An End to Easy Answers: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s New Memoir
The End of San Francisco
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
City Lights Publishers, 2013
As its title suggests, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s searing new memoir chronicles a series of losses in Sycamore’s queer activist life, but none of these losses evokes traditional nostalgia for an earlier, happier time. Instead, each loss is held up to the light to examine how it reflects the contradictions inherent in our attempts to build authentic relationships in a world where personal and structural violence separate us from each other and ourselves. Sycamore repeatedly demonstrates how our efforts to create alternative cultures often replicate the racist, sexist, and homophobic world in which we live. And while this is a heavy theme, reading this memoir is the opposite of a gloomy excavation of Sycamore’s life. Instead Sycamore’s associative, non-linear narrative is filled with sparkling language that illuminates the importance of reaching for connection and alive-ness in the face of brutality and loss.
Sycamore’s story opens with an early betrayal; she returns to her childhood home in a suburb of Washington, D.C., to confront her dying father about sexually abusing her when she was a young child. While Sycamore never gets the acknowledgement and apology that she is longing for, she still manages to find moments of connection with her father across the chasm that separates them. By embracing feeling, she demonstrates how she has created a different model of relating from her father, even as she finds some unexpected compassion for him:
What I want to do is to touch his arm, softly, his skin. It feels intimate and nurturing and dangerous, and right now I’m okay with all these sensations. I tell him I’ve learned there are other ways to be strong besides holding everything in—and of course here there is more sobbing—sobbing is the texture of the air, sobbing is the feeling of the room, sobbing here it feels like strength.
Describing with great detail how her body expresses pain and grieving while her dad embodies suffering, constriction, and discomfort, Sycamore brings to life their uncomfortable intimacy, which haunts the rest of the narrative.
Sycamore moves us adeptly through time and space, collapsing the past and the present in multiple cities as she examines her attempts to forge alternative queer communities and relationships built on vulnerability, truth telling, and a rejection of mainstream norms. Much of the narrative circles and returns to San Francisco in the 1990s, where Sycamore first discovered radical community when she moved there after dropping out of college:
We were scarred and broken and brutalized but determined to create something else, something we could live with, something we could call home or healing or even just help, I need help here, can you help? We were incest survivors, dropouts, whores, runaways, vegans, anarchists, drug addicts, sluts, activists, and freaks trying not to disappear.
At the same time that she captures the electricity of creating one’s own models for doing relationships, queer politics, and making a living, she demonstrates how communities of outsiders also create a set of norms that can be just as restrictive as mainstream communities.
Obviously we believed in attitude: if someone said something about not wanting to judge people, that was New Age garbage. New Age garbage was almost as bad as a trust fund, it was the same thing as stealing from your friends because you were stealing their rage.
And within these communities, individual people enacted everyday cruelties on one another. Sycamore describes larger and smaller betrayals that affected her, even as she does not spare her own complicity in failing other people. When an aggrieved roommate moves out, he spray paints the sidewalk in front of their house with the words, “Matt is a Rapist” in order to hurt Sycamore with the worst possible accusation, not because the roommate believes that Mattilda actually raped anyone. Sycamore reflects:
I didn’t know if I would ever believe in this thing called community. Even now, fifteen or almost sixteen years later, it’s like I’m there again, I can hardly breathe. I’m on the phone with Andy, who says, I never realized all that affected you so much…. But it did, honey, it did.
And then there is the moment when an acquaintance pees on her legs at a party. Sycamore captures the discomfort of a common survival strategy—enduring cruelty by pretending it isn’t happening:
I knew this game even though I’d never played it, never played it in this way but I stood there and acted like I didn’t notice. Kind of like when someone called me faggot on the street, except then I might wave and say hi.
Interwoven with these complicated relationships are Sycamore’s burgeoning politics in communities who end up turning their harsh critiques of the mainstream on each other. Within the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Gay Shame, an anti-assimilationist group she founded to combat the corporatization and mainstreaming of gay culture, Sycamore shows the development of her own political thinking, even as she experiences the perils of doing activism with people who aren’t kind to each other. She also demonstrates the toll all of this takes on her body: pain from fibromyalgia makes some of her favored modes of expression, like dance, increasingly inaccessible.
While each chapter marks some type of disillusionment, Sycamore’s insistence on hoping and feeling—in a culture that promotes numbness—propels her narrative forward. And in a memoir that offers no tidy lessons or sweeping conclusions, Sycamore demonstrates how these very longings for something different can fuel our movements toward liberation.