Over an image of Alison writing in her diary that her dad is going to “a psychiatrist!!” Alison narrates that, the summer when she was 13, Bruce’s secret almost surfaced. At breakfast, Bruce was in a jacket and tie, and when he told Alison where he was going, she asked him why. His response was shameful: “I’m bad. Not good like you.” This was a busy summer, and Alison is glad she was taking notes, because otherwise she’d find the density and coincidence of all the events implausible. Helen was playing Lady Bracknell in a regional production of The Importance of Being Earnest, the Watergate political scandal was coming to a head, and Alison got her first period. Though the juxtaposition of Alison’s last days of childhood with those of Nixon may seem overwrought, Alison narrates that there were many more “heavy-handed plot devices” that would ensnare the Bechdel family during those months.
These “heavy-handed plot devices” that occur in Alison’s real life are a perfect example of her using fictional frameworks in order to understand and contextualize her lived experiences. The arc of the real-life Watergate scandal both mirrors and diverges from that of Alison’s family—just as Nixon’s secrets threaten to become exposed (and ultimately are), Bruce’s secret nearly comes out, but he ultimately receives few consequences for his risky behavior, whereas Nixon gets impeached.
Early in the summer, a plague of 17-year-locusts rose from the ground, shed their skins all over the yard, emerged as adults, and “settled down to an orgy” in the old maple trees in the Bechdels’ yard, covering the area with loud croaking noises. After a week or two, the cicadas finished laying their eggs and died. This is when Alison got her first period, but she didn’t tell her mother, even while they practiced Helen’s lines together for many hours. Helen was busy with her master’s thesis as well as the play, using the sewing room as her study, and Alison decided there was no rush to tell her, especially since Helen had given Alison a box of sanitary napkins the year before.
Alison spending hours with her mother helping her engage with fiction—in this case Oscar Wilde’s play—while suffering and failing to share the real-life event of her first period is another perfect example of the Bechdel family’s tendency to prefer fiction to reality, and even to use fiction to escape from or ignore the problems of reality.
Alison believed there was a chance that by ignoring her period, it would go away, even though this wasn’t working with her still-budding breasts. At first, Alison’s period was a slight secretion, only requiring a little toilet paper, and it went away after a few days and passed unmentioned in Alison’s diary. About that time, on a Wednesday afternoon, Alison’s best friend Beth’s father Dr. Gryzglewicz and stepmother Dr. Nancy Gryzglewicz arrived to take the Bechdel kids away for a few days. Helen was taken aback by the gesture, but agreed to let the kids go so she could focus on her thesis. Alison had trouble remembering to address both parents as “Dr. Gryzglewicz.” The visit was “a two-day binge of nonstop play.” Alison narrates that it never occurred to her to wonder what Bruce had been up to during their absence, but she later learned “he’d been on a spree of his own.”
Alison attempts to ignore her breasts and her period, likely because she doesn’t want her coming-of-age to be linked with her becoming more womanly—if anything, she wishes she could become even less curvy and manlier, so ignoring these changes and clinging to her tomboy aesthetic seems to be Alison’s best option. Additionally, while Alison and the rest of the kids are engaged in a weekend of pure fiction, Bruce exhibits his worst compulsive behaviors, which he is incapable of stripping from his reality no matter how hard he tries.
Over an image of the police report that Alison looked up 27 years later, Alison narrates that on Thursday at dusk, Bruce had driven over to the next valley to search for a kid he knew named Dave, and to do so he enlisted the help of Mark, Dave’s younger brother. On the drive, Bruce offered Mark, who he knew was underage, beer. They never found Dave, who had been home all night, and when Bruce dropped Mark off back at home, Dave recognized the car and called the police. Alison says no police officers came to their house, and in her diary for that week there is no sign anything was amiss. But, Alison notes, by that point the diary had become unreliable, with an “elliptic tone” creeping in. Further, “actual ellipses began riddling the pages,” though Alison would use them to indicate hesitation more than omission.
The image of a police report is as real and grounded as Alison can make this story—her own perception of this weekend was filled with play and time away from her parents, while Bruce’s weekend, no matter how he tries to spin it, was clearly spent attempting to compulsively fulfill his need to express his homosexuality or bisexuality. Alison’s diary at this time reflected her even further repressed state—it had become wholly untrustworthy and no longer even reflected reality, with gaps between incidents and the entries themselves often filtered through a fictional lens of how Alison wants to seem rather than how she truly feels.
On the first day of July, Bruce told Alison that he had to go see a psychiatrist. Later that same day, Helen went to see her thesis advisor and returned home upset that he wanted more revisions. In all activities, Helen held herself to near-perfect standards, but being in a play totally consumed her. She would even learn everyone else’s lines along with her own, and worked on her own costumes. Everyone in the family knew not to ask when opening night was, but with The Importance of Being Earnest, her anxiety level reached a new peak. In a photo taken a week before the play opened, Helen looks shattered, “But in her publicity shot as Lady Bracknell, she’s a Victorian dominatrix to rival Wilde himself.”
Helen is more obsessive about learning her lines and performing well in The Importance of Being Earnest than she is about being an attentive mother and wife. Rather than deal with her reality, Helen prefers to fully escape into fiction. This juxtaposition can be seen by the differences between the two pictures of Helen—in real life, she’s a nervous wreck, but as the fictional Lady Bracknell, Helen is confident and powerful.
Alison loved seeing Helen as the character of Lady Bracknell, and “in a fitting coincidence, Lady Bracknell’s first name, Augusta,” was Helen’s middle name. This was the first time Alison was old enough to run lines with Helen, and, in reading the it, she was surprised at how funny Wilde’s play was. So, Alison continued reading on her own, joyously reciting to Bruce the line, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” At the time, Alison missed all of the covert references to homosexuality present in the play. Now, Alison knows that the week after The Importance of Being Earnest first opened, Oscar Wilde’s trials began.
Helen’s middle name being her character’s first name could be construed as a pure coincidence, but Alison pointing it out as a teenager highlights her fascination with the differences and similarities between reality and fiction. Also, the line Alison recites to Bruce from the play about a diary being “sensational” is an example of Alison using fiction to actually reflect upon her real life—her own diary, at this time, had become far more sensational than realistic.
Wilde had just returned from Algiers, where he and Alfred Douglas had been out with some local boys, when Douglas’s father delivered an infamous note to Wilde’s club accusing him of being a homosexual. Wilde took Douglas to court for libel and lost. Over images of Helen rehearsing the play, Alison narrates that Wilde was then tried for committing indecent acts and sent to prison while “both The Importance and The Ideal Husband were playing to full houses.” In The Importance of Being Earnest, “illicit desire is encoded as one character’s uncontrollable gluttony.” He keeps telling other characters not to eat the cucumber sandwiches because they’re meant for Aunt Augusta, even though he keeps eating them. That summer, Helen helped the prop mistress find a recipe for cucumber sandwiches and the Bechdels “ate them all summer.”
Oscar Wilde flourished in the fictional landscape (his plays raked in money and audience approval) while in real life he suffered horribly during this time, as his homosexuality ended up getting him thrown in prison. Illicit desire being “encoded as… uncontrollable gluttony” is another example of fiction mirroring reality—under this quote, Alison includes an image of Bruce scarfing down cucumber sandwiches, implying that his own illicit desire was a kind of uncontrollable gluttony.
On the night before the play opened, “the Drs. Gryglewicz” brought Helen a bouquet of lilies. Dr. Nancy Gryglewicz told Helen, “Wilde would bring armloads of these to the actress Lillie Langtry.” Helen was taken aback, and ran upstairs to prepare. Years later, Alison learned that The Gryglewizes once propositioned Alison’s parents for group sex, a request the Bechdels declined. In the performance, Helen was brilliant and commanded the stage. The play ran for a week, and every actor flubbed a line at least once, except for Helen. The day after the play closed, Alison’s period returned in a much stronger way than the first time, and she felt obligated to include the incident in her diary.
Before the production, Helen is unapproachable and nearly a nervous wreck, but onstage, once she’s assumed her fictional character of Lady Bracknell, Helen is confident, majestic, and perfect. It seems she is more comfortable in her when playing a fictional role as someone else than in living the “role” of her own life.
When Alison was ten, she obsessed over making sure the “diary entries bore no false witness.” But as she aged, “self-disgust” began to cloud Alison’s diary, until, in the entry where she first mentions menstruating, the truth became barely decipherable. In an image of her diary, Alison writes that she thinks she “started Ning or something. (HAHA)? How Horrid!” She notes that she encoded the word menstruating according to a practice she learned in algebra where you denote “complex or unknown quantities with letters.”
Here, when writing about a biological event she is uncomfortable with, Alison’s writing mirrors her repressed state. She is unable to even write the word ‘period’ or ‘menstruation,’ instead using the code word ‘Ning.’ Her attitude about it, a mix of sarcastic distance and mock-hilarity, is also totally false—Alison is clearly concerned and upset about getting her period, but she is unable to explore or express, even to herself, how she truly feels.
Alison was so certain of the indecipherability of the word “Ning” that she used it in her diary again three years later to camouflage a different biological event—masturbation. Although she didn’t mention masturbation in her diary until she was 16, Alison began doing it soon after her first period. Alison notes that her ability to illustrate her fantasies made her feel powerful, and she began drawing slim, manly bodies that she was both attracted to and wished she herself could appear as. Alison says that despite stumbling across the word “orgasm” in the dictionary, the word never appears in her diary. Alison says that perhaps she was influenced by the gaps in truth that were saturating the country as the Watergate news was revealed. She hardly referenced the scandal in her notes, only referring to it twice very casually.
Again, ‘Ning’ serves as a way for Alison to hint at the changes her body was going through and her exploration of her sexuality without overtly discussing it, keeping it in the repressed realm of subtext. Also, Alison’s inclination to draw what she was attracted to, especially slim male bodies, seems to indicate that internally she was still fixated on exploring her masculinity-centric sexuality, but her repressed feelings rendered her unable to do so in the non-fiction realm of her diary—instead, in her imaginative fictional drawings Alison was able to express her “erotic omnipotence.”
Alison mostly ignored the Watergate hearings, but she “began to take notice as the truth wormed its way” out. As the momentum toward Nixon’s impeachment built, so did the domestic tension in the Bechdel household. One day in the pool, Alison was building up the nerve to tell her mom about her period when Helen told Alison there was a chance the family might have to move, since Bruce had to go to court in a few days and might lose his job for buying “a beer for a boy who wasn’t old enough.” Alison asked where the family would go, and Helen told her maybe somewhere in the northeast, like New England. Alison felt that New England offered her “an alluring coherence” that her current life was missing.
Here, Helen gives Alison the illusion of opening up to her by telling her about Bruce’s situation, but she leaves the darker truth about Bruce’s behavior unsaid. Then, rather than focusing on Bruce’s real questionable behavior, Alison hears the news and immediately begins to fantasize about a fictional future where her family’s relocation because of this incident makes her life better.
In Alison’s diary that night, she remarked upon the exchange with the same phrase she used about her period, “How Horrid!” That phrase strikes Alison as having “a slightly facetious tone” that is somewhat inspired by Oscar Wilde. It appears to embrace the horror while at the last second sidestepping it by laughing at it, like Road Runner in the cartoons with Wile E. Coyote. Though the accusation made her view Bruce a little differently, she was still sympathetic toward her father. Alison narrates that what she didn’t know then was that the charge of giving alcohol to the minor was the last of his troubles, and the real accusation underneath was the charge that “dared not speak its name.”
Alison highlights the repression and lack of openness present both in her diary and in her parents’ words and actions. Her “How Horrid!” note is disingenuous in that she says she’s horrified without actually expressing why or delving into her true emotions. Then, she notes that her parents, in claiming to be worried about the underage beer charge, are omitting their true fears that the town might find out about Bruce’s affairs with underage boys. The “love that dare not speak its name” is a reference to Wilde’s trial, where it was used as a euphemism for homosexuality (with the phrase coming from a poem written by Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas).
Alison can only speculate on the exact nature of Bruce’s relations with the brothers (Mark and Dave) in the next valley, but in the end he was exposed by one of the boys just as “Oscar Wilde was condemned…” On the day before Helen’s thesis was due, a sudden storm blew up and the Bechdels quickly ran around closing all the windows. However, Alison had forgotten to close the sewing room window, and Helen’s thesis paper got soaked.
Even as an adult looking back on this event, Alison uses the case of Oscar Wilde as a framework to understand her father’s situation. However, where Oscar Wilde ended up in prison, Bruce’s sentence yielded little long-term punishment.
When the storm passed, the family went outside to find the temperature twenty degrees cooler and the two silver maples in the Bechdel yard snapped in half. Two apple trees and an oak were also destroyed. The maples had been sheltering the west side of the Bechdel house for more than one hundred years, and their absence left a previously unimaginable void. None of their neighbors had much damage—it was as if the storm had only struck the Bechdels’. Yet the house itself was unharmed, with even the cat making it home dry and unscathed. In that light this incident might have conveyed a tone less of devastation than of “narrow escape.” Helen retyped her thesis and it was accepted the next day, while Bruce was only held accountable for the underage liquor charge, and only had to complete six months of therapy. The family didn’t have to move.
Alison’s imagined future in Boston for the Bechdel family never came to fruition—the literal and metaphorical storm that could have destroyed or moved her family (and their home) became a near-miss, and nothing about the family fundamentally changed. Instead, Bruce stayed repressed and continued his affairs, Helen’s thesis was destroyed but she recreated it and continued her escapist tendencies, and while the oak trees, like Alison’s opinion of her father, will never return to their same heights, overall the Bechdels’ respective repressions never come to light.
Two days after Bruce’s court date, Nixon resigned. On Labor Day, the Bechdels hosted a lawn party for the cast and crew of The Importance of Being Earnest. Alison includes an illustration of her father flirting with Jack, one of the male actors. A few days later, Alison turned 14, and received a subscription to Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ) magazine from her mom, which she appreciated.
Here, ironically, Helen’s fictional escape from reality (the play) seems to turn into Bruce’s compulsive escape from reality, as he flirts with one of the actors from the play. This seems to imply that no matter how fully we engage with fiction, our realities don’t go away just by ignoring them.
Soon afterward, Beth Gryglewicz, Alison’s friend, tried to improve Alison’s social skills by getting her to go to a football game with a cute guy. Alison said she didn’t like football, to which Beth explained that it’s not about the game. Alison suggest that, instead, the two of them could dress up in some of Bruce’s fancy dress suits, and Beth agreed. Alison narrates that she took “a nearly mystical pleasure” in putting on a formal shirt with studs and cufflinks. To Alison, “it felt too good to actually be good.” Beth went along with it, and they fleshed out a scenario in which they were playing old-school con artists. After playing around in the backyard, Alison narrates that she and Beth “couldn’t sustain” the fantasy, and they took off the clothes when Beth complained that it was hot. That night, Alison wrote about the incident in her diary, including a falsehood about having been upset to miss the football game.
Alison internally rejects what seems to come naturally to her. She doesn’t want to admit just how much she enjoys dressing in male clothes, and her line that it “felt too good to actually be good” is an example of how Alison immediately represses her non-heteronormative feelings. This can also be seen by Alison’s diary—she lies about being sad to miss the football game, while omitting how good putting on men’s clothing made her feel. Also, Alison uses a fictional scenario in order to really explore her fantasy of dressing like (and being perceived as) a man—here, fiction allows Alison to get close to her true internal inclinations, though through a lens of make-believe rather than true open exploration.
By this point, Alison’s diary had become totally unreliable. For example, in one entry she forced herself to be nonchalant about her interest in men’s fashion. Meanwhile, Bruce never mentioned going to the psychiatrist again, though he seemingly continued to do so. Alison narrates that Helen believed Bruce began coming home from psychiatry sessions in “a familiarly manic mood,” once urging her to invite his psychiatrist over for dinner. Alison has no way of knowing whether Helen’s suspicions were grounded, but she says the irony of Bruce sleeping with his therapist is tempting. In December, Alison finally told Helen that she started getting her period, and Helen asked if Alison “had cramps or anything” and whether she was “okay with the pads?” There’s no mention of the incident in Alison’s diary. By the end of November, Alison’s “earnest daily entries had given way to the implicit lie of the blank page, and weeks at a time are left unrecorded.”
Again, even in her diary Alison is unable to be open about her interest in men’s clothing, and she represses and omits her feelings. Alison saying that the irony of Bruce having slept with his psychiatrist is “tempting” is an example of her preference of viewing her parents as characters rather than people—she likes the narrative idea of him sleeping with his psychiatrist, but doesn’t consider how awful this might have made her mother Helen feel. When Alison finally reveals her period to her mother, their exchange is purely functional. Helen doesn’t once ask how Alison feels about this experience, and so Alison never opens up to her mother about it. Finally, Alison’s diary becomes fully blank, and she gives up even the illusion of trying to be open and honest.