I rarely read non-fiction and even more rarely read memoirs so I went into this read with few expectations. It was the pick for my book club, so I picked it up dutifully, much like I would tackle required reading in school. I’m hesitant to say I enjoyed this book, because the subject matter was difficult and heart-wrenching, but I am glad that I read it.
Alysia Abbott is the daughter of two free spirited parents in the 70s, in a non-traditional configuration. Her parents fell in love and got married, but both have other lovers, separate passions, and struggle with drugs. When her mother dies suddenly in a car accident, Alysia is left to be raised by her bisexual father Steve, who is conflicted about his new role as primary caregiver to a toddler. Though members of Alysia’s extended family offer to take her in, her father decides to raise her on his own. They soon move to San Francisco, a place that offers a fresh start and hopefully the acceptance and belonging that Steve yearns for as a member of the poetic community.
Through her father’s journals and correspondence over the years, Alysia is able to reconstruct their relationship in a way that is realistic, caring, and harrowing. It is painful to get a glimpse into her early life, as she is put in dangerous situations, neglected, and never given the stability and structure that would have provided comfort. She grows into a sullen teenager and though her father obviously loves her deeply, their relationship is more that of friendship and dependency than father/daughter. When Steve contracts HIV in her late teens, the way that they each cope simultaneously draws a wedge between them and somehow also inextricably binds them together.
I found myself sympathizing with each of them, alternately. While Steve’s parenting was sometimes deplorable, and I wondered why he didn’t just let her be raised by her Aunt, I understood that he truly seemed to try to do the best that he could. When Alysia tried to put off moving home to take care of her father in his last days I found myself frustrated with her selfishness, but understanding of the way she was trying to cope with the pain and hopelessness that she was crushed under.
Alysia has crafted a frank tale of love and loss. With the hindsight of adulthood, she doesn’t question her fathers parenting or choices, but rather tries to understand and piece together the man that he was. It is also a snapshot of the early days of HIV/AIDS in this country, and how the community she grew to love in San Francisco was decimated in its wake. For these reasons, it is a read that I would recommend, especially to those trying to make sense of grief or loss. I won’t say that it has uprooted my life, but it did give me pause today and allow me to focus, if only for a moment, on the people that are important in my life.