The End of San Francisco

87286100931050LThe End of San Francisco
By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
City Lights, March 2013
192 pages / $15.95  Buy from City Lights or Amazon







When I left Seattle and went to grad school in Los Angeles at the end of the 1990’s, I read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and it changed my life. It gave me a framework to understand the searing misunderstandings going on in the feminist self-defense collective I had been pouring my heart and soul into since we came together in response to the rape and murder of our friend Mia Zapata. Some of us in the collective became best friends while others of us could barely speak to each other without spitting. Sisterhood was powerful but it was also alienating. Any unified identity as a community, the word we used to describe who we were and who we felt accountable to, was absolutely imagined.

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is kind of an odd place to start a review of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new book, The End of San Francisco, since she is an antidote to rather than perpetrator of sterile inaccessible academic writing. But The End of San Francisco is as much social critique about the impossibility of collective dreams as it is a memoir looking back at queer and feminist community building in the ‘90’s. And it feels life changing reading this book in the midst of the marriage debates.

The book moves in and out of time and geography, traveling in a non-linear journey across several U.S. cities including Seattle and, of course, San Francisco. This journey is a timely reminder that creating a queer family once meant we were running away from the families that rejected us, that broke our hearts, sometime our bones, and often our will to live. It’s a story for all of us who ran as far as we could to find the other freaks searching for new ways of being family and being in relationships that were more than our parents’ misery. This is a story about those of us who gave a shit about health care, survival and telling our stories, not getting married or getting tax breaks.

There is no distance between memory and remembering in the writing. It’s all happening at once. As a reader I felt like I was inside my own memories while I was given access to the formative moments of someone else’s life. I kept wanting Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore to be sitting next to me so I could say, “Right, me too.”

“I grew up believing I was evil, that if anyone ever saw my true self they would know I was a monster that deserved to die, except when I wanted to die, but I didn’t want to know that and so I knew that I always had to hide everything so they wouldn’t know.”

Right, me too.

“Zee was telling me about a professor who raped him and I was holding him but thinking why can’t I feel it or actually I went past the non-feeling to thinking why, why get so upset about something like that, it’s happened to me hundreds of times.”

Right, becoming aware of not being phased by the violence as a form of self-protection. I know that one well.

One of my favorite passages in the book is when JoAnne, Mattilda’s best friend, kicks heroin and comes to visit her on the East Coast. JoAnne is there when Mattilda confronts her family about incest. JoAnne is the one who gets back at uninvited straight guests fucking in living room. And eventually, JoAnne rides the train back to San Francisco with Mattilda when the East Coast has become too much. But none of these things actually happen because JoAnne is already dead. This passage is both fantasy and memory. It is the process of remembering through the act of writing and through the act of reading. Beautifully pushing the edges of memoir, as readers we are invited in to the memories. JoAnne is dead, Mattilda is devastated, I feel loss. The memories aren’t mine. And yet they are. All of these things are undisputed truths.

Undisputed truth is at play throughout the book starting with the opening scene of confronting her dying father, again, about his sexual abusing her when she was a young boy. This sets the stage for the book being about remembering as much as about memory. First person, second person, singular and plural are used interchangeably, placing the narrator and the reader in various relationships as each memory unfolds.

“…I’d taken a break from direct action for several years, I was trying to figure out how to engage in activist groups without taking everyone’s anger into my body.”
“In ACT UP meetings you had to be ready for someone to tear you to shreds anytime you said something…. if you said something wishy-washy or unprocessed then several people would jump on you at once.”
“We tried to create a large-scale radical queer activist group, but we got stuck in the endless discussion about what our mission statement and tactics would be and the meetings became smaller and smaller.”

I am reading about meetings I wasn’t at, that happened in different cities with different people, but I am reading about the meetings I was part of at the same moment in time. The act of being placed in different locations as a reader creates the effect of being in an affinity group with the writer. It’s not a closed conspiratorial place, its back to that sense of “Right, me too.” Except here it changes to “Oh yeah? You too?”

Our temporary alliance expands when interviews are included as a device for remembering. Our relationship as narrator and reader shifts again but so does the relationship between narrator and self.

Me: For me the important thing was what we were creating together. I do remember I wanted to start an affinity group with you and a few other people who I really trusted, like Derek.

Socket: But I never trusted Derek.

Me: I know.

At the end of the book I feel like I am finally sitting next to Mattilda as she grabs me by the hand and takes me into the center of remembering: “But let’s go back to the sixth grade,” “But lets go back to the Pearls,” “But let’s go back to that bottle of Gilby’s gin,” “Wait—remember that picture of the girl building a heart-shaped sand castle? I look closer. That’s not Cindy Pearls it’s me.” These memories, unlike the ones about community, are so clearly her own. They are about the painful moments of never fitting in as a queer kid who doesn’t yet know the positive part of gender-nonconformity. I’m the friend being invited in to witness the loneliness of needing a friend.

The layers of longing for connection to others woven throughout the book has gotten deep under my skin, shifting some of my own molecular level memories. Heartbreak, disappointment, neglect, abuse, and ­­­­­­­­­­­­shattered trust over and over and over. And over. Again.  But it’s not brutal. The End of San Francisco is a reminder of the ways hopefulness runs alongside longing. It is a model for turning internalized pain into unabashedly anti-assimilationist liberatory politics.

And it’s a reminder of the absolute perseverance needed to believe something different is possible.


Jessica Lawless is a regular contributor to make/shift: feminisms in motion. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where she writes, arts, and teaches gender studies.

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