When I was in 10th grade, I wrote a fake autobiography. Well really, I drew the cover and wrote a blurb of a section of my childhood because that was all the assignment called for. In the blurb, I described the weird pleasant joy I got out of rollerskating and biking through the cemetery across the street from my house. My friends would join me. We’d pack lunches and lay out blankets in between graves and watch funerals from what we thought was an appropriate enough distance. Once around Halloween, we all snuck out of our houses and ran through the cemetery at night. I fell into an open grave and laughed about it. Two of my friends had to hoist me out, one holding the other’s ankles to reach far enough to grab me by the armpits. I was the second oldest of them, and I was ten. It’s hard to think about kids as young as we were doing that shit now. I’d be horrified if I hadn’t done it myself.
I called this barely-a-memoir Skating Through Cemeteries because it was both accurate and eye catching. And I think about that title a lot when I’m writing other stories. I mull it over, thinking to myself “Man, that memoir could be cool…”
I grew up with both a fascination for and dismissal of death and the macabre. After my last blog, I thought I would reward myself with a quick read. “Good job, self. You wrote a thing. Here’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Hey, that sounds right up your alley. Maybe it’ll be funnier than you think. They did a musical about it, right?”
Yeah, it’s right up my alley. For a lot of reasons. And for a lot of reasons, this book hit me seriously and grievously right in the feels. Because though it’s not quite what my childhood was like… to an extent, it is. For the most part, I don’t talk about it. I make glancing remarks that are supposed to be received as casual and noncommittal. I can make it all seem like a joke. But that’s a coping mechanism at work, and it’s techy at best.
Honestly, writing anything remotely about my childhood gives me anxiety. I can’t lie about the past, but I don’t want anyone to read what I’ve said and confront me about it as if it weren’t true. There’s this idea in my head that I could’ve made it all up. Children often make up stories, right? Except I don’t remember my lies ever being so vivid.
To get pretty personal, two of my biggest fears in this life are complacent relationships and getting called out by my family, the latter more than the former. To feel like I’m letting someone down is gutwrenching at best. It’s like the feeling you get when you think you’re falling in your sleep. Your body jerks and you might wake up in a panic. You can’t tell if it’s real or imagined for several seconds. Sometimes seconds feel a lot longer when you’re afraid.
So this is like falling in my sleep.
Fun Home‘s narrative structure is perfect for the retelling of childhood because it’s like a maze, or a labyrinth as Bechdel makes allusion to in regards to her father. She describes him as both Icarus and Daedalus; falling from great heights yet trying to perfect the house around him. It relies on the reader to delve into the same bits and pieces over and over again with newer and more daunting information every time. The first page presents what you’d think as a classic dynamic between father and child. Every page offers layers more grit on a man whose life revolves around digging their family home out of the dust and decay and creating the perfect facade for a very dysfunctional family.
Not only is this a story about a father’s death in the face of closeted homosexuality, divorce, and the crumbling of a carefully crafted facade, or the struggle of a daughter coming to terms with her own homosexuality merely weeks before his death…it’s about how entwined the pair are without truly realizing it until the last time Bechdel sees her father and reflects on their strangely close but distant relationship. How strangely in sync their lives have been, how literature molded their understandings of sexuality and coming to terms with it.
And while the family funeral parlor is an interesting backdrop and occasional scene-stealer…it isn’t what draws the reader in. The constant combing through of literary evidence Bechdel’s father leaves in both his letters and connections to specific authors like Proust and Fitzgerald really center the story around these two people who are so distantly afraid to connect on a level that isn’t filtered through allusion or metaphor.
And for someone like me who has always been drawn to both literature and death, it’s captivating as hell. And it’s terrifying. Because so much of what I see between Alison and Bruce Bechdel I see between myself and my own father.
Here’s where things get personal and cathartic as hell. There are so many pages in this book I dog-eared to go back to that it’s honestly overwhelming so I will only touch on a few. This instance above, a simple depiction of a family content in isolation is very real to me, especially as I grew older than the ten-year-old who fell into an open grave. My mother’s creative passion was genealogy. She would spend all day researching our dead relatives while forgetting to do laundry, cook, clean the house, go to school functions. My father’s was woodworking and generally just making shit. He would spend all day in the garage if he wasn’t at work. And I would read and write stories endlessly. My brother is the gamer, the autistic savant who knows more languages and car models than any person I know living. And yet through my entire high school years, I may have spent a total of four hours in the same room with these people as my parents’ relationship slowly decayed into nothing.
I learned to fend for myself because I had to. I cleaned, I cooked, I laundered, I studied, I wrote. Like Bechdel’s father, mine had the explosive ability to fly off the handle for apparently no reason. Like Bechdel’s mother, mine was very complacent in it all unless she was drunk. And then the screaming matches would begin and I would turn up my music as if these people were my neighbors at college rather than my family.
Unlike Bechdel’s father, mine wasn’t secretly gay. He was somehow both secretly and very apparently an alcoholic. For some reason, I could never remember just how much he drank until we took the empties back to Kroeger. And then I’d realize a 30-rack of Milwaukee’s Best is a lot of fucking beer for one dude to drink in a single afternoon. While working with power tools and making tables, decorative wells for lawns, wine racks, benches, chairs, golf clubs… It was surprising how functional one dude could be while so deeply in his cups.
When I draw comparisons between my relationship with my father and the relationship presented in Fun Home, there’s one glaring similarity that so heartbreaking and yet so numbing.
“Sometimes it was as if dad and I were the only ones in the room. The sensation of intimacy was novel. I think we were both starved for attention.”
The feeling of having something in common that you can’t really talk about but both secretly know is something I struggled with and still do. It’s not as poignant as undisclosed sexuality, that may be true. But both my father and I knew that our lives were not as picturesque as we made them seem to outsiders. And the one thing we had in common was how important it was for both of us to appear stronger than we actually were. To feel as if being independent and dominating a conversation or a room, or being ridiculously skilled at one thing would gain someone’s approval so much as to add value to the weirdly distant and emotionally abusive life we led.
Sometimes I talk about my dad as if he’s already dead. I found myself being so drawn to the way Alison Bechdel relays her relationship with her father because I use the same past tense when speaking about my own as if he only exists in the past. In a way, that’s true. The closest we ever were was during my senior year of high school when my mother finally left my dad and I stayed at his house because I didn’t want to move my shit and I didn’t like my mother any more than I liked him. He would send me Facebook messages to see what I wanted for dinner. We would sometimes silently cook together, silently watch movies together, silently observe the neighbors. Everything was done with minimal speech but somehow the most companionship I’d ever felt.
There’s a line toward the beginning of the book. “Was he a good father? I want to say ‘At least he stuck around.’ But of course, he didn’t.” The illusion of being around was always present in my house. I lived with the ghosts of people who fathered and mothered me enough so that I’m still alive, so that’s pretty cool. But “sticking around” is so much more than presence. It’s active participation, it’s active listening, active responding…active upkeep of a relationship.
My father and I (my mother and I to the same extent, I guess) treat our relationships like old photographs and stick them in a box. We take them out from time to time and go “Hey, remember this?” Most often the answer is “Not really. I don’t remember very well.”
I brought up the fact that I’d once snuck out of the house and fallen into a grave with my father last May. I was visiting because my grandfather had died, and death is the only thing that really brings our family together. We sat in the garage over a case of beer (he was back to drinking again and I wasn’t in the mood to chastise him about it, considering I was drinking a shitton myself) and he rose his brows. “Huh. Bet that’ll be an interesting story.” No outrage, no anger. No “I should have been a better parent, I should have stopped you, I should have kept a better eye out”. I think at this point we’ve both strangely come to the conclusion that the past can’t be helped. That whatever relationship we have works the same way as the only bed in a room works for sleeping; if it’s all you’ve got, you make due.