8 September 2022
On Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
I’ve been putting this one off. The task seemed too daunting. I didn’t even know what to say about the book, at first. I have margin notes, but something stalled my cognitive processing of the overarching content. This should always signal something amiss…and what was amiss I’ve now identified. So it’s time to get this thing done – which required breaking through the stalemate, forcing myself to re-enter the text, to finally process my thoughts and digest it as a whole.
This book sat on my shelf for nearly two years, untouched. My bestie, Gretchen, recommended it; her recommendations weigh heavy for me, so I purchased it instantly. But when it arrived in the mail and I saw that it was a graphic novel, I set it aside. I think I wrote it off as beneath me – as too informal, childish, unworthy. Well. Obviously my ego got the better of me there…it won’t happen again, not in this way, rest assured. Yes, this is a graphic novel; however, it is the rawest, realest, most powerful family drama – and nonfiction at that! – I’ve ever read. Gretchen’s recommendations should never be doubted.
Bechdel’s story is one of paternity: it focuses specifically on Alison’s relationship with her father. The structure is predominantly chronological (with snaps back and forth in time – and a time-of-writing sensemaking writer’s voice), and as such, the reader’s comprehension of Bechdel’s very complex father develops over time alongside Alison’s own developing cognitive acuity.
At the very beginning, Alison represents her father as hard, unyielding, meticulous – almost as though he suffers OCD or another personality disorder. Bechdel writes, “Still, something vital was missing. An elasticity, a margin for error. Most people, I imagine, learn to accept that they’re not perfect. But an idle remark about my father’s tie over breakfast could send him into a tailspin” (18). This representation of the father felt all too familiar to me. Perhaps it gave me subtle flashbacks to my own upbringing.
Yet with time, as she realized that her own interests aligned quite tidily with her father’s, Bechdel’s perceptions of her father broadened to encompass nuance. For example, when she takes his class in high school, the two of them are the only ones in class who wind up participating: “Sometimes it was as if Dad and I were the only ones in the room. The sensation of intimacy was novel. I think we were both starved for attention” (199). Dad is no longer quite so hard, here. In sharing this experience with Alison, he is opening to her, showing his softer side, developing a connection that was previously tenuous.
Finally, we learn (although it was hinted throughout the book from the start) of her father’s secret life. He tells Alison when she is in her twenties: “When I was little, I really wanted to be a girl” (221). And because Alison really wanted to be a boy, perhaps the barrier between them in this moment disintegrated. Alison then moves backward in her mind to use this fact as an explanation of all her father’s previous behaviors in the household of her upbringing. While at first Alison depicted him (and perceived of him) as cold, unforgiving, meticulous, now she represents him as hyper-vulnerable. It’s amazing the defenses he constructed to protect his inner self from harm in this volatile world. Really, the whole time he was merely trying to be himself in a world where he could not, so he would always hold a piece of himself back…this limited his capacity for authentic connection with anyone, including Alison, until he understood that not only could Alison be trusted, but she needed his support on that front.
In that, it’s a beautiful tale. I’m always a total sap for dynamic characters and authentic relationships.
Okay so let’s talk about Alison’s journaling methods. Obviously, she wound up being a New York Times Bestselling author, so I’m inclined to inspect her journaling techniques as a child. At first, Bechdel’s journals were just recounting of events that occurred each day. This is basic, but it makes sense. What strikes me is that what she remembers outside of her journaling is far more complete than what she wrote about it at the time. For example, on a camping trip, she journaled, but “Considering the profound psychic impact of that adventure, my notes on it are surprisingly cursory. No mention of the pin-up girl, the strip mine, or Bill’s .22. Just the snake – and even that with an extreme economy of style” (143). Which indicates to mee that there is value in writing as a child, in terms of developing a habit, but not in terms of memory-keeping.
Further, Bechdel began to doubt her own perceptions (which seemed astute to me, considering her youth), thus including the words “I think” before every sentence – and sometimes multiple times within a sentence. Eventually, because she was writing it so often, she replaced “I think” with a carrot like this: ^. “Soon I began drawing it right over names and pronouns. It became a sort of amulet, warding off evil from my subjects” (142). Understanding that our personal reality is not necessarily the same as the personal realities of those surrounding us is critical. It’s one of my greatest concerns in writing nonfiction/memoir. Bechdel obviously felt the same.
At one point, as the tension reached a crescendo with her father’s trial, psychologist visits, and Alison’s first period, her journal entries petered out completely: “By the end of November, my earnest daily entries had given way to the implicit lie of the blank page, and weeks at a time are left unrecorded” (186). Throughout her recollections of journaling, but especially here, it is almost as though, in Alison’s fear of being read by prying eyes, her journals became altogether worthless. Perhaps Alison did not want to write about the things she was thinking because she was convinced they were somehow immoral or wrong; thus to put these thoughts on paper is to accept the vulnerability of someone reading them by chance. Best not to write, then. I’ve been there. I’ve had these thoughts about my writing. It wasn’t until I became unapologetic about my writing, telling myself that if someone was offended by what they read in my journal, it was their own fault for reading something not destined for their consumption, that I could express myself freely on the page. It’s clear Bechdel got there eventually, or this graphic novel would not exist. I’m glad of that – Virginia Woolf would be proud.
Finally, I was thrilled by Bechdel’s depiction of her first orgasms. I’ve been searching for literary orgasms for at least a year now, and this is the first I’ve encountered. It made me happy because it’s a topic I have written, myself, and keep hidden. Yet why should something so beautiful be hidden away? Bechdel’s depiction is so liberating in that sense. She writes,
Although I did not allude to masturbation in my diary until I was sixteen, I began the assiduous practice of that activity soon after I got my first period. I didn’t know then that there was a word for the oddly gratifying motion of rocking back and forth in my chair as I drew at my desk. The new realization that I could illustrate my own fantasies filled me with an omnipotence that was in itself erotic…Nor did I know that there was a word for the inevitable result of this shifting about inn my chair…the implosive spasm so staggeringly complete and perfect that for a few brief moments I could not question its inherent moral validity. (170-171)
Let me reiterate, “…I could not question its inherent moral validity.” Never before in my reading have I encountered a text that so clearly and unabashedly absolves masturbation and climax of those archaic accusations of “sinfulness.” It’s almost as though Bechdel wipes from sexual conduct the grime that thousands upon thousands of years of religion have placed upon it – and I could squeeze her so hard for that! What a boon to speak of it so freely, to perceive of it without such ponderous moral immensity. Beautiful. So human. So real.
Despite my prejudices, this graphic novel proved as moving as any other text I’ve read. I’ve always said, “I’ll read anything,” but I never realized what a lie that was. I need to do better. Fun Home was worth it.