MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel Recounts Telling Her Mother About Her Best-Selling Memoir

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 17 2014 10:36 AM

What the Little Old Ladies Feel

MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel recounts telling her mother about her best-selling memoir.

On Wednesday, Alison Bechdel was named a MacArthur Fellow. In 2007, Bechdel wrote for Slate about telling her mother about her best-selling comic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

I knew I would have to tell my mother that I was writing a memoir about my father. But I didn't do it until I'd been working on the book, Fun Home, for a year. I wanted to make sure I had enough of a purchase on the material so that no matter what kind of reaction she had, I wouldn't lose my grasp.

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I decided to tell her in person, when I went to visit for Christmas. I was quite anxious about how to broach the topic, and on the nine-hour drive to her house, I rehearsed what I would say. I pretty much had my lines nailed down by the time I hit Scranton, not far from where she lives. The driving on this particular stretch of I-81 is always hairy, and all of a sudden a truck pulled into my lane just in front of me—I must have been in his blind spot. I had to swerve onto the median so I didn't get clipped.

I was pissed off. After I recovered, I sped up to the truck to get its license number. That's when I saw the logo on the side: It was a Stroehmann's Sunbeam Bread truck. My father had died after being hit by—and probably intentionally jumping in front of—a Stroehmann's Sunbeam Bread truck.

After that synchronistic little brush with death, the prospect of telling my mom about the book loomed rather smaller. And indeed, she took the news quite well. She didn't quite understand why I wanted to reveal all our sordid family secrets to the general public, but she never tried to talk me out of it.

I know I hurt her by writing this book. She made that clear, but she also let me know that she grasped the complexity of the situation. At one point after Fun Home came out, she sent me a review from a local newspaper. It cited the William Faulkner quote, "The writer's only responsibility is to his art. … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." Then the reviewer went on to say, "Rarely are the old ladies asked how they felt about it." Mom liked that—that someone was considering her side of the story.

I do feel that I robbed my mother in writing this book. I thought I had her tacit permission to tell the story, but in fact I never asked for it, and she never gave it to me. Now I know that no matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there's something inherently hostile in the act. You're violating their subjectivity. I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong. I probably will do it again. And that's just an uncomfortable fact about myself that I have to live with.

Alison Bechdel creates the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Her graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, was a finalist for a 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award.

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