Carl Jung once wrote that nothing has a stronger influence on a child’s psyche than the unlived life of a parent. I see it in myself. The story of my mother in high school playing Anna in The King and I hung around our family like a visiting relative. Is this why I constantly find myself wanting to act, not just onstage but all the time, a continuous performance? Stemming, of course, from my mother’s abandoned career as an actress. I’ve thought about it now and again, the influence it must have had on me—all of my mother’s early dreams of Broadway replaced by reality: a 30-year stint as an English teacher.
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel seems to be looking for something similar at work: How did the unlived life—or, at least, the secret life—of her father seep into her unconscious? Did it shape her life as an artist? As a homosexual woman?
Ms. Bechdel calls Fun Home a “tragicomic,” a witty description of a graphic memoir for those of us who (though we’re aware of the new developments) are still adjusting to the idea that what we used to call “comics” can be a serious venture. And, in fact, Fun Home is sad, funny, dark, intense.
In the first few pages, we’re introduced to an unhappy family: a tense and cold marriage, repercussions felt by the three children. We see a father who’s exacting, full of self-hate and ruled by an intense passion for home decorating. Early on, Ms. Bechdel jokingly compares her father to Martha Stewart, but later we see how his seemingly benign preoccupation takes its toll on the family. He yells at his children and hits them; he treats them as “extensions of his own body, like precision robot arms.” It appears that most of their childhood is spent decorating, dusting, rearranging their museum of a home. Ms. Bechdel writes: “[S]ometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. A sort of still life with children.” The drawing here is of three small children kneeling at the foot of a gigantic Christmas tree, flanked on either side by long, heavy curtains; their father standing in the shadows, drinking wine and admiring the scene.
The father, it turns out, is a closeted homosexual who has sex with the family baby-sitters, yard hands and others. He brings these young men along on family vacations while the mother stays behind—because she “doesn’t like the woods.” Of course, the mother is aware all along of what’s going on, but she chooses not to make trouble.
As an adult, Ms. Bechdel finds an envelope marked “FAMILY” in her father’s handwriting. Inside, along with pictures of her and her two brothers on one of the family vacations, is a photograph of the young baby-sitter who accompanied them on several holidays. He’s posed on a hotel bed in his underwear. The photo is dark and sexy.
So there it was, the whole time, only partially veiled.
Ms. Bechdel, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, got her start more than 20 years ago when she began drawing a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. Since then, DTWOF has become a cult favorite, spawning a biweekly strip that’s syndicated in over 50 periodicals, as well as 10 book-length collections. Fun Home is Ms. Bechdel’s first full-length foray into autobiography, and she does an excellent job. The writing is smart and meditative; the drawings are sharp and gothic and add depth to the already layered memoir, reinforcing the darkness of the text.
Literature played an important part in Ms. Bechdel’s development, and she makes more than just passing reference to Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wallace Stevens. Her father introduced her to the great works and accidentally showed the way to a life of writing. It was through her father that Alison was introduced to lesbian culture in literature: He insisted at one point—before she came out—that she read Colette.
The title of Fun Home refers to the family business, a funeral home. Ms. Bechdel’s father took over the business when his own father became too ill to clean up corpses and arrange funerals. It was at the Fun Home, when Alison was still a child, that her father introduced her to death—in a manner befitting a cold and unemotional family: He calls her into the back room of the funeral home, where he’s preparing a corpse. Ms. Bechdel recalls the “strange pile of genitals,” but what really gets her attention was the corpse’s “chest, split open to a dark red cave.” She tries not to betray any emotion. Her father asks her to hand him the scissors. “It felt like a test. Maybe this was the same offhanded way his own notoriously cold father had shown him his first cadaver. Or maybe he felt that he’d become too inured to death, and was hoping to elicit from me an expression of the natural horror he was no longer capable of.” She hands her father the scissors and asks if that’s all, just the scissors. “Mm-hmm,” is her father’s only response.
In a chapter titled “Happy Death” (an allusion to Camus’ novel), we find out that Ms. Bechdel’s father died after being hit by a truck. It’s not entirely clear whether it was an accident or not, but Ms. Bechdel chooses to think of it as suicide: “It’s true that he didn’t kill himself until I was nearly twenty. But his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him. Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb. He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence steaming off the wallpaper, digging up the dogwoods, polishing the finials … smelling of sawdust and sweat and designer cologne. But I ached as if he were already gone.”
Ms. Bechdel came out to her parents in the hope of putting some distance between her and the family, only to be “pulled further into their orbit.” From a liberal-arts college in a different state, she types a coming-out letter. When her mother gets the letter, she phones to disclose all the family secrets. Alison’s own coming out is overshadowed by her father’s hidden life. Note that the mother, not the father, delivers the news.
Alison does get to share a moment of honesty with her father about their sexuality. At the end of the memoir, on their way to see Coal Miner’s Daughter, Alison asks her father whether he knew what he was doing when he gave her Colette to read. This is how she broaches the subject of their shared gayness. The father doesn’t acknowledge his role in her gayness, but does admit to feeling jealous of the openness exhibited these days on college campuses. Then, in an interaction typical of their one-sided relationship, he rattles off the names of men (boys) he’s been with over the years, never thinking to ask her about her sexuality. All the while he’s facing forward, driving. He has one hand on the steering wheel, the other on his face, holding up his chin.
Shaina Feinberg is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.