In 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.
As 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.
Bechdel’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.
A 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.