Banned Book Week: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home
Written and Drawn by Alison Bechdel
Published by Mariner Books

The dedication in Fun Home probably speaks volumes about Alison Bechdel’s comic book and her family; “For Mom, Christian and John. We did have a lot of fun, in spite of everything.” It is important to notices the memories that open Fun Home, images of Bechdel and her father Bruce doing things that fathers and daughters do, as he encourages her in different ways to fly. And he does this because he’s there to catch her. The first image is him lying on the floor, legs sticking up as he balances Alison in the air at the end of his feet. The last image of the comic (not really a spoiler) is of him in a pool, ready to catch her as she leaps off of a diving board. With both sequences, Bechdel introduces and concludes the book ruminating on the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. Fun Home becomes this epic family story about a flawed father and a daughter who spends her life trying to find out who her father is.

Bechdel’s storytelling bends back on itself at many points, painting not a linear narrative of her childhood. Instead, her retrograde structure gives us her story and her father’s story as puzzle pieces and it requires us to put it together to form our own image of Bruce Bechdel just as Bechdel is doing herself. She gets the important pieces out of the way early; he most likely killed himself in 1980 two weeks after his wife asked him for a divorce; he was a cold man who never quite fit into the world of small town Americana; he was a gay man who secretly had sex with men and teenage boys. All of these realizations about her father hit Bechdel at different points in her life even as she has to realize that she’s also gay. Bruce and Alison are very different people but the influence of Bruce on her life gives Alison a unique perspective on who she wants to be and who she is.

The image we see of Bruce is colored through a daughter’s affection for her father. And even she realizes that Bruce’s life is a troublesome one. A closeted gay man, there are hints and allegations of a predatory nature of his sexuality. A school teacher, he apparently used his position to find boys to show favor on. As Alison discovers more about her father’s life while realizing her own sexuality, she struggles with the image of what her family should be in the small, idyllic town of Beech Creek and what she comes to know life to be like. A couple of times during Fun Home, she references the television show The Brady Bunch, a vision of perfect suburban family life from the 1970s that was so far from reality that its father as well was a closeted gay man.

Bechdel’s parents Bruce and Helen kept secrets from their children. Alison is a young girl through most of the book, trying to discover her own identity like most pre-teen and teens have to. When she finally writes home from college to tell her parents that she’s gay, the very unexpected response she gets back from her mother is “so is your father.” It’s a crucial moment for the daughter as she tries to separate herself from her parents and what she figures is their small town morals, only to be told that she’s more like one of her parents than she thought she wanted to be. This was her big stab at independence and striking out on her own and suddenly the whole narrative of her childhood suddenly comes into sharp focus as she finally discovers who her father is.

The structure of Fun Home makes it so that this momentous revelation for Alison which comes a fair distance into the book is no shock for the reader. Bechdel revealed that big plot twist within the first few pages of the book. The secrets in Fun Home aren’t that Bruce nor Alison are gay. Bechdel focuses on what that means for Bruce to be married and a father. He is not particularly good at either role but at the time in the 1970s, it was nearly impossible for him to be himself in any part of the country other than a major metropolitan area like NYC. The drama of Bruce’s secret is what shapes Fun Home as Bechdel explores what those secrets mean within the context of her family and the small town where they lived.

Bechdel is showing us the story of two people who are going through roughly the same thing but with completely different experiences. Bruce is forced to hide his sexuality while Alison in this book is able to be who she is without the shame that Bruce lived through. After his suicide, her mother is left to tell Alison more about who her father was. The one conversation with Bruce after Alison comes out to her parents is awkward and unfulfilling. “But which of us was the father? I had felt distinctly parental listening to his shamefaced recitation. And all too soon we were at the theater,” Bechdel writes of the one real conversation they had after her father tries to explain to her his experiences.

It seems too simplistic to describe Fun Home as a book about being gay or straight. Or about being good and bad. Bruce was gay and he wasn’t the best father or person. But for Alison, he was her father and that means something to Bechdel as she tries to create a full image of the complicated man that Bruce Bechdel was. The book is a complex look at a father, a mother and a daughter who are trying to be some Brady Bunch reflection of a family but know that they are much more flawed than that. The secrets that they keep put up these barriers between this family, as they try to protect themselves from what those secrets mean.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home has been a challenged book since shortly after it was released, most recently in 2015 by college students who found it “pornographic” and “garbage.” That alone is a cruel thing to say about Bechdel and her book. What Fun Home shows us is the complications about suppressing the truth about ourselves and how it damages more than just us. If Bruce was just a closeted gay man but he successfully portrayed himself as a straight husband, father and community member, Bechdel’s book would be tragic but wouldn’t have power behind it. The empathy that Fun Home asks of its readers to see how these secrets harm everyone around the secret holder forces us to examine our own reactions to these challenges of our own worldviews. It’s not enough to read Fun Home as a story about Bechdel’s family but we need examine our own responses to the book.

There are plenty of ways to read Fun Home and view Bruce Bechdel as the villain of the piece. It’s not his sexuality that makes him that but the ways that he acted on it. It’s the ways that it shaped his family, his town and most importantly his daughter. But in the end, his daughter still loves him with maybe only the love that a daughter could express. Bechdel wrote and drew this book not to absolve Bruce of his sins but to explore the cause and effect of Bruce’s life. Fun Home is about a daughter’s discovery of who her father really is. It’s still part of our cultural DNA to picture our parents as just versions of “Ozzie and Harriet.” When we discover the truth that our parents are just as human as their children are, it’s scary to have that final puzzle piece to be able to look back on our own stories and to complete the picture of who they and we are.