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Mourning and Melancholia in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

By Rachel Dean-Ruzicka

“[Graphic autobiographies], to me, signal the potential of this autographic moment in life narrative studies and to invite new theorizing of subjectivity, genre, and readers’ engagement with the autobiographical.”—Julia Watson, Biography

The autobiographical graphic novel, and its rising popularity as a medium, allows readers to view a character’s developing subjectivity in an unusually intimate way. Instead of reading the subject’s thoughts and experiences, the graphic novel places readers in the scenes as the beholder, allowing for a look at both the subjectivity of the narrator and the cultural forces that have shaped her: in this particular case Alison Bechdel in her 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Within this genre, there are many excellent autobiographical graphic novels available, including Craig Thompson’s Blankets, David Beauchard’s Epileptic (L’Ascension du Haut Mal in the original French), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and, of course, Art Spiegelman’s Maus. None of these books are without their own intimacies or cultural forces, and all have received considerable critical attention. Yet I find Bechdel’s narrative uniquely compelling as a text that can work to highlight the political possibilities in mourning and grief, as she recreates her father’s death and their relationship for readers. In both theme and narrative construction Fun Home is a text that can show readers the high stakes of claiming a gay or lesbian identity in America.

Along with the complex cultural forces the author can literally show us, there are underlying processes of formation that reside in these autobiographical narratives. In Fun Home, one such formation is the Freudian concept of melancholia, which is central to understanding sexual and gender identity in the text.1 Bechdel, as she tells the story of her own lesbian identity and her father’s closeted gay identity, is a character that is powerfully affected by the melancholy of an identification that is culturally disallowed. To further understand how subjectivity is developed in Bechdel’s text this essay will illustrate the importance of mourning and melancholia in the overall text, as well as highlight how “postmemory” can serve to reinforce the transformative potential of the story for readers. The goal of this essay is twofold: first to see how theories of melancholia and postmemory can help us in further understanding Fun Home, and then to examine how these concepts can be deployed politically in order to challenge the social structures that deny non-hetero-normative practices in American culture. Ultimately, the ways that melancholy and sexual identity are defined in Bechdel’s autobiography show the opening of possibilities that her father felt were always already closed.

Mourning and Melancholia in Fun Home

In order to evaluate the nature of melancholia in Fun Home, the term itself needs some unpacking. Mourning and melancholia are both present in the text, and they both serve important functions in the overall development of sexual identity for the characters. Mourning, here, is simply defined as the natural process that a subject goes through upon the loss of another subject, object, or ideal. Bechdel introduces readers to one of the central actions of the story at the end of the first chapter when she draws readers’ attention to her father’s death. In fact, as she notes in an interview, “If you don’t count the subplot of my own coming out story, the sole dramatic incident in the book is that my dad dies” (“Interview” 1008). As with the death of any parent, even one where there is a complex and sometimes tenuous loving relationship, there is a process of grieving that a subject experiences. Bechdel’s text is a process of both finding and mourning her father, a circuitous self discovery through the grieving process.

Bechdel’s process of grief is a complicated one, as the death of her father comes relatively early; she is almost twenty, he is forty-four. It is also a probable suicide, although one without a note or specifically defined reason. It is then an ambiguous loss, as the desired resolution that aids the grieving process is missing from Bruce Bechdel’s death. In more psychoanalytic terms, David Eng and David Kazanjian define mourning in their text Loss as “a psychic process” where the “libido is withdrawn from a lost object” (3). However, this process is never immediate. The “libido is detached bit by bit so that eventually the mourner is able to declare the object dead and to move on to invest in new objects” (3). The text itself seems to be a part of this project as Bechdel gradually detaches herself from the memory of her father’s death, a process integrally connected to the visual representations that are drawn from her memories of their time together and supplemented by his old letters and photos.

In a literal way, Bechdel embodied these memories as a method to process both the death of her father and his closeted sexual desires. Bechdel created the drawings for the text by setting up a “reference shot” for each and every panel that was not directly drawn from a historical document or map. She posed herself as she wanted the drawing to look, photographed herself with a digital camera, and then created the drawings from these references (Bechdel “Interview” 1010). She not only remembers the actions she visually represents, but she performs them first, creating a personal repertoire that the photos and text then archive.2 The text truly “depends on graphically embodying and enacting, not just telling, the family story” (Watson 52). Bechdel’s unique process is reminiscent of another of Freud’s lectures: “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,” where he describes therapeutic processes for “working through” whatever unconscious knowledge the therapist may have uncovered during analysis. While analysis itself was designed to uncover formative memories, Freud points out that merely remembering is not the solution to a variety of pathological behaviors. Instead, the process also requires this repetition “implies conjuring up a piece of real life” which is both necessary for healing and yet “cannot always be harmless and unobjectionable” (152).3 Bechdel both remembers Bruce Bechdel’s life and reenacts it before putting those images down on paper. These steps could be seen as Bechdel merely reliving the past. Yet she not only repeats his actions, but also her own, creating a text that intertwines both of their stories while helping her work through the questions about loss and sexuality that each of their stories tell. Her text is a personal, visual, recursive and creative way of mourning her father’s death. Her graphic novel is, in part, recursive in how it circles around and around the timelines of Bechdel’s life. The narrative does not begin at birth and end after the suicide, but rather pieces together elements of her father’s life, her adolescence, and her adulthood within each chapter.

Bechdel’s text is not merely a description of death and recovery, however. It is also a very clear example of the sorts of behaviors Freud deemed melancholic in “Mourning and Melancholia.” He defines the difference by pointing out how melancholia shares some features with mourning, but also has connections to regression and narcissism. It is “a reaction to the real loss of a loved object” and yet has elements “absent in normal mourning [which] transforms the latter into pathological mourning” (587). Part of that pathological response is a “diminution of his self-regard” and the representation of the ego as “worthless” (584). This is the basic Freudian definition of melancholia; however, recent theorists have taken the complex notion of how melancholia forms the subject into more politically dynamic dimensions. One of the primary texts that appropriated Freud’s concepts of mourning and melancholia and positioned them in a political form was Judith Butler’s 1995 piece “Melancholy Gender / Refused Identification.” Butler focuses on Freud’s point of how melancholia is directly related to “a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up” to think through how homosexual desire as object must be given up even while the desire remains—a situation that readers clearly see in Bruce Bechdel (Freud 588). Butler’s short essay is incredibly dense and full of moments that can help readers further understand the experiences of Bruce and Alison Bechdel in Fun Home because of the ways sexual desire and gender are constructed throughout. Using Butler’s text as a jumping-off point, the theories she defines are well suited to uncover the political possibilities in the text.

Butler argues that the gendered subject is created by the disavowal of homosexual attachment, a refused identity that creates a deeply constitutive melancholy. This is also closely connected to American culture, as she notes, “Melancholic formation of gender sheds light on the dilemma of living within a culture which can mourn the loss of homosexual attachment only with great difficulty” (Butler 246). Readers get a similar experience in Bechdel’s graphic novel as it also “sheds light on the predicament” that both Alison and Bruce Bechdel face: the predicament of a culture that disallows their desires and attachments. While the concept of melancholy is in some ways constitutive for us all, it can result in particularly troubling aspects in minoritized identities that are elided. The refused identification affects their gendered behaviors (as Butler argues it does for all of us), their anxieties, and their very identities, which Bechdel visually witnesses and re-presents throughout the text as a process of working through the changing political dynamics of American culture.

The melancholic aspect that is constitutive of gendered identity for Butler is one that absolutely denies the possibility of non-hetero-normative attachment, which creates a deeply troubled psyche in those who experience homosexual desire. This spills over into how subjects interact as gendered members of society, as well as specifically impacting those with a non-normative sexual identity. Butler says it best and is worth quoting at length:

It seems clear that the positions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ which Freud, in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), understood as the effects of laborious and uncertain accomplishment, are established in part through prohibitions which demand the loss of certain sexual attachments, and demand as well that those losses not be avowed, and not be grieved. If the assumption of femininity and the assumption of masculinity proceed through the accomplishment of an always tenuous heterosexuality, we might understand the force of this accomplishment as mandating the abandonment of homosexual attachments or, perhaps more trenchantly, preempting the possibility of homosexual attachment, a foreclosure on the possibility which produces a domain of homosexuality understood as unlivable passion and ungrievable loss. (Butler 247, italics in original)

Normative gender roles are predicated on abandoned desires that are not grieved, and those ungrieved desires are gradually (and sometimes pathologically) integrated into the subjectivity. This foreclosure on identity profoundly impacts Bruce in the text, and in Bechdel’s memories. She begins to see him as a figure that was always already lost: as she notes, “his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him” when we first learn of his death in Chapter One (23).

Figure 1: Bechdel reveals her father’s death was a suicide at the end of Chapter One (23).

The ungrievable loss and unlivable passion are heavily present in Bruce as he is both present and absent for Bechdel, such as in examples like Figure 1, and her recognition of his own melancholy echoes throughout their relationship and her memories of it.

Visually in Figure 1 and its series of panels, the young Bechdel both moves farther and farther away from her father, as well as circles in more and more on herself. Here, readers are presented with an example of Butler’s claim that “identifications formed from unfinished grief” are incorporated into the ego itself (245). Readers see this happening: Bechdel experiences this unfinished grief as a permanent ache in her childhood memories, as “his absence resonated retroactively” (23). The incorporation of that unfinished grief is visually represented in Figure 1 as the slow circling on the riding lawnmower, a recursive illustration that shows young Bechdel mowing the lawn in endless rings as she reflects on her father’s troubling presence—yet absence—always turning inwards towards herself and her own ego. This circling of the lawnmower is also a foreshadowing of the rest of the text, as Bechdel creates a non-linear, recursive narrative.

The entire story grows out of Bechdel’s desire to both identify with and question her father and his identity. She found out about his sexuality only weeks before his death, which was weeks after she publicly came out to her parents. The graphic novel was inspired by Bechdel’s discovery of one particular photo, in an envelope labeled “Family” that she opens after his death (Bechdel “Interview” 1005). While there certainly were pictures of her and her brothers playing on a family vacation, there was also one image in particular that captured her attention and began to bring both her father’s identity and her conflicted feelings about it into focus: a picture of Roy, their babysitter, on a family vacation when Bechdel was eight.

Figure 2: The picture of Roy that Bechdel discovers after her father’s death (100-101).

This is one of the moments in the text where Bechdel’s feelings about her father are the most conflicted, the unlived possibilities of the moment both complex and tragic. The visual record of her father’s desire, captured on film and unearthed years later, gives Bechdel a glimpse of how her father’s desires were what Butler calls “foreclosed from the start” (249). The image of Roy functions as a visual reminder of how within a heterosexual culture all homosexual attachments are “unlived possibilities” or prohibited attachments (Butler 249). Bruce’s attachments are doubly disavowed as he seeks out not only other men for his clandestine affairs, but also young men. Bechdel comments that she “perhaps identif[ies] too well with my father’s illicit awe” (101) as she looks at this love that “cannot happen, and if it [did], it certainly did not” (Butler 249).

Bechdel, in Figure 2, is conflicted in wanting to avow, rather than disavow, her father’s identity, yet she must also negotiate the specifics of his desire, represented in the “centerfold” of the text. She asks herself, “Would I be assessing its aesthetic merits so calmly if it were of a seventeen-year-old girl? Why am I not properly outraged?” (100). Her rage is eclipsed by an unwillingness to entirely deny this aspect of her father’s subjectivity, yet she recognizes the prohibition of Roy’s youth as an object of desire. This image is a complex one, full of that same presence and absence that Bechdel noted in Figure 1. Here, her father is visually absent, but implicitly present as the photographer. Roy’s level of awareness remains an unanswerable question—is he sleeping? Is he posing? Were they having an affair, or was Bruce merely sneaking a photo? Further, there is the presence of the month (Aug.) but the attempted censorship of the year (1969) that Bruce tries to make an absence. Despite its “documentary” nature, the truth is incomprehensible from this lone photo that Bechdel uncovers.

Melancholic Anxieties in Fun Home

Another site of conflicted “documentary” work from Bechdel’s childhood is in her diaries. They are one site where the imagetext elements of the graphic novel are central to understanding Bechdel’s own development as a subject. She had saved all of her notebooks from childhood and has gone back and re-drawn and re-traced her handwriting and daily thoughts (Bechdel “Interview” 1007), as well as her anxieties and difficulties with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that she experienced at this time. Her diary is a place where melancholic anxieties come together—both her own and those of her father. As Freud pointed out, melancholia is characterized by “a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up” and the resulting narcissism and “impoverishment of ego” the melancholic experiences (588, 584). The narcissism and attacks on the ego become centered on behaviors which abuse, debase, cause suffering, and ultimately offer some sort of “sadistic satisfaction” to those enacting these behaviors (588). Readers can see how this abuse plays out for Bechdel herself in the discussion of her OCD and its representations in her journals.

Butler notes the impact of the prohibition on homosexuality, which applies both to Bechdel’s journal and the way that she constructs her subjectivity within it as homosexual desire, and prohibitions thereof, “preempts the process of grief and prompts a melancholic identification” that often functions as “self-beratement and guilt” (Butler 252). As the elements of an identity that are disallowed from the start are incorporated into the ego, pathological behaviors emerge. In Fun Home these behaviors emerge as her father’s shoplifting, speeding, lying, and the rages that Bechdel herself so often experienced as a child (216). Bechdel’s pathological behaviors emerge as an obsessive compulsive disorder when she is a young adolescent, and those OCD experiences are highlighted by her journals. While the adult Bechdel who creates the text for us has successfully claimed a lesbian identity, the pressures of growing up where melancholic identification were heavily present in both her life and her father’s life are illustrated in Bechdel’s early journal entries.

Figure 3: Bechdel’s journal. First she begins adding “I think” to all the statements she makes (141).
Figure 4: Bechdel’s journal. “I think” eventually becomes shorthanded as the symbol above, and takes over entire entries (141, 148).

In Figures 3 and 4, readers can see the guilt integrally tied to melancholia in Bechdel as she develops the inability to make a solid claim in her diary. The prohibition on her identity has caused her subjectivity to be elided, and therefore she begins to question her ability to have any sort of concrete knowledge about her own experience.

Cvetkovich, in her 2008 article on Fun Home discusses the symbol of subjective erasure: “There’s something deeply poignant about the form of witness provided by that odd graphic symbol, especially since what it effaces (and announces) is nothing so dramatic as the violence of war or genocide but simply the all-too-ordinary life of an adolescent girl growing up with silences around emotion and sexuality” (121). I would argue that while it is not the violence of genocide, there is a violence being perpetrated upon Bechdel’s subjectivity, and it emerges in her “odd graphic symbol,” which replaces knowledge with profound uncertainty about even the simplest things. The introduction to “Melancholy Gender / Refused Identity” points to the bodily repercussions of melancholia as, “Homosexual and heterosexual identities are founded on repudiated identifications that nonetheless preserve and sustain what has been repudiated on the surface of the body through incorporation” (Butler 244). Bechdel’s childhood journal and her re-presentation of it are the sustained examples of a repudiated identification that her father feels, and one that suffuses her home and personal identity with an intense discomfort. She incorporates these refused identifications into her psyche in ways that then manifest themselves in terms of her OCD and her journal symbols—the fetishistic behaviors that Freud pointed to as the outcome of a melancholic identity. One could, in fact, end an analysis of Fun Home here, leaving Bechdel as an inherently pathologized character and an example of an endless melancholy. However, that reading is limited in terms of a non-hetero-normative political position.

Clearly, while pathologization is one possible and accurate reading, it negates the significant political possibilities that theories of melancholia have gained in the last fifteen years. To continue an analysis of the formative aspects of melancholy in Fun Home and the politics of queer identity theorists such as David Eng illustrate, “the social status of the lost object seems largely to determine whether the subject is fated to an existence of depression and despair” (268). While Freud may have seen the potential for fetishism in any sort of melancholic loss and incorporation, I want to draw attention to the social status of the refused identification as what ultimately drove Bruce’s depression and despair. What this allows for is the possibility that a pathologized melancholic identity, born out of disallowed sexual desire, can change. Eng’s point about the societal effects of melancholia, whether in regards to sexuality or race, are central to remember when pursuing the concept in a political project. In this way one can see how melancholia based in refused identity is not inherently pathologizing, but rather a flaw in our own culture that can be addressed. Bechdel’s text itself does some of this theoretical work, giving readers a chance to watch a process of identity formation for her that ends on a more positive note than her father’s did.

The contrast between Bruce and Bechdels’s own lives bears out this claim. Bruce has internalized his desires to such a degree that Bechdel had no idea about his sexuality until shortly before his death, after she had already gone away to college. Bechdel sees some of the melancholic’s sense of grief and self-beratement in her father, although in terms of how he constructs their home rather than in his diaries or letters. She notes in Chapter One,

His shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany. In fact, the meticulous, period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it. Mirrors, distracting bronzes, multiple doorways. Visitors often got lost upstairs. My mother, my brothers and I knew our way around well enough, but it was impossible to tell if the Minotaur lay beyond the next corner. (20-21)

Figure 5: An example of the “meticulous, period interiors” Bechdel later refers to and the maze-like qualities of the house (6).
Figure 6: An example of the “meticulous, period interiors” Bechdel later refers to and the maze-like qualities of the house (20).

He hides his shame in the circuitous and diverting household arrangement, yet the self loathing and beratement rise to the surface in the otherwise idyllic picture of family life that he has created. If “melancholia functions to regulate, to normalize, and to designate a sphere of prevailing gender norms and acceptable attachments” while, “at the same time, it also delimits a sphere of unacceptable objects and abjected identifications” (Eng 268) then Bruce’s household behaviors are significant in terms of his position within this restrictive system. Readers can visually see the regulation and normalization that Bruce tries to perform in Fun Home as he pours his care into his family home rather than his family itself. As homosexual desire is deemed unacceptable, Bruce turns to the more acceptable gardening4 and house restoration as an unsuitable replacement for those desires. However, Bechdel herself is an example of how melancholia as a pathologized basis for identity is changing—she moves away from the OCD-ridden journal and its symbols and is openly “out” in ways that her father never was. In fact, Bruce dies while in the process of fixing up another old farmhouse, an attempt to create another picture-perfect domicile in the obsessive way that Bechdel herself has escaped.

Gender Panic and Normative Roles in Fun Home

One aspect that accompanies Bruce’s attempts to have the picture-perfect house is his desire to have the ideal family to reside within it. His ideal family, however, is one that meets a certain visual aesthetic rather than any sense of emotional bond—for Bruce, appearance is all-encompassing. This impacts the manner in which he expects the young Bechdel to look and act in terms of gendered behaviors. In “Melancholy Gender / Refused Identification” Butler describes how all gender roles are proscribed by disavowed attachments, as “melancholic identification is crucial to the gendering of the ego” (Butler 244). Bruce insists that the young girl adhere closely to his ideas about “femininity” in terms of dress and behavior. This comes to a head in one particular scene in a diner when Bechdel is a very young girl.

Figure 7: Bechdel encounters an example of non-normative gendered behavior while at a diner with her father (118).

Even at the age of “four or five” (117), Bechdel can recall the excitement of this moment of recognition, the “surge of joy” (118) that accompanies her identification with this woman. In Figure 5, this identification is also entirely visual, another moment where the graphic nature of the narrative is central to our understanding of Bechdel’s overall developing subjectivity. Readers as viewers see the connections between the two, based on our experience of Bechdel at various stages of her youth and adolescence from the preceding 100-plus pages. But in this scene it is not only readers who recognize the connections—Bruce does as well, and immediately moves to suppress this disallowed identification.

Before she is old enough to consciously comprehend sexual desire, Bechdel’s identification is already foreclosed upon—both by the larger society and most specifically by her father. Their recognition is mutual, instilling a sense of excitement in Bechdel and an insistence on gender-regulation in her father. Her response, shown in Figure 8, tells us all we need to know about this particular recognition:

Figure 8: Bechdel’s response to her father in the diner (119).

Even at the age of four or five the identification with ones’ own sex is seen as something to be disavowed by both Bruce, and through his insistence, Bechdel herself. She knows that in order to live up to her father’s expectations there is only one answer to his question. Butler negotiates the paradox of gender and desire this way by pointing out how gender is so often defined in relationship to sexuality. Being a girl is predicated on “not wanting a girl” and therefore, “homosexual desire panics gender” (248). In Figure 8, we see this in the scene at the diner and in Bruce’s insistence that his daughter be properly feminine. Bechdel identifies her father’s distaste regarding the non-normative appearance of the woman in Figure 7, and concludes “perhaps it haunted” him (119). Bruce wants to avoid any kind of gender panic or irregularity in Bechdel and attempts to ensure this by regulating the clothing she wears, encouraging the barrettes in her hair, covering her room in pink flowery wallpaper, and in a series of other nudges towards the feminine rather than the masculine identification that Bechdel prefers. However, she is not so willing to give up on these desires as “the vision of the truck-driving bulldyke sustained [her] through the years” (119). Importantly, her identification with the woman is not something she’s willing to give up on, even in light of the normative pressures her father insists on throughout her childhood.

Interestingly, as Bechdel ages she and her father express their own subversive desires as they both recommend gendered signifiers to one another. This is one way for them to both express non-normative gendered desires without panicking gender; as Watson notes, “The adult narrator thus frames the negotiations by which, within the constraints of the family, father and daughter displaced onto each other versions of conventional femininity and masculinity as a way of enacting their refusal of conventional heteronormative gender roles” (39). We see images throughout the text of Bruce trying to force a particular image of femininity on Bechdel through dress and desired behavior. But we simultaneously see Bechdel suggesting a particular form of masculinity, one that she herself desires to embody, on her father.

Figure 9: The object of various desires (99).

As she notes, “There lay between us a slender demilitarized zone—our shared reverence for masculine beauty,” as she remarks in regards to a magazine image, “you should get a suit with a vest” (99). Both the author and Bruce lean over a copy of GQ; she notes that while their desires are different (his for “velvet and pearls” along with the young man himself, her for “muscles and tweed”), they can both follow through on this displacement of gender roles within the household.

Melancholy Suicide in Fun Home

To discuss one of the ramifications of this melancholic loss and its incorporation into the ego, I want to return to Bechdel’s point from my introduction: “If you don’t count the subplot of my own coming out story, the sole dramatic incident in the book is that my dad dies” (“Interview” 1008). It is this death that fully represents the underlying melancholy of the story, as well as the one that readers and Bechdel must move beyond in order to both embrace Bechdel’s non-hetero-normative identity and avoid a melancholic attachment to Bruce. His presumed suicide is the ultimate end to his struggles with disavowed sexual identity. In the wake of Bechdel’s coming-out letter and his wife’s filing for divorce, he is run over by a truck while clearing brush at his new farmhouse project.

One might wonder why Bechdel and her family automatically assume suicide, as his death could have been an accident. Bechdel locates the suicide in the circumstances of her coming out and the divorce, although she speculates on other reasons as well. She writes as narrator,

Struck by the coincidence [of Fitzgerald and her father] I counted out their lifespans. The same number of months, the same number of weeks … but Fitzgerald lived three days longer. For a wild moment I entertained the idea that my father had timed his death with this in mind, as some sort of deranged tribute. But that would only confirm that his death was not my fault. That, in fact, it had nothing to do with me at all. I’m reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond. (85-86)

Here she speculates on the different reasons and symbols behind her father’s death. Could it have been planned far in advance, to coincide with his love of F. Scott Fitzgerald? Was it in direct response to her sexuality and perhaps terror that they may have to each avow the identity of the other? Or was it strictly an accident? Again, it is the idea of ambiguous loss with which Bechdel is forced to deal. Like readers saw in Figure 2, Bechdel reflects on the desire for identification that causes her to question her own responses to her father’s behaviors. But, as readers see here, she paradoxically needs that bond with her father regarding their shared identity and his death in order to maintain a connection with him, while at the same time she severs that connection by completing the mourning process and maintaining and avowing her own identity.

Suicide is the ultimate negative consequence for a disallowed subjectivity, as Butler writes, “Insofar as the grief remains unspeakable, the rage over the loss can redouble by virtue of remaining unavowed. And if that rage is publicly proscribed, the melancholic effects of such a proscription can achieve suicidal proportions” (255). The unspeakable grief that Butler refers to here is the grief in refused identification, the foreclosing of possibility that can only be mourned with considerable difficulty. In a society such as the one in which Bruce was raised, the public proscription against homosexual identity is so strong that the melancholic effects do reach suicidal proportions for him. The accumulation of melancholic effects is visually traced throughout the text, as Cvetkovich notes: “The secrecy and shame attached to Bechdel’s father’s sexual life make it function like occluded trauma and suggest the relevance of witness to a range of seemingly ordinary contexts” (113). Bechdel’s text witnesses her ordinary, daily life, in terms of both her re-traced diaries and her memories of her father’s life, in an attempt to negotiate the trauma that refused identification has visited upon them both.

However, readers can also see through Bechdel’s process of witness and enactment the ways in which insistence on the validity of certain identity categories has affected her future identity, which was simply not possible for Bruce. This again ties into the political implications that the initially diagnostic instrument has today, as contemporary theorists note. Melancholia, as a concept, is a tool that studies “the psychic production, condition, and limits of marginalized subjectivities predicated on states of injury” (Eng 266). It can help us examine and evaluate the ways in which minority subjectivities are often foreclosed upon, and therefore work towards a politics of recognition that is the first step in various justice projects. As gay and lesbian became mobilized as avowed identities throughout the course of the latter part of the twentieth century the limitations on their marginalized subjectivities expanded. This is not to imply that we now live in a perfect society, universally acknowledging gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender as a legitimate identity category. Yet, in a comparison between the injury that was done in terms of an eliding of subjectivity in both Bruce and Alison, the limits have loosened for Alison and she survives these injuries that may well have killed her father. The echoes of the earlier time remain; which is the inherent element of what Marianne Hirsch would call postmemory in the text. However, they do not necessitate a fetishistic or neurotic adulthood for Bechdel, much less a suicidal one.

Postmemory and Melancholia in Fun Home

One final element of the text that is essential for a successful recognition project is the way Bechdel incorporates photographs into her text. Hillary Chute very briefly mentions these photographs in her chapter on Fun Home in Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. She mentions how “the archive of photographs” in the text “is compelling but tells us little as ‘evidence’; as windows onto the past the photographs remain ambiguous, blurry” (200). While Chute offers this interesting suggestion, she moves on quickly to discussing Bechdel’s process of enacting each panel before drawing it, which I have discussed earlier in this essay. The notion of these photos as compelling, yet ambiguous focal points throughout the text deserves a further unpacking, however. These images, detailed below, function to remind readers that Fun Home is not merely a powerful graphic novel, but also a decidedly autobiographical one. The way that Bechdel intersperses her own “cartoonish” style with the much more photorealistic representations of family photos keeps readers connected to the underlying factual elements of the text. Like in Figure 2, Bechdel’s final commentary on the photo is that the failed censorship is “typical of the way my father juggled his public appearance and private reality, the evidence is simultaneously hidden and revealed” (101). I have commented already about the complexity of the “documentary” nature of this photograph. In fact, this is one of the things that photographic records can do for us, although in a theoretically complicated way.

For a closer analysis of the complexities of photography in Fun Home I turn to Marianne Hirsch and her comments on the way that photos, memory, and trauma work in her 1997 text Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. She discusses the importance of her neologism postmemory in terms of the way “its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation” (22). This is where Fun Home diverges from theories of memory alone, as it functions as an imaginative investment for Bechdel rather than merely a recollection of her family’s life. Hirsch’s idea about postmemory and its connection to its source is doubly true for Bechdel’s use of photographs in Fun Home; they are both photographs and her own creations, highlighting the personal connection and “shaped by the traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated” (Hirsch 22). Bruce’s life is recreated by Bechdel, but always with that notion of uncertainty as she reminds us how her interpretation of his identity is perhaps a selfish act. Bechdel as narrator notes, “Maybe I’m trying to render my senseless personal loss meaningful by linking it, however posthumously, to a more coherent narrative. A narrative of injustice, sexual shame and fear, of life considered expendable” (196). Bechdel openly admits to readers that her father’s death can never be entirely understood, that there will always be ripples of traumatic events that make it impossible to exactly recreate. While Hirsch developed the concept of postmemory specifically to discuss the children of Holocaust survivors, she notes “it may be useful to describe other second-generation memories of cultural or collective traumatic events and experiences” (22). In terms of Fun Home readers see some of the collective trauma represented in the background of these same panels where Bechdel questions her narrative creation. It is accompanied by images of Bechdel in New York City, with posters for an “AIDS candlelight vigil” and advertisements for a performance of The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. These images locate the concepts of this larger narrative along other artistic investigations of the injustice, fear, and expendable lives of gay men in American culture.

Due to this connection to traumatic events and the way they have reverberated throughout her life, Alison herself is in position similar to that of the children of Holocaust survivors that Hirsch discusses in her text. That photography is central to Fun Home in multiple ways is an aspect that deserves commentary as one looks at the text in consideration of its relation to visual culture; theorists such as Susan Sontag and Hirsch have pointed out the simultaneity of life and death that is always present in photography, and therefore in a mediated way in Bechdel’s text (Hirsch 19). While her father is not directly represented in the Figure 2 image that inspired the book, it encapsulates her father’s preferred identification and how his negated desire is integrally linked to his self-destruction years after this photo was taken. For Hirsch, photographs “reinforce at once incomprehensibility and presence, a past that will neither fade away nor be integrated into the present” (40). Roy’s photo in Figure 2 is incomprehensible to both Bechdel and readers in its “aesthetic merits” that fail to “properly outrage” Bechdel (100).

Roy’s photo is not the only one that Bechdel chooses to reproduce in her text.5 She begins each chapter with her drawing of a photograph from her childhood, another connection to that link between photography and death by pointing out that “life is the presence of the object before the camera” while “death is the ‘having-been-there’ of the object” which evokes a finality and past tense when considering the photograph (Hirsch 20). While not every photo is one of her father’s death, they are all representative of a certain finality: a gravestone, a sunset, her mother removing her make-up after a performance. All of these are liminal moments that highlight the anticipated end of an event and therefore a potential beginning for mourning or melancholic identification. The gravestone marks the end of the funeral, the sunset the end of a day (and a dream), the make-up removal the end of her mother’s work on a master’s degree.

Figure 10: Chapter heading taken from photograph (25).
Figure 11: Chapter heading taken from photograph (121).
Figure 12: Chapter heading taken from photograph (151).

The contrast of the reality of the photographs in Figures 2 and those above to the style of Figure 1 is an intentional choice that Bechdel has made. She says, “These [photos at the beginning of each chapter] are photos that feel particularly mythic to me, that carry a lot of meaning. […] the book is drawn in my regular cartoony style, but the photos are drawn very realistically. It’s a way to keep reminding readers, these are real people. This stuff really happened” (“Interview” 1009). Photographs are our connection to reality in a book that might otherwise seem too “cartoony” to take seriously. Bechdel uses her mythic photos to speak about mourning and loss as well as remind readers that these are authentic, lived experiences, and hold within them the actuality of postmemory.

Postmemory as a concept tells the story of traumatic events that are not directly experienced, but rather incorporated into the memory and subjectivity through interactions with those that have experienced trauma. Hirsch’s idea grows from working with photos and narratives of Holocaust survivors, although it is an apt concept for explaining the manner in which Bechdel remembers and negotiates Bruce’s memories of refused identification. While Cvetkovich defines Fun Home in opposition to genocide, as I have already stated, there is a kind of violence, even symbolic annihilation, which takes place when disallowing a gay or lesbian subjectivity. There is violence being done here too, and the repercussions of that disallowed identity have very real results in Bruce’s death. Hirsch’s concept of postmemory is a salient idea to employ, particularly when considering the relations of mourning, guilt, and melancholy that pervade the text. The photographs and visual nature of the text are fundamental to our understanding of Bechdel’s mourning and melancholia, as the recreated photographs are “particular instruments of remembrance” that allow readers a concrete moment to grasp in an otherwise stylized series of images (Hirsch 22). Without the photographic evidence, it might be all too easy to dismiss the reality of the situation, and fall into the larger narrative of loss and literature. The mythic photos that make up the chapter headings in Figures 10, 11, and 12, as well as the centerfold of Roy in Figure 2, are instruments of remembrance that inspired the writing of Fun Home itself.

The connections between mourning, postmemory, and graphic representation are in how “comics, photographs, narrative, [and] testimony” can “produce a more permeable and multiple text” which serves to remind readers of the layers of mediation in any visual narrative (Hirsch 25). Bechdel does similar work with Fun Home as she creates a text that challenges definitions of documentary versus aesthetic representations of postmemory and melancholia. Her cartoon drawings and more realistic representations of the photographs throughout the text function to draw readers back to the idea that “these are real people. This stuff really happened” (“Interview” 1009). Like the photo of Roy, the visual representations, along with the written narratives Bechdel creates, highlight the mediation of all images. In the photo in Figure 2 of Roy this happens in multiple ways: her father’s mediation of the year, Bechdel herself choosing to re-draw the photo, as well as her self-inclusion as a thumb holding the image, and most overtly, her comments on the photo’s aesthetic qualities and her reactions. As Ann Cvetkovich notes in terms of the archive in Fun Home, “Using the powers of the graphic form to combine word and text, Bechdel both reproduces the visual evidence and engages in a discussion of what it means” (116). The mediated visuals that Bechdel offers us are a chance to reflect upon and experience both the mourning of Bechdel for her father, and the melancholia that she has experienced. This melancholia reaches the reader both in her own terms and in the encounters with postmemory of an earlier trauma based in repudiated desire. Due to the inclusion of the photographs the trauma remains grounded in American culture and in a documentary history that is both real and mediated in order to effectively create recognizable subjects.

It is this combination of the photographic, the narrative, and the particular aesthetic that Bechdel uses that make her text such a powerful site of political potential. As Watson notes in Biography,

Fun Home is, however, fundamentally different from verbal autobiography. By engaging with and drawing a range of visual forms, Bechdel emphasizes that cartoon representation, as a genuinely hybrid form or ‘out-law’ genre of autobiography in Caren Kaplan’s term, is a multimodal form different from both written life narrative and visual or photographic self-portrait. (28)

Bechdel’s archived performances of embodied mourning and melancholia are imperative to the overall success and interest of the project. As the text becomes a literal, bodily, “working through” of her childhood, readers get a glimpse of the representations of her subjectivity, as well as the process of mourning in a way that verbal narrative or self portrait alone would not have allowed for.

Mourning Remains as Normative in Fun Home

While Butler claims “Melancholy is both the refusal of grief and the incorporation of loss, a miming of the death it cannot mourn,” for Fun Home to have a complex resolution it is important that we go back to those social structures and their status within a culture to which Eng draws our attention (251). Bechdel literally mimics the actions of her father in setting up her reference shots in a way that acknowledges his death, refusing to incorporate that loss as she moves into a future that has the potential to be socially more accepting of a homosexual identity. This is what Watson refers to as “[Fun Home‘s] reframing of homosexuality across the generations and the sexes, and its situating of sexual desire as a struggle to assert bodies and pleasures in the face of an American history of pathologizing them” (53). Bechdel refuses to have her identity pathologized, even in light of her father’s insistence that “I’m bad. Not good like you” (153) and her eventual realization of what he meant by “bad.” At the end of the text, Bechdel comes to terms with it, saying, “I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death” (228). While she recognizes this sexual shame in her father, she refuses to participate in it any longer in this text, as both her emotional and sexual relationships are visually and unapologetically represented for readers. This is in line with Chute’s claims that “Fun Home is a book obsessed, in a way, with not repeating,” although my focus has been more on sexual identity than Chute’s larger claims regarding both of Bechdel’s parents in this section on artistic independence (184).

The trauma associated with her father’s death and represented in terms of her own postmemory will always be present, as will the nature of her father’s ambiguous death. However, in working through his death and witnessing the events of her childhood in a way that allows her to embody and represent both the subjectivity of her father and herself, Bechdel does not have to carry that trauma forward with her in terms of a melancholic personality or an endless mourning. The constitutive melancholic identifications that remain are, in fact, perfectly normative in Eng’s consideration, “as a constitutive psychic mechanism engendering subjectivity itself” (267). When social structures move away from strict prohibitions on sexual identity—and American society has the potential to do just that—the melancholic identification moves away from the rage over loss that Bruce experiences into the normative subjectivity that all subjects—certainly including Alison Bechdel—have.

By unpacking the way that mourning and melancholia affect Bruce and Alison Bechdel we can get a richer understanding of the possibilities inherent in the text. As readers follow the photographic touchstones throughout, the autobiographical nature of the story reasserts itself and functions as a reminder that what is at stake is real lives, real subjects, and the potential for real violence. Recognizing what is at stake and evaluating identify formation through the lens of melancholia and postmemory help readers to examine, and ultimately challenge, social structures that deny non-hetero-normative practices in American culture. It is important, for both Bechdel and readers, to mourn Bruce’s death. While he is in many ways an inscrutable and often unlikable character, to leave his life unremarked or unmourned would only do further violence to his subjectivity. Still, while Bruce’s biography and Bechdel’s autobiography are intertwined and filled with the same melancholic anxieties, the importance of the text is that it moves readers beyond one picture of elided identity into a present where the social status of a gay or lesbian identity is slowly beginning to be avowed.6


[1] The irony of “reading” Bechdel’s text, and particularly doing a Freudian reading, is not lost on me. Bechdel says, when discussing her college English class, “I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just read the books without forcing contorted interpretations on them” as her teacher attempts a psychoanalytic reading of Heart of Darkness (200). In my defense, I don’t find the application of mourning and melancholia to be forced, particularly since the work is elegiac in so many ways.

[2] See Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (2003) for more on the peformative concepts of archive and repertoire. Hillary Chute, in Graphic Women, uses the idea of the archive as well to analyze how Bechdel herself “inhabits the past […] by the embodied process of reinscribing archival documents” (183).

[3] While critics have showered praise on Bechdel’s work, it was also a “piece of real life” that has implications on lives beyond her own, and Bechdel has discussed the ways in which the work is potentially distressing or even harmful to her mother and brothers, reminding us of the connections this work has to the real world and larger culture (“Interview” 1009).

[4] At the beginning of Chapter Four Bechdel notes, “I have suggested my father killed himself, but it’s just as accurate to say that he died gardening” (89).

[5] This contrasts with how Art Spiegelman incorporates photos into his graphic autobiography, Maus, as he chooses to reproduce the actual photos, rather than drawings of photos. For more on the use of photography in Maus see Hirsch (1997).

[6] The popularity of Fun Home itself speaks to this opening of subjective space. My copy declares Fun Home to be Time magazine’s #1 book of the year, a national book critics circle award finalist, a double finalist for a Lambda award, and a book of the year from publications as varied as Entertainment Weekly, to Salon, to The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. “An Interview with Alison Bechdel.” Interview with Hillary Chute. MFS Modern Fiction Studies: 1004-013.

—. Fun Home A Family Tragicomic. New York: Mariner Books, 2007.

Butler, Judith. “Melancholy Gender / Refused Identity.” The Judith Butler Reader. Ed. Sara Salih. Grand Rapids: Blackwell Limited, 2004. 243-57.

Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 2010.

Cvetkovich, Ann. “Drawing the Archive in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36 (2008): 111-28.

Eng, Daivd L. “Melancholia in the Late Twentieth Century.” Feminisms at a Millennium. Chicago and London: University of Chicago P, 2000. 265-70.

Eng, David L., and David Kazanjian. “Introduction: Mourning Remains.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California P, 2003. 1-23.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. 584-89.

—. “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through.” Ed. Marcia Cavell. The Psychoanalytic Mind: From Freud to Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996. 147-56.

Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 1997.

Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Biography 31 (2008): 27-58.

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