Throughout Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s exploration into her own lesbian sexuality is juxtaposed with her father Bruce’s repressed gay or bisexual orientation. While this contrast between openness and repression in the book is specifically related to sexuality and gender-identity, the book is also a powerful portrayal of the impact of repression more generally, the way that shame can drive a person to hide that shame, and then how hiding that shame can in turn create complicated and self-destructive behaviors.
The memoir traces the development and impact of repression primarily through Alison as she grows up. As a young child she begins to become aware of the way that she is different – for instance her attraction to the butch lesbian she sees in a restaurant as a five year old, and her father’s disapproval of that attraction. This recognition of difference leads to shame and a denial of her true self: she lies to her father and says that she does not want to look like the lesbian in the restaurant. Later, Alison develops compulsive habits that could be classified under the umbrella of OCD, likely due to “repressed hostility,” leading her to create rituals around dressing and undressing, passing through doorways, and avoiding certain numbers. She also compulsively begins to write daily journal entries in a diary (even as her journal entries turn over time from truthful to obscure to inaccurate, mirroring her repressed state). Such obsessive behavior betrays a need to control the world in some way, a need driven by the sense that the world that has forced her into repressing herself is so far beyond her control. But the obsessive rituals – such as Alison’s need to pass through a doorway in just the right way or else to try again – are themselves out of control.
While Alison’s story traces the development of such obsessive behaviors, they are just as evident in her equally repressed father. In the book Alison describes her father’s constant decorating of the family house using a metaphor that excellently captures the dynamic of repression and obsession: she sees her father as being both Daedalus and the Minotaur – both the Greek designer who created the inescapable labyrinth to house the terrible monster, and the monster itself. In this way of seeing things, the obsessive behaviors are a desperate way to hide and control the monster a person sees within him or herself, but they never eliminate that person’s sense that he or she really is at heart a monster. And so even as the behaviors offer control, they are also a prison (and the “monster” can still sometimes escape, as both Bruce’s rages and affairs with some of his male teenage students attest).
When Alison goes to college, she finds an environment that allows her to see herself as something other than a monster. At Oberlin, she explores her sexuality in-depth, first intellectually, delving into books on the subject, then socially, joining her college’s “Gay Union” and becoming a part of the gay and lesbian campus community, and finally physically, when she begins a relationship with Joan, her first girlfriend. Alison eventually eliminates her final repression, and writes a letter to her parents in which she comes out of the closet as a lesbian. Although neither of her parents is fully supportive, Alison’s honesty and openness do cause Helen, her mother, to come clean about Bruce’s secret homosexual proclivities. So, though Alison coming out of the closet doesn’t lead to the parental acceptance she is surely seeking, it does grant her more openness and honesty about her parents’ relationship and her father’s repressed sexuality. And Alison, in turn, reflects that honesty in Fun Home itself, making her story and the story of her family open to the world.
Repression vs. Openness ThemeTracker
Repression vs. Openness Quotes in Fun Home
Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. Sort of like a still life with children.
…his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him. Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb. He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence… But I ached as if he were already gone.
Joan drove home with me and we arrived that evening. My little brother John and I greeted each other with ghastly, uncontrollable grins.
You would also think that a childhood spent in such close proximity to the workaday incidentals of death would be good preparation. That when someone you knew actually died, maybe you’d get to skip a phase or two of the grieving process… But in fact, all the years spent visiting gravediggers, joking with burial-vault salesmen, and teasing my brothers with crushed vials of smelling salts only made my own father’s death more incomprehensible.
My father’s death was a queer business—queer in every sense of that multivalent word…but most compellingly at the time, his death was bound up for me with the one definition conspicuously missing from our mammoth Webster’s.
My parents met, I eventually extracted from my mother, in a performance of The Taming of the Shrew… It’s a troubling play, of course. The willful Katherine’s spirit is broken by the mercenary, domineering Petruchio… Even in those prefeminist days, my parents must have found this relationship model to be problematic. They would probably have been appalled at the suggestion that their own marriage would play out in a similar way.
Proust would have intense, emotional friendships with fashionable women… but it was young, often straight, men with whom he fell in love. He would also fictionalize real people in his life by transposing their gender—the narrator’s lover Albertine, for example, is often read as a portrait of Proust’s beloved chauffeur/secretary, Alfred.
In an act of prestidigitation typical of the way my father juggled his public appearance and private reality, the evidence is simultaneously hidden and revealed.
As the man showed us around, it seemed imperative that he not know I was a girl… “John! C’mere! … Call me Albert instead of Alison.” My brother ignored me. But looking back, my stratagem strikes me as a precocious feat of Proustian transposition…
…How did I know that the things I was writing were absolutely, objectively true? My simple, declarative sentences began to strike me as hubristic at best, utter lies at worst. All I could speak for were my own perceptions, and perhaps not even those.
I had recently discovered some of Dad’s old clothes. Putting on the formal shirt with its studs and cufflinks was a nearly mystical pleasure, like finding myself fluent in a language I’d never been taught. It felt too good to actually be good.
We grew closer after I went away to college. Books—the ones assigned for my English class—continued to serve as our currency.
What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea? What if he’d inherited his father’s inventive bent? What might he have wrought? He did hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt.