you to censor those aspects of your life, but if you accentuate, less, the negative, I would enjoy your letters more.
And I'm thinking gosh, your father is, like, dying of AIDS and you're complaining that he complains too much about his bad health and, you know, he has no family except for you and you're in Paris.
ABBOTT: Actually, I was in New York when that letter was written. Sorry to correct you.
GROSS: Thank you for correcting me. OK. OK. It seems like a very uncharitable letter. So tell me what was going through your mind when you wrote it - if you remember.
GROSS: I hope you don't mind me saying that. I'm sure you understand what I'm saying.
ABBOTT: No. It's OK. I mean I've grappled with these feelings too. I mean, part of the experience of writing a memoir is to confront earlier versions of yourself and versions of yourself that, you know, you can be critical of and say how could I do that. But I know at the time, I wasn't fully able to absorb or be aware of what he was going through. I had yet to live with him with AIDS, so I had moved away to college in 1988 and then he had started to manifest full-blown AIDS in 1991, which is approximately the time he wrote the letter. And so in a lot of the earlier letters he wrote me, I would describe my sadness or fears about him becoming sick and he would sort of downplay them and say well, there's no reason to cry before I die, and we're all going to die one day. And he would, often the letters would be taken up with, you know, funny anecdotes. He didn't really dwell too much on his health. And so I think I let myself believe that he really wasn't that sick or he could still have a long time to go. And when he came out to Paris to ask me to move home I was really blindsided and I was upset. I mean I was upset that my life as I knew it was ending - even though it really wasn't. His life was ending. My life was just beginning. But from the perspective of a 20-year-old, I felt that I was going to have to give up everything and go home and take care of him and my life would be subsumed by illness and death and I was really afraid of that.
GROSS: I just want to say I really understand that and I didn't, I didn't mean to - you know what I mean? I didn't mean to sound harsh in what I said. I, you know, I just think like when one is young, one is very typically, like, absorbed in your own life and creating a life and figuring who you are and what your life is going to be, and I think you feels so tenuous about everything, about your whole future and your identity that like a major disruption, like your father being really sick, being terminally ill, yeah, I can understand the denial.
ABBOTT: Yeah. So I mean I think at that time I just, I wanted to kind of proceed as forward and so I, you know, proceed as everything was normal and I, you know, we had both been the sorts who liked to complain sometimes, like that was part of our inside humor. And so I kind of thought he was just complaining a lot when in fact, he was just sharing me - sharing with me his decline.
GROSS: Your father had, you know, earlier had some drug problems. He went to Narcotics Anonymous. He gave up drugs. He started meditating at a neighborhood Zendo, Zen Center in the Castro, and became very committed to Buddhism. And when he was dying, like at the end, this was after you'd come home to take care of him, he spent the last few weeks of his life at a hospice for men dying of AIDS that was next door to the Zen Center, and it was created by the men who ran the Zen Center. And you were his only family, so you were with him at the end and he had friends who were there too. And I'm just kind of wondering about the experience of being like the only, you know, blood relative who was there for him at the end, but knowing that he had, you know, that he had your friends who were there too.
ABBOTT: I mean I felt like it was a privileged position. You know, as I had, growing up I always felt we had this privileged relationship that, you know, somehow I was number one in his heart and he was number one in my heart. And it was almost a romantic idea for me, which helped me get through the difficulties I had of growing up motherless and in the situation we are in. And so on one level it was very hard for me to be nursing for my father and making end-of-life decisions with him without the help of another family member, or just dealing with the day-to-day of a dying person. But on another level, I liked having that all to myself. There were friends who could come in and help but, you know, in the hierarchy, I was the daughter. It was a privilege place to be. And at his funeral, you know, I was able to make a lot of the choices about what would be read, in what order, what pictures would be put up. And I felt in being able to do that was a way of being close with him and, you know, it was sort of an expression of our intimacy, I guess.
GROSS: My guest is Alysia Abbott. Her new book is called "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Alysia Abbott. Her new book "Fairyland" is about being raised by a single gay father in San Francisco in the '70s and '80s.
How did you find your father's journals? Did he leave them for you to read?
ABBOTT: He didn't leave them with a big sign saying: read this, but he didn't burn them. He didn't destroy them when he knew he was sick. Basically, I was clearing out our apartment in Haight Ashbury because I was, I wanted to move, and was in the closet digging through boxes of stuff and found a huge stack of journals which I'd never seen before.
So I was always aware that he kept journals when I was a little girl but I had never seen the journals from when he was with my mother. And at that moment that I found those journals I read about my mother's death for the first time. And, you know, that was quite intense for me.
You know, especially because I was reading all of this without having him around to ask questions of. I had to sort of make sense of it on my own.
GROSS: You wanted to have a more conventional life than your father and, I mean, you know, you're married to a man. You have two children. There's a limit to how conventional your life can be in the sense that one of your children, your youngest, is autistic. And it sounds like he's fairly high on the scale of autism.
ABBOTT: Yeah. I think you might actually say he's on the low functioning scale.
GROSS: The low functioning scale. Right. Exactly. Right. And it's really not, you know, just as, like, your father wasn't expecting his life to turn out the way he did, you know, you wanted to give your daughter, you know, a sibling which you had. You know, a playmate which you never had at home. And you had, you know, a second child and it turned out differently than you expected.
ABBOTT: Well, it's interesting because my son - I named my son Steven so his name was Steven Abbott Howe. His last name is Howe. So he was in my mind, I think when I knew I was having a boy I wanted to name him Steven Abbott because I wanted him to be able to live the life of my father's that was cut short. I mean that's a big burden to put on a child.
But there was an idea of I wanted this sort of generation to be able to redeem some of the loss of my the last - of my father's generation. And so to discover that my son may be, you know, have severe developmental delays and be non-verbal or might never be able to live independently, you know, yeah, that's disappointing. You know, we call him by his middle name so we call him Finn. So he isn't Steve.
He's not my dad. He's Finn. He's very much Finn. But, you know, just as the experience of growing up with my father helped me to be more tolerant and open to difference, you know, the experience of raising my son, you know, forces me to learn to let go of things that I can't control and try to, you know, adjust expectations. I don't know if that makes sense.
GROSS: You know, I want to quote something that you wrote in an essay about your son. And this is in the context of saying that you had your second child in part because you wanted a sibling for your daughter, for your first child. And when you found out that your son was profoundly autistic, you wrote about your daughter:
(Reading) She'd still suffer the loneliness that afflicted me growing up. She'd still have to care for us alone in her adult years and would now bear the extra burden of a disabled brother.
How old is your daughter now and how is she responding to having an autistic brother?
ABBOTT: My daughter is seven now and she is incredibly loving to her brother. You know, a lot of her projects she does at school - just last week I saw a flag that she made at school. All the children were asked to make flags and some of the kids made national flags of the country that their parents came from or U.S.A. flag or a boys keep out flag. And she made a Finn flag: I love Finny.
It's like she's wanting to raise and wave a flag of her love for her brother. And I feel sometimes like she wants to give him the voice that he doesn't have because he can't speak. And she wants to sort of have the experiences that he may not have. And so, you know, she really impresses me in her generosity in that way. I think - you know, it's very complicated.
Because, you know, as parents, you know, we're supposed to sacrifice ourselves and our needs for the benefit of our children because we love them. But it's a great - it's hard having a child with severe special needs who will outlive you and you have to plan and think for them. My father was a, you know, I had to manage his care but he was dying and at one point he died. And my life moved on.
My life will always have my son in it. But I would hate to say he's always a burden. You know, I love him very much. But my daughter doesn't see him as a burden at all. I mean, I think it upsets her when he tries to bite her or attack her. I think it upsets her when she sees, you know, the stress that he causes in our life.
But her love for him is remarkably pure, I feel, partly because she can't remember a time before he was born. And so she can't imagine a life without him.
GROSS: My guest is Alysia Abbott. Her new book is called "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Alysia Abbott. Her new book, "Fairyland" is about being raised by a single gay father in San Francisco in the '70s and '80s. Your father strikes me from the way you describe him in your memoir as somebody who wanted to be, you know, really honest with you about his thoughts and his feelings and his life in a way that maybe most parents aren't quite. I don't know that that many parents are as open about their lives as your father was with you. And I just wonder as a parent whether that's left you wanting to be equally open or to be more protective of your feelings. And protective both for your children's sake and for your own.
ABBOTT: Well, on the one hand, I really appreciated my father was so open with me about what was going on in his life and even, you know, his problems - was a demonstration that he trusted me or that he felt that I was mature enough to handle some of that. And I do feel like with my daughter I'd like to respect her maturity and treat her as not just a child but someone who's capable of having opinions that are interesting and worthwhile.
But at the same time, you know, I think because of how I was raised I didn't have such a protected childhood. Like, there were a lot of situations where I had to sort of be adult before I was ready to be adult. You know, not the least of which was having to come home and take care of him on my own. And so I don't want Annabel, my daughter, to feel burdened by worry.
You know, including taking care of her brother. I don't want her to - you know, I want to be open. I don't want to hide and lie about what's going on in the family or things that I work with. But I also want her to be able to just be able to play and be innocent. And I - yeah. I feel like that - I think I've learned from my experience being raised by my dad that I could - that's something - I don't need to tell her everything.
GROSS: You know, a lot of your memoir is based on your father's journals and on letters he wrote. And my impression reading your book was that he had meant - he had intended - those journals to be read by you at some point so that you would understand more of who your father was. Did you feel at ease reading them? Like it is what he would've wanted.
ABBOTT: Yes. I was of two minds about reading the journals. On one level, I felt like, you know, journals are private and they're personal and you write things in a journal that you don't say to your closest loved ones. And there was part of me that felt like I should respect his privacy. But then there was also another part of me that felt like, A, we had been through so much together, meaning I'd cared for him as he was dying of AIDS in the last year of his life and had - you know, that's a very intimate transaction, a very intimate relationship. I didn't feel like there was anything new that I would discover, or I felt that this was, you know, an extenuation of our intimacy. And then, B, I found actually in one of his journals he had wondered who he was writing for and he said maybe for Alysia that she might one day know where her parents were at.
And so when I found the journals I really saw them as a gift from him, in terms of they allow me a way to understand what he was up against, what he was struggling with. He records things in our life together that I would otherwise have no access to. Because when you are raised by a single parent without any siblings, who do you have to share memories with? You know, that person dies and, you know, then you just have the memories in your own head.
And you can't sort of verify things. And as I was working on the memoir again and again I could come across episodes and be like, yeah, I remember that. And then I could get more detail from my father. And so it was like a reflection of myself and our life together.
GROSS: Well, Alysia Abbott, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it. And I 'm glad you wrote the book.
ABBOTT: Thank you so much, Terry. It was really great to be on the show.
GROSS: Alysia Abbott's new memoir is called "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father."
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