Alison Bechdel: A contemporary author explores the vexed relationships between children and parents.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
(Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse)

Parenting theories established in our post-modern society advise parents on the most effective methods of raising their child, stressing the idea of awarding and approval, rather than discipline. There are changes in the socialization of children, as there are increasingly more outside influences, such as the mass media and their peers, rather than their parents. There has been an increasing change in attitudes, which have been found surveys carried out in the past decade, where around ninety-three percent of young people and eighty-nine percent of their parents and grandparents believe that the main goal of socialisation of adolescents today is independence (statistic taken from here). According to research data, many youths in post-modern society aspire towards the state of autonomy, rather than making their decisions based on their parents’ views.

Alison Bechdel’s graphic Fun Home presents the idea that the child is not allowed to be a proper child, exploring the relationships between child and parents. She looks back on her childhood as an adult with retrospect, emphasising the idea of the individual, and effectively highlighting the difference between parent and child. Contemporary literature often stresses the importance of the individual, which is significant since the child from an early age establishes itself through its relationship with its parent.  The idea of individualism is, then, seen as a process to gain independence from parental authority. While previously a sense of belonging was created from “the culture of interrelatedness”, a process of socialisation where the child referred to its elders for control and approval in its behaviour; in these post-modern times, this is no longer the case. Children, it can be argued, are becoming more conscious of their own identities, choosing to make their own decisions and shaping their futures rather than take the cue from their elders. It is interesting that while the Bechdel family fit into the traditional nuclear, middle-class family model, they are revealed to be quite dysfunctional, thus exposing the myth of a ‘normal’ family, so that in these contemporary times, it is abnormality that becomes the norm.

There is a continuous theme of the traditional parent-child relationship being challenged, as these roles are often reversed, reflecting the idea that these roles are fluid. It can be argued that in the creation and telling of Fun Home, Alison effectively gives birth to her father Bruce’s identity, thus making her a sumbolic  ‘parent’.

The most interesting reversal of these roles is through the ‘Icarus and Daedalus’ allegory applied and reworked to suit the characters. Although initially, it is Bruce, the parent, who is required to support Alison in their ‘Icarian games’, this is quickly reversed as Alison depicts her father to be Icarus who “was to plummet from the sky”. There are other references, however, later on in the novel where Bruce is designated the role of Daedalus, who he relates to as a designer, “that skilful artificer” as well as a father. Thus Bruce becomes both the father and son, which also corresponds with Alison’s alternating identification with Icarus and Daedalus, which subsequently blurs their roles. It is interesting that the last and first pages of the novel present an almost symmetrical idea, which is that of Bruce supporting Alison. This may not be entirely convincing, since their relationship is revealed to be stilted, and complicated with their sense of fractured identity. However, ultimately, these last, idealised images of Bruce as a father catching Alison seem to stand as a clear symbol of the traditional parent-child relationship, serving as a form of resolution for their troubled relationship.

Another example of role-reversal is the scene with Alison reading her mother’s Dr. Spock parenting books while her parents fight in the background. Alison presents a double perspective of herself as an adult in the present while observing her child self, who makes herself “subject and the object, my own parent and my own child”. By explaining this as a “self-soothing, autistic loop”, Alison suggests that she is taking control of her parenting, as well as her status as a child or ‘object’.

There are also reversal in traditional, or rather, socially accepted gender and sexual roles, which shows how the roles of men and women in Fun Home are constantly sliding from one category to the other. Gender reversal is prominent in Fun Home, which is significant since this is one of the key ways that Alison is able to identify with her father on equal terms. Alison is ‘outgayed’ by her father: that is, when she reveals to homosexuality to her family, this is overshadowed and turned into a spectacle to reveal her father’s affairs, as well as his insistence that she should not ‘label’ herself. Although this would seem to undermine her sexual identity, it allows Alison to regard her parents as individuals as well as become secure in her own identity. Alison describes this reversal using Proust’s term, ‘inverts’:

Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of each other.
While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in
him, he was attempting to express something feminine through

Thus Alison attempts to takes on the masculine gender that her father ‘should’ have, while her father correspondingly attempts to express feminine tastes. This is most clearly seen at the ‘centre’ of the novel, where Alison confronts her father in his car in order to ascertain his homosexuality, as well as her own. Interestingly, the pictures in this scene are as equally informing and significant as the text, with the same picture used in sequence that is unique to the rest of the novel, in the form of a film strip, thus making it iconic. This is a profound moment, with father and daughter mirroring each other’s actions, and perhaps is the moment where they confront each other and becomes equals in their own rights rather than through the fixed roles of parent and child. If anything, it is Alison who feels “distinctly parental” towards her father, while simultaneously explaining her own preferences. Ironically, not much action occurs in these pages, suggesting that it is the meaning applied to the scene that is important. Their relationship is best summed with their comparison to a “fatherless Stephen and sonless Bloom” , where although there is no “joyous reunion” ; there is still a form of acceptance and compromise. This scene serves as a metaphor for Alison’s and Bruce’s relationship, posing a sort of resolution: they are side by side, and while they do not look at each other, they hold an equal status.

In another scene, Alison depicts herself holding two photographs: one of herself taken by a girlfriend, the other is a picture of her father aged twenty-two.

“The exterior setting, the pained grin, the flexible wrists, even the angle of shadow falling across our faces – it’s about as close as a translation can get.” Again, Alison shows how she sees herself as an equal to her father through the realisation and acceptance of their respective sexualities.

Alison also plays on the words she uses to describe her home, like “queer home”, showing an awareness of her own and her father’s sexuality. Bruce’s obsession with restoring and decorating the house displays the idea that his identity and sexuality become buried in the house, effectively fetishizing it. It allows Bruce to channel repressed, secret desires, so that ultimately, the house also buries the family’s secrets.

However, this relationship with the house consequently affects the way that the children are treated, who become accessories:

“I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” It is implied that in his absorption with the house, Bruce neglects his role as a father and distances himself from his children.

Literature is also a medium used by Alison to understand her parents, while also introducing the idea of ‘intertextuality’, where there are texts used within texts.

“My parents are most real to me in fictional terms” Alison states, comparing them to characters from Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is interesting to note, for example, that the conversation between Stephen and Bloom in Ulysses is echoed by the only real conversation she has had with her father about their homosexuality. The Bechdels’ library is seen as the emotional centre of their home,  and Alison contextualizes most of her experiences by thinking of them in terms of literature. It is also significant that her realisation that she is gay is not due to attraction to a specific person, but from looking at books recommended by her father. Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, Colette’s autobiography, Kate Millett’s Flying and especially Ulysses provide the basis for Alison’s final discussions and correspondence with her father, as well as pointing her toward some kind of understanding of his death. Thus it can be argued that what ultimately brought her and her father together, in fact, were books. Even the fact that Fun Home itself is an autobiographical account shows how Alison understands her father better, delving into his past in order to better related to him.

“My parents seemed almost embarrassed by the fact of their marriage.”

Marriage is a big factor which affects both parents’ relationships with their children and the upbringing of children. It is significant that divorce rates have been steady since 1980 but six times higher than they were in the 1950s, with around forty to fifty percent lower marriage rates than previously . This inevitably implies that there is an increasing awareness of children affected by their parents’ relationships, with recurring themes in literature of idea of being ‘broken’ and having a fragmented identity.

Alison and her sibling’s discomfort at their parent’s, albeit rare and chaste, displays of affection can be argued to be a result of the “arctic climate” of the atmosphere cultivated by their parents and their home life. This is described as “unnerving as the antagonism” that their parents have with each other; by comparing her parents’ affection to their arguments, Alison depicts the awkwardness of their relationships. The fact that the couple do not appear to have a comfortable relationship with each other, such as Bruce avoiding addressing his wife by name, have the same effect on the children: that is, they too take on a “cool aesthetic distance” from personal situations. Like their parents, they are unable to criticise their father, nor show affection, which is a “dicier venture”, thus creating an atmosphere of detachment between them.

It has been suggested that in patriarchal cultures, achievement, competition and material success are highly valued, with a strong emphasis on sex role differentiation. While contemporary literature challenges the idea of a traditional male earner, as well as the traditional housewife figure, there is also an emphasis on the idea of giving children the right amount of attention. Although in this text, both parental figures have careers, the focus on the mother as a working woman highlights the progress of women in modern society. The changes to women’s statuses and their rights mean that new values have emerged in the system of bringing up children: the woman has been provided with more egalitarianism and more opportunity to contribute to her family income. Thus there is an increase in the representation of working mothers, which is present in both texts. Alison’s mother appears to be absorbed in her career, which, it could be argued, is a result of being neglected and becoming bitter over the years, so that her relationship with her children is also affected. Both her parents’ “rapt immersion” in their “creative solitude” suggest that it is not possible to give equal attention to their children and their careers, inevitably one will become neglected. In Fun Homeit is the children who are overlooked so that they are forced to look after themselves, and thus become more independent: “I learned quickly to feed myself”.

This leads onto the idea of absent parents, which also affects a child’s bonding with their parent. The fact that Alison’s mother is absent during the important milestones of her life: her period, her realisation that she is gay, her discovery of masturbation, serves to symbolically estrange them. Alison herself notes that it is only after she establishes herself as a lesbian and becomes secure with herself that for “the first time my mother had spoken to me as another adult”, where ironically her mother uses her as a confidante to complain about her husband. Similarly, Bruce is also described as absent, since “he really was there…but I ached as if he were already gone”; suggesting that Alison craves attention. It is interesting to note that while the novel focuses on Bruce, even though it was created after his death, Alison’s mother is still alive and yet treated with a sense of detachment, suggesting that this is a result of being unconsciously pushes away from her parents.

Death in contemporary writing is also a theme that affects parent-child relationship, since this leads back to the idea of an absent parent. Bruce’s death is a key moment, since it sums up the numb reaction felt by his children, who even laugh at its absurdity. However, this also creates a sinister overtone to the scene, since it shows the feeling of displacement they feel. By using his death to provoke a reaction from other people, Alison exposes the idea that they are ‘meant’ to feel something. The children’s lack of emotion makes them want to displace this disjointedness onto someone else, since it is too painful to confront, making them push it away. Perhaps this is their ‘legacy’ passed onto them by their father, and a result of their upbringing.

There are layers of life and death throughout the novel, since Alison’s father engages with her beyond his death, such as the ‘clues’ and notes written in his books which point to his sexuality and his death. It is here that the idea of meaning becomes significant, since her father’s death is seen as suicide not because of the ‘evidence’ but because of the meanings applied to his death.

One particular scene also becomes emblematic split across two horizontal frames is the image of Alison’s dead father in his coffin: Alison, with her back to the reader, is divided in two across either frame. Each half gives the reader the illusion of a single complete image, that of the daughter looking at her deceased father. However, the reader feels the divide more sharply than the connection, thus exposing the illusion of completeness.
Thus the idea of replacing the parents is also prominent, such as symbol of Bruce’s grave, which simultaneously disguises and highlights his death.

Although the relationships between parents and children are often vexed, writers have managed to create awareness about giving children the required attention, depicting the potential consequences of being neglected. Alison can finally make sense of her own history through her parents as well as a re-construction of her life. Like the actual graphic novel itself, relationships operate on the idea of the said and unsaid, which puts the responsibility of interpretation and revealing the truth back onto the reader. It can be argued that only when Alison leaves her family and her home can she confront her sexuality and identity.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel (London, Jonathan Cape: 2006) pp.

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