Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel tracing her journey from young girl to young adult as she comes to grips with her own lesbian sexuality, her father Bruce’s (most likely) suicide, and his secret homosexuality or bisexuality that he kept hidden throughout his life while having affairs with underage boys.
The memoir starts with Alison as a young girl, playing with her father, who she compares to both Daedalus, the genius inventor of Greek myth, and Icarus, Daedulus’s son who flew too close to the sun on wings designed by his father and plummeted to his death. Alison details Bruce’s obsession with restoring the family’s old Gothic Revival house, which Alison believes was largely motivated by his desire to keep up the appearance of being a good Christian family man even as he was also secretly sleeping with some of his male teenage students. Alison then reveals that Bruce killed himself while she was in college, and though he lived through most of her childhood, she and the rest of the family felt his absence long before he was physically gone.
Alison then delves into the details surrounding Bruce’s death—though there’s no concrete proof that he killed himself, the circumstances preceding the incident (like Alison coming out as a lesbian a few months earlier as well as Helen, Alison’s mother, filing for a divorce just two weeks before his death) make Alison relatively certain his death was a suicide. Alison gives a brief biography of her father, noting that he was born, lived, died, and was buried all within a two-mile radius in the town of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. Alison notes that when Bruce was in the army during World War II he got stationed in Europe. There, he courted Helen by exchanging letters with her. Eventually Helen moved to Europe to marry Bruce, but their time there was short-lived, as the couple had to return home to Beech Creek after the death of Bruce’s father. Upon their return to the U.S., Bruce inherited the Bechdel family-run funeral home. Shortly after this time, Alison and her brother Christian were born, and Bruce and Helen purchased the Gothic Revival house.
As kids, Alison and her brothers had to do chores in the funeral home, which they nicknamed the “Fun Home.” As the nickname implies, their interaction with the Fun Home gave them a desensitized and often “cavalier” attitude towards death. Alison’s Grandma lived in the same building as the funeral home, and Alison and her brothers would often stay over and force Grandma to tell the same story over and over, about a toddler-aged Bruce getting stuck in the mud and being rescued by a mailman. Later, while standing over Bruce’s grave, Alison has trouble believing her father is really down there, though she knows deep down that he’s “stuck in the mud…” permanently.
Alison then wonders about how her own coming out of the closet might have impacted Bruce’s suicide. Four months before, after realizing she was a lesbian by reading about homosexuals in a library book, Alison had written her parents a letter in which she came out. Alison notes how books were just as important to Bruce’s intellectual development as her own, and she delves into his youthful obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Alison also compares Bruce to Marcel Proust in the way they intermingled their lives with fiction in order to conceal their homosexual proclivities, as well as their mutual obsession with the beauty of flowers.
As a kid, Alison viewed her father as a “sissy” and sought to fill in for the masculine presence she felt her family was missing. Thus, Bruce and Alison constantly engaged in “a war of cross-purposes,” where Alison tried to express her masculinity through Bruce and Bruce tried to express his femininity through Alison. Alison then narrates an impactful incident when Bruce took the kids as well as his young helper (and presumably lover) Roy on a trip up to the family cabin. There, the group toured a construction site where Alison saw a calendar tacked to the wall featuring a photo of a nude woman, causing her to then request to be called “Albert” instead of Alison by her brothers. Later, Alison discovers a photograph from this trip that Bruce had clearly taken of Roy, shirtless, lying in bed, which she examines closely.
Shortly before Bruce’s death, Alison narrates that she had an eerie dream in which the two of them try to view a sunset but Bruce, lagging behind, misses it. At Bruce’s funeral, Alison becomes irritable and wishes she could speak the truth about Bruce’s death, but instead keeps quiet. Alison wonders what might have happened if Bruce had been able to escape Beech Creek and live someplace else. She discusses the landscape around Beech Creek, which is both naturally beautiful and industrially polluted. As a young girl, Alison decided to write a poem about nature, and Bruce added a stanza onto it. Later, in a similar incident, Alison was drawing in a coloring book when Bruce got upset that she was using the wrong color, causing him to take over and shade it in for her.
Alison’s mother Helen was equally obsessive in her own artistic pursuits, which mostly concerned her acting in community theater plays. The house, then, felt to Alison like an artists’ colony, with each member of the family compulsively absorbed in his or her own pursuits. Alison discusses the evolution of her O.C.D., which entered her diary first in the form of self-doubt, such that she would write, “I think” between each declarative statement. It then got so bad that she would scribble “I think” over each entry, causing Helen to take Alison’s diary away until Alison decided to break her compulsions, which she eventually did.
As an adult, Alison learns that when she was thirteen Bruce’s secret almost surfaced when he offered a young boy a beer while searching for the boy’s older brother who was (most likely) Bruce’s lover. This proved to be a chaotic summer in the Bechdel household: all at the same time, Helen was working on her Master’s thesis and playing Lady Bracknell in a local production of The Importance of Being Earnest; Alison got her first period and decided to keep it a secret; Beech Creek was swamped with a horde of seventeen-year-cicadas; and, nationally, the Nixon/Watergate scandal was coming to a head. Then, a freak storm blew down old trees in the Bechdels’ yard, and rain through a window soaked Helen’s thesis the night before it was due. Eventually, everything worked out: Bruce didn’t have to go to jail and only had to see a therapist for six months (who he may have later slept with), the play was well received, Helen’s thesis was accepted, Nixon resigned, and Alison finally told Helen about her period. Alison recounts an incident where she and her friend Beth dressed in boys’ clothes, which Alison loved though it was short-lived. Also, Alison notes that her diary entries became more and more untrustworthy, until she eventually stopped writing in it at all.
Alison recounts a time when Bruce took Alison and her brothers to New York for the bicentennial of the United States. The weekend turned out to be “gay” all around: the family went to the ballet, saw homosexuals in Greenwich Village, and went to see the musical A Chorus Line. The next morning, Alison’s brother John wandered off, got spoken to by a creepy man (who seemed likely to be a sexual predator), and managed to escape back to the apartment where they were staying. That night, Bruce went off into the city by himself while the kids slept.
Alison wonders what would have happened if Bruce hadn’t died in 1980. But, because of the AIDS epidemic, Alison also doesn’t think Bruce would have made it much longer than he did. Alison remembers that, as a young girl, Bruce’s return home always signaled the end of her fun time with Helen and Christian. As a teenager, Alison was reluctant to bond with Bruce, but when she became a student in his high school English class, the two ended up bonding over an interest in literature. Later though, when Alison was at college, Bruce’s overbearing interest in her classes lead Alison to swear off English permanently. However, Alison eventually enrolled in a semester-long course on Bruce’s favorite book, Ulysses, and she uses that book and Homer’s Odyssey as a reference while narrating her own sexual quest towards fulfillment and understanding.
Alison falls behind reading Ulysses because she’s so obsessed with reading lesbian literature and exploring her relationship with Joan, her first girlfriend. Alison notes that this is when she decided to come out of the closet to her parents, which caused Helen in response to tell her the secret of Bruce’s affairs and sexuality. One time before her father’s death when she returned home from college, Alison tries to connect with her father about being gay. On the way to a movie, Bruce is honest with Alison about dressing in girls’ clothes and wanting to be a girl as a young boy, and Alison reminds him about how she used to dress like a boy. However, Bruce ends up confessing more about his feelings and sexuality than Alison does, so Alison ends up feeling like she is the parent during the exchange. After the movie, Bruce tries to take Alison to a gay bar, but they aren’t allowed in because Alison is underage. Alison notes that she and her father were close, but “not close enough,” and they never discussed their sexuality again before Bruce’s death. Alison then delves into the publication history of Ulysses, which was supported by three lesbian women who ended up seeing none of the profits. Alison ends the story with an image of her jumping off a diving board into a pool as a young girl, with Bruce there to catch her. Alison narrates that Icarus—and Bruce—did hurtle into the sea, but Bruce “was there to catch” Alison when she leapt.