Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore Credit: Charlie Stephens

In the annals of queer memoirs, some conventions have become cliches: Being Misunderstood, Coming Out, the First Relationship, Running Away. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new memoir, The End of San Francisco, reworks all of these into a text where memory is inherently unstable, and where such experiences achieve a freshness while remaining uncompromisingly queer. It’s a text that both remembers and reminds but is also a record of a historical and cultural forgetting.

At one point, Sycamore describes the nostalgia that overtakes her memories of club life, in a single sentence that’s a page long and part of which runs thus: “when it wasn’t about who you knew when everything was cheap when everything wasn’t tacky when you knew everyone when people actually dressed up when everyone wasn’t so dressed up . . .” And on and on, contradictions piling up against each other, challenging the reader to believe or disbelieve her version of what life was like.

At the heart of this complicated yet masterfully told tale is San Francisco, for decades the Emerald City of the queer imagination. The city has seen drastic changes in its landscape and perhaps its spirit. A new injunction against nudity caused much bemoaning of the loss of a core San Francisco value, the freedom to express oneself sexually and physically. More gravely, in recent years, city administrations have fought poverty not by increasing housing, for instance, but by actually sweeping the poor out of sight—with measures including stringent policing and surveillance tactics directed against poor and homeless people as well as severe antiloitering laws. Like many local queer and antipoverty activists, Sycamore has been part of the movement against San Francisco’s rabid washing out of the poor.

Sycamore (whom I’ve known as a friend for years) explores the connections between sex and public life, but in ways quite different from those who mourn the inability to walk around in the nude (and indeed, the pro-nudity movement has been less about sex than about self-expression). She writes about wanting to think about “public sex as a way to escape and connect”—a connection queer radicals have often made. Sycamore was in New York for a time during the Giuliani mayoralty; the decimation of public sex outlets like the video stores and bathhouses that once dotted Times Square—cast off as the seedy detritus of a bygone era—was directly connected to the bleaching of the city to its neoliberal bones. It was among the first signs that a queer sexual culture, which linked sex to politics, would be making way for the politics of respectability looming on the horizon.

The point for Sycamore and her fellow activists, including those in the group Gay Shame, was never simply that fucking in public was a radical act unto itself. Rather, they sought to demonstrate the link between the privatization of a city’s resources—and their dwindling for its poorest—and the shutting down of activities deemed too “private” or unsavory for public consumption.

The End of San Francisco records Sycamore’s arrival in the city when it was still possible to find cheap rent, and when ACT UP was active in the fight against AIDS. “ACT UP meant politicizing everything, and that’s what queer meant to me,” she writes. “ACT UP meant fighting AIDS because everyone was dying, and it also meant making connections—between government neglect of people with AIDS and structural homophobia and racism; between the US war machine and the lack of funding for health care; between misogyny and the absence of resources for women with AIDS; between the war on drugs and abandonment of HIV-positive drug addicts and prisoners.”

But the memoir is also a record of Sycamore’s incest or, rather, of how she spent years first coming to terms with it and then with the force of its effects upon her. The End of San Francisco is bookended by visit Sycamore makes to her family home, to see her dying father and to insist he acknowledge what he had done to her. The father was a therapist; obfuscation was one of his skills. When we first meet him he’s old and frail, and their interaction is a curious mixture of dread and tenderness, as everyone mills around the dying man, knowing too well that Sycamore is there to demand the truth from him.

Sycamore attended Brown University but eventually dropped out to flee to San Francisco, feeling it was futile to try and change the world from within the walls of a private university. She would, over the years, flit away from the Bay Area for periods of time, to Seattle and New York, but she always returned.

She doesn’t hide her own class origins and relative privilege—or, at times, her own class-based insensitivity. At one point, she tells her father, who was in the habit of evading the truth about nearly everything, that he needed to acknowledge that “you’re not middle class, you’re rich.” When a friend at Brown, on scholarship, receives a Guatemalan rug from her working-class mother, Sycamore insists she get rid of the “tacky” gift.

Class remains complicated throughout—Sycamore, for a period without family support, was, like the band of queers she traveled with, often on the edge of homelessness and drug use. But the stakes were different for everyone, with each person coming into their experiences with different sets of survival skills and cultural literacies that either helped them manage or proved insufficient.

Meanwhile the city kept changing. Sycamore locates part of that change in the very communities that gave it its gritty aura: “We brought the trendy restaurants and boutiques that we stared at with anguish and disgust, the yuppies we scorned—it was our fault that the Mission was no longer known primarily as a high-crime Latino neighborhood or just a place for thugs and welfare cheats and crack addicts on disability. We were the beginning of the end and we didn’t know what to do because we’d just found the beginning.”

Sycamore no longer lives in San Francisco, but the kind of work she did there continues: activists highlighted in this book focus on housing and prison issues; Gay Shame is now in its 11th year, and still staging demonstrations against the corporate takeover of the city. This isn’t a nostalgic piece but that rare thing, a political memoir told with personal candor, and which makes it clear that the connection between fucking and political change is always palpable.