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A tale of two Bechdels: Daddy vs. mommy issues in Fun Home and Are You My Mother?

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Mariner Books
Mariner Books

Alison Bechdel
© 2006 Alison Bechdel
232 pages

Alison Bechdel
© 2012 Alison Bechdel
304 pages

Content warning: Suicide, pedophilia, sexual assault, death, physical abuse, emotional abuse, homophobia

Everyone's read Fun Home. It's the favorite tragic Queer story that hits all the feel-good points: suicide, daddy issues, sexual abuse, overwrought Greek mythology references, corpses, and fancy shrubbery.

In it, Bechdel deals with her father, an abusive husband, cruel parent, and self-loathing egomaniac who preyed on the high school students he taught in her school. But he was also Gay, just like her, so she has to forgive him? (I would argue no, but to each their own trauma process.)

Six years later, Bechdel returned to the well and fished out her second memoir, Are You My Mother?, about her relationship with — you guessed it — her mom. You haven't heard of it and don't need to. It reads like the diary of a conspiracy theorist, stuffed with highlighted passages cut from random therapy, literature, and memoirs Bechdel likes, with little meaningful digestion. Rather than the piercing insights of the Fun Home, she instead jumps between random coincidences, claiming with hand-shaking reverence that because she walked into a plank, her subconscious is telling her that third-eye chakra is blocked. She also gets really — and I mean really — into her dreams.

The primary question that Bechdel skirts around continuously is "Why doesn't my homophobic, sexist mom love me, a Gay woman, as much as my straight brothers?" Take a wild guess, Bechdel. Some people need therapy, and some people need to take shrooms and yell at the moon, and I don't know what to tell her except that the therapy has not been working.

Fun Home is a beautifully written book about a monster that Bechdel finds herself loving because, after years of physical and verbal abuse, her father starts complimenting her writing. In the final pages, Bechdel lays her own Queer self-growth in tribute at her father's altar.

Her mother, the abused wife of the monster, doesn't get the same treatment.

And her mother isn't as interesting. She didn't go out late-night partying and shoplifting. She didn't pick up trash to decorate her house like a discount provincial earl. She took care of the children, took care of the house, got her master's, and taught at school. She picked up the broken pieces of her husband's life and tried to do the best she knew how for her children in a place that was not her home, completely isolated from everything she knew. The only autonomy she attempted was to finally, after nearly 20 years of marriage, divorce her abusive husband. Instead, he takes his own life, removing her last attempt to gain any autonomy.

At one point, Bechdel asks her mother what lesson her own mother taught her. "Boys are better than girls," she replies. But there's frustratingly little exploration into any of this, probably because what her mother offers are not things that Bechdel wants to link herself to. Femininity, being a straight housewife, and motherhood are things that Bechdel rejects in her own life.

On the other hand, her mother also didn't accept her queerness. After years of her own husband's affairs, predation, rage, and abuse, it's possible that her mom was afraid that that's what queerness meant. On the other hand, her mother actually parented. She took parenting classes on issues her children were facing, financed Bechdel's cartooning career, and, when her daughter's OCD became unmanageable as a child, took the girl's dictation for her diary every night for over a year.

Bechdel's father hit her, raged at her, and turned his home into a minefield of brittle eggshells, but then when she was in high school, he gave her a pat on the head for paying attention in his own English class. As the reader, reading about someone who had years of practice singling out lonely young adults and grooming them — and then, to his own daughter, neglecting and abusing her for years only to lavish attention when he finds her appealing to his own narcissism — reads more like a predator falling into his old habits than true acceptance. But it's not my family, and it's not my trauma.

Memoirs are strange territory. Sure, the author has written about their life, seemingly to be consumed by readers, but as the audience, how much am I allowed to comment on it? How can I critique someone's own processing of their own life? I don't know their family or their situation. I can only sit on the outside and say, as Bechdel herself writes, that the standards for fathers seem much, much, much lower.