In a queer person’s life, often, the relationship with their family plays a major role. Whether it be about their parents adjusting to having a queer child, or sibling, and trying to learn; or if they, as can too often be the case, react negatively. For a queer writer, family might feel unavoidable in their work. I’ve struggled with how to approach the subject of my own family as a writer. However, as with most Life Writing, the question of ethics will always be one of great importance. Are you allowed to write about your family? Whose story are you telling? Are you, within the confines of your work, exploring your family as they relate to you? Does it feel like exploitation?
In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic Alison Bechdel puts the family front and centre (The name Bechdel may sound familar due to the cinematic sexism identifer ‘The Bechdel Test’, which she created). In the opening of the book Bechdel introduces us to her father. As a child, she plays a game of aeroplane in their living room with her father and describes the game as ‘a discomfort well worth the rare physical contact.’ This line is a strong introduction to their father-daughter relationship. There is distance and Bechdel is very aware of it. However, what it does most significantly is introduce her father through the prism of Bechdel herself; the man who was a somewhat mysterious figure. ‘In many ways my life, my professional career, has been a reaction to my father’s life, his life of secrecy,’ Bechdel told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. ‘I threw myself into the gay community, into this life as a lesbian cartoonist, deciding I was going to be a professional lesbian. In a way, that was all my way of healing myself.’
In what way might Bechdel need healing? Well, the graphic novel, which pushes the boundaries of both memoir and comic, follows Bechdel as she discovers her own sexuality while exploring her relationship with her father; a closeted gay man who may, or may not, have committed suicide when he died at the age of 44 after being hit by a truck not far from their house. Due to his death, and the time in which he lived, Bruce Bechdel was never able to live openly as a gay man. Something that exhibited itself in all aspects of Bruce’s life. As opposed to Bechdel herself, who contrasts the hidden desires of her father with her own queer education. To begin with there is a definite denial, but Bechdel shows us the key moments of her life as a lesbian: she is away at college she delves into her first relationship with a woman, she sees her first butch lesbian and feels a kinship, she reads seminal queer texts, and gets involved in the LGBT clubs. The difference between Bruce’s queer experience and Alison’s is felt and not ignored. As Rachel Dean-Ruzicka wrote, ‘Fun Home is a text that can show readers the high stakes of claiming a gay or lesbian identity in America.’In this retrospective look at her life, Bechdel can see the signs. She sees the strangeness in her father, in his trips to New York, and his friendship with young male neighbours. She can see struggle in him, as he watches his daughter become the queer person he never could be. She finds pictures after he’s died that he took of half naked men. She examines their bond, which was upheld mostly through literature. She learns about a man she never got the chance to know. A man who no one really got the chance to know.
What’s magical, and heart-breaking, about Fun Home is its disjointedness. Bechdel plays with time and the linear aspects of the narrative. She moves swiftly from one period in her life to the next, she circles back, and loops round. She interweaves her stories, and shows certain moments more than once; these moments are given new credence when they’re repeated. The dripping nature of information and plot allows Bechdel to play with time, pulling together memories in a way that feels real. She creates a scattered image of family life and, more specifically, a scattered view of her father; an image that feels whole-heartedly true. Parents are a central part to almost everyone’s lives, but as you grow up you realise you don’t know them as a person, only as a parent. Generally, as you grow older, you get to know the person, but if you lose a parent at a younger age, you are left to piece together the jigsaw of who they are based on what you know. You can look back, see what was there through more mature eyes, but that image will never feel whole. That’s why the broken-up image of Bechdel’s father feels true, because she couldn’t know anymore than she does.Fun Home has become a literary cult classic in some respects (it was adapted into a Tony award winning musical, that will have its West End Premiere in 2018). The success of the book, and subsequent musical, can only be down to one thing; Bechdel’s writing, which soars and swirls in poetic circles. It’s bold, artistic, sentimental, and blunt. It certainly is a feat of memoir that cannot be ignored; a genre bending whirlpool and a modern masterpiece of queer literature.