Secrets and Understanding in Bechdel’s Fun Home

by Maddie Coleman

In her memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, author Alison Bechdel uses the family home as a symbol to explore her identity and her complex perceptions of her father. Throughout the book, Bechdel takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery as a lesbian woman amid a warped family dynamic, one permeated with lifelong secrets and lies. Part of this self-discovery is rooted in her analysis of her relationship with her father, Bruce Bechdel, after she uncovered his lifelong secret of being a closeted gay man. Through her depictions of her childhood home, Bechdel not only demonstrates the manner in which the intricate house acted as her father’s hiding place, but also how its prominence shaped her differing perceptions of her father from childhood to adulthood.

The memoir revolves around Bechdel’s childhood home and family-owned funeral home she and her siblings affectionately named the “fun home.” The title Fun Home also ironically illuminates the way in which the physical nature of the Bechdel family home resembles a carnival “funhouse.” According to Jennifer Lemberg’s essay “Closing the Gap,” just as a funhouse distorts reality, the Bechdel family home “served as a screen for [Bruce’s] unhappiness” and facilitated “his effort to hide” (131). While this viewpoint is manifested in Bruce’s tireless efforts to perfect the house throughout Alison’s childhood, what it fails to convey is the manner in which the Bechdel family home actually acts as the last means of physical and emotional contact Bechdel has to her father. As she reflects on her life after his death, she is able to see her relationship with her father in a different perspective than she did as a child.

Her father’s revelation distorts her perception of him as well as her remembered perceptions of her home. On the twentieth page, four panels are equally spaced out, a symmetrical layout that is rare in the memoir. Although the captions should be read left to right, the visuals seem to encourage a U-shaped read. In the upper left panel, young Alison is seen walking through the hallway of the second floor of her house. It seems as if she is about to walk down the stairs pictured in the panel below. To the right, an elderly woman almost runs into a mirror that reflects that flight of stairs. Leading upstairs now, the eyes are drawn to the top right, or, to the top of the stairs, where young Alison is pictured entering her bedroom. This visual interpretation supports the idea that Bechdel’s new, aged perspective demands she re-explore her home and memory and perhaps take a new path through both.

She even manages to represent her father’s “pervasiv[e]” and “invisibl[e]” shame through graphics (20). Illustrating the upstairs of the house, she shows angles with multiple doorways, vertical lines, and pathways in order to express how “the meticulous, period interiors were expressly designed to conceal [his shame]” (Bechdel 20). If the reader looks again at the third panel of the stairway leading to the second floor, there is a glimpse of her father reading in his bed tucked away amongst various doors and walls, just barely in frame. Bechdel’s miniscule, partially hidden drawing of her father emphasizes not only how she believed her father used the house more has a hiding place than a home but also how distant she felt from her father as a child. This barely-sketched figure has powerful resonance because it uncovers a source of deep hurt in Bechdel’s psyche: that her father hid not only from reality but also, more painfully, from his family, from her.

In addition to showing that the family home served as a mask for her father, Bechdel’s depictions of the house serve to unmask and reconcile her past and present perceptions of her father. On one page, the panels depict Bruce tirelessly adjusting and fixing aspects of the house alongside an annoyed, bored young Alison. These pictures directly conflict with the text in order to reveal the gap between Bechdel’s perceptions of her father as a child and as the adult writing this memoir. In the text, she praises her father in utter admiration:

[He] could spin garbage…into gold. He could transfigure a room with the smallest offhand of flourish. He could conjure an entire, finished period interior from a paint chip. He was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of décor. (6)

Yet, these accolades are coupled with drawings of young Bechdel being used by her father as a decorating prop. Bechdel draws her father standing back as Alison holds a decoration up to the wall complaining that “[her] arm’s falling off” to a seeminly in different father. In addition, on the bottom panel, Bruce is in one room fiddling with a flowerpot while she and her siblings can be seen in the other room watching TV, unimpressed with their father’s decorating skills. The description of her father in the memoir directly contrasted with the drawn evidence of her indifference towards him and his work at the time may reveal that she has grown to admire her father’s talent and work ethic. She has, at the very least, embodied these same characteristics: her use of hyperbole, allusion, and alliteration as well as meticulous drawings reveal her own talent in décor.

Another example of her disparate perceptions of her father and home shifts the emphasis away from the house directly onto her father. Early in the text, Bechdel reveals that she had been embarrassed of her house and her father’s work when she was younger. She recalls, “when other children called our house a mansion, I would demur.” (5). In fact, Bechdel reveals that because of her house’s architecture and decoration she had been unable to differentiate her own family from the Addams Family, thinking to herself: “Here were the familiar, dark lofty ceilings, peeling wallpaper, and menacing horsehair furnishings of my own home” (34). These perceptions of her father and the family home as a child that seem hinged on distaste and disapproval transform in the hands of the adult memoirist. On the bottom panel of page seven especially, for example, her father stoically carries a wooden post hung over his shoulder, with a silhouette of the house in the background. It is clearly an allusion to the passion of Christ. In the caption, Bechdel is unsatisfied with simply describing furnishing the house as his father’s passion: “And I mean passion in every sense of the word. Libidinal. Manic. Martyred.” (7). This depiction of her father, which blurs divinity and humanity, implies that she recognizes his sacrifice and his suffering.

Bechdel excavates scenes from her childhood home to characterize her father and discuss her altering views of him as a child and as an adult. Looking back, Bechdel recalls her father’s dedication to the family home that, at times, came at the cost of Bechdel and her family’s happiness. As a child, she was burdened by her father’s constant efforts to better the house at the expense of his relationship with his children. She even saw his work on the house as a means of escaping reality and avoiding his problems. However, now that she is able to retrace her own childhood and home, to make connections that she couldn’t make as a child, and to regain some narrative control, she is able to see her relationship with her father from different vantage points and arrive at some point of empathy that neither vilifies not aggrandizes him.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

Lemberg, Jennifer. “Closing the Gap in Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36.1/2 (2008): 129-40. Web.