Alison Bechdel: ‘Our families are mysteries to us all’

The Times

May 12, 2012


A few years ago the American comic strip author Alison Bechdel was doing a reading from her 2006 memoir, Fun Home, which is about her father Bruce, who died — she believes he committed suicide — after being hit by a truck. A man stood up, a friend of her father’s, clearly upset she thought “because I had betrayed my father’s memory by writing about him”. But he had news to impart: the man and her father, who died aged 44, had a friend in common, the doctor on call when her father arrived at the hospital. “I learnt my father was alive when he got to the emergency room. I’d al- ways thought he’d died instantly,” says Bechdel. “Over 20 years later I find this out on stage, in front of 200 people.”

It was her search for the truth about her father — who was gay, closeted and com- ing to terms with both his wife’s desire for a divorce and his daughter’s coming out at the time of his death — that led her to write the brilliant Fun Home, which spent two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and made it into this newspaper’s top ten “books of the decade”. It’s the enigma of her mother Helen that has led to her latest memoir, Are You My Mother?

The book doesn’t answer the questions over which Bechdel still mulls. Why did Helen stop kissing her, but continue kissing her sons, after Bechdel was 7? What did she think of her husband’s sexuality, his death? How did she grieve? The 51-year- old author insists that she couldn’t ask her mother these questions directly: “I’m afraid to. I know we seem close, but we’re quite distant and have a very formal relationship. The book is my attempt to get her to respond to me.” At 13, Bechdel went to see her mother after getting upset by a novel. “Well, life is rough,” her mother told her gruffly, and Bechdel left “knowing we couldn’t talk about anything emotional”.

Bechdel, as readers of her most famous strip Dykes To Watch Out For will expect, draws both memoirs in her characteristically moving, funny, intelligent hand, though the latest got a pasting from a New York Times critic who said it “flirted with being . . . actively dismal”. Certainly, if you’ve never read Bechdel before, Fun Home is the place to start; Mother has a tendency to make the assumption you’ve read its predecessor and is heavier going, marshalling figures from literature and psycho-analysis, including Virginia Woolf and Donald Winnicott, to examine childhood and parenting.

Bechdel, who grew up inspired by Tintin, Mad magazine and the work of the writer and artist Edward Gorey, has mined her life throughout her career. Dykes, which ran from 1983 to 2008, featured a gallery of women who Bechdel says were aspects of herself: fretful Mo, workaholic lawyer Clarice, lothario Lois and new-agey Sparrow. Bechdel reveals that she is planning to reunite the women for new adventures.

In person Bechdel is more guarded — though warm and wry — than you’d guess from the pulsating emotions of her strips. Her mother bustles around a later life of amateur dramatics and writing for a news- paper: she wonders whether these are attempts to fulfill some kind of professional destiny forsaken by having a family.

The memoirs are dense stews of frustration and self-interrogation: we see Bechdel in therapy and in and out of love, playing as a little girl in the dark wonderland of the family business (an undertaker’s — hence Fun Home), talking to her mother on the phone and, guiltily not really listening, typing her words straight on to the page.

Unsurprisingly Bechdel says her mother is “on guard” about the latest book; her only reaction was, “Well, it coheres”. Bechdel smiles: “All our families are mysteries, it’s so strange that little bits of answers come to us over the years.” She admits to vetting material according to her subjects’ sensitivities and also that her father was more playful than she drew him in Fun Home. “It feels kind of bad I didn’t provide a three-dimensional picture of him.”

Writing about him dead was easier than writing about her mother alive, which Bechdel puts, wittily, as “vacuuming under a rug while someone’s still standing on it”. Two “big things” so far unaddressed are her two younger brothers, Christian and John. She says that she is going to draw a third memoir “looking at the family as a system” with her brothers the focus. John feels that she has been too negative about her father, while Christian “is not completely function- al in the world” and has obsessive compulsive disorder. Bechel and her mother both had the disorder as children. “I think we all have Asperger’s,” Bechdel says.

The author lives with Holly, her partner of five years, outside Burlington, Vermont; the rest of the family is in Pennsylvania. “If I lived closer to them I wouldn’t be able to create,” she says. She became a cartoonist “because no one was watching this lowbrow populist arena”, then “secretly” nursed ambitions that Dykes would become a crossover success. “It never did, but it’s been absorbed, grandfatherly, into the canon.”

Fun Home includes many expositions of Bechdel’s father, the closeted gay man bringing up a yet-to-realise-she’s-gay daughter. “We were this strangely inverted version of one another,” Bechdel says. At one reading a lesbian approached her with her silver-haired gay father: “It was so poignant and sad to imagine my dad being alive, like hers.”

Bechdel imagines her father had casual affairs and relationships. Why does she think his death was a suicide? “Because it’s less painful that way. He didn’t leave a note. I have no proof. It just makes psychological sense. My coming out dislodged some- thing. My parents were managing this secret of his, then I shone a light on it.” Has she blamed herself in any way for his suicide? “Oh yeah, I feel completely responsi- ble, even though I know intellectually it’s not my fault. I feel as though if I had just kept my mouth shut things might have been different.” Her mother’s grief “happened off stage, the family carried on but something was shattered”.

When Bechdel came out to her mother, the two-week silence hurt almost as much as the letter that broke it: “You have a mind. The rest, whatever it is, can wait.” It took ten years for her mother “to come around”.

Bechdel’s relationships are sketched in the book; she hopes Holly is her last. “I’m not sure I can do it again,” she smiles. The couple go hiking, biking, gardening. “She’s good for me,” says Bechdel, who is introverted where Holly is outgoing.

Therapy, which Bechdel has had for 25 years (“almost half my life”) has been “completely life-saving. I was never suicidal, though depressed and cut off from myself. I don’t know what would have become of me without it.”

Bechdel’s mother isn’t happy about the prospect of another memoir: “She’s private, thinks it’s self-indulgent,” says Bechdel, who nevertheless feels com- pelled to write on. She is looking forward to reuniting the Dykes, too. “When I see what’s on television it’s sad that queerness has become as commodified as heterosexuality. The rough edges have gone. I have nostalgia for the bad old days.”