“Fun Home” is the musical retelling of Alison Bechdel’s tragicomic graphic novel of the same name. In the books, she tries to understand and come to terms with her father’s suicide. At the time of the telling, Bechdel is a 40-something lesbian cartoonist telling the story of her 40-something closeted gay father’s suicide. The musical, won five Tony Awards, including Best New Musical.
Last Saturday morning, I drove two of my sons (20 and 16) to New York City to see the 2 p.m. matinee. All told, it was an 11 hour journey. My boys and I have been through a lot together — my divorce from their mother, my remarriage, and the simple, inherent complexity of growing up together (all of us). As we lived it, much of it seemed to move very quickly (so quickly it eludes memory). Fun Home is about accessing painful times and finding something like hope in them. It’s a universal message with particular and powerful personal importance to the three of us.
We get to know three Alisons in the show. One is roughly 9; the other is in her first year at Oberlin College; and the third is 43 — alone with her desk and cartoon tools lost in memory (the younger Alisons are living those memories on stage). The story of the show is the older Alison’s search to understand: most narrowly, the loss of her father; more broadly, herself and her family. The older Alison often has to steady herself against the force of those memories, telling herself (and us) “I’m just remembering something.” The gist of what she sees is this: her younger selves worked to shield themselves from the pain engulfing her family (through variously — television, imagined happiness, books and cartooning).
Part of the story centers around Alison’s recognition of her sexuality (“Ring of Keys”) and first experience (“Changing My Major to Joan”) and the coincidence of her coming out with her father’s suicide. One of the questions she asks herself is whether her declaration of sexuality played a role in his decision to take his own life. She can’t answer that question. Did the contrast between his own complicated, unhappy closeted life and her seemingly joyful discovery and declaration of her sexuality help propel him toward his end? We can’t know; she can’t know.
Midway through the show, the older Alison remembers the youngest version of herself drawing a map (in the form of a cartoon); it’s an assignment for school. She does it in panels. Her father hates it and tells her that she can do it better. Then the memory fades to the older cartoonist, using the device of a map to make sense of her father’s life. Recognizing that much of what she knows, she knows from him, she pushes herself to draw — “not what he told you / just what you see / what do you know that’s not your Dad’s mythology.”
The first time I heard this song, I cried without knowing why. I also found my memory running to the geographic cores of my family’s story (houses, a spare apartment, a new home with new family members). And I thought (during and after and still) about family mythology — the neat constructions we adopt that mask the complicated and painful road we navigate through life. We tell funny stories about my terrible cooking; we don’t talk about the nights the boys could not sleep because my new home was not theirs. But the gloss we put on time through storytelling doesn’t erase its complexity, and doesn’t erase the painful transitions my children endured because of me.
As the older Alison remembers the last moment she shared with her father — he turns not to college-aged Alison, but to her and asks if she wants to go for a ride. The cartoonist gets in the seat next to him. Past and present thus merge on stage just as they do in imagination. The song that follows (“Telephone Wire”) is heartbreaking as the older Alison tries to alter the script by pressing to connect with her father (“tell me you see me”). He can’t hear her, but as she finishes telling his story, she manages to see him, and to find a space, a moment of perfect balance, in which she feels loved.
There is a moment in “Ring of Keys” when the young Alison sings, “Can you hear my heart saying ‘Hi’?” There is no way to see Fun Home and not hear her heart; it reverberates through the theater. And I realize this too — as time passes, I hope that my boys will hear my heart in their memory of our day together.