The Theme of Mental Disorder in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
The tragicomic Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, is generally considered one of the most important pieces of the modern LGBTQ canon of literature. The graphic novel tells the story of Alison Bechdel’s attempt to find the truth about her father’s sexuality and what lead him to possibly commit suicide. Along the way, Bechdel finds her own sexuality. Bechdel’s choice to write about her and her father’s simultaneous journey to finding their sexuality was revolutionary at the time. Very few authors were writing openly about their own sexuality, and something even more revolutionary that Bechdel addressed was mental illness. It is unexpected so late in this story, on page 137, that Bechdel would include a lengthy section discussing her childhood Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Why include this section at all when the entire graphic novel has focused on Bechdel’s relationship with her father and their joint quest to find their respective sexualities? There are many reasons that Bechdel could have chosen to include this section, namely to accentuate the extent that she felt separated from her family, to compare how society, represented by her mother, has differing views about mental disorders and sexual orientation, and to show how reliable, or unreliable, she is as a narrator.
Feeling Separated from Her Family
One reason Bechdel discusses her mental health in Fun Home is to show the direct effect that her parents had on her mental state growing up. On page 137, Bechdel mentions that one of her compulsions is perfectly lining up her sneakers. She labels the left shoe as her father and the right shoe as her mother. She tries to line them up perfectly as to not show favoritism for one show, or parent, over the other. Another compulsion of Bechdel’s mentioned on page 137 is that she felt the need to kiss all of her stuffed animals: “No matter how tired I was after all this, I had to kiss each of my stuffed animals– and not just in a perfunctory way.” In the panel, which depicts Bechdel kissing her stuffed animals, it is clear that, among the other stuffed animals, there are three bears. Bechdel shows herself kissing an elephant while dressed in her pajamas, which really shows us just how long the process took. Bechdel admits that this is deeply rooted in the fact that her parents showed very little physical love for her: “Though it verges on the bathetic, I should point out that no one had kissed me good night in years.” (137)
Bechdel mentions earlier in the book that she once attempted to show affection towards her father, but was overcome with embarrassment after kissing her father’s hand. Evidence of this lack of emotion from her parents can also be seen on pages 19 and 20 when Bechdel kisses her father’s hand and then leaves the room from embarrassment. The bottom panels on page 19, the top panels on page 20, and the bottom panel on page 137 are all sparsely detailed panels, showing just enough detail to show where the scene takes place. The book Bechdel’s father is reading on page 20 doesn’t even have a title, unlike most other books in Fun Home. Bechdel’s lack of decoration on these panels mirrors the lack of parental love in Bechdel’s life.
The Different Views about Mental Disorders and Sexual Orientation
Another reason that Bechdel included this section in Fun Home could be to show how her family’s views of her mental illness and her sexuality varied. Bechdel’s mother very directly asked Bechdel if she felt like there was something wrong in her life. Her mother then very graciously helps Bechdel through recovery by assisting Bechdel with writing her diary. Bechdel would dictate her life to her mother night after night. We know her mother clearly made an effort to try to understand what was happening with Bechdel because Bechdel found Dr. Spock’s parenting book and read the section that exactly described her OCD. This is one of the few times that Bechdel’s mother appears in Fun Home. When Bechdel sends a letter to her parents very bluntly stating “I’m a Lesbian.” (76), her mother’s response is so lukewarm and unaccepting that Bechdel doesn’t even depict her mother in the panels on pages 58 and 59. Bechdel’s mother did not make any effort to understand her daughter simply saying “Your father has had affairs with other men” (58) in response to Bechdel’s coming out letter. Instead, she minimizes an important part of Bechdel’s life by bringing attention to something else, completely shutting down any possibility of Bechdel and her mother having an effective conversation about her sexuality.
On page 77 Bechdel is on the phone with her father who says that her mother wouldn’t even come to the phone because “she’s pretty upset.” Her mother then gave a full response a week and a half later. Bechdel comments on her mother’s response saying “As disapproval goes, I suppose it was rather mild. Still, I was devastated.” (77) The panel where Bechdel reads her mother’s response letter shows only the letter, typed on a typewriter, giving it a cold and formal appearance. As far as communication goes, a typed letter is probably the most detached way to communicate. It seems odd that the woman who once would take dications for young Bechdel’s journal would be so helpful and accepting of one part of Bechdel’s personality, her OCD, and so cold and rejecting of another part of Bechdel’s personality, her sexuality.
Questioning Her Own Narration
By far one of Bechdel’s most alarming, and important, compulsions is found in her many diary entries. It is odd that Bechdel would wait until so late in this book, which is characterized by its exact detail, to mention the fact that she kept a journal. But, Bechdel didn’t just keep a journal; she obsessively kept a journal. On page 140, we see that Bechdel began writing on February 24th, which was Ash Wednesday. Even Bechdel’s first entry is objective reading: “Dad is reading The Trumpet of the Swan. I have my tail on. We went to church. We got ashes. 7 kids were sick today.” Bechdel keeps writing journal entries throughout her life with the same sort of objectivity. On page 78, Bechdel shows a journal entry that she penned in college, 10 years after Ash Wednesday, 1970, when she began. Her diary entries from her OCD era have the words “I think” riddled through the pages. Bechdel later creates a symbol that she covers pages with to represent “I think” for the entire journal entry. Bechdel herself describes this as “a sort of epistemological crisis” (141), she believes that she cannot trust her senses and what she perceives is happening. This sets up an issue for readers.
On the one hand, readers want to believe that the narrator and author are telling a true story. On the other hand, the author herself has doubts that she is telling the story as accurately as possible. So can we believe Bechdel, even if she doesn’t believe herself? Even though Bechdel felt the need to include “I think” by every single statement she makes, part of her compulsion is writing very exact and objective descriptions of what has happened. There’s no reason for anyone, but Bechdel to believe that she isn’t telling the truth. This question about what is true and what isn’t also directly relates to one of the main plotlines of Fun Home: did Bechdel’s father commit suicide, or was his death an accident? Bechdel throughout the text is searching for the truth in her father’s death, something she was once obsessed with as a young child. It is also worth mentioning that in the entirety of Fun Home, outside of her drawings of her journal, Bechdel uses the phrase “I think” 6 times, all referring to her father.
Bechdel includes an interlude about her OCD to show how much isolation she feels from her family, to draw attention to the differing reactions to mental illness and sexuality, and to question her own valid narration. This section serves only to emphasize the amount that Bechdel felt detached from her parents, as most of her compulsions are based in some sort of love or equality ritual. Bechdel even refers to her shoes as mother and father, as well as the bears that she rotates sleeping with. This is definitive proof that at least some of her compulsions lie in her upbringing and relationship with her parents. This section also serves to highlight the differences in the reactions that her mother had to Bechdel’s mental illness and Bechdel’s coming out. Her mother reacts very similarly to the way that society acts.
As a society, we believe that mental illness and sexuality are both parts of who you are, yet it is more acceptable to treat and subdue mental illness than “treating” or “subduing” sexuality. Bechdel’s mother is perfectly happy to be a scribe for Bechdel’s journal entries, yet will not even speak to her daughter after Bechdel comes out. Lastly, Bechdel includes this section as a sort of explanation for the graphic novel itself. While Bechdel did get over her OCD, she’s still obsessed with finding the absolute truth about her father’s death. Bechdel also emphasizes that we cannot truly know the absolute truth, no matter how hard we try, which gives readers doubt that Bechdel is telling as close to absolute truth as she can. While this break in the main plot of Fun Home seems unnecessary, it serves a myriad of purposes that can only help us to better understand Bechdel’s life and her father’s death.
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