“Not only were we inverts. We were inversions of one another. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him…he was attempting to express something feminine through me.”
–-Alison Bechdel in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
A few examples of the inverted nature between Alison and her father, Bruce:
As we have previously discussed, Outside Girls often reject the ideology of their class and peers. When I think about the women I’ve written about thus far–like Lindsay, Angela, Daria, and Jessica–I think about how they also write off their parents as clueless and hopelessly unaware of what it’s like. What is “it,” you ask? Everything. In. Life.
As much as I love all these characters and the texts they come from, it’s sad that I, as the reader, never find out whether they ever end up giving their parents the benefit of the doubt. With Fun Home, I found out. Bechdel’s memoir tells the story of her childhood growing up in a funeral home, but it is from an adult’s vantage point. Years after her coming out and her father’s suicide, Bechdel looks back and attempts to make sense of her family. This hindsight gives her a deeper understanding of the volatile, closeted Bruce and her own coming of age.
Alison and Bruce are frequently at odds with one another in the text, but there is an underlying mutual understanding and affection. Bruce recognizes Alison’s sexuality will be a site of struggle in their small town world; he’s lived with this struggle all his life. In fact, I think he knows she will be an Outside Girl before she does, and his constant criticism and insults are his way of protecting both of them. As scholar Robin Lydenberg points out, “their common struggle over gender identity puts father and daughter alternately in conflict and in cahoots.” As cruel as he can be, Bruce considers gender policing the sole way to prevent his daughter from future pain, even as it repeats patterns he must have experienced from his own parents.
Unsurprisingly, this plan does not work. It further drives apart the father and daughter and results in even more familial isolation:
As the home gets less and less fun, the Bechdels become increasingly interested in their solitary artistic pursuits. Bruce’s love of antiquing, restoring furniture and decorating is his way of curbing his desires, while Alison’s drawing is her way of surviving until she is able to leave. Likewise, her mother’s music and brothers’ respective guitar and model airplanes are the only way they are able to find pleasure in the fun(eral) home. On top of this self-induced quarantine, Alison and her family are trapped in a house that her mother describes as “a tinderbox.” Alison herself sees it as something akin to the Addams Family‘s home with its “dark, lofty ceilings, peeling wallpaper, and menacing horsehair furnishings.”
Is it any wonder that Alison chooses to walk away?*
In college, Alison finds a way to embrace her sexuality, is passionate about learning, and manages to reject the repressed, desperate parts of her childhood. And her acceptance of who she is–as something different from her family and the rest of Beech Creek, Pa.–is when she finally sees her father for who he is.
Like so many solid relationships, Bruce and Alison find a way to connect through their mutual love of literature. In fact, Alison takes a suggestion from her father to read Colette‘s autobiography. He appears to recommend it because he wants his daughter to “learn about Paris in the twenties. That whole scene,” but I’m sure the book’s lesbian presence is no coincidence. At this point, I believe Bruce accepts that Alison has chosen to live the way she wants: out of the closet and in exploration of her own sexuality and identity. As Lydenberg opines, Bechdel “is able to cross boundaries her father never dared to transgress.” Bruce recognizes that Alison’s life will be quite different from his and I think this actually gives him joy. Bruce can’t protect her from the inevitable ignorance and intolerance she will face, but he can enjoy the fact that her life as a gay women coming out in the 1970’s will be easier than his life as a gay man who dared not express himself in the 40’s and 50’s.
After her father is hit by a bread truck, Alison and her girlfriend attend his funeral in Beech Creek. As the mourners try to comfort the bereaved family, Alison thinks what she cannot say: “I’d kill myself too if I had to live here.” This is the most memorable part of the story for me. Not only does Bechdel pinpoint the raw honesty that plagues a grieving family, she highlights why she is an Outside Girl. In Beech Creek, she would suffer and could end up just like her father. But she decided to leave all of that shame and repression behind and is the happier for it. I won’t say that Bruce Bechdel was a good father. I will say that Fun Home suggests that he was miserable in his life but was relieved his daughter wouldn’t be miserable in hers. As Alison explains in the narrative’s conclusion, her father “was there to catch me when I leapt.”
*Be advised: I am not saying that Alison chose her sexuality. That is something she was born with, explored, and embraced. Alison’s choice was to extricate herself from a life and community where her sexuality and identity would not be tolerated.
(Image #1 courtesy of funhomememoir.blogspot.com; #2 courtesy of tcj.com; #3 courtesy of dykestowatchoutfor.com; #4 courtesy of cognitivedissident.org)