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Closing the Gap in Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home"

Author(s): Jennifer Lemberg


Source: Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1/2, Witness (Spring - Summer, 2008), pp.
129-140
Published by: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27649739
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THEGAPINALISON
CLOSING BECHDEL'S
FUNHOME

JENNIFER
LEMBERG

Alison Bechdel's 2006 memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, makes a


and claim for the power of narrative as witness.
strong explicit graphic

Employing the straightforward visual style developed over more than


years as creator of the comic toWatch Out For, in Fun
twenty strip Dykes
Home Bechdel explores her relationship with her father, Bruce, who died
when she was in college. Although his death was declared an accident?
he was hit by a truck while working outdoors near their
family's home in
rural is convinced it was a suicide, a of his
Pennsylvania?Bechdel sign
The event occurs after she comes out to her
deep unhappiness. shortly
as a lesbian, an announcement that is followed the revelation
parents by
that her father, too, has struggled with his sexuality. In the memoir,
Bechdel seeks to understand the connections between her father's life
and her own and to work the trauma that can
through accompany queer

identity. Created in the shadow of a father who "used his skillful artifice
not to make but to make to be what were not"
things, things appear they

(2006a, 16), however, Fun Home bears witness not only to Bruce
Bechdel's trauma and its effect on his family, but also to the artist's effort
to claim the to their
authority represent story.1
Bechdel's comic at first seem almost "invisible" behind her
style may

exploration of other mediums, and literature.2


particularly photography
and texts are critical to her effort to uncover her
Photographs family's
and she relies on them in Fun Home.
history, extensively structuring

Hillary Chute notes that a family photograph drawn by Bechdel appears


at the of every chapter (Bechdel 2006b, 1009), and these are
beginning
carefully paired with phrases from works of literature relevant to this

story of two and their well-read In


English-teacher parents daughter.
this context, what Bechdel has called the "usual cartoony she uses
style"
to draw most of the book seems to exist in service to the "real" docu

ments and images it is used to explore (1009). Yet, as Ann Cvetkovich


observes in her essay for this issue, the contribution of literature and

[WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly 36: 1& 2 (Spring/Summer 2008)]


? 2008
by Jennifer Lemberg. All rights reserved.
130 THEGAPINALISONBECHDEL'S
CLOSING FUHHOME

photographs to understanding the story of a life are interrogated within


the memoir, their usefulness as evidence or narrative mod
documentary
els held up to careful scrutiny (see pages 116 and 122, this volume). Pho

tographs prove difficult to decipher, while overidentification with liter


ature and about other threatens to throw lives off course.
by people By
each of her with words and that bear a
framing chapters images complex

relationship to each other, Bechdel reminds us that it is in the space


between visual and familiar where we make
existing images storylines

meaning of our individual lives. Here, that is precisely the space


described by comics. And while Fun Home casts doubt on our ability to
the visual and textual worlds around us, it also invests a
interpret partic
ular faith in its author's chosen medium.

Cvetkovich rightly identifies Fun Home as a work of what Marianne


Hirsch has called postmemory (see page 113, this volume), a term for how
the memory of trauma to one can the memo
belonging generation shape
ries of the next (Hirsch 1997, 22). In her ongoing study of postmemorial
visual art, Hirsch has stressed the importance of "forms of identification
that are which artists communicate the
nonappropriative," through may

memory of transmitted trauma without to know it fully


claiming (2002,
88). This is accomplished most successfully, Hirsch maintains, by work
that "allows for a historical withholding that does not absorb the other" but
is also able to "expand the circle of postmemo ry in
multiple, inviting, and
open-ended ways" (88). Consistent with these ideas, Cvetkovich shows
how Bechdel admits to being unable to truly know her father's trauma
and thereby preserves the specificity of his story. however,
Additionally,
Bechdel relies upon the visual element of comics to the reader into
bring
her complex family history. As Hirsch has argued in
Family Frames, "The
individual subject is constituted in the space of the family
through look
and Fun
ing" (1997, 9), throughout Home, Bechdel highlights moments of
perception that offer illuminating forms of knowledge crucial to her
as a woman, a lesbian, and an artist both within and outside
development
the visual field proscribed by her father's watchfulness.
Intent on telling her family's story, Bechdel must her
get beyond
parents' and denials, even as her commitment to the truth
deceptions

prevents her from speculating too widely. Despite her father's seemingly

overwhelming influence in the memoir, however, after his suicide,


Bechdel writes, "his absence resonated
retroactively, echoing back
through all the time I knew him," so that she
experienced something that
LEMBERG 131

was the "converse of the way amputees feel in a limb. He


pain missing
was there all those . . . But I ached as if he were
really years. already
She is anxious to bear witness to her father's
gone" (2006a, 23). presence
in her family and seeks to counter this "absence" through her art. One of
the ways inwhich she responds to this challenge is to present her father in
his many different a malevolent an
aspects?as "lowering, presence";
a student a woman's
aspiring "country squire"; college wearing bathing

suit; and even, as a order to the and


finally, corpse?in convey depth
of his character.
variety
To further thematize the difficulty of recovering her father's pres
ence, Bechdel depicts her childhood encounters with the visible world,
of the memoirist's to that which would otherwise
part attempt represent
remain unseen. Crucial to her exploration is the Bechdel family home, a

nineteenth-century Gothic Revival house that, like her father, is com

plex and multifaceted. "Fun home" is a nickname for the funeral home
her father (an event that brings Bechdel's
inherits parents back to his
to live), but it also suggests, in its
hometown similarity to "funhouse" or
"funny farm," the distortions of Bechdel's childhood and the way the
house her father restores serves as a screen for his
slavishly unhappiness.
that her father was there" the author to render
Proving "really requires
not the rare moments of connection between father and
only daughter,
but also his effort to hide. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his con

tinuing struggle to perfect the house, which therefore becomes the most
visible feature of his presence.
The family's house and her father's internal conflicts are directly
linked in the narration as well as the of the memoir. "His
composition
shame inhabited our house as and as the aromatic
pervasively invisibly
musk of Bechdel writes. "In fact, the meticulous,
aging mahogany,"
interiors were to conceal it. Mirrors, distract
period expressly designed

ing bronzes, multiple doorways. Visitors often got lost upstairs" (2006a,
20). On this single page, Bechdel employs an arrangement used only
in the book, with four of the same size
rarely rectangular panels evenly
laid out.6 In their the the sense of order her
symmetry, panels convey
father strives to achieve in his obsessive attention to his
surroundings.
more however, we find of an interior
Looking closely, images upstairs
that is but also as Bechdel describes.
perfectly arranged unsettling, just
In the the vertical of the hallway are inter
panels, stripes wallpaper
a series of doorways, behind which we glimpse young Alison
rupted by
132 THEGAPINALISON
CLOSING BECHDEL'S
FUHHOME

slipping into her room or spy her father safely tucked away in bed.7 We
are unable to see their faces, so that the physical space overpowers our

perception of the people inside. The more visible human figures in the
and lower-right as a child and a rep
upper-left panels include Bechdel
resentative visitor to the house who stands, confused, before a large
(funhouse) mirror that seems deceptively like yet another doorway.
Both figures are simply drawn, so that the daughter who lives there and
the unnamed guest seem similarly lost. With the equally sized panels

promising order that we do not find, the confusing vertical lines of the

doorways, stairwells, and wallpaper, and figures that are barely visible
or are unknown to us, we the house's interior as a series of
experience

refusals, and like its occupants, we have difficulty making sense of what
we see.

points to the challenge as well as the importance of seeing


Bechdel

past her father's constructions in her depiction of the house. But as she
makes very clear, the order of the house belies the chaos of the life lived
within it, not just her father's shame but also the messiness of everyday
interactions. "It's to in retrospect, that our fam
family tempting suggest,
was a sham," Bechdel reflects. "That our house was not a real home,
ily
but the simulacrum of one, amuseum"
(2006a, 17). However, she affirms
that despite the lies, just as her father "really was there," "we really were
a
family, and we really did live in those period rooms" (17). With these
words we find a long horizontal panel depicting a great deal of activity: a
cat strolls across the room; the children race toy cars around a track, play

YgTWEREALLY ANDWEREAU-YDID LIVEIMTHOSEPERIODROOMS.


WEREA FAMILY,

? 2006
Fig. 1. Excerpted from Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Copyright by
Alison Bechdel. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
LEMBERG 133

with or drawers whose contents are in dis


Tinkertoys, dig through open
while Helen Bechdel reclines on a settee, her husband on
array; sitting
the floor watching television, drinking wine, and eating straight from a
giant bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
This image, which invites the reader to linger over its length and
assorted details, stands to counter several others it, where the
preceding
a more another
family presents perfect appearance. Just opposite, long
horizontal panel shows them composed and still, posing for a photograph
taken Bruce Bechdel, as the narrative
by looking, says, "impeccable."
This is followed by another image of the family in church, and yet another
pose for a this time taken by Alison and accompanied by the
photograph,
reflection that it would be to view her as a "sham." When we
easy family

finally see the family in disorder back at home, it reminds us of the ability
of comics to depict the life behind the formal pictures. The panel demon
strates the artist's interest in the surfaces, the stories
"going beyond telling
the to open the curtains" 1997,
surrounding images, attempting (Hirsch

107), which Hirsch defines as part of many contemporary artists' effort to


the "familial that and certain con
get beyond gaze" "imposes perpetuates
ventional images of the familial" (11), and which, typified by the two
poses for a camera held first by the father and then by the daughter, exists
in tension in the Bechdel household.8
From an Bechdel maintains a toward
early age, suspicion appear
ances in response to her father's behaviors, and this has an on her
impact
to the world around her. As an adolescent diarist, she
ability represent
an crisis" when she is a
experiences "epistemological paralyzed by grow

ing awareness of the "troubling gap between word and meaning" (2006a,
143). The problem persists until her mother intervenes to help her record
her activities, in an instance of the older woman's or of
daily caretaking
her introducing Alison to a language of denial. As Cvetkovich remarks,
the crisis is caused in large part by Alison's growing awareness of the
silences in her family's life and the sexual secrets they imply (page 121,
this Even as Bechdel demonstrates how becomes
volume).9 writing
almost for her, however, she offers several of the
impossible examples

way in which drawing seems capable of filling the "gap" between lan

guage and its subject. What remains unspeakable in her family and
in her can be at least
unrepresented diary partially represented through
While she does not articulate how or this is so, she
images. precisely why
as a more direct mode of
consistently privileges drawing representation.
134 THEGAPINALISONBECHDEL'S
CLOSING FUHHOME

Without elaborating on her thoughts about the workings of the


comic form, Bechdel nonetheless tells us that before she was stricken by
the inability to write, as a child she was captivated by the images in her
Wind in theWillows coloring book, in particular by the pictures on the

map of "the Wild Wood." In addition to the pleasure of recognition


offered by the resemblance of the map's topography to that of her home
town, Beech Creek, the the pro
pictures accompanying place-names
vided a special fascination: recalls, a "mystical
they offered, Bechdel
bridging of the symbolic and the real, of the label and the thing itself
(2006a, 147).10Unlike the dissonance of writing, these simplified images
seem to exist in harmony with their subjects, and Bechdel carries this

early understanding of drawing into her adolescence. It is precisely when


she is unable to write that Bechdel locates as an outlet for
drawing queer
desires that, under her father's vigilant maintenance of her femininity
and oppressive social norms, are continually held at bay.
seems both to
Drawing produce strong feelings and to provide a
medium capable of expressing them, and Bechdel's discovery of the
power of visual art is rendered as a climactic At
creating experience.
one a series of reveals Alison alone at her desk as she
point, images
sketches a lithe young male basketball "an
player and experiences
omnipotence that was in itself erotic. In the flat chests and slim hips of

my surrogates, I found release from my own burden of flesh"


increasing

(2006a, 170). Over several panels, we see first Alison's hands drawing
the young man; then the lower part of her body as she rocks in her chair
to achieve then her hands now the desk sur
orgasm; again, clutching
the she's made as she an
rounding picture experiences "implosive spasm
so and perfect that for a few brief moments I
staggeringly complete
could not question its inherent moral validity" (171).While drawing the
has not itself caused her to orgasm, the makes it so that
picture caption
the reader encounters these two acts almost their con
simultaneously,
nection made explicit.

Special significance attaches to the picture Alison draws in this


scene, the of visual art to express ideas that her writ
emphasizing ability
cannot In an earlier set of we see Alison
ing support. panels, firmly
rooted on the ground, her male cousins' bodies arc the
watching through
air as they play a game of basketball (Bechdel 2006a,
96-97). These scenes
are a
interspersed with others depicting struggle between Alison and her
father over her to wear a barrette in her a
unwillingness hair, symbolic
LEMBERG 135

battle in which she resists his efforts to make her more obviously femi
nine. "It the hair out of your he tells her. "So would a crew
keeps eyes,"

cut," she and continue to for two her father


responds, they argue pages,

insisting she wear the barrette before she goes out and replacing it after
she removes it the Alison's resistance to this
during game (96). wearing
feminine accessory is premised upon desires that she cannot yet fully
articulate, much as her father's determination is related to
unspoken
needs of his own. as a that embodies of
Functioning "surrogate" aspects
her queer identity, the basketball player she draws signifies feelings she
cannot into words. These are related to desire, and self
put pleasure,

knowledge and have already been marked as illicit.


Until she finds the words that will eventually allow her to type, sim
am a lesbian," in a letter shemails home from
ply, "I college, the drawing
Alison creates serves as evidence of her ability to know herself, proof of
an internal state that external tend to obscure. As of her
appearances part
effort to bear witness, then, Bechdel uses her art to instances
foreground
of seeing during which she achieves clarity about her own needs and fan
tasies. She balances an awareness of the limits of her own
perception
with faith in her vision as a source of Further, at these
knowledge.
moments she draws attention to the visual dimension of
self-consciously
the narrative, down time and her almost as if to
slowing posing subjects
reinforce the idea that it is her controlling vision that determines what
we see on the page.

Although Bechdel has said that the family photographs she drew for
the book remind readers that the story is "real" (2006b, 1009), Scott
McCloud contends in Understanding Comics that more "realistic" draw
a sense of absolute "otherness" (1994, 44), while
ings of people convey
cartoons, in their simplicity, seem more readily accessible (36). Bechdel's
of may therefore allow us to feel that we
"cartoony" drawings people
know them more their simplicity a direct link between
fully, implying
the and its like the on the map that fasci
subject representation, images
nated her as a child.11 In this way, the world outside the photographs, the
comic world Bechdel creates for us from her own vision, seem most
may

real. As an we look at the of the


example, may image "truck-driving
sees when she is a girl. This woman is described as one
bulldyke" Bechdel
whom Bechdel . . with
. a of joy," as if she were
"recognized surge seeing

"someone from home" a that stems from the sudden


(2006a, 118) feeling
that "there were women who wore men's clothes and had
knowledge
136 THEGAPINALISONBECHDEL'S
CLOSING F?/ZV
//OMF

? 2006
Fig. 2. Excerpted from Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Copyright by
Alison Bechdel. Reprinted by permission of Hough ton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

men's haircuts" (118) and that helps to precipitate Bechdel's dawning


consciousness of her queer identity.12
The bulldyke is drawn as a cartoon, her face and body presented to
us for our perusal, as opposed to the more "realistically" drawn pho
as Bechdel describes them (2006b, 1009) that refuse our identi
tographs,
fication and extension our Further, in successive
by understanding.

panels Alison is shown first behind the woman, inviting us to compare


their faces, and then staring backward toward her, returning our gaze to
her image. While we learn that Alison's father "recognized her too" and
that his sneering question, "Is thatwhat you want to look like?" discour

ages Alison from admitting the strong feelings of affinity by which she is
possessed (2006a, 118), as readers we are compelled by the woman's
image. The emphasis on looking in these panels suggests the over
whelming visibility Bechdel assigns to this figure and engages us in see
LEMBERG 137

ing the connection between Alison and the bulldyke that her father is
anxious to erase.

Bechdel will use a similar approach in her ongoing


exploration of her
relationship with her father, relying on acts of looking to convey what her
narration cannot describe. She is about in her
easily vigilant reigning

impulse to identify too strongly with him, and cautiously tries to avoid his
tendency to overidentify with the biographies and stories of authors he
admired. Yet careful as she is, an important part of her project is also to

find a to bear witness to the of their attachment, and she


way strength
achieves this partly through repeatedly negotiating their relationship on
the visual as well as the narrative For for
plane. example, except chapter

5, "The Caravan of Death," which focuses on


Canary-Colored mostly
Bechdel's mother, Helen, all the chapters in Fun Home end by depicting
Bechdel and her father in a single panel. Often showing the pair occupy
the same in these reveal
ing space yet engaged separate pursuits, panels
as much as father and
separation togetherness. By consistently yoking
in that the narration does not address,
daughter together images directly

however, reinforce the of the connection to which


they visually strength
Bechdel wishes to attest.

Near the end of the memoir, Bechdel intensifies her use of this tech

nique, specifically employing images to heighten our sense of her bond


with her father. Toward the beginning of the last chapter, we find an

image of the pair together in New York during the 1976 Bicentennial.
Bruce and Alison face the reader, in a static pose that allows us to exam

ine their faces, while Bechdel tells us that on this visit to New York, her
first since a she saw Greenwich "in a new
becoming teenager, Village

light" (2006a, 189). Alison is "seeing" Greenwich Village, but we see her,
side by side with her father, and for us the "new light" she describes illu
minates the resemblance the two members bear toward
striking family
each other. Thedark background of the night sky makes the image

unusually stark, creating relief against which their faces and bodies stand
out. Bruce is drawn in greater detail his "other
(again, emphasizing
are undeniably their ambiguously
ness"), but father and daughter alike,
appearances great between them. And
gendered allowing similarity
while a in the background divides the figures in the fore
skyscraper
our and away from them, this
ground, drawing eye upward only
our desire to the two halves of the
strengthens piece picture together.
Bechdel's ambivalence about too a claim to her
Despite laying strong
138 THEGAPINALISONBECHDEL'S
CLOSING FUHHOME

father's story, this image asserts a direct link through an ineffable same
ness, its visibility an important part of the story she is trying to tell.
This does not mean that Bechdel claims absolute authority for her
artistic vision. Crucial events remain our such as the
beyond sight,
instants before and after Bruce's death: no matter how times
just many
we revisit the empty stretch of highway where he died, we cannot see her
father's death, cannot be certain of why or how it Even
happened. seeing
his dead body and visiting his grave cannot make Bechdel believe that he
is gone; like his life, his death remains
"incomprehensible" (2006a, 50). Yet
ultimately Bechdel insists upon the validity a
of her art as form of witness.
This is emphasized by the choice she makes at the end of the book, when
she closes the final chapter with a panel depicting herself with her father.
At the top of the last page, the a
grille of truck bears down upon us. Below
it, in another panel, young Alison a
leaps off diving board into her father's
arms, an that in its construction the that the
image reprises panel began
memoir, when he held her aloft during a game of .airplane. The image
reverses the that begins the last chapter, which shows
"photograph"
father and daughter from the opposite direction. In the taken
photograph,
from a distance, we see Alison's while in the and
face, drawing, larger
close up, we see her father's. It is as if Bechdel has flipped the picture to
peer the other side, of course, an act
through impossible, except through
of imagination. Although nearly every chapter ends with an image of
Bechdel with her father, this is the only case where she deliberately
reconstructs and reverses the
photograph with which it begins.
These final panels suggest the power that Bechdel attributes to her
vision and her art, even as to her awareness of its limitations.
they testify
The image of the truck is arrested by a text box that continues Bechdel's
closing thoughts, inwhich she reflects on the myth of Icarus with which
she opens the book; the words seem to push back at the oncoming vehicle,
as if to stop it, but we know this cannot
happen. The narrative cannot be
altered, if the truth is to be told. And though she may admire an artistic
commitment to what she calls "erotic truth," Bechdel admits that it is "a

rather sweeping concept" and that her father's truth is beyond her knowl
edge (2006a, 230). Despite all that remains hidden from her, however,
Bechdel maintains that "in the reverse narration that our
tricky impels
entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I
leapt" (232), suggest
her into life as an adult artist. In bear
ing, perhaps, metaphoric leap queer
to
ing witness their lives, the picture of her
family
can be reframed, the
LEMBERG 139

shifted, her father's to her no obscured,


perspective importance longer
but made visible through her art: when she leaps, he is "really there."
Fun Home asserts the value of comics as a medium for
Ultimately,

bearing witness and insists on the validity of Bechdel's perspective in


the of her Whether or not we are convinced,
refiguring image family.
a "mystical
along with young Alison, that images provide bridging of the
and the real," or succeed in the between word and
symbolic closing "gap
we are Bechdel's vision.
meaning," powerfully engaged by controlling
In us to attend to the trauma that her father's life as
recruiting shaped
well as her own, Bechdel brings us into the "circle of postmemory"
Hirsch describes. us to our role as viewers of the
By pushing recognize
she creates, she reminds us of how much our relations with
images just
the world around us on how, and what, we see.
depend

is an instructor
JENNIFERLEMBERG at the Gallatin School of Individualized
New York She also serves as coordinator for
Study, University. project
the Holocaust Educators Network, a
professional development organi
zation housed at Lehman College, City University of New York.

NOTES
1. In her essay for this volume, Ann Cvetkovich demonstrates the importance of
the "everyday" trauma Bechdel describes.
recognizing
2. By to Bechdel's comics as "invisible" I am Scott McCloud's
referring invoking
of comics as "the invisible art" in Comics. McCloud on
denoting Understanding plays
the notion that comics can the invisible" but as W?lk
"represent (1994, 129), Douglas
notes, his title also reflects "the medium's tradition of effortlessness" (2007, 124).
3. In her discussion of "historical withholding," Hirsch draws from Gayatri Spi
vak's analysis of the transmission of trauma between mother and daughter in Toni

Morrison's Beloved (Spivak 1995).


4. The Bechdel here resonates with discourse sometimes used
language employs
to describe the experience of children of Holocaust
example, survivors. For in her

essay the Unknown," Nadine Fresco writes of sec


frequently quoted "Remembering
survivors who "are like who have had a hand that
ond-generation people amputated
never had. It is a pain, in which amnesia takes the place of memory"
they phantom
formulation differs in establishing her father's before
(1984, 421). Bechdel's presence
his death.
5. For a fuller consideration of this idea, see Ann Cvetkovich, in this issue, on the

treatment of family documents in the book.

6. I follow Scott McCloud in referring to an contained within a


image single
frame a
"panel" (1994).
140 THEGAPINALISONBECHDEL'S
CLOSING FUNHOME

7. Nancy K. Miller (2007), in her recent essay "The Entangled Self: Genre

Bondage in the Age of the Memoir," refers to "Alison" when describing Bechdel's

younger self as she appears as a character within her own story. My own references
are meant to be consistent with Miller's example.
8. The curtains mentioned here recall the frontispiece to Roland Barthes's Camera
an as a
Lucida, image by Daniel Baudinet, which, Hirsch writes, "serves figure for the

impenetrable fa?ade of the domestic picture" (1997, 2).


9. For an discussion of this episode, see Ann Cvetkovich's essay, this
illuminating
issue.
10. Further, a scene from The Wind in theWillows is referred to in the title
chapter
and plays a role in Bechdel's for artistic from her father.
early struggle independence
The pictures therefore resonate evidence of the pleasure Bechdel
doubly?as
describes and as a reflection of the world she has created for us as readers.
11. Ann Cvetkovich's in this issue, of the "centerfold" in Fun
analysis, image
Home illustrates how Bechdel the difficulty of the drawn
acknowledges reading
in the book.
"photographs"
12. Bechdel articulates her response to the bulldyke, a accord
seeing figure who,
to Halberstam, "has made lesbianism visible and as some kind of
ing Judith legible
confluence of gender disturbance and sexual orientation" (1998, 119), in a way that
resembles what she will later say about first putting on men's clothes. Dressing up in
her father's suits, Bechdel
writes, is "like finding myself fluent in a language I'd never
been similar to the in the earlier scene, it
taught" (2006a, 182); experience depicted
a of being at home.
produces feeling

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