“Old Father, Old Artificer”: Queering Suspicion in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Sarah Catherine Richardson

Abstract


Halfway through the 2006 memoir comic Fun Home, the reader encounters a photograph that the book’s author, Alison Bechdel, found in a box of family snapshots shortly after her father’s death. The picture—“literally the core of the book, the centrefold” (Bechdel qtd. in Chute “Interview” 1006)—of Alison’s teenaged babysitter, Roy, erotically reclining on a bed in only his underwear, is the most tangible and direct evidence of her father’s sexual affairs with teenage boys, more confronting than his own earlier confession. Through this image, and a rich archive of familial texts, Bechdel chronicles her father’s thwarted desires and ambitions, probable suicide, and her own sexual and artistic coming of age.

Bruce Bechdel, a married school teacher and part-time funeral director, was also an avid amateur historical restorer and connoisseur of modernist literature. Shortly after Alison came out to her parents at nineteen, Bruce was hit by a truck in what his daughter believes was an act of suicide. In Fun Home, Bechdel reads her family history suspiciously, plumbing family snapshots, letters, and favoured novels, interpreting against the grain, to trace her queer genealogy. Ultimately, she inverts this suspicious and interrogative reading, using the evidence she has gathered in order to read her father’s sexuality positively and embrace her queer and artistic inheritance from him.

In The New York Times Magazine, in 2004, Charles McGrath made the suggestion that comics were “the new literary form” (24). Although comics have not yet reached widespread mainstream acceptance as a medium of merit, the burgeoning field of comics scholarship over the last fifteen years, the 2007 adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis into a feature film, and the addition of comics to the Best American series all testify to the widening popularity and status of the form. Memoir comics have established themselves, as Hillary Chute notes, as “the dominant mode of contemporary work” (Graphic 17). Many of these autobiographical works, including Fun Home, recount traumatic histories, employing the medium’s unique capacity to evoke the fractured and repetitive experience of the traumatised through panel structure and use of images. Comics articulate “what wasn’t permitted to be said or imagined, defying the ordinary processes of thought” (Said qtd. in Whitlock 967).

The hand-drawn nature of comics emphasises the subjectivity of perception and memory, making it a particularly powerful medium for personal histories. The clear mediation of a history by the artist’s hand complicates truth claims. Comics open up avenues for both suspicious and restorative readings because their form suggests that history is always constructed and therefore not able to be confirmed as “ultimately truthful,” but also that there is no ultimate truth to be unveiled. No narrative is unmediated; a timeline is not more “pure” than a fleshed out narrative text. All narratives exclude information in order to craft a comprehensible series of events. Bechdel’s role as a suspicious reader of her father and of her own history resonates through her role as a historian and her interrogation of the ethical concerns of referential writing.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity critiques the hermeneutics of suspicion from a queer theory perspective, instead advocating reparative reading as a critical strategy. The hermeneutics of suspicion describes “the well-oiled machine of ideology critique” that has become the primary mode of critical reading over the last thirty or so years, suspiciously interpreting texts to uncover their hidden ideological biases (Felski, Uses 1). Reparative reading, on the other hand, moves away from this paranoid mode, instead valuing pleasure and “positive affects like joy and excitement” (Vincent). Sedgwick does not wholly reject suspicious reading, suggesting that it “represent[s] a way, among other ways, of seeking, finding, and organizing knowledge. Paranoia knows some things well and others poorly” (Touching 129). Felski, paraphrasing Ricoeur, notes that the hermeneutics of suspicion “adopts an adversarial sensibility to probe for concealed, repressed, or disavowed meanings” (“Suspicious” 216). In this fashion, Bechdel employs suspicious strategies to reveal her father’s hidden desires and transgressions that were obscured in the standard version of her family narrative, but ultimately moves away from such techniques to joyfully embrace her inheritance from him.  Sedgwick notes that paranoid readings may only reveal that which is already known:

While there is plenty of hidden violence that requires exposure there is also, and increasingly, an ethos where forms of violence that are hypervisible from the start may be offered as an exemplary spectacle rather than remain to be unveiled as a scandalous secret. (Touching 139)

This is contrary to suspicious reading’s assumption that violence is culturally shunned, hidden, and in need of “unveiling” in contemporary Western culture. It would be too obvious for Bechdel to condemn her father: gay men have been unfairly misrepresented in the American popular imagination for decades, if not longer. Through her reparative reading of him, she rejects this single-minded reduction of people to one negative type. She accepts both her father’s weaknesses and her debts to him. A reading which only sought to publicise Bruce’s homosexual affairs would lack the great depth that Bechdel finds in the slippage between her father’s identity and her own.

Bechdel’s embrace of Bruce’s failings as a father, a husband, and an artist, her revisioning of his death as a positive, creative act full of agency, and her characterisation of him as a supportive forerunner, “there to catch [Alison] as [she] leapt,” (Bechdel 232) moves his story away from archetypal narratives of homosexual tragedy. Bechdel’s memoir ends with (and enacts through its virtuoso execution) her own success, and the support of those who came before her. This move mirrors Joseph Litvak’s suggestion that “the importance of ‘mistakes’ in queer reading and writing […] has a lot to do with loosening the traumatic, inevitable-seeming connection between mistakes and humiliation […] Doesn’t reading queer mean learning, among other things, that mistakes can be good rather than bad surprises?” (Sedgwick Touching 146–7).

Fun Home is saturated with intertextual references and archival materials that attempt to piece together the memoir’s fractured and hidden histories. The construction of this personal history works by including familial and historical records to register the trauma of the Bechdels’ personal tragedy. The archival texts are meticulously hand-drawn, their time-worn and ragged physicality maintained to emphasise the referentiality of these documents. Bechdel’s use of realistically drawn family photographs, complete with photo corners, suggests a family photograph album, although rather than establishing a censored and idealistic narrative, as most family albums do, the photographs are read and reproduced for their suppressed and destabilising content. Bechdel describes them as “particularly mythic” (Chute “Interview” 1009), and she plunders this symbolic richness to rewrite her family history. The archival documents function as primary texts, which stand in opposition to the deadly secrecy of her childhood home: they are concrete and evidentiary. Bechdel reads her father’s letters and photographs (and their gothic revival house) for sexual and artistic evidence, “read[ing] the text against the grain in order to draw out what it refuses to own up to” (Felski “Suspicious” 23). She interprets his letters’ baroque lyrical flourishes as indications both of his semi-repressed homosexuality and of the artistic sensibility that she would inherit and refine.

Suspicion of the entire historical project marks the memoir. Philippe Lejeune describes the “Autobiographical Pact” as “a contract of identity that is sealed by the proper name” of the author (19). Bechdel does not challenge this pact fundamentally—the authoritative narrative voice of her book structures it to be read as historically truthful—but she does challenge and complicate the apparent simplicity of this referential model. Bechdel’s discussion of the referential failings of her childhood diary making—“the troubled gap between word and meaning”—casts a suspicious eye over the rest of the memoir’s historical project (Bechdel 143).

She asks how language can adequately articulate experience or refer to the external world in an environment defined by secrets and silence. At the time of her childhood, it cannot—the claim to full disclosure that the memoir ultimately makes is predicated on distance and time. Bechdel simultaneously makes a claim for the historical veracity of her narrative and destabilises our assumptions around the idea of factual and retrospective truth:

When I was ten, I was obsessed with making sure my diary entries bore no false witness. But as I aged, hard facts gave way to vagaries of emotion and opinion. False humility, overwrought penmanship, and self-disgust began to cloud my testimony […] until […] the truth is barely perceptible behind a hedge of qualifiers, encryption, and stray punctuation. (Bechdel 169)

That which is “unrepresentable” is simultaneously represented and denied. The comics medium itself, with its simultaneous graphic and textual representation, suggests the unreliability of any one means of representation. Of Bechdel’s diaries, Jared Gardner notes, “what develops over the course of her diary […] is an increasing sense that text and image are each alone inadequate to the task, and that some merger of the two is required to tell the story of the truth, and the truth of the story” (“Archives” 3).

As the boyishly dressed Alison urges her father, applying scare-quoted “bronzer,” to hurry up, Bechdel narrates, “my father began to seem morally suspect to me long before I knew that he actually had a dark secret” (16). Alison is presented as her father’s binary opposite, “butch to his nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete,” (15) and, as a teenager, frames his love of art and extravagance as debauched. This clear distinction soon becomes blurred, as Alison and Bruce’s similarities begin to overwhelm their differences. The huge drawn hand shown holding the photograph of Roy, in the memoir’s “centrefold,” more than twice life-size, reproduces the reader’s hand holding the book. We are placed in Bechdel’s, and by extension her father’s, role, as the illicit and transgressive voyeurs of the erotic spectacle of Roy’s body, and as the possessors and consumers of hidden, troubling texts.

At this point, Bechdel begins to take her queer reading of this family archive and use it to establish a strong connection between her initially unsympathetic father and herself. Despite his neglect of his children, and his self-involvement, Bechdel claims him as her spiritual and creative father, as well as her biological one. This reparative embrace moves Bruce from the role of criticised outsider in Alison’s world to one of queer predecessor. Bechdel figures herself and her father as doubled aesthetic and erotic observers and appreciators. Ann Cvetkovich suggests that “mimicking her father as witness to the image, Alison is brought closer to him only at the risk of replicating his illicit sexual desires” (118). For Alison, consuming her father’s texts connects her with him in a positive yet troubling way: “My father’s end was my beginning. Or more precisely, […] the end of his lie coincided with the beginning of my truth” (Bechdel 116–17).

The final panel of the same chapter depicts Alison’s hands holding drawn photos of herself at twenty-one and Bruce at twenty-two. The snapshots overlap, and Bechdel lists the similarities between the photographs, concluding, “it’s about as close as a translation can get” (120). Through the “vast network of transversals” (102) that is their life together, Alison and Bruce are, paradoxically, twinned “inversions of one another” (98). Sedgwick suggests that “inversion models […] locate gay people—whether biologically or culturally—at the threshold between genders” (Epistemology 88). Bechdel’s focus on Proust’s “antiquated clinical term” both neatly fits her thematic expression of Alison and Bruce’s relationship as doubles (“Not only were we inverts. We were inversions of one another”) and situates them in a space of possibility and liminality (97-98).

Bechdel rejects a wholly suspicious approach by maintaining and embracing the aporia in her and her father’s story, an essential element of memory. According to Chute, Fun Home shows “that the form of comics crucially retains the insolvable gaps of family history” (Graphic 175). Rejecting suspicion involves embracing ambiguity and unresolvability. It concedes that there is no one authentic truth to be neatly revealed and resolved. Fun Home’s “spatial and semantic gaps […] express a critical unknowability or undecidability” (Chute Graphic 182). Bechdel allows the gaps in her narrative to remain, refusing to “pretend to know” Bruce’s “erotic truth” (230), an act to which suspicious reading is diametrically opposed. Suspicious reading wishes to close all gaps, to articulate silences and literalise mysteries, and Bechdel’s narrative progressively moves away from this mode. The medium of comics uses words and images together, simultaneously separate and united. Similarly, Alison and Bruce are presented as opposites: butch/sissy, artist/dilettante. Yet the memoir’s conclusion presents Alison and Bruce in a loving, reciprocal relationship. The final page of the book has two frames: one of Bruce’s perspective in the moment before his death, and one showing him contentedly playing with a young Alison in a swimming pool—death contrasted with life. The gaps in the narrative are not closed but embraced. Bechdel’s “tricky reverse narration” (232) suggests a complex mode of reading that allows both Bechdel and the reader to perceive Bruce as a positive forebear.

Comics as a medium pay particular visual attention to absence and silence. The gutter, the space between panels, functions in a way that is not quite paralleled by silence in speech and music, and spaces and line breaks in text—after all, there are still blank spaces between words and elements of the image within the comics panel. The gutter is the space where closure occurs, allowing readers to infer causality and often the passing of time (McCloud 5). The gutters in this book echo the many gaps in knowledge and presence that mark the narrative. Fun Home is impelled by absence on a practical level: the absence of the dead parent, the absence of a past that was unspoken of and yet informed every element of Alison’s childhood.

Bechdel’s hyper-literate narration steers the reader through the memoir and acknowledges its own aporia. Fun Home “does not seek to preserve the past as it was, as its archival obsession might suggest, but rather to circulate ideas about the past with gaps fully intact” (Chute Graphic 180). Bechdel, while making her own interpretation of her father’s death clear, does not insist on her reading. While Bruce attempted to restore his home into a perfect, hermetically sealed simulacrum of nineteenth-century domestic glamour, Bechdel creates a postmodern text that slips easily between a multiplicity of time periods, opening up the absences, failures, and humiliations of her story. Chute argues:

Bruce Bechdel wants the past to be whole; Alison Bechdel makes it free-floating […] She animates the past in a book that is […] a counterarchitecture to the stifling, shame-filled house in which she grew up: she animates and releases its histories, circulating them and giving them life even when they devolve on death. (Graphic 216)

Bechdel employs a literary process of detection in the revelation of both of their sexualities. Her archive is constructed like an evidence file; through layered tableaux of letters, novels and photographs, we see how Bruce’s obsessive love of avant-garde literature functions as an emblem of his hidden desire; Alison discovers her sexuality through the memoirs of Colette and the seminal gay pride manifestos of the late 1970s. Watson suggests that the “panels, gutters, and page, as bounded and delimited visual space, allow texturing of the two-dimensional image through collage, counterpoint, the superimposition of multiple media, and self-referential gestures […] Bechdel's rich exploitation of visual possibilities places Fun Home at an autobiographical interface where disparate modes of self-inscription intersect and comment upon one another” (32).

Alison’s role as a literary and literal detective of concealed sexualities and of texts is particularly evident in the scene when she realises that she is gay. Wearing a plaid trench coat with the collar turned up like a private eye, she stands in the campus bookshop reading a copy of Word is Out, with a shadowy figure in the background (one whose silhouette resembles her father’s teenaged lover, Roy), and a speech bubble with a single exclamation mark articulating her realisation. While “the classic detective novel […] depends on […] a double plot, telling the story of a crime via the story of its investigation” (Felski “Suspicious” 225), Fun Home tells the story of Alison’s coming out and genesis as an artist through the story of her father’s brief life and thwarted desires. On the memoir’s final page, revisioning the artifactual photograph that begins her final chapter, Bechdel reclaims her father from what a cool reading of the historical record (adultery with adolescents, verbally abusive, emotionally distant) might encourage readers to superficially assume. Cvetkovich articulates the way Fun Home uses:

Ordinary experience as an opening onto revisionist histories that avoid the emotional simplifications that can sometimes accompany representations of even the most unassimilable historical traumas […] Bechdel refuses easy distinctions between heroes and perpetrators, but doing so via a figure who represents a highly stigmatised sexuality is a bold move. (125)

Rejecting paranoid strategies, Bechdel is less interested in classification and condemnation of her father than she is in her own tangled relation to him. She adopts a reparative strategy by focusing on the strands of joy and identification in her history with her father, rather than simply making a paranoid attack on his character.

She occludes the negative possibilities and connotations of her father’s story to end on a largely positive note: “But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt” (232). In the final moment of her text Bechdel moves away from the memoir’s earlier destabilising actions, which forced the reader to regard Bruce with suspicion, as the keeper of destructive secrets and as a menacing presence in the Bechdels’ family life. The final image is of complete trust and support. His death is rendered not as chaotic and violent as it historically was, but calm, controlled, beneficent. Bechdel has commented, “I think it’s part of my father’s brilliance, the fact that his death was so ambiguous […] The idea that he could pull that off. That it was his last great wheeze. I want to believe that he went out triumphantly” (qtd. in Burkeman). The revisioning of Bruce’s death as a suicide and the reverse narration which establishes the accomplished artist and writer Bechdel’s creative and literary debt to him function as a redemption.

Bechdel queers her suspicious reading of her family history in order to reparatively reclaim her father’s historical and personal connection with herself. The narrative testifies to Bruce’s failings as a father and husband, and confesses to Alison’s own complicity in her father’s transgressive desires and artistic interest, and to her inability to represent the past authoritatively and with complete accuracy. Bechdel both engages in and ultimately rejects a suspicious interpretation of her family and personal history. As Gardner notes, “only by allowing the past to bleed into history, fact to bleed into fiction, image into text, might we begin to allow our own pain to bleed into the other, and more urgently, the pain of the other to bleed into ourselves” (“Autobiography’s” 23). Suspicion itself is queered in the reparative revisioning of Bruce’s life and death, and in the “tricky reverse narration” (232) of the künstlerroman’s joyful conclusion.

References

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Gardner, Jared. “Archives, Collectors, and the New Media Work of Comics.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (2006): 787–806.

---. “Autobiography’s Biography 1972-2007.” Biography 31.1 (2008): 1–26.

Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Trans. Katherine Leary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

McGrath, Charles. “Not Funnies.” New York Times Magazine 11 Jul. 2004: 24–56.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

---. Touching Feeling. Durham : Duke University Press, 2003.

Vincent, J. Keith. “Affect and Reparative Reading.” Honoring Eve. Ed. J. Keith Vincent. Affect and Reparative Reading. Boston University College of Arts and Sciences. October 31 2009. 25 May 2011. ‹http://www.bu.edu/honoringeve/panels/affect-and-reparative-reading/?›.

Watson, Julia. “Autographic disclosures and genealogies of desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Biography 31.1 (2008): 27–59.

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Keywords


Bechdel; Fun Home; comics



Copyright (c) 2012 Sarah Catherine Richardson

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