Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, The End of San Francisco

Publisher: City Lights

2013, 186 pages, paperback, $16

if you read one memoir this year, pick up Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The End of San Francisco. Sycamore’s avant-garde narrative describes her lifelong search for a queer community—an engaged, critical place of being, outside gay or straight norms. It’s an honest and bold look at sexual abuse, societal brutality, radical queer activism, and self-determination.

As Sycamore details her struggles to escape from middle-class traps and her attempts to heal from traumas, she shows her development into an innovative, passionate advocate for the queer movement. Where the personal and political collide lies at the heart of this memoir—a moving tale of Sycamore’s search for self, her transcendence from anger to forgiveness, and her movement from painful numbness to love and hope.

In The End of San Francisco, Sycamore fractures traditional memoir shape. The narrative’s stream of consciousness style creates a fluidity of time and place, which focuses the reader’s attention on her emotions and thoughts. Without traditional fictive mechanisms guiding the story, location and time recede to reveal the inner workings of a passionate, intelligent, intriguing mind. Her blend of conventional syntax juxtaposed against unorthodox prose creates a powerful tension that shows incredible emotional depth. As Sycamore places these binary segments together, she enhances the emotional content with insightful reflection about herself then, and now. For example, when she goes home to see her dying father and explores the house, she remembers her sexual abuse:

I don’t feel afraid of the house anymore. I can go downstairs where so much of everything happened. The office looks much cleaner, the carpet newer—no stains of mold or come, images of the past or even fear really. The door to the rec room is scarier, especially when I can’t find the light right away, but even behind the bar, in that moldy sink where I was a broken toy—I don’t know, it’s harder to feel all that while also feeling everything now. Like the chimney where I’d imagined myself floating away, away from him splitting me open, right now it just looks like a chimney.

A later paragraph shows Sycamore’s release from these memories, an attempt at healing. As she recounts and comes to terms with the past, Sycamore exhibits a compassionate, forgiving mind. When she talks to her father, Sycamore reaches out with love and kindness:

And then I say what I’m thinking but I’m not sure that I want to say but then I decide to say it anyway:  Even thought you’ve caused me more harm than anyone else in my life, I still love you and I don’t want you to die and I wish we could have a relationship. When I leave the room I feel calm and light, like I’ve said everything and I don’t need to get dragged into nostalgia for something I never had, to watch my father die and hold his hand.  

Sycamore bookends the memoir with her early family life in Washington, DC and her return to say goodbye. However, the heart of the story is her flight from Brown University, where she was expected to surpass her father’s accomplishments and buy into the straight version of the American Dream, to her life in San Francisco, where she begins a search for community and self-identity. Passages describing her immersion in the queer movement show Sycamore’s passion and resolve to find a place of belonging:

I’m talking about a whole generation of queers who came to San Francisco to try and cope. 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. We exchanged books and zines and flyers and gossip, got in dramatic fights over politics, over the weather, over clothing, over who was sleeping with whom—we held each other, we painted each other’s nails and we broke down, honey we broke down.

Sycamore’s idea of community and love revolves around engagement—being present and involved—at every level. She believes “critique meant love, it was the same thing—if I really loved someone I would tell them everything I was thinking, that meant respect. I’d figured out how to make my own rage political, to wield it as a tool for analysis and instigation.”

In The End of San Francisco, Sycamore successfully pulls you into a world full of politics and desire and trauma—painting a compelling, vivid portrait of a person’s search for community, love, and self. There are so many fine passages, it’s difficult to select just a few to illustrate the depth, breadth, and originality of this memoir. It’s rare, an encounter with the truly innovative and revolutionary infused with such emotional depth.

This book has heart. It will touch yours in ways you never imagined.

—M. Perna