After writing a letter home from college to reveal her lesbian identity to her parents, Alison Bechdel receives a somewhat distressing phone call from her mother, who lets loose an even bigger family secret: Alison’s father is a closeted gay man who kept younger men — often his children’s babysitters — as lovers. A few weeks later, Bruce Bechdel dies after being hit by a Sunbeam Bread truck. In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Bechdel recounts childhood memories of her father and wrestles with two questions: did he commit suicide, and, if so, did her coming out push him to do so?
Death permeates this graphic memoir. The titular Fun Home is, in fact, a family-operated funeral home. Bruce reads Albert Camus, Marcel Proust, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, finding the more morbid and self-destructive elements of these writers’ lives inspirational. He insists on control, molding house and family into picture-perfect images.
At no point is Bechdel’s portrayal of her father hamfisted. Even in his more abusive moments, Bruce is as lovable as he is fearsome. When he is all-but-outed, Bechdel’s father undergoes psychoanalytic therapy to “cure” himself. This — combined with his insistence on his young daughter’s feminine presentation, and the author’s lingering suspicion that her personal revelation drove her father to end his life — paints a deeply saddening portrait of a man consumed, to varying degrees, with self-loathing and outright denial of his sexual orientation. Bruce, far more than Alison, becomes Fun Home‘s most compelling character.
Bechdel’s storytelling is nuanced, and her sexual journey peels back like an onion, beginning with childhood games and gender play, and culminating in her discovery of lesbian literature and community in college. Although we never learn just how Bruce came to realizations about his sexuality, it’s clear that, simply by virtue of being born female a generation later, Bechdel has relatively safe alternatives to life in the closet.
Given its subject matter, Fun Home may bring you to tears, but, just as often, its dry gallows humor will have you chuckling at the most inappropriate turns. After a few years of contention on college campuses, Bechdel’s memoir is worth reading just to see what all the fuss is about.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Image: Chase Elliott Clark/Flickr