The graphic memoir Fun Home starts with the adult Alison Bechdel narrating over images of her childhood. The first panel shows Alison approaching her father Bruce, who is lying on the floor and puts his feet in the middle of her chest to launch her in the air for a game of “airplane.” Alison says the discomfort caused by the pressure to her stomach was well worth the rare physical contact with her father and the feeling of soaring through the air. In the circus, Alison notes, acrobatics where one person lies on the floor are called “Icarian Games.” However, though Icarus met his tragic end by ignoring advice from his father, in Alison’s case it is her father, and not her, who is destined “to plummet from the sky.”
Right off the bat, Alison Bechdel begins her graphic memoir by using a fictional framework to understand her reality. In this case, Alison uses the Greek myth of Icarus as a way to understand her relationship with her father. (In this myth, Daedalus and his son Icarus are imprisoned in a tower and Daedalus constructs wings for them to fly away with. He warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, as it will melt the wings, but Icarus flies too high anyway, and falls into the sea and dies.) Yet Alison’s reality diverges from the narrative arc of the myth—rather than Alison being the one to plummet from the sky and die, it is her father who metaphorically falls to his (actual) death. (It should also be noted that the chapter title comes from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which also deals with the Icarus myth and plays an important role later in the book.)
But, before Bruce plummets, he gets a lot done, and his greatest achievement results from his obsession with restoring the Bechdel family’s big, old house. As a kid, Alison gets embarrassed when other kids think she’s rich or unusual in any way because of the house’s size. As an adult, she knows her family wasn’t rich, but she now realizes that they were quite unusual. The lavish decorations of the house were not purchased, but a product of her father’s craftiness.
Even as a child, Alison disliked the artificial illusion that her family was rich or grandiose in some way, which was largely caused by Bruce’s design of the family’s Gothic mansion. Alison also picks up on the compulsive, obsessive behaviors Bruce exhibits in designing the house.
Bruce salvages trash, redecorates rooms, and is obsessed with everything looking perfect. Alison calls him an “alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor.” Alison adds that her father had another side of him to pair with Icarus—Daedalus, the inventor and mad scientist who designed his son Icarus’s wings and the famous labyrinth that, in Greek myth, trapped the Minotaur. Bruce designs the house without care for the rest of his family’s opinions, putting pink flower wallpaper in Alison’s room against her will.
In the same way that Daedalus designed the labyrinth to encase the Minotaur, Alison and her family are all entrapped by Bruce’s obsessions, which in turn we later find out are likely driven by his own repressed sexuality. Rather than designing the house to accurately reflect his family’s preferences, Bruce designs the house artificially according to how he thinks it should look so people will perceive him as grandiose.
The Bechdel family’s gothic revival house was built in her small Pennsylvania town’s wealthiest period, during the lumber boom in 1867, then slowly deteriorated. However, over the eighteen years after the Bechdels’ bought it, Bruce makes it his mission to restore the house to its former glory. Alison says Bruce’s restoration of the house could have been a romantic story, like when Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed fix up an old house in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. However, in that movie Jimmy Stewart rarely gets angry and yells, which isn’t the case at Alison’s house.
Again, Alison uses fiction—in this case the film It’s A Wonderful Life—as a framework by which to understand her life. But, she complicates the analogy by noting that the reality of her family—and her father Bruce’s anger—was far less fanciful and occasional in reality than in the fictional film. Implicitly, Bechdel is stating that reality is more complex and layered than fiction—but the line between the two can also be very unclear.
Like Daedalus, Bruce is indifferent to the human (or familial) cost of his projects. Alison notes how Daedalus betrayed the king of Crete by making the queen a cow disguise so that she could seduce a white bull, which led to the queen giving birth to the half-bull, half-man Minotaur. And then Daedalus made his greatest creation to house the monster—the labyrinth, in which passages and rooms open endlessly into one another, making escape impossible. And then there were the famous wings Daedulus invented—Alison wonders if Daedalus was truly grief-stricken when his son Icarus fell into the sea, or simply disappointed by the design failure.
Alison again uses a fictional myth as a way to understand her father’s behavior, and, further, by comparing the Bechdel family home to Daedalus’s labyrinth, Alison hints at the darker secret of the home: that its design was meant to hide, and even repress, Bruce’s secret homosexuality and illicit affairs with underage boys.
When things are good, Alison believes Bruce enjoys having a family—or at least the image of it, as she narrates under an image of kids beneath a Christmas tree, “a sort of still life with children.” Bruce considers Alison and her brothers to be free labor and an extension of himself. So, Alison feels more like she is raised by Martha Stewart than Jimmy Stewart. Bruce treats Alison’s mother Helen the same way, asking her opinion but usually ignoring it. They are all powerless to Bruce’s whims, and Alison feels that Bruce likes his furniture better than his kids because the furniture is perfect whereas his kids are not.
By comparing the scene to a “still life with children” Alison implies the artificial, even two-dimensional, nature of her childhood, in that her family was more an artificial construction than a loving family. Bruce treating his children like furniture is an example of his tendency to prefer easier fiction to the complexity of reality—he’d rather have his children be entirely controllable, like furniture, than actual people.
Alison’s preference for the “purely functional” emerges when she’s young, in stark juxtaposition to Bruce’s love for lavish decoration. Alison has contempt for functionless ornament because she sees it as the worst kind of embellishments—as “lies.” Alison, looking back as the author, believes that Bruce used his talent for artifice to make things appear to be what they are not, the same way that Bruce himself appeared to be an ideal father and husband, while secretly having sex with underage boys.
Alison says that it’s tempting to view her family as a sham in retrospect, yet they really did live in that house. However, there was something fundamental missing, “an elasticity, a margin for error.” Even when Alison and her brothers were young children, Bruce would blow up if the slightest part of their home were out of place. An idle remark about his appearance could result in a full-on breakdown, so Helen made a rule that no one could mention how Bruce looked, good or bad. Alison adds that physical affection was a rarity in her family. One time she tried to kiss her father, and ended up kissing his knuckles before rushing from the room in embarrassment.
Again Alison homes in on the artificial construction of her family. Because Bruce isn’t a truly loving father, Alison, her siblings and her mother are forced to walk on eggshells around him and interact with him as if he were their lord or master rather than their father or husband. Additionally, the fact that the Alison and her siblings were disallowed from honestly telling their dad how he looked is indicative of the repressive nature of the entire household.
Alison says her embarrassment is a smaller-scale version of Bruce’s more formidable “self-loathing,” and that his shame inhabited and pervaded the entire house. In fact, the house’s design was expressly intended to hide that shame. Over an image of Bruce shattering a glass during dinner, Alison narrates that it was always impossible to be sure if the Minotaur was lurking close by. Worse, the constant tension was increased by the many pleasant moments when Alison’s father was normal, like when he read her bedtime stories or sang songs.
The difficulty with painting her childhood as entirely two-dimensional and artificial is that Alison did share truly compassionate moments with her father, and perhaps this is part of the reason she is so obsessed with the line between fiction and reality—as a kid, Alison was never sure which version of her father was the real one.
Although Alison is aware of Bruce’s many flaws, she can’t sustain much anger at him. Over images of her father washing her in a bathtub with a cup, Alison narrates that her mother Helen must have bathed her hundreds of times, but it’s her father rinsing her with the purple cup that she remembers most clearly. Alison is unsure whether Bruce is a good father, and though she wants to say that at least he stuck around, of course, he didn’t. Though Bruce didn’t kill himself until Alison was nearly twenty, she felt his absence long before he was dead.
Why do we recall certain memories with total clarity and forget others entirely? Alison is unsure, and she focuses on memory’s inability to be truly accurate throughout the rest of the memoir. The juxtaposition between Bruce’s physical presence and his mental absence straddles the line between fiction and reality, between artifice and truth: though Bruce was physically present, he wasn’t really ever there for Alison.