Alison begins the chapter by narrating, over an image of the many definitions of ‘queer’ in a dictionary, that Bruce’s death was queer in every sense of the word. His death was strange, suspicious, perhaps even counterfeit. It put her family in a bad position. It left Alison angry, faint, and sometimes drunk. And of course, Bruce’s death was bound up with the only definition of ‘queer’ that was missing from her family’s dictionary. Only four months before Bruce’s death, Alison had announced to her parents, in a letter, that she was a lesbian. Though her homosexuality was, at that point, hypothetical (and not physically confirmed), she thought it worth sharing with her parents.
Queerness and repression—Alison begins chapter three with these two themes that will pervade the rest of the memoir. By drawing an image of the dictionary itself (and pointing out the missing definition), Alison indicates that omission—and societal repression—is everywhere, and in her family this is especially true in regard to repressed or hidden sexual orientation. Alison also points out the limits of the dictionary, indicating that even things meant to be empirically true can be biased or incomplete.
The news wasn’t received as well as Alison had hoped, and after an exchange of difficult letters with her mother, Helen eventually revealed Bruce’s homosexual affairs to Alison on the phone. Alison says she felt like she’d been “upstaged” and that the reveal of her own sexuality took on a lesser importance in the shadow of this bombshell about her father. Alison says she had imagined her coming out as emancipation from her parents, but instead it pulled her back into their messed-up lives. And then, with her father’s death so soon afterward, Alison couldn’t help but assume her coming out partially caused the tragedy. She wonders whether, had she not shared her discovery, Bruce might never have been hit by that truck. Alison wonders why she even told her parents—she hadn’t even had sex yet, while her father had been having homosexual sex for years and telling no one.
Even in the midst of a real-life dramatic familial crisis, Alison imagines her life as a fictional narrative and sees her story as being “upstaged” by her father. Here, Alison once more both distances herself from reality and then also tries to understand it from a distance by using fiction as a guiding tool. Additionally, Alison wondering if Bruce’s death was caused by her coming out of the closet is an example of how the Bechdel family continually favors repression over openness. Even after opening herself up, Alison wonders if repressing herself might have been the best thing for her family after all—she never even wonders about what might be best for herself.
Alison says the line that Bruce drew between reality and fiction was “blurry.” One could tell this by his library—it was designed with velvet drapes, statues of figures like Don Quixote and Mephistopheles, and a big wooden desk. Alison asks, if her father imagined himself “as a Nineteenth-century aristocrat overseeing his estate… did that require such a leap of the imagination?” Alison wonders whether affectation can be so engrossing that it becomes, in effect, real. The library, then, was a fully operational fantasy, with a logic difficult to understand without consulting Bruce himself. When visitors would peruse the library, they’d always ask Bruce whether he’d read all of the books in the massive walnut bookcase. He’d always answer, “Not yet.”
The library in the Bechdel house epitomizes the blurry line Bruce treads between reality and fiction—yes the library (and the books) are really there, but Bruce’s projection of himself as a learned, scholarly, rich “aristocrat overseeing his estate” was far from the truth. The problem is, Bruce began to act as if it were true, believing it himself on some level, and eventually he would use the library as part of his mystique with which to charm and ultimately seduce young men.
Part of Bruce’s routine involved mentoring his more promising high school students—and though Alison notes that the exchange was probably sexual in many cases, no matter what else was going on, books were being read by Bruce’s young pupils. Bruce was passionate about many writers, but he was particularly reverent of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Helen had sent Bruce a biography of Fitzgerald when Bruce was in the army, and references to it appeared often in Bruce’s letters to Helen at the time. Stories of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda’s outrageous behavior enthralled Bruce, and Alison believes it couldn’t have escaped Bruce’s notice that during Fitzgerald’s stint in the army he began courting Zelda. At this point Bruce’s letters grew “lush with Fitzgeraldesque sentiment.”
Using great works of fiction as a way to seduce his students in reality is another example of Bruce using fiction to support his own image of himself while confirming the falsity of the presentation. Bruce’s obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald is another example of his inclination to blur reality with fiction—he began to see the similarities between himself and Fitzgerald, and his courting of Helen while in the army may have been in large part caused by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s courtship of Zelda while he was also in the army.
After reading the biography, Bruce tore through Fitzgerald’s stories, seeing himself in various characters. Though Bruce never mentions identifying with the character of Jay Gatsby, Alison says the parallels are unavoidable. Like Gatsby, Bruce fueled his metamorphosis by utilizing the power of illusion. However, Bruce did it on a schoolteacher’s salary. Alison says her father looked like Gatsby, or at least like Robert Redford in the 1974 movie of The Great Gatsby. Alison says it might seem a gigantic illusion on her part to compare her father to Robert Redford, but she says Bruce was more attractive than photographs of him suggest.
The Bruce/Jay Gatsby comparison is right on the money—like Gatsby, Bruce uses his home (and especially his library) to project an image that is far from the truth; however, while Gatsby uses his image to project wealth and status in his ultimate goal of landing the love of his life, Bruce uses his image to try to maintain his Family Man persona while also seducing young men under the guise of being an older, mentor-like guiding figure.
Alison believes what was so alluring to her father about Fitzgerald’s stories “was their inextricability from Fitzgerald’s life.” Over images of Bruce flirting with one of his high school students, Roy, and offering him sherry, Alison notes that mixing the imaginary with the real was Bruce’s stock in trade, which took a toll on the rest of the family. Alison finishes Bruce’s flirtation with Roy by having Helen abruptly come into the library to tell Bruce he forgot to pick up John, one of Alison’s brothers, from cub scouts.
Bruce’s preference of fiction to reality has real costs to the Bechdel family, which Alison shows with this anecdote that includes an illustration of a time that Bruce forgot his responsibility to pick up John that afternoon. Just as Fitzgerald’s family paid a cost for his lifestyle and selfishness, the Bechdel family paid for Bruce’s.
If Bruce was a Fitzgerald character, Helen stepped right out of a Henry James book, as she was “a vigorous American idealist ensnared by degenerate continental forces”—in Helen’s case, the force of Alison’s father. Alison notes that in college, Helen played the lead in The Heiress, which was based on James’s novel Washington Square. In the play, a dull but wealthy young woman falls in love with a smooth-talking fortune hunter.
Alison views her mother as a Henry James character in the context of her father being a corrupting villain that Helen the heroine becomes ensnared by. Alison uses a variety of literary sources as a touchstone for her parents’ relationship, but in each one Helen plays the protagonist and Bruce plays the villain.
Alison says she uses these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not solely as descriptive devices, but because Alison’s parents are most real to her “in fictional terms.” She adds that her “cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate” of the Bechdel household than any singular literary comparison could. Her parents lived largely passionless lives with each other. Alison says there was no story of how they met, and they never used terms of endearment. Bruce rarely even used Helen’s name, instead calling her ‘You.’ In her whole life, Alison witnessed two gestures of affection between them—once Bruce gave Helen a peck on the lips, and another time, as the family was watching TV, Helen put her hand on Bruce’s back. Over images of Alison and her brothers sitting on the stairs listening to their parents argue, Alison says those moments of affection were nearly as unnerving as the common state of antagonism between her parents.
Here Alison indicates that the reason she understands her parents best “in fictional terms” is largely because it was difficult to parse the real distance and coldness within the Bechdel house without a narrative framework.Rrather than living through her childhood, it is almost as if Alison has read about her childhood somewhere in a book, and is able to best understand it when re-reading that book in her mind. The lack of physical contact between Alison and her father (and between Bruce and Helen) is another reason that she perhaps understands him best as a character than as a human—their relationship was largely devoid of physical compassion.
Eventually, Alison extracted the tale of how her parents met from Helen. During a college production of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew, Helen played the lead, and Bruce had a bit part. Over an image of Bruce (somewhat eerily) staring at Helen while she is acting, Alison narrates that The Taming of the Shrew is about the character of Katherine having her spirit broken by Petruchio. Alison says that her parents must have found the relationship model presented in the play problematic. Over an image of the kids watching Bruce call Helen a bitch and tell her she’s the one with the problem, Alison says her parents would likely have been upset at the suggestion that their marriage resembled that play.
Here, the reality of Helen and Bruce’s relationship sadly comes to imitate the fiction of The Taming of the Shrew—just as Katherine’s spirit is broken by Petruchio, Helen’s positive, idealistic spirit is slowly sapped out of her by Bruce throughout their marriage. Helen and Bruce not wanting to acknowledge the resemblance between their own marriage and that of Shakespeare’s play is an example of reality and fiction being far more difficult to distinguish than people would like to admit.
Alison says that if The Taming of the Shrew foreshadowed her parents’ later marriage, Henry James’s book The Portrait of a Lady runs parallel to their early days together. Just as Helen left America for Europe, Isabel Archer, the book’s heroine, leaves America for Europe. Then, after turning down many worthy suitors, Isabel accepts the advances of Gilbert Osmond, a man she is way too good for. After Helen came to Europe to marry Bruce, they went to Paris to visit an army friend of Bruce’s. They had a terrible fight on the way, and Helen later learned that the army friend and Bruce had been lovers, “Much like Isabel Archer learns that Gilbert had been having an affair all along with the woman who introduced them.”
Henry James’s book The Portrait of a Lady becomes a framework by which Alison compares and contrasts Bruce and Helen’s early courtship. Though the narrative is fictional, Alison does truly grow to understand her mother more by using the context of James’s book.
Just as Isabel remains with Gilbert, Helen, too, “ends up ground in the very mill of the conventional” with Bruce. Over an image of a passport photo taken eight years after this time in Europe, Alison narrates that Helen’s face has already gone dull. The photo was taken for a three-week trip on which Alison and her brother Christian came along. The trip was thrilling—Alison talked her parents into buying her hiking boots in Switzerland, and in Cannes she argued for the right to wear swim shorts instead of a girls bathing suit thanks to all the topless women. Alison says that though the travels widened her own scope, she suspected that her parents felt their own freedom dwindling. Alison says that this family trip was perhaps when she decided that she would not have a family, and instead would live out the artist’s life that her parents hadn’t fully pursued.
Here, Alison brings the framework of The Portrait of a Lady from her parents’ history more closely into her own life. Alison observes that Helen, like the Isabel of the novel, has become faded and conventional, the opposite of what she had originally wished for herself. Further, Alison is able to use the context of the novel as a way to distance herself from this possible future—the book shines a light on her mother’s behavior, and in a way it causes Alison to resolve not to make the same mistake as her mother of not fully pursuing her passions.
Though that is what came to pass, it wasn’t in the manner anyone in her family expected. Alison’s realization at nineteen that she was a lesbian was in keeping with her bookish upbringing in that it occurred in the library while reading a book. Alison had been having questions since reading the word ‘lesbian’ in the dictionary at 13, and then, in college, she read a series of ‘Word Is Out’ books filled with interviews with homosexual people. Alison tore through books in the library about homosexuality. Over an image of Alison masturbating while reading a book called Delta of Venus, she narrates that her “researches were stimulating but solitary.” Alison says it became clear that she had to leave the academic world and enter the human testing ground. So, she went to a meeting of Oberlin College’s “Gay Union.”
Alison’s discovery of her gender identity is entrenched in her experiences of fiction and literature—the fact that her epiphany occurs while at the library is symbolic of the way fiction serves as a guiding force all throughout Alison’s life. Here, the line between reality and fiction again becomes blurred, as a fictional, intellectual discovery is what prompts Alison to act on her feelings and become self-explorative and open rather than repressed and un-self-examining.
Though Alison was silent during the “Gay Union” meeting, she felt her attendance counted as a public declaration of her lesbianism. She was exhilarated. In that state Alison decided to tell her parents that she was gay. So, Alison came out to her parents via letter. Bruce called after receiving the letter to tell her he believed that “everyone should experiment,” but Helen wouldn’t come to the phone. A week and a half later, Alison received a disapproving letter from her mother, which upset her. The P.S. instructions told Alison to destroy the letter. To make herself feel better, Alison bought herself the present of a pocketknife, as it seemed to Alison a possession suitable for a young lesbian.
Rather than repress or withhold the discovery of her homosexuality from her parents, Alison decides to share it and be open with them right away. However, her openness doesn’t yield her acceptance and openness in return from her parents, at least at first. Instead, in some ways Helen’s response can be interpreted as an affront to her own repression. In other words, Alison being so open and honest about her sexuality and gender identity threatened the secrecy and repression of Bruce’s, and the sacrifices Helen made to uphold that secrecy.
Back at home, Alison accidentally cut her finger with the knife, and smeared the blood into her journal, pleased at the opportunity to physically put her pain on the page. Alison responded to her mother’s letter point by point, with some confusion, and Helen called a few days letter, telling Alison that Bruce had affairs with young men. Helen also told Alison that one time Bruce almost got caught, and he also had an affair with Roy, Alison’s childhood babysitter. This revision of Alison’s history—a history which, with her own realization about her sexuality, had already undergone hefty revision in her last few months — left Alison dazed. But not quite dazed enough, so she got very drunk after the phone call.
The transmission of Alison’s blood onto the page of her journal is as close to the blurry center of the line between reality and fiction, between literature and the present moment, as Alison gets. It doesn’t—and cannot—literally transmit the pain she felt in that moment, but it always serves as a reminder of it. Also, Alison’s openness about herself in the end yields her openness about her father and her family’s past, even if it isn’t the kind of openness she was seeking.
Soon, Alison found “an even more potent anesthetic” in the act of diving fully into her new lesbian sexuality and identity. Over an image of Alison in bed with Joan, her first girlfriend, Alison narrates that by midterm she’d ingratiated herself completely. Joan was a poet and “matriarchist.” Alison spent most of the rest of the year inside of Joan’s bed. This time was also strewn with books. Alison lost her grounding—the dictionary became erotic, and some of her favorite childhood stories were revealed as either propaganda (during a reading of ‘The World of Pooh,’ Joan calls Christopher Robins a “total imperialist!”) or pornography (like the description of the inside of a peach in James and the Giant Peach) when read through this new lens.
Alison describing her experience of exploring her sexuality in college, especially through her physical relationship with Joan, as an “anesthetic” is telling—even while openly exploring her sexuality, Alison seems to imply that her full-on dive into her own sexuality was in some ways a drug-like vice she used to escape from the reality of her mother and father’s situation, and to ignore Bruce’s past. Additionally, Alison’s re-contextualization of childhood literature through this new lens further shows that fiction, and one’s reaction to it, can change drastically depending on one’s life circumstances.
Alison says she was happy at the distraction of her sexual and political awakening, as the news from home became increasingly unsettling about the erratic behavior of Bruce. Soon after Joan and Alison moved in together for the summer, Alison got a call about her mother’s divorce from her father, and two weeks after that the call came about Bruce’s fatal “accident.” Over the years after Bruce’s death, Helen gave away or sold most of Bruce’s library. She began immediately after Bruce’s funeral, bestowing Joan with a book by Wallace Stevens, an experience that Joan later wrote a poem about.
Giving away Bruce’s library is an ironic, and somewhat tragic, way to mourn his death. The center of Bruce’s artifice, in Alison’s view, is his library and the books within, but the irony there is that the books survive long after Bruce’s artificial use for them does. This blurring of reality and fiction continues in Helen’s bestowal of a book to Joan, in that this real incident becomes the inspiration for Joan to write a poem.
Helen also told them that “Sunday Morning” – a poem about crucifixion by Stevens – is her favorite poem. Alison comments that, in many ways, Helen understood sacrifice fully. Alison wonders if her mother liked that poem because “its juxtaposition of catastrophe with a plush domestic interior” depicts life with Bruce in a nutshell. Alison says her father’s death was a catastrophe that had been unfolding slowly for a long time. Alison then adds that the idea that she caused his death by coming out as a lesbian is illogical, because “causality implies connection” and she never felt all that connected to Bruce.
Alison believes that her mother Helen relates to Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning” because it reminds her of her own life with Bruce—so Helen, too, sometimes uses fiction as a way to understand and (as we’ll later see), to escape from her reality.
Over images of Alison asking her father for a check, Alison narrates that there is a scene in The Great Gatsby where a drunken party guest is carried away when he discovers that the books in Gatsby’s library aren’t cardboard fakes. Alison’s father’s library came to embody the same idea as Gatsby’s — “the preference of a fiction to reality.” As Bruce reads a book about Zelda Fitzgerald, he asks Alison what she needs the check for, and she responds that she wants to buy some magazines. Over these images, Alison wonders if Fitzgerald’s stories would have resonated so strongly with Bruce if the author’s life hadn’t turned sour. Gatsby croaked in the pool, Zelda ended up in an asylum, and Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at forty-four. Alison counted out their lifespans—Bruce lived the same number of months and weeks, “but Fitzgerald lived three days longer.”
Preferring fiction to reality is Bruce’s perspective, but, ironically, in some ways Alison’s continual use of fiction to contextualize her life is just as all-consuming as Bruce’s use of fiction to present an alternative reality of himself. Still, Bruce’s use of fiction is far more sinister than Alison’s, mostly because he keeps his truth hidden and often uses fiction to deceive others.
Over an image of Alison writing out that check for MAD magazine, she narrates that she’s contemplated the idea that Bruce might have timed his death to mimic Fitzgerald’s. But, that would only confirm that Bruce’s death wasn’t Alison’s fault and, further, had absolutely nothing to do with her. Over an image from the perspective of a voyeur looking into the Bechdel family house, in which Bruce and Alison are in the same room but are trapped in separate windows, Alison finishes the chapter by narrating that she’s “reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond.”
Just as she can never know if Bruce’s lifespan being so close to Fitzgerald’s was intentional, or whether her coming out caused his death or not, Alison will never know for sure which parts of her father were real, and which were simply presentational. Just as they are forever trapped in separate windows in this illustration, Alison and Bruce will always be separated by the fictional veneer Bruce coated over his life, so she’ll never know which parts of him were real.