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A Little in Love with Everyone: On Alison Bechdel

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This is an excerpt from  A Little in Love with Everyone: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Homeby Genevieve Hudson, part of the …AFTERWORDS series from Fiction Advocate.  

coverBefore Alison Bechdel became an award-winning cartoonist, she was a tomboyish girl in a small Pennsylvania town with parents who had once hoped to be artists but had settled instead for jobs as high school English teachers. Her father also worked a part-time undertaker, running the family funeral business. Bechdel’s bestselling graphic memoir Fun Home (think funeral home, think carnival) is described as a “family tragicomic” on the front cover, but there is more tragedy than comedy at play. The memoir is an excavation of Bechdel’s childhood and adolescence as she comes out as a lesbian only to be told that her father is secretly gay. Just months after Bechdel reveals her orientation to her family, her father Bruce commits suicide—or rather, he is hit by a Sunbeam Bread truck in an incident that Bechdel believes he architected. Fun Home tells the tale of two different kinds of queer lives—the liberated, lesbian daughter and the closeted, bisexual father—as they orbit each other in the same domestic universe and become confronted with the secret they share. She is coming out; he is made to face, by his daughter’s coming out, an identity he’s kept sealed off from the world.  

One of the things that draws me to Fun Home is its obsession with secrets. It is about the secrets we tell and the secrets we keep. From the outside, the Bechdels might have seemed regular enough—maybe a tad gothic, given their gig as funeral home directors— but Fun Home shows us that nothing in their family was as it seemed. Bruce’s violent outbursts, his dalliances with male high school students, and his bisexuality are hidden beneath a performance of domesticity that he acts out with theatrical precision until the day he dies. 

In the first chapter, aptly titled “Old Father, Old Artificer,” Bechdel uses descriptions of the family’s restored Gothic Revival house and its flamboyant, Victorian decor as a metaphor for her father’s love of illusion. Bruce spent years toiling over the family home, using the renovations as a kind of artistic expression: getting the drapes just right, installing porch supports, ensuring every inch appeared just the way he wanted. She tells us renovations were his “passion,” “in every sense of the word.” He was a stickler for presentation. Panels portray him shirtless, perched on a ladder, securing gables to the house’s exterior or about to affix reams of floral wallpaper to Bechdel’s room. It was the staging, the veneer of flawlessness, that Bruce pursued. He was an “alchemist of appearance,” more consumed with how things seemed than how things might actually be. The Bechdel family home was literally a house of mirrors. In one panel, Bechdel draws an elderly woman, who is lost upstairs, touching a mirror placed against a wall that projects a false image of an ascending staircase: “Gracious,” says the woman. “I almost walked right into this.”  

At her father’s funeral, Bechdel wonders: “What would happen if we spoke the truth?” This question rings out across the pages of the memoir. The truth, according to Bechdel, is not just that her father committed suicide but that his death is somehow connected to his hidden bisexuality. Or perhaps, even more tragically, his death is somehow connected to her coming out as a lesbian. As a memoirist, Bechdel’s job is to tell the truth about herself, and her father’s suicide and sexuality are intrinsically bound up in her own story. To read Fun Home is to see Bechdel wrestle with the question of the truth—how well her father hid his, and what it means for her tell to tell her own.  

At her father’s funeral, Bechdel imagines herself yelling at a man who tries to comfort her by telling her that God works in “mysterious ways.” She daydreams that she shouts: “There’s no mystery! He killed himself because he was a manic depressive, closeted fag and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one second more.” But this response is just a fantasy. Bechdel doesn’t actually have it in her to say that—yet. It will take years before she tells her father’s story, before she can reveal who he really was and who she became in light of him. The bond between her father’s death and her life, his lie and her truth, is a tenuous one, but Bechdel is eager to tighten the knot that holds them together.  

Through Fun Home, Bechdel becomes the architect of these overlapping stories. She draws back the curtain on her father’s secrets. As I read the book, I was struck by the way her illustrations, with their graphic cues and visual descriptions, deepen her storytelling powers. She controls her father’s expressions, his gestures, his speech. She chooses, panel by panel, how to literally frame their lives.  

* 

When the reader first meets Bechdel’s character in Fun Home, she is indistinguishable from a boy. We see her young, maybe six or seven. Her hair is cropped short, mussed and tussled. This is her default mode. When she’s not being put in dresses by her parents, the young Bechdel chooses slacks and striped shirts for her lanky frame. She is already in awe of boyish aesthetics, and as she gets older she becomes taken with men’s fashion magazines. 

Bruce expects his daughter to act like a conventional girl. She is failing. He tries to get her to dress in frilly outfits and embrace a femininity that she doesn’t have and doesn’t want. Fun Home shows Bruce wondering after her absent barrettes and then exploding in anger as he tries to wrestle one back into his daughter’s scraggly hair. When she refuses to wear his pearls, Bruce asks her, cruelly, if she is afraid to be beautiful. Bechdel retrospectively muses at the irony: that while she was “attempting to compensate for something unmanly in him,” he was trying “to express something feminine about himself through her. Bechdel wanted “muscles and tweed” just as Bruce wanted “velvet and pearls.”  

Bechdel shows us the many ways that she and her father are reversal of each other. She is, as Bechdel says, “Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his Nelly. Utilitarian to his Aesthete.” But they have one critical thing in common: their “shared reference for masculine beauty.”  

In an article about mourning and melancholia in Fun Home, the scholar Rachel Dean-Ruzicka points to a scene where Bruce and Bechdel are clearly gripped by the same projection of masculinity. Young Bechdel is kicking back, admiring a magazine spread where a male model is shown lying on his side. Bechdel is struck by the picture and calls her father over to look. She tells him he should get a vest like the one the man is wearing.  

“Nice,” he says. “I should.”  

The same masculinity, the same “object,” compels both Bechdel and Bruce, but it compels them in vastly different ways. Bechdel desires the smart vest that makes the man look so suave; her father desires the man himself with his hard abs that the vest is opened to reveal.

* 

Bechdel comes out to her parents in a letter she writes while attending Oberlin College. Although she has not acted on her lesbian hypothesis, Bechdel is convinced she is queer and feels compelled to share this with her parents. She licks the seal on the envelope, deposits it in the mail, and returns to her treasure trove of lesbian literature to read and wait for their response. Soon she receives a charged letter from her mother, who is anything but pleased.  

“Your father has had affairs with other men,” her mother tells Bechdel later on the phone. This is the first time Bechdel has heard anything about her father’s bisexuality. In this series of panels, Bechdel’s character is first shown sitting on the floor with the phone pressed to her ear. Her eyes are wide with shock. She moves into what looks like a fetal position. In the corner of one panel, Bechdel has drawn the book Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, filling in the small queer details that had begun to infuse her life. Her mother’s disclosure sheds some light on why it might have been difficult, perhaps even painful, for her to hear that her daughter was a lesbian. Her mother’s relationship with Bruce, the other queer person in her life, had been associated with secrets, lies, and even cruelty. It was not a good precedent for what a queer life could be. When Bechdel asks her mother why her father isn’t the one telling her this stunning information, her mother responds: “Your father tell the truth? Please!”  

And with that, the spotlight turns from Bechdel and angles back to her parents. Bechdel is trying to tell her family her own story, her own truth, but suddenly she becomes a “footnote in her parent’s failed marriage.” Her father’s lie overshadows her truth, while simultaneously linking her coming out and his dark secret together. Bechdel does not have much time to process the new information—months after this phone conversation, her father dies. Bechdel is tragically freed from his expectations about what a queer life should look like.  

“And in a way, you could say that my father’s end was my beginning,” writes Bechdel. “Or more precisely that the end of his lie coincided with the beginning of my truth.”  

* 

As she contrasts her burgeoning lesbian life to that of her closeted father, Bechdel is aware of the different historical contexts that shaped their respective realities. She wonders what it would have been like if she had come of age in another time. After her post-college move to New York, Bechdel writes that she “became fascinated with lesbian pulp fiction from the fifties—the bar raids and illegal cross dressing.” On the subway she reads a book written about dykes in the ’50s and how they could be subjected to body searches by the police to confirm that they were wearing at least three articles of women’s clothing.  

In another scene, Bechdel draws her parents, younger, childless, during a stint in New York in the ’50s, and imagines her father glimpses a butch lesbian on the street as he holds open a door for his wife. The woman she imagines her father seeing is dressed as a man: short combed-back hair, tailored button down, slacks, lit cigarette. Her father is peering into his sister life, the life he could have chosen, but didn’t. Bechdel writes: “would I have had the guts to be one of those Eisenhower-era butches?.” The undertone is clear: though she isn’t sure if she would have had the courage to live an openly gay life at that time, she knows her father didn’t.  

There was a world of difference between being out in the 1980s and being out in the 1950s. Stonewall, in 1969, was a tipping point. It signaled the beginning of a consolidated, organized, and visible political movement for gay rights in America. Bechdel and her father were born on opposite sides of this landmark event. Bruce was born in 1936, when having a consensual sexual relationship with someone of the same sex was illegal. In fact, many states considered it a felony. Medical professionals viewed homosexuality as an illness. Gay people could be subjected to “treatments” that included lobotomies, shock therapy, and sometimes even castration. If you were queer, you were deemed sick by the society you lived in. In order to avoid these consequences, people with queer inclinations protected themselves in a variety of ways. Bruce, like many other queer men and women of his generation, chose to repress–or hide—his identity. He kept his desire a secret. 

After his daughter came out, Bruce wrote her a letter that gave her a glimpse into his life as a questioning, queer boy in rural America before Stonewall. Or at least the closest thing to a glimpse he was capable of giving.  

Taking sides is heroic, and I am not a hero. What is really worth it? … There’ve been a few times I think I might have preferred to take a stand. But I never really considered it when I was young…Let’s face it things do look different then. At forty-three I find it hard to see advantages even if I had done so when I was young … I’ll admit that I have been somewhat envious of the “new” freedom (?) that appears on campuses today. In the fifties, it was not even considered an option. 

According to Bruce, being out during his adolescence required a heroism he did not have. It would have taken courage to live an openly gay life in spite of the legal and physical threats that were common to queer people during that time. There was virtually no literature or music or film that articulated the queer experience or served as a form of representation, which must have felt even more isolating. In his letter, Bruce acknowledged the difference in the time periods by admitting he was “envious” of the “new freedom” on college campuses. But he was unwilling, or unable, to use the label gay or bisexual to talk about his desire. He didn’t even explain what it was that he is envious of.  

Bechdel was born in 1960. By the time she came out, in college in the early ’80s, gay rights protests had spread throughout the country. She entered into an established lesbian subculture at Oberlin College and in New York City. There was a vibrant, yet still underground, lesbian feminist revolution taking place on the margins of America. While lesbianism was being celebrated on the fringe in communities of like-minded people, queer people were still reviled, ridiculed, and ostracized by the greater society. But in those edges, things were happening.  

When she portrays her new lesbian life in Fun Home, she allows this subculture to animate the background. In the bedroom of her first lover, she draws lesbian relics of the time: a “lesbian terrorist” t-shirt is pinned to the wall next to a “keep your God off my body” sign. 

“The notion that my sordid personal life had some sort of larger import was strange but seductive,” Bechdel writes above a panel where her character is at a party, sipping something from a cup, overhearing one girl say to another: “Feminism is the theory. Lesbianism is the practice.” There was the feeling of something underway. JEB’s photography book of lesbian portraits had recently been published. There were queer writers to read and Michigan Womyn’s Festivals to attend. It was the time of the original The Future Is Female Shirt, lesbian separatism, women’s rights. The personal had become political. Queer people had begun documenting their stories and building up a library of their experiences, because it seemed important to create images of people like them. Gay and lesbian people were refusing to stay hidden, asserting themselves into the cultural consciousness. In 1983, only a few years after she came out, Bechdel began drawing her “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip, which documented the daily lives of lesbians and ran for 25 years. Perhaps this visibility and solidarity are what Bruce spoke to when he said he was envious. 

But when Bechdel daydreams about what kind of life her father would have lived if he had decided to come out in his youth, another theme from the ’80s emerges—the AIDS epidemic. In a contemplative scene, when Bechdel is fresh out of college and living in the city, she unlocks her bike next to a poster for an AIDS fundraiser. She rides out to the New York Harbor, which was, as a newspaper article she includes in one panel suggests, ground zero of the world AIDS epidemic. As she stares out into the water, Bechdel considers, almost wistfully, how some lives are considered expendable. If her father had chosen to live as an open gay man, would she have lost him anyway? In her imaginings, either her father’s body is destroyed by the virus, or she ceases to exist in the first place. After all, if Bruce had come out in his youth, Bechdel might never have been born.  

* 

“I do feel like in many ways, my life, my professional career has been a reaction to my father’s life—his life of secrecy,” Bechdel tells Terry Gross during an interview on Fresh Air. “I’ve been all about being out and open about being a lesbian since I came out in 1980,” says Bechdel. “It’s been my career.”  

Bechdel’s artistic expression centers on exposure, confession, and documentation, just as her father’s renovations where all about artifice and obfuscation. Her lived experience is the material for her work, just as her father’s artfulness obscured the realities of his life. In a public conversation with Bechdel, the writer and biographer Judith Thurman asks if the raw and explicit scenes Bechdel culls from her life are a kind of writerly “strategy.” Bechdel responds: “I want you to trust me. And how can you trust me if I’m not showing you everything?” In her work, Bechdel does the opposite of lying. She excavates the real. She dredges up the stuff of her life, embarrassing parts and all. She draws herself rocking against a desk chair at sixteen until she gives herself an orgasm, stuffing wads of toilet paper into her underwear so she doesn’t have to tell her mother she started her period, and in bed naked and having sex with her girlfriend. Bechdel reveals herself to her readership in blindingly intimate detail, as if to say: you can trust me, I’m baring it all. Her father, on the other hand, is shown covering the skin on his cheeks with a bronzing stick and dashing upstairs to change a tie after Bechdel pokes fun at it. Although her acts of exhibitionism are diametrically opposed to her father’s life of hiddenness and shame, the two modes appear fundamentally connected.  

Bruce becomes a kind of a cautionary tale about what can happen if you stay hidden, or perhaps of the tragic effects of growing up gay during a certain moment in American culture. Bechdel, with her celebrated creative career, is example of what can happen if you speak your truth, or perhaps what can happen when you come out in an age of increased visibility. Throughout Fun Home, Bechdel demonstrates the complexity of her connection to Bruce, as if to show that their relationship transcends truth and secret, the hidden and the revealed, the living and the dead. 

The post A Little in Love with Everyone: On Alison Bechdel appeared first on The Millions.

A Little in Love with Everyone: On Alison Bechdel

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