All opinions expressed in the following piece belong to the author(s).
Thoughts While Re-reading Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home’
I recently reread Alison Bechdel's award-winning, 2006 graphic autobiography, 'Fun Home'. In this filter-free book she vulnerably illustrates her memories of growing up with her parents and two younger siblings in the residence-part of a rural Pennsylvania funeral home -- "the fun home" as they called it -- where her father was funeral director.
It had been years since I first read 'Fun Home'. I had forgotten the potency of her graphic descriptions of growing up under her two natal parents who appear cold, emotionally distant, with an extreme dismissive-attachment style. Yet both were artistically gifted.
"Our home was like an artists' colony. We ate together, but otherwise were absorbed in our separate pursuits. And in this isolation, our creativity took on an aspect of compulsion... the worst thing you could do in my family was need something from someone."
In a later interview as an adult, Bechdel reflected on her parents' emotionally dismissive legacy, "I don’t feel I deserve to exist unless I’m working."
Fun Home displays a physically secure childhood of benign neglect. Bechdel survived it with recurrent episodes of mildly decompensating defences. Somewhere around the middle of the book she describes her obsessive-compulsive rituals trying to manage the unspoken family rule to be responsible -- as a child -- for her own inner life. Several sad (to me) pages graphically display how a smart, keenly observant young person attempted to self-regulate childhood demons of loneliness and insignificance.
"First it involved a lot of counting. Trying to manipulate the slightly leaky bathtub faucet with my toe so that it would stop [dripping] on an even number of drips... Odd numbers and multiples of thirteen were to be avoided at all costs... Then came the invisible substance that hung in doorways... This had to be gathered and dispersed constantly, to keep it away from my body -- to avoid in particular inhaling or swallowing it... After I cleared it away [by waving a hand in front] the invisible substance would immediately replenish itself... At the end of the day, if I undressed in the wrong order, I had to put my clothes back on and start again...
"No matter how tired I was after all this, I had to kiss each of my stuffed animals -- and not just in a perfunctory way...
"Though it verges on the pathetic, I should point out that no one had kissed me good night in years."
Several following pages detail her unwillingness to believe in her own capacity to know what was real or true, and her terror of confusing the two. She began inserting into her daily diary "I think" after every statement.
"I made popcorn. I think."
I recognized a child trying to adapt as best she could to being physically cared for but affectively ignored. Especially as Bechdel makes clear that her father -- who turned out to be hiding a secret, living a double life -- was the parent who engaged her enough to challenge her to read classics. In her poignant memoir, his interest in her appears rooted in his own lonely wish for intellectual companionship. I.e., her father recognized a very smart family member who was able to read as incessantly as he did. In response to his interest, she mirrored his own life-splitting -- overtly rehearsing the covert habit of her closest attachment figure by denying herself basic confidence in her own lived experience.
"We watched the Brady Bunch. I think."
A good story, well-told, in 2014 'Fun Home' helped Alison Bechdel receive a very hefty MacArthur grant for “changing our notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form”.
Well done -- re-reading recommended. (Or first reading if you missed it.)
Publisher: ddpnetwork.org (Oct 2020)
Article Copyright © Robert Spottswood, 2020