LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Comic strip artist Alison Bechdel grew up identifying with The Addams Family of prime time television. Creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky, Gomez, Mortitia and the rest. There was at least some basis for the sense of familiarity.
The Bechdel family lived in a large, gothic revival house that was painstakingly restored by Alison's moody, aloof father, Bruce, a high school English teacher with a secret life. Alison Bechdel's memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, grows out of her relationship with her father.
And she joins us from Vermont Public Radio. Welcome to the program, Alison.
Ms. ALISON BECHDEL (Comic Strip Artist): Thanks, Liane.
HANSEN: Is Fun Home, the home you were living in, a take on the Addams Family kind of gothic house?
Ms. BECHDEL Well, Fun Home is the name that we called the funeral home where my dad worked. We didn't actually live in the funeral home. It was my grandmother's house up the street. I like it as the title to the book because it encompasses that allusion to the funeral home, but also it's about the home I did grow up in, which wasn't fun in some ways. You know, this Victorian house that my dad was always maniacally restoring.
HANSEN: You describe your father as a man who was difficult to live with. What made him so difficult?
Ms. BECHDEL: He was one of those people who is very charming in public, and very surly at home. He had a terrible temper and we all kind of lived in fear of that. He was an unhappy person.
HANSEN: He was unhappy because he was carrying a secret?
Ms. BECHDEL: Yes, a deep, dark secret, which I didn't discover until I came out to my family as a lesbian when I was in college. And what I learned, what my mother told me soon after this, was that my father was gay. And it was within a few months of the big revelation that my father died. And the book is about sorting out this very complicated period of my life, these several months where all of this information and his death all happened at once.
HANSEN: Your father died when he was hit by a truck, but you believe his death may not have been an accident, that it might have been a suicide. Why did you hold onto that belief?
Ms. BECHDEL: This is one thing I investigate in detail in the book, because I really don't know. It's not like he left a note or anything. But he'd been very unhappy, and more so than usual, doing kind of crazy things like throwing one of his favorite paintings down the stairs. He was reading a book by Albert Camus, called A Happy Death, and leaving it lying around the house in kind of an obvious way. And you know, I had just dragged his secret out into the light of day.
I think it was a traumatic thing for him and for my mother, for the whole family. Like everything just got disturbed. So I think it's very possible, but I really don't know for sure.
HANSEN: You write it's very hard for you to stay angry with your father. Why is that?
Ms. BECHDEL: Well, my father was, in many ways, a really wonderful person. I mean, I love him very much. Yes, he was a tyrant, but he was also, you know, he would just do amazingly fun things. Like we would have these elaborate Easter egg hunts. He would paint beautiful little eggs and then hide them all around the yard, pink eggs in the crab apple tree where there would be pink blossoms, and yellow eggs in the daffodils. I mean, it was kind of magical in some ways.
HANSEN: In thinking about your own story in terms of literature, perhaps thinking of your parents in fictional terms, did that give you the distance to be able to write this?
Ms. BECHDEL: Yeah. The best description I can give of my parents is likening them to fictional characters. My father is Jay Gatsby, and my mother is like a Henry James character, Isabelle in A Portrait of a Lady. I talk about how the very fact that I have to resort to these literary allusions as an indication of just how remote we all were.
HANSEN: When you came out as a lesbian you were 20 years old. You recognized that this was an integral part of your own identity. You wrote a letter to your parents. When you found out that your father was gay and, you know, now as you're older, do you think you understand more about him?
Ms. BECHDEL: Yeah. I mean, in some ways I actually think of this book as a longitudinal, sociological study of two generations of gay people, although I shouldn't say that because it sounds really boring. But my dad came of age a decade before the Stonewall riots, that watershed moment of modern gay history. And I came of age a decade after. And it was extremely different. It was extremely easy for me to do that, when there was a whole movement out there. But for my dad it just wasn't possible.
And so part of what I investigate in the book is, how much of that was his historical circumstances, how much of it was his character? If I had been born 25 years later, would I have made similar decisions? And I don't know. I think it took an incredible amount of courage for people to come out in the '50s and the early '60s.
And even though my dad never managed to do that, I still think of him as part of that pre-Stonewall generation. So I feel a certain indebtedness to him for making my life possible, not just in the biological sense, but politically and historically.
HANSEN Why did you decide to write this memoir? I mean, it's been 26 years since your dad died.
Ms. BECHDEL: Well, you know, I've always wanted to tell this story, since soon after it happened. It just seemed like kind of a remarkable, almost an obligatory story. Closeted gay father of out lesbian daughter, it just seemed like a good story. But I didn't have the skills or the emotional perspective to tell it when I was 20. I wasn't even a cartoonist then.
Then for the next 15 or 20 years I started working on my comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and I started gaining these drawing and visual storytelling skills, and eventually it became clear that, oh, I could do this book as a graphic novel.
HANSEN: Why did you decide that comics were a way for you to be able to express yourself? I mean, your Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip has been running for quite a long time, and you've received quite a bit of critical acclaim for them. Was there a moment that you knew that pictures were the best way to tell your stories?
Ms. BECHDEL: It was just always instinctive to me. I loved drawing, and I loved writing. I suspect that I became a cartoonist by default, because both of my parents were, like, very artistic. My father, you know, was into the whole interior decorating thing and collecting antiques. And he loved painting and poetry. And my mother was a pianist and an actress. And I had to, like, find some creative turf for myself, and this was one place where they didn't have any, like, aesthetic criteria to judge me.
HANSEN: Uh-huh. At the end of the book, in your acknowledgements, you thank your mother, Helen, your brothers, Christian and John, for not trying to stop me from writing this book.
Ms. BECHDEL: Well, it's a very painful revelation of some sordid family history, and they could easily have objected to me doing this. And none of them did, and I'm just very grateful for that.
HANSEN: Was there ever a point where you wanted to stop? Where you just said, no, I can't do this, this is too painful?
Ms. BECHDEL: No. Not because it was too painful. Maybe because it was too difficult. But it was good to feel the pain, you know? I was very numb for a long time about my father's death, just because it was so cloaked in all these layers of secrecy and confusion. And so the pain was welcome, because it was real.
HANSEN: Alison Bechdel is the author and artist for the new memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. It's published by Houghton Mifflin. And she joined us from Vermont Public Radio.
Alison, thank you very much.
Ms. BECHDEL: Thank you so much. Liane.
HANSEN: To see some of Alison Bechdel's artwork from Fun Home, visit npr.org.