Professor Hilarie Ashton
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, is a graphic novel in which Alison Bechdel, the author of the novel, tells her own story. Bechdel uses comic strips to show readers a revealing look into her life from childhood to adulthood. The memoir tells the story of the development of her sexuality and admittance of her sexual orientation to her parents. Through her artwork, it is seen that Alison’s life is greatly affected by her father as she spends most of the memoir depicting images of her father’s closeted sexuality and the openness of her sexuality.The memoir also covers a number of social issues including the subject of child sexual abuse, gender roles, and depression and how it affected the Bechdel household. Through Alison’s depiction of her perspective of her father and the relationship she had with him, it is seen that society plays a large role on the interactions between family members of a household. If the standards of society are not met within a household, it can result in tension between members within the household.
The memoir begins with an emphasis on Bruce Bechdel’s, Alison’s father’s, obsession with making sure the house looked as clean as possible. At every chance Bruce had to make the house look as pristine as it could be, he did, even at the expense of spending time with his children. Alison recalls a specific memory of playing airplane or the “Icarian game” with her father when she was younger. As she was balanced in the air by his feet, Alison felt discomfort instead of excitement as she rarely had physical contact with her father. As she hung midair on her father's legs, she lost balance and fell. Instead of resuming the game, her father wanted to fix the rug of the living room floor. “This rug is filthy. Go get the vacuum cleaner, and then get me my tack hammer, that strip of molding is loose” (Bechdel 3). This behavior is seen throughout the memoir as he often delegates orders to his children to work around the house. Failure to perform their tasks often resulted in Bruce punishing them through spanking. Bruce Bechdel did not only have an obsession with the appearance of his house but also with the appearance of his children.
An image of Alison and her father on page 97 of the graphic novel, shows Alison's father irate after realizing that a barrette that was once in her hair was removed. When Alison explains that her barrette fell out of her hair, her father responds by saying, “I don’t care! The next time I see you without it, I’ll wale you!”(Bechdel 97). Bruce Bechdel was constantly fixated on making sure that Alison dressed according to the gender norms of society.
The irony of Bruce’s projected feelings towards Alison is seen on page 13 as he is dressed in tight shorts fixing around the house as Alison compared him to Martha Stewart instead of Jimmy Stewart. “What do you think of this gas chandelier?” Bruce asked his wife. “Bordello,” she responded as she smoked a cigarette and looked at him with disdain (Bechdel 13). According to traditional gender roles, women are to be the caretakers of the house while men are to be tended to and usually have no interest in the aesthetic details of a household. Bruce possessed effeminate characteristics yet had a hard time accepting his daughter’s masculine characteristics. Alison reinforces this idea as she states, “Not only were we inverts, we were inverts of one another. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him, he was attempting to express something feminine to me” (Bechdel 98).
As a reader, seeing Bruce’s borderline compulsive behavior towards his family made me assume that Bruce perhaps may have felt that he could not fix himself internally and therefore found some relief in fixing everything and everyone else around him. When Alison described her father's past, it revealed why Bruce behaved the way he did.
“He was molested by a farm hand when he was young,” Helen Bechdel stated as she was on the phone with her daughter Alison (Bechdel 58). This news came as a shock to Alison as the image used for this scene shows herself on the floor with a look of disarray.
According to Melissa and John Hall of the American Counseling Association, there are long term effects of child sexual abuse. “Childhood sexual abuse has been
correlated with higher levels of depression, guilt, shame, self-blame, eating disorders, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual problems, and relationship problems (M.Hall and J.Hall 2). It appears that Bruce may have not been able to deal with his experiences as a child and the probable feeling of guilt and shame carried over into his adulthood. Upon hearing the news of Alison being a lesbian, he may have felt that he failed as a father or that it was his fault. He tried to prevent Alison from being overtly lesbian because all his life he had lived as a closeted homosexual. Having to make sure that his family appeared as a nuclear family although they were far from it, was most likely Bruce trying to protect them from the scrutiny he knew he would receive if anyone dare found out about his secret lifestyle.
“Depression has been found to be the most common long-term symptom among survivors.After years of negative self-thoughts, survivors have feelings of worthlessness and avoid others because they believe they have nothing to offer (Long et al., 2006). Ratican (1992) describes the symptoms of child sexual abuse survivors’ depression to be feeling down much of the time, having suicidal ideation, having disturbed sleeping patterns, and having disturbed eating patterns ( M.Hall and J.Hall 2). Alison Bechdel's depiction of her father shows that not only was her father very unhappy in his marriage, but also very depressed in his home. His depression actually affected the dynamic of the household. The constant beatings of the children, the lack of physical expression, the gallows humor, and the high- reactive temperament stemmed from Bruce Bechdel’s horrific experience as a young boy. Unfortunately, weeks later, Bruce Bechdel ended up dying, although Alison believed it was a suicide. As a reader, it was not hard for me to believe that Bruce committed suicide also especially after Alison's countless drawing of Bruce with a depressed look on his face. Alison also revealed that Bruce was found reading books that fantasized death such as A Happy Death.
The dynamics of a household is affected by the each individual of the household. Families are individuals who are not only connected by blood but also experiences. When one family member has an issue, the entire household is affected as seen with Bruce Bechdel. Bruce’s experience with molestation that led to a fixation of gender roles
and norms within his household and depression. Bruce Bechdel lived his years unhappy with unsettling thoughts in his head that showed out in the way he interacted with his family members. He was fixated on the appearance of his family and his environment instead of dealing with the mental scars he had internally. When he saw Alison showing traits of her love for masculine features, he quickly did what he could to adjust it. Alison and Bruce Bechdel spent their lives being antithetics of each other. After news broke of Alison’s sexual orientation it is evident that Bruce could not comprehend the thought of his young girl whom he had tried to prevent from living a lifestyle come to actually live that lifestyle. Feeling at fault for her father’s death, it is seen that Alison also suffers depression after her father’s death although it was sometimes foreshadowed by gallows humor.
1)Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.
2) Hall, Melissa, and Joshua Hall. "The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Counseling Implications." American Counseling Association. VISTAS Online, 2011. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.
3)Ruzicka, Rachel D. "ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies." Mourning and Melancholia in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. University of Florida, 2004. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.