Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Encountering my childhood in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home


Fun Home
Originally uploaded by kfoz.
The strange thing about reading a memoir about someone you know--even just a little bit--is that you are constantly spotting yourself just off the page. The book, obviously, isn't about you, but there are scenes where, if the lens were a little broader, you would be visible, standing in the corner with your arms crossed, observing the conflict at hand. Or, you discover the things you didn't know where happening--"that must be the night I ran into them and no one was speaking!" If you do show up at all, it is only because the character-version of yourself is able to further the narrative in some way, which is even stranger than not being included at all. Just ask Case Miller.

When I first read about Alison Bechdel's book Fun Home last week, I was startled by these words: "her father, who committed suicide". Bruce Bechdel's death, after toppling over in front of the house into oncoming traffic, was one of those horrible landmark events of my youth. Proof that bad, unexplained things can happen. Proof that you can't count on anything going the way it should.

But Alison's memoir, serious as it is, is also a whole lot of fun. Despite the dark secrets, it mostly celebrates the strange and wonderful house and family that I remember visiting. We visited often. The three Bechdel kids went to school with the Foster kids through the sixth grade. Alison was in my sister's class; Christian in my brother's; John in mine. So it was more or less decided that the six of us would be friends, because it was convenient for our parents. (We also spent a lot of time with the other trio of kids, the "Gryglewicz" kids, according to the book.) And those are the details that really knock me over in the book: Helen Bechdel preparing for her role in "The Importance of Being Ernest" (we were staying at their house that week, and she would play scenes for us and ask advice); the huge, artifical granduer of their house, which made it seem like another world, everything bigger and more dramatic; the oddness (to me anyway) of the fact that they had no TV room, but rather a small TV that was housed on a bookshelf, with a chaise lounge positioned in front of it.

We built small dams in the runoff of their long driveway. We all wrote letters to each other even though we only lived 20 minutes apart. When my mother was ill and in the hospital for a few days, we moved in, unexpectedly, and Bruce Bechdel, ususally invisible during our visits, suddenly materialized to assign each of us chores. Then, as we successively turned twelve, we left elementary school and went to separate high schools, where I imagined they were all having a much better time.

But earlier, one afternoon, Alison gathered the six of us together and she painted a group portrait, including herself in the tableaux, even though she was on the otherside of the canvas. Sort of like her book now, too. But I'd love to get my hands on that old painting, to see again what it was she was seeing then too.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

anavlhy You forgot to mention that the Bechdels and the Fosters lived 18 miles apart. The school was just about in the middle. That meant the parents had to provide
transportation (36miles) when you got together. I believe, most of the time, we shared that chore--one delivering and the other picking up.
Who would ever guess that 2 of the six would become successful authors.
MOM

a Bechdel said...

While all the publicity may be fun and beneficial to some, sadly, most of the immediate and present Bruce Bechdel family would rather NOT have all this so publicly strewn about the world, in various blogs and opinions.
No one seems to take into account that Mrs. Bechdel was raised a strict Roman Catholic and was told to "go home and deal with it like a good Catholic wife" by her pastor. Instead she is referred to as self absorbed, distant even gay herself. No one seems to be taking into account the effect that so publicly outing her father post humously may have on the grandchildren that Bruce never got to meet. Or his wife and sons and their families anmd friends.
The cousins, neighbors, townfolk who would rather remember him as they had known him and admired him ignorant of his inner struggles as he likely wanted them to be.
hmm, now how do we go "home" to visit family without having "IT" be there. How do I explain it all to my eight year old , some of the stupid things people say and write, the child CAN read, just do a google search and her grandfathers sexuallity is all you get, used to be mostly genealogy. The six year old wants to know why her grandpa jumped in from of a truck? Did he? No one knows for sure and to protect the innocent we think it was a accident.
Oh, and now the gaukers that need to be shoo-ed away daily by his sister and her children because they are tramping on Bruces garden while gauking through the windows. Mrs. Gertz will surely benefit from the sale, not any of the immediate Bechdel family.
Sadly, Alison has painted a much darker, distant and aloof image of her father than any of the rest of the family recalls. The rest of us still live here and wish it would all just go away again and we could "go home" and be ignorant or do I mean innocent to it all?...for now there is no safe place to hide from it. I'd just rather have all these blogs and mentions gone . write something else and let us move on with our lives.

kfoz said...

Well, actually, the memory I wrote was mine, and mostly about the actual fun I remember being a part of the house. I've always particularly had fond memories of Helen, so I'm sorry if my posting anything of my own thoughts has hurt her. She's a classy lady.

As a writer, I don't particularly see the long term harm in being honest. It can be difficult in the moment, and when other people take conversations and memories out of context. But the people that are real in our lives generally understand, and the rest forget about it eventually and get on with their own lives.

I think the message of Alison's book is a positive one ultimately, that will help thousands of other people to avoid some of the unhappiness she writes about.

a bechdel said...

you are failing to see the point Ken.
I specifically referred to her as Mrs. Bechdel in an attempt to respect her privacy. She is and always has been a VERY private person, you failed to see the finer nuances and instead name names. Naturally, I am well aware of her first name, she is my mother in law.
She wishes to be left out of all of this for a multitude of reasons that are no ones business. This is horrid timing. She has been pleading for privacy and largely ignored or brushed off, much like I feel that you have brushed of my same concerns.
The book is Alisons story not any of the other family members version.
I find it interesting that you want to be sure the the G's are not mistaken for your parents, would that be embarrassing to you if they were?
Good thing your siblings aren't writing a book about your family can't you imagine it?
It was not so bad until the Lock Haven Express had brought it all to the attention of the local population.
I thought I was clear in my request that you write about something else and let us move on. You callously ignored me and instead refer to her by name, and start a new entry about her children and family, that is essentially blatantly ignoring mine and her wishes for our privacy.
Who can even guess if the man himself would want to be outed. We can only guess and I'm sure we each would have our own opinions, he had no say at all.
The unhappiness written about was Alison's not everyone else was unhappy. This is causing huge stresses for our family. Now if you truly do care how Mrs. Bechdel feels, as you claim to, please write about something other than her family.

kfoz said...

I'm sorry, I guess I was confused by the fact that your posting introduced more gossip that I knew of, more than was in the book and certainly far more than anything that was posted here previously. As for my writing about things other than your family, I've written two items out of thousands that refer to my childhood. I actually didn't even detail the plot of Alison's book. For some of the very reasons you pointed out before embellishing my rather tame post with all of the current gossip that I was completely unaware of. It's probably best to leave at that, isn't it? Or you can email me at my listed email address.