Fun Home and Are You My Mother?

FunhomecoverIn these two graphic memoirs, Alison Bechdel chronicles her ambivalent love for each of her parents. The first, Fun Home, deals with her father, who died, possibly by suicide, when Bechdel was in college, not long after she came out as a lesbian and subsequently learned that her father had had numerous affairs with men, including some of his students.

Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and funeral director–the titular “fun home” is the funeral home that was his family’s business. At home, he was often a sinister presence, throwing plates when he got angry; but he could also be attentive, lavishing his care and concern on both the house and the children–although Bechdel wonders how much his care was about creating the perfect image of a perfect home and perfect family.

FunHomepageAs Bechdel tells her father’s story, she must of course tell much of her own. She weaves back and forth in time, addressing aspects of her father’s life and examining how they link to her own experiences. She writes of how she discovered her own sexuality and muses on how her father might have handled his same-sex attraction differently if he’d been born in a different time. If he had been able to live openly as a gay man, however, Alison herself might never have been born. And if he’d lived longer, he might have come up against the AIDs crisis, which began soon after his death. Alison recounts these difficult feelings with detachment, noting them and moving on, but her ambivalent love is always there. She can see the ways they are the same, flip sides of each other, the same song in a different key.

Bechdel uses literature to tie her and her father’s stories together, referring to books they both read, books that made her think of him, and books she encountered at key moments in her life. In the years just before his death, literature drew them closer together. But death, always a presence at the fun home, took him away just as they were beginning to be open with each other.

This book is a fantastic example of how graphic memoir can be complex and multilayered. These aren’t just pictures with a story. It’s all woven together, sometimes with the pictures revealing feelings words can’t express without seeming trite or out of character for a family who are not always free with their feelings. It also gets at how difficult family love can be, while still being love.

are-you-my-motherBechdel’s follow-up memoir, Are You My Mother? is equally ambitious, and in some respects more difficult. Her relationship with her mother is still in progress, a fact that comes up many times during the book as she talks with her mother about it. Bechdel’s mother was a constant presence, always making sure the children got what they needed and dealing with her husband’s rages, but she was not warm. This memoir depicts her both sad and cold, withdrawn into herself, exhibiting strong feeling only when she appeared on the stage. It is, on the whole, a sympathetic rendering, although Bechdel cannot deny that she longed for more affection from her mother, even if she didn’t know what she longed for.

AreYouMyMotherpageA great deal of the book is given over to Bechdel’s time in therapy and her interest in psychoanalysis, particularly the work of Donald Winnicott. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child also play key roles. Bechdel also shares several of her dreams, all of which are laden with symbolism. (I remember my own dreams but not with this level of detail. And they certainly seem meaningless most of the time. I did dream up a great Ruth Rendell–esque crime novel a few weeks ago, and I woke up determined to remember it. I now remember nothing about it and suspect the waking-up part was actually something I dreamed and the novel idea was either nonexistent or terrible.)

I appreciated the way Bechdel is able to balance her tenderness toward her mother and her need to be honest, especially knowing that her mother will read the memoir—that she, in fact, reads pieces of it as it is in development. But the references to what Bechdel was learning from her reading of Winnicott, Miller, and Freud were less effective to me than the literary overlay in the previous book. The material in these readings is too dense and technical to sit alongside Bechdel’s personal narrative. Although the excerpts from their writings are not difficult to understand, I often wanted more context for their arguments and a clearer connection to why Bechdel saw herself in these readings. I couldn’t generate much interest in Winnicott and company because I felt the descriptions and excerpts from their writing distracted from the more interesting story of Bechdel and her mother. The book was a lot of talk about the relationship—and even more about parent-child relationships in general—and not a lot of being in the relationship. The moments when the two interact are some of the best in the book.

Although Are You My Mother? was not nearly as good as Fun Home, I am glad to have read it. I had wondered how Bechdel’s family felt about her earlier memoir, and there’s some good conversation about that, including a great phone conversation with Bechdel’s mother about the ruthlessness of the memoir writer. I wonder if reading it so close on the heels of her much stronger first memoir enhanced or detracted from my reading of the second, and I can’t quite decide. I was glad to have the earlier story so fresh in my memory, but I think I was better able to see where the second story fell short having so recently finished the first.

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11 Responses to Fun Home and Are You My Mother?

  1. I’ve known about Allison for years, and was honored to be part of the Amazon Bookstore Collective with her in Minneapolis three decades back. Not only are these books wonderful, but her long running comic series Dykes to Watch Out For is a great way to see the history of how things “used to be back in the day……” and how Madwimmin Books (aka Amazon Womens’ Bookstore) was

    • Teresa says:

      That’s so cool to have that connection to her! This was my first time reading any of her work, but I’ve heard great things about Dykes to Watch Out For.

  2. Deb says:

    Have not read Are You My Mother, but I loved Fun Home. One of the funniest and yet saddest moments in the book is when Bechdel can’t figure out why everyone else thinks The Addams Family is so funny because to her living in an ornate gothic mansion is a normal thing. I also loved the line, a person becomes middle-aged the day they realize they will never read Remembrance of Things Passed.

    • Teresa says:

      I enjoyed that Addams Family bit, too. And I loved that throughout she was able to make the story sad and funny, and that’s true of both books—there are so many feelings expressed simultaneously.

  3. I think the more you remember dreams, the more you remember dreams. It’s a habit you get into, more than anything else. Dream analysis always seems like a very fuzzy branch of psychoanalysis — not that there isn’t cool symbolism to be had in dreams (my subconscious can be very clever!), but using them as a proper tool of analysis seems airy-fairy mystical in a way I don’t like, as if a therapist were using Tarot cards.

    ANYWAY. Bechdel is awesome. I got Fun Home for three dollars at a book sale recently! :D

    • Teresa says:

      The night after I wrote this, I actually had an extremely vivid dream that I remembered in some detail the next day. But my dreams are weirdly mundane, without a lot of symbolic objects and stuff that I can remember. The weirdness is more in leaps in time and people transforming from one person to another–stuff like that. As for cleverness, I’m annoyed that my subconscious wrote a very clever book and didn’t force it into my conscious so I could write it myself. (I’m choosing to believe the book I dreamed up was clever.) I’ve heard people say that flying or falling or whatever in dreams always have particular meanings, but I tend to wonder if that’s true. It seems like those things might have a different meanings to different people, even if some meanings are pretty common. But I can see how trying to figure out the meaning might be useful in therapy, as long as there’s no pressure to hew to a particular reading.

      • Deb says:

        A wise friend once told me, “It’s not what you dream about but how you interpret what you dream about that matters.”

      • Well, I will just say this: My sister one time mentioned that she kept a dream journal for a month and started finding recurring motifs in her dreams? And I got jealous that she had recurring motifs so I kept a dream journal for a while too. And the more days I really tried to remember my dreams, the better I remembered them and the more I found that images and symbols recurred. I don’t know what they meant but at least they were interesting! (I dream about trains a lot. Like, a lot. Missing trains, catching trains at the last second, sitting on trains waiting for them to start, reading a book on trains.)

  4. I hadn’t heard that Bechdel did a memoir about her mother too, I need to track that down and read it!

  5. Art Deco says:

    I had wondered how Bechdel’s family felt about her earlier memoir, and there’s some good conversation about that, including a great phone conversation with Bechdel’s mother about the ruthlessness of the memoir writer.

    Bechdel’s sister-in-law offered a condemnatory online review and seems to have been the only one to have read it critically. Alison Bechdel’s whole shtick is a dubious bit of business.

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