I used to go to gym with a woman whose family owned a funeral home. I asked her a million questions about it. That wasn’t me being weird, everyone asked her questions. I think we have a natural curiosity about the process of death. Oddly, another member of my gym group managed a brothel. We asked her a million questions as well. Clearly we were a very nosey group!
Anyway, take what you will from my anecdote – it was the only introduction I could come up with for Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home.
Bechdel charts her relationship with her late father, Bruce, who was an English teacher and the director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the ‘Fun Home’. Bruce had a fastidious interest in home restoration and antiques; loved the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald; and was described by Bechdel as distant.
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. A sort of still life with children.
Parallel to reflecting on her relationship with her father, Bechdel also tells of her coming out as a lesbian – weeks after she told her parents, her father died.
I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit. And with my father’s death following so hard on the heels of this doleful coming-out party, I could not help but assume a cause-and-effect relationship.
And soon after that, Bechdel discovered that her father was also gay (her mother informed her) –
This abrupt and wholesale revision of my history…left me stupefied.
So yeah, this is an extremely complex story, and you might wonder whether a comic book format does it justice. It does. In fact, it’s remarkable how Bechdel captures the depths of feelings and, more significantly, is able to show what is unspoken. Because much of her story is about what was not said. The tension between her parents – not discussed. Her father’s deep dissatisfaction with life – not discussed. Bechdel’s anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder – not discussed. Death and dying – not discussed. Bechdel’s sexuality – not discussed. In each frame, with each worried expression drawn on her cartoon face, Bechdel captures the confusion, sadness, grief, curiosity and worry that underpinned her world.
I know I write frequently about the theme of grief in memoir and literature – I’ll leave out my thoughts on Bechdel’s ambiguous grief (which she summarises perfectly with ‘They say grief takes many forms, including the absence of grief’) and instead focus on one interesting quote –
You would also think that a childhood spent in such close proximity to the workday incidentals of death would be good preparation. That when someone you knew actually dies, maybe you’d get to skip a phase or two of the grieving process – ‘denial’ and ‘anger’ for example – and move on with your life that much more quickly. 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.
I wonder if the same is true for me. I wonder, but I also know logically that despite all the time I spend discussing grief at work, and sitting with people who are experiencing such immense pain, I’m quite sure that when grief visits me next, my ‘tools’ will desert me. Because that’s what grief does.
4/5 A memoir that I will be revisiting, for all sorts of reasons.