One of the main currents that runs through Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home is the close emotional relationship with her father, Bruce, that Alison craves but ultimately does not receive. This motif is evident throughout the memoir, but most prominently depicted in the single panel spanning pages 100-101, arguably the climax of the story. In this panel, an unidentified cartoon-style hand holds a photorealistic drawing of a photo of Alison and her brothers’ childhood babysitter Roy lying seductively across a hotel bed. Four boxes of text are overlaid across the top of the image on each page in order to emphasize it, and the monochrome background highlights the only pages in the book that are not confined within margins or panels. It is an intimate and personal look into Bechdel and her father’s personal lives, as seen through mementos of their memories, which does not happen very often in Fun Home. There is much to analyze within this single panel, but it all stems from a fundamental lack of emotional intimacy in the relationship between Alison and her father. Sam McBean describes Fun Home as “a remarkable exploration of family history, queer desires, and the struggle to make [Bechdel’s] father posthumously present and knowable” (103), but this description perfectly sums up the single panel in addition to the entire memoir.
The primary focus of this panel is, naturally, the photo of Roy. Large, detailed, held askew, and emerging from between the two pages, it is what the reader’s eye is drawn to before anything else in the panel. The blatant sensuality of the photo is immediately apparent, as is its relevance to the story about Alison’s father’s closeted homosexuality—here is concrete proof of his desire for and affairs with younger men. The fact that Bruce kept this photo at all is evident of his secret life, and he hides it seemingly in plain sight in “a box of family photos…in an envelope labeled ‘family’ in Dad’s handwriting, along with other shots from the same trip” (Bechdel 100-101). Bechdel describes the photo as “low-contrast and out of focus,” (100) which is representative of how her father’s sexuality was acknowledged by the members of the family yet glossed over, understood yet ignored until after his death.
Another focus of this panel and its boxes of text is Bechdel’s personal connection to the photo of Roy. She asks herself, “Why am I not properly outraged?” (100) and then backpedals by admitting to the reader, “Perhaps I identify too well with my father’s illicit awe” (101). In this manner, Bechdel turns the reader’s attention toward herself and questions her own motivations for empathizing with her father, which exacerbates the intimate and personal nature of the panel because it gives the reader a glimpse into both her and her father’s deeper emotions.
The large, cartoon-style hand holding the photo takes up a considerable amount of space in the panel, and holds significant symbolic meaning as well. As McBean states, the hand in the panel “is drawn precisely where the reader’s hand might be holding the page of the book,” and this “invites the reader to see as Alison sees, to witness her own witnessing of the photographs (116). The ambiguity of the figure behind the hand—it could, of course, be Alison’s hand, but also Bruce’s or the reader’s—draws one further into the narrative in a feat of inclusion; the reader, too, is seeing this image for the first time and reflecting upon what it means to the Bechdel family. The fact that the physical body holding the photo in this panel is not defined as any one specific person also adds ambiguity to the intended reaction of the audience. The reader doesn’t see Alison’s reaction to the picture of Roy, which might affect their own emotions toward this scene. Instead, they are left to draw their own conclusions about both their emotions as viewers and about Alison’s feelings toward the photo. But the fact that this image and all the other photorealistic documents placed in the memoir “are drawn rather than directly inserted into the narrative…[reminds] readers that we are not seeing the photos themselves but Bechdel’s careful and intricate reproductions of them” (McBean 117).
A recurring theme throughout Bechdel’s memoir is her attempt to make the reader feel empathy towards her father, and nowhere is that clearer than in these two pages. Besides the brief mention that the sensual image her father kept all these years features a seventeen-year-old boy instead of a girl and her lack of outrage at it, Bechdel completely bypasses the issue of her father having sex with teenage boys, and instead chooses to focus on the “aesthetic merits” of the photo, such as the “ethereal, painterly quality” of it (100). The drawing of the hand holding the photo, too, is an attempt to generate empathy and a sense of understanding towards Bruce; it places the reader in the position of the figure holding and examining the picture, and brings us that much closer to Alison’s understanding of and feelings toward her father.
The text in the panel also serves as a means for Alison to better understand her father through a literary outlet. In regards to Bruce blotting out the year of the photo and the two small bullets on its borders with a marker, Bechdel questions this gesture, but then describes it as “a curiously ineffectual attempt at censorship” and “an act of prestidigitation typical of the way my father juggled his public appearance and private reality” (101). This is an example of Bechdel coming to terms with her father’s dual identity through the act of writing her memoir, which helps to instill empathy in the reader, who is grappling with Bruce’s constant changes in character at the same time as Bechdel. However, despite the empathetic tone, the panel also clearly does not shy away from the blatant sexual objectification of this underage boy through Bruce’s eyes. In this manner, the panel is another attempt by Bechdel at convincing the reader to emphasize with and understand Bruce, while still recognizing the complexity of his sexuality and dual representation; after all, earlier on in the memoir, Bechdel did bluntly describe her father as “[having] sex with teenage boys” (17).
The panel spanning pages 100-101 is important in many ways, but notably because it functions as a representation of the empathy and understanding that Bechdel seeks to create in the mind of the reader when telling the story of her father. It is an intimate glimpse into both Alison and Bruce’s relationships with other people and with each other, as well as a striking piece of concrete evidence of Bechdel’s father’s sexuality and double identity; and it is an attempt by Bechdel to gain the emotional intimacy with her father that she craved but never achieved in his lifetime. It is a striking, climactic moment in the work that holds plenty of symbolism and thematic importance in a single panel, and Fun Home’s emotional and literary impact would be severely lacking without it.