Story of Her Life

Joe Kowalski

Alison Bechdel must find it bizarre to have millions of people know the story of her life. The fact that one’s life is often referred to as a ‘story’ indicates our fascination with the idea. People like dividing lifespans into chapters and arcs with foreshadowing, analogies, and exaggerated character moments. Instead of a random series of events, the snares and potholes in humanity’s everyday existence become plot points–stops on an inevitable map leading to one’s “destiny” or “legacy”. However, as embraced in Bechdel’s graphic novel dramedy Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), it can be observed that we do not only apply this categorization to other lives, but to our own lives. Sharing that mindset in the form of an autobiography may not be the most historically accurate way to display a person’s life, but it certainly gives an emotional history of that individual that could not be replicated elsewhere. It is because I feel Bechdel best understands life through story and books that I think writing her own book gave her a sense of catharsis about her past’s turbulence she wouldn’t have received otherwise.

Fun Home is an autobiographical masterpiece, focusing on Alison’s extremely strained, yet still complexly intertwined, relationship to her father, Bruce. Throughout the course of the book, told in a nonlinear fashion, Alison explores innumerable topics, such as how she comes to understand herself as a homosexual, how her father’s need to hide his own homosexuality and perversities with teenage boys lead him to create a painfully cold persona, how death has been an inescapable and yet normalized presence in her life, and how she defines her relationship with her family. Alison’s wry sense of humor adds a levity throughout the book that both contrasts and compliments the dark subject matter. Throughout the work, Bechdel also examines her father’s death, and examines whether or not him being hit by a truck was suicidal.

Another theme throughout Fun Home is less overt, though it is can be witnessed quite sneakily throughout the entirety of the text: books. Many of them aren’t just stacked on shelves, but can be seen clearly, titles and all. Both Alison and her father are voracious readers; it is one of the rare things that actually gives them long-yearned-for bonding towards the end of Bruce Bechdel’s life. In the absence of books, Alison still often shows others form of storytelling, whether it be in the cold formality of newspapers, the distressed letters between her and her parents, or even in the carousel of programs flashing on the television. America is a story-driven society and Bechdel illustrates that clearly in her reminiscences of 1970s Pennsylvania.

These references to books and stories in general can’t be mere attempts at accuracy. Someone striving for mere accuracy would not spend so much time making sure the reader sees the titles of the book and experiences excerpts from them. Could it be pure coincidence that when Alison is attempting to avoid the “article’s of clothing” law, packed covertly into a busy and diverse subway, that she is reading Ann Bannon’s “Women in the Shadows”? (Bechdel 107) Is it another coincidence that Adrienne Rich’s “Dream of a Common Language” is spread between Alison and Joan’s intertwined legs on crumpled sheets, when the book is a well-known collection of poems of lesbian and women empowerment? (80) Surely not.  Bechdel was clearly not only trying to convey evidence about how important these books were to her, but how much they formed her thoughts and livelihood.

A very clear example of this is the process through which Alison discovers her sexuality. Alison encounters the word “lesbian” in the dictionary, which sends her off on a spree of reading material that vastly helps her understand the concept of homosexuality and aids her realization that she is gay. Through and through, Bechdel’s development as a lesbian was understood and analyzed via reading material, something that would later on develop into a career as a well-known queer literature author and cartoonist. In fact, according to an interview she did with “The Comics Journal” in 2007 to promote Fun Home, she finds cartooning “inherently autobiographical.” (Emmert)

Even outside of Bruce’s influence, Alison is shown understanding the world through other family member’s stories. She is seen demanding the same story about her father from her grandmother, shown having reached a threshold of trust when she got to help her mother rehearse for plays, and enjoying lots of moments of play-acting with her siblings. There is no shortage of examples as to how stories with every family member enhanced Alison’s life.

When Bruce dies, Alison acts almost entirely callous about the affair. Although she “cried quite genuinely for about two minutes,” (Bechdel 46) her common response to those who questioned about the incident were comprised of “matter-of-fact” indifference (45), “ghastly uncontrollable grins” (46) or even bursts of uncontrollable laughing (227). Bechdel explains that the absence of grief is simply the way that she dealt with her grief, but I think one can dig a bit deeper on the matter if they tried.

I believe that part of the reason Alison lacked great sadness or closure on the ending of her father’s life is due not to lack of grief or empathy, but lack of story. As displayed, Bechdel had previously found much clarity through story. It was the tool in which she discovered more about herself. It was how she began to relate to her father. It is how she communicated with her parents via letters and how she played with her siblings. The suddenness of her father’s expiration, regardless of the cause, left an unfinished story, thus sending Alison’s mind into confusion, and influenced her seemingly bizarre responses. Bechdel all but confirms this with her mention that “The idea that my vital, passionate father was decomposing in a grave was ridiculous.” (227) Her mind, grasping at any sort of conclusion to wrap up her father’s story leads to no avail. She mentions that imagining what her dad’s life might have been like past 1980 didn’t get her far, thinking that Bruce would succumb to the effects of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. (195)

Still unsatisfied by the incompleteness of Bruce’s “story,” Bechdel consistently flip-flops as to how her father died and why. On one hand, she wants to scream that Bruce killed himself because “he was a manic-depressive closeted fag” (125) and on the other hand, she wants to believe that her father could have almost been considered a “victim” of homosexuality, although she acknowledges the negative baggage with that sort of statement. Similarly, she tries to create the story leading up to her father’s death through alleged clues in her father’s books, yet then attempts to cling onto blaming herself for the events of that fateful day, hoping Bruce has created a “deranged tribute”(86) to her.

Twenty-six years after the death of Bruce Bechdel, Fun Home is printed. Although one can never know for sure, the book appears to give Alison the catharsis she always needed from her youth in understanding both her life and her father’s. Her book contains a kaleidoscope of literary allusions, from the story of Icarus to The Importance of Being Earnest, further validating that Alison comprehends life best through the filter of story. Even more fascinatingly, the book was created through an extremely slow and unique process. Every character in every frame of the book was first posed by Bechdel and then photographed as a reference. (Emmert) Through this more advanced form of storytelling/playacting, Bechdel became simultaneously herself, her father, and her mother.

Although she bemoans literary criticism as “highly suspect” (Bechdel 206), Alison is clearly shown engaging in classes where she is making symbolic connections to real life through the books she reads. In her own book, she was not only able to find that meaning in the events of literature, but in the events of present-day history by creating comparisons to Nixon’s resignation and the emergence of gay culture. In an interview Bechdel did with NPR after she won a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” she acknowledges this inspiration. “I worry all the time that my self-reflexive memoir work is self-indulgent. But I also took that seventies feminist mantra very much to heart—the personal is political.” (Quinn)

Truly a labor of love on the labor that is love, Fun Home finally gave Alison a chance for closure to her childhood through arranging her work into plots, chapters, and themes. For the first time, she has the freedom to understand her life in a way that made sense to her. While she left many questions still open, her autobiography pervades a confidence and truth that could not be more honest. Between writing Fun Home and her sequel memoir, one gets the notion that she has finally brought some of the demons to rest. Now it’s our turn to understand the world through story...hers.





Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

Emmert, Lynn. "The Alison Bechdel Interview." The Comics Journal. Fantagraphics Books Inc., …..1 Apr. 2007. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. <http://www.tcj.com/the-alison-bechdel-interview/>.

Quinn, Annalisa. "Book News: A Q&A With Alison Bechdel, Cartoonist And MacArthur ….Winner." The Two-Way. NPR, 17 Sept. 2014. Web. 4 May 2015. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/….thetwo-way/2014/09/17/349209211/book-news-a-q-a-with-alison-bechdel-cartoonist-and-mac….arthur-winner>.