Reflecting on Fun Home

In Julia Watson’s paper “Autographic Disclosures and Geneologies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home” she introduces the idea that this graphic novel is an ironic self-reflection that plays with print text and visual styles. She also focuses quite a bit on the struggle with sexual identity that excites Bechdel and plagues her father. Watson says:

Gillian Whitlock has observed the “potential of comics to open up new and troubled spaces” (“Autographics” 976). Alison Bechdel’s autographic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) is such a text, a provocative exploration of sexuality, gendered relations in the American family, and Modernist versions of what she calls “erotic truth” (228). It both enacts and reflects on processes of autobiographical storytelling, and exploits the differences of autographic inscription in the art of cartooning.

Watson further explores the challenge that Fun Home presents when she says, “Fun Home invites—and requires—readers to read differently, to attend to disjunctions between the cartoon panel and the verbal text, to disrupt the seeming forward motion of the cartoon sequence and adopt a reflexive and recursive reading practice.”

While trying to wrap my head around the term autographic, I found this Wikipedia article on Autographic film that helped me better understand the concept. Bechdel frequently uses pictures (well, drawings of pictures) with her own thoughts written directly on or to the side of them. In fact, even the drawings that aren’t mimicking pictures have a sense of this autographic quality. Each scene is carefully laid out with regard to posing and lighting in much the same way a photographer considers and frames his shots. The entire book feels like a carefully guided tour through a family photo album, complete with back-stories and embarrassing (or painful) moments on display for the world to see. Bechdel brilliantly moves the reader from panel to panel (or between snapshots) using gutters and her own careful narration to cause closure. Case in point:

Part of pg. 23 from Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Part of pg. 23 from Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

The question of Bechdel’s approach to the mirrored sexuality of both her and her father is described further by Watson:

Fun Home also maps the splits in cultural views and practices that characterized the post-World War II US, torn between the norm of compulsory heterosexuality that had long coded same-sex desire as “inversion,” a clinical term connoting perversion and moral decadence, and a repressed, smoldering consciousness of polymorphous sexuality that erupted in the “gay revolution” of the late sixties and early seventies, with the public protests of Stonewall (1969) and a flood of manifestos and coming-out stories that comprise a counter-archive of modernist reading in the literary world of Fun Home…The father’s and daughter’s contrasting stories anchor the narrative transversals through which Bechdel interprets the paradoxes of her family, which the form of an extended graphic memoir, unlike a weekly comic strip, enables her to track in multiple flashbacks and jagged temporalities. As readers, we are asked to trace the complex narrative arc of her coming of age and/as coming out, enacted in reverse by her father’s covert, furtive liaisons and official heterosexuality.

I find Watson’s view of this to be spot on. It seems like Bechdel spends a lot of time in Fun Home trying to show how her sexuality and that of her father are two sides of a coin. One side is repressed due to the cultural norms of the time (and arguably the confines of normal family life). Bechdel’s father wasn’t allowed to be gay or bi-sexual, and so his experimentation took on a new and perverse tack (though covertly enough that Bechdel herself was mostly unaware of it until college). She doesn’t judge him, though she does posthumously shove him out of the closet he hid in so desperately his whole life. Bechdel on the other hand grew up after the “gay revolution” and was offered the freedom to choose who she was – to chose her erotic truth, as she put it. She didn’t have to hide in shame because she liked women and preferred to dress like a man. Of course, because Bechdel’s father was hiding his own sexual identity, he wasn’t exactly sympathetic and supportive of her choices which is illustrated beautifully by this scene:

Part of Pg. 221 of Fun Home

Part of Pg. 221 of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

I think what was most important to me was that Fun Home gives the reader interesting perspective on memory. Bechdel dedicates the book, “For Mom, Christian and John. We did have a lot of fun, in spite of everything.” This speaks volumes for me, particularly because I already know that her family (though supportive) was a little taken aback at the level of sadness and hurt that translated onto the pages. This can best be attributed to how family memory works. Alison is only presenting the memories she has, complete with her own slightly blue tinted lenses. She pieces together her childhood using snippets of her diary, her mother’s accounts, and old pictures. If either of her brothers had the inclination to sit down and create their own graphic novel using only these same things, it would never come out the same. No two members of a family has the same view of one event in their history, let alone years worth of memories like are presented in Fun Home. Bechdel is simply offering up her own understanding of what growing up was like for her. It is an exercise in coming to terms with her own identity independently and with regards to her relationship with a father that she never quite understood while he was alive. Most importantly though, I think that Fun Home is a form of therapy – getting out the story that you can’t get out of your head, so that you can understand and then move on with your life.

1) Are there any other panels in Fun Home that take on an autographic feel (that weren’t already meant to be pictures)? Why do you think this technique is so effective in telling Bechdel’s story?

2) As Bechdel starts to come to terms with her own sexuality, it seems like her drawings take on a more graphic vein. Why do you think that she chose to include these panels in Fun Home?

3) Do you feel like Bechdel is ashamed of her father’s pedophilia (for lack of a better word)? Does she seem to apologize for it?

4) Bechdel uses much more defined characters in Fun Home than Art Speigelman uses in Maus, or even in Two Towers. Do you feel like this technique allowed you to interact more or less intimately with the text?

5) Would you consider memory to be a reliable source of family history? Does Bechdel seem like a reliable family historian?

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