In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel uses autobiographical narrative to broach a number of traditionally “transgressive” topics: LGBT issues, (possible) suicide, sex with minors. But, as is the case with any autobiography, there is an inherent tension between what is remembered and what is forgotten; what is made explicit and what is left as subtext. Bechdel self-describes as a “careful archivist of her own life,” yet in the graphic novel chronicles her acts of censorship in her early diaries. Surprisingly, Bechdel is able to use censorship to negotiate her identity as an act of self-fashioning. However, it seems as if the instability of these early narratives becomes manifest in her relationship with her father; she is not able to use language to connect with him in the way she would like.
Bechdel’s attempts to narrativize her life began at an young age; she explains that around ten, she began a diary during an “obsessive compulsive spell” (140). These early diaries—first a calendar, then an agenda—were meant to record her daily activities. Yet Bechdel felt unsure if she was able to accurately portray these events. As a result, her diaries became littered with phrase “I think” (141). Bechdel attributes this to a kind of “epistemological crisis;” she asks, “How did I know that the things I was writing were objectively true?” (141). To counteract this, Bechdel sought to exorcise the subjective narrative element from her diaries by blotting out the “I thinks” that began each sentence. However, this proved to be an insufficient solution. She then began drawing a lambda-like symbol as a shorthand for the phrase “I think” (142). This was then placed over specific names or pronouns, then over entire passages, as a kind of “amulet” (142).
Bechdel’s habit became so compulsive that her mother took over writing in her diary for her. At some later point, she regained the ability to write on her own again. However, instead of fixating on concrete events or actions, Bechdel’s entries now focused on recording her subjective thoughts and emotions. As Bechdel explains, “When I was ten, I was obsessed with making sure my diary entries bore no false witness. But as I aged, hard facts gave way to emotion and opinion” (169). Bechdel began to frequently incorporate ellipses to denote uncertainty in her narrative. In addition, she began to use code words to replace words she viewed as transgressive: “n-ing” became synonymous with either menstruation or masturbation (169-170).
I argue that Bechdel’s act of self-censorship in these anecdotes reveals much about her personal psychology. I want to suggest that in these examples, censorship primarily functions as a coping mechanism. In the first case, it allows Bechdel to play with symbols in a way that gives her access to a liminal space between objectivity and subjectivity. She gains authorial power by being able to blot out or cover words, and in a sense, becomes the arbiter of what is real and what isn’t. Furthermore, censorship allows her self-narrativize in a way that enables her to explore her identity—as a female-bodied person, as a sexual, adult being—without making these changes entirely concrete. Bechdel is able to come to terms with her developing body by negotiating how she presents herself in her own narrative.
This seems to suggest that censorship is not always a negative act; an absence does not always translate into a loss. In Fun Home, Bechdel actually transforms censorship into a method for artistic self-fashioning. However, the idea that censorship is positive is troubled by Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her father. Bechdel strongly identifies with her father—particularly after she find out he is gay as well—but he remains inaccessible and enigmatic throughout the graphic novel. In this sense, Fun Home is Bechdel’s attempt to locate her father in her narrative, as well as construct her own identity through narrative.
I want to suggest that the distance Bechdel feels from her father, Bruce, is created by his acts of self-censorship. The most telling example of this is when Bruce writes a letter to Bechdel in response to when she comes out as a lesbian. Instead of confiding to her that he is also gay, he talks around the subject in veiled language, alluding to the difficulties he faced growing up isolated from any sort of queer community. Eventually, Bechdel’s mother reveals that he is gay. Why would Bruce consciously choose to withhold this key point of identification from Bechdel? As she explains, “He thought that I thought that he was a queer, whereas he knew that I knew that he knew that I was too” (212). Bruce relies on censorship to reveal what is unsaid; by cloaking his words in this manner, he simultaneously allows what is and what isn’t to coexist.
Nevertheless, this liminality comes at a price. Bechdel misses the subtext, and Bruce’s message is not conveyed. Instead of talking to each other in the same language, Bechdel and her father are reduced to talking past each other. Though Bechdel desperately tries to reach her father, he inevitably remains cut off. Bechdel later compares this miscommunication between her and her father to the missed connection between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses.
Ultimately, this comes back to the Foucauldian idea that language cannot express transgression. However, Fun Home is not just a novel—is Bechdel able to say more through her multimedia presentation? For her readers, possibly; for her father, I fear it is too late. Nevertheless, I want to argue that Fun Home is transcendent by its mere act of creation; through her narrative, Bechdel is able to go beyond the bounds of mere reality and re-negotiate the way she interacts with her world.