Lesbian Desire, a Father’s Suicide and 12 Tony Noms: Alison Bechdel on ‘Fun Home’
The dark heart of Fun Home—author Alison Bechdel’s feelings of guilt over her dad’s suicide—doesn’t sound very Broadway. But this brilliant musical may sweep the Tonys.
The Alison Bechdel of real life is, and looks, pretty much like the adult “Alison Bechdel” you see on stage in playwright Lisa Kron’s extremely funny, extremely wrenching Broadway adaptation of Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel, Fun Home.
Lean, watchful, quiet and self-contained, Bechdel—as you might expect from a cartoonist and writer—is an observer by nature.
Comedy, tragedy, song and dance meld evocatively together in this charged story of why Bechdel has long wondered if her coming out to her closeted, gay father Bruce “dislodged” something in him, causing him to commit suicide, age 44 in 1980, by stepping in front of a truck. (Bechdel knows the answer is no—intellectually, emotionally, and in reality—-but it’s a question that has long haunted her.)
It doesn’t sound like the source material of a razzle-dazzle Tony Award winner, but this production of Fun Home, directed by Sam Gold with an ingenious in-the-round set by David Zinn, scooped 12 richly deserved nominations in the coveted theatrical awards announced on Tuesday, including one nomination each for its actresses as well as Michael Cerveris (Bruce) for Lead Actor. And it’s up for Best Musical, of course.
“I’m delighted,” Bechdel told The Daily Beast. “I don’t really know what else to say. It’s great that so many of the actors got nods, and that our creative team got nominated. I hope this means more people will hear about and get to see the show.”
The other day, waiting for friends to emerge from a matinee outside the theater where Fun Home is playing, the author was approached by a schoolgirl.
“No one was paying me any attention,” says the unassuming Bechdel. “This schoolgirl walked across to me, and asked, ‘Are you Alison?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then she dragged me across the street where this whole gaggle of schoolgirls were thrusting their programs at me. I felt like a Beatle. That was pretty funny.”
The only piece of furniture left on stage at the end of Fun Home is, tellingly, Bechdel’s artist’s sketching desk: a lamp, paper, pencils, and pens. Cartooning is the medium by which Bechdel has become famous, as the artist behind the Dykes To Watch Out For strip (1983-2008), and latterly the memoirs Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and the 2012 book she wrote about her relationship with her mother Helen, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama.
Last year, the 54-year-old Bechdel was one of the recipients of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” worth a cool $625,000. In her award-acceptance video, she said: “When I got the call from the MacArthur Foundation, I thought I was kind of faint. It was crazy. It was like someone had almost hit me, like a physical blow. I feel I have been in a state of shock.” She said she would work hard to live up to the expectations of those who had made the award.
If you’ve never read her books, you may have heard of the “Bechdel Test,” which a film can only pass if: “(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.”
In 2013, Bechdel wrote: “Many young people only know my name because of the Test—they don’t know about my comic strip or books. I’m not complaining! I’m happy they know my name at all!”
In the musical, as the action plays out in front of her, the actress who plays adult-Alison (Beth Malone, who looks spookily like the real Bechdel) keenly observes the two younger iterations of herself (Emily Skeggs, who plays at her at college age, and the astonishing, scene-stealing Sydney Lucas, who plays her as an 11-year-old) as she interacts with her family.
Everything is anchored to the formative years of Bechdel’s growing up in rural Pennsylvania; and her father’s intense identification with her, and desire for her to intellectually succeed. His fervency is both warm and menacing, while his own cracks are all too visible.
If Bruce’s suicide is the grim central knot of Fun Home (which began life at New York’s Public Theater—when it was a finalist for a Pulitzer), its construction and staging allows for much levity too.
There’s a fantastic Seventies pop-style song featuring Alison and her two younger brothers, with delicious, anarchic leaping about and tossing of hair, about what it’s like growing up in a funeral home, surrounded by corpses (it grossed out the young Bechdels’ friends, but they thought it was normal). For Bechdel, zingingly good fun as it is, “It captures that era with all these idealized families on television, and wishing our own was like that.”
Two other songs movingly and hilariously evoke Alison’s burgeoning sexuality. One is about her first love whom she met at college (“I’m changing my major to sex with Joan.”), and my favorite, “Ring of Keys,” is about the lustful-trigger effect of seeing a classic butch lesbian had on Bechdel as a girl: the “ring of keys” being what this beautiful, striking woman wore that day on her fingers.
There are also wonderful songs sung by Cerveris and Judy Kuhn as Bechdel’s mother—he about a life in the closet, she about the compromises and hidden sadness of her marriage.
Kron has been working on the musical for several years with composer Jeanine Tesori, although before that a movie option had been offered. Bechdel couldn’t bear the idea of a film “telling all this personal stuff, but I decided how much my soul would be worth and they didn’t want to pay it, and I was kind of relieved.” She had no idea about musicals, and that distance made it easier to greenlight Kron and Tesori’s project.
What is it like seeing her life played out on stage? “I keep hoping someone will ask me that question, and suddenly words will appear in my mind to express the bizarre feeling of seeing it,” says Bechdel, smiling. “But it’s beyond language, it’s inexpressible. It’s surreal, magical, it feels deeply cathartic in some way to see this adaptation of my book which is very different to the book but also essentially the same… I keep waiting for the word to spring to mind…” She pauses, lightly shrugs. “I don't know.”
As Bechdel expressed it to The New York Times’ Michael Paulson, “I do understand that there’s a difference between the play and my life, but it is a very strange and permeable boundary.”
However, the stage version has illuminated some of the mystery around her father’s death. “It takes you to that moment when he kills himself and steps in front of this truck. I thought I had done that. I had been to the spot on the road where he got hit. I tried to imagine as vividly as I could what it must have been like to make that decision. But to see Michael Cerveris singing it, it gives me much more of an understanding of what it must have been like.”
At one book-reading event, Bechdel told me in 2012 when I interviewed her for London’s The Times, a man stood up and said he knew the doctor on call when Bruce was rushed to the hospital that night. “I learnt my father was alive when he got to the emergency room. I’d always thought he’d died instantly. Over 20 years later I find this out on stage, in front of 200 people.”
This public unpeeling in different contexts must be strange, but through the staging of Fun Home Bechdel also feels she learned something about her mother via Judy Kuhn’s powerful performance.
In the book she is under-written, and in real life seems a much thornier and withdrawn character than the figure on stage, who is careworn and strong. The song Kuhn sings about the marriage is wrenching for Bechdel: “I can understand my mother’s courage more. When I was younger I saw her as somewhat weak for not leaving. Now I don’t feel that way.”
Helen died of cancer two years ago. “I sort of feel like had she seen Fun Home it might have killed her,” Bechdel says with a wry laugh. “It might have been very painful. In a lot of ways it’s painful for me to relive a lot of these moments. On the other hand, she would have been thrilled it had gone to Broadway, and thrilled that she was a character in a Broadway play.”
Her mother always turned first to the arts reviews of The New York Times, so she would have also been “ecstatic” with the raves Fun Home has been getting.
When I interviewed Bechdel in 2012 she said the second memoir was her way of asking her uncommunicative mother, why had Helen stopped kissing her, but continued kissing her sons, after Bechdel was 7? What did she think of her husband’s sexuality, his death? How did she grieve?
Today Bechdel said no new channel of communication had been created by the book: Her mother read it, “but I never got the redemptive moment I really wanted.” Her mother had no theory about her husband’s suicide being somehow connected to his closeted sexuality, “but she was really interested in any gossipy stories about closeted bisexual movie stars. She was always trying to understand what the appeal of actresses was for gay men. My father and she had met in a play, and it felt somehow essential to their attraction.”
Bechdel had “a really amazing time” with her mother at the end of her life. “She died by slowly receding more and more, not talking, going into her own inner world. It was how she had been all the time, but it was more marked.” Her mother especially liked the lectures Bechdel found for her by the critic Helen Vendler, whose book about five 20th-century poets’ poems about death, Last Looks, Last Books, she particularly gleaned much from in her last days.
The central tension of the play is to explicitly state Bechdel’s belief that her coming out led her dad to kill himself. “I feel it,” she tells me. “I don’t believe it. I know it’s not true. My brother, my mother, we all had our own grandiose version of it being our fault for different reasons, of there being something we should have done. I think that’s what suicide does to the people left behind. I can’t ever get rid of this emotional sense of guilt, even though intellectually I know it had not much do with me.”
Father and daughter were each other’s flipside, intensely close from when she was 7 or 8, in the best and worst ways. She has a sheaf of letters he wrote her when she went to college. They spoke all the time on the phone. “I think he was lonely,” Bechdel says. “I don’t think he was close with a lot of people. I was this custom-made companion who shared his interests, and if I didn’t share them I had to talk about them anyway.”
On stage, when Sydney Lucas sings “Ring of Keys” about the sexy, butch woman, she is 11. It’s a mark of the show’s brilliance and bravery that the audience-as-one is so with this young girl as she sings her heart out about stirring lesbian sexuality. In reality Bechdel was 4 when it happened.
“We weren’t in our hometown, but Philadelphia. We were in this luncheonette, and this incredible woman walked in: this big, fat woman in men’s clothes and short haircut and she was beautiful, astonishing. I recognized her, this immediate shock of recognition of this person who was like me. My father also saw her, and even at that young age we were already struggling over my clothing. He said, ‘Is that what you want to look like?’ And of course I did, but I had to say ‘no.’”
As unfolds in the play, Bechdel recalls the time Bruce took the children to New York, stealing out at night for—well, their lodgings were on Christopher Street, then the thrumming gay locus. “I was 15. I suddenly noticed all these gay men on the street, their just-so hair, and their sanded jean crotches. I understood in that moment there was this other world, but I had no clue about my father. Lesbians weren’t evident to me in the same way.” She laughs. “I don’t know where the lesbians would have been in 1976, probably off in a commune.”
Bechdel thinks Bruce was living vicariously through her, “wanting me to do things he never did himself. My mother didn’t push me, she didn’t care if I read a book or not. My dad cared very much. He wanted me to read books he loved. It became very difficult. He wanted to design my whole college course, be in charge of what I was learning; it was very hard to stand up to him.” This, she says, “was mostly oppressive, but there were always these moments—and you never knew when they were going to come—of tremendous warmth, vulnerability, and love.”
She recalls him driving her to Oberlin College, moving her stuff into the dorm, and he, the interior designer, wanting to set the room up—to move the desk and the bed as he wanted it. But she didn’t want that. “I laid down the law, and he was so hurt and angry he left without saying goodbye to me.”
He wanted her to focus more on art history than she did; he imagined her getting a job in a museum and going to Europe. “He had this fantasy life laid out for me. That’s what he wanted to do, and if he couldn't do it I would.”
Her sexuality didn’t blossom until college, and Joan. “I had a few glimmerings at the outset of puberty that something was amiss, but I pushed them to the furthest recess of my mind.” Joan saw the play at the Public, her partner amazed at having a song in her name (Kron adapted a verse of lyrics especially for Holly Rae Taylor, Bechdel’s partner of seven and a half years, so she wouldn’t feel left out.)
The show includes a wrenching duet between father and daughter during a late-night car ride when Alison brings Joan home to rural Pennsylvania during spring break. It will be the last time Alison sees her father alive. At this point she had come out to her parents via letter; her mother is being polite and distant, her father is rattled. The subject of Bruce’s own sexuality is finally raised during the car ride.
“At this point my father knew I was a lesbian. I knew he had had affairs with men because my mother had told me after I had come out to my parents, and my father knew she had told me this. But we hadn’t yet spoken openly and honestly about it. During this car journey I was determined to make it happen, to make one of the most scary leaps I had ever made.”
Father and daughter had been to see Coal Miner’s Daughter at the movies, “which interestingly has this wrenching goodbye scene,” Bechdel notes. “She says goodbye to her dad at the train station. He says, ‘I ain’t never going to see you again.’ She says, ‘Oh yes you will.’ But of course he dies before he can see her again.” Just as it would be for Bechdel and her father: “one of the strange synchronicities,” as she puts it.
“I was psyching myself up,” she recalls of the car ride. “We were at a stoplight. I asked him if he knew what he was doing when he gave me a copy of Colette (a literary lesbian entrée) and it elicited this amazing conversation with him about the men he had sex with. It was like he was confessing. He said that when he was little he wanted to wear girls’ clothes. He told me about this man who he had sex with, a farmhand. He grew up on a farm. My mother had described that incident to me as a molestation, my father described it as pleasurable.
“My father thought this farmhand was very attractive—he mentioned his dark, curly hair—and then he talked about a boy in college he had a relationship with. He was filled with shame. It was very hard for him to tell me these things.” (A handyman character in the musical is a composite of all the young men who would pass through the “fun home,” says Bechdel, “always very convivial, always likable, smart, funny.”)
Bechdel says she tried to “meet” her father during the car ride with her own experience: She told him she liked to dress in boys’ clothes when younger (and in the play we see him trying to make her wear dresses, and who knows how deep and folded his frustration was when he did so), and that she had always liked girls, “but he couldn't really meet that. Mostly he was stuck in this painful shame. And then the car ride ended.” And then Bruce Bechdel walked in front of the truck.
It’s so sad, so frustrating, this missed connection, and the pain, shame and closetry beneath it. Bechdel has seen the play so many times, but still hasn’t got a grasp of it, she says, because she is continually stunned by the unfolding of it.
When we met in 2012, Bechdel said she was writing another graphic memoir about her brothers Christian and John, but now may write just one about her relationship with Christian, the middle brother.
“I feel like we’re kind of twins, also the flipside of one another, but different from how I was with my dad. We’re very similar and very different. He is autistic, never formally diagnosed. He cannot work. He stays at home working on his collections of diecast cars. He's writing his own memoir about his obsessive collecting, but his brain doesn’t really work right. Sometimes I feel my brain doesn't work right either, but I’m able to function in a way that he's not.” (In 2012, Bechdel told me she and her mother both had obsessive-compulsive disorder as children. “I think we all have Asperger’s,” she said of the entire family.)
John was “deeply touched” watching Fun Home on stage, Bechdel says today. “He was nervous it was going to be a cheapening of our experiences, exploitative, and offensive, and was relieved to see it was none of those things. It genuinely moved Christian as well. There was this catharsis for them.”
Catharsis for Bechdel has always been cartooning. Growing up, Edward Gorey, Mad magazine, and Hergé’s Tintin were formative influences. Gorey’s line drawing and off-kilter, askew, creepy sensibility, appealed to her (“I guess because I grew up in a funeral home”), as did Charles Addams’s work. Tintin was more immersive, thrilling and detailed (“all that rigging!”) than anything American comics held for her. She drew from a young age, and while the play shows her father sneering about it, he wasn’t in real life.
As she grew older, to be a cartoonist seemed unrealistic, so she thought she might become a book designer. She majored in art to please her father, but then Dykes To Watch Out For took off—its tale of a group of lesbians and their interlocking friendships, career crises, and messy love lives garnering many addicted fans.
The characters were all aspects of her, she says: Ginger had her intimacy issues, Clarice was her workaholic self, and she still thinks she’s Sydney, “the evil, jaded, post-gay, women’s studies professor.” Reader feedback shaped the characters, and then the LGBT newspapers that carried the strip started to fold around the same time as Bechdel’s urge to do the strip tailed off.
While 25 years of therapy for Bechdel has helped deduce her father’s suicide was not her direct fault, it has also helped her become a public figure.
“My life has gotten so big. Writing these books, and living in this bigger sphere than I was as a young cartoonist when I was in this safe little bubble of the gay and lesbian world—it’s been kind of an intense journey,” she says. “Therapy has given me a bigger ego. I don’t think I’m an egomaniac. I think I have more ego strength now than I did as a young person. It enables me to do stuff like come here and talk to you. I couldn’t have done stuff like this, I would have been babbling.”
Bechdel’s next graphic memoir, The Secret To Superhuman Strength, will be about exercise and physical health, “a sort of cultural history through the lens of personal experience. I’ve always followed trends: jogging, martial arts, yoga, I did spinning for a while.” (Not Soul Cycle? “No, but I’m very curious about it. It sounds like a cult.”) She goes to the gym, and skis and bikes. Our culture is obsessed by exercise and so is she, “partly, it’s my anti-anxiety drug. I need to stop talking about it and start writing it.”
Another foundation for the book is Bechdel’s keen sense of mortality. “I have worked pretty assiduously for staying somewhat fit throughout my life, and it is to no avail,” she says, laughing. “I am falling apart. We all are. There’s nothing we can do. I have been kind of obsessed with my own mortality, but not in a productive way, and want to make it more productive. I’m most frightened about losing my independence. Death somehow seems separate. I could die, but I don’t want to be taken care of.”
As long as her mother was alive, Bechdel felt some kind of connection to her father, “but now that she is dead I feel very much that I have moved into this other stage of life. I guess that’s behind this next book too, like ‘I’m next.’”
Being solitary is her natural state, Bechdel says. “How did my therapist put this?” she says, smiling. “She said Holly helped me ‘cathect’ real life, to live in reality instead of in my head and work. Cathect is a crazy psychological term that is the opposite of catharsis, which is the release of energy. Cathexis is taking it in. Relationships are not my strong suit, but somehow it’s very important for me to be in one.”
She laughs. “They’ve been my weak suit because of the family I came from. I grew up in a family where there was no evident warmth or love expressed between my parents. I know that they had a very powerful bond, but mostly saw them fighting and never touching. I had to learn how to do that on my own, and it took a long time.”
Bechdel married an ex-girlfriend in San Francisco in 2004 as a then-act of civil disobedience, then got the union annulled.
Will she and Taylor marry? “You know, I might. Maybe I’m getting to a place in my intimacy issues where I could do that. I always had this political rationale as to why I wouldn’t do it, but that’s starting to seem thinner and thinner. It was ‘I don’t believe in marriage, I don’t believe in ownership, I don’t believe in giving the state any kind of say in my intimate life.’ But… I never noticed wedding rings for example, but I’m starting to notice people’s wedding rings, like ‘Ohhh, that’s sort of interesting.”
She goes to the gym, and skis and bikes in Vermont, where she and Taylor live.
As she leaves The Daily Beast office, another moment of strange synchronicity: Bechdel notices our brown, frayed-page, illustrated second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, the same edition her father had and which she herself used when writing about the word “queer” in Fun Home. She talks again about how “traumatic and stunning” it was to win the MacArthur grant. She hasn’t splashed out on a Bentley, then?
“No,” Alison Bechdel says. “I might get a new scanner.”
Fun Home is at the Circle in the Square Theater, 235 West 50th Street, New York. Booking through September 13.