Two nights before Bruce’s death, Alison dreamed that she was out at the family cabin with him. There was a beautiful sunset visible through the trees, and Alison urged Bruce to follow her up the hill to see it. At first Bruce ignored her, but she raced up the hill, and when Bruce finally got there the sun was gone. Alison says that Bruce possessed a type of radiance (perhaps, Alison notes, because of his excessive sunbathing habit), causing his death to have a “dimming” feeling. Alison’s cousin even delayed his annual fireworks show out of respect for Bruce.
This dream almost feels like a foreshadowing literary device—but, since this is a graphic memoir, we must take Alison at face value that this really happened. Dreams, perhaps, are one of the many intersections between fiction and reality. Though Alison couldn’t have connected this dream to her father’s death before it happened, perhaps she could subconsciously sense a tragedy approaching Bruce.
Alison’s numbness, along with all the mourning at Bruce’s funeral was making her irritable. She wondered what would happen if she told someone at the funeral the truth—that there’s no mystery, and Bruce “killed himself because he was a manic-depressive, closeted fag and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one more second.” Instead, Alison stays quiet. When Alison wonders how her father’s story might have turned out differently, she always thinks that if Bruce had been able to escape Beech Creek, he might not have died so soon.
Rather than openly cut through the artificial, sappy, and misguided sentiment at the funeral, Alison chooses to stay quiet and repress her extreme frustrations, somewhat mirroring how Bruce lived his life (at least on the surface).
Alison wonders if Beech Creek itself exerted some kind of gravitational pull due to its topography. The town is right on the Allegheny front, where the forests of the Allegheny Plateau break out into long ridges and cultivated valleys. “The Appalachian Ridges—many longer than Hadrian’s Wall—historically discouraged cultural exchange.” Alison’s Grammy was a Bechdel even before she married her grandfather. In their town of 800 people, 26 Bechdel families were still listed in the phone book, despite the fact that roads made it easy to navigate around the mountains by the time of Bruce’s childhood.
By comparing the topography of her hometown to Hadrian’s Wall, Alison implicitly compares Beech Creek to the Roman Empire, again “fictionalizing” the truth and giving Beech Creek an air of importance and grandiosity it might not deserve except in Alison’s mind.
By the time Alison was born, one could even drive right across the mountain—Interstate 80 had just been blasted through a ridge close to Beech Creek. Over an image of Bruce and the kids playing cards on the porch, Alison narrates that the mountain deadened any hint of noise from the highway except on particularly hot, dry nights. She notes that the sun would rise over Bald Eagle Mountain each morning and set behind the “strip mine-pocked plateau” with beautiful splendor because of a “pre-clean air act paper mill ten miles away.” Similarly, Alison notes, the crystal-clear creek was so clean precisely because pollution from mine runoff left the water too acidic to support life.
Nature can be most beautiful when it’s toxic. On the surface, the fish-free river looks beautiful, but the water is acidic and most likely dangerous to all life. This mirrors the Bechdel house itself—it appears to be a lavish, even luxurious home, whereas the reality of living in it is uncomfortable and often frightening. The message: things often aren’t as they appear to be, and the line between artifice and reality, beauty and danger, can be tough to distinguish.
In this fishless creek, Alison “learned firsthand that most elemental of all ironies. That, as Wallace Stevens put it... ‘Death is the Mother of Beauty.’” Alison was inspired to poetry by the beautiful surroundings, writing a poem about spring at the age of seven. She showed the poem to Bruce, who improvised a second stanza about flowers. Alison added Bruce’s lines to the typescript, and illustrated the page with a bright watercolor sunset. In the foreground of the watercolor stands a man staring out at the sunset. Alison notes that she never wrote another poem, and in her illustrating she soon abandoned the practice of using color.
Alison’s shift from color to black-and-white in her artwork embodies her love for the purely functional and her dislike of ornament—she prefers simple, honest illustration to anything at all artificial or distracting. Bruce adding his own stanza to Alison’s poem mirrors how Bruce’s enthusiasm can sometimes overshadow Alison’s; rather than simply feeling happy for his daughter, Bruce has to take over and make her art and enthusiasm at least partially his own.
In the Bechdel home there was a huge coloring book of E.H. Shepard’s illustrations for The Wind in the Willows. Bruce had read Alison bits of the story from the real version of the book, and Alison notes that in one scene the character Mr. Toad buys a caravan. One day, Alison was filling in the caravan with her favorite color, Midnight Blue. Bruce asked Alison what she was doing, since that was the “Canary colored caravan!” and proceeded to shade half of it in yellow and turn Alison’s blue half into shadow.
Here Bruce is so obsessed with being true to a fiction that he takes over his daughter’s coloring and ruins what could have been a really fun experience for her. Even vicariously, Bruce is meticulous about creating thorough fictions, and he can’t see that his obsessiveness about it is daunting and overbearing to his daughter.
Helen’s talents were also “daunting.” Once, Alison went with Helen to a house where she argued with a man as if she knew him, which Alison later learned was called acting. Helen could also play piano very well, but when Alison one day asked her mother if “Chop-in” wrote chopsticks, Helen replied, “Sho-Pahn. No. Don’t bother me now.” Several years after Bruce’s death, Helen was using an old tape recorder to rehearse for the play Morning at Seven. When Helen checked to make sure it was recording properly, she realized she was taping over Bruce’s voice as he prepared a guided tour for a local historical museum.
Alison’s first exposure to acting is a pure example of the fine line between fiction and reality—Helen and her scene partner know it is only pretend, but a young Alison can’t differentiate their play-argument from a real-life one. Also, Helen is often more absorbed in fiction than in the real problems of her daughter, exemplified by the “Chop-in” vs. “Sho-Pahn” question, which Helen could have answered much more attentively if she’d wanted to.
Alison says that it was jarring to hear Bruce speak from beyond the grave, but the most shocking part about the tape was its evidence of both her parents separately absorbed in their work. Over an illustration of a young Alison telling her piano-playing mother that she’s hungry and Helen replying that she’ll make lunch in 15 minutes, Alison narrates that listening to the tape brings her to an emotional state of familiar resentment. Alison knows that it’s childish to begrudge her parents “the sustenance of their creative solitude… but it was all that sustained them, and thus was all-consuming.” Alison learned from her parents to feed her own creativity, for example by drawing on the walls. Her brothers quickly followed suit, so the Bechdel home became a sort of artists’ colony. They ate together, but were absorbed in separate pursuits. In this atmosphere, the Bechdel family’s creativity became compulsive.
Again, Helen is sometimes more absorbed in her own artistic pursuits than in Alison and her siblings’ real-life needs. So, Alison and her siblings begin to seek loving sustenance not from their parents, but from art, which can be satisfying, but sometimes it’s in a two-dimensional (or at least lonely) way. Alison doesn’t see anything wrong with achieving satisfaction through artistic personal pursuits—her issue is that this is all her family cares about, leaving little room for compassion or love in their real-life family.
Alison’s real “obsessive-compulsive disorder” first surfaced when she was ten. First it involved counting, like trying to get the bathtub faucet to stop after an even number of drips. She avoided odd numbers and multiples of thirteen, and crossing doorways became tedious since she had to count the number of edges she saw there. She also would continually wipe away invisible substances that hung in doorways. Despite her watchfulness, she encountered odd numbers and multiples of thirteen often, so she created even more rules. If she hadn’t successfully navigated a doorway, she could say an incantation, which could be repeated with added hand gestures. If Alison had a good day, she attempted to repeat as much of it as possible the next. If she had a bad day, she would alter her regimen slightly. “Life had become a laborious round of chores,” affecting even the order of how she undressed and how she lined up her shoes each night.
These sorts of obsessive compulsions seem to stem from Alison’s desire to exert some kind of control over her life, perhaps because she cannot control how she internally feels. This can be seen most clearly when Alison says she would try to recreate the conditions of a good day and change things about herself after a bad one. It’s impossible to say exactly what caused these compulsions, but it is possible that they’re linked to Alison’s repression of her genderqueer sexuality—she can’t control how she feels, nor does she feel she can speak openly about it, so she tries to control the outside world through ritualized behaviors.
Every night, Alison had to kiss each of her stuffed animals before bed. Then she’d bring one of the three bears to bed with her, alternating nightly between the mother, father, and baby. Alison then points out that “no one had kissed” her goodnight in years. One day, Helen stopped Alison mid-ritual to ask whether Alison felt guilty about something. She asked if Alison had any bad thoughts about herself or Bruce, and Alison said “No” while wondering whether she had. Alison knew her mother had gotten her questions from Dr. Spock, who wrote a book called Baby and Child Care that Alison had also spent time browsing. Its section about compulsions came somewhat close to describing Alison’s symptoms.
Alison doesn’t receive the love and nurturing in real life that she craves, so she seeks to find it with inanimate objects. She doesn’t receive any goodnight kisses, so she shares them with her teddy bears. Here Alison knows the difference between reality and fiction, but she seeks in fiction what she cannot find in reality. Then, when Alison tries to understand her compulsions, she tries to learn about it through literature rather than seeking help through her flesh-and-blood family members.
Even so, Spock’s book’s explanation that compulsions are caused by “repressed hostility” didn’t make much sense to Alison. She continued reading, searching for a more concrete answer. Over images of Helen and Bruce arguing while a teen Alison reads Baby and Child Care, Alison narrates that she learned about “tics,” but these sorts of nervous habits described in the book were only child’s play compared to the darker fears that motivated Alison’s own rituals. Still, Alison liked reading Dr. Spock. She felt she was “both subject and object,” both the educator and the one being educated. Reading the book “was a self-soothing autistic loop.” Alison asks if her family was an artists’ colony, “could it not be even more accurately described as a mildly autistic colony?”
Here, Alison finds a possible explanation of her compulsive behaviors (“repressed hostility”), though at the time she doesn’t fully believe it. Alison feeling like “both subject and object” when reading the Dr. Spock book embodies the difficulty of coming of age in the Bechdel household. In some ways, Alison acted as her own parent, and was forced to educate herself about her internal issues, including her gender identity and repressed frustrations.
Over an image of a small radius encircling the areas where Bruce was born, lived, died, and was buried, Alison narrates that Bruce’s life “was a solipsistic circle of self, from autodidact to autocrat to autocide.” Alison then addressees her “own compulsive propensity to auto-biography.” At some point during her O.C.D. spell, Alison began to keep a diary in a wall calendar given to her by Bruce. Alison’s first entry was made on Ash Wednesday, and the first three words are in her father’s handwriting.
Bruce is full of contradictions. Though Alison believes he was obsessively focused on himself, he was also obsessive about hiding who he truly was, so no matter how self-absorbed he was, he was never self-fulfilled.
The entries in Alison’s diary proceeded blandly at first. She then switched to a date book, which afforded her more space. But in April, the phrase, “I Think” started to crop up between many of her comments. Alison says she was going through a kind of crisis of reality—How could she know that the things she was writing about were universally true? Alison believed she could only stand for her own perceptions, and her declarative sentences began to strike her as “hubristic at best, utter lies at worst.” The “I Thinks” became stitches between Alison’s sentences, and, to strengthen them, she would scribble “I think” over and over until the words became illegible blots. Alison’s diary then quickly became as tedious as the rest of her rituals.
Here Alison most overtly explores the differences between fiction and reality, and she spells out how memoir is inherently a blending of reality with a certain kind of fiction. One’s own point-of-view, even when recounting real experiences, is always inflected through one’s beliefs and biases, so how can we know anything we see is empirically, fully true? Alison comes to the conclusion that she can’t, so she adds “I think” to all of her sentences, making what is true and what are simply her perceptions ambiguous. Thus even when Alison knows the truth, she often omits it from her diary or shrouds it with qualifiers.
At that point, Helen seems to have decided that giving Alison more attention might help her, so she began reading to Alison in the bath. But this was “too much, too late.” Alison was so consumed with anxiety that she couldn’t enjoy the reading and Helen would stop. Meanwhile, things worsened in her diary. To save time, Alison created a shorthand symbol for “I Think” that Alison began drawing right over names and pronouns. Then, Alison realized she could draw the shape over entire entries, which she did.
Diaries are supposed to be a place of pure personal openness and exploration, yet Alison’s became more and more indecipherable, mirroring her repressed and anxiety-riddled state. Alison scribbling over the entries serves as a literal symbol for her inability to recount the truth without having anxiety that she isn’t being open enough—and ironically, this desire to be fully truthful leads her to often repress or ignore the truth.
“Things were getting fairly illegible by August,” when Alison and her brothers went with Bill and Bruce to the Bullpen in the woods. Given how important that event is in Alison’s memory, her notes on the event in her diary are surprisingly minimal. There is no mention of the pin-up girl, the strip mine, or Bill’s .22 caliber gun—she only wrote, “we saw a snake,” with a curvy circumflex scribbled through “we.” Alison says that this again exhibits “the troubling gap between word and meaning.” At that time, Alison’s language skills couldn’t properly express the power of the experience.
Words sometimes fail to fully express what the writer intends, and Alison’s diary embodies this concept fully. Rather than being an honest non-fiction account of Alison’s feelings and experiences, by the time of this trip the diary had fully become a reflection of Alison’s repressed state, so the journal entries omit important details at best and total ignore or fictionalize her feelings about important events in her life at worst.
Alison pauses her narrative to comment about how, when driving toward New York City on the highway, the speed at which you’re moving erases the details of the landscape itself. She notes how living in the anonymity of a city might have saved Bruce’s life, but adds that she can’t imagine her father having existed anywhere outside of Beech Creek. While listening to the museum-tour tape that Bruce recorded, Alison is stunned by her father’s thick Pennsylvania accent.
Alison imagines a fictional life her father could have led in a city, while acknowledging that his personality would never have let that happen in reality. Also, Alison being surprised by her father’s accent is an example of how memory can often turn real people into characters—we emphasize certain parts of their personality while minimizing or ignoring others.
Alison had forgotten her father’s accent—by the time Bruce died, Alison had mostly succeeded in ridding herself of her own rural accent. However, Bruce’s accent and provincialism was planted deep. In Bruce’s letters to Helen during his courtship of her, Bruce wrote fondly about home and made plans to bring Helen to Beech Creek to meet his family. In the family’s Wind in the Willows Coloring Book, Alison’s favorite page was the map. There were distinct parallels between that fictional landscape and the one in Beech Creek. One on top of the other, Alison points out the similarities between the two towns, including that the creek of Beech Creek flowed in the same direction as Ratty’s River.
Here Alison notes the similarities between the fictional map in the Wind in the Willows coloring book and the real landscape her family existed among in Beech Creek. It is almost as if she’d rather live in the world of the coloring book than her own world, just as she tries to rid herself of the indications of her provincialism through dropping her accent.
The best thing about the Wind in the Willows map was its ability to bridge “the symbolic and the real.” Though it was a chart, the map also served as an animated picture: if you look closely, you can see “Mr. Toad speeding along in the car he bought after becoming disenchanted with his canary-colored caravan.” In September of Alison’s O.C.D. year, there was a bad accident on Route 150 in which three people were killed close to where Bruce would die nine years later. It was the first time the “Fun home” hosted three funerals at once, and one of the victims was a distant cousin, a boy Alison’s age. Bruce told Alison the boy died from a broken neck. Alison’s diary entries from that weekend “are almost completely obscured” with curved “I Think” symbols.
In this section, Alison overtly explores the bridging of the fictional and the real, or the “symbolic and the real” as she puts it. She implicitly compares Mr. Toad’s fictional driving with the real tragic car accident that included the death of her distant cousin. Rather than openly explore her feelings about this boy’s death, Alison notes that her compulsive “I think” symbols blotted out most of her journal entries from that week. Alison indicates that stress, especially stress induced by death, caused her to repress her feelings even more than usual.
On the Monday after the funeral, the writing in Alison’s journal shifted from her handwriting to her mother’s. For the next two months, Helen took dictation from Alison until Alison’s “penmanship” improved. Slowly, Alison did get better. She set deadlines on her calendar by which she had to abandon her compulsions, one at a time, interspersed with small encouragements like “Don’t worry. You’re safe.” Alison was “as obsessive in giving up the behaviors as” she’d been in pursuing them, but she still felt relief when they were gone. By the end of September, Alison narrated to her mother that she and Bruce watched a beautiful sunset together. Over an image of the father and daughter watching the sunset, Alison says that while Bruce once almost got into a fight with a guest “about whether a particular patch of embroidery was fuchsia or magenta,” this sunset left him silent.
Helen focusing on Alison’s “penmanship” improving rather than, say, her nearly debilitating compulsions, is another prime example of the Bechdel family’s preference of fiction to reality, surface to depth. Rather than overtly dealing with Alison’s issues and having her go see a therapist or talk with her parents about her issues, Helen deals with Alison’s problems indirectly, solving the handwriting problem and then leaving Alison on her own to deal with her compulsions as if she were an adult. Lastly, Bruce’s speechlessness at the sunset is an example of reality’s ability to transcend fiction or words—sometimes an experience cannot be fully captured by any sort of art, even this graphic memoir.