Fun Home and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

This entry is part 20 of 22 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag. I read this book for a book club I’m now in, which is reading works from this list. (Of which some of the titles are definitely not among the best books of the century, but it’s a list to work with.)

Alison Bechdel’s a familiar name: indeed, the famous “Bechdel Test” for media is something I occasionally have brought up to my students over the years. I knew she was a cartoonist, and a few more secondhand details about her life, but that was the extent of it before I picked up this book (which I was lucky enough to get through the library at work). It’s an autobiographical comic about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, with everything hinging on Bechdel’s discovery of her father’s secret about his sexuality at almost precisely the same time she lost him to a suspected suicide, while also almost at the same time when she herself consciously realized that she was a lesbian.    

The title, Fun Home is an abbreviation of “funeral home,” which refers to the author’s father’s work as an undertaker, but it also refers to ironically to Bechdel’s childhood home and family. The book is a portrait of a family that has contorted itself around the father’s secrets about himself—secrets he kept so well that at points one wonders at the degree of self-trickery necessary—and how Bechdel’s departure from home made it possible for her to  awaken to her own truth and embrace her own sexuality. 

That title is ironic: there’s grief, loss, and shame throughout the story, and it’s in leaving home that Bechdel finds her salvation—and in the failure to leave home that her father fails to find his own. That said, Bechdel finds a way to bring things around to a satisfying (and not-completely-heartbreaking) conclusion. It’s definitely worth a read. 

The companion volume, Are You My Mother?, concerns Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, as well as the process of undergoing psychotherapy and the creative process—and how they’re all linked. It also discusses some of what was going on in the author’s life when she was writing Fun Home, which provides some interesting background to the former book.  

Bechdel uses psychoanalysis as a way of tying together many disparate strands in her life: her creative process, her relationship with her mother and her “mother wound,” and her relationships with various partners and psychoanalysts. Sometimes the “insights” feel a bit strained to me: for example Bechdel recounts walking into a tree branch and scratching her cornea, she later interprets this as self-punishment for “seeing the truth” about her family. I mean, I guess maybe, but sometimes, you walk into a branch that’s right in front of you because you were thinking about something that happened in therapy and you weren’t looking where you were going, right? But as a literary device, the psychoanalysis angle works well. I suppose it’s because psychoanalysis works by searching for (and sometimes creating) overt connections between seemingly disparate elements in one’s life, which is also how the structure of the narrative in Are You My Mother? works. 

For all that, I found the relationship between Bechdel and her mother compelling and at times painful—and I wonder whether that’s in part because of the similarity I found between Bechdel’s childhood experiences and my own. Bechdel is careful not to condemn her mother, but this story nonetheless is about how children come to terms with having been insufficiently or unhealthily parented. In relating this struggle, Bechdel is astonishingly honest and forthcoming about her own problems, flaws, and idiosyncractic habits, retelling episodes from her childhood, young adulthood, her dreams, and more. It adds up to a couple of fascinating and worthwhile volumes. 

For books from this booklist, I’m going to mark what I’ve read for the group, as well as what I’ve already read on my own in the past, as a matter of bookkeeping. You can see that listed on this page. 

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